So being a teenager was kind-of the worst. I feel like I don’t really have to convince anyone of that who has actually been a teenager. I’ve heard stories of mythical creatures who totally enjoyed their years in this stage of life but I’m skeptical and if that was you, I’m pleased for you. For me, it was when everything, fairly predictably, fell completely apart.
I was fourteen when it really hit. Fourteen when the depression and anxiety got so bad I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t even have the words for those feelings, or any of my other feelings. I would be in my twenties before I could start using the word anxiety as something that applied to myself. Fourteen when the walls closed in tightly enough that I started cutting myself to remember how to breathe. Fourteen when I started spending more time in my room than out of it, when my goal began to be primarily “how can I get out of my house?” I was also fourteen when I fell in love.
He was eighteen years old. He was not my first boyfriend, just the first one that counted. He wasn’t the cutest boy I’d ever seen but I was his entire world and I needed that more than I needed anything else. I can’t possibly express the level of need I lived with on a daily basis. Need for love, for attention, for affection, for praise, approval, anything. I was a neverending chasm of need. I didn’t know how to ask for it, I didn’t even fully understand what it was that I was looking for but I groped for it blindly, constantly. I manipulated, lied, begged, bargained. My parents were not capable of giving this to me. Giving undiluted praise was a foreign concept to them, comfort was also somewhat beyond their understanding. I assume they were frightened. When your teenage daughter is cutting herself and sneaking out with older boys, it makes sense to be frightened. My mother thought her worst nightmares were coming true – her daughter was going to turn out just like her. This, of course, was my worst nightmare as well but I heard it constantly. I could see it in her eyes and when we fought (fairly constantly), my father would sit down in a chair he brought into my room and affectionately tell me that I was just like my mom, this was why we fought so much. I was terrified this was a genetic curse I couldn’t break.
I didn’t want to be like my mother. I wanted to be like my father. My mother was chaotic, emotional, never taken seriously. My father loved her but he handled her. I didn’t want to be handled, I wanted to be a full person. I wanted to be smart. But there was no questioning the fact that I was emotional, in fact that my emotions were somewhat out of control in comparison to the rest of my family. I was closest to my mother in that regard. The fact that my father was actually bizarrely, unhealthily distant and detached from the world, that perhaps his lack of emotions was not a normal thing or something to strive for did not ever cross my mind. I assumed this was what you needed to have and the fact I couldn’t get there was devastating. It was because I was a girl, of course. Girls were naturally more emotional than boys. It was not something you held against them in our family, the boys just dealt with it, accepted it, battened down until it went away. I knew if I cried or lost my temper then everything I said would just disappear. It did not occur to me to question this. The world works how the world works.
If I am honest, this is part of why I fell in love. He was also detached, able to distance himself from everything. He worshiped me, wrote torrential, incredibly dramatic emails about how much he loved me and he would die without me but when I saw him, he was always calm, always collected. Nothing I ever said seemed to shock him or reach him on any deep level. I envied that, I wanted that. I started to work on detaching myself. The idea that maybe he loved me because I was so different from him, that maybe being detached from life or emotions was not as wonderful as I imagined, never crossed my mind. I saw what I wanted and I jumped.
I was not my mother’s daughter in some important ways. I was terrified of losing control, so I never drank, I never did drugs. In spite of the fact that my boyfriend’s friends did a number of drugs and I was around things I had never seen before, it never seriously crossed my mind to try it. It had nothing to do with morals really. I just didn’t want anything happening to my brain that I felt I couldn’t control. Instead I cut myself, wrote terrible poetry and got in screaming fights with my mother almost every day.
And of course, on Sundays we went to church. Wednesdays I went to youth group. These were basically my only social outlets. I loved my youth group, I was much more reticent about my parent’s church. Everyone seemed to love my parents, it seemed so clear that I was the problem child, causing trials for my parents. Occasionally I would reach out to various pastors or youth leaders. I would try hesitantly to explain that things weren’t okay, that I wasn’t really okay but I did not have words to explain what was happening. After all, nothing was happening. We were fed, we were clothed. No one was beating us, no one was touching us. I couldn’t describe how there was no air in my house, how my mother’s unpredictable anger was drowning me, how I was trapped and alone. Even if I could have, who would have listened? What teenager doesn’t have trouble with her parents? I was smart and articulate, I could argue politics and theology fairly effectively, people took notice of my intelligence on a fairly regular basis, but I had absolutely no words for this and the scars on my arms only convinced people I was troubled, not that I was in trouble. My father taught adult Sunday School, my mother ran the finance board. Clearly the problem was with me. After all, I was the one sneaking out with boys and who knows what else. Even good parents can have bad kids. Maybe there were people who wondered, people who worried or were curious what was going on but if there were, I never knew about it. I felt completely alone.
I believe on some level my parents were trying. I was their first kid and they were woefully unprepared. They did send me to therapy after the second or third time they found out I was cutting (uncharitably, I still feel like it was mostly to save face) but I had no interest in “getting better.” It was the one thing that worked and I wasn’t about to give it up. I went through a very long series of boyfriends, some during the love of my life (who stood patiently by with the curious and wildly unhealthy theory that it was “better to have a part of me than none at all”) and some after. Some were actually abusive, most were just completely not prepared to deal with me. My parents knew about most of them. Though technically I was not allowed to date, it never occurred to me to let that be a hindrance. I lied to them without thought. I was surviving and it was minute to minute that counted. I gave little or no consideration to my future. I don’t think I really believed I would survive into my 20’s, or I could not envision what that would look like.
I believed in God because it would never have occurred to me not to. God was as constant a presence in my life as my parents and, if I’m honest looking back, about as useful most of the time. I went through various periods of religious fervor, sometimes breaking up with boys in a wave of guilt, sometimes just hopelessly accepting my fallen state, sometimes just refusing to think about the contradictions at all. I slept with my first girl at seventeen, my best friend at the time. I wrote it off easily as a product of my abuse. It never occurred to me to call myself bisexual. Of course it was a sin, but so was sleeping with boys. I did both, periodically. Felt guilty, wreaked a lot of havoc in lives and relationships. I think towards the end of my high school career my parents were just looking on in helpless shock. They did not know what to do and I had effectively cut off most communication. We still talked but only about ideas unrelated to the things going on.
When I was eighteen, they kicked me out of the house. I left one day without doing the dishes and when I came home my mother told me I had “used my 9th life.” She’ll tell you now it’s because I wasn’t getting a job, I was just hanging out and also not doing my chores. Maybe that’s true. But honestly I think she just lost her temper and decided this was it. I waited to see if my father would back her up (I don’t know why – he always did). I called my friend to come get me, packed a bag, hugged my brothers and slammed the door in my father’s face on the way out. If it hadn’t been for my brothers and how much I loved them and my intense desire to stay in touch with them, I might have walked out of my parents lives that day. As it was, it would be another ten years… which I’ll tell you all about next week.