A Mantra to Live By
For example, though I was briefly raised Catholic, it did not work on me to go to church and pray, or to believe in a god that would let priests fondle children. It did not work on me to obey my father as the head of my family, since he was the origin of our abuse. It did not work on me to tell me to go to school and work hard, because it had exactly zero impact on my life at home. It did not work on me to be punished, nor did it work to be praised, since in my house those two things had been monstrously conflated.
Loving my mother didn't help because, loving as she was, she also began to drink, and thus she created her own drowning waters. It did not, in any way, help me to imagine believing in something like a hero who would come and save me. No one was going to come and save me. This is a fact that some of us had to figure out how to live with, or not. That's the thing about misfits. We can't fit the stories of who we are supposed to be, nor can we fit the stories that society makes for us to be okay in the world, so we have to invent our own stories or die trying. You might say we invent whole alternative belief systems.
I remember my first day of kindergarten in Washington state quite vividly. My mother drove me to school, walked me to the classroom and left me sobbing by the coat racks. The teacher nearly dragged me to a table of strangers and sat me down hard. I continued my wailing. The teacher raised her voice and brought her hand down hard on the table in front of me. By that time, I was crying so hard I was hiccupping. So, she marched me back over to the coat racks for something like a time-out, the other kids staring at me like I was an alien the entire time, all of them silent and obedient.
I remember how the coats smelled. They smelled like outside. I remember all the colors and textures of those coats like it was yesterday. Corduroy and navy blue wool. Red ski parkas and a white raincoat. The coats calmed me. I couldn't make this sentence then, but the feeling was in me already: I have more in common with these coats than I do with those creatures over there at the tables.
When I stopped crying and hyperventilating, the teacher marched me back to the table where five or so kids sat quietly drawing trees. She put a piece of paper in front of me and told me to draw a tree. When she walked back to her desk, I calmly selected a giant purple crayon and scrawled a giant purple line across the entire table as hard as I could.
Maybe I wanted to get out of that room. Maybe "school" terrified me, as nearly everything outside my home did at that time.
Or maybe my purple line was a cry for help, as in, My house is not safe; my life terrifies me. Can't anyone hear me? I'm crying as hard as I can.
There were other indicators in my life that suggested trouble ahead: Between the ages of 4 and 10, I ate nonnutritive things. Like dirt and paper and small stones and pennies. The clinical term for this is pica disorder.
As a kid, I missed quite a few developmental stages—I didn't speak out loud for a good long time, much later than child psychologists and doctors suggest, I wet my pants through sixth grade, and I couldn't ride a bike until I was 25.
I am the daughter of an abusive father whose house I had narrowly escaped with my life.
I have two epically failed marriages under my belt.
I've flunked out of college not once, but twice, and maybe even a third time.
I've been through one episode of drug rehab and two brief stints incarcerated. I've also been homeless.
I'm not a deviant. Or a loser. Or a criminal. I'm someone who "missed" fitting in.
Perhaps that list is mapping out the fault lines of a life, but can't we admit that everyone on the planet carries fault lines in their lives, so isn't there a way to see the echo effect of all our vulnerabilities inside the stories of our lives? Our vulnerability makes us most human, most beautiful, most like each other.
If there's one phrase that I should probably tattoo on my forehead it is this: I'm not the story you made of me. The more people I can persuade to hold that mantra, the more I'll have been of good use in my life. We don't have to accept the stories we inherit, the ones that tell us who we're supposed to be. We can stand up and say no at any point, even if we've been saying yes our entire lives. It's never too late. We can always reject the story placed on top of us, and we can always revise and destroy one story and restore another. It's a never-ending possibility.
This adapted excerpt was taken from The Misfit's Manifesto, by Lidia Yuknavitch. Yuknavitch is also the author of The Book of Joan, Dora: A Headcase and the memoir The Chronology of Water. Her TED Talk, "The Beauty of Being a Misfit," has nearly 2 million views.