Let Yourself Feel It

Neighborhood Graffiti

People look at me and think it’s my rage I need to get in touch with. But it’s not the rage I’m afraid to feel.

It’s the grief.

To get through this wall, I have to drop my sword and go into the breach—into the darkness—unarmed.

But there’s so much grief in there that I’m afraid I’ll never come out.

I was hungry for death at 18. I stared out the living room window, between the Venetian blinds, at the sunshine, the glinting parked cars, the mown lawns, green and warm. And I hated the suburbs.

“I want to die,” I said to my mother.

She flipped the page of her magazine. “Maybe you should talk to someone about that.”

It saved me that I was lazy. Uncommitted. I lay on the floor of my bedroom and stared up at the sky from my window and waited. It sort of worked. I lost something like 20 pounds that summer.

Lying there, waiting to die, I remember thinking, This is taking too long.

So I considered the butcher knives on the kitchen counter. Slit my wrists, maybe.

But I thought of the painting, The Death of Marat, and I was afraid it would take hours.

I wanted something sure and quick.

I thought of slitting my throat but wasn’t sure I’d keep cutting after the first break of skin.

Thought of pushing the knife into my belly. But I knew this was one of the slowest and most painful ways to die.

I climbed a cedar tree and considered jumping. But what if I only broke bones? If I tried to land headfirst, maybe I’d only end up paralyzed.

I stared at a bottle of bleach—but what if they found me in time and pumped my stomach?

I stared at guardrails as I drove. But what if the crash hardly hurt me. Or worse, disabled me?

At 31, I find it hella funny that I was such a perfectionist back then–I even wanted to get death right.

But it was an old sadness that summer.

My earliest memories are of my mother telling me, viciously, that my name meant darkness.

Melanie. The Dark One, she told me. That’s what you are.

It fell like a curse at my cradle.

“You’re a temptation to married men,” my father told me about the men at church. Men I’d grown up around. The fathers of friends. And as the assaults and harassment tallied up like chalk marks on a wall, I felt it was one mistake after another. My bad.

It wasn’t the men taking advantage. How sheltered and fragile and trusting I was. It was all on me. After all, my father had warned me. He’d kept me inside when he noticed neighborhood boys showing interest. My father had been the first man to feel up my ass.

And then I went to college. Finally, I could talk about psychology theories and philosophy with my professors.

They liked how badly I needed their attention and approval. They flirted and flattered. And then, it peeled back to show the ugly underside. Same as always: “I have a really strong urge to touch you,” one of them said.

I was sickened. You have got to be kidding.

It’s the grief I can’t let myself feel.

It leaves me feeling weak. Soft. Feminine. Which I have only ever experienced as lethal vulnerability.

And tears—I’m afraid of someone seeing them as false. What man can watch a woman cry and not feel embarrassed, manipulated, suspicious?

What man doesn’t use tears against you, as evidence that really—even after all the discussions of Sartre and Levi-Strauss and Edward Said, really—you are still “only” an emotional woman. Unreasoning. Irrational.

If you feel, you must be irrational.

And if you are irrational, you can only be a woman.

And if you are a woman, you are only a piece of ass.

Up for grabs.

Sure, it isn’t really that simple. And not all men are like that.

But enough conditioning, and even a dog learns to give up. Electrical current running through the floor, every tile charged with a painful shock, the dog picks a spot and stays there. Settles in. Long after the researchers have shot off electrical current to the rest of the floor, the animal will stay on the charged tile. What’s the use? I tried that already.

So try it again.

And keep on trying.

I’m trying to learn. To trust myself. To trust that I’m strong enough to carry the grief.

You have to let yourself feel it, a friend told me.

No other way through it.

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