Psssst…you can listen to this story as well by clicking the pink button above. I do go into much more detail in the podcast version.
Preface: I got this email awhile back from an ass kicker:
“The first podcast I heard from you, you seemed like a perky, outgoing blonde – and these are all great things, but I must admit, when looking at you, we might think “oh, she’s never been through anything. Yeah, she has great things to say, but does she know what this is like?” ….and then upon listening further, I learned your earlier life actually very much mirrors my own. It was not only comforting but also a lesson learned about first impressions.” -YKAL blog reader
I've been sitting on this blog post/podcast episode for months now, unpublished. It's a huge part of my story, what went on in my 20's emotionally that led me to my big breakdown/breakthrough in 2006. I've hesitated to take the leap and publish it because it's long, it's probably the most imperfect piece of writing I've ever written, but mostly because every time I take a giant leap into vulnerability I still hear the voice of “OMG what will people think of you?”
But, the truth is (and I know this from experience…and science) is that we all have a painful story. And the more we abandon it and keep it locked up the more painful it is and it helps no one. And really, that's just shitty.
What I know for sure is that we can't bury our stories alive and expect them to die. They don't. Trust me, I've tried.
I feel lucky to get to share my stories here. Sometimes scared, but still lucky. Thank you for allowing me to do so.
Generally speaking, I had a great childhood. My parents were loving, funny, and generous with their affection to me and each other. Their marriage fell apart while I was in high school (I didn’t know it was happening) and my mom left soon after I graduated from high school.
Shortly after, I sat in a therapist's office who’d also seen my parents for marriage counseling and she said, “Your parents don’t really show their emotions very much”. I don’t remember how I responded, but I distinctly remember being confused as I thought she was implying there was another way for families to be. Like…other families showed their emotions? I didn't know any other way. We had one emotion in our house: Happy. And if you had any others, you did it alone, behind closed doors. That’s just how it was. There was little-to-no element of vulnerability. I didn’t know how to talk about emotions, I didn’t know how to be with my emotions or anyone else’s. In essence, emotions scared me.
I’d heard people talking about “dealing with” feelings and emotions and I wasn’t sure what that was. To me, “dealing with” feelings meant the goal was to get over them– to get past them. I thought I just needed to be stronger. I needed to buck up, soldier on, lock and load. I was like a hoarder of feelings. I’d find a spot way back in the dark closet of my mind to stuff it. Where I wouldn’t have to see it every day, but it never actually went away. It was never digested, processed, seen or felt. It all just stayed there festering.
Unfortunately out-of-sight-out-of-mind doesn’t work with feelings. I carried them all around day after day, year after year. They manifested outwardly as anger and blame. I lashed out. I engaged in behaviors that never felt right and made me question who I was. The biggest thing I did over the course of all those years was…hid.
I was terrified to be seen but yet it was the very thing I wanted so badly.
Between the ages of 17 and 19 I had three traumatic events happen, two of which I will tell you about. One of those was my parents divorce the summer after I graduated high school to which completely surprised me as I had no idea of their failing marriage. The summer following that, I was date raped.
Regarding the date rape, for 20 years, I blamed myself and even had a hard time saying it was date rape. I was drunk and he was not my boyfriend. I told myself I shouldn’t have been there, I shouldn't have been making out with him, I should have pushed him off instead of just saying “no” 100 times. I shouldn’t have just given in just to get it over with. I shouldn’t have been worried he would call me a tease or a prude. I shouldn’t have, I should have, I shouldn’t have. I kept that story locked inside me for 20 years. Pushed it back into my mind and convinced myself it wasn’t a big deal. It happens all the time on college campuses, at parties…why should I feel anything about this? People have real problems, mine was not worthy of even giving a second thought to. ← That’s the story I told myself for two decades.
And then over the 2014 summer at my Brene Brown training on shame and vulnerability it came out like projectile vomit.
When that happened I felt like i had no voice. I felt like I didn’t matter. I felt powerless. I felt 100% at fault as I should have known better. I wanted him to like me and pay attention to me, and I convinced myself that I got what I deserved.
I was 19 when then. Looking back and connecting the dots I can see what happened that summer was the straw that broke the camel's back as I entered the decade of my 20’s. I stopped writing, which had been my favorite creative outlet as a child and a teenager. And I started engaging in three addictive behaviors: codependency, love addiction, and an eating disorder. I’m going to tell you what each of those looked like and along with it, now what I see as to WHY I was engaging this way.
Let’s start with codependence.
For me, codependence manifested mostly as control. I wanted everyone to behave like I wanted them to. I believed with all of my heart and soul this would solve all my problems, and theirs too. Melody Beattie describes codependence as, “One who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior”. I stayed in a relationship with someone that I outgrew around the age of 19. He wasn’t interested in settling down and being in a serious, monogamous adult relationship, but at the same time wasn’t ready to let me go. I became OBSESSED with changing him, fixing him and fixing us (although I wasn’t interested in fixing me). I read somewhere that codependency is a way to get your needs met that doesn't ever get your needs me. I did this essentially for 13 years.
I didn’t trust my own feelings or intuition. I micro managed like it was my job. I people pleased. I felt insecure and guilty when people gave things to me or complimented me. I wholeheartedly believed other people were responsible for me and my happiness and at the same time, I felt like they were making me crazy. Inside I was ANGRY most of the time. I felt victimized and unappreciated for all my efforts in trying to fix them.
Compliments, appreciation, and praise were things I wanted desperately, but when I got them I rejected them because I felt unworthy of it. Same with intimacy. It was something I deeply craved, but at the same time was terrified of it. I didn’t know what it looked like or felt like, I thought I had it, but it was such a desperate false sort of intimacy.
I was constantly afraid of making mistakes– perfectionism was my middle name. I had violent temper outbursts. I had lost faith in God.
It was a dark time. And I kept it all very hidden just how much I was suffering.
My eating disorder was something I went back and forth with. Poor body image started at age 11 when I wrote in my Hello Kitty diary that I thought I was fat. I told my mom this and she told me I was “average”. (I wrote about our conversation in my diary). That was the extent of our conversation about that.
When I was 18, a modeling photographer told me I needed to lose 10 pounds if I wanted to consider modeling. I was a size 3.
I was around 26 when I first decided to lose weight. I had gained weight from my natural size, not much, but enough to overhear my boyfriends friend say, “Andrea’s ass is getting big”. That made my decision. I lost 10 pounds easily by restricting calories and exercising a lot (aka way too much) and purging. When that happened I decided to lose 10 more. That time in my life was probably the height of my codependency as well, so I was running on empty emotionally, mentally, and physically. I slowly gained that weight back and stopped those behaviors for a couple of years. For me, when my life was in big turmoil in my relationship, my eating disorder came to the forefront of my life.
And then there was love addiction.
OMG where do I even begin? This is the hardest one for me to talk about.
Again, intimacy was the thing I craved the most, but it was also the thing I feared the most. What a shit pickle I was in. I confused sex and the rush of a new relationship with love. I wouldn’t be faithful in my relationships because I was so busy flirting and chasing men and hooking up with them in order to get that need met. Sometimes I had sex with them, sometimes I didn’t. And when I didn’t, I felt like that was some kind of victory to myself. Like I was okay as long as I didn’t sleep with them.
I can honestly look back now and say I used men to get what I wanted. And what I wanted was validation, love, and connection. And the crazy thing was I really wasn’t getting any of that. But, I thought I was. And I would feel good for a little while, and then the guilt and shame (oh my god the shame) would come flooding in the next morning and I’d feel terrible about myself as a human being, and so what would I do? I’d search for a new guy to chew up and spit out. I left a trail of destruction in my love addiction, mostly with myself.
My identity was wrapped up in how I looked, so the more attention I got from men, the better I felt. And some of the time I didn’t even like them! It didn’t matter. It was the chase, the rush. I would walk into a club and scan the crowd for someone attractive and the game began.
I look back on the girl I was during those years and my heart breaks. I was such a mess inside. I hated who I’d become, I didn’t even know who I was. I felt like a shell of myself. Because to actually look at my behaviors, the feelings around that and to BE with it all was waaaay too much to bear. I couldn’t even fathom it. So, I blamed everyone else— my parents, my boyfriend especially and tried to change them. Never trying to change my behaviors or even LOOK at them. If they would act right, I could stop. If they could change, I would feel better.
Vulnerability was such a foreign concept there was probably a point in my life where I would rather die than be vulnerable. And vulnerability was exactly what I needed. I was thrust into vulnerability when my husband left me, at that point I had no choice but to look at myself and my behaviors and start to break the walls down I had created. And trust me, those walls were strong and tall and did not want to come down.
When my life all fell apart, I picked myself up and started my conscious journey. I hadn’t ever truly taken care of myself. Not mentally, physically, emotionally, financially. People kept telling me I needed to take care of myself. And what I realized is I had no idea what that meant, to love myself, to even BE with myself. I was fucking terrified. I didn’t know who I was, what I stood for, what I wanted. I felt like before that I just existed. Existed in this life of automatic behaviors that were so incredibly painful but I knew no other way of being.
And when everything was falling apart I didn't realize how tired I was of people telling me I was strong. I know they meant well and probably were so uncomfortable with my situation not knowing what to say. What I really wanted was for someone to say, “HEY! You're probably a hot mess. It's okay if you're falling apart. Just fall apart and we'll be here to help you pick up the pieces.” And it’s not really anyone’s fault that they didn’t know. I made it my first priority to make people think I was okay and that I was strong. I guess I did a pretty good job. But, the price of that was keeping myself hidden, keeping myself small, buying into the beliefs that I wasn’t worthy of being anything more than a mess.
It took lots of therapy, coaching, 12-step programs, several failed relationships and friendships, hard conversations with my parents, getting sober, learning to set boundaries, learning how to be in healthy relationships, and the two hardest things:
Learning to feel my feelings as they are and surrendering to life. Letting it unfold as it does.
Because I like to hold on. I like to be in charge of what’s happening in my life, I like to know how it’s going to turn out, and I like it to go my way. But, fuck, that’s not how life works. Like, ever. I’ve fought the good fight though.
And feeling feelings. There are still times I want to just check out. When I tell myself “I can’t deal with this.” And the truth is, yes I can. I can deal with it without hiding at the bottom of a bottle of wine. I can do it without distracting myself by chasing down a new relationship. And it’s hard and I cry and get angry and frustrated and scared and THAT IS LIFE.
And the upside? I can tell you that happiness and joy is unlike it’s ever been. I feel joy deep down in my bones and my cells. And that’s scary as shit too. But, I feel happy and grateful most of the time and for me, I know I needed to “go through the muck” to get here. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.