Thursday, February 23, 2006

Fall Down Seven Times. Get Up Eight: Or, Why I'm A Feminist

When I was eighteen years old, I spent a couple of nights a week standing in the bathroom at 3am thinking up ways to kill myself.

I had a few options. A bottle of sleeping pills in the medicine cabinet. The loaded gun my boyfriend kept under the front seat of his car. The apartment I shared with my boyfriend was on the third floor of the complex, and even though I knew that jumping off the balcony would probably result in nothing more than a broken leg, I still fantasized about that freefall, that excellent feeling of letting go, of making everything just stop.

Depression is one of those things that just sort of creeps up on you. You spend so much of your energy just trying to get through the basic tasks that keep you living that you don’t have time to reflect on why you feel like you’re looking at the world through a gray gauze. You stop noticing that nothing feels real.

I developed a number of crutches to get through my six months in Bellingham, Washington. I took up smoking and ate a lot. I hit somewhere close to 270 pounds and only had one pair of jeans that actually fit me. I could barely get up a flight of stairs or around the block without getting winded. My boyfriend was getting increasingly irate about my weight, but demands for sex didn’t lessen. I think a secret part of me was hoping that if I gained enough weight and dressed badly enough that he would break up with me for not being attractive, and I’d be free. When I did later get up the gumption to make the break, I realized my fears of doing the breaking were pretty well-founded – he kept calling me, waited around for me after classes, and threatened several of my friends that he would kill me and then drink bleach, or get plastic surgery so I wouldn’t know it was him. He started trying to date all of our mutual friends. He finally backed off when I threatened to get a restraining order.

But that was much later.

As for the sex, I started thinking about it as a chore – like doing the laundry, the dishes, cooking dinner. Close your eyes and think of England. A sorry state of affairs for somebody like me who does, in fact, really enjoy sex and has a pretty high sex drive (when it’s not pounded out into a passionless schedule. Some people confuse sex and masturbation). Sex was something I had to do because if I didn’t there was going to be a conflict, another angry night followed by a screaming fight, and when you’re really depressed, you don’t have the energy for much at all, let alone a screaming fight.

I got used to feeling stupid and unattractive. After all, I spent all of my time with somebody who patted me on the head and told me so. Spend all your time with an asshole who tells you you’re stupid and worthless, and you’ll start to believe it. Spend all your time in a house of screaming fights and broken dishes, and you’ll start to think it’s normal.

After a while, you’ll start to look for an easy way out. The only way out. When you paint yourself into a corner, suicide looks pretty rosy. I had no money. Kept a crappy job as a restaurant hostess that paid minimum wage (no health insurance, no benefits, etc. of course). Took a couple community college classes to try and finish up my AA degree.

I thought I should be happy. I’d gotten out of my parents’ house at eighteen. I was out there living with my boyfriend. I had an outside balcony where I grew plants.

I hadn’t written a word of fiction in nearly six months.

I’m now twenty-six years old. I’m sharing an apartment in Chicago with a buddy of mine from Clarion. I live in a houseful of books and plants. I work at a telecommunications company for about 42K a year (OK health insurance, 401(K), bonus, etc). I just got another couple of contract writing assignments that I’m using to pay off my credit cards. I just consolidated my student loans. I’m strong and back to a body size I’m comfortable in. I’m moving to NYC in July, a city I never in my weirdest dreams ever thought I’d live in. I’ve sold some stories. I’m rewriting a book for an agent. Finishing another book this summer. I have amazing friends. My parents love me. I’m working toward a number of personal goals. I read a lot of books. I have a Master’s Degree. I lived in South Africa and Alaska. I’ve traveled a lot overseas and intend to travel more (gotta live in London sometime!).

I have a good life.

When things get ugly around me, when I feel like I’m not moving forward as well or as quickly as I’d like, I remember this story. I remember looking in the mirror and thinking, “This isn’t the woman I want to be. “

I picked someone else, and decided to be her instead.

I’ve read about the stories of some feminists on other blogs who wrote about why they decided to be feminists. I didn’t become a feminist until I was 19. Until then, I was pretty much the biggest misogynist I knew. I didn’t think of myself as a woman, really. I was too smart to be a woman. Things that women did, the messes they “got themselves into” weren’t things I had to worry about: rape, abusive relationships, unplanned pregnancies, job discrimination - these things weren’t real threats to me. I was smarter than that.

But being smarter than that didn’t make me a man, and it didn’t take away those threats.

I learned that the hard way.

I’m a feminist because I woke up one day and realized that despite the fact that I was smart and strong and capable and believed men and women had equal rights and opportunities and were treated the same in the world, I was wrong. And I don’t want to live in a world where women not only get treated like dirt for being women, but take that abuse because they believe they’re dirt, too.

I have made a great, big, successful life for myself, and I did it with the help of some very supportive friends and family and through sheer, angry stubbornness.

I had a life I wanted to live and a woman I wanted to be - and that’s what gets me up every morning.

B says that I’m too hard on myself. This may be true, but it’s the only way I know how to go forward. I have to push, because I’m naturally lazy. I have to work harder than other people. I have to sleep at least 8-10 hours a night, hours that insomniacs are likely using to figure out their finances. I have to eat a certain amount to maintain all this muscle mass I’ve gained. I have to portion out workout times and writing times and work times and work overtime times and figure-out-my-finances times.

It’s called life, sure.

But there was a time where I went to work, ate, watched TV, and slept. And then I woke up and did it all over again, with no desire to do anything else at all because everything seemed so hard.

I don’t think any of it is any easier now, but I have something to push against. I have somebody I was, somebody I don’t want to be again.

And after two years of weight lifting and sporadic martial arts and boxing classes and jogging days and bike riding and figuring out how to eat outside the binge-and-purge cycle, I want to learn how to never go back. I want to learn how to maintain this.

I want to be better. I want to be smarter and stronger. I want to be a better writer. I want to stay in the same clothing size for more than two years at a time. I want to live forever. I want to fly.

There are women who’ve been through shit that’s a fuck of a lot worse than mine. There are women going through worse. There are women who’ve had it easier. What I hope about all those women, though, is that they know that if they want it, they can be better, too. They can close their eyes and decide who they want to be, and they can step away from all the bullshit. They know that they can be smart and strong and still make dumb decisions. And they know that making one dumb decision doesn’t mean they have to end it all. And it doesn’t mean their lives are screwed because of it.

When you do something dumb, you pick yourself up, you brush yourself off, and you start over.

You be who you want to be.

Fall down seven times. Get up eight.

10 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Roni said...

Hmmm...interesting that you say you were a misogynist because you were too smart to be a woman. I say that I was born a feminist because I knew that girls and boys should have equal opportunity. But I also acknowledge that I didn't have many girlfriends because they never seemed to like sports enough or were too catty. I wonder how much of my anti-pink days were really about being a misogynist too?

Good luck in NYC. Chicago will miss ya. 

Posted by Roni

Simon Owens said...

Wow, this makes me sad that I've fallen behind on my blog reading.

Wendryn said...

The first part of this sounds *really* familiar, except that I didn't get out of it until I was 28 and I was in the relationship for about 6 years. I didn't get to the point of depression - I thought I was fat, ugly, stupid, and crazy, because nothing made sense. I didn't know I was depressed until I got out. I didn't know how screwed up he was until then, either.

I'm glad you got out of it. Having something in your past that you refuse to go back to is a serious motivator.

I grew up a feminist. I lost it for about 4 of those six years. I'm back on solid ground now, but it was a hard trek to get back to not feeling like I should do or be a certain thing just because I am female.

I just got tendonitis in my wrist from riding my bike. I can't ride for at least two weeks, and it looks like it's going to be much longer. I got depressed for a day or two, angry, then decided to start learning fencing footwork. 3 days a week, morning and evening, I'm learning how to move my feet so when I get to learning how to fence the bottom half iof my body, at least, will be ready for it. I'm going to keep doing it after I can ride again, too.

I'm impressed that you keep getting up. Stubborn is a very good thing to be.

La Gringa said...

Hmmmm...I think that I am on fall-down number five at this point. Picking myself back up gets a littler easier each time though, for a lot of different reasons. Good friends. A renewed faith in a God I know doesn't hate me because I'm gay. My cats, who remind me every morning that I live with two small creatures who depend upon me for their lives, and that's a big responsibility. Taking risks I would never have taken five years ago. Pushing my own limits physically and emotionally.

But I don't know if I've ever really given any thought at all to whether or not I considered myself a feminist. It's weird. I've kind of never given any though as to whether - in my own day-today life - I've ever really differentiated between men & women for any reason. I don't know that I've ever even considered myself female or male. I'm just If that makes any sense. This was the package I was given, ya know?

As a kid I always had more male friends than female, but that was mostly because I liked to play with frogs and rats and whatever washed up from the ocean. Most of my female classmates were a little squeamish. :-) As I got older, though, it seemed easier to hang out with straight guys cos I really didn't have much of a desire to sleep with them. (Well, there were the occasional exceptions. Ha ha!)

When I moved to NYC, it seemed easier to develop friendships with women. I have more female friends now than I ever did in my whole life, and I'm not really sure what changed to enable that. But I don't think my moral center has anything to do with my gender, per se.

Although I know that statistically women are more often victims of homelessness and abuse, when I go out every Wednesday night with Book Stud to feed homeless folks in NYC, almost all the faces I see are men. Some of them disturbingly young. Boys, really. I rarely see women, and I wonder why.

The Fat Lady Sings said...

My epiphany came when I was 25. I was broke and homeless - and the depression generated by my perceived failure proved crushing. I wasn’t where I had planned to be at that age, you see. So - like you, I changed me. I looked at my life, who I was, the kinds of people I surrounded myself with, and decided then and there it was change or die. It took me five years to do it - but my life at 30 was significantly different. So I understand what that took for you. Hell – I’m still a work in progress 20 years later. After all - those who can - do.

Unsane said...

Very moving.

I write similarly, but with more repressed tone, in my autobiography

kate.d. said...


karenleslie said...

I also had/am having a difficult time healing my life before feminism. I had my first feminist epiphany when I was 17 (although I didn't know specifically that was what I was feeling). All I knew was that I hated that I was expected to be a certain way by society, that my life, actions and behavior were already planned out for me. After my father left my Mom (who was severly chonically ill and highly emotionally abusive) when I was 18, I gave up hope that I could have a life that was mine, true independence, because there was no other choice for me to become my mother's caregiver. I had to turn off any thoughts about what I wanted for myself, any thoughts about a life that I could not OWN were too painful.

I guess I am posting this because it wasn't until the last few months that I have had the strength to regain my feminist identity. And even now at 24 years old, I have so much work to do to reclaim myself and break down the barriers of my own misogyny. Sometimes, it can just hurt too much to experience the world in its true flawed state. When I was 18 I couldn't take (I had to shut off) and I am struggling to deal now, but I am aware.  

Posted by karenleslie

Maenad said...

You do us women proud. I agree with roni and will say that I was born a feminist, but I became really passionate about feminism only a few months ago. Pop culture, in my opinion, is (one of) the bane of girls, women, men, boys.... When will we all realize that our lives are timeless and will out last any fad or era? When will we stop trying to fit in?

barb said...

wow. I love you!!!!! 

Posted by barb