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.
I was seven or eight when I discovered my father’s stash of Playboys. When I think back, I see them sitting next to the green recliner in the den, but I can’t believe they would’ve been so easy to find. They were probably, instead, in the forbidden cupboard where my mother kept all of her romance novels, the cupboard I raided regularly after I ran out of library books because my voracious brain needed something, anything, to read, and this explains both why I see all great love as involving tragedy and why I knew too much about sex before I was in double digits. I would sneak the magazines up to my room, look at them with a flashlight under the covers. It’s hard to believe I could be sexually excited by them at seven and even as I type this it feels like I am holding my breath and panting at the same time at the memory.
I was caught, of course. Many times. But still I went back to the big-breasted women and their chauffeur uniforms and twosomes and their slow stripteases over a series of pages. After the first time I was caught, at my grandfather Sugrim’s house, me unseen near where my father sat around the table with his brothers, my father told his brothers they’d caught me with the Playboys. My father joked, “It was only for the articles, of course,” and as they laughed, me not understanding the joke, I bloomed into the shame that should have been his.
A shame that has never left me, I should probably admit though I never dare even whisper it out loud. Mine is a body betrayed by its body-ness, by its needs, its wants, the way desire still flares at the sight of a woman’s beautiful breasts or heart-shaped ass, not because I’m a lesbian (I’ve considered it and when I can picture a life not lived alone, it is never with a woman) but because it was a woman’s body that first taught me that ache.
My mother was frightened of desire, too. She told me that some man had said something to her in Mexico when she was sunbathing with a boyfriend and that was the reason I had to keep myself covered up. That was the reason my over-generous ass, my flaring hips were a terror to her. Though now, I am disloyal and I wonder was she protecting me or was she protecting herself from me? Did she think I could only be seen at her expense?
I am looking too for my mother in those women, wanting her to show herself to me not the way those women spread and draped themselves across the pages, but the way mothers spread and drape themselves across their daughters so their daughters know what it is to be loved, to be desired, to be longed for in a way that shows how grief-stricken the mother was to expel the baby from her womb, knowing she could never hold that child as close again. But most mothers would try, wouldn’t they?
That hunger of the body, kindled when I was 7 or the 8, was that other hunger—for mother, for father—made flesh or made bearable or made into something I thought I’d found the glossy answer for. It was shame and guilt made flesh too, a reason to hold onto for why I wasn’t enough, for why I wasn’t seen, for how easy a daughter could become a punchline, for how a father could decide not to throw away his dirty magazines, but to instead throw away the daughter who’d discovered them, for how a mother could punish a daughter for wanting other women and yet stay stubbornly out of reach.