Things were rough for me as a teenager. I was going through some abuse and don’t think I went through developmental stages in the typical way. I stopped getting my hair cut because I couldn’t stand sitting in front of my reflection for so long. I had panic attacks when I tried to buy clothes. I was socially awkward and never had the chance to do sports. My therapist thinks I was a few years developmentally delayed.
This comes up a lot as I’m parenting my teen-aged daughter, or even chatting with other adult women about teen years. We’re having a normal conversation about something that’s generally a shared experience, like doing sports or learning about style, and suddenly I feel like a dork who grew up on another planet. I end up working my butt off to hold up my end of the conversation normally.
I don’t want make things “all about me” when it comes up with my growing daughter (which is all the time). I don’t want to turn a light conversations with friends into needy laments about my childhood. But doing a competent job of these conversations takes so much energy and makes me feel lonely, and it bothers me for a long time.
How would you handle this?
– Dork From Another Planet
Dear Fellow Dork From Another Planet,
When I read that you stopped getting your hair cut because you could not look at your reflection for so long, my heart ached for teenage you. For a child to be that miserable and self-hating is a terrible, terrible thing. And your friends have no idea that they’re making you look hard at this girl and at what she was being forced to endure every time they bring up these conversations. They are dragging you back to a miserable time in your life, in front of your child, (or your child doesn’t realize she is dragging you back there), and you do not want to go back there.
The way I would handle it is this: however you can to take care of yourself and get through it.
I’m going to say this again because it is very important: I want you to do whatever you need to to get through it.
Yes, this conversation is light for them. And so many people assume that certain experiences are universal. In fact, there may be many reasons someone—from this planet—might not be able to easily engage in this conversation: childhood poverty springs to mind. Hopeless nerdery. Or just a plain disinterest in fashion or looks in general. Many topics of conversation come up that other people can’t relate to, find boring, or just have nothing to contribute to. So they make up a polite line and move on.
Even if this topic weren’t bringing up old trauma for you (and make no mistake about it: when they bring this up it reminds you of being abused, which is FUCKING TRAUMATIC) it is not your responsibility to hold up your end of a limping conversation you are not enjoying. It is not your responsibility to make people feel comfortable who have (inadvertently, of course) just made you uncomfortable. The longer you politely keep your end of the conversation going, the longer the torture will continue, and the longer you will be facing that poor girl who could not face herself.
The fact that these fellow parents are making you feel so lonely and alienated and weird and awful with this topic combined with your not wanting it to be about you tells me that you need something quick, and you need something that you can memorize and spit out. It needs to be something you can throw out there and then STOP TALKING ABOUT: vague and broad enough to fit many different conversations like this, but very definite in the ‘I’m not going to have anything to say about this’ category. I would suggest something like: “Oh, I was so out of it; I never noticed/did anything like that,” and then refusing to expand on it. And then: I suggest that instead of trying to contribute to the conversation, you listen.
I am so, so glad that it not a universal experience to hate looking at your own reflection for so long. But you know what is nearly universal? Feeling stupid about style. Learning about hair and feeling dumb that you didn’t know before that OF COURSE everyone feathers/wedges/mermaid colors their hair and uses hair spray/angled cuts/vegetable dyes. Trying to do these things on your own and failing miserably. Feeling like you’re the only kid in junior high who doesn’t have on the right t-shirt. Suddenly realizing that you never cared about any of these things but everyone else around you did.
I think if you could listen to these experiences as THEIR experiences, not comparing them to your own, you might find some commonalities, and this might help you to feel less alone.
I feel like I can’t emphasize this enough: they are bringing up old trauma for you. Hitting them quickly with a vague response and refusing to engage any further outside of listening might not work for you; you could also quickly excuse yourself to use the bathroom, tell them you’re not feeling well and walk away, drift off and dissociate, looking out of the window until they are through: anything you need to do to take care of yourself in that moment. Obviously getting therapy and working on your past is also important, but nothing happens overnight and until you can talk about these things without distress, re-traumatizing yourself after all those years of having someone else hurt you is not worth saving your friends face or your child a bit of embarrassment.
Take it seriously. It is important to you. Take care of yourself. Please.
I think with friends you know better than others, later on you can talk with them about it so you don’t feel you are hijacking the conversation. Tell them how you are feeling about reliving those teenage years. Reach out and tell your story. Telling your story to someone who is listening and cares, even if she feathered her hair perfectly in 1984, helps us to feel less alone and more connected.
Protect yourself in the moment. Reach out when you can. And please, please — if you are at all able — tell your teenage self that she is beautiful, and she is strong, and she is someone who deserves to be SEEN.
This letter originally ran in bitterempire.com on November 3, 2016.