Disclaimer: there is no “real world”, nor is academia really separate from anything else.
Academia has been my safe space for nine years. Or all my life really. School is just pre-academia, a formatting that, should your personality match, encourages you to keep going, keep learning. Home, with a Doctor of Philosophy for a father, has always been an extension of the classroom – not in an austere, live-by-the-bell sort of way (though it was at times), but in a stimulating, you-can-learn-from-everything way. Game shows are not a waste of time but an opportunity to learn and memorise more. So that has been my whole life. And now it’s over.
My fears? To no longer be stimulated. No more deadlines, no more piles of articles and secondary literature to read. No more Jstor or Project Muse, no more abstracts to learn from in under 3 minutes, no more critical theories. But I never got to make an effort with Derrida! or Barthes! and I missed the class on marxism… I’ll never be able to join those conversations now it seeems. Then there are the Shakespeare plays I never read; not enough on postcolonial studies; what about in-depth black feminism? I’ve learned a lot, but somehow it doesn’t feel enough. And so leaving that world behind… am I really ready?
Of course I am. I’m just hiding behind the safety of what I know. Of a system I know the inner workings of – what to do to get top marks, that 3 half-days are anough for 4000 words on the American West, that bringing Beyoncé into seminar conversations sounds good, just the right amount of recherché. I can read Keats in any of the greats and vice-versa, I’ve mastered essay-writing and can teach it to others.
Now what? The real world. Where my skills, really, are irrelevant. Or rather my detailed knowledge – Selfhood in Shakespeare, Sisterhood in The Colour Purple. The real world: new codes a different system, a whole new set of rules. Will I know how to play? Can they tell I’m a novice? Will I relive the awkwardness of teenage years, when I struggled to find my place, my way of being? Just as I had finally stoppped pretending, felt legitimate in my capacitites and skills – here we go again.
Excelling, for free, with my own satisfaction at stake was fun. Now they pay me: I have to show something for it.
There are words that hurt. Selfish is a destroyer for me. And it’s taken me a long time to understand why. While I am a generous, sometimes (borderline) sacrificial person, I think this makes me strong, and so it’s not what shapes my pain at the root. It actually runs deeper and earlier.
As a child, I was denied individuality. Motions to do things for myself were swept aside, seen as signs of weakness. If I expressed a desire to sit out of a group activity, it was made clear to me that then leaving me alone was punishment, exclusion. It was proof of my selfishness that I would rather have time alone than join in. Lila, the selfish one. That is how, through instances of punishment for individual thinking, the mechanism was installed.
Since then, I have been acutely aware that my duty is to others, to the family unit. Wanting something, anything, for myself is only a weakness, punishable, to be silenced and hidden at all costs. I have therefore developed a disregard for myself, my needs and desires; as a result turning me into an efficient family/team/couple member, always putting others first. But that game ends up with me in pain, feeling repressed and unworthy.
So now that I understand, why don’t I just move on and be an individual ? Guilt. Guilt is the answer. Guilt and fear that I’m letting others down, that I’m being selfish. For standing up for myself, for being honest, for having emotions, for expressing them. Because now, in my head, there’s always a voice, a cycle of thoughts that’s ashamed of my individuality, at the imagined cost of others’ comfort and joy.
I’ve started a process of recovery. I’m in the early steps. Of removing that voice, acknowledging it’s not mine but a childhood fear, that I can leave it behind. I’ve started to feel how rich a person I am. How the woman I am becoming deserves her own space, her free time, to have her voice heard, to not be scared.
So when you call me selfish, or self-involved, I cringe, I hurt, and scramble to self-efface, to have my presence forgotten because the voice inside says I’ve failed at my duties again.
That’s why I sing. That’s why I ask – where’s the room for my self love? Wouldn’t I do well to put myself first? Shouldn’t you, who are by my side, celebrate that?
Selfish is a word that hurts, and I hope now you understand. You wouldn’t tell me I have too much self love, would you?
17 billion universes, in each of which I am a thousand possibilities. I carry in me the seeds for a hundred women to flower.
Yet I am afraid. As if a single uncontrolled step might condemn me to a vertiginous kaleidoscope of errors. I reside in a fear that traps me. It is unforgiving. Unrelenting. And so I chase respite, anything to keep the numbing terror at bay. I sing, I sweat, dance to the beat of the drums, drink, weep, stare danger in the eye. I also surround myself with strangers and delve into the depths of friendships. Too much. Too soon. I crave discovery, new, safe touch. I want to be discovered, understood.
I should know better.
Still, the one consistency – I need to be needed. Without a target to aim for, in the service of others, I doubt myself. Isn’t that the only way I know I’m alive?
Meanwhile, in another universe –
Pretty, curly, shy girl in the sun. Always a glass in hand, too ready to drink, forget. Pretty girl who’s too kind, too soft, yet oh so strong. Pretty girl in the eye of the storm. Chaos all around, she drags her pain, chained to her feet. Yet she’s a fighter. Pretty girl packs a punch, isn’t afraid to bite. She just wishes she didn’t self-harm, and destroyed the bad guys instead. Pretty girl wishes she were rocked to sleep, held tight and kept warm at all times. Could you read her mind? If so, she wants you on her team. Exchanging of looks, silent vibrations, communication is key. Curly girl wants to be understood. Never to disappear is all she asks.
Pretty, curly girl needs to rest. But will she wake? Or let another take her place, another universe, another pretty girl?
Today I write. Pick up my pen, later I’ll type, and get to show you a piece of my mind. I write; this is my power, my craft. I am empowered – by words, but also by my mind, my body – as by my choices, my struggles and my skills. All this I have had to learn – tread my own path, pause, return to understand, and inch forward, on and on, slowly, yet, now I know, surely.
I am a woman, and yes, it matters. While I used to think it was more important to find/be my unembodied self, my essence, my soul…now I see how valid, and valuable, my body is. Not something to be brushed aside while I try to make my mind shine. No, I have a body, a physicality, which I choose to use to enhance my performance of myself as Lila.
With this realisation, another is truly vital: my body ismine.And oh how I regret not owning it sooner. It started with pulling my hair into clean, tidy rows, to hide its “kinks”, “unruly” curls, and “unkemptness”. No. My hair will not answer your expectations and beauty “standards” anymore. Let these curls bounce around my face and reflect the complexity of my soul. I am unashamed.
Next comes the pain my body goes through and the blind eye I turned on its needs. No longer will I force my cramp-wracked self to get on trains, to write out tests, to function as if I were a result-oriented machine. When I bleed, I will take my time, and let the world go on while I observe my own essential cycles. We are allowed times of rest, times of reflection and of self-developement.
In my relationships with others, I will no longer hide or aim to melt into the background. I will use my voice, whether on stage, at your dinner table, in class or in the doctor’s office. You will no longer forget me; my presence will be heard. My thoughts are to be shared or kept to myself ifIso choose. My opinions are worthy of acknowledgement. Whether silent or loud, noisy, even “too out there”, I have arrived.
Finally, there are questions of the flesh. I aimed to please, realise others’ desires. I let myself be taken and I gave up ownership of myself. I even ignored rape, telling myself it was my duty, a normal, common compromise to make. The tides have turned. I nearly drowned, but held on, to tell the tale. The hurt is real, the scars visible – these I will not hide either. Used to catering to a partner’s needs, my own are now screaming back. In no hoarse voice, my desires speak their hunger, unafraid to lie back, spread out, grab by the horns or refuse to let in. They are recognised and legitimised. I will continue to explore, choose my bedfellows and revel in the freedom of consent.
I said “finally”, but I’m not done. The state of affairs in my mind is far from settled. You have seen me burst into tears – that was loss, death. You heard about the hospital – that was wanting to die,envisioning suicide. Perhaps you’ve seen me swallow pills – that’s for anxiety, keeping vertigo at bay, to stop being scared. You know my sisters, see my parents – maybe guess at the weight of responsibility I feel, the pain I felt at keeping silent. My mental health is far from trivial, it calls to be shared.
I am a woman, and I’m still learning. This here is in no way anexplanationof my flaws, difficulties and bumpy journey. It is aproclamation. To you, reader, I declare my existence, take pride in its complexity and in my resulting self. I ask for help in keeping up, for challenges to my reasoning, I ask to hear your stories, to share your plight. As I look up to Yoncé, take interest in Gaga, read Adichie, write about Butler, follow Laverne Cox and dream of still-silent sheroes, I know I exist at a magical, rich, awesome time. I need not keep back or be afraid. I am a woman, and it matters.