This Is What Childhood Trauma, Star Trek, and a Gown Mean for My Wedding

wedding dress hanging in front of city background

Even before getting engaged, I looked at the bride my child-self had dreamed of and giggled. How funny to think that, as children, we know what we will want for our wedding in twenty years’ time. I had loved dreaming of my handsome husband, the big Cinderella dress and high, oh-so-high, heels. But I laid this aside knowing that when my engagement finally came, I would be able to plan for the wonderful woman I would be. It would be sophisticated and joyous and a true reflection of myself and my fiancé. And it is.

I am now engaged and in the full throes of planning our winter ski wedding. We have the venue and officiant booked, I’ve said yes to the dress, the bridesmaids have been clothed, and the favours made. I’m so proud that what is coming together is just, well, us. And it’s all felt so natural. We haven’t had any major problems or agonising decisions, and I think it’s because we’ve done what has felt right and normal and fun.

But here’s the irony. It wasn’t until after I’d bought the dress—felt the butterflies and danced on the spot and grinned so hard my cheeks hurt—that I realised how my gorgeous gown was identical to the picture I’d sketched in bed one night as a child. I was unsettled. Had I made the wrong choice? The dress of my childhood was fanciful and overstated; an unrealistic, attention-demanding princess ball gown. My dress, the one I had just purchased under my budget, was demure and conservative with a kick of fun and a satisfying practicality (no train equals no tangles on a chairlift, layers of tulle are perfect for hiding bulky ski thermals). And yet there was no escaping; they looked identical. How could this be?

Had I succumbed to a subconscious desire for a princess wedding, despite my laid-back nature and love of a drunken raucous? Had I tricked myself into believing this was the dress I should love? I knew the answer was “no.”

After the dressing room door closed and I was left on my own, I had been overwhelmed with The Feeling. That was a surprise. I thought The Feeling was at best only experienced by the fairies-and-hearts-and-pink-fluff brides, and at worst an invention by TV networks to add drama to otherwise pleasantly boring reality shows. But it happened, it was real, and it was away from prying eyes. So it really was the dress for me, for right now.

This brought about my first wedding-induced introspection. I had long been proud that the shy, spineless, fearful child I was bore little resemblance to the confident, sociable adult I had become. Yet despite all the reinventions and personal growth and episodes of Oprah, some essence of that child had slipped into my twenties and exposed itself in ten layers of tulle and beading. I found it disturbing.

You see, in the years preceding puberty, I endured a profound personal trauma. It involved physical and mental abuse, betrayal, a tortuous court case and intense violation. Like many who are severely wronged, I blamed myself. I should’ve been stronger, I thought. I shouldn’t have let it happen. I scolded myself and, at eleven years old, resolved that I would not continue to be a meek pushover from whom anyone could take what they wanted.

The very week that a unanimous jury drew this tumultuous period my life to a close, I started high school. I donned a new uniform, in every sense. I changed my name: Beth was soft; Liz was strong. And hence I set forth into a rollercoaster of teenage years, emerging in my twenties as a confident, happy young woman.

And so the thought of that child following me into adulthood was unsettling and confusing. I had worked so hard and drank so much to eradicate her. And the deeper issues—my self-worth, my strength, my need for a voice—all pushed me to examine further. It was not just a dress. It was a statement about who I have become.

I’m no Trekkie, but I know what it looks like when Scotty beams you up and you appear, hazy at first, lines blurred yet distinctly you, and then you step out, fully-formed, into the new world you’ve been transported to. This is how I now view my journey into womanhood. I look back on the shy little girl who had trouble making friends and never knew what to say. She was just the early transmission, wonderful to watch, but only the beginning.

The nice thing about life is that, unlike Spock’s transporter, we don’t have to stand still and wait to fully become. We can explore the world while time fills us in. And we can change the picture if we please—it’s never fully developed until that process called life is over. But no matter how you change it, you can’t erase what has already filtered in.

That is how the dress of my childhood dreams ended up on a padded coat hanger in my sister-in-law’s closet.

I’ve had much upheaval in my life—family fucked-up-ness, parental divorce—as well as many self-induced changes—quitting jobs and lovers and countries and seizing new ones. Now, instead of being terrified of still being the child me, I find some comfort in knowing that that little girl who endured so much is still here. She wasn’t who I wanted to become, and so I chose not to grow into her. But she is here, a bit. She started the transmission, and I’m going to spend the rest of my days broadcasting proud.

Featured Sponsored Content

  • Laura

    Great entry! Thanks for posting this.

    • Liz

      Thanks Laura!

  • Absolutely beautiful. This makes the philosophy major in me smile, and it’s such a great exploration of what it is to be human.

    Also I hope we get to see some pictures of this ski wedding eventually! It sounds wodnerful.

    • SomeOther Hilary

      Philosopher fist-bump

      • Liz

        Thanks Sheryl and Hilary! The wedding is in April and I’ll be sure to send some photos along to the lovely APW folks.

  • SarahToo

    Beautifully put… “we don’t have to stand still and wait to fully become. We can explore the world while time fills us in. And we can change the picture if we please”. This really captures the sense of continual “becoming” that is life. I think that no matter how much we change, there are some fundamental parts of our nature that remain constant, and this is a good thing…it gives us a solid core to work from. Maybe integrity is the act of learning to remain true to that core, with all its strengths and flaws, even as we continue to grow. It seems to me like the strengths and weaknesses are often flip sides of the same coin.

    • Exactly. Hopefully not hijacking the comments here but this exactly why I have a bone to pick with that against about young marriage. “You still have so much changing to do” or “you don’t even know who you are yet”

      This is the exact core of it: we are NEVER done changing. Yet we are ALWAYS who we are.

      If life was a constant waiting to be “finished”–whether by some personality change or a career goal or even a spouse–what would be the point? You wait till the point when you are fully cooked and then you pick another fully cooked person and then what? You’re just stagnant?

      No way! It’s just the nature of life to always be changing, and if we waited until we were complete and finished changing to do anything, we wouldn’t be “ourselves” (or get married, or whatever) until we were dead.

      and that just doesn’t sound like any fun.

      • Liz

        Taylor – this is exactly what I was getting at! But I never considered it in relation to getting married young, and it’s a really profound connection. Thanks for continuing the thought!

      • KC

        I mostly agree with you, but also found that in my life there were a few major shifts where I “got” who I was in a more comprehensive way, and those shifts are seriously useful for life and relationships (being able to articulate “I am upset because…” rather than just “I am upset”, for instance, is pretty helpful). So, I do understand those who cannot imagine having married before they learned X set of stuff about themselves (especially those who were on track to marry someone other-than-ideal for themselves at certain ages). I can’t imagine having gotten married without having some sets of adverse circumstances while dating, with the “okay, this is what we’re like as a couple when both are under stress; here’s one-partner-super-busy-the-other-partner-bored; etc.” learning experience to avoid some blindsiding later. But some of those shifts happen after marriage as you’re in a new set of circumstances and bump into different bits of yourself.

        Also, oddly, 95% of my requirements-for-life-partner did not alter from when I was around 17 onwards (added later: one must want to be someone’s spouse, not their mom; at that point I didn’t quite grasp the difference between wanting mostly just to take care of someone and wanting to be their *partner*, and that was a very important difference!). And I didn’t meet my now-husband until a couple years later, which was good because a bunch of the rest of me needed to grow up, too. So there’s that. But I have friends whose partner concepts altered very significantly between then and later.

        I guess, I think early marriages should have some extra caution associated with them (early marriages being defined in my head as “marriages before you’ve experienced different kinds of adult life circumstances”; if you’ve moved, attended college, supported yourself for a chunk of time, tried and failed at something, lived in a foreign country, grieved, or had good roommates and terrible roommates, that all counts). Earlier and earlier in life, you honestly do each know less about yourself, generally, and that rate of learning and change is *fast* when you’re young and experiencing new situations. But there definitely isn’t a “ding, all done!” moment either, and people learn things about themselves at different ages, and it’s also fun to grow and learn *together* after you’re married.

        So… I agree and disagree. But mostly agree. :-)

        • meg

          Totally. This. I get that young marriage is great for some people, and am obviously not against it on principal, but the idea that it’s great “because you’re always changing anyway” does not work for me personally, a lady who thought marrying at 29 was super young (hello New Yorker perspective).

          I hadn’t figured out who I was at 21, or who the hell I should be dating. And I changed FAST in my early 20’s. Interestingly, David and I got together at 23/24, and I knew we were going to get married, but we COULDN’T have gotten married then. We weren’t ready, we were changing too fast. So yes, I had to go through the process of “you’ve moved, attended college, supported yourself for a chunk of time, tried and failed at something, lived in a foreign country, grieved, or had good roommates and terrible roommates” (roughly, I just traveled to a foreign country for the first time not lived there) to even ponder being ready.

          Interestingly, by the time we got married we’d been friends for *14 years* (half our lives), and had figured out that we changed together really well, so getting married made sense. I know that happens for basically nobody, ha, but for us, we couldn’t have decided that early, I think. We know what the other person was like at 14 or 15 years old, but we did have to wait till we got to a point of “OH. This is who I am.” to get married. We’re still changing all the time, but there was a kind of… balance point… that we needed to reach in our late 20’s first.

          Anyway. Yes. Young marriage is obviously great for some people (hello APW staffer Maddie!). But I don’t think the argument that all change is the same, holds always (or possibly even often?). It’s complicated stuff, and very different for different people.

          • Right. I should have qualified…not all change is equal and what I said should not be a justification for making hasty of foolish decisions. “hey lets just go get married, we’re always changing right?”

            When I met my accomplice-for-life I was 15. by 16 I was so sure we were going to be together for-ev-er but when a sixteen year old says that, you just laugh. We knew a lot of changing was coming up and we had to wait through that. So we waited, spent a year living in different cities, waded through anxiety and depression together, supported each other through multiple changes in college majors, and career paths (and oh boy this is not done yet) lived with other people, lived in different countries, lived together, and finally decided, as you say that “that we changed together really well, so getting married made sense.”

            still, we have a lot to change. a LOT to change, being in our early twenties. We just spent last week traveling and pondering a move across the country, going to grad school or not, etc. But now the feeling behind it is different. It is no longer a “if we can make it through these changes together, we can feel comfortable getting married” (like being long distance and studying abroad, and witnessing each other’s darkest and ugliest moments felt). Now Its more like “getting married makes me feel a lot more comfortable facing all these changes” We can support each other a lot more easily through the upcoming changes (like one being the breadwinner with the health insurance while the other goes to school or tries out a new business venture)

            and again, this feels different for different people. But my example is just another type of counter-example to the “marriage is for the established, the settled, ducks in a row people” narrative.

        • Maddie

          Funny enough, as someone who got married really young (engaged at 21, legally married at 22, wedding at 23) I have mixed feelings about it as well. I think that what Taylor is saying is very true, in that we are ALWAYS changing, so while I don’t necessarily use that logic as a means for defending young marriage, I do think it sort of makes age a moot point. People can get married at any time in their lives and then undergo serious enough change to be a different person a few years down the road.

          My feelings on young marriage are probably too complicated to fit into a single comment, but I do think the one thing that matters across the board is you need to know who you are before you can commit to another person for life. Especially if who you are is a moving target like it is when you’re, say, in college. Otherwise you’ll lose yourself.

      • Exactly! When we were navigating the wedding planning and talking about what it means to be married, we realized that it’s not about just loving the person we are right now and accepting each other as we are today (or yesterday, and tomorrow), but wanting to grow and change together.
        I like your comment on how part of our core remains unchanged in a sense — that there is a constant, and maybe it is that constant that we fall in love with, and we accept that there is this other stuff that we may change.

    • Liz

      I love this definition of integrity, Sarahtoo. That speaks to me.

  • “Well here’s the bombshell: We are only ever one person. We may go through phases, distinct periods in our lives, but we are only ever one person.”

    Yes! this! Reminds me of a line from I Heart Huckabees: “How am I not myself?” The point being that such a concept is impossible

    Whenever we beat ourselves up about “why am I being this way? this isn’t me”, we have to cut ourselves a break. It is me. I just didn’t know ‘me’ included this facet of behavior/desire/emotion before. And that’s okay.

    This is the main thing that irks me on those wedding dress shows. A girl walks out in a dress that makes her happy and the mom or whoever will say “It’s just not you”
    But it is! It is you. Because why would someone else be the authority on who we are–even if that someone else is just a different facet of yourself that wants to believe she’s all punk and independent and would never wear a frilly dress when another side of you very much wants to look like an ethereal fairy princess walking out of the woods thank-you-very-much.

    If our selves contain all those parts, then how are we *not* ourselves?

    • Adele

      I hate that part about wedding shows too, especially when the bride succumbs to peer pressure and picks a dress that her entourage thinks is “really her”. I have very opinionated parents and future in laws and as such, I went shopping for and bought my dress by myself to avoid having anyone’s influence on my choice. And you know what? The dress I ended up picking is completely and totally me as a result. It’s certainly not what either sets of parents would have wanted or would have imagined was me, but it reflects my personality to a “T”. And I love my dress and have to confess to putting it on (in secret when no one else it home) frequently… that’s how me this dress is. And when I walk down the aisle wearing it, my fiance won’t be amazed at the new version of me but he’ll see the person he’s known all along wearing a kick-ass dress and a ridiculously goofy grin :)

      We are always who we are and a wedding should never change that.

      • KB

        Exactly – this is why it is at the very same time “just a dress” and “not just a dress.” It’s silly to say that you need to find a dress that encompasses every part of your personality – or that your dress is an outward reflection of your inner self or values. But at the same time, it’s your WEDDING DRESS – it’s the singular most identifiable dress you will wear for a milestone. You want to look damn good in it and you’re probably going to spend a lot of money to do so, and look good for posterity to boot. In the end, hopefully everyone is happy with what they get – and if not, there’s always vow renewals!!

        • Liz

          I think this is what I like about weddings and dresses; you get to make a choice about which facet of yourself you put out there, but you know that your partner is accepting you on that day for ALL your facets, and all that is to come. I think it’s a great combination of choosing how you want to be portrayed but knowing you’re accepted and loved regardless of that choice.

        • ‘at the very same time “just a dress” and “not just a dress.”’

          Well said.

          I had a hard time choosing a gown, because I was torn between wanting something beautiful (but no idea what I wanted it to look like) and reprimanding myself for obsessing over “Just a dress”. But one day, after finding myself crying about it (again) I realized that it may be a dress, but its also a ritual garment. It has a ceremonial purpose, to identify me as “The Bride” and to be part of my preparations, like armour. I would put on my dress and my makeup and get my hair done, and as these steps were completed I would get closer to the wedding, and it helped me be mindful of what was happening that day.
          Whatever you wear on your wedding day is first, just clothes. However fancy or plain, delicate or full of tulle, a dress is a dress, just like a suit is a suit, for a groom. But they are also ‘ceremonial robes’, every bit as much as those worn by a judge or priest or rabbi to officiate, and its okay to be concerned with them. They are important, not for the reasons all the movies and tv shows tell us they are, but for their role in the ritual of the day, and we need to stop beating ourselves up for ‘caring too much.’

  • Is it crazy that the wedding dress I chose before I got married is not the wedding dress I would choose now? I can’t believe I’ve changed so incredibly much in a year!

    • Liz

      This made me smile Stephanie! That’s part of the point: ever-evolving! I hope you’re enjoying all of the changes.

  • Rose in SA

    Such beautiful writing.

    • Liz

      Thank you Rose.

  • Beaula

    This really resonated with me, we have very similar stories. Thank you for this.

    • Liz

      Thank you Beaula. It’s good to know someone else is in the same (or a similar) boat.

  • KB

    I wrote this on another post last week (or two weeks ago?) but when I was little, I had a Glinda the Good Witch Barbie Doll with a pink poufy tulle dress with glow-in-the-dark stars on it and I loooooved it. It was very similar to a gown that I saw when I went wedding dress shopping a couple months ago – strapless, HUGE tulle dress with crystals on the bodice and throughout the top later. And it was a blush-pink color. I HAD to try it on. And I did. And it looked gorgeous, so much so that I was giggling and smiling and saying “Awww!!!” But I didn’t get it – I realized that I created another very similar dress-vision in my head as a I grew up. So while my actual dress looks totally different in some ways (fitted, white), it shares the same features of the Barbie dress I loved (SPARKLES!!). When I read this post, it made me think of my experience, and that we should all try to carry with us the good, magical parts with us, even as we age.

  • Shiri

    Beautiful, strong, and true. Thank you.

    • Liz

      Thanks Shiri.

  • This is a great post and I’m already loving the discussion on it!

    (Also, fist bump for winter ski weddings!)

    • Liz

      Yeeeaaaaaaa winter ski weddings! Cold? Bah! I’ll be my something blue.

  • Liz, you seem awesome. I love that you are unapologetic about being a strong, smart, happy woman, and you’ve allowed us into your brain.

    I love this post, and I can’t wait to see photos of this dress with ski thermals on a chair lift.

    • Liz

      Thanks Kate! I’ll have to be sure I get a photo of me flashing my thermals!

  • This is so beautiful, and lovely, and earnest and wonderful. I teared up. I might even come back to this later when it’s safe to cry a bit…

    • Liz

      Thanks Shirley!

  • Jennie

    Impeccable timing as I just spent the past weekend dress shopping with my mother, and have been processing very similar thought emotions. I tried on a slew of dresses and found about five that I really like, but they are all completely different from one another. After some self reflection, I have come to realize that they each enhance different aspects of who I am, was, and want to be as a person and woman. One reflected the fun-loving, easy-going side of myself while another brought out the maturity and elegance of my womanhood that I (sometimes) see in the mirror. Another was whimsical and unique, reminding me of my younger, youthful self. Deciding which to express on my wedding day is a difficult choice, but the experience is teaching me that I am all these parts of myself and will be every day, including my wedding day.

  • Blair

    Holy crap. I literally had a visceral response. Beautiful post. Even your writing style is amazing.

    But consider that the upheavals you refer to having experienced in your life are precedent, as much, for the continual reinvention of your inner self. Someone accustomed to chaos is much more likely to accept change, methinks.
    Personally I believe the chaos/change experience becomes a quality that ultimately creates some of the most learned, grounded people.

    “A life is a lifetime. No need to rush.” Stolen as of riiigghhhttt….now.

    • Liz

      Thanks for that Blair. And that one-liner… that’s my favourite line out of everything I wrote, I think, because it’s something to constantly remind myself of.

  • Thanks for the post! I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the whole concept of “growing up,” in terms of what stories we hear most often or loudest in society vs. what stories actually happen. I think you’ve captured your life lessons about that process so so well. I’m particularly compelled by your thoughts about the journey to womanhood, and simultaneously being all you’ve ever been. It reminds me of Madeline L’Engle’s quote “I am every age that I have been.”

    I’ve had the same feeling of coming back, if you will, to some of my traits/desires/attitudes I had as a child. When I think about it, I feel like in childhood I was a very true, pure from of myself, and it was (and is) the chaotic years of adolescence and twenty-something-ness that further polishes that gem of self. At times, some things become more obscure, only to be polished to high clarity again later on.

    • Liz

      That Madeline L’Engle quote is great and I haven’t heard it before, so thanks for sharing it.

  • Marissa

    This reminds me of a line from Walt Whitman’s poem Song of Myself: “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then… I contradict myself/ I am large… I contain multitudes.”

  • Michelle