Caterpillars are so strange. They eat and eat until they build a cocoon around themselves and sleep. When they wake up, they’ve grown wings, their bodies have shrunk, and they’ve morphed into a completely different animal. What once was fuzzy and crawling on the ground can now join the free in the sky. It can flap its new wings and let the breeze carry it high on an adventure. I wonder what being in the cocoon is like. Does it just sleep? How does its body change? Is it painful? What is happening behind the shell? I have no idea. I wonder if the caterpillar knows its future, of the beauty that lies ahead. If it did, would it work harder to eat well before going in the cocoon? Would it be scared to fly? I wish I knew. From what I can see, that cocoon is a shell that hides the growth happening. We don’t get a sneak peek until its done growing completely. When I look back on my life, my teenage years are a lot like the time spent in the cocoon. As a child, I sought attention and love like the caterpillar searching for food. When thirteen came, so did the shell. I built a pretty shell around myself and hid on the inside. Unlike the caterpillar, I didn’t sleep or wait to change. Beauty wasn’t forming under that shell. No, anger had set its roots and partnered up with depression to create layers and layers of pain. The wounds that I had collected during my childhood had seeped over and infiltrated what should have been a positive time in my life of formation and growth. Instead of having good traits being solidified, anger stepped in and twisted the room. I hadn’t gotten the proper food I needed to combat that. What once was bright was now smudged. The light had been covered by a murky future. What once was joy was now sadness. The smiles had been erased by tears. What once was alive was now rotting. The life had been sucked out by an invisible straw of death. What once was new was now moldy. The shine had been spat on by hatred. The technicolor beauty of growing up was now a black and white horror movie.
The girl from my previous posts* led Love down the timeline beyond the moments it had bandaged. The child Love had encountered was living a bright future with a timeline that was now straight and sturdy. Love had pulled the child back from the void of disappointment that is adulthood and erased the wound that spilled over into the rest of the child’s timeline. It walked down the hallway of life, stages captured in each room, and stepped past the reach of healing and into a dark cocoon. The girl stood at the edge next to Love and they stared down into the emptiness. What’s down there? Love wondered out loud. The girl just kept staring, searching for something that was tucked beyond the layer of darkness inching over into the light. She took a deep breath, held it with her chest out, and exhaled, returning to normal size. Her eyelashes jumped off her cheek with each rapid blink and the muscles near her jaw tightened. Sweat had begun to form on the edge of her forehead and stood ready to slide at any moment. A different weight had begun to sink into her, rest over her, and surround her. Memories that she had fought so hard to avoid were finding cracks in the dam and beginning to flood the room of her mind. The weight that had lifted before created room for a darker one to take its place. She turned towards Love with a look that froze everything in its path yet pleaded louder than words can describe. The silence was deafening. The understanding passed from her eyes to Love’s heart and it felt the fear. The darkness here was an active one; it didn’t simply swallow light, it destroyed it. Do we dare enter? Love glanced towards the darkness. The girl inhaled sharply as tears involuntarily slid down her cheek. Love knew that they had to.
The child Love had met earlier was easy to meet and hold compared to the darkness ahead. It didn’t even know what the darkness was hiding. Love took a deep breath and stepped from the light into the darkness. The cold instantly gripped Love and froze it to the core. The girl stood paralyzed, gasping for breath and choking on the tears that threatened to drown her. She couldn’t move. Love stepped back and felt the relief of the coldness releasing its icy grip. It slid its hand into the girl’s and squeezed. I think it’s your turn. Love smiled at the girl, trying to encourage her to move forward. The darkness wasn’t a place to wander off into alone; once you go in too deep, who knew what was waiting. The abrupt beginning of the darkness and end of the light was surreal. It was like someone had drawn a straight line down the middle, erasing any potential of easing one into the dark. Silently, they stepped into the darkness and walked until the light was a speck on the horizon, twinkling faintly until it went out completely. There wasn’t a gradual change, they had jumped headfirst into the pitch black. Dark hands reached for their ankles, whispers drowned out thoughts from both sides, and Fear laughed in the back. The girl became a silhouette against the darkness behind her and love struggled to see the outline. She blurred in and out of focus; the only way love knew she was there was from the tight grip on its hand and the occasional shudder that escaped her lips. Their fingers were intertwined, bone on bone, palms velcroed together. Love knew it couldn’t let go. The girl was strong, stronger than Love had ever seen. She demonstrated it in the midst of war, with her stillness, the boldness to face fear, and the courage to stay that came when she was head to head with a monster. The darkness must have held something so dark, so terrifying, that surely Love would be overwhelmed, but it had to try. Love kept imagining the child’s smile after being pulled back from the void and used the healing to continue moving forward into the infinite black.
All of a sudden, light filled the room for a brief moment causing the shadows to dance on the walls before it went out. Love blinked several times trying to rid itself of the dots that were filling up its line of vision. Again, the light filled the room and Love strained to see what was causing it. A heat wave rushed over the girl and Love, and they paused in their steps, waiting to see what was next. The flash of light had revealed a strange shape not too far ahead. Love strained towards the area in anticipation of the next streak of light to reveal the source. Once more, the light rushed in a line towards them and love saw that the light wasn’t just light, no. It was fire. The flames would light the room for a moment and look like a lightsaber until the creature from which they escaped closed its mouth. It looked like a dragon from a child’s book guarding a tower, waiting to be slain. Sure enough, the next round of flames revealed a tall, circular tower with the smallest flicker of light towards the top. The stones had been hastily thrown together with little thought and moss had begun to settle in. The cracks in the foundation were alarming and Love wondered how the tower hadn’t toppled. It was the work of a child who hadn’t been given the tools and gathered up the scraps she could find. Love stopped and straightened, allowing the chill to run down its spine faster than before. The same child, the one who had been healed, was the same child that set the scene for whoever was in the tower. This was the timeline that had been her reality. Why would she set herself up to be destroyed again? Love shuddered at the thought of what could have been without healing at all. The monster here was a speck compared to what could have grown. It was unimaginable.
The walk to the bottom of the tower was faster than they thought. The hands didn’t reach as far, the whispers weren’t as loud, and the monster itself had quieted. It was strange, almost too easy, to get there; it was as if someone wanted them to get in despite the illusion of a desire to be isolated. The door to the entrance was unlocked and it creaked as Love tapped it open. It was like the darkness itself was terrified of what was in there. What could darkness possibly be afraid of? Love had thought the tower was protecting someone but maybe the tower was holding the source of the darkness itself; it wasn’t a trap, but maybe a home. The girl followed Love through the door and it creaked once more as it closed in the frame. Stairs spiraled upwards with walls of stone covered in graffiti. The closest piece of art looked like a child’s drawing of a sunny day on a beach, complete with castles and waves. It was so out of place it almost didn’t look real. The walls were splashed with scenes of joy, of people laughing, nature at its finest, animals playing, and color. As they proceeded up the stairs, the art got darker and the air grew thicker. The scenes were suddenly melancholy, the people were heartbroken, nature began to storm, the animals lay dead, and the colors faded. It was an old photograph found hundreds of years later with the color so faded the reds and blues became nothing but different shades of gray. At the very top, an iron door towered over Love as it placed its free hand on the handle. The metal was frozen and brought chills to the soul. Hinges held the door in place and bars were set so firmly, nothing could penetrate it. It contrasted sharply with the rotting state of the rest of the tower. Someone had put a lot of effort into making sure nobody got in. The girl silently appeared at Love’s side. Her eyes scanned the graveyard of art on the walls and saw scenes of anger, tombstones, skeletons, and nothingness. They were in the middle of a black hole. Silence greeted them as they pressed their ears to the cold metal. Suddenly the door opened and they tumbled forward, losing their grip on each other and reached for the floor. Gravity embraced the two and Love groaned as it tried to sit up. Love looked up to see another girl, a teenager, standing in the middle of the room, arms crossed. Her dark hair lined her face caked so heavy with makeup the skin was sure to be suffocating. The eyeliner was drawn so thick the whites of her eyes were barely detectable. She wasn’t bold enough to pierce her face or wear black lipstick, but she didn’t need to. Like the child, she had a shroud of darkness around her but she had begun to merge with it instead of hiding from it. Her black t-shirt hung loosely around her skeleton of a body and colorful bracelets lined both wrists. Her boney fingers ended with black tips. The jeans she wore, black like her shirt, were one with her legs which ended at ankles so small, you could’ve wrapped your hand around it and touched fingertips on the other side. Her shoes were a forgettable brand that everybody else wore, smudged and filled with sharpie doodles of hearts, lightning bolts, and skulls. The epitome of teenage angst had been captured by one person. The cliche was almost too ridiculous to be taken seriously. Love almost let laughter escape its lips as it looked at the textbook definition of “emo”.
The girl had looked up as well and made eye contact with the teen. Her air of confidence had disappeared, and she shrank smaller than before, hunching her shoulders in an effort to hide. Sweat trickled down the side of her face which held an expression of absolute terror and pain. The teen looked bored and rolled her raccoon eyes at the girl who laid so pathetically at her feet. They knew each other. The room was an extension of the girl with posters of gothic boybands who sang about Cadillac issues, clothes scattered about the floor, and a bed that looked like a nest. It was an average teenage room filled with the angst that her body couldn’t hold. There was something missing but love couldn’t place its fingers on it. It was on the tip of its tongue, a thought just out of reach of consciousness, like a dream that faded before you could write it down. It looked again at the scowling teen and thought maybe, just maybe that hateful confidence was feeding off the fear of the girl and was in fact borrowed. Confidence, the ultimate disguise for self-hatred and doubt. The bigger the confidence, the bigger the hatred and doubt. There was barely any room for Love and the girl next to the confidence that exuded from the teen. Love continued to survey the room and realized there were no mirrors. What do you want? The teen said aimlessly to a wall. Love and the girl looked at each other. The girl’s eyes begged for change yet screamed doubt that it would ever come. This was a trap built by herself for herself. She knew all of her secrets, weaknesses, so she was the perfect person to trap herself indefinitely. She had angrily blamed everybody else for her problems as she sat setting her life on fire, bit by bit.
Love stood to its feet and looked around. It desperately wanted to hold the teen the same way it had held the child only moments ago. Was there another void to run from? This time seemed different. The void they needed to run from was created by the teen herself; how do you run from yourself? Love realized it needed to step into the void, beyond the curtain and show put on for everybody else, and into the cocoon that hopefully wasn’t done developing. The teen had purposely stopped letting the cocoon grow and it sat in a drawer, rotting. Why? Love wondered. The teen turned and stared at Love with fire in her eyes.
“There’s no point in growing. I’m just going to turn out to be a failure and I refuse to do that. I’m fine right here.”
The teen crossed her arms and sat into her hip. The girl on the floor had stayed on the floor until then and she made her way to the cocoon, picking it up delicately as if a single breath could destroy it. Familiarity swam across her moist eyes. The teen charged across the room, snatched the cocoon, and raised her arm, looking ready to smash it to the ground. The girl reflexively got ready to catch the precious shell. What’s the point? The teen yelled before putting the cocoon back and returning to her crossed arms defensive stance. Why are there no mirrors? Love asked out loud. The teen stopped cold. For every comment, she had had a sarcastic comeback or way to deflect it away from herself. The waves of warmth were crashing against a wall that thought it had a strong foundation. It was the moment in a cartoon as the coyote runs off the cliff and pauses, looking to the camera as it realizes the ground had disappeared, floats for an extra second, then proceeds to plummet. The wall plummeted and the teen curled to the floor with her arms wrapped around her knees. Silence blanketed the room for a moment as the dust settled.
“There’s nothing good to see.” She whispered. It was there that the wall and the smudge around her began to fade. It was there that the raccoon eyes slowly became normal. It was there that the black started to drip away. It was there that she started to shed the rotten shell she had imprisoned herself in and began to grow.
Love stared at the teen, crumpled in a pile of pain with the other girl crumpled in her own pile across the room. Love nodded its head towards the teen, signaling the other girl to come join. Soon, two piles of pain morphed into one as the girl embraced her teen self. The girl stopped crying and began to soothe away the black, soothe away the pain, and soothe away the shell. The teen slowed to quiet sobs and the occasional shudder but the girl never wavered. The girl thought for a moment, contemplated speaking cliché compliments about strength and bravery and beauty, but decided against it. What would Love say? She smiled at Love before she closed her eyes and began to speak every word the teen had needed to hear but never got the chance to. She decided she could be her own hero.
“It’s okay. You don’t have to be brave all the time. You’re you and that’s good enough. You are enough.”
That was the phrase that the teen needed to hear: “You are enough.” The girl sat and rocked, repeating that phrase again and again until it penetrated the wall around the fragile heart of the teen completely and began to return the room to what it used to be. Posters were taken down, the angst began to seep out of the room, and in the distance, the roars of the monster lessened until it was quiet. Soon, sunlight started to creep through the curtains and a single bird sang a gentle song. The iron door turned to wood and there in the middle was a teen, not much bigger than a child, with innocence returning to her eyes. The girl placed a finger under her chin and smiled. She had hated this part of her life, hated this prison, and hated this teen she was now embracing. I’m so sorry I neglected you for so long, the girl whispered gently to her younger self. The teen teared up a little and hugged her once more. The pain of abandonment coursed sharply through the teen and into the girl. Love sat back and watched the hurt travel from one girl to the next and eventually being dealt with. The tears that were held back for an eternity came through, washing away the heartbreak and disappointment. The anger spoke of a hole that they couldn’t fill on their own. They had to do this together. For a moment, thunder cracked the sky and darkness threatened with clouds but the girl simply loved the part of herself she had hated, and the light was restored. It had all been her fear, Love realized. Now, with someone there the way she needed, there was no room for fear or doubt. The girl reached her hand out towards Love, who came close and embraced the two. She smiled and thanked Love for giving her the courage to free herself. She had locked herself in here years earlier when shame had entered the picture. Now, after so many years, she had had the courage to open the door and free herself.
Children represent innocence and a freedom from the jadedness of adulthood. They are seen as defenseless, unable to protect themselves. They look at the world with shining eyes and a belief that all things are good and will be okay. Maybe that’s why adults have a fierce desire to protect kids; it’s a way to provide protection that they might have never received as a child. We try to preserve the innocence because it’s so rare, and when something is so rare, we want to protect it. Most kids are lucky to have parents who see how priceless their gift of children are and can provide the protection that most kids should get when growing up. Other kids aren’t so lucky and have to learn to defend themselves from too young of an age. It’s not that kids are weak, no, we adults make the mistake of confusing their kindness and optimism as a weakness when in reality, we are the ones that aren’t so strong. Maybe we weren’t taught to be strong and that’s okay. It is in the kindness and optimism where strength lies. Maybe we’re envious that the kids can see the world the way they do and we long for that same freedom. We can shake our fists at the media for scaring us and curse those who have hurt us in the past to get us here but we forget that children get scared too. They’re afraid of different monsters, but when they wake up in the morning, they continue to love and be kind in the best ways that they know how. The kids that are forced to grow up early are robbed of their innocence too soon. It’s easy for me to blame my parents for not coming to my rescue or not caring enough; I struggle with that even today. But I learned growing up that I can be my own hero. And that’s what I’m doing.
I get to be in the room with Love. I get to embrace the part of me that I hated. I get to love my teenage self despite the shame I felt. I get to shed the tears and feel the fear of abandonment with the part of me I locked up. I get to set myself free and unlock another painful chapter in my life so that I can fully live as the woman I want to be.
Today, I got to see my teenage self stuck in the hideous trap I had built myself and today, I got to free her. I am enough. The three precious words my parents never told me. Even today as an adult I haven’t heard them say those words. But now, I know that my own words can have the strength and impact. Why wait for words that won’t come from people that aren’t invested in me? Why should I give them that kind of power over me? The truth is, I did for too long. That ends now, when I unlock my own door, I tell myself I am enough, and I help myself out of the cocoon I had let rot and nearly destroyed. Today, I get to witness the birth of a butterfly with wings that were starting to grow stiff from being trapped. Today, I get to witness the birth of someone who had started dying inside. Today, I get to witness the power of freedom and self-love.
I no longer have to wonder what being in the cocoon is like. No, the caterpillar doesn’t always just sleep, it’s growing. The body changes, however, the roots that have been laid will guide it. Yes, it can be painful but the thing that’s happening behind the shell is worth every minute. I have a small idea of freedom and self-love today. If I could have asked myself what I would have done had I known my future, of the beauty that lies ahead, I don’t know if I would’ve believed you, to begin with. But given time, I wouldn’t change most of the things I’ve experienced. What I could tell you is that yes, I would be scared to fly but you’d see me look to the sky with anticipation and a flicker of hope that can’t quite die. There’s life in the rhythm of my heartbeat and it’s the lighthouse in the dark, the last shred of courage needed, and the music to my ears.
*Unspoken, Round One