I Spent Twenty Years Believing I Was a Bad Person

a.j.k. o'donnell
5 min readJan 18, 2019


Navigating and surviving the fallout from abuse

Ever since I was a child, I have existed in a reality of constantly colliding internal and external cosmoses. I am a deeply introspective individual. Almost too much so. Coupled with a tendency to catastrophize, untamable anxiety, and a past where I expected to be shamed and punished for just about everything — a seed was planted in my psyche long ago. A very poisonous seed.

I spent the first twenty years of my life convinced I was a bad person. I grew with “I love you”’s cloaking words and actions unworthy for utterance again. I still hear them. Feel them. They have festered in my axons for far too long. It is a painful pollution — not being able to escape your own mind and what people have left there unconsented.

For a really long time, I did not know what was true. I existed submerged in facades for years. I was always told who I was. I couldn’t translate what was tangible or real. I did not trust people. I did not trust myself. I still struggle with that. I would have panic attacks completely rooted in deep self-hatred and a strong belief I was bad. I was unholy. I was poison.

Pain and the past have a dubious way of being close friends. Brokenness is a difficult thing to mend. It cuts deep. When that process produces a lot of blood, instead of being angry at ourselves for bleeding everywhere, we must familiarize ourselves with the grace of time to find the right bandages. The healing bandages. The safe bandages.

You can not just start watering an already dying plant, without removing it from poison-soaked soil. Be gentle with such a plant. It needs to trust the ground again. Unlearn how to survive, and learn what it feels like to thrive. That is a foreign sensation — it almost feels dirty, poisonous on its own.

Perhaps the most difficult burden of any abuse trauma is being a survivor. Not merely the act of surviving, but the lifetime work of undoing the paradigms one is fed for years. The internalized reality that the map toward abusing is now in one’s veins is an extremely heavy weight. It is a perpetual undoing of abuse. You might make a mistake. You might be the toxic person. You might falter in your journey of unlearning, but that must not become all that you are. You must not fall into that abyss. You must not poison your own ground. You must not lay the groundwork to poison those around you. Abuse is a disease. It is a parasite, which needs a host. We must not become that host, we must be the anecdote. Which means we must flush the poison from our veins — and that takes time. That takes introspection and self-actualization. That is work.

There have been times over the past twenty years when I was the toxic person. When I acted on learned paradigms and hurt the people around me. For a long time, I internalized those moments of emptiness as evidence that I was, in fact, a bad person. I have always been extremely hard on myself. I never extended myself grace. I never allowed myself the knowledge that I was learning. I was undoing, but as a human, I would make mistakes. What matters most, is how you handle the fallout of your own choices. Do you repeat them, or do you grow from them?

As a society, we are very quick to formulate opinions on people — specifically as though we have never made a mistake in our own lives. I know I am guilty of this, and I witness it a lot. I challenge us to step back, evaluate the context of what situations are surrounding events, and hold our reactions firmly rooted in compassion for human dignity. There is no sin — no mistake — that erases another’s inherent humanity. We must carry that reverence for humanness with us always, otherwise, we invalidate it. It is not easy, and it doesn’t mean we ignore problematic behavior, but it does mean we recognize an individual’s emptiness.

No human is solely evil; evilness is too easy a word to deem someone. We are far more complex than that. We are all walking the terrifyingly beautiful pathway toward Goodness, and each of us has some level of emptiness in us. What dictates our proximity to emptiness is how we act on it. Do we exist in emptiness at all times? Or are we actively engaging with the parts of us that are empty, in order to hone them toward the antithesis of emptiness — Goodness. That is the human journey. That is the human condition. Our Void toward Goodness.

As for me, I no longer exist fully submerged in facades. I no longer live in a constant state of being told and treated as though I am unlovable, damaged, or inherently bad. I have made mistakes, and I have acted on emptiness. However, this life is designed to be a gorgeous movement of constant learning, undoing, and learning again. As a survivor, I am continually peeling into myself to uproot the toxic languages I have learned, and replace them with words of affirmation, grace, and Love. It is difficult, but it is active healing. When I am blessed to become a parent, I pray my children will always exist in a world that is submerged in Goodness, dipped in honey, and overflowing with deeply, affirming Love. As I continue my pathway through life, I challenge myself every moment — of every day — to choose to exist fully in Light, Goodness, and Warmth. I sincerely desire that for you as well.

Now, as the thunder rumbles in the distance, however terrified I may be — and I am terrified — I have stronger roots now. I am ready to survive the remaining time in front of me. I am finally among healthier soil. Prepared to grow. Prepared to thrive. Ready to live.

In Unwavering Love and Light,

a.j.k. o’donnell is an American author, activist, and artist from Omaha, Nebraska. Her second collection of poetry This Void Beckons is available now at www.ajkodonnell.com, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.

Follow her @ajkodonnell



a.j.k. o'donnell

wordsmith, activist, and artist. She is the author of the collection "This Void Beckons". www.ajkodonnell.com