Legacy

I am trapped in a room with the woman who is both my tormentor and my hero. I so admire her, but am also intimidated by her. I want so badly to please her that I have fallen all over myself in successive, bumbling attempts to prove my worthiness, my aptitude. I feel now, from her sideways glances, her tacit nonchalance, that my attempts have failed — failed to such a degree that I have in fact proven myself of increasingly little merit in a cruel reversal of intent. I am trapped in a room with a woman who is aggressively, coldly assessing me, and she is finding me wanting. I cannot leave this room. I am trapped.
The room is my mind. The woman is me.

One time, my mother (over)shared with me about some of her indiscretions and mistakes. She had made some poor decisions and betrayed our family (though she didn’t frame it that way at the time), leaving quite a wake. She told me the truth and I was hurt. Defensively, she asked me if her actions had “hurt me special”. Had she done something to really harm me in particular, when it was her husband she had cuckolded? When it was him she had lied to? Call me crazy, but even then, I thought that was a mighty big question to ask of a 10-year-old.

When the actual betrayal happened, I was far too young to realize what had actually occurred. It was just another knock-down, drag-out fight. It was just another few nights of listening to my mother and father scream at each other. Just another visit to our house from the police.

Growing up in an environment where bi-yearly visits to our home from the cops were considered normal took its own toll, but the legacy of diminished self-worth is much harder to let go of. Now that I, as a grown woman, can see why my mother did the things she did, I can definitively say yes, Mom — every time you illustrated for me that a woman’s worth was intrinsically tied to a man’s desire for her, you hurt me especially, because I lived by your example.

Now, there are a lot of reasons that marriages fail, and I’m no relationship guru. However, I see these underlying machinations at work: a damaged soul, one that never considers itself whole, never considers itself enough on its own, seeks to fill the void with an attachment to another soul. And another. And another. Because that which you are unable to furnish within yourself cannot be found within the heart of another being, but that doesn’t stop you from trying.

Granted, I’ve never committed adultery — I’ve been blessed with a much better marriage than my mother had — but I see how easy it must have been, how soothing, to have slipped from one man’s arms into those of another because the second gave you the time of day. Made you feel pretty. Wanted. I can see how, while drowning in the depths of self-loathing, any positive attention must seem like a life raft. I understand it, without condoning it.

The bigger question now is how to stop the cycle. It’s too late for me, in a sense — the demons are already in my head. Every time I watched my mother grasp her thighs and sigh in disappointment, every time she called herself fat, every time she went on another binge diet — I learned from her example and expanded my mental arsenal. I have waged war on myself for years, tending (self-inflicted) wounds and wearing the battle scars like badges: if I cannot make myself good enough, then I will be my own judge and jailer. I consumed my own flesh in recompense for my multiple failures. My descent aided by the voices of criticism around me: “You need to dress better.” “You really shouldn’t eat that.” “I expected more from you.”

The apathy, the low expectations, the understanding shared by all — including myself — that I was different. Other. These are perfect conditions to create a monster of self-hatred. So how do I stop it from killing me the same way that it killed her? How do I protect my daughter from this legacy?

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