Your fellow storyteller

Written on August 27, 2014.

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My friend, Diana, and I meet for lunch once a week. It’s rare to see anyone regularly now — you have to understand, we reason, it’s the inescapable busyness of life — so to maintain a pretty consistent track record is a post-college miracle. When Di and I meet, we immediately launch into the new things we’ve seen or learned since we last saw one another: that Bali trip, the party in Nueva Ecija, the tiny heartbreak one of us had at work or school. We don’t hesitate to fill the conversation with all the minuscule details that come with being alive. My favorite part of our little ritual is when the small talk dies to give way to the honest stuff. The deep stuff.

Last week, Di and I met in iHOP. After a mug of coffee, after the usual banter had come to a slow halt, she looked at me and said: “Isa, I am so terribly insecure.” I set my spoon down and listened. “I’m scared that who I am will never be enough, that all I am is this boring, uninteresting person and that nobody will actually stay. Once the novelty of meeting me wears off, no one sticks around. What if that’s the truth about me?”

I couldn’t believe she was saying this. Di is a beautiful soul with a gentleness and altruism that has thrived in an often-angry world — to hear her say that she might be less than wonderful riled me up inside. How could you, how could you, how could you? And yet, insecurity does that to us, doesn’t it? Insecurity stomps into the middle of our hearts. It calls for the demons and breaks out the lies. We’re thrown against funhouse mirrors and we forget, in the madness of its wake, who we are.

Insecurity tells us that we were meant for shadows.

I want you to know that my self-esteem used to be so depressingly low. I grew up around bullies. If you ever studied in an all-girls school, you know what I’m talking about. The bullying had nothing to do with fist fights or sucker punches. The bullying was psychological. The bullying looked like whispers when you walked down a corridor. It looked like eyebrows arched, a smirk or even worse, being treated like you were invisible. It looked like getting slapped with ugly labels (dead kid, loner, loser) or being told that you didn’t have the currency to belong, that you weren’t pretty or popular or smart enough to be the kind of girl who never got victimized. The bullying was subtle but it was also all-too-real for a ten-year-old kid who didn’t know how — or who — to be.

This is not a literary pity party. This is context. This is me telling you about the narrative that played on repeat in my head for so long. I was fed a lie not too long ago and I believed it. On some days, I still believe it. I am still self-conscious. I have days when Instagram and Facebook just wreck me. When comparison turns me into a jealous mess of a woman, the kind I can’t even stand, The kind that makes me feel so terribly ashamed. I have days where I wonder is this me? Is this really me? Is this who I have become?

I was talking to my students about feminist literature awhile ago and I said: “The thing is, no matter how much progress we make, we’re always capable of regression. We’re always capable of undoing the progress and that’s what’s really scary.” The same can be true about me, about what happens when I let the age-old narrative win. Every day, against the noise of the world that tells me I’m nothing, I have to get out of bed and say: I AM SIGNIFICANT. And I have to believe it.

A lot of days are spent holding on to this truth like a lifeline. And some days, since we’re being honest and all, are spent in despair. But it’s better. It’s miles better than it used to be.

How did I get over the crippling insecurity of my childhood, one might ask. The turning point, I think, happened when I was fresh out of college, heartbroken by lost love. Because a boy had, once again, left me, the narrative that the bullies had created about me rang louder and louder except this time, it was worse because I could imagine my ex writing the story with them, saying you were never worthy. So I did what many broken girls before me have done: I cut my hair.

It was the shortest I had ever cut my hair and it was the first real thing I had done for myself since the breakup that wasn’t hinged on anything – or anyone – else. It was then that I started to notice that the more things I did for me, the more the story changed. The lies got a little less loud, the bullies started to shut up, the boy disappeared. So I began a blog, paraglided in a beach on Christmas Day, went to New York with my best friend, started an organization. So I joined a mixer, got life insurance, bought a dog, joined a hiphop class even though I knew I’d be terrible at it.  For the first time in 9 years, I did not curate my life around someone else’s.  I did things that my insecure self had always been too terrified to do. Before I knew it, the story started looking like it actually belonged to me.

And one day, I realized that it did. Every bloody, terrible, fantastic, glorious detail was mine to keep. And hold. And tell.

A few years ago, on the day that boy and I broke up, I told him that he made me feel like I wasn’t good enough. A few days ago, I stumbled upon an e-mail he had sent me around that time that said, quite simply: “It’s not that you’re not good enough — it’s that you’re too good for me.” Maybe it was a line. Maybe he was just saying it to not look like an asshole. But while I didn’t hear it before, I’m hearing it now. And I’m choosing to look at it as truth, to step into the light and use it as arsenal for the next time insecurity rears its ugly head.

Nothing grows in the shadows. And I am not nothing.

“Di,” I told her. “You get to change the narrative. Maybe it’s time to.”

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