After a very traumatic last 9 months I recently started seeing a therapist who specialises in CBT. I’ve also been undergoing EMDR which, I think, is beginning to help.
My therapist likes to give me homework assignments. Last week she suggested I write a letter to my 12-year-old self. This is it:
First the good news: as I write this letter to you the year is 2019. It follows, therefore, that you and I are still very much alive. We’re not dead yet. Even though we smoke, drink and take far too many drugs for our own good we’re still breathing in and out. Now the bad news: quite apart from the fact that I’m afraid you’re doomed to lose your hair at a very young age, it is my duty to tell you that you’re in for a pretty tough time in the coming decades. But then not many people exactly have it easy – if that’s any consolation at all for you.
I wish there was some way that I could change things for the better for you. But we know all about time and the nature of paradoxes don’t we? If I was able to improve your future and, therefore, my own past there would be no need for me to write this letter would there? And if there was no need to write this letter then I wouldn’t be able to improve your future and my own past. Make any sense to you? Watch the movie ‘Back to The Future’ when it comes out in 1985 and maybe you’ll have a clearer understanding of what I’m trying to say.
Although I can’t radically change things for you, however, what I am able to do is to give you a little advice and perhaps a few warnings. Before I do so, however, let me reassure you that you’ll grow up to be a pretty OK person: kind, generous, intelligent, good looking, tall, clever, empathetic, sensitive, interesting, funny, witty, strong, modest, loving, talented and decent are just some of the words that others will use to describe you in the coming years. Naturally, there will be plenty of negative words too, but let’s not try to spoil the mood.
At my therapist’s request (Yes! The older version of you has a therapist!) I write to you, my 12-year-old self, because something is about to happen to you that will have far reaching implications and repercussions for you for the rest of your life. I say this from the standpoint of a middle-aged man who himself is only just beginning to realise that one can never escape from one’s past. That however much one tries to brush past events under the carpet they will always remain there. And occasionally you may find yourself tripping over that bump in the carpet, more often than not at the worst possible time.
I’m not going to go into detail about what will shortly happen to you but I can tell you that it will involve the most important person in your life at the moment. This person is going to manipulate you into doing things that will make you feel ashamed of yourself. In time, however, you will find within yourself the strength to stop this person doing what they are doing and emerge from this experience with a great sense of relief. As the years go by you will even be able to process your wholly understandable shame – a shame borne of corruption, cowardice and complicity – and turn this negative experience into something more positive. Indeed, you will eventually grow to trivialise this traumatic event to such a degree that you will genuinely believe that there will have been no lasting scars. You should feel a sense of pride for being strong enough to do this but I’m afraid I have to warn you that the scars will never go away. They may fade in the light of years but these wounds, you will learn at your cost, are liable to split open at any time.
You and I are both aware that you are currently living in what can only be described as a war zone. I can still remember our cruel, domineering father and all the terrible things that he did to us and to our poor sister on an almost daily basis. I remember the public tears and the private tears that you shed; the fear, the terror, the painful and irrational insecurities that made you tremble in bed, the notion that somehow you deserved every cruel deed that was inflicted upon you; the desperate need to make him proud of you, to make yourself feel that deep down, despite everything, he loved you as a father should love a son. Experience is now able to let me reveal to you that in a strange, confused way he almost certainly did love you. As much as a person so damaged as he was able to experience love.
I can only offer my apologies to you that you are currently experiencing in real-time the memories that I have successfully managed to file away somewhere in the back of my mind. If I could change places with you I would set you free and bear the physical and emotional manifestations of our father’s pain and misery on my own shoulders. But then that’s what we do, you and I. So often we carry other people’s burdens in an effort, one assumes, to reconstruct our own eroded sense of self-worth. Either that, or we simply want nothing more than to do good for others – surely there can be nothing wrong with that? Perhaps you can help me decide on this one because in truth I’ve never been entirely sure.
This is another annoying quality that you will come to recognise in yourself: so often you will seek assistance from the very person you are trying to help. And this, perhaps, might be the real reason that you and I are so desperate to be seen to give of ourselves to others: in offering ourselves are we are not able to take from others without the guilt that we undoubtedly feel from an unsolicited gesture of kindness, of friendship, of intimacy? Or maybe I succumb to psychobabble.
My words tie themselves in knots as they are often prone to do. They are not helping you, my younger self, in the context of a voice of wisdom from your future, a voice that is subtly trying to point you in a certain direction while taking care not to reveal too much of the life that awaits you. For without giving too much away: what will happen to you will happen. I can no more change the path on which you are destined to walk than I can change my own past. You will do what you have to do to get where you are going. And nothing and nobody can stop you.
Of course, there will plenty of wrong turns along the way, blind alleyways, cul de sacs. Why would there not be? There is nothing special or unusual about you. But as well as such failures and hiccups I’m happy to tell you that you will also be fortunate enough to enjoy more than your fair share of success on your journey. Indeed, there will be many who will envy your achievements in life. And while these milestones might not often bring you the financial rewards that we all crave, the sense of creating something worthwhile, of doing the ’right’ thing with you life, will often more than compensate.
I know you as well as I know myself. And even though all too often you are easily manipulated by those who seek to control you, nobody will ever be able to stop you from doing what you are about to do. Your stubbornness is both a blessing and a curse; it is an essential part of who you are; something you should be forever proud of. As I write this letter to the person I once was I am able to look behind me at the footprints I have made in the snow. We are both powerless, you and I, to change their direction. Nor should we ever try.
Destiny neither of us can change. But perhaps, just perhaps, we can alter the colour of that destiny. Its flavour. Its smell. In a minor but crucially important way.
In exactly 44 years time you will sit at the exact same table at which I am currently seated and write the exact same words that I am now writing. And if you have learned the lessons that I have recently been forced to learn in what was the most brutal, heartless, callous, cruelest manner imaginable you may be able to reach the unhappy conclusion that nothing we experience in life comes without repercussions. That when you bury something that is still alive it will eventually dig its way through the cold earth and find a pathway back into your soul. And when it does so you will find yourself an unwitting slave to those patterns of unhappiness you were sure had been consigned history waste basket.
So keep your eyes open, my 12-year-old self. Look around you and never stop looking. Be vigilant. Learn to recognise those whom you have met so many times before and will again. Be ready for what they do and be prepared for what they seek. For such people carry their own scars and will do what it takes to keep them hidden from view. To be able to recognise the good in others is indeed an admirable quality. To recognise the good in others when that good does not exist is, however, the essence of a fool. See with your eyes, not with your heart.
Above all, look towards yourself. Look inside yourself. Recognise that in order to evolve it is necessary to take time to heal. Do not dig a hole for your past and walk away without looking back. Keep your past with you at all times. Not as a dull, nagging ache that constricts your movement and deadens your mind. But as an essential and ever-present part of who and what you are. Because only by understanding that it is your past experiences – both negative and positive – that have moulded you into the person you are will you ever truly be able to live as a free man.