Marissa always thought something was terribly wrong with her. At least going back as far as she could remember. She was not a happy child and wasn’t childhood supposed to be the best time in one’s life? She can’t remember laughing much. Sometimes there’d be a moment when she’d smile, but most of the time she was miserable. A sulking, sad little girl.
When she began going to school, she hated it. Kindergarten was an awful place. Every day she was told to do things that she didn’t know how to do. Like identify colors and shapes. Hold a pencil. Write her name. And playtime was lonely-time. She liked the sandbox the best, where she could move the sand around to make roads and drive toy cars over the lumps and bumps. Once a week ladies would bring in things that kids could buy, but Marissa never had any money. So she never owned any of the pretty, shiny ribbons. Never got a pretzel. Never got her school pictures. When all her classmates ran up to buy things, Marissa cried.
Elementary school wasn’t much better. Lonely on the playground, lost in the class. She couldn’t read as well as the others. Couldn’t do the math or write the answers that the teacher expected. Where she really failed was in Art, and then when she got older, in French. And still, no friends. But who would want to spend time with a gloomy girl? No one.
At home, she never felt like she belonged. Marissa often dreamt that she was adopted. That someone had made a terrible mistake and dumped her off in the streets somewhere and then she ended up in this family. That someday the mistake would be discovered and she would be returned to her rightful family. And she would smile.
It was confusing living with these people, especially once she became a teenager. She was expected to get perfect grades on every assignment, in every class. But she wasn’t given time to study. She had to clean house, from top to bottom, every day. Do laundry. Polish the leaves of the plants. And learn how to cook. But she had no interest in cooking. What Marissa loved was reading books. Books about horses and faraway places and happy people in happy families.
When she read, she was calm. And nurtured. Something about the feel of the book, the texture of the pages, the comfort of the words, carried her away and into worlds that were kind and gentle and patient and interesting.
She dreamed of escape. She thought about running away, but was too frightened of the unknown. Of where she would sleep and bathe and get food, and so she stayed put. It was in high school that Marissa discovered a way to leave. College. She go to a college somewhere, far enough away that she no longer had to stay in that house. And so she studied harder than she ever had before. Even when her counselor told her that she would never succeed in college, that she wasn’t smart enough to pass classes. Marissa just worked harder than ever, often staying up until late at night, going over and over the lessons. It wasn’t easy, but she understood that her ways out of the house were limited.
It would be comforting to think that Marissa had happy birthdays and Thanksgivings and Christmases. That there were vacations and laughter and good times. Maybe there were some moments here and there when things weren’t so bad. Maybe a time when she could relax her guard and just be. But when?
Most kids grow up thinking of the gifts they would receive. The parties when friends would come over. The sleepovers and trips and places to be seen. They imagine Santa and the reindeer. Put out cookies before they go to bed. Wake up in the morning to find gifts under the tree. Marissa had some of that.
When she was in middle school she met her first friend, a pretty girl in her class. For some reason, they bonded. The girl saw through Marissa’s unhappiness and so invited her to spend the night. Marissa was used to tense dinners in her own house, when no one spoke for fear of getting lectured. In her friend’s house, dinner was a time of laughter and talking about the day. In Marissa’s house there was no watching of the television, but in this house the family sat around the set and enjoyed one show after another. This family played board games. This family had desert. This family gave each other hugs when it was bedtime. Marissa wanted to stay there forever, she was so happy.
There were vacations, always to one relative’s house or another. Even when there were children living there, though, Marissa was not allowed to play. She was told to sit on the couch and not move. Not even to go to the bathroom without asking permission first. It was hard to watch her cousins running around and having fun. To hear them laughing and teasing and playing. She wanted to live with them. But no, it was not to be. She always had to get in the car for the silent ride home. If she was lucky. If not, then there was yelling and screaming and hateful words.
When Marissa was accepted to a college far away from home, she rejoiced. Here was her escape. Her chance to find friends and happiness. She lived in the dormitory. Her first roommate was a spoiled rich girl. Not a very nice person. She made fun of Marissa’s homemade clothes and old-fashioned hairdo. She smoked and left her ashes on Marissa’s bed. So Marissa found things to do away from her room. She met people in the cafeteria. Nice people. Kind people. People who made her feel happy and loved. Things began looking up.
But not everything worked out as in Hollywood. There were assignments that she had to redo. Parties that involved too much alcohol. Marijuana. Hands all over her body that would not stop even when she begged. Men who offered marriage and taking her away to foreign lands where women had no rights. One disaster after another.
And so Marissa understood that there was something wrong with her. Something that could not be fixed. She was broken.
She had some choices. Continue to be miserable or seek happiness in those things that she did well. Marissa had plenty of experience being miserable, so that meant that happiness would be her choice. And so she worked at it. She smiled at strangers. She laughed when others did, even when she didn’t get the joke. She stood straighter. She got a job. She raised her voice to a normal speaking level. She changed everything about her that could be changed. And life improved. In many ways.