By Rachel Miller, See the Triumph Contributor
Dear Teenage Me,
Some of what I am about to say you aren’t going to want to hear, of this I am aware. I ask you to listen with an open heart anyway, because at your deepest core, you will know I speak the truth.
First, let me promise you, these are not the best years of your life, regardless of what people may say, but are rather a blip in your big picture. You have amazing adventures to take, sights to see and goals to accomplish. These will make up the best years of your life, not high school. That said, you do need to understand that some of the decisions you make now, and in the coming years, will determine much larger parts of your life and have impacts that reach further than you can imagine right now. This is especially true of decisions around your relationships and partners.
You are bright and wiser than your years, but there are things you don’t know. Not because you’re young or inexperienced or not smart, but because the people in your life who should teach you these things don’t know them either. While you instinctually understand you haven’t had the best of examples, what you don’t yet grasp is that different doesn’t necessarily mean better. Different can actually be worse, much worse. Red flags aren’t things you know to watch for, and how truly dangerous a relationship can be is no more than an abstract concept to your soft, romantic heart that just wants to be loved and cherished.
What you know of domestic violence is only what you see on the random billboard or PSA. You think it happens to “other people.” Domestic violence is so much more than you’ve been shown. Abuse is more than black eyes, bruises and broken bones. It does and is happening to people you know. It can happen to you. An abusive partner will destroy your self-worth, your ambition and your dreams turning you into someone you won’t recognize.
For your own safety and well-being, please understand that jealousy and possessiveness are not romantic. It does not mean he loves you. It means he views you as property. Understand that restricting where you go and who you spend time with are not his way of showing you that he can’t live without you. It’s his way of shutting others out of your life so you’re isolated and won’t reach out when his abuse escalates. His temper and rage will not mellow with age. His inability to support your dreams now will progress to the point where your successes will be used against you. You will begin to question whether or not you deserve them anyway. When a person reveals himself to be any of these, I urge you to believe him. Falling in love with who you think someone will become or the potential you believe you see is dangerous. Dangerous in ways I know you can’t truly comprehend right now. Please, hear me anyway. Keep the things I am saying in your back pocket for future use.
The partner you’re dreaming of, yes, I know the one, he exists, but he’s not the person you think. He isn’t someone who disrespects and hurts you. He’s not the man who wants to control and limit you. He’s not someone you walk on eggshells around because you’re afraid of the next time he’ll blow up. He is the man who celebrates who you are, encourages you to grow and wants to help make your dreams reality. He is the man who thinks you’re amazing, flaws and all. He is the man who doesn’t make you think you are hard to love.
Stand strong in the knowledge of who you are, my darling girl. Never settle for less than you deserve. And always know you deserve the very best. You are worthy. You are worth moving heaven and earth to be with. You are a gift. If someone doesn’t see that, they aren’t worth your time. It’s okay to walk away from anything and anyone who doesn’t want to help you be the best version of yourself or who makes you feel less than. Relationships will come and go. Learn from them rather than feel trapped in them because you’re scared to be alone or afraid to admit you were wrong about someone. It’s okay to make mistakes. Own them, learn the lesson and move forward. Believe that you can handle anything that comes your way, because you can, but know there are things you should never handle and let those go.
Love yourself enough to walk away from what hurts your soul. Love yourself to shine as brightly as you know you can.
All my love,
Dear 13-Year-Old Me,
A few months before you turn 14, you’ll be a raped by one of your closest friends. There will be scars on your right hand that will remind you of that day for the rest of your life. One day, you will see them as a sign of survival, but for a while you will see them as a homing device for abusive people. You will try to figure out for many years what you did to “ask for it,” so that “it” will never happen again. Nothing you do will work because no one asks to be raped by staying a little late at school after basketball practice or scoring higher than the boys on the math test or acting too much like a “dyke.”
You will not be the protagonist in your sexual and romantic life for a long time because of this. You will be ambivalent but neurotic and will sometimes want to disappear. You will not know what to do when you develop feelings for your classmate at your all girls’ Catholic high school. You will feel a twinge of fear every time you hear that word “dyke” again, even though you know it doesn’t really fit you.
I’m not going to say that “it gets better.” You will be raped again in college. You will remain too long in relationships with folks who are, at best, incompatible or, at worst, abusive. You will be stalked. You will face sexism, homophobia and biphobia, street harassment, slut-shaming, and people who think they get to touch your body on the dancefloor or at the bar or in the office. There are people who will tell you to “be careful” when you go on road trips with your guy friend or travel for business alone or take a nap under a tree or wear yoga pants (yes, even to do yoga).
You will, however, be a more authentic and empowered version of yourself. You will stop searching for what you did to “ask for it.” While the world will change far too slowly for your liking, you will change. You will find trustworthy friends who will anchor you. You will come out as bisexual, which will help you cultivate a life that feels more honest and free. You will start caring a little less about what everyone thinks of you and start caring more about being the kind of person you want to be. While you know that giving people the power to love you gives them the power to hurt you, you will do it anyway. Vulnerability will always make you nervous, but life without it will feel scarier. You will have all kinds of intimacy and friendship and romance and adventure.
One of these adventures will involve a guy you meet for what you think will be a casual brunch date. You will fall deeply for his wit and kindness and strength. He will love all of you, even the pieces you’re still learning to love about yourself. One evening, you will make a promise to love him for the rest of your life, and you will mean it more than you’ve meant anything else. You will let him stare right into your eyes for a long time without turning away. As you begin contemplating having children with this guy, you will keep trying to make the world the kind of place you want for them. While you would hope that world would be one without violence or abuse, you will settle for a world in which no one ever has to feel they “asked for it.”
Cheers, kiddo. Take care of yourself.
LB Klein, MSW has dedicated her career to ending gender-based violence, supporting survivors, and advancing social justice. She is a researcher, educator, and consultant based in Atlanta, Georgia and serves as a lead trainer for Prevention Innovations Research Center. She and her partner will be relocating to North Carolina this summer, where she will be pursuing her doctorate in social work at UNC-Chapel Hill. You can follow her on Twitter @LB_Klein.
Dear Teenage Me:
Sometimes, it’s hard for me to look back to my teenage years. Those were hard years. I know you struggle a lot to try and figure out who you are and what your place is in the world. You put on a strong front to the rest of the world--many would never even imagine your inner struggles, because you look to the outside world like you’ve got it all figured out.
But deep down, you’re scared. Your family is facing a lot of transition and changes, and it’s been turning your world upside down. You used to feel like the world was predictable and safe--but with recent changes in your family, the formerly steady ground has been shaken up--and you’ve been shaken to your core with it.
The truth is, you’re terrified of relationships right now. You haven’t really seen many models of good, healthy relationships up close, and so you’re not even sure if you know the difference between what a healthy and unhealthy relationship would look like. You know that you want to figure out all the “secrets” to great relationships that other people seem to know--but deep down, you know that you haven’t got a clue where to start to find the answers.
What I’ve learned since I was your age is that nobody really has any special secrets to great relationships. The average person--and especially the average teenager--is just as clueless about relationships as you are. But, as a teenager, you and others face a tremendous amount of pressure to look like you’ve got it all figured out. It’s hard to admit you don’t have all the answers when there’s so much pressure to live a seemingly “perfect” life.
I want you to know that a good, healthy relationship is out there for you. Oh sure, you’ll face some heartbreaks and unhealthy relationships--I wish I could somehow help you to avoid the one that was even abusive. But, what I’ve realized along the way is that there are some lessons you just have to learn in life, and perhaps that relationship will become one of the greatest lessons of your life.
If I could go back in time and teach you one thing I’ve learned since my teen years, it would be that life is a great adventure. Don’t let fears hold you back--trust the process of life. Even your hardest life experiences will help to shape you into a strong, empowered woman. Stop comparing yourself to other people and being fooled into thinking they have it more figured out than you do--just stay true to yourself and keep your focus on the life that YOU are meant to live. At times, it won’t be easy, but you can keep hope alive at all times by knowing that your past, present, and future experiences will make you into the person you’re meant to be.
Dear Little Me,
I’m not sure what I could say to you to make you believe the world is kinder than you understand it to be, or which mirror I could hold in front of you that would make you see you are so beautiful, so loved, and so needed in this world, my beautiful, darling girl.
You will learn to think the world is gray and mean, but it won’t be that way for long, and it doesn’t have to be that way at all. Your life so far has been based on losing yourself to others, and I know you are functioning from the pain of inadequacy and the fear of not being enough, but I see you, little me, and you are enough. Do you hear me? You are, enough.
I hope that you learn to see this true beauty of yourself. If not, it will become easy for you to seek affirmation in the wrong places with the pain that you carry, and so I urge you to love yourself so much that you don’t need the love of another to make you feel worthy of being alive.
There will be men that cross your path who will treat you unkindly. They will lie, cheat, and steal, and you will listen to them when they tell you who you are. They will hurt you, and you will start to become a shadow of the girl you knew yourself to be. Please understand that you are not defined by how much another person wants you, and that deep down in the belly of your soul, color and brightness linger there.
You will travel and have great adventures, and while travelling you will meet a man who charms you and offers you a life of excitement. You start a relationship with him, and you will think this is love; you will come to believe you must sacrifice and be in pain for love. After the first month, he will begin to ask you questions about your whereabouts, your clothes, and your motives. You’re flattered at first, feeling protected, but the tables quickly turn. You won’t recognize what all this means immediately, and you must forgive yourself for that.
This man will be unfaithful to you after two months, and when he sits you down next to the other girl over breakfast, masterfully explaining his story, you will have a sudden, burning desire to run. So run. Run far and wide and towards the sun. Trust this desire to move, your intuition, because it is screaming the truth out to you.
If you don’t run, he will move in with you. You’ll soon discover he was unfaithful again, but you will forgive him, as you will do many more times. At first the nights are hardest. He will look at your outfits with disgust, calling you cheap. You love going out dancing, but he will tell you you’re a whore if you dance and so you begin to sit still. You love singing, after growing up in musical theater, but he will tell you you’re a bitch if you sing in public and so you learn to only listen. He’s convinced you’re cheating on him with your friends – men and women – and so you stop seeing them. They’ll be concerned, but they back away, listening to the excuses you give for him. You won’t be completely happy, but you see the brokenness in this man who cuts his arms with a kitchen knife in front of you, and you want to put him back together, to heal him. He’ll often pack a bag at 3am and threaten to leave until you’ve begged and sobbed all of your energy out of you. He stays, but only if you agree to be nice. Oh, my darling girl I am there holding your hand.
As the months go by, the days get harder too. He’ll spend your earnings on cigarettes and alcohol, and he’ll gamble rent money away and sell your jewelry. He drinks a lot, you notice, and he’ll be drunk the first time he attacks you one weekday afternoon, strategically punching your head so your hair hides the bruises and no one will see. He throws psychological and verbal abuse at you while he strangles you until you can barely breathe. It lasts for about an hour, like all of these episodes will. He tells you not to tell anyone because they won’t believe you, so you don’t. You think he only turns into this monster when he’s drunk and so, on a good day, he promises to stop drinking. He only stays clean for a few days and you start to realize this man is a functioning alcoholic. When he hurts you sober, the truth will set in like a cold darkness covering your bones.
As months pass, he will start to shout at you in the street, in the supermarket, at the restaurant. The first time he punches you in public, the police will arrest him but then send you home together. You lie silent in your bedroom while he sits outside the door with his best friend, laughing and joking about what happened. You quit your job the next day, ashamed and afraid of the bruise over your eye. When makeup will cover it, you venture out and a friend asks you to babysit for her. He doesn’t want you to, but you do – you’ve been living off leftovers he brings home and you need the money. He breaks his own arm while you’re out so you have to leave early and he’ll be angry that you weren’t there for him.
His mistrust will grow, stalking and threatening you at work and at the lucky times you’ve been let out to meet your friends. One night he’ll be so convinced you’ve cheated on him that he’ll drive you to the top of a mountain on his motorcycle – no, your motorcycle – and threaten to kill you. He’s so drunk that he swerves and crashes the bike, hurting your leg but saving your life.
The abuse will only get worse. Every time you say no or cry, he’ll threaten to kill you. He likes these words - he’ll also tell you to leave or he’ll kill you, then when you do he will cry and hold you in an embrace. It will mess with your judgment and you won’t know what’s right and what’s wrong anymore, like the time he uses your own hands to punch yourself, laughing and exclaiming that you’re the one doing this, not him. You will be walking on so many eggshells with so much fear instilled in you that you don’t leave the apartment – someone might see you outside and tell him. Unless he’s with you or you’re going to work, you spend days in the corner of a room, staring out of the window while he’s out. You’ll have a very dark day like this, but you will get through it. Does this even sound real? Oh, to tell you it all would be to write a novel. Only now I look back do I see the cycle and understand the relationship for what it was.
I am so incredibly proud of you, though. Do you want to know why? Because one day, while you’re tied to a chair in the middle of the room, him prowling in rage around you, something inside of you snaps and you think to yourself, I don’t deserve this, this is not what my life is supposed to be. I don’t know how and I don’t know why this thought comes to you, but you quietly begin to plan your escape. It will take you a while, hiding money bit by bit inside the sleeve of an unassuming book, and he wants you to move to his parent’s house so packing your small suitcase won’t look suspicious. You’ll reach an obstacle when he wants to spend your next paycheck on a car, which you stand up to, but eventually relent when he presses a knife into you. Only then do you reach out and tell someone. They will be there for you, I promise.
You leave this relationship at 3:00am on a Saturday morning in November. Don’t worry, he won’t be drunk or angry, he will be fast asleep in bed. You call a taxi, and when it arrives, you jump inside with your body singing hallelujahs at you. As it bumps along the gravel roads towards the airport, you won’t be able to stop smiling. He won’t find out you’re gone until the morning, but by then you’ll be through airport security. Not that this will matter - he won’t believe you’ve actually left him.
So for what seems like an eternity, you will cease to exist as the person you knew yourself to be, but this darkness passes and you will get through the pain. When that second comes that you suddenly set your eyes upon the expanse of your life that is waiting for you, do not fear the questions. Do not fear the unknown. Do not fear the art of losing. There is life, and light, and fullness ahead of you.
Whatever it takes for your heart and soul to heal – whatever you need to do to begin your healing journey – do it. It will be extremely hard, but keep going, you’ll get there. You have the power to do amazing and beautiful things. Work on your voice; write it, sing it, walk it out amongst the morning birdsong, then write and sing some more. Hold tight to your notebooks full of observations and pressed flowers because these are the memories of your soul and spirit that you must grow from.
And after you have healed the darkest places in you, a man will come into your life offering you a love and kindness that is patient, unconditional, and so beautiful you’ll be afraid to take it all in. See this man as he is – a good man, cut from a different, beautiful golden cloth than the men who came before him. Please, let yourself deserve his love. Let yourself deserve your own love - because this is what love is. Beautiful, safe, and giving. Love should feel like a thousand rosebuds exploding in your heart, and you deserve that - a life that blooms like blossoms in spring.
My darling, love yourself because I love you – I love you so much because you gave me me.
I will be here for you always and I am there for you now,
Jessica is passionate about sharing her story after realizing exploring the different ways she could share hers had been a healing and transformational practice. She recently completed her Master's degree and is a life coach for women who are ready to empower themselves to find their own voice.
By Christine Murray, See the Triumph Co-Founder
Dear Teenage Me:
I know you’re young, but you’ve already figured out an important life lesson: relationships are complicated. In many ways, you’ve seen how relationships--including romantic relationships, friendships, relationships with family members, and any other kinds of relationships--can be the source of a lot of happiness, but also a lot of pain. You’ve been blessed with a lot of good, loving people in your life, but, just like everyone else, you’ve also experienced relationship problems that hurt you and others around you.
You’re a trusting person who tends to look for the best in other people. But at some points in your life, you’ll be tempted to give up your trusting nature. Don’t do it! Being able to trust others is an important part of having good, healthy relationships. But, at the same time, you’ll see that trusting others does open yourself up to the possibility of being hurt. It’s no fun getting hurt by others who you once trusted, but at the same time, you’ll learn that you’re strong enough to overcome it. Don’t give anyone the power to make you stop being trusting and open to the world around you.
Being trusting of others doesn’t mean you just blindly trust others, though. You’ve got to stay smart about it. Choose carefully the kinds of people you allow into your life. One of the best pieces of advice you’ll ever hear about starting new relationships is to “take it slow.” And this is important advice, because taking your time to really get to know someone is important for making sure that they have the qualities needed to build a safe, healthy, fulfilling relationship. Unhealthy relationships often start out looking very similar to ultimately healthy relationships, with people putting their best foot forward and not necessarily revealing their true selves right away. So, it can take time to figure out who someone really is, especially if there are feelings of excitement about the relationship clouding your view.
While you’re choosing who to let into your life, above all else, choose kindness. Surround yourself with people who are kind at the core of who they are. It takes time to figure this out sometimes, but trust your gut. Your intuition is a powerful source of guidance when choosing what level to allow people into your life. Look at not only how people treat you, but also how they treat and talk about other people around them. If someone shows any signs that they’re not a fundamentally kind person, be cautious of them, and keep clear boundaries up. You don’t have to--and sometimes, you won’t be able to--completely keep unkind people out of your life, but you can protect yourself by keeping them at as much of a distance as you are able to create. On the other hand, when you find people who are kind, supportive, and really care about you and your wellbeing, keep those people close. They are a treasure and will be one of the biggest blessings you could ever imagine for your life.
Beyond seeking kindness in others, always choose kindness for yourself, too. You won’t be perfect at this--nobody is! Even still, try and commit to acting and speaking with kindness in all areas of your life. One day, you’ll hear a wise professor of yours tell you, “You never help someone by hurting them.” These will be great words to live by. When others fall short of kindness toward you, you can still choose the path of kindness. Even if you’re setting boundaries to limit how close you let others into your life, you still can bring a spirit of kindness to those boundaries. If you’re in a difficult situation, and you make the kind choice, I don’t think you’ll ever regret it!
There are so many things I wish I could go back in time to tell you! But since I can’t do that, I take peace in knowing that you’ll learn the lessons you need to learn as you go. If you stick with kindness as one of your guiding values in your life, you’ll grow old without many regrets and with a lot of great relationships in your life.
Sending love from across the years,
Dear Teenage Me,
It gets better…trust me! Life may seem intense and emotional and overwhelming, but it gets better.
By this point you have had to go through things that aren’t meant for anyone to go through, and yet you will survive. You will learn to let go of things that you cannot control, and you will realize that in order to really and fully be whole again, you must first learn to forgive not only the one person you thought was going to love you unconditionally and wholly, but also to forgive yourself. Through this, you will learn that forgiveness isn’t for the person that did you wrong, it is for you. And once you learn that, life will never be the same. You will go from an angry, sarcastic, and cynical teen to a happy, and still sarcastic, adult – but that’s okay, because that is what makes you you.
You will have many relationships, many of them will fail, and you will be told that something is wrong with you and that you are “damaged goods.” You will wonder if you deserved to be treated like you were treated. You will question yourself and wonder if you keep attracting partners who treat you poorly because of the fractured relationship that sent your whole teenage world spinning out of control in the first place and learn that it was never your fault. You were the victim, but now you are a survivor.
But you will learn to demand respect, honor, and integrity from a partner and, if that is not given to you, to be okay with being alone. For it is when you are alone you will learn that you are powerful, intelligent, and wise. You will understand that you are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” You will come in contact with partners who will shape the way you look at life. Most will be good, some you’d like to forget, and even after you have cried for them, listened to all your favorite Girl Power anthems, and watched your favorite rom-coms to get over your heartbreak, you will grow to appreciate all of the things they taught you whether it was a different genre of music, or teaching you how you should and should not be treated.
You will learn one of the greatest lessons that will continue to guide you through life. You will begin to understand that if you pour and pour and pour yourself into others, and never replenish, then there won’t be anything else left for yourself. This lesson will inform how you work, treat your friends and your future relationships. Of course you will still be the same girl who will stop her car to help a turtle cross the street, or make sure that her “human” friends have even when she doesn’t, but you will be guarded about who you share not only your life with, but your body with as well. You will think critically about who you open up to about your life. This will make you feel guarded – and some will even say jaded – but, for you, this is a survival technique and it will work for you.
And lastly, you won’t let your past define your future. You will take all that you have learned about love and life, you will go through life full steam ahead, and you will succeed. You will be okay with making mistakes because you know you will grow from them. You will come into your own and be proud of the woman you have become.
You are powerful, intelligent, and wise…and your Toni Braxton karaoke only improves with age.
Rachel Gibson is a Technology Safety Specialist at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. She has worked to end Violence Against Women for 4 years.
Dear Teenage Me,
You’re growing up in South Carolina. And that means a lot of different things. A lot of things related to race, gender, and how backwards and difficult things still are here - especially for women and minorities. I want to tell you to be strong in your convictions and stand up for what you think is right.
Even if it feels like everyone else thinks something different, or even if you’re not sure what everyone else thinks. I want to tell you that travel, new experiences, and meeting people who are different from you are one of the best ways to grow, and learn, and stretch…and maybe even speak up when you see injustice or inequality.
I also want to tell you how proud I am that you decided to do these things – that you traveled to other parts of the U.S., met people who were different, and realized that the South was not the only way of life. That there are parts to hold onto and enjoy, but also parts to let go of and forget.
As a woman looking back on you as a teenager, I think I am mostly just thankful that you stayed safe. That you chose to surround yourself with friends who were fiercely loyal, that you knew the limits to fun, that you understood that you had to focus on school in order to get somewhere, that you found things to be passionate about, and that you respected your parents enough to listen to them.
Teenage me, I hope you live on in my daughter who has so many milestones before she has to think about life as a teenager. But when she gets there, I hope she will travel, seek new people and experiences, feel strong in her convictions, and most of all stay safe in a world that can be scary for teenage girls.
The video below was created for See the Triumph by Sedonia Scott for our Teen Dating Violence Month Series. Here's what Sedonia had to say about the video:
"My name is Sedonia Scott. I have recently graduated from East Carolina University (ECU) with a Bachelor’s of Science in University Studies with a Thematic Core in Digital Storytelling for Advocacy along with a Film Studies Minor. As I surveyed my passions, successes, and failures, I determined that I am most engaged when I create videos. I thoroughly enjoy documenting people and the environment that surrounds me. I love to capture the spirits, lives, challenges, and victories of populations through film and documentary. As a result, I chose to pursue this degree because I want to tell stories about lives as truthfully and effectively as possible. My passion for Domestic Violence advocacy arose when several of my close friends began to experience it in their relationships. As a result, I decided to use my talent and skills to support these friends in their struggles."
Dear Teenage Me…
It wasn’t your fault that nothing you seemed to do made him happy. It wasn’t your fault that he blamed you for his countless indiscretions. It wasn’t your fault that he made your feel responsible for his every wrong move. It wasn’t your fault that over time, you became more and more isolated from your friends and family. It wasn’t your fault that he called you out of your name. It wasn’t your fault he put his hands around your throat and punched you.
Love yourself and remember what love is…love is not disrespectful. Love is not name-calling. Love does not blame. Love does not isolate, and love does not physically hurt.
Before getting too caught up in love, take your time to experience was love really is. Love is gentle. Love is kind. Love is patient. Love is respectful. Love is understanding, and love is supportive.
Remember what your parents instilled in you…that you deserve to be loved in the way they have shown you love. Yes, being in a romantic relationship can be a “different kind of love” than your family’s love in some ways, but it’s dramatically similar in more ways than not. Take your time with love, don’t rush it by any means because you have plenty of time to find the person who will treat you in the way you deserve to be treated. Never forget this, as a negative relationship can have devastating long-term effects.
Heartbreak is inevitable, and it’s not realistic to say that relationships can be tough emotionally, but always that remember your worth, your values and your respect are the priorities…the positive relationship will follow.