This has been a long time coming. I just didn't have the courage to tell the story before.
Once there was a girl who didn’t think she was worth very much.
She was a shy, introspective, and melancholy girl by nature, and probably destined to have self-esteem problems even without the things that happened to her. She had a very young, single mom. Her mom was lost and lonely and didn’t think she was worth very much, either. So she did things to make herself feel worth something—all the things that made her feel worth something involved men and drugs. The girl’s mom loved her very much, but when she was on drugs she didn’t care what her daughter witnessed. Even when it involved men. And more drugs.
When our girl was five, her mom got married. This is when the girl’s problems began in earnest.
Her shiny new stepfather tarnished very quickly. (If you ever want a nice case study of brainwashing and pure, unadulterated physical and psychological torture, you should study this man. He still remains the cruelest human being the girl has ever personally known.)
The girl and her mom were stuck. They were broke. They were powerless against him. Other people knew he was not a nice man. No one ever knew the things they went through. He was very creative and sly.
The girl wanted to ask for help, but she didn’t know the right words. She didn’t know how to say:
“My stepfather makes me feed myself cat shit while he watches and laughs.”
Or what about, “He grabs me by the hair and beats my head against the wall if I don’t pick everything up off the floor. And even when I pick everything up off the floor, he pretends it’s still there laying in front of me and beats my head against the wall because I say I don’t see anything there. So I pretend to see what he sees, and gather up imaginary pieces of what he sees in my arms while looking at him, hoping I have pleased him.”
How was she to explain that he made it a game to see how hard of a hit she could take without falling down? She was only a little girl, and it was impossible to withstand the full force of a grown man. So she was destined to be knocked down. And to get back up. Over and over again.
When you are little, it’s not easy to tell people your stepfather held a gun to your head while the police surrounded the house and your mother screamed. He wanted to be sure she wouldn’t leave, you see. Sometimes he even hurt their pets in front of them. (This was especially hard for the girl. She loved all creatures. Except locusts. Their sounds and shells terrorized her.)
The girl and her mother were required to recite specific sentences regularly in order to ensure their powerlessness: “I am a bitch. I am a whore. I am ugly. I am stupid. I am fat. No one loves me. No one will help me. I am a bitch. I am a whore….” When the girl started off saying these things, she knew in her heart that they weren’t true and that she was just saying them to appease him. But after saying them regularly, over and over, these words started floating through her head even when she was not being forced to say them.
The girl did the only things she could think of to cope. In kindergarten, she went to school with bruises under her clothes and locked herself in the bathroom and screamed hysterically when it was time to go home. She escaped to her grandparents’ houses whenever she could. She played outside from morning to night with the neighborhood kids as often as she could. When the neighborhood kids weren’t around, she found places to hide and explore with imaginary friends created for that very occasion. She took long rides on her bicycle and ate green apples from other people's yards. She gave names and personalities to everything around her—the trees, the flowers, the animals, the broom—to make her feel surrounded by familiar faces and friends.
Unfortunately, her stepfather was not the only one who made the girl think she wasn’t worth very much. There was more than one man, in her family and otherwise, who were more than willing to let her know she was only good for one thing.
One of them was an uncle who had his own cross to bear. He did things that no little girl should ever have to experience. She was five. She wore Care-Bear pajamas. While it happened, sometimes she would stare at a picture of the devil whose iridescent paint gleamed at her in the moonlight; other times she stared out the window and directly at the moon itself. The girl felt so dirty and was so ashamed that she wanted to curl up and die.
But she did not.
She got really good at picking up the pieces of love and acceptance she could find and curling herself around them like a cat.
Years later, when the girl and her mom (and now two brand new baby brothers) finally got away from the stepfather by going into hiding for awhile, the girl’s mother fell apart. And rightfully so. But then the girl’s one constant ally through those times, her mother, felt more than ever like she wasn’t worth very much. And she tried to make the girl and her brothers feel as bad as she felt because she didn’t have anything else left to give them.
Our girl is 15. Her physical situation is much more stable now, but she is confused, hurting, and lonely inside. She is mortally self-conscious and shy and terrified of every move she makes—what if she makes someone mad? She gets better at hiding these things and at doing the things a normal girl should. She is positive, however, that if anyone really knew all of the things that made her up they would be horrified and disgusted and not want to be around her. They would discover for themselves what she’d always felt inside—that she wasn’t worth very much.
At that young age the girl fell in love with a shy, introspective, and melancholy boy. He didn’t have the deep, dark secrets that she had, but he listened to her secrets and didn’t make her feel ashamed. This boy gave her the courage to try for things she never thought she could do. She left home when she was 16 and set about trying to make those things happen.
She actually did some cool things.
She went to college and she was very, very serious. Others around her had the liberty to fuck around, but the girl knew she had one shot and she had to make it happen. She didn’t fuck around at all—not even one little bit.
She started to explore the world. Every chance she got to do so, she took it.
She didn’t know what she wanted to do when she got out of school, so she went to school some more. She wanted to know things and to feel she had some power and control over her life. She used to laugh when she thought of herself with any kind of high-falutin' graduate degree. It seemed terrifying and unattainable and ridiculous to her. So she decided to shoot for it. She eventually pulled it off.
The boy was there through it all--even when she tried to test him by pushing him away. (She was still very afraid, you see, of everything and everyone.) She warned the boy, “If you ever lay a hand on me, I will set you on fire.” She was pretty sure he wouldn’t hurt her, but she also knew a thing or two about self-preservation.
When the girl was 24, she started to honestly look around at her life for the first time. She started to look deep inside herself, too. She started to realize that she needed more—that what she had was not enough. She even started to admit to herself that the boy was not enough. This was terrifying to her. He had loved her and given her strength and courage when she needed it most.
She realized she had been in survival mode for a very long time.
Upon these realizations, she felt lost and lonely inside. She knew what her instincts told her but she hadn’t yet really learned to trust them. She was uncertain of who she was, what she needed, and how to go about finding out either of those things. (It was a tough time.)
Once again, she didn’t know the right words. She was now an adult and had a much wider vocabulary at her disposal, but she didn’t know how to tell the boy, “Thank you for loving me even when I couldn’t love myself. Now I need to move beyond these fences we’ve built; they are pinning me in and I am dying inside. You loved me as a child, and now, should I be lucky enough to love and be loved back again, it needs to be as the woman I am.”
When she was 28, the girl did another thing she never imagined she could do and that was very terrifying to her. She left everything and everyone she loved behind and moved far, far away to try to make a completely different kind of life for herself. It was very painful. It actually took her a couple of years to make it all come together, but she made it happen. At the last minute, the boy decided he wanted to come, too. The girl thought it wasn’t the right thing, but she felt like it was worth one last try. (She was still afraid, you see.)
It was a disaster from the start. The girl knew that living with anyone would never be easy, but this move proved to her once and for all that she loved him, but her relationship with him was not enough. She was honest with him from a very early point that it wasn’t working for her. He kept trying. It broke her heart, but it wasn’t enough. The girl finally told the boy she was moving out, that it might take some time to put the pieces in place, but that it was going to happen and he needed to make plans for himself. It was terrible, of course, and still continues to be very, very difficult. Her friends, both near and far, have helped her find the courage to move forward.
It took a very long time and seemed like a simple lesson to learn, but she finally started to realize that she is worth something. She also realized that she deserves something more. (The girl’s mother has not yet put these pieces together for herself. The girl has no idea how to help her.)
There are days, of course, when the doubts creep in and when “moving forward” seems to be at a glacial pace, but there it is.
This was that girl, a long time ago:
And this was the first postcard secret she sent out in the world to try to be set free:
(She still has work to do, but she has been fighting for years now with everything she has. She will make it.)