I stepped into a red and black “Spandex-y” thing and back in time, to 2003 – the last time I wore it, a swimsuit.
That year, I went out on a limb and joined my high school’s winning water polo team. I was at a place in my life where I was looking to reinvent myself and gain a sense of belonging to a group with a good reputation. As a then-non-athlete whose high school had a very strong athletics program, I chose to accomplish both by playing a high school sport. Water polo felt somewhat safe, because I swam in summer league as a kid.
Putting on this swimsuit again 13 years later as I prepared to swim laps for the first time in at least a decade conjured some memories and subsequent feelings…
One day at practice, the coach pulled me aside. I sensed something was up, but, guilt-ridden me thought that it was all about my skill or something else I did wrong.
Sidebar: Being guilt-ridden and paranoid was a coping mechanism that I acquired during my childhood to protect myself from the hostile environment in which I was raised. However, these negative thoughts are “mistaken beliefs,” which I’m working on in therapy, that no longer apply to my life.
But what the coach had to tell me had nothing to do with my shortcomings. Instead, it had everything to do with that of the adult who wrote the check for my booster club dues.
This check, which I recall being to the tune of a whopping $35, bounced.
I felt like even more of a misfit than I was already feeling, because, at the most basic level, all of my teammates’ parents paid for them to be there. I didn’t have even that going for me.
My father worked his tail off and made good money that supported a family of six, but another member of the family spent the money he brought home at a faster rate – even neglecting to pay the bills.
I thought to myself that I very easily could’ve covered the cost with the money I made as a hostess at a restaurant and babysitting – if it wasn’t stolen from me, of course, which was unfortunately a common occurrence – but I opted for never going back.
This isn’t the first time that a check that this person wrote for one of my activities as a child bounced. I’ve always told people that I quit a 10-year figure skating run, something I was truly good at and passionate about, because I wanted to be an all-star cheerleader. I said that I quit cheerleading, because I wanted to be more involved with the musical productions. This was all just a cover up for bounced checks and disappointment.
I even felt uneasy when uniform orders rolled around, because I knew that it involved a purchase that either wasn’t possible for me or, even worse, would torment me with anxiety. While I could deal with not having what “everyone else” had, I knew that this was amplified in team situations where everyone had to be coordinated, and I couldn’t deal with having to explain to others why I wasn’t.
The embarrassment I felt was a burden too heavy and unfair for me to carry, but I didn’t know how to let this go until I was an adult out on my own and seeing a therapist to overcome trauma I faced in my childhood, which included all kinds of abuse. I started therapy in March 2010, just a few months after I met Nate, because I wanted to be healthy for my relationship with him. And knowing what was going on at home in Pennsylvania, just two hours north of where I was living then, was taking its toll on me.
A turning point in my therapy was when I walked in to my appointment one day, in 2011 or 2012, and saw the following written on a dry-erase board:
“I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.”
My therapist wrote this specifically for me. It’s as if this quote gave me permission to no longer feel embarrassed by others’ bounced checks and other more traumatizing bruises from my childhood. And I believe it is this quote, my therapist at the time and the change I underwent that explain why I’m able to share about this today.
I recall feeling so much insecurity when I wore this swimsuit in 2003 – insecurity that I hadn’t earned my keep (to this day, I hate feeling indebted to people), that I wouldn’t have a ride to or from practice because that person’s car was repossessed, that I fit in with the rest of the team… and that I was enough. (And, sadly, this certainly wasn’t the most heartbreaking thing to happen that year; I’ll save that story for another time.)
Gaining stability and security
Putting on that swimsuit last week brought back painful memories but wasn’t a painful experience, because it was a reminder of where and who I am now. I live a more stable, secure and, therefore, enjoyable life than I ever thought possible, which I attribute to marrying an incredibly stable, loving man.
A defining moment in my relationship with Nate was when he asked me why I don’t like to shop like most girls do.
My answer: “Well, I’m [23/24?], live in the most expensive city in the United States and am making it on my own, so I don’t have a lot of extra money sitting around. I’d prefer that what little I do have be in the bank than in my closet.”
I was also paying for my master’s degree as I went along, in order to avoid incurring student-loan debt beyond what I had from undergrad, so I was making productive decisions that would pay off later. And they have.
Nate’s response: “I’m your security.”
Those are the three most powerful words I’ve ever heard come out of his mouth – maybe even more so than, “I love you”?
One of the things that I learned in therapy was the need to nurture my inner child. It’s imperative for those who dealt with childhood trauma do this – especially before they have children of their own so they don’t steal what they never got during their childhood from their children – thus continuing the cycle. “I’m your security” are words that I needed to hear as a child but didn’t, so I made it a point to allow the child version of myself to hear and believe it, and I tell her this often.
When people ask me, “How/when did you know that you were going to marry Nate,” I never know how to answer. But now I know. I realize now that it was this very moment, when we were driving down Henry Street through Old Town Alexandria, when Nate nullified all of my insecurities about trusting someone other than myself and when I knew that I deserved that.
Because I am not someone who bounces checks and would disappoint my children like that…
I am someone who spends (and saves) my money wisely, because it’s the responsible thing to do and because the needs of my marriage and future family are more important than my selfish desires.
I am not someone who feels entitled to things that I cannot have and, therefore, put my family’s financial wellbeing at risk…
I am someone who works hard and gets so much fulfillment out of contributing financially to my family.
And I am not what happened to me…
I am what I choose to become.