When I was a little girl, I was told “just be yourself,” as if this were a magic wand fix for all of life’s troubles. You don’t have any friends? Just be yourself! You’re a weird, awkward kid? Just be yourself! You dress funny and the kids push you to the ground at recess? Just be yourself! It’s as if it were assumed that the “myself” of “be yourself” was an AMAZING person, and if I could just stop getting in my own way, I could have a wonderful life. The person I was, the actual person standing in the room, was dismissed.
(I thought I was being me. Who else would I be?)
When I grew older, I began to realize just how flippant adults can be, especially the stuff they say to children. If you’ve never been bullied, it’s hard to imagine what it is like to live that way. “Just be yourself,” doesn’t help. And seriously, the other kids did NOT pick on me because they were jealous, despite what my mother used to say. Sorry Mom! You were wrong.
I had an unusual childhood compared to most of the children I went to school with. My mother had Multiple Sclerosis. It’s a painful, debilitating disease that causes the body to turn against itself. The white blood cells attack the nervous system. This leads to all sorts of nasty possible side-affects, both mental and physical. My mother did the best she could with the tools she had, but she was in constant pain. She was depressed. And…she came from an overly religious family, so there was that. It wasn’t enough that my mother had this horrible disease, we had people in our lives who actively and repeatedly asked all of my family members, “What do you think your mother did to deserve this?” or, “Why do you think God is testing her?” or this gem, “God wouldn’t give your mother anything she couldn’t handle.” Never mind that these thoughtless words came from people who supposedly LOVED my mother. This is how they showed their support!
And my mother did what she could to raise me and my two younger sisters, but she brought a lot of baggage with her from HER childhood, and that was before she got sick. There was a lot of negative beliefs. We weren’t allowed to talk to other people. As children, we taught that most people were sinners and were probably going to Hell. Different than us was bad. I didn’t have any friends. Until I started school, I really only had my younger sister and a cousin to talk to, an older cousin who only tolerated me to a point. (I was five years younger than her, after all.)
I learned at a young age that the world was a bad place. You can’t trust anyone. Most people are wrong. And going to Hell. Other people, the ones you don’t go to church with, they’re probably all going to Hell too, with their wrongness. They are sinners…and you are too, but not the kind of sinner that’s going to Hell. You’re special. A special kind of non-Hell-going sinner who is allowed to judge everyone else, harshly, but through the magic of going to the “right” church, and magically knowing the “right” belief system, I was exempt from the Hell part. Congratulations to me!
My father did the best he could, but he was also pretty honest with that fact that he was just winging it, that he really didn’t know how to be a parent. I respect him for that. Plus, he worked a lot so I didn’t spend much time with him until my late teens/early twenties.
So picture this in your mind: Little Juli starts public school, the one with all the sinners who are going to Hell. She doesn’t really know how to interact with children her own age. She doesn’t know how to make friends. Most kids are a little selfish, but little Juli was raised in an isolated environment, so she knows the world probably revolves around her. She is awkward, and twisted, and not very nice. She really doesn’t understand kindness, as she does now. Her childhood was warped by things she could not control. She didn’t meet many kind people until she became a teenager, people who do nice things for others without expecting anything in return. She had kind, distant relatives she saw on holidays, so that was nice, but most of her childhood was messed up!
Little Juli learned that she was a failure early on in life. Failure. Sinner. Use whatever label you’d like, Little Juli knew that she was less than other people, that she was being judged by those who loved her…and was found to be lacking. She wasn’t enough. Not good enough. Not smart enough. Not pretty enough. A disappointment. For many years, she actually blamed herself for her mother’s illness. If she had enough faith, God would have healed her mother. Therefore, since her mother’s disease progressively became worse, she had living proof of what a terrible daughter and person she was.
As my mother’s mental state began to worsen, she fell into depression. As an adult, I understand that this kind of depression has many facets. The pain makes the person depressed. The isolation takes a hand. Plus, the brain itself can be damaged by the disease-causing changes in personality. As an adult, I get it. The mom I had before she died was NOT like the mom I had when her health was better. Her disease took almost everything she was away from us. It was so hard. On ALL of us. And when her disease was at it’s worse, when she was having a “bad day,” she would say things that she NEVER would have said if she were well. She used to tell me that she wished I’d never been born. She used to say I was ugly. I have to believe that this was the disease talking, not my mother, that she loved me the best that she could under unbearable circumstances. It took me a long time to understand this. Honestly, I didn’t know if she loved me at the end of her life, not always. It wasn’t until I became a mother and had my own child that I understood. She loved me, but she was also very troubled and very ill.
So, who is “myself,” the person at the core of my being? She is a twisted, damaged, angry girl who looks perfectly fine on the surface, but feels like a failure most of the time and is naturally fearful of everyone and everything. She’s good at hiding who she is. (She’s been hiding this part of her life for decades.) I imagine the core of my being like a piece of marble, sculpted by a well-intention, but inexperienced hand. (Perhaps we are all like this at our core.) Too much of me was carved away and while I do my best to throw a bit of plaster over the mess to fill things out, the new me occasionally crumbles, and I have to paste myself back together, metaphorically speaking.
But what if you don’t WANT to be this inner twisted version of you, the one that early life created? What if you WANT to be kind and caring and NOT be captain of the “Judgement Police.” What if you WANT to be able to make friends? What if you want to learn about a world where people ARE different from you, and that’s okay? WONDERFUL even! What if you want to be able to trust other people, at least a little? What if you want to stop seeing other people as wrong, as sinners? What if you just want to know what it’s like to be a balanced, well-adjusted person? What if you could stop blaming yourself for things you couldn’t control? What if you could stop seeing yourself as a failure?
I sincerely believe that adults tell children to “be themselves,” out of kindness. They probably assume that if that if you are not “being yourself,” you are acting like a pop-star or some other “bad influence.” They probably think that this horrible, hateful person standing in front of them can’t possibly be the “real you,” can it? Especially when you look fine! Normal even. They say “be yourself” when they suppose you are lacking direction, when you’re not actively making good decisions. You made a bad choice? “Be yourself.” Because…the “you” of “be yourself” doesn’t make bad choices. That person is perfect! (Perfectionism takes on many forms.)
In my case, when it was suggested that I “be myself,” what people actually meant was I should change everything I was so that I would be more acceptable in social settings. On the surface, this seems like a terrible thing!!! You shouldn’t have to change yourself! Change is bad. Accept who you are and move forward. Love yourself with all your flaws. Blah, blah, blah!
This would be wonderful advice if I was anyone but a twisted, angry, fearful, failure. Seriously? I’m just supposed to go through my life with all my special brand of hate and everyone is going to be okay with my social awkwardness? Really? If I hold onto my original core beliefs, I’m going to be a good wife and mother? I’m going to be a successful person? Seriously? Think about it. You really want THAT person to be allowed to roam free? I don’t think so. LOL
I didn’t make friends until I actively changed who I was as a person. I started in my teens, which is pretty typical for someone with my background. I didn’t know what “well-adjusted” looked like, so I read books and did my best to become friends with people who knew how to have a balanced life. As I matured, I have sought out people who can be my mentors and role models, people who are kind, and good, and accepting of others. I didn’t know how to be a “good mom,” but I’ve met them and I’m friends with some, so that gives me people I can reasonably imitate. I accept that I will never be a perfect mom, but I’m okay with that. I can be the kind of mom who watches anime with their kid and plays video games, too. I can use my imagination and pretend to be the person I’d like to be. I can use my imagination as a crutch to help me along while I figure this all out. And that’s okay! When you’re injured, it’s okay to use crutches!!! No one cares if it works for you and keeps you moving forward.
I am NOT the same person I was as a child or a teen. I’m not the young woman I was in my twenties or thirties. Mid-forties me isn’t the same woman from a year ago! This is a good thing. Change gets a bad reputation. Change isn’t always bad. I have grown and matured. And CHANGED. Most days, I feel like I’m getting a handle on being balanced and well-adjusted, but I know this is a journey. There are ups and downs and EVERYTHING I have experienced has made me into the person I am today.
Why am I sharing this? Why would I want to tell other people (strangers even) about this part of my life? Because…when I was a little girl, I NEEDED someone to tell me that maybe I wasn’t “normal,” but that didn’t matter. I could still grow up and live a good life and be happy one day. I didn’t know that back then. I didn’t know if I’d get a chance to grow up! I sometimes thought God would punish me before I ever got a chance to be where I am today. I couldn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. I just thought I was stuck in a hole, with no way out and no hope.
But I DID have good people in my life, people like the neighbor who lived across the street from us. When I was in high school, she would occasionally send one of her kids over with a casserole or lasagna, ready to go. Just heat and eat. No rhyme or reason. She wanted nothing in return. I think that is when I first understood that other people, strangers, CAN be kind. That they can be trusted. They don’t have to share the same religion as the one I was raised in. Good people are good people. She had a good heart and must have seen that our whole family was hurting pretty bad, that we were all doing our best, but we were all suffering.
I can’t send a casserole to every little girl who’s suffering, or hurt, or depressed, but I have my words. This is what I have. I can tell you this, if you don’t have the skills to be the person you want to be, it’s okay to pretend. It’s okay to find a mentor preferably in real life, but books work too. You use the tools you have. YouTube, blogs, whatever. It’s okay to piece together a picture of the person you’d like to be, as long as you are kind and gentle with yourself when you fall short. In my mind, I often imagine the women I’ve come to admire, the women who are loving and caring, and when I don’t know what to do, or how to behave…I ask myself, “What would this other person do?” And I do that thing. Over the years, I have done this actively and subconsciously and it has helped.
I have also learned to think of myself as if I were somebody else, an outsider, when I become too judgmental of my shortcomings. I think of myself, the me from my childhood, and I would hug her very tightly if I could. She was a good kid stuck in an impossible situation. She deserves my love. And sometimes, when I look at myself as an outsider would, I understand that a messy house doesn’t make me a bad person. Adult me deserves a hug as well. She’s doing the best she can. Maybe we all are.