I wasn’t always who I am today. If you’d known me when I was in high school, you’d never recognize me now. I wasn’t a good person. I was a troubled teen and didn’t care who I might hurt in my path. I was sure I was old enough to make all of my own decisions, even though they had me in a downward spiral. Then one day, in extreme desperation to reach through the walls I had put up, my dad’s voice came through loud and clear.
“You’re only as good as the friends you keep. If you hang out with skunks, you’re going to start smelling like a skunk.” I’ll never forget when I heard those words. I’d been hanging out with the wrong crowd, and my life was headed downhill fast. In an effort to escape the stifling biblical rules of my stalwart Evangelical Christian parents, I was headed in the totally opposite direction without any regard for my reckless behavior.
At the tender age of 16, I realized that it was time to turn my life around. My parents were sick with worry, and I wasn’t about to give in and allow them to rest their fears. My relationship with my mother was horrible, and although my dad and I got along much better, he was at his wits end to stop me from making some horrible mistakes.
The Turning Point
One day, in desperation, after the police had again brought me home from a two-week “freedom” run, my dad told me those words. I had been sent to my room yet again to ponder those words. I wrote them out on index cards and taped them to the foot of my bed as I sat and contemplated my life.
I thought about my various friends. All troubled teens. Friends who were using drugs, who had been incarcerated, and one friend was pregnant. I didn’t want to end up like any of them. I knew that my dad was right, and I had to do some serious thinking.
I began to look at my friends and consider which ones were “skunks.” Unfortunately, most of them were skunks. I had to turn my life around and fast, or I was going to wind up like at least one of them. I shuddered as I thought of my mistakes in life and which one of them I might be the most like. It wasn’t pretty.
Qualities That I Wanted To Emulate
I decided that I needed to make a list of the qualities that I wanted to mirror in my own life. I looked around me at church, at school, and at work, and I chose a few people that seemed to have it all together and portrayed honesty, openness, kindness, good morals, and integrity.
I wrote out the qualities that I most admired in each of them:
Choosing My Mentor
I decided that just observing these people wasn’t enough. I needed to talk with at least one of them. I chose one lady that was just slightly older than me. One afternoon, after our shift at work, I asked her if I could talk to her for a few minutes. To my surprise, she said, “Yes.”
I told her that I really admired her and I was trying to change some things about myself and really looked up to her. She smiled and told me that she hadn’t always been such a great person. She went on to tell me how she had hung out with the wrong crowd in school and became pregnant at the tender age of 15 years old.
In order to keep her baby, she had to drop out of school and work hard. She said that she went to a more progressive church that, rather than judge her, had been supportive of her to step up to the plate and make things right in her life. She was paired with a mentor at church and met with her weekly for over a year. She worked hard and got her GED. She had to grow up and fast. She had to learn life skills that most 15 year old’s don’t have. She was paying the consequences of her reckless behavior.
I would’ve never guessed that my coworker had been through so much and been a troubled teen. I honestly thought she was nearly perfect. That’s when I realized that you don’t have to be perfect to be important to someone. You just have to be honest and transparent.
I thanked her for her time, and over the course of the next few years, she and I became good friends. I’ll always appreciate that she took the time to listen to me and share just enough of her personal story that I saw a way to save myself. When I was feeling like I wanted to skip class or do something reckless, she told me to call her before I acted.
I’d love to say I didn’t have to call her a single time, but that would be a lie. I called her many times. When I called her, she would ask me pertinent questions. “Why did I want to be reckless?” “What was my goal?” In time, I realized I was just trying to escape some responsibility I didn’t yet want. I wanted freedom. She helped me see that I could find freedom in behaving and respecting myself.
My New Life
I won’t say I changed overnight; however, I began to take a more serious look at my day-to-day decisions. I began meeting with my coworker weekly to “check in” with her and tell her how I was doing. I went to some of her church meetings with her and realized that church wasn’t all about rules and harsh judgment.
I let my friendships with the “skunks” go by the wayside. I was just too busy to do things with them and no longer returned their calls. I didn’t hang out with them in school anymore; I was busy doing my schoolwork. It wasn’t that I hated them; I had just outgrown them.
I focused on healing myself before I was ready to move forward and have a relationship with a guy. When I did begin a relationship, we stayed out of the bedroom and only went to public places for the first year of our relationship.
After that, we decided that we weren’t ready for marriage and went our separate ways. It was important that I learn that not all relationships would lead to marriage. Some are just friendships. I’d find the right man to marry in time.
I Focused On My Education
I worked hard to make up for the classes I had missed in school, the two times I ran away, and the days I skipped school. I was woefully behind and wound up taking a few extra classes to ensure I could graduate with my class.
Suddenly, in a meeting with my school counselor, we realized I had more credits than I required to graduate. She told me I could take some college credit classes if I wanted to, so I agreed. We discussed what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I chose two job categories. I wanted to be a counselor to troubled youth, and I wanted to be a writer.
I took some business classes and focused on writing for my school newspaper and our local paper. I even started a youth newsletter for our local community. By the time I graduated, I was well on my way to my dream job.
Today, I work with at-risk youth and troubled teens, I’m an advocate for senior care, and I write to share that there is hope. The youth that I work with know that if they have an issue, they can call me, and I will drop everything to help them. More than once, I’ve had a teen knock on my door at one, two, or even three in the morning, just needing to talk.
Relationships are more than just being a family. Relationships include how we interact with one another at work, school, home, in public, and anywhere else we go. I went from a very troubled youth to a mentor, counselor, and advocate. I changed to a church where I found more support and love in lieu of rules and regulations. I share my work in my writing and in my life.
I learned that “Letting go” was the best way to change my life. The more I gave God control, the happier my life became. I share this with the youth that I work with. I’ve even found that it helps me when I’m dealing with a senior advocacy issue.