For so long I did not talk about my background at all except to the people who already knew. I didn’t even tell my best friends in high school, and if I had visible bruises I wore makeup on them or pants and long-sleeved shirts. As a teen I felt high school life was hard enough without feeling like an outright victim, someone to be pitied, someone potentially seen as “damaged goods” or an easy target. I was going to do zero things to make the little bit of social standing I now had disappear. I would figure out what people talked about and I would talk about those things too. I would be “normal.” It didn’t matter if the pictures and words that came into my mind were different or my perspective was from another angle due to my experiences, if what I was inclined to say didn’t seem normal enough, I’d shut up or I’d use careful words to work around it. I figured if I talked normal long enough I’d become normal. I carried that attitude into adult life. Fake it ’til you make it, right?
So when I decided to actually start talking about this stuff a couple years ago, at first it was just short statements to close friends mentioning an experience or two from childhood, or that what we were studying about poverty or gender discrimination in school really got me in a personal way. The first few times I tried to talk about my background for real, I wasn’t able to find words that explained things to my satisfaction and I couldn’t speak about it without crying or getting these weird red blotchy spots on my neck and chest. Granted, these initial conversations were happening while I was responding to a concerned person about why I looked so tired and wasn’t keeping up with my responsibilities. It was the kind of talk where they can use the word disappointment, somehow the most shame-inducing word ever, and then give you a look like this. In my mind this is the absolute worst kind of talk to be having with someone you admire and want respect from. And yet here I was openly explaining the most humiliating subject I could think of.
I had been having terrible insomnia, nightmares, and flashbacks and trying to seem normal just didn’t seem like an achievable goal anymore. I also didn’t care much about fitting in any longer, had decided it was overrated, so I told the first few people out of something that felt a bit more like recklessness or desperation rather than trust. I figured if people rejected me for it, it almost didn’t matter because I wasn’t ok to be around when I was like this and didn’t know when I’d get better, so I might very well lose them as a friend and colleague anyway.
Then I realized telling people helped me. It really helped. It got easier and it felt like a weight being lifted off of me, a lead balloon turning into a real balloon. I realized I didn’t care if I felt like this or looked like this. Letting go of these internal dividers was freeing in an indescribable sort of way. I have since learned that the best way to overcome shame is to do something to make it no longer “unspeakable,” to find a way to shed sunlight on it. I also found that my friends looked at it differently than I thought they would. Once I found the right words and a way of speaking about it that worked for me, it worked for them. They were on my side. It wasn’t too much emotion or awkwardness for them to deal with. I wasn’t hurting them or burdening them by sharing my story. It was just real stuff. They were angry that this had happened, proud of me for overcoming it, and then they spoke about strength and activism and making a difference.
Thankfully I have the kinds of friends who believe that you should be the change you want to see, but I was surprised to have this “you should do something about it” stuff directed my way. I thought about how my parents would always tell me “You are not the parent! Someday you can make decisions on how to raise and discipline your own kids. Here, you need to stay out of it!” The thing is, they were not functioning as proper parents, which is why I felt compelled to step into that role as a little girl, no matter how inadequately prepared I was for it either. It was too painful to keep quiet seeing how my siblings were treated back then but once I was out, once I had done what I could about my home situation, I went back to thinking “this isn’t part of my present day life and these things happening elsewhere aren’t my business.” I still cared though.
So even though I already knew these were good friends, and good people, it was kinda shocking to find that they didn’t think I was broken, or that I should mind my own business, and they definitely didn’t look at me like I should shut up. They thought I should use my experiences to do the opposite, to speak out and make this issue my business once again. I thought about it and realized that they were right. There are too many kids living in these kinds of situations right now to shut up, to convince myself that because I am not the parent, the right thing to do is just move on, say nothing, and leave the problem alone.