When I was four, I was infatuated with my pre-school best friend.
A girl. She had the prettiest eyes and smile I had seen in the four long years I had inhabited the earth. Even at that young age, I thought there was something “wrong” with me. Every night before bed, I prayed to God that when I woke up, I’d be a boy. Then I could hold her hand and let her kiss my cheek (without pretending like I didn’t want her to) without feeling the heavy weight of fear and shame that had already taken up residence in my gut.
When I was 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, I would look forward to going to bed every night, because once I lay down and the only light in the room was the soft glow of my night light, I was finally alone with my thoughts. I’d close my eyes and make up elaborate stories in my head where I was confident, comfortable, admired. Internalized homophobia meant that, at first, I had to imagine myself out of my own body. I made the dreams acceptable by appearing male in them. I fought dragons and wooed princesses.
I hated myself so much, I couldn’t even face me in the dark by myself.
In the dark, I remade myself. I was no longer attached to awkward and uncoordinated limbs, uncomfortable, and itchy in my own skin. I was no longer hyper-aware of every look, move, laugh, word, interaction, monitoring my words and my behavior constantly. Act normal. Be normal. Constantly observing my family and friends and teachers. Do they know I’m different? Do they know I’m wrong?
I worked so hard to be acceptable. I was told, “No one wants to take a fat girl to prom.” I was told, “pretty girls have long hair, ugly girls have short hair.” I was told, “you can't be too opinionated.” I tried so hard to be lovable.
When I was 16, a girl in my class came out as a lesbian. I was enamored with her. She was an exceptional artist. Far better than me. Her courage and her long dark hair left me awestruck. What was it like to have that kind of courage? What was it like to be yourself, your true self?
Her courage gave me courage. I started facing myself in the dark. I kept on dreaming at night, but I stopped making myself male in the dark of the night. I starred in my daydreams, but as myself with less acne and more confidence, and maybe 15 fewer lbs.
I told my closest friends when I was 16. My friends love and support helped to offset the vicious things I told myself.
No one will want you. No one will love you. Why would they? Look at you.
17, 18, 19, I dated boys openly. I fell in love with girls secretly.
At 18, I reconnected with my preschool sweetheart. She found me on MySpace. I remembered her big, brown doe eyes immediately. Sexual orientation on her MySpace profile was listed as “Lesbian.” She was as sweet, and smart, and mischievous as I remembered. When she gingerly cupped my jaw in her hands and pressed her lips to mine for the first time, I was frozen. “I can’t believe this is happening,” I said, rather dumbly, after her lips left mine. I broke up with my boyfriend as soon as I got home.
I had my first girlfriend at 18, a pianist with a laugh full of sunshine, the kindest heart, and soft blue eyes. I will always regret breaking her heart not just once, but twice. She deserved so much better. I think of her often. I hope she is well and is treating herself with the same kindness that she always treated others.
When I was 19, I tried seeing my high school boyfriend again. The thing about internalized homophobia is that it’s always with you, whispering nasty things in your ear. I regret that, too. He deserved better, too. When I cried with him in his white Toyota Tacoma, in my bed, on the swing on his parents’ porch, he just held me. He didn’t demand answers. He was always patient. I lay on his chest, tears leaking from my eyes, silently asking myself why I couldn’t love him the way I should.
When I was 20, I dated a young woman who told me she loved me for the first time the same night she sent me to drive home on the interstate in a blizzard. She gave me a ring. We were together for a couple of years. I measured my worthiness for love only by how much love I gave. I gave, and I gave, and I gave until I had nothing left to give. I stopped creating art. She bullied me. Asked me to be more feminine. Told me I was too sensitive. Told me I was crazy.
Be different. Be acceptable. Be lovable.
She isolated me from the friends that had been pillars of love and support for years. I regret that, too, the lost time with them. She took her ring back. Told me she didn’t know if she loved me. She cheated on me but kept me on the hook.
When I finally decided I was worth more and left, she stalked me. She knocked on my apartment doors and windows in the middle of the night to scare me. I thought I deserved it.
At 22, I connected with a rebellious biology major attending my Alma Mater. She was funny and irreverent, in the most endearing way possible, and didn’t take life too seriously. She was tender with my heart. She made me laugh. She made life fun again. I started creating art again.
At 23, my preschool sweetheart appeared in my life once more. We met in a Barnes and Noble cafe over a teeny table. We talked for hours. It felt like coming home to the kind curve of her lips, the gentleness in her eyes, the careful way she held my name in her mouth. A whirlwind romance and we were married. I thought I had it all figured out.
Oodles of laughter.
Endless job hunts.
Pancakes at three am.
Mountains of love letters.
Twinkle lights in every bedroom.
Becoming aunts together.
Being aunts together.
Goat. Cheese. Chicken. (Seriously. So good.)
So much joy and love I can’t adequately describe with words.
Insecurity, self-hate, and resentment are natural enemies of love.
28. I made mistakes.
I was so angry with and resentful of everyone I love because I felt like I was living for everyone else in an attempt to be worthy of their love in return. I had been seeking external fixes to an internal issue.
At 29, I started therapy. I realized I still had so much anger and self-hate that I had never taken the time to unpack. It doesn’t just go away, apparently. Who knew? I had issues setting boundaries. I had issues taking time for self-care. Any minor sign of conflict meant panic and compromising every piece of myself to avoid conflict and reaffirm that I was worthy of love.
I didn’t believe I was worthy of love unless I was giving everything all the time, even when I had nothing left to give. Even if I was being dishonest about my feelings, I told myself it didn’t matter.
As long as others were happy because I was saying what they wanted to hear and I was being an acceptable (read:lovable) version of a shadow of me, they’d still love me. That’s all that mattered.
I didn't have the awareness to realize that with every untruth, watered down truth, or lie of omission, I was doing more long term damage to my loved ones and my relationships with them.
30, I started setting boundaries. Speaking up. Speaking truth. Simple truths like, “I just need some space right now” or “I don’t like that color.” The more simple truths I told, the easier it was to tell bigger truths and be more authentically me.
30,31, I started treating myself gently. Speaking kindly. Nourishing my body with exercise and a healthy diet, and my heart with kind words. Turns out, the love and acceptance that I had sought from others my whole life, actually needed to come from me. I found that loving myself meant that I had an increased capacity for loving others. In other words, it’s not just bullshit, you guys. It’s actually true. (Who knew?) You DO have to love yourself before you can love others well.
32, I am a lesbian and I am proud of that. My relationship with my wife (my preschool heart-throb, first real kiss, and the one who has held my heart for 28 years) is one of healthy give and take. I have short hair, muscles, and am decidedly unfeminine. Because of--not in spite of--all of that, I am a beautiful woman. I am comfortable in my body. I am confident in my abilities. I love me. I am worthy of love as I am, no changes, no modifications, no lies by omission, just me. Turns out, I’m pretty cool.
“We all accept the love we think we deserve.”
― Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
I don't know who needs to hear this, but you are worthy of love as you are. Accept nothing less. Especially from yourself.