“Oh, how much sadness and sorrow and suffering there is in the world, both in the open and in secret.”
– Vincent van Gogh
Who can discover their own worth when time and sickness have worked so hard to convince them it is a myth?
I sing a solo when I am 6, an interlude in The Christmas Carol at the local theater. I was in the play, and then they let me sing, “just to be nice to you,” she tells me. “You weren’t actually very good.”
Later, I try out for cheerleading. That was where she saw, “the coach covering her mouth with her hand trying not to laugh at how bad your backbend was.”
This was when I learned what humoring someone was. I was nothing more than a joke.
I am 5. On video at my birthday party. Loud, bossy, talkative, confident. I watch this as a 30-year-old, amazed. Who is this person, I wonder. I have not started school yet, so I am free, and unaware that this is the end of that.
In kindergarten I learn to keep secrets. Silly, childish secrets about girls kissing the cute boy on the cheek, but I know somehow that I should hide this. In first grade, I begin dissociating. I am 7, emotionally checking out during the yelling, and then I learn that I have been too talkative. I have friends at school and we laugh and play and spend nights together, and somehow in all of that, “I don’t like what you’re coming home with, what you talk about,” and so I am pulled out of the conservative, A-Beka-curriculum-using private school for becoming too worldly, too envious of my friends who can listen to New Kids on the Block. That will teach me to have desires.
This was when I learned talking gets people removed from my life, but I was too young for the lesson to take hold. So I talk again, later, as a 12-year-old, making casual conversation about my best-friend-since-birth, and it ends with enough drama to win a Tony, and the removal of her from my life until we were adults. That will teach me to make conversation.
“You were always so secretive,” she would say again and again, later, pointing out my defects. “You never talked to me.”
The silences of my life developed as a response to living with a mother who has Borderline Personality Disorder. They are just one fraction of the aftermath called C-PTSD.
I retreated into myself, because that was the only safe space. How was I to know who was secretly laughing at me? How else could I keep the sacred things in my life from being profaned? What else will I lose if I have an opinion in public?
The thing about surviving trauma, at least for me, is that the wounds are so very internal, but the effects so external. When I am quiet in a group, it is not that I have nothing to say, but that I have been trained by so many people that what I say may be dangerous or threatening or angry. “I am not trying to silence you,” another she says, later. “But…”
It is easier, and the world less painful, if I shut myself down.
This is not, needless to say, the way to live a fulfilling life. There is nothing satisfactory in acting as if you are nothing more than a pebble in someone’s shoe. And what does that person do, anyway? They get rid of the pebble. They certainly don’t look at it and wish it was a flower, or a rainbow, or a tree. The people to whom you are a nuisance will not help you rise.
And this I think has been the most meaningful lesson I’ve learned about healing: I am the only one who can save myself.
So I stare into what has tried to silence me. I see what has died, evaluating what must stay dead, what could be resurrected. I look and look and look, refusing to let what has defined me in the past continue to define me in the future.
If a tree grows in the forest, does the air cry out as it gives way?
Is it only the people who know they are lost that can be found? Is it only the ones who are drowning who need to be saved? But who doesn’t want to be brought to life? What dry and thirsting soul doesn’t want to be consumed by the water? Who among us wants to stay broken? And yet when Jesus would meet sick people, he would ask them, “do you want to be well?” As if there are people who enjoy their woundedness. But aren’t scars a record of survival and worth being proud of? And who gets scars, but for the wounded.
If I am saved, I will not be fixed. My scars and the hard-won battles won’t have vanished. For all of my life, I will only have lived 5 years of it as an untraumatized person. I will never be ‘better’. Saving myself means coming to grips with being alone and misunderstood. It is being comfortable in my skin even as it moves in the world imperfectly. It means accepting myself in a world that may not be able to accept me. It is defying the voices who say that mothers are inherently good, and that women are only suited for one thing, and freedom isn’t worth finding, and that having a voice isn’t important.
Reclaiming my own dignity is a form of resistance against those determined to strip me of it. Being saved means leaning into my pain while refusing to cede authority to it. It means listening to the whispers of my soul. In a world that values my silence, it is refusing to give it to them. The healing of a soul is so intimate. Who but you knows the shapes and depths of your scars.
No one can confront my past for me. No one can undo the harmful messages in my brain except me. No one can numb my pain or endure it for me. No one knows what makes me come alive and can deliver it every day to me. Maybe, if we get lucky, someone will notice when we seem alive and encourage us to keep going, but they cannot breathe for us. No one can eat for me, or make me get out of bed, or make me not numb my anxieties away. No one can build a functional, fulfilling life for myself except me.
I’ve been listening to Ed Sheeran’s Divide (Deluxe) on nonstop repeat for the last couple of weeks, and the very last song, Save Myself, has become my anthem.
So before I save someone else, I’ve got to save myself
And before I blame someone else, I’ve got to save myself
And before I love someone else, I’ve got to love myself
What I have come to learn is that my freedom begins when I believe that my life is one worth living. Fully. Boldly. Unashamedly. And though it is incredibly hard to do, freedom is worth the struggle.
“Most of those who have become something very good have gone through a long, difficult period of preparation that was the rock upon which their house was founded.” – Vincent van Gogh