I didn't mean to come clean, but before I could stop myself the words were out of my mouth.
I agreed to meet Alexis for coffee. I work with an organization called I AM THAT GIRL where we empower young girls to healthy self-esteem and self-worth. I had just brought Alexis on board as one of our new monthly bloggers. We lived in the same city and decided to meet up for some actual conversation.
"So what's your story?" she asked, hands pursed around a thick, white café mug. Stories are everything in our organization. They are the connective tissue that binds us together across race, sexuality, religious beliefs, or any of the other zillion shards of difference deployed to divide and isolate us. When we share our stories we thread a connection that makes us say "me too" and that's when real miracles happen.
It's a variation of a question you get asked at parties or dinners or other social gatherings: What do you do? What's your line of work? What's your background? Like most people in these situations, I have learned how to relay my story to make it sound neat, clean, and utterly sanitary. I have a PhD and taught college for a number of years. I transitioned out of that and got more interested in working in the non-profit sector.
I stopped and looked at this young girl's trusting, open face.
"Actually, the university cut the program I was teaching in and I was on the job market for over a year trying to find another academic gig in this area, which was impossible." I paused. "There was a lot of crying." I met her eyes and a huge grin spread across her face. I smiled back. The energy shifted. She nodded. She didn't have to say it for us both to feel it. Me too.
I told her it was incredibly hard. I felt broken in 18 different ways. When there wasn't crying, there was self-pity and a lot of anger. I told her that some days it was all but impossible to crawl out from under the blanket of shame I had pulled tightly around me. I felt like I had let everyone including myself down. I was a failure. I was lost. I was unable to see how it would ever be OK. It was eventually OK, it was eventually pretty great in fact, and the mess was a big part of that process that only the people closest to me got to witness.
Don't Photoshop your story, I told her.
Women don't give themselves permission to fall apart and we certainly don't want to be seen as not having our shit together. That's become taboo in a culture that, for women especially, demands the lie of seamlessness, of perfection, of freedom from blemishes and funky lighting and embarrassing angles. We see from so many of our role models and public figures that it's more important to emphasize how tall we stand rather than how far we fall, and that constant policing of our stories is exhausting and damaging. It's an existence lived in the slick lie of spin and perpetual editing: the long stretch of struggle condensed into a few hours, repackaged and rebranded as a road bump or "challenging moment." God forbid one of us admits that we don't know what we're doing, that we don't have it all figured out, that we're screwing up left and right trying to make good of the precious life we've been given.
Have the courage to haul out your mess of tangles and let others see the knots frayed from so much worrying. You're not doing anyone any favors airbrushing your experiences. It doesn't dull the sharp edges of the pain you carry and it doesn't make you heroic or strong; it makes you a thief--stealing someone else's chance to connect with you and your story, denying someone the opportunity to breathe with relief because "me too."