This is me: 1996. I was 29 years old, the single mother of an 11-year-old child, working FT as a nurse, and yet, was still driving back on my weekends off to visit my dad three hours away.
At one time I would have entitled this photo: “Looking for Crumbs of Love.”
In this photo I thought I was so grown. I had arrived. You could not have told me I didn’t love myself. You couldn’t have told me I didn’t approve of myself. And you still can’t. I had to love and approve of myself to live. And yet, there I sat. Smiling for the camera. Waiting to be seen, valued, and loved by my dad who snapped this photo of me stuffing my face with pizza. Today, I know that to be CoDependent and Trauma-Bonding.
I so craved a relationship with him. I wanted to be held and assured I could do anything, even though I already knew I could. I wanted him to tell me I was beautiful and that he was proud of me, even though I was already proud of myself. What I got instead, was four boxes of DiCarlo’s pizza with extra cheese and mushrooms awaiting me at each visit, and a large tin of Chock Full of Nuts Coffee at Christmastime. —This was how he showed love.
He complimented me on how my makeup and hair were always perfect no matter what, and how good I smelled all the time. —This is how he said he loved me.
And, it was all he was capable of at the time, but I was all in. I accepted those crumbs of attention and affection with gusto, but secretly I had always hoped for more. And each time he discarded me, even for years at a time, when he came calling, I’d go back to him looking, searching… hoping.
Don’t feel sorry for me, because I certainly don’t. There is no charge surrounding this memory anymore. I’ve done my work.
My purpose for telling you this is that because of this, I learned to accept crumbs of affection and sit in wait mode for more from every relationship I ever had. I was stuck in perpetual hope and excuse-mongering for those I loved and went on to do the emotional heavy lifting in all my relationships. I learned to be more than happy to make everyone comfortable, give until it hurts, and to be the first to accept fault when something went wrong.
Girls are taught to forgive, accept, and be the ones to sacrifice for others no matter what; whether those words are spoken out loud or not. We’re conditioned to set ourselves on fire to make everyone else warm and crush our bodies up against the walls of the small rooms we live in to make room for others. And by the time we are a certain age, we are bone tired and more pissed than a wet, hungry, and neglected pack of animals looking for food.
I reached that age early in life.
I was a girl, but I was a Steel Town Girl. I was taught by my abused mother to get my ass outside this moment and fight for myself. Was I just going to stand there and allow someone to push me around like that, she asked? (However, I watched her not defend herself? How confusing for a girl!) — So, in order to please her, I fought. And I fought dirty. She was watching after all.
That face you see in this photo may be full of hope and my cheeks full of pizza, but I was madder than a hornet. I was no victim. Never would be. I’d take what life had to offer, whether I liked it or not, and make something better out of it. So, each day, I wore an invisible crown and cape and wings and halo and armor and Army boots and black leather jacket and whatever else I needed to don to get through my day as I walked through life as half-angel, half ass-kicking ninja. I was tough as hell. So tough, that sometimes I scared myself.
And I wouldn’t have been able to do any of the difficult things I did without the parents I got. I couldn’t have done any of it without lashing out, getting selfish, and taking up space. I couldn’t have raised a son alone while trying to tiptoe, censor, and crouch down in the corner of the room. What kind of role model would I be if I had allowed that?
I wasn’t afraid to look unbalanced to get mine and my child’s needs met in a chaotic, uncaring world. And man oh man, was I ever mouthy! I didn’t care for one minute, who you were, or who you thought you were, if I had something to say, you’d hear from me. I was a fearless lioness!
I didn’t treat myself like a precious breakable object afraid to come out from behind a glass enclosure. I had already been through hell. So, I rolled up my sleeves and I got down and dirty. I disagreed. I disappointed others. And I destroyed. And I didn’t do it anonymously; I was no coward— I signed my name proudly.
I became loud in order to be heard and ranted for better treatment. And, I could be as cruel as they were. When I was accused of venting, complaining, — or bitching and being too much, I got even louder. I’ve been called a BITCH more times in my life than I could ever count.
If that doesn’t tell you anything about me, in nursing school, when everyone was assigned a long, quirky nickname that coincided with their personality — mine was Burning Acid in a Baby Doll Dress.
I may have looked innocent enough, with my big ass curly hair, hope-filled eyes, an hourglass shape in a pink nursing uniform standing there with a big ole cup of “Willingness to help, love and give to you” — but I’d rip you a new ass so fast you’d not know what hit you. If you were locked and loaded, I had already pulled your trigger.
Now, in today’s age of everything being narcissistic, people would have called me narcissistic. In fact, knowing what I know now, I would call me narcissistic. But, not in a bad or pathological way. It’s how I got my needs met. It’s how anyone gets their needs met. It’s how we make a path in life. Kicking and screaming the whole way. Loud as hell and not going anywhere anytime soon. Why? Because the fucking world we live in is narcissistic and drowns out the voices it doesn’t want to hear then tries to add shame to our list of baggage to carry! NO THANK YOU!
I was fighting to survive and stuck in fight mode, and with me there never was a flight, freeze, or fawn mode. I fought every, single. battle.
One mode: Fight.
One person: Me.
What a whirlwind!
I’ve survived some pretty unsurvivable things in life and I’m still here and better for it. I’m still bone tired most days and sometimes STILL madder than a hornet, but I’ve managed to keep my heart open to hope and love and the possibility of what if. If that isn’t forgiveness, I’m not sure I know what forgiveness is?
I’m much older now than I was in this photo. I’m a more concentrated version of Burning Acid. I use my potion sparingly to conserve it, and myself. And, I’ve learned to use it on things that really matter. And the more I learn, the more I realize, not much of it even does.
I owe this girl so many apologies for all the times she went without. For making her be the first to stand up and give even more despite her weariness and pain. I gave her no thought. Self before others. That’s what god would want. If I could go back in time, I’d lovingly shake this girl by the shoulders and tell her to WAKE UP! I’d tell her she is not god, not a superhero, and certainly not a magician with a healing salve in her hat of tricks!
We are older now. Women. Wiser. Worldly. And realize that it’s not the grit and determination we are learning to let go of as healing, aging women. It’s not our younger, wilder, selves we’re saying good-bye to. It’s the armor we are putting down. Armor is heavy! It’s MADE OF STEEL! It’s also a habit. A self-defense mechanism. The earlier version of us served us and our children well, we will keep the parts of her we still need to get through the rest of our lives; whatever that may bring, and bid the rest of her a heartfelt adieu.
I’ve learned some pretty amazing things as a result of narcissistic parents. Like, how to have hope. How to forgive. How to keep your heart open when it hurts like hell. How to see the good in others. How to rise above. How to be a seeker of information. How to self-heal. How to source myself with everything my son and I needed. How to be brave. How to be the only one in the room to take a stand. How to be patient. How to pray for others before yourself. How to be a hard worker. How not to give up so easily on things and people. How to wait. And wait, and wait and wait and wait…
But, I’ll no longer accept crumbs of love and attention, give cookies for less than stellar behavior, and go running around chasing after people asking for them to please see me, love me, accept me, choose me… I’ve shown up 150% in my life. 100 for me and 50 for the guy who didn’t show up. I’ve shown up battered, scarred and imperfect, my face smeared with blood, but I was there and did the work to the best of my ability each time. If people can’t do the same for me in return, then so be it. I’m not so naive anymore. And I don’t sit in perpetual hope and wait for things to change. I’m not going to try and try and try and try to fix shit I didn’t break and look for a reason to be wrong to keep the peace.
We girls, may, over decades lose ourselves in the service of others, raising of the kids, and learning to cater to a man’s comforts in life. We may forget as we age, the fire we once had in our veins as we were out kicking ass and taking names in our careers, but we are still her at our core.
We wave to our younger selves.
“Thank you for your grit, determination, and fearlessness! we yell, What a wonder you were to behold! You were responsible for some of the very best days of my life!”
She waves back. Smirking. She knows things she shouldn’t know, but she just does, somehow…
“I’m not going anywhere! I’m STILL right there INSIDE OF YOU and AVAILABLE to you AT ANY TIME! And you STILL have so much life left to LIVE!”
The older, wiser, more concentrated version of the Burning Acid woman I am today would entitle this photo:
“I Love Me So You Don’t Have To.”