Friday, July 24, 2009

The Value of the Root

I first wanted to die when I was nine years old. I don't remember what happened leading up to my moment of clarity, I do remember, however, starting out with the idea of running away. I walked out into a warm, sunny, day and ended up sitting on a curb near a bus stop, crying uncontrollably, embarrassed by my public display but far too focused on my feelings of hopelessness and despair to even attempt to hide. I had gone walking with the intention of "running away" but once I got to the bus stop I realized that I had no idea of where to run to and, even more importantly, that running away would take me from all of the goodness in my life-- the love of my family, the comfort they freely gave-- and would do nothing to free me from the terrible bleakness inside of myself. So I sat on a curb, crying, and vainly searching for an answer to my unhappiness.

Had I been older, or a different child, I might have shared my depression, sadness, hopelessness, and despair, with my mother or aunt who had been my regular caregiver since I was born. Had I been older, or a different child, I might have known that the help needed could only come through honestly admitting my thoughts and feelings-- by asking for help. But I was not older, and the child who I was was afraid to talk to the adults I loved and trusted-- who I knew loved me unconditionally-- I was afraid, not of getting in trouble or being dismissed but rather, of hurting their feelings.

For I was afraid that they would blame themselves for my unhappiness, and I knew it was not in any way their fault. And while I don't know the entirety of my reasoning process that brought me to that point, I do know that I always believed that knowingly hurting people was the worst thing somebody could do. And I didn't want to see them cry, I didn't want to make them worry, I didn't want to be to blame for making them unhappy.

So I decided to sit on that curb and find the answer myself. But I was only 9, and my understanding of psychological development and cause and effect was limited when it existed at all. And as I looked for the cause of my unhappiness, as small children are wont to do, I only reached back to the most recent source of trauma and never expanded my examination to find the root.

It happened that the most recent traumatic event had been quite serious; an adult in my life had gotten drunk and molested me one night. As I remembered that event, and felt the guilt and unhappiness that surrounded that victimization, I recollected that it was not an isolated event in my life, and concluded that THOSE things must be the cause of my unhappiness. In my childish logic I decided to share my problem and solution with my "grown up" cousin, who was 16. She told her mother and I imagine things would have been taken care of in the family if I'd been old enough to develop patience. But, being a 9-year-old, I needed resolution right then! I finally knew what was wrong with me and I expected it to be fixed instantly-- when the instant patch-up didn't materialize I became rapidly more and more anxious and depressed about it. Within days of my epiphany, hours of my disclosure, I had worked myself into such a state of agony and depression that I was overwhelmed and fatigued by my inner turbulence. I discovered that, deep down, I just wanted it to be over; I didn't want to continue, I really just wanted to die.

I can't really describe the terror and disbelief that I, as a 9 year old child, felt upon the realization that I wanted to die. I sat on the ground, arms around my knees, rocking myself as I tried to understand how I could even come up with that idea! As I dissected my realization I understood a few basic things that haunted me for many years after: First, that I didn't believe I would ever feel better and, second, that I didn't want to suffer endlessly. As I thought about this bizarre idea I became more and more frightened. While I was dreadfully unhappy, and wanted the unhappiness to end, I did not want to die. Death was a scary thing; death was forever. If I died it would make my mom very sad; I didn't want to make her cry. But I kept coming back to the ultimate belief that the only way to end my suffering was to not live anymore. A very scared and horrified child, now, I knew I needed help immediately. But I also didn't want to hurt my mom, I didn't want her to know the awful truth of my unhappiness-- or especially that I had gone crazy and wanted to die! I had seen tv programs that had mentioned suicide hotlines and so it seemed the best thing to do. Surely they could tell me how to deal with this, and since they didn't know me it wouldn't hurt them. I grabbed the phonebook and took the phone with me into my closet to call..

The next day I was called out of class to go to the principal's office. I had no idea why, no preparation, and was shocked to be greeted by a very sad looking principal and a large smiling woman. I was taken from school to the psychiatric ward at Children's Hospital and had the dubious honor of being the youngest child they'd ever had on suicide watch.

I don't know how long I was in that psychiatric ward. I remember flashes of things; feeling simultaneously relieved that I was going to be "fixed" and unhappy because I was away from my family. I remember hating to see my psychiatrist-- it seemed to me that her main goal was to make me cry and write about it (I imagine she must have found me to be emotionally "abnormal" and was likely attempting to gauge my responses)-- she repeatedly scared me by telling me I was never going to see my mom or brothers again. And after that I was temporarily placed in a different aunt's home before finally being releasd back into my mother's custody.

And the ultimate effect of all of that was this: It was absolutely, enequivically, unquestionably, true that all of my problems were because of the episodes of abuse I'd experienced. The end.

And I've spent the rest of my life trying to recover from the exceptions to my history. I don't want to downplay the damage that abuse does to a person, it is horrible and profound, but in the last few days I finally remembered something.

In all of the years that have passed, in all of the intense research and study, in all of the therapy, through all of my depressions and suicidal episodes, under all of the hopelessness and despair laid the one unifying factor: I didn't quite fit in the plan for recovery, and I never made sense in terms of the victim. Even in psychiatric care I was never "normal" in abnormality or even really treatable or diagnosable. Something was definitely wrong with me but no one could tell me what.

But finally, after 24 years of trying to "heal" from the terrible moments of my childhood, I have remembered that my 9-year-old-mind was immature. I have remembered that I was far more bothered and ashamed of having killed a baby bird by trying to rescue it than I ever was by the times I was molested. I have remembered that the root of my unhappiness was further back in my history than the drunken fondling I had quickly tried to forget- and never blamed myself for.

The root of the problem was not tthat I was victimized by a couple of thoughtless men who never really intended to hurt me-- though they did. The true root, or as e.e. Cummings said, "the root of the root" was much more insidious and subtle than any of that. It was the fundamentaly unfair and unkind way I was treated every day in the world outside of my family-- mostly, at school.

For the truest, deepest, source of my life-long unhappiness has been my feelings of isolation and strangeness. For many years I deeply felt that I wasn't even quite human, and I hated myself for not being able to be like everyone else. I thought, as a child, that I as different because I was abused and that conclusion was fortified over years of affirmation by experts, but they were wrong and so was I.

And, sadly, this belief that the root resided in exceptional moments of my life further increased my emotional problems. For it separated me from the people who accepted me as I was; who loved me and encouraged me to bloom. By being "the victim" I was placed further away from those who could relate to me, and I quickly found that I could not really relate to other victims... I did not generally share their experiences or issues.

For I was always a self-confident little thing. I had a deep and abiding belief in myself; I absolutely knew I had intrinsic worth and deserved to be treated well and be happy. I had no shame about the things that happened to me (it never occured to me to blame myself), I had no real anger toward the people who abused me (except my father who I believed to be a bad person) because I knew that their regret of their actions was more punishment than they even deserved, and that they had victimized themselves more than they had ever hurt me. For I always retained, inside of myself, a core that was untouchable by other people-- a core that was built and sustained by the love and nurturing of a family who neverlet me forget how wanted and speciial I was. And this core saved me from being traumatized by careless, unthinking, actions; It did not, however, save me from the daily institutionalized abuse I was forced to endure at school.

I have heard many people argue that children need to learn to deal with bullying and teasing at school. That there is some inherent value in the "socialization" of being forced to spend 9 months of the year with a group of your "peers." Perhaps that is true for some, or maybe even most, children. Perhaps it is good to teach children how to conform to societal norms, to fit in, to be like everyone else... but it is not true for everyone. It was not true for me.

And I feel more than a little silly to, at 33, sit down and trace my problems back to a "little teasing" in my school years. It seems like something that should have been gotten over by now-- maybe it would have been over for me if only I had remembered before. But now, in the midst of a long-overdue depressive episode (that leads me to write novel-length blog entries :) ), I have only just been able to see that I might not be unhappy for the reasons I always believed-- and more importantly, I might be able to repair the hurts now that I see where they are coming from!

For the daily abuse and degredation I endured, from the age of 7 into my teenage years, is unthinkable and unbelievable to me now. It is hard to understand oneself as a child, to remember things from the perspective you have outgrown, and I've found that the only way to fairly evaluate your own experiences as a child (fair to the child you were) is to imagine another child, that same age, in the same situation. And as I think back, remembering moments I long ago hid from myself in futile attempts to survive the hell I had to endure, I see myself as Lily might be at 7, at 9, at 11 and so on. I see her hopelessly confused because everyone hates her, I see her sitting alone on a sticky bus seat trying to ignore the people all around as they call her "stinky," "ugly," "nerd." I see her alone by the trees at the edge of the playground during recess, talking to helself, making up stories about fairies, sticking to the shadowy places of the schoolyard in order to not be noticed and taunted by dozens of heartless kids. I see her hiding a book inside of the textbook, quietly reading because the lesson is another boring repitition of a skill she learned years ago, and shamefully crying when the teacher walks to her desk, holds up the book, and publicly humiliates her for "being too smart to learn with everyone else!?!" I see her, so many times, surrounded by the entire schoolyard of children, in the middle of an inpenetrable wall of bodies, as she is beaten by ever moving kids jumping forward for their chance to punch her, kick her, spit on her. I see her bravely trying to unhear the insults, to unhear the shouted "Nobody likes you!" "You're a freak!" "Ugly, stinky, fat creature-- Yeah, she's a Creech-er feature!!" "did you look at me? Who said you could look at me? You must need your ass kicked again!" "Why don't you just go home and die!?!"

It is so hard, painful, to remember the daily treatment I got from my "peers." I have pushed it out of my mind, tried to forget the humiliation and pain, and tried to "accept" that it's a normal part of growing up. But, seeing my imaginary Lily in my place... I want to cry at the thought of what happened to the beautiful, happy, child I once was. All of those things were a part of my daily life in elementary school, they were the bulk of my daily experience at the age of 9... I can understand why I wanted to die.

And I finally understand why I battled with that desire for the next 20-ish years of my life. For as much as isolated incidents of abuse were able to slip by without damaging that core of me, I could' undersand (even then) that they weren't my fault, even the regular abuse I witnessed of my father beating up my mother and brother didn't touch that core (I knew it was my father's fault-- no mine, not Jon's), but the fact that I was hated, put down by teacher's and student's alike, that I was regularly beaten up for no reason other than being different (and that the teacher's never stepped in to protect me from any of the abuse), and the fact that I was daily inundated with the "truth" that I was less, that I was not good enough, that I was fundamentally unlikeable, unlovable, by the world outside of my family... The fact that even my "friends" pretended not to know me at school, that my first "boyfriend" was one of those pretenders, that there was no safety and no escape from this daily torture... That, finally, reached the core of me and slowly eroded my sense of self, my emotional and cognitive abilities, and ultimately my ability to cope with anything "in real lfe" for as long as I've lived.

But, you may ask, what's the value of revisiting that part of your past? You call this the Value of the Root, and yet I see nothing of positive value yet...

The thing is, that I have been living a life of this errosion of self. I have lived a life forever trying to be "good enough" to be liked, to have friends, to not be ignored, to be loved by people who don't "have to love me." I have lived my life in the emotional logic of a 9-year-old child, and staying there has kept me from normal and healthy emotional development. I lived, until January of this year, in a city that demanded conformity in order to be liked. I lived in a culture that judged me on my ability to be "in the box" and do what was expected of me, a culture that continued to tell me I wasn't good enough because I wasn't skinny enough, didn't say or do the right things, didn't THINK the right things, didn't CARE about the right things, didn't wear the right clothes, and generally was not the person I "should" have been. Everywhere I went, no matter how many friends I made, and even at the time when I had the most friends... I always had the underlying feeling that I still wasn't good enough.

Perhaps, or likely, as an adult that was largely because I didn't think I was good enough, and maybe I irrationally perceived dislike and dissaproval where none existed. But, I was never accepted by the popular crowds, and most especially I was never accepted or liked by the "popular girls." And while those popular girls may have been the only ones who refused to accept my attempts at friiendship, they were ultimately the ones I "needed" the most. Because, deep down, what I needed was to know that I am fundamentally OK, that I am worthy of love and respect by people outside of my family, that I am not a freak, that I don't have to "fit in" to be a valid human being.

I don't think I could have come to that realization in St. Louis. There, I was still stuck in errosion because I couldn't ever fit in with any of the cliques. Upon moving out here, though, I suddenly found that I do "fit in." You see, this particular little patch of America is largely made up of people who don't "fit in" in places like St. Louis. Even more, no one even tries. When you walk down the streets of Santa Clara, Campbell, Santa Cruz etc.. you don't see two groups of people; the cool ones in expensive clothes, full hair and make-up, and ridiculous high-heels versus the nobodies that don't count anyway. Here, everybody goes through their lives in jeans and a t-shirt. The women rarely wear make-up, an no one has visible designer logos stamped across their chest. Here, a plastic beauty does not fit in, people are natural, people don't really give a damn what you look like. Here, that homeless-looking guy in the coffee shop might be a multi-billionaire and he's still driving a Camry from 1999. Here, you don't get a pass because you're pretty; they want to know if there's anything behind that face. Here, I'm not crazy, weird, eccentric, or strange... here I can be Juliette, whoever she may be.

And that is the real value of the root; It is only by knowing the cause of my unhappiness that I can begin to work to change it. It is by knowing that I have erroneously placed blame on comparitively insignificant things that allows me to get to the right medicine for my ills. It is knowing that my conclusion that the recipe for happiness relied on external acceptance was wrong, knowing that the true core of my being needs to be nurtured and healed, knowing that I must raise that unhappy 9-year-old into the emotionally mature adult she was meant to be... these are the value of the root. And this is, finally, the truth that can set me free.

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