The assistant director accidentally made me cry in dance rehearsal Sunday. We were spending some much needed time on character development, and she had us do this exercise where we all lay back on the floor and think of ourselves at three different ages: age twelve, the age we are now, and what we want to be like when we’re old. The idea is to be able to draw on your own emotions to make those of your character more realistic. It’s been a long time since I was involved in a project that requires so much of my theatre chops, so I think I’d forgotten that this kind of emotional recall doesn’t work well for me as an actor.
My childhood, while it had its good points, isn’t a nice place to revisit without a mental health professional standing by. I know everyone has their baggage, and being twelve is really no picnic for anyone. But I have to tote my baggage around with a forklift. I’m talking an early-childhood trauma that led to repressed memory that I only found out about a couple years ago. It’s something that I can’t openly discuss until certain family members die. Something that, now I’m aware of it, I can see has colored my struggles with depression and social anxiety my whole life.
I probably should have warned the assistant director about this, but I didn’t think we’d be going that deep into mind-fuck land for character development. Not even when she told us to think about when we were twelve. Normally I wouldn’t say twelve was that bad, not until I really think back to it. Nothing terribly traumatic happened outside of your normal awkward, shy girl facing the hell that is junior high scenario.
But then, I thought back to it. And I realized that twelve was fucking awful.
When I was twelve, I was lonely and lost. I was still steeped in a religious culture that didn’t fulfill me spiritually, in which I didn’t really believe but I didn’t have any way out. I was part of a broken family, save the technicality that my parents were still married and living in the same house. I was already in a C cup, thanks to early over-gifting from the Boob Fairy, and putting on weight from the stress and the complications of puberty. I’d been in the same class of about 75 students since kindergarten; except for a handful of kids who’d just moved to town, everybody had known me for as long as I can remember. And they all thought I was weird.
To their credit, I was weird. I am weird, and have always been weird. But that was back before I embraced it, when I still so desperately wanted to be normal and accepted. While my body and mind were maturing, socially I was still way behind my peers. There were people I hung out with at school, but not really anyone I would now call a true friend (there’s one or two, but we didn’t really become friends until late in high school or after graduation). No one I saw outside of school or church. I very, very rarely invited anyone to my house for fear that my parents would get into it while I had company or that my mom would freak out about something random. I can count on one hand the times I went to a classmate’s house all through junior high and high school. I was very hesitant to trust anyone because every time I did, my secret would be blabbed and become amusement or ammunition for my peers. At best they teased me. At worst, they just ignored me. That sense of social stigma and unworthiness that still haunts me, that fuels the stupid little voice in the back of my mind, it started right there in junior high.
So many things were out of my control when I was twelve. I couldn’t do anything about the fact that my parents hated each other, that they were too proud to admit their marriage was a complete and total disaster. They were “staying together for the kids,” but sometimes I wish they’d got up the guts to split before things got to their worst. I remember hiding in my room with headphones on and a pillow over my head, or going out back and down into the pasture just to get away from it. No matter what I did, the kids at school didn’t like me. I had to go to church because my parents said so; there were no other religious options, no openness to other ideals, no chance at finding something else to nurture and nourish my spirit.
So I took what little control I could: I strove to be the best at everything. If I had no choice but to be a Christian, I was going to be the best goddamn Christian anyone had ever seen. I would make the best grades, be first chair in band, anything I could do I would do well. The good thing is, that desire to do something to the best of my ability is still with me. The bad thing is I missed out on so much. I didn’t have any fun. And it made me kind of stuck up and a perfectionist, which only made my classmates dislike me even more.
What’s worst is it made me hate myself. I hated myself. I was a snooty little jerk, too awkward to even understand that if she’d stop trying so hard to prove herself to everyone else, if she would let herself be someone she could like or maybe even love—if she would just be who she really was—other people would like her, too. I was a know-it-all who knew too much to see what an idiot she was, who couldn’t fathom why everything she was trying to do to fit in only made her stand out worse, who couldn’t figure out why all this was only making her more lonely and more depressed.
The only things I really had were music and books. If I wasn’t too busy being the best at something, I was reading, in my room or up in the deer stand out back or in the branches of my favorite tree. When I wasn’t too busy trying to prove myself, I was listening to music or making music or dancing in my room. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough of that when I was twelve. Maybe if I’d done it more often, it wouldn’t have taken me until my mid-twenties to figure out what I’m really passionate about.
I don’t like to remember that girl, because I’m not her anymore. I haven’t been for a very long time. Now, just days shy of twenty-eight, I look back at that girl and don’t even see her as me. Now I know what I love to do, what I’ve always loved to do. I’ve found my passion for dance, for writing. I have real friends, friends who like and love me for exactly who I am. I’ve learned to let go of that need to be perfect, because perfect isn’t possible, or maybe because I’m already perfect just as I am. I have a nephew I adore. I have a real relationship with my dad, who is happier and emotionally healthier with my step-mom than he ever was with my mother. I’m not as close to some others in my family as I used to be, but maybe that’s for the best. I know I’m a worthwhile human being. I’ve found a way to fill that need for spirituality without having to pretend I believe in something I don’t. I take care of myself. I love myself. I teared up just writing those words. I love myself, exactly the way I am.
It’s not all fine and dandy. There are things I wish I had more of (money, time, real vacations) and others I wish I had less of (belly fat, annoying coworkers, health issues). It would be nice to have a significant other at some point. There are things I still need to deal with, decisions I need to make. The adult in me still argues with my inner-child more than I’d like; there are still things I want to do that I talk myself out of due to practicality, or fear. I am still shy. I am still saddened by social injustice, by life’s little injustices, by the pain of others. I am still a little too empathetic for my own good. But for the most part, for the first time in my life, I can say I’m happy and really, truly mean it.
I know my past is a part of me. That what didn’t kill me only made me stronger. That what didn’t break me made me. If I hadn’t been that lonely, lost twelve-year-old then, I might not be where I am now.
But that doesn’t mean I like to remember her.