Years ago I joined a neighborhood moms' book club. Mind you I was slightly hypomanic at the time. There I was amongst intelligent and educated women having deep and intellectual discussions about figurative language and paradigm shifts. I remember nodding my head a lot, pretending I knew what they were talking about but let’s be honest, I was mainly there for the snacks and camaraderie. It was much more than a book club. We also laughed, drank wine, munched on an assortment of goodies, shared our lives, and truly enjoyed one another’s company. But when it came time to discuss the book, I checked out. This was partly because I usually never made it through the entire book unless we were studying one of the Hollis self-help books.
The truth is, I am not a huge reader. There I said it! My OCD makes reading incredibly difficult, especially if there is a complex storyline. The whole reason why I joined this book club, other than being in a slightly manic state at the time, was to get myself reading more. I needed the support and accountability. But the whole experience took a turn 2 or 3 meetings in. So let's talk about it because that’s what we do here. But before I do a deep dive into my book club confessions, let me explain why reading with an OCD brain is difficult for me.
My brain gets stuck on every single word I don’t know and instead of just paying attention to context clues, I must look up the word and its origin and all the ways you can use it in a sentence.
If I miss reading more than a day or two of said book, I must restart the chapter or sometimes the whole book because I’m so laser-focused on every little detail.
If it’s a mystery, forget it. I’ll never figure it out. I’ll lose sleep trying to figure it out.
If it’s got flashbacks I am out. So hard for my brain to follow and keep up.
Don’t even get me started on classic literature. I get a migraine just thinking about Shakespeare. No thank you!
So there I was at book club silently unraveling, having flashbacks of getting called out of my third grade classroom to go to my Title I Reading Group. I can still remember the faces of the two ruthless girls always laughing and calling me stupid. I can also smell the musty hallway I would walk down to get to Miss. Amber’s Title I room. The walk of reading and writing shame I say! I was able to read fine but I wasn’t great at retaining what I read. And my writing was just atrocious. I was in the Title I program for 3 long years.
As you probably could have guessed this whole book club experience was triggering insecurities dating back to childhood. Despite my above-average grades growing up, I was never as “smart” as my friends. While they were all laser-focused on their overly perfect 4.3 grade point averages, I was singing hallelujah down the halls because I managed a C in math! While they appeared smart and put together in our honors English classes, I’d be in the back panicking and praying not to get called on to read aloud or talk about the mob mentality and totalitarian leadership of Lord of the Flies. While they were all dressed to the nines, walking across the stage to get their National Honors Society awards, I was sitting with their families in awe wondering if I’d ever achieve such an award. Spoiler alert I never did.
So here I was over a decade later feeling these old wounds split wide open. These book club gals had all become friends and while I enjoyed their company, I wasn’t about to sit there like a deer in headlights feeling lost and clueless. Been there, done that. So I did what I usually did when things got hard and uncomfortable back in the day, I quit. I’m pretty sure I told them I had some scheduling conflicts and would join back in a few weeks. Well, weeks turned into months and months turned into years. I had no intention of going back.
Fast forward to a few months ago when I met up with one of my old book club friends for a play date and got to talking about the real reason I quit. I confessed how hard reading was for me and how ashamed I was to admit that. My friend was so sweet and supportive, reassuring me that I was not stupid. She even offered me some really good reading tips and tricks that help her when reading difficult text. But I still felt like such a moron and a total hypocrite. Here I was making my kids constantly read. Here I was blabbering on and on about the importance of reading. Here I was a blogger and writer who hated to read. My sweet friend told me I was welcome back to book club anytime. She said they all really missed me, even reassuring me that no one ever thought I was stupid or less than. But as usual, I believed the lies I was telling myself over the actual truth.
But then a few days later it hit me like a ton of bricks…
I don’t hate reading. What I hate is the anxiety around reading that I had been creating. So I did the only thing I knew to do and went back to therapy for a few weeks to discuss some of my childhood insecurities, an area I didn’t realize needed to be healed. But I’m so thankful I went back because like always, it allowed me to look back through different eyes. It was crazy how many realizations I had made in just a few short weeks.
Here is what I learned:
I am not dumb. I am a college educated woman who can not only do hard things but can also understand hard things. And reading should have never felt like a chore. Instead of trying to navigate reading with an OCD brain, I saw it as an excuse to skip it altogether. It was basically avoidance-focused coping. At the time I really wasn't equipped to deal with the feelings of shame and stupidity book club brought on. So I avoided reading like the plague until I went back to therapy to discuss my hang- ups.
Now look, maybe I wasn’t at the top of my class but who the hell cares? I hate to say this but none of that ever mattered. Another time my parents were indeed right. I was blessed with parents who never pressured me to be someone I wasn’t. They never yelled at me for my occasional C. The only obscene grade I ever got was a D in chemistry. I remember being sick to my stomach. I had tutoring. I had asked for extra help. The teacher even let me take the final two times to try to get my grade up to a C but I still failed. Despite that one poor grade, I got into college just fine. I actually did much better in college than I did in high school, even in my prerequisites. Probably because college was more about applying than testing. I was and still am plenty smart.
It was and still is pointless and useless to compare myself to my peers, especially considering I graduated high school 16 years ago! I mean, let it go already Caitlin. My therapist suggested I write my former self a letter from my current self, something I had done a time or two before. It ended up being very cathartic. It was important to go back to my childhood and give that little girl a big hug and some reassurance that these feelings of stupidity and inadequacy would not last forever. Comparison truly is the thief of joy. Part of why I hated every minute of school was because of the comparisons I was constantly making. Some of my peers’ value and self-esteem was built around a GPA. I have this very clear memory of a girl in one of my math classes having a full-blown meltdown over an A- on a test. I mean her head was spinning. I tried to make her feel better by sharing my C+ but she just kept going on about how stupid she was. I just kept thinking if this chick thinks she’s stupid then I must be the biggest idiot in this class. I didn’t have the maturity at the time to examine it more deeply. Were her parents putting this pressure on her? Was she aiming for perfection? Maybe she had dreams of going to Harvard. But in my opinion that thinking can be problematic because what happens when you get out of school and enter the real world? The real world doesn’t hand out quarterly awards for doing a good job at adulting. What happens when you are not the very best or even worse fail for the first time? Will you be able to pick yourself up or will you crumble into a million pieces because you never felt rejection before? Some of these same people struggled in college and beyond because they had a hard time realizing that they were no longer the smartest person in the room. Suddenly life seemed much harsher and colder than inside those high school walls.
Maybe I’m not the best at memorizing facts, taking chemistry tests, or catching the delicate details of a novel, but I am however very emotionally intelligent. I can read a room in seconds. I already know exactly what you think of me before you even know. I can call out BS from a mile away though I usually don’t because I hate confrontation. I love learning about the enneagram and other types of personality tests. I love to write and express my feelings. And best of all I know how to really take care of my mental and emotional needs as well as help others do the same. I never stuff down my feelings or live with resentment or hate in my heart. Being self-aware and emotionally intelligent is a gift I most certainly don’t take for granted. It's a gift not too many folks have. And while sometimes living with mental illness can be challenging, I would not trade my brain for anything. I am beautifully and delicately made.
The anxiety around learning and testing was soul-crushing for me but it didn’t have to be. Again, I was the one putting pressure on myself, not my family or friends. Now look, it’s not that grades are not important. I expect my kids to do their best just as my parents expected for me. We aim for As and Bs but if you work hard and your best happens to be a C then let’s seek some additional help and move on. School should be all about learning and growing in a safe and enriching environment. Unfortunately I so clearly see the flaws and cracks in our education system. My daughter who is in 4th grade already has such anxiety over all the testing. Countless times she has come home in a state of utter panic because she wasn’t sure how she did on the 20th state test. But I do my best to show her that her value and worth are so much more than a score on a test, no matter how well she does or doesn’t do.
There is something so beautiful about healing your inner child. My childhood wasn’t awful by any means but it also wasn’t perfect. I mean for goodness sake I have been subconsciously hung up on events from 27 years ago. And while sure they seem small and trivial now, there was some level of trauma there. I just didn’t realize the significance until I had my kids. Today we talk about the importance of self-esteem much more than we did when I was growing up. It’s a different time, a different culture. When you know better, you do better. While I can’t control my kid's feelings or actions, I can however help them navigate through their feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. I truly feel a healthy self-esteem starts at home. Let’s face it. There will always be areas my kids struggle with. There will be plenty of times my kids feel less than others or get knocked straight to the ground. My job as a parent is to guide them and also teach them how to dust themselves off and try again. It’s also my job as their parent to teach them kindness, and to make sure that they try to always abide by the golden rule. It’s all a delicate balance really. Now that parts of my inner child are healed, I hope I can better help my kids navigate their school years, helping them face the many pressures they will soon be facing. I hope to do so with kindness and grace. Raising kind, confident, independent, and intelligent kids is not easy. I’m not always going to get it right either but it’s so important for my kids to know they are loved and valued and that our home is a safe space from all of the pressures and outside noise.
I’m currently on a therapy break but I’ll be back soon. If this whole book club saga has taught me anything it’s to pay more attention to the old patterns, old wounds, and old stories we told ourselves over and over again growing up. Things that may appear insignificant from your childhood, may be some of the same things weighing you down. We must be gentler and kinder with ourselves. I used to think self-help and therapy weren’t for everyone but I’ve recently changed my opinion. Therapy is for everyone but not everyone is receptive to it and there are many different reasons why. Therapy is a new concept for a lot of people, especially the older generations. Therapy can also be a very scary reality for a lot of people. Not everyone enjoys talking about their feelings, or even feeling their feelings. Also coming face-to-face with your demons and mistakes is not typically fun either. But one thing is certain, therapy is in fact for everyone. Therapy has been unbelievably life-changing and life-giving for me. Please don’t knock it until you try it. If it weren’t for therapy and my amazing support system I’m telling you right now there is a very good chance I would not be here today writing these very words.
I’m concluding this post by sharing some good news! I am re-joining my neighborhood book club. Book clubs are not just for the critical thinkers of America dang it. I am going to bring my lovely and quirky little self to book club. None of these women care about what my GPA was in high school. None of these women mind answering my questions or helping me to think a little more critically. I can’t change my lack of confidence during the first part of my life but what I can do is walk confidently through the next half. And when I feel insecure, I am going to gently remind myself how far I've come in ALL areas of my life. I mean, I'm a blogger for goodness sake, I think we have come full circle here!
A huge shoutout to all my book club ladies for inspiring me to write this piece and for accepting me just as I am. Let's get to reading!
P.S. I've been an adult for 17 years and not once has someone asked me about or critiqued my 3.5 GPA! Just saying...