Ma’s love had conditions. She was mean and volatile and bitter. Our home was like a war zone. I tiptoed carefully as to not detonate any explosives. Anything, and nothing at all, could set her off into screaming fits or her hands meeting my face — privately or publicly. Dad wasn’t around to intervene. Living with seventeen years of ubiquitous fear in a place meant to be safe, filled with softness and patience and affirmations, naturally hardens you.
For a long time I took pride in the walls I’d built, the armor I wore, to protect myself. I was satisfied with outsiders having one perception of me — tough, not to be disrespected, a fighter, perhaps even mean — and the people I held close knowing different. The more people became familiar with my writing the more those walls seemed necessary for survival. Letting people in, especially strangers from the Internet, could only do harm. I had to control the narrative around who I really was and who I’d let people believe I was. There is a me that my longtime friends know and a me that people here in NYC know. Both were the same person but one was more hidden.
This layered identity is something only two people in a city of eight million have picked up on. Strangely enough both were men.
Three years ago we had a first date, the kind you only read about in novels. We’d gone from semi-familiar writer peers to what seemed like two people who’d known each other for a lifetime. Our seven-hour date came to an end only because I had already made plans to see Dark Knight Rises with my homeboy from college. Within that seven hours he saw me. Really saw me.
“You’re nothing like I imagined based on your tweets,” he said half-joking.
“What does that mean?”
“Like, you’re really funny. Fun. Very chill. Down to earth. Just a real cool chick. Based on Twitter I’d think you were this angry pro-black feminist all the time. I’m joking, but you you get what I mean.”
I did. He was vocalizing the perception was not the totality of reality. It was only a part. I thought about my first date conversation with the man who’d later become my boyfriend of two years when the subject came up recently with a good friend who is also a writer. My friend noted how my walls and fear of letting people in were affecting my writing.
In two separate conversations, months apart, I’d sent my friend some old blog posts and some very personal unpublished pieces I’d written just for me.
“You write like you know someone’s reading,” he said after reading what he considers his favorite piece.
By that he meant I stopped myself from really writing how I felt in the moments the piece called for me to do just that. For whatever reason, unbeknownst to him, I was holding back. Months later I let him read a couple other pieces I was working on. They were filled with the kind of soul bearing subjects you can’t broach publicly until reconciling with what may come after. I thought about how what he’d read in those pieces were things that my close girlfriends, at least the ones here, didn’t even know. Once again he had the same feedback.
“I think you’re a really good writer. I think you could be great if you work through your fear of being vulnerable.”
The closer we became as friends the more he expressed this sentiment, and not just about my writing. He was almost taken aback by how much love I had to give to the people around me and how sensitive I was. He said it as if he wished more people could know me the way he had come to know me. He was lowkey offended by me hiding the best parts of myself from the world.
It’s not like I want to hide. How freeing it would be for people to see for themselves how I love love and am empathetic and feel deeply and cry often and am super sensitive and funny and soft. But being hard is easier. It commands respect. When you’re hard no one asks about the end of friendships you’ve mourned because they assume you don’t care. Hardness means when your good friend dies few people make sure you’re ok because you seem ok. Hardness also means you’ve made walking away part of your DNA because leaving is better than being left even if said person was never leaving. Being hard means people aren’t shocked when you seek revenge instead of falling apart. The double-edge sword means people also don’t let you cry or breakdown or check on you because you’re strong. You’re hard so you’re unbreakable. If only it were true.
Growing up, fear and anger were the constant emotions floating through our two bedroom apartment. Fear breeds defense mechanisms. Walls as a form of protection are one of the many defense mechanisms against sometimes nonexistent threats. Those walls never get torn down although certain people are able to chip away at them better than others. When the chipping does happen, like falling in love, and you end up hurt anyway, now you have a wall and a fence making it even harder to get in.
Once, grandma and I were having a discussion about how parents can really fuck up their children for a lifetime. It was my roundabout way of admitting I believed both my parents had ruined me. It was evident by my interpersonal relationships and me against the world persona. Grandma was having none of it. She promptly said parents only job is to feed, clothe and shelter their children and make sure they become productive members of society. Anything else was a bonus but not requirement. She had no interest in hearing grown people whine about the failures of their parents and how it has impacted their life. Right then I bottled up my sob story filled with burning questions about the whys and hows my parents were the way they were.
I had no interest in being more open until my friend told me my work was suffering as a result. My need for control and privacy had become more of an obsession the more my following grew. I started to tweet less. I deleted Instagram. I incessantly deleted tweets I’d decided were too personal. Any Facebook status or photo as far as a year back was deleted if it was too personal for my comfort. And the things I needed to write about that I knew would resonate and maybe heal others were locked away in Google docs for my eyes only.
I tell myself a happier more fulfilling life means letting go of fear and letting people in. Happiness is my ultimate goal, but it’s my work being only really good when it could be great that keeps me up at night. I’d sacrifice happiness and having a lifelong partner and kids if it meant my writing was exceptional and renowned.
If removing a couple bricks from the walls so that a bit of my light and sometimes darkness seeps out for onlookers to see means becoming a better writer, maybe it’s time to bring out the sledgehammer from the tool shed. Besides, anything torn down can always be rebuilt with an even better foundation.