How do you know when you’ve grown as a person? How do you know how far you’ve come from a place you didn’t know really know was that bad at the time but looking back was pure hell? How do you measure progress?
I had an experience in the last few weeks when a person from my past resurfaced. First, a little context.
My history with men is crap. It just is. I can say that now without feeling like a total loser. I can tell you that I chose men who were complete shitbags. I welcomed them with open arms. I took on “projects” or wounded birds, men who were broken but on some level I felt I could fix. Men who were unavailable or who lacked basic, evolved emotions like empathy or the ability to respect a female partner. I let them into my life because the attention made me feel good and even secure if I could help them in some way. In my mind, they’d fall in love with me as their nurse and I’d have a man who was indebted to me for life.
Or something like that.
But getting comfortable with the idea that I willingly chose these types took some work. It involved me going back in time to when I was a little girl and recalling how I felt about boys. I needed to understand what shaped my perspectives and why I had the thoughts I had that turned into the actions I took.
That meant putting myself back in that little girl’s shoes and recalling certain interactions and trying as hard as I could to remember the details of how that felt at that time. For instance, I’ve written about a time when my brother caught me with my pants down with another little boy when I was about five or six years old. In remembering that experience, I recall feelings of curiosity about another person’s body. I felt both innocence and naughtiness, as we knew intuitively that we shouldn’t be exposing our backsides. And I remember feeling excited about trying something new. And then when my older brother caught us I felt utter shame, guilt, fear, and self-loathing. I felt terror when he threatened to tell my parents. I felt powerless when my brother, for years to come, would look at me and wink to convey that he’d not forgotten my transgression and he could still get me in trouble at the drop of a hat.
Maybe it was then that I began to feel that men had all the power. They could decide my feelings and fate in an instant. They could make me hate myself with the wink of an eye. Now I was scared to be around them alone but attracted to their power at the same time. They were something to covet, a goal to capture, but dangerous too.
This is just one example that no doubt shaped my interactions with men going forward. Others include my observing dysfunctional relationships between men and women in my family, the implication from adults close to me that I wasn’t worth anything if I wasn’t skinny and pretty, the directives to “be sweet” around men, and the ever popular statement that “men are shit, just get used to it.” Those messages were reinforced over and over again, year after year. Add alcohol and you may as well turn out the lights on any hope of a healthy relationship, let alone marriage and family.
It follows then as no surprise that I’ve often felt intimidated by men, regardless of whether they fit the stereotype of an intimidating sort. Further, I’ve been bullied by men who were physically smaller than me, less attractive, not as smart or capable. But if they roared, I cowered. I’ve run from angry men basically all my life.
This made no sense to my women friends who seemingly knew me well. They couldn’t understand it at all. They wondered why a seemingly successful, self-confident woman like me would be fearful and angsty around men like that. And when my friends remarked, it brought to light my insecurities and often reinforced the shame.
My response to that fear and shame was to bury it. Push it down really far and most times, pour alcohol on top to make sure it stayed good and dead. I got really good at pretending that I wasn’t doing whatever it was I was doing – dating unavailable men, choosing guys with checkered pasts, submitting myself to abusive, angry partners who tore me down, day after day. I could put on my best, prettiest face and pretend I had it all together. I could sometimes convince you, and always fool myself.
When I got sober it left me defenseless in a way. My usual coping mechanisms were gone and no longer would the alcohol drown the pain. Instead I had to develop the skills to deal with the feelings and situations that inevitably rose up. After lots of work, I have slowly gained the confidence I need to handle certain situations. It didn’t happen overnight and as I’m learning, it takes solid, consistent effort not to fall back in to old patterns. It means paying attention to my body, particularly my stomach. When a pang hits or a knot forms that means something is wrong. That physical representation needs emotional attention.
Recently, ghosts from my past have resurfaced. And it’s no wonder. The seeds I’d sown in my drinking days continued to flower even though I wasn’t there watering them with Pinot Grigio. They’re tough old weeds that refuse to die. It’s my responsibility to cut them down or pull them completely from the root. And this, friends, is hard work. For someone who doubts themselves at every turn, I can talk myself in or out of that hard work. I can simultaneously hammer myself for being lazy and let myself off the hook for trying to hard. Analyze that one. Regardless, the work needs to be done and I’m finding that it’s prison-level hard labor.