[general trigger warning: child sexual abuse. nothing particularly heavy in this post]
This is something I’ve been trying to figure out. Like it is honestly a puzzle. I don’t know why I am so “strong”, as other people like to say. Most days, I feel like I am a big blob of messes, and that the only way I survive is through sheer accident and a long run of good luck which I am certain will run out eventually.
I’ve been trying to find where my strength comes from. The Romantic poets of the 1800s believed that words were part individual and part universal; that is, that part of whatever an artist creates comes from something not of themselves, but beyond the self. When I write, I get that feeling— that I’m drawing energy from some kind of outside source at the same time that I put my own energy into the work. I don’t know whether it should be called divine, or if it feels separate from me because it’s part of that mysterious portion of the brain that people don’t use, or if it’s something completely different. But I am not always tapping into that source— it’s a very distinct feeling, and it only happens in the moment of creation.
So where do I get all of the energy for the other 90% of my life? I’ve tried to explain this in the past as simple biology— “Survivor Impulses” that come out of the brain’s natural behavior to force us out of our comfort zones in order to get help or attention. But I also feel like those impulsive moments only happen a tiny percent of the time I am alive.
Most people have a clear idea of where they are from and why they are the way they are. Take for example: the day I realized that I am Elle, I was talking to my friend Ellie (I know, weird name coincidence) on the phone. I asked her, “How are you so sure of yourself? I feel like I’m constantly trying to figure out who I am, and it’s always changing.”
Her response: “I don’t know, I just am.”
Maybe that is a kind of non-survivor privilege; the privilege of being certain, at least for the most part, about who you are. Maybe it’s from having a decent family and childhood. Maybe it’s because there’s no pervasive, overwhelming trauma which destroys all of your concepts of love, sexuality, trust, good, and so on.
In Child and Family Studies, the basic idea is to 1, give the child lots of love and attention, and then 2, educate them with basic life skills so that they can grow on their own. That’s how you make a productive, happy human adult. The problem is, a lot of these concepts are difficult to learn when you’re in an abusive environment. Most people can say that they’ve known how to laugh and smile their whole lives; I only learned how to when I was thirteen. There’s people out there who cannot imagine living their lives without ever laughing or smiling for over a decade. And yet, here I am, and I did exactly that. That is the radical difference in how I approach my life and how a non-survivor approaches theirs. It’s two utterly different worlds, and I am trying to merge myself into theirs because their world is the one I have to navigate in order to survive.
There’s a lot of people out there who know exactly who they are, and that confuses me. How can you be so sure? How?
I’ve been a TA for several classes before, and at the beginning of every semester, we have the students write introductory essays. People are always saying things like, “I am a daughter, a friend, a girlfriend, a student, a future nurse, and future writer. I like cotton candy and I hate scary movies. I like the purple but hate green.” and so on. It’s those mundane things that matter a lot, but don’t tell you that much about the person.
But I know that there must be more to it than just that. There’s more to being me than knowing what I like and don’t like. There’s more to surviving and being a whole person than just existing. There’s more to me.
My whole life, I’ve thought of myself as an introvert. It’s how people have always described me. But in the last two years, I’ve grown into someone else. After years spent alone and hidden away from the world— whether it was to stay safe or because I was scared— I’ve stumbled onto this realization that I need people, because they give me energy and help me want to keep living. The classic definition for an introvert is a person who gets worn out and loses energy by being around others. The definition of an extrovert is a person who is energized by others. I was surprised to I realize that I fit more into the latter than the former. It was completely different from the person I thought I was.
So maybe I don’t know myself as well as I had assumed. Maybe there’s still more to learn and explore about “Elle”, the person who has always been here, the person that I am. Some part of me is formed out of my family and my childhood. Another part is formed from my friendships and the people I love. Mixed into all of that are the writers and poets who have pushed me and guided me to this point in time. There is still so much to learn about myself— it’s like this deep, dark abyss full of danger and wonder. You could call it an adventure, even.
For the longest time, I’ve seen myself as some little fish swimming along in a huge, endless ocean, clinging on tight to whatever or whoever seems more safe or less dangerous. But now, I think I’ve proven beyond a doubt that I have some kind of strength. I don’t know for sure where it all comes from. It could be divine. It could be nature, or nurture, or both. It could be luck, but that’s not all of it. I’ve refused to give up, and that means something.
It’s my strength. I’m surviving, and I deserve the credit for that.