When most people are eighteen, they have a driver’s license, a high school diploma, some friends and possibly a job or plans for college. They usually live in community with other people whether it is with classmates, church members or relatives. When I was eighteen, I had none of these things.
For whatever reason my family spent most of this year living in a motel in Seattle. I spent hours wondering what it was like to be a normal teenager who could try on clothes or buy books, but my biggest dream was just to have friends.
I realized I was old enough to leave home, but I had no idea how to do that. I had no resources and even if I tried, my parents controlled everything I did. My biggest questions were how could I leave the five people who were all I had ever known– and how would I find connections in this world.
I was grateful for one sister only two years younger who endured this painful trial with me. Together we spent hours walking in circles on the asphalt parking lot. We measured our strides and counted how many circles it would take for us to walk a mile and we literally walked for miles.
While we walked, we talked about our futures. We wondered how girls who only had grade school educations could ever make it at college. We wondered what it would be like to earn some money and not have our parents take it from us. We dreamed of meeting men who would love us and not think we were freaks for our crazy childhood. Much of what we said could not be spoken in front of the rest of the family because we were chastised for not being grateful if we complained.
Inside the motel, we had few options to pass the time. For young women our age it was like a prison. We had to jump up and clean the room if one of our parents yelled at us or swung the belt. We were expected to be happy every day because good Christians are happy.
The main entertainment in the motel was old reruns of the Brady Bunch and Happy Days. One day, I started to cry because I wanted to have friends but my mom told me to snap out of it. She said I was being ungrateful and maybe watching TV was a bad influence for me so we could turn it off.
I was probably as beautiful as I would ever be at that age, but I have not one picture of myself from age 16-20. My mom lectured me on not being vain like Grandma who wore makeup or my aunt who was always watching her weight. Working out and dressing nice were considered vanity. I had no idea how such comments would affect me for years.
The only time we left the motel was to go to the laundromat and grocery store. I was the oldest and I was expected to carry the laundry and groceries, but I didn’t mind because it got me out of the motel.
A weird side effect of leaving the motel was I couldn’t stop staring at people. I was mesmerized by the stimulus of seeing someone besides my family. I’d watch a young woman folding her jeans at the laundromat and wonder if she had a boyfriend or went to school or what her parents were like. I envied that she got to wear blue jeans which I was forbidden to wear because they were considered men’s clothing. My mom began to tell everyone that I was not much help when we went to the store because I spaced out. I was not really spacing out, I was trying to figure out how normal people lived.
Food, like reruns, was one of our main forms of entertainment in that motel room which had a very small stove and oven. We didn’t have much money for food so it took hours for my mom to figure out just how to spend the money. We often had to put things back at the register an event that made me curl my toes and hide my face with my long hair.
One day near the end of our stay on a warm day, we finally had enough money for gas to go for a drive through a state park. Growing up my parents rarely ate at a picnic table. We did drive by picnics where we ate our sandwiches as we drove along.
As we drove through the park, I saw two women spreading a table cloth on a picnic table next to a beautiful picnic basket. I saw men playing horseshoes and kids playing Frisbee with a dog yapping at their heels. I saw lovers walking with their arms around each other and holding hands. I smelled the smell of meat barbecuing for the first time and this vegetarian girl loved the smell.
We never got out. We never hiked one trail. We never sat near one campfire or ate at a table. We just drove through watching other people live their lives, but my sandwich was ruined.
I hid my tears behind my hair as we drove and no one noticed. I so wanted to be a part of that world. I felt like I was on the outside looking in and there was no hope outside of my small circle of family and that motel room.
My family members would say we had each other and we did, but having a parent who had empathy for my feelings and my plight would have changed everything. I went to bed that night feeling like God had abandoned me. I wondered about the point of going on. I even wondered if I would have the courage to kill myself.
This was the darkest moment in my sanguine life. To have no friends felt like death to me. It seemed like God had passed me by. Like God said, “You’re not even good enough to have friends.” But it wasn’t God speaking those words, it was the wolves. God still had plans for me.
A couple years later a church lady would insist on paying for my GED. She would come to my house, take me to the test and get some relatives to let me stay with them near the college. My life would be on the up and up and I would try to forget what it feels like to be alone.
While I was dating my husband, the Little Mermaid came to the theater near us. He wanted to go, but I wasn’t sure because the only Disney cartoon I had been allowed to watch as a kid was Bambi. I finally agreed to go.
When Ariel sang, “Part of Your World,”* I couldn’t stop sobbing. I was not the girl who had everything like the Little Mermaid, but I could relate to wanting to be part of a world that I was not a part of–
“I wanna be where the people are…
Up where they walk, up where they run
Up where they stay all day in the sun
Wanderin’ free – wish I could be
Part of that world.”
My future husband never got the story that day because it was too painful for me to speak out loud. For months, he joked to other people that I even cry at Disney cartoons. It would be years before I would share my whole story with him and others.
The reason this was such a painful memory is because it attacked my core identity. The wolves came out saying I wasn’t smart enough to be allowed an education—that I didn’t deserve any friends. That my talents in life should be confined to cleaning and cooking for my parents. That my own dreams were not worth pursuing because I was simply expected to be an extension of my parents. Regardless of what the wolves said back then, I have finally learned to listen to my Creator.
It might seem strange to share this now, except to this day I am not welcome to talk about anything that happened back then. In an effort to shut me up from telling the truth, family members have lied about me and even testified against me calling me a liar. This has hurt me more than what happened years ago.
I would love to have a relationship with people who are wholehearted and honest. I have no bitterness—only deep pain because I still love them and I see the brokenness that has affected my family to the next generation. Who cares what really happened then? What is painful is the fact that after all these years, we still can’t talk about our childhood or teen years.
Even though I never want to forget my parents—I still love them, I’ve been called to seek my true identity through what God has to say.
Listen, daughter, and pay careful attention:
Forget your people and your father’s house.
Let the king be enthralled by your beauty;
honor him, for he is your lord.
When I first read this verse a few years ago, I finally began to see God as a loving Father. A Father who is enthralled with me—His creation, a Father who cares about my heart and my emotions and pain. It was this step that led me to seeing myself as God sees me—not as my family sees me, or the wolves that prey at the door of my heart.
And it’s just as true for you–
Define yourself radically as one beloved by God.
This is the true self.
Every other identity is illusion.
For we are God’s masterpiece.
He has created us anew in Christ Jesus,
so we can do the good things
he planned for us long ago.
*Here is the original song sung by the beautiful Evynne Hollens,
wife of Peter Hollens.
(Check out both of them for some amazing vocal music.)