A Letter to the Kid

Hey, kiddo.

Yeah, I’m calling you kiddo. I know you’re a little old for that, but that’s part of the problem, you know. Your world has been forcing you to be older than you are, without giving you the tools that adults get for dealing with all that responsibility. That’s nothing like close to fair, so I’m going to call you kiddo to remind us both of that.

You deserve the chance to be a kid, and it’s not your fault you’re not getting it. Parents are supposed to be able to take care of themselves before they produce anybody else who needs taking care of. Yours didn’t do that before you were born, and neither one of them has been able to do that during your lifetime. In fact, they’ve needed you to take care of them. You couldn’t, of course. You were (and are) “only” a kid, and all the adults in your parents’ lives haven’t been able to help them. Asking you to take care of them is only you to do the impossible.

You have every right to be angry with them, but neither of them has been able to deal with your anger. You’ve had to put it away, hide it to keep from hurting them. But doing that only hurts you, because it makes you think there’s something wrong with being angry at them. There isn’t.

Kids aren’t supposed to be responsible for their parents’ feelings. It’s wrong, 100% wrong, that you’ve been pressured to make either parent feel better by showing them only how much you love them and hiding any feelings that might hurt them. It’s wrong that you’ve had to tell them that all the messed up stuff you’ve had to deal with is okay. It’s wrong that you’ve had to choose between them. It’s wrong that you’ve even had to know about the problems they’ve had with each other. Wrong.

As much as I love you for caring and trying to help, it’s also wrong that you’ve been made responsible for the younger kids. Helping take care of the house is one thing. Loving and being good to the little ones is wonderful. Knowing that if you don’t help them, no one else will either is too much responsibility for someone who needs to spend her time and energy growing up. You’ve already got one kid you need to take care of. You.

The other adults in your life aren’t blameless either. We’ve all let you down, including me. Sometimes we’ve let our own lives distract us. Sometimes we’ve let ourselves get worn down by the battles necessary to get permission to participate in your life as much as we want to. Sometimes we’ve let you make us angry despite knowing that was what you were trying to do, or held your behavior to standards we haven’t taught you to meet. Sometimes we’ve just forgotten that your life has taught you to hide your feelings, and we haven’t worked hard enough to find out what you were keeping hidden.

I’m sorry for all of that. I would change it if I could. I can’t. All I can do is tell you this: I’ve been there (which we’ll talk about when you can ask all the nosy questions you want), and it only gets better.

Right now, your world is as small as it will ever be. Well, really, it was smaller when you were younger, but you didn’t know it then. It was easier to love people who hadn’t earned it without the love being complicated by other emotions. Anyone you met could potentially be your friend. Unacceptable behavior was limited to the stuff you got caught doing. Your own little slice of the world was so immense that it never felt constricting, except maybe as far as bedtime went.

That’s over. You know how flawed the adults around you are, and you know you can’t change them, even if you don’t want to admit it. The pressure to be like your friends in order to keep them is intense and unrelenting. You’re expected to act like a miniature adult, even though it takes years to learn how to do that. You’ve seen enough of the world to know it isn’t all like your home, but you’re stuck for now.

You won’t be stuck for much longer. We will see to that if you let us. We’d have done it earlier if any of us had legal say over your circumstances. And if you tell us that this is too much, that you can’t wait, we’ll do whatever we need to do to make sure the person who has that legal power is listening to you. It makes me cry to type this, but what you did, or tried to do, has given us the lever we needed to change things. It won’t be instant, but we will find a way to make things different while you wait.

Then freedom. People may tell you childhood is supposed to be wonderful. Don’t listen to them. The wonder is in finding a world that you can fit to you instead of being told you have to fit yourself to this weird little corner of the world. Suburbia, by the way, isn’t the perfect little world the movies try to tell you it is. Suburbia is where people go when they don’t want to deal with all of life. There is so much more.

Do you know how many people there are out in the wider world from whom you can choose your friends? You’ll find people who understand exactly where you’ve been and where you hurt and what weird little things make you happy. You’ll find people who will make you take care of yourself, because they love you more than you do right now. And you’ll find people who really do laugh at all your jokes. Seriously, you just haven’t met them yet.

For most people, all but one or two friends from high school turn out to be practice friends. Even those one or two are friends mostly because they have a whole bunch of stories in common. High school friends are the people you try out your underdeveloped social skills on so you know how to treat your real friends when you find them and how you want them to treat you. That’s important when you find the friends worth keeping.

Oh, and the opportunities you’ll have. If you don’t make the same choices your parents did, you’ll get to do different activities, study different subjects, figure out what you like and don’t like. We’ve managed to give you some experiences that not everyone has, but that’s nothing compared to the ridiculously large number of options out there. You can try an awful lot of them before you decide to settle your life into a single track. Or a couple of tracks. Or a very busy time of pursuing multiple dreams at once.

You won’t be doing all this on your own, by the way. This is one of the things that adults are supposed to be for, and we will be. We’ll be here–I’ll be here–to help you meet people likely to be your friends. I’ll help you find classes and activities that are enough like the stuff you already like for you to enjoy them but that still let you try new things. I’ll listen as you figure out what you like and don’t like about all of it. I’ll even give you my own opinion if you want it, and some even if you don’t, but you already knew that.

It’s okay, too, if all of this sounds more scary than exciting right now. It’s okay if it seems like too much work. That doesn’t have anything to do with how good these coming changes are. It has to do with the fact that the things you’ve been put through, and most importantly, the fact that you haven’t been able to control anything, make changes in the way your brain works. That is fixable, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now. Fixing it will take time too, but the good stuff coming your way doesn’t have to wait for it.

I haven’t mentioned the other kids yet for a reason. This part is tough to understand and probably not what you want to hear, but it’s true. You can’t do very much by yourself to help them right now. Raising them is more work than you can do as a kid, and trying to do that on top of everything else nearly killed you. We can’t have that. If you’re not around, you can’t do anything for them. You know those instructions for air masks on airplanes, where they tell you to put your own on first? This is a lot like that.

We adults aren’t forgetting about the other kids either, even though we haven’t done perfectly by you. Make suggestions, tell us where the problems are, and we’ll do everything we’re allowed to do. That lever you gave us will help us here too. Let us use it. We’ll let you help, but we want you to spend the bulk of your energy on you. The best thing you can do for the kids is to make your life better. Not only will you show them that life can work out for them too, but you’ll turn yourself into the kind of adult they can call on when they need someone.

So, what’s coming next? Oh, there’s going to be a bunch of serious talk going on for a while. You’ll hate it, but at least you’ll get to have a voice in the planning. There’s almost certainly going to be some arguing among the adults. Ignore it. You didn’t cause it. We’ve just all got opinions about how to fix things for you, and you’re important enough that none of us will want to let anyone else screw up.

Beyond that, a lot depends on what you need. There will probably be more doctors, and we’ll listen to what they have to say if they’re good. We’ll find new ones if they’re not. A change of scenery is probably coming, because it’s the quickest thing we can do for you, along with a taste of that wider world to remind you that it will be worth sticking around for. Further out? Well, we’ll see what’s working for you and what isn’t.

We’ll listen to you as we figure this stuff out and ask you more questions than you’ll want to answer, but we won’t always let you make the decisions. All the ones we can, yes, but I’m writing this because you’ve made some decisions lately that have been very bad for you. We’re not going to let that happen again.

And always, always as we go through this, we will love you with everything we are. All we ask in return is that you stay put and let us show you how much love that is. Please.

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9 Responses to “A Letter to the Kid”

  1. April 17th, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    Lilian Nattel says:

    Everything you wrote there is the absolute truth. I can attest to that, and promise the kiddo that things can and do get better when you get out in the world, especially if you have people outside the family who can and will stand up for you, believe you, and give you the space and support to find your own truth. Being a kid stuck in a messed up family while presenting normalcy to the outside world is hell. Been there and done that. But there is a way out and there are much better choices, just as Stephanie said. I’ve been there and done that, too–and it’s worth it. Very much so.

  2. April 17th, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    Anne Gilbert says:

    I come from a family where there was, and is,lots of depression. Fortunately or unfortunately, I was not quite “like” those members of my family who were (indirectly) suicidally depressed. So I “managed” mine for a long, long time. Furthermore, I didn’t really understand what was going on, until I was an adult with a child of my own. By that time, the damage was done, to some extent. And I did suffer from one horrible depressive episode some years back, that even now, I shudder to remember. I got through it somehow, because somehow, I learned some coping mechanisms that worked, for me at least. I didn’t have the kind of family support the adults in the letter represented; I had to figure things out on my own,and that was hell! I wish I had been able to solicit such support, but it just wasn’t there,and I had to figure it out on my own.
    Anne G

  3. April 17th, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    Kelly McCullough says:

    Sometimes when you’re a kid, you’re in the dungeon, but Steph is absolutely right, you do eventually get out, and it makes things a whole hell of a lot better.

  4. April 17th, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    Jadehawk says:

    that almost made me cry. I wish someone had written a supportive letter like that whe I was a depressed teen.

    But it does get better, sooner or later the world will have a purpose and a meaning again, it will just take freedom and a few years of searching to find it. And searching itself is already far better than being stuck in a horrible little world of others one isn’t allowed to escape

  5. April 17th, 2009 at 11:13 pm

    DuWayne says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. Seriously, this was pretty intense for me and I know someone who needs to read it as much as I did.

  6. April 18th, 2009 at 9:23 am

    simba says:

    That is really amazing. Tell the kid that it will get better- no-one believes that when they hear it but it does happen. All of a sudden the little part of your brain that’s imbalanced just… fixes, and the world is wonderful. It’s worth waiting for.

  7. April 18th, 2009 at 9:45 am

    GaryB says:

    Stephanie, thank you for writing this, I now understand where you are coming from. Now a little about where I am coming from.

    I am that teenager, or I was 40 years ago. I was physically and emotionally abused as a child, both from my parents and my peers at school. My first attempt at suicide was at 8 years old. Eight. I went through the house and poured a little bit from each container with a skull and cross bone on it into a small bottle. When I went to bed that night, I waited until my siblings were asleep then I filled my mouth with that concoction. As I was about to swallow I started thinking about my siblings, I was the oldest and did what I could to make them feel secure, I felt a little responsible for them; you see I would stand up to my father every time he hit my mother or one of my brothers. I hated being hit, but I hated watching them get hit even more.

    I ran to the bathroom and spit the crap out into the toilet and brushed my teeth. I told no one.

    After my parents broke up three years later and I was living with my grandparents, I retreated to religion and reading, ignoring real life as much as possible. I had to because I was responsible for their break up, or so I thought. As a late teenager I turned to drugs and alcohol. It wasn’t until I was 19 that I sought help, even going so far as getting an undergrad degree in Psychology and leading encounter groups at the local psych clinic just so I could understand myself a little better.

    One of my friends committed suicide, and another friend’s brother committed suicide. I saw first hand how those deaths affected the families, how the effects were permanent and how they ruined lives.

    Even now, in my fifties, thought of suicide is my constant companion, something I have to counter each and every day.

    My comments at Greg’s were not about the situation your friend is in, they weren’t about children, they weren’t about teenagers, they were about mature adults who have responsibility for their spouses and their children but have made the choice to end their pain after all other avenues have been exhausted. Suicide as an adult is the ultimate selfish act. Thinking of others has kept me alive for years.

    Your friend has explored no other avenues yet so what I said simply does not apply, I wouldn’t even suggest such a thing to a young person. Please forgive me if what I said there led you to believe I was being cold or insensitive, or even stupid. What you have said and done there and in this post is compassionate. It is important. It is needed. It is right.


  8. April 18th, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    Jadehawk says:

    Suicide as an adult is the ultimate selfish act. Thinking of others has kept me alive for years.

    this line bugs me to no end. I know a lot of people think that way, and a lot of people teach this to suicidals as a way of guilt-tripping them out of being suicidal… but that so totally misses the point of why a lot of adults commit suicide, or have suicidal thoughts. A lot of them consider themselves a burden to their family. their self-perception is so warped that they think they’d be doing everyone a favor by making themselves go away. It’s also extremely cold-hearted to claim that a mental disease, clinical depression, is “selfishness”. Being in so much mental and physical pain that life becomes utterly unbearable is not “selfishness”, and having no one to help you through this isn’t either.

    I’ve had many suicide attempts like the one you describe, mostly during my teenage years, but I don’t count them, not after I had one REAL suicide attempt. The one when I really DID think it was for the best, for me (to end the pain) and for those around me, whose lives I was screwing up so badly. of course they’d feel pain, but mourning passes, while the pain and misery I believed I was inflicting upon them would go on as long as I lived. It all made sense at the time. The one time when I DID go through with it, took the pills and the alcohol, and had to be sent to the hospital because of it.

    There’s levels of “being suicidal”, and certainly one stage of that is selfishness… but those that go through past the point of no return rarely do it because they’re simply selfish. they do it because they’re gravely ill and their minds have been twisted so badly that they have no self-worth left.

  9. April 21st, 2009 at 7:14 am

    a daughter's mother says:

    Selfish shmelfish! That discussion is just another way to absolve one’s self of any responsibility for the pain of another – or more to the point, any responsibility for noticing the pain of another. Because then when you did nothing to intervene, to connect, to help, to stop the suicide, you can dump all the responsibility on the dead person. Whee, no guilt, no difficult soul searching, no need to make difficult decisions to change how you interact in the world. You know, for next time. There will, after all, be a next time. Depression is not rare.

    Selfish? If you did nothing to intervene, then what’s left for the one contemplating suicide but being selfish? If the depressed person feels alone, whether that perception is accurate in real terms or only within the mind that knows only pain, then what’s left except being selfish? If no one is connecting, then who else is there to consider?

    I do realize, for everyone who’s got their back up by now, that a successful suicide doesn’t mean that nobody tried to get close. Often family and friends agonize because they see what’s going on, are kept at a distance, find again and again that there’s no real way to get close enough, because what’s going on in the depressed person’s mind just won’t let others in. I’m not saying it’s other people’s fault. I’m just tired of the pointless discussion that says the suicidee was selfish, because all that does is excuse me for not trying. Or you, if that shoe fits “Selfish” is such a pointless discussion – unless you are checking your own conscience!

    I’ve been there. Selfish, that is. I was a kid in junior high when a classmate who tried to get closer to me – but clumsily and weirdly, pushing me away – committed suicide. First, however, he took the shotgun and shot both his younger brothers. The warning signs were there, loud and clear. I plead selfishness, and ignorance, for that kind of act was completely outside of my world view at that time. I had no notion of the consequences of my selfishness. He made me uncomfortable, and I avoided him when possible, was distantly polite when not. I didn’t know to go to an adult and tell them what he was saying, and will never know if that might have made a difference. That particular kind of ignorance hasn’t been part of my life since, and has kept me fighting against my own selfishness – with varied levels of success – in the years since.

    I have also had my own bout of depression, and know well how hard it is to reach out to others to ask for help at that time. It’s immobilizing, and that’s when it’s particularly important for others to reach back, to try, to say, “I’m here, I care, let me help you get help.” It may not stop a suicide, but it offers an alternative.

    And it sure as hell offers an alternative to the would-be smugly self righteous person who blithely projects their own selfishness onto another in an abstract discussion of the other person’s alleged selfishness. THEY’re selfish? Where were you?

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