My Belly Button and the Territory Around It
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. I had started a new school—forced to leave the comfort of familiar friends to attend a private school in Charlotte, North Carolina. I barely got in. I was on the waiting list for a while and didn’t know I’d been accepted until a few weeks before school started.
Eleanor Jones was my best friend then. She was new, too. 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 of 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 hacking it. Neither was my intelligence, my humor, or even my athleticism. None of that was working. The boys still 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 Eleanor.
Contrast that with the summer before sixth grade. I was ten years old. The Hortons had a huge holly bush in their front yard. That darn bush stood about five feet high and was right next to their wraparound porch. Jamie, a boy in my neighborhood, stood a good two inches shorter than me and weighed five to ten pounds less. He challenged me to fly over that bush—to jump from the porch to the soft grass five feet below. “I’ll bet you can’t do it, Molly, because after all, you’re just a girl.”
I could do it. Being a girl had nothing to do with it. I could do anything. I was a natural athlete—little knobby knees, muscle on bone, ribs showing. I preferred shorts, no shirt, and bare feet over my Sunday best, even on Sunday. That same summer I went to my first overnight camp. I didn’t shower all week. My hair, short and boyish, was strawlike from endless hours in the pool. “Eau de chlorine” suited me quite well, thank you.
My hair was usually tucked under a baseball cap. By week’s end, when my counselor pulled the cap off, my hair just stayed put. “You’d better wash that hair before your parents get here,” she said. I did wash my hair, with soap. A small swarm of insects that had set up shop in that tangled mess of dirt and chlorine flew off my head. I screamed bloody murder as a family of buzzing insects circled out of the shower spray. My friend Susan screamed, too. I fled from the shower buck naked to my counselor’s cabin barefoot, over rocks and sticks, bugs buzzing all around my wet, soapy head. She helped scrub them out.
Bugs in my hair. How gross.
Bugs in my hair. How cool.
So being a girl had nothing to do with it. I prepared myself for the flight over the holly bush. I marched right up to that porch, concentrated really hard for a minute—eyes closed tight, nose scrunched, and arms held out at a 90-degree angle while all the neighborhood kids stood there, the suspense building. (I was such a drama queen.) Then, with no warning at all, I began flapping my arms like a huge pterodactyl and started running. I took as many steps as I could and then with wild abandon I leaped off that front porch and clear over that bush.
I crash-landed on the other side. Jamie said I didn’t do it right because I didn’t land on my feet. It hurt to land on my girl chest. That was the first time I’d ever had the wind totally knocked from me, and I was truly scared. I couldn’t breathe. I lay there on my belly for a minute, trying to catch a deep breath and hold back the tears. All the kids rushed over—all except Jamie, who stood alone trying to make his case that a two-footed landing was the only official way to clear the bush.
I felt something inside me. A smile—small at first—but it felt really good creeping through my body. That smile started with the return of my breathing and crept its way through my heart to my face. I rolled over on my back, bounced up. Hey, I’m okay. I’m standing. I did it. I felt that smile move to my feet. I danced right there—a small jig—completely joyous and uninhibited. I had done it!
But in sixth grade the boys weren’t 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 mother 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.
We used to visit my grandmother a lot. She lived a day’s drive away. My grandmother talked to herself all the time. I used to be embarrassed by this strange behavior. I thought it was weird. Today, I might call her a free spirit. But then I was a little bit afraid of her.
On one of those trips, when I was five, my mother, grandmother, sister, and I went to a friend of my grandmother’s. Everything in the house smelled old and musty—the burgundy velvet antique chairs and the lime-green paisley print couch. My mother, grandmother, and her friend started drinking. The ice tinkled in their glasses and the woman who owned the house kept pouring the clear liquid. I was scared and can remember secretly wishing inside myself that they wouldn’t do that—drink that stuff, I mean. I couldn’t name what scared me about it. I clung to Helen.
My mother started laughing too loud. I wanted to fly away. I wanted to go to bed—just be anywhere but there. Be anybody but me. Helen took me in the guest bedroom in this big, musty, smelly house and lay down with me. She wrapped her teenage body around my little-girl spirit and sang to me—trying to drown out the noise of the inappropriate conversation and laughter out in the living room. I think I cried. I can’t remember.
The front door of that stinky place slammed shut. Were they leaving or coming back? Was it minutes or hours since we’d gotten there? My sister cracked open the door of the bedroom and peered out into the living room. I stood behind her, trembling—wanting to look but not wanting to look. The older ladies weren’t laughing as loud—in fact they weren’t laughing at all. My mother had mud on her knees—mud mixed with blood that was dripping down her shins. Mud covered her face like some horrible Halloween mask.
Somewhere she had fallen.
I don’t remember how we got back to my grandmother’s apartment. I was asleep in a small room. The door opened and my mother came in. I remember the strong smell of Palmolive soap and Scope mouthwash. I pretended I was asleep as she curled up behind me. I don’t know how long she lay there with me. Before she left the room, I heard her whisper in the most sorrowful voice I had ever heard, “I’m so sorry, my little Molly.” When she left the room and shut that door, I cried myself to sleep.
This kind of memory doesn’t go away—even from a five-year-old. So it settled down inside me. There were lots of memories like this.
Our local newspaper was doing a story on an art contest and somehow my well-connected father had gotten me to be the poster child for the contest. I was in second grade. My hair stuck out a lot and I had two huge front teeth growing into spaces left by smaller baby teeth. I wore my Mickey Mouse watch every day and smocks that used to be my sisters’.
Today was the day. But rather than feeling excited about the attention, I was terrified down to my very core. I shook all day, threw up a couple of times, and had diarrhea. What would I find when I came home today? Would my mother be drunk? Would she be “asleep” on the couch, a cigarette burning in the ashtray on the coffee table? Would she smell funny, talk funny, and act funny? Dear God, please, today of all days, let her be right. I don’t want them to find out—not the newspaper people. Then the whole world will find out. They will figure out what I want so much to hide. I won’t be able to hide the yucky, scary feeling in my belly anymore. They will discover that my mother has something wrong with her and it has to do with the sweet, stinging way her breath smells and the weird way she talks.
Please, dear God, just let her be okay today. Just today. That is all I ask.
I walked home that day by myself. My friend Susan usually walked with me, but today my pace was too quick even for her. I turned the corner and ran down the street to our house. Oh my God, two cars were out front. They were here. They had found her, lying motionless on the couch. Maybe she’s dead and her mouth has that sweet stinky smell coming out of it. I had nothing to do with it, I promise. It’s not my fault, really. Or is it? My heart pounded so hard, I thought it might explode out of my ears.
They took my photograph while I drew a picture of a horse. My mom stood in the adjacent room, smoking a cigarette, watching. I am smiling in the photograph. They combed my hair, straightened my collar, and put a little color on my cheeks. “Molly, you are looking awfully pale today. Are you feeling all right?”
I was just picture-perfect. I had to be or else they would find out.
Somewhere around fourth grade, the memories shut off—the pain went underground. The psyche does some pretty amazing protective things, especially for little girls when the hurt is too great.
It was not until my mother had her breakdown a year later that my memories resumed. Dr. Thomas came to the 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 that my mother is now a recovering alcoholic and has been since that day. Our relationship 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 mother’s company and would opt for it over that of my friends. The blinds had been lifted and, like Dorothy stepping out into the land of Oz, my life was Technicolor, bright and vibrant. My mother had become my best friend.
But inside the pit of my being lay those lost memories, the shame that we never really talked about. And as I grew both physically and chronologically, that shame started to ooze out in all kinds of ways: insecurity, low self-esteem, perfectionism, people pleasing—all of the classic child-of-an-alcoholic symptoms and in many ways the symptoms of someone down deep in the Girl Box.
So when Eleanor started to get all the attention, the world was simply affirming what I had experienced as a younger child. I wasn’t good enough. The shame in there was so deeply learned—throughout each and every cell of my little-girl body. Obviously if I had been good enough, my mother would have stopped drinking. I was funny, friendly, and smart . . . but not enough to make my mother happy. If I was a good person, people would like me—so because they didn’t and I couldn’t make it all right, something was wrong with me. The best that I could be, the best that I could offer, wasn’t fixing my scary home, curing my mother’s illness, or making people like me.
Something was definitely wrong with me.
So as painful as it was, the box actually felt sort of right. It was the only place that affirmed what I believed to be true and had experienced in my young life. The message of the Girl Box is do more, be more, give more—because you are never good enough, never pretty enough, never smart enough, never sexy enough, never enough. Girls in the darkness of that box never celebrate what they are but are constantly seeking what they are not. They give away their very souls to anyone who will love them. People pleasing becomes a way of life. Life becomes a series of performances rather than experiences. Your words aren’t your own. There is a set script.
So in 1975, when I was in tenth grade, that first sip of liquor at a friend’s house burned on its way down, but it pierced that shame. For the brief period I was under its influence that shame went away—the alcohol penetrated it like chemo on cancer—and I felt beautiful, flirtatious, witty, fearless. For the first time I felt comfortable in the 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.
Everyone has their ways of coping with the Girl Box. It may be an obsession with appearance or a fear of failure. Some fear success, and sabotage every opportunity to get it. Others defer to boys in the classroom or men in the workplace. Some women spend their entire lives trying to please others and forget themselves. We fix people, clean up after others, take care of disputes—we spend so much time taking care of others that we lose our- selves in the process. More extreme coping mechanisms include eating disorders, countless sexual encounters, numerous plastic surgeries, substance abuse, or spending money we don’t have—mine was alcohol.
In the midst of this, I bought my first pair of running shoes. My mother had started running: first one time around the block, then a couple of times. By 1976 she was competing in 5K and 10K events throughout the region and winning her fifty-and-over age-group. I decided to join her on some of those runs. And on those runs I transcended all of the expectations of the Girl Box. Outside of drinking, running was the only place where I felt free from the anxiety and shame of my earlier years. Like meditation, it cleared my mind and 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. When I ran, I returned to the carefree days of an imaginary fourth grade that I actually never had.
I continued the outer life of the high achiever, the perfect girl/athlete/student. National Honor Society, president of student council, honor society in college, sorority, chemistry major, stellar athlete, nationally ranked triathlete and three-time Ironman Triathlete, high school teacher and coach, masters in social work—the list of accomplishments grew and grew. But nothing—not the working out, not the perfect job, not the right man, nor the right things—could quiet the screaming of that shame. Even running stopped working the more competitive I became. The focus in my training shifted from the experience itself to the end result—the victory: how I placed and who I beat, instead of how good I felt or what I learned about myself. The only thing that would smother the pain was alcohol. But here is the irony of it. While the alcohol could numb that shame for the periods of time that I was under its influence, it was also feeding it: the next morning, the shame would be bigger and louder, vibrating throughout my entire body.
I recently came across a diary that I kept during high school:
July 24, 1976: Sometimes I feel like running away. I am seriously considering it now. I don’t think Daddy understands me or Mother for that matter. I’m going out with David tonight. Daddy will probably be angry. I have a terrible feeling of guilt, all the time. I feel as though death or something terrible is right around the corner. I’m scared. Really frightened. I’m growing up too fast. . . . Last night I went to the Elton John concert. I’ve never been that drunk before. This morning I got sick. After Elton John’s concert, David and I went parking. The more I think about it the more worried and frightened I become. I was so drunk he probably could have made love to me and gotten away with it, easily. . . . You know he said things to me I never imagined ever spoken. I believe he really loves me. At least I want to believe he really loves me. . . .
Only one short year after my first taste of alcohol I was having blackouts regularly. (Blackouts are different from passing out. During a blackout, an intoxicated person continues to move about and appears to be functioning yet will have no memory of any events that occur.) On the first occasion I had gone to my best friend’s mountain house for New Year’s Eve. I was in tenth grade. There were kegs of beer and flowing champagne at midnight. My boyfriend, David, of about a year was there, too. We all were dancing, laughing—there must have been about fifteen of my classmates at her house. Sometime during the night things went from clear to foggy. I ended the evening making out with a different boy, a football player, one of the popular guys—at least until I began to throw up all over my friend’s house. I don’t remember any of this. My peers considered taking me to the hospital—but rather than let any of the adults know, they took care of my vomiting, dehydration, and convulsions themselves. I’m lucky I didn’t die. I came out of a blackout in the backyard of her house with someone putting snow on my face, trying to wash off the vomit.
Now fast-forward ten years to Charleston, South Carolina. I’m sick and blacking out nearly every weekend, although now there was no steady boyfriend, no friend’s mountain house—just strangers, mixed drinks, and very little memory. I was teaching at a high school. Teaching was the occupation that best suited me during those years. I seemed to have a way with high school–age kids and while I was struggling with my drinking, which I tried to confine to weekends, I was still pretty much holding it together for my job.
I traveled back to Charlotte frequently during that year. I felt some reprieve from the chaos of my life when I stayed with my mother. She was eighteen years into her recovery from alcoholism, and although it was torture for her when I was there, it helped me.
On one of those trips I returned to Charlotte to attend a Bruce Springsteen concert with someone I had met at a bar only two weeks earlier on New Year’s Eve. The concert was on a Sunday night. I had to teach school on the following day in Charleston. I swore to myself that this night I wouldn’t drink. That this night I would enjoy the concert and then make the three-hour drive to Charleston early the next morning. But the expectations of my date, the atmosphere of the concert, and my constant feeling of anxiety and depression were quickly numbed by a first drink. And for most alcoholics, the first drink is the one to fear.
I don’t remember the concert or where I stayed that night. I came out of my blackout somewhere along the shoulder of the interstate on the road back to Charleston. I knew I would never make it back to Charleston in time to teach—or be in any kind of state to handle the energy of the classroom. So I called the school from a truck-stop pay phone. “I can’t make it today.” And the words that followed were the most shameful words I’ve ever uttered in my life. I told a lie that to this day represents for me the amazing power of alcohol. “Something terrible has happened.” The shame possessed me at this point and the lie pushed out as I spoke. “My sister’s two children were killed by a drunk driver. I won’t be able to make it in until Thursday.” “Is there anything we can do?” the concerned voice on the other end of the phone asked desperately. And the robot in me replied, “No.”
I hung up, returned to Charlotte, and partied for the next three days.
A fish doesn’t know it’s in water until it isn’t in it anymore. I was never aware of being in the Girl Box—on a conscious level, anyway. But it shaped everything I did.
Excerpted from Girls on Track by Molly Barker. Copyright © 2004 by Molly Barker. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.