First published in Celebration U – Self-Compassion 101 from the Raising Loveliness community.
You are not who they said you were, you are who you say you are. ~ Jason Alexander
My mother was 14 when she discovered she was pregnant with me. I was almost aborted, but instead I was adopted out at birth. My new mother was a woman who seemed to have decided early on that she didn’t want to be a mother after all. She and her husband had no further children so I was raised an only child, and I was later sent to boarding school. There was very little affection, praise or encouragement in this family, instead I was raised with criticism, scorn and punishment. I became permanently estranged from my adoptive parents in my 20s, and during this time my biological father’s wife made it very clear to me that I was not to consider myself part of their family either.
Believing the lie
Due to these repeated rejections from mother figures, I found it difficult to trust people or allow anyone to get too close to me, and as a result I have not become a mother myself. For a long time I’ve believed I was alone in the world, someone who slipped through the cracks when it came to families, ending up with none. I never believed I didn’t deserve love and affection, but I somehow came to the conclusion that I didn’t generate these things in people – I was ‘not enough’ to engender love, warmth and respect in others and this was why I was now alone.
It reminds me of a stray cat I once fed. He allowed my own cats to push him around and cuff him, then once they’d finished (or I intervened) he’d then eat the food I left out for him. It was as though he expected mistreatment and seemed to believe it was his due. In the same way, I had been allowing myself to be treated disrespectfully in many situations because I thought contempt, rather than respect, was the feeling I produced in others.
Is it really true?
Fortunately I have come across some wise and understanding people throughout my life who helped me find the courage to look into the shadows and question the stories I’d believed about myself. It was frightening and painful to step into the darkness but what I found there was worth it. The stories I’d always believed about myself weren’t true. They were the projections of other people who had their own reasons for promoting these stories.
Once I learned this, I became very angry. I wrote letters to all the people, including flatmates and work colleagues and neighbours and store owners, whom I felt had treated me with disregard over the years, whom I had allowed to treat me this way. I burned all the letters and watched the smoke carry away my anger and old stories with it. Once this was done, I was left with an empty space that needed refilling. It was time to let go of the life I had built based on false stories about who I really was, and find a life that fit the real me, the one that had been hiding in the dark.
We make the stories true
It is an act of self-compassion to confront your old stories directly and consider whether they really represent the truth about who you are. Unchallenged, these stories cause us to behave in ways that appear to confirm them. For instance, as I explored my shadows I began to realise I was never alone. I always had people I could turn to, but I didn’t because I believed they wouldn’t be there for me. So I never gave myself the chance to see that they would have been. The old story remained ‘true’ until I risked challenging it.
Discovering the truth
So I committed to spending one year exploring my essence, and finding ways to express this in all areas of my life. This journey led me to so many new aspects of myself and put me in touch with kindred spirits with whom I would never have crossed paths in my ‘old life’.
I experimented with intuitive painting, barefoot breathing, and therapeutic journalling. I rediscovered morning pages and artist dates, and I took up horse riding. This led me to begin training in the use of horses as therapeutic companions. I also started studying art therapy and became a certified Soul Art® guide.
Suddenly life was looking very different. I finally realised why I had never felt fulfilled in my old office jobs. I wasn’t meant to be there, that was someone else’s idea of success. It wasn’t because I was a failure, it was because I needed to be outdoors, or creating something, or helping others express themselves.
What beliefs do you hold about yourself? Are they real or are they someone else’s version of the truth?
In what ways are you cutting yourself off from the support you need by buying into old stories that aren’t true? In what ways are you finding evidence that makes your old beliefs seem true?
You are capable of much more than you realise. What’s one thing you can do today to starting finding your way back to the truth?
I’ve heard this said about children and teenagers who are struggling with major transitions, adults who are battling depression, people who have threatened or attempted suicide, and so on.
They are just trying to get attention.
Most of these people were genuinely struggling with life situations that were proving too much for them to handle, and doing it in an under-resourced way with very little support. Illnessses such as eating disorders and depression are not something anybody would consciously choose to have. They are incredibly painful ways to live.
But when loved ones struggle to make sense of what’s happening, they feel helpless. If they’re encouraged to view behaviour as ‘just attention-seeking’, it can reduce their worry and stress.
Research shows that up to 80% of people who later went on to attempt suicide had talked about it within the month prior to doing it. This challenges the common belief that if someone talks about hurting themselves, they won’t really do it. The truth is they’re often working up the courage, and many in this situation would dearly like someone to step in and give them an alternative.
But society’s tendency to view these behaviours as ‘attention-seeking’ means we miss crucial opportunities to genuinely understand what’s going on for a loved one, and to find an effective way to help them.
My Attention Seeking
My aunt tells me about the only time she saw my grandmother cry. I was 3 and we were living with my paternal grandparents. I had my first bout of tonsillitis, and my mother insisted I eat everything on my plate, even though it took me up to an hour to do. It hurt.
My grandmother was one tough woman – she lived on the land, rode horses, and I still have a photo of her proudly holding up a snake she killed by herself. But my mother managed to reduce her to tears more than once with her behaviour towards me.
The second time I had tonsillitis I was 8. I’ve always been a slow eater but I was getting even slower. My furious mother took me to a doctor to prove there was nothing wrong with me. The doctor ordered me up to the hospital immediately. My tonsils were so swollen and infected they needed to come out the following morning.
I was told I would be asleep when they took them out. So when they came and gave me an injection, I expected to go to sleep. When I didn’t, I lay there alone, worrying they wouldn’t realise I was still awake, or worse, maybe they had decided not to put me to sleep while they took them out.
I became more and more anxious as I waited for them to come and take me to surgery. Of course when I got to theatre, they put the mask over my face and the ether blessedly put me out. I woke up feeling like a truck had run over me. They removed my adenoids as well, so the first thing I saw was blood on the plastic lining under my head.
My mother, who was a nurse, was there but quickly announced that since I was obviously just going back to sleep, she was leaving because she had things to do. I begged her to stay – the blood scared me because I didn’t know why it was there, and I felt so awful. But off she went.
The nurses were lovely to me. There was no room in the children’s ward so I stayed in the adult ward and they loved fussing over me. This was new to me, being treated as though I was special, surrounded by smiles and concern for my wellbeing.
I decided I wanted to stay.
My father told me not to be ridiculous, and I went home the next day. But for years afterwards, I became obsessed with the idea that I had appendicitis. The doctor must have had some idea what was going on, because he gave me what I think were placebo tablets – for ‘wind in the appendix’.
It wasn’t a conscious thing at the time, but I was trying to get back to the place where I felt loved. To this day I still have a perfectly healthy appendix.
I recently watched as a friend posted photos and updates on Facebook as her little boy went into hospital to have his tonsils removed. She stayed with him the whole time, fretted while he was in surgery, and shared how proud she was of him afterwards. I was stunned.
What’s Your Need?
It was easy to dismiss my fixation on my appendix as ‘just trying to get attention’. It’s true, I was. I was trying to get a need met the only way I knew how.
Of course there were more effective ways to feel loved and supported but I had no experience of them, so I tried to return to the only experience I knew. Many of us are very clumsy about this, but is that a reason to dismiss somebody’s very real pain?
If you’ve been told you’re just trying to get attention, think about what it is you really need and ask yourself the following questions:
If my life was exactly the way I would like it to be, what would be different to the life I have right now?
What are some ways I could go about bridging this gap, even a little bit?
Who would I need to ask for help, and how could I best go about that?
What other resources do I need to utilise?
Then do what you can as soon as you possibly can. For me, it meant building a big friendship network around me. Knowing I had such great friends meant that I couldn’t be as unlovable as I felt, otherwise why would these people bother with me?
I also learned to change my self-talk, and to question the negative views I had of myself. Once I did this, I forgot all about my appendix.
Reach out. It’s ok to seek attention, as long as you do it as constructively as you can. It could improve your quality of life. It might even save it.
My father died today. Or at least he was my father once. I hadn’t seen him in almost 25 years.
People told me I’d regret it if I didn’t go and see him when he got sick. But I don’t regret it. They said I’d suffer if I left things undone, but it feels done. Our time together ended decades ago.
My father was not the primary abuser of my childhood, he was the enabler. I’m grateful to him for buying me a bicycle and teaching me to ride it, for encouraging my swimming and walking beside me as I swam my first 50 metre lap, for indulging my love of animals and the outdoors.
If he’d been married to someone else, he probably still would not have been a great father, but he would’ve been a father.
He didn’t want children, and when they found out they were both infertile, he was content to remain childless. My mother pushed for adoption, and he decided after my arrival that parenting wasn’t so bad after all.
My mother shifted the opposite way. If I’d been a puppy she would’ve returned me.
I felt loved by my father for the first ten years. He wanted another child but she was adamant there would be no more. When I reached puberty and her personality disorder went into overdrive, I saw the poison begin to impact him.
My teen years were the worst. My father could no longer afford to love or protect me. I understand that now – having children hadn’t been a priority and, faced with a choice between his wife and child, he chose her.
He once said to me ‘I don’t know what I’VE done’ with the emphasis on ‘I’ve’. It told me he was aware of the damage she’d done. And he was right, he had done nothing. That was the problem.
In order to justify the terrible choice he had to make, he became the more abusive one. Mocking and criticising, tearing me down, but unlike her he was never physically abusive.
When my biological father showed up and turned out to be a multimillionaire, they really sold me out. He and my mother enthusiastically told my biological father’s bewildered wife what a horrible person I was. Why? I asked.
My father was quite open about the fact that he felt they deserved financial compensation for raising me. Again I asked why. When my biological father doesn’t owe me anything, why would he owe you?
Because it wasn’t easy raising you, he said. Me, the one who didn’t smoke, drink, swear, have boyfriends, the nerd who got good grades, who was repeatedly told I was too quiet in class. Yes it was tough having me in the family, but for reasons that had little to do with me personally.
When I was 21, my partner at the time challenged them on their appalling behaviour towards me, and my father held up his fist. We left and my partner said the words I’d been waiting to hear my whole life – those people are crazy. All I’d ever heard prior to that were invalidating platitudes, leaving me to doubt my own reality. For a moment my feet touched solid ground.
We repeatedly did a dance that involved my mother shutting me out of the family for imagined crimes I never understood and my father would reconnect us months later. After the last time, when I finally had the courage to tell him she was lying, he called me names and hung up on me.
He never called again. I never called either. The truth was something he couldn’t afford. It would have cost him too much. But not knowing cost him too. And I couldn’t live with the lie.
The story became that I had told them to get out of my life. I can’t even end a phone call, much less a relationship with the people who raised me, but that’s how stories go. People believe what they want to believe. I made my peace with it.
There was almost contact once, when he was having heart surgery. I sent a card and then he asked my cousin for my number. I told her he could have it as long as he understood I would only talk to him, not my mother. He never called.
Many years later I sent him photos after I visited an old house overseas where we’d lived when I was very young. During my childhood we moved many times and, having a somewhat eidetic memory, I remember every address and phone number. I found the house and it was empty so I went inside and took photos.
I read that with dementia long-term memories are the last to go, so I thought he would get a kick out of knowing the old house was still there. No-one ever got back to me to tell me whether he saw the photos. I hope he did. I hope he remembered.
My biological father has long since disappeared from my life, and my adoptive parents had left me with the belief that I wasn’t enough to generate love and care in others. My life has reflected this.
Orphan Annie, no roots or place to belong, no surname that meant anything, no family and all that goes with it. No faith in relationships, especially with men.
There has been an underlying well of emotion that I sometimes visit, labelling it resentment, or self-pity, or bitterness. But its true name is grief.
Through my own determination and the support of some incredible friends and cousins, I learned that I’m worth much more than I’d been led to believe. I have a good life, a successful life, but with something fundamental missing.
I’ve skimmed across the surface of many social milestones. Marriage, having children, graduation, birthdays and other celebrations – they either never happened, or they happened without depth, meaning or connection. This is just another example.
Typically when a father dies, there is pain, acknowledgement, comfort, a funeral, recovery. My days will go on as though nothing happened. Someone told me they were sorry for my loss, and I wondered what they meant.
I felt more when David Bowie died two weeks earlier. I have felt tearful about Robin Williams. But I have no tears for my father. The Starman and the Captain were in my life longer. My father has been absent half a lifetime now. I can’t find the tears.
There is great loss in my life, but it is not the death of my father. I do wonder if his spirit visited me on his way to wherever he is now. Did he see the beautiful old house I bought and started renovating? Does he know that I’ve done ok? Still some desire remains for him to be proud of me.
I wish him a peaceful afterlife. Peace is a feeling I don’t think he’s had in a very long time. I wish it for both of us.