14 Apr A Love Letter to My Past Selves
In the last couple of months, in the process of becoming a more mentally and emotionally sound person, I dived into psychology. My explorations led me to different books, podcasts, and Youtube channels, and through it all, I found myself confronting a vast expanse of ideas that revealed aspects of myself that I had never been aware of. One idea that has stuck with me through this process is the idea that there are versions of our past selves that continue to live on inside of us, and these younger versions of ourselves can cause us suffering if they are left alone.
“The child-self is the component of the psyche containing the ‘personality’ of the child one once was, with that child’s range of values, emotions, needs, and responses; not a generic child or universal archetype, but a specific, historical child, unique to an individual’s history and development.” Branden 266
“Does it need to be argued that we cannot have healthy self-esteem while despising part of who we are? I have never worked with a depressed personality whose child-self did not feel hated (not merely ignored or rejected) by an older part.” Branden 267
In an effort to reconcile with these past versions of myself, I tried sitting down and imagining what it would be like to talk to them–to me. Is there something I needed to hear? How did I suffer when I was seven? Was that any different than how I suffered when I was thirteen? Do they have a similar cause? Why couldn’t that girl from my history class like me back? What would I need to hear?
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Air enters through my nose, fills my lungs, and cycles out through my nose. My eyes open.
The floor looks different. Old worn down carpet replaces the shiny wooden tiles that I have grown accustomed to. Fish tanks line the back wall where the shrine should be. A smile spreads across my face. I haven’t seen these red velvety couches in ages. Before I see him, I hear him. Loud and full of hurt, the sounds of crying reach me. Ambling down the stairs is a kid, he’s almost four feet tall, still a long time until he can ride my favorite roller coasters at Kings Island.
He’s nearly bald because Mom thought giving him a buzz cut would somehow fix the bald spot on the side of his head. “It’ll all grow back together,” she’d said. Being a first grader, he believed her.
Tears stream down from his eyes almost as fast as the snot from his nose. He stops at the bottom of the staircase and wipes tears from his eyes and forces himself to stop crying. He sniffles. Then, sniffles again. I crouch down on my knees so we’re the same height. “Hey,” I say softly. The words reach him, but I can see the hesitation in his eyes. He does his best to wipe away the stream of tears from his face, but the tears are coming too fast. “I’m not mad.” His eyes glance from the floor to my face and back to the floor. “Come here.” With slow and careful steps, he waddles over to me like a penguin.
There’s a giant frown on his face. He looks so sad it’s almost hysterical. His face scrunches up when he cries, and he has the most exaggerated frown I’ve ever seen. To this day, I am still not a pretty crier.
“B-be-b-because,” he garbles out through a mouth gasping for air, “I’m not supposed to cry. M-mm-my fingers cup his birthmark-stained cheek. I take off his glasses, but I make no effort to wipe his eyes.
“It’s okay to cry. You’re not causing anyone trouble.” I open my arms and embrace him as he cries into my shoulder, getting snot, tears, and saliva all over me. In my arms, I can feel the entire weight of his six or seven year old body. “Keep crying,” I whisper into his ear, “It’s okay to be upset and to feel frustrated.” He wails into my arms more. The tears don’t stop, but neither does the steady rhythm of pats on his back. I snuggle my cheek against his ear, and I can feel his arms wrapping tighter around me. “I understand. I want you to cry whenever you feel like you have to.”
He takes me up on my offer.
“Even if you just cry all the time, you’re still worthy of love. I love you.”
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Air enters through my nose, fills my lungs, and cycles out through my nose. The weight of another body slowly leaves me, along with the snot and tears that covered my shirt. My eyes open.
It’s an empty classroom. It takes me a moment to figure out which one. It’s been nine years since I stepped foot into this class. While I can barely remember what the room looks like, I can still imagine exactly how to walk here from the front of the building. Bright sunlight shines in through the windows, and I watch as a kid, slightly taller than the last, walks in with his chest pumped out carrying a giant green tote bag.
He sits at a desk near the door, so I go and sit in front of him, turning my desk around to face him. His hair is no longer in a buzz cut, thank god, but the haircut that Mom decided to give him wasn’t much better. I peer down at the ground at the bulging bag. “What’s in the bag?” I’m smiling because I know what’s in there before he can even answer–
“Manga! It’s Japanese comic books!” He grins at me and opens the bag for me to see a stack of nearly twenty volumes of Bleach. “They’re really really good. Do you want to read some?” There is no hesitation in his voice. No shame.
“I would love to.”
He hands me the first volume in the series, “It’s best if you start at the beginning so you don’t miss out on anything.” I hold the worn out library book in my hand, flipping through pages. I haven’t held one of these books in years, not since I found out that you could read them online. We sit in silence as I get reabsorbed into a world that had shaped so much of my childhood. I laugh at the parts that I knew no fourth grader should be reading, and I smile because the plot lines still hold up. A quarter of the way through the book, I close it and set it back on the table.
“Do your friends like these?”
He pauses and thinks for a second, then grins, “They do! At first they didn’t know what it was, but I got most of my friends to read some of them. They really liked them.” A smile spreads across my face. I know exactly which friends he’s talking about. Within the next couple years, I will never speak to them again, despite going to the same high school with most of them. Some of those kids became the “popular kids” and some of them moved away. Do they ever think back to fourth grade, when they read manga because the asian kid in their class brought it to school everyday. Do they remember enjoying it? Probably not.
“Do your friends like anime?” he asks me.
“Not really, but some of them do.”
He frowns. “Why wouldn’t they like anime?”
A deep laugh escapes me. “That’s the same question I’ve been asking them for the last nine years,” He talks about anime and the things he likes so proudly like there wasn’t a single bone of shame in his body. No one has called him weird or a loser yet, but even if they did, he wouldn’t care. I can imagine him shrugging his shoulders, laughing, and getting back to the volume he was reading. Of all the versions of myself that live within me, I hope you always stay.
“There’s one thing that I need to tell you that you need to promise to remember.”
“Your freshman year of high school, in the spring, an anime movie called Your Name will come out in theaters. Go and see that movie no matter what.” I stare him straight in the eyes to make sure I get my point across. He stares back at me with wide eyes and nods hesitantly.
“I’ll remember.” He won’t remember it, and he probably won’t even know that it exists until after it’s gone from theaters. It will become one of the major regrets in his life.
I smile at him and lift up my fist for a fist bump. “Even if you like different things from the other kids, you’re still worthy of love. I love you.”
Just as I feel the weight of a small fist hit mine, I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Air enters through my nose, fills my lungs, and cycles out through my nose.
I’m in another classroom. There’s not many other places I would be in elementary school. A kid with a poor imitation of Justin Beiber’s haircut walks in walks through the door, but he doesn’t seem to realize just how horrible that looks. “What’s up?” he says as he takes a seat in the front of the room.
“Hey,” I smile back. “How are you doing?” I ask.
“Life is good, isn’t it?”
“Yup.” He has the smile of a kid that feels assured of his natural place on top.
“Can I ask you some questions?”
“Do you think you’re cool?”
“You’re pretty smart, right?”
“Yup. One of the smartest in my grade. I’m in the advanced math session, but those questions are still really easy for me. I always win at the math flash card games we play, and I always do well on our spelling tests.” He says it like I should already know that he’s the best.
“The two prettiest girls in your class have liked you. How does that feel?”
“Why wouldn’t they?”
I can’t help but smile. “Do you ever feel like you’re better than other people?”
“Honestly, sometimes. I’m smarter and funnier than a lot of people, and everyone likes me.”
Even though he’s a foot shorter than me, I feel like I have to look up at him. He doesn’t know it yet, but he sits on top of a mountain that has deep cracks in its foundation–it’s held up by a small world and an inflated ego. Nothing I say to him right now will reach him up there, but I say it anyways.
“If you ever fall down here, you’ll still be worthy of love. I love you.”
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. The air of self-assured cockiness dissolves around me. Air enters through my nose, fills my lungs, and cycles out through my nose.
The air is stale and cold. Once I see the brown leathery seat in front of me, I know exactly where I’m at. It’s been a couple years since I’ve had to ride a school bus home. Outside the window, the world is grey and white. Winter break must be coming soon. I’m not alone in the seat that I’m sitting in. Next to me in the window seat, is a small boy wrapped in his favorite blue and grey striped sweatshirt facing the window.
“Why’re you crying?”
“I-I-I asked out a girl and she rejected me,” he whimpers like a lost puppy. It’s crazy how much can change in a single year. The transition from elementary school to middle school is tough.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” I place my hand on his shoulder, but he doesn’t turn to look at me. I’m not surprised. He doesn’t want to show others that he’s weak. “How has middle school been?”
“H-hard,” he stammers through his crying, sniffling between each syllable.
“I know it is.” When you’re standing on top of the world and you plummet down to Earth, the higher up you were, the harder you’ll smash into the ground. A single class of thirty kids in elementary school turned into seven classes of thirty in middle school. The mountain I had been standing on, I realized, was small compared to the mountain other kids were on. Kids were taller than me. Kids were better looking than me. Kids were more athletic than me. Kids were better than me.
I don’t lie to him. I don’t tell him that it will get easier because it won’t necessarily. Over the course of the next couple years, he will do incredibly embarrassing things. Those memories will haunt him for years. They will make him churn and cringe when he lays in bed at night and thinks about them. He will get rejected many more times before he manages to get a girlfriend.
There’s nothing else to do except sit there with him while he cries. I don’t force him to look at me. His cries call forth a familiar hollow feeling in my chest. I rest my head on his shoulder and listen quietly to his whimpering.
“Even if you’re not the coolest kid in the world, even if girls don’t like you, and honestly, they won’t for a while, you’re still worthy of love. I love you.”
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. The sound of crying doesn’t disappear. Air enters through my nose, fills my lungs, and cycles out through my nose.
It’s dark, and I’m sitting flat on the floor. Old carpet scratches at my fingertips. Light from the hallway outlines the doorframe. I’m in my room. Huddled right next to the door, whimpering, is the eighth grade version of myself.
I don’t need to ask any questions to know what’s wrong. Unlike some of the other memories, this one has never left my head for too long. Hearing his cries makes me feel like the last five years never happened. The shadowy outline of this kid still lives on within me. Scooching over until we’re sitting shoulder to shoulder against the door, I wrap my arm around his shoulder. “How does it feel to think no one understands you?”
With every cry and sob, I can feel the body next to me shuddering. “It feels lonely. There will be moments when I’m sitting in class, and everyone will be laughing and smiling. Without even knowing it, I’ll start laughing and smiling too. Except, I don’t feel like smiling. It feels like I’m just trying to act like the person everyone else wants.” He leans into my shoulder. “I feel so alone.”
“It’s easy to feel alone when you feel like you’re different from everyone else,” I whisper to him. “Do you have any close friends?”
He nods into my shoulder. “Two.”
“Do you think they understand you?”
“They’re both really different from me.”
“Do you think they care about you?”
He nods. He knows that they do.
I can’t help but smile. There’s no way he can know that they will continue to care for him for years, even in times they drift apart, they will manage to drift back together. This year, regardless of how distant they grow in the future, links them forever. The love someone receives from another never truly leaves–every action and moment in life becomes a manifestation of that love.
“If they care about you, why does it matter that you’re different?”
“I just want to meet more people like myself, so I don’t feel so alone.”
“In my experience, you will never meet someone exactly like you, but that doesn’t mean you’re alone. In all my closest friendships, there is something fundamentally different between us, whether it be our worldview or our ambitions. Acceptance and belonging isn’t about finding someone perfect for you. It’s about looking at people as they are and not needing them to be anyone other than who they are.”
“They think I’m kind of crazy. I’ve tried explaining things to them, but they don’t agree with me. We’re just different people.”
“So try again. They care about you, so they’ll be willing to listen.”
“I feel like you understand me,” he whispers to me.
“For a long time, I didn’t, but I tried to sit and listen. Eventually, I think I understood you. That’s how it will work with your friends too.”
He nods into my shoulder. I can hear the sniffles starting to come at longer and longer intervals. “One last piece of advice,” I say to him. I ruffle his hair, and he tries to get me to stop, “You can be a little serious sometimes because you’re waiting to find the perfect friends or be in the perfect place, but right now, you’re with people who care about you and they exist. There’s nothing more perfect than that, so take the time to make sure you joke around with them and share some funny moments.”
“If I really want to live my ideal life and achieve all my goals, I need to work harder. I don’t necessarily have time for that stuff.” I can hear the disapproval in his voice, and force myself to hold back my laughter. Why the hell is this kid so serious when he’s only in middle school.
Even in the darkness, I find myself smiling. I hope the warmth of it reaches him. “I’ve managed to achieve some things, and I can promise you, those things only feel really satisfying if you can share those victories with other people. One without the other isn’t going to be worth anything.”
He stays silent, and I don’t feel the need to say anything else. We sit sharing each other’s presence, and I hope that in the silence and the firm presence of my shoulder, he can feel a bit less lonely.
I can tell he’s about to doze off. Crying often makes me sleepy, so I whisper in his ear right before he leaves me completely, “Even if you feel like no one understands you or no one thinks like you do, that doesn’t mean you have to be alone. You’re worthy of love. People love you. I love you.”
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. The warming presence of another body slowly leaves me. Air enters through my nose, fills my lungs, and cycles out through my nose.
A smile appears on my mouth before I even open my eyes. I know exactly where I’m at just by breathing in the fresh air. The sound of wind is accompanied by the soft ripple of the fountain of water in the lake. I open my eyes, the sky is a pale blue, the sun has just begun showing signs of falling down, and the grass and trees have never looked greener, and I am not alone in this brick-colored gazebo near the lake. Across from me is, sitting criss-cross, is the sophomore year version of myself.
He looks very similar to how I do now, after all, it hasn’t been that many years. His skin is sun-kissed from the countless hours he spent outside playing sand volleyball, and his skin will likely never be as tan as it is now. In the back of his head is a small bun of hair. I’m in the phase where I’m trying to grow a man bun, but my hair just isn’t long enough yet. It looks horrible, but no one has told me that yet.
I open my mouth to speak, but I realize that he’s meditating. His eyes are closed and he’s focusing on breathing. Instead of trying to break him out of it, I join him. Around five minutes pass before I hear him softly ask, “When did you get here?”
I open my eyes and give a gentle smile, “About five minutes ago. I just wanted to talk, but I didn’t want to disturb you.” An energetic smile passes over his face. He leans back onto his arms with a refreshing air of comfort, “What’s up?” It’s almost hard to imagine he’s the same kid who I just saw crying in his room.
“How early into the retreat are we?”
“It’s the second day.”
“Hm. How do you feel?”
“Really good. Yesterday, I got here while everyone was eating lunch in the white tent, and when I walked in, everyone rushed me, tackling me with hugs. It made me feel like I was the shit. I think the next three weeks are going to be really fun.” They will be. “I just came from a sand volleyball tournament in Florida, I’ve got friends who I feel like I fit in with, and I am probably in the best shape I’ve ever been in.” I smile because I believe him. Inside, I know there are a couple insecurities lurking around, there still are to this day, but he seems genuinely happy. I know he is. It’s not my place to disturb that.
“I just have one thing to tell you, then.”
“I’m all ears.”
“This summer doesn’t last forever. In the moment, the days will feel long and unending, but like all days, they will end. If you can, while you’re experiencing a moment, try to be aware of the fact that it will end. It makes the great moments you have even more great. Experience them consciously. Recognize in the moment that these are moments you will miss before they’re gone.”
Part of me is jealous. I know these next three weeks will become some of the best three weeks of his life. It feels unfair that he still gets to experience those moments while I know that I’ll never get to relive them. He has no way of knowing that after this summer, some nights, when he looks back on these moments he will cry because they were so beautiful and carefree, and the tears will be partly of joy and partly of sorrow.
He has no way of knowing that he will get his first kiss. He has no way of knowing that he will establish a bond with his best friend that will be strong enough to withstand the pain he will cause his friend in a couple months. He has no way of knowing that he will meet a girl who he will not talk with much during these three weeks, but luckily, she only lives an hour away from him. She will quickly become one of his best friends, his biggest supporter, and his personal hype man-she’ll be the sister he never had. He has no way of knowing the long lasting memories he will create–his friend will walk in on a woman taking a shit and promptly get yelled at, he will be forced to clean the women’s restroom at midnight with three of his closest friends, and he will break down when he has to leave the people he loves so intensely. He is a kid unaware of the pain that comes from living in a universe where time only goes forward.
A bittersweet smile spreads across my face just as the soft Canadia air blows again.
“Treasure these moments because you will learn to understand what it means to be worthy of love because these people will show so much of it to you. Don’t ever forget that you are worthy of love. I love you.”
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. The air that fills my lungs imprints itself in my mind. There’s no place in the world that has better air. Air enters through my nose, fills my lungs, and cycles out through my nose.
I’m in the lobby of one of the buildings at the local college campus, except there’s no one here except me… and myself. The sky outside is pitch black. No one is walking through campus. It’s one or two in the morning, why would they? On the table in front of me is a scattered pile of papers. Unfilled worksheets. Blank lab reports. Empty debate outlines. I stare at the guy across the table. All hints of carefree joy he had during the summer had evaporated along with his tan. His hands were in his hair as he struggled to focus on his physics homework. It was long past the point of trying to earnestly learn anything, so he just copied what he could from the internet.
“How are you doing?” I ask.
“How are you feeling?”
“Empty. Apathetic. Overwhelmed. Like I’m drowning, but instead of going unconscious, I’m stuck in a perpetual state of choking.”
“It looks like you’re taking a pretty hard class load.”
“I am. For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to take all these AP classes, but it’s just torture. I am up to my neck in homework, and it just…” his fists bunch up on the table as he glares at the endless pile of papers in front of him, “I hate it.” He says the words with a joyless laugh. It does not come out harsh or mean. To anyone else, it might even seem light hearted. It’s not–it’s a call for help.
“I just don’t know what I’m doing. My life has been reduced to an endless cycle of school, homework, video games, sleep, repeat, and this work that I’m doing just feels utterly worthless. It feels like there’s an empty hole in the middle of my chest that I can’t fill, yet there are times when my chest feels so tight and full that I can’t breathe.” He doesn’t cry. Crying would be too cathartic. It would be too good for him. Instead, the pain builds up inside his chest, making him feel like he will explode at every possible second. The only reason he doesn’t explode is because the energy such an outburst would require, and he didn’t get enough sleep for that.
I pick up some of the loose papers on the table and organize them into one neat stack. “It sounds like you’re really struggling to keep going. What keeps you going at this point?”
We both laugh. He’s only half-kidding. At this point the only things that can make him excited are his passion for a universal basic income, the decriminalization of drugs in Portugal, and the K-dramas that he’s watching.
“You feel empty right now because you can’t answer the questions that you keep asking yourself,” I say. “Why are you doing the things you’re doing? Is doing any of these things going to make you happy? Is there a purpose in life? What does it take to be happy? These are questions that you can’t answer right now, and that is okay. The important thing is that this year has truly made you face those questions. You’ll come up with or find answers, and when you do you will feel a million times better.”
There’s no point in telling him that it’s okay to not be able to juggle all of these things, but he wouldn’t listen. At this point, he feels that the forced forward momentum of school is the only thing holding him together. His eyes remain focused on a horizon that will never come. If he could, he would just stop doing anything entirely. Nothing sounds better to him than a week of sleep.
He nods at my encouragement, though he doesn’t seem any happier.
“Do you feel a lot of pressure to do well?”
“Everything just feels like it’s falling apart. I can’t keep up in school. I suck at volleyball. I couldn’t qualify for the state debate tournament. I couldn’t even make the time to keep a girlfriend. What am I doing with my life?” He looks at me, his eyes full of pain, and I can feel my heart shattering.
I reach out and hold his hand. Despite his efforts to hide it, I know that his hands are tired from holding a pencil. When I’m gone, I know that he’ll force himself to pick up his pencil again, and he will continue for another hour or two.
“I know you’re really suffering right now. Even if you feel lost or you feel like you’re constantly falling behind, that’s okay. You’re still worthy of love. I love you.”
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. His hand tightens around mine. He holds my hand as if I’m the only thing keeping him from falling into an endless chasm. The grip releases on my arm. Air enters through my nose, fills my lungs, and cycles out through my nose.
The night time air feels cool against my cheeks. There is no wind. The world is completely still. Underneath the single light post in the park next to my house, I stand facing myself. Almost every night for the last couple months, I have passed this lamp post on my daily walk. He looks exactly like I do now. No one else is around.
“Hey,” I say.
“How are you feeling?”
“I have a superiority complex.”
“I can be an asshole.”
“I’m not the best son.”
“I’m not as disciplined as my friends.”
“People are out there changing the world, and I can barely roll out of bed before noon.”
I don’t know when we started, but we’re both crying now. Tears stream down our faces, but he doesn’t stop talking. I don’t stop listening.
“I’m not as charming as my friends.”
“I’m not as good looking as them.”
“I’m not six feet tall.”
“Deep down, I don’t feel like I’m good enough, so I keep chasing girls for validation.”
I can see them all inside of his eyes. The crying seven year old. The proud fourth grader. The arrogant fifth grader. The loser sixth grader. The alone eighth grader. The youthful sophomore. The empty junior. They’re all inside of him. At this very moment.
I sniffle and take a deep breath. My arms are open wide. “You’re not perfect. You’re deeply flawed.” With each word, he steps closer to me, or maybe I’m stepping closer to him. “You’ve come a long way, but you still have a long way to go. That’s okay. I am, truly, deeply, proud of you.”
I can feel his head resting on my shoulder as I begin to cry into his. This time, he whispers to me, “Even if you’re not perfect, even if you’re insecure, you will always be worthy of love. I love you.”
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Despite the tears, I feel something deep within me. It feels full and still. A giant ocean lies within me, and it is completely still, not a single ripple or wave moves through it. Air enters through my nose, fills my lungs, and cycles out through my nose.
To all my selves–past, present, and future.
You are worthy of love.
I love you.
Book Referenced In This Post: