A few weeks ago I was leaving for Nashville for the week (even though I was just there the weekend before, but what is being twenty something if not for burning up the road?) and because I meet with Kylie on Wednesdays I swapped out and met with her earlier in the week. I wrote about Kylie early on in our friendship through the local public school mentoring program here –she is a highlight of my life in Jefferson City this year, for sure.
Our time together is about as much of a seesaw as middle school is altogether. We generally talk about boys and family drama; the topic changes mid-sentence and is riddled with all kinds of confusion on my end, mainly because that gap between age and understanding is having to be learned and is no longer intuitive. Sometimes we talk about the real heart issues. But most of the time we don’t. Upon meeting Kylie, I wasn’t entirely sure why she had enrolled in the mentoring program in the first place. She tells me she makes good grades and doesn’t generally seem to make tidal waves wherever she goes. She is not shy or withdrawn. She has good friends and a half way decent family that takes her and her latest boyfriend to the park or the ice rink on the weekends to spend time together. Dating long distance from Jefferson City to Eugene, Missouri has its emotional toll on young, seventh grade love and the family is doing their part to keep it alive. I’ve not bought into the idea of ‘young, seventh grade love’ and thus, I would not probably do my part if I were Kylie’s parents. Regardless of my hypothetical parenting choices, Kylie appears to be a normal kid.
I noticed Kylie cut herself about a month into our weekly meetings, when she rolled her bright blue hoodie arms up past her elbows, exposing half a dozen thin scabbed lacerations, accented with silly bands, BFF bracelets, and youth retreat memorabilia. Her markings were not expertly hidden, angled, or deep. She does not cut often but has a handful of times since I’ve known her. “Ky, are you cutting yourself” I ask, surprised. “No,” she says quickly and then drops her head, “Well, yeah.” I ask her about them and she answers and seems a little embarrassed. She looks down at the ground when we talk about them, and that encourages me. I’ve never been able to understand the root of Kylie’s cutting but I always get the feeling that she doesn’t find any release in hurting herself. She seems stuck in a shallow gutter of self-destructive behavior.
A few weeks ago she wore a band aid on her ankle. She kept talking about her date over the weekend but I kept eyeing the band aid, expecting her to bring it up. She didn’t. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing towards it. She glanced down and looked surprised to see it. “Oh, it got caught on a hanger last week. Bled like a mother.” A hanger. Those words sounded distant and hallow. She picked at the frayed fringes of the worn out bandage. I remembered a hanger. She lied to me for years and I was a fool to believe her. A feeling of complete distrust and anger fell on me instantly and I lashed back, “Kylie, you’re lying to me.” She leaned away from me on the mezzanine couches defiantly. “I’m not! Why would you say that? Sarah pushed me off my bed last week and I fell on a broken hanger. You don’t get my problem anyway! I don’t cut like that.” She seemed frustrated but I could barely care. My heart was pounding wildly and I could barely breathe.
A hanger. A stupid hanger is what started this whole thing. Well really, it started showing signs in eleventh grade when Mollie’s second best friend Ethan moved from next door. I didn’t get it. They would see each other every day at school, which is more than I would see her. But still we sat on the curb, picking a pebbles while she stared. She stared so much that year. I didn’t mind the quiet even then but my experience in friendship was limited and didn’t recognize something was terribly wrong underneath it all. It had nothing to do with Ethan. She would perk up after a week or few days and we were back to exploring and running wildly about the neighborhood. We were not especially pretty or girly girls then, with flat blonde hair plainly chopped around our chins, with knobby appendages and freckles. We pretty much aspired to be one of her five brothers growing up. And thus our summers of walking barefoot on gravel, fan-girling over hobbits, learning archery, and extreme wagon racing down my parents hilly property would recommence. Sometimes we would hang out at her grandmother’s house in the summers and she would leave me in the dark house filled with doll houses and sit out on the dock by herself for a long time. My mom told me it’s good to give your friends space, so I sat with the dollhouses watching Unsolved Mysteries and creating fears that can never be undone. I wish I hadn’t for her sake. And mine. But she always bounced back and it became an unspoken part of our ritual of friendship for years.
Mollie is a very messy person. I’m messy but she’s way worse than me. Many times I would drive over to hang out which usually ended up helping her clean her room for an hour before we went anywhere. I didn’t mind it. I liked having her all to myself while trying on her clothes and perusing her unique collection of books. My senior year of high school we were cleaning up her closet of hats -yes, she had a closet of hats and scarves- when she said we should hang out at the park, which was one of our favorite places to hang. Ironically, the park we went to was the very park we met each other as six and seven year olds. I met her on a dare by my older sister. Mollie has always been allergic to mosquitos and the poor kid was covered in bites as a seven year old. I recently recovered from the chicken pox and thought maybe she was suffering as well but was shy from my recent move across the south, thus the dare.
We sat on the swing set, it was cool and terribly dark. Diane and Jan would not be happy mommas if they had known. I had spoken all my words for the day and enjoyed the silence and the wind through my hair when I swung back and forth but Mollie wasn’t talking or swinging -two of her favorite things, so I stopped. “I’ve been cutting myself.” She said without warning. “And I have been for a while.” She was not remorseful but rather, informative. I have no memory of the rest of our conversation except that at one point she began to explain why she liked cutting and it made me cry and she didn’t care that I was crying. I knew things were bad. A week later I saw a band aid on the inside of her arm and asked about it. “Oh, I caught it on a hanger.” She said lightly and I believed her. The next day she called me to tell me she lied about the hanger. That was the first time anyone owned up to lying to me, and I almost hated that she had. It made me sick. The following year was a blur for me as I became aware and things escalated. I got a call one afternoon that she locked herself in the bathroom. I almost wrecked my car trying to turn around and head to her house, I was in such a panic. I remember laying on the hallway floor, coaxing her through the crack under the door to open it for me while her little brother stood there wide-eyed. I remember cleaning the room of scissors and Xacto knives with her, praying over her before she went to bed, as nights were especially hard, and hearing about counseling and medication and hearing about anxiety and the word “bipolar”. I remember having to tell her parents with my two friends and anchors. I remember that day the most. I thought I was choosing between our friendship and her safety and I cried and cried afterwards. I thought nothing would be the same after that. But some things managed to stay the same. We still danced in her car. We learned how to communicate our feelings.
What started as cool, collected conversations with Kylie in attempts to understand what caused her to cut began a trickle of flashbacks. This is not uncommon for me to suppress bad memories. It’s taken me years to understand that writing is not something I do for enjoyment. it’s something I have to do, in order for me to make sense of the world. Mollie and Kylie’s hangers couldn’t be more different. It’s interesting how life works out. It’s hard to understand an experience that kicks you in the gut and changed everything. Mollie’s changed ended up being for the better. This is not everyone’s story. But this is her story and I’m grateful for her dedication to struggling to wholeness. We’re almost eight years removed from that night in the park and Mollie has seen so much positive change since then, I barely recognize that part of her story anymore. She now writes about beauty through vulnerability, and has a heart for women who feel “less than”. She is an amazing make up artist and stylist, whose dreams seem to be bigger and bigger every year. It’s because of this woman’s journey, I am not afraid when my little friend Kylie shows up with scabs and bruises. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a kick in the gut, I feel just as sick now as I did on that playground. But I am nemesis with this foe. It no longer terrorizes my friendships.
A few weeks ago, Kylie flopped down on the couch at the middle school where we meet every week and offered up before any greeting, “I’ve had a horrible week. Thursday was the anniversary of Chelsea’s death. You know, my friend from my old school.” I didn’t know. I hugged her. “Who is Chelsea? You’ve never mentioned her before.” Kylie picked at her thumbnail. “Well, we weren’t friends actually. I used to bully her. And she hung herself two years ago because of me.” She was clinching her fists. I’ve never felt more at a loss for words. “I just wish I had been kind. That’s why I cut.” She cried. I cried.
It hurts to love. It hurts to watch someone heal too. It’s not a bit easier at twenty-five than it was as a seventeen year old, nor will it as an eighty-two year old, I suspect. But nothing hurts as much as saying goodbye, which was an unexpected turn in Kylie and I’s story since I began writing this. Last week her mom pulled her out of the local middle school mid-week and enrolled her in another school district with no way of reaching her. Kurt, The mentor program coordinator, called me on my way home from Nashville to break the news to me. This was not the note I wanted to end on with Kylie. I planned for another year with her. I planned breakfast before school let out for the summer. I planned to see her heal. But that is not our story anymore. Kurt called to let me know he could get a letter to her before the end of the school year. It’s hard to convey into one letter everything you want to say to someone who needs to know so much.
I know we both know this isn’t how we wanted to end the year -we were going to change things up and do breakfast together! It makes my heart sad that our year has come to a close. There are a couple of things I wanted to make sure you knew before you begin a new chapter in your life.
1. You have brought so much joy to my life. Thank you for opening up your life and inviting me to be a friend, even though there’s an age gap between us. You are an encourager, a giggler, a story-teller, a friend, a dreamer, and many, many other things that are so good. You are a unique and beautiful person. If anyone makes you feel differently, then they are wrong. And if you think differently, then you are wrong. Sometimes you need someone else on the outside looking into your life to see what you can’t see. I’m that person, and you’re fantastic.
2. Thanks for sharing your struggles. I know you feel broken sometimes and it’s hard to find people who really understand what you’re going through, or your past, or your thoughts. I hope that you learn that you’re worth protecting yourself from negative thoughts or bad relationships, or sabotaging good relationships and you’re worth seeking help and advice when you feel like it’s too much. I’m broken too we’re all broken. But the great thing about being human is about the choice to take all those really jagged, broken pieces of our lives, sort through them, and watch a beautiful mosaic take shape that other people can admire, learn from, and be encouraged in their own little mosaic-making. Don’t give up!
3. The day you graduate from high school seems like it will literally never come. It will come. The day will come when you can drive, when you have a little more independence, when you live on your own. You will love it but it’s also complicated on this side of life too. Complicated isn’t bad, it’s just less glamorous than maybe it is in your head. Let me tell you from experience: all your big decisions in life are decided on the tiny, average, every day sort of decisions you make now. As you grow into a teenager on up, you get to decide what kind of person you want to be. Be faithful and responsible with the decisions you make this week, this month, this summer, next year, and so on. My hope is that you decide to be gracious to yourself and to others. That you choose to be a bold, courageous, truth-seeking, community changing, life-giving, woman who multiplies what she’s been given, to give to others. (I also hope you still grow up to become a singer) I see that potential in you. Carve those things you want in your life out of your character today.
4. If you ever feel low, or get what I call “heavy boots”, I hope you will remember how loved and wonderful you are. God loves you so much. I hope you can remember us talking about boys and laughing over selfies, or singing One Direction songs, and that you will remember that you took a chance with me and it turned out all right.
Mollie and I don’t talk much about those days because our lives have been overcrowded with laundry and boyfriends and education and new apartments and new jobs and getting married and texting weird memes and all the every day little miracles that happen to those to refuse to give in. Life. It really is a beautiful thing, prickles and all. We are hardwired for struggle and we are built to overcome. This is what I so desperately want Kylie to understand -that what she’s feeling now, doesn’t have to be forever. And while there are some obstacles that might always be there, they don’t have to enslave or define who she is. I’m grateful to live in an age where awareness of mental health is on the rise, as flawed as it might be as it stands. There is no easy solution to depression, anxiety, self harm, personality disorders, and everything in between and I can’t fix people. But I can love them and I can be someone who will empathize with their struggles.
Mollie knows I am writing about her story and was not only was gracious in letting me share, but excited to share her story with you for one simple reason: that if anyone reading this struggles with self harm or depression, she wants you to know that you are not alone. “And that’s half the battle, sometimes.” She said. “The most difficult part of cutting besides the emotional baggage was knowing that talking about it with someone would probably go nowhere. Because I could not adequately explain my emotions and the “why”, and because it’s a taboo topic that not many people have a good grasp on. The lie I believed for so long was, “no one understands’ equals ‘no one cares'”.
Let’s all be apart of this mental health issue by talking about it. Let’s refuse to let it be something that is taboo, something we whisper about or rant about ignorantly on Facebook. Let’s show with our time and words that our friends are not alone. Let’s research and build communities of encouragement and resource. Let’s show that their struggles are valid and that they are deserving of rich friendship and support. Think about the people who didn’t give up on you and how it’s led you to be the person you are today. We are built for struggle, yes; yet we are built to struggle together. I think about Kylie as a seventh grader, plucked out of her familiar middle school and moved to a new town with new people and being alone. I worry she’ll start cutting regularly over the summer and not have a counselor to talk to or a friend to encourage her. I worry this fall she’ll turn to boys for validation or be too anxious to study for math. I wonder who will pick up where I left off? Who are the Kylies in your life that if you just cleared a few things off your calendar could be the person who stands in the gap for her?
Oswald Chambers says, “Natural human love expects something in return. But Paul is saying, “It doesn’t really matter to me whether you love me or not. I am willing to be completely destitute anyway; willing to be poverty-stricken, not just for your sakes, but also that I may be able to get you to God.” “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor . . .” (2 Corinthians 8:9). And Paul’s idea of service was the same as our Lord’s. He did not care how high the cost was to himself— he would gladly pay it. It was a joyful thing to Paul.
The institutional church’s idea of a servant of God is not at all like Jesus Christ’s idea. His idea is that we serve Him by being the servants of others. Jesus Christ actually “out-socialized” the socialists. He said that in His kingdom the greatest one would be the servant of all (see Matthew 23:11). The real test of a saint is not one’s willingness to preach the gospel, but one’s willingness to do something like washing the disciples’ feet— that is, being willing to do those things that seem unimportant in human estimation but count as everything to God. It was Paul’s delight to spend his life for God’s interests in other people, and he did not care what it cost. But before we will serve, we stop to ponder our personal and financial concerns— “What if God wants me to go over there? And what about my salary? What is the climate like there? Who will take care of me? A person must consider all these things.” All that is an indication that we have reservations about serving God. But the apostle Paul had no conditions or reservations. Paul focused his life on Jesus Christ’s idea of a New Testament saint; that is, not one who merely proclaims the gospel, but one who becomes broken bread and poured-out wine in the hands of Jesus Christ for the sake of others.”
If you or someone you know struggles with self harm, check out the community built by To Write Love On Her Arms
Mollie is a make up artist and beauty blogger living in NYC. She blogs about every day make up looks and finding beauty through vulnerability. If you’d like to get to know her better or learn some sweet make up skills, visit www.astyleofyourown.com