When I was a teenager we moved to a new town. I’d never lived in town before, with neighbors walking by with their dogs on a leash, or kids using our front steps to jump their bikes when they thought no one was looking.
Because I’d always been an out-of-town kid, the constant stream of passers-by fascinated me. I wonder now how many hours of my life were spent sitting on the sofa, watching people pass by outside on the sidewalk.
Multiple times per day, an elderly woman with thin white hair died a shade of lilac would pass slowly by muttering to herself. Once, when I saw her coming towards our house, I went outside to sit on the steps. I wanted to hear what she was saying. She shuffled past without noticing me sitting just a few feet away from her.
Her words were mostly incoherent, but it seemed like she was talking to a child, gentle scolding and soft encouragements.
At the time, this felt so incredibly sad to me. I imagined she was all alone in the world, missing a child she’d lost. And maybe she was. But at 17 years old, the idea of being old, wandering the streets muttering to an invisible child seemed like a terrifying prospect.
The local kids told stories about her – she was crazy, she was homeless, she was drunk, she was scary. I always felt protective of her. Somehow, I felt a kinship with this wandering woman who talked to children who were not there. Somehow, I had this sense that someday, that could very well be me.
The truth is, I talk to myself, too. All the time.
I always have. Usually in private, but I’m sure my family has heard me from time to time.
I used to tell people off, and say all the things I wish I’d said in the heat of the moment. I don’t feel the need to make my point so much anymore. Nowadays, my self-talk is directed inward. It’s healing and problem solving.
The vast majority of my breakthroughs in therapy came from guided conversations with myself. The therapist asks hard questions, and I think about them, answer them, and suddenly, the lightbulb goes on above my head.
Who needs to heal?
It was only in the past few years that I realized that who I really needed to heal was not the present version of myself. Present Sara is highly competent, able to manage big feelings, compassionate, ambitious, self-possessed.
It’s the past Sara who is still hurting. Little girl Sara, who felt alone and afraid, betrayed and belittled, invisible and out-of-control of my own personhood.
Through therapy I’ve learned to talk to that little girl Sara, to be the parent that toddler me needed, the friend grade-school Sara longed for, the role model adolescent me lacked. It felt strange at first, but I talk to her. I identify which version of me is feeling scared or alone or insecure, and I talk to her the way I would talk to my own children.
I am the mother, friend, and mentor younger Sara needed.
About six months ago my dad gave me a photo of myself taken in 1978, when I was two years old. I was deeply touched, because my dad said he’d kept it in his desk drawer for 42 years. He thought I should have it.
This is significant because my dad and I were estranged for many years. The idea that he’d held onto this photo, and kept it close despite our relationship troubles means a great deal to me. And the fact that he was sharing it with me meant that he no longer needed the picture, because he had the real thing.
And too, it was his way of saying he loved me, and also goodbye. He died a few weeks ago, and we were both at peace with it, and with each other.
I keep this photo of myself at my own desk now.
I’ve spent long stretches of time staring at it. I’ve memorized every detail. I’m wearing red polyester bibs and a bucket hat, and glancing warily to the side. I know how that little Sara felt – her uncertainty, her careful examination of her environment. I was always paying attention, always trying to anticipate the next move of the adults in my world.
I absolutely adore my outfit in this photo. It’s utilitarian, comfortable, and possibly second-hand from my older brother. It’s also bold. It makes a statement. And bucket hats have always been my jam. I still love me a bucket hat.
So many of the photos and memories I hold of myself are pink. Oh, how I despised pink. But in this photo – the photo my dad treasured of me all these years – I’m wearing red, my favorite color. It makes me feel seen, a little less invisible.
The red chair I’m standing in front of used to be in my great aunt Em’s house. When she died, we got that chair and it was in our house for years and years. I loved it, because it was red, and it spun around in circles and rocked. I can still see my tiny fingers tracing the gold tapestry pattern while I rocked myself. I imagine that chair was very worn out by the time it was finally retired from service.
I think about that old woman wandering the streets talking to herself.
Maybe she wasn’t “crazy” after all. Maybe she wasn’t talking to a child she’d lost, but to a younger version of herself. Maybe she was giving her child self the love she’d always needed.
Maybe rather than fearing the days when our elderly minds slip into an alternate reality, we should step into our own worlds even sooner, before we have thinning lilac-colored hair. Maybe the sooner we heal those wounded parts of our younger selves, the more able we are able to fully lean into life in the present.
I keep the photo of toddler Sara at my desk now, just as my dad did for 42 years. I talk to her, love her, reassure her that she’s safe. I’ve got this. We’ve got this – her and I. We still get scared sometimes, but we are healing, one pair of red bib overalls at a time.