My mother used to laugh at me when I cried. Weakness was the cardinal sin in the house. Before you think my mother is a monster, you should know the reasons. My mom was afraid, afraid that her sweet, sensitive, intellectual daughter would get eaten alive in a cold world that had eaten her alive. She did what she thought she had to do to save me from a world that would punish me for weakness, for tears, for over sensitivity. I look back on this now and it is easy to be angry, I’m angry for every tear I never got to shed and for the years I’ve spent thinking of myself as cold, unfeeling, and indestructible. I’m angry that those words came to define me more than my intelligence, or my kindness or my deep sense of loyalty and love for others. But most of all, I’m angry because I can’t tell my mother she was wrong. The world was every bit as cold and unfeeling and dark as she made it out to be and I needed to be strong enough to survive. But most of all, I’m angry because instead of working towards creating a world where she would have been wrong I’ve been simultaneously encouraged to be tough and unfeeling while having my anger thrown back in my face as some sort of explanation for the cold world I was facing.
As a little girl, I used to walk around after the rainstorms and pick up worms and put them back in the ground. Teachers often put their most challenging students next to me because they knew I’d help without judgment. I readily went hungry to feed other kids. I cried at the end of books like the Outsiders and I hated bullies with a passion. This is the part of me that I’ve always loved more, that I’ve always wanted to just be able to inhabit at all times. But I didn’t have that option because I was born a soldier in a war against my own people and I don’t just mean poor people, I also mean people who feel things and intellectuals, and artists. People who are different. People for whom this is going to ring painfully true. I mean the war the hunts the better angels of our nature and calls hope unrealistic. I didn’t ask to be a soldier in that war. Had I been born into circumstances where I didn’t have to fight, I’d be sitting in a science lab somewhere peacefully living my life with calmness and joy. Instead I’ve spent the last 28 years holding back tears and playing the role of the warrior and I’ve done a damn good job, I know because some people have gotten the mistaken impression that this is all that I am and that this is what I want.
I often wish now that I had the capacity to make my emotions visible, because then maybe people would have known when I was struggling. Then maybe I could have demonstrated my human failings. Then maybe I wouldn’t be so tired from having to act all of the time. People are surprised when I need help, people will often push me past my limits because my pain isn’t visible to them, they don’t see the way I’ve been trained like Pavlov’s dogs to fear demonstrations of weakness. They don’t know how many times my sweet, vulnerable, sensitive nature has been violated, destroyed, and mocked. They don’t know how exhausting it is to keep lugging this sword everywhere. They haven’t had to pick up the pieces when I’ve needed help. They haven’t had to rock me to sleep or get me through my panic attacks. And they don’t know that I’ve been hiding all of this not for my benefit but for everyone else’s. Because what happens when I have opened up? When I tell people about my life and what I’ve been through, it causes them pain. It makes them uncomfortable. It is hard for them to hear. It makes them feel bad. So I hide everything to avoid being a burden to anyone, because I’ve existed in a world where I have to justify my existence. I have to be of some use or I risk losing everything because I have been entitled to nothing.
So they say I have a bad temper. They talk to me about my language instead of asking how I’m doing. They pick fights with me without considering how much I need to hear something positive. They tear me down to build themselves up. They assume that I don’t need to hear anything positive because I’m so strong, I must already know! They think this is fun for me. That this constant struggle is a lifestyle I enjoy that is a completely authentic choice. I didn’t get the choice about my activism, I had to do it to survive in a system that’s been trying to kill me since I was born. They call me a bitch. They expect me to have perfect super human strength at all times. They demand I do things they themselves can’t do. Then they question my sanity instead of questioning the sanity of the world that made someone so sensitive so shut down.
And this is one thing when the “they” don’t know me. When they know me from my writing or the internet or when they have just met me, but what hurts the most is the people who do know me. The people who have watched me bend over backwards and sacrifice my body for my students. The people who I have cared for, the people I have fought for, the people I have tried to protect. It’s the people who I have seen me with animals and with books in my quiet hours who haunt me the most. Because I know they love me, but they don’t love the part of me that needs to be fed because that person stands at odds with the person they need me to be and they haven’t considered what I need.
But I can’t be that person anymore, because that person was destroying herself. What I can be is wonderfully loving, gentle and kind. Maybe that’s the only way to do my part to make it such that little girls don’t have to be told their sweeter nature is a life threatening liability.