I started playing the saxophone in middle school because it was a boys’ instrument; girls played flute and clarinet. I played saxophone and I made sure I was better than all the boys, which didn’t necessarily change anyone’s mind about saxophone being a boys’ instrument but did earn me a little bit of respect, and a little bit of self-respect for doing something unexpected and unique.

Playing music taught me that it feels fantastic to be recognized for being good at something. It feels especially fantastic when you don’t have to work too hard at it. I was fortunate to pick music up fairly quickly — to slide by on “‘talent.” I never had to practice as hard as some of my bandmates, which came back to bite me. When I reached the point where I needed to practice to reach a higher level — in my case, being a good improvisational soloist in jazz band — I didn’t know how to put in the work. Frustrated and uncomfortable at not being the best anymore, I started selling myself short to avoid rejection. I decided I was a good accompanist. That was true, it was also an excuse to skirt the fear of not being a good soloist by never trying. I deferred my soloing opportunities to other people in the band. Eventually I chose to stop playing entirely rather than grow through the growing pains of becoming talented. In the process, I failed to learn that talent is something you develop, not something you have or don’t.

Shortly thereafter I went off to college and into a variation of the same process. I’d always been at the top of my classes, the “smart girl,” again without having to try too hard. I was unprepared to go from a high school with a graduating class of five hundred to a university where one of my classes might have five hundred people attending lectures and competing for grades. I’d been a big fish in a smallish pond, and someone had dropped me into a big, deep, cold ocean. To further complicate things, I’d decided I would study science because it was important, because I thought it would be the most prestigious choice, not because I felt a driving passion for it. Biology fascinates me, but it doesn’t sparkle in my blood the way books and language do. Being average and having to work my ass off for something I didn’t love was uncomfortable and unpleasant. I got my first C+, then my first C-. Flashcards didn’t help, home-drawn posters of organic chemical molecules didn’t help. I called my mother and cried.

Eventually I switched over to study language. This made me happy, and I thrived in the new program. Still, I couldn’t let myself off the hook for changing paths — for “failing” at science. I spent a damn long time selling myself short by making excuses. Science had been too hard. I wasn’t as smart as the other students. I was too poor; I had to work, so I couldn’t study enough to be competitive. By switching to the humanities I could have two majors and a minor, not just one major.

All these barriers to success. All these barriers to admitting that I wanted something, and going for it. All these barriers to being myself. I was getting my ass kicked over tiny little things, but I wasn’t learning anything except how to be stuck. I wasn’t learning to fail gracefully or how to risk until I earned a reward. I was following one safe path until it turned rocky and narrow, then cutting across to a new one. I never had to ask myself what I wanted, or what I was good at, or what it would take to combine those two things. And now it’s ten years later, and I still feel stuck.

It feels so personal and isolating, but there’s really nothing special about this struggle. I’m not the only cog in the machine that thinks she’s the only one keeping everything going, but I’m not. None of us are, really, which should be more liberating than frightening. Everything goes on without us; except to the people we love, we’re each completely unnecessary. And to the people we love, we’re each already everything we need to be.

I had that thought alone in the middle of a rainforest, and it was the most beautiful and liberating moment of my life so far. I have that thought here, back in the middle of the machine, and I freeze up in fear. Why the difference?

phoenix

April 24 was the day I left my marriage. April 22 was the day I told my husband I would leave him, but I stayed to pack a bag and attend one final counseling session to hash out the nuts and bolts of a separation. That’s what I called it a separation. Not because I thought I might ever come back, but to soften the blow a little, to ease him into it. As an intended kindness, I suppose, though maybe it would have been better to let the wave hit all at once.

April 24 was the last day of the most painful period of my life thus far, and the first day of my scrabble back to myself. It’s the day I remembered what it felt like to be my own person, and nearly the day I started to forget again. Within a few months of leaving, I tried to tangle myself up inside another person, began changing my plans to give them what they need, making the same concessions that had caused me so much grief in my marriage. I decided to give myself a year to be single before I entered into another relationship; a year on my own. And so I marked a year in my calendar. On April 24, 2013, I’d be ready to be with someone again: Game on.

It was arbitrary, sure, and it didn’t exactly work out that way. To be honest, the anniversary might have passed me by as nothing more than a bad patch, if not for the note in my calendar. I might have thought that the bouts of anxiety, mysterious tears, and sadness had to do with the changing seasons, or the travel I’d been doing, or were just a part of me. I might have forgotten about this final milestone, forgotten that I was — am — marking the anniversary of my “before” life going up in flames.

But I’d left myself a reminder, and it’s clear that the symptoms will linger beyond a day. Because it wasn’t just the walking out on April 24; I’d been on fire for a solid month before I admitted that I couldn’t stand any longer and pretend everything was fine. I watched everything turn to ash around me, watched the person I thought I was go white hot around the edges and lose her features.

My body stores memories just as much as my psyche; I feel the tension I carried in my shoulders and across my back. I feel the pressing on my chest, recognize the shallow breathing. I need more sleep, I crave more food, my hands and feet refuse to stay warm. I brace myself to fight at the slightest whisper of confrontation. My muscles remember the motions required to keep my spirit alive.

My body remembers the fire.

Thumper

So, that line in the sand. I came home from vacation to be effectively dumped by the friend I was steadfastly “not dating.” I was spending a whole lot of time with him, doing those things you do with people you date, but we. Were. Not. Dating.

It’s true, we were friends. Are friends. But any way you slice it, rejection sucks, and there I was fresh off a lovely vacation, kind of gnawing my arm off in anticipation of a reunion, ahem, and bam. He’d met a girl who he liked and who wanted what he wanted. (And which I, emphatically, did not want. Do not want.)

We’d been hanging out for about three months, which is the same amount of time I’d been with my ex when he tried to break up with me at the beginning of our relationship. To keep the story manageable, we’ll just say I didn’t let him leave me. I couldn’t handle the thought of being alone with the bitter taste of rejection in my mouth, so when none of my friends were around to help me pick up my pieces, I called him back and told him I was coming over.

In hindsight, well. Maybe not the best idea. But it’s done.

This time, when I was rejected after three months, I sucked it up and handled my shit. And by “handled my shit” I mean “went home alone and cried myself to sleep,” but hey. I’d been up for nearly twenty-two hours at that point most of them in a car or on an airplane, and I was feeling a little fragile. I woke up early the next morning and dragged myself out for a run before rounding up a friend to go to the farmer’s market.

I handled my shit. All by myself. I made peace with being alone for the foreseeable future.; I made lists, set plans, started making stuff and exercising again. I realized that I had no idea when or even if I’d fall in love again, and that was okay. It was no longer something I wanted, or needed.

The next week, which was last week, I met a boy.

I think maybe it might happen sooner than I thought, possibly.

climbing the wall (part 3)

It’s so easy to blame our parents. Yet, here I am…

Not really.

I have a hard time starting this discussion, every time, because I feel like I’m throwing someone under the bus. So let’s have someone else start. Take that quote from the last post, the final line: “You are a delight to be with, having taken in the first love of your parents and now being able to live it yourself.”

My parents have always loved me deep and fierce. This is absolutely true, and I have never doubted it. But there was a third party that complicated things: Mom’s Mental Illness (I’ll call her MMI). She’d appear suddenly, often when I was confiding in Mom. I would open myself up, and when I was most vulnerable she was suddenly there, blazingly disappointed at something I said. I never knew when she’d show up (and I didn’t know for a long time that she was different from Mom – none of us did). I only knew that many of the things I said made me bad,   unworthy of love.

For protection, I closed off, and I began trying to earn the love I wanted. If I did better, if I were the best, maybe I wouldn’t upset her anymore. I could make her love me. All I had to do was to find out exactly what she wanted me to be, and be that. Simple, right?

Perhaps, but certainly a losing battle. One I kept up for a damn long time: with my family, with my teachers, with my lovers. Changing yourself to suit your audience is a great way to get people to like you, for a while, but it’s not a great way to cultivate joy.

Going back to the article: “This child, then, had not learnt to know himself as he was, and know that he was loved as he was. He had not developed the kind of narcissism that allowed him to feel comfortable in his own skin, at ease with himself.”

If you haven’t been conditioned to trust, haven’t had that initial unconditional love,  you can’t rely on anyone for anything. And while my parents both loved me, and still do (and again, I love them with my whole heart), MMI threw a big fucking wrench in those works. I couldn’t count on her the way a child needs to count on her caretakers. She was unpredictable, and I learned to mold myself to her whims so I could avoid her rages and judgment. I learned that I wasn’t worthy of her affection or care.

I was such a serious child that we always joked that I was born twenty-six. It pleased me at the time. Older meant wiser and better; it meant I was improving and she’d love me soon. Now it makes me sad, to know I rushed through years trying to become worthy, and to know how I kept my guard up for so long that I don’t really know how to lower it.

Now? I will drop everything for the people I care about (and the occasional stranger), but it takes huge stakes for me to ask for help of any kind. Kindness from my friends embarrasses me, because I don’t feel like I have earned it. Love means having to become someone other than myself.

I’d like to be able to trust people, and trust myself to be with people. I’d like to let myself be vulnerable without feeling weak. I’d like to just be me, and know that somebody loves me for that and nothing more. But I gravitate toward people who make me prove it, who want something more than I am. It’s a sick little comfort zone, really; I know it’s unhealthy, but that pattern feels like home. I know it. People who just like me, who are sweet and kind and tender, they scare me. The second I let my guard down, the rage will come, I just know it.

Much better to change yourself up front than let your open heart get whalloped.

climbing the wall (part 2)

So, what led to the bus? Two things: 1. Loss of identity. 2. Emotional damage.

Each of these things by itself leads to a pretty significant tangent, so let’s start with the easy one.

I have a really hard time calling anything that has happened to me abuse. I do not feel like an abused person. I have (sadly) known people who have been abused, and I do not think for an instant that anything in my life comes remotely close to their experiences; my small difficulties are not on the same planet as true pain and suffering.

Yes, I know better than this. You don’t order oppressions; you don’t pit victims against one another to determine who is worse off. Still, I cannot seem to afford myself the kindness of saying yes, there are things in my life that that caused me pain, yes, I’m still reeling, and no, that does not make me weak, or demanding, or ungrateful. That makes me human.

Instead of abuse, I call the cause of my wounds trauma, mostly. For me, the difference is intention. Abuse is deliberate; an abuser wants to hurt, goes out of their way to do damage. Trauma is passive, careless. The wounds are real, but they are accidental. Nobody meant any harm. While that is a much kinder (and in my case, more realistic) view, the lack of intention makes it difficult for me to understand and make peace with my own history. If nobody meant to hurt me, how can I claim the damage and its effects? If I do own my feelings, how do I do that without throwing somebody else under the bus? Where do all these questions intersect?

They intersect in the pit of my stomach.

So, trauma. I’m in the process of unraveling two interactions that have shaped my life, that guide how I interact with other humans. I was born into the first: my mother lived with an undiagnosed mental illness (a form of PTSD brought on by real abuse) until I was a teenager. This left her unpredictable; she couldn’t provide the unconditional love and care that infants need. Her intention was all good, but she had to heal herself before she could care for anyone else, and you can’t heal yourself if you don’t know that you need it. My mother is among my best friends; I love her, and I know she did the best she could, and I struggle so much with the huge impact this whole situation had on my ability to form bonds and have relationships.

The second trauma was dealt by my ex, and that is the one that I’m learning to call abuse, not because I think he meant to damage me, but because that’s the common term. Though, honestly, in the moment yes, I think he did mean to damage me. You don’t say the things he did unless you want to hurt someone, deeply. So yes, it was abuse. And yes, I hate calling it that because I know how very easy I had it; I don’t feel like I have a right to those words, but maybe that’s part of the legacy of abuse. Super healthy, that.

They’re deeply connected, and they’re slowly coaxing each other out of me. As I remember things from my marriage, bad moments I’d tamped down so as to keep the peace, I also remember moments from my youth, nothing little moments that managed to cut me all the way to the core. Ultimately I’ll figure it out, but it will take time. And the courage to speak. We’ll see.

I went into the woods again this weekend, just me. It was beautiful; I always forget how much I like being alone outside, how it’s going back into the city that brings on feelings of loneliness. I walked for three hours and then I got the river all to myself before walking back.