I was raised in a uniform, which is probably why real clothes scare me. It was like I turned eighteen and everyone was all like “okay, go find clothes to wear,” and I was like “you mean this?” indicating a gray, stained t-shirt I found on the side of the road next to a dead armadillo.
I’m starting to think that’s not what they meant.
Catholic private school. No, scratch that. Catholic ALL GIRLS private school.
It was, to say the least, a real trip.
When I unearth what’s beneath my breastbone, digging through years of muck and all the things I shouldn’t have done, I see the beginning seeds of my perfectionist tendencies when I was a kid.
I remember being in my mother’s classroom. She taught at one of my schools and was actually my teacher for the first and second grades, and I remember sitting there one afternoon, waiting for her with the door open. A few kids walked by and a “teacher’s pet” drifted through the door and smacked me in the face.
It should have stung. It should have made me feel a little ticked off. And at first, it did because I thought the person was a coward.
If you’re going to say something to me then come and say it.
But I started to like the way that name felt. I was the teacher’s pet. First of all, I was her daughter so there was that. But I also was a straight-A student who didn’t say ”boo” to anyone. I didn’t just do the one reading assignment, I did both options that were presented to us and honestly thought I had won the lottery.
Apparently, nobody else felt that way.
When you realize things about yourself, you tend to use them to your advantage. It’s the human way. If you’re pretty, you use your looks to get ahead. Funny? Then you crack those jokes until the job is yours. If you’re smart? You do whatever it takes to get even smarter, and you make sure everyone around you can smell it on you.
It’s the vice that sent our kind to build the Tower of Babylon. Why wait for God when we’re obviously smart enough to drag Him down from Heaven ourselves?
As the days dragged on, there were warning signs. I had a high sense of anxiety that I trotted around like a dog on a leash. I think it was partly due to the fact that my mother had Crohn’s disease, and some days she’d be late picking me up from school due to a flare-up. In these moments, I always pictured her dying on the side of the road (why are things always dying on the side of the road in my imagination?), although my brain was fully aware that this was normal. It would be fine. She’d eventually come and pick me up.
But my body was constantly in fight or flight, my guts knotted and pulsing.
Here’s the kicker: I couldn’t say anything about it. I couldn’t tell my teacher that I was panicking. I couldn’t tell my friends who were always after-school stragglers (and never seemed to worry about the fact that their parents could possibly be dying on the side of the road somewhere too) that I felt the intense urge to vomit merely because my mother was five minutes late to pick me up.
I wanted them to think I was calm, cool, and collected.
The very opposite of who I am on the inside.
My guts continued to knot and throb as I grew older. At sixteen I was the mess of messes even though I put up a good front. I spent the whole summer eating next to nothing and running for miles in the hot Houston sun. I’ll probably write more about this at some point, but what I want to talk about now is the time I had a nervous breakdown.
We were assigned to read Cold Mountain, and I’d go sit in my closet with the book in my lap. My closet had a window, and I’d look outside the window and then at the cover, and then back outside at the window and then back at the cover, and then my hand would go to try to open the cover and I would start to cry like someone was taking a knife to all those knotted guts.
I was too young and too unskilled to understand the pressure was killing me. The pressure to look perfect, to act perfect, to make perfect grades. Let me be very clear here: my parents never put that pressure on me. They never worried about me doing well because I was my own slave master. They simply loved me and supported me and did things like help coach me in tennis (even though my father never played a day in his life but somehow was exceptionally good at it. You’ll meet Mel in more of these posts…this is pretty much his M.O.) and take out beautifully crafted full-page ads in my yearbook to let me know how loved I was.
I wish I could have just paused in that love to really enjoy it as I do now. But I was too busy keeping up the rouse.
We ended up moving that summer anyways, which took away my excruciating circumstances, and which I mistook as all my problems being solved.
I eventually break again in college. I’ll get into that later too because that time in my life deserves its own book. An unhinged sorority girl/poetry major (I’m pretty sure I was the only one to have ever existed) who spent her time drinking because A’s were way too easy to make after you’ve beaten them into yourself for all those years.
I snapped. Like hardcore snapped. But I suppose God can only work when you’re willing to give Him your pieces.
It still creeps in sometimes, even as I’m wearing my gray, stained, dead armadillo t-shirt. The need to perform, to perfect. But what little power I have to do so. Just like the builders of the Tower of Babylon, I stand, my eyes straining upward, as God scatters me out into the beyond bit by bit. And then it’s just me and Him and my eyes forward as He walks me through my past, and we leave it, dust at our heels.