My mom was really really abusive to me in middle school and high school. I’ve been living away from her for almost a year now. I’m where I want to be in my life, and superficially everything is great. But I can’t seem to let go of the past. I still think and talk about her way too much. It’s driving me, and the people around me, crazy. How can I move on from this? —Hero, 17, Portland
My darling person, it sounds like you’ve been through the absolute ringer. So I want to stress that, having endured so much abuse during your formative years, you will only exacerbate any lingering pain by feeling guilty about and/or denying having BEEN THROUGH SOME SHIT. It hasn’t even been a year since you were able to extricate yourself from an abusive home, so go easy on yourself. Even if you were sending us this question a decade from now, you couldn’t be faulted for having a daily awareness of the sadness, damage, and uncertainty that results from these kinds of situations. The internal fallout from your mom’s abuse wasn’t going to vanish from your life the very second she did—and it hasn’t, which is how you know I’m not just blowing smoke rings. THAT DOES NOT MAKE YOU WEAK. It makes you a human being who was inexcusably betrayed and harmed by a person whose responsibility was to love and care for you.
Bear with me, because you’re probably not going to like the next bulletin I have for you, but I promise it’s not as damning as it might initially sound: Your upbringing will be part of you forever. There’s no “moving on” from the biographical facts of your life, so there’s no use pretending you had a blithe ’n’ cheery childhood where the worst trauma you ever encountered was having to eat lima beans, or witnessing the animated cervine horrors in Bambi, or whatever the fuck it is other people went through. While lima beans are nightmarish, the half-life of the misery that comes from contending with them is far shorter than the one that follows what you’ve survived. I should know: I come from straight-up Circumstances, and I’m still trying to adjust my behavior, impulses, and expectations of the world now that I’m firmly planted in a life that is ostensibly “good,” way longer than a year later.
It can be so hard to realign the way you interact with a world that isn’t architected from fear and violence, which is why you feel “crazy,” but you aren’t. Going from a total hellzone to the nice, functional, and superficially (AND actually), as you say, great existence that you were reluctant to even hope for during the fire and brimstone of your childhood is jarring as all get-out. This is not my beautiful house, et cetera. I know. But you made it, and this new life IS yours, as much as if not more than the hellzone was. So here’s where we start climbing out of the fire, even if we still feel like lifelong residents of Hades in our mind-pieces.
First: Stop trying to let it go. Charge at your anger and sadness and all the rest of it like a fucking linebacker who also happens to be a bull wearing a football jersey that says dealing with it across the back. See a therapist. Discuss it with people who won’t be “driven crazy” by your having endured what you have, and maybe lay off hanging around the people who require 100 percent happiness and well-adjustment of you all the time in order to like you. WRITE IN A DIARY. Think hard about the specifics of how you’re hurting, and see if you can ideate some solutions to that hurt. I can give you a shortcut to one right now: Forgive your mom.
Your mom may seem like a monster to you right now. I feel you on this and make no bones about that fact that you did NOT deserve what she did to you, as you hopefully know by now. But (and I know this can be hard to hear) she’s also a person. Can you imagine what it’s like to operate under the mandates of a mind so flawed and fucked that you would routinely be so hateful to someone you put into the world? Someone who’s part of you? The malice inside her is incredibly sad. Be as angry as you need to be, but recognize that sadness, too. Think of how dreadful it must be to go through life the way she does. And forgive her. You don’t have to say it out loud to anyone else or make amends with her—in fact, I want you to stay the fuck AWAY from her, as you’ve been doing. But if you seethe at her your whole life long, some of her malice will become your malice, too. And you’ve got no room for it, my hero. Heroism is sometimes rescuing yourself, you know. It’s also having empathy—knowing that villains are that way for their own reasons, but whatever they are, the abuse is in the past. The only way it can continue to hurt you is if you blame the whole rest of your autonomous and powerful future on a person who can no longer control it. What kind of hero would continue to flail at a tormentor way after winning the final battle? Not you. You’ve got other dazzling feats to accomplish.
So, now what? Where do you go once you’ve moved out of hell for good? That’s up to you, baby, and I trust you to travel to the greatest of places. Here, finally, is the good part of having a past like yours and mine and so many other people’s (and these people are all over, and they will be instrumental in helping you through): Never forget where you came from. This will make your victories even more momentous, because you know what you had to go through to earn them. The pride you are going to feel for the rest of your entire future is, in part, predicated on the past you had to claw your way out of to get there. That’s a gift. I mean, look at you! You’re doing it, whatever it is for you. Isn’t that amazing? I don’t have to tell you that it is, but just in case: I’m so proud of you. You should be, too. Don’t stop now, hero. It only gets better from here. —Amy Rose
I am gay and have been coming out to people in my city for over a year now, and it’s all been really great, but I’m moving away for university next month and am extremely nervous about having to come out to my new roommate. Should I tell her as soon as I meet her? Or should I wait a bit and test the waters first? And what do I do if she has a problem with my sexuality? —Grey, 17, Canada
As I don’t have a crystal ball/ the gift of visions (life is so unfair!), I can’t tell you what to do to ensure smooth sailing. I can tell you what my experiences were, though, and maybe that’ll help a little! I didn’t actually make a point of coming out to my first college roommate, and everything went OK between us. I don’t think it has to be a huge event, nor the first thing out of your mouth in casual conversation: “I am gay and also your new roommate, nice to meet you, no I don’t want to make out with you don’t worry about it thanks bye.” Wait…that actually sounds like an amazing introduction. Feel free to use it.
In all seriousness, I think your strategy here depends on a few factors: What college environment are you stepping into? Is it in a big city? Do you know if there’s a queer community on campus? Most important: Are you concerned that disclosing your sexuality will threaten your safety in any way? I had a horrible first year at college, because my dorm wasn’t safe for queer people. My roommate was fine, but other people were real dicks about my being gay. It got to the point where I would sleep in the library to avoid them. I transferred to another dorm as soon as my school let me, and I never spoke to any of those a-holes again.
In a perfect world, I don’t think you should have to disclose your sexuality—people don’t have to come out as straight, so why make a hoo-ha about other ways of living? But there’s a good reason for telling your roommate at the soonest reasonable moment, because if she does have a problem with gay people, you should get out of that room! And it’s usually easiest to switch rooms in the first few weeks of school. Some schools will even let you switch on move-in day, before you’ve settled in. Others might say, “Stick around, she might learn from you,” but you’re under no obligation to be anyone’s introduction to the queer world. You’re gonna have enough on your plate without having to deal with someone who makes you feel unsafe or unwelcome in your new home.
This all makes college sound sooooo scary and evil!! Really, I don’t want you to be too worried. You’re already out to people in your city, so you know the drill, and your roommate will probably be totally cool about everything. PLUS, if you come out to her right away, it’ll be less of a “thing” when everyone introduces themselves to one other at icebreaker events—you won’t have to wait for your “big moment.” You can do that, or you can just come out to the people you trust as you meet them, or let people figure it out on their own—but whatever you do, I’ll have your back every step of the way. —Arabelle