Oh, high school, you crazy, crazy diamond.
So, it’s been a really long time since I’ve done one of these posts. And I can make tons of excuses—book stuff, holiday stuff, constant travel—and they are even legitimate excuses (insofar as excuses are ever legitimate), because all those things actually happened.
If I’m being honest though, those are not the reason I haven’t trotted out teenage-Brenna in awhile. The truth is that I’m just moving very slowly now. The reason for this is that by November of senior year, the eighteen year old version of me has become a creature who thinks waaaaay too much.
Now, I just want to clarify—this concept is something I really, really hate. People have been telling me I think too much for basically my whole life. It’s reductive, it’s patronizing, and when you get right down to it, pretty much nonsensical.
However. In light of what I’m going to discuss next, I’m forced to admit that even though I hate saying so, it is actually possible to think too much. For instance, if you are thinking a lot and also doing approximately nothing. So, in sum: Less thinking! More doing!
I’m still avoiding the actual high school story, though. The real reason I’m being avoidant is that senior year is the year that is hard to break into neat and cohesive chunks of narrative. This is because teenage-me is finally faced with all the messy complicated things that she has previously only been a spectator for.
More and more, I’m forced to grapple with the new and troubling understanding that I am In the World. It’s okay if you laugh at that realization—grown-up me laughs at it all the time. And by in the world, I mean knowing that I’m THERE. With real live people who exist outside my brain and have real live feelings and experiences and problems that are too complicated for me to truly understand. And I don’t know what to do about any of it. And so, in an act of feeble desperation, I revert to the opposite of doing something about it. Which, for those playing along at home, is … nothing.
Last Thursday, Delilah and I were coming back from Diamond Shamrock. We were walking through the parking lot, heading for one of the east doors, and we saw Rooster sitting on the curb, cradling his head in his hands. […]
Delilah touched my elbow. “Do you think we should go see what’s wrong?”
I shook my head.
“But it might be really bad.”
“We can’t do anything,” I said, and left it at that, because I couldn’t explain what I really meant.
[…] So we went inside and left him there. I haven’t seen him since.
When I picture him in my head, I only see good things about him, like those are the parts that get printed on your brain. That’s so weird. I mean, he was always vaguely kind to me in class but I never knew him. He had scars on his forehead and maybe some on his chin. What is that? A guy I barely knew, but I mostly think of him laughing, clapping #4 hard on the shoulder or elbowing him. I only remember him happy.
It was a lonely moment, and one that could have come straight out of a movie, all black asphalt and gray sky and the bright, effervescent taste of Poprocks. I couldn’t couldn’t quite tell if it was made worse because we were standing there, or better.
This creeping uncertainty will occupy my thoughts for a lot of reasons, and not just in the context of Rooster, but because the world is full of moments like this, and because Jane is in bad shape and I don’t know if my standing there can ever make it better.
Jane has an eating disorder. This is not exactly news. I mean, she’s had an eating disorder since before I met her, but now, in the fall of my senior year, it’s finally just blatantly obvious. And that’s the problem, because now that it’s undeniable, it’s not something I can just avoid thinking about anymore.
However, as a practiced rationalizer, I do my level best to keep the knowledge manageable.
#4 is important in this regard, because I use him a lot as a weird sort of emotional buffer, instead of just a pleasant crushy distraction. (Although, that too.) He seems to have just so many more feelings than I do, and I’m content (ish) to project all the ickiness of my own helplessness and uncertainty onto him. Every time he seems exhausted or overwhelmed, that’s one more time that I don’t have to be.
This morning, as I was walking to English, I heard voices I recognized even before I turned the corner.
The low, quiet one coughed a little and said, “No, I’m—I think I’m just going to leave after 1st. I’ll probably just see you later or something.”
The second voice was louder, but gentle in a way that’s hard to explain. A voice like a space-heater or a warm windowsill. “Hey, what’s up? Why’re you going to cut so early?”
When I came around the corner, Holden had #4 trapped against the wall by the drinking fountain.
#4 was shrugging a little. “I just—I really don’t feel good at all. There’s a test in history though. Important. So I’ll go to that. But after, I’m just gone, okay?” He started to cough hard and covered it up by leaning over the drinking fountain.
I was already past them by the time Holden said, “Hey, you okay?”
“Yeah,” #4 muttered. “I’m fine. It’s just—I can’t take this shit much more, you know?” His voice was dull and I looked back over my shoulder.
And I’ve heard him say these things before, to Dweezil as they pass me and Little Sister Yovanoff at our locker, or to Odd on the way out to the parking lot. How tired he is, how everything about the world is too much. How he is fine.
They just nod and don’t answer. I’ve begun to wonder if, for boys, nodding is the same as when Delilah and I hold each other’s faces between our hands. If it is meant to comfort. From the outside, it doesn’t seem like quite enough.
Today though, when I looked back, Holden had his arm slung around #4’s shoulders. With his free hand, he was gesturing in wide sweeps.
He said, “Yeah, you can take it. Know why? ‘Cause you’re tough, that’s why.”
And of course #4 nodded, but right then, he didn’t look tough at all, just sick and pale and exhausted. I swear November is the worst month of the year.
To teenage me, the most fascinating part of this whole interaction is his use of the word just—this concerted effort to diminish the importance of his feelings. I feel like I’m waiting for something, always watching to see what will happen—if, when the weight of the world really is too much, he’ll implode or fracture. If his surface will crack and the too-muchness will all spill out and then, thanks to the laws of transitive denial, I will never have to deal with my own too-muchness ever again.
Also, even at the time, I understand just how dysfunctional this sort of narrative is, but I am all about balance, even totally dysfunctional balance based on magical thinking, and for every time this total stranger starts to feel like he can’t keep it together anymore, that’s one more instance I can.
Delilah is experiencing similar emotional lockstep, but hers is way more intimate and has completely different results. It’s like the worse Jane gets, the worse her own state becomes.
We never talk about any of the things that are wrong. Delilah has always acted like she doesn’t care about anything, but now, all the caring is coming out in huge, unpredictable storms, just all over the place. She’s been making a (bad, bad) habit of drinking in the bathrooms before first hour, and there’s this strange new voice inside me that feels a personal responsibility to her in a way that I’ve never, in my whole dispassionate little life felt responsible for anyone. (This is what’s known as “forming human relationships.”) And I want to fix her. I want to say, “You’re fifteen,” and I want to say, “Don’t you realize this is an awful, awful way to cope?” And I want to say, “Stop.”
But the words never quite form and instead, I buy her a cup of terrible hot-plate coffee from the cafeteria and take her home when she’s crying.
She says it’s not because of Jane, but I suspect that if we want to be honest about it, it has to be—at least a little. They don’t get along the way that Little Sister Yovanoff and I do, but they are bound together in this fierce, destructive way where they seem to feed off each other’s feelings, and the bad ones most of all. It’s weird to imagine being anchored to a person who brings out your very worst, but that’s the upshot of it. That’s them.
I know that I am supposed to do the right thing, the responsible thing. To tell someone, tell her aunt, her uncle, an administrator, tell a teacher. I know every maudlin plot-point of the problem-novel script. I’ve read books and magazines and watched TV. I’ve had health class. But all the presentations and the pamphlets are not lining up at all with real life.
In school assemblies and in class, we’re still constantly being presented with the fiction that things are under control and adults can come and solve our problems. The mythology is that someone else will know what to do, and now, when it comes to Delilah, this is demonstrably not the case.
The ugly truth is, there’s no one to tell because everyone already knows.
Delilah is always getting caught and nothing has ever changed. She spent all of summer break up at the reservoir, getting obliterated with the Bad Kids from her church. Once, she didn’t come home until almost five in the morning. She got grounded for a month and her aunt took away her Sublime CD.* She’s on notice. She has a substance abuse class and a counselor. She gets detention all the time.
Everything else just stays the same.
More and more, the weighing of things arrives in my head, a complicated monster. Sometimes people get caught doing something self-destructive and then everything turns around. They are magically helped by people who love them. Delilah’s aunt has caught her drinking. Nothing happened. I don’t know what would be optimal or right. I keep thinking about all the ways this drama could play out, the inciting incident, the consequences. In health class and in Critical Skills, they were always talking about consequences. I can imagine the screenplay, but can see no way that the conflict is resolved in real life. Mostly, I can’t imagine a way in which the situation would be helped by her getting suspended from school.
The problem with these high school posts is, I feel a little bit (a lot) like I should be setting a good example. The problem is, I’m talking about a very different version of me, and eighteen-year-olds—even the most measured, pragmatic, thinky ones—are not really very good examples of how to deal with problems.
Grown-up me is speaking with the advantage of experience, not to mention a lot more confidence in my own ability to judge a situation. Grown-up me is full of ideas. But the thing is, at eighteen, I am logical and independent, but not an adult—not really. Not even close.
Grown-up me says (imagine her voice sounds very reasonable) Well, there are LOTS of things left to do. Talk to a specific teacher. Sure, Delilah hates all of hers, but you don’t hate yours. Or talk to Shar in the scheduling office—she loves you in a sincere, straightforward way that you will not understand until you’re older, but trust me. If you ask her for advice or ideas, she’ll come through. Or, if all of that sounds blatantly impossible, just skip the adults and start with Delilah. She listens to you. See if you can help her think up ways to deal with the feelings at the source, rather than defaulting straight to burying them. Talk to Cobalt and see if you can convince her that her new job is to flatly refuse to day-drink with Delilah in the baseball dugout. Anything, just say anything.
But feelings are uncomfortable and the situation is messy and the Brenna in this story is 18 and distinctly not an adult. She takes a deep breath. She treats the immediate situation not as a crisis to be averted, but more like a controlled slide.
Some of this self-doubt and paralysis has arisen straight from the situation, but another huge contributing factor is that at 18, I’ve spent so much time thinking that the reason I’m so unsure of everything is because I was homeschooled, because I’m alien or weird or a late bloomer or just disconnected. I think this, and then make up reasons not to trust my own judgment, like I am somehow eight or nine steps behind. When really, no one else has any idea either.
Because it’s not just me—I am not the only person who doesn’t know what to do. And I’m living in a world where Rooster sits alone on the curb with his head in his hands and doesn’t know we’re watching, and #4 tries helplessly to explain to Holden the weight of every painful, bad thing, and where Delilah tries to act like she isn’t crying when she actually is and so we both pretend that when I hug her, she’s not leaving wet spots on the shoulder of my coat.
We are none of us inhabiting the space of anyone else. But the saving grace—the part that matters—is that Holden has his arm around #4 and Delilah still wants to help Rooster, and she doesn’t even know him. The part that matters is that we are still standing next to each other.
I’m going to lecture you right now. I promise that it will be short, and it won’t become like a normal installment, but I want to tell you several things. First, I am not in any way an official resource for help with depression or disordered eating or substance abuse, but those resources exist, and there are links and phone numbers right here.
No, what I want to say is far less concrete, and it is this. The thing with turning into a grown-up (and not the kind I’ve talked about before, where you have a job and car and start being in charge of buying your own clothes—I mean the real kind), is that you eventually hit a place where you have to start making the kind of hard, important choices that no one else can make for you.
And that’s okay. Really. You have my permission to make grown-up decisions.
Yes, I realize that my telling you that is totally backwards and kind of counterproductive. But sometimes I think it helps just to hear it.
So you—yes, YOU. You have my express permission to be in charge and take initiative and use your own very best judgment.
Just as long as it involves doing something and not nothing.
I trust you.
*Here is me dating myself.