Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.
I used to hear that old nursery rhyme on the playground all the time. I chanted it myself whenever something mean was shouted or jeered in my direction. But as the years progress, I have come to the conclusion that this particular quip is bullshit. Yeah, sticks and stones can break our bones but words go straight for the marrow. Words can break the spirit.
I hear it all the time: at work, on TV and movies, in the lyrics of songs. She was mean, he was cruel, mommy did this and daddy did that. People talk about wounds received that are bloodless but still gaping, bruises and blows delivered by a clever and thoughtless tongue. Out of sight, out of mind. That one is unfortunately very often true. We walk by savagely wounded people every day and pay them no more attention than an occasional polite nod.
I'm not blaming normal folk. The damaged are very good at hiding their pain. They wear the smooth mask of a nonentity, desperate to stay the same as always, to be invisible. As a kid, I used to hide behind trees whenever cars drove by so they wouldn't see me. As a married adult, I stopped wearing makeup or nice clothes to be invisible. If I was attractive, I was noticed and there was hell to pay. What I didn't understand at the time was that there was always hell to pay. My ex was never satisfied, never pleased by anything I did when it came to my personal appearance. That was one of the manipulations to keep me with him. I just didn't see it at the time. I didn't value myself enough to be a champion to me, to Beck. I threw me to the wolves and dove right in to join in all the rending and tearing. That's the scary thing about insecurity. The insecure are crueler to themselves than anybody on the outside. If you're insecure enough, you stay with the wife-beater or the demanding acid-tongued spouse, you offer yourself up as a sacrifice in a desperate attempt to just get them to be happy for one moment, one pause in the constant barrage of attacks. That's what we live for, those brief and shining moments of abatement. Not kindness; abatement. Lack of torture. That becomes our kindness. That becomes our Christmas and New Year and Happy Birthdays. And that's no place for anyone to live. That is a hell of our own making and we're way too blind to see it clearly because our eyes are gummed full of shit.
I was like that for years. For most of my existence, that's how I lived; waiting for the glorious, marvelous moments of abatement. They had become beautiful to me. I hoarded them deep inside like a hidden treasure. When I finally left my husband after fourteen years, I took all his letters and cards, lovingly preserved, and re-read them with new eyes. Virtually every one of them was a beautifully written apology for something. My husband was highly intelligent and well read; he knew how to pen a good love note. But they were all apologies for something he had done to me or the kids. Fourteen years of letters and cards.
An insecure person will forgive anybody pretty much anything if the apology is done correctly, or we think our sin is great enough. We're emotional slaves. I've seen a woman weep over the sorrow in her husband's expression on seeing her battered face after beating her in a drunken rant. She wished she'd put some makeup on so he wouldn't have to feel so badly. I've listened to a brilliant surgeon make excuses for his wife's savagely biting his wrist and clawing at the tendons so he couldn't perform surgery anymore. She'd been cheating on him for years and when he fell in love and wanted a divorce, she wanted to make sure he couldn't support his "new piece of ass." He refused to press charges, saying he understood her pain. I've listened to child after child flay themselves for not being quieter, faster or smarter; berating their tiny selves with a burden they never should have picked up in the first place. The guilt burden, the self-hatred dogma that's tougher than heroin to break away from. All vicious, all cruel, all self delivered.
Words can be acid or honey. They can eat away at us until we're full of holes or they can be clover-scented sweetness, nourishing and golden. When I first began this droning monotony of self love talk, I rolled my eyes over the whole repulsive nonsense of it. I told myself that I was kind, good, a loving person, a wonderful woman. I didn't believe a word of it. Why should I? I'd been abusing myself for years, why should I suddenly believe this bullshit? But I kept at it. Every night, every day, I made sure to say something kind to the mirror, to whisper it in the dark as I fell asleep, to stare at artwork I'd done and praise it instead of agonizing over its flaws. I felt ridiculous. I knew I was stupid. But I kept at it. As the months passed, I began to notice small changes in my thinking. I felt a sort of hunger for those kind words, even if it was only dumb ass me saying them. They were golden and tasty and I had been starved for so very long. Then I went through the jeering phase, making fun of myself for being such a loser that the only person praising me was me. Still, I kept at it. Dog with a bone. I fed the soul that had been so hungry all this time; a belly growl I'd never recognized. Never understood. It was alien territory, this self-love thing, scary and unfamiliar and a little humiliating to someone as fucked up as I'd been. But I kept at it. That's the secret. Winston Churchill had it right. Never, never, never quit. So there we go, my brothers and sisters of circumstance. Don't ever give up and don't ever quit on yourselves. I am amazed how fond I am of good ole' Beck nowadays. To my astonishment, I find that I'm a pretty good person, even after such a ridiculous and miserable life. What a marvelous, wondrous thing to discover. The uncharted territory of myself. I've hit both valley and mountain now, highs and lows, shadow and light and I'm still travelling. I'll be on this road a while yet. And believe me, it's surprisingly worthwhile. So are you all. Believe it and never, never, never quit.