“…I had work to do to make my body bigger and bigger and bigger and safer.” — Roxane Gay, Hunger
I am 18 chapters into Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. A recurring theme is the idea of safety, and how, for her, gaining weight has been a way to keep herself safe. I am realizing more and more with each line of hers I read that much of my life is centered around keeping myself safe. It’s why I can never keep the weight off. It’s why I don’t have a romantic life. It’s why I don’t own property. All my energy goes toward creating that safety I never experienced as a child. I have no reference point as to what it feels like to be safe. I see in the relationships and families of others what it might look like, but any attempt at feeling safe is always performative on my part.
Having a bigger body like mine is like having a cloak of invisibility. Despite the fact that I take up a lot of space, if I walk into a bar or a party or cultural gathering, other than the people I already know, people look right past me. If you are fat, people think you’re unintelligent because you obviously can’t handle the mind over body control thing. (In the most backhanded compliment ever, my father once said to me, “You are too smart to be that fat.”) They don’t stop to actually look at you and assess whether they find you attractive—beauty truly being in the eye of the beholder—but they check the box for “too fat,” which lets them off the hook for even trying. Which is fine with me. I keep even my oldest friends a little bit at arm’s length because if they truly saw me at my worst—my saddest, my angriest, my most depressed, my most manic—then I know they’d leave me.
Relationships are the most fragile thing of all in my mind; they’re not built to withstand utter honesty and vulnerability. That kind of thing just places a burden on other people, well, at least my vulnerability and need does. So better to stay in the safe place, where you only reveal part of yourself. It’s better not to trust that anyone could actually stand the real you lest you undo the precious bits of safety you’ve found in your relationships.
(I just reread that paragraph, and noticed that toward the middle, I stopped saying “me” and moved into the general “you.” Even that distancing is a trick for keeping myself safe. It’s true that writing about the personal can lead to the universal, but modulating to the universal can also protect the personal.)
Even my identity as a writer is predicated on this idea of staying safe. I started writing because I learned that it was dangerous to express emotions in my particular household. It was dangerous to be angry or sad. It was even dangerous to be happy because you could be reprimanded for being too happy, incurring the cut of my mother’s “Don’t get carried away” or my father’s sheer indifference to what most would have considered happy news. So I squashed what I could down inside me, and if they insisted on leaking out, I put those feelings on paper. I wrote mostly stories when I first started, before I hit high school and threw my lot in with poetry, and they were all about murder or suicide. A young woman shoves a butcher knife in the old boyfriend who ended up wanting to marry someone else (while wearing a tattered lace wedding dress, of course). Another young woman commits suicide to punish her mother for not accepting the girl’s accidental pregnancy, her final message spray painted on a wall, “Please forgive me.” (My ideas around suicide were clearly not very developed when I was in my early teens.)
Poetry was an even better hiding place as I could obscure the roiling inside me in opaque images, coming after each other so quickly that there was no space to interpret them, or appreciate their depth. In my 20s, I wrote about music and musicians, unconsciously believing—wrongly it turned out—that if I wrote about other people, if I focused on deconstructing the blues that shook me to my core, I could keep the turmoil inside me invisible.
I’d always had a technically good singing voice so I took voice lessons in Chicago with a flamboyant woman—Jackie? Judy?—who would say to me, “You’re cooking up something good but you’re not dishing it out.” The same was true of my foray into acting. I had a small talent that could, perhaps, have been nurtured into something more, but it was unsafe for me to reveal myself that way, it was unsafe for me to metaphorically bare myself on the stage.
Staying safe means I don’t really dream for myself. Or, to be more accurate, I dream big, I write down plans with the intention of really exploring them, and then I let those dreams expire on the pages of my journal. I find something else to be enthusiastic about until the urge to even dip a toe into unsafe waters subsides. I don’t set goals, because reaching goals means stepping outside of my comfort zone.
As I’ve written before, I do grab opportunities, because I have learned the trick of bravado, which can be surprisingly useful when you need to apply to grad school or a prestigious fellowship or even send a batch of poems out into the world. I’ve learned to perform safety in ways which allow me to have a fairly decent life. But there’s always a backup plan: Oh, if X doesn’t work out, I’ll be fine where I am. And if X does work out, then the bravado kicks in mostly because I’m too scared to disappoint anyone, people-pleasing another form of seeking safety.
I wonder sometimes if I’ll only ever have a mediocre life. because I haven’t been able to consistently build that bedrock of safety beneath my feet. I use the term “mediocre” in a relative sense. I know that I get to do extraordinary things in this life: interview deeply imaginative artists who are sometimes even celebrities; engage with thought-provoking and inspiring visual art; explore my ideas in interior design in a light-filled apartment that makes my heart sing and makes me feel the way you feel when you get to home base during a game of tag. But I also think that the extraordinary things I do are merely glimpses of what I’m capable of. What more could I do, who else could I connect with, how could I change the world in a larger way if I could figure out how to feel safe in my own skin?
I try to find safety with God (and I thank him every day for his infinite patience and grace with me cause I promise you I’m a trial), but even that relationship feels unsafe sometimes not because of who God is, but because much of the cruelty in my childhood was the result of my mother’s privileging of religion and ministry over anything and anyone in her life, including her children. And there is safety, too, in not always trying very hard with God. A successful relationship with God requires action. It requires letting go of whatever it is we have come to think of as giving us safety. It requires trust.
I know there are others who have had emotionally abusive childhoods who manage to somehow build a platform of safety in spite of their histories. I know there are role models out there—like Roxane Gay—who have something to teach me. But right now that story of learning to feel consistently safe when you never had that overwhelmingly important early road map, that’s not my story. That’s not my story yet. That’s not my story yet?
I’ve written several times about the “monster” that I thought lived somewhere deep inside me who made me unloveable. I was looking at a blog post from last year about that pesky monster, and as I read my writing about finally getting some therapy (and some lovely pills) when I was in my mid-30s, I was surprised to find myself feeling shame. Not shame about the depression itself, not shame about initially needing pharmaceutical help to deal with it, but shame about the fact that it took me so long to figure out just how fucked up I was.
No, that’s not quite accurate either. The shame is really about how long it took me to figure out that I needed help. That I wasn’t actually “high-maintenance.” That I didn’t react to the slightest change of plans like it was a betrayal because I was needlessly rigid. It turns out that a lot of what could be perceived as neediness, clinginess, coldness, meanness, flightiness and a whole hodgepodge of sometimes contradictory behaviors was the result of never being parented by my parents. Like most kids of narcissists (and other types of parents who abdicate the emotional part of their parenting duties) I parented myself by telling myself a whopper of a lie—that inner monster of mine—so I had a reason for why they hadn’t parented me.
It’s not surprising that given that that lie was my survival mechanism, one that had become enshrined in me, practically hardwired into my DNA before I even really had language or knew that language could both help you tell and untell stories, or understood that all stories we are told about ourselves aren’t true even if they’re told by the people we’re all supposed to agree are the most trustworthy. Given all of that, it’s somewhat surprising that I did eventually stumble on the truth that I was spending my life reacting to one hell of a whopper.
I mean, honestly, I thought it was completely normal to sit in the corner of my room, rest my head on the radiator, and sob till I felt sick. I thought it was completely normal to let myself ghost out of myself when I felt anything but numbness. And really, if you’re funny and smart and like to throw tea parties and can hold your drink fairly well (even though you do have an alarming tendency to ask men to sleep with you when you’re wasted but that’s another blog post) and you can find at least a few friends who will put up with your tendency to pee in parking lots on your way to the T or the El for the trip home, you can keep that lie safe for decades.
Until the summer you turn 31 and you work in a building in downtown DC with a beautiful flight of wooden stairs, and every time you walk down those stairs you have to fight the urge to throw yourself down those stairs cause you know you’ll feel so much better if you can just get the pain that’s on the inside to manifest itself on the outside. Until you make friends with writers who are in therapy and start talking about things like depression and anxiety disorder, writer friends who point out time and again how much longing is in your poems, how much grief. Until you are riding home on the Metro one day and you think, “Well, I could just kill myself,” which terrifies you because you’ve always prided yourself on not being one of those people who would commit suicide cause really things are never quite that bad. And that terror sends you to campus one day to the student mental health office and you talk with your first psychiatrist who is younger than you are and diagnoses you with “depressive disorder unspecified” and prescribes a baby daily dose of Zoloft. And you don’t know what to talk about so you tell her you procrastinate writing projects all the time because surely that signifies everything that’s wrong with you–your laziness, your lack of preparation, your general wrongness. And this baby psychiatrist asks one question: “Have you ever missed a deadline?” And when you answer, “No,” she wonders—then why are you worried about it?
Even though it will take another year or two for me to figure out that what I call “procrastination” is actually the way my brain works, processing all the information I need for the project, finding the story long before I actually scratch things out on a sheet of paper, that moment, when she asks that simple question, and I am forced to consider all the wrong words I have been using to describe myself for decades, is the first time I start to wonder what else I have told myself about myself and others have told me about myself is wrong, too.
So the moral of the story is that all of these things had to happen for me to finally catch a glimpse of the lie and that’s what matters, right? But shouldn’t I have somehow seen it sooner? I’m a smart woman. I read a lot of books. I write poetry for goodness’ sake. Doesn’t that give me some sort of insight into human existence and shouldn’t that insight of mine have detected the “Help Me!” sign that had been flashing above my head for decades?
But that’s the wrong story, too. That we are all-seeing when it comes to who we are. That there’s such a thing as “too long.” That self-awareness, self-knowledge is some kind of race with check boxes and status reports and ETAs. That when it happens trumps everything else.
Here’s what shame is: it’s believing the wrong story about yourself.
Here’s what I need to remember: The right story about me is that I don’t know why it took the time it did to realize I was wrong about the monster and so many other things about myself. The right story about me is that it doesn’t matter how long it took to get there. The right story about me is that penalizing or feeling bad about myself cause it took a certain amount of time is just a silly attempt to give myself another monster and really, who needs that? The right story about me is that I will sometimes forget that. The right story about me is that there will be so many other times when I’ll feel that shame and instead of letting it send me down into a spiral of self-doubt, I’ll remind myself that it doesn’t matter how long it took for me to get to that place of un-telling. The right story about me is that—despite the safety and comfort of that old story—I did, in fact, get there.