I don’t know how you’ve kept from becoming a hard, bitter person with what you’ve gone through, the comment reads. It takes me a second to orient to what aspect of my history they’re talking about. In this case, it’s in response to an essay I wrote about a common bargain I made re: religion in my adolescence, and particularly this line:
“I don’t care what you say you are,” my mother would say. “You’re confirmed, so you’re a Catholic. Now and forever. There’s no taking it back. No becoming anything else.”
It probably says something that it’s not evident to me what someone is talking about when they talk about what I’ve gone through. The way my mother refuses to acknowledge my identity — any of my identities, my religion, sure, but also my personality, sexual orientation, pretty much anything that differs from her (and there is a lot) — I suppose when taken collectively does make the top 10.
But there’s so much more there that’s been more pressing. Abuse (in childhood and later in a romantic relationship), the couch-surfing that followed, subsequent poorly timed traumas, a rough first marriage and subsequent divorce, etc.
A lot has happened, yes. But no, I’m not bitter. Something helpful of course is that these days life is good. I’ve struggled and suffered to get here, but these days I have a life that the person I was 10 or 20 years ago would have thought was impossible.
That really does help. It’s interesting actually — because sometimes people assume that if I’m writing about dark past experiences, it means I’m stuck there. That I haven’t gotten over them. But I’ve found it to be quite the opposite. The reason why I’m able to discuss difficult experiences I’ve had — and especially in public — is because I’m in a much better place.
But it does beg the question: How did I get here? Why did I not turn bitter and sink into darkness? (At least not permanently, everyone flirts with self-pity and has a day or two when they lick their wounds.) Why did I keep fighting and trying to make the most of things?
The answer might be disappointing, but it’s the truth: I didn’t have the luxury of becoming bitter. I didn’t have a support system I could count on to take care of me if I collapsed. And I found that being bitter and giving up, or even simply trying to put off dealing with my problems indefinitely, actually made it so my problems became even worse. Not only did bitterness drive people away, it interfered with my ability to think straight and solve my problems.
And the only thing that seemed to help was accepting the difficulty as reality and then working on a way to move forward, without drowning in self-pity. Perhaps there would have been another way to do that, but I had the model of my grandmother. She managed to survive a situation that would have defeated other people. She raised four children, took care of a husband who had become disabled in the Korean War, and worked a full-time job supporting her family in 1960s rural Maine, a time and place where women generally didn’t do that.
She worked hard and struggled to make it work, all while the neighbors judged her for it.
That would have been enough to make most people bitter. But my grandmother is the sunniest woman I know. She has an electrifying smile. She could be positive during an apocalypse.
So maybe I inherited something in the gene pool from her, in how I respond to difficult situations. Or maybe I learned something from watching her.
But becoming bitter when bad things happened never seemed like a realistic option. And I do think that staying future oriented and positive — or at least neutral — helped me to push through the worst of it and find my people.
Fiction by Page Turner: