I would sit in the car before school and obsessively rub more black liner beneath and around my eyes. “Why do you do that?” my cute, sporty sister asked.
Because I’m ugly. Because my eyes aren’t pretty and nothing is right about the way I look.
“Why does your sister dress like that?” someone asked her.
Because she has no idea who she's supposed to be. Which version of herself is true. Because she's drawn to a kind of beauty she doesn’t see here in these horrible school walls, and she doesn’t know how to be like you.
My own small bedroom walls & closet doors were papered with magazine images of idyllic scenery and girls in wacky & fanciful ensembles really only worn at photo shoots and not in real life. Those images were the backdrop for my imagined life (read: escapist). I didn’t have money, so I spent hours modifying the clothing I had into something that resembled the girl in my mind that resembled the way I felt on the inside.
“Why are you so bizarre?” my Mom asked (who is now appalled she ever said that – she’s awesome). “Why is your room such a disaster?”
Because I am a disaster. Because I’ve been the A-student you don’t need to worry about, but I want you to worry right now, because my mind is dark and I’m deeply sad.
During lunch hour, I hoped fervently for one or two familiar faces to be easily spotted in the cafeteria. If not, I carried my salami sandwich to some quiet corner of hallway and kept my head down. At least one or two pep rallies were spent behind a locked stall door in the bathroom. Pep rallies were the worst.
I literally ached to be noticed, even as I hid behind shyness and long skirts and hair and eyeliner. I dreamed of that moment where one of those confident, popular boys would walk out of a John Hughes script, see the skinny, strangely-dressed girl and believe she was a mystery worth risking his teenage societal status on.
I hid inside music, and the music hid me.
There were good friends & mentors & safe spaces along the way, but it’s easy to experience and remember that young season in light of the place where we spend the most hours daily and feel the most judged.
We moved when I was in 5th grade, 6th grade, 9th grade, and 11th grade. We’d moved plenty before those years, but it wasn’t a big deal until middle school. Everything is harder during the teen years, and moving between different cultures without having the financial means to conform make it harder.
Almost every day for the first 3.5 years of high school, I crawled into the shower at 6:30am, sat under the hot spray and meditated on how miserable the next eight hours would be. After school, I cried on the couch, begged my poor mother to home school me.
Please, please, don’t make me go back. I hate it. I hate it. Hate. It.
We’d lived in the D.C. area just a few weeks when I waited in the lunch line, a scrawny 14-year-old recently returned from four years overseas, and heard three older girls behind me commenting loudly on my hair and clothing.
“Why is she dressed like that? Look at her shoes! I guess she thinks she’s cool.” (laughter)
Did you know it’s entirely possible to feel both invisible and conspicuous all at once? Invisible, immaterial, irrelevant, unnoticeable. Conspicuously wrong, unattractive, unfashionable, resist-able.
Why I am telling you all this? It's not a pity party. Really. This was a long time ago.
It’s because I see you.
You're like me.
I feel compelled to write this down, the same way I felt compelled to write to creative mothers a few months ago.
It's for the invisible. The ones who are reading this now and are quite sure I’ve been spying on you, because this all sounds a little too familiar.
You stand outside the circle, whatever that means. Seemingly locked out of what looks like joy and you have no inroads. You see no similarity between you and the beautiful, interesting people strolling, laughing their way through life.
You don’t know your own talent. Or you have an idea of it, but no one else is convinced.
You look inside and find nothing brave, only fear and anger and jealousy and sadness. You want to get out of this place. No other destination is in sight, but you’re hopeful there’s something, some bright place of belonging, out there.
I understand. And there IS. There is a Place of Belonging in the Person of God.
Those words are not a consolation prize. That’s the kind of TRUTH that will lift you right off the ground if you let it.
I didn’t come to give advice, but I’d be failing you if I left that unsaid.
People ask what I’d say to my younger self, and I don’t know what might have helped that girl. Maybe hearing the story of someone who walked that road and went on to lead a semi-normal life?
Maybe a couple of songs written/recorded by the same girl a few years apart? The first a snapshot of that time taken just a few short years after. The second a bit further down the road when things can be recalled without as much sting.
Time changes lots of things, and if your eyes are open, time will change you for the better. Awkwardness shall pass (well, mostly) and wisdom will take the pain of those crappy years and shape you into a stronger and more sensitive, more seeing, human than you would otherwise be.
You’ll be one to notice and believe others are worth the risk. You’ll write a song or a book or an email you wouldn’t have. You’ll be the friend or the parent or the (fill in the blank) you couldn’t have been without the memory of loneliness.
I wish I had embraced uniqueness instead of carrying it around like a necessary but unwanted load of bricks in my backpack. I wish I had found the way to thinking about myself less and about others more.
I wish I’d listened to truer voices. I was never invisible.
I could have been SHINING all along.
So can you.
"Invisible" - Christa Wells/Mandy Rogers - A Rogers/Wells Project
"SHINE" - Christa Wells - Official Music Video