You know how trauma workbooks commonly offer a warning to stop, to practice self-care, and to return to a chapter at a future time if any material in it becomes too triggering? I have never paid much attention to those warnings, even during those years when my mistrust of the system was so intense that those therapy “adjunct” workbooks functioned as my only trauma therapy. I’ve always had the “gifts” of being able to numb out and of being so out of touch with what is “normal” in childhood that I still occasionally only realize that some of what I think of as “neutral” childhood experiences are decidedly not neutral when I blithely share them with my Partner in response to some situation on tv and he gives me that look of, “No, that’s not a funny ha-ha childhood story, that’s horrifying.”
Even with the lock on my trauma vault seemingly permanently broken since 2018, I’ve approached those warnings with the blasé attitude of, “Well, I’m pretty sure enough memories that could reduce me to a dissociative puddle on the floor were emergency-processed last year amid the making of new traumatic ones that whatever is left in my brain can only be more of the same…”
So, of course, amid all those, “Yes, even I (now) know these aren’t neutral” memories which wouldn’t be fit for polite blog company without a content warning, it ends up being what I would have previously called “neutral” memories that emotionally overwhelmed me during therapy homework this week. The completist in me – and the part that thinks I’m weaker for no longer quite being able to pull off being so numbed out that I could defend my thesis the same week I testified in the 9th Circle of Hell – hate this. The bully-in-my-brain continues to just hate me.
But, the rest of me is (somewhat) grateful at least for the reminder that all trauma is valid and to never “rank” traumas, including my own. When I was able to examine why I was so triggered by what in the past I would have laughed off compared to my “traditionally traumatic” memories, I realized that it wasn’t just another example of my irony magnet superpowers at work that resulted in it being a “no big deal” realization that undid me during therapy homework, but rather that my so-called “no big deal” memories may, in fact, be the ones that birthed the bully-in-my-brain, not my more dramatic ones. The stereotype that emotional abuse and/or neglect is somehow less damaging than other, more physical, types of abuse is a lie. It was the narrative that I “deserved” what happened to me because I was “freakish” that was most soul-destroying. Nothing that ever happened to me externally was ever as bad as being made to believe that I was internally defective.
I’ve spent my entire life trying to be “more than my diagnoses,” as both trauma books and ADHD books always claim I am, but – even while doing all the things I did to “successfully” earn a ticket out of Hell – I was never allowed to forget that I was still different at the same time.
The chapter in the workbook that was upsetting to me was about toxic shame and challenging negative core beliefs. Exploring why this chapter on toxic shame – and its homework to list out “accomplishments” and praise I have received as a counterbalance to a legacy of abuse – made me realize I’ve been missing a crucial clarifying point when I insist to my therapist that none of my successes truly “count.” Listing my successes on paper as an overt challenge to toxic shame – which was this chapter’s homework assignment – instead made things much, much worse.
I probably often sound in my writing like I doubt that I’m successful at all, and I know that my therapist suspects this and has tried to tackle those feelings like “just” another cognitive distortion. Her attempts were thoroughly unsuccessful, but I could never quite articulate why I could objectively accept that I had had “successes” – and yet those “successes” felt unreal and kind of dark and unsafe to reflect upon.
I have enough of a conception of my own analytic strengths at this point, ironically, that I will actively fight the idea those feelings are cognitive distortions or that I can’t be relatively objective about data analysis, even when it’s my own memories that are functioning as data! I forget a lot of things because of dissociation, but I won’t simply forget how many degrees I have. I’m a statistician at heart. I will count “Ws” and “Ls” relatively accurately even as my own emotions fight any attempt to label those “Ws” as relevant to the toxic shame at hand. I know that objectively I have had “successes”- like finishing my PhD and graduating from one of the most selective undergraduate institutions in the world – yet none of these have ever made a dent in my core feelings of shame or held up against the diatribes of the bully-in-my-brain.
Until this week, I lacked that lightning-bolt understanding, though, of why I could – and will – name a laundry list of successes yet will simultaneously discount them all when determining whether what anything I have “accomplished” means that I have value. I got to probably the single most important chapter of the whole book – the one on toxic core beliefs and toxic shame. It quickly got to me because – even though the book’s first chapter reiterated a statistic that physically hyperactive ADHD kids who can’t mask in social situations have the highest likelihood of experiencing childhood abuse/trauma – it simultaneously made the assumption that there will still have been some kindly teacher/coach/neighbor/pastor/mentor who said genuinely nice things about those hyperactive ADHD kids that they can reflect upon as a counterbalance for the abusive words they heard.
That wasn’t the case for me, and that “difference” snapped me right back to those years of Hellish isolation. It was almost as though the assumption itself was taunting me: “If all the other abused kids had at least one adult who was truly kind to them and praised them, how much of a freak must you have been to have been just as much of an outcast at school as at home?”
I tried with all the diligence of the statistician I am to “just think harder” to gather evidence of kind voices and words of untainted praise that could anchor my self-worth against a lifetime of shame and blame. There were many words of “praise” for me in my memory, but they weren’t what I would now consider “kind.”
I did the homework, and I did come up with many childhood and adulthood times where I was praised for “success.” But, that praise was always invalidated in my eyes even as it was uttered because my “success” was always noted to be ever “so unexpected” given one or more “faults” of mine that I now recognize as part and parcel of ADHD. That homework exercise threw into stark relief why praise means less than nothing for my self-worth.
I’ve spent my entire life desperately seeking praise. I was taught that my only value lay in what others thought of me, so I fought to make them think something of me. The problem wasn’t that I never got praised. The problem was that I never just got praised. There was always a stinger tacked on to anything positive about how I had accomplished something “despite” my differences – even when those differences shouldn’t have had anything to do with the thing I had accomplished!
It wasn’t just my family. I know enough now to recognize, at least intellectually, that everything they said in childhood can just be assumed to be toxic, and that that says more about them than me. But what was/am I supposed to think when that, “No praise without a barb about Lavender’s differences at the same time” was never any different at my school, at my jobs…anywhere.
I have moved Heaven and Earth for as long as I can remember to earn praise, but praise has always come in the form of, “Good job pulling that one off, given your flaws.” I markedly exceeded Hell’s (low) expectations. Yet, even as I did so and forced Hell to take notice of it, they always found a way to poison their praise with a reminder of some flaw I had that made them not quite able to truly believe I was capable of whatever it was that I had just achieved.
That isn’t praise to me, and it is why the continuous refrain that follows me across jobs (albeit said with varying degrees of bluntness) that, “You’re socially awkward and that annoys us, but you’re more brilliant than you are annoying, so we keep you around” isn’t “good enough” to be “good enough.”
I try to be proud of the fact my “brilliance” was so brilliant that I got to stay long enough to leave my bully-of-a-boss on my terms, while most of my colleagues didn’t. But, that “annoying” tag-along keeps being the only thing my annoying brain, which is annoyingly used to being called annoying (even in discussions of performance wherein masking ability shouldn’t matter at all are discussed) that it just can’t let the rest go. It never feels “good enough” to be intelligent, because if – even amid what should be joyful and proud moments – I have forever been simultaneously reminded of my fundamental weirdness and Otherness, how is my statistically oriented brain not supposed to take from all of that damning with frank praise the maxim not that I am more than what the world thinks I am, but that I will never be able to be more than that?
Praise that praises a person “despite their flaws” does not counterbalance toxic shame. Why did my flaws ever have to be mentioned at all if the whole point of the situation was supposed to be that I did something worthy?
Why could/can I never just be brilliant without that poison stinger of, “Your intelligence is particularly impressive given that you are a socially inept freak?”
Now, I will admit, the “freak” label isn’t one I’ve heard routinely since childhood. In fact, before my most recent bully-of-a-boss, I would have said folks have become quite adept at calling me a socially inept “freak” without having to say the “freak” out loud. Nowadays, people tend to soften unhappiness with my inability to socially mask with much more polite terms such as having “challenges” or “quirks.” Even my bully-of-a-boss didn’t quite reach full 9th Circle of Hell level and call me a freak to my face. (He did call me “inept” at one point, though, and is that any better?) On the surface, at least, adult Lavender no longer gets called a “freak” at the same time she is praised. Child Lavender has never forgotten, though, those days when the 9th Circle of Hell felt free to say it out loud (and adult Lavender has just enough social intuition to hear the overtones through her “challenges…”)
Of all the many trauma memories that I’ve been forced to process in the past year, the surprise that lasered through all the hard work I’ve done since 2018 and hit me right in the flashback this week was the realization that no one ever let me be “more than my diagnoses.” No one ever saw me as me, so no one ever praised me for myself and myself alone, with no barbs, stingers or caveats.
I was one of only a handful of students in the whole of the 9th Circle of Hell who earned admission to a school – actually, to multiple schools, to be a bit self-aggrandizing as payback – of world-class caliber. Yet, rather than just say, “You go, girl,” one of my teachers felt the need to hold my acceptance letter up to a light in front of me and look for a watermark because she couldn’t believe “someone like me” could have gotten in. I wasn’t good enough in the 9th Circle of Hell, and it was easier to believe teenage Lavender would pull off an elaborate forgery of an acceptance letter than to believe that she might just have been good enough for someplace else. Given that history, is it any wonder it feels to the bully-in-my-brain (and to me) like my seeming inability in adulthood to ever just be noted for my skill at analytics without simultaneously being reminded that anything less than that level of brilliance probably couldn’t make up for my social oddities leaves me feeling like I could win a Nobel Prize and still never escape being only “good despite” my fundamentally flawed self?
In the 9th Circle of Hell, I was labelled first, and only ever praised in relationship to that label. I was forced to be neurodiverse first. Long before I ever learned that “neurodiverse” was the more scientifically appropriate term for what the 9th Circle of Hell called “freakishness,” I internalized that my freakishness came first, and my successes second. Child Lavender was taught that she was fundamentally flawed, and that no number of accomplishments she could ever – or will ever – reach could erase that. She wasn’t worthy of a sincere, untainted compliment for her accomplishments, even though those accomplishments would have been sufficiently good enough – even damn good – for a neurotypical. I never got to be good enough at anything to be praised only for my own merits growing up. Because I couldn’t quite mask socially, everything I did do – and therefore anything I now do – could be reduced to the 9th Circle of Hell’s “impressive for a freak.” The “freak” caveat – and its gentler current incarnations – feel like they will forever taint successes that would be able to just be successes if I had been neurotypical instead of a member of that most-likely-to-be-abused population.
I will advocate, as a result, for this generation’s neurodiverse kids to have the right to just be good enough – on their own merits – without the world hanging their labels around their necks as millstones to drag down any kindness they ever receive. I hate that I still hear so many stories from neurodiverse communities about teachers, doctors and bosses praising neurodiverse kids’ accomplishments only relative to their diagnoses, while those same accomplishments warrant unequivocal praise for neurotypical kids.
Why is it still as okay in 2019 – the same as it was when I was growing up – to tell a child they are doing, “Pretty well for an autistic kid,” or “Pretty well for an ADHD kid” when they accomplish something their neurotypical peers can’t pull off? It isn’t okay (though I know, unfortunately, that it still happens too often as well because America in 2019 sucks) to tell a child of color that getting into an elite school is only “Pretty impressive…for a Black kid.” Yet, when we substitute “autistic” or “ADHD” or another neurodiverse label for the “freak” and “weirdo” terms I heard overtly growing up, even many Progressive parents, teachers and others will routinely say this of children who are probably smarter than they are!
The odds are that any hypothetical future child my Partner and I will ever have will be neurodiverse in one or more ways. (Having two neurodiverse parents does kind of skew the odds.) We will simultaneously ensure that said hypothetical child has access to any and all accommodations that would benefit them and teach them that there is nothing to be ashamed of by being neurodiverse.
However, while we will celebrate neurodiversity as something positive – which in and of itself is entirely unlike my experience growing up – we will not only celebrate their neurodiversity, but explicitly ensure that that hypothetical future child also has another gift that I never had growing up. They will have the chance to be praised and valued without being continuously reminded of their differences at the same time. Realizing now how much the legacy of the subtler kind of emotional neglect left even amid the more overt memories, I will do my utmost to offer them an opportunity no member of my family from any generation – at least so far as I can determine, given all the cover of secrets and shame that rendered our differences never something we could discuss – was ever offered. I will offer them the chance to be “more than their diagnoses” while still feeling no shame over those diagnoses.
Need a recap of anything I’m talking about in any post? Check out my Glossary of Terms