a piece of youth
I’ve sat down at my computer so many times with the hope of writing it all down. The urge comes to me when my mood is particularly feral; just put it all down on paper. If I can read my own story, maybe I will begin to understand it. And yet, even with a blank slate in front of me, I’ve found myself unable to find words that give life to the swirling, endless pools of feeling inside of me. Some days it’s a black hole that swallows everything, bones and all.
I packed up my life last year and moved to a new city. As I drove through Chicago in the days leading up to my move, I realized how much of my pain this city held for me. At twenty-two, I finally left my hometown after graduation and had nothing but blank pages for the chapter ahead. It felt as though my move to Chicago granted me some sort of clemency. I no longer had to carry the burden of being who I was before. Once settled, I moved fast and refused to acknowledge painful experiences and feelings as they happened. Instead, I packed all of my feelings into little boxes and cast them out to sea. I began to do the same with any memory that made my breath catch and the painful bits of my past that would creep into my mind during a quiet moment. I was seemingly rid of everything that haunted me, at least on the surface. I no longer spent my time ruminating on bad memories or attempting to unpack the trauma that had given me mental fucking whiplash just months earlier. I lived in a state of in-between; I wasn’t who I had been before — I had seemingly rid myself of that baggage — but I hadn’t transformed into anything better. I just sort of existed for a few years. Eventually those tightly packed boxes drifted back to me and I knew I had to find a way to unpack them.
“There is a life and there is a death, and there are beauty and melancholy in-between”
I copied Camus’s words into my drawing notebook with a pencil, font loopy and uneven. Calligraphy was never a skill of mine but still I filled notebooks with it in those years - all of which would ultimately find a home in the trashcan. It was my sophomore year of college and I was sitting on the ground of my childhood bedroom where I always painted, hidden by my bed from anyone who might come looking for me. I found the quote in a poetry book and felt that it resonated with my understanding of the world at the time: Life is mostly sad (with some good moments thrown in here and there) and then you die. I was fairly apathetic in those years but liked to think that I came across as jaded, maybe even a little bit hardened compared to my classmates from the suburbs. As I wrote, I thought about my understanding of melancholy and where it fit into my life. I had a deeply romantic view of sadness in my early teens, but the concept of melancholy always felt like hitting a nerve; it was too intense to dissect and uncomfortable to linger on. It’s an impending sense of loss, of lacking; why enjoy something if losing it will be painful? I cannot say what my first memory of feeling melancholic was because in a sense, it feels lightly dusted on everything. It’s the vacant sadness I felt as a child when the sun began to set in the dog days of August, or when the mourning doves began their late afternoon cries. Melancholy is indirect and vague. It lingers in the moments after a belly laugh, the hugs from my mother, the crickets chirping on a summer night. The pain of sadness is direct, impenetrable, and all-consuming. It requires a response. Melancholy does not, and it is there that I find unease.
I came into this world with a thud, nearly hitting the delivery table with my sudden arrival (or so I’m told). Growing up, I was sensitive and deeply self-conscious from a very young age. I was anxious around kids my age when my older sister wasn’t there. I often preferred adults and sought out their undivided attention. If scolded by these same adults, I would feel deeply betrayed and bitter. My kindergarten teacher was a beloved, comfortable figure to me; I can still remember the smell of her classroom if I close my eyes. She taught me how to read and hugged me often, something I deeply craved in those years. At the end of the year, I did something that resulted in a timeout during story time— a first for me — and she scolded me in front of the whole class. I was deeply disturbed by the experience and never felt the same level of closeness with her afterward.
At home I was either bursting with energy, doing whatever I could to make my parents and sister laugh, or I was moody and easy to upset. When upset, my parents would say it was like a storm rolling through. They could tell if I was in a bad mood by my facial expression, which my dad dubbed my ‘storm face’. I found these little nicknames agitating after a while. I always felt like it was a criticism and this feeling of defensiveness never left me. When my younger sister was born, our family changed drastically. There’s no way to prepare for a child or sibling with unique needs, and there’s no easy way to soothe the guilt that comes from struggling to adjust to the new life that comes with them. The attention and love I craved from my parents was no longer available when I needed it. Before my sister was born, my mom would turn on the little white kitchen radio, pick me up and dance with me in the kitchen, spinning me around and around. In those moments I felt so loved, so child-like and connected to my mother. I would loop my arms around her neck and press my nose into her shoulder, breathing in the familiar scent of laundry, lotion, and her Estée Lauder perfume. Her undivided attention felt like sunshine beaming down on me and I soaked it in, wishing I could stay in her light forever. And then one day she put me down and never picked me up again.
But so it goes, we grow and change and are suddenly no longer children who our parents want to dance in the kitchen with. The summer before middle school began, I hit puberty and shed my baby fat. Shortly after classes began, my summer transformation earned me the title of the Hottest Girl in the Sixth Grade. Unsurprisingly, this title didn’t mix well with the one thing I had on my mind: boys. At eleven years old, I had an overwhelming certainty that romance and butterflies were essential in order for life to be even remotely interesting. In a way, I wish I could credit this belief to reading too many of my mom’s Redbook magazines at an impressionable age but I don’t think that was the case. My innate knowledge of how the dance went at such a young age is somewhat unsettling to me now: How to get a boy’s attention, how to flirt, how to measure up a group of boys, pick my prey, and make swift of the hunt. When I met Andrew that fall, I was done for. He was my first love, first kiss, first heartbreak. Years later, I would wonder if he had somehow stunted my emotional capacity because I was unable to replicate that depth with anyone else. I was fascinated by him and his difficult past; he was the result of a rape that put his biological mother into a long-term mental facility and him up for adoption. His adoptive parents had also adopted many other children and his house was always chaotic with not quite enough love to go around. I thought that anyone with that traumatic of a background would surely understand the sadness in me. The three years we dated were volatile, confusing, and saturated with the highest highs and lowest lows. I was put on antidepressants at eleven and my medical file had a new classification for me — clinically depressed. Shortly thereafter, my mom brought me back to the psychiatrist to diagnose my daydreaming as ADD and another medication was added to my morning routine. Despite my new Zoloft and Adderall prescriptions, I still considered Andrew to be the only thing that could lift my mood, or just make me feel anything other than deeply unhappy. Even at such a young age, I knew there was a depth inside of me that I refused to venture into alone. After Andrew, I dated plenty of boys in high school. Most were out of boredom while some were conquests. I found my niche in attempting to tame the attractive older boys with bad reputations. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. If it did, I would get bored. If it didn’t, I would be depressed for months. But then the next one would come along, and there was always a next one.
The combination of boys, depression, and puberty lit another long-standing fuse that had been ready to burn for as long as I can remember. The first time I felt hate towards my body was in kindergarten. I was asked to stand up in front of the class and I remember feeling so certain that the other kids would make fun of my legs for looking fat in my shorts. In the fourth grade, I refused to wear anything other than baggy shirts and sweatpants. It didn’t help that I was the first girl in my grade to begin puberty and need a bra, or that we had regular weigh-ins in PE and I was already 100lbs while my friends were still 50–60lbs. By middle school, I was already concerned about calories and never ate lunch for fear of others seeing me eat and thinking, “no wonder she’s so fat”. During my junior year of high school, I started taking Adderall again. Mixed with my Zoloft prescription, the combination of medications left me without an appetite. As I started to notice my clothes fitting more loosely, I realized that my medications weren’t an inconvenience, but rather an advantage. I began to purposely eat as little as possible for as many days in a row as I could handle, and averaged about 350–500 calories a day. As soccer season began, I shrunk even more. My eyes were sunken in, my ribs protruded from my stomach to my collarbones. Unsurprisingly, I still saw myself as fat. This lasted for another year or so until my desire to go out and party with friends outweighed my desire to shrink myself down to nothing. I still relied on Adderall to keep my appetite at bay as I went into college and was quietly pleased with myself when I finished freshman year without gaining any weight.
During my sophomore year, I lost control of most areas of my life. I spiraled out of control, failed a class and scored poorly in others, gained weight from binge-drinking and eating my feelings, and just stopped trying in general. I barely pulled it together for my junior year but was plagued with anxiety due to my poor life performance the semester prior. Then Nate walked into my life in the fall and it felt like spring came two seasons early. I shipped off to Spain that winter for a semester with a long-distance love and crippling anxiety about my body. With the help of Adderall, a dusty Stairmaster at local Basque gym, and my own two feet as my main source of transportation, I came home 20lbs lighter. I continued to shed weight that summer and into my senior year of college. I spent my nights taking pictures and videos of my body from all angles, inspecting and picking apart my flaws while my friends were out enjoying their last year of college. I survived on Adderall, coffee, peppermint Luna bars, and Marlboro Reds that year. I had severe anxiety about leaving the house. I stopped being social and, instead, spent most nights getting high and waiting for Nate to call. There was never a turning point where I realized what was happening. After graduation, life changed and I slowly eased the intensity of my disordered eating habits to make it more manageable in a new, corporate chapter. But when I’m not struggling with new ways to avoid calories, I‘m overwhelmed with anxiety about my body. So it continues, the push-and-pull between dysmorphia and deprivation. Just when I think I’ve managed to get one under control, the other begins to thrive.
I often feel like I’m running in circles. Healing feels like patching up a sinking ship some days; as soon as I find the source of one leak and begin to fix it, a new one has sprung. My body image, my need for attention, my seemingly infinite sadness and anxiety, my fear of closeness and vulnerability, my general dislike of myself— some days I feel like I’ll be patching these leaks for the rest of my life, just trying to stay afloat. Trying to find compassion for myself after so many years is an uphill battle but has made me aware of how incredibly toxic my self-image is. I’ve always had an intense internal dialogue that has formed the way I have perceived myself and the world since I was a child. For most of my life, it has been my identity and I have understood the views and judgements that this voice has to be my own. In the fifth grade, this voice decided I was the antagonist in both my own story and everyone else's. I have felt like the villain, the mean girl, the one who deserves bad things, for seventeen years. But I’m tired of the hate that I hold towards myself and it has grown too heavy to continue carrying. The painful experiences and clips of my past that I don’t like must be unpacked from the boxes I put them in. I have to make peace with it all if I want to make peace with myself.
The reconciliation of my past and present lives somewhere in the future. I no longer hate my younger self, but still struggle to offer her a seat at my table. But these days I am beginning to see a future in which I can embrace and find beauty in myself and my life, even when there is melancholy in between.