Dear Lily June,
Your cousin Martin couldn’t have been more than eight years old when he stood under my mother’s deck with me. His twenty-something aunt, I held his little hand in mine and laughed while rain slipped through the wooden slats to drip onto our faces. The adults in the house had been on his case–he was running too slapdash, talking too loud, being too young–and I wanted to give him a break from all that. We stood out in the rain, while I tried to cheer him up.
And he turned to me, with the most serious expression an eight-year-old can muster, and said with all the sadness of a lifetime, “I just don’t belong to this world.” He sighed, a balloon emptying not from being able to flit about the room, but from being forced under a boot. I wanted to sweep him up into my arms then, tell him everything would be alright, tell him things would get better as he got older. But, as quickly as a cloud, the mood passed him, and he stepped out from under the semi-cover and let the rain wash away the difficulty of his day. It’s easy to forget how hard it is to be a kid sometimes, Lily, and I never want to do that with you.
It was hard to be raised in a violent home, but what I didn’t expect was how hard it would be when the violence stopped. When I was ten, my parents divorced, my mother remarried, and we moved across town. I was surprisingly okay with most of the changes, but I found myself unnerved by the newfound silence of our home. I had been used to coming home from school, going directly to my room, closing the door, and playing alone until dinner. In the background, the same soundtrack of shouts and sobs played out as white noise, scary but familiar. On good days, I knew how to tune out that frequency.
But as I got older in my new house, I couldn’t put my finger on what was missing. I would still come home and go straight to my room, generally, but there was an absence behind that door. An absence of fights, of fear, of any sound. The peace was a confusing thing to adjust to, especially the fact that, for some reason, it seemed to hurt to hear nothing.
I think now I was reacting to seeing your Grandma Raelyn smile and flirt for the first time in my life. She would giggle like a school girl on the phone with her new husband, and my sister would roll her eyes in disgust. She would go out on dates, leaving my sister and I alone to think: Why couldn’t her time away from our father be spent with us?
It’s hard to know what she must have been going through at that time. She’d been imprisoned, impoverished in a loveless marriage and had worn depression so long, it must have felt like a second skin to her. And when she shed that skin, for a time, she had to shed all memories associated with it, and that included us, the children of that terrifying past, and pursue, for the first time in 35-odd years, her own happiness. It’s both hard to begrudge her and hard to forgive her that.
By the time I hit my teens, my own depression, spurred on by hormonal changes and a burgeoning social anxiety, began to make me afraid I was invisible. My mother didn’t seem to see me, my father couldn’t be bothered to pay child support, let alone ask for custody (at least at first), I had friends I could count on one hand and no real prospects of being courted any time soon. And my sister who, despite being my biggest bully was also my only partner in crime, had absconded to Florida, on the arm of the compulsive liar and drug user that would ultimately knock her up with Martin and get her evicted from their apartment when he snorted the rent money up his nose. I felt truly and utterly alone.
I dealt with the isolation and abandonment in two ways. On weekend visits to my dad’s, his Jewish girlfriend would try to ply me with matza and kuegel, always complaining that I was too thin. Relishing the new limelight, I started eating as little as I could through the week, giving her more reason to dote on me the next time I saw her again. The other “coping mechanism” was far more shameful, and it got me seen, but not in the way that I wanted to be.
I started cutting. Given the opportunity to be both my own attacker and my own nurse, I could externalize the pain I felt inside that I didn’t know how to talk about, not that I had many at that time I felt were interested in listening. These weren’t suicide attempts, because I didn’t want to die. Rather, I wanted someone to care that I was alive–with all the struggle and suffering that entails (as dramatic and “emo” as I hope that all seems to you, Lily).
It worked, unfortunately. A teacher noticed I seemed to wear long sleeves even in the thick of summer, and when I started scratching the cuts that would itch in the heat, they caught enough of a glimpse to report me to a counselor who would, in turn, report me to my mother.
For awhile, body inspections became the new normal. I would have to strip down to my bra and panties while my mother would look me over, all the time threatening that I wasn’t going to do this in her home, and if she found so much as a scratch I couldn’t explain easily, she would ship me off to a hospital where professionals could look after me. I realize now how scary it must have been for her, having to come to grips, after hurting and being hurt herself for so long, with that the fact that her daughter’s pain was only just surfacing.
She never gave up on me. The locations I cut got more clandestine, and I’d often slip the knife just below my panty line to avoid detection. But some part of me must have realized that violated the whole purpose, because it got too hard to work at hiding it. I gave in eventually, and though the pain didn’t exactly subside, it did lessen in the mere fact of having been noticed. Even in my mother’s threats to send me away, I sensed that she just wanted to hold me close and didn’t know how. I forgive her the embraces she couldn’t give me and the love she was finding outside of our home.
She and her new beau started spending more time around then, but ironically, I wanted more often to go. Being self-destructive had driven me to find like-minded others, and I made friendships forged in pain. We liked our clothes and our humor black, and we sharpened our sarcasm and wits, taking on the world more and our flesh less. I was lucky to find this niche in which to belong, and not every kid or teen is so blessed.
My friends and I, because we’d been depressed and wore this, literally on or under our sleeves, were typecast as freaks (though, in all fairness, wearing trench coats and dog collars to school was intended to provoke just that reaction) and when the mass shooting happened at a school in Columbine, we were looked at with suspicion.
When we started an “underground newsletter” to expose the hypocrisies of high school, we got added to some kind of administrative list and were shipped out of math class to mandated counseling. It gave us a designated place to bitch and saved us from endless repetitions of the Pythagorean theorem, which was an added bonus. But we never wanted to burn the world down, Lily. Like my nephew looking sadly into the rain, we wanted to be seen. To be saved. We just wanted someone to want us not to drown.
We had emotional issues that weren’t easy to solve, and at the time, Adderall was shoveled down throats like candy, the diagnosis du jour being ADD. But we weren’t having trouble focusing. We were focused too much, on ourselves, on our pasts, on our parents and their overt abuse or covert neglect, and what we needed was perspective from exposure to pains larger than ours (for a healthy dose of reality) along with caring professionals who might look past our scars (physical and mental) and come up with comprehensive treatment plans for what couldn’t be explained away by the trauma of adolescence with its veracious exposure to other, you know, adolescents.
I had untreated anorexia. I had OCPD and possibly even some PTSD. I had mental illnesses that were not a reflection of capital-M Me, but of imbalances in my brain and body and dysfunctions in my home and family. I had also just been dealt a shitty hand by the people who were supposed to love me, and God willing, no matter where you might feel alone, I hope to make you feel as if you always belong in your family.
As the world keeps spinning, it’s also changing constantly. I have hope for you, even though I know no childhoods are entirely easy. You will face cyber-bullying that was only just beginning in my day, but you will also have high speed opportunities to raise awareness about what you’re enduring, with blogs and videos and anything you choose to post. You will have to be careful in that decision-making, as vulnerability can be a chew-toy to the dogs of the internet, but I hope you can let your heart be seen (though, please, cover your body).
As a girl, I likely would have been more inclined to be Wednesday Adams from the Adams Family than the girl scout in the clip below.
But in all fairness, the Girl Scouts of America have, in recent times, done some incredibly progressive and inclusive things. It was the blogger Lauren Hayley‘s post that brought to my attention how they’ve created a merit badge for mental health awareness, so that less girls will know what it means for themselves or others to suffer in silence.
This is the same organization that refused to accept a $100,000 donation when it came with the caveat that it couldn’t aid transgendered girls in the troop. Now that’s what I call coming “a long way, baby.”
I hope, even if you take the Groucho Marks approach to the Girl Scouts–if you
“don’t care to belong to any club that would have [you] as a member”
–that you still find a way to feel as if you belong in this world. I want the rain to drip into your open palms, not pour down your wounded cheeks. But I know, baby, how hard it is to be young and to feel alone. And I’m willing, if it ever hits you, to hold your hand in the downpour until it passes.
- “Brooklyn Museum – Illustration from Chushingara Series – Utagawa Kunisada I” by Utagawa Kunisada – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 42.73_IMLS_PS3.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons
- “Schnittwunden” by Hendrike – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Schnittwunden.JPG#/media/File:Schnittwunden.JPG
- “Raindrop on a fern frond” by Louise Docker from sydney, Australia – Driplet. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Raindrop_on_a_fern_frond.jpg#/media/File:Raindrop_on_a_fern_frond.jpg