Four words for your 17 year-old self

What the hell were we talking about??

Aidan was home sick all last week and Dean was swamped with work, so I put most everything aside to be with Aidan. Then I got slammed with the same cold he had and retreated into mucous, coughing, Nurse Jackie, and John Sandford. Now reemerging this week, I feel like I’ve been cut loose from my life, like an astronaut drifting aimlessly in space after her tether’s been severed.

Seems like we were on a roll talking about inner bullets and what to do about them. But then….. nothing. Silent, weightless, space.

Clearly, I’m not ready to pick up the conversation where we left off (I’m back at my ship, but haven’t yet managed to open the hatch and come inside), but I will share something I saw on Facebook over the weekend.

A friend posted a meme (oh my husband will be so proud I used that word) that said:

4 words to your 17 year-old self: ________ _________ ________ _________

The friend who posted it answered with, “You’re making sh*t up,” to which I could really relate. No question I was making things up then, if only all the imagined bullets!

But it got me thinking about what most I would want to say.

I was excruciatingly unhappy at 17 (a fact I know for certain nobody knew), which means there are a million pieces of advice I could give that teenager that would be relevant. But the idea of saying only one thing, and in four words, was an interesting challenge. What would have really set me free?

I shared the meme on my wall and a lot of people responded. Actually, a lot more than I expected. Apparently, we were all excruciatingly unhappy at 17. Funny that that hadn’t occurred to me…. A holdover of my 17 year-old world view, perhaps. I am alone in the world and in my pain… No one feels what I’m feeling. Sounds about 17, right? (And 15 and 12 and 35 and 50…)

Anyway, there were a lot of offerings.

My sweet husband wrote, “You will find her.” Slay me with an arrow right to the heart.

And one jokester wrote, “Get off my lawn.”

But all the rest were pretty heartfelt:

“You really are worthy.”

“I’m proud of you.”

“This too shall pass.”

“Don’t listen to them.”

“You are not fat.”

“He’s wrong for you.”

“These hurts will lessen.”

“Everything will be ok.”

As a high school senior, I would have benefited from all of these. Literally every one feels appropriate. But none lands squarely at center.

Two others were particularly curious to me:

“You better be careful” and “learn to love yourself.”

I don’t know well enough either of the women who chose these words to know the circumstances of their teenage experience – who they were, what they needed – but just from my 17 year-old perspective, neither of these sounds particularly supportive.

The first feels like admonishment, maybe for some bad choices, or chronically bad choices.

I was definitely making those at 17, including some dangerous ones (too much alcohol, too many boys). But if my older self came back and said, “You better be careful,” I’m not sure I would have felt loved.

Removing myself from the fantasy though, I can imagine an older woman who knows what trouble awaits her 17 year-old self but who also respects her younger self’s right to make her own decisions. In that scenario, “you better be careful” could sound like a loving warning from a concerned observer… Not all that different from my image of God, actually.

The second one – “learn to love yourself” – feels like a directive (already not my ideal) to do something I clearly don’t know how to do (or I wouldn’t need the directive!). There are all sorts of implications underneath the directive – that I’m worthy of love, that I’m whole and complete, that I’m valuable – that do feel very loving and supportive. I just would have needed it in a different package.

So what, then, would I say to my 17 year-old self if given only four words?

I have this little trick I use, most often when I’m writing. I don’t just remember something; I actually travel back. It’s kind of a cross between a meditation and a shamanic journey. And when I do it, I land myself pretty solidly in that moment – the place, the people, the smell and colors, and most definitely, the emotions.

So I went back to 17. (Super brave, I know.)

At 17, I was taking a heavy load of academic honors courses, heavier than was required or expected of me. I was deeply involved in the theater department with advanced classes and tons of extra-curricular commitments. I’d been bulimic for 2 years already. I was steeped in relationship drama, always involved with someone, occasionally more than one person. And despite being generally well-liked and well-respected, I was excruciatingly lonely.

Sinking back in, I expected to find pain, sadness, and shame but those weren’t the overriding feelings (though they were certainly there). What I felt much more profoundly was heaviness, a sense of burden… As if I were Atlas, without the muscles and 20 pounds overweight, undernourished and improperly dressed, holding the world on my shoulders.

For as long as I could remember, I’d felt responsible for everything. What people thought, felt, and did; the unforeseen consequences of my every move; the final outcome of my life; and every ounce of my past. I thought I was fundamentally flawed, unforgivably so. And I was desperately trying to simultaneously hide that fact and make amends, while preventing future catastrophes. Remember the ant? Imagine her scurrying around a large construction site, trying to hold up steel girders.

And the number one thing I felt responsible for, though I wouldn’t have been able to name it for you at the time, was the breakup of my family.

I was three when we started to rattle and five when we blew up. Adult common sense says I had nothing to do with it, but toddler common sense says otherwise. It was devastating for everyone and, for reasons both altruistic and selfish, I was desperate to fix it, to somehow rebuild us. Only I couldn’t. The girders were falling faster than I could catch them. Plus, I was only an ant.

At 17, I was still trying, by contorting myself in every way I thought might help. If I could just do better, do more… be more, or less, fill-in-the-blank… maybe I could make up for everything I hadn’t been. Maybe I could earn the air I was breathing and pay back the debt of every breath I’d already taken. Maybe it would be all right if I could just carry the load…

So seeing that 17 year-old self sitting alone outside the science resource center, on a cold concrete bench with a mountain of textbooks, skipping lunch because of the donut she ate at nutrition break, with a school full of friends and no one to be with, trying trying trying to hold it together while the guilt she won’t be able to name for another 15 years eats a gaping hole in her gut, this is what I want to say:

“It’s not your fault.”

I want to sit at her feet and put my hands on her knees and look up to her eyes and say, “It’s not your fault. You didn’t do this. It was awful what happened, and I know it still hurts. But you didn’t break it. And it wasn’t yours to fix. I was never yours to fix.”

And my 17 year-old self would look back at me and cry… as sure as I am crying now. Not in blessed relief, because that feeling – if it came at all – would be brief. But because without the guilt, there is only the loss… And naked and undeflected, the pain is near unbearable.

Still, crying would have been a help.

To be given a path to the heart of my ache, secret even from myself, would have been a great improvement over the ruthless numbing and relentless carrying of all that weight.

Permission to break open?

Permission granted. And you are alone never, ever more.

And so, I give the question to you: If you could travel back and sit in the presence of your 17 year-old self, with your hands on her lap and look up into her eyes, what four words would you give her?

___________ ____________ ____________ ____________.



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