how you change
There’s been a lot of loss in my life this year. It’s an odd thing, this loss. So familiar and yet not so much lately. I find that I’m surprised by it more as time goes on–as I make the mistake of thinking I’m some kind of expert by now.
I grew up with a lot of trauma in my life. So much so, that last year, I was actually diagnosed with PTSD. People think of PTSD in very specific ways, so when people find out about my diagnosis, they’re often confused. I often get, “I didn’t know you were in the military.” Or “but you seem so normal.” Or “were you raped or something?”
No–I was never in the military. No–I’m not at all normal. Ha. And I don’t think I was ever raped, but the first few years of my life are hazy–so I’m not really able to answer that. I don’t feel like I was, and my memories don’t indicate I was, so I’m going with that.
PTSD is a lot broader than what people think it is. And, while we joke about it a lot (even I do), most people don’t really know what it encompasses. I certainly never thought I had it until my therapist explained it while giving me my superbill for reimbursement.
The key word to remember about PTSD is trauma. It can be a single, terrifying event–like a rape–or a series of traumatic incidents over time–like abusive situations or war. People with PTSD are normal human beings. But when these events happen, they lack coping abilities–for whatever reason–and never fully heal. So, years later, they’re still adjusting–still traumatized–still reliving those incidents.
For me, there are many arms to the trauma I experienced. One was just living in poverty. I was in a state of constant terror about my survival. One was living with my father–who was an alcoholic–and created a lot of instability and fear in my life. And another factor was my father’s subsequent death. But the hardest one for me to wrap my head around? Neglect and, if I’m being really honest about it, abuse. As a kid, I never saw my parents as neglectful or abusive. I adored them. They loved me. They did the best they could. But they had serious issues no child should have to face, and I often got the brunt of it. My father didn’t intentionally burn me, but it happened. My mother’s worry wasn’t some intentional guilt trip–but her anxiety made me feel scared about the world. Even up until last year, in therapy, I had to have my therapist explain–in detail–why she thought it was an abusive situation. Even then, I couldn’t understand it until I took myself out of the equation.
The face of abuse is often loving. That’s why it hurts so much–why it’s so difficult to get past. And the entire thing is a vicious cycle. My loving, often amazing, parents had no skills. They did what they were taught to do. They did the best they could. And as much as I would love to exonerate them, the reality is that–when they fell short, it resulted in trauma for me. Real trauma that I’ve been dealing with my entire life, and probably will always deal with–like it or not.
All of these factors played into one another to create little me–protecting everyone–minimizing and accepting bad behavior–trying so hard to fix the entire Universe. It resulted in me doing what is very normal for a child who’s traumatized. I shut down–disassociated–protected myself and moved on. Only not. Years and years later, it came out–triggered by other traumas I had to deal with–made so much worse because I had no idea what to do. After my mother died, for years, I had terrifying nightmares. I struggled to relate to people. I struggled to fully commit to things.
I just plain struggled. I’m doing okay now. I did a lot of work on myself–mostly on my own. My therapist was shocked by how self-aware I was–by how I had seemingly bumped into coping mechanisms on my own. By all the research I did. By how committed I was to pushing myself.
But it never seems to be enough. Even with help. I still find myself in the rabbit hole, often. I still struggle to connect. I still grieve fairly often and wonder what I’m holding back. Because I’m always holding back something.
In many ways, California feels like a clean slate for me. Like a place where no one really knows me or my story. A place where I define who I am. Where ghosts don’t lurk on every corner.
But I’m realizing now that the next few months are going to probably suck a lot. I find that, lately, I’m procrastinating hard-core about packing. To the point that I’m getting sick every weekend. It’s like my body is trying to keep me here. Which wouldn’t surprise me at all. That little troublemaker likes to play games. I’m just so tired all the time. But, honestly, it’s the emotions of getting rid of things–of choosing what to keep and why. I’m having the hardest time deciding about clothes.
On the surface, I might just be tired. I might just have a cold. I might just be confused about what to keep. But I’m on to my own tricks. I know this game. It’s the gremlins. It’s the brokenhearted child not wanting to leave Mama. I can’t even think about actually leaving without immediately welling up. Part of it? There’s nothing left here to bring me back. Once I leave, will I want to come back? I’ve always said I’d retire here. But what if I get married to someone from somewhere else? What if they want to retire somewhere else? What if Colorado becomes something I don’t love anymore? What if I change?
I’m going to change. This, I know. But there’s that part of me, still, that holds on to the idea that maybe my Mama didn’t die. Maybe she’ll be back. And what if she can’t find me? What if I’m unrecognizable? As if my Mama would ever forget who I am.
It’s complicated and hard.
I’m realizing more, too, that new people and new places mean reframing your story. Every time you start something new, you have to introduce yourself to the world–choose what to share and what to keep to yourself. What will I share?
For so many years, I’ve defined myself by the terrible things that happened to me. When I was a kid–I was the girl from Westwood with the dead drunk Daddy. Who had no money and just wanted to go to college. When I was in college, I was the girl from Westwood who looked like everyone else, but felt like an alien. With the embarrassing mother and no confidence. After school, I was the girl from Westwood who settled for anything that came her way–who stopped fighting and just sort of gave up. Then I was the fed up girl who wasn’t going to live this way. Then the orphan with no family who was the survivor. And now–god–I don’t know who I want to be.
I’m still all of those things. And those things are so important to who I am. But they’re so heavy.
At work, no one knows much about my personal life–other than I have three cats, live in Denver, and am moving to San Jose with my roommate. Conversations about holidays are strange for me. I usually stay quiet and talk about whatever they talk about, in superficial ways, but not sharing the fact that my mother and father are dead. That I don’t do much for the holidays–though I want to next year. I don’t talk about the hard things. I just don’t want to. Not because I hate that life. But mostly because that life, and what they’ll think it is, isn’t the one I’m living anymore. These women are my friends. Not good friends–but people I spend time with daily. And I don’t want to share it. But not sharing it feels wrong and dishonest–and hollow.
I’m still learning how to accept that my story doesn’t have to be just one thing or another. But part of me is not ready to have an integrated version of it–because I’m still trying to accept it for what it actually is–instead of trying to explain it to others. And until I do, I’ll always be that person they pity at Christmastime.
The thing is–my life isn’t remotely what I thought it would be. It’s not remotely what I thought it was. Even what I thought it was wasn’t exactly true. And I’m just now accepting that and acknowledging that. My life isn’t most people’s lives. And I’m sure people do feel bad for me. But this life is mine, and it’s a good life. I’m frustrated by it, often, because I’m impatient and unrelentingly goal oriented. But I’m really happy most days, and I’m doing something real with my life. I’m creating this life. I’m the person I am because I fought to be her. I am good at what I do because I put in the time and tried to be better. No one gave me a job. I earned the job I have. No one set me up for life with Mommy’s money. I earned every penny. And I’m not settling for ordinary anymore.
It means–sometimes–man–I’m mad at that stupid guy who doesn’t get how lucky he is I love him. It means–sometimes–I’m terrified about how to get all our crap to California. It means I put up with shit I hate, sometimes, too.
But, most days, the life I want is the life I’m living. I’m grateful for it. I appreciate all the people who are here. I don’t take any of it for granted. And while almost every one of these days is tinged by grief and sadness, there’s also joy, hope, and laughter right alongside it.
I’m proud of it. Of me.
The fact that leaving this place–and choosing my story–feels so painful and hard–that’s progress. That’s living my life and overcoming the past. I’m not keeping anything at arm’s length anymore.