“Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.” ~Chuck Palahniuk
As we need others to offer a stable reflection to keep us sane, we also need other people to help us to form our identities. A large part of our self-image is derived from the view of ourselves that we see reflected back at us through the eyes of others.
Thus a child who is continually told that he is stupid will probably grow up believing this to be the case, even if he has the same potential as Einstein. And a plain girl who is constantly told that she is beautiful will likely come to believe that so she is.
I used to have a housemate who called me ‘molto bello’, which he thought was Italian for something like ‘very beautiful’. At the same time I had a group of friends who casually referred to each other as gorgeous, beautiful, sweetie, etc, and said I love you at the end of every phone call.
And strangers used to be lovely to me. They’d carry my heavy bags on and off of trains without me thinking of asking, chase after me when I, frequently, forgot to wait for my cash out the machine, and pay for my lunch when I was behind them in line at the petrol station.
That was the last time that my illness was trying to tear me apart.
The first time that I had what I knew for sure was a depressive episode I had so much pain in my chest, in my heart, in my soul it felt like, that I genuinely believed that it would eventually kill me.
I cried my heart out every time I was alone. That included being alone on buses.
I hated being alone. But I wasn’t very often. When I wasn’t working, I was partying, mostly, or hanging out with my housemates. The most time that I would spend alone was my forty minutes bus journey to and from work, and the three or four hours I spent asleep. There was always somebody for me to be with. And I didn’t really have the option not to be.
I hated myself. I hated my life.
But I never tried to die.
I’m not sure I particularly wanted to die. I wanted to fall asleep and not wake up, but that’s not really the same thing. And, although there are other, more complicated factors involved, I think I’ve pin pointed one of the reasons as being that I’d internalised the words and actions of others.
Somewhere under the litany of self-hatred, the crippling lack of confidence and self-esteem, was another layer of my psyche which believed that I must be beautiful if that’s what people told me, must be ace, must be exciting, and must be worth a stranger buying lunch for.
Yet I was experiencing depression, as part of what I now know to be PTSD, because of the words and the actions of the people who came before them. The people who were there from the beginning of my life. The community I lived in throughout my first eighteen years.
My parents, who had children because they were supposed to, rather than because they wanted to, made their resentment of the experience abundantly clear. They found everything that I did either inconvenient, annoying, or embarrassing. No matter what I did I’d be yelled at for not fitting in with their ideal of a family and told that I had to change.
I can see now that my Dad’s mood pretty much went in cycles. Every six weeks or so he’d flare up, it wasn’t triggered by anything I did or said, it wasn’t triggered by anything.
But at the time, when I was a kid, I believed that I was bad because I was told I was bad. I thought that the way that I sat on a sofa genuinely was enough to make a grown man quiver with rage. That there really was something inherently wrong with me that meant that I didn’t deserve to be loved, even by my own mother, and I devoted all my energies to trying to change it.
Fruitlessly of course.
In trying to avoid doing any of the things that made my dad want to hit me, I ended up avoiding doing anything. Which makes some perverse sense now. The thing that I’d done to upset him was to live, so not living was the only way I could seek to pacify him, but of course it was never going to be enough. Nothing I could do would make it so that I’d never been there in the first place.
Because my parents apparently hated me, and told me I wasn’t worth bothering with, I was hideously insecure. I was scared to say anything to anybody in case they saw what my parents saw in me and hated me also. So inevitably I was the weird kid who was bullied in school. The kid none of the other parents wanted their kid to be friends with.
Everyone in my class told me, day in and day out, that I was weird, ugly, and unlikable. So I believed that too. After all if absolutely everyone thought so they couldn’t all be wrong, could they.
It doesn’t help that even now as whole person, who knows that she isn’t inherently flawed, I don’t fit in where I came from. It’s a very proudly working class neighbourhood. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with that, but the people there tend to see anyone who has a university education as being above themselves. People have very ‘traditional’ attitudes, which include a vague misogyny, not so vague racism and out right homophobia.
I’m a liberal, a lawyer, and a traveller. I don’t belong there.
The result of growing up in that environment is that I have spent my whole life feeling like an outsider. Even now, in places where I am accepted, I don’t feel like I altogether belong. I feel somehow separate from other people, as though I’m not like them somehow.
Maybe it’s nothing more than the fact that I can’t relate to anyone with a normal family background or lifestyle, I don’t know. Maybe with all this therapy I’m having that will change that some day.
All any of this demonstrates is that I am far more the product of everybody I have ever known than it is at all comfortable to realise. And the power of words, however superficial, to harm or heal.
The lesson that I am trying to learn from this understanding is to be more mindful of whether the things I say to people are a contribution that I’m ready to make to their identity – I’ve decided that it’s better to be perceived by some as frivolous and shallow and do no harm, than to add to anybody’s negative self-image.
As well as to always consider whether the image of myself reflected back from the people around me is one that I’m happy to live with. I finally understand that that may not be the identity I have to live with. It may just be that I need to seek out a more favourable mirror.