A new friend and I were hanging out this past week, when we began talking about past romantic experiences. She asked about my recent ones, and I mentioned that I had dated a few people recently, but nothing serious. She told me a bit about hers, the subject changed to high school for some reason, and I joked that despite skipping class to make out with my boyfriend, my academic and professional future have turned out pretty well. “Ah ha!” She said. “You’ve been holding out on me. Who was this boyfriend?” I replied that at one point he had been my fiancé, and that we were together for several years. She didn’t ask why the relationship ended, and we went back to the conversation. At one point I joked, “so what’s your life story?” She replied that she didn’t think I could handle her life story, with a laugh that I recognized as masking pain.
I thought it was interesting, considering some of the things I’ve lived through, that I appeared to her as someone who couldn’t handle whatever was behind that laugh. I wondered what she would think if she heard my life story. Would she still think that I was someone who could not understand or empathize with her pain, or whatever it was that she meant when she said she thought I couldn’t handle it? After her comment, I worried that telling her my story would feel like a competition – who had endured the most? Whose pain exceeded the other’s tolerance threshold? Who was more accustomed to fear, shame, or grief?
What I wanted to have with this friend was to be there for her. I didn’t want to prove that I had the kind of life experiences that made me able to respond to hers with compassion rather than shock or horror. I just wanted to listen, and to let her know that I care. In the moment of her sharing, I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to take the focus away from her experiences by telling her mine. That could wait for another time. I wondered what I would say to her if that time came, and she asked to hear my experiences in return. I spent a while thinking through what things I would be willing to talk about, and what things I wanted to keep between me and me.
Then I had a strange realization. All the things I was considering telling her about as part of my life story were episodes of pain. I had been debating back and forth whether or not to tell her how that relationship ended so long ago, or whether to tell her about growing up in a house where my rights as a child were violated, or whether to share the mental health issues that I struggle with day to day.
I never thought to tell her about the time when I was a little girl and spent a summer afternoon lazing about with my mother in her bedroom while the sun shone in through the window screen and the warm air smelled like cut grass. I never thought to tell her about how my father used to sing to me every night before bed and taught me to braid my hair. I never thought to tell her about how my childhood friends and I made up the most absurdly elaborate games of tag.
It never occurred to me that I was treating the list of ways others have hurt me as my life story. I never thought that my identity could extend beyond what I have endured.
Maybe it’s because the stories we encounter, from movies to news stories, from books to application essays, encourage us to emphasize the challenges we’ve faced. This week I learned that telling my story this way turns my traumas into my life’s major turning points.
It’s not that I want to take them out: my pain has broken me open in ways that are important to me, even though given the choice, I would not choose these experiences a second time. It is important to me to share that with the people I care about. At the same time, it is my story now. I can’t always control what happens in it, but I am beginning to feel that on some level, I can choose its turning points. The way I have been telling it so far, my story has revolved around violence. I want that to change. I want to see what it feels like to tell a story that revolves about kindness and strength.
If you’ve been reading the blog, you know about a lot of my struggles. But have I ever told you about how much I love baked salmon?
It was the first thing I ever made while living on my own. I baked it in a toaster oven because I was living in a hole in the wall. It was delicious.
I never thought I was capable of making something that tasted good.