High School was something I survived.
Now I know that a lot of people say that, but I looked back at pages and pages of smiling faces, of children spreading their wings, and trying on personae. Pages and pages of the perennial teenage search for identity, and there was one glaring thing that struck me. I was nowhere. Not one of those shining hopeful faces in my senior year book was my own, and when it came to those cute little boxes with pictures and words that a child used to tell the world who they were... I had not one word to say for myself. Nothing but the required school portrait to mark my passing.
No one who met me as an adult would believe it. At 31 years old, I am a shining, passionate, well-educated, well-spoken, thoughtful, wise, kind-hearted, honest, skilled, and logical woman. I am also humble enough to feel really really uncomfortable with that last sentence. So, where is that girl who I see smirking up at me from that page? I remember being so bitter, hostile, and depressed during those years. I remember feeling so alone, so unloved. Unlovable. I closed the book, and stowed it back on its shelf, the feelings still washing over me, my world wobbling on its axis. “Am I still that lonely, unlovable, inadequate girl?” whispered my insides, “Is this... thing... called my life just some sort of elaborate fantasy?”
I came downstairs out of the library, shaken. And as I did, something amazing happened. Just an ordinary, everyday miracle. Milo and Tiny got up off the library floor, where they had been sleeping, and followed me down the stairs. At the bottom, I was greeted with tails curling and wagging, with licks and nibbles, with the rub of fur on outstretched fingers. And I realized something profound. I am the bedrock of these lives. I am the bedrock that they build their very existence around. And I realized that that is also true for most of the animals and people who live here. My husband, children, and animals rely on those very uncomfortably listed qualities. They build the rhythms of their lives on the certainty of my strength, and they learn compassion, kindness, and patience in the face of my weaknesses.
And so I sit here and ask myself, how did that angry, confused, lonely little girl become the bedrock of some 23 other lives? I mean, wow. When you look at my life following High School, on paper, it doesn't really improve. I dropped out of college after my grandmother died. I moved hundreds of miles away from my family. There was a string of low-paid jobs, drugs, a debilitating car accident which left me unable to walk for months and did permanent damage to my back. Chronic pain, addiction, poverty. And just when I started to pull my life together, there was a miscarriage. And the amazing thing is that, though I continued to suffer from anxiety and depression, the thing I most remember about my life at that time... is being happy. Sure, I remember hating my job, and feeling miserable. I remember feeling sometimes like I just couldn't face another day. But I also remember shining moments of simple pleasure. The first time I ate a tomato so fresh it was still warm from the sun in our garden. I remember being in love so fresh, so new, so potent that I was sure it couldn't last forever. I remember the utter decadence of date night, which would cost us all of $5 for two second-run movie tickets. I remember the glowing pride of our first pumpkin, and the love and gratitude I felt when a neighbor took it into his garage to save it from an unexpected frost.
I remember other things too. Things that make me realize that the journey here was made with small steps, each one potent, each one distinct, yet utterly necessary. I remember the moment I realized I might never walk again, and I remember the feeling of my core hardening, as utter determination took the place of fear. I would walk, because no other outcome was possible. I remember that dawning moment of horror, in which I realized that I was addicted to the pain medication, no matter that it was prescribed by my doctor, who should have known better. I remember the steely will that formed inside me as I flushed the rest of the pills down the toilet, and I remember my husband's enduring patience, understanding, and love as I raged, begged, shook, vomited, cried, and lifetimes later, became finally clean and whole again. To this day, he will not talk about it, but he stood by me. I remember the day I lost my daughter. I remember begging the doctors to help me, because I was having a miscarriage, and I remember them refusing to believe me. I remember taking her back to that same hospital, wrapped in tissues, and laying her in the hands of the man who had refused to help me. I remember taking my sorrow to bed, and wallowing in it for days, longer probably. I remember wanting to die, feeling like I could not live with the uncertainty of guilt. And I remember the day I sighed a deep sigh, and got out of bed, and took a shower. We named her Hope.
I remember too, the flame that was born inside me the day I found I was pregnant again. This baby I would not lose, I would protect the life within me with every fiber of my being, and no doctor was going to stand in my way. And neither would I allow my own character flaws to endanger the life perched so precariously within me. I would speak my mind, trust my instincts, and never take “no” or “just because” for an answer. 42 weeks later, I spent 64 hours struggling to bring another daughter into the world, surrounded by friends and family who loved me, completely devoid of pain killers. And I succeeded.
I have since dealt with struggle and loss, and brought my son through a very complicated and dangerous pregnancy, birthing him without pain medication, at full term. What followed included more joys and hardships, brain damage so bad I had to learn to walk yet again, illness, broken bones, heartache, and pleasures both simple and sybaritic.
Why write this? Partly catharsis, I think, but also because of this – so much has been made lately of the danger of isolated teens, of angry, depressed, struggling children. And what, in my childhood, was addressed out of a sense of compassion, now seems to take on a note of fear. There is a force moving within our culture that seems to think that struggle is to be avoided, especially for children and teens. That our early lives should be entirely free from emotional hardship. That's a fine viewpoint on the surface, no parent wants to see their child in pain, myself included. But where it begins to make me question, is this notion that unhappy teens are inherently dangerous, as though at any moment one of us will take a turn and seek violence to still the pain inside. And I find myself wondering, where does this fear come from? Looking through that book this evening, I can tell you that I wasn't the only child in there who didn't have anything to say for herself. I know for a fact that I wasn't the only child to struggle in High School, or even the only child that year. And those that struggled so hard then, that I know now as adults? Well, as it turns out, they turned into pretty amazing human beings. The bedrock of the lives in their care, every one of them.
I am an addict. I am disabled. I do not earn a monetary income. I have lived in poverty, and I have dropped out of college. By the standards of modern American culture, I am one of life's great losers. And yet, looking at me on the street today, you would never know it. I am the bedrock of 23 souls beyond my own. I am loved by my extended family and my friends, and I have roots in my community. Some of those roots are tender and new, but some are old and strong. I know who I am.
Does it take adversity to know the core of yourself? I don't know. I do know that my own struggles bring me closer to living a life of the heart every single day. Today I held someone while they sobbed, every gut-wrenching cry sounding like it was being dragged out over broken bones. I still don't know what the crying was about. I don't need to. I remember crying like that, more than once. So I knew that all I needed to do was open my heart, and hold on, rocking and making soothing noises. If I had lived a life free of pain and struggle, I would have made the grave error of trying to stop the crying. So even now, my pain and struggle are transmuted into love and kindness. My pain allows me to offer succor to my fellow being. I don't believe there is any higher calling than that.