Backstories

by Kat

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Once upon a time, there was a quiet girl who grew up in apartments with people too distracted by their own problems to notice her, to ask how she was feeling, and so she struggled to describe her own emotional life, instead using words like “okay” and “busy.” [She felt self-conscious writing these statements, even self-indulgent, for fear people thought she was navel-gazing.]  More than anything, she wanted someone else to sit beside her and listen, to remind her that eventually things would be better. She could develop a life of her own, apart from her family — the people who noticed her slumped shoulders (“stop hunching”), but somehow missed the anxieties she felt, but could not identify. She learned to “fade into the wallpaper” or escape into young adult fiction when things became too painful to process.

Meanwhile, she journaled throughout her childhood and adolescence, reminding herself that she could see a therapist after she left for college (she mainly just wanted to speak her narrative aloud, maybe make some sense of it). And so she did, several of them — her first therapist in undergrad, joined a few therapy groups, and started seeing her current therapist last fall after life became particularly confusing. She worried about a lot of things, but in retrospect, this was understandable since things growing up were so unpredictable. She was terrified of change and felt lonely.

She felt overwhelmingly different from those around her. She thought she was odd and strange, as if the experiences she’d gone through growing up had left her irreparably broken. She wondered if she’d feel as disconnected and socially awkward as she did if her childhood was utterly normal. She felt ashamed of her backstory, sharing it only with those who came from similar circumstances or knew those who did.

I remember reading the forward to Rudy Simone’s Aspergirls and reaching the section where Liane Holliday says “Aspergirl” sounds like a superhero. She muses, “I don’t think anyone could read this book and not come to the conclusion that women who manage to come through the gauntlet of AS [Asperger syndrome] with any measure of success are both super and heroes” (p. 11). And dear readers, as some of you may have realized where I’m going with this metaphor by now, superheroes have origin stories — some might call them “backstories.”  These narratives explain who these characters are and how they came to be this way.

I suspect a lot of us have these backstories, but may be reluctant to share them for fear of what might happen afterward. What if people react badly? What if they still don’t understand me, even though I’ve shared this vulnerable part of myself? What if they use this information I’ve shared to hurt me in the future? Does telling my story to another person make things seem more real? These questions concern “right place, right time, right person” considerations I’ve had to make as I’ve considered issues of disclosure.

I believe stories are powerful, especially the ones we’re afraid to tell for fear of how others might react. Maybe in these moments, we ask ourselves, “What’s the worst thing that could happen and how could I handle that?” Disclosure of any sort is an ongoing conversation with oneself and others: How much do I share? How much do I feel comfortable sharing, remembering that there are no right answers, only ones that feel right for you in the moment.

I’m finding that in sharing my own story, I’m gradually shedding the shame that surrounds my backstory. But like anything else, this is a process, one in which I’m constantly reminding myself: “Shoulds [what I should do…], oughts [ought to do..], and musts [must do…]” have no place in my decision-making. The people that quiet girl wished were sitting beside her back then are listening now.