When I was a high school freshman I was tender and malformed.
I ached for acceptance and validation. I had received the message, as many of us had, in our formative years that we must always be in the business of doing more and doing it better. Behaviors were moralized and the nebulous “good enough” always seemed right outside my grasp, just beyond the next honor roll or cheerleading squad slot.
I have very early memories of wanting to be someone other than who I was in every facet of my small self concept, stealing longing looks at other heads of hair, admonishing my unruly corkscrew curls and lusting after locks of straight, shiny auburn. I remember watching my various girl seatmates, hands moving over crisp copy paper as they meticulously printed the blunted “e”s and swirling “y”s of coveted first names like Stephanie and Lindsey.
From a very young age I had developed a misguided belief system, the central concept that reigned being that I was somehow inherently deficient, lacking at my core. Some slipshod kinks in my DNA had relegated me to a sect of human existence that was not entitled to the same unalienable rights as other ”normal” folk.
This aching sense of lacking was reinforced as I grew, by the various brands of “undercover” dysfunction that swirled and thrived within my familial unit. I grappled with undiagnosed depression as a child and further believed that this sense of being an ill fit for life, existing in dark spaces and feeling an aching emptiness beneath my clavicle was my birthright. It was the core reason I always needed to be in the business of hiding.
The rest of my life would be a series of situations by which I would need to reconcile this, my natural ill-fit to the world. As I grew, I began to gather evidence, an anthropological endeavor of sorts by which I handily collected data that I was innately unlovable and cosmically flawed. Cataloguing every failed Math test, softball strike-out or botched theater audition as evidentiary material supporting my thesis of inborn defectiveness.
In my younger years I escaped into my own stories, wildly writing in notebooks, creating characters that were not me, worlds of make believe with beautiful people and shiny lives. I devoured books as well, so there was no surprise that I was susceptible to society’s romanticized vision of love and fairy tale happy endings. Even in elementary school books, there was some seemingly innocuous love interest for girls, a prepubescent, cute boy that the fifth grade protagonist studied for tests with or attended county fairs alongside. Today it both saddens and enrages me that our girls are introduced to this sense of male attention as a requisite for normalcy, and to take it a step further, for being desirable. And thus, I learned that if boys liked me, that meant something about my appeal.
In high school my pathology around bearing this internal scarlet S of Subpar was further exacerbated. Inevitably, I sought out male attention to validate my appearance and my worth, as I realized there was high social currency in being attractive to members of the opposite sex. I had become infatuated with “the most perfect boy” who ended up being what I so insipidly refer to today as my “first love” and serious boyfriend at the tender age of 15. When we broke up at the beginning of our freshman year of high school and he began dating a sophomore, I experienced a sort of death.
When, on that day in September when I turned 16, he asked me to meet him at the alley entrance to the gymnasium following the afterschool football game, so he could wish me a happy birthday, I was elated. I still remember standing there, clad in my cheerleading uniform, my heart beating wild with excitement, smoothing the emerald ruffles of my skirt and nervously sliding back my hand back and forth across the cold, white railing. When he finally came out, freshly showered in a heady haze of Irish spring soap and Tide and bestowed a single birthday kiss upon me, I melted. And thus it began. Although I had sworn my closest friends to secrecy, the illicit kiss somehow leaked to the general public via an unidentified teenage turncoat and the terrorizing ensued.
What followed after is a blur of bullying, endless emotional abuse, total and utter degradation and the complete eradication of any crumb of self worth I had been able to hold onto from my childhood. Late night phone calls from this sophomore’s friends screaming obscenities into the phone, informing my parents of my filth and worthlessness as a human being, perpetual threats to my physical safety and heavily detailed, seven page letters mailed to my home for my parents to find, forecasting my future as a drug-addled, welfare dependent mother who turned tricks to feed her children– were only the tip of the iceberg.
I am grateful for my then friends, who are still my best and closest today, for standing by me during a time when it was social suicide to support me. Suddenly I was dubbed a boyfriend stealer and other girls were coming forth with claims that my innocent laughs at the lunch table with their respective beaus were an aim to secretly steal them away. I existed in a visceral emergency mode, heart racing at every ring of the bell that meant physical movement between classes and exposure to the scathing slander. I was told I had chosen to mess with “the wrong girl” because this individual had a bevy of friends, not to mention a Senior older sister who spared no resource in what felt like an epic act of teen terrorism.
Every minute of my waking hours were lived in a perpetual panic and stark fear, ripped raw from the ruthless slander, unrelenting castigation and searing psychological abuse. My insides were coiled and cramped in consternation. My heart seized, picked up pace, a raucous racing that reverberated through my body every time the kitchen telephone sounded or I would hear my name called out in a crowd.
The message was received loud and clear: I was horrific; an ugly, unwanted and deplorable person and my very existence was futile.
If I had any shred of reasonable doubt as to the condition of my core, I was now certain that it was and always would be rotten. This was the ultimate evidence for my burgeoning conclusion of unavoidable inadequacy.
This malicious treatment went on for months. After a year had passed, a newer, younger and prettier minion took my place as scapegoat for the older girl’s ball of collective insecurities and misguided fury. One innocent transgression of a wayward glance at one of their love interests and you were stamped a suspected Jezebel in need of their special brand of punishment.
What I internalized from the experience was that to be threatening was lethal. To express any form of audaciousness in who I was, was sinful. I needed no one to ever think I was attempting to be attractive or flirtatious or the least bit competitive. I had to learn to blend in, not make waves. I had nary a chance of being likable by this slew of older girls that frequently hung out with our crowd, so I had to render myself submissive, obsequious if the situation called for it, without appearing too pathetic.
Herein, became one of the benefits of developing my eating disorder: I was off-limits, physically unappealing and removed from a class of comparison. I was a sad case that evoked pity. I had an extremely misguided belief that if I was hurting myself others could not hurt me. This lead me to a myriad of maladaptive behaviors that I used to medicate the aching pain of lacking that I walked around with everyday, from the seemingly innocuous to the deadly.
Since there was an unremitting wasteland within me, I had to obtain any good feelings I had from external sources. I needed others to “right” me, validate me and add value to my worthlessness. Because the belief that I was inherently unlovable was so pervasive, the only relief I could find was having someone to counter this. I was in and out of a series of ill-fitting, long-term romantic partnerships from the age of 15 until I was 24 during which I experienced my first short-lived stint as a single adult.
This searching for things outside of myself for fulfillment was not relegated to romantic relationships. I turned outward, to other people’s opinions, praise, criticism, comments; taking the temperatures of their moods and social situations, etching out what would please and pacify them became my maladaptive mode by which I attempted to quell this insatiable desire for love and acceptance. This proved further problematic because this validation, affection and attention, was like a drug- -addictive and bottomless.
In retrospect, THIS was the core coping mechanism I had adopted. By shrouding myself in the belief that I was inherently less than and undeserving, I accepted my birthright as having low self esteem, undeserving of the best things in life and always “getting by”. My life was small and limited. I was barely existing and certainly not living. Burying myself in this belief kept me entrenched in pain for years and nearly cost me my life at several points.
By adopting these self-limiting beliefs I was protecting myself, but I was also continuing to harm myself. I was buying into society’s notion that the less of me, in all capacities, the better. That my organic material was all styles of wrong and that there were countless ways in which I needed to change to be “good enough.”
The truth was that there was nothing wrong with me. I was behaving the way that burgeoning young women behave when trying to navigate the complicated process of growing up. What the girls had said and done to me, their behavior was really about THEM and not about me.
At the time, bullying wasn’t as mainstream an issue as it is today; it seemed to be viewed as some adolescent rite of passage, rather than socially sanctioned abuse. Bullying in any form is NOT OKAY.
If your child has suffered from bullying, assessing the psychological damage and getting help, is key. Everyone deserves help and protection from their parents. I am grateful to still be here today, as a survivor of several brands of abuse, to spread the message to others that there is nothing wrong with you.
And my message to anyone reading this, especially teens: There is NOTHING wrong with you. You, right now, as you sit here and read this today are good enough. No matter what you have gone through, you can heal.
What society, our peers, our culture, heck, the majority of this misguided world tells us is wrong with us, is not.
They are lies, a brainwashing of sorts.
Believing we have flaws that are in dire need of correcting is what our consumer culture hinges on. If women are not convinced that they need bettering than how will advertisers and marketers of female purchase driven products make any money?
Mainstream media heavily contributes to a culture in which we all feel inherently inadequate and that target women, convincing them that their appearance and their accomplishments are their only currency.
They make us feel shameful about our bodies; our very humanness is something to be eschewed. We must all, always be in the business of attempting perfection which simply cannot coexist with the human condition. We must dare to be different and rail against these detrimental messages. We are more than our bodies, we are, all of us, already beautiful and complete in our diverse and loveable imperfection.
It doesn’t matter what your peers, teachers, parents, etc. say – you, just as you are, are loveable, deserving and possess unlimited worth. YOU are simply amazing at your core. When you forget, I will remind you.
You. Are. Enough. PERIOD.
Heather Klem Bio:
Heather is a yoga enthusiast, bookworm and lover of learning who is passionate about personal growth, unabashed authenticity and empowerment. A reformed pessimist and chronic cynic, perpetually pursuing positivity and self acceptance; encouraging others to supersize their dreams and create their own definition of beautiful.
Heather can be found blogging candidly at somewhereinbetweenblog.wordpress.com
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