They’ll All be Looking at Me

mannequin
Photo from Flickr.

I’m finding myself worrying about my appearance as I prepare to move back to the small town where my parents live. In my adult life, I have never had my appearance criticized so much as I did when I lived there. In fact, the only other source of criticism in that regard has been from my mother-in-law. She says I wear black too much. I did tend to wear black a lot in the past for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s slimming. Secondly, it’s a classic colour that was easy to resort to when I was less savvy about putting together outfits. Thirdly, I am clumsy and tend to spill things on myself, and stains don’t show up as well on black as they do on other colours. Fourthly, I just think black looks good on me.

I never wore black in a “goth” kind of way, although it seems like people make that mental association when they think of someone who wears black a lot. And my mother-in-law seems to think black is only for funerals. Even my husband, when he sees someone wearing all black, sometimes jokes, “Are they going to a funeral or something?” I think maybe, with my husband and his mom being from England, this could be a cultural difference. I don’t think wearing black is viewed quite as harshly here in Canada. After all, there’s a reason it’s said that something is “the new black.” It’s because black is a classic, flattering colour that’s always in fashion.

But aside from my mother-in-law, in my adulthood it’s always been in this one place where my appearance and wardrobe have been criticized by people. My aunt, in particular, always has something to say about whatever I’m wearing. She’s very much into this whole school of thought where your complexion and hair colour determine what “season” you are, and you should only wear colours that correspond with your season. She believes in it like a religion. So if she sees me wearing a white sweater, for example, she’ll say, “You shouldn’t be wearing that. Only winters can wear white.” Or she’ll say, “I can tell you like the colour blue. But you don’t look good in blue. You only think you look good in blue.” It’s not just the seasons thing though. She also says things to me like, “You shouldn’t be wearing that dress. It looks like a nightgown. Yuck!”

She also criticizes my weight. (I have been diagnosed with PCOS and hypothyroidism, both of which make weight a constant struggle.) Once when I was still single I had the opportunity to participate in a fashion show. She was in the audience and she sought me out afterwards and told me, “It was good to see a heavier girl up there on the runway. When you finally find a man, you should just tell him it’s like he’s getting two girls for the price of one!” That’s her idea of a compliment and is actually the most positive thing she’s ever said to me. She tells me about diets I should be going on, usually completely jackassed, unhealthy, not-medically-sound eating plans that I know better than to try. She can be very insistent about such things. She was on my case about one of these the last time I saw her in 2011. As she was telling me about it, I lost control of my mouth and blurted out, “That is absolute bullshit.” She was unfazed. “No it isn’t! No it isn’t!” she insisted.

It’s not just my aunt, either. It’s friends of my mom, too. From them it’s comments like, “You should be wearing a slip under that skirt. When the light is behind you I can see the outline of your legs.” First of all, does anyone under the age of 60 still wear slips? And secondly… Oh no! The outline of my legs?! All the men in town will obviously be consumed by an uncontrollable, fiery lust if they see that! Pfffft. Give me a break.

Then there were also teenagers at church who, assuming I was their peer when I was actually in my late twenties, were giving me fashion tips so I could look more trendy, despite the fact that I was extremely poor at the time and could not afford brand new clothes. And telling me I would look better if I parted my hair in the middle. Hair parted in the middle looks great on some people, but I think it looks horrid on me and I don’t care if it’s in fashion at any given time or not.

In the bigger cities I’ve lived in, I’ve felt so free to just be myself. I don’t feel like my appearance is under constant scrutiny. Even when I was more socially active than I currently am, and even when I was heavily involved in church, rarely, if ever, has anyone given me a hard time about the way I look in these bigger places. As I’m preparing to go back to that small town, I’m starting to worry again. What will they be thinking when they see me? And because I’ll be living with my parents, I can’t hide. I will be like a sitting duck for all the people they’re involved with.

I’m fairly satisfied with my wardrobe at the moment, but I would like to go to the salon before I leave the city. Unfortunately, I don’t feel I should be wasting our precious resources on something frivolous when I don’t know when or from where our next source of income is coming. I really want a new pair of glasses too, as my trendier black-framed pair is showing signs of wear in their finish and the metal bits on the nose have turned green. I would at the very least like to get them professionally cleaned. But again, I shouldn’t be spending money on things like that right now. I’m going back to a place where apparently appearance matters (whether it’s because of the social atmosphere of the place itself or because of the people I’m related to there — not just my aunt, but I think the people who are friends with my mom feel they have some kind of authority over me by extension), but I can’t be spending money on my appearance at the moment.

You know what one of my biggest fears is? When I was young, I used to be very passive and I accepted everything everyone said to me without protest or defense, but I’m not like that anymore. And I’m afraid that one day I’m going to lose it and say something extremely rude to anyone who criticizes me or offers me unsolicited advice, kind of like what I said to my aunt five years ago only worse. And I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I did that. That’s not the person I want to be.

 

Full of Hate?

hurt
Photo from Photofunia

I am reeling with shock and hurt over something someone said to me today.

I was talking to a relative on the phone about my upcoming move. And because I have the tendency to overshare, I started talking about all my anxieties about living in that small town again.

She snapped at me, “I was hoping that now that you’re older you would have mellowed out, but I can see that you are still full of hate.”

What?! Full of hate? Is that how people see me? Is that how I come across?

I guess perhaps I have sometimes said, “I hate that place.” (I don’t think I said that today though.) But it’s not really hate I feel. It’s dread. And fear. I am afraid of the social atmosphere in that town, because I did not cope well in it in the past. I am afraid of certain people, because they have hurt me before and I don’t feel that they are emotionally safe people for me to be around. I am afraid of finding myself in situations that I won’t know how to handle, and I am afraid of handling social situations wrongly and saying the wrong things and getting into trouble with people. I am afraid of that because it has happened more times than I can count. It is not an unfounded fear.

So I will admit to being fearful. But hateful? I wonder if it’s just this one person who sees me this way, or if others do too.

I am deeply wounded by my relative’s words. What a way to kick me when I’m down.

 

Trying to Make it On My Own

Toronto

Photo by Kat Northern Lights Man via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

When I was a teenager, I couldn’t wait to be old enough to live on my own. My dad had left just before I turned 14 and a couple years later my mom decided we needed a new start, so we moved to a small town of her choice a four-hour drive away. Unfortunately, I hated that town. This is going to sound really flaky, but I just got a bad, oppressive vibe there. Plus, it was really hard for me to make friends there, and it seemed like all the people my own age who were willing to have anything to do with me when I first moved there were heavy drug users. I drank alcohol, but illegal drugs were not my thing and being around them made me really uncomfortable. Meanwhile, I didn’t have a great relationship with my mom. She yelled a lot and was very critical. It’s like she took pleasure in pointing out things I was doing wrong and ways in which I was at fault for various things.

For example, sometimes my dad would phone and if I was friendly to him, my mom would scream at me, “How can you be so nice to him after the way he’s treated me? I’m the one who’s always been there for you! Where is your loyalty?” So then one time I refused to talk to him, thinking I was showing loyalty to my mom like she wanted. But then she yelled, “How dare you treat your father like that! No matter what he’s done, he’s still your father, and you have no right to disrespect him that way! If you keep doing this he’ll never come back to us!” This is only one of many examples. It was an ongoing pattern in our relationship when I was a teenager. I couldn’t do anything right in her eyes and I got yelled at for every little thing. It was unbearable. I don’t even have words to describe the pain and stress her yelling and criticism caused. Needless to say, home did not feel like an emotionally safe place for me.

I had dropped out of school when I was 14, but I was enrolled in a part-time education program by this point, and through that I got involved in a government-funded employment program for at-risk youth. They got me a summer job in an office, and when summer was over, I was kept on as a part-time employee. I was extremely good at not spending any money back then, so nearly every dime I earned went into my savings account. At 18, having saved up a small nest egg, and with my hours now being drastically cut at work anyway, I moved back to the hometown I desperately missed. Alone.

It never occurred to me that I might not be able to handle it. I had this boundless optimism (which is now long gone), and even though I had already failed at many things, it still never occurred to me that I might suck at life. I just thought anything would be better than living with my mean mom in that town I hated. And I was perfectly willing to work for what I needed. I assumed I was able to do that.

I initially rented a basement suite owned by a family friend. I assumed I would find a job right away, but it turned out to be harder than I thought. Part of the problem was the suite’s inconvenient location and the transportation issues resulting from that. I loved living alone, but seeing how quickly my little nest egg was diminishing just due to basic living expenses, I took a friend (the frenemy I wrote about here) up on her offer to share an apartment with her and her boyfriend. It seemed like a wise decision, as rent would be far cheaper and it was close to all amenities, making my job search much easier (there was no internet in those days; you had to pound the pavement, as they say). It actually went well at first, but then they broke up and my friend moved out.

Now here’s where I made one of my clueless social blunders. It didn’t occur to me that because my friend had moved out, I had to move out too. I liked the apartment and the location, and I got along well (platonically) with her ex-boyfriend. He was a really nice guy. It wasn’t like he had treated her badly; she had just gotten bored with him and wanted to move on, so I didn’t see how it could be a loyalty issue like when I was nice to my dad in spite of him treating my mom badly. But my friend got very angry at me for continuing to live there, and I was utterly clueless as to why. Now in retrospect I can understand that it was highly inappropriate for me to stay there, but I couldn’t see that back then. I was just baffled. I saw that apartment as my home. Why should I have to leave my home because of a decision someone else made? It was bad enough when my parents broke up and I had to go wherever my mom went, but I was an adult and could do what I wanted now, or so I thought. But it understandably led to a huge strain in our friendship.

And then a few months later my friend’s ex-boyfriend moved out too. He couldn’t cook and I certainly wasn’t doing that for him, so he found a room-and-board situation that included meals. And I couldn’t afford to pay the rent on my own, so after a disastrous situation resulting from placing an ad in the paper for a new roommate (which deserves its own post), I ended up having to move anyway.

The next couple years were spent moving from place to place and having roommate after roommate. In total I lived in six different apartments/suites with 9 different roommates. My living situation was a constant source of stress and worry. Some of my roommates were very unpleasant. One of them told me she thought I had a mental illness because I spent so much time in my room, but I was only doing that because being around her was a constant sensory assault.

I wished I could live alone again, but I just couldn’t afford it, even once I had found employment.

I was only able to find minimum-wage jobs (not surprising, given my lack of education). The first one was at McDonalds, where I started working a few weeks after moving in with my friend and her boyfriend, but I only lasted six weeks. The noise and the fast pace were more than I could handle and I ended up having a crying meltdown and getting labelled “emotionally unstable” by my boss, so I quit in a state of overload and humiliation. About a month later I landed a job in a mall bookstore and worked there for about 15 months.

I performed fairly well at the bookstore, despite the stress of dealing with customers, but I had a difficult boss. I got to be good friends with one of my co-workers (whom I’m still friends with to this day), and our boss became very paranoid about the friendship. She accused us of plotting against her (which was a completely false accusation; I wouldn’t know how to plot against someone even if I wanted to, and I have certainly never wanted to) and forbade us to speak to each other. One time, she saw us smiling at each other across the store and demanded to know what we were up to. We were “up to” nothing. We were friends, and we smiled when we saw each other; it was as simple as that.

I have always tended to get sick a lot (mostly bad colds/coughs and nausea/vomiting) when I’m in the workforce, so my choices are to either come in to work sick and get criticized for that, or call in sick a lot, and get criticized for that. During that time, I tended to call in, but then my boss accused me of calling in sick because of hangovers! She even wrote it in my employee record! Again, another completely false accusation. I have never called in sick because of a hangover in my whole life. I did drink socially, but I’ve never been falling-down drunk in my life and I have rarely had anything resembling a hangover. But I guess in her mind, there could be no other explanation for such frequent illnesses. It is odd, I admit, but I have always been this way and nothing I have tried has helped.

The work environment became increasingly tense, and soon the boss had become paranoid about the entire staff. Apparently another staff member overheard her telling someone that she intended to find reasons to fire the entire staff so she could start fresh with a new “uncorrupted” staff. This was because she thought one of the staff members (fortunately not me) was a troublemaker and was poisoning everyone else against her. It was insane; there was nothing like that going on. But she did start firing people one by one and I knew it would happen to me eventually. I dreaded going in there every day, not knowing if that day might be the day. One day I couldn’t take all the stress anymore and I quit. I knew it was unwise, as I had nothing else lined up, but I had reached a breaking point and I knew I would soon be fired anyway. Knowing that potential employers always ask why you left your last job, I knew it would be better to say that I left of my own volition than that I was fired.

In the following weeks, my former boss did indeed fire every last member of staff. In one case, she rummaged through a staff-member’s bag and found a roll of toilet paper, which she then accused her of stealing from the staff bathroom. My close friend was let go with the reason, “The length of time you have now worked here has made you overqualified for the position for which you were originally hired.”

For about three months I desperately tried to find another job, to no avail. Then some awful things happened with my roommate. I had come full circle; this was actually the same person who was my first roommate, the friend who had broken up with her boyfriend and moved out; we had since made up and moved in together again. She said she didn’t want to live alone because she had an ex-boyfriend (not the same one we had lived with) who had been violent with her and was continuing to threaten her, and she thought living with a roommate would offer some level of protection. It didn’t. She ended up getting assaulted by him and I was called to court as a witness (it turns out he had actually been on a bit of a rampage that night, so assaulting her wasn’t the only charge). But having reconciled with him before the court date, she lied in court to protect him and got angry with me for telling the truth. She moved out of our place and in with him (and eventually married him). We had been friends our whole lives but have not spoken to each other since that day. Her choice, not mine. I did not reject friends back then, no matter what, even when I probably should have.

Meanwhile, the guy I was seeing at the time was fast losing interest in me, dashing my hopes for something serious to develop there. A mutual friend he’d confided in told me he had developed feelings for someone else, so I asked him about it. I wasn’t angry (I never got angry about anything back then; it was almost like a weird deficit in my emotional repertoire), but I did want to know. He admitted it was true, but he got angry at the person who told me, which made that person angry at me. I apologized, but she said, “I don’t have time for this juvenile bullshit,” and never spoke to me again.

Emotionally, I hit rock bottom. I had tried and tried to make it on my own. I had been running on adrenaline for two years. I was exhausted, and I was getting physically sicker by the day (probably partly because I couldn’t afford to eat healthy food, or much of anything, really). I’d lost a couple friends, lost my boyfriend, had no job, my money had run out, I couldn’t afford rent on my own, and my mom had been calling me on the phone daily, begging me to move back in with her. I remember just sitting there thinking, okay, what are my options? Everything I had tried had failed, so I narrowed it down to two: I could either kill myself, or I could move back in with my mom. Killing myself would take a certain amount of courage and impetus that I just didn’t have. So I chose the latter. And it felt like a death of sorts anyway.