Most of my childhood memories are from dingy, faded photographs underneath sheets of sticky plastic in a family album.
My first picture: I am brand-new, swaddled tightly in a blanket. My skin is an aggressive pink. My expression—skeptical, but curious. My head is a thick carpet of black hair, which will soon turn to strawberry fire.
When I come out a girl, a disappointment, the nurse asks what to call me. Momma knows firsthand the heartache of being born a girl, so she only chose a boy’s name for me, Erik. Frustrated, Momma throws an “a” onto the end. My birth certificate reads: Name – Erika Lynn Worth. Mother – June Marie Worth. Father – Unknown.
My favorite photo is a grainy 8×10 black-and-white picture with diffused lighting. I am 11 months old, sitting on Momma’s lap. Momma’s hair is long and blonde, like a beautiful princess. I have short hair and bangs, and two nubs of teeth peeking through my lower gums. We’re facing the camera, looking off to the side. Smiling. Happy. This photo is prominently displayed in every home we live in. It hangs over my fireplace now. On days when Momma cries and talks about not having enough money, or how she should have had an abortion or given me up for adoption, I stare at this photo and remind myself that Momma loves me, in her own way.
I am 6 years old, wearing a mustard-yellow turtleneck and green corduroy jumper dress that says “School Days” across it, because it’s the 70s. I am a sweet little girl with apple cheeks and baby teeth who dreams of meeting my father. And being a Charlie’s Angel. And the Bionic Woman. And having an invisible plane like Wonder Woman. And getting a puppy. I look like the other kids, but they sense the strangeness in me. They sniff out my precious like bloodhounds. When they find out I don’t know who my father is, they call me “orphan” and “bastard” and “poor.” They pull down my pants when I climb across the monkey bars. They trip me when I walk down the halls. Momma gets irritated when I tell her. She asks why no one likes me. I never know what to say. At night, I pray to God to help Daddy find us soon, then look out the window and wait for him to arrive.
I am 12, with shoulder-length hair and cheeks peppered with freckles. Mom’s boyfriend is sitting next to me on the sofa, grinning through his bushy blonde mustache. His right arm is wrapped around my back, his right hand nestled on my hip. No one knows the things he does when he comes into my room at night. Mom made me promise not to tell. I stay quiet, try to become invisible. I am a shattered version of who I might have been.
I am 15, with a face full of makeup and a blonde mane teased a foot high, because it’s the 80s. I live in Los Angeles and say “oh my god” and “like” a lot. I wear all-black clothing and smoke too many cigarettes and drink every chance I get—Maybelline and substances are my armor. I am no longer an innocent. Not since Mom’s boyfriend. And my teacher. And a cousin. And a neighbor. I resign myself to the fact that I am used goods. I let myself be passed around from one boy to the next. These boys who whisper ever so softly in my ear, clever lies masked as sweet promises of love and devotion. I believe every one. I am lost. I am alone. I tell no one my secrets. I am 5’6″ and 96 pounds. I deny myself nourishment of any kind.
I am 17, and it hurts to breathe. I am a collage of wounded memories stitched together by shame. I am bruised and broken beyond repair. I can’t bear to be in my skin. I am riddled with addiction. I KNOW life will always hurt. I KNOW I am unlovable. I KNOW the only solution is to die. Before I know what’s happening, I’m put in rehab, behind locked doors and windows that don’t open. I am terrified.
I am 18, in a pretty red dress with a swooshy skirt. Crimson permed curls cascade down my shoulders. It is Christmas, and I have one year of sobriety. I can’t believe I’m still breathing. I no longer drink or use, but I am far from healed. Without substances, my numbness has worn off. I feel my life for the first time, and I am angry, which confuses me. Girls aren’t supposed to be angry. We’re supposed to be sweet, soft, polite, and kind. We should not have hair in places we shouldn’t, or make our own choices, or make people uncomfortable. We must take responsibility for everything and everyone, and always be sorry, even when we didn’t do anything. We must never forget to smile. But I don’t want to smile. I want to scream, to wail from the depths of all that I am. I’m afraid that if I start, I’ll never be able to stop. I’m afraid feelings will drive me mad. So I smile and try to fill the void of my fear and my father’s absence in the arms of older men.
I am 20, with three years of sobriety. I wear no make-up. I pull my hair back in a ponytail. I wear loose sweatshirts and baggy jeans. I want to know if I can be more than an instrument for men’s desires. I want to be a strong woman, but I don’t know what one looks like. I want to close my eyes and be the future version of me already, because the work ahead of me is daunting. I want to give up every day, but then they’ll win. All the ones who tried to break me will not only have my childhood, but my future. I know I can’t let that happen. I know I must keep going, one baby step at a time.
I am 24 and about to meet my father for the first time. For a 15-hour train ride, I pack a journal, a camera, an open heart, and a lifetime’s worth of childhood expectations. I stand before my father brimming with excitement. His intense green gaze meets my own. I have waited for this moment my entire life. I go to wrap my arms around him, but he stops me. He places his hands square on my shoulders and kisses one cheek, then the other. He says this is how white people greet each other. He says the “N” word. He talks about the wicked Jews. I quickly learn he is a fascist. He quickly learns I am not. I mask my devastation with outrage. We spar with words and ideologies. He calls women “bras,” says that none of us have ever done anything substantial in this world. A woman’s purpose is to breed. Anything else is a waste of time. I am eviscerated. I retreat, wait until I’m home to become a hysterical pile of rejection.
I am 27 years old, and ten years sober. Some days, I feel like I’m 90. Other days, I feel like I’m nine. Seventeen was just yesterday. Time passes so quickly. I work too many hours and make too little money. I feel like a hamster on a wheel going nowhere. I’m afraid to love. My friends are getting married and having children. I feel like an alien around them. Or a unicorn.
I am 31, and I want something more, something different from what I see around me. I want to be powerful, and I want to be rich. THEN, I will have value. THEN, I might be lovable.
THEN, I can prove my father wrong.
I start my own company in my living room. I have no idea what I’m doing, but I don’t take no for an answer. I work every day for a year. I work every day for another year.
I am 33, and I love a man, but I can’t let him love me back. Not someone like me. Love is a distraction I don’t need. I don’t have time for messy feelings. I need more success. More things. A better car. Better clothes. I need to lose 30 pounds. I work and work and work, and I don’t sleep, and I waste so much precious time. I bury my love behind computer screens and paperwork. I tell myself there’s always tomorrow and stay laser-focused on my goals. I am driven and determined.
And then, he dies. He is 31 years old, and he drowns in a flood. And I…just…can’t. Anything.
I am 34, and my life is forever changed. I NOW know the importance of the truth. I NOW know how much I let fear permeate my life, in ways I wasn’t even conscious of. I NOW know that all the “things” don’t mean anything. I NOW know that love is all that really matters.
I am 48, and 30 years sober. Life is exquisite. Silver hair creeps through my copper mane. There is a heavy line between my brows—a remnant of my anger and fear. There are several crinkled lines around my eyes—evidence of joy and laughter I never thought possible. I stand firmly in the middle of my life, and I know it is a privilege to be here. Being in my skin now is like wearing an old pair of jeans. The cuffs are frayed. There’s a hole forming at the knee. But the fabric is worn and smooth and fits every curve. I am lived in.
My womb, much to my father’s disappointment, is a barren wasteland to unborn children. I will never pass down my freckles, or my last name, or my fabulous shoe collection. I chose instead to birth ideas, to nurture opportunities. Instead of raising children, I raised my head above the burden of shame and silence.
But if you were my child, these would be my wishes:
I wish you the strength of your own convictions. The entire world will not agree with you. They’re not supposed to. Stand in your truth. It’s your spot. Claim it.
I wish you the power of your own voice. It is one of your unique gifts in this world. Use it wisely, and often, and frequently in the defense of those who are being silenced. It doesn’t matter who hears you—it matters that you have the courage to speak your mind and your heart.
I wish for you a couple of great friends to walk beside you through the trials of life. Nurture those relationships. They are precious beyond measure.
I wish you many challenges, for overcoming them is the surest way of learning what you’re made of.
I wish you grave mistakes, for living with choices you can’t undo will form your character. Learning about your own shortcomings will teach you compassion. Trying to atone for your mistakes will teach you forgiveness. You cannot move forward in this life without forgiveness. Resentment keeps you stuck in the past. Don’t let it.
I wish you the courage to take one more step. You will fall down, more times than you can count. You will feel terrified, and uncertain, and delighted—sometimes all at once. All experience is valid and necessary. Keep going. Even when you can’t see what’s around the next corner, I promise you, there will always be light.
I wish you the ability to abandon your idea of perfection. It does not exist in humans. The sheen is not what makes us interesting—the cracks are. Some of the most incredible people I know are held together with string and crazy glue. You are enough. Now and always.
Feelings are not facts. Don’t believe all of them. Wait ten minutes. They’ll change like the Pacific Northwest weather.
Scary things will happen. Don’t let fear corrode your life. If you are breathing in this very moment, you have a 100 percent success rate of survival.
Life is messy. I wish you the abandon to roll around in it. Get dirty. Love. Laugh. Enjoy every precious moment. Live life like you mean it.
To the young people of today, be brave. Be fierce. The world needs you—now more than ever.