In first grade, I got a Totally Hair Barbie for Christmas from my grandma. She was the best Barbie I owned, with brunette hair all the way down to her toes. After holiday break, I brought her to school, and I remember sitting at my little kid desk combing her precious long locks as she sat in my lap during snack time. Did I enjoying combing my own hair? Nah, not so much. But I did enjoy combing hers. So much so that the girl in the desk next to me who lived on my street, the one I’d been secretly hoping to befriend, noticed my joy.
“What’re you hiding?” She pointed towards my lap.
I wasn’t hiding the Barbie, per say. It was snack time, and I was allowed to have her out. But did I want to share her? No. Then I thought about it harder. Did I want this girl to be my friend? Yes. Yes I did. I brought the still-to-be-named Barbie out and plopped her on the desk, where I continued gently pulling the comb through her hair as it spilled across the wood.
“Oh, she’s pretty.” Leaning closer to my desk, she reached for the doll. “Can I try?”
Mind you, this was the girl who had snapped my strawberry crayon in half at the beginning of the school year. Why I wanted her to be my friend is largely beyond the scope of my adult brain. I should have known better, but I passed her the Barbie anyway. “Careful combing her hair. Don’t tangle it.” My own fine hair tangled all the time and it hurt. Couldn’t have Barbie feeling the same.
After a minute of dragging the comb through Barbie’s hair, the girl grew obviously bored and held the doll up for a closer inspection. She clutched the long locks around her fist and swung the Barbie, then let her drop back down to the desk. I tried not to yell at her; I definitely knew better. But then she said, “I think Barbie needs a hair cut.”
Now the whole point of the Totally Hair Barbie was her hair. Totally Hair—hair all the way to the butt. Cut her hair off, and what was left? Just…Barbie. I was against this proposed hair cut with every fiber of my being, but instead of voicing my dissent, I instead whispered, “Okay.”
I really really wanted this neighbor to be my friend.
I wanted it so badly that I watched her hack off Totally Hair Barbie’s lustrous locks in a really terrible asymmetrical bob without uttering a single complaint. I wanted it so badly that when questioned later as to what had happened to my brand new Barbie, I said I’d done it myself. And I took the punishment for it myself.
Eventually, my neighbor did become a friend. Adult-me realizes that this girl was more trouble than she was worth, but child-me just wanted someone to walk to school with, maybe hang out with to escape my own house. I gave this girl what she wanted, and then she liked me and became my friend. It was that simple.
Since the revelation that I struggle with codependency (CODA), I have tried to fit the whole concept into a box. I like to put things into tidy boxes—makes them easier to deal with. But I’ve been batting this around with my therapist since we started talking three years ago, and I’m finally just beginning to understand that maybe it doesn’t all fit in one box. Maybe not every single aspect of codependency applies to me. Perhaps the time I let my potential friend do a hack job on Barbie’s locks was the most innocent of my CODA origin examples.
My therapist said it best, actually:
“Maybe that is something you write about how abuse does this to a person too that this is what you are left with also – some sick parting gift for making mistakes that all children make but having [adults] that made you pay for it instead of being patient and teaching you…It was like you never had any other choice in life ever but to people please and now that you want to find your own self, you find yourself not wanting to disappoint those who actually love you and care about you. it’s like you don’t know how to differentiate.”
I wrote about this in the beginning of my book, but I didn’t fully understand what I was writing then. So let’s put it here:
When I was five years old, my grandmother’s boss gave me a pink My Little Pony Paradise for Christmas. I was too little at the time to realize what an expensive toy this was, simply choosing to love it for all of its sparkling pink pony hospitality. The dream house stood around two feet tall, with one main section and two eaves that folded out when I wanted to see all the rooms and closed to make it look like an actual house. Each of the side sections had four rooms—two on the top floor and two on the bottom—while the main section was just composed of two long rooms, one on each floor. There was the bathroom of course, which contained a rose pink claw foot tub for the ponies to bath in, a vanity for them to groom in, and a sink for them to wash their hooves, like all good ponies did after going to the bathroom. There were two sitting rooms, the contents of which rearranged daily depending upon what I most fancied. The house came with a plethora of pink televisions, chairs, couches, tables, and loveseats, all similar in shade to the bathtub, that I moved at will without stopping to consider how silly it was to think that a pony could sit in a chair. I still had my imagination then; the world was still moldable. There was the kitchen, which was comprised of an entire wall of counters, a small pink fridge, a pink sink, and a pink stove; right next to the kitchen was the dining room, which just a table and a lamp. The ponies did not sit to eat, because who had time for that? The other three rooms were all bedrooms. They had beds inside big enough for ponies to lay on, four hooves to the wind, as well as dressers and lamps. One even had a bookcase. All in pink, of course, because ponies only got furniture in pink. It didn’t occur to me then that my boy ponies may not have approved of all the pink—I wasn’t of the age yet where I had learned that gender was societally assigned.
Scattered all over the dreamhouse were the pony accessories. Every pony came with something, and these came in many different colors, from white to green to blue to pink. Pony clothes, pony shoes, pony hairbrushes, pony dishes. Ponies needed a lot to live in their dreamhouse, almost as much as I needed.
I steadily accrued ponies for most of the year. My favorite pony was Butterfly; I got her for my sixth birthday. She had purple bows on her little green butt, not butterflies, but the name seemed to suit her somehow. She fit in well with all the other My Little Ponies: Spike, with his hunter green hair that I crafted into a Mohawk with my purple safety scissors; Princess Lillian, who had a golden tiara tattoo around her forehead courtesy of my magic markers and a sparkling gray and white main so long it wrapped around her hooves; Daffodil, who sported sloppy flowers on her legs handpainted with my silver nail polish; Skyhopper, Elizabeth, and many more. I was always original with my name choices, and I took my time getting to know each and every pony. I cared very deeply for them.
One pony was bigger than all of the others. I named him Phillip. He was several inches taller than the others, some sort of blue giant super pony, and as such he frequently took the role of boss towards the female ponies. He was Princess Lillian’s boyfriend, as she was the tallest and most beautiful of all the ponies; he kept her tightly to him. Butterfly was Princess Lillian’s daughter, and Phillip’s property by association.
Phillip had a short temper fuse. He would blow up over the smallest of things, sometimes lashing out at Princess Lillian. It was Butterfly, however, who was his favorite victim. She would frequently find herself in dangerous situations with Phillip—hanging from the edge of my bed by her tail or mane; falling through the gap between my mattress and headboard, or pinned beneath his hooves in one of the many dream house bedrooms. Every once in a while, Princess Lillian would rescue Butterfly. But more often than not, she didn’t—Princess Lillian much preferred to sit in the background and watch, hiding behind her mane of glittering hair, her abnormally large eyes open and staring. Sometimes Phillip would give Princess Lillian things—money, food, presents—for his time with Butterfly. Butterfly was nothing more than a commodity, an object, a lesson which she would carry well into her adult years.
Book-writer me understands the concept of play therapy/psychology and what I wrote here. This section is actually one of my favorite parts of my book, and I will forever remember the response of the first writer’s group that workshopped it. But what about what I didn’t write?
When Phillip asked something of Butterfly, she did it. If he wanted to pull her hair, she offered it him. If he wanted to play bad games in the bedroom, she let him. If he said jump, she said how high. Butterfly was a pony pleaser to the extreme, and it kept her alive and in a relative place of safety.
If it wasn’t clear, she’s me. I am Butterfly. And I learned to people please pretty much from birth. If I was quiet, people might leave me alone. If I cooked, if I cleaned, if I did the right things, it could mean a day without being hurt. Doing what other people wanted of me helped me to be safe. I learned this behavior in the most extreme of situations, and it bled into every aspect of my life.
Major life decisions are forever paralyzing. Friend changes, job changes, life changes. I struggle to make a decision without thinking of the other party. I never learned to put myself first. I learned that my wants and needs don’t matter. I learned to be a chameleon and pretend to be the person who best fit a given situation. My therapist and I were talking about who *I* really am this week, and I realized that I don’t know. I have an idea, for sure. But to just answer that question right off the cuff without someone to give me the answer? Holy crap.
I’m told that I can change these behaviors built by 30 plus years of learning, but it also feels like a monumental task. Like I’m too old, like I can’t start over that way. I’ve started with the smallest of things: Do I want to take a new job? It became a yes/no line chart in my head but honestly, it’s the best choice for ME. Choice number two. Do I want to write about these things? Yes. Yes I do.
I was indeed left with a “sick parting gift” to quote my therapist. It has never felt like I had any choice but to please people, even in my most innocuous relationships. But in a way, this is a true gift as well. I listen very well; I can read people better than almost anyone I know.
I learn. And I adapt.
I think the biggest thing with me and the CODA behaviors is that I’ve felt alone in them. I felt like it was something broken inside me, something deeply defective and wrong. And yes, while something may be broken, it wasn’t broken by any fault of my own. It only took me this many years to figure that out. But now that I have, doesn’t that make each new day an opportunity?
Maybe I don’t have to be Butterfly anymore. Maybe I can just be…me.