How a Stranger Helped Me Heal From Childhood Abuse
If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
When I was a teenager, I served at a small diner between college classes. I was painfully shy and found myself preparing to “go into character” each shift as I buttoned up my uniform and pinned on my name tag. One day, on a particularly busy lunch time, I found myself in the weeds trying to cover my section and the section of a co-worker who had called off. I remember double checking each order before I put it in, paranoid I would let something slip my mind.
A gentleman, watching me stare down at my notepad over and over, chuckled as he loudly, sarcastically exclaimed to me: “If this is too hard for you, sweetheart, maybe you’re not cut out for it.” My eyes welled up and I bit my lower lip in anger.
He didn’t know me. He didn’t know I was covering nine tables. He didn’t know I had worked a double the day before or that I had a second job after that. He didn’t see my backpack full of textbooks for college classes while all my peers were still in high school. He only saw what he wanted to see.
Swallowing hard, I couldn’t hold back that first tear from rolling down my cheek. As the saltiness hit my lip I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the familiar face of a man who came in regularly. He sat in the same booth and ordered the same meal. He motioned for me to sit down. I slid into the booth on the opposite side of him while I did my best to avoid his eyes, ashamed for what had just happened.
Seeing my meekness, he laid his hand on top of mine and told me something that, at the time, felt like the first floatation device anyone had ever thrown toward my drowning life. “There will always be people like him wherever you go. You’ll never be good enough for some people, no matter how hard you’re trying. Please don’t let their ugliness keep you from seeing the beautiful people in your life. Learn to look past the people who only want to put you down and keep your sight focused on those who are cheering you on. It might only be one person (squeezing my hand tightly), but that’s all you really need.”
He was just a random face in the sea of people I saw each day, but he saw me that day. I wish I had thanked him more for his words in that moment. This small pause in his day would shape the rest of my life. I heard his words echo in my mind in some of my darkest moments. His sentiment would bring me peace when I felt I had none.
When my soft spot to land too often became quicksand, I didn’t waste my energy asking myself “Why do they want me to sink?” I remembered those words and looked for who was there to help pull me out.
I suddenly saw the faces of those who were cheering me on, even when I had to look harder for them. They were there. Though I never stopped hoping my parents would fulfill that need, I learned to cling to those around me that did and the others started to come out of focus.
Many of those faces were teachers or professors. I’m embarrassed to say I rarely told them how much I appreciated them and how deeply the time and love they poured into me affected my life. An elementary school teacher who began each day by hugging me never knew how starved for affection I was. Or the professor who walked out to the parking lot with me after every class, answering all of my questions with so much patience, all while never missing an opportunity to praise my eagerness to master his coursework.
These people became my role models and my encouragement. Each of them were the street lights that illuminated my dimly lit path, guiding me and filling in the gaps left by my parents that they didn’t know existed.
What most people had all around them, I had to hunt down and hold onto fiercely. The void left by parents that neglected me was filled with the gratitude I have for those that chose to invest in my life.
To all my life preservers: I’m still here because of you.
Follow this journey on the author’s blog.
Image via contributor.