Friday, August 28, 2015

Up in Flames

From ages ten to thirty-two, I kept a journal. I remember my first one, a white, lined book with a lock that I was very excited about. It was hard for me to fill those pages. My life was so bland: school, homework, dress-up, Barbies, my mom and brother, sleepovers. At ten, the only entries that necessitated that lock involved boys and whether or not I thought they liked me. At that time, I wasn't really interested in them. I just knew that it was a good thing in fact, one of the most important things — to be pretty. To be pretty was to be liked, which was to be happy. Because I didn't always feel so happy, I must not have been pretty, and therefore not liked by boys. Any break in this chain of flawed thinking led to a collapse of my prepubescent pyramid of self-worth. I was of course completely unaware that I was only searching for validation, likely because my father was not a part of my life, but I did know that I didn't want my mom to find out that I was thinking about boys because I knew somewhere deep down that she would be disappointed in me, and because I thought maybe there was something wrong with me. So I made sure I always locked that journal, and I kept it out of view, under my mattress.

That was just the start of my quest to receive validation from boys. By high school, I needed a different journal. I had no problem filling the pages then because I'd reached a crippling level of self-consciousness. I felt this enormous pressure to be happy because all of the adults around me told me that these years would be the best years of my life because I was young and beautiful (in the way that teenage girls are). Yet I didn't feel happy most of the time. My mom and I were fighting; my missing father made me feel abandoned, which swiftly turned from sadness into rage; at times I was in arguments with different girlfriends, so there were periods that I had no friends and had to sit alone in the cafeteria; my grades slipped. All of this made me feel unloved, inadequate, and at times depressed, and I couldn't understand why happiness was so elusive for me.

Once again I was obsessed with whether or not people, not just boys, thought I was pretty. I felt that being desired by boys and the envy of girls was my only card to play, so I was desperate for proof that I was in fact attractive. Whether or not a boy liked me consumed my thoughts, and I filled my journal with complaints about my home life, confessions of jealousy, declarations of love for my boyfriend, when I had one, and every horrible recurring thought about myself. I was deeply fearful of someone reading my journal, so I kept it behind the bookshelf in my room. Every time I wanted to write in it, I had to cram my arm in the small space between the bookshelf and my closet wall and drag it out, hoping none of the pages would tear.

In my twenties and into my early thirties, the contents of my journal were similar to the depressing entries of my teen years, minus the boys. The only other difference was that I was, by that point, capable of understanding my motivations behind certain behaviors, the traumas in my life that heavily contributed to the way I was feeling, the ways in which my parents had failed me, and that I needed to love myself first. I did, however, allow myself to feel proud of my accomplishments, and this made me less self-conscious, but those moments of contentment, no matter how fleeting (or perhaps because they were fleeting), never made their way into my journal. My journal was still a place where I could vent all of my frustrations and pain.

By the time I had my first daughter, my journals were lined up on my bookshelf, not tucked away in some dark place. I became a self-conscious journalist because I believed that one day, if there wasn't already, between my husband and my mom, there would be an audience for these journals. So I made an effort to write happier entries, even though I still struggled with feelings of anxiety, ineptitude, and depression. I don't believe I was clinically depressed—in my life, as in the other years in my life in which I was journaling, there were many pleasurable experiences. I had a good education, a career, a husband, and a child, and I traveled places I'd always wanted to go. But it was an effort to hang on to those feelings of joy, so it was difficult to record them in my journal. 

At one point I thought I would one day give all of my journals to my daughter. I thought that when she was old enough she would find comfort in them because she might experience those same feelings of alienation. The journals would make our relationship more intimate, and she would always feel safe enough to open up to me. But as I paged through them after she was born, I became disgusted with the entries and embarrassed by them because, once again, I hadn't been able to sustain the level of happiness that I thought I should be able to. I decided my daughter would never want to read how unhappy her mother was, and that she might not—if I parented her the way I should—feel the same misery that I had.

One night I gathered them all and took them into my backyard, where I'd created a small bonfire. Without hesitation, I threw them all in and watched them burn. At the time, I had convinced myself that this was almost some sort of goddess ritual, in which I was cleansing myself of the past. It felt cathartic to watch them all go up in flames. I felt pleased with my choice. I had rid myself of those feelings, and I could move forward and parent my child and push ahead in my career, and be happy.

I am almost thirty-seven now. I have two children who are my greatest joys and who have given me the gift of a lifetime of reconciling past hurts, growing, and becoming the person I have always wanted to become. I have a good job and a good salary. I have a nice house. I take a vacation, no matter how modest, every year. I have a couple of good friends and a strong marriage. If I were asked if I was happy, I would say yes. But that is not entirely true; gratitude is not the same as happiness. Even if I feel pleasure every day, I also feel pain. I feel anger. I still am looking for validation.

Facebook is a trigger. I love it because I want to stay connected, but I hate it because everyone looks so happy. Everyone is so successful. Everyone appears to be having more fun than I am. No one else has to work through their emotions at moments every day to try to reach a level of contentment. Observing my friends' lives through the lens of Facebook makes them look so easily full of joy, and mostly empty of sadness.

I combat the urge to keep a journal these days with this blog. But because it’s meant for public consumption, I keep everything as neat and tidy as possible and try not to leave piles of negativity in the corners. I'm not sure that my journal today, if I kept one, would look much different from my past journals. I know that I could not fill it will joyful entry after joyful entry. I don't mean to suggest that I go through life weeping and complaining, but I do know that happiness for me doesn't come easily.

Even though I know I’m a good mother, a good wife, and a good employee, I am still disappointed in myself. I still have that nagging, critical voice in my head telling me that I have not yet achieved enough, that I can do better, that I should have more. I am angry at myself for even having those feelings when I know that I am lucky and I know that there are so many people who have it so much worse than I do.

I believe there's value in being able to confront these feelings, being able to poke and prod at them until they tell you where they come from. A part of me misses those journals that I burned up in my backyard. They may not have told a happy story, but they contained a truth. Maybe not the whole truth, but those feelings were real, and they helped shape who I am today. So even though I lit fire to the paper artifacts, I remain the original document, and maybe instead of permanently tattooing all my negativity on the pages of a journal, I should become more adept at dealing with my feelings in real time, writing my story with action rather than ink.



  1. My journals are very similar. They're all sitting on a bookshelf still, but I don't know why I keep them. What's funny is Chris just burned the hard drives of three of my old computers yesterday. I gave them to him to destroy (thinking, you know, sledgehammer), and he went with diesel fuel and huge flames.

  2. Glad to hear I am not alone! Surely high school couldn't have been fun for everyone, right? And burn, baby, burn.