To the Imperfect Ones

“I thought the reason I wasn’t happy, why I didn’t fit in, was because there was something wrong with me. I wasn’t doing it right, I wasn’t trying hard enough.”

I’ve heard it from so many people. They looked like rebels and misfits at the time.

This one’s for you, rebels and misfits. The people who tried and couldn’t make it work. You have my admiration.

To the kids who dressed rebelliously while I was wearing long dresses: I admire you. To the kids who talked back and got smacked, while I murmured false prayers to fit in: you were the heroes.

To the ones who couldn’t hold back, no matter how much their mothers told them to smile. It didn’t work because you saw the truth, somewhere beneath the mask.

To the ones who kept getting angry, no matter how much they told us to be quiet, no matter how much they said your feelings don’t matter, your feelings are wrong. While I learned to let each injustice pass like my mother taught me, you were still using your fists.

To everyone who’s ever stood up to a pastor, who kept practicing an instrument when they said you’d never make it, who took scissors or dye to your own hair.

I want to say I’m sorry. In conforming, I kept you on the sidelines. They made me feel like you deserved it – after all, you were disobedient. You weren’t perfectly subservient.

None of us were perfect. That’s how it was set up – a system that pushes you down can’t let anyone feelsuccessful. Then they’d lose their power. Part of the game was that none of us could make it, and we’d feel like our constant failure was our own fault.

I fit in. On so many levels, I played the game. I felt incapable, and my journals are filled with confessions of inadequacy, a desire to perform better each day. That smile I wore, the children I rocked, the meals I cooked, the house I kept clean, the speeches I performed, the lines I memorized and repeated from our holy book of choice, it took so much work. The result was that people thought I was unapproachable and fake. Because I was. I lied to myself and thought I was genuine, because that’s all I was taught to do.

I learned it well, but the game was impossible to win. It’s a game of indentured servitude, a method that keeps the goal just beyond reach. Some of us tried harder than others. I wish I hadn’t.

When you tell me what it was like for you, you say you felt like it was your own fault, too: the rebellion, the refusal to follow and submit.

It wasn’t a fault. It was truth. It was what you couldn’t hide. What felt like breakage, what felt like failure, was you succeeding at what the rest of us couldn’t manage. Thank you for suffering the manifestation of that truth you saw.

Thank you for being the outcasts when the rest of us were scared. Thank you for your black clothes and thick makeup, for the stolen kisses in a world where we weren’t supposed to kiss until we were married. Thank you for eloping, or for demonstrating that love has no limits, regardless of gender and sexuality.

Your rebellion didn’t always manifest in obvious ways, but when you felt what you did, you were strong. You knew something was wrong, despite the lies and the false smiles. I’m proud of you, and not because I was ahead, but because I felt pride in knowing someone had broken ranks, someone had crossed the line, someone had proven that it was possible.

I know it wasn’t easy for you. I know it didn’t feel brave. I know that I, along with everyone else who conformed, made you feel alone. I’m sorry for that.

I’m so glad that in doing what you did – doing only what felt right – you gave me hope to combat the disapproval I showed you. Your freedom made me envious alongside the disgust I mimicked from our leaders.

You taught me through your own shaky defiance that it was okay to lose the foundation I thought I had.

Compassion as a Prerequisite to Questioning

I used to really hate emotion. I didn’t think it was logical to trust your feelings. What do your emotions know? They’re just a distraction or an obstacle to doing the reasonable thing.

As it turns out, intuition is ridiculously helpful. Our subconscious awareness is way ahead of our conscious awareness a lot of the time. In many situations, the most logical thing I can do is stop to ask, “Do I feel uneasy or impulsive right now? Why do I feel this way?”

Because our emotions are so informative, it’s illogical to ignore them. They aren’t conclusive, but they are an important element of analysis. Emotions correlate to situations, but they might not specifically identify elements. As Randall Munroe put it, “Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing, ‘look over there’.”

This is what runs through my head when people criticize my reasoning against the Bible and supporting same-sex marriage.

More than one person said it looked like I felt compassionate toward friends, and thought therefore the Bible must be wrong. Such an argument, they told me, was a slippery slope. Why, if I could accept my gay friends, I could accept anything. There needs to be some standard for truth, and the Bible is that standard, they said.

First of all, that’s not what I did. The compassion made me start asking questions where I’d just accepted what I’d been told. It opened the case, and I started researching and studying. I was motivated to find an answer.

More importantly, though, so what if it started with compassion? Shouldn’t all the things that trouble us warrant digging deeper than what we’ve been told?

The pattern I learned in various churches and Christian groups was this:

Don’t be compassionate. That leads to questioning the way things are.

Don’t question the way things are. Questions lead to seeking out explanations.

Don’t think about our explanations. Then you’ll realize those explanations are flimsy at best, with ulterior motives at worst.

Don’t expose us. Then we’ll lose our power.

In every theological argument, I was deemed too compassionate. I couldn’t understand the way Calvinists shrugged at the thought of people being predestined for hell. I couldn’t see why someone on the other side of the world, having been born into a different culture, should have less of a chance of finding the one-and-only way to heaven. It’s like the leaders of these churches didn’t want me to be compassionate.

No wonder I didn’t trust my emotions. They only got me into trouble.

Yours will, too. Better to shut off your heart and your mind if you don’t like the idea of change.

When Positivity is the Problem

The mask I’m grieving is a forced smile.

This makes therapy difficult, because many of the solutions to depression include focusing on the positive. My counselors have said they’re working with a rare case – usually they work depressed people toward seeing the bright side of life, but I worked my way to depression through positivity.

I was the happy fairy. I smiled when I was alone, to brace myself for things I didn’t want to do. The reason this made me depressed is that I couldn’t handle the cognitive dissonance of denial. I thought everything was fine when it wasn’t. I blocked out memories of abuse, and I participated in a cycle of self-blame for everything that went wrong. I couldn’t explain why pain was so attractive to me; it would take years to realize I needed to physically express what I was emotionally suppressing.

People told me I was too optimistic. It was always condescending, though – I was naïve and inexperienced and hadn’t had my heart broken or been jaded enough to the depravity of humanity.

Now I take careful steps, hesitating at every emotional instinct. When I want to get angry or upset, I’m trained to minimize all the negative aspects of the situation, and to talk myself into deferring to the other party.

That’s what it means to be raised in a world without consent: you can’t say “no.” If you do say “no,” you’ll be made to feel like you did something wrong, and it doesn’t matter. You won’t get your way. Children must, after all, be trained to submit and obey; otherwise they’ll be unruly.

The solution, then, was to talk myself into it. It cannot be changed. When I learned the prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” it carried with it the implication, “…and nothing can be changed.”

Be positive, see the good side, be optimistic. Force yourself to see it for what it is not. Lie to yourself.

Except for the annoying side effects of depression brought on by dissonance and self-harm brought on by a need for an outlet, it worked. I believed things were okay, and this helped me to get by. What scares me is that I didn’t even leave – I was forced out. I wonder if I ever would have left if my dad didn’t snap that one time, making me realize what always took place behind the mask.

Positivity was the problem, but I’m still being told that I’m either too optimistic or too focused on the negative.

I’m learning not to force my emotions anymore. Sometimes happy moments surprise me, and I don’t seize the moment to take notes on it; I just let it happen. Sometimes I have rough days where I can’t stop crying and feeling the urge to relapse again. I don’t overanalyze or try to adjust my course; that’s what I did before.

Natural emotion is difficult to learn when it’s never been fostered. Apathy is not an option, and going into disconnected limbo between emotions doesn’t work, either. Though my own brain has betrayed me before, I still have to live with it, damaged by the bad habit of over-optimism.

So I stumble forward, working with what I know now. I haven’t lost my reasoning, and I certainly don’t aim to use my own emotional stability as an appeal to pity.

When positivity was the problem, all the well-meaning advice people offer makes me shudder. It’s more complicated than learning to smile. I’ve done that; it didn’t work.

Sometimes getting better means trying again.

Grieving the Mask

This post was originally uploaded on March 3, 2015. It is part of the restored archives.

I wait for the opportunity to get away, and I step out into the moonlight. The metal gate is covered in frost, and it stings my hands as I climb over it, firmly planting my feet so I don’t slip. I dodge snowdrifts and hay bales, and let overwhelm take me.

“I want it all back! Just for a moment!” I yell into the night sky, startling the horses and cows.

“I want the innocence! I want to see my children’s faces! Lie to me and tell me it’s not over.”

Tears come, and I hesitate. I remember my mother’s threats: stop crying or I’ll give you something real to cry about, holding a spoon or a stick or a cutting board. I knew how to catch my breath and stop crying. It was harder to cease while she was swatting me, adding another measure of pain to fight past and control myself.

I couldn’t cry for years. Now there’s relief in telling myself it’s okay. Nobody will threaten to hurt me for hurting.

I’m crying because I miss the family that did this to me. I miss the good times, building tree forts and playing in the creek, sledding on our makeshift jumps in winter, sleeping on the trampoline in the summer.

Don’t be angry, mom said, go make a list of all the things that make you happy until you feel better. Lie to yourself.

I wish someone would lie to me like she did, and tell me I don’t have to wonder where I’m going to live and how I’ll make enough money to live there. Explaining to strangers that no, moving back in with my parents is not an option.

I miss the misery hidden behind my fake smile.

I miss the mask.

It’s still there, it taunts me: you can have it back, my father whispers, holding out the picture that’s worth a thousand lies, all you have to do is force a smile and say you love us. Never question, never complain, never criticize.

Like some drug, my mask – my doll face – offers what I once was. I’m not just grieving that my father and my mother are dead to me. I’m not just grieving that my children will be grown before I’ll see them again.

“Lie to me!” I cry out again. “Tell me they’ll forgive me, that they’ll understand what I had to do. Tell me they’ll remember me.”

The barn cat likes to be scratched, but not to be held. The horses don’t want to be ridden. I am like them, which is why I outgrew the mask. I can’t have it back. It doesn’t fit anymore. Besides, the piece of art I fashioned for my face has no room for these tears.

I must be alive, because I still feel pain.

I’m not just grieving them. I’m grieving me. I’m grieving who I thought I was. I’m grieving the face I wore, the mask that took so much maintenance.

With expression, comes absolution.

With release, comes peace.

With grief, comes relief.

I don’t have to hold back or pretend anymore.