When I was writing my first memoir, I told my editor about having an autoimmune disorder from ages twelve to sixteen that caused my eyes to bulge out of my head so far that my eyelids were literally unable to close. I confided in her about the pain of my adolescence and - unhelpfully, I thought - she suggested I write about it. To which I replied, yeah… no way in hell.
Because of all the inelegant things I wrote about myself in that book—publicly admitting to drug use, alcoholism, deceit, sexual indiscretion, misanthropy, and pretending to be a hero—the pain and alienation of my childhood was the one thing that made me think, if I tell this, I might die. If I start to show what’s under the tattoos, no one will again believe that I am cool.
But my editor pushed back saying, “Be brave, Nadia. You can tell the truth.” And so, reluctantly, I did.
There was a point early in the life of House for All Sinners and Saints, the church I founded, when I was frustrated and a little baffled by just how many socially awkward people were showing up. And at the same time, bloggers and church pundits (who had never visited House for All) began to claim online, based on the fact that the pastor was tattooed and pastors attract people like themselves, that House for All was obviously just a church for hipsters. Which has never, ever been the case.
So one day I started to think to myself, wait, why am I not attracting other cool people? I mean, why aren’t there people like me coming? Now, if you are thinking to yourself, What kind of person thinks this shit?!?, you are not alone.
I didn’t realize for a couple of years why exactly it was that so many so-called “losers” were coming to House for All Sinners and Saints, the church with the supposedly cool pastor. See, some might think the funny, tattooed, sarcastic part of me attracts people to House for All. And that’s true for some people but they’re the ones who never seem to stick around.
The so-called “cool” parts of me were never what attracted the people who stayed. It was the bug-eyed kid with no friends who brought them in, the girl who ate all her lunches alone in middle school, the painfully skinny girl who learned to bandage her wounds with anger, cynicism, and eventually a lot of tattoos. It ends up, I had been attracting people like me all along. I was just too arrogant or too defensive to admit it.
But once I did, it honestly felt like my heart grew—my heart grew big enough for them and also big enough for 13 year old me as well.
It seems to me that as long as we can’t face the painful truth or the shame-filled truth, or the sad truth from our past, it seems that that truth doesn't disappear—it just defines, often unfairly, how we react to other people.
R. Eric Thomas
Joining me in The Confessional today is R Eric Thomas, a playwright, social commentator, and columnist for Elle.com and who was raised in a conservative church just like me, but who carries that baggage in a way that is all his own.
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