I just read this line in a book: You belong before you behave.
The context is a story about a teenage girl in and out of foster homes because she was rejected whenever she couldn’t behave. Then one day, she was adopted by a family who kept her despite all the ways she tested their patience and love and acceptance of her. They told her she was their daughter and she belonged before she behaved.
I never felt like I belonged in my immediate family growing up. I heard my dad say, “Why can’t you just behave?” what felt like every day. When teachers praised what a smart and kind and wonderful student I was, he asked, “Why can’t you be this child at home?”
I remember arguing with him on the way to church as a teenager one time where I said, “Why is it you only pay attention to me when I am doing something wrong and you ignore me the rest of the time?”
He said, “When you’re behaving, it feels like the best thing to do is to leave you alone.”
I started crying.
I am only worth noticing when I need to be reprimanded. Called an idiot or a moron. Told to sit down and shut up. Slapped. Put back in my place. Reminded I can never do anything right and that any opinion different from his is wrong, invalid, and my voice and feelings do not matter.
After college, I moved back in with him, Ben, and Caleb with the plan to stay there while I saved up to move out on my own. Not three weeks later, I told him I was moving in with June because I was tired of fighting with him about every little thing and said we’d get along better at a distance.
“This wouldn’t be necessary if you’d just learn how to behave yourself.”
You would belong here if only you could behave.
As a kid, I spent nearly every weekend with June, Lib, and Brophy. Often, Mama, Daddy, and Adam would go out to eat or to the movies and it always felt to me like, Ahh, we can finally be a family without Amy around.
If I stayed home, nothing happened and I’d say or do something wrong and get yelled at. I was the troublesome child, Adam was the peaceful, easy child. I was the burden. I’ve mentioned the letters I’ve found that Mama still has of me saying how deeply sorry I was that I just couldn’t be the perfect child, that I couldn’t earn their love or approval.
So I went back to June’s where at least she, for the most part, loved me and accepted me and allowed me to be who I was and who didn’t reject me when I tested her love, patience, acceptance, and faith in me. I belonged to her just as I was.
I was so fortunate to have June. Even in that shithole of a house with the constant fighting, incredibly deep dysfunction, and constant disapproval of my body and weight by the men and feelings of self-digust as they leered at me and touched me inappropriately, I had June.
June loved and stood up for me. Even when she knew I was the one in the wrong, she found an angle to defend me with my parents.
When I was 16, she wanted to adopt me as her daughter so I could get Social Security benefits to help her pay for my school stuff, groceries, and etc. because she was retired and her income was limited.
We even went to court. And in the courtroom, June told the judge (who, for some reason, continuously called me by my middle name, Michelle, the whole time), “Amy has never felt like either of her parents love her.”
I cringed so deeply at hearing my most vulnerable words spoken out loud in front of this judge and my parents. I felt almost betrayed.
My dad, never one to want to look bad in front of others, said he could not let June adopt me because I was his daughter. Oh so now I belong to you?
In the parking lot outside, my mom said, “I am fine with it because Amy’s always been more like my sister anyway.”
I told June I couldn’t let her adopt me. I already physically felt like I didn’t belong to my family; I didn’t want to legally no longer belong to it. She was pretty hurt by the whole thing but I had been hurting over it nearly my entire life. In a lot of ways, I am still hurting over it.
It is a running “joke” that Mama gave birth to me and handed me to June to raise.
I am nearly 36 years old and I still fight to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance.
I still feel so often like an outsider.
I sit upstairs at my job at work while my coworkers, minus the main attorney I work for, sit downstairs. When my boss is out of the office and I am alone upstairs, I hear all of them downstairs chatting and laughing and I feel so alone and isolated.
When they talk about their husbands and kids and all the fun stuff they do together, I feel isolated again because John works nights and is off while I am at work and vice versa. When we are home together, we just watch tv and go to bed. We haven’t had more than a day off together since the very beginning of the year. We are essentially two ships passing in the night.
I cried at work this week because John signed another annual lease for our apartment where we are physically isolated from everyone. Atlanta is 25 miles away. My job in Woodstock is 22 miles away. Everything is drive away.
But in all of this, I feel like I have to be a certain person to people to belong with them. I feel like I am just expected to “deal” with whatever changes come along. I still feel like my feelings, thoughts, voice don’t really matter. I continue to struggle to feel good in my body that is heavier and doesn’t look like other women’s bodies.
I put my needs and desires on the back burner in my marriage because I don’t want to feel alone and I don’t want to be considered selfish or a burden. Guess what? I just feel more alone and then angry at myself for putting my life on hold.
In church, both when I was single and when John and I lived together before we got married, it felt I didn’t behave accordingly to belong in church. The singles group felt like high school all over again, and we weren’t allowed in the married group unless we were legally married, and I (not we, I) was told we couldn’t even belong to God because he “couldn’t bless what he couldn’t condone.”
I know I am loved, accepted, and wanted around just as I am, but I just can’t accept this and stop feeling and thinking that I would belong if I could just behave accordingly. If I could just say and do the right things, be prettier and thinner and more creative and more determined and smarter, all those things I thought I needed to be growing up for Mama to want to be seen out in public with me and for Daddy to finally love me and be proud of me.
I can’t even seem to belong to myself without unrealistic standards. I have so deeply embodied all of the criticism I received growing up so I isolate myself and my love, acceptance, and grace for myself from myself.
And I don’t know how to stop this, but feeling so sad and burnt out and isolated all of the time is exhausting. How do others see me as joyful when I feel so ugly and broken and negative inside?
How do I stop suffering so much while also minimizing this pain by shaming myself for feeling it when others experience so much worse? It’s such a sick and sad cycle that I can’t seem to get off of.
I always feel like I am just one mistake, one request, one wrong move away from actually being completely on my own instead of just always feeling so completely alone.