Stumbled on old pictures recently. I have few if any hard copies left: most have been scanned, shredded, incinerated long since. There is one of myself at 18, sitting in front of my first laptop. My hair is chopped in a pixie cut. My neck looks impossibly long, my lips ridiculously full, my face is a cut, distinct oval that is perfect and yet prevents me from being truly pretty. I can see the fear in her eyes, how she appears playful but is always watching, watching because the photographer can turn on her at any minute making the playful moment one of pain, recrimination and punishment.
It makes me think about my hair, about how my mother bullied me to keep it short. Growing it long wasn’t an act of rebellion. It was worse. I didn’t think about my mother as I grew it out – I simply didn’t have the money to get a proper haircut. Now I keep it long and feminine, and the students at Aveda comment on how pretty my natural brown hair is. Not one dares even suggest I cover the silver lines starting to streak down my widows peak. This would surprise her, that I do maintenance on myself like that. It would offend her that I don’t need or want to do the maintenance of dyeing my hair. I did it in my twenties. That was enough work.
I try to keep the memorabilia to a minimum. Memories hurt more than they help me and I’d rather just not have them. I don’t feel anything missing by the absence of photos; I don’t feel left out of Flashback Fridays or Throwback Thursdays. I really don’t miss seeing my younger self – it’s like having a responsibility and being wholly unable to do anything about it.
I don’t relish understanding her even though I liked her, even though I admire and pity her. While my tough streak is authentic, a thick skin paradoxically developed through learning how to be gentle with myself and others, hers is still an imitation. Younger Diana… her vulnerability screams from her every pore and she tries to hide it behind a certain no-nonsense/see-through-it bluntness, through politics, through seeing most day to day activities as shallow.
What she really wants is someone to love her anyway – and she really doesn’t have that. But she tries to convince herself she does, and when that fails tries to convince herself she doesn’t need to be loved. That’s what’s scary, how she lied to herself about what went on around her. The people that said they loved her but didn’t. Whatever it was, it wasn’t love – and that absence showed in their actions. There was no one to intervene back then, the only person to recognize the signs being a family therapist that booted my family out of his practice as hopeless. He had, after running into me at the local McDonald’s, told me I was welcome to come by on my own. I thanked him – but ignored his offer.
I can’t save her any more than that guy and I’m pretty sure she would have a defensive fit and refuse to be saved if I tried to make her aware of the problem…tried to make her aware that she wasn’t the problem and that she was being conned into thinking she was.
It is weird to me to realize I really am one of those damaged people. I’ve read the tumblrs and self-help confessionals. It seemed weird and shallow, an understatement of that person’s loss because it was too simply spoken. I thought I couldn’t be treated well. I thought I deserved the abuse… by now most of us have seen the confessionals that provide fodder for Lifetime movies.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately – how the damage I carried with me hurt people, thwarted relationships and led me to destructive ones. I had no means for recognizing my own wounds; I just assumed I was somehow defective. I was overlooked because it was my genetic fate, because I wasn’t as good as any of the other people around me, because I had some streak of ugliness that everyone saw but a few generous people forgave.
I honestly thought I could not be loved.
Believing that fucked me over in more ways than I will ever fully comprehend.
An old friendship/crush has been on my mind lately, one still full of unanswered questions. It is, after all, the unanswered questions that get me to hang on for decades where otherwise I’d forget it and move on. I just hate not knowing the whole story. There’s probably some idealizing baggage there, too:
Somehow I expected him to be part of my life even now. That hasn’t happened. No one has stayed in my life that long, although there are others who I met after college in strange and adventurous ways that have breezed right through that first decade in a way absolutely none of my high school or college classmates did. Once, I would have beat myself up for such a failure – everyone has a friend that lasts forever, right? Well, no. Most people don’t – but nearly all people are trained to be embarrassed about that if they aren’t among the lucky few.
I was told several times he wanted more than friendship, but my disbelief was stronger than simple proof. None of these people could know how I’d been lied to about the feelings of others as a child – and how that made me refuse to believe anything from anyone after that.
But because of my absolute, ground-level – unacknowledged – belief that I couldn’t be loved, I couldn’t break this spell by simply telling someone what had happened to me. I was completely convinced he was setting me up for bullying. It took me too long to realize he was not like any of those people. I had to put serious effort into isolating him from the concepts strung in my brain. The trauma – and the persuasion that no one would just want to get to know me without having bad intentions – ran really deep.
He did win me over. There’s at least once when he complained about the effort that took: it was more than what he did just to get a normal, less damaged girl to sleep with him. Normally girls especially flocked to him.
When awareness of feelings for him finally surfaced, they were shoved aside immediately. No one could love me. Especially not someone I wanted to love me.
I like to think that I’m not haunted by belief that I am unlovable now… but I’d be lying to myself. I give love more easily than I receive it, in friendship and in romantic liaison. My current partner is a giving, generous, especially with me – and at times it chafes. The support feels like a loss of safety; some part of me is looking for escape, waiting for her to turn on me like all the people I trusted eventually did. When not feeling endangered, I have to deal with the overwhelming guilt of feeling undeserving. This is none too helpful either.
The call to run, to block, to isolate, to insult into leaving isn’t as loud as it was at 19. It’s just there. I recognize the language in my head. I can talk it down. I can now have conversations with strangers without my guard going up…most of the time. I can now smile at the life guard on duty at my gym and make him blush without a voice telling me his blush is a rejection.
I still have trouble approaching people, though. It can be hard to tell: my social anxiety/shyness is subtle, the type you might not notice. Because if you don’t look hard enough you may see someone who is very outgoing. I smile. I make eye contact. I remember things about people and use those tiny details for small talk – especially as a small subset of my friends are now having grandchildren and that’s an easy way to get someone else talking.
The truth is, I still struggle. I don’t know how to start a conversation. I might say “hi” and then draw a total blank. Even with friends I’ve known for years sometimes I draw that blank, in part because I assume that they just don’t want to know about what’s going on in my life. It isn’t intentional withholding – I realize it is withholding in practice though – I just have trouble believing anyone cares that much about me. When I do go on about my life for any reason I often apologize or make a joke about boring the other person before shifting focus.
As awkward as all that is, it’s a big improvement. There are few people I’ve met where talking comes easily. My partner is one of those people. That old crush, who worked on me so hard and whose motives I so unfairly suspected, was another. I guess if I could I’d tell my 18 year old self that she is loved… she’d roll her eyes, push me away, ask me if I had any kids or pets and failing that do her damnedest to get me talking about my job, my college experience, my shoes. I wouldn’t even know her name if she was at her best.
But at least I’d have said something, anything before the standoffish behavior began.