Sunburned is a Guest Post by Nicole
The following memoir is by my dear friend Nicole who was born in the mid-1970s. Nicole has been a big encourager to me and my work on this blog. To host her story here means a lot to me. It took a lot of courage and honesty to share these words. I cherish them and I think you will, too.
Candid photos have a way of telling stories – sometimes with painstaking clarity. I recently saw a picture of myself I’d never seen before. I think I was 9 years old, I was wearing a blue and white sundress from K-mart and I’ve got horrendous sunburn on my face. It was brutal to look at this picture, to see my younger self staring back at my present self in the stark light of a camera’s flash. I had so many severe sunburns as a kid – no one was really ever there to put sunscreen on me.
There is a certain pain that comes with seeing a picture of yourself that you’ve never seen before. At best it takes the form of nostalgia, at worst, it feels humiliating, especially if it is a picture that you would have quickly deleted, but someone else posted it. It is hard to see a picture like this if you have worked to separate yourself from that younger person from so many years before – from her fears, her flaws, her powerlessness, her shame.
Fast Food, Popsicles and a Sunburned Picture
The photo shows my dress tied in bows over my shoulders, where I carried all the weight of other people’s abuse and addictions and apathy. In this photo, which I cannot share right now, I am utterly vulnerable and broken, and entirely on my own in life. As a child, I tried so hard to speak up for myself until I finally just gave up. No adult who had the power to help me listened to anything I ever said.
This photo is a glimpse of a summer day for me as a child, living on fast food and popsicles, and the hope that someday maybe my dad would let me go live with him. I’ve had to work through a lot of shame in order to see the image of this little girl in her blue and white dress in a place of empathy. At first, I recoiled at this sunburned picture, but I knew that I had to find a better response than that – a better way to see this picture.
To try to reach this sunburned nine-year-old, I imagine my forty-something self there with her, even if I’m a sort of apparition, standing over her, telling her it’s going to be okay. I picture myself telling her that things might not make sense for a while, that things may get really hard, yet in end, it really will be okay. I would tell her the most important thing she needs to know: that God is all-vulnerable, that as she grows up through the ’70s and ’80s, God will experience every molecule of her pain, betrayal, and loneliness, alongside her. Also, I would tell her this world is not our true home, and not to be surprised when you find yourself lost. Your true home and the completeness of your recovery from living in this chaotic world will happen when you move on to the next life.
I can see the girl in the photo more clearly now than when I first saw the photo – she is influenced by the wrong people, the wrong messages, by manipulation, abuse, by parents who believed in not parenting. She looks like she has already seen hell. She looks like someone who has been to war. I feel a compassion for her that extends across time. Maybe, if time is not ultimately linear, she can feel some small piece of that compassion as she stands there for that photo. Maybe, through our Gen X growing up years, that’s how we had the strength to stand at all – because of prayers and love that were sent across time for us. Sometimes we need to show some love and compassion to ourselves, sometimes this starts by showing it to our younger selves.
Life Can Be Happy
I was always so hard on myself. I have always punished myself for the misgivings of others. Sometimes this took on the form of anxiety or depression. Sometimes it took on the form of severe self-criticism, even the criticism I felt when I first saw the sunburned photo. It seems that we have done the hard work of walking through the shame to get to a place of recovery, but maybe we don’t have to stay there long, just long enough to get the work done. Then we should pack up, and we should close the photo album, and we should walk away. Sometimes I have to remind myself of this: life can be happy.
Copyright On Your Face
It’s strange the way that someone else can have a sort of unspoken copyright on your face because they took the photo and because of the years, it sat in their album on their shelf. It’s sad the way families get so caught up in looking good to others. As a Gen Xer, I had to lie and cover over the problems, selfish choices, and neglect of boomer parents just to make it from one week of my life to the next. I’m glad some of my friends’ boomer parents were good, but so, so many were not.
We can carry shame for a long time, only to realize that shame was entirely someone else’s and it had nothing to do with us. Pictures have a way of telling stories. History has a way of telling its truth, and if not now, then soon enough.