This week I will be going to high school. I’m a bit nervous and it feels strange. It is for a student’s assignment. She was required to interview someone and present a speech about them. Some how, she chose me. I will go to listen to her speech and answer any questions.
In ways, I am looking forward to it. So much of our interview led to conversations of success: what I studied in college, what some of my favorite past times include, how I enjoy spending my time, and what I do for a living. But it also triggered something within. I was surprised to find myself in a surreal sense of being after the interview. Had I really lived this life of mine? How did it all seem to work out so well? What about all the craziness and uncertainty that led me here? Did I really tell her that the best thing I did for my career was quit my job!? Did I really agree to go to a high school class!? Shit, I did.
My experience of high school still haunts me. By no means where those the best years of my life. I began working during my sophomore year, and was living independently by my senior year. School was a daily obligation in which every else seemed to be living a normal life. Mine seemed to be caving in on itself- and I was struggling to get out alive. That is where my addiction began.
I have known it for some time, and it remains difficult to reconcile. In fact, over two years ago, I wrote a letter to my seventeen year old self. Every word of it still rings true today. I think my seventeen year old self is a little frightened to share her story with other high school kids. It is hard to believe that such success can emerge from and be part of truly difficult struggles. They are not separate. They belong together. And amazingly enough, they are a part of who I have become. And it still feels strange.
Dear Self of 1999,
I’ve seen the work you are doing. You are working so hard- to make money, to be accepted, to understand, to dream, to forget, to hide. I see how stable you look on the outside. You hold yourself as a professional, yet you are a child. You work long hours and have profound insights to how things could be better. You see the world with wide eyes and a strong heart. You commit yourself to excellence, as if you are trying so hard to prove something. And yet, you are not able to appreciate how young you are. I know you feel far older than 17, but that is because you had to step up. You have an ability to take charge on a moment’s notice. It is as if you set fear aside. Or perhaps you let fear become your motivator. Either way, it has gotten you far in just a few years.
I remember how scared you were. How alone and worthless you felt. Rejection doesn’t even scratch the surface.
It is no wonder acceptance feels like a god send.
It is no wonder you are delighted to get to know people who might give you some sense of what “success” might look like.
It is no wonder you cling so tightly to the arms of your boyfriend.
It is no wonder that his arms are so strong. He tries so much to protect you and provide you a place that feels safe. He offers you a space you can rest your head after nights of on-going battles. In his arms, you can rest easy. You can let some of that fear go. You can express your frustration, shed your tears, and let go of shame. He helps you stay strong.
I know it is hard for you to understand, but as “normal” as this spot feels for you, it still is not healthy. You cannot depend on your parents, even though you are still so young. Instead you depend on someone else, someone who seems more stable. Yet you are desperately trying to take hold of your life by saving money, planning furiously, and trying to prove that you are “worth” something.
You see though, you don’t have to try that hard to prove it. Because your worth is based on who you are, not what you do. But I understand, what you do defines you as separate from your family- because when you are part of the violence, control, dependency, despair, and illness you feel shame and embarrassment. You feel as though you are bad. But you are not. I promise.
The praise and acceptance you get at your jobs tells you different. It tells you that because of what you do, that you are good. You mitigate these disparate messages by dissociating- splitting your self in two on your way to and from work. Shuttling your mind toward and away from cycles of struggle and success. As you build this defense, ruin continues. Chaos ensues and with great intensity. You feel it all around you and fear what the world knows of it. You fear your scars will be noticed, detailed and all.
The saddest part is that by employing these defenses, you are putting little pieces of yourself away in a box- hidden and misunderstood. Soon you will begin to miss these pieces of yourself. You will blame the one you love for not letting you be you. You’ll become scared again and feel unstable again. You will think you are free from your familial responsibility. It will be good, you need to know you can stand on your own two feet. You will need to know how not to let others drag you down. In time, you will learn so much.
I am proud of you. You are brave. You are strong, compassionate, sincere, creative, insightful, beautiful, and talented. This is who you are- appreciate the world around you. Each moment. Each person whom you admire. Each taste of egg drop soup from your favorite restaurant. Each conversation with your grandpa, each time you harvest blackberries. Enjoy your words, your art, and your gift.
I think of you often.
Self of 2011