Costume

I remember loving dressing up.  I remember loving Halloween.

My parents were strictly religious, for most of my childhood, but they still, for one reason or another, fully accepted Halloween and the annual costuming and treading through the cold for candy when I was quite young.  There is a photograph somewhere of me and my siblings dressed as characters from the Wizard of Oz.  And those cold nights of costumed begging were so lovely.

I made a huge event of Halloween for my daughter when she was young.  I think I remembered how enthralled I was with the act of turning into something or someone new, and I wanted her to have that joy and fun.  …and maybe I also wanted to eat her candy after I tucked her into bed at night. What parent doesn’t?

My daughter still loves Halloween, and we celebrate it like Christmas, with presents and decorations and parties and moments of tradition.  It is a beautiful part of life in our family, and will likely continue to be such for generations to come.

But today, as I started dressing in ways that will accommodate my black cat costume, and wondered if the weather would turn my face-painting into trails of black running down my face, instead of the cute kitten face I have planned, I began thinking about costumes in a new way.

I’ve always been one who loves to pretend.  Theater and dress-up and imagination and creativity were always a part of who I am.  And I love that part of me.

But I have used that part to my advantage for a reason.  I had to pretend.  I had to lie.  I had to shut out the bad I saw in me and my situation and become a different person in a different place inside my head to survive.

I got so good at pretending, that eventually most of me forgot the other girl—the one suffering and struggling in silence.

I apologize to that girl.  I’m sorry I left you there in that little box and kept up the pretending for so long.  I apologize to my sister, because I worked so hard to forget that girl that I couldn’t care if another was suffering the same way, and I left her to suffer and went on pretending.

I didn’t do it knowingly, of course.

The mind is beautiful and terrible in its abilities to shut out what we can’t survive at the moment.  It is equally beautiful and terrible in the way it brings back those moments later, for us to confront in a time and place when and where we might be able to survive facing them.  But it leaves us pretending in the meantime.  And, frankly, there are days I still pretend.

I still fold up the pain and tuck it in a corner and go out with my head held high, pretending I’m not crushed and abandoned and suffering.  I pretend I’m not a mess of contradictions and confusions.  I pretend I’m not afraid of everything all the time.  I pretend I’m not depressed and crazy and poor and struggling and in pain.  I dress up in my costume every time I leave the safety of my home.

Therapists often use the terms “button up” or “zip up” to describe this phenomenon.  It isn’t so much a lie as another coping skill.  You walk into the office kept and held inside your costume, and the therapist works to get your real self to come out.  But only for 50 minutes.  And then it is the job of the client to zip up, and put the pain back in its place to walk back out of the office put together and not pouring out the pain and the secrets.  And eventually, the work we do for those 50 minutes a week is meant to bring me to a place where I am integrated.  Where the pretend woman and the pained woman are one and coping together with life, having found those incongruent places and found a way through them to a more whole self.  But, until I get to that point, I still pretend.

My costume feels more genuine than my true self some days.  And I know that it is working at fooling many in the world.

People call me strong, or brave, or fearless, or brilliant, or beautiful, and I hear it and can’t figure out how they could see that in me.  And then I remember that the costume is exactly that, and that many of them don’t get opportunities to see the scared little girl crying in the dark.  I don’t let her out very often.  I’m an excellent pretender.

But I am starting not to feel as guilty about keeping that strong self out in front of others, whenever possible.  I’m starting to understand the ways that zipping up saved me from more suffering, and the ways that it helps me function in the world today, and to feel less like that self is a complete fabrication.  I’m starting to see that those parts of the costumed self are me.  They may not be the whole of me, but they are me.

When my daughter put on a princess dress and tiara when she was six years old and went out into the night to trick or treat, you could see the princess inside her come out.  The way she walked and waved her scepter and spoke were all royal.  She was that inside, and putting on the costume just let it out for a night, without judgments or questions or disbelief.  And my costume is similar.  It lets me be things I am somewhere inside, even if I don’t always recognize or acknowledge those things.  I am my costume and I am also the little girl fighting to find her way through suffering and confusion.

And all of us wear a costume.  My zipped up self might be more distant from my whole self than that of some people, but we all zip parts inside of the costume, and we all present what we want others to see.  And that can be helpful and that can keep our hearts safe at times, but it can also keep us distanced from one another and ourselves.

So, I am challenging myself to look at both parts of myself today, as I paint on my kitten face—to look at the costume and look at what lies beneath, and to see where I might connect those two, and what might have felt unsafe to uncover before that I might want to expose now.  I’m looking at who I want to portray and asking why that is the face I show, and why I might not want to show other aspects of myself.  I’m digging down and trying to see beyond the costume.  Claiming both the external and the internal parts of myself, and owning and honoring them, will bring me closer to wholeness and the ability to present all of me.

And I think that I need to be able to present that whole woman to myself, as much as I need to present her to the world.  I’m learning to see all of myself.  And it is a beautiful awakening to see the whole, and to accept the strong parts and the weak parts, the brave and the fearful parts, the brilliant and the baffled parts, and the beautiful and the ugly parts.

I know that it will be an amazing moment when I can love all of that woman and I can stop the constant cycle of setting myself free and buttoning myself up.

It will be fabulous to just be me, unbound and undivided.

Wholly me.

 

Happy Halloween!!!

In the Name of Love

I was doing a bit of reading last night, in an attempt to fill insomnia time with something that makes it seem less like insomnia and more like productivity or entertainment.  The book is one I am almost ashamed to be reading, because its pages are covered with philosophies of giving = getting, and those philosophies almost always include a measure of victim-blaming and exclude concepts of systemic or institutional factors and their influence upon one’s current situation.  So, I usually get annoyed with such philosophies quite quickly, and sometimes I even get really angry with these types of books—yelling at no person in particular about the ways that my bed was not made alone, so no, I don’t have to “lie in it” unless those who victimized me have to lie in a bed far worse. (The number of times I have been told that I made my own bed, and should now lie in it makes me shudder.)

What I gave to the universe was NOT equal to what I received.  Innocence and autonomy lost at a young age cannot be blamed on the innocent who do not choose their victimization.  Did I make some unsavory choices in my lifetime?  Absolutely.  But did I make them without any influence of childhood trauma?  No, I did not.

I gave the universe love and empathy and kindness and creativity and beauty.  It gave me a lot of terrible crap in return.

But, I kept reading the book with the really messed up philosophy of giving = getting, because the thing it kept saying I needed to give and receive was love.  And as I read, it occurred to me that at certain points and in particular situations, I have stopped giving love.  The reason I stopped giving it, was likely because I wasn’t seeing a return on my investment, and because I have complex PTSD and suffer from chronic pain and am an addict and have all these reasons that the world became a place that hurts you, and not one that loves in return.  So, my choice to be mistrusting and build walls and shove my earbuds in my ears and blast Kesha instead of listening to my seatmate on the bus is a valid one, considering all the aforementioned reasons.  But, it isn’t getting me what I want.  And, let’s face it, what I want is what every being on the planet wants:  LOVE.

The challenge for someone who has been so deeply wounded that the scars will never heal is to continue to offer love and trust and vulnerability, even after doing so created the conditions for your wounding to happen.  When you offer someone your trust, and they betray it, or when you offer your vulnerable self, and someone takes advantage of that and uses your openness to harm you, it makes it really difficult to keep offering up your heart and mind and body to another—hoping that by some miracle this time is different and that this offering of your heart doesn’t add brokenness upon brokenness.

In some ways, we should never expect victims to trust again.  In many situations, the one who has been wronged should never give pardon and should never offer another the chance to wrong them in a similar manner.  Why should they?

The answer, again, is love.

Love is the reason I give pardon for past offenses.  But, that hasn’t put me, in some automatic fashion, back into a space where I can receive love with ease.  Because I try very hard to protect myself from further injury.  And that protection requires shutting people out and keeping people at a distance and creating walls and not opening up too quickly.

A friend once told me that I was not vulnerable.   And I was shocked by that statement, because I have been candid about my struggles for many years.  I feel like I share readily with people.  And I do share my story, but I do not share myself.  I don’t put my heart where it can be harmed.  My story doesn’t need to tell about the ways I feel vulnerable today.  I can offer a history without opening myself to others.  And that was the distinction that my friend was seeking to make.  He wanted me to understand that I couldn’t be known and loved if I had an alligator-filled moat around my heart.

I’ve improved a bit at letting people into that space.  The drawbridge goes down for my dad, and for my friend Luke, and for my daughter.  But, as time passes and I read books with terrible philosophies that tell me I get what I give, I realize that there is a tiny crumb of truth to the chapter that tells me I am not receiving what I am not giving.  Because I cannot expect love and trust and vulnerability from another if I won’t offer it to them as well.  And maybe one of the challenges to opening up is that I want the other to do it first, but their wounded parts want me to open up first—we do a dance of waiting and hoping and not receiving because neither of us wants to open up a space where a sword strike might land.  We all wait to remove our armor until the other has removed theirs.  And that gets none of us any closer to the love and trust and vulnerability that is required to further the relationship (be that a friendship or a familial tie or a marriage or whatever).

Yesterday, I was talking with my dad and said that my website seemed aptly named when I started posting online.  I really thought that I was learning to be whole.  But now I am realizing that I instead need to accept that I am broken, and that I might continue to break, so I ought to have chosen a website named “accepting that I am broken”.  He and I both, as though it had been practiced, said at once “Maybe, accepting the broken is how you learn to be whole.”  And I believe that may be the crux of the matter.  I need to accept breaking as a part of offering love.  And I need to acknowledge that offering love first is the best and fastest way to connect to others and to receive love in return.

I will get a few jabs from the protections (or even weapons) of others in the process.  I may increase my scars.  But, I will also be in a position to encourage others to let down their defenses if I have already dropped mine.

So, “Vulnerability” goes on the list of things I am working to improve.  And the shameful book of giving love to get more of it will probably be read to completion in a first attempt at finding the vulnerable self hidden deep beneath my strength and intellect and independence and lack of eye contact and background noise-removing earbuds.  I won’t paint a target on my chest.  But I will try to lower my sword, at the very least.  And hopefully, that won’t injure too much, and I can move on to removing one more bit of protection and psychological isolation.

I anticipate that this process will take years.  I’m heavily guarded.  But, it is a step in the right direction, I am sure, so I am committed to heading down that path.

I know that honesty begets honesty.  I know that trust begets trust.  I know that openness begets openness.  I even wrote a paper on such connections in an undergraduate communications course.  But, for some reason (or for many valid and obvious reasons) I stopped believing that love begets love.  It does.  It doesn’t always and instantaneously, but it will eventually bring you love in return.

So, here is a start at being open:   I don’t have enough love in my life.  I’m deeply wounded, in ways I am afraid to express, because many people in my past have shut me out rather than deal with the depth and breadth of my pain.  All the times I have allowed that pain to surface and become evident, people rejected me, avoided me, or insinuated I was some form of “crazy”.  But, I am trying very hard not to let the response of those people be shaped in my mind as the normative response to pain.  I am trying very hard not to let others shame me for expressing my suffering.  I am cutting out of my life the people that are gangrenous and make my wounds deeper and more affecting.  But, to the rest of you, I am going to try to open myself up and let down defenses.

This blog might get uglier before it becomes more beautiful as a result.

No amount of good grammar can make what ails me seem like entertaining prose.  Some of it—much of it—is a horror story.  But, I’m going to start letting it be such, and not sugar-coating struggle in ways that I believed protected me from harm.  I can’t be protected from what was.  But I can look with hope at what is yet to come.  And I refuse to believe that my story is a tragedy.  There will be a happy ending, but before that happy end, I need to find my way to vulnerability, and unceasing love … an epic goal, so maybe my life is an epic tale.  I like that idea.  I think I shall embrace my life as an epic story, with a glorious end yet to be written.  In the end, as with most epic tales, the main character finds love and peace and good, so I will embrace those, and perhaps emulating them will actually bring them nearer.

I hope I haven’t just agreed to the terrible philosophies of giving = getting.  But, I will at least admit to believing that proximity to good brings about more good.  In the moments when all seems lost, there is a good guide, or a good friend to carry you forward, or some good to fight for after a rallying, inspiring speech.  I need to start finding ways to trust in the good.  I need to find ways to start believing in love, once more.  And one way to believe in it, is to give it.

So, here I stand, ready to give more love.  I’ll let you know what I get in return.