Freed from the obligation to be anyone other than myself, I am discovering that I am the person I feared for so long I was. The person I was taught to fear. And that I’m not afraid of that person anymore.
I love that person very deeply. I celebrate that person.
Basics—notions that it is ok to have feelings. That it is even ok to feel them. Inside. Outside. For them to bump up against others’. That it is not selfish to have emotions and needs and wishes and dreams. That it is human.
The discovery that me, this person—as I am, in constant evolution, but not running away—that I am lovable. That I can stay here. It is safe.
From here, exploration is possible. Not always delightful, but often.
When I was born, I am told, my mom was deeply disappointed that I was not a blond, blue-eyed little boy. Whether or not she was conscious of this, she had hoped for the male heir that could finally achieve the scope of the ambitions and paternal acceptance
she somehow believed were denied to her on the basis that she was a woman. (A narcissist can’t see the ripples of their own behaviour.)
Since I did not appear as she had hoped, she channeled her energies, to the extent she paid any attention to me, into making me the consummate little girl. The kind she could parade around, in frou frou, a tiny projection of her innermost warped ambitions, her toxicity on display. She did indeed take me out to very public gatherings (occasions like Easter and Mother’s Day brunches at my grandparents’ private golf course) in gaudy flowery dresses and straw hats with complementary accent bows, thick white tights, shiny leather shoes. Sometimes a petticoat underneath. She wanted lots of pictures. She told us how to smile. Told me how to smile. There was no aspect of the
presentation that would escape her overwhelming need to control and dominate. We were to be on our best behaviour for the entirety of the performance. When I think back to these occasions, I am flooded with feelings of deep vulnerability, fear, and shame.
My dad was different then. I have fond memories of doing stuff in the yard with him as a kid, things like painting the garage and raking leaves, and of him taking me running and biking. He didn’t tell me what to wear or not wear unless my mom told him to say something to me. It makes everything that happened in my family of origin that much more complicated to unpack. It is possible to have had good moments—and to cherish those moments—in the context of almost 35 years of abuse.
I went to a Catholic elementary school run by nuns. The uniform options for girls included either a plaid tunic or a plaid skirt. I looked forward to gym days, when we were allowed to wear green uniform sweatpants all day.
The places I was allowed to just be me were outside and doing sports, preferably combined.
Constantly, the way I behaved and the choices I made grated standards of behaviour. It was often bewildering to me. I was told by the nuns that playing wall ball at recess was not acceptable for little girls, and that I should be playing house under the tree with the other little girls instead. My mom threatened never to buy me another doll again when the Barbie camper van I received for Christmas, my first contact with Barbie, became a trailer for my bike instead. I learned that being dirty and scraped up were easy ways to get criticized. That outfits that were too manly or frumpy (or any combination of both) would open me up to suggestions that I needed to wear something more feminine. That my Birkenstock clogs were clunky “lesbian shoes”.
My mom let me know which parts of me were not acceptable to her. Aspects of my physicality which were more “masculine” were made out by her to be shameful, wrong, deficient. I grew to deeply resent my “man hands”, my essentially boob-less chest, my strong legs and of course my nose, which was surgically corrected by my parents due to its similarity to my dad’s wide one.
She also often let me know when I had failed to meet her expectations regarding my personal appearance. When this happened, usually when I wore something she didn’t like, didn’t wear enough makeup, or gained weight, I was subjected to criticism and ridicule. This was my normal.
I was taught to fear and distrust difference and non-conformity. I was told in all of the ways that adhering to prevailing social norms was the path to “success.” That being weird, in any way, was to be avoided. That any hint of non-conformity was to be hidden at all costs, especially if that non-conformity was darker in tone and could, in my parents’ perception, lead to “judgment” from society, like when it involved mental health or the commission of a crime. These were things, I was shown by repeated example, to be buried as deep secrets. Keeping secrets in the name of protecting the family’s reputation—my mom’s preciously constructed vision of her own reputation—that was far more important than addressing anyone’s mental health issues, or their troubling personal behaviour and cries for help. I stood by and watched this dysfunction for years, trying to separate myself as much as I could as I got older, and buried myself somewhere.
The thing is, I was really weird. I am really weird. And ultimately, that is the worst of what was (not) done to or for me. I was not acknowledged, accepted, or loved for who I actually was. Unconditionally. The way your parents are supposed to love you.
I am unequivocally certain that if my mom read this, she would dismiss my account. It does not match her reality. She can’t let it, or her universe would disintegrate. But I’ve made my peace with the fact that it is not possible for her to understand the scope or effect of her behaviour, and that I will never receive the acknowledgment that I once sought. Those things are not important to me anymore.
I have begun to wonder if some of the things I experienced are more than just repressions of my emotions, wishes, personality, self-expression, general choices, autonomy, dignity, and sexual orientation. I am starting to believe that the repression went even deeper. That the pervasive feeling of not being the person I was told I was supposed to be goes to the core of my identity as a social being.
Just as I don’t fit into the stark black and white in so many areas of my life, I am starting to realize—I am starting to allow myself to realize— that I might not be a woman as the scope of that notion as conventionally understood by society. That I am not a man, either. That I might be someone in between. That I might always have been, without the words to form conscious notions of existence in a space of limitless, expansive possibility.
There are places that I am absolutely a woman. As a mother, as a political entity, in any context where relationality is classified according to the starkness of the gender binary. If you’re going to ask me to pick between the two, I am definitely not a man. But there are contexts where I am clearly just…not a woman. And that’s something so delicate, so personal, so absolutely wild to say out loud.
Especially because I am already kooky, a weirdo in so many ways. I am gay. I am openly polyamorous. I share a house with and am legally married to a person with whom I don’t have an intimate relationship. I often talk publicly about things people don’t like to hear about, like depression and suicide. Because I almost died, I live life in the sometimes annoyingly jolly way of someone who almost died. I think strange thoughts and sometimes those end up on canvas. I am currently somewhere between a hippie and a dirtbag on the capitalism participation index.
If I had to draw up a portrait of my mom’s “worst nightmare”, it is probably this scenario.
There is some irony in the form my actualization has taken, perhaps. Or it is more sinister, and she did quash it methodically and intentionally in its initial attempt. Whether or not it was intentional on her part, it was cruel and abusive. It was reprehensible.
The things which were said and done to me should not be said or done to any child, period.
In speaking about them, I shouldn’t have to justify myself. In being and living as myself, I shouldn’t have to justify myself.
In both instances, I do. Again and again. And I expect that I will continue to have to do so as I explore the margins.