■ Personal responsibility
I am sure you have heard it said that "shit happens." Sometimes it seems to happen to some people a lot more than others. When Natasha started to tell the story of her teenage years, I had this image of a giant mammoth in the sky with diarrhea. The mammoth seemed to be following her around and dumping on her no matter where she went.
Natasha was a young adult when she told me her story. I'm not sure she ever told anyone when she was a teenager because sometimes it's hard to talk about things that seem so important to you— particularly when you think they won't be understood. And Natasha thought there wasn't anyone who really understood or cared about her.
Her story is complicated, but let me try to explain. When Natasha was thirteen, her parents swapped partners with her best friend's parents. Her best friend's dad came to live with her mom, and her dad moved out to live with her best friend's mom. Neither parent had talked with Natasha or her sister about it before. They just did it, and Natasha felt they didn't give a damn about her or her sister.
At first she lived with her mom and new stepdad. She had never really liked him, but now that he'd taken her dad's place she positively hated him. One day they started arguing over something. When he got angry, she shouted at him, "You're not my dad. You can't order me around."
"I am the head of the house now. You have to live by my rules," he shouted back and lifted a hand threateningly.
"Go on. Hit me. Show me what a man you are," she goaded him.
Well, he did hit her and pushed her into her room, slamming the door after her. Natasha packed a bag and went straight to live with her dad. Her mom didn't even try to encourage her to stay.
As the months and years went by, things turned from bad to worse. Natasha fell out with her dad. She hated the way he constantly put down her mother. He blamed her mother for the break-up of the family—even though he was now living with her best friend's mother! Tensions became so great that her father told her he couldn't put up with her anymore and that she would have to go.
Fortunately, her grandparents welcomed her. At first she enjoyed living with them, but Natasha, herself, admitted she wasn't an easy teenager to get along with. She felt bitter and angry about the way her parents—and life—were treating her. She felt she needed to dump her shit on someone, and her grandparents were the closest.
Now, her grandfather had heart troubles. His physician had told him to avoid stress or he could have a heart attack and die. Natasha was told she was the stress. She had to settle down or they would put her in a home for difficult teenagers. Nobody in the family wanted her. She must have felt as rejected as anyone could feel.
Before she was due to leave for the home she found a razor blade in the bathroom and cut her wrists. Strangely, she thought, the pain as she cut through her own skin was nothing compared to the pain in her heart.
At first her grandparents were concerned and caring. Her parents even came to visit her— together. But nothing changed. They weren't going to leave their new partners or take her back. Her grandparents didn't want her and she was still scheduled to go into the home.
Natasha found some tablets in the medicine cabinet, punched them out of their plastic sheets, and took a handful before she went to bed, but woke up the next morning, late and with a rotten hangover. No one seemed to take much notice.
When she was old enough, her father bought her a car—just trying to appease his guilty conscience, she thought. It was an old heap but she accepted it. One weekend in the hills, she lined up a steep cliff at the edge of the road and was ready to push her foot to the floor. She didn't.
At that point, I interrupted her story. I was curious. "What had made the difference that you didn't drive over the cliff?" I asked.
"Two things," she replied without hesitation, as though she had given it a lot of thought. "First, despite the shit of a time my parents have given me, I still love them—Mom in particular. I couldn't bear the thought of doing that to her. The second was a thought that the way my luck was going even killing myself wouldn't work out. What if I ended up a paraplegic or something? They might feel sorry for me. They might have to look after me, but I would be in a worse state—and for the rest of my life.
"Now, life is good," continued Natasha. "I think I realized that if I wanted to be happy, it was up to me. I went to college. I've got a good job, a lovely boyfriend, and we're planning on getting married. Yet it's more than those things. What my parents and grandparents did, what my thoughts of self-harming have taught me is that I have to look after myself. If I'm doing that, it doesn't matter so much what others think. At the time it was hard to see any hope, but as I look back I'm glad I'm here to tell you my story. I'm glad I didn't take a permanent course of action based on a temporary feeling."
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