When I was very young, I learned that I did not make anyone’s life better.
I don’t know where or how or from whom I learned this. There’s no “aha” moment in my memory that I can point to. It could have been the Southern Baptist Church’s teaching that you are literally worthless without God. Or just the small T “trauma” of growing up as a highly sensitive person in a house overrun by three girls under four years old (two of them twins!).
But somewhere along the line, I came upon the belief that not only did I not improve the lives of people I interacted with, but I actively made them worse.
This became more potent in my young adulthood, when I lost my faith (and thus the one thing that would render me not worthless), and felt like a major disappointment to my parents, and went to a college where I never really felt I fit in.
I never felt that I could be close to anyone, not really. I couldn’t be vulnerable. They’d hate me if they knew me. So I’d do things, unconsciously, to prove that they didn’t mean anything to me, because I knew I couldn’t mean anything to them. I would push people away, quietly usually, but sometimes loudly and irreparably, because I could not communicate the utter turmoil that was going on in my heart and lungs.
Then when I was 20 years old I fell in love with a man who had a terminal illness. And the first year we were together, he got better. Whereas, before me, he would normally need to be hospitalized every six months to take IV antibiotics, he didn’t need them for a full nine months after we got together. Suddenly, there was someone for whom life was actually better with me in it.
This was all an illusion of course; no one with a truly terminal illness “gets better”. The long march toward their death may be temporarily slowed or their symptoms alleviated briefly, but the terminality persists.
So when he went back to being sicker, a little switch in my brain said, “Ah, see, that wasn’t true. That was a fluke. You do not make his life better.”
And there I was again, engaging in self-sabotage as a maladapted method of self-protection. I was a cheater. I ran away. Even though I loved him more than breathing, I couldn’t handle it.
We split up.
And then when I was 24, my best friend hanged himself. Deep down I knew it was because he had developed schizophrenia. But the part of my brain that looked for the hurt I caused also made a list of how our relationship had changed in the year or two before he’d died. He’d hated me for cheating on my boyfriend. He’d hated that I was depressed when he was working so hard to get out of his own sadness. He’d stopped responding to my text messages. He’d quit asking if I might consider officiating his wedding.
These major events cemented in my mind that I was, in fact, worthless, unloveable, unwantable, and just a burden. There was proof! Fickle as that proof may be, it existed for me.
And because nothing is as isolating as grief, I was further isolated from any proof to the contrary.
In fact, every iota of my life became part of the proof: every job I left with my tail between my legs; every man I dated who stopped calling me back; every milestone I missed that my sisters attained with ease; all my losses and failures were my just deserts. It solidified the narrative further.
Ten years later, I met and married a man who actually told me I was “a nightmare”. He complained that I wasn’t fun; that I talked too much around other people and bored them; that I was getting fat because I had no self control, and that he “couldn’t help what he was attracted to”; that I slept too much; that I cared too much about money; that I needed to wear tighter clothing (even as he criticized the size that my body was becoming)…
Overall, he just let me know in ways big and small that I just wasn’t worth it. I wasn’t worth doing what he said he would do, from something as small as unloading the dishwasher to something as big as taking care of things for a day when I got out of surgery. I wasn’t worth being on time for. I wasn’t worth buying flowers for. I wasn’t worth listening to. I wasn’t worth therapy.
He had his own issues and his own insecurities, and those devolved into alcoholism and self destruction of his own. And I was not a nice person to him, because he had one job for me: further proof that I was worthless. When he fulfilled that purpose, I needed to get away from him, and the only way I knew to do that was by kicking and spitting and screaming.
But something was changing. The pandemic, probably, and the civil unrest around protests and politics all woke something inside of me. I started to do things to take care of me. I saw a nutritionist and got my weight under control. I started running more. I cashed in a retirement fund for a down payment on a house. I got a full-time job with good benefits and excellent pay so that I had some security. I took care of things.
So when he spent $600 on sex videos from cam girls and sex workers in the three weeks after my last major surgery and went back to drinking, I had an inkling of some flicker of self worth. I kicked him out. I filed for divorce. I let him stay on my insurance so he could go to rehab, and then I cut him off.
In the 10 months since I kicked him out, I’ve gone through an enormous transformation, mostly just of realization.
I see now that the quiet little tape recording of my worthlessness informs a lot of what I do or don’t do. It makes me anxious when I’m not invited to parties, rather than wondering if I actually like the people throwing the parties. It makes me seek out flaws in potential romantic partners so that I can justify dumping them, or to settle on those who can’t give me what I need so that I can fulfill the narrative of my own worthlessness. It makes me turn to comfort food when I am uncomfortable, rather than sitting with the feelings and finding ways to confront them. It makes me choose the escape of sleep rather than the reality of feeling joy at finishing the things I need to do.
As the seasons change and I deal with summing up a year that could serve as a very fine proofpoint of my worthlessness — a divorce (the only one in my family); weight gain; debt; endless dates with men I haven’t been interested in; a messy house that may or may not be falling apart; months of putting in the bare minimum at work and relationships — I am confronted with changing the narrative again.
I don’t quite have the tools to do it. I don’t know how to ask for help, either, because I don’t even know what I need. When people make suggestions, I resent them for criticizing me (even though they’re not; it’s just my worthlessness tape recording coming into play).
It may be that months of solitude are in order, although that’s an extreme that could do more damage than just sitting in the middle ground, grieving for my losses without assigning them as my own fault. There is no fault. There’s responsibility to deal with them, but that’s all.
And when I find myself listing the proof that everyone would be better off without me, I can just see the list for a moment. And maybe think it’s true. Or maybe just let it be another list, like the things I need to do today or the groceries I need to buy. Lists are meant for checking off and then moving on.