“Be sure to read the rules about alcohol consumption on the back.”
The sophomore working the sales booth hands me my first high school dance ticket.
“Oh yeah, you know me,” I quip back, assuming we’re in on the same joke about what an exceptionally well-behaved teenager I am.
“I know your brother.”
I turn away quickly, before the tears I can feel forming in the pit of my stomach, reach my eyeballs, and come pouring out.
I make it to the parking lot, and the shelter of my mom’s minivan, just in time.
“What happened to you?” My mom wants to know, as soon as I close the door.
“Just something somebody said.”
I reluctantly share the story. Immediately, she joins me. Fear, sadness, anger, shame.
It was the first of many experiences stirring a similar emotional reaction. It was my first recognition of my vulnerability to other people’s perceptions and opinions. It was my first realization that my private family crisis was a topic of public conversation. For the first time, home felt like a claustrophobic, unforgiving, small town.
At the local grocery store, women in our community dodge my mom. They duck into aisles and avoid eye contact. Maybe they want to give her privacy, or they don’t know what to say. Maybe they don’t want to look into her desperate, tired eyes without comfort, or a solution, to provide. Maybe they judge her. Or shun her. Whatever the intention, or motivation, the feeling is the same. It feels like judgement and isolation. Like failure as a mother. Like a vacuum of support when she needs it the most.
Friends and acquaintances, even our extended family, have ideas about where we all went wrong. We mostly come to know about them, second or third hand. Rumors and gossip swirl around us. Every time I leave my house ,I fear an unexpected encounter with someone I know. A surprise attack of exposure before I can get my armor on, my story straight, my smile right.
It is a painful period that leaves me increasingly guarded, and self-aware.
I learn to keep everything close to my chest. To spin a pretty good story about my normal, suburban life. When my best friend reads my college application essay about my high school home-life, she can’t believe her eyes. In my house, I feel frightened and restless. At school, I appear confident and collected. On my hardest days, I am funny and sarcastic. In moments of self-doubt and sadness, I showcase my easy-going personality and carefree laugh.
I keep a strong commitment to stay on my best behavior. My family needs me to be the perfect kid, everyone expects.
I make sure people only have good things to say, about me.
Many years later, I still hear tid-bits about myself and my peers in the hot spots of my home town. The entire world is connected by Facebook, but all of us who grew up here are linked by coffee driven conversations between our moms.
My reputation, and its reflection on my parents, is relevant to my decision-making, even now.
Thoughts of my fifteen-year-old self crept into every moment I considered quitting my job.
The night I pull the trigger on my resignation, I bump into a friend at a yoga class. A woman from my high school graduating class. She hugs me and asks how work is going. “Is it still overwhelming?”
I pause to create space, to stuff down the truth.
I dig into my teenage toolkit. I say something vague and non-committal, then do my best to change the subject, right away.
“Phew, that was a close one.”
Later, alone in my apartment, I relive the conversation with the integrity I should have brought to it the first time. The courage to answer honestly, without expectation of how she will respond. To set aside old hurt. To stand in my decision. To know it’s right.
The first person I tell is a friend who works the front desk at my yoga studio. She is sweet and open. I remember she told me she left a lucrative career in fashion to enhance her quality of life. I blurt out my news while frantically signing in for a noon class, standing in a khaki suit, wrinkled from my court appearance, earlier that morning.
She lights up with surprise and excitement. “I’m so happy for you.”
“Yes, I can do this.”
At first, I limit the scope of the announcement to the four walls of Zuda yoga. In every exchange, I am met with an abundance of affirmation. Soon, people initiate the conversation with me. “Hey, I heard that…” “Is it true you’re…?”
I marvel at their sincerity, support and positivity.
Fueled by the energy of my yoga community, I take it to the streets. My anxiety peaks while nervously reviewing the menu at a trendy midtown lunch spot, seated at an intimate two-person table, face-to-face with my family law mentor.
“This is worse than telling my dad.”
We’ve shared a few good-vibes text messages, but I remain skeptical, braced for the storm. Over the last six months, this man has dedicated countless hours to teaching me how to be a lawyer, run a law firm, interview clients and enhance my professional network. Hours he could have spent billing clients, or hanging out with his wife. He put his full faith in my ability, handed me the keys to a kingdom, and asked simply that I do my best to not screw it up.
“So.” He breaks the silence. “What’s going on with you?”
I breathe in an “oh shit” and bravely begin to explain myself.
With wisdom, compassion, and his trademark humor, he offers his unconditional support. He does little to question my maturity, or sanity. He does just enough to assure me that our relationship will endure, and the kingdom will survive.
When lunch is over, I’m ready to tell everyone I know.
My co-workers, my clients, my former classmates. People who never pictured me as a lawyer, and others who only know me as one.
One, bold, moment, at a time, I reveal my truth.
Where I expect skepticism and judgement, I experience validation and love. Where I fear rejection and dismissal, I feel embraced, and lifted up. Where I struggle to be witnessed, I feel seen and heard.
The emotional residue is so potent, my fifteen year old self feels it. She learns that people can’t offer support if you don’t tell them why, or how, you need it. She sees that people only know your story, if you choose to tell it. She discovers that when you engage in an act of personal bravery, you give people the opportunity to accept you, just the way you are.
It becomes clear that if you know what to listen for, there are beautiful expressions of love, in things people say.