The Courage to Feel
Recently on a podcast interview (yet to be aired!) I was asked a question: if you could go back in time and give your younger self advice, what would it be?
I had never considered this question before, but as soon as she asked me a specific memory popped into my head.
I was six years old and had just received a really cool bike for my birthday. It had a Goofy flag on the back of the bike (literally the Disney character, not just an adjective in this case) and a new bell to ring on the hand bars. But this isn't a happy memory.
I never met my father; he abandoned our family when I was still in my mom's belly. She went through a messy divorce with this verbally abusive deserter all while carrying me. I'm not sure if there is any research to back this up, but I believe that I struggle with depression and anxiety because those conditions wracked my mom's body while I was inside. How could I not feel my mom's suffering? I believe they are deeply ingrained in me now.
She remarried when I was five, and I was on top of the world. I was so excited to have a dad, and so I started calling him "daddy" (pronounced "deddy" in the South) right away.
This time in my life was full of surprises and confusion. Even though I was delighted to "get a dad for Christmas," I didn't actually meet him until literally the Halloween before. Then, after the wedding, my mom and my new dad disappeared for what felt like forever - I didn't understand that they were on a honeymoon, or what a honeymoon even was.
I also don't remember packing up our things from my grandma's house (where we had been living my entire life), but I do remember the night they loaded me and my sister into a car and drove us away to a new house with a new sister and a new dad. They had picked us up on their way back into town after the honeymoon. My sister and I had a new bunk bed in this new house and there were new toys on the bed to buy our love.
That May came around and I turned six, and got that new bike. My new dad knelt in front of me and put a new helmet on my head and, when he buckled it, the plastic pinched the sensitive skin under my chin. "Ow," I cried involuntarily, tears springing to my eyes.
My new dad looked into my eyes coldly. "That's the fakest cry I've ever seen."
And that was when I learned that tears were not acceptable. Weakness was not allowed. Sensitivity was bad. Feelings, or rather the wrong feelings, made me unlovable.
This is the memory that sprung into my mind without hesitation when asked if I could go back in time.
I wish I could go back and tell myself this:
"Your pain is real.
You have a right to feel it. Don't hide it. I believe you."
I wish I had heard that when I was younger. See, just five years later (and maybe earlier) I would begin starving myself. I would bury my feelings and emotions so deep inside that I wouldn't be able to find them again for decades. I remember the night during inpatient treatment for anorexia that I ran through the woods, fingers ripping at tree bark and slamming rocks far into the distance ahead, all while a scream wrestled itself loose from deep inside me and burst over the trees. I collapsed on the ground after this fit, my first real tears erupting to the surface, leaving me feeling like a breathing, dead thing. THAT was when I started to feel again, and by starting to feel I started to LIVE.
Feeling takes courage. So do tears. They do not make you weak or unlovable, and they are not fucking fake.
I didn't learn this until I was supported by the staff at my inpatient program for anorexia. An RPA in particular held me as I sobbed and she told me that it was ok to cry. She was the first person to give me permission to cry. Now, I give myself that permission. I wrote this note to her back in 2012, and when she found it recently she sent me a photo.
Please - give yourself permission to cry, to feel, to be sensitive.