While going through some boxes the other day I stumbled upon my old yearbooks from junior high and high school. It was funny (did I really wear that?), poignant (remembering times with my best friend who died in a car accident) and silly. It struck me that I remembered very little from that time in my life — a time that felt so important when I was going through it. Who were these people who signed my books? Why was that caption funny? I was in ASL club?
And then I reached for my 8th grade year book. I had already seen both my first and last name’s routinely misspelled in all the other books. (In one book it was spelled right and wrong on the same page!) But you can’t help but look for your own picture, can you? And then I found it. But what I found sort of shocked me; I had scratched out my own photo. Why did I do that?
What does it mean if you want to omit yourself from your own history?
Even after I put the box with the books away, my mind kept tumbling over this question. The picture, while dated, was not so terrible. And the more I thought about it, the more it kind of chilled me because the more I thought about it, the more I remembered from that time.
It’s not crystal clear in my mind, but what comes back to me is intense depression and darkness. Those were the last years that I suffered through sexual abuse. It had gone on so long that I was almost numb to it, but hitting puberty added another layer of shame and trauma. My body was blossoming into womanhood — I was an early bloomer — which I hated. Becoming more female, more desirable — these things felt dangerous and terrifying. I wanted to recede into the background, never shine.
And predictably, this fear and depression manifested into intense self-loathing. Ever the geeky outcast, I think I courted the idea of being considered an odd ball. It was better to be smart and funny than pretty. I was in band and academic clubs — spaces that felt safe and even liberating where sexuality and attractiveness were somewhat universally feared. (Ironically, I met my husband in band. So there can be some heat in the band room, too.) And I’m sure my fears and insecurities as an abuse survivor held me back in theater. To be the object of that much attention was overwhelming.
And just because life is full of curve balls, my best friend was helping me go through all these boxes. And when he saw an old photo of me from a dance in high school he couldn’t stop raving. You look like a young Michelle Pfeiffer! Such a classic beauty! I think I was blushing at just the idea that anyone would think that — then or now. Isn’t that funny? Even now, 20+ years later (egads I’m old!) to hear someone compliment me in that way is just so hard to take.
I spent my entire adolescence convinced that I was an ugly troll. But maybe that’s because I wanted to be ugly so that I could live invisibly. And truthfully, I don’t think I have ever been able to look in the mirror and feel satisfied with the entire picture.
But I do have hope. Because finding that old, scratched-out photo made me feel sad for my old self. It broke my heart a little to remember how much I wanted to end it all before it even began. I wanted to give the young me a big hug. And I wanted to tell her that everything was going to turn out, well, pretty great really. Life is not just worth living, it’s a big adventure! Being beaten and abused does not define you. Shame does not mark you. Never hide your light. And most of all — your capacity to love and be loved by others is only limited by how much you are willing to open your heart and let love in.
Maybe in a way it’s good that photo is scratched out. Maybe that’s what survivors have to do — start from scratch. You can’t erase the past. But we don’t have to erect monuments to it either. Maybe the best thing we can do is to close the book on it. Let it go. And walk into the future.