Thursday, May 25, 2017

Letters to Myself

Hello to whatever future version of me reads this. For context so you don't have to do the math, I'm 19 years old and it's a few weeks into summer break. I've just gotten back from a therapist appointment and Target run to pick up some juice and cookies. I'm in a depressive trough again, likely due to anxious anticipation of having to go back to San Jose for a few days. As a result, I'm struggling with simple tasks like packing up my things to move into my new apartment and D.C. for the summer. I learned a new thing at therapy today: I've been so focused on the mental aspect of health that I've been neglecting the physiological portion, or at least it's been relegated to the bottom of my list when it's so much more important. Hence the juice and cookies.

I'm worried. About what, exactly, I'm not too sure, but that's the nature of anxiety. Another thing I learned is that it's good to remind myself that I am safe where I am right now. This is my room, in Berkeley, where I have some degree of control over my life. Ignore the feeling of impending doom about going to San Jose and focus on the upcoming excitement and novelty of D.C. In the meantime, clear that headspace up a bit. The therapist said that when I go back this weekend it's going to take a long time to recover. I'll revert back to the fifteen year old, the eleven year old, the seven year old, who is scared and doesn't know what to do. They did a good job surviving and staying alive, even if the protective mechanisms they developed in depression and dissociation sometimes hinder situations that are out of context. Tell them what they need to hear. I'm ok now and I'll be ok in the future. Write out every horrible thing the parents have done because yes it really happened and no it's not okay. It's ok to be scared, but that doesn't mean there's nothing to be done about it. I don't know if this will make any sense, but it's worth a shot to put it out there.

Dear Five Year Old,

You're still adorable and innocent and have no personality yet. That's why your parents love you. Yes they hit you from time to time but you have no idea that there's anything wrong with that yet. Not that you'll realize it any time in the near future. But you shrug it off quickly because you're five and there are butterflies to catch. You're genuinely happy still.

Dear Seven Year Old,

They threatened to kill you. They threatened to sell you into slavery. That's why you never told anyone. Forgive yourself for that, forgive yourself for not knowing better. You were scared, and you had every right to be. At that time the sticks were more painful than the words. Remember this, and even if you forget, know that the dents in the piano bench are concrete proof that the sticks landed on your skin more times than you could count. You didn't know why it was happening. You didn't understand the difference between C# and F# and for that you were punished instead of taught. You were punished for the crime of ignorance. Oh, if only they were punished for their ignorance too.

Remember that night when it was stormy and your baby sister was scared and screaming, and those parents screamed right back at her. A two year old. She was scared. They were irritated. It pierced your heart and you nearly kicked down the door to get her out of there. You cradled her in your arms and she calmed down, but your parents just laughed at you while you silently cried for her sake. You never lost that sense of empathy, even though it kills you sometimes. I'm proud of you for that.

You develop an obsession with Patrick Henry. For reasons yet unclear, "Give me liberty, or give me death," resonates with you a lot. You read and spend time thinking about the meaning of life. You realize that hurting other people will not make you hurt less, and you try your best to be kind even when others are mean. You realize that the world's problems are caused by greed and ignorance. You give yourself the burden of making the world a better place. I don't know how you did it, but these are the values you've held onto throughout all your adversities.

It was also in second grade when he tried to teach you multivariable algebra. Maybe it would have been possible, but not by keeping you up past midnight and screaming at you every time you got it wrong. You still have an aversion toward math even to this day, but I can't say I'm surprised. There was also that time you were kept up past midnight to translate a chapter of a book. Why? I have no idea. You'll never forget the Chinese word for "professor," that's for sure.

You suffered a lot this year. I just wish someone had noticed.

Dear Eleven Year Old,

You're in middle school now. The physical abuse isn't as frequent anymore, but here the mental abuse escalates. Sometime this year you'll have your first full-blown mental breakdown, in the midst of it praying that the threads of your sanity would snap so you wouldn't have to deal with it anymore. I'm so sorry. You know something is wrong but you have no idea what to do about it, and to some degree you were in denial. You thought you were better than those weird people who cut themselves, and while that's really problematic, it kept your skin clean. You decided that the best way to protect yourself was to keep your head down and do the best you can academically, at any cost. You make a deal to get your own computer if you get straight A's, the first of many bargains with your parents. You get first place in speech and debate, even while your parents scream at you for spending so much time on drawing those posters. You start counting down the years before you can leave for college and you work hard to ensure that your education will be a path to a better future. A smart move.

Dear Fifteen Year Old,

You are stubborn. Despite the yelling and verbal abuse — being told you're worthless, a loser, better off dead, everyone wants to kill you — you're still alive. You fight so hard against the internal and external voices telling you to die. Over the rest of the course of high school, you'll be hospitalized twice for suicidal thoughts, though you've come close to going through with it two other times without hospitalization. You know this is not okay. You are ready to leave your parents forever. I promise I'll get you there.

The pain manifests itself in a sharp tongue and defensive cruelty, but one day you tell your best friend her hair looks nice instead of sarcastically being mean, and a strange feeling of warmth grows inside of you. From then on you don't think it's funny to make snide remarks anymore, and you strive to show kindness to heal your pain. Your best friend goes into counseling for stress. You try it too and from there your suspicions are confirmed: you have depression, and some other things like anxiety and panic attacks. These get worse as the years go on. You also lose that friend, and you still haven't gotten over it; you're acutely sensitive to how your mental health affects those around you but you eventually make new friends who time and time again stick around when things get difficult. Of course the circumstances are different again but at least you learn and grow from that loss.

You're pushing yourself to your limits with all the things you do in order to get into a prestigious college. Between academics to extracurriculars you have no time for the boy who wants to love you. Present me is telling you, you should have loosened up a bit and gone for it, but of course it's too late. Present me could also learn from that mistake a bit and let go of those anxieties about interpersonal relationships. You might not think it but you are beautiful, and it's not a cruel joke when someone says they like you, even if they are popular and on the football team. Your acne will clear up, but you should really drink more water and use moisturizer.

You're terrified of your parents but more aware of the situation. It'll take years to repair the damage, but I have faith in you, even if getting help is additional trauma. You are alive, and that's what matters. The depression and panic attacks haven't fully gone away yet, but that's ok. It's not your fault.

Dear Nineteen Year Old,

You're learning to forgive yourself. It's a process that is taking much longer than you'd like, and you're frustrated about it, but you can't help the cards you've been dealt. Just know that you are exactly where you are meant to be, and you're doing great! I'm proud of you. I'm proud of you.

Dear Twenty-one Year Old,

Congrats! You've graduated (hopefully). I hope at this point you know how to drive. I hope you've been able to change your phone number and go no-contact, even if you have your doubts. We've been over this plenty of times, and it's for the best, at least for the time being. It's ok to put yourself first and give yourself time to heal. Don't forget to appreciate your friends for being themselves. They've literally kept you alive at times, and you're glad they did. I hope they're ok. I hope you're honestly, genuinely, truly happy.

Presumably you'll start your two year teaching stint soon and provide every ounce of support to your middle school students that you wish you'd been given at their age. Being a teacher will mean money is tight but at least you are free at last. I hope your studio apartment is everything you've dreamed for it to be. Don't forget that only you can define what your success is, and it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks as long as you're happy.

Dear Twenty-six Year Old,

Present me thinks that you'll really have your life together at this point. Ideally that means you've got a job you love, a car, a cat, an insurance plan, the right medication, an exercise schedule, a healthy diet, a sense of style, a robust savings account, a master's degree, a feeling of balance and contentedness. Of course, don't be disappointed if you haven't achieved all of this by then. Despite what you think, you're still young, and you have time. But also, if not, go do the thing to achieve this. You have plenty of experience overcoming things you thought were impossible. I also hope you've been able to travel and paint and take breaks and define your identity. I hope you're different that who I am right now. I wish you the best. ◊

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