Recently I said, “I will not allow the perceived thoughts or lack of action of others to impede my progress.” It seems to me there are two ways of thinking. I can see what I believe or I can believe what I see.
In terms of Al-Anon that means I can continue to look at things through the eyes of the past or I can look at things in the eyes of the present. I can continue to hear the negative words that were said about me and feel the negativity of those events or I can think maybe that was just one person’s opinion.
If you have read my About Me page then you may recall that at the age of six my father thought I was “STUPID!” It was communicated in a loud, drunk, livid rage and said with absolute conviction. I experienced it in such a traumatic way that I immediately vomited. Vomiting caused my Dad to become even more enraged that he ran into the bathroom and began shaking me furiously as I knelt over the toilet. “Did you hear what I said?! Did you hear me!?” At that age I thought my father was extremely smart so if he said I was stupid then it must be true. And if he was that angry with me for even thinking I may have heard him then I better deny it.
That moment instigated my lack of self-esteem as a child and defined a large portion of my life. For whatever reason, I believed with every fiber of my being that I was stupid. Looking back through the eyes of an adult I can tell you my Dad was getting out of me the effort he was putting in. None. I can also tell you I was a victim of circumstances. At six you can’t possibly have this knowledge.
I have a cousin whose parents read books to him every night. They played memory games. They practiced numbers and the alphabet. They did homework with him. No one read books to me. No one practiced math with me. No one helped me with homework. Additionally, after my parents were divorced my Mom and I moved every year so I was always in a new school and staring over. And the more behind in school I became the less my teachers took the time to teach me. I recall one teacher telling me “you should know this already” and refused to explain or answer any of my questions. She stomped away angry, gave me the silent treatment and refused to make eye contact with me. She gave her attention and rewards to other kids who indeed already knew how to do it. Eventually I stopped asking questions.
Over time, I believed what I was told and I self sabotaged to be the ‘stupid’ everyone appeared to think I was. By the age of 10, I couldn’t read more than ‘see Jane run’. I couldn’t multiply or divide. I was at my fifth school by the fifth grade. I was literally failing and the school was threatening to hold me back a grade. Finally, my Mom found a teacher willing to tutor me that summer. All it took was one person to take the time to sit with me one on one and that summer I learned enough to proceed to middle school.
I started trying harder in school. I did it in a futile effort to win my father’s love. I still struggled but I was trying. And the year after tutoring I made it onto the honor roll. I was so excited. I got off the school bus that day. I ran home and into the kitchen where the phone hung on the wall. (You remember that thing called a land line.) I didn’t even take my coat off, I picked up that phone and I dialed my Dad’s phone number and I paced back and forth as long as the phone cord would reach, out into the dining room and back into the galley kitchen of our apartment. And when my Dad picked up I said in a tizzy of excitement, “Guess What?! Guess What?!” I got on the honor roll.”
As I am sure you can imagine, my expectation of what would follow and what actually happened did not match up. My Dad’s response was literally a slow, monotone … “that’s nice” followed by a condescending “now what you need to do is …” by now I stopped listening and my heart sank as I felt completely unloved once again. The honor roll wasn’t enough to hear congratulations, good job, I knew you could do it or I always knew you were smart. And it certainly wasn’t enough to hear I love you.
I can tell you it started out with the words chess club. Here I am the most unpopular middle school girl in my class and his advice to me, who only wants love and acceptance from absolutely anyone, is to join the chess club! What!?!?!? No offense intended if you love to play chess, but in the early 80s joining the chess club wasn’t going to win you any friends or popularity contests. Most importantly, though by not acknowledging my accomplishment he continued to validate my stupidity. The message was re-engrained into every fiber of my being. I couldn’t escape it. My Dad thinks I’m stupid.
I could have given up, but no. I was going to earn his love. He was going to tell me I was smart. By the time I graduated high school I was in the top ten of my class. I recall at excelling in classes like trigonometry, pre-calculus. I earned A’s in those classes and it wasn’t being graded on a curve, like some of my other classes. I remember being so proud of myself for that dam pre-calculus class because I had already earned all the math credits I needed to graduate but I took that class anyway just because I was good at it. But the love, acceptance and approval never came from my Dad.
There were other factors beginning to reinforce his belief. No one encouraged me to go to college. Matter of fact, my Dad told me not to go at all. I learned later this had more to do with his failures than anything to do with me, but at the time I didn’t know that. And in my own mind, I diminished my own ‘top ten’ achievement because I told myself inner city schools aren’t as good as private schools. I believed if I had gone to a more difficult school, like the private school my father attended, that I would have been the stupid one in my class. In some ways those math classes improved my self esteem but in other ways they didn’t even get me to the first rug on the ladder of self esteem. I still thought of myself as the kid who couldn’t read.
One Christmas my Grandma gave me a romance novel to read. Even though I knew how to read now and I was in the top ten of my class, I was still a horribly slow reader. Math, no sweat. Reading and comprehension was a different story. It took me a full year to read that book. My Mom would say, “you’re still reading that book!? Haven’t you forgotten what happened since the last time you picked up that book?” In reality, I loved that book. And the pride in finishing that book still warms my heart. I didn’t find my love of reading for another decade, but I still have that book. And I have read it many times over.
These days’ kids think about college long before it ever entered my consciousness. No one encouraged me to think about my future. When I finally did start to think about it all I heard was you can’t do that, doubtful laughter at the ridiculousness of my dreams or how are you going to pay for that. I said maybe I’d go into architecture or computers or psychology and I got the look. That wide eyed look that says you are not being realistic. You can’t do that. These days I tend to believe what they were really thinking is that they couldn’t do that. The generation before mine didn’t send many girls to college. And my Mom was dealing with her own “you’re stupid” experience of her own.
There are tests you have to take to gain admission to college. I was at the top ten of my class, but I could not pass these tests with a high enough score to enter directly into credit classes. Emotionally, I was right back to the fifth grade. When someone explained how to do something I could do it, no problem. But when you had to apply the concept out of the blue, say use a specific formula without being told which formula, I was unable to make the connection. And I was still such a slower reader that time was up before I got to answering the comprehension questions. I would end up filling in “B”, “C”, “B”, “C”, “B”, “C”, all the way down the answer card. So art school it is.
That didn’t exactly go smoothly either. Art School is expensive! And as everyone asked me before I started. What are you going to do with a fine art degree? For me personally it turns out, nothing. My bad. I spent the next several decades working dead end jobs paying off that completely useless degree. I should have followed a degree path that leads you directly into a specific job. It would have suited me to have that kind of structure, but I didn’t believe I could. It was easier to believe I couldn’t. Which lead to years of a more difficult life I may have been able to avoid had I just believed in myself. I worked hard before to go from failing to top ten. I could have worked hard again to take the remedial non-credit classes and then proceed onto credit classes. But the thought of remedial classes just reinforced the stupidity factor so I avoided them like the plague.
But you can only do crap jobs for so long and then you become angry and depressed and angry and broke. And did I mention angry and depressed and broke?
Something had to change. Me.
To be continued……
Do you self-sabotage to be the person you were told you were, like I did?