So, I mentioned that I was freaking out a bit and luckily Friday was a chance for me to talk to my counselor, Keisha, about what’s been bothering me. In part, it’s money. Nobody ever has enough money, right? It’s not just me, I know, thinking that if only I could do a little bit more, save a little bit more, I’d have that feeling of true security. I’ve read the studies about how everyone thinks if they doubled their salaries they’d have all the money they could possibly need, something like that. I know my emotional response is related to that sort of thinking. If I stick to the plan I’ve got now, it will only be a matter of months before all my debt except student loans is totally paid off, meaning I can funnel my monthly payments into savings instead. That’s what I need and want to be doing regardless of whether we are adopting, but suddenly the idea that I have to turn in a sheet with financial information before I even achieve my plan panics me.
The real fear, though, was a sillier one. First there’s the file on special situations that might be triggering and while I can skip the section on infertility and the one about whether either of us has been arrested, we had to write a short explanation of Lee’s history as an adoptee and a much longer one about my history of rape and subsequent abusive relationship. It seems fine now, more than a decade after the rape, to explain that I was a powerless, anorexic college freshman when I was raped by a dormmate. Rather than deal with it rationally or admit my problem and get help, I shut down, dropped out of school, and fell into a deep depression during which I got involved with and eventually married a much older man who was controlling and verbally/emotionally abusive. I went back to school after that marriage at age 19, flourished in some respects, but even once I was able to talk about my own rape without shame or remorse I wasn’t able to admit what went on in my apartment to anyone for years. It’s hard for me to believe now that it took until I was 21 to feel that I’d suffered enough and that I needed to escape, but that’s when it happened and what it did.
I prepared for almost a year, trying to find a place to stay and support that would help me get by after graduation, and then I spent my last semester in a dorm, filed divorce papers and got a protective order. And he stalked me and, in some ways, more importantly, destroyed all of the work I’d done toward my thesis. I kept thinking I could recreate the research, but it was too daunting on top of everything else. Or, to be honest, it was too daunting to wake up every morning knowing I had to do something I dreaded, admit my failing (because of course my ex’s behavior was all MY problem, in my mind) to my advisor so we could figure out what I could do to get the thesis written. Instead, I hid from all my problems, didn’t write the thesis, didn’t graduate.
Most people don’t know that about me, though I can turn it into the fairly clean story I just told. I don’t like to admit that level of failure. It’s one thing to be able to say in public that I was raped — something I’ve done on many occasions — because it’s politically meaningful; saying it means I think such statements can be made in public and in response I’ve had many, many other women (and a few men) come out to me with their own histories. For similar reasons, I’m fairly open about my struggles with depression and eating disorders. I’ll even talk about having been in a non-violent but still abusive relationship if it seems germane to conversation. I’m open about how broken I am, but I still really hide the way I feel I’ve failed.
I was always the smart kid. Lee tells her friends I’m the smartest person she knows and while I think that’s ridiculous and untrue and a weird thing to say, it’s also flattering. It matters more to me than that she thinks I’m attractive, certainly. So much of my identity was tied up in being the smartest and thus the best, which is the kind of perfectionist thinking that drove me into anorexia at 11 and misery throughout my teens. Everyone thought that by my age I’d have a PhD, but instead here I am with nothing, working a desk job that gives me plenty of new research fodder but no academic direction of my own. I try not to find this horribly upsetting. For one thing, it’s a big world, and I’m not going to be the smartest and the best, not ever. I also don’t know what direction I want to take when I do head back into academia, which at this point isn’t on the agenda until there are children in the picture and they’re old enough to go to school full-time. but I do still feel like a failure and I’m ashamed of that feeling to the point where I don’t tell people about how I did both very badly and very well at my university. The shame outweighs all the excellent things I did. I don’t like this about myself, but it’s the honest part right now. And on the adoption forms, I have to talk about something like my biggest regret or mistake or something, and I know this is going to have to come out there even though it might make me a less compelling candidate to parent. I know degrees aren’t mandatory and I know my personal failure on that front doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, but I don’t even want to make excuses — and these are fairly decent ones, as excuses go — because no excuse could ever be enough.
Last week, a friend of mine from elementary and high school school was back in town for a few days and got in touch because we’ve seen each other only once in 10 years. She’s working on her own PhD and has yet another super-prestigious research grant to cover her foreign travels for the next year. I was a little miffed my parents had given her my phone number, but I realized immediately it was because I was afraid of how she’d judge me, that she’d feel sorry for me that I live where we grew up and haven’t had the academic experiences she has. Instead, we talked about how she envies the pets I have and how she had to be hospitalized because of the mental toll grad school took on her. She understood my fears about failing in grad school and my belief that it’s best to wait to apply until I believe I’m mentally healthy enough to push myself to do what I have to do, rather than fail because failure feels good in the same way starving used to feel good. I feel like such a different person than I was in my early 20s that it’s hard to believe this would be a problem, but I still want more practice, more success before I push on.
I’m so glad my friend and I got a chance to talk not because she made me feel better about myself and my choices (which I don’t think she really did; I still vaguely envy her life) but because it was so wonderful to see that we’ve both become adults, gone through very different stages between high school and now, but we’ve both ended up politically engaged in similar ways, excited about the same sorts of issues. I know the Catholic schools we both attended in our youth weren’t trying to create postmodern activist-theorists, but I think our best teachers would be most proud of us finding ourselves in those roles. Actually, that’s not true. They’d be most proud of the strong, confident, smart, thoughtful women we’ve become. We’ve both had trouble getting there and both have far to go, but it means a lot to me that from now on I’ll be able to see her follow her path while she’s watching me on mine. I know that I’m not so bad after all, whatever my instincts might tell me. I’ve come a long, long way, but I’m planning to go far too. And honestly, I do believe that’s what the social workers want from me.