For most people, she’s hard to spot across the crowded cafe, having spent years developing the skill of being invisible. Hooded sweatshirts and ill-fitting track pants, hair in a ponytail hidden by a black bandanna, she fidgets and sips at a hot chocolate, knowing full well the dairy isn’t going to agree with her.
I am considerably older, and recognize her immediately. As she waits, unaware of being observed, she chews on the inside of her lip — a nervous trait I happen to share. I feel the corners of my mouth twitch upward into a smile, and begin my approach.
“Hi,” I say gently. “May I sit with you?”
Confusion registers, then recognition and surprise. I sit and take a sip of my own drink — some lactose-free concoction expertly crafted by the barista. I know full well the repercussions of too much dairy and have learned to avoid it if I can. The girl in front of me takes a moment to look me over before speaking.
“Yes,” I interrupt. “I’m you, ten years from now.”
We are silent for a moment, past and future huddled together in some sort of conspiratorial meeting, separated only by a round wooden table and several years. I have waited for this moment for quite some time. I know this 15-year-old girl from inside to out, I know her doubts and fears and self-hatred and self-harm and depression. I know her despair. I need to save her.
She looks at me, wide-eyed and silent, afraid to speak for fear of sounding stupid.
“I need you to do something for me,” I tell her. She automatically agrees, because that’s what she always does. She tells you exactly what you want to hear when you want to hear it, and she hardly ever follows through. “No, really,” I emphasize. “I need to you promise.”
“Okay, sure,” she says. “What is it?”
“What you’re planning to do… don’t do it. Don’t take away your chances of finding something better, of learning and growing and creating something wonderful for yourself. Don’t nullify your chance to go places you’ve never been and meet people who genuinely care about you. Don’t give up the fight just because it’s difficult and it hurts you in places you didn’t know you had. I know who you are. I know the champion that lurks inside you, the reserves of strength buried under decades of abuse and torment. You miss Daddy, I know you do, but there is no reason to rush off this earth to join him wherever he is. There’s plenty of time if you let yourself have it. You are worth it.”
She fights to swallow down the hope as it rises within her, to coat it in sarcasm and use it as a weapon against her future self. She struggles to hide the tears as they well up in her eyes, to kill any emotion before it has a chance to take root and grow inside her. She’s at war with her own feelings and will not stop until she’s so numb she has to take a razor or a steak knife to her skin to feel anything at all. And because I know this already, and have already fought the same battles, I know I can get through to her.
We speak in unison. “What’s the point? Nothing’s ever going to get better.”
I take her hand in mine and lean across the table to look into the same stormy grey eyes that have stared back at me from the mirror for the last twenty-five years. I see agony and a wall built so high and so tight that her heart is suffocating already. I know I’m just in time.
“It does get better,” I whisper. “You can retort and make jokes and pretend you think nothing matters, but I AM YOU so you’re not going to fool me and I’m not going to lie to you. Fight. Keep fighting. There are difficult years ahead but every single painful moment up to this point has been preparing you for this. You are hurting, you are tired, and I know you just want to lay down and disappear, but you can’t. You have to keep going, for me, for your family, and most of all, for yourself.
“There will come a day when there are people around you who are genuinely happy to see you. You’ll be able to get up in the morning and make yourself coffee in your own apartment. You’ll wash your dishes and your hair and those things will bring you joy because they’re so hard-won. You’ll have a partner who loves you, and your years of people-pleasing will give way to self-care, self-love, and generosity. The next ten years will be harder than you could ever imagine, but I need you to remember that you’ve been built to carry this. Everyone has a burden to carry, some much heavier than others, but nothing is beyond your ability to cope.
“When the time comes — and it will — and you find yourself standing at the kitchen sink with a knife in your hand and numbness in your heart, remember me. Remember my promises. Remember that it will get better for you and I’m living proof. Accept what happened to you, tell Mom about it and then let it go. Holding onto the past will poison your future. When you find yourself unsure, remember that although you might feel alone right now, the truth is that you’re not. One day you’ll feel connected and loved and worthy.”
As I finish, our eyes meet again. She finally allows her tears to spill over and begins to cry quietly as I fold her gently into my arms. I stroke her covered hair and let her sob into my shoulder. No one notices us although the cafe is full — we’ve spent years learning how to be invisible.