Live Through This

Innocence Lost & Found

At the age of 16, I already felt angry, cynical, and old.

Collage by Sonja

Collage by Sonja

I can’t really pinpoint the exact moment I lost my innocence. Was it the day, the summer after my freshman year of high school, that I first tried pot—or a few weeks later, when I first saw someone do something harder than pot? The first time I got really, really drunk? Was it getting my first boyfriend sophomore year, or losing my virginity later that year to someone else, someone I was totally in love with but who ended up abusing me sexually and emotionally? I don’t really know; all I can say for sure is that by the time I turned 16, I didn’t feel “innocent” anymore. I felt angry, depressed, cynical, and old.

When I was a kid, all I wanted was to be grown-up. My mom kept a baby book where she recorded my growth and development from birth to age seven. On the page for age five, one note reads: “Admires older children a lot.” Then, at age six: “Very independent. Wants to do all things for herself and behave in a grown-up manner.”

In third and fourth grade, my closest friend was a year older than me. She bought all the teen magazines and we devoured all the information about boys (even though I wouldn’t stop secretly thinking they were icky until seventh grade), fashion, and makeup. She had a pair of high-heeled shoes and we practiced walking in them, putting our toes down gently, not stomping like tap shoes. We bought eye shadow at the corner drugstore. I picked out one of those Wet n Wild duos—violet and dark blue—and applied the purple to my lids and the blue from crease to eyebrow. “You cannot leave the house like that,” my mother said. Eventually I learned how to apply it more subtly (a purchase of a more subdued, pink-and-gray eye shadow set helped) and to sneak out of the house with it on—to parties, the first day of sixth grade, and any time I babysat the little sister of our cool 16-year-old neighbor who looked like Winona Ryder, read Vogue magazine, and plastered her walls with Absolut vodka advertisements. (Something I tried copying but got in trouble for, so I put Converse sneaker ads up instead.)

I’m not sure why I was in such a hurry to grow up. I know that I felt very vulnerable as a kid. When I was eight, my family moved from a working-class town to a more affluent suburb, and I didn’t know how to fit in at my new school. I was mercilessly teased for having the wrong clothes, for sucking at sports, for being a nerd. I fantasized about being older and cooler, like Winona Jr. across the street—then I could escape my bullies and my insecurities and everything else. Then I could be the kind of girl who could pull off loud purple and blue eye makeup.

Of course, all of these rebellions were of the “aww, how cute,” perfectly innocent variety. So were the times in eighth grade when my friend Robin* and I stole her parents’ cigarettes and my parents’ wine just to try them, and when we mixed a bunch of spices together and tried to smoke them to see if it would be like pot. (It’s not, but it smells better.)

At the beginning of my freshman year of high school, my best friend, Juliet, who had moved away a year earlier, told me that she’d started smoking (real) weed and having sex. At first this totally freaked me out—we were 14, which seemed way too young to me. Then I spent freshman year feeling lost and adrift in my massive new school, missing Juliet, and worrying that we were beginning to lose touch. We didn’t seem to like as many of the same things anymore, nor share any experiences. So the following summer, when a girl from my algebra class invited me to smoke with her, I said yes. I thought weed might be something that Juliet and I could bond over, something we’d have in common. I also felt like I was lagging behind many of my other friends in terms of relationships with boys and other “grown-up” experiences, and I thought smoking would at least narrow the gap.

Then came the abusive boyfriend, and, in his wake, the drinking and more drugs and a long period of self-harm—techniques that numbed me temporarily but did nothing to make me feel better in the long run (actually, they made me feel worse). But when I think about this time in my life, in all that darkness I see little flecks of joy—moments I wasn’t even aware of creating when they were happening, but that I must have known, on some level, that I needed. And those were the times when I found ways to tap into the kid in me again, to return to a feeling of innocence.

I got my driver’s license the summer before my junior year, and for whatever reason—maybe we all needed it, or maybe we were just bored—my friends and I spent many nights driving from one playground to another in our town. My favorites were the school playground, which had tons of plastic tubes to crawl and slide through, and the one with the swings with super-long chains so you could get so high it seemed like your feet were level with the top of the one-story building that we’d run and hide behind when the cops came through, looking to evict anyone who was there after the park closed. Eventually we developed a rotation of six parks and school playgrounds, to better avoid getting busted. That harmless sort of danger was part of the appeal, but swinging and sliding and firefly chasing and tree-climbing were what I loved most.

This was around the same time that I traded in my wardrobe of flannels, baggy black T-shirts, and ripped jeans for frilly baby-doll dresses, baby tees, brightly colored striped tights, and plastic barrettes shaped like butterflies and bunnies—all the stuff I’d refused to wear after first or second grade because I wanted to look older. A lot of my friends were dressing this way too, especially the ones who identified with the Riot Grrrl movement, taking a cue from women like Courtney Love and Babes in Toyland’s Kat Bjelland, who had apparently taken one from Chrissy Amphlett from the band Divinyls. Riot grrrls always wore their baby-dolls with Mary Janes, messy hair, red lips, and tons of smeared black eyeliner. The look was eventually given a name—kinderwhore—and was subject to much feminist analysis, which argued that it was a statement about how teens and grown women are treated like little girls, or about the way girls are prematurely sexualized, or that women should be able to dress however they want without being slut-shamed. It was also used by lots of women as a way to reclaim the confidence they’d had in childhood—that was the main appeal for me. As a little girl, I’d had a poster of Smurfette on my wall that said “Girls can do anything!” and I’d believed that sunny message wholeheartedly. The ensuing years did a lot to convince me otherwise.

As life started to bang me around in high school, I took to carrying a Hello Kitty lunchbox around as a purse. In some ways, the lunchbox was the perfect Riot Grrrl accessory—especially with the stickers I added that said “Grrrl Power” and “You can’t rape a goddess”—but it was also a source of comfort for me. When I was little, I used to pack up a bag or my doll stroller with all of my favorite things—I needed to know that in case of disaster I had my teddy bear, blankie, and a book. In high school I crammed my favorite zines, notes from friends, and my Walkman into my lunchbox so they’d be on hand as I braved the daily disaster of going to school with my abusive ex. That bright red box and my cheery outfits helped me feel like I could be young and happy in spite of everything he’d done to me. I wasn’t regressing, or retreating into childhood—it’s just that after so many years of trying to speed up the maturation process by acting older than my actual age, I craved the stuff I’d skipped over, like collecting stickers and choreographing roller-skating routines to Madonna songs with my friends.

When I was 17, I decided to graduate from high school early and move to a city two hours away from my family. This was an obvious move toward an adult life, but my first year on my own was in many ways more innocent and playful than my sophomore year of high school. I was in a new city, so I spent long days just exploring it, walking around and seeing things for the first time, the way you see almost everything when you’re young. My roommate and I discovered a teeny lakefront park a block and a half from our apartment, and we’d go there to feed the ducks in the sunshine. Some days we drove out of the city limits and played the left/right game until we ended up on the main street of some small town, where we’d park the car and set off on foot to investigate. At night we didn’t go out looking for places to party—not at first, anyway—but snuck into hotel pools or lakes to go swimming. Or we stayed in and made giant batches of Kool-Aid, which we drank out of my roommate’s vintage plastic Stars Wars cups. We jumped on her bed and listened to old Cyndi Lauper records. Those nights were like a two-person slumber party.

Eventually my roommate and I met people our age and got involved in more-“adult” pursuits. But I look back fondly on that first year we lived together. It’s like we took a year off from growing up just as we were about to hit adulthood—apparently we felt like we had some unfinished business to take care of.

After everything I did—and everything that was done to me—in high school, I had felt sullied, ruined, like “damaged goods.” I felt worn out and world-weary. I thought that my innocence was lost, never to return. I thought I’d never feel young and hopeful again. But each new experience doesn’t erase the ones that came before it, and even if you try, you can’t kill off the yous that you used to be. Experience doesn’t “ruin” you—it just gives you new layers. The old ones are still there, like the rings in a tree trunk. They show your periods of growth, the good years, and the droughts. There’s scar tissue around the really hard periods, the ones you had to get tougher to get through. And the hopeful, playful, kidlike part of you is still there too, ready to be tapped into when you need a dose of energy and pure, openhearted joy. It happens to be the layer that’s closest to the core. It’s always there, and always will be. ♦

* All names have been changed.

25 Comments

  • fromanotherearth April 15th, 2013 3:14 PM

    This is a great article! <3

  • rebelwithoutacause April 15th, 2013 4:06 PM

    This is incredible. It really goes into depth on how we have formed as people, as women. Innocence is an infinite tool. It cannot be condensed in a temporary finite time. Love that <3

  • Kaetlebugg April 15th, 2013 5:30 PM

    This is an amazing, super well-written article. Can I ask, what city did you move to? I want to find out about the pools etc I can sneak into haha.

    embarrassingurl.blogspot.com

    • Stephanie April 16th, 2013 3:50 PM

      Madison, Wisconsin ;) But it was more than 10 years ago so the pools may be better guarded now… There’s a great lake in Cambridge, WI though!

  • Kat Addams April 15th, 2013 5:50 PM

    Thanks so much for writing this article! You just managed to beautifully explain every emotion in my life, while telling about something extremely foreign to me.

  • Yazmine April 15th, 2013 6:03 PM

    This is such a lovely article, thank you for writing this! I want a lunchbox of music and zines now x

    http://www.fashionandfringes@blogspot.com.au

  • abby111039 April 15th, 2013 7:59 PM

    This article is the shit. ‘Nuff said. (:

  • Hannah April 15th, 2013 8:02 PM

    I really enjoyed this article. It was cool to see the influence of innocence in your life.

  • RedInk April 15th, 2013 8:05 PM

    Great article, I’m still trying to figure out whether I’ve lost my innocence yet.
    http://mittentesluna.blogspot.com/

  • queennannygoat April 15th, 2013 10:40 PM

    I disagree with some things you say Stephanie but you never fail to make me cry. What you write resonates with me incredibly strongly, you really hit the nail on the head with the last paragraph.

    pproudfoot.tumblr.com

    • Stephanie April 16th, 2013 3:49 PM

      Aww thank you! And sorry! I always feel so torn when I bring people to tears. And I have to give my lovely editor Anaheed credit for helping me nail that last paragraph. Editors are the best, y’all!

      • queennannygoat June 10th, 2013 9:46 PM

        No Stephanie, it is never wrong to make someone cry, it is important. I have bought both your books and I still cried rereading them! Hey, your editor may have perfected it but you came up with it, don’t sell yourself short.

  • raggedyanarchy April 15th, 2013 10:48 PM

    Spring always makes me want to frolic around my backyard and make flower chains and braid them into my hair and wear frilly dresses! Idk, when the weather warms up I just want to be seven years old again, my mom telling my sister and I to “go play outside and stop bothering me.”

    Ha. I had a birthday party at a park with my friends and we spent thirty minutes making a daisy chain and played hide-and-go-seek with some really cool eight-year-olds. Also red rover and capture the flag. Spring.

    • Stephanie April 16th, 2013 3:49 PM

      YES!!! This is so beautiful!

  • glitter riot April 15th, 2013 11:09 PM

    I’m always so terrified of growing up because i’m still childlike at heart, yet at the same time that’s all I want to do. I’m about to leave for university in september and I still feel like a little girl sometimes, but most of the time I feel like a cynical granny complaining about ‘teenagers these days’ always thinking ‘what has the world come to’.

  • glitter riot April 15th, 2013 11:23 PM

    Also, it would be really cool if you guys did an article on coming out of the closet for lgbt youth.

  • Lemons April 16th, 2013 4:29 AM

    I relate to this article so much you can’t even imagine!
    I grew up much too fast, and often found myself regretting it.

    It’s only recently that I can really see that these experiences morphed me into the kind of person I am now, and that I am exactly the way I want to be.

    I liked your tree-ring analogy, it’s a beautiful way of thinking about it.

  • enthusiastictruckdriver April 16th, 2013 5:23 AM

    This is such a wonderful article! I can especially relate to the part about wanting to grow up early–I’ve always had older friends (and still do), and I never really got along with my peers (and still don’t), but a few months ago, when I first went clubbing with an older friend, I became totally disenchanted with the world of adulthood. I definitely don’t want to do what other freshmen at my high school do, like go to the mall or hang out at Starbucks, but I don’t think I want to smoke weed on Saturday nights like my older friends do. I’ve been feeling really out of place lately, but I guess this article makes me realize it’s okay to feel out of place. Thanks, Stephanie :)

    • Stephanie April 16th, 2013 3:52 PM

      Glad to help. I know exactly how you feel. Except I forced myself into the clubbing scene for awhile in spite of being uncomfortable. Trust your gut and find what you want to do!

  • Tara A. April 16th, 2013 6:02 AM

    I absolutely loved this article. When I was little, I always wanted to grow up faster. I skipped two grades in elementary school, so I’ve had friends who are two years older than me for as long as I can remember. It has it’s perks, but it can also be difficult because two years is a big difference, especially when you’re growing up. You feel pressure to mature and grow up faster in order to keep up with your peers. I could relate to this article in so many ways. Thank you Stephanie!

    http://www.unlockingpandorasbox.blogspot.com

  • Emmie April 16th, 2013 7:40 AM

    This resonates with me, although I didn’t have the same desire to be older. I was the opposite- afraid of growing up and loosing all the awesome stuff that goes along with being a kid. It’s a weird time in life, but it does sort itself out.

  • Lorf96 April 16th, 2013 12:33 PM

    Omg my 2 best friend stayed over last week and we played hide and seek, and my big bro played it too haha, we felt like kids again so fun.
    Also glitter riot read full disclosure it really helped me, it is my favourite article on rookie!xxx

  • Sunshine April 16th, 2013 1:04 PM

    This was so totally amazing. :) I can relate – I always wanted to be older – I wore all black, tons of eyeliner, ripped skinny jeans…now that I’m seventeen, I’m obsessed with looking younger – I wear tutus and frilly pink bows.

  • AnaRuiz April 18th, 2013 11:56 AM

    The conclusion is the best part. What would we do if we never had our old selves to go back to?

    http://anaruizwriting.blogspot.com