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Beyond the Red Pencil Skirt

silhouette girl portrait

Letters to Our Younger Selves,  is our new column where readers write letters to their younger selves with insight and perspective. Submit your letter here and you may be published in Brain Child.

By Tina Porter

Dear Tina at 25,

We are about to turn 55, are married and have three daughters—the oldest of whom is almost your age. I’m watching her life from afar now as she tries to find her place in the world. I can’t help but draw comparisons to who I was at her age, sometimes so viscerally I have to remind myself that I am, in fact, a middle-age woman.

And maybe that’s why I need to chat with you right now. You are about to do something dangerous and I want to give you a glimpse of what is on the other side of that moment.

Right now, you are working in a job you hate (working for lawyers whose only task is to reduce the amount of money insurance companies pay people who are injured or sick) and living in a place you never thought you’d go back to (your home town, which you swore held nothing for you at eighteen and now, seems to offer even less). You drift from happy hours after work with people you barely know to dinners at your mom’s house with all of your siblings and their myriad children. You feel like an outsider wherever you go, which is not something new to you, but now, at twenty-five, you decide it is a permanent condition. You are an odd domino at a chess match.

Yes, it’s a spoiler, but I need you to know that on the other side of this dangerous moment you are about to embark on, you will meet and marry a man who loves you enough to share his life with you. Yes, there will be times when you will continue to be a weird outsider, but he will be there through it all, loving you and (almost) all the weird bits you bring to life.

I want you to hang onto this truth: that someone loves you this much and this long because the dangerous thing you are about to do doesn’t come from the depression that is consistently grabbing you by the tailbone and pulling you down.

No, it comes from the place that is certain you are neither loved nor lovable. You don’t have the capacity right now to imagine a world where you are loved and cherished. You feel distanced from your family more so now that you are back living in your hometown than you did when you lived in Los Angeles. You haven’t yet experienced having children of your own, so you haven’t a clue how much energy all that takes, so your siblings’ distraction makes you feel all that much more alone and unloved.

But I’m here to tell you now that all of that is only temporary. I hear myself tell my daughters the same thing these days and they don’t believe me any more than you probably do. But it is temporary.

One of the reasons it may be hard for you to see the ephemeral nature of your pain is that you are drinking a lot. I wish I could tell you to stop drinking right now, or at least cut way back, and you would hear me. Instead, I’ll ask you to pay attention to the good people in your life who express their worry about your drinking and notice when they leave your life and why.

Speaking of your drinking, let’s get back to the night I want you to focus on, the night you made a half-assed attempt to end your pain and our life.

It will be a Friday night and you will leave the lawyer’s office in your lawyer’s-assistant costume: your red suit, with a tiny white sweater under the shoulder-padded jacket, and your three-and-a-half inch red pumps. You lose the jacket when you get to the bar so everyone can see how good those heels make your legs and ass look. You meet a few coworkers there, but that isn’t why you are there. You are looking for someone to buy you a drink (or seven) and take you home.

Your coworkers peel away at different times and then you find yourself completely alone.

No one wants to buy you a drink. No one wants to take you home.

Already inebriated, you drive yourself home (which, miraculously is NOT the dangerous thing I want to warn you about). You stop at the liquor store and pick up a six-pack of Miller Lite longnecks and head back to your crappy apartment where you set the beer on the Formica table and stare at it for a minute or two. Are you crying? I can’t remember, but most likely yes. You remember the bottle of painkillers your sister left behind last month.

You look from the six-pack to the cabinet where the pills are and make a choice to stop the pain. In your desperation to cease feeling all the feelings (of being lonely, of being unlovable, of being an awkward ass), you swallow the whole bottle and drink all six of the beers in rapid fashion.

You wake up the next day—or is it the day after? You are still wearing the red pencil skirt from Friday night. You endure a week-long hangover. And you tell no one what you did.

I’ve often said my one regret was not going to grad school. But now, thirty years after that night, my biggest regret is not getting the help I needed at twenty-five.

You tried after that night. You haunted the self-help aisle at more than one bookstore and a few Sundays later you slump across the street to the Methodist church and sit in the back pew, weeping. But when that old lady (who was probably 54) tries to talk to you, you run out the back door, across the street, and back into your dark apartment.

But here’s what happens in the weeks and months after that night, when you emerge from the fog from your attempt to die: you start to concoct a plan to leave your hometown (again) in search of the life you envisioned for yourself long before you graduated from college, took that first job, and then ended up in this second one.

By Labor Day, you have left that job, dropped the red pencil skirt and other mementos of your corporate costume at the Goodwill, stuffed your remaining belongings and two cats in the back of your Honda Civic, and moved to Arizona.

There are more bookstores in Tempe, and coffee shops, and not a single person knows you. You start writing again and spend Sundays reading the newspaper in the sun and drink coffee until it is time to drink beer. You stop hearing the voices telling you who you should be and remember who you are. You find yourself at peace with yourself and even joyful at times, as you ride your bike to your new part-time job. This may explain why, only three weeks later, when you meet that man I mentioned, the one you will marry, that he is more than a little receptive to getting to know you. He met you at the moment when you liked who you were and he responded to that.

His love didn’t change everything in you—it never could. The demons of self-loathing and shame have lived so long within you they can’t possibly disappear completely.

But if you’d reached out to a therapist instead of the self-help section, you might have learned earlier the tools that would help you grapple with the ordinary parts of being human: loving, losing, even being an ass. Maybe if you had done so, you might not have spent your life beating yourself up for not being extraordinary, and settled into a satisfying, ordinary life sooner.

Where you are right now, on the cusp of trying to die, you can’t see that you have something to offer that other people will value. But once you learned to love other people precisely because of their weird bits, you start to love you for yours, as well.

You can’t know that you become for others what you always wanted for yourself: the safe, soft place where people can feel exactly what they feel, be exactly who they are, and laugh and cuss and wonder and create.

You become that.

And more.


Tina Porter a writer living in Indiana with my husband.You can read more of her writing at:

As writers and mothers we at Brain Child are trying, in this bizarre time, to show each other (and our younger selves) our similarities and our differences with a new perspective. -Francesca Grossman, Column Editor





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