Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Climbing Out of the Girl Box
Yesterday marked a very important day in my life. July 7th, 1993 was the day my life changed. Couple that anniversary with the fact that I am in the middle of updating our Girls on the Run curriculum and I'm filled with an amalgam of emotions...many that leave me both word-less and word-full at the same time. Wordless because I'm focused on completing the Girls on the Run curriculum re-write by Friday. Word-full because of the importance of July 7th in my life.
To honor this special day and also honor the curriculum work I'm currently focusing on for this week, rather than create something new and in the moment for this blog-space, I'm going to pull up something I wrote in my book, "Girls on Track: A Parent's Guide to Inspiring our Daughters to Achieve a Lifetime of Self-Esteem and Healthy Living.".
So here goes. Happy "Girls on the Run Day"!
"I was in sixth grade when the Girl Box began to wedge its way over my body and spirit. Sixth grade was a tough year.
Eleanor Jones was my best friend then. We were the two new girls at a school where most kids had started kindergarten together.
The thing that distinguished us from each other, however, was that Eleanor was getting breasts and I wasn't. We were new, and all the boys were noticing Eleanor.
That's when I started to want to be somebody else. Anybody but me. My charming personality just wasn't getting it. Neither was my intelligence, my humor, or even my athleticism. None of that was working. The boys just wanted to pop Eleanor's bra strap, chase her, and be in her company. I happened to be in their company because I was friends with Eleanor. That was the only reason. I felt like the third wheel all the time--even when I wasn't with her.
In sixth grade, it didn't seem as if the boys were interested in what I could do. They didn't want to play the same way they had just the summer before. They wanted to pop bra straps and chase Eleanor around the playground. I didn't understand what I had done wrong. I was still funny, considerate, and friendly. I was bright, witty, and athletic. But I wasn't Eleanor. I wasn't what Eleanor represented.
And so I reluctantly let them lower the Girl Box over me. It was suffocating in there.
I was a prime candidate for the Girl Box. I was the fourth of four, nine years younger than the one before me. My mom was an alcoholic and my father worked a lot. Everyone in my house seemed to want to be somewhere other than where they were. My sister Helen was my primary caregiver. She taught me to read. She took me on dates with her and tried her best to protect me from the chaos of our home.
Somewhere around fourth grade, the memories shut off--the pain went underground. The psyche does some pretty amazing protective things, especially for children when the hurt is too great.
It was not until my mom had her breakdown a year later that my memories returned. Dr. Thomas came to our house, my father came home from work, and they all talked very secretly in the guest bedroom. My mother hit what folks in the treatment world call bottom.
That was May of 1970. I'm happy to say, from that day forward, my relationship with my mother, flourished...the laughter returned to our house. We made family trips out West, spent weekends together staying up and snuggling. We made up for lost time. I absolutely loved my mom's company and would opt for it over that of my friends. My mother became my best friend.
But inside lay many lost memories, the shame that we never really talked about. And as I grew both physically and emotionally, that shame started to show up in all kinds of ways.
So as painful as it was, the Girl Box actually felt sort of right. It was the only place that affirmed what I believed to be true. The message of the Girl Box is do more, be more, give more--because we are never good enough, never pretty enough, never smart enough, never sexy enough...never enough. Girls and women in the darkness of that box never celebrate what we are but are constantly seeking what we are not. We give away our very souls to anyone who will love us. People pleasing becomes a way of life. Life becomes a series of performances rather than experiences. Our words are not our own. There is a set script.
Coping with the Girl Box has many ways of showing up. It may be an obsession with appearance or a fear of failure. We may fear success, and sabotage every opportunity to get it. We might defer to boys in the classroom or men in the workplace. Some of us spend our entire lives trying to please others and forget ourselves. We fix people, clean up after others, take care of disputes--we spend so much time taking care of others that we lose ourselves in the process. More extreme coping mechanisms include food, sex, drug, plastic surgery and material addictions.
In 1976, I took my first drink. I also bought my first pair of running shoes.
Oh...the power of both.
When I was under the influence of alcohol, the shame magically went away and I felt beautiful, flirtatious, witty, and fearless. I was comfortable in the stifling Girl Box--shameless and free to be something I was not. I could fake the script, play the part, be what the Girl Box wanted me to be...be what YOU wanted me to be.
But...when I ran, oh the wonder...the joy...like meditation, my mind cleared and the experience allowed me to focus on the sound of my steps, the rhythm of my breathing, and the air passing over my body. I sweated; sometimes I would grunt and groan with exertion and I didn't care that it wasn't feminine. I felt beautiful, whole and powerful. I felt real, alive and connected.
But eventually addiction won out. On July 6th, 1993. I hit bottom. I was empty, silent and deafened by the cycle of shame that now held me captive. The lid to the Girl Box was seven feet above me, when I placed a last-ditch call to my sister. "Lift me out, please somebody, anybody! I can be no longer..."
My sister had heard this from me many times and, as always, she was patient: "Molly, just sleep on it. Promise me that you will just sleep on it--see how you feel in the morning."
I hung up the phone, curled up on the couch and lay there in the despair, in the silence and the darkness of the Girl Box, and knew that nothing short of a miracle would pull me out of that wished-for sleep.
The following evening, July 7th, somehow, I dragged myself out the door and by rote hit the pavement for a run. The air was electric with a coming thunderstorm, the wind blowing the leaves of the trees upside down and causing the dirt on the street to swirl up. Rounding the last corner of a six-mile run onto East Boulevard, I was on the last stretch of road toward the apartment where I was staying. Everything was in sync, my breathing, the float of my steps on the pavement, my relaxed arms, my speed--and as I approached the intersection of Kenilworth and East Boulevard I moved to a space of total effortlessness and breathlessness, overcome with the moment.
Something was happening--something so real, so raw, so momentous, it forced me to stop dead in my tracks at that intersection. The sounds of the city floated to the background, the street disappeared, and like tunnel vision I became fixated on the way the sun filtered through the leaves on the trees. casting the most distinct shadows on the pavement at my feet. I could hear my breathing, my heartbeat in my ears; feel the sweat flowing across my temples and down my back and chest; a surge of strength , power, presence lit me up--and in that instant my life changed. Call it what you want, but the darkness of the shame I had hidden away inside was warmed by a light of such power that for that moment I just was: present, pure, and worthwhile.
I was, if only for a moment, free of the Girl Box.
I still can't believe it. Sixteen years ago, I was empty, without purpose, alcoholic, and emotionally bankrupt. But...one day, one run, one moment, a building thunderstorm, and my life's path was dramatically shifted. The calling was strong and pulled me right into its powerful tentacles."
My story is only mine and is still in the making. I am never fully out of the Girl Box. It is a process, a peeling back of the layers to reveal the gem beneath. When I am afraid, tense, tired or angry I may go back inside, but I'm trying and I am always in search of a greater level of awareness. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of stories of the women, men and girls who are drawn to this program. None more extraordinary or glamorous than another. But uniquely theirs and now universally ours. The phenomenal growth of Girls on the Run can be broken down into small moments, like snapshots along a timeline. Yet, when I consider each of those moments...those stories...together, they fit perfectly like the pieces of a puzzle or the patches on a quilt. The cobblestones of our stories emerge upon the Girls on the Run path and magically take me, our program, our coaches, volunteers, corporate sponsors and the girls we serve to our next steps, singly and together,toward a new level of awareness.
The gratitude is overwhelming. To have known such despair--paralyzed by my fear back then. And now--well, now I am not fearful anymore. I've learned that if I just take a step forward, as we teach the girls in our program to bravely do, the cobblestones will, without fail, always appear.