You hear their words in your head like a tape on a repetitive loop. This is how you change the tape.
GET YOUR FAT F-ING HEAD OUT OF THE WAY! GODDAMN YOUR EYES! UNDERACHIEVER! FREDDY F-UP! WUSS!
Although my father has been gone for thirty-seven years, I can still hear his voice and the things he said: His verbal abuse was orchestrated with wide ranging, shifting cadences and tones–a raging torrent to gently mocking or my least favorite, sneering derision.
As a boy, the words streamed like white-hot laser from my father’s lips and seared themselves indelibly on my soul. If he said so, it must be true. I was a f**k up. I was stupid. The tapes looped endlessly in my head and they became the engine driving my self-loathing and despair.
By the time I was eighteen, I was an alcoholic about to plunge over the falls of an outsized drug addiction. I shredded relationships like paper, as the people that loved me became exhausted by my self destructiveness, anger and self-hatred.
By twenty-eight, I crashed into detox having lost everything I held dear.
Here was a chance to resurrect myself. I knew I didn’t want the addicted life anymore and I was willing to do whatever it took to get better. This included therapy and with it the chance to change.
At this point fate, serendipity or dumb luck intervened and I met Elaine, a relentlessly positive therapist who had an unshakable belief in the integrity of everyone, even me. Initially this beam of positivity felt foreign and uncomfortable. I couldn’t trust it and the evidence of the contrary was strewn around me: lost jobs, a broken marriage and the stigma of addiction. I knew myself better than she did. What could she possibly see in one as wretched as me?
Her initial approach to my rigidly entrenched self-loathing was common sense:
- Did I deserve less than anyone else did?
- Was my father not clouded by his own demons?
- Wasn’t I as deserving of a good life as anyone?
Other efforts were aimed at ME treating me better. Basic self-care that “normal” people learn early and apply often. Stay sober and clean, treat my body better, eat right, sleep enough, get exercise. Lo and behold, I started to feel mentally and physically better and so felt a little better about myself.
Over time, I became more trusting of Elaine. If she thinks better of me, then maybe I should think better of myself. This required a new level of consciousness. The old tapes had been queued up and ready to play and they did, reflexively: I walk into a room of people at a social gathering and as I do, I trip over the lip of the rug, the tape plays loud: “Stupid clumsy a**hole, everyone can see it, boob!”
This distorted loop leads to self-shame and an over-heated self-consciousness that could pull apart the possibility of enjoying myself and the people there.
- I am human and make mistakes just as others do.
- Most of the people here did not see me trip and the ones that did would not judge me.
- If there are one or two people here that would judge me, they are not worth my time.
So it began, a new relationship with myself, a more honest and functional appraisal. No, not empty platitudes of flowery “affirmations” about my unbridled wonderfulness, but self praise when it’s earned and the understanding that I can see the good side of myself without distortion. This does not prevent me from seeing my faults and needed areas for improvement. I can look at situations and understand what I did well and what I could have done better. I see myself more clearly.
My father no longer dictates my life. His voice is now faint, almost inaudible. I am no longer thinking about the life I could have had, or should have had, but am instead living the life I want, knowing that with hard work and perseverance I can succeed. I can embrace my stronger, imperfect self. I encourage myself to success rather than discourage myself to failure. You can too.