I’ve recently discovered the shell around me. It’s a deflector: it protects me from anger, disappointment, and criticism. It also shields me from kindness, compliments, tenderness, and good intentions. It prevents me from receiving help gracefully, and from loving fully.
This shell appeared around the time I was five years old and has been slowly and constantly spiraling out, winding around and around me for the past forty years. Trying to squeeze myself out from inside it could be why I started drinking: I wanted to feel, and I didn’t want to feel the way I was feeling, but then I realized I was feeling too much and so had to drink more. When I stopped drinking my shell helped me have a place to hide and heal, it’s been such a dear friend to me- a security blanket, a refuge, a prison.
My beloved protector has also been my jailer, guarding against all the feelings- guarding against the ones that make me feel loved and cared for same as the ones that hurt. My first inkling of this was when my therapist noticed when I told stories that should bring up big emotions for me I was just…flat. Or smiling, even. I’m relating stories to her that have caused me years of pain and I am…smiling.
I’ve noticed how the shell prevents me from being myself, but only in those moments when I am out of the shell and I feel that feeling you get when you are one hundred percent in your own body, speaking your own words, feeling your own way- safe and open to the world. As soon as I recognize it I am right back inside the shell, afraid I’ll be found out and unwilling to chance hurt. I don’t want anyone to recognize me, know me, help me, or…love me.
I noticed how frustrated I get whenever the dogs come around and want me to pet them. They run towards me, smiling and panting- nubby tails wagging, delighted that Here she is!! Our girl!!! YAY!!!! and I get… pissed. I ask my husband for more affection and then he gives it, so I get mad because he’s getting in my way and interrupting me. I have this way of handing out instructions for how I want to be treated, but then I don’t have a clue how to handle being treated the way I asked for. I have all this big love to get and to give, but then the actual getting and giving it part comes up and I’m all angry and clumsy and lost, looking like I know how to read the map on the outside but on the inside the map is lost under all the shit in the glove box. I’m like a two year old in relationship years.
Do you ever have those moments when you discover something so big about yourself that you cannot even believe you’ve been alive all this time not knowing this gigantic thing is true? It’s like the time I stood at a crowded fancy bar with the back of my skirt tucked into my underwear, so buzzed after dinner that I was careless in the bathroom and didn’t check my skirt, I didn’t realize my entire ass was hanging out for all the world to see. No one said anything. Maybe no one noticed, or they didn’t really care, until finally a friend ran up to me as we were leaving and urgently whispered in my ear “AMY YOUR SKIRT IS IN YOUR UNDERWEAR!!!” and she quickly jerked the hem of my skirt out of my undies while I stood mortified, paralyzed with how long it had been since I’d walked out of the bathroom.
Like I thought my skirt was settled and adjusted properly back there, I’ve always thought I was that way too: settled and adjusted properly in my heart. Lovable even. My big discovery is that I may be love able, but I am not able to be loved. Regardless of my impatient attitude towards accepting love for myself in my mind I am open hearted. On paper I feel safe exposing things I cannot in person. I have the temperament and the tolerance to sit and be thoughtful and careful when I write, but in person I am ham handed and impatient, intolerant of love towards me and of giving love when asked.
I might be partly an asshole.
I am not a total schmuck. I do have a big capacity for giving, so there I am not an asshole, but in the receiving department? Oh, man. I fear that I am, in fact, kind of a jerk.
I think I’m kind of a jerk because of my beloved shell.
Oh, no! My darling shell! I hold my head in my hands, my eyes down, heart heavy because I have to leave my constant companion behind- the thing I thought made me okay and life livable is in fact the thing that is holding me back.
Getting sober and being sober seems like it is relentlessly about the things I have to lose to keep going. It’s sort of like the simplicity trend: get in there and get rid of stuff, and then when I think I’m as bare bones as it gets I’ve just gotten started. Which makes me want to wail about how unfair that is because, fuck. I quit drinking- can’t that just be enough??? Why does there have to be so much of the squeezing???
But there is, there just is. Being sober is all about the squeezing. And the molting. It’s all about the fears and the tears and the snot and the feeling so one hundred percent uncomfortable that you might die. It feels so hard and so awful sometimes that I think I cannot go on even one more second and then I realize: Oh, hey…look at me. I’M FEELING! I’M FEELING FEELINGS! Oh, yeah. That’s what this is about. I’m doing it right, even though it sucks. The feeling feelings is the point.
Sometimes I sit in my therapist’s office, there on the worn out beige and red striped loveseat, looking out the window through all her plants at the parking lot, and I feel like I’m being skinned alive, like every single nerve I have is sticking out of my skin and the world is made of sandpaper and it’s on fire. There’s nowhere to hide. I hate it. I do it anyway. I don’t want to talk but I do, I speak up and stare off into space and gulp for air and speak again.
I’m…molting. It is as inelegant as it sounds. There is crying, and snot, and deep sorrow, and being afraid, but relief, such relief too because my shell has gotten really tight since I started to grow out of it a few years ago. It is squeezing me. Maybe even squeezing the life out of me, but in a good way. There is laughter, and recognition- it’s me catching myself in the mirror of myself and knowing who is standing there. It’s stretching and moving and seeing clearly through to who I really am.
It’s me, without my shell.