I was very honoured to be a guest of Women of Letters on 26 March 2017, reading a letter to the thing I wish I didn’t care about. Here is the full transcript of my letter.
We need to talk.
Do you remember when you were four years old, and every time you and your sister hung out with your family friend Jackie, you would play “boyfriends” with the plastic toy phones you all had? You’d hold the receiver up to your ear and you’d feel so sophisticated, so grown up, so loved, to have a boyfriend – someone who wanted you and only you – even if it was just make believe.
Do you remember in preschool when a girl named Jodie liked the smell of your Strawberry Shortcake doll, and you became fast friends? You walked around holding hands and it felt like you meant something to someone, but one day – and you can’t remember why, now – you and Jodie stood at the front of the classroom, both crying, while the other children laughed at you. It wasn’t long after that that you moved to a different preschool, where you lay awake and told stories quietly to your teddy bear while the rest of your class napped. You knew the teddy would not talk back or laugh, that it would listen to you.
Do you remember the first time you looked in the mirror and did not like what you saw, how at family gatherings adults would smile sadly and then whisper among themselves in Vietnamese about how you weren’t the dainty thing you should have been? You used to take biscuits into the bathroom and eat them there alone, hoping it wouldn’t be too obvious when you put the container back in the kitchen that any of them were gone. You learned the language of self-loathing early on, when your mother tried every diet under the sun in order to shrink herself. You learned to want to shrink yourself too. You were always too much, which meant that you were never enough.
Do you remember in Year 2 when everyone was encouraged to come to school in the traditional dress of their culture? You didn’t have anything traditional to wear, so you went to school in a navy and white striped dress. At recess you watched the parade with your friends, where kids in traditional clothing walked around the concrete square, and a teacher asked, “Where are you from?” and they’d confidently shout the name of their country, and walk on. Your best friend Larissa said if you didn’t go in the parade she wouldn’t be friends with you anymore. You knew you had nothing to say, but you didn’t want your friend to hate you, so you got up, and you walked around the concrete square, and you tried to run past the teacher so you didn’t have to say anything, but she pulled you back and asked, “Where are you from?” and you whispered “I don’t know”, and everyone laughed, and your sister cried. Within a year, Larissa wasn’t your friend anymore anyway.
Do you remember in Year 5 when you moved schools and you were so excited to be in a new place, even though you hardly fit in with the beautiful blonde girls with horses and double-barreled last names? There was one girl who was so nice to you when not many others were. You repaid her kindness by sending a note around the class telling people to sign it if they hated her, stealing her things and putting them in lost property, making up mean names for her. It made others think you were funny, but what did it make you feel about yourself? Why did you make a sweet girl’s life hell just to climb the ranks with people who never cared about you?
Do you remember in Year 8 when you met that Year 11 girl, and you were drawn to the way she laughed, the glint of her teeth, her shiny black hair? You looked for her in the hallways, and your breath caught in your throat whenever your eyes found her. You didn’t know what it meant, not really, but your sisters and friends used “lesbian” as an insult, and you knew it wasn’t something you should ever even think about, so you burrowed it away, where no one could find it. The girl moved away and you were too scared to ask to keep in touch. You wonder where she is now, or if she knew before you did.
Do you remember when you were 14 and you had your first boyfriend, kind of, and he hated Blink 182, and even though they were your favourite band, you told him you hated them too? For four months, you contorted your personality to be someone he wanted. He dumped you anyway, and years later he told you that you hadn’t meant anything.
Do you remember all the boys you tried to impress after that, how they made you feel like you were never good enough – how you made yourself into a chameleon for them? The boy who told you so many lovely things, and then drew a crude picture of you on Paint, exaggerating the thighs you were already so self-conscious of, and made it his MySpace profile picture with the caption “my girlfriend”, and all of his friends, and some of yours, laughed? That same boy drove to your house in the middle of the night and stuck plastic knives all throughout your lawn, and left a note in your letterbox with a picture of a cat holding a knife over another cat, and the caption “I’m going to rape you like I raped this bitch”. Your little sister found it in the morning and cried. He said it was just a joke. “He said he liked me,” you told yourself. “Doesn’t that mean something?”
Do you remember when you had your first boyfriend, for real, and you clung desperately onto him because you wanted to be loved? He told you that you were disposable. When you had sex for the first time and it hurt, he did not care for you, and it never got better. He told you that you were bad at sex, that it was a dumpable offence. You wrote in your diary about how you hated him, but you stayed with him for another year, because it was better than being alone. Even after you finally left, sex kept hurting for years, but you never talked to anyone about it, because you were afraid of being proven to be broken.
Do you remember when you found yourself alone and began to experiment sexually? It was wild and exciting and thrilling, and you learned so much about yourself, but you also learned how terrible men could be. I’m sorry those things happened to you, love. You are so much more than the ugly things others have done to you.
Do you remember when, a couple of years ago, some of your friends stopped being friends with you? You’d see the awful things they said about you and your work online, and more than once it made you not want to publish something you’d written, because you were scared what they would say. You still have drafts that will never see the light of day. You still don’t know how to move past it.
Do you remember when you were fired from your dream job and they said you weren’t good enough? You lay in bed memorising the tiny patterns on the ceiling, drowning slowly in bottles of wine. You were only a few weeks into what would become an incredibly toxic relationship. You let both those things get to you, and disappeared into yourself.
We need to talk because I don’t want you to believe that all of these things define or limit you. This is not a sad letter. This is a letter of defiance.
Do you remember how it felt when you used to make art for you and only you? You didn’t need anyone else to tell you it was good. It was perfect just because you thought it was. You’re making a living from your art now, but remember what it’s really always been about.
Do you remember when you spent five years with a boy who loved you – really, really loved you – and you really, really loved him too? He sent you pictures of dogs every day and made you a book out of all of them, and you talked about futures, and you meant it, and he knew all these things about you and he loved you anyway, and you loved him back, despite the anxiety and the terror that made him hide too. You both beat the odds and loved each other despite finding it so hard to love yourselves. Look at that boy now, your best friend in the world, thriving and succeeding in spite of everything. You can do that too. You must.
Do you remember when the boy who broke your heart the hardest messaged you a couple months back, and instead of pandering to him, you told him exactly where to shove it, and you didn’t even feel bad? You don’t need people in your life who only want you when it’s convenient. It hurt so bad at first, but it hurts less now, and every time you tell him no it will hurt less and less, until it doesn’t at all.
Do you remember when you were 23 and you moved to Melbourne by yourself? You didn’t know anyone and you were scared, but you found the best friends you’ve ever had, a community you truly belong to. Whenever you hear those little voices in and out of your head telling you that you’re no good, just remember all the people here who love and value you. It’s so good to have a team.
Do you remember, a few months ago, when you finally came out, and you were surprised that your family was nothing but supportive? You had held back for so long because you were afraid they wouldn’t love you anymore, but they love you just as much, maybe even more.
Do you remember what happened after you were fired from your job, and you decided to write again, about the parallels between being dumped and fired – two things that are contingent on other people’s thoughts about your worth? And then it happened – your writing began to pick up, and resonate with people, and you started to write more, and more, and more, until it became your career. You grew something special from the roots of cruelty.
This is an exorcism. We are witnessing all the hurtful things that others have said to you, or made you feel, all the doubts and self-loathing, washing away.
I wish you didn’t care about what others thought of you. I wish you didn’t seek their validation in everything you do. I wish you didn’t hate yourself.
Let’s make some promises, you and me.
We will not shrink ourselves, physically or emotionally. We are allowed to take up space, be loud, eat whatever we want to eat, love ourselves despite the number on the tag or scale.
We will like the things we like and never apologise for them. We don’t need to defend them, or call them guilty pleasures. If anything awakens a spark in us, that’s all the proof we need.
We will kiss boys and girls and people who aren’t boys or girls. We won’t be afraid of falling in love with boys or girls or people who aren’t boys or girls. We wasted so much time being scared about becoming who we are – we’ve got some catching up to do.
We will not get caught up in negative things people are saying about us. Here’s a flow chart. Do we know or care about these people? If no, who cares. If yes – is what they’re saying constructive, or just petty? If constructive, this is a good time for self-reflection! Maybe we can learn something. If petty – in the bin. We would do so well to not get bogged down in the hatefulness of people we don’t care for.
We will not settle for less than what we deserve. We’re talking about relationships, work, sex, friendships. All of it. We have made ourselves small for so long to appease other people, but if we continue this constant act of self-erasure, soon there will be nothing left. And we are so much more than nothing.
We have spent 28 years wishing ourselves into non-existence, but you’re all I have, and I’m all you have. Let’s promise to take care of each other.