Q: What is your story of strength?
I grew up in a really abusive situation. It eventually stopped when I learned I could fight back, but it ended pretty abruptly, so there was no real opportunity for emotional processing. There was never any reconciliation. We just sort of pretended it never happened and went on with our lives. I didn’t know how to process what had happened to me, especially because no one was talking about it. I therefore had a pretty one-dimensional view of strength, which was to keep going and suck it up. I just had to put up a stoic exterior, and as a result I developed a lot of unresolved anger and control issues.
This abuse and the repression of feelings eventually manifested in my physical health. Sometimes I would have seizures and just pass out. I had brain scans and evaluations and the doctors could only guess that these episodes were caused by stress and trauma. That’s the first time I went to a therapist. Even though I had started therapy, I still had the idea that strength was stoicism, and I just had to be this badass bitch who exhibited a good-for-the movies type of female strength. It wasn’t until adulthood that I had female friends who encouraged me to open up. They taught me that people who dealt with their emotions were a lot stronger than people who didn’t.
Once I got to college, I had other things going on in my life that were testing my limits (I was in a terrible relationship). I tried to stay strong in the way I knew how, by maintaining a hard exterior. All of this unresolved trauma eventually reached a tipping point, and it all blew up my senior year. I had a full blown mental breakdown – so bad that I had to reduce my course load and take summer courses to finish up with college in order to start graduate school on time. I had so much going on mentally and emotionally that all just came to a head as I was entering this massive life transition.
Fortunately, I then moved to a different phase in life. In grad school, I met people who just wanted good things for me and who finally made me want good things for myself. I was finally building a life for myself rather than living in the one that was built for me. I slowly and painfully learned that it’s a lot harder to be vulnerable and deal with your pain, but it takes a lot more strength to be vulnerable as well. Avoidance and compartmentalization not only require less strength, but they also lead to less fulfillment. I’m still working on that.
Q: What is a gender norm or expectation you wish didn’t exist?
All of them. But one of the things I really despised growing up is something I learned in church: the saying, “Men give love to get sex; women give sex to get love.” Basically, all men want to do is have sex and all women want to do is have a husband who provides, so they have to have sex to meet that need. It’s really stifling. It makes it seem like men don’t have emotions, and that women can’t have sex just to enjoy it. It 100% excuses and plays into rape culture. Sexual and emotional experiences are a human experience and trying to bucket that by gender is harmful to men and women. It has scarred me and put a lot of shame on me, a lot of which I internalized. I’ve made lot of really harmful decisions because I believed that for a long time.
Q: What advice would your adult self give your younger self?
First: Lying is stupid. As a young teenager I lied about a lot of trivial things, partially because it gave me some sense of control and allowed me to write my own narrative. It was just so easy to lie about or exaggerate little things. At that point, there were a lot of things that I felt happened to me. In that type of situation, there are many sick and unhealthy ways people will assert control over their own lives, and my way was lying. I wanted to control other people’s perceptions of my own life. Eventually I learned that, even when it’s uncomfortable to tell the truth, if you just say “I’m going to be completely honest” and tell the truth, people will respect that. That said, I still grapple with honesty in some ways. I have very different religious and spiritual values than I was raised with, and my views are different than the views that my family members currently have. Even now, it’s hard to balance complete honesty with healthy boundaries. It’s partly me trying to figure out how much of my true self I can share with my family without them loving me any less, but also knowing that my family doesn’t need to know everything about me. That’s one way I still struggle with lying – I don’t want to lie to them about who I am, so now I just stay away.
Second: Don’t take ownership of other peoples shit. I think a lot of people get really upset when they feel that something has been done to them by other people. I did. But I have found a lot of freedom and general lessening of anxiety in realizing that people’s reactions to me are often reflections of or reactions to their own lack of self worth, their insecurities, their skeletons in the closet. I have to own my own life, and I have to let other people own theirs.
Q: What is something you’re working on or trying to improve?
The biggest thing at the forefront of my life is just being very intentional with all aspects of my life. I just moved to Los Angeles from across the country in order to turn a long distance relationship into a no distance relationship. It’s great and fulfilling in many regards, but I don’t have a friendship network here so I’m trying to be conscious and intentional about my life outside of my relationship. I want to stay active now that I’m driving and not walking all over a city. I’m trying to be involved in the community around me. And I’m starting to think about how I might build my own family and what my relationships with my current/birth family is like. These are little things that I’m trying to pay attention to. I just want to be conscious and don’t want to be passive with those areas of my life.