ODE TO THE DECADE I DID NOT KILL MYSELF: GRIEVING PAST SELVES by Katie Hébert

ODE TO THE DECADE I DID NOT KILL MYSELF

If staying alive is all I accomplished in the last decade,
then let my breath be the best poem.

I have been waiting for the last grain of sand to drop from the hourglass.
I don’t know a clock without watching the time run out.

At birth, the umbilical cord was wrapped around my neck three times,
I was so close to dying.
Thirteen years later, I couldn’t find a reason for surviving my birth because I kept wishing I was dead.
Twenty-three years later, I am here to see the sunrise and sunset of every
day. 
Every hour, a new birthday. Every minute, a celebration.

To survive means that I have walked through this fire
and not that this deadline has burnt it out
but I know how to heal the burns now. 

I can’t promise anything for the next ten.
I didn’t even know I could promise this. 

But look at all I have conquered—
I did not take death as a green light, did not see it as a bouquet thrown at a wedding of what is coming next for me. 
I did not let pain and hurt make my callous, did not let the poison that was dealt rot my heart. 

Yeah, I didn’t lose the weight, 
but I gained a stomach that could swallow the sun,
a pride that glitters the sky, a passion that breaks every scale.

I might have lost that boy,
and that boy,
and that girl,
and all the others,
But I won myself. Found a love that comes from my own hands to my own body.

It could have been so much worse. Think of all I could have become from this.
All the hardening and edge,
an early grave waiting to pile me in.

Maybe in the next decade I won’t know the craving of a knife, 
I won’t want the music to stop playing.
Let the next ten years remind me to keep writing the same song,
hear my heartbeat like a top 40 hit, like world record,
I will keep running when there is no more ground underneath my feet.

I will say my own name without 
forgetting to breathe.
And the world will say it back, 
correctly,
and it won’t feel like a stranger’s. 


I usually get sentimental around New Year’s. I’m already super emotional, so big changes always bring a lot of different feelings especially as we count down and watch the ball drop. This year brought out a lot of emotions as we said goodbye to the 2010s and not only began a new year but a new decade.

This month, I will be twenty-three. As I look back and reflect on the past decade which started when I was thirteen, I can’t help but feel some form of grief.

I look back on photos of thirteen-year-old Katie at the start of the decade and feel so disconnected from the girl in the pictures—I can’t help but find myself mourning all the versions of me. While this type of mourning might be connected to the feeling of nostalgia, it doesn’t seem as cute as that. I find myself grieving the past me. 

Without having the understanding to comprehend all the pain I’ve felt before my teen years, it’s clear that I’ve dealt with mental illness for most of my life. At thirteen, what I’ve felt from my childhood really manifested in me and the language of mental health became clear as I was at a peak of my depression. I began the decade unsure that I would even be around for the end of it because of how deep depression, anxiety, and mental illness ruled me. While I’m proud of the progress I’ve made, I can’t help but grieve all the past versions of myself that it took for me to get to where I am. 

I’ve been seeing a lot of people talk about how depression can cause memory loss (so much so that Twitter has made it into some overused joke). But it’s true; I have repressed so much of my past that my past self has become someone I can’t recognize. I can’t resonate with the past because that person in those memories doesn’t exist to me. 

I’ll end up finding a middle school yearbook or talk about certain moments with old friends and it seems so hazy trying to find it all. Or I’ve looked back on a moment I had and forget I’m actually involved in that memory and not looking at it from elsewhere. This happened recently when finding school pictures from 8th grade to 11th grade. I lined all the portraits in order and stood confused at all the moments and milestones. I felt sad for how off that girl looks in all those smiles. I felt disconnected remembering that girl is me. My memories of these periods in my life aren’t vivid because of how deep I have repressed my past and removed myself from myself, and in turn, have grieved every previous version of me. Depression, anxiety, and trauma have made looking at photographs, old journals, and memories a task that requires more labor than any happy reminiscing I receive in return. 

We don’t ever talk about this kind of grief. We confuse it with nostalgia or laugh at the cringe-worthy photos from our past, but we don’t think of this kind as a type of grieving, to mourn the past selves as we look back on our trauma and mental health. I grieve for all the versions of me that I have hurt and harmed, for the memories I can’t recognize, for all the Katie’s that fought to be here, right now. 

While I want to believe this kind of distance of self is a part of the process of growing and evolving and learning about myself, I can’t help but still find myself mourning all the versions of me that existed. All the ages of Katie with her ever outgoing, big and loud personality, which resulted in rejection from others and ultimately from myself. All the stages of Katie loving and losing and learning in navigating the world. 

As we enter the new decade, I carry this grief with me along with a fear of what’s to come. I recognize grief as an ongoing process, that fluctuates and weighs differently on the day-to-day, but I don’t want to follow this cycle where I can’t look at my past without a heavy heart. While the unknown is always scary, I hope I can look back on this decade and not feel grief, but feel growth. Not cringe at every past piece of me or strain to find who that person is in every moment, but see pride in the progress.

This month, I turn twenty-three and mark the end of this century’s adolescence alongside my own. I take the time to unpack the grief I hold for myself and understand the complexities of mourning the past, as well as celebrating the journey. 

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