I struggle for authenticity. There is a yearning for wholeness, for acceptance of self, for cohesion within myself. Despite this, shame has always driven me to compartmentalize areas of my life; to stay fractured, splintered.
Only 3 friends know about this blog. Still fewer know my dad signed his parental rights away when I was one and a half. Few people who know me are aware that I swear like a sailor despite me having a good command of lexicon at my disposal. My eating disorder is only known by my immediate family and 2 close friends. I can count on one hand who knows this abbreviated story I recount here, the abuse I suffered at the hands of my ex. No one knows I am a survivor of incest as a child, but my shrink, my dying mother, and my fiancé.
It is still hard to say that out loud,” I survived incest,” even in a therapy session behind closed doors where no one can hear.
But how to synthesize these areas of my life? Would people be accepting of the “real me” after years of putting on a veneer and hiding the ugly things that I am ashamed which happened to me?
Me trading authenticity for acceptance began in early childhood. Often doing what other kids wanted to do even if I didn’t want to, afraid I might lose them and/or their friendship. I became a people pleaser at a very young age. In a desperate attempt for love and affection which were denied all around me. Instead of getting love, I received the abuse, exploitation, and humiliation.
As a victim of incest, the first lessons I learned was that my home was not a safe place, and that my body was not my own, and that I didn’t get to have a “no”.
As early as kindergarten I recall feeling shame, it manifested in feeling ‘less then’ the other kids. Anxious and unsettled and wanting to sit near the teacher hoping she might like me or show me some approval.
As I grew older and the sexual abuse intensified and more violence in my home occurred, an irrational belief sprouted that the ugliness inside me may be transparent. I began creating a false persona to hide my shame. Hide my tears. Hide my emotions. Hide my authentic self. I had observed first-hand that the girls who were quiet and sullen or melancholy got made fun of, got devoured like shark meat by the mean kids. So I immediately suppressed my feelings under a fake happy, sunny, disposition. I realized that with my persona operating, that I could “pass” for normal. I could have friends, connection, some sort of meaning in an otherwise desolate life.
Because my older siblings were all poly-substance users, I too began smoking marijuana at age 12. Took my first drink of vodka by 13 years old and never looked back. By high school I could drink most guys under the table and had alcohol poisoning once. I was not deterred by this. At this point I believed that I couldn’t let the “real me” come through, the fake me had been operating for so long. I’d lose everything, I feared. Friends were the only positive thing I had in my life at that time and I was petrified to lose them. Even if their friendship was built upon knowing me, a girl who was hiding the pathetic, sad, depressed, nothing-to-offer loser who hated herself underneath this joke-telling, witty, charismatic confident false girl they came to love.
Using booze and pot helped me turn down the volume of the authentic me deep inside me, screaming for relief and accelerate the fake persona that I was creating externally, that was happy and confident. As I was fast approaching my high school years substance use was just I needed to survive all the sharks who would eat me up.
I don’t remember much of high school due to all the alcohol and marijuana use. My parents divorced and our house was sold. I found myself looking for a place to stay as neither parent was financially capable of absorbing me after I graduated.
I had never told either of my parents about the incest. As I entered my freshman year of college, my eating disorder was so severe that I had starved myself down to an emaciated state. I couldn’t think or read very well as my mental functioning had declined from being malnourished. For many months I was harming myself, also called self-mulilation. I used self-injury to push back any feelings of intense emotion with which I couldn’t cope. Then things changed and my feelings simply left. My depression intensified and I just felt numb all the time. Empty, cold, void of any emotion had become the new norm. I had persistent and intrusive thoughts of suicide. This dragged on for 6 months or more. I figured I may as well be physically dead too. Seemed logical to me. Finally one night I decided to end my life.
First, I asked God to forgive me, and then I went ahead with it. I guess God had other plans. After getting discharged from the regular hospital, I was sectioned involuntarily into a psychiatric hospital. This was the first time in a long time any of what happened to me as a child would surface again in my consciousness.
I find it interesting that had I not attempted suicide at 19, I may have well have kept that mask on. My authentic self may never have had the chance to be re-born. My then therapist told me, “sometimes we have to have a complete and total breakdown, so we can put ourselves back together in a more healthy way.”
It has taken many years in therapy and I am still only able to let down my guard and become vulnerable to a few. Happiness? Real long-standing happiness? Still elusive I’m afraid. I do find moments of real joy though. I’m told I can learn to expand those and they can grow. Self-love is the one thing I have yet to be able to achieve. I have been working on learning to set boundaries and learning what it looks like to truly care about myself. Imagine, having to be taught that. Most of my life has been spent caring for others and I do that really well. Historically, I give and give until I am emotionally drained or financially bankrupt. The goal for me is to learn to put myself first and not feel guilty for doing so.
Though I have always had the ability to love others and deeply empathize, I find it strange that both myself and my pathological narcissist both employed “masks” to hide our authentic selves. Perhaps we have something in common after all.