I have opinions. Wanna hear them? Trauma
Updated: Mar 12
All through my teens and into my early 20s, I was told that I was stupid. My father would say it out loud, and my mother would acknowledge it with her silence. Information was wonderful, and I’d discovered lots of facts and I had lots of opinions, you see. I shared my opinions, at the dining room table and at gatherings and so forth, about current events, the news, about issues such as social justice. But I was told that I was being stupid, that I actually was stupid, that I didn’t know what I was talking about, that I was ridiculous and shouldn’t share my opinions and researched facts because I was stupid. This insight was delivered from when I could form coherent debatable arguments until he left my mother when I was twenty-four. Every day for twelve years. Give or take a day.
I tried everything I could to gain something other than derision. I excelled at school. Top of English, Humanities, Theatre, etc. But that didn’t work. It was expected. Those grades? Just me being me. A parental shoulder shrug. No praise needed. I was told that my grades were pointless in those subjects I did well in, because they were stupid subjects that had no value in life. So I tried to win praise from the teachers to show how not stupid I was, and yes, I achieved excellent grades but it was empty praise because it was their job to say, “Well done.”
Of course, I was never going to give myself any recognition. Not after twelve years of no recognition. Not after I’d spent the same amount of time riding an undiagnosed bipolar highest of highs and the lowest of lows and when a very intense collection of ‘You’re stupid’s” coincided with a low, then I didn’t want to even attempt personal praise and recognition. Why bother? Everyone was right.
By the time I was nineteen and at Uni, I’d slipped into bipolar mania, which, weirdly, helped me start to collect my threads. Mania’s not supposed to help. Mania is when people kill themselves. I couldn’t even succeed at that. But it helped when I was on a high, because I began to trickle tiny amounts of self worth into my heart. I still wanted my parents to see me jumping up and down in front of them, shouting, “Look! Please look! I got a really great grade and I’m good at this and I’m really clever.” I wanted to prove how *not* stupid I was. So I completed a degree and then another one and then another one. High distinctions like confetti. It wasn’t enough because apparently the degrees I’d completed had no value in the real world. My earnest waving faded and my arms dropped to my sides, because it didn’t matter.
I completed my fourth degree sailing on a manic high. The high lasted eighteen months. When I came down, when I graduated, when I looked about and blinked at the light and the blue and the reality and the people staring at me because I was from the moon, the exhaustion filled my bones like tar. Because of that high, I populated the degree with the most *useless* subjects I could find. It was beautiful.
I gave up looking for parental praise and acknowledgement. Well, not quite. I tried once more. In 2019, my book, ‘Coming Home’, was sent through as a finalist for a Goldie award. I was so excited. It was the first time any of my writing was a finalist for any type of award. I rang my mother, because…because I was excited and proud and maybe she’d be proud as well and maybe she’d say so.
She wasn’t and she didn’t. She told me about my sister’s new haircut at the end of my excited sentence that I delivered through a smile which she couldn’t see but surely must have heard.
Fast forward to my new career as an author. A sort of career. Careers are supposed to draw income, or something. They’re supposed to be a real job. Not a hobby. A pointless hobby. Oops, there we go. All that leftover *stuff*.
My therapist calls it psychological trauma which I scoffed at initially because surely there are people in the world with bigger, more traumatic, trauma than mine. She stared at me for a full five seconds and then said, “It’s not a competition. You have trauma. Let’s look at it.”
So we do.
Every now and then, in the world, the word stupid is bandied about, sometimes at me, or near me, or about me. You can’t have that many years of someone expressing their beliefs about your level of stupidity without the word triggering a reaction. Because it does. My mind shudders. My head jerks. My breath catches. It’s quite a physical response for only a word.
Reviews were now my kryptonite. I shouldn’t read all of them, but I do. Did. I did. Only because I wanted to try harder, write better, jump and wave my arms about brandishing my books in tightly clenched fists. “Hey, look! I wrote this. It’s not stupid. I’m not stupid.”
A friend suggested that I screenshot all the five star reviews. Just those ones. Keep them in a folder and, every now and then, let the praise and encouragement and validation and proof that I’m not stupid or pointless wash over me.
It works. Enough.
Reviews are for readers. I know this. I mean, I do look at reviews through the lens of an author, because I like finding those five stars. But I also read an enormous amount of sapphic fiction. I love reading in my own genre. The wonderful variety, texture, phrasing, plots, excites me. If I love a novel, I write a review. I call them essay-thingies. That’s a whole different blog post. They’re usually about 800 words and I go on about the intricacies that I found in the story, about the way an author set up this point or that point or used this theme to create texture to showcase a character. These essay-thingies are for readers.
There are many authors who don’t read reviews at all. I do. It’s a choice I’ve made no matter how vulnerable it makes me. My therapist gets it. She doesn’t like it. But she gets it.
She gets that I need that commentary. That “Yay you” or the “Those words are terrific” or the “This book is great” because otherwise I’m invisible, and pointless, and not worth looking at because I’m stupid and inconsequential.
Over the years, I’ve come to realise that I’m too hard. I’m too much effort. I get it, I really do. Those very patient people will tell me I’m not stupid. They tell me that I’m a great writer. That I’m…whatever the compliment. But those very patient people eventually give up, because why pour love and effort into a person who carries a traumatic sieve in their psyche. Their words never stay. They seep through the holes into the void below and I watch, with those people, as those words are lost. Eventually, after too long staring through those holes, watching their words disappear, they shake their heads and give up.
I get it.
All those supportive people cheering me on. Those people who are so involved. So invested. Those people who haven’t walked away and are mentioned in the usually three-page-long acknowledgements. Even though I wouldn’t blame them if they did walk away. Trauma and bipolar and depression and anxiety is a snowplough that scoops up support and encouragement and positive words and ‘Hey, you’re not stupid” and smooshes them to the sides of the road so the tractor treads can grind their very existence into dust.
This morning, because I read at the speed of light, and because you can’t look away from a car crash, I accidentally came across a review that definitely wasn’t one I would screenshot. Every skerrick of positivity from dozens of people over dozens of weeks and months drained through my sieve to be replaced by a giant ball of ‘You’re pointless’.
It’s not the reviewers fault. Absolutely not. Their review, no matter what the perspective, is for readers and that's perfect. They weren’t to know, however, that a single hashtaged label would activate the kitchenware in my heart. It’s completely their opinion and that’s valid. Opinions are valid. I wish fifteen-year-old me had known that.
Even though I’ve attempted to take the petrol out my snowplough, one page of a review site, with a shelf category hastaged ‘stupid’, undoes all that work.
Because it is work.
There’s a snippet of a show that sapphic super author Lee Winter https://www.facebook.com/LeeWinterOz has up on her FB timeline where Anne Hathaway is explaining to her friend why she is hard work.
That show is a punch to the gut. That's me.
I’m hard work.
I’m a line of dominoes where people in my life have, for each day, week, month, carefully placed the pieces—those glass self-esteem supportive pillars—and every single one is knocked down because of one tap at the beginning.
No wonder people give up.
It’s hard to untangle a belief which is so firmly knotted that your skin bleeds with the effort.
It’s hard to unknow something you know.
It’s hard to unhear something you’ve heard for so long that the words are graffiti on your eardrums.
The holes in my sieve are gradually closing over. They won’t ever close completely, as the performance from this morning’s shower drain demonstrates, because I have too much, too many, too big, too complex. But despite wobbles and wonkiness and waves that tip the trauma onto the beach in my mind, there’s one thing I do know.
I know it now.
I’m not stupid.