Must I be the ghostly girl?

My narcissistic mother and cruel father left me fearful and in pain. Yet I want to love and do my art!

By Cary Tennis
Published April 26, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Hi Cary,

I have been reading your column for the last year and it has helped me a lot. Your insights have deeply inspired me. Thank you!

Please forgive me if I make some mistakes in this letter, English is not my native language.

I had a troubled upbringing and my teenage years were hell. My relationship with my parents was a nightmare. My mother was very violent, controlling, manipulative and volatile. I suspect now that she has narcissistic personality disorder. I spent most of my time as a child being afraid of her, trying my best to be invisible to her, but when I hit puberty I became extremely rebellious. She had a very clear idea of who I should be as a person. I had to fight very hard to keep being myself, and I have had to fight even harder not to feel worthless by being me. Even now, after a lot of years, when she is in a rage she tells me I am nothing just because I don't fit in with her ideas of success. I have very limited contact with her for sake of my sanity.

My father was indifferent and distant. I only had two serious conversations with him in my whole life: One of them was when he told me I was dressed as a slut when I was 17 to which I answered with a lecture in feminism! The other one was when I told him I was going to be an artist and he told me I was going to starve.

I had a terrible fight with him once; I was 16 at the time, I had been granted permission for the first time to go to a party till 1 a.m., but on the way back my friend's car broke down and I arrived one hour late. My father tried to grab me by the hair and hit me without even trying to talk to me. I responded, trying to hit him back. He realized he was not going to be able to beat me up so he just told me he was going to kill me one day. I laughed and left. I almost never talked to him again. I didn't even go to his funeral.

I had a sort of a breakdown after that fight with my father but it was a good breakdown. Before it, I had been drinking a lot and I had become a destructive party girl. I was reading very dark books, I was bulimic and I had two suicide attempts. But something changed that night: I moved away from home, volunteering in an NGO for a year, I changed my friends, I stopped drinking, and for the first time I experienced harmony and I started feeling love for myself.

When I came back with my family I decided to just shut up till I was 18 and then go away, be who I wanted to be, an artist, which is what I did.

Since my 18th birthday when I arrived in London with a bag and 100 pounds I have traveled a big part of the world, I have lived in many different countries, I put myself through school waiting tables, I became a photographer, I got married, I got divorced, you know, life.  And it was good, but somehow I realized I was still running away, hiding, not building longtime relationships anywhere. I realized I was running like hell from depression; as soon as I started feeling bad I would change cities, getting a huge adrenaline rush and energy from the new challenges.

I got tired of not building anything for the long run; everything was so transient, I was sad to always leave friends and lovers behind. My career was suffering terribly, too. I thought about going back to my native Mexico. I went for a few months but decided it was too close to my mother, so I decided to come back to my favorite city in Spain, and do the hardest thing I have had to do, to try to settle down, to try to be seen, to stop being a runaway ghost, to build a home, the home I never had.

I have been here for two years now. It has been great on one side. I found the most amazing man in the world and we are getting married this year. I found friends who are creative, loving and happy, whom I love. I feel I have achieved building the home I always wanted, I am so happy living here, I love this city, and all the people that surround me. On the other side I went through the worst depression I have had in a long time. I couldn't work, or some days even speak. I went to therapy, I worked on myself a lot, I got better. But I still have a lot of ups and downs, and when I am down I want to get out of here, abandon my boyfriend, become a ghost with no responsibilities.

The pain sometimes is so intense I want to cut myself. It feels like it would give me the same release I would have if I moved somewhere where no one knows me. I feel I live either in an extreme of wanting to be loved, seen and cared or wanting to disappear entirely. But I WANT TO BE HERE! I want to live, I want to love and create!

I have found working is especially challenging. I want to become one day a photographer that transmits something to someone, or a lot of ones! I want my work to connect me with other souls. I need to photograph people, I need them to see me and let me in. I feel like I am about to finally start expanding, to start doing the work I want to ... and then I freeze. After watching it for a while I realize that what is stopping me is FEAR. Crippling fear. As soon as I have to show my soul I get paralyzed, I want to disappear and I want people not to see me. I am so afraid of people not liking me, that they think I am pathetic, I am afraid that I will always feel like a loser. I am always about to start being me and then I fall. I have a lot of problems producing work. I am creative, I have felt it inside me since I was a child but I don't know how to do it without this horrible fear. I still produce, but I produce very little and I have to be fighting with my negative self-talk while doing it.

Sometimes I see other female artists that can produce, that are beautiful, slim, creative and I catch myself wishing I was them and not me. But I want to be me, I love me, I was made for being me, why do I want to cease being me?

It's the same problem I have with wanting to be a ghost and not wanting to be one. I want to produce artworks but when I do I am too afraid for it to be seen. How can I overcome this? I feel I won't be able to grow if I don't solve this. I want to get rid of it, I want to expand and be myself doing my art and loving my new home. Is it possible to get rid of this curse? My therapist told me that I would always have to work on this. I found that so disheartening, I wish there was a cure for people who unexplainably want to be a ghost but not really.

Any suggestions?

Ghostly Girl

Dear Ghostly Girl,

Your therapist told you that you would always have to work on this but maybe she did not tell you in the same breath that this gets better as you work on it and that every time you experience this fear and work through it you become stronger. That you will always work on it does not mean that you will never be happy, just that, like rain, it will sometimes come. One does not stop uncovering layers of self any more than one stops exercising or taking photographs; there are always more photographs and more exercises and there are always more mysteries under your own skin; there are always surprises. But the more we work in therapy, the more terrain becomes familiar. We keep piecing things together and along the way there are great highs. To be truthful, I started to tear up as I read your letter. What you describe reminds me of my own struggle and my own feelings -- wanting to be who I am, express a beautiful part of myself, and yet fearing that I am nothing, that I am shit. It comes in waves.

We are vast. The self is vast. We keep changing. We begin anew all the time. With every layer peeled away there is a new gift and a new puzzle.

Yet you have made a decision to stop running. It is like a decision to stop drinking and to stop avoiding what you feel. It isn't fun feeling worthless and desperate and afraid. I know what that is like. I can feel that way right now, just sitting here, just typing these words, and reading your words. I also feel anger -- anger at myself for not protecting myself better, anger at those around me, anger at the world for its indifference, anger at people in positions of power. But then I realize I am making a list of all my resentments against the world, and all my fears. I fear ... what? I fear that people will not like my writing. I fear the future. I fear that I will not be understood. How deep is that fear? How far back does that go? That goes all the way back to being a small boy and wanting my fears, my sadness and anger and my dreams to be understood by a parent and feeling lost, not understood, not held, not protected, not heard. This goes way back. I want to take care of that boy today. I need a dialog with that boy. I have established somewhat of a dialog with him. I know that he felt abandoned by me and my risk-taking, my recklessness. I went through a period of feeling immortal and indestructible, but all the while this young boy was there with me too, going What the hell are you doing? As I am driving the car 100 miles an hour drunk and laughing he is screaming with fear; as I am sitting in a room with criminals he with all his ideals for a good, secure, balanced life is saying, What the hell is going on?

Well, that's just me taking a little excursion into my own past. That is what your letter triggered. It also triggered a memory of when I first started drinking -- whoops, I mean to type "when I first stopped drinking." Well, maybe they're one and the same: the titanic struggle between selves. When I started drinking it was like throwing away my life. It was like who cares, and this part of me that wanted to live but was not in control any longer, this part of me was shocked and appalled but lay silent. I silenced a part of myself and he was silenced a long time until I finally, near death, took pity on him and let him up to breathe. I was smothering him, not mothering him. He needed mothering not smothering. I don't know why I did this, why I turned on myself like this, but I did. It was a kind of suicide.

So there is much grief and sorrow and sadness now, but also joy. I live with what I have done. Sometimes I am reminded of that wreckage, the wreckage of an ego out of control. I do what I can today but sometimes still I just go, What was I doing? What was I thinking? Who was I?

So when I read your story I teared up. It may seem odd to admit such a thing in a published piece but this is all I know how to do now. I just know how to hear and feel and respond. I can just say that you are not alone, that a lot of us do what you are doing and think what you are thinking. We do well in things, we are strong and smart, people admire us, but we are also struggling. We are also in pain and capable of collapse. We have awful moments that roar back to us before sleep or while sitting in a cafe, awful moments that shake us and make us look around as if everyone in the room could see that, as if it were projected on a screen.

But it passes. It passes and it is a new day. You have a very happy life for the most part. Isn't it amazing? Isn't it like mercy and grace that we can have so much trouble in our lives and think that nothing will ever work out and then we go to some sunny place and fall in love? How can one not be moved by this? When one has been so close to death, when one has longed for invisibility and nonexistence, when one has feared that nothing at all will come as planned, to find a city one loves and to fall in love again is like a miracle. We all ought to be running in the streets throwing flowers at the sheer beauty of it.

So you do your art. Do that. Do your photography and look in it for solace. Look in your photography for grace and healing. Look in it for your solitude and safety. Use your camera to seek out the beauty you require, the beauty you deserve. Use your camera to see what you need in the world.

Some will see what you see and others will see only what they see. Not everybody will see what you see. The people who you most want to see what you see may not see it. But others, whom you least expect, will see exactly what you see.  This is one of the lessons of exposing our creativity, that we do not always know whom we are talking to and whom we are feeding, because everyone keeps their hungers silent and hidden. We do not know what hungers are in others. We do not know what they are seeing when they look at our work. We are often surprised at what people respond to. So all we can do is just keep doing the work and make sure that it serves something in us. As long as we do that, then the loop is closed: We do the work and it feeds us so we keep doing it. Along the way, others are also fed. That's how it works.

My heart goes out to you. You made me cry. (I typed "fry" at first! That's not right! I typed, "You made me fry." But that's not right!)

You made me cry. That's what I meant to say. That's the truth.

Cary Tennis

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