From the moment we're born, we're bombarded with an endless array of words. Long, short, pretty, ugly—but all meaningless. Until we’re taught to read and write. But, even before then, we have to learn the alphabet. It's amazing, truly, how many ways those 26 little letters can be manipulated; the seemingly endless combinations that make up the language we know and take for granted.
I love words. I love how they can take simple bedding and turn it into softly ruffled sheets, bathed in sleepy whispers and sweet dreams. Or how they can turn ordinary eyes into deep, alluring, caverns that you can lose yourself in. But as wonderful as words may be, they also have an incredible ability to harm.
A little over a year ago, I met someone who I thought would be good for me. I wasn't in an ideal state in my life, and I was starved for attention. Briefly, I was happy. However, things quickly turned sour.
"You're so awkward." 3 words. 14 letters. 1 step back. Although it was an innocent enough comment in appearance, it had ugly undertones and left my already weak self-confidence stinging. I thought it was careless and unintentional, a passing thought, so I let it slide.
"What's wrong with you?" 4 words. 17 letters. 2 steps back. This, although cloaked in concern, was decidedly more condescending. This time, it did more than sting. It left a welt in my self-esteem that ached for days. But yet again, I forgave, and I let it go.
"You're killing me." 3 words. 14 letters. More steps back. This phrase was said often, with the intention of hurting, and I knew it. It was said simply so they could get their way. So they could force me into things I spent all of my energy trying to avoid. My confidence and my mental health were dropping dangerously low, but by this time I was attached. I blamed myself and continued to forgive.
"I'm going to have fun with or without you." 9 words. 32 letters. An entire lifetime back. With those final words came the end of our so-called “relationship” and a sudden wave of reality that hit me so hard it nearly knocked the life out of me. They never saw me as person, just an opportunity. Those wonderful words, those 26 letters that I loved so much, had broken me.
I was sad. Very sad. I never went to the doctor, but I can say with some certainty that I was depressed. I shut down. I stopped doing my homework. I stopped being social. I stopped coming to school, sometimes for a week at a time. I took up some very unhealthy habits in an attempt to cope, to make myself feel better, but in the end they only made things worse. At this point, it had nothing to do with that person or what they had said or done. My self-esteem was in the negatives. I hated myself. I spent most of my time asleep, although I never seemed to feel any more rested.
I believe words can hurt, but they can also heal; and sometimes, love is the best medicine. Just when it seemed that I was stuck in this downward spiral, there was a change. Someone who had been there since the beginning began to notice and began to help. Concerned words, but this time they were genuine. I began to open up again. I realized that maybe I would be alright after all. As time went on, I steadily improved.
"You make me so happy." 5 words. 16 letters. 1 step forward. It was a simple enough phrase but it left a warm feeling in my core that I wouldn't soon forget.
"I'm proud of you." 4 words. 12 letters. 2 steps forward. This was new, the idea that I did anything worthy of pride. It helped me learn to be proud of myself.
"I don't know what I would do without you." 9 words. 31 letters. Quite a few more steps forward. To think that someone actually cared about me and needed me left me overjoyed. I wasn’t sad anymore.
"I love you." 3 words. 8 letters. 1 whole marathon forward. Love. I thought it would never happen, that I was too damaged. But that was silly, because to believe that, as flawed as you may be, someone else is incapable of loving you, is the same as believing that sunlight cannot enter a broken window and illuminate a dark room. Love has a way of fixing things. Love of self, love of others, it all lends to healing. It spreads through your body like a current. It ebbs and flows over the curves of your collarbones, your hips; gently enveloping your spine in its soft waves. It leaves eddies in your ribcage that warm your lungs when cold thoughts threaten to creep in. Those 26 little letters that broke me had built me up and made me whole again.
I can't say that I'm completely happy now. I still have bad days, bad weeks. I can say that I'm happier than I've ever been. I feel like a person again. I feel important and I feel that I deserve happiness. I owe that to someone who cared for me when I couldn't care for myself. Because they believed in me. Because they used those plain letters—those simple words—and turned them into something remarkable. Because they loved me.
This I Believe Illinois is an essay program for high school seniors to share their perspectives as they prepare to enter adulthood. Each year, a panel selcts ten submitted essays to be recorded by their authors for broadcast on NPR Illinois. Since 2007, the selected authors also deliver their essays at a meeting of the Rotary Club of Springfield Sunrise where the students receive scholarships from the organization.