My Secret

Eden Atwood essays

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I have never loved my mother so much as I do now. Our relationship has never been easy, but now that I am a mother I understand wanting the best for my child. I also understand feeling exhausted, impatient, stressed out and resentful that I can’t do whatever I want anymore. Still, being a mother has given direction and focus to my life. Motherhood has made everything more meaningful.

My son happens to be adopted and black. I want him to be proud of who he is and embrace his differences from, as well as his similarities with others. My son cannot hide his difference in our largely white community. I know what it feels like to be different. Unlike my son, I could hide my difference, and for a long time I did just that. But once I became his mother I wanted to show him how important it is to love and respect oneself. This is part of my story as a daughter and a mother.

At some point in every young woman’s life she picks up a magazine, looks at the woman on the cover and thinks to herself, “I am not good enough.” For some, this is a passing thought, for others it is a lifelong affliction underscoring a deep lack of self love. Many times, even the woman on the cover of the magazine thinks she is deficient. I know. My picture has adorned magazine covers and TV screens as an actress, a model and a musician. And I never felt I was good enough. In fact, at times I felt worthless. The truth is I hid a secret, one I believed was so terrible that if anyone were to ever discover it, I would lose everything.

Feeling worthless causes excruciating pain. It leads to very dark places and motivates incredibly desperate choices. I was an only child born to parents who were ill-equipped to deal with my secret. We rarely spoke of it. But we all knew it existed. Looming and unspoken.

Secrets breed solitude. Beyond all else, I wanted someone to love my secret away. I was convinced that if one person truly loved me, all would be OK. I had given up long ago on loving myself first.

For 15 years, I believed I was an unlovable freak. Those beliefs informed my every decision. Rash and desperate, my life choices led me down a very painful path.

In the thick of my darkest days I was an emotional vampire. I embarked on a decades-long game of push and pull with a variety of men. I seduced them into loving me. When they didn’t love me enough, I stopped at nothing to win their affection. When they requited my affection I assumed they were flawed. I channeled Groucho Marx and thought, “I don’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member!”

In the end, I figured out that the cliché is true; you do have to love yourself first. I hope my story supports not only those with similar experience to mine, but anyone who has ever wrestled with self love.

At age 15 doctors at Mayo Clinic diagnosed me with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS). AIS is a rare genetic condition, affecting about 1 in every 20,000 births. It is an intersex condition. Few discuss it.

In a nutshell, AIS occurs when an XY fetus—a fetus genetically determined to be male—has a defect on the maternally passed X strand rendering the fetus unable to respond to masculinizing androgens. When this happens, the fetus progresses along a female phenotype, meaning appearance. In many cases, including mine, the child is born looking entirely female. Surgery is almost always prescribed to remove internal testes through a procedure known as gonadectomy, meant to address a cancer risk.

Doctors discovered my AIS when I failed to menstruate or go through puberty. I underwent surgery to remove what they described to me as “pre-cancerous, twisted ovaries.” That was a lie. Even my parents lied to me because the experts assured them that the truth would traumatize me. And they were right; it did. Learning that others avoided talking about my birth defect in order to avoid its horror traumatized me indeed. So I believed the truth I heard in their lies; I believed my body was terrible and something to hide. This perspective informed every decision I made from then on, from my teenage years into my 30s.

Keeping secrets is exhausting, particularly when you are in the arts. I lived in a perpetual state of anxiety that the press might discover my secret and I would lose everything.

In time, I realized that nearly everyone hides truths self-judged as terrible. Living with shoulds and shouldn’ts affiliated with a lie leads to isolation and eventually to despair.

In 1996, on tour in Japan I began exploring the Internet. Sitting in a business center in a Tokyo hotel, I typed “Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome” in the Alta Vista search bar. In response to my query, a phone number appeared…with a name…Patricia. Stunned, I waited until I got home to call. I spoke with Patricia for hours. Her story paralleled mine. There were others, she told me. Attending my first support group meeting, I delivered a speech about finding my tribe. I cried a river of tears. I began to heal from the wound of a decade-old lie.

A few years later, I traveled to Singapore for a gig and one afternoon while lounging by the pool I read J.D. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey” in one sitting. As I read the final, luminous three pages I cried a deep-down cry. The fog cleared, if only for a moment. It would take several more years before I began to deeply understand Salinger’s message of acceptance and oneness and put it into practice.

I became a voracious reader of books that dealt with development of the soul. Buddhist teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron spoke to me most. In Buddhism I found not a religion but a way to embrace things as they are with the understanding that everything is exactly as it should be at all times.

Approaching 30, I thought incessantly of babies. I knew that I would have to adopt and I imagined that a travelling jazz career would not serve me on an adoption application. I decided to come home, home to Montana and the University of Montana. Uncertain of what I would do upon completing my theatre degree begun years before, I was confident that anything would be an improvement.

Back in Missoula with no money, I needed a job. Missoula Youth Homes hired me to work with severely emotionally disturbed teens. I was to help those kids learn to be accountable for their actions and stop identifying as victims. I can easily say I got more out of it than the kids did. After being there for awhile, I began to see myself as I saw them: as lovable, worthwhile. Still, it took a few more years before healthy choices felt more natural than the rash, desperate choices of my past.

At 35, I realized my dream and became a mother. In motherhood I have experienced the biggest challenges of my life. Being a mom gives me even more leverage to be the best version of myself possible. Distilled down to a single statement, I most want my son to love himself. Wanting that for him, I realize he must see me loving myself. Motherhood is my final step to self love.

Today, I am a mother, a recording artist, a music teacher and a member of a community I love. I continue to work on treating myself kindly, with love and respect. And I know now as sure as I know anything, that in this life a person only ever gets as much love and respect as she gives to others and, as importantly, to herself. With every breath spoken and word written about my experiences discovering, concealing and later revealing my secret, I accept and love myself that much more. Being a mother has given me courage to love myself, to model that love for my son and to reflect on the love my mother gave me through difficult and challenging experiences.

This essay was originally published in the Winter 2009 Issue of Mamalode Magazine, themed Identity. Learn more about Eden and the Interface Project here

Eden Atwood, Huey Lewis and Friends present Soulsville: a benefit for the Interface Project. They will be performing at the MCT Center for Performing Arts, Missoula, August 2nd.

About the Author

Eden Atwood

Eden has now recorded 13 CDs, the last two, on Japanese label SSJ won critics choice awards for best jazz vocal recordings in Japan. JazzTimes magazine heralded Eden as “one of the most undersung heroes of modern jazz singing.” For more on Eden Atwood, visit her Wikipedia page .

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