It takes a lot of time and money to look this cheap, honey.
The Incomparable Dolly Parton
Yes, I know Halloween is over- but it’s had me thinking a lot about playing dress up. I went to a friend’s birthday party Friday night, and it was Halloween themed. My daughter told me I should dress up as something horrifying, so I did.
A while back, Mary and I needed to head into Boston for a meeting. It felt like a big deal. It turned out to BE a big deal. I was anxious. I told her I needed a costume. A grown-up costume, since I would be masquerading as such.
She laughed, and it became one of our ‘things.’ Whenever we have an event, Mary will say to me, “Let’s talk costumes.”
Like most inside jokes, it’s about something bigger. It is for me, anyway.
I have always spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about my appearance. Well, I don’t know about ALWAYS, actually. For as long as I can remember. I don’t remember who I was before my abuse. I have heard stories, had versions of that younger self sketched out for me by outside observers. I don’t remember her, though.
I DO remember the first time I stressed out about something I was wearing. It was at my first communion. I was wearing my little white dress with ruffles down the sleeves. I had on my veil, which seemed to me the HEIGHT of glamour. I remember feeling pretty, but nervous. I was scared to walk down the aisle of Sacred Heart church with everyone looking at me. My dad was there, things were awkward. I was nervous I would mess up at the altar. Say the wrong thing, use the wrong hand.
We were brought into the church in two lines. Girls in one, boys in the other. The girls filed into a row on the left-hand side of the church. Lots of stifled giggling, and anxious, excited fidgeting on the hard pew bench. Lots of little boys tugging at ties, and little girls fiddling with ribbon trim and tights.
There was one girl in my CCD class who…how to put this? She was less than kind. She made fun of me all the time. She was very PIOUS, though. Do you remember the book, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever? She was Alice Wendleken. She was all vaseline on her eyelids to make her look angelic, but had a mean streak a mile wide. She liked to make pronouncements as though she had God’s ear, and Jesus on speed dial. When she found out my parents were divorced it was Christmas in July for her.
I became her pet project.
She was sitting four or five girls down from me. I was nervously swinging my feet, and it snagged her gaze like a nail on a sweater. “LAURA!” she stage-whispered at me. I froze because I knew it was not going to be good. “YOU’RE WEARING BLACK SHOES. YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE WEARING ALL WHITE.”
Several girls started to snicker. My eyes started to sting.
“YOU’RE GOING TO HELL.”
Now. The adult me wonders what was going on in that child’s life that she felt compelled to turn a spiritual milestone into a bloodsport. The little girl me, though- the one who was already wrestling with shame and self-loathing, the one who already felt OTHER and NOT GOOD ENOUGH, the one who already half believed that she was unredeemable- she soaked in that poison, and it created an impermeable shield for the rest of the day. None of the kind and loving things anyone else said to me that day could pierce it.
Things were really tight financially. I am certain if my mother could have afforded to buy me white shoes for the occasion, she probably would have- but white shoes for a little girl who would have much rather been outside climbing trees and catching frogs were not a wise investment. To be fair, she also probably didn’t know about the whole “going to hell” thing. It’s one of the lesser known passages in the Bible- Buster Brown 1:12…
Cut to high school. We never had much money for new clothes. We were three girls with a single mom. We grew up with a fair amount of scarcity- not perceived scarcity- ACTUAL scarcity. Frequently no heat or electricity during New England winters level scarcity. My mom worked hard and did her best, we just didn’t have a lot. Not a tragedy. I actually learned some great things growing up that way. There are gifts in growing up poor, alongside the obvious challenges.
My ninth grade year, my mom got me clothes for Christmas. There were neon checkered pants, a neon shirt. Suspenders, naturally. A hair bow. Matching socks. This was in the 80’s. Subtlety was not really our jam, per se.
I **LOVED** it. I couldn’t believe I had a brand new, trendy outfit. I couldn’t WAIT for Christmas break to end so I could wear it to school.
And I did. And I felt GREAT, which was new.
The thing about not having a big wardrobe is that you cycle through your outfit rotation pretty quickly. The thing about blinding neon clothing, is that it rapidly draws attention to how often you are wearing the same thing.
Again, I caught someone’s gaze. There was a girl in my grade who was really quirky- very much an individual in the way that she dressed, the music that she liked. Which makes it all the more interesting that she chose to humiliate me. I walked into class one day, wearing my outfit. She sized me up, and smirked. Then she said, loudly, “Laura, why don’t you wear that outfit a little more often.”
And then I died a thousand deaths. I spent the entire period trying not to cry, which would have only fueled her delight. Every time I wore it afterward, she would tell me in a sing-song sweet voice that she liked my outfit. I eventually stopped wearing it altogether.
I became very concerned with being dressed appropriately- especially for EVENTS. It was all about not making a mistake or drawing too much attention. I wore a lot of neutrals, my theory being that you could wear the same outfit twice a week if it was bland. I had a horror of being over- or under-dressed. Of doing anything with my appearance that would single me out for ridicule.
It bled into my choice for my wedding day. I chose the plainest, most nondescript gown I could find. I really did like it, but it was more about not calling too much attention to myself or making a mistake. It just occurred to me now that my immediate rejection of the notion of a veil might be related to my communion experience. Once again, I was worried about walking down the aisle in a white dress and attracting the gaze of someone who might not approve. Anyway, it would take me a decade and a half to fall properly in love with that dress. It would take bedazzling it and giving it away.
I don’t know how those two mean girl interactions would have affected me had my brain and heart not already been such fertile planting ground for the seeds of shame.
My adult, somewhat healed brain and heart know that those two girls were likely acting out from a place of pain. Happy, healthy people do not try and make themselves big by diminishing others.My grown up perspective tells me that who I am and how I look are not the same thing. Sort of.
I still get intense anxiety before events- worrying that I’ll look okay, that I’ll be dressed the right way. I hear moms on Facebook joke about yoga pants being their go-to uniform, and having their hair a mess. Sometimes I’ll chime in, but the truth is I seldom if ever dress down. I have way more clothes than I need, and I still focus way too much on what I look like. It’s superficial, but it runs deep. Funny, that.
Hopefully, these days my outsides match my insides a little more, though. Hopefully my desire to look good is more a reflection of truly feeling good, rather than an actual costume.
Jessica Malionek @ thecounterstool.me says
I always cry when I read your posts. Probably because so much of what you say is reflected in my own heart and my experiences. (I’m guessing you get that a lot!)
I had neon yellow and black plaid knicker pant-type-things with suspenders too! (God what to even call them?) Which was also thrilling for me to have some “fashionable” clothing. I wore mine too many times on repeat also. It was so painful! I’m capturing your words here again, because these resonated with me the most: “I don’t know how those two mean girl interactions would have affected me had my brain and heart not already been such fertile planting ground for the seeds of shame.” Oh don’t I know this. This is what is the most upsetting — if I wasn’t drowning in shame and pain the sting wouldn’t have been so devastating.
And this, “My adult, somewhat healed brain and heart know that those two girls were likely acting out from a place of pain. Happy, healthy people do not try and make themselves big by diminishing others” Which I tell my children (and myself) daily. I’m so curious about what people do with and how they process their pain. Some choose to be unkind and others, like you and me, tried to be plain, nondescript and not draw too much attention. Too much attention felt so scary.
Now we are stepping out. I love this.
Take good care, Laura. You’re doing awesome work and I thank you for it.
What is it about kids going through torment at home, that paints a target on them at school as well?
I can so resonate with this, because I was THE class scapegoat. From grade 2 until graduation.
The funny thing is, I did have a few friends, and I was so desperate to try and fit in and keep them, and so certain I wouldn’t/couldn’t if they saw the real me (hah, that sounds familiar to this day!), that I didn’t appreciate having them, or ever know they liked me or that I was acceptable.
Wow. That is still true today. How did I never realize that?
Anyway, I was the bullied kid, who had poor hygiene, frequent bruises, hand me down out of date clothes, on the free lunch program, and zero self worth. Less than zero, negative self worth. So every sling and arrow hit its mark only all too well.
Once early in high school I opened my locker to find a dog bone (the Bonz brand with the hard outside and chewy center) — brought it home in tears, and my mom discovered my dog really enjoyed it, and bought that brand forever forward to give to him. Every time she gave him one was a tweak of that agony.
Bullying is a horrid thing, and yes, it leaves lifetime scars. I know compared to the things happening (or had happened) at home, it was “nothing” — but it meant I had no safe harbor, either. Not at home, not at school.
No one who cared about me. Who saw me.
I was negative space in the world.
Meredith W. says
I can’t say I “like” what you’ve written, but I’m glad you’re (still) here. 🙂
Thank you. That’s kind of you to say.
Some days, even, so am I. At least okay with it, anyway.
Just hate the ones where I’m not. That takes a lot of work fighting against.
And I can’t say I haven’t had days where I regretted that I didn’t back then, when it wouldn’t have hurt anyone. Because now I have a husband and kids that would be irreparably harmed, so it’s the automatic tether, right? I couldn’t hurt them that way, no matter how I feel.
But mostly I think when I am fighting that now, it’s just shadows from back then, from how much I wanted to not exist back then.
And so I keep on fighting for purchase, and I’ve had a bit more traction lately, haven’t fallen off that particular cliff nearly as often.
I do know that if I had gotten pregnant, that was my solution. I had a stolen bottle of tranquilizers and kept them nearby at all times. Oh the nights I pulled them out and held them in my hands.
But in a funny way, I think having them saved me in a way — because I could at any time, I wouldn’t do it that day — since I always had the ready option any given day it was too much, I could hang on to see if I could get through that tomorrow.
The sad thing is, I have a good adulthood. I mean — that’s not the sad part, but that some of this still haunts me so is, because I let it spoil what could be a good today with the shadows and pains of yesterday.
But that fight I keep fighting, also.
Oh wow. So many similarities. I don’t remember specifically being picked on for my clothing choices. But I was definitely emotionally bullied. And maybe I was and just don’t remember. I’ve blocked out an awful lot, I think. My therapist asked once what the kids who teased me called me/what they said, and I totally blanked. There’s a couple I specifically remember, but most I’ve forgotten. How can I know I was tormented and yet not remember about what? Anyway, to this day, I think too much about what I wear and how I look. I don’t want to draw attention or stand out. I want to blend in. I want to know the unwritten dress code for a restaurant before I ever consider eating there. New restaurants are terrifying for that reason — what if I am underdressed or overdressed. Yikes. I tend towards the opposite direction, though. I’m a jeans and sweatshirt girl. Part of me wants to look nicer. But part of me, when I do dress more nicely, feels like I’m trying to be someone I’m not…. I don’t know how to act like a girl – I was too busy trying to be a guy when I was growing up (because I hated being a girl). I wasn’t the popular kid, I don’t fit in that world… and I feel like people will still see it that way, too – a fraud trying to fit in. I’m getting past that, though, as I’m letting go of shame. Not there, but getting there. I trade my sneakers for a pair of boots every once in awhile now, and it always makes me smile inside. (http://jenndietz.blogspot.com/2015/05/sound-reflections-echoes-of-my-boots.html). so yeah… getting there. 🙂 Thanks for keeping it real, Laura! Always love reading your heart on the page. 🙂
Oh my goodness — I changed once in the car at the far back of a parking lot just before a company Christmas party because I realized I was overdressed. Exactly right about wanting to know dress code before you go! I get that!
Because of my job, I’ve had to learn how to dress nicer and put on makeup and get my eyebrows waxed or threaded, and hair colored, etc — because it’s expected at my level, but these were not things I knew — since I didn’t have parents or girl friends who taught me, I had to learn as an adult from my female employees.
Meredith W. says
Some of this sounds very familiar to me, but I don’t feel as if I should comment because I don’t think I was sexually abused as a child. Honestly, I’m not 100% sure about that, but if I was, it wasn’t for a sustained period of time by a particular person, as most people here have in their history.
Meredith, mine wasn’t a “sustained” period of time. Twice. With several months to a year in between. Damage is done irregardless. And if maybe you had emotional abuse even just from peers, damage is still done. I heard a PhD say once that we’re not to compare our stories to each other, we are to compare it to Eden. That’s something I struggle with, honestly… Feeling like so many other people have worse stories. But just as you state each life matters… So does each harm. Don’t discount your story – whatever it is – just because someone else’s is “worse.”
In Others' Words says
YES. No Hardship Olympics, no sliding scale of pain. Trauma is trauma is trauma. No one wins in that competition.
I agree with previous replies.
Just (“just”) emotional neglect/abuse is extremely damaging.
There’s all kinds of studies of longterm impact from peer bullying similar to any other kind of abuse. Anxiety, depression, ptsd, etc.
If I hear someone wasn’t loved, my heart breaks for them. Don’t have to count broken bones, and anyways those heal long before the lack of love does. That’s what does the real damage, in my mind.
And there’s all kind of inappropriateness with sexuality that can leave lasting scars. My mother used to complain to me about my dad’s lack of desire way before I was old enough to know what she was talking about, and shared some gross inappropriate poetry that’s still stuck in my head with an ick factor. You wouldn’t call that typical sexual abuse by any means, and I have no idea if it counts or doesn’t, but I can tell you it’s part of my warping even if other things hadn’t happened later.
I have a godfather who mildly molested me. Once. I can still feel his hands on me, hear his words.
Even if all the rest hadn’t happened, I think just those things would have affected me.
Laura is right. Trauma is trauma. It all hurts. It’s all damaging.
In Others' Words says
In the speaking event we had for parents last week, part of what we did was to clarify the definition of sexual abuse. This was part of that section: “Talking to a child inappropriately, graphically or explicitly about sex.” It counts.
And “mildly” sexually abusing a child is not a thing. Jusy because you escape without physical injury doesn’t mean you aren’t seriously harmed. I’m so sorry those things happened to you. xo
Weird. You wouldn’t think of just words as sexual abuse. Just writing that — seems way too strong.
But I know it bothered me.
And I said mild about my godfather because.. it was one event, and groping only. I ran — pretended I had to go to the bathroom, laid down next to his daughter and pretended to be asleep. He came in and looked at me, a long time. A really long time.
The thing about it, though, is now that I know more — I wonder how much it played into future events.
Did he groom me? From everything I’ve read about grooming, yes.
Did that make me more vulnerable later? Maybe.
And — how it was handled — was there a lesson in that for all of us? Probably.
(I’d told my brothers, they told my dad. He knocked me down in the driveway, not believing me about his best friend. Eventually he did call him, and my godfather did admit the event — so dad had him apologize to me, and they stayed best friends and him visiting in our house nearly every weekend from then until the time I moved away.)
I don’t know — suddenly feel the need to stop. Go cry or something.
I’m so done with all of this. Just wish it would be done with me!
Meredith W. says
I’m not comparing traumas, in part because I’m not sure I can even name mine. I have a vague recollection of a man who came to tune the piano at our house when I was quite young, and being around him made me feel icky. (At this point, it’s almost a memory of a memory, if that makes sense.)
Several years ago this came up in a conversation with my mom, and she said that I came to her and told her that the man had been asking me (and maybe my brother?) to go fishing for his keys in his pants pocket. Clearly he was looking for inappropriate behavior, but I don’t remember….I was going to say “that he touched me or I touched him,” but not until the moment I typed this did it come back to me that he wanted me to sit on his lap. I’m certainly getting the willies right now from what little memory I do have of it.
There was some unintentional emotional abuse from my parents in the form of expecting very high to perfect performance in various areas of life, and we were definitely taught to worry about what others would think. One example – I had to iron my dad’s handkerchiefs perfectly, because what if he had to take it out of his pocket at work and offer it to someone? If they still had wrinkles or the edges didn’t match up perfectly, I would have to iron them again. It’s not as if I was getting beaten if I didn’t do it right, but approval, being good enough – or not – was a thoroughly-ingrained motivator early on.
There was unquestionable childhood trauma in the form of being hit by a car while in kindergarten. Not by a speeding driver, thank heavens, but backed into by a neighbor who was driving the car pool home from school. No one is entirely clear what happened, other than that I asked to get out at one house and walk across the street and down a couple of doors to ours, because it was raining and I had a new umbrella. To this day, I don’t like to be out in the rain any more than necessary, and I’m sure not going to go out and walk in it for fun.
Apparently poor Mrs. L – who I believe carried this on her conscience for years – thought that I had disappeared from sight awfully quickly after I got out of her car, so she opened her car door and looked around to make sure I was gone. Not seeing me, she proceeded to back out of that family’s driveway, or so I’m told. I had no memory then and don’t now of what happened in between “I want to use my new umbrella” and waking up with my head in my mother’s lap in Mrs. L’s back seat, being driven to the hospital. My mom said I was knocked out of my shoes and that I had tire marks on my dress – a previous favorite that I refused to wear again.
There was also an odd little piece of information that goes along with that: aside from having damaged some tendons or ligaments in my neck and possibly having affected my cerebellum, my mother said they found a small cut between my legs – ?? How does one get that from being hit by a car?
I’ve been in therapy. I know there is something bad back there. I don’t know if it’s “only” being hit by a car.
There’s no doubt the damage done by conditional approval and perfectionism by parents. Unconditional love is supposed to mean just that.
How horrible about being backed over by a car. I can’t imagine. Stuff of nightmares.
Meredith W. says
I doubt my parents ever heard the term “unconditional love.” They were doing the best they could with what they knew and not doing that perfectly (no irony intended). Still don’t know how my mom survived raising six kids.
Not recalling any literal nightmares, but my mom and I both suspect that the car accident could be at least part of the root of my long-term anxiety.
Shelley Stoehr says
I needed to go to the grocery store today. Nowhere else – just a single errand. I put on EIGHT different combinations of clothing before I could slink out of my door in an oversized shirt and coat and pants. All black. Oh how the shame makes everything hard….