Short on emotional vulnerability? Have some of mine.

By Sabina from Baltimore

The thing about being a child of a suicidal parent is that you will spend your whole life trying to make up for the fact that the person who was supposed to love you best, couldn’t. You will, for better or for worse, be desperate to be loved. Please, feel free to substitute “child of substance addicted parent” in for suicidal, or, if you are as lucky as I was, “child of substance addicted, suicidal parent.”

And you will know, of course, the way that educated, rational people who have spent plenty of time in therapists’ rooms know, that you are lovable. You know that your parent’s problem with staying both sober and alive isn’t really an indication of your worth. But the damage is done. You can say all the right words, your brain can know all the facts, but your heart. Well your heart is a different matter. Your heart knows that if you weren’t good enough to keep your own parent alive, if your own parent couldn’t (or doesn’t) choose you, how can you ever, possibly, be good enough to warrant someone else’s love?

So you’re vulnerable. I mean, you are like, crazy ass vulnerable. You’re just like every other girl with low self esteem, but more. Way more. Because those other girls, they worry they can’t be loved because they aren’t pretty enough, smart enough…you. Well you know, deep down, past logic and education, that there is something intrinsically unlovable about you. You will wear a beacon. A giant flashing light, to every skeezy man in every bar, to every woman who needs that friend to be her emotional life vest. Me! Pick me!

If you’re lucky (and I was…so, so, lucky) you grow up and you are fine. Daily, you are fine. Weekly, monthly…fine. You navigate the world and yes, you are more closed than most people, in the world of friendships you are more the secret keeper than the secret share, but if your friends don’t know as much about you as you know about them, if your head is a place that you let almost no one go. Well, it is for good reason. It’s ugly up there. And when you do. When you let someone in, and they fail you, it’s devastating. And you have learned that lesson. But you are fine. It is fine. You are fine.

Soon I will be welcoming my students back into my class. Soon, I will be staring into the faces of kids, and some will be coming off of the highs of summer vacation, but many will be coming off the lows. And I wonder. How many will be coming into my room feeling unloved? Unlovable? How many will have spent the summer watching a parent choose something that was not them?

Some will be easy to spot. Some will throw red flags and be a walking cry for help, and my heart hurts for those kids. But I worry, still, about the ones that won’t. The ones who, like me, will chant on repeat: I’m fine, it’s fine, I’m fine. My heart aches for those kids who will laugh and have easy friendships where they are the vault for everyone else’s hurts. My heart aches for those kids who will be high-achieving, who will raise their hands and smile and laugh, and who will, for all but the briefest moments, seem fine. I’m fine, it’s fine, I’m fine. My. heart aches for the girls that will say yes, every time. Yes, I’ll run to the office, yes, you can copy my homework, yes, you can…Those yeses during middle school years…They become so dangerous, so fast.

So how then, can we support those kids? How can we spot, not the giant red waving flags, but the small, white flags of defeat? How can I, this year, make sure that the kids who walk into my room know that they are loved? Lovable? I don’t have a good answer, really. Be open. Be honest. Be empathetic. But I’m open to suggestions. How can I be that person? How can we, as teachers, be those people? Maybe, for now, it is this:

Look for the girl with her hand in the air. The girl that is laughing. Your Yes Girl. Don’t assume she is fine. She might be. But take a moment. Take a few. Make sure she knows that No is an option too. Make sure she knows that you — this person that she will see for 180 days, that you will choose her, even when she says no, even when she isn’t raising her hand, even when everything isn’t fine. Make sure she knows those things. You, her teacher, you choose her.

Sabina is a middle school social studies teacher in Baltimore, Maryland. When not engaged in an existential crisis, she enjoys running, reading, and having adventures with her family. Sabina writes at

You can follow her on twitter @sabina824

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