There is the tiniest of scars over a vein on my left wrist. It’s barely visible to the naked eye. It is the size of a freckle or a speck, but I have never lost sight of it. It’s from a pencil that I once sharpened to the finest point possible and then twisted and picked into that very small and very focused spot on my skin. I was resolved to find a way into the flesh and into the vein. I had recently heard somewhere that puncturing a vein was a way in which a person could kill themselves. I remember being very confused over how easy that seemed to accomplish but I didn’t ask for clarification. I plainly filed the fact away for further exploration. That was the first and last time I ever wanted to or attempted to end my own life. I contemplated it for days and then made the decision. If I am being very honest, I will say that while I am grateful beyond measure that I did not succeed and that the yearning did not persist, I actually find little fault in my own reasoning at the time. Because I also know that the girl who sat there that day with a pencil in her hand was a ghost of the girl she had been just six months earlier. I was 10 years old.
By the time I was eleven years old, I wanted to be Ralph Macchio. Well, not exactly, specifically Ralph Macchio. I wanted to be Johnny from the Outsiders. The jagged, watchful, switchblade pulling, loyal companion to Ponyboy. I loved Ponyboy. And I aspired to Ponyboy, but I just wasn’t that smooth around the edges. I felt too cagey and vigilant to be as dreamy as he was. By the age of eleven my nerves were far too shot for an easy smile or to talk to anyone without looking at them sideways. I saw myself growing into Sodapop or maybe Dallas, someday. I deeply identified with the archetype of the orphaned, scrappy, responsible, sensitive and sarcastic, misunderstood survivor. All I needed was a band of (br)others who also understood that we were living our lives on a battlefield.
But I wasn’t Johnny. And I wasn’t Ponyboy. And while I could hold fast to the fantasy that I could maybe someday be like Dallas or Sodapop, I first had to live with the reality that who I was becoming more of every day was an adolescent girl, which was the most dangerous of things to be in Wheatland Plains, Illinois in 1984.
We were in an unincorporated housing division, and by housing division, I mean a group of houses that had been partially developed and then abandoned in the middle of endless soybean and cornfields. We were seven miles outside of a town that only had about 3,400 people to begin with. We were too young to drive, but we were wrestled into the back seats of cars that were driven at top speed with no headlights on back county roads with Black Sabbath filling up all of the empty space that existed everywhere. We were neighbors to the sound and smell of pure animal fear and death that came from the slaughterhouse that our houses were built around. We were the younger siblings of older brothers who inhaled paint fumes on front steps and then drove the family car in circles around the house trapping everyone inside, the same boys who raided their father’s porn collections and then “shared” their little sisters with their friends. I did not have an older brother. I didn’t need one. None of us did.
According to the bureau of Justice Statistics, girls and women living in rural areas experience some of the highest levels of repeated sexual violence.
I have very few photos of myself during that time. Over the years, I have thrown most of them away. But one has stuck around though I have hid it from myself many times – between the pages of books, in the back of my closet, in and out of boxes. And a week or so ago, I did something I never thought I would do by making that photo public on my own Facebook page. That kid. That kid. That kid. That girl starting back at the camera.
The girl I was then, the girl who smoked and smoked and smoked, who snuck sips of Jack Daniels from the family bar before and after school, who got high and stayed high, who flunked math and other subjects because she fell asleep so hard at school that she drooled on her desk. The girl who locked her younger sister and brother in their bedrooms after school and beat them for coming out but let them think for years that she was just having people over, who saved any crying for just before sleep and then practiced deep visualization rituals, designed for desensitization, for erasing anything that remotely resembled a feeling; resting on a bed of nails, walking through a blazing fire, a chest and rib cage made of hollow steel.
That girl developed and cultivated a quiet, raging and wild defiance. That girl once tried to sink a pair of dull kitchen scissors into the back of one of her perpetrators. This is a girl who built a bomb shelter inside of her own skin, and not only figured out how to eat glass with a straight face but developed intricate systems to prevent it from lacerating her insides as it went down. I was a girl who developed a secret language if only to write in a code I wouldn’t decipher until much later. I masterfully buried things for safekeeping. And I also created maps for finding much of what I buried.
That is the girl warrior I banished to the back of my closet, whose voice I could not let into the room, who I have tried to throw away, erase and ignore. She has tracked me down at times and implored me to understand or at least listen and I have walked past her with my own eyes averted because her shame is too much, the shock in her eyes is too primal and frightening, I sometimes find her un-relatable and practically feral.
I am not trying to romanticize that childhood part of myself or disparage my reaction of turning away from the darker parts of my own herstory. It’s an intricate but very important dance that we do. While those strategies were intelligent and astute, they were also a roadmap for a terrified and isolated girl who was under siege. The systems she devised are for when life requires a girl to get simple, silent and completely locked down, when a brain, body and nervous system must be re-wired in order to survive. These are not the building blocks for trust, for discerning or expressing emotions, the exploration of interests and abilities, or believing in a future, much less planning for one. This is not personal development strategy. And so, those strategies had to change and some still need to be retired completely. On one hand, I have to thank the girl in that picture for keeping me alive and reasonably sane while I also have to make certain that she does not choose my lovers, set my pay scale, or take off with my wallet and the keys to my car. I want to offer that girl some very simple and clean respect and see her dignity. I want to honor her wild intelligence and offer her a place in my counsel while I go about the business of becoming the woman I most want to be, while I do the things I most want to do, while I am here to do them.
I am aware that the only thing I ever used in an effort to take my own life would become the tool I would most reach for and rely on for changing my life, for bringing light, reality, sanity, company and hope to myself and to some of the women who have joined me on this path so far. That connection is not lost on me. Incidentally, over the past couple of years, I have developed a small practice of tenderly kissing that spot when I think of it or simply holding onto it for a moment and sending love to the girl and also to the pencil.
And so, this is for me and for you. It’s for the girl warriors we were and the women we become. And it’s also for the ones who never made it home to themselves, and for the parts of our own living selves that haven’t reemerged and maybe never will. And it’s also for the the ones who won’t live to link arms, or lock eyes with someone else who knows, the ones who never get a homecoming procession. For the found girls and the lost girls and the ones still in between. May we all stay gold.
May We All Stay Gold by Sara St. Martin Lynne