When I was five, my parents divorced. Shortly after, my father met Sandy, first at a cocktail party and then again at a tennis league for single 30-somethings. She was brilliant, anxious, fast-talking, and from old money. They were engaged within two years.
Sandy was a perfectionist and held us, her family, to the same standards. She placed yellow Post-it to-do lists around the house, sent my new stepbrother and me to etiquette classes (our dog wasn’t spared, either), and could cut me to shreds with a single remark and gesture to my father: “He’s wearing that?”
I understand now that if Sandy was hard on us, she was even harder on herself. But when my mother dropped me off for the weekend, I’d hide out in the garage to avoid facing her. At dinner, I’d fix my eyes on the floor. I saw my father’s growing affection for my stepbrother and wondered, “What the hell is wrong with me?”
We all have stories in our histories we’re holding on to – tragic plotlines that seem to run through everything we do. I’ll never find true love. I’ll never be a success. I’ll never get past what happened to me. The more we believe them, the more our prophecies seem to self-fulfill.
And let’s be clear: my initial trauma wasn’t all that tragic. There’s a generic mildness to it that survivors of all kinds of harsher abuse or tragedy might resent. But the story that Sandy had seen some fatal flaw in me ran deep. I believed I was inherently bad and inferior, that nothing about me was okay. Author and self-help guru John Bradshaw calls this condition “toxic shame”, the feeling that no matter what we do, we’re wrong. And it doesn’t take a five-alarm altercation or hellacious abuse for it to start festering.
DON’T KID YOUR SELF
To cover-up, I went out into the world trying to be perfect. If I impressed everyone I came into contact with, maybe I’d feel okay. The powerful, important, rich and influential came into my crosshairs. They represented Sandy for me, and winning these types of people over became an obsession. In college, I dated a fabulously wealthy young woman and tried to integrate into her milieu of private jets and lavish holidays. Years later, I set my sights on the world of high fashion as a magazine writer. I thought rising to the highest ranks would prove to everyone – myself most of all – that I was worthy of being alive.
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