I was eating my breakfast at the table one morning when my son walked up and sat down next to me. I smiled and greeted him. “Good morning, Cutie.”

“Did you just call me Kitty?”

“No. I said, ‘good morning, Cutie’.”

How often have the things I have done or said been misinterpreted by others? My earliest memory of a misunderstanding was when I was three years old. I was tired and hungry, but I did not like what was being offered for lunch. I am positive my family thought I was being difficult. It just wasn’t in my vocabulary to say why I was upset.

When I was about five or six years old, I made a strange comment to my Sunday School teacher out of naivety, and it blew up quickly. It all started when my sister was pregnant with her first child. I was so excited to be an aunt (at the age of seven)!!!! In fact, I wanted to be an aunt as many times as possible. I thought that each time I became an aunt that I would become a greater aunt—you know, the first one makes me an aunt, but the second one makes me a great aunt. Well, my brother was dating a girl from our church, and I shared a thought that went something like this: “Matt and Shannon might make me a great aunt.” It was not long before my parents were questioning both my brother and me about his relationship with his girlfriend. They wanted to know what I knew. My brother was angry with me, and I was confused about why everyone was so upset. My lack of understanding led to a complicated misinterpretation of what I was actually saying.

Around the age of seven, my thoughts had turned against me, and I had overwhelming feelings of pain, fear, shame, and confusion. What does a child do with those big feelings when the world does not feel like a safe place? My answer was to begin self-harming. I needed the people around me to believe something false about why I always had an injury on my body—the intentional bruises, scraped knees and elbows, and random “owies.” Their interpretation? Obviously, I was clumsy.

By middle school, I was living in the guidance counselor’s office. He knew I was being bullied because it was being reported by other students. I refused to say who was bullying me, why I was being bullied, what was being said, and how much it hurt to be pinned against my locker by someone who enjoyed finding ways to inflict physical and emotional pain on me. I think the bullies enjoyed seeing how many bruises their beatings gave me. Bruises or not, I would never cry or allow my expression to betray my pain if I could help it. I needed everyone to believe something about me that was not true. I needed them to believe that I was unaffected.

In October of this year, I was reflecting on how much I still try to hide the extent of my pain and shame. I have always believed that I hide very well in plain sight. If my external appearance does not match my internal conflict, then I am protected in this unsafe world. My own curiosity about how well I hide led me to create a poll of sorts. On my personal Facebook page, I posted sixteen pictures and asked everyone to vote on the picture in which they thought I appeared to be happy. I did not have an answer when I asked, but I did know the context and feelings behind the pictures that I shared. Almost everyone was curious what I thought, so I took some time to reflect on each photo.

My sister voted for this picture because she said I was innocent—unhurt by what life was going to dish out. She was onto something when she said that. Perhaps I did not appear happy, but I was still innocent and unaffected by the cruel world I knew nothing about.

Twelve votes! This photo won by a landslide. Although you cannot see my eyes, you can see a side of me that appears free, fun-loving, and fully present with the joy I was experiencing in the moment. This was a week or two before my sophomore year of high school. My cross-country team had put in a hard week of running and was invited to the coach’s house to swim. I had my own pool at home and had people over all the time for pool parties. This was not a new experience for me, but it was fun anyway.

I was hospitalized for suicidal ideation in 2005 and immediately disenrolled from graduate school. My roommates packed up all my belongings in boxes for when I was discharged. My oldest brother rode with my parents so that he could help pack up my truck and drive me to Michigan to live with him while I recovered. Spending time with him and his family was one of the most positive experiences of my life. One morning, after a cup of coffee, I put a bandana on my head to go out to the barn. My six-year-old niece asked me for a bandana and then asked her mom if she could go out to the barn with me and play with the cats (all sixteen of them). My sister-in-law just had to take a picture before giving in and letting us play.

Oh, this diner . . . I avoid it at all costs now. This was a tough time. My life was being shaken up, and I was feeling so trapped, confused, ashamed, and afraid. I was living in a nightmare that I could not escape because, as upside down as my life already was, I was convinced it would only get worse if I told my truth.

Who doesn’t love a good 80s/90s pose? I was in the moment, but I was also trying to function during the same confusion, shame, and fear that I was overwhelmed by in the diner picture.

When I put this photo in the poll, I was thinking it was one of the times I had visited Florida. My time in sunny, warm Florida was full of activities: Disney World, Discovery Cove, jet skiing on Lake Worth, West Palm Beach’s beautiful sand and water, resorts, pools, poolside service, John G’s amazing waffles, and belly dancing at the Mai Kai. Florida was not where this picture was taken though. I have a green band on my wrist, and that means I was on my honeymoon in the Dominican Republic. It was all-inclusive. Tim and I did anything and everything we wanted to do, including snorkeling with sharks and hanging out on a sand bar in the middle of the ocean. Guys, this one only had two votes!

I am wearing a dress. In case that isn’t enough information, I hate wearing dresses. They make me so uncomfortable. I had the body confidence to pull this one off at the time, but I was also very insecure in every other way.

This picture had no votes, and in my opinion, it should not have any votes. I was horribly depressed, exercising excessively, eating around 400 calories a day, and constantly thinking about suicide. This was very close to the time I held a loaded pistol to my head and was interrupted as I was squeezing the trigger. I am aware that saying that has impact, but I also know that not too many people knew just how dark things were for me during this time, including my husband. I was not hospitalized until almost nine months later.

I think I look sad in this picture, but that isn’t to say that I was sad. I was discharged from the Psychological Institute of Washington on May 4, 2018 and started with a new therapist a few days later. My brother passed away unexpectedly on June 29, 2018. This picture was taken around October of that year. While it was a challenging year, the look on my face was more an expression of exhaustion. And my cat and I were very cold. The heat does not kick on in our house until the thermostat hits 55°.

I do not like having long hair. It gives me headaches, gets in my face, and makes me too hot. My hair had just been cut for the first time in too long. I was feeling kind of free and decided to stop at Lowe’s to see what kinds of plants, seeds, and supplies it had in its garden center. I have always loved gardening. There is something incredibly satisfying about playing in the dirt for several weeks and then picking the vegetables and fruit that you labored for. The idea of getting a haircut, being dirty, and eating fresh fruits and vegetables reminds me of summer, and I love summer.

This picture is not a depiction of one of my finer moments. It is an “after” picture. My dietician would have cringed if she knew I had taken this picture, put it next to the “before” picture, and showed it to people. I have a history of disordered eating and excessive exercise, and many of the people I have met in hospitals or treatment centers do too. Pictures like these can be triggering for people. Pictures like these can keep people like me sick. I probably felt “happy” about my “results,” but I was longing for something more.

Lockdown number one. The gym closed, but I was staying active. Who knows how many burpees I did on that day! I know it was a lot. About a week after this picture was taken, I checked into the hospital for three weeks. I had been struggling with feeling depressed, finding motivation, and using the resources I had to keep myself healthy. But, on this day, I managed to get myself moving and felt so much better when I was finished. Those burpees felt more like a long, slow exhale, and I was basking in the natural endorphins that my mind and body needed. My therapist said I looked “settled,” and quite a few other people voted for this photo. It took third place.

I showed up to work wearing my visor. That thing has been everywhere, and I have often referred to it as my “comfort hat.” When I want to hide, it is my go-to. Well, it was my go-to. This picture was taken in September 2020. In December 2020, just before leaving for Utah for ten weeks, I told myself I did not need my hat, and I have stuck to that (with one exception—see “When I’m Not Hiding, I Am Living”). If anyone catches me wearing any kind of hat, feel free to ask if I am trying to hide. Anyway, in the picture I am holding up a sticky note that someone sent me to thank me for my articles in the local quarterly newsletter. I once captioned it “needed that.”

No one thought I looked “happy” showing off my Holter monitor. I was not unhappy though. The expression on my face is authentic. Half of my face says, “I seriously have to wear this for seven days when I sweat like a cold glass of sweet tea on a hot summer day in Georgia?!” And let us not forget that my skin was irritated from the alcohol-soaked sandpaper that they scrubbed that spot with and extremely itchy because the thin layer of skin I had left was reacting to the adhesive. The other half of my face was total amusement with the entire situation.

Why not take a selfie while lying in bed? I had been reading a really good book, lost track of time, and missed the sleep window for the nap I wanted to take. So, I decided to lay there quietly for the remaining time I had carved out for myself. This was about one month after I had reflected on my intention to “engage.” I was happy with my progress. I also felt like something was missing in my life. In summary, my eyes were smiling, I was feeling lonely, and I was okay anyway.

In August of this year, I had to quit Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR). I was getting triggered and found it difficult to regulate my emotions in a healthy way, independent of outside help. My therapist did not think it was a good idea to continue with EMDR because she was concerned that I was being re-traumatized. I was re-traumatized. I had been hiding what was going on during and after sessions. I was trying to gut it out. This picture was taken about a month after that discussion with my therapist. We had a plan by this point, but I was pretty shaken up and still trying to figure out if therapy was ever going to help.

My Thoughts?

I was not counting on gaining what I did from my poll. Yes, I learned that I could fool a lot of people—or that I have fooled a lot of people. More importantly, I noticed how lonely my life has been by trying to fool people into thinking I was “happy” when I was saying and thinking some of the most awful things to and about myself.

“Happy” is non-specific and subjective, a concept without nuance. “Happy” is often synonymous with “not sad” or “not mad.” Which picture was I “happy” in? I have no idea. Probably all of them for one reason or another. But “happy” does not describe me in any of the pictures that I posted. Instead, I assigned a word to each one. Not all the words are positive emotions words, but the words and pictures represent times in my life, like it or not, that have meaning and purpose.

  1. Innocent
  2. Joyful
  3. Grateful
  4. Confused
  5. Compliant
  6. Relaxed
  7. Uncomfortable
  8. Hopeless
  9. Exhausted
  10. Content
  11. Proud
  12. Calm
  13. Appreciative
  14. Amused
  15. Lonely
  16. Apathetic

I did not know when I asked the question that it would end up being a trick question. It took some self-discovery, a few questions, a discussion with another person, and a lot of self-reflection to realize that “happy” was what I wanted to appear to be, but I had no idea what that meant. What if my goal in life was to be “happy and healthy”? Or what if I just wanted my son to be happy? What does that even mean?!

Why would I choose to appear “happy” or “fine” when what I needed was to be understood? It would be incredible to be able to feel like garbage and never feel an ounce of guilt, shame, or embarrassment for saying it, even if it was the thirty-fifth day in a row. Appearing happy or fine when I am not is protective. It always has been. It is how I have survived the world up to this point.

But, for nearly twelve months now, my intention has been to engage, because I cannot fully connect with anyone if they do not understand me. I have been treating my life as though it is a misheard, misunderstood, or misinterpreted morning greeting. My son is not a kitty. He is a cutie. I am not happy. I am so much more than that. Or, maybe, I am just me.

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