While he used to keep the worst memories stored inside, Yashar Ali has learned to use his memories to move his life forward.
There is something most of my friends will agree on: I am a very private person. Some of my oldest friends remember a time when I was private about every part of my life. Over the years, I have become more willing to open the doors of my life to the outside world, but I remain pretty private.
Since fifth grade, I have known no other way of living, other than a need to fiercely shield the inner workings of my life from the world and other people. That year, when I was ten, was the year that permanently altered my life. It was a year that will always haunt me–one that was riddled with fear and unhappiness–but it was also a year that I would never want to hand back.
I spent most of my childhood in suburban Chicago, except my fifth grade year, when my father’s work took us to Washington D.C. Over the course of that year, I became friends with a neighbor who was in my fifth grade class. Let’s call him Matt.
Matt was the foster child of a couple who regularly took in foster kids. They were a warm and welcoming family; I would hang out with Matt after school and occasionally head over to his house for sleepovers.
Changing schools at that age is never easy, and while I will never compare the difficulty of being in the foster care system to my moving from Chicago, we were both fish out of water in many ways. Naturally, we bonded.
Sometimes, I wonder if we had more in common than just being the new kids in town.
Because, over the next year, Matt’s foster dad sexually abused me.
I don’t feel the need to go into details about frequency or what he did, but these experiences created distinct memories that will always stick with me. The sound of this man climbing the step ladder of Matt’s bunk bed when I would sleep over is something I will never forget.
After that year in Washington D.C., when my family and I returned to our home in Chicago, the way I dealt with my life changed for better and worse. Prior to moving, I had been constantly bullied in school. When I returned to Chicago, I left that part of me behind–I wasn’t going to allow anyone else to mistreat me. My experience in Washington D.C. enforced in me a desire not only to be resilient, but also to be perfect. These two traits were the only ways I felt I could protect myself from being hurt any further and shield me from the trauma of my abuse experience.
I was determined to be successful in my life. As ridiculous as this may sound to some people, I began obsessively planning what my adult life was going to be like. It was this same obsession that compelled me, when I graduated from high school, to skip college, move to Los Angeles, and go straight to work. This obsession with success had to do with proving to the people that hurt me, especially my abuser, that I could rise above them.
As a way of dealing with my abuse, which triggered a desire to become resilient and perfect, I developed emotionally unhealthy habits that have ebbed and flowed from there on out. My search to attain perfection led to my becoming incredibly private.
I created this public image of myself: I had no problems. Everything was great. I had no weaknesses. I was strong, so strong that I was consistently calm and available to help others since my life was “perfect.” Privacy was about keeping people at a comfortable distance. I didn’t want people asking questions, getting too close, since I feared they would see that I wasn’t perfect. I feared, because of my experience with abuse, that they would see me as damaged, vulnerable or worse yet, pathetic.
I became incredibly private in order to avoid sharing my memories, memories that hurt me so deeply, that while I was forceful in how I went about my work life and how I appeared to people, I was harboring an invisible, but open wound, created by my childhood experience of abuse. I was so determined to keep these negative memories private that, on a personal level, I lost a clear sense of myself.
I was always available to help my friends with their problems because it allowed me to keep them at a distance when it came to mine. If I was neck deep in someone else’s crisis, they wouldn’t have the time or energy to inquire about my life or push me to deal with my problems.
In my early twenties, I had a tight group of supportive and loving friends (and I am still close with most of these people), but they would often express frustration at the closed door that was my life. While I was seemingly open hearted and very affectionate, they felt I was a mystery. My loyal friendship kept them around despite an indescribable imbalance in the dynamics of our friendships.
Around my eighteenth birthday, I told my parents about what happened to me in Washington D.C. I didn’t share the experience of my abuse with them in a moment of sadness or in a need to reveal my pain, I shared it with them in a moment of anger, to hurt them. To say it wasn’t my finest moment, is an understatement.
But despite sharing this story with my parents, I didn’t make an attempt to put a stop to my abuser. A couple of years ago, I woke up in the middle of night after dreaming about my time in D.C. The dream made me realize that I was putting other kids in harm’s way by my silence, especially since my abuser was a foster parent. I asked a friend, who is a private investigator, to track down my abuser to see if he lived in the same home. He came back to me a couple days later with news that (surprisingly) did nothing to calm my frustration or guilt, he had died in 2004.
My need for privacy was choking my life, despite my success in professional life and a seemingly robust social life–I was dying inside. Nothing felt truly real or comfortable.
But I was trapped. Since I was ten years old, I have know no other way of living. My need for privacy was so deeply ingrained in my identity that I couldn’t imagine changing, just as someone who is right-handed couldn’t imagine writing with their left hand.
The shift in how I shared my life started a few years ago, when I started to become close to friends who, while not perfect, were in a stage of their life (over 50) where they felt more at peace with themselves, and where they acquired a deep sense of intuition. It was with these wise friends that I started to open the door to my life and reveal more of myself. These friends couldn’t be easily fooled by my veneer of perfection, they couldn’t be dissuaded by my claim that everything was great. They had gained enough life experience that they could see the pain and frustration in my eyes.
While I feel that true friends give us room to be who we are, these particular friends were relentless in their pursuit, not to change me, but to make sure I was being myself–showing and revealing more of myself. When I would become frustrated and try to push them off, they would act as if that frustration was never expressed and kept working to pull me out of my shell.
Even after sharing my story with family and a small group of friends and making the effort to find and stop my abuser, I still didn’t feel like I was in a place where I had let go of my obsession with privacy. I still didn’t feel fully open-hearted. While I felt happy and largely confident, I felt uneasy in my own life.
In my short thirty years on this planet, I have more loving, supportive friends than most people have in an entire lifetime. But I often wondered if I would ever get to a place where I feel fully comfortable with someone to the point where I could share every part of my life, not just the edited version–where I would feel at ease exposing my fears, insecurities, imperfections and where I wouldn’t spend my time being concerned about how someone judges me for being honest. At times, I firmly believed I would be a kind of lone wolf forever.
But a few months ago, that unexpectedly changed.
This past October, at a long lunch, I shared what happened during my time in D.C. with a friend with whom I had recently re-connected. It was one of the most liberating moments of my life. While it took my own emotional energy to get that point, this friend gave me the room and comfort to be myself, to be honest about my problems. It was and is something I am not used to.
During that afternoon I also shared stories and experiences (from the mundane to the serious) that I had kept to myself for my entire life. I finally let go of many things that I held onto for twenty years. I could actually feel the weight lift off my shoulders.
It was such a major shift in my life because, for the first time, I wasn’t worried that I would be judged, wasn’t worried that someone would see me as weak or crazy because of my imperfections, and I didn’t extract a promise of, “don’t tell anyone.” I knew through and through that my private matters would stay private. I had never experienced that sense of calm before, ever. And it wasn’t something that had to be explained to me, it was just the way I felt.
I don’t know why it was that friend, someone I knew for sometime, that made me feel this way. I guess that’s just how things happen sometimes.
That day in October was the catalyst for me to cease playing a character in the play of my life. A character I had carefully constructed over the years, one that was based on who I fundamentally was, but a character who didn’t permit me to improve my personal life or express real vulnerability.
A year ago, I could have never imagine that I would be sharing this story in such a public way. I would be concerned about people who don’t know me, would judge me as unstable, weak, broken. I would want people thinking that while I had problems, I solved them in a revolutionary way that didn’t involve talking to and relying on people I love and feeling vulnerable and sad.
To most of my friends and family, I will always be private on some level. It’s essentially part of who I am. I feel no need to share everything with everyone. But my sense of privacy is no longer fear based or driven by trauma. It’s a conscious decision to keep a part of my life entirely my own.
Now, I take a real joy in my sense of privacy because it’s about keeping positive memories special. Things that were previously ho-hum are now incredibly special to me. Watching a movie with a good friend late at night is a memory I won’t forget and won’t take for granted. Going for a walk in the country with two close friends on a Sunday afternoon, previously nothing to write home about, but now one of my favorite memories.
It was when I stopped being a character in my own life that I realized what an incredible life I have. My life is no longer about creating a perfect image and my sense of privacy is no longer tied to my memories of trauma and abuse. In a way, I think I am now excited by the really simple things because, in way I’m re-living my childhood. The same sense of wonder and excitement about the smallest things that children feel, is an experience I am having for the first time at age thirty-two. I am still private about my life, but now, my privacy is a conscious choice I make out of the pleasure for privacy, rather than the fear of being found out.
Victims of abuse don’t need to have a friend like mine in order to have a shift in their memories. They don’t even need to have an experience like mine. That day in October just happened to be a catalyst for my situation. Ultimately, it’s about breaking free from the blueprint that is drafted when someone faces abuse. For some of victims of abuse, like me, it’s even about taking a moment to really see, notice, and realize that we were living by a blueprint, drafted through our traumatic experiences, that we didn’t fully understand.
I’m not going to forget about that time in D.C.–ever. But that experience no longer serves as the architect of my life. Instead, I have memories that propel me forward instead of hold me back. Memories that I can keep private, not so I can hide away and be someone I am not, but because they belong to me.
Like that afternoon in October, when I finally let go of everything, and learned how to trust.
Originally appeared at The Current Conscience.
—Photo brad montgomery/Flickr