I have learned now that while those who speak about one’s miseries usually hurt, those who keep silence hurt more.
~ C. S. Lewis
Tom Hansel once said, “We cannot avoid pain, but we can avoid joy.” I don’t really know who Tom Hansel is, but in his one little sentence, I started thinking about my life in an entirely different way. As a neglected and abused child, the only other choice that I had was death. Although I never really considered that to be a choice until I was much older, the obligation that I had was to endure. Still, I managed somehow to find joy in that life of abuse and neglect as most children do. The resiliency of a child is astonishing because despite all the wrongs, I focused on the happiness I found at school, with friends, playing with pets or my brothers, or spending time with my aunt and my grandparents. It wasn’t the lack of joy that ruled my life as a child; it was the secrets.
Where does that leave me growing into adulthood? In my teen years, I often reflected on the acts of my mother: the things she said to me that left me confused and questioning, the names she called me that made me feel less than whole, the actions she took toward me that made me feel deserving of punishment, and the actions she neglected to take that made me feel unworthy of love. For me, these feelings were facts, and if she, my very own mother who declared that she loved me, felt this way about me, then how must others view me? My thinking brought me to the conclusion that I would never be good enough for anyone the way I was, therefore, I must earn love.
My next question was, how do you earn love? Maybe it was in the same way that you earn money from a job or a good grade in school. You work hard at it and give people what they want no matter what. As I went about that approach, I often found myself being used and not really cared for, which further substantiated my claim of unworthiness. Early on I equated sex with evilness because of the things that happened to me, but I was more than willing to give away my true self other ways. I gave my babysitting money to my boyfriend so he could buy gas for his car to hang out with his friends while I stayed at home awaiting his call. I paid for movies just so he would take me out so I could enjoy his company. I became his own personal ATM machine before they were even invented. I did my boyfriend’s homework so he could play basketball with his friends because he let me tag along.
It wasn’t just with boys that I was willing to serve them as though they were the master. I did this with girlfriends, too. I gave away clothes, makeup, jewelry as a bribery for friendship. I took the fall for friends so they wouldn’t be in trouble and would remain my friends. After all, my mother wasn’t at home to punish me. But I was still left without joy and had no idea that it was optional. I often cried about the way I felt, but those tears just made me try harder and harder until I got to the point that I realized no matter how hard I tried, I could never overcome the inevitable. I was a seriously flawed person that no one would ever love.
My next move was to punish myself for these flaws. No matter what impressions, real or imaginary, I thought other people had of my character, I never questioned anyone’s views of my exterior. Often times I heard comments about how pretty I was from adults as well as my peers. My mind felt a huge mismatch in the inner and outer parts of me. So, for lack of being able to equate my outside with the in, I began fasting as a punishment. I didn’t deserve food because all my efforts at being worthy had failed. I deserved the misery that was bestowed on me for all the wrongs I had done, for all that I could not be, for all I could not live up to. My weight plummeted down to 80 pounds. People started asking questions: “Why aren’t you eating?” “Are you trying to lose weight?” “Do you think you are fat or something?”
What they did not ever fully understand was I did not stop eating because of my attitude about my outwardly appearance. It was more about the way I felt inside. I knew that losing weight was making me look bad. I had the idea that my appearance should match how I felt about myself as a human. As sick as that seems, no one did anything about it even though most viewed it as a problem.
There was another problem that was brewing. That problem was my choice in friends. Isn’t this always a bone of contention between teens and their parents? My mother did not approve of my friends. So, in a failed attempt to run away at age 15, my mother admitted me to a psychiatric ward of a private hospital. I’ll save the details of this for another day, but it was while I was a patient for a month in this ward that I gained a voice to speak of the evils that my mother had been committing against me all these years. More importantly, it was during this time that t I realized that not only was misery optional, in many cases, pain was, too. I had the power to not let my mother hurt me anymore, not by words or actions. I had the power to change myself into a person who finds happiness from within. I had the power of choice. I chose to recognize the thieves of my joy and to start focusing on the joy that could be found inside my heart if I loved myself first.
Today, this is the best advice I can give myself. We all know what they say about opinions, and I leave those to other people to sort through. I can’t fence myself in with the opinions of others or else they will trample me to death. In Proverbs, I read that, “A happy heart is like medicine to the soul.” I still believe that relationships exist for happiness, and that the happiness of others should be honored, respected, and cherished. But I also believe that I have within the inherent qualities of love, life, freedom, joy, peace, and happiness. True happiness is first and foremost found within. Misery is optional.