Before I met my husband no one would have ever considered me to be an optimist. My heart was stuck in my miserable past, and although I tried to let it go, memories drug me down.
My dreams were minuscule and short term. Turn in that paper, make my bed, don’t say anything that would get me in trouble. Every morning began with a litany of pitfalls to avoid. You would have thought I’d learn, but no, I’d fall into the same trap over and over.
Before my family moved to California, my brother and I discovered that the community colleges were affordable That was when my dreams of getting a degree began to formulate. I had no idea what I would study. I saw it as a way out. An opportunity to break free of the bonds that tied me to people seldom showed love or compassion.
Every class I took for the next three years was chosen to get me into college. I had no idea how I’d pay tuition as I had never worked. When an opportunity arose to make some money, I seized it with both hands. Night after night I sat at the scorekeeper’s table at the local bowling alley and kept score for league competitions. The bowlers paid well, but when they saw that I was studying while keeping score, they paid me more. Then when asked if I was intending to go to college, they gave me more. Over the course f two years I save up enough for a year’s tuition and books.
I needed my counselor’s recommendation to be sent to colleges. She told me that I lacked the skills to succeed. That I would fail out after one semester. Considering that I already had low self-esteem, she sent me deeper into the basement. I cried for days.
One morning I woke up with a new feeling: determinination. I would enroll in college. I would take courses that would count when I transferred to a four-year-university. I would prove that she was wrong.
It was hard to maintain that optimism as my family situation had not changed and I still had no friends. I was a geeky kid, one of those weirdos who don’t fit in any group. I wasn’t pretty as my father had repeated told me. I was smart, but not as smart as my brother as my mother reminded me. I wore hand-me-down clothes, shoes that were too big and had a hairdo that was ancient.
The State of California gifted me a full-ride scholarship to any in-state college. I was happy, but not buoyant. In my mind the fear still lurked that the counselor was right, that I didn’t have the academic skills to succeed.
My parents wouldn’t let me go away to college the first year, so I enrolled at a community college. I had never been a good student of English. I loved to read, but it seemed that I was unable to perceive what others did from the literature. In fact, it was as if I had read completely different books. I could write papers that got good grades, but didn’t understand how to analyze written word.
After getting two miserable grades in my first college English class, I began to believe that the counselor was right. I dropped the class. However, my Spanish professor told me I was too advanced for any classes at the college! My spirits lifted a tiny bit.
I got a job at a clothing store. Big mistake. What shopper would listen to a lower-class employee clearing wearing used clothes? No one. I was fired after a week. Spirits fell.
Then the local KFC hired me even though I knew nothing about cooking. Working the counter was intimidating. I was so shy that speaking to strangers was challenging. I felt inferior every day. The customers dressed better, spoke clearer and knew what they wanted. I lacked all of those skills.
As time passed, however, I learned the job. I was excellent at making coleslaw and excellent at strawberry pie. I kept things clean and was polite and respectful. My confidence took a step up the ladder.
I transferred to USC in the fall. My parents moved to southern California in order to keep me close. Another KFC hired me at the first interview. Another step up the ladder.
When I arrived in my dorm I was filled with excitement as this was my first time away from home. When my roommate arrived with her personal maid and boxes and boxes of brand-new clothing, I realized I was out of my element. I was the white-trash girl trying to blend in with the ultra-rich. Down to the bottom I slid.
My life was one big board game: up two steps, down ten, slide two to the right, down, then up. Meanwhile emotionally I was frozen in time. I passed all my classes, earning excellent grades, but never totally lost the fear of failure. I was a loner. Sitting by myself in the cafeteria. Spending night after night alone.
Imagine watching groups of laughing friends on campus wishing you could join in. Picture yourself in class when discussion or group projects are assigned and no one wants you in the group. That was me.
After college I was forced to move back home as I had nowhere else to go. I was back to being inferior to my siblings. Back to being ridiculed by my parents. Back to being treated like an imbecile. What good feelings I had had disappeared.
It took months to find a job, but when I did, the first thing I did was buy a car. I needed my dad’s signature. The car I wanted he wouldn’t let me have because I was stupid. Instead I ended up with a Ford Pinto, an awkwardly shaped car. But I got to choose the color so I went with the one my dad hated: bumble bee colors. Hah. An act of rebellion.
Over time things opened up for me, but I still lacked confidence. One positive was that I made a friend at work. Another was that I did have a few dates.
I switched to a government job making enough money to get my own apartment. For the first time I was in charge of my life. I ate what I wanted. Drove around wherever I wanted. Watched what I wanted on television. Listened to my music and sang as loudly as I wanted without fear of being teased. Life was good and so my self-esteem soared.
I became a positive person because I was over being negative. It took work to make the change. I had to constantly remind myself, reset goals, reward myself when I felt good.
It was during this period that I me the man who would become my husband. He exuded confidence. Not in an over-the-top way, but in an I-know-who-I-am way. The attraction was immediate. I wanted to be like him and thought if I hung out with him at work his buoyant spirit would rub off.
It took time, but he taught me to love myself, reminded me that I was lovable, and kept me away from negative, overpowering people. He beloved in himself and then believed in me. Through him I learned that I could do many things.
Recently I was reading about a different kind of therapy for depressed individuals. Instead of dwelling on the past, which cannot be changed, look to the future and try to see yourself there. What would you want to be doing? Thinking? Feeling?
Patients were encouraged to write about future selves. Guess what happened? Over time attitudes changed and they began to see brighter days ahead.
If only I could have worked with someone like this. It would not have taken twenty-five years for me to be able to see the good in myself.
I try not to see the negative in people and want to believe that there is good in everyone. However, when I do encounter someone who drags me down, instead of blaming myself, I move away. Rapidly.
This is what positivity gives you: an ability to walk in your own shoes away from negative people. Let them be miserable in their own world: keep them out of mine.
Life is easier, too, when those you have chosen to be with echo the feelings you want to cherish in yourself. Life is too precious not to be positive. I will hold that thought dear to my heart.
Terry, this is a powerful, moving and brilliant essay. Have you thought about sending it out? Maybe California Writers Club?