Look, I’ll be honest. For decades — DECADES, since I was a wee thing — I have wrestled with depression, fear-of-future and guilt-of-past. I’ve done my best not to let it stop me, but it’s been a hell of a lot of hard work. At the same time, it has helped me to be incredibly compassionate and non-judging about clients who come to me with the same difficulties and shadows over them.
But it was still always there in the background.
And then, I cleaned out the last box from my parents’ house a couple of months ago.
This has been with me since 2009, when my beloved stepmother passed and the house was finally sold after being in our family for 41 years.
As I went through it, there were some wonderful, nostalgic bits — the book of condolences from my father’s memorial service, the articles I wrote as a senior in high school that got published in a major Philadelphia newspaper, and dozens and dozens of family photographs.
But then I found things from my earliest childhood that, when I read them over with an attentive mind and heart, I recognized were what had falsified my personal narrative since the 1960s.
Originally, going to a public school in Camden NJ, the administrator wrote to my parents and recommended that I skip not one, but TWO grades — that my first-grade teacher said I was a pleasure to teach, a leader in class and clearly gifted, but was not being at all challenged in the standard system.
So my parents had me tested for a Quaker school in nearby Moorestown. (Religion was not a precursor for admission.) The school admitted that I was “in the top 1% of the nation for IQ” but felt that I would do better staying in the normal grade, rather than skipping anything, for “emotional stability.”
So there I went, to a totally different school milieu. And that is when my personal self-loathing began.
In those days, at that school, if a gifted child was bored or disruptive, there was no thought to the fact that they might be in the wrong place or grade. No, the CHILD was always to blame, so all of a sudden I was undisciplined, sloppy in my work, and “paranoid” — “she should learn kindness, but she always insists she is being persecuted.”
In the box, I found that my parents had kept all of those report cards. That the only note from me my parents had kept and dated was one I wrote in anger and despair to them at age seven or eight. My parents bought into the damning reports, wondering if I didn’t need to see a psychiatrist, and treating me as the disappointing failure in the family.
When you are the little four-eyed Jewish kid in a Quaker school in the 1960s, being kind to those who bully and exclude you is a tall order.
When you are the new kid in class, it’s hard when the teachers clearly dislike you and show it.
I found my third grade class picture, and the energy is straight out of “Addams Family Values” — the pretty, sweet WASP-y kids were all in the front. In the back? The fat kids, the ugly kids, the Jewish kids, including me. (Lest you think it was by height, I was one of the shortest in my class at that point.)
Eventually, when we moved to Cherry Hill from Camden, I went back to public school in junior high and, while life was not suddenly blissful (homelife was still dysfunctional), theatre and history got me through things and gave me direction.
After high school was the constant search for meaning, for worth, and trying to find a way to apologize to the world for being who I was. I left an Ivy League school after two and a half years because I had never learned that studying would gain me anything; I assumed I’d always fail anyway. Everything I did afterward— theatre to Renaissance re-enacting to a string of different jobs and two failed marriages — simply seemed to prove to my family (and the world) that I was as worthless as they thought I was.
Then came the man who didn’t listen to the internal story I told myself. He fell in love with me, and we got married, and he has spent the last twentysome years quietly proving to me that I was worth loving, and that the internal story wasn’t real.
So when I found those items a few months ago, I did not see them as proof of my worthlessness. I saw them as poisonous lies about who I had been, who I had wanted to be, and who I COULD have been with people who believed in me rather than merely assumed I was the child that would always bring them regret.
I burned those papers. Burned them all. And allowed myself to rage for that long-ago me.
Within twenty-four hours, it was as if I drank some magic elixir.
I no longer see myself as a disappointment, or a failure. I know my worth, I know it’s not a fluke but hard-earned, and I know that I am a survivor in more ways that I can possibly express.
I have never done the psychiatric route my parents thought I needed. Instead, for years, I have done self-examination, looking for the key — and I finally found it in an old box of memories.
On a soul-level, perhaps I needed to go through all this. But now that I have learned how false it all was, and the self-inflicted pain it encouraged, I will NEVER accept it again, and do everything I can to teach this most potent lesson to every client I have.
I write this to tell you that you can DITCH THE STORIES YOU HAVE BEEN TOLD ABOUT YOURSELF. I don’t care how long you’ve heard them, and I don’t care how thoroughly you think you deserve the condemnation.
You are not worthless. You are not a failure. You can change anything and everything you think about yourself right this moment.
The only person whose judgment of yourself you should accept is yours. You are the one who loves yourself at the last. You are the one who has walked your own road, faced your own challenges, and told the world “I will not give up. I am here, and I will stay here because I deserve to live.”
Live, my dear ones. Live, so that when you are done with this mortal coil you will have joy, and victory, and resilience to look back on as your gift to yourself.