Sometimes, deep thoughts and questions come from unexpected places. This week, “People” magazine had a special double issue to celebrate their 40 year anniversary. In this special double issue, they asked several major movie and television stars what advice they would give their younger selves, if given that opportunity, and then printed their responses. Interesting, right? Actually, most of the advice was pretty bland. Lacking depth, trying to be cool and catchy. But it caused me to think about what I would tell myself if I could talk to me when I was in my teens. First of all, what a thought! I would LOVE to have that opportunity. To be able to tell myself with assurance what I needed to do, needed not to do, needed to pursue, needed to pay attention to and what to avoid. Oh, my! If only! It’s a nice impossible dream. But it’s also, I realized, an exercise that could, perhaps, help someone who is now in a similar place to the place I was in when I was younger. So maybe, beyond being a lovely fantasy, just maybe, there is something worthwhile to be gained. Something that could help another avoid a great deal of pain. To keep them from wasting their life. Slim chance, but, whatever. I’m indulging myself. So, let’s get to it.
One of the first things I would tell myself is to not stay in relationships that are toxic and damaging. This probably seems totally obvious to most people, but when you’re raised in a home that is rife with every kind of abuse, negligence, and permeated with rejection, it doesn’t seem obvious at all. You learn to expect and accept these things. You learn that, for reasons you don’t understand, you don’t matter in any way, to anyone. To have someone tell you that you don’t deserve to be treated badly and give you permission to get out of this type of situation is…well, it’s revolutionary.
Maybe I wouldn’t have landed in a good situation if I had gotten out. Been removed from my parent’s home. But an abusive foster home, staying with people who weren’t, like my parents, supposedly hard-wired to love me, couldn’t have been as damaging as staying in an abusive home where the people who are supposed to love, nurture, and protect are instead berating, belittling, rejecting, abusing, using, raping, hitting, molesting, and hating me. The longer you are told you are nothing, the deeper that message goes. The more you are treated as if you are worthless, the more you believe it. And if the people who are telling you that you are nothing are your parents, the people who are supposed to love you beyond reason, the message is driven into the very core of your soul. You believe. Because they are the people who are supposed to see value in you and help you discover who you are. To help you to find your way. To help you reach your potential. They are supposed to have your best interests at heart. So the parental relationship, when warped and broken, warps and breaks you much more significantly and deeply than any other relationship. It doesn’t mean foster parents wouldn’t have hurt me if they had also been rejecting and abusive. The hurt simply wouldn’t have been quite as devastating.
Staying in the abusive home environment set me up to stay in two abusive and loveless marriages. Had I been able to learn early on that being abused, used, discounted, and disdained isn’t acceptable, it would have changed the entire course of my life. No exaggeration. Therefore, I would tell my teenage self to tell someone what was going on; what my parents were doing to me. And if they didn’t listen, I would have told that young me to tell someone else. And someone else. And someone else…until SOMEONE heard what I was saying and got me out of that situation. Got me out of that horrible toxic environment. Got me the help I needed. That would be my advice, my words of wisdom from lessons learned the hard way, to any young person who is living in an abusive home right now. As with any unhealthy relationship, the only loving thing to do for yourself is to get out. To take care of and protect yourself. So, tell. Tell until someone listens. Let the authorities get you out of that destructive environment. So you can start to heal.
Which brings me to the second thing I would tell myself, or tell any other teen who is like I was then: Get psychological help. Counseling. Right away.
We have a tendency when we are young to think there is a lot of time. That time itself will heal us. We have no sense of urgency. We think we can hang on a little longer until we get to a better time or place. A place where it’s not as costly, where we’re better equipped, and then we will be better able to afford, both emotionally and financially, the care we desperately need. We can then process what we need to process. But this isn’t true.
When we are young, it’s fresh. It’s right there, easy to access. We’re more open. The pain is on the surface and it’s reachable. As we get older, all the techniques we used to trick our mind into helping us survive another day have become hardened into place. Disconnecting has become automatic. The pain goes underground. We shut down. We bury feelings, thoughts, emotions, ideas, insights. We sell ourselves piece by piece as we disassociate and numb out. And when we finally have the money, resolve, and time to deal with it, we have to find the coffin we hid and buried so long ago, dig it up, then try to understand and feel things that are in that coffin. But those things have calcified inside of us, becoming rigid. Difficult to change. It’s harder to unearth all the intricate, damaging details of long ago abuse.
Don’t wait. When we are broken, when our soul has been poisoned, we do so many unhealthy things we wouldn’t do otherwise. Like the many people who don’t value us, we tell ourselves we don’t deserve to be loved, cherished and wanted. We convince ourselves we don’t deserve good things because we are flawed. Defective. We tell ourselves that we, our feelings, our dreams don’t matter. We destroy what is left of us. Because we don’t believe we deserve anything positive. The choices we make are compromised because we can’t see clearly or correctly, nor can we think in healthy ways. We need to heal so we can have a life worth living. That’s why my words of wisdom to my younger self, or to others in a similar situation, would be to strongly insist on getting help. Get it early. And give it everything you have.
I haven’t learned many lessons in my life. I’ve struggled to simply see the step in front of me and haven’t been able to contemplate the next step beyond that. This is what struggling each day simply to survive does to you. And that’s why I would love the opportunity to tell myself these two important pieces of wisdom. So much hinges on these two things. It’s what would cause everything to turn out differently than it did. Not doing them lays the foundation for the pain, brokenness, heartbreak, numbness, destruction, and disappointment that follows. All of which lead me to this place of depression and desolation. If I could go back and tell myself these two things, my entire world would be different now. Everything would shift. Because if I got out of those destructive relationship, then built relationships that were healthy, deep, valid and validating, I would not be isolated, broken, and disconnected now. I would have real friends. Real connections. Healthy relationships. Which would give me purpose and meaning. A reason to live.
And if I got the help I needed early, I would have been able to love myself. To hold the people responsible who needed to be held responsible. To see everything that came next completely differently. No more surviving…I would have been able to live. Working through my feelings and healing would put the pieces back together. So I could take healthy steps. Dream dreams. Succeed. Believe. And hope.
Sure, there would be setbacks and times of failure. But the overall course would have taken me where my heart wanted to go instead of leading me into a place of deep darkness and emptiness. The outcome would have been much more wonderful. Life might have actually been worth living.
I can’t go back. I can’t tell myself the things that would have changed my world. But I can tell you. Hopefully, you will hear me. In time. For it to make a difference.