When I was 16, I once spent a half an hour waiting to cross the street.
At that point in my life, my posture was that of a girl afraid of everything. My lips bled constantly because I spent hours and hours tearing at them with my teeth. I didn’t wear makeup or clothes that I liked. I hated my laugh and my voice because I was regularly informed they were too loud. I scared easily. I went stiff when people hugged me. I shook my head no, instantly disagreeing whenever I was complimented.
Though never shy, I had a habit of apologizing constantly, of self deprecation to the point of obvious self loathing. A b+ brought me to tears and I had trouble maintaining eye contact.
These are all signs of someone who has endured years of mental and emotional abuse. Back then, I just thought these things were a part of my personality, even though I had been a confident, happy child before I was 9 years old and lost my mother, rapidly gaining a stepmother who would yell at me for hours in the hallway outside of my bedroom, chain smoking Marlboro lights and explaining to me all the ways I was not good enough.
I was just awkward, I explained to people when they asked. “I’m weird and uncomfortable in my own skin,” I clarified if they pushed harder. “Puberty can cause people to act this way,” I would say a little desperately when they mentioned the ways I had changed.
My friends called me the Stepford Daughter every time my stepmother walked into the room. I took small bites, agreed with things I absolutely did not believe. I responded to affection like a puppy, becoming almost giddy whenever she was affectionate towards me.
At 16, standing on one side of a small highway in Pennsylvania in my Taco Bell uniform, it was starting to get dark. I was about a mile from home, but the mile was edged with a section of trees and brush where a colony of hungry and homeless lived and sometimes jeered at me, and I was very afraid of the dark. Still, as another car slowed down to allow me to cross, I shook my head and waved them on. This had happened dozens of times by now, and I kept promising that the next time, I would run across.
I don’t remember crossing, but I must have at some point. I do remember feeling paralyzed, not because I was afraid to cross or because of my fear of darkness, but because I was terrified that crossing might inconvenience someone else, if only for a second. I weighed my need to get home safely against others’ needs to get where they were going quickly, and found my own needs to be less important than everyone elses’ wants.
This is who I was from 9 to 18. People constantly evaluated me as “nice” but what I really was was self-sacrificing to a fault, and certain that I did not matter.
When I moved to New York City for college, away from my abuser, I was astonished by the way people prioritized their own needs, without apology. New Yorkers pushed and shoved onto trains, nudged into lines instead of going to the back, loudly swore and laughed obnoxiously. Every single one of them were heroes to me. I couldn’t imagine getting to the point where I believed in myself enough to be rude.
I’ve lived in New York City for 6 and a half years now. Although people still describe me as nice, they are describing my kindness, not my fear. Strangers are often shocked when I tell them I’m from a small town. I hold my own at work, sometimes even disagreeing with others firmly. I respond sharply when condescended to. Sometimes, when there is a crowded train and I’m on a time limit, I shove a bit. I swear when Trader Joe’s is out of cookie butter and curse out cat callers. And I laugh loudly, too loudly. Because I’m happy in a way that 16 year old me never anticipated, and if I’m sometimes a bit of an asshole, it’s because this is the first time I’ve ever really been able to be myself.