I have a serious boyfriend, right now. I’ll be moving in with him and his two kids at the end of next month (though I’ve pretty much been living with him for over six months already, I hadn’t officially moved in – I still have my own apartment, with a lease and my stuff is all there and I pay rent there, I just haven’t been there much).
I bring this up because about four years ago now, I broke up with someone to whom I thought I would get married. In fact, I was still so in love with them at the time of the break up that I could not date anyone for a very long while. I couldn’t trust anyone either, though, because that relationship was so manipulative and abusive emotionally and mentally.
You might ask why I stayed in a relationship like that or how I could love a person who did that to me. I know why now, but I didn’t see it then. At the time, it just seemed normal – nearly every person in my life who did something to help me in any way was abusing me emotionally, mentally, or physically – including both of my parents. So I did not see what was going on in that relationship until it had gotten so bad that when I left it I had no friends or support or really anything to fall back on. I’d been isolated and torn down. I had to start all over again, picking myself up, finding a job (because she’d told me over and over again that I didn’t need it, she’d support me while I was in school, whatever I needed that exceeded our expenses I could take out in student loans, and not to worry about any of it), and attempting to rebuild my self-esteem.
I didn’t see it at all because I had always thought of abuse as a physical thing – something that left a bruise or a wound. I hadn’t realized that emotional bruises and wounds counted on the same level.
My parents were very good at teaching by insults and threats. If I wanted something, I had to go out and work for it. If I went out and worked for something I wanted (like figure skating) that did not in any way help my family, I was selfish. If I fell asleep on the couch after lunch one day because I was exhausted from say working a full-time job while in high school so that I could afford to train 30 to 40 hours on the ice every week and consequently getting 2 to 4 hours of sleep every night for weeks and months at a time, I was lazy. If something upset me for any reason to the point of tears, I was a pathetic crybaby.
I was told to walk it off. I was taught to hold it in. I was encouraged to disappear. If anything happened to or near me, it was my fault.
Add to this the fact that I was the eldest and only female in a group of three siblings, the only one of the three to graduate high school, the only one never to be arrested or charged with a crime, and, now, the only one to attend college. Add even more to this the fact that everything I ever seriously wanted to do wasn’t good enough. I wanted to draw at age 7 – ‘No one can make a living doing that. Get your head out of your ass.’ I wanted to perform – ‘You’re not that good and you never will be. Look at your brother, he’s a natural. You’re just okay.’ I wanted to write – By this time, I didn’t show anyone anything I wrote, but my mother found a notebook of stuff, read it, then punished me severely for writing about things like horror and fantasy and science fiction because they weren’t Christian, by her definition of the term.
I’ve heard my whole life things about how lazy I am or how I have no talent or how I’ll never amount to anything that at some point it seems I actually began to believe them. Now, as I strive towards three careers that I desperately want to succeed in (so that I no longer have to participate in careers that suck the life and joy out of me every single moment that I’m there), I tell myself these things without realizing I’m doing it. I’ll catch myself thinking something like ‘I’m no good at this; I’ll never be any good; I’m a failure; I’m a disappointment; what’s the point in trying? I can’t even…’ and so on.
I didn’t even realize I was doing it to myself until one day I broke down after an audition, and shared all of these thoughts out loud with my boyfriend. He looked shocked. He could not understand how someone who he and so many others saw so much talent and promise in could think and believe these things – these lies, he calls them – about herself. (I say ‘he calls them’ because I still have trouble believing that they’re lies. They are, for the longest amount of my life, descriptors of myself and everything I’ve ever tried to do.)
I have been so conditioned to believe these things about myself by so many people (well-meaning and otherwise) throughout my life that I’ve begun to do it to myself. I don’t even need someone else around to abuse me, to send me into that downward spiral of self-hatred and self-doubt and self-abuse that unravel years of hard work in a single day because that’s what I’m used to hearing. I’m so afraid of failure now that one little mistake or one bad audition (and I’ve read about super successful actors who have had hundreds of these) or one misstep in a dance sequence or one wrong note during a vocal performance, and I’m right back to ‘failure’ and ‘useless’ and ‘pathetic’ and ‘will never amount to anything.’
A few years ago, I spoke to my father about this – he’d been drinking and was feeling particularly open-mouthed on a lot of subjects he might’ve otherwise avoided – and he told me that he was hard on me because I was the only one of my siblings that he thought had a chance. I’m not sure what that means, really. I ‘had a chance’ to get out of the cycle of drug and alcohol abuse. I ‘had a chance’ to go to college and become successful at something that’s based on that experience. I ‘had a chance’ not to make the mistakes of my parents, which my brothers were so keen to mimic. I don’t know.
I wanted to tell him that I would have had a much better chance had he been a bit more supportive and a bit less abusive about it all, but I thought, perhaps, there was little use in giving my father ‘should haves’ or ‘could haves’ on things long behind us. We rarely talk anymore, as it is, so that seemed a bit counter-productive, at the time, but I still feel there is some relevancy to the experience that one day needs to be resolved if for no other reason than to give him a head’s up about what not to do in the future if we ever successfully rebuild our relationship.
The trouble is that I must first learn to treat myself kindly and believe in myself and encourage myself before this is possible with anyone. I need to turn around my own thoughts and get to a point where self-abusive thoughts are no longer the first to jump into my own head before I can allow into my life the kinds of people who go to the negative and abusive as their first impulse.
I know that I must change the language within my own mind, first, but how long this whole process is going to take, I have no idea. I guess I just need to keep writing and acting and singing and thinking and growing so that when those thoughts come up, I can turn them around with more and more proof that they are wrong, and that I’m actually an amazing, talented person. (I still don’t believe that, but I’m starting to believe that other people do, which is a start.)