A couple of years ago, I met a stranger through a friend and struck up a conversation over super-spicy Bloody Marys at a trendy café in Soho. After a brief introduction, he turned to me with a smile and asked, "So, what's your story?" I was struck at how casually he asked such a complex question. I quickly chose the scenes from my life that I felt were most appropriate for the occasion.
I could have told him the truth, that my mother left me, my father beat me, my grandpa died, and that the "story" I most connected with was that of the unwanted and unworthy child, but that always bums everyone out. Worse, it places my companions in the awkward and well-intentioned position of having to come up with some kind of consoling statement, which puts me in the awkward position of having to console them by explaining that I am fine now. So, I chose instead to do what we all do when we want to hide where we have been and who we once were and handed over the typical rundown: name, birthplace, university, job and current apartment location (Astoria), which I quickly qualified by announcing I spend most of my waking hours "below 14th Street."
Don't ask, it's a New York thing.
I then did what every decent deflective journalist does and quickly served the question back to him while taking several long sips of my socially-acceptable mid-morning cocktail (gotta love brunch).
The rest of our egg-and-convo combo was nice enough, but his question branded my brain and I couldn't help but to think more about it as I walked home.
Was the story I repeated so often really my story, after all?
Though I had graduated college, published a book, moved to New York City, cultivated relationships with people whom I loved and respected (and who loved and respected me) and had shifted my focus from survival to thriving, I dared not acknowledge it. Back then, a glance in the mirror was always met with the reflection of the girl in the torn dress, the child with nowhere to go on Christmas, the young woman who stayed too long with the wrong man in order to have the family she'd had hoped they could build if only he'd see how worthy, loving, and supportive she really was. In sticking to the script that was written for me -- and all of the strange and often self-defeating ideas, thoughts, feelings, wants and needs that came with it -- I lost sight of the woman I had become.
With each step home, I thought about how I had walked through much of my life with a scarlet A for "apology" sewn onto my demeanor. I was so sorry. I was sorry that I was not good enough to make my parents love me, sorry I was not a boy, sorry I could not protect my grandfather from my father's rage, sorry that I was always in the way, sorry that I was not worth fidelity to the men I loved.
Friends and colleagues often confessed that they found my apologies awkward and strange. We had that in common. Unfortunately, I did not know how to lift the heavy burden brought about by the insecurities that plagued me. Those who have dealt with these feelings know how devastating they can be. The weight can be so heavy that it not only crushes one's spirit, but can also inflict some serious damage to the relationships you have with those who ache to love you. Worse, it makes you perfect prey for those who are looking for someone to crush.
I was sorry for that, too.
It was nice to come to these realizations, but knowing how to make lasting changes was a whole other ballgame. When one spends a few decades reading the same lines day in and day out, one gets brainwashed into believing them to be true. The lessons I learned in childhood taught me that my life was going to be hard, that I was not worthy of something more, that I could not have unconditional love or play with the other children without being made fun of or shamed back into the house. I took these lessons in and repeated them to myself daily, even when my reality proved them to be more fiction than fact. "You are not worthy" was my mantra, and it ruined many beautiful moments. Not only was I unable to install proper boundaries or enjoy my achievements, I wasted a lot of time simply trying to prove (mainly to myself) that I belonged on this earth as much as the next guy or gal. It occurred to me that I was forcing myself to live in a painful and bleak reality, which was both sad and self-indulgent. I was showing very little gratitude for the love, achievements, and experiences any healthy person would recognize and be grateful for. That's the thing about being a victim, it becomes a lifestyle. The more we stare at the pain of our past, the less we are able to be grateful, and gratitude is the seed from which happiness grows.
By telling others (and more so, myself) the same old story, I was destroying my chances at coming to a happy conclusion. This was not an easy admission. Fortunately, I have amazing people in my life who won't mince words and who have enough patience, love and respect for me to help me move down my path.
I wanted to share this gift with you -- the gift of honesty, accountability and reflection in the hopes that it will remind you that you are not defined or limited by past chapters. Your "story" is in development, and one chapter should lead to another. Every moment is a chance to start writing on a blank page. We are living -- and therefore writing -- in real time, and maintain full creative control. We choose our genre, what characters will be developed and how long they will stay. We decide what locations to visit, what choices to make, and we write the script. Will there be dragon-slaying or crying from the tower? Will there be adventure and passion, or will it be yet another remake of the chapter you wrote so many years ago?
That said, we need to remind ourselves that the execution of such a choice won't always be an easy one. We will likely have to let go of some things that we enjoy clinging onto. We will have to let go of some relationships that are comfortable, but destructive. We will have to look into the mirror and into the eyes of the person you have allowed ourselves to become. Hell, we might even have to start over completely and accept that we will feel lonely, scared and isolated for a while. But, as my friend told me once, "The key to success is in knowing that nothing lasts forever, most especially pain."
For more by Brenda Della Casa, click here.
For more on emotional wellness, click here.