To my heartbroken 16-year-old self;
There are some things I need you to know on this quiet morning as you lay in the dark. To begin with, the answer is yes. It really happened. All of it. That moment right before, when you were laughing and making plans for that night and trying to find your new Alanis Morissette tape. That moment you felt a bump as the tires left the pavement. When the car was suddenly back on the road and even more suddenly leaving the road again. When you saw leaves coming at your door. When you noticed the car was upside down. When it all finally stopped and you realized they were gone. When you crawled under the car to her and heard ‘the noise.’ The passersby, the CPR, the helicopter and ambulances, the ER, the look on your parents faces as they tried to find the words to tell you the truth. It was all real. Every last second.
Nothing—-NOTHING—-will ever be the same again.
Today you must just try to breathe. It will be all you can do. I know nothing I can say to you on this morning will change the path you are now on, but I need your heart to hear it. I need these words to provide a beat to keep it going. This is going to be YOUR messy, beautiful life.
In a few minutes your friend is going to show up. She is going to do something magical. She is going to come into your room, climb into your bed, and just SIT. With you. There will not be a need for words. She is simply showing you: “You are NOT alone.” This, at a time when you feel 100% sure that no one you know will ever (or should ever) forgive you. When you are torn between wanting them to stay away and desperately needing them near. You are not alone. This is a message that will be repeated throughout your life and one you will fight against for years to come. You will hear it from so many. You are NOT alone.
Yesterday Nancy was your strength. She held herself together as you fell apart. She was the string holding you to this Earth. Her calm presence has been tattooed on your heart and years from now, when you live 1/2 the country away from her you will still consider her something of an anchor. That string will never be cut. She will always be the only one who knows—who has those moments seared into her memory along with yours.
The next few days are going to be hard. Again, your job is to breathe. The shock will carry you through. It will allow you to do things you could not have done without it. You will go to her house. You will cry into the arms of both her parents as they hug you back. They will tell you how much they love you. You will somehow manage to walk into the funeral home. The only memory you will walk out with is of the red carpet. The shock is strong. You will go to the funeral in a packed high school auditorium with a heart that feels you don’t deserve to and a head that is screaming YOU DID THIS. You will go to the gravesite, which will be hardest. But you are not alone.
Soon you will do other hard things like go back to school and start to drive again. But I must warn you—the shock is so strong that as hard as this all feels and as deep as your pain goes it is going to get much worse before it gets better. It is like your heart has fallen asleep. As it starts to wake up the pain is going to overtake you.
Four months from now you will find yourself bargaining with God after going to bed early and alone on Christmas Eve. You will question his existence, demand to know why, ask if he hates you, beg for his forgiveness, and ask him to just make it end. This is your heart beginning to wake up. Breathing will be as much as you can manage, and even that is questionable. You will sink into a hole deep enough you become numb again.
A few months after that the real pain will begin. You will seriously begin to question the worth of your life. The strength of the message that you are not alone will be met with equally strong walls you have built around yourself. Your own voice is stronger-whispering that you deserve to be alone. The pain will carry you dangerously close to the edge. So close you would have fallen if not for those strings everyone has been tying to you. First Nancy, then your parents, and each and every one of your friends. And yet, the edge is there and it is very real. You will desperately search for an escape in dangerous and unhealthy ways. You will do your best to create two faces. The ‘just fine’ face for others and the other one. The one who sobs in the shower every. single. night. When nothing is there but you and the pain. This pain will sink into every cell of your being. I need you to know that even then you are not alone. Your friends are watching. They sacrifice your trust to protect you. Your parents are watching. They tie their strings tightly to you.
You will make it through high school. You will master the two faces. You will even make it through college. The pain goes with you, but it is such a part of you by now you wouldn’t know who to be without it. Slowly the pain becomes such a part of you it doesn’t seem to hurt quite as much. However, it will remind you it is there. There will be moments. Like the day you are walking across campus on a warm sunny afternoon and in just one split second you catch the smell. A combination of cut grass, warm asphalt, maybe exhaust. And you are there—back in that field, watching as they try to flip the car off of her, seeing and hearing all that was there. These moments will sneak up on you. When you are riding in a car and suddenly see it veering off the shoulder. I am not sure they will ever go away. It is so so hard. But YOU CAN DO HARD THINGS!!! You will make even more friends who will tie off more strings.
One day you will even meet your husband. He will ask you about her. He will want you to tell him all about her. And then he will ask you why you are still hanging off that cliff. It is unacceptable to end two lives. He will tell you that you owe it to HER to live. To make this world better. To make someone smile. And you will listen. You will hear him and know he is right. He will even write to her parents and her mom will call you. It is around this time you will have your last dream about her. It is beautiful. She tells you it is going to be ok and that she loves you. And she tells you goodbye.
Beautiful things will come. A daughter who loves all life so much you can’t get down the sidewalk with her when it is raining because she stops to help every worm. A son whose life force is so strong you can only sit back and watch him. You will love your family so much it hurts. But this time in a good way. You will smile and actually mean it. You will find a job where you get to help kids feel better. All the time. You will begin to tie your own strings.
You will do this. It will not be easy, but life never is. You will simply get through the day. And then when morning comes you will do it again. And one day you will look around you and for the first time in a very very long time you will accept that your life has value. In all of its messy beauty.
This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!