Taking Back the Pieces

Somewhere inside me is a person who is strong and confident and who knows she is. I want to find that. I want to be her. I am slow and I stumble a lot. Years of shame and vindictiveness have left me battered and bruised on the inside. More than that, it has left me doubting my ability to breathe. But I can’t let them win. “Friends” and “family members” have taken so much from me already. To give them more would be equal to starving a child. That I would rest by and let them take choice pieces of me is the result of years of normalization training and false teachings, of selfishness and expectations I will never meet.

“Dear friend, wife, daughter, coworker, sister: Since you desire to be kind and good, since your heart is gentle and we know you are strong and skilled, give us your lungs and your heart and your soul. You will still be able to walk and talk and breathe without them, but you will serve us better for not having them. We’ll be able to mold and mutilate you into the form we desire, damage you to the point where you’ll never have need of or wish for anything more.”

In the episode of M.A.S.H. titled “Dreams,” in Hawkeye Pierce’s nightmares, he is forced to give up his arms, the one thing he needs more than anything to do the work he does: operate on injured soldiers, save lives. He is told to remove them and then he literally pulls them from his coat sleeves.

“That I would rest by and let them take choice pieces of me …”

It is not easy to repair the destruction of nearly two decades, to uncover the pieces that have been beaten upon and torn, and stitch them back together. It takes time and delicate work, performed with still-shaking hands. It takes turning your back on and sometimes beating off those who would have you back in their strangling grip. It takes biting your lip until it bleeds blood from your broken heart to prevent you from handing yourself back to the enemy when you are asked. You must break the habit.

It is a war with a daily battle. I know what inside me is real and true, but each day I must pick up my weapon and steel myself for the fight. The days are long and slow. Sometimes I gain ground and sometimes I lose it. Never all of it, but enough that the line that marks my progress wavers before it progresses again. I am the Union Army in the American Civil War, just weeks past the Battle of Gettysburg. My victory is imminent, but not to be won without blood and tears.

I will not give in; I will not surrender. I will not give up any more of me, and I will take back what is mine. I will fight until the dust settles and the air comes freely into my lungs. And I will find myself, who I am, who I was, and who I am going to be. I will no longer give up my vital parts to become what I am not. I will be me. I will be whole.

Hardest to Love

The hardest person for me to love is not my soon-to-be ex-husband or my work supervisor who punished me because I knew things she didn’t or my mom, who accused me of moving away just to take her grandchildren away from her and ruin her life. The hardest person in this world to love is someone much closer: me.

I haven’t done anything extraordinarily evil; I’m a caring, loving mother; I work hard and get things done and do all of my jobs well; I even try to do good things. My friends seem to care about me and my kids to love me. Clearly, I am loveable. So why do I struggle so much to love myself?

This is a question I’ve been struggling with for years, and as one might expect, I’ve learned there are many parts to the answer, most of which I have yet to explore and understand. I know now I carry a lot of shame and make a great number of accusations against myself: How could I have been so stupid? Why did I do that? I always do things wrong. How could I have fallen for that? This mistake makes me a terrible person. This decision makes me even worse. My behavior in this situation should be punished.

When a situation goes awry, I instinctively take the blame and feel ashamed for the damage I’ve done. I say “instinctively,” but shame isn’t an inherent emotion. It is learned and reinforced. It is a weight taken when it doesn’t need to be. And it is a punishment. Whether it is taken on yourself after years of molding or put upon you by another, it is meant to scold and degrade you, to make you feel like less than you are, to feel unlovable and worthless.

It is the feeling of worthlessness, I think, that is my greatest barrier to loving myself. Or, rather, the sense that I have to meet certain criteria to be worthy. This belief is a setup for disaster. My standards for myself are high, perfectionism rampant in my blood. I must learn and accept that this is an unreasonable expectation, that perfection is impossible for everyone, that I am worthy merely by being alive, and that nothing makes me unworthy to be loved. I am a slow learner.

I discovered shame was at the core of many of my emotional and social struggles three years and three months ago. I didn’t admit it to myself until about a year ago. I didn’t admit it out loud or to anyone else until I learned how deep it ran, just three months ago now, when a friend told me I had the right to feel completely comfortable and safe and to speak up if I wasn’t, that it was his responsibility to make sure I was okay and that he was at fault for not being sure, not me. He told me I was loved and deserved to be okay and that I was worthy.

I am worthy. I had never believed those words until he said them. And once I did, I recognized times in my past when I hadn’t felt worthy to be respected, when I’d taken the blame for someone else’s disrespect, when I’d felt ashamed for someone else’s violation of my rights or body. Understanding the reasons why I’d felt this way came later, but most importantly, for the first time, I recognized that what had happened to me in the past wasn’t my fault, and that believing it was had shaped both my perspective of the world and my perspective of myself. Warped my perspective, I should say. Because seeing myself as worthless to everyone and everything, including myself, is not in any way seeing the truth.

This conversation was my breakthrough, but a breakthrough doesn’t mean you’ve healed—and by healed, I also mean having learned to love myself—or even that you’re well on your way to healing. It means you’ve managed to crawl on bloody hands and knees a little farther along the path of healing. I still have a long way to go.

A few weeks ago I stood in front of my bathroom mirror and used a pen to spell out the word “Worthless” on my stomach, backwards, so I could read it when I looked at myself. That night I thought of all the things I’d done wrong and all the things for which I was to blame, of the little use I was to anyone or -thing. I wrote about it and then cried at how terrible I thought I was and then punished myself with emotional pain that went straight through my defenses.

One of the things I have learned is that shame feeds on secrets and lies. So I reached out that night. I messaged a close friend a while later and told him what I’d done and what I was feeling. He told me I was none of the things I thought I was, but instead important and worthy and loved. He told me to wash the ink off, and with the erasing of the word, I felt a weight lift off me and peace settle. I hope some day I’ll love myself enough to be able to take that step on my own, or better yet, to not feel that deserving of punishment for things that aren’t true.

You may question how I could see so little worthwhile in myself. It’s a long story and I don’t know the entirety of it yet. That is the purpose of this record of my journey, to learn in my heart what know rationally: it doesn’t have to be like this. I am lovable.

As you read this, some of you might feel as if you know exactly what I mean, maybe feel my pain or know what it’s like to discover something good about yourself when you thought there was none. Some of you might not get this far because you hurt so much from your own struggle with worth and shame. I know seeing another’s shame can make my own feel more acute.

But I hope you have read this far, and I hope you’ll read more, today and next week and beyond. I hope you’ll come with me and heal with me as I look at shame and worthiness, as I learn more about how they playout in my life, and beyond, to find what it takes to love yourself.

I can’t promise you an easy journey, nor can I promise you mine will be flawless. I’ll have bad days. I can promise you honesty, though. No smoke screens or rose-colored glasses, just truth, even when it hurts.