Dear Danielle

Dearest Little Girl,

I didn’t mean to forget you, to push you away for thirty years. I thought I knew you, but it turns out that I created memories from photos and stories. I thought you were the happy, smiling child everyone said you were.

When the real you returned to me in flashes in the shower, I didn’t even know it was you. I called you “the girl.” You looked sad and scared. I wanted to comfort you and help you. It took a year for you to come out of the shower, to show me who you were, and slowly reveal the horrible things you lived through, flash after painful flash. I felt your pain in my body. It made me physically ill, from throwing up to infections to migraines. I spent hours dissociated in the shower and on the floor. But I was grateful that I finally knew you, or at least pieces of you. 

Your family can be tough, especially dad after a hard day at work, but they do love you, and truly believe you are watched all the time. Between the housekeeper, your mother, and your much older brother and sister, they do watch you a lot. But your sister is at college now, and your brother is busy with his music. Mom has her golf, and dad is always at work or traveling. That is not to say they don’t watch you though, I know they do, but it’s impossible for any child to be watched every second, and it’s the 80s, kids are still allowed to ride their bikes and play on their own, even if, like you, it’s just in the driveway or backyard. I know you love them and don’t blame them. More than anything you want to protect them from the truth. I know you think it will hurt them.

The people who are violating you are people you trust, people who will make you unable to trust again. What they are doing is wrong. It is wrong to tell you that you will ruin your family if you tell. Wrong to say that your mom will leave. Wrong to threaten that you could get hurt worse. No matter how much they smile or give you gifts, they are hurting you. Try to be strong through the pain, even though it is horrible and you don’t deserve it. You shouldn’t have to be strong. You should be playing and having fun, but you rarely do. It is isolating. I wish I could protect you and comfort you. I wish you didn’t feel so alone.

It will be hard for you to connect with others. You will be bullied, threatened, and hurt too many times. You will struggle with your body and mental health, and be diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and eventually bipolar disorder and PTSD, even before the memories return. You will want to kill yourself, starting at the age of twelve, possibly earlier, and continuing on and off throughout your life. But you will somehow manage to work through it. Don’t resist therapy and medication. I know you will want to. They can’t fix you or take away the trauma, but they can be helpful.

You will accomplish a lot. You won’t be the famous actress or singer you wish to be every birthday when you blow out the candles on your cake, but you will have amazing internships in Hollywood, model, hand out Emmy awards, work in film and publishing. You will start your own businesses. But it is creativity that will really help you start to work through the pain and point you towards healing. You will immerse yourself in theater, filmmaking, photography, mixed-media art, and poetry. You will finally connect with people, teachers, mentors, and therapists, more than peers, but it is a connection and intimacy that you never knew. You will start a non-profit to help other people with mental health challenges using photography. You will speak about your journey and help save lives. 

On the personal side, you will get married to a man who adores you and would not hurt you, even when you have flashbacks and think he is. You will meet him at college orientation and become instant friends, but push him away for years while you deal with your mental mess, and your dad’s illness and death from ALS. You question whether you can even love at all, but you end up together somehow. 

You will have two amazing daughters, and the dog and cat you always dreamed of. You will not be a perfect wife or mother, but you will try your best. You may not be good with cleaning or cooking, but you will do everything to protect your girls and teach them about consent. You will tell them you love them twenty times a day. You will stay alive for them. 

Right now, things are unbearably hard for you, but you are a survivor. I wish I could take the pain away, but it is a part of your journey. It makes you the person you become, and she’s not so bad. So hold on. It won’t last forever. 

You are no longer “the girl” to me. You are Dani. You are in pain, and your pain is real, but you are loved. I see you, and I feel you, and you will get through this. Wewill get through this.

 Warmest wishes, 
Your future self

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Danielle Hark is a writer and artist who lives with PTSD and bipolar disorder. She’s the founder of the non-profit Broken Light Collective that empowers people with mental health challenges using photography. Danielle lives and creates in NJ with her husband, two daughters, 2.5 ukuleles, a dog, a cat, and a typewriter named Cori Blue. www.daniellehark.com@daniellehark