I can remember always being super sensitive. It seemed a little odd, but I didn’t know any different. I simply didn’t understand why other 5 year olds weren’t brought to tears when they heard Sally Struthers’ voice screeching about the starving children in Africa. There were kids starving in Africa? We needed to fix it. I NEEDED to fix it. It’s fortunate I didn’t have access to bank accounts back then.
When we sang sad songs in school choir, I’d have to excuse myself to go to the bathroom to shed the tears I hadn’t learned to stop yet. When an animal was hurt in a movie, I’d cry. If my parents or friends seemed remotely sad, I’d cry. If a leaf fell off a tree, I’d cry. I’d cry at anything that was remotely sad or emotional. And I could swear I heard the trees crying, too. Heck, if I’m completely honest, I could hear the world crying (another blog topic but I once had a very empathic massage therapist start crying as she massaged me. She described, in detail, the dream I used to have when I was a child where I was floating above the earth, crying for all the human suffering I couldn’t fix). I always felt compelled to ease all the pain, the problems, everything. But I was learning fast that no one wanted to hear me say these crazy things that I felt.
Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.
My principal at school noticed my ‘sensitivity’ and requested that my parents take me to a psychiatrist. Youth Mental Health was not widely studied or discussed back then and this doctor thought I was just trying to ‘pull one over’ on my parents. He demanded that they send me to school, even if I had a temperature of 105 degrees. He told them I needed to be ‘toughened up’. I’m so grateful I had loving, doting parents who didn’t listen, they just loved me. My childhood was full of fun, safe boundaries, family trips and wonderful experiences. I had no reason whatsoever to feel sad ALL THE TIME.
You can learn many things from children. How much patience you have, for instance.
“Stop your crying or I’ll give you something to cry about” was a typical response from parents in the late 70’s/early 80’s. I learned very quickly that people didn’t want to see SAD SHELLEY. They didn’t know what to do with the extra emotions, and I didn’t know yet how to handle it. I was just getting a strong message that it was wrong.
I started wearing ‘the mask’ early. I hid how I felt to keep everyone else from having to feel the feels too much. I’d hide in closets and bathrooms when I couldn’t hold back the tears. I’d do everything I could to make a situation better to keep the sadness from creeping in. A friend doesn’t ‘have lunch? I’d go hungry. Someone didn’t understand their homework? I’d stay in at recess to help. The secretary needed a student to answer phones at lunch time? I’d be the first to volunteer. I became a people pleasing, teacher loving, join everything, straight A, student-of-the-month every month problem solver. I flew OVER the radar so no one would see that something wasn’t quite right.
I even have vague memories of kids lining up at the bell in our schoolyard, waiting to talk with me about their problems. (Interestingly enough, this still happens. If Derek leaves me for just a moment at the grocery store, he’ll find me listening to a stranger telling me about their troubles.)
I mastered the mask by age 10. But I didn’t know what that would truly cost me until my early 20’s. And even in retrospect, I wonder to this day WHO I would be if I didn’t spend so much time and energy hiding who I was. The lines were becoming very blurred between real Shelley and the Shelley I let everyone see.
I think the thing I’m most furious about (and ashamed of most) is that I knew that I wasn’t quite ‘right’. I wasn’t feeling every emotion. I knew that feelings of love or happiness should have been stronger than what I felt. I could reach the lows, but I could never really reach the highs. You might know that weird numbness if you’ve experienced an episode of depression. So I watched people and learned to micmic their displays of appropriate emotions. I felt something – I felt cheated.
I wouldn’t learn until decades later that there was something wrong with one of my organs – my brain. And that it wasn’t the fault of ANYONE.
But I’m learning that this broken brain is still beautiful.