When I was a preschooler, because my mom worked, she arranged for another woman to look after me in the afternoons, until my mom could pick me up. This woman, Mrs. O, had a little boy about my age. We played together and mostly had a good time.
Sometimes, another little girl who lived in the neighborhood joined us. Those times were not so good for me. The little boy liked her better than he liked me. They were preschool “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.” The little girl teased me, because she wanted to make her primacy clear. The little boy joined in, because he wanted to impress her. It hurt.
I knew hurting me meant nothing to them.
I learned people who claim to be your friends can be cruel.
Later, when I was in third grade, my school merged with another school and I met a whole new group of children. They were also cruel. They teased me about my weight, about my haircut, about my nonconformity. It hurt even more than the old teasing, because it was relentless, every day. I wanted to stop hurting, so I tried to get help from adults. Remember, I was eight years old. The adults said, “What did you do to bring it on?” and “Suffer in silence,” and “Just don’t let it get to you.” They said, “If I try to stop it, it’ll only get worse.”
I knew these were all bullshit excuses. I knew the adults didn’t care and couldn’t be bothered.
I learned to endure. I learned my pain didn’t matter.
At about twelve, I started experiencing periods of depression and suicidal thoughts. When I was fourteen, I started to self-harm. I was afraid and wanted help.
My mom said, “It’s just a phase.” She said, “I’m not taking you to a psychiatrist because they’ll just say I’m a bad mother, and I’m not.” She said, “You’re just trying to get attention.” She said, “How can you do this to ME?” She said, “Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
My dad said, “Why do you treat your mother like dirt?”
When, after over a year, I did see a psychologist, she said, “You’re a normal teenager with normal teenage problems.” She said, “You just need a boyfriend.”
I knew self-harming was not normal. I knew a boyfriend wouldn’t help. I knew I wasn’t having depression and self-harming to get attention, or to punish anyone but myself. I knew it was NOT “just a phase.” I knew it was real. I have always known it is real.
I learned people are uncomfortable with and afraid of mental illness. I learned people are ignorant and don’t listen, because they’re too uncomfortable to hear it. I learned these things apply even to those who are supposed to be treating mental illness. I learned no one knows more about my feelings and my experience than I do.
I learned to keep quiet and become small, because when people are uncomfortable, they take it out on the thing causing their discomfort. And the cause of the discomfort was me.
I was the grain of sand in the oyster. The grain of sand causes the oyster to secrete a substance to protect itself from discomfort. This is how pearls are formed. A grain of sand, quiet and small, acquires a nacreous coating, which, ironically, makes it much bigger, more valuable, and harder to ignore.
Later, I got fed up with being quiet and small. I got fed up with people abusing me instead of facing their discomfort. I vowed I would speak my truth and take no shit, and anyone who didn’t like it could go straight to hell. I refused responsibility for other people’s dysfunction. I’ve strayed from keeping this vow many times, but on the whole, I’ve lived by it. It’s been freeing to say, “This is who I am.” To say, “I have no responsibility to read your mind when you won’t tell me the truth.” To say, “Help me or don’t; I don’t care. But don’t blame me for the choice you make.” To say, “What I do is what I do. I won’t let you take what small power I have by making it about you.”
It took me twenty-five years, a lot of therapy, and a huge amount of introspection to be able to say these things.
Yesterday, a British news site posted an article about how the mentally ill are not considered a “vulnerable population” unless they have an accompanying physical illness. A friend of mine responded with the #InShadowSelfie campaign for mental health awareness. I am rather in awe of the power of this idea and the huge, positive response. At the same time, I am absolutely aghast that it’s necessary in this 21st century. I’m horrified at how being small and quiet about mental illness is habitual, even compulsory, for so many people, STILL.
Yesterday, my Twitter feed was full of my friends talking about how unsafe it is for them to speak about their depression, or anxiety, or mania, or other mental health problems in certain corners of social media. How friends and family members respond with all the same, old bullshit I heard forty years ago and more. “You’re being too dramatic.” “You just want attention.” “Don’t be so personal!” “Suck it up and deal with it.” All that shit. How they have to keep small and silent because for some reason they can’t get away from these people. Can’t get away from the negative messages, that they then internalize. Now sometimes, they even try to change to be more what other people want. To make other people more comfortable.
I wrote this post for those friends of mine to tell them the people who tell them all that bullshit are oysters. They tell you to shut up because they’re uncomfortable. You have every right to be loud and to take up space. To express your feelings wherever you like. To say what you need to say. You have every right to block harmful words that diminish you and encourage you to stay quiet and small. To divorce yourself from all that crap. Yes, even if it comes from family members and people you love. You have every right to tell them to take their discomfort elsewhere, keep it out of your space. You have every right NOT TO BE HURT FURTHER by people who don’t understand you and have no desire to do so.
You don’t have to do any of these things because I say so. But you do have the right.
And remember, you are more than a grain of sand, causing irritation. You are a pearl in the making. And one day, you will leave the darkness where you grew. And you will shine.