“I expect, no, I DEMAND that you do what we say!” my mother shouted at me when I was nineteen years old. That was the way she always spoke to me, and I suffered a great deal due to their expectations. I was held up to impossibly high ideals at the same time that I was traumatized, beaten, sexually abused and told I was worthless. I was constantly compared to my older siblings and always found wanting while my own unique talents were ignored. Time after time I was set up to fail and then lambasted for it. I was hyper-criticized for all the small things I did in life, and eventually I incorporated this voice into my mind that refused to understand, to be reasonable about anything, but only condemned myself for what I haven’t done, what I “should have” done.
When I told my mother that I would probably need to take five years to finish college, I could see the rejection, judgment, and eye-rolling come out immediately. There could be no realism for her; she couldn’t see that I had an eating disorder and so many other crippling issues. No, it was always back to, ‘well, you’re sister didn’t…’ My mother never attended a day of college herself. But when I had finished with a 4.0 after my first year, she laughed at someone else who praised and went wild over my excellent grades; because the school I went to wasn’t deemed ‘as good’ as the one my sister graduated from, she felt herself above complimenting me. As she often screamed, “That’s what you should have been doing all along!” She saw herself in a higher league by way of my sister, and never took my desire to study, my abilities or potential seriously in the first place.
I had spent the previous three years in earnest work to alter my circumstances. I adopted a healthy diet and stable meal plan to lose weight, with the side effect that the persistent brain fog I had experienced (due to food allergens) also lifted. I opted to home school my last year and a half of high school in order to graduate at the same time I would have had I not repeated the eighth grade. With this new intellectual freedom, I began to blossom. And I was thin, for the first time in ten years, after so much taunting, self-hate, and despair, I lost over one hundred pounds. My sense of self and confidence were so fragile; but I thought that if I could feel good about the way I looked, then this new image in the mirror could become my identity. It could be my proof that I was worthy, that I was valuable, that I was different than I used to be; that my life could change after all.
Yet it didn’t change. The utter hopelessness I felt at the end of that first year of college was all consuming. My mother had sabotaged my attempts to move out, to differentiate myself and I found no one I could connect with, no way out of my life. As I regressed back into my eating disorder, everything I had grown to identify myself by–my health, stability, sharp mind and thin body vanished, and with it any small degree of self-esteem I had built up. I could no longer maintain my grades quite as high, and found it difficult to summon enough focus for my creative work. I collapsed under the weight of my repressed past. And I was sure that it was all my fault, that I was to blame for not taking the pressure without praise and support—that I couldn’t resist the attempts of others to derail me instead of helping, because they liked to say “I told you so.” My sister, who never provided any advice or guidance, later said to me, “you didn’t try hard enough!”
But in reality, it was all I could do. I see that now; if there was anything more I could have done in the past, I would have done it. After all, I’m not an inherently “lazy” “incompetent” or “stupid” person like they claimed I was. A good friend of mine wrote to me two years ago, “I don’t see you as someone who failed to achieve something,” but I didn’t agree with or really believe him. Since leaving college, I felt that the friends who I was losing contact with must have wildly successful, exciting lives that make me seem so insignificant that my own life isn’t even worth talking about. But when I reconnected with one of them recently I saw that this really wasn’t true. For such a long time, I was holding onto these judgments, and even projecting them onto people without really consulting them about it first. I filled up silences in my current relationships with old voices from my abusive family, without even realizing what I was doing.
For years I’ve beaten myself up, because I’m not thin enough, I haven’t become a wealthy and successful novelist, and haven’t had the fulfilling relationships I dreamt of. But do these expectations really come naturally from my starting point? A survivor of incest, neglect, physical and emotional abuse making his way with no family, a young gay man with a ton of issues, baggage, no confidence, severe anxiety… I don’t need to define myself solely on achievement, but aren’t there achievements in my real, wider life that deserve celebrating? Like how much progress I have made in healing, in recovering from my eating disorder, social anxiety, and repressed memories? Surely that is worth something, and is valuable in the context of my life. Everything is not just on the surface, and certainly not on the surface of the life I was told I had—the life where I wasn’t abused, but where I was the problem—where I supposedly hurt my family in order to “feel powerful” as my mother claimed.
These punishing, unrelenting judgments, about my weight, about the way I acted socially, about academic performance; they all originated from my family. The family who didn’t provide me with the encouragement, kindness, resources, and support to fulfill those expectations in childhood and young adulthood. I was given other mountains to climb, ones which few people make it over successfully. My family used me for their sexual gratification, as a punching bag, as a repository for their bad moods and bad days. My parents were not well-adjusted, successful people themselves, but they believed that they could give me a replica of their childhood yet acquire a different outcome through constant shouting and shaming. The reality is, I’ve had to set other priorities–to spend my time ungluing myself from their abusive cycles, voices and lies. And I felt like I’ve had to hide all of this, that it wasn’t appropriate to share. Yet in hiding my real life and concerns I perpetuated the image my family painted of me, that all I needed to do in life was simple and practical things but was failing at them due to my own personal flaws. With other people, I’ve been willing to be sympathetic and kind; I would never judge my peers from the same criteria I set for myself.
I’ve had run-ins in the past with those who belittled me for “taking yourself seriously,” but I think to do so is a good thing; If I don’t take myself and my real life seriously, who will? Serious is the right attitude with which to face the reality of my past and what it has meant; taking my emotions seriously, validating and believing them is essential. Keeping unreal, unseeing expectations inherited from others has not motivated me to improve my life, but has ensured the continuance of unhealthy patterns of self abuse which held me back. Where I am in life is understandable considering how it began. Why would I have had healthy eating patterns, a normal sex life, good relationships, and emotional stability after what I went through? Those things couldn’t have magically sprouted out of my head at 18 years old, before I had even begun to face the abuse. My past had to surface first, and while I’m in a better place today, I’m going to view everything through the lens of my truth, not what anyone else thinks.