This was me at age 16.
The photo makes me feel strange now. I don’t recognise the person, though her features are familiar. I have memories of the thoughts she had.
She didn’t think herself ugly, but she also thought herself hideous. Her value and self-worth were entirely dependent on others. She craved validation, though she didn’t want to. (But she did.) She had internalised rules about the permissible ways to get validation, mostly requiring her to be better and smarter than other people. That was allowed, and she needed it desperately. In her world, wanting love was weak. Wanting self-confidence and attention was weak. Femininity was weak. Feeling was weak.
Her eyes are serious and hard. She had an unpleasant side, which was denying the emotional needs of herself and others. Not admitting to them herself (because it was unsafe and futile to have them), she hated popular people who got praise and admiration easily. She wanted to have what they had, but hated herself for it. She was, basically, Draco Malfoy.
She had friends. It was easy if they liked the same things. So she got lucky with that and enjoyed those friendships. Looking back, the strongest ones were with people whose parents were fighting, divorced, or absurdly controlling and anxious. Because those friends got her sincere, 100 percent sympathy. At times she wondered why she found it easy to sympathise with these friends when her home situation was completely different. (Ha.)
Numbing was preferable to looking beneath the surface. Escaping into fantasy books was preferable to the real. In college, dating edgelord types was preferable to openly affectionate boys–did the latter not know how soft and needy they looked? They were also probably stupid.
She had internalised misogyny, toxic masculinity, toxic everything. Other women were competition; her mother had said this. Granted her mother was stupid (this was how deep her misogyny ran), but even a broken clock could be right. Young Janet was smarter than so many people–male or female–that she expected to have no problems Winning At Life.
Lacking the vocabulary and lens for emotional self-awareness, she instead found herself constantly stumbling and angry. Nothing came easy in work or dating. She vacillated between blaming herself and never feeling good enough; and blaming the idiots around her who couldn’t see her. And she still didn’t want to need others.
Her neuroses were many. Her inner critic was deafening, demanding that she stay low and stay hidden or else all her flaws and mistakes would be seen and shamed. And then she would wonder why she was invisible. She was unhappy but happiness was for weaklings. Yet every setback, every perceived criticism and rejection crumpled her. She would give up, try something else, before experiencing disappointment in the other thing, try again, and repeat the cycle in different interests.
She didn’t know what was “right” for her to stick to. How could she? She needed something “safe”; she needed to be perfect and the best at it, and it needed to bring in bags of money and admirers. Not having that, she had no fixed identity or worth. She was repeatedly “advised” at every disappointment to give up; the creative path was for the spoiled and attention-seeking; the world was blind and hellish and only rewarded the undeserving.
She believed that voice for far too long. Even when it shut up, she already had the program running inside her. The judging, hard voice. Constantly deriding and finding fault in her and everyone around her.
It was constantly painting the world black.
I see now the enormity of the toxicity she had to deal with. I admire and weep that she kept on painting even when she was made to feel stupid for it, continuing to pursue what bought unreliable financial reward. Art was a burden, but also her defiance and comfort. Because whatever she created, it was hers. She knew its worth to her, even when it was shouted over.
To my old self: my heartfelt thanks and admiration. You created light in the darkness and persisted.
Continue reading: Life After “Dead Inside” Part 2