Dear Teen Me,
Speak up and tell the truth. I’m not talking about how by age six your step-sister blamed something on you and you told the truth and still got in trouble for it. It was at that defining moment you decided to always tell the truth because you knew you’d get in trouble no matter what you said, but at least you knew you’d told the truth. No, not that kind of not lying. The kind of lying by omission where you keep silent. And in particular, tell the truth about what goes on at your mother’s house.
Why are you protecting her? Or if it isn’t protection, then what are you afraid of? Is it all those big-bad-wolf stories from when you were little? The problem is that the big-bad-wolf isn’t in the forest or outside your door, that big-bad-wolf is inside your house. You need to go tell someone with the power to help you and your brothers get out of the wolf’s house. Because you’re powerless to do squat on your own as long as you won’t open your mouth and tell the truth.
You had years to tell your dad, but you didn’t. Every time you came home from visitation at your mother’s house your dad would sit you on his bed and grill you about what happened at your monthly visit. But you’d sit there silent. You never showed him the iron burn on your leg. Or told him about spending the weekend on your hands and knees scraping wax off a kitchen floor with a dull paring knife. Your dad doesn’t know his tactics to get you to talk should’ve been more subtle, more tender–not his style. He’s direct and a bottom-line guy. So it felt as if you were sitting under a bright lamp light at a police station every time you came home from visitation. As a result, you clammed up.
And then you did something really stupid in your teens. After a Christmas band concert you didn’t go home to your safe warm bed at your dad’s house. Instead you packed your Bible and your toothbrush in your cornet case and you got in the car with your mother and went to live with her and your brothers.
Two weeks into living there you started school in the middle of a cold snowy January day wearing sunglasses. The woman registering you made you take them off, implying you must be on drugs. But you didn’t deny it. Then when you took the glasses off and she could see your swollen black eye; she never asked why. Okay, so that’s a good clue that she wasn’t one to help you. And the Algebra II teacher who flunked you because you fell asleep on your desk once too often, especially after rushing through a test, maybe he wouldn’t care either if you told him that you’re working nights and weekends to help support your mother and brothers.
But there are other adults who want to help you. Like your senior English teacher, Mr. Mauer, who throws your no-excuse pink slips in the trash from when you miss school. You were too honest to write a note and forge it. He had to know something was wrong at home. But he needs you to say it with your voice.
Don’t believe the rumors that say foster homes are worse than where you’re at. When I turned 18 I went into one to finish high school and it was the best. But the problem was, I still didn’t tell about my abusive mother, so my brothers didn’t get out, too. And I’ve lived with that guilt all these years. It keeps coming out in my stories where I write about a big sister trying to save her younger brother. Because I did a really lousy job of protecting my brothers.
So when I say, speak up for yourself and tell the truth, I don’t mean get in the face of your abuser. You know that will end badly. It’s like watching a horror show and you’re screaming at the girl on the screen, “Don’t open that door! There’s a crazy man with a knife!” Well, I’m telling you to take seriously the knife-wielding crazy-maker in your house. Instead, the place to speak up, and even shout out until you’re heard, is to adults who can get you and your siblings out of the crazy-maker’s house. Talk to a teacher, or guidance counselor, or pastor, or Social Services. And if one won’t listen, go to another, and another, until someone will get you out of that hell house. There is a better way and safer, saner place to live.
So, dear Teen Me, stay safe. Stay sane. But speak up and tell the truth earlier rather than later. And know that your parent’s problem isn’t your fault, and you can’t fix her. You are going to grow up and have your own family, your own life, and you are going to speak up and speak out for others through your writing.
Your future Self
Christine Kohler is a former journalist and teacher. She worked as a political reporter and foreign correspondent for Gannett, covering the West Pacific. As an adult Kohler left her home state and lived in Hawaii, Japan, Guam and four other U.S. states with her air force family. They now call Texas home.