My teen years: Judy Collins and the Smiling Project

Ah, adolescence. Depression and isolation? Yes indeedy. How do any of us get through? It’s enough of a bummer to start really taking in the horrible state of the adult world around you, without having to struggle for your own sanity.

Let me be clear: my material circumstances were great. I had a loving family and a comfortable home. My relatively happy kid self (I must dig out unhappy teen photos later):

Jessi at about eleven with dog Katrinka and cat Brother

At twelve or so, I was on a downward slide. I was feeling increasingly sick and exhausted. I knew instinctively that I had unusual health problems, but they were too vague and mysterious for the doctor to diagnose. (Turned out to be weak digestion plus resulting malnutrition.)

I dreaded turning thirteen. For one thing, I didn’t want to turn into a “Girl” who “Likes” “Boys.” I wanted everyone to keep being kids and keep playing with each other. But the pressure was coming on. I had to make sure that “Boys” would accept me as a “Girl” to be an okay person.

Then there was the looming specter of adulthood. College, perhaps a PhD, was expected of me. And then I’d have to make a living somehow, though I had no idea what I wanted to do.

These terrors helped trigger a decision to diet. I became anorexic and fairly skeletal. It didn’t really improve my life, though I thought I looked better (I didn’t, but anorexia is a delusional disease) and felt marginally safer in my right to exist. Getting skinny – surprise! didn’t cure my fears, didn’t end my sadness and cynicism and isolation.

I clung fiercely to my escape mechanisms: studying, science fiction, music, and sugar. I spent many hours curled in fetal position in my dark bedroom, wishing for oblivion.

My sister helped me stop starving myself, at least. But otherwise, I kept sliding down. It wasn’t till I was about fifteen or sixteen that I hit the bottom of my lonely well. I knew I wasn’t going to kill myself, so what to do? I guessed I had to live, somehow.

I made a very conscious and determined decision to turn my twisted self outward and relate to other people. Thus Jessi’s Smiling Project was born, though I had no name for it. I knew I needed baby steps, though.

Smiling Project

Stage 1. Make eye contact with and smile at everyone
Stage 2. Say hello to them
Stage 3. Ask them questions about themselves

I had to make this commitment over and over again. It was difficult to smile when I felt sad, say hello when I felt like crawling into a corner. Every day after school, after a day of trying to connect with people, I’d come home and head for the stereo.

Judy Collins: Living

My mom had Judy Collins’ Living album. I’d slap it on the turntable.

Judy Collins listening instructions

1. Set the needle to the beginning of the fifth track
2. Listen, crying heart out, till the end of the track
3. Repeat

Okay, okay, here’s the mp3!

Judith’s Song (Open the Door)

Sometimes I remember the old days
When the world was filled with sorrow
You might have thought I was livin’, but I was all alone

In my heart the rain was fallin’
The wind blew, the night was callin’
Come back, come back, I’m all you’ve ever known

Open the door and come on in
I’m so glad to see you my friend
You’re like a rainbow comin’ around the bend
And when I see you happy,
Well, it sets my heart free
I’d like to be as good a friend to you as you are to me

There were friends who could always see me
Through the haze their smiles would reach me
Saying okay, saying goodbye, saying hello

Soon I knew that what I was after
Was life and love, tears and laughter
Hello my good friend, hello my darlin’
What do you know


I used to think it was only me
Feeling alone, not feeling free
To be alive, to be a friend

Now I know we all have stormy weather
The sun shines through when we’re together
I’ll be your friend right through to the end

(Chorus again, sung to plural friends this time)

After catharsis, continue with Smiling Project.

That, my friends, is how I survived adolescence. How about you?

One Response to “My teen years: Judy Collins and the Smiling Project”

  1. Rob

    I don’t know about the reasons, but my sister, Bev, used the same technique forlistening to Judy Collins. Thanks for the insight. Now, on another note, looking at the picture at the top of the page, what kind of cat did you have? His head looks about as big as yours or the dog’s.

    Hope you are doing OK, now. Bev had for some time, now she’s again in need of prayers.