A New Voice, Rising

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 0.603% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

“Find a picture of yourself as a young child – one where you were happy. Somewhere around eight or nine, before you really understood the world. And I want you to focus on that child, to consider that child as something worthy of being protected, and then give him the advice you would have wanted you to know back then.”

I’d gone to a therapist to get new opinions.

This sure was fucking new.

“The problem is,” she continued, “At some point you started to hate yourself for not knowing what to do. And that cascaded through adolescence, where you felt like you should be able to have a handle on a really complicated world, and you blamed every screwup on yourself.”

“But I am culpable for those screwups,” I protested.

“Is that what you’d tell other young kids? That they’re responsible for controlling every mean person who hurts them? Or would you tell them that they were doing the best with the knowledge they had at the time, and now they know better?”

Every time I thought my therapist’s ideas were a little too woo-woo for me, she’d score a really good point on me.

So I found a favorite picture of me as a kid – me with my Aunt Peggy and her dog Goldie, me as innocent of the upcoming meatgrinder called “middle school” as I could be. And I focused on it, and I talked to myself in an embarrassed mutter, making smalltalk with an imaginary version of myself as a kid.

It didn’t go well. The kid didn’t have much to say back.

I told her that. “The goal,” she said, “Is to create an advocate within yourself. A countervoice that grants you the compassion you so freely give other people.”

Yet after a couple of months, the photo stayed on the shelf, thoroughly untalked-to. I walked by young me, occasionally giving myself a sideeye as if I expected young me to give me a judging look – shouldn’t we be talking? – but no, young me was eternally happy as ever in his frozen little frame.

I wondered what it would be like to have an advocate. All the voices in my head were hateful. I’d leave a party, and they’d barrage me with all the charmless things I’d said. I’d look in the mirror and the voices would remind me how ugly I was, how fat, how bug-eyed. I’d hold hands with my wife and the voices would tell me that she didn’t really want to hold hands with you, you were grasping and needlessly controlling and Gini hates PDAs why are you putting her through this at the movie, for Chrissake?

The only time the voices were silent was when I wrote.

I knew how to write. And if the voices spoke to me then, they were critics intended to make me into a better writer, so when I was overwhelmed I retreated into writing projects – brainstorming plots, pondering revisions.

Writing was as close to silence as I got.

Yet though the picture gathered dust, my therapist and I kept having productive sessions. She was relentless in maneuvering me into giving myself the benefit of the doubt – yes, you screwed up in that interaction, but did you mean to? No, intent isn’t a magic wand, but it doesn’t have to be a club to beat yourself with either. Can you learn to do a better job next time without flagellating yourself with self-hatred?

Can you screw up and still forgive yourself?

And with it all came those realizations that I was too powerless to blame the bullies in middle school, so I’d taken all the control upon myself, and internalized a potent self-hatred that whipped myself into improvement. I’d hauled myself out of my social pariah status and learned to be clever, learned to dress better, learned how to make friends, and every lesson was backed by that deep fear that if I screwed up I’d be friendless and in seventh grade again, not so much despised as forgotten.

That terror had gotten me a long way, but now it was the engine of my self-destruction.

And still my therapist kept forcing me to view my current fuckups in a more measured light – okay, you were stressed and said something thoughtless to your wife, but can you repair the damage without having to inflict a day’s worth of regret upon yourself? Can you not self-spiral?

I was in the bathroom, washing my hands, when I had two shocking revelations:

One, that I was muttering to myself when I was alone. Which was something I knew I did, but I kept self-erasing the memory of it because I knew it was a sign of my mental illness and I didn’t want to think about it that much. But when I was having a bad day my voices would be externalized and I’d actually tell myself, “Nobody likes you, everyone hates you, nobody likes you.”

I had, I realized, been literally talking to myself for years. Probably decades. I’d just forget that whenever I wasn’t alone, or in a decent mood.

But the reason I realized that is because another voice spoke up – also me.

“That’s not true, Ferrett,” I said to myself. “Your wife loves you, your girlfriend loves you, your parents and your kids love you – and you’re worthy of that, you know that, right?”

I stood, stunned, unsure of that voice. Because though it was contradicting me, it was also deeply concerned for me, not so much telling me off as it was asking me to ponder the evidence and decide because it knew I could do better.

I didn’t know what to say. To either voice.

But I went back out into the dining room and looked at the picture. It was not my eight-year-old self speaking to me so kindly, but instead another version of me to counterbalance the self-hatred, a version of me that I hoped to be one day.

I thought if I ever had a voice being kind to me it would be my therapist, or my Uncle Tommy, or maybe Gini, but no – this was actually my voice welling up from within, asking me to cut myself some slack.

I suppose in a movie, I would have had some triumphant moment where I raised my fists to a sunny sky and roared in triumph.

Instead, I simply muttered, “Huh” and went back to work.

And that compassionate voice is still low. It doesn’t come out every time the hateful voices do. But it comes out sometimes, and when it does it chases them away – it makes me realize how baseless they are, and how much more powerful forgiveness is than ritualized abuse.

The voice is low. But it’s growing. Growing in strength.

I’m just still astonished it’s there.

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(In case anyone’s interested, my therapist is Cherish Dorrington, and she does take Skype appointments. I’m not selling her services, but it seems disingenuous to discuss a good therapy practice and not let people know where it is.)

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous Alex
    Sep 11, 2018

    This makes me happy. I don’t have anything else brilliant to say about it, but thought that it deserved a comment.

    -Alex

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