“We want to see your authenticity.”
“But I am being authentic!” I respond– blood pressure rising, defenses firing. In this moment, I don’t know what more to give. My eyes scan the cheap office dividers enabling some privacy for our process group every morning. Several days into intensive therapy, my clinicians zero in on my veneer.
“I don’t know what you want!” I exclaim. I cannot perfect what is uncertain. People pleasing only works when I can anticipate another person’s needs.
“We don’t want anything,” My social worker replies through her rimless glasses– a look that would be unsympathetic on anyone else but her. I say I’m sorry. I repeat it. My tongue only knows the rhythm of multiple apologies. I play double dutch between big words and “I’m sorry”s. The group chides me, reminding me I’m not supposed to do that. My spine folds in embarrassment. The group session ends. Their words wiggle inside me long after the session. They writhe throughout the day and wake me at midnight.
They challenge me to not wear makeup. It is no privilege to see my bare face. “How does it feel?” a clinician asks. “Fine,” I respond. Others comfort me by reminding me how beautiful I am. This is about so much more than a MAC lipstick.
My reflex to wear make up and compulsively apologize sprout from the same plant– a response to the shame of my existence. To cope with how shameful and vulnerable I feel about the core of my being, I crafted a representative to interact with the world. I perceived my representative as another person. She and I are the same. I simply cloned myself and drained the perceived defects: my desires, my complications, my imperfections. But we are not separate. My representative is my second skin, my outer layer, my protection. My representative is simple in all the ways I’m complicated. She is a single sentence to the novels of me. It is not that I seek your approval. It’s that my representative is safe in all the ways I am dangerous. She is diet me, the me the world is less likely to eat alive.
I started wearing makeup freshman year of high school because I didn’t want to be barked at in the hallways like in the eighth grade. I just wanted to navigate school a little more safely. My vocabulary brims with lush, multisyllabic words because the world values people it perceives as intelligent. My goal was never to be smart. It was to be valued. My defensiveness is the forever flashback to every predator I survived. I don’t want to be anybody’s victim again. So I posture as strong, as a bad bitch because beneath this armor are a million bruises I am nursing. It’s not that I want to be better than anybody else. I just want to feel safe.
I get how you think my vanity is important to me, how my ego and accomplishments matter. They only matter as cornerstones to my security. No one tended to me so it was always my responsibility to be ok, or eat least, look that way. Looking that way was enough to exist.
To be human is to incur damage. It is inevitable. It is possible to acknowledge that while also stating that I was afforded a place to be soft or fail, that (unintentionally and by loving folks) my back has been the resting place for other people’s burdens. And, in always over-performing beyond my years, people believed I was capable of bearing more than I could. It is possible to say life is hard, and also, my life has been hard. It is still hard.
I perpetuate the behaviors that kept me safe. Expression merited anything from withholding love to physical assault. Advocacy attracted anything from reprimanding to termination. My body is a traffic light always on green, is an open convenience store ready for the looting. My affection is an open convenience store, ready for the looting. My boundaries are a punchline where I am the joke. This is the production of my life.
I can’t be “on” right now. My representative has taken a sabbatical from office. All that remains is a weary woman underneath. Twenty-five years of headlining, of care taking, of hustling for my worth. I’m suffocating beneath all the bodies I’ve carried. They don’t hear me gasp for air because I do such a great job of smiling. My head reels as I type this. My mind fishes for words, but my skull is the Sahara now, so mentally taxed from continuing. When do I get to shut off? When do I get to unload? How do I do these things when my vulnerability has always been weaponized against me? I’ve mistaken a gaslight for the spark of connection so many times.
I don’t know that I’ll ever shed my representative because I still want to be perfect. It’s not really that. I want belonging. I want security. I want to be appreciated as as I am. I want relief and freedom from my thunderous thoughts. I want to be loved without the fear of being taken advantage of or abandonment. I want to say these things aloud but must settle for typing them. It is not perfection but all the things perfection promised me. Above all else, I just want to be safe.
This is about me and my second skin, about how desperately I want to disarm. When they ask me to be authentic, they are a group of gardeners asking me to see the ground as anything other than landmines. My every chapter of my past is another war zone. I don’t know what’s heavier– the weight of my representative or the combined pounds of those I carry through my daily life. This is not me venerating myself. There are no praises for self-sacrifice here. This is how I ask to become free. This essay peers into the atlas of my experiences, aching for asylum. I want to see open arms without a backhand waiting in the wings, a “good job” without a “you owe me”, a sincere moment without the fear of it breaking just like me.