Posted by fxckfeelings on December 28, 2017Share This Post
Finding stability after an especially shaky period is a major and worthwhile achievement, but it may leave you feeling a new kind of uncertainty, stranded between troubled old friends who know you well and well-balanced new friends who would be totally thrown if they learned about your past. Gaining respectability, however, doesn’t require you to hide your past or get approved by other respectable types; instead, decide for yourself whether your efforts have helped you become a decent, independent person. If you respect what you’ve done with your life then you can insist on finding solid friends, whether you have a solid past or not.
Due to a combination of bad luck, poor decisions and generally reckless behavior, I went through a difficult patch in my late teens/early 20s. A brief highlights tour: abortion, severe depression, being broke, sex work, failing out of college…all in all, it was shitty. Ten years later and I’ve gotten a degree, a good therapist, some success in a far-less-shady line of work…I’ve even gotten engaged to a very nurturing and wonderful man. The problem is that these two realities—my past and my present—are so at odds with each other that it’s becoming increasingly hard for me to deal with. For example, having lost a lot of friends during the bad years, I have recently started trying to make new ones with colleagues I really like and would like to be closer to, but having to hide the details of my past/“double life” means they’ll always be at a distance. The same thing applies to my fiancé’s family, since knowing about my past will make them both wary of me and create difficulties for him. Even my long-time friends (who know my history) are reluctant to talk about the topic, and now that I’ve recently started experiencing flashbacks and panic attacks about that time, it does hurt that I can’t seem to confide in them about the practical problems that I am currently facing. I am functioning quite well about 75% of the time, but my moods can be unstable and at the times when I see this situation stretching out of me for the rest of my life I feel, frankly, almost as depressed as I did in the bad old days, despite being happy and extremely grateful about how well things have turned out. My goal is to A, find some way of making peace with my past and B, figure out some way of sharing my experiences with friends in a way that is appropriate but lessens my feelings of loneliness.
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Before getting bogged down in shame about everything that went wrong in your unpleasant, traumatic, and stigmatized past, ask yourself what you did wrong, according to your own standards. Forget about whether your middle class friends might be bothered or shocked now, or whether you were unhappy or down on yourself at the time.
Instead, note whether, through all of that chaos, you still treated people decently, worked hard to make a good effort to support yourself when you were broke, and tried to help others and be a decent person. Judge yourself as you would a friend, asking yourself, not whether you were perfect, but as good as was reasonably possible.
Then examine the effort that allowed you to move forward and change your life, tearing yourself away from addictive relationships with destructive people and forcing you to endure a long period of loneliness and uncertainty before you could find new friends and a new world. If necessary, get a therapist who won’t just ask you about your old trauma or explore why you’re anxious and depressed, but who will push you harder to focus on your own standards and considerable achievements, regardless of how you feel, and what you’re doing to meet them in the present.
Once you judge your past more objectively using the fairer standards that you apply to friends, you’ll be able to give yourself more credit than grief. Unfortunately, neither self-assessment nor reliving your feelings will necessarily make depressed or anxious feelings go away; even if you understand their roots and share your feelings with others, anxiety and depression tend to persist and have their ups and downs, regardless of what you do to control them. So don’t regard them as a curse from your past but as an undeserved burden that may have been a cause as much as a result of your former troubles, and that you must now try to ignore as you build your future.
Yes, treatment may help, including medication; but the most important thing is to reject the idea that your current symptoms are evidence of weakness or punishment for mistakes, and instead see them for what they are, a form of misfortune that you will not let run your life.
Once you’ve decided where you really stand about your old life, even if your feelings remain painful and critical, prepare a need-to-know statement for describing your prior experience that lacks shame and apology. Begin with the positive by describing your pride in pulling yourself out of a life you felt was destructive or limited, describing any special challenges you had to deal with as you left home and began living on your own. If you want to provide details, go ahead, but focus on what you were trying to accomplish and not on your worst moments or on trauma that you did not deserve.
Remember, feeling shame, guilt or helplessness is normal, but expressing those feelings may cause you and others to believe you’re less stable and strong than you are and cause real damage. Your feelings and past need not be a secret, but your principles and real accomplishments—the things that truly define you—are too worthwhile to hide.
“When I think of my old life of poverty and sex work, I’m haunted by traumatic memories, shame, and anxiety. I know that bad feelings and symptoms from trauma don’t necessarily go away, even though I’ve done everything possible to make my life better and safer. However, I will remind myself and others that I’m a good, strong person and my experience with a different life has given me a unique perspective and understanding of human nature as well as a special pride in how far I’ve come and what I’ve been able to achieve.”
More advice from Dr. Lastname