The Words I Find Hard To Say
Potential triggers: mentions of emotional abuse, self-hatred and harm, panic attacks, depression and harassment.
“I lived so long / with a closed heart / not because / i was afraid to get hurt / but because i was afraid / of the pain / i had hidden away.” — yung pueblo
Tomorrow night(1/6/21)will be the first meeting of the year for the youth leadership program that I facilitate. A program that came to be from the depths of my heart and a deep wish to heal the teenager that knew only how to fear their own identity. Every time I meet with my students, I ask myself, how can I fully show up for them? How can I be honest with them when I’m hurting? When it took me hours to get myself in a mindset to be present for them? How do I tell them that the person they see before them did not somehow appear overnight? I try to do it in different ways. Our entire program is based on the foundation of empowerment and self-love. I teach them about affirmations, about how important it is to care for yourself even in the hard moments, and how healing does not always look pretty. But I have come to realize that as good as I have gotten at imparting that wisdom onto them, it is still quite hard for me to take the advice myself. Am I a hypocrite? Or am I still just healing?
I say to them, to my friends, to myself, that healing is an ongoing process. But healing also takes consciousness, it takes intention, it takes sitting with the shitty feelings. It takes more than the positive captions I share on instagram or the refrigerator magnet like slogans that tell you, that if you believe it, if you just “work” than you too can find yourself. You too can find the answers you need. The anecdote to all your worries and the peace that your mental health needs to find. But what does that actually look like?
I never want to scare my students but how do I help them navigate if I am unable to face my own truth?
“When faced with a painful experience with another human, one of the most important parts of healing is the impact it had on the relationship with oneself.” — Tory Eletto, LMFT
The truth is, that when I graduated from college five years ago, I was broken. I felt worthless and my self esteem was shot. I woke up every day and looked in the mirror and saw a stranger, a shell of who I used to be, a person who had been hollowed out and made bare, a person who had let themselves believe that they were undeserving of goodness and love. I hated my laugh. I hated the way I got emotional. I hated the way that the smallest thing could make me cry. I hated my style and my voice. I hated the way I always seemed to be unable to hold conversations or flirt or got nervous just to talk to a cashier in a store or pick up the phone. At the time, I was still investing a lot of energy and care into a person who had led me to feel as broken as I was. It would be easy to place all the blame on them, but I know that it was about even more than them and their abuse, it was even more than the trauma college had left on me, it was even more than the new world I felt I had just stumbled into.
It was about me.
I see this scene in my head often when I’m hurting. It’s a warm May day in Massachusetts. I’ve barely slept because the night before I was out dancing salsa with some friends. I had spent the night with someone who had become fairly special to me. We were in the beginning stages of really knowing each other but dancing had been fun. She had slept over and we had spent some hours talking before we both lay there, in the way you can only do in a dorm room twin bed. No fucking room to even turn. Just lie there and hope sleep will come. But it didn’t really. She left and I tried to find some sleep. But instead, what I found was a text. Asking me to meet someone outside for a conversation I knew was overdue but wasn’t ready for.
They were a friend. At the time I considered them my best friend and even now as I write about it, my hands shake, my heart seizes up and I ask myself, am I ready? Am I ready to embrace this moment so that I can let go? Am I ready to put these words down that have lived so long within the depths of my heart? Hidden away in a chest, covered in dust, covered with locks and passwords?
This best friend had been my partner at the start of the year. It had been fast and high energy and new. In my fours years at college, I had never really had a serious, exclusive partner. I had many almosts and a few one nights, I had unrequited crushes and half assed intimacy. I barely knew how to love myself and though I did love others, I know now that it was never really grounded in loving myself.
My friend was upset for good reason. In a moment of desperation some weeks prior, I had shown up to their place after being at a party they told me they would meet me at. I was panicked and already in a bad place mentally. The months before had been spent trying to re-earn affection I never had. I had mistaken dependence for care and love. I had mistaken their continuous emotional abuse as love. I hadn’t heard from them in hours and they only lived about a twenty minute walk away so I showed up to their house. Frantic and desperate and was met with silence and a door slammed in my face. I sat outside of the house, in tears, waiting for an uber to come and take me back up the hill to my dorm, where I could feel my shame and confusion alone.
Looking back now I see all the things that were wrong. I see how my actions were self-serving and selfish. I see how I should have stayed at the party and waited then gone home. I see that there was so much going on beyond me that I could have never understood or grasped it then. That just because someone was going through it, didn’t mean it had to do with me. And even more, it didn’t mean that I was in charge of fixing it or making it better. I see now that my actions were not about them but about me and my fear, about the expectations I had created. The expectations they had made clear they would never meet but I continued to ignore.
It took days for us to re-connect, maybe even a week or so, until we were sitting outside on this sunny day. I was in my pajamas, I remember I wasn’t wearing a bra and I was worried about how sweaty I was and wondering if they’d have hash browns at brunch that day. They were angry and started out the conversation telling me so. They told me how much I had fucked up, how I shouldn’t have shown up, how the people they lived with were mad at me, how what I had done was stupid.
And then, I started crying.
I started crying and they got angry. They looked right at me with annoyance and said “Why are you crying?!” (Which to this day still makes me think about George Lopez)
And in my passion and confusion I said, “Because that’s how I am!”
And that wasn’t a good enough answer. And I couldn’t understand why my tears made them angry. They went on to tell me that my tears were selfish, that my tears were making it about me, that my tears weren’t real. I tried to explain that my tears were just an expression of what I was trying to process. That I was sad that I had upset them, that our last bit of time together would be like this, that I had spent all this time trying and trying to do right by them and it seemed all I did was fail. All I did was feel too much. Do too much.
They left a few moments after. Their roommate came to pick them up in their car and I sat there on the curb feeling like I was in pieces. Feeling like whatever semblance of love for myself that was left had been shattered. How could I love myself when I was so fucked up? When I hurt someone I thought I loved? When I acted selfishly and stupidly? How had all the time and energy I put in turn to this?
I didn’t hear from them again until a week later. When they reached out to see me the day before graduation. And what did I do? I said yes. I let them back in without question. And I told myself that their forgiveness was love, their forgiveness was a sign of the good that could come, that the two of us could weather any storm.
I laugh now when I think about it, not because it’s funny but because it’s amazing when you think about the times you believe in something so deeply that you couldn’t even recognize that it was killing you slowly.
Finally putting distance between me and this person has been one of the hardest things I have ever done for myself. I know now how easy it is to love someone who doesn’t love you. How easy it is to let others cut and cut away at you until there is nothing left. But I think the hardest part for me has been that even now, five years later, the scars are still very much there and always will be. The hardest lesson has been that healing has no time limit. Healing being an ongoing process means that your scars will sometimes re-open, sometimes for a moment, sometimes for days and weeks and sometimes they’ll do everything they can to pull you back down, to remind you that once upon a time, you thought you were worthless.
At 22, I found my healing in work. I got an amazing position at Rutgers University — Newark. I worked with women who became my mentors, my role models and friends. Who taught me about the goodness of love, community and vision. Who taught me that nothing is achieved alone but there is much work that has to be done in the self before it can be shared with others. They taught me about giving myself a chance, about holding space for my pain. And even more than that, they taught me how to give myself a chance by giving me several. They saw a spark in me and didn’t just encourage it but actually gave me tools and opportunities to let it shine. To let the darkness finally make way for the parts of me I had so long suppressed.
But it wasn’t a perfect fix. I was still hurting. I got into half-assed and unrequited relationships that only served to further stunt my growth. One time, I thought I saw this person from my past on Rutgers campus and I had a panic attack. I ran to my office and sat there, trying to catch my breath and only did when I realized I had to meet with a student in just a half hour. How the hell was I supposed to give them advice when I was a mess?
“No, I’m romantic- a sentimental person thinks things will last- a romantic person hopes against hope that they won’t. Sentiment is emotional” — This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In my favorite book, This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the very last line of the book is something that has stuck with me since I read it at 16. It’s funny when I think about it. Fitzgerald wasn’t much of a fan of his first book. He and others felt it was amateur, all over the place, no form. But that was exactly why I liked it. Amory Blaine, the protagonist, is a mess. And you know he’s a mess from the very beginning. He’s a boy who grows into a man, only wishing to seek out love, real love, but not knowing how to let himself have it. He messes it up so many times for the sake of his own discovery but even more so for the sake of who he will be to other people. He cares so deeply about how others will see him that he puts that above all else. His status is what matters most. And after everything, the entire journey, the ups and downs, the changes in prose, he’s sitting on a bench alone. The book ends with him saying to himself “I know myself, but that is all.”
Wow! My 16 year old self thought. Wow! This man, who has been through so much, this journey of self-discovery. He went through all of this only to realize that to accept himself, to love himself, to realize who he truly was…was really the only thing he knew. The only possession he had left. And it left the impression on me that my self-discovery was not about me going out there and finding myself but me accepting who I was, to my core.
And then…I went to college and forgot the journey I wanted to be on.
I share all of this because it’s important for me to remember where the formation of my thoughts came from. It’s important to remember the newly out of the closet 16 year old who only wanted to love themselves and love others. Who had spent their teenage years doing nothing but playing basketball, getting honors and watching One Tree Hill hoping that one day someone would look at me like they were the Brooke Davis to my Brooke Davis. It’s important for me to remember that all the lines I romanticized from This Side of Paradise are bullshit. And were built up with a heteronormative and desperately dependent framework. That love, even in it’s hurt and tough times, should not feel desperate or like my favorite book. No matter how many times I tried to say differently during my early 20s.
As I’m writing all of this down I’m getting nervous. Will anybody read this? Will it somehow get back to the folks who hurt me? Will I be forced to dive back in and talk about this? Will my students look at me differently?
And then I’m reminded of something my best friend said to me this morning (my real and true college best friend. Marnie. I love you) when I asked her how do we truly prioritize ourselves? She said, “Think about when you started to prioritize others first and why it felt important to put them first. And what your resistance is to putting yourself first and others second.” And she told me to journal about it.
I just sat there with my mouth open for a second. This isn’t exactly my journal but it feels freeing. Because I don’t want to be ashamed of my younger self anymore. I don’t want it to be something I can only whisper about or talk about through tears and resistance. I don’t want to treat my younger self with anger and a lack of compassion. I want to fully embrace this so that I can let it go. I realize now that letting go is not about forgetting. It’s about meeting your pain and shame, really, truly, meeting it and saying, “I love you. I will not hide you any longer. And I promise to let you breathe so that we can move forward.”
It took me five years to realize that although I have healed in many ways, I also dealt with it by separating myself from my 2016 self. I put that version of me into a box of shame. I tell others that I’ve moved on but have I? If I can’t have love for that version of me? It’s important for me to accept that I was not blameless. That I too, enacted harm, that I too, acted out of selfishness and pain and lack of knowledge. That I was not exempt from acts of manipulation or desperation. And forgiving myself for that has been essential in order to address my pain. But accepting that there were many things that weren’t my fault has turned out to be twice as hard.
I started to go to therapy again in June of 2019. I was feeling overwhelmed from the job that I had started in my hometown after leaving Rutgers in 2018. I was taking on to much, I had no balance, I was feeling lonely, I barely saw my friends. I was depressed. I felt the familiar darkness wrap around me. I hated getting out of bed. I’d walk into work and feel like a zombie. I felt like I was physically in all of these places but mentally I was just performing. I was trying to continue to be this brilliant, bright star that everyone saw me as. I didn’t want to let anyone down but I was struggling. I felt like no one understood me. I felt like I was giving so much to friends and getting nothing in return. Was anyone checking up on me? Or was I just focusing on the people who weren’t?
I had been trying to see a new therapist for months but the first one I called answered the phone angrily, like she couldn’t be bothered and that scared me off from trying again for weeks. I ended up finding my doctor through the moderator of a panel that I was on about social justice at a Baptist Church in Mt. Vernon. (When I say community will make it happen!!). I told my doctor that I knew that I was hitting a low. And that I needed better coping mechanisms, I needed tools and most importantly, I was ready to talk about the trauma from my college years.
But being ready, saying the words, is very different from actually putting it into practice.
I’ve been in therapy for a little over a year now. And what a year it has been. There have been a lot of lessons, a lot of tears, a lot of laughter, a lot of my doctor giving me a look that tells me I know better, she knows better and I’m just playing myself. There have been moments of deep joy, moments of newfound confidence and newfound pain. I’ve felt good about my progress. About my growth. About the ways I’ve moved into my confidence. About the ways I’ve learned to speak up for myself, even if I’m still not quite at the place I want to be.
But even now, in all that growth, there is still so much pain, shame and fear. I’m not saying that I have to be immune to it. But the newness of love, the re-affirmation of friendship, the sweetness of realizing my community loves me cannot continue if I am unwilling to admit that I have been in pain. That there is deep hurt. That I’m scared of losing people. That I’m scared of my losing myself again. That I’m scared of pushing myself for the sake of everyone around me. That I’d still set myself on fire to keep another person warm.
So. I want to let go.
I want to say some things out loud that I have been scared to. That I have only whispered about in therapy sessions or in deep conversations. That I let eat at me at odd hours of the day. Without being explicit or completely spilling my soul, here is what I’m letting go of, here is what I’m trying to make peace with:
[mentions of: harassment tw/cw, gaslighting tw/cw, crossing consent boundaries tw/cw]
I’m letting go of the moments when I allowed myself to be walked all over. The moment outside of Gillette House my first year where my first crush left me confused and feeling weird after stealing my first kiss when I told her I didn’t want to kiss her. I’m letting go of the way she looked at me two days later and told me that the kiss meant nothing. I’m letting go of the ways I had to run from her any time I was on campus because she insisted on talking to me after I asked her to leave me alone several times. I’m letting go of all the times I ran back to my room crying because I had managed to find every mean person I could and asked them for love. I’m letting go of all the people who I let myself be intimate with and made comments about me wearing a “real bra” because they always expected me to be in a sports bra and boxers. Who made comments about me when I wore a dress and asked if that was me in drag. Of those moments that made me question who I was and didn’t give me the space to figure out my gender identity.
I’m letting go of the person who fell in love their Senior year only for it to turn into the most toxic winter and spring of my short life. I’m letting go of the identity they put onto me. Of the ways they treated me like I was a cis man. Of the ways they stood to the side with their friends as a man verbally harassed me in their kitchen. I’m letting go of the ways they accused me of lying or being dramatic every time I would tell them how I felt. I’m letting go of all the nights I stayed up in agony because they told me they would likely harm themselves and would then act the next day like they had never said anything. That I was just taking things too seriously. That even if they did, I had to respect their choice and not make a big deal. I’m letting go of the time I told them I was afraid to go to that bar because I knew the man who harassed me was going to be there. And they told me to go. They told me they’d be there. They didn’t show up. The night ended with me watching the man who had harassed me being put in handcuffs and thrown to the ground. When I got back, seeking out comfort from all the wrong places, they seemed annoyed that I was even around them. I want to let go of the night I told them that I think I wanted to hurt myself and they looked like they were annoyed. They went upstairs, and I had to lie on the couch and listen to them tell someone how they felt like I was just lying to them to gain sympathy. I have to let go of how when I approached them, they told me that it was none of my business and I shouldn’t have been listening.
I have to stop now and take a breath. There are tears in my eyes now. The pain is throbbing in my chest. My breath picks up. I have to ask myself: Is this too much to say out loud? Do I want to say all of this? Is it this important for this knowledge to be known?
And then I see myself the next morning, with a bigass bag of my belongings from their place, making the walk back to my dorm. They hadn’t even noticed I left. Until they sped past with their roommate in their car, not even looking at me for a moment in the rear view. They would go on to apologize later in the day. And I, after spending all day in the dark, crying in my room, would forgive them.
“And I understand now, maybe not completely, but more, that in times of overwhelming joy, immobile sadness, hysterical laughter, absolute fear, and sometimes just perfect quiet there is Life. Real Life. And it really is that simple. I take my gift now. I go live.” ― Dito Montiel, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
There are many more stories. Many more examples and though I thought about writing them down, those, I will save for my journal and my therapy sessions. I know now that I don’t need to describe every explicit thing in order for it to be real. But I also know, that I don’t have to hide it all in order to be healing.
I no longer want to be angry at my past self. I no longer want to look at the very real abuse I endured and feel shame or like I have no right to feel the pain that I have. I no longer want to hide it like it was a part of my life that wasn’t real or didn’t happen. I don’t want to dust it under the rug and act like it didn’t and doesn’t still impact how I connect to others. I don’t want to act like just because I love myself it means that I have fully accepted and embraced myself.
I came to write this piece because in my reflection, I came to learn that the pain I just wrote about was still tucked away in the darkest corner of my heart. I am not just letting go so I can say I did. I want to let go because I want to finally allow myself to be the most loved version of myself. Because I am tired of hating parts of myself. Because sometimes I cry. Deeply. Snots everywhere. Out of breath. Even when the situation isn’t as dire as I make it out to be. I want myself to be able to embrace love, intimacy, friendship, connection, community without constantly worrying that it will be taken away from me or I will somehow do something to fuck it up. Or that it’s not real. Nothing is guaranteed but nothing good stays if you don’t open yourself up to the things you can receive from it.
I know now, at 26, that I deserve to be loved the way I want to be loved. I know now that just saying that isn’t enough. That even then, it takes work and time and intention. It takes honesty and speaking up, it takes respecting my own process and not getting angry at myself when I don’t automatically have the right answers or words. It takes recognizing the ways I still disrespect my own boundaries and needs for the sake of appeasing people. In my work life and personal life. With my students, colleagues, friends, partner and family. I know they all love me. But knowing that I love me has proven to be the most difficult thing to do and it is about far more than just a few good selfies. (Though, those definitely help. #libra)
There’s a lot written about how you have to love yourself before you can love another person. Or how our self love is how we love other people. I’ve said it so many times but am only now just realizing what that means. Or at least what it means for me. It means that I can’t be afraid to be loved or to tell another person how it is I need to be loved. It means that I can’t run from the idea of risking putting myself out there just because I’ve already assumed the outcome is going to be bad or negative or result in my heart being broken. It’s about naming when I feel hurt, even when it doesn’t make sense or even when it may not be the most logical. It’s about realizing that my feelings won’t always have reason or explanation and sometimes saying that I don’t know is really the start to knowing. It means that I have to see myself as being worthy of love.
I have to see myself as being worthy of love.
Real love. Deep love. Love that pushes me and holds me and fills me with the warmth I have so long been looking for. When Paulo Coehlo writes, “Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure,” it means that I am my own treasure but my treasure is not just for me. It’s for my community. It’s for the people I love. It’s for the better world that I believe in. It’s so that when I put my passion into my work, it gets the very best of me, even when I don’t feel like it is.
So. I guess, that’s what I’ll tell my students. That I don’t have all the answers. That sometimes I cry. Sometimes I feel so down on myself I feel like I’ll never reach the surface for air. Sometimes, I fear that I’ll fail them. But at all times, I am wholeheartedly invested in their growth. Not for the sake of academics or college acceptances but because they too, deserve to know what it is like to have a moment when they realize that they are worthy of love.
To myself: There will be more moments of pain. There will be tears and uncertain times. There will be times when you’re not sure you have the strength or when you’re afraid to admit how you feel. This moment of catharsis and clarity does not make you immune to that. But please do not forget that your deep emotions are a strength. They are proof that even with the cruelty and insecurity, you are still capable of feeling, still capable of growing and nurturing yourself, still able to recognize the pain in your body. Do not run from it. This pain is ours. We must own it. We must love it.
And then we must let it go.
“Sometimes I ask myself, like, you know, what is going to take for me not be afraid. To be loved the way, like, I really wanna be loved. But that I know how I really wanna be loved. But I’m, but I’m, like, scared to really, really feel that
You know, it’s like you want something but you don’t know if you can handle it.”