I’ve been thinking a great deal about what it means to become a woman in our society. Not a post-pubescent girl (which the media seems to feel females must be forever), but a grown woman, who thinks for herself, who stands on her own two feet, who is nobody’s fool, who exists far beyond her socially ordained role as an extension of men’s needs and desires.
Much (not all) of our culture (our world) is terrified of the strength and richness that live within the souls of women. We are so much more than the stereotypes Hollywood dishes out, so much more than sex objects and wives, virgins and whores. So much of what we are has nothing to do with sex (and our real sexuality has so little to do with what the media says it must be).
But glorious Womanhood lives on, in the souls of so many of the strong, beautiful, bold women I love, women that have “I love you” and “fuck you” flowing through their veins in equal quantities. Women who are not afraid to age, not afraid to be bigger than a size two (or smaller, if that’s what their bodies were born to be), not afraid to speak out, even in the face of oppression and condescension and censorship.
I love this song because it celebrates a multi-faceted woman. A decidedly imperfect woman. It celebrates the ugly and pretty of her, the strong and the weak of her. She’s not necessarily always nice. She’s not necessarily always cute. But she’s always a woman.
This goes out to all of the Women (with a capital W) I love, starting with my mother, Christine Hackett, one of the most powerful women I’ve ever know. She’ll hate that I used the “f word” here, but she has more appropriate rebellion against the powers that be in her little finger than some people have in their whole bodies. After I heard her preach yesterday, I told her, “Now I know where I got my public speaking abilities.” But that’s not really what I meant. What I meant is, “Now I know where I got my strength and my beauty and my unbreakable heart, my ability to get back up when the world tries to crush me, my capacity to speak my truth even when the whole world screams ‘shut up’ in my face.” My mother astonishes me. How could I not be powerful when I have a role model like her? (And yes, I do think I’m powerful. I own my power, my loves. It is great sacrilege to feign weakness when you are a bastion of strength.)
This also goes out to the beautiful, powerful men who have the capacity to see beyond society’s prescription for what women and men must be, who can love whole women instead fantasies. I was raised by a man like that. I raised a man like that. I meet men like that every day. They too are multi-faceted and beautiful, so much richer than the thing society tells them they must be. Boys do cry, my darlings. Boys feel the entire kaleidoscope of human emotions, and it’s one of the most glorious sights in the world.
I was raised as a Christian by some very loving, wonderful human beings who taught me beautiful lessons like, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and “If you’ve done it to the least of these, you’ve done it unto me,” meaning that as far as God was concerned, every single person I met was sacred and should be treated as such. I’m so grateful for these lessons. They produced a core of love inside me that has sustained me through all of the darkness, tragedy, and cruelty that life likes to sling at times.
However, one of the most difficult lessons for me to learn in adulthood (let’s be honest—probably the most difficult) was how to protect myself from abuse, manipulation, and cruelty. I felt like if someone—no matter how unsavory—wanted to be my friend, it was my job to be her friend, to give her money if she asked for it, to be available for hours and hours to listen to her complaints, to try to prop her up in every drama and trauma she went through, to let her live in my home if she needed a place to stay, and on and on and on. In essence, it was my job to save everyone. You can imagine how that worked out. Well, in case you can’t, I’ll tell you. (I’ll just hit the highlights.)
It worked out as a series of horrifyingly abusive romantic relationships with very damaged men I thought I could save by loving them enough. It worked out as me taking a homeless woman I barely knew into my home, watching her two kids for free for a month while she partied, and having her threaten to kill my daughter when I finally asked her to leave. It worked out as my poor kids sitting on the floor playing with their dollies alone all evening because Momma was busy offering free nightly therapy sessions to every fucked up girl on the planet. It turned out as me remortgaging my house to help a jobless boyfriend fight for custody of kids he didn’t really want. (He promised he’d get a job and pay the extra payment every month. He never did, not even once.) And finally, finally, it ended up with me hiding in people’s basements while my psychotic ex-con boyfriend who had repeatedly threatened to cut my head off refused to leave my home. When he finally left, he took my car with him, along with all the money I had in the bank.
I often feel like I should write that last guy a thank you letter. Weirdly, I think he saved my life. It was while looking into his flat, dead eyes when he said, “I love you so much, I’m going to kill you,” that I realized I couldn’t save everyone and that I’d better set about saving myself, or I was going to be dead, which would make me rather useless to the people who actually loved me and would be heartbroken if I left the planet at the hands of a maniacal boy in need of saving.
After he left (and ended up in prison for killing someone with a hammer), I had a nervous breakdown that landed me in a hospital. I was diagnosed with severe depression and acute anxiety disorder. The inside of my head felt like a war zone. I knew I was going to lose my mind if I kept giving myself away to everyone who wanted a piece of me. I put saving the world on the back burner and set about saving myself. It was freaking hard work. A lot of it had to do with looking myself in the face and figuring out why the hell I thought I was worthy of such horrific treatment. I had to deal with addictions and neuroses, fight off demons, slay dragons, do all the ugly internal work that comes with becoming a better version of oneself.
The other thing I had to do was stop trying to be a saint and just be the flawed human being I really was. In short, I had to find my inner-Mother-Theresa and shoot that bitch down. I cut people who were using and abusing me out of my life one at a time, starting with Mr. I-Want-To-Behead-You and moving on from there. Every time I cut someone off, I felt like an asshole. He or she would beg and plead and cajole and wonder why all the strategies that had worked for years weren’t working anymore. The answer was because this time, for me, it was a matter of life and death. I was quite literally fighting for my life.
I can honestly say that now, every person who plays a major role in my life is there because I want him or her there, because I genuinely love him or her, because I intrinsically trust him or her. It’s an incredibly good feeling. It’s safety. I haven’t felt that in a long, long time.
If you are in the same boat as I was, here are some things I learned about setting boundaries and keeping myself safe from toxic relationships:
1. You don’t owe anyone anything. Not friendship. Not sex. Not phone calls. Not text messages. Not money. (Ok, if you borrowed money from them, you owe them money.) Never, ever stay in a relationship because you feel obligated or guilted into doing it.
2. You don’t have to give people reasons for cutting them off. Sometimes, I did, usually if the relationship was well-established, and I didn’t feel the other person was an actual threat to my physical or mental safety. My goal was never to hurt anyone (although I often did, and that made me feel like shit). My goal was to protect myself. So if I could soften the blow with an explanation, I would.
But if I chose to give someone a reason for cutting them off, and it turned into a back and forth, (“Well, you did this to me. This part is your fault. Can we still be friends?”), I stopped replying. My head was already a crazy enough space without the extra drama. I knew what I wanted. I wanted the unhealthy relationship to end. I didn’t want to fix it. I didn’t want to go back and forth about whose fault it was. I didn’t want to exonerate myself or prove I was the guiltless party. Chances were huge that part of the relationship’s failure was my fault. I was fucked up too, but I was trying really hard to get less fucked up. I said I was sorry and then moved on. Just because a relationship’s failure is partially your fault does not mean you have to stay in that toxic relationship.
3. Your life isn’t a democracy. You are the queen or king of your own life. Your life isn’t a court of law. You don’t have to prove to anyone why someone is unworthy of being in your world. You can be as arbitrary as you want. Your life, your rules. If you don’t like someone, if you don’t truly want him in your world, axe him. He doesn’t have to be a child killer for you to delete him from your proverbial friends list. Maybe you just have a sneaking suspicion you can’t trust him. Maybe it’s nothing you can put your finger on, but it’s there. Trust your inner voice. Maybe she is obsessed with show tunes, and you freaking hate show tunes, so every time you hang out with her, you leave feeling like you want to off yourself. That’s a perfectly good reason to end a relationship. If you don’t want to be there, don’t be there. Go be with someone you truly enjoy and love. Don’t be nasty about it, but why waste either one of your time on something that isn’t sincerely worthwhile to both of you?
4. Someday, you will die. You only have so much time. Make it count. Spend it with people you love, who honestly love you back. If you give two hours to someone, you don’t get that two hours back, ever. You don’t get to give it to someone else. On your deathbed, do you really want to look back over your life and see a series of awkward lunch dates with people you couldn’t stand? Spend that two hours with someone who feeds your soul. Or read a book. Or knit. Or pet your dog.
5. You deciding someone isn’t right for you isn’t you judging her worth as a human being. You can’t be friends with everyone. You only have room in your life to intimately love a handful of special people. Choose them carefully. Just because someone isn’t your cup of tea doesn’t mean you’re calling her worthless, any more than choosing to wear blue shoes instead of brown ones means all brown shoes are bad. No, you just like blue shoes better than brown ones. The Creator still loves the people you choose not to be friends with. They are still sacred. You can still be kind to them if/when you see them (as long as they are people who won’t take advantage of that and try to manipulate you). But you don’t have to give a piece of yourself to everyone who asks for one.
6. You have to be cruel to be kind. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have someone choose not to be in my life than pretend to love me while secretly despising me. Choosing not to let a person who isn’t right for you into your life is more genuinely honest and kind than engaging in a dishonest relationship. You are freeing that person up to go find people who authentically enjoy his company. He will no doubt be someone else’s blue shoes. For someone out there, that person is the perfect fit. Let him go find the people who truly love him. He deserves genuine love, not the fake-ass, passive aggressive stuff you are able to offer him when you don’t really like him.
7. You deserve genuine love. I think we all suffer on some level from horrific self-esteem, at least everyone I’ve ever intimately known does. We let ourselves be used and abused because we think we deserve it. But we don’t. We deserve to be loved. We deserve to be cherished. We deserve to be safe. We often accept pseudo love because we are afraid healthy love isn’t actually out there. It is. But you won’t have room for it in your life if you’re wasting all your time and energy carrying on unhealthy relationships.
8. Allowing yourself to be abused is an act of cruelty. Other people matter, but so do you. If you wouldn’t let what is happening to you happen to someone you love (a kid, a parent, a sibling, a friend, a lover), don’t let it happen to you. We honor the Creator by protecting the precious bodies, souls, and minds we have been given. We also honor the people who truly love us. Thinking about the agony I put my family and true friends through while I was letting myself be abused is hard to bear. I try every day to make it up to them, to heal the wounds l left when I participated in acts of cruelty against myself. By letting myself be abused, I tortured the people who mattered most to me. I have clear, solid boundaries now, largely because protecting me is protecting them.
9. You serve the world better when you protect yourself. There is a temporary high that comes with trying to save other people. They often tell you you’re the best person ever, they don’t know what they’d do without you, and on and on. That feels good. But if you are giving your time to people who don’t really want to heal (and if they really do want to, they won’t need you to do it—people who want to heal do it no matter what), you won’t have time to dedicate to whatever you do that really makes the world a better place.
In the three years that have passed since I kicked out my last boyfriend, I have started teaching creative writing classes, published two books, won many awards, and traveled extensively, speaking to groups of people about my own experiences with abuse. I get letters all the time about how my classes, books, and public appearances have impacted people’s lives in positive ways. If I was still putting all my energy into trying to rehabilitate ex-convicts, I wouldn’t be doing any of that. In fact, I’d be dead. By giving pieces of myself to people who didn’t deserve them, I was stealing from the world. I was stealing the gift I was given, a gift that was meant to help society at large, and flushing it down the toilet.
10. Never put yourself in a situation where you will not be safe emotionally, physically, and mentally. I have turned into quite a bitch, but if I’m not 100% sure people have my best interests at heart, I won’t spend intimate time with them, period. I don’t want to have romantic relationships with men who don’t value me. I don’t want to share my heart with women who are going to go use my pain as fodder for gossip. I don’t want friends who want to know me so they can get money or sex or career advancement or popularity. I don’t want people who want to be in my life for any reason except they think I am absolutely the bee’s knees. I want friends who I am sure would throw down for me if I was physically attacked. I want friends who I’m sure would defend me if people spoke badly about me, even if I wasn’t there to hear it. I want friends who genuinely care about my heart.
And I want friends who I can do all those things for. The truth is, I am a shitty friend to people I don’t like. I don’t want to be a shitty friend. I want to be a good, caring, giving friend.
All of the people who are in my life now truly love me. And I adore the hell out of them. I would throw down for them. And defend them even if they weren’t there. Because I think they are the bee’s knees. And that’s what friendship is supposed to be.
I’m not as popular as I used to be. Some people hate me and think I’m stuck up. Very few people think I’m a saint. I’m just a normal, incredibly flawed woman. But I’m happy. And I’m safe. And I’m not losing my mind.
And bonus: I’m in no danger of literally losing my head.
P.S. I have by no means included photos of all the people I love and trust in this blog. I just had to include Polyxeni, Martine, and Julie in this one because they are so darn cute.
P.S.S. I feel like the people who have loved me and stood by through all my darkness and difficulties are my angels. This song goes out to them. You know who you are. (Please actually listen to this one if you have time. It’s so, so beautiful. I love Lissie. She expresses heartbreak and humanity so beautifully.)
First of all, you are beautiful. Breathtaking. You don’t know it, but everything you do and say is absolutely perfect. Your butt is not too big. Your boobs are not too small. You are extraordinarily majestic. Someday, you will look back at the pictures of you now and see this, but today, try to take my word for it. I know. It’s hard. It’s hard because so many things are working together to make you feel shitty about yourself.
Every time you look at the airbrushed girl on the cover of that magazine, you wonder why your skin doesn’t look like that. Hers doesn’t either, beautiful girl. That’s called three hours of makeup accentuated by perfect lighting and Photoshop. And someday, you will understand that all those little things you think of as “flaws”–those acne scars, that birthmark, the way your eyes are a little too close together–are the things that make you truly beautiful. Photoshopped girls are a dime a dozen, my love. You can find these imaginary creatures anywhere, anytime, day or night. But we could search the world for a billion years and never find another perfect you, exactly as you are now.
You watch videos on Youtube, keenly aware that you might be able to fit an ankle into Ke$ha’s bikini bottoms. I don’t know anything about Ke$ha personally, but I do know that many of the women that are sucked into the Hollywood glamour machine spend hours and hours a day keeping their bodies looking like that, because real bodies, bodies that have to make time for homework and drama club, usually don’t. And yes, she is lovely, but there is nothing about her body that is prettier than yours. Humans are weird. We pick one idea of beauty and try to shove it down everyone’s throats, and then, a few years later, we change our minds. Wait. Did we say skinny is beautiful? We meant fat. Fat is beautiful. We can do that because in reality, neither is definitively more pretty than the other. The truth is, both skinny and fat are beautiful, and if you can own your body, whatever it looks like, you will be the prettiest girl in the room because nothing is more beautiful than a shining girl just being what she was born to be without apology.
And maybe some people will be too blind to see your beauty. That’s ok. Those people are on their own ride, their own trip. They are trying to figure out how beautiful they are. Let them be. Let them do what they are doing, unless they hurt you, in which case, you should feel good and free to protect yourself, because you are never required to be anyone else’s punching bag, emotionally or otherwise.
The thing that is probably making you feel really bad though is you think nobody can love you. Maybe it’s because you love someone you think you shouldn’t love, or the boy or girl you love doesn’t seem to know you exist, or maybe it’s because your parents don’t seem to have time for you, or maybe it’s because horrible things have happened to you that made you feel like damaged goods.
Listen to me: You. Are. Not. Damaged. Goods.
Have you ever watched a river run? You know how it keeps dancing and changing, but it is still always a perfect river? You are like that. You will change and dance. Things will happen to you. But no matter what is happening to you right now, you are still the most perfect you that ever existed, in the history of ever.
People do things. Awful things. Young people do awful things. Old people do awful things. But what you have to understand is that none of that has anything to do with you. You are perfectly beautiful, perfectly lovable, perfectly perfect, but people have their own shit going on. That guy who slept with you and didn’t call you the next day didn’t do it because of you. He did it because of him. He feels small and worthless, and he doesn’t know how to love himself, much less anyone else. He was trying to prove something to himself, that he was worth loving, that he had power, that he was the kind of sexy that Hollywood tells boys they have to be. (Yeah, boys have all their own shit going on. It makes them act like nutjobs sometimes. People are wonky, right? We all do crazy shit when we don’t feel loved.) I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s about him. Not you. You. Are. Perfect.
Even that guy that raped you didn’t do it because of you. He was broken, baby. Broken, broken to the core. A true, sane, seeing person would never do such an awful thing to the likes of beautiful, perfect you. But that guy doesn’t define you. None of your haters, even if you have a billion of them, define you. You know what defines you?
The sound of your laughter. The way your voice cracks sometimes when you sing. The way you bust out those bad dance moves when no one is looking. How big your heart is, the way you can open it up wide and love other people, even though it’s been broken already. How strong you are. How brave you are. How you can get up from all the most ugly things, look in the mirror, still see a speck of the true you, and go out and show the world what majesty looks like.
Excuse my french, but your “fuck you” to the darkness defines you. Because when the darkness comes in and tries to tell you you are ugly, and you are damaged, and you are worthless, you reach into the golden core of your beautiful soul, and find that pissed off part of you that knows they are all wrong about you. You say “fuck you” to the darkness, and you get up, and you dust yourself off, and you love, and you love, and you love.
Someday, fifty years from now, old versions of the people who know you now will be talking, and they will have forgotten all about the ones who were just like everyone else, the ones who didn’t dare to shine. But they will remember you, the girl who was what she was no matter what anyone said, the one who loved what she loved, the one who ate what she wanted, the one who just lived her truth.
Your beauty, your truth, and your fuck you. That is what defines you, pretty girl. That is what makes you a miracle.