He got the chairs. We got the sofa. After my father loaded them into the car trunk, strapped them down with cords and drove off, the living room had empty spaces.
I wasn’t there when he left. I was at school, pretending that my fifteen-year-old life hadn’t suddenly emptied of all its constants. So I have to imagine the parts about the packing up and leaving. But I don’t have to imagine those empty spaces or the indentations in the carpeting from the chair legs.
Mom put an ice cube in each dent. The ice was supposed to melt and help the carpet fibers loosen, letting them know that they weren’t crushed anymore and that they should straighten up. Futile. They stayed hunkered down.
By New Year’s, he was back. The chairs settled into their places, as if they’d never had a one month stint in some anonymous apartment. My parents got counseling. The marriage counselor (who never met me) thought that I didn’t need counseling. “Laura should be okay, as long as she can talk to one of you about it.” But we didn’t talk about it, not me and my dad, or me and my mom, or me and my dad and my mom.
I continued playing the role of normal. But inside, I was empty.
Lesson learned: Stay silent, even when silence kills you, even when you’re empty inside.
My mom picked out all my clothes until I got married at age twenty-two. She took me shopping at the mall, I tried on clothes, I paid money (that my parents gave me) for clothes (that she picked out and I wore). I looked preppy during the grunge years.
To compensate, I read every book in the public library on fashion. They were mostly aimed at middle-aged women who a) wanted to look thinner, b) didn’t have a school dress code, and c) had total control over what attire draped their figures. Not the stuff of Seventeen magazine, but then I didn’t want to look like a Seventeen model. I wanted to look like myself. But I needed help figuring out who I was.
So I measured my body parts and learned that I had a body like a rectangle, not like the desirable hourglass. A summer, when I preferred winter colors. I took quizzes to decide if I was a classic, romantic, sexy, casual or funky dresser. Somehow it was vitally important to have an entirely consistent wardrobe; none of this romantic dress one day and flannel shirt and jeans combo the next. I didn’t know who I was—just a body occupying space and time—so I never managed consistency.
Then there were the youth group lectures on modesty. Men, I was told, were visual creatures. It was my responsibility not to cause them to stumble into lust. Tight jeans, two-piece swimsuits, short skirts, shirts that showed too much skin—all were off-limits.
At my Christian college, I heard about guys who mailed anonymous notes to certain girls, requesting that they stop wearing particular shirts because “they caused me problems.” I never got one.
It struck me as creepy, though, getting a letter about my clothes. What kind of problems did these shirts cause? Who wrote letters like this? A single male classmate? A married student? A professor? But if I had gotten freaked out, then it was my fault because I had worn an inappropriate shirt that caused problems.
My mailbox stayed empty. My inconsistent clothing on my rectangular figure inspired silence rather than commentary.
Lesson learned: If your physical body looks beautiful, it doesn’t matter that you’re empty inside. But you must be modest. Otherwise you’ll cause problems and what good Christian woman wants to do that?
I was nineteen, just beginning the cycle of elation and despair that would later be diagnosed as bipolar mood swings. I didn’t make it easy for any guy to be my friend, much less boyfriend. In trying to compensate for my emptiness, I had turned into a quasi-feminist, which wasn’t popular at this Christian college. Feminists caused problems, although not of the clothing variety.
Halfway through my freshman year, the depression intensified. I punished myself: starved, binged, purged, an endless cycle that I couldn’t stop, couldn’t share with others, couldn’t have imagined being enslaved by a few months earlier.
The person formerly known as me had disappeared. It was like walking into our living room and seeing those chairs gone. The ugly baseboards and chair leg-shaped dents in the carpeting showed, just like my ribs did.
An older guy came along. He confessed that he “had a little crush” on me—or the person he thought I was—and pursued me. He continued to pursue me, even when I wouldn’t go out with him, even when he knew I was bulimic, even through three manic-and-depressive cycles. I wasn’t one of those girls who wore problem-causing clothing, he said. I wasn’t an outspoken feminist anymore. I didn’t disagree with his opinions. Perfect girlfriend material.
Lesson learned: Men like it when you’re thin and don’t think too hard. Empty-headed mannequins make marvelous girlfriends.
My first real counselor was a sweet and compassionate lady. She listened as my empty mannequin self tried to use words to express my despair. Though she didn’t diagnose my bipolar disorder—that was still years in the future—she did recognize that I had father-issues. So she decided to have my father come to a counseling session. And to make sure that he did come, she called him at work and ordered him to come. She was sweet and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
So he came.
He sat in a chair. I sat on the sofa. She sat in her desk chair and forced us to look in each other’s eyes. We didn’t have to say anything. Eye contact was all that she asked for.
Something stirred inside my emptiness. The silence felt awkward, but also far warmer than I expected. My father seemed to be trying to say something that he couldn’t articulate in words.
You are loved.
It was more than my father saying it. Someone else was speaking those words, telling me the lesson he wanted me to learn. Learn this, he was saying, learn how much I love you.
A few months ago, I ran across a note from my thesis director. After I turned in the first chapter, Dr. Moore wrote me a long letter, telling me all sorts of wonderful things about my writing. Years removed from the agony and hair-tearing ordeal of thesis writing, I teared up.
“You have a gift for writing.”
I read this and I heard someone else’s voice rumbling under the written words. Learn this, he said, learn that I gave you this gift. Don’t waste it. I get pleasure seeing you use it.
Several years ago, I was at a fiction marketing seminar with a few other authors. I was the only unagented writer of the seven of us, and I was desperate to look professional. I had cried in the department store dressing room while I tried on business suits; once more, I was searching for the right clothes and failing.
We were discussing my novel, which revolves around a bipolar woman’s suicide. Someone asked a question.
“I’m bipolar,” I blurted out. There was an awkward silence, during which I felt every bit as foolish as I probably was. My cover was blown and I was revealed as the awkward, immature amateur who would never get an agent, publisher, book deal, anything good related to publishing. Sweat soaked the armpits of my new blouse.
The marketing expert spoke. “You’ve overcome so much. You’re brave. . . .”
And beneath those words, I sensed the acceptance of someone else. Learn this, he whispered, learn how I know everything you’ve come through, how I’ve has sustained you and felt each fiber of pain as my own.
And then, even as I write this, my husband walks into the room. “Hey, Gorgeous.”
And I’m reminded that someone else finds me beautiful, too. He’s seen me pregnant, crying, bouncing off the walls, sweaty from a five mile run. He’s seen every aspect of me.
The college freshman, weak from purging, hungry for more than food, wondering where my old self was. The high schooler trying to find her identity in good grades and a fashion book. The devastated ninth grader trying not to see the empty place in the living room.
He’s seen it all and he knows just what to say. Significant. Beautiful. Brave.
Those words rub away at the empty space, the place where I’ve been crushed. And slowly, they melt, sinking down into the fibers of my soul, reminding them to stand tall. They heed that reminder, unbending. And I am filled.