Photo credit: Tami Gann in Unsplash
I am a volunteer crisis counselor with the national Crisis Text Line (CTL) and during my 2-hour weekly shift, I typically converse via a texting platform with 2–6 texters who contact us because they are in a mental health crisis. Think National Suicide Hotline for texters.
In the last 28 days, CTL had about 94,000 conversations with texters in crisis, the majority of whom are young; teenagers and young adults. A significant number are LGBTQ.
Recently I spent two hours with a texter in crisis, a minor in their early teen years, who ultimately revealed that not only were they very depressed, but that they were experiencing a resurgence of emotional and physical abuse by a parent, after previously having been removed from the home due to the abuse. (Out of respect for our texters’ anonymity, I am giving gender-neutral, skeletal information.)
That is sad enough and I know, having grown up in an abusive home. What was worse was how this young person internalized the meta-messages of the abusive environment. This texter expressed beliefs like they should kill themself because they are a mistake, they are a burden, and they don’t deserve to live. They stated that not only did their parent hate them but they hated themself. Their internal pain was so extreme that they were awash with hopelessness and just wanted suicide’s promise of relief from the incessant pain. They asked the quintessential, existential and utterly heartbreaking question “Why shouldn’t I JKM (just kill myself) since we will all end up dead anyway? What is the point of being alive?”
I too had despairingly asked the same question when I was their age. I grew up with an abusive parent and an abused parent, in an extremely toxic home life. I may or may not be of a different gender, class or ethnicity, but I felt the exact same way as this young person- I hated myself, believed I was a mistake, that I was marked in some way that meant my existence meant endless suffering. Like this texter, I too had tinkered with suicide and suicidal thoughts as a teen. But something kept me going, whether it was my own willfulness or some greater spiritual force.
Now, of course, after decades of life behind me, the answer to the texter’s existential question is to live! Platitudes like ‘it will get better’ and ‘you gotta show up cause you never know when the miracles will happen’ are really true, IMHO. But there’s more to staying alive than platitudes.
My path towards finding and living a full life relied on the tender tools of the heart. These tools included therapy and twelve-step programs, a spiritual path and meditation practice, loving guidance and support from true friendships, writing and journaling, multiple experiences of emotional catharsis, consciously shifting my perspectives in order to step out of burdened beliefs, physical healing, and clean food, and sacred time in nature.
Developmentally, it is normal for teenagers to face, typically fleetingly, the awareness that they have the power to determine whether they live or die. They have choice and volition in life. However, internalized self-hatred and shame divert the natural order of development and wrench away our hope and dreams rather than help us step towards adulthood. They stop our natural progress and keep us whirling in a sea of miserable agitation.
So many young people are in crisis, unaware that they hold the paradox of endless future possibilities juxtaposed with the possibility of endless pain. It is amazing how they each say almost the same thing; they are lonely; they don’t have anyone to talk to; they don’t feel loved or loveable; they don’t want to be a burden; they just want to be free of the pain; their existence is a mistake; and they don’t deserve to live. It is not a coincidence that they use the same words and describe the same feelings.
Leo Tolstoy’s famously wrote in his novel Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” He touched upon a profound truism there. Here is another: children internalize the shame of the toxic home with feelings of self-hatred, until they consciously expel the damage, the hopelessness, the self-defeating beliefs.
When we choose to keep living, keep showing up no matter what, keep bravely setting one foot ahead of the other, we let ourselves be touched by the beauty of a song, an ocean sunset, the utter majesty of a redwood forest, the smell of a newborn’s head. We experience the slow peeling back of the proverbial onion of our wounded childhood selves as we heal and let go of adverse childhood experiences (ACE).
We emerge bit by bit with self-compassion, forgiveness towards ourselves and others, and learn to accept our innate strengths and weaknesses. We forgive and reconcile and accept as we dance with life. We face challenges and struggles and survive over decades, weaving the fabric of our own precious life story. We do all this until it is our time to die. That is the gift of life.
Now that I am in my 60’s I have unspooled enough of the shame and self-hatred that I finally feel free. I know how low the floor of my mind can go and I have struggled. Little by little over the decades, the persistent low self-esteem that hounded me has finally abated. I had an impossible, toxic situation just a few years ago that triggered my old burdened beliefs, and have slowly come out of that, stronger. I may not be able to eliminate them all, but I can identify them and manage them appropriately. I finally take the downs in stride, no longer proof of my irredeemability. I finally feel kindly and forgiving and compassionate towards myself, unencumbered by the old shame and self-hatred.
I care about spending time working a Crisis Text Line shift and hearing from precious young people, from all over the country, from different genders, economic classes, ethnicities, and cultures.
I want to pay it forward and I let them know somehow, with great tenderness, that yes it is worth it.
How to let them know they are me 50 years ago? How to give them hope to hang in there?
I want to say: Look around. We are here and we are okay. There are a lot of people like us around. Find one and hold on for dear life.
What is the purpose of our lives? We get to show up for the healing, period. Maybe that is all we humans are here to do; heal ourselves and each other. This seems like a perfectly acceptable life’s journey.
A newish friend and I were talking and she was surprised to discover that I grew up around domestic violence in the home. I nodded and let her know I don’t primarily identify with an abused child anymore; that impossible burden so impossibly heavy for so long was now light. My adult years have been a prolonged course in healing and in addition to the tools described previously, having children myself two decades ago was the best and brightest healing of all.
My heart fluttered sweetly when I heard her words, “You’ve done your work, girl, and it shows.”
And isn’t that the goal of our lives? To not be defined by past abuse but what we have created for ourselves that is beautiful and meaningful and whole?