Fear of Affirmation
Tonight I had one of those life affirming experiences.
For me, life is affirmed when I go through something, deal with it, learn the lesson, and then pass it on to others. 9 times out of 10, I fall into these experiences, often somewhat reluctantly. I guess I just don’t believe my life is interesting to anyone other than me – and maybe my husband.
A couple of weeks ago, I got an email inviting me to be a part of a storytelling event that would be recorded by the CBC. I thought about it, and given the date, decided there was indeed a story of value I could tell – the story of how I met my husband.
About 20 years ago there was this study that was published that said that a single woman over 40 has a better chance of getting hit by a bus, than getting married. I was just turning thirty at the time, and knowing how statistics work, I really didn’t give it any credence – besides, I had already been hit by a bus. The study has since been discredited, but there are still a lot of women who buy into it. Since I got married at 51, I thought my story was worth sharing.
Public speaking is not an issue for me; I have stood on the world stage and addressed people that should have intimidated me. Growing up in the family I did however, means that it is pretty hard to intimidate me. You may also recall however, me mentioning in a previous blog that I am socially phobic.
Here’s the deal; I am a painfully shy person. Most people don’t know this, and some people who know me don’t believe it. I’ve learnt to perform the extrovert very well.
For most of the first 13 years of my life, I was the baby in a large family. You learn to speak up if you want any attention. Outside of the family however, it was a little tougher; especially once I started feeling like the Other. Being visible meant risking being bullied. Being visible meant risking being hurt. Standing out brought the wrong kind of attention.
The solution? Put to work another skill set I had picked up; being invisible. I loved listening to grown folk talk. I quickly discovered that if they knew I was there, they would send me out of the room. I learnt that if I looked preoccupied while I played quietly on the fringe that they would forget I was there. That and keeping my mouth shut was how I got to hear the good stuff.
As I started school, I quickly learnt to use this skill set to fly below the radar. I was a precocious kindergartener. My grandfather was big on education, and supplemented ours in a big way. As all of us had to sit around the same table, Monday – Thursday night, from 7pm -bedtime, doing homework or extra assignments, I was exposed to advance stuff at an early age. I started kindergarten with my language skills on point, knew my alphabet, and could almost read and do basic math. Yeah, the smart brown kid was really popular. So I shrank into myself.
At age 7, I started spending my summers in Connecticut. My stepmother was a phenomenal and formidable woman. She was socially aware, and had a very good understanding of the Black reality. As such, she and her family understood that Black people could not afford to be shy. When I started to blossom physically, it became apparent to them that I was purposely diminishing myself. I hit 5’11” at age 13 and went from flat to a c-cup fluffy in the space of school year. That was about the time I develop a slouch.
The following summer would be a summer of adjustment. My stepmother and aunties are tall women as well, and they were not having the slouch. The aunties would smack me between the shoulders to force me to stand strait, and my stepmother bought me this elastic contraption that pulled against my shoulders as a constant reminder to stand tall. Together, they would explain about the importance of a Black woman projecting strength as a way of lessening the chance of being victimized, or worst, being overlooked. Standing tall and firm, projected strength.
At this stage in life I can recognise that I was blessed with an hourglass figure – though I have extra sand in the lower half. At a 13, my body invited attention I was ill equipped to deal with, particularly because I looked so grown. Worst than the icky attention I was getting from grown men was the mean-girling I was getting from the late bloomers.
Unlike my early years, I was now living with my mom, and experiencing what it was like to be an only child. Looking back now, I can see that it was the absolute worst time for me to be isolated from those I would have trusted enough to spill my guts to. My mom, being so traditionally West Indian, was not very sex positive. My bajun family was very religious, so no sex talk there. Over all, the developments of adolescence are by and large ignored –unless you break an unwritten rule or force them to see you by having other people notice you. This brought on a sense of shame as my feelings and experiences were not normalized, so I felt like a freak. Like something was wrong with me and I had to hide it.
So in Canada, I am hiding who I am, struggling through adolescence alone and feeling dirty and less than, while in the US, I am being told to stand proud and tall and stop fading into the woodwork, which makes me feel like I need to pretend, less they discover I am dirty and less than. On top of all of this, I am having experiences that I am internalizing without realizing that they stem from racism.
I eventually figured out to fake it until I could make it and cobbled together a personality that would work for me:
My grandfather is the voice of knowledge in my head, having taught me how to learn and be critical in my thoughts; I adopt his voice when having to represent.
My stepmother is the voice of wisdom in my head, keeping it real and saying it plain; I would adopt her voice when speaking truth.
My mother is statuesque in her carriage, and dignified in her presentation; I would mimic her confidence.
My father has a charismatic presence, and takes up space apologetically; I would mimic his gregariousness.
My grandmother was the still waters that ran deep; I would find safety in her distance.
It would take almost 15 years for those first four characteristics to go from all performance to internalize, and the fifth one, would serve me well, but cause all kinds of mixed signals.
So on a night like tonight, telling a self-revelatory story to a live audience while being recorded for TV – when I said yes to the gig, I thought it was being recorded in studio for radio- it really does come easy to me to be up there – nothing but performance.
When I get off stage however ; my idea of a nightmare starts. What comes off stage is not the relaxed, well spoken, no shame to her game Crone I am becoming. No, what comes off stage is the gawky 13 year old girl, who does not understand what you’re fussing about because there is nothing good or special about her, and who thinks you are punking her and will turn on her at any moment.
So instead of being able to share that moment with someone, I start to feel panic; an overwhelming fear that any moment you will see her, and treat her like so many before you.
No, I don’t have DID. I refer to “her” because, though she will always be a part of me, she is not me. In order to remember that on a night like this though, I need to dive into still waters. So, simply put, I run away, often leaving folks behind thinking I don’t like them, or appreciate their kind words/efforts or that I am just rude or a snob.
Nothing could be further from the truth, which is that I won’t hear their kind words until I am in a space safe enough to calm her. Then it all comes to me; the hugs, the faces lit up with discovery, the thankful appreciation. Then I can let the experience into my heart and feel affirmed.