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What the Perfect Girl Was Hiding

For a long time I have had dreams. Not nice dreams, but ones that made my skin crawl. My nightmares were like a movie and the only thing I could do was watch. Sometimes I’d be in an abandoned warehouse, or on a deserted highway. A dark figure would appear out of nowhere. He’d wrap his huge hands around my throat. Slowly he would squeeze, like he was wringing out a mop.

The dreams began the summer of my freshman year of high school, and at times they recurred for six days straight. When they did, I tried not to let myself sleep at night. I thought it would be safer to sleep in broad daylight with a lot of people around, so I slept on the bus on my way home from school. Still, I didn’t tell anyone about these dreams. I just tried to ignore them and acted like the problem wasn’t serious.

When I look back at some of the things that have occurred in my life, I can honestly say that I have ignored my problems. And not just my dreams. I thought that I could handle things on my own and solve everything myself. I never wanted anyone to know that anything was going wrong. It’s like I led a double life.

At home my parents were fighting. My mother would talk about how she didn’t love my father anymore, or she’d call him Satan. He would call her a slut in Creole. They’d fight about my mother’s infidelity and who was paying the bills. They fought seriously about every other month. At those times it got really loud and violent. My father once hit my mother so hard that the sound from the slap made me shudder. My mother would usually try to run out of the apartment or scream really loud so the neighbors would hear.

At those times, I had to adopt the role of referee. I would literally pull them apart. Sometimes I even slept with a screwdriver under my pillow. I felt that one day my father would try to kill my mother and I would have the screwdriver to save her.

When I was home I felt weak and lonely. All of this was sucking the life out of me. But when I went to school, I had to play off the night before as if it never happened. I knew if I carried any of the emotional baggage with me to school I would mess up. People would see the things I didn’t want them to see.

So at school I would be the girl who worked three times harder than anyone else, the one who was always happy, and the person who seemed to have nothing to complain about. I would make excuses for why I constantly had bags under my eyes, and I would lie to the teachers who asked me annoying questions. When a teacher asked, “What’s wrong? You don’t look like yourself today,” I often said, “I was watching a movie last night,” or, “I just have a little cold.”

Once my elementary school principal called me into her office. My younger brother had told the principal that when my parents started fighting, my mother would use him as a shield. My father would never hit me or my brother, so if we stood in the way, it was very hard for him to get to my mother.

image by Jamaal Pascall

When the principal asked me if that was true, I said, “My parents don’t fight. It’s just his imagination.” I thought if I had told the truth, then the city would have taken me and him away. My friends had no idea of what was going on either, since I pretended that everything was OK.

When I would go home, I would take off the mask I wore at school. Instead of being the girl who was happy, I was lonely and felt empty inside. Very little of what I did, either at school or at home, gave me the feeling of true happiness. And because of all that lying, it was hard for me to feel close to anyone. I just didn’t want to be that vulnerable. Instead of spending time with my friends, I buried myself in my schoolwork.

I felt that by working so hard, I wouldn’t have to depend on anybody. And trying to be perfect gave me hope that I wouldn’t have the problems my parents had. I saw work as a way out and a way to feel better. Forget Prozac—working was my drug. Once I spent the whole night writing essays because I wanted mine to be better than anyone else’s. And if I messed up in anything, I never forgot about it. I had the feeling that I was the biggest loser in America.

But I found myself feeling really lonely. I was also constantly stressed out and tired and it seemed like all I did was work. I was burying all my problems in my work, just like I thought I could escape from my dreams by not sleeping. But I couldn’t.

For a long time I didn’t tell anyone what was happening in my life. Finally, one day in school, I told a friend. Then I told my English teacher. When I did, all kinds of other horrible things seemed to slip out of my mouth, too. I told her about my nightmares and how I couldn’t sleep at night. I told her how alone and scared I felt.

For the next couple of days I went to see a school counselor. We discussed what I was feeling and she encouraged me to tell my parents, but at first I really didn’t want to. It’s not that I thought they were going to start making arrangements to put me in the nut house. I just thought that if I told them, it would always be there in the back of their minds.

But after a few days, I told my father. I have a stronger relationship with him, and I can talk to him about stuff that bothers me. It was a Sunday night and he was in the kitchen washing dishes. “Have you ever had terrible nightmares and been unable to sleep?” I asked him.

“Drink milk and it will stop,” he said.

image by Jamaal Pascall

His solution wasn’t too bright, so I tried my mother a few days afterward. She was lying on her bed watching TV. I told her I had something to say to her. She started to panic. Her eyes got wide and she sat up very quickly.

“What’s wrong?” she asked. She lowered the volume of the TV and had this intense look. It reminded me of how a hungry baby’s eyes swell up with tears right before it cries.

My mom’s first command was to pray before I went to sleep. Things were not as bad as I thought, she said. This advice didn’t help either, and I was left feeling confused about what I should do.

Since then I’ve tried to make some changes in my life. It’s not easy. And partly that’s because the situation at home hasn’t changed much. My parents still fight and it still gets to me. For some sick reason I want my parents to be together, but usually I think they’d be better off apart. Whatever it takes, I want them both to be happy. If that means one of them has to leave, so be it. There’s a good chance, though, that they’ll stay together and continue to make each other’s lives hell. So I’m just trying to find some ways to deal with my own life.

Sometimes I think that the one thing that will never change is my craving to push myself past my limits. But I’m starting to try to make a little time for myself and loosen up a bit around people. Part of being more open is writing this story. In the process, I remembered so many details I had forced myself to forget. No one mentioned to me that it would take so much time and energy just to do this. But through this whole process, I feel like I am trying to find my true self.

And I have also tried to be a little more open with other people, too. I’m closer with my friends. If I can squeeze out two hours of free time, I sometimes go out for pizza with them. Recently I made the decision to talk to a counselor at my school about stuff that’s going on at home. For a long time I felt uncomfortable with the idea of telling a total stranger how messed up I am. But now talking to her feels comfortable. And I’ve even gone so far as to make an appointment with a therapist. Besides just talking about my problems, I want to get some answers.

Still, there are some things I’m not yet ready to talk about, and I’m also afraid of what the answers might be to all my questions. Despite all the changes I’ve made, I am still driven by my fears.

I often say to myself that I do not want to live the lives of my parents. I see how much they suffer and all the misery that comes along with it. I don’t ever want to be stuck at a dead end job, working only because I have children to support. And the thought of living my life with someone I despise is too much for me to bear.

I frequently say that I am 16 going on 61. To some people that may sound funny, but for me it’s the truth. I often feel like my parents act like children and I act like the adult. I’m tired of this and I think maybe I need to tell my parents that their fighting is driving me crazy. They should know how this whole thing affects me and what I do. In the meantime, I’m trying to do little things to remind myself that I really am only 16, and that I am the child.

To talk to a crisis counselor about domestic violence, call 1−800−799−SAFE (7233) or live chat at

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