I am in my fourth decade of life and I can still remember the details of my middle school experience. I was on the fringe. I didn’t have a strong friend group. I’ll be honest and say that I was probably not my best self. I had acne, glasses, braces, and very conservative parents. I was not a likely candidate for most popular seventh grader. I grew up in a small school in an even smaller farm town in the middle of nowhere Illinois. I didn’t fit in. One of my distinct memories took place in the high school locker room. Our student body was so small that the middle school had a small wing of the high school building. I don’t remember why I ran to the locker room. I just know that I had classmates that were making my life miserable. I ran to the shower stalls to escape my tormentors. They followed me. And they taunted me by singing, “Big girls don’t cry.” Today we would classify that as bullying. But we didn’t have fancy words to describe mean behavior in the eighties. After one particular episode, I ran away from school. I kept running through town until I arrived at a familiar home. My rescuer was a member of the church I attended. Church was my safe haven. I remember sitting through weekend services feeling whole and loved. But at some point during the Sunday evening service, the familiar dread would begin creeping over me and I would remember that the next day was Monday and I had to go back and face it all over again. The friend’s home I escaped to was only a temporary reprieve. She called my dad. And he came to pick me up.
As soon as my skinny gangly frame climbed up into his oversized truck, I knew I had jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. As we drove home, his silence became deafening. The perpetual conversationalist in me couldn’t stand it anymore so I asked him if I was in trouble. “Of course you’re in trouble,” he said. “You let a bunch of idiots run you out of school. You ran away instead of facing it head on.” he finished. “But they were so hateful,” I cried. “I don’t care,” he responded. “If you run from them now, you’ll run from them forever. You gave them the power and that means you lose.”
And he was right. That was the last day I ran from the bullies. I powered through high school. And on graduation day, I walked out of the building and didn’t look back. As I worked my way through college, I made new and amazing friends. I learned that there were people that would encourage me instead of talk about me behind my back. College flowed into marriage, marriage became parenthood, and parenthood is where I sit today. I have a beautiful life filled with loud and wonderful people and I very rarely think of the insecure middle school girl with the bad perm and absolutely no friends.
But I thought of her today.
As I met with teenagers carrying the weight of their own stories tonight, I realized that something has changed in the decades between my experience and theirs. I was miserable, but I never thought of ending my life. And I never resorted to self harm. But we sat tonight and prayed for the families of THREE local girls that chose to end their lives this week. THREE. Let that sink in. Three girls that will never make their friends in college, marry the boy, have the children, and make the world better. Their stories are over. My heart is absolutely broken because this generation of children are cutting and coping their way right out of existence. And I don’t know why! Why are teenagers today more depressed than teenagers twenty years ago? Why are they self-medicating and self-harming? My teen girls think it has to do with the cultural pressure brought on by constant attachment to social media. As one student told me tonight, “Back in your day, you dealt with stuff at school, but then you went home and got to rest from it. We don’t ever get to rest.” Mistakes they made on social media are still circulating two years after the poor decision.
I don’t know how to make it better. But I do know that I will not stop trying. I will keep investing in the lives of our veryvulnerable children. Parents, it is ok to ask a million questions. And for the love of all that is holy, don’t stop tucking them in at night. I still go in and chat about the day with my 16 and 18 year old sons. I pray for them and ask the awkward questions. I know this topic is heavy, but I would LOVE to hear what you think. How do we help? What is causing this rise in teenage depression? And what can we do as parents to help kids have hope? I have plenty of opinions, but I’d love to hear what you think. Weigh in! And welcome back to the table.