Ever since I was little my personality was described as sweet, kind, nice. I was sensitive and caring. My aunt recently reminisced that even when I was very small I would offer other kids my toys to keep at my own birthday party. My mother loves telling a story, that only makes her cringe just a bit after all these years, where I sold my books to the neighborhood kids to raise money to buy computers for my grade school. I sold my books for pennies and dimes. For these things I was praised. I was loved. Of course a little girl with her heart in the right place was held at a high esteem and ultimately a high standard. It wasn’t until I was much older that my need to please people was connected to my mental disorders and emotional issues. Being nice and kind and sweet are good things but for most of my life these things, these personality traits taken for granted, were often at a detriment to my own comfort, wants, and needs.
I was always quiet. I didn’t run around as much as other kids and I certainly couldn’t keep up with them being the youngest, asthmatic, and chubby. If I was making other people happy, though, I felt like I was doing what I was supposed to. This included being as nice, considerate, and giving as I could be. My brother was the angry selfish one who would be playing with me one minute and turning on me the next. This only reinforced the fact that I needed to do anything I could to keep peace, make sure everyone around me was happy, and if I was achieving all that things would be okay. Things were not okay. I still constantly felt a sense of wrongness, I kept having negative thoughts that I did not know were fueled by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and I could not figure out why I felt so different from everyone else. My Catholic upbringing reinforced my assumption that if I was just good enough that things would get better. I would be absolved of my wrongness, my bad thoughts and feeling would go away, and I would finally fit in with the people around me.
This was all a lot to deal with for anyone let alone a child. I didn’t know how to express how I felt and even more I felt like I could not express the wrongness that I felt. If I still felt bad and wrong then I must have not been good enough. There was still something I wasn’t doing to achieve the peace that I was searching for. My mind didn’t quiet and the harder I tried to shut out the negative, compulsive thoughts the harder they seemed to push back. I was sweet and considerate and compassionate and nice and giving and all these words that met with such approval to the adults around me but I was constantly conflicted because it didn’t seem like enough. I wasn’t ten yet but the word that I tied to my identity the most was not “nice” or “sweet” but “worthless”. That word seemed etched on every one of my bones, every wrinkle in my brain, ever cell in my body and you’d have to have a microscope to read it all but I felt every one. It was a mantra that would keep me up at night. Worthless, worthless, worthless. I didn’t know at the time if it was coming from me or my idea of god or what but I believed it. I got quieter, I did less, and I tried not to bother anyone. At home I tried to please my parents, my older brother as much as possible, my grandfather while he lived with us, my neighborhood friends and their parents. At school I tried to please the nuns, my classmates, the teachers, and the priests. I only felt validated, like I was any kind of right, when I was making other people happy and it didn’t matter what I needed to do to make it happen. Instead I just felt worse most of the time because I wasn’t getting what I needed and no matter how hard I tried it never seemed like enough.
I coped with food and self harm. Not to say that I didn’t have a largely positive childhood with wonderful people and parents but there were things wrong that no one knew about, no one expected, and my inability to cope properly lead to a binge eating disorder, self harm, and so much avoidance. I didn’t quite belong with my classmates but I had a few friends. I didn’t belong with my religious group because they already had their friends. I felt like I didn’t belong at home because I believed I was doing something horribly wrong if my brother could get so mad at me without me being able to figure out why. There was a point when I decided that I was a mistake. Something wasn’t right. I fantasized about just vanishing from existence and everyone being happier. I didn’t know that this was depression lying to me. I didn’t know what depression was and I didn’t know that anyone else cut themselves when they felt bad. I thought about dying a lot. That somehow felt more right than anything and I tried to act on these thoughts once. I didn’t reach out to anyone because I was a kid, not even ten, so who would I tell and what would I say?
I accepted that I would always feel this way. Wrong and out of place and lonely with these horrible, confusing thoughts running through my head. My family moved and I lost the large family gatherings, I lost my few friends, and my world got smaller. It wasn’t until looking back on photos that I realized how outwardly angry I was. Angry! I wouldn’t have told you that from 12-17 I was an angry person. I was. I could see it written all over my face back then and it was startling because I thought I had kept all of that concealed. I was still struggling to make everyone happy. Be as nice and inoffensive as possible because if I made everyone happy then someone was eventually going to like me! I didn’t really make friends at my new school. When I finally did they were toxic but I clung to them because they were all I had. Public school was so different than the Catholic school I had grown up in. Country kids were so much different than the city kids I had known for most of my life.
Freshman year of high school I showed up as what I was trying to project as the new me. In eighth grade a girl had made plans with me to show up dressed goth. I thought it sounded like fun and it’s certainly not something that I would have been able to get away with at my old school. I showed up in head-to-toe black and cheap, smeary black lipstick and she had forgotten all about it. I liked it, though. I liked the reaction goth me got. I liked the way I felt in black. Goth me felt a bit more powerful than regular me. I thought she was different than regular me. I wasn’t different, though. I was just a confused, hurting, disordered, lonely teenager wrapped in dark clothes. I was still sweet, funny, nice, giving, and put everyone I met before me. I was losing more and more of myself but fought back with black and more aggressive self harm and religious exploration and pretending that I was edgy and okay when I really wasn’t. I toyed with treating my depression, OCD, and weight issues but I was scared of getting better. I was scared of the things that were wrong with me so I ignored them.
Then I stopped singing. It was speech class and we were all supposed to talk about our pet peeves. We listened and nodded in agreeance as people talked about chewing with their mouth open and sneezing without covering their mouths and sticking their bare feet in your face. It was all relatable to some degree. Then a girl stood up and said that she couldn’t stand it, just COULD NOT stand it, when people were singing along to a song and messed up the words. Or mumbled through parts or stuttered over lyrics. She hated it! It infuriated her! And I sat there with a sense of dread pressing down on me like a heavy cloak placed on my shoulders. I did that. I was that person. I was her pet peeve. If she hated it then there must be all sorts of people who hated it! And I didn’t have any friends so I couldn’t afford to alienate potential new friends. I couldn’t afford to lose friends I already didn’t have! I remember sitting in class in my black velvet skirt and black combat boots and black turtleneck and black lipstick (but still very blonde hair because I was told dying it was a mistake and I had to adhere to what would be met with most approval) panicking because I had been doing something terribly unacceptable all along. I was failing in my job to make sure I didn’t do anything that bothered anyone else. I felt horrible for offending her even though I’m 100% positive that girl had never heard me sing before.
It started immediately after that. If I heard a song that I wasn’t absolutely sure of the lyrics I would stop singing it. It didn’t matter if I was alone because I had to train myself to be better. I had to train myself to be more accommodating, less offensive, and then maybe I’d be a better person who deserved real friends and to enjoy myself and to get invited to things. Maybe if I did enough to correct myself things would finally start to feel better in my head and in my heart. I still desperately clung to this notion because I had spent years memorizing its empty promises. Then I stopped singing period if I was around anyone because I couldn’t be absolutely positive that I wouldn’t mess up the words. That wasn’t enough, though, because I felt like I had to punish myself for this behavior from before. I had to do anything to correct it, change, be better, seek absolution. I stopped singing when I was alone. I stopped singing along to my CD player and I stopped singing in the shower. My favorite place to sing, the place where I can soothe my soul and escape and right my muddled insides… I stopped singing in my car. I would hear a song I loved on the radio and that good feeling I would get from belting out a song would start to swell while the wind blew through my hair and I’d only get out a small, strangled note. I wasn’t allowed to sing anymore. I didn’t deserve this. I hadn’t earned this. I was wrong. I’d mess it up. I’d press my lips together and keep driving. That good feeling darkened and sank deep into the pit of my stomach. Sometimes I couldn’t stand to keep listening to the radio.
That’s one of the many ways that I shrank myself to fit into this idea, born of my untreated mental disorders, that I would never be enough if I didn’t make everyone happy. If I didn’t remove anything about myself that another person would not find absolutely acceptable. In doing so, for many years, I completely obliterated myself. I was so desperate for approval and acceptance and love and to make the bad (disordered) parts of me disappear that I lost track of the things I loved, wanted, appreciated, enjoyed. Singing was only one of the many, many things that I felt bad for enjoying. I was trying to stave off the encroaching darkness but I was only feeding it because my needs weren’t being satisfied and I was constantly running at a deficit. My weight met with disapproval with my family but it had gotten so out of control that there was no way I could reign it in. I hated myself for that, too. The approval I was getting from teachers started to slip when I could no longer muster the will to perform at school. I was slipping and I could feel the areas of my life I should have been on top of spiraling out of control but I felt powerless. All of my atonement hadn’t worked. It had all been a waste because I was still messing up and I was still lonely and I still couldn’t bring myself to fight for myself. Not yet.
Then in college this behavior continued. At work it continued by something shifted. It started when I cut myself for the last time. I had tried to quit several times but in college it finally stuck. I wasn’t doing great in my classes, I wasn’t well enough for that, but I tried therapy. I quit therapy. I tried meds. I quit meds. I still took care of people who were no good for me but it was the beginning of this change in me. For me. I had programmed myself to be one way for my entire life and changing that was incredibly difficult. I still struggle with it sometimes daily. Parts of my brain still want to be as inoffensive and accommodating as possible but it’s not something I can devote myself to anymore. I finally started spending more time on my meds than off. I found a great doctor, met a great counselor, and I started to get help figuring out my feelings and my habits and my wants and my needs. I started sorting out my personality from the penance I inflicted upon myself. You know what? I’m still a nice, kind, caring, empathetic, compassionate, thoughtful, lovely person. I’m just not killing myself to be that way. I’ve accepted my flaws, am working to better myself in a healthy way, and I let go of people and situations that are not good for my emotional and mental well being. I devote time to loving, empowering, and building up myself. I let myself be human. I forgive my past self for trying to go about this all wrong and not understanding what I needed. No one else needs my forgiveness because how would they have known? I was outwardly so nice. Nice people are okay, after all. Right? No. Not all the time. Sometimes they crush parts of themselves just to keep being what they perceive as “nice” or “right”. I did for most of my life and I have to stop myself sometimes from doing it now.
I started singing again. When I was alone. I hummed. I said things in a sing-song way. I still felt anxiety when I got the words wrong at first but the singing, even if I messed up, felt so good. So liberating and cleansing. I sang in the shower and in my room and when I was in my car heading down M55 I would belt out whatever came on the radio and one day I stumbled over the lyrics. Horribly. I would have been mortified and found a way to punish myself. I laughed, though. I had made a harmless mistake. No one was there to hear it but me. No one to get annoyed and even if I had had a passenger, so what? It was my car. My space! I could sing as badly as I wanted to. I murdered the lyrics and I laughed hysterically. Loud and crazy and I didn’t stop before the song was over. It wasn’t the end of the world. It didn’t make me less of a person or a bad person or a less deserving person. It was just a song. I was just making myself happy and if I sang every word wrong and still enjoyed myself then it was okay. I was okay. Now I’ll sing no matter who’s around. My niece rolls her eyes and I smile back. My friend will join in for spontaneous karaoke. No dread or anxiety when I use the wrong word or kill the melody.
When someone sings and they notice that they’ve been noticed… and they shut up? They apologize for singing (or clicking a pen or laughing too loudly or telling a cheesy joke or any number of harmless things) it physically pains me. I feel this sharp pain lance my chest and my stomach sinks a little because I remember how terrified I was when I caught myself doing those things. How I fought to make myself, my personality, smaller and smaller until I wasn’t really me. I was so worried about angering, offending, or alienating others. I just want to take these people and tell them to go ahead and be obnoxious! It’s never as bad as you think. You’re going to mess up and ruffle feathers and hurt some feelings and annoy the piss out of people but that’s human and it’s life and there’s no way to completely avoid any of it. So please just embrace it, be yourself, apologize when you really do hurt someone and make sure you’re taking care of yourself, your needs, and that you’re not spending days losing little but important pieces of yourself. They add up so quickly and then you have to figure out who you are all over again. Rebuild yourself into something new but still you and a little wary but still beautiful. The rebuilding is entirely worth it but I’d just want to save anyone from crushing the life out of themselves. I wouldn’t want anyone to feel like they had to stop singing.
My past has made me who I am. I love who I am. I am a messy, gross, lovely, weird, disordered, hesitant, talented, kind, creative, anxious human being. I’m a great person even when I’m pissing someone off or singing the wrong words or stumbling over simple math or reading junky zombie novels or taking my meds or being a blanket burrito or leaving dirty spoons on the desk or baking a cake or explaining that a situation is really not good for me and that I can’t do everything that others want from me. I love who you are with your quirks and flaws and pet peeves and I’ll let you borrow my books even if you dog-ear the pages and I’ll sing with you even if we both get the words wrong. Let’s cook together and I’ll be finicky with the vegetable chopping and irritated with having someone in the kitchen with me but I’ll be glad that you’re there. Pet peeves aren’t deal breakers or detractors. Differences do not make us incompatible. You do not have to earn my approval or friendship. Just being who you are is enough. If I’ve ever made anyone feel like they had to change to fit into my life I am so very sorry from the bottom of my heart.
I also apologize for keeping parts of myself from you. Parts that I trained myself to be ashamed of. I’m sorry that I didn’t trust you with them even when you proved that you could handle them. I’m sorry that I’ve overreacted when I was corrected. It’s just that I felt like I had ruined everything and it wasn’t that I was angry it’s just that I was ashamed of myself. I’m sorry that I didn’t sing to you all the times that I wanted to. I’m sorry that I kept things to myself because I didn’t think they were good enough for you. I should have shared, made, opened up so much more. I’m sorry for apologizing so much. I’m still working on that, too. It’s really very hard to correct a lifetime of minimizing and dampening who you are. Thank you for being here. Thank you for accepting my weird as hell self as I’ve fumbled through this new me and while I’ve reclaimed old parts of me that I’ve missed so dearly. I’m not finished yet but who is ever done becoming themselves? Different situations but we’re all in this together. If you’ve never even met me, never knew of me before you read this but you did read this and discovered this small but raw part of me… thank you for being with me now. If this resonates with you my heart is certainly with you.
Having said all of this, things I’ve hinted at but never said outright, I’m happy. I feel a little more me, a little less anxious, and a little lighter for having let go of a secret that never needed to be a secret at all.
So please. Be you! There’s no shame in being you. You don’t have to atone for being gross or annoying or weird sometimes. We all have our moments. If it’s all too much reach out. If it doesn’t work then reach out again. Keep fighting for yourself. The you that hasn’t been squashed and diminished and stomped into something unrecognizable. You are important. You are worthy. You deserve to be the kind of happy that comes from belting out your favorite song going down the road with the sun on your skin and the wind in your hair. Or the unencumbered joy of wherever your happy place is. If you’re a little lost please come into my happy place and I’ll make you some cookies. I’ll sing awkwardly to make you smile. I’ll sit with you quietly while you sort out what you need and I’ll try my best to help. I’ll make you guacamole or draw you a picture or hold your hand. Whatever it is that I can do that might connect to a person that really shouldn’t be lost from this world because of pressure or expectations or inner demons. You deserve that. Because you’re wonderful.
You deserve so much from this world just the way you are.