I needed a new title today, I just couldn't name this piece "Letters with My Son, Part Six". I am sure that title is coming shortly. Today's piece caught me off guard. It wasn't what I thought I would write when I began this morning. But I like where it went. The more I write, the more I see that it almost always boils down to worth...
My son's next question was “What did you have to do to live the successful life you now live?”
Here is my reply:
I had to change...everything.
It began with getting sober. Well, actually it began before that, it began as having a lot of trauma happen when I was growing up. That made me harder and that made me work hard. I was so afraid I was worthless, I worked extra hard to show you I wasn’t.
I did that with school for many, many years and then I did it with jobs. And if there is one thing I have learned it is that people in the world love a giver. I gave all that I had, often, because I couldn’t believe that anyone wanted it. That is how bad my self esteem was! I can remember when I got into law school, this woman who would become my most favorite professor (well one of two of my favorite professors) gave this speech. She talked about feeling like a fraud. It was brilliant. It landed squarely in my chest. And it sat there for the entirety of law school. This idea that this one woman knew, she knew, what it felt like to be somewhere you didn’t really feel like you belonged. She knew what it felt like to achieve all these milestones, and not feel worthy of any of it.
She was a tenured professor and she said she still felt like that. And she was the reason I didn’t quit. I mean I wanted to quit law school every day. I mean like every single one. Until the goal line was so close that it no longer made sense to quit. It was her words, her speech, that gave me the hope and courage to continue on, in a place that I didn’t feel worthy of being invited to in the first place.
I remember the entire first week of class, I was sure someone from the admissions department was going to come find me in class and tell me that there had been a terrible mistake and would I please come to the office right now! It never happened, but I still waited for it. Every time a teacher’s assistant would walk into the room in that first year, I thought for sure they were coming for me. To deliver the news that I knew all along, I didn’t belong there and I likely couldn’t cut it.
But they never came for me. After the first year, I had made the grades, so I no longer worried about them coming for me because I had proven myself, I had shown up and done the work and passed the classes, so I figured that even if they figured out that I was never supposed to be there in the first place, I had earned my seat by not failing out.
Now, that is not to say that I wasn’t doing pretty much everything I could to flunk out. I wasn’t going to class, I wasn’t doing all the reading, I was getting drunk all the time. It was the only way I could cope with all the stress that existed in my head. Can you imagine what it feels like every day to walk into a building that you are sure you don’t belong in and sit there all day, pretending to be worthy of the chair you occupy?
Well, I can tell you that it is fucking hard. I mean to sit there day in and day out, waiting for them to humiliate you, waiting to be found out that you are a fraud and never, ever really were supposed to be there. It is an awful feeling that I poured booze all over. I dumped copious amounts of alcohol over those and other feelings that all could be summed up with pervasive feelings of lack of worth. But I kept coming anyway...at least enough to keep enrolled and in the game.
And that professor? If it hadn’t been for her and her speech that made all the guys in the class uncomfortable, if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have made it. I would have quit. I cannot tell you how many times I hung on Professor Baldwin’s words over the next three years. She normalized for me my injurious feelings and thoughts of not being worthwhile, and she made it ok for me to stay anyway.
So I say this with probably more drama than is proper, but I have the life today because of her. She is a huge part of my success. Her and Professor Cherry. They saved me, over and over and over again.
Your grandmother saved me. She loved me unconditionally and thought I was brilliant and amazing. I never really felt brilliant and amazing but I saw that she saw something in me, and that gave me hope that maybe one day, I could level up to where she seemed to always think I was when everything inside me screamed that I couldn’t and wouldn’t ever make it.
My friend Eve was another person. She was a beacon of light for me in a very dark time. She held up a candle and showed me the way out. Without her, I would have been lost in the pit maybe forever.
So really, what I had to do to become this person, with this successful life, is I had to not follow what my head told me about me. That I was the worst or the best. I had to look to people, mostly women, on my path and horizon that believed in me and saw things in me that I didn’t see, I didn’t feel and that I didn’t even know existed inside me.
And it was these women, these amazingly smart, kind, loving women, who I didn’t completely trust, that paved the way for me to have the life I do today. All of it. Every single thing I have, the degrees, the seat at the table, the life that I have right now, was all built on their strength, integrity, hard work, stamina, beliefs and their own self worth, foundering as it might have been at times. It was the sisterhood of women that I could only partly participate with because my own lack of worth so great that my lack of esteem for myself, entered any room I dared to walk in, twenty minutes before me. And then did everything it could to tell me another story that told me not to even bother entering at all.
And today, it is still the women in my life. For me, and this is just for me, men have been such a destructive force. That is not to say all men, all the time. But for the most part, every hard, painful, gut wrenching lesson I have had to survive was delivered at the hands of a man. And for awhile in my youth, I hated men. Really, they were so easy to blame for so much pain in my life. But after I got sober, and worked some recovery, I saw that I had a part in that too. That some of it, I could not have avoided. But there was a part of me, this same part that didn’t feel worthy to be in law school, that same issue plagued me all other aspects of my life. In picking men that treated me like I was nothing. So I became nothing so as not to challenge their rightness.
I know today that men were not the problem. Today I have better relationships with men. To be clear, they are still fraught with hardship and pain, but I am better so my choices have gotten better too. And today, I see how this feeling, this all encompassing feeling I have that I am not good enough to be loved, cared for, shown up for, partnered with still kicks my ass and it isn’t even true. Never was. Never will be. But I still believe it and that fact more than any other causes me to engage in relationships with people to my own detriment.
Which leads me to the final thing I can identify about why I have the life I do today: I have been willing to look at myself, over and over and over again with a loving, but critical eye, and do my best to see me as I really am. Not the prettied up version that I try to peddle every day. But the one who yells at her kids, who wakes up in a bad mood for no reason, the neat freak who loses her shit because you spilled cereal on the floor (again), the one who dates people who are super not worthy of her, the one who still, despite all of the work, all of the time and effort, the blood, the sweat and a fuckton of tears, still doesn’t believe that she is worthy.
And I keep going anyway. I keep showing up. Facing down my demons. I keep inventorying myself, for my larger defects of character. I do not sweep them under the rug and pretend they don’t exist. I talk to the women in my life, the important ones that have worked hard to stay with me as I have tried repeatedly to leave them in the dust, those women have helped me stay accountable, present and have challenged me to keep going regardless of how I feel about me. Regardless of the directionality of those feelings. To just keep showing up and doing the work I see to do on myself, with all the fear and self loathing, to just keep doing my life one day at a time and not let what I think or feel about myself be the final arbiter of my life.
I show up for life today. Even when it hurts, is painful, death defying (well it feels that way sometimes) I show up anyway. I do not crawl into a bottle of Jack Daniels and die a little more each day. I get up, I write it all down, I share it so that my experience may benefit another person and I try to give freely what all these amazing women gave to me: A belief that I am worth all I have achieved, acquired and been graced with. Always.
I stole this photo off your page Meg, I hope it is ok. But this photo captures for me your essence. And I would not have this life without your essence. I wish there was a photo in my possession that included all of the women that have saved me. No such photo exists. So I let Meg represent us all. Right there, eyes closed, loving what is. Thank you.