Playing Small

I learned at a very young age to play small. Perhaps I taught this to myself as a way to cope. I was a very shy child until I really, really trusted. I was always a person who felt things big. I felt things before they happened. I felt things that were there that I wasn’t supposed to know about. I felt things that no one dare talk about. The thing I was being protected from was my mom’s cancer. There was an elephant in the room and I didn’t dare antagonize it by being me. Though my parents protected me from it, I didn’t feel like there was any room for me. I can’t say that anyone else put that expectation on me. It’s just the way I felt. So, I taught myself not to rock the boat and carried that all the way into adulthood.

As a very little girl I would come home from school and go straight to the bath. That was my safe haven. My place to escape the silent chaos I felt inside about what was going on that no one was talking about. I would sit in the bathtub and run the water until it turned cold. Then I would wait for more hot water, drain the tub and repeat. I felt very safe there and the sound of the water was so soothing to my mind. Almost every single day I would do this. Escape to the bath and the sound of the water and the feeling of being safe there and covered. The terrifying thought of losing my mom was quieted. Sometimes I would stay in there for three hours. My parents would come knocking on the door, asking me if I was okay. “Yes!”, I would answer as cheerfully as I could make myself sound. Yes, I was okay as long as I was in the bath, wrinkled up like a small human prune.

For much of my adulthood I tried very, very hard not to rock the boat. Sit still. Sit on your hands if you have to. Bite your lip. Laugh when it’s appropriate. Always, always smile as if you are the happiest person on the entire planet. Don’t talk about your feelings or say anything that’s really real or true inside. Keep the conversation safe. And try to look pretty even if you don’t feel it. Truth is, I sucked at this, badly. At parties, I did my best to keep this persona going. Just smile and pretend. I could feel myself disappearing, being absorbed into the wallpaper, etched there with other half asleep souls, one dimensional, stuck up on the wall for decoration. I couldn’t stand being that still. And, finally, I would succumb to a drink and the whole world would change. Just one or two was all it took for me to feel completely different, at ease, confident, because I was a lightweight. Always have been. A drink or two or three was my bath water, baptizing me with courage and words and laughter and truth. All better.

I took to writing as my outlet as a child because that was the one way I felt I could really express my feelings even if no one else heard them. As I strip alcohol away, I’ve taken to writing again and am no longer half asleep, numb. No more sitting on my hands, biting my lip, being a fixture on someone else’s wall. And I know there is plenty of room for me, the real me in the world. There is plenty of room for all of us, our imperfections, and our truths.

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