I grew up in an extremely un-loving home. My siblings and I were insanely conditioned to behave in a way that no matter what we were experiencing on the inside, that we needed to appear perfect on the outside. And to never tell the truth about what happened the night before. And never, ever, question what is given to you and just be ok with it.
I now believe it was my mom’s attempt at relieving her own anxieties and insecurities because if her children looked together, that must mean wonderful things about her, right? Our feelings were very inconvenient. In turn, we felt inconvenient.
But I was great at it. I needed to be great at it. I became a master at crafting conversations where I said little to nothing but somehow appeared extremely fucking together. Everyone I engaged with thought I was so smart. I got by on being smart. My 4.0 GPA wasn’t bad either. But truthfully, ‘being smart’ is a way to control an uncontrollable home life, uncontrollable feelings and uncontrollable pain. It’s not messy or confusing – it’s clear and predictable. It was my source of survival.
Thinking of it now, it’s rather scary. To be taught to be so manipulative and know how to control people by words alone. They can’t know the truth about the alcohol. The truth about the abuse. Just let it go, Amanda.
As a response to the instability of being told to be one way but feeling completely different, my brain created a world of its own, one in which I was in charge. My bed had to be made a certain way. My closet was color coordinated. Numbers had to be even. Anything out of sorts was too damaging to the little I had to give. I often contemplated death being easier.
But I just kept ‘being together’; I had the straight teeth, the new Hollister tank top (it was the 90’s/early 2000’s, don’t judge), a good blowout and disposable income.
Match that with my natural maternal instincts, I became the friend that everyone came too. I loved it. I loved feeling needed and worthy. But it was such a backwards exchange because no one knew anything about me. I guess I wanted it that way. I was working tirelessly for the external acknowledgement that I was amazing. That I was beautiful. That someone else saw my potential. This carried on for years.
In my younger teenage years, was when fashion became the best outlet for me.
Growing up in Milwaukee, trends and being relevant isn’t really a priority and I loved that it made me different. I subscribed to a handful of magazines and learned how to pronounce Givenchy and the importance of the September Issue.
I was actually really talented at it. What I mean by that is I have always had an eye for what looks good and would go to the mall on the weekends with my best friend and dress her. She trusted my opinion and she was much more confident than me. I loved finding feminine pieces to accent her tiny shape. I loved watching her be happy. The dressing room became my element. My home away from my chaotic home. At least I could speak up there, I knew the answers there. I was wanted there.
So it was no surprise that by the time we were supposed to apply to go to colleges, I applied all the way across the country to a fashion school I read about in Teen Vogue; FIDM- Los Angeles.
And I got in. My twin sister (my GOD-SEND) and I were headed to California. I felt blessed and relieved that my perfect image was continuing. Though, I was exhausted, angry and miserable. I had no idea what I was doing. My parents split again around this time. So my mother came with us. She lost our trust long before then but I think I was so spent from fighting in and out each day, that any comfort, even blind comfort, was welcomed.
So we started school. Our new home stayed the same nightmare because my mother was in so much pain and a consistent drill sergeant. A change of scenery apparently was not the answer to all of our problems. (take note)
My sister and I were so caught up in the abuse cycle and had no idea. I went to school in pajamas most days because I could barely find the energy to find jeans, much less feel good about myself wearing them.
Who knew disconnection was so exhausting?
I met friends and played the same role for them as I always had. The stable one.The reliable one. Again, my grades were great and no one knew anything about me. As long as the outside looked together and I could articulate it regardless, I felt temporary ease.
I was 19, majoring in sarcasm, minoring in detective work. If I got too close to revealing any feelings, I’d interrupt myself in mid thought and introduce something else. I made myself untouchable. It was those years I lied, and watched my friends with their families and how excited they were to see their children on our holiday breaks. I went home to nothing but negativity and a new reality around money. The shame was heavy.
I let myself feel small, feel incapable, and I just continued the cycle.
I let myself be convinced that I was just over reacting. That I needed to file down all my rough edges because I was just ‘so much work.’ I needed to get over it when I looked for relief with my mom, and I just needed to stop crying and bring some more money home.
My brain had come to feel like a war command center, issuing my body warnings of potential threats everywhere I went. My life was controlled by my fear.
Even now, I’m not a laid-back person. I like my days to be full. I don’t like to waste a lot of time — well, actually, I don’t like to waste any time. I like to do things the very, very best they can be done the first time around, which can absolutely drive some people crazy. God knows how my sister continues to be my best cheerleader. I don’t really relax. I basically have one speed. I’m working on it.
Anyway, I got a part time job at a restaurant and slept probably an average of three hours a night. Completing project after project that I didn’t care about, pleasing teachers who didn’t give a fuck. I barely ate then. My skin was terrible. But I was skinny, hilarious and always on point; – ‘Oh my god, Emma Stone on Vogue, the Nina Ricci Dress? I know.’
I just kept going, kept pushing. Subconsciously praying that someone would notice and save me.
And then I added an internship. Because why not, right? I was young, in the best city in the world – and I needed to do more, be more, be better. How else was I going to find the perfect job at the perfect company to write home about? The silent need for validation and approval was extreme.
Then I graduated. I still felt under accomplished, unworthy and confused about where to step next. The conditioning I referenced earlier created such a deep fear of rejection. It prevented me from asking for help. Prevented me from using resources and finding clarity. From feeling worthy of big time positions that I wanted to be great at. Don’t even get me started at the type of men I was attracting.
I continued to work my ass off at my internships. I was the ideal. I was collaborative, accommodating and always on time. I had eight internships back to back. And even when I was up for jobs, I was so sure that I wasn’t the one that I’d promote the other girl and eventually lose out.
Even when I was hired, I felt uncomfortable asking for what I wanted. I settled for shit money and attracted unavailable women who were unclear, critical and disconnected. (sound like anyone I’ve mentioned?)
But I was well groomed. My bosses loved my resume. “Tell me more about Vogue!” Nodding yes to the exhausted question about if it’s anything like The Devil Wears Prada. I had great hair, a nice car, a clean manicure and I was very well mannered.
‘I don’t think I’ve heard someone say please and thank you so often. Your parents have raised you well.’
And I wouldn’t respond. It was infuriating but as long as they were happy and wanted to keep me around, I let someone else take the credit for who I was.
It wasn’t until I kept losing out on opportunities that I realized how often I had to compromise my dreams in order to make sure my home life stayed afloat.
I had to keep serving on the side to help my mom make her ends meet and to have the flexibility to be available for when one of my brothers (who eventually showed up) made a mistake and needed help getting out of it.
I had bosses who wanted me 24/7 and serving took up too much time, in their opinion. I was confused. I wanted to scream at everyone. Don’t you see how hard I’ve worked? Do you know how many opportunities I’ve given away because serving was double and sometimes triple the salary I was offered and I couldn’t give that up? I went from fashion to beauty and it’s not that I didn’t love what I was doing, but honestly nothing other than love, mental health, and the happiness of the people around you matters. I was tired of being told what to do. I was tired of working all the time. I was tired of being everyone’s fucking perfect, reliable, problem solving employee. I broke down and I gave it all up. I had too. I had to stop trying. Stop applying. Stop using my resume to cover up who I actually was. I think because I believe that, was why I couldn’t write about spring lipsticks anymore. I didn’t fucking care if shit was on or off season. I just wanted out. This coming from a person who searched other people’s faces for a verdict on whether or not I was performing up to their standards.
I had to learn the hard way. I didn’t realize just how much I had been conditioned until I actually started talking about it and getting help for it. If you’re not exposed to the proper education about high and low functioning co-dependency, all you do is blame yourself. You cultivate a culture of staying silent and being confused about what happened to you and why making a decision for yourself feels so selfish. And for those that don’t get help, it can manifest into other coping mechanisms — like addiction or becoming the abuser yourself.
One by one, I let go of all the roles I had played.
It was excruciating.
I grinded through days, systemically working towards this sort of peace. For months. For years.
It was the end of paralysis.
I learned that you cannot really be first-rate at your work, if your work is all you are.
I learned that the strongest professional women are kind under pressure.
I now have girls that laugh with me.
I have people I believed I never could.
I spend nights in ways I once only dreamed of.
And holy fuck, I used to only dream.
It’s my life and I want to struggle to know how to maneuver it.
You see, the more I’m connected to me,
the clearer I can see the rest of it for what it is.
I want to know why we uses guns to communicate.
I want to understand you and me and her and everyone.
I want to know why my brother has spent years in the prison system for non-violent crimes and why no one sees that he needs extended help. Is there extended help?
I want to help stop the abuse cycles. I want to reach as many as I can so we can save the next generations.
I’ve opened up and learned that there are people who make sense to me all over the place, and getting to know them has transformed my ideas of myself and the world. It’s made me much more adventurous and way less fearful.
You never really know what will make you happy until you try a bunch of things. All you can do is feel your way forward. There are no mistakes.
The most liberating concept I’ve learned is that I can change my mind, anytime I want.
So, with all of that, I am trusting that I know myself now and making sure there’s truth in everything I do. Am I being clear? Do I really want to do this? Does this bring me joy? The intention matters. How I feel then and the morning after matters.
The only opinion that matters is my own. So I stopped asking for approval or suggestions.
I don’t want to listen to any of it, and I just want to do the best work possible and that means that I have to see and do all the things, and figure out what life is for me on my own terms. Sometimes that means having a different understanding for what success and failure is. And, I don’t know, an amazing sense of humor. I can read my books, listen to my music, exercise and most importantly LOVE OUTLOUD, and I can, on good days, access the full range of emotions and colors that I thought only the Vogue girls could have. It’s now my turn to pay it forward.
All for me. And now for you. xo