Labels. We all wear them. Some labels make us feel like we’re on top of the world. Others plunge us into an endless abyss. Teens are among the hardest hit by labels. In middle school, (what I affectionately call The Cannibalism Years) guys and girls spend their energy jockeying for a position of acceptance at least and popular at best. In high school, labels are still clearly present, but for those who have survived the “lord of the flies” experience of middle school, teens emerge with a little more knowledge of who they are and what they want. Scars may be internal, external, or both, but I wildly applaud those who graduate middle school and are still standing when the first day of high school hits – as long as they haven’t left a trail of casualties leading to their success.
Labels during these years change like the wind. Popular, freak, cute, funny, smart, nerd, jock, quiet, dweeb, stupid, pretty, weird, shy, daring, promiscuous (the nicer word), and invisible – are a few off the top of my head. Depending on the day’s events, some of those labels are encouraging and uplifting. Others push teens to the brink of wanting to end their life. Oh the power peers have over each other. (sigh)
Other labels aren’t so easily gained or lost. Some are branded onto teens without their consent or permission. Divorce, poor, orphan, and victim are a few. I remember a teen in my high school that looked as though every day was his last. He was always dirty, his clothes were way too small, greasy hair, and he wore shoes that barely held together. I cannot remember his name. He was invisible. He was poor. He was never given a chance. I often wonder what became of him. I wanted to say something to him like, hello, but never found the courage because I didn’t know what to say after hello. He wore his label on the outside. Everyone knew it and ostracized him for it.
My labels were internal, but just as isolating. I was a product of two divorces, sub-par family finances, and a mom who was dying. What do teens say to that? You’re a train wreck and we don’t know what to do with you, was one encounter I vividly remember. I went to a large public high school filled with people who had more money than we did. It wasn’t just that we were a single family trying to survive on a secretary’s salary, it was that my mom spent my entire junior year in and out of the hospital with cancer. Unable to work during portions of the year, I really have no idea how our bills were paid – my grandparents helped, I assume, and debt accumulated.
While many classmates had predictable schedules, homes, extra-curricular activities and parents to buy them poster board needed for a project or sign a permission slip or drive them around to friends’ homes and parties, my day went something like this: Sleep at my grandparents’ house, get up, go back to my house, shower, get dressed, go to school, leave school and go straight to the hospital to be with my mom. There, I made great friends with the stiff, cold vinyl chair in her room in which I did my homework and watched tv while she slept. One night, with books opened on my chest as I was slumped back in the chair, the nurse came in, tapped me on the shoulder and woke me up. She said in a soft voice, Honey, go home. Get some rest. She doesn’t even know you are here. Although I appreciated her kindness, her words pierced my soul. All of this is for nothing? I asked myself. I gathered my books and drove back to my grandparent’s house in a sleepy daze just to start it all over again the next day.
Nobody knew this because nobody asked. All I looked like was a disheveled mess. There wasn’t a parent to tell me, You need a hair cut, or Your shoes need replacing, or You don’t look so good, do you feel okay? My mom was simply trying to stay alive. She told me once after a hard chemo treatment, The only reason I am alive is for you girls. You are my reason for living.
At a time when I didn’t know if she was going to live, and if not, what would happen to me, I was still straddling a world of teenageness where I needed to absorb academic material for tests, not be tardy for school, and keep from falling asleep in class. I got so angry at other classmates when I overheard their whining about boys, cars, parties, and the latest gossip. I thought, You don’t have a clue what life is about. Your stupid little problems are NOTHING on the scale of life. Get over yourself. I kept those thoughts to myself so I wasn’t run out of town – or at least out of school. I was completely unable to identify with anyone at my school – but desperately, secretly wanted to. If others were having similar life-threatening problems at home, they didn’t share them. None of us did. Why? Because who wants to be around high-maintenance teens? No one. In this age of life, teens are incredibly self-absorbed. It’s normal in their development. But “freaks” (as I saw myself) like me had a daily inner struggle with wanting to be a typical teenager, but at the same time being forced to be an adult – handling grown-up problems on my own with no dad and a dying mom. (breathe)
I remember at the end of my junior year, everyone was talking about prom. Oh good grief, I thought. Can this issue just please go away? Is there any other high school event that singles out social groups, money and popularity more than prom? My first limo ride (and only limo ride to date) was to my mom’s funeral barely after my junior year ended. In the limo I thought, While everyone is taking their first limo ride to prom, I’m taking mine to my mom’s funeral.
Since we’re being honest about feelings, which is what this blog is about, I’ll mention another extremely painful memory that may surprise some who haven’t walked this road. The end of summer before my senior year. Why? That’s when moms (or dads) take their girls shopping for school clothes. I can still smell the stale mall air as if it were yesterday, and I remember watching the girls that went to my school walk the mall with their moms and their shopping bags while I sat numb on a bench sipping a Sprite. As a girl, this hurt almost as much as not having been validated by the male influences in my life in yesterday’s blog. It seems like such a superficial thing, but digging deeper, to me it was more about not being able to spend time with my mom, ask her opinion on what looked good on my insecure body, and such a time would be a sort of send-off to my senior year that would have been affirmed by my mom. This one step would have felt like a natural progression toward the beginnings of her letting me go. Instead, she was ripped from my life by a horrific disease, and I had to let her go.
My mom had died just 2 months before, and I was now living with my grandparents to avoid foster care. They loved me. I loved them. But, it was their daughter who they just buried. We were all broken and didn’t know how to fix each other, so we just went to our own corners and licked our wounds. They were from the Depression Era. They were frugal and financially wise. A senior in high school is not. Whether it be they had no concept of buying school clothes because they A: were too deep in their grief; B: too frugal to see the physical need; C: too out of touch to see the social need; or D: a combination of these – the bottom line was I began my senior year in my older sister’s hand-me-downs. Yes, I am thankful I had clothes to wear at all, but these were nothing to brag about. They were old and tired. I didn’t have the nerve to ask my grandparents for new ones, so I wore them without a word.
In high school, when you don’t look the part, you don’t get the part. It’s really hard to be accepted into social groups where you stick out like a sore thumb. I didn’t dress right; I didn’t have the right car (I drove my grandmother’s 1972 Cadillac which was defaulted to me from my mom when she died); I didn’t have a home to invite people over to, and I didn’t have parents to take my friends and me to fun places like to the beach or a music concert like others had.
Did I feel sorry for myself? No. I couldn’t go there. If I had stopped for one second to think about the enormity of what was happening to my life, it would have swallowed me whole. My life felt more like a Jason Bourne movie, where one thing happens after the next and you can’t blink or even go to the bathroom because if you turn away for a second, there is something around the corner that’s going to get you. In many ways, I felt like it already had.
Today’s blog is dedicated to all of the BRAVE young men and women who are fighting for their lives, or a loved one’s life, today. I want you to hear the Truth – circumstances do NOT define you. Don’t believe the thoughts or people that tell you they do. You are not a label. You are a person – loved by God.
By God’s grace, you CAN get through this. People asked me, When are you going to get over your mother’s death and move on? I was so offended! If you love someone, you don’t “get over” their loss, but you can get through it. It’s too much to handle alone. Seek trusted help to confide in.
There is more to say on how to deal with teen labels of loss and trauma, and on this blog we’re not afraid to talk about it, ask tough questions, or simply admit I don’t know. This issue is real for a lot of teens, and every single one of you count. You are important. You are loved. Your feelings are valid, and you need to know you are not alone.
<<Check out the companion song to this blog on my Tunes page!>>