Personal Growth vs. Old DemonsGuest Post, · Categories: Guest Posts · Tags: emotional growth is the worst, progress, self-discovery, sometimes life isn't terrible
I never understood why people said to enjoy high school, that they were the best years of my life. As a miserable teenager, this thought was not comforting. As a slightly happier 20-something, making my first real friends at University, I laughed at the people for whom that was true. As a 30-something “adult,” there are things about teenagehood that I miss. Sitting in my room undisturbed for hours on end, for example. Knowing that my laundry would be done for me. Never having to cook if I wanted to eat. But high school? The large machine through which we are squozen into our final acceptable-to-capitalism shape? That was awful. I remain deeply, deeply suspect of humans who are somehow convinced that being an awkward teen is The Pinnacle of Human Existence.
I grew up in a fairly small city in a fairly non-populous part of a fairly non-populous country. Even so, my graduating class consisted of about 1200 people. Our classes were organized such that students changed classrooms from subject to subject, but because of the size of my grade and the possible permutations of classes, you pretty much got shoved into the same classes with the same people. I, of course, insisted on being weird; I took French Literature classes, but none of the other subjects in French. This meant that I didn’t run with the French kids. The other major schedule determiner was band, but neither did I run with the band kids, because French. Add to this the fact that I was the only girl percussionist, and the year that I entered grade 9 there was another percussionist – a trouble maker that got held back in freshman band so that he could torment me he did not bring the intermediate band down. My weird schedule combined with being emotionally beaten down by a jerk every M-W-F meant that I was largely alone a lot of the time. Which would have been fine if I truly was alone, but of course, one is never truly alone in high school. You are constantly surrounded by humanity. And when you’re a weirdo kid with a popular older brother, humanity has certain expectations, and is in no way uncomfortable with letting you know that you don’t meet them.
Grade 9 band was the first time that I knew that men were deeming me unfuckable. This was reinforced in grade 10 religious studies, and then again, and again, and again throughout high school. The verbal harassment that I endured at my fellow percussionist’s hands got so bad that I quit band in a teary fit one afternoon because my band teacher “had to” give me shit because I’d punched Phil. No one “had to” give Phil shit for calling me thunder thighs. That was, after all, what they were. I, in fact, had the message that I was Not Attractive so well ingrained in my first two years of high school that by the time one of the stoners that sat near me in grade 11 Trig asked me to go paintballing with him, I had no idea that he was asking me out on a date, and refused with “sorry, shooting at my friends doesn’t sound like that great of a time.” Recounting that story years later that I was like “O. OOOOOOOOOOOooooooooooooooo. He didn’t want to take me paintballing, he wanted to spend time outside of school with me. Shiiiiiiiiiiit.” I still regret that interaction. I would’ve been nicer if I’d worked it out at the time, because I genuinely enjoyed that dude’s company.
I spent the next 15 years or so working on the assumption that I was ugly. In undergrad, the friends that I made convinced me to change my tune from “I’m ugly” to “I am not conventionally attractive,” but that’s only because I got tired of fighting with them about the statement that still feels accurate. I have a foul mouth, I wear too much (or sometimes too little) makeup, I flip the bird at the drop of a hat, and my body shape was Incorrect according to the beauty standards I grew up with. I love all of these things about me, but it was always clear to me that these things Made Me Ugly. I have a vivid memory of dropping a too-drunk dishwasher off at his house after a night of debauchery (his, not mine, I was driving). While he was puking out the side of my car and also saying goodnight, he looked blearily at me and said “You know, you’d be really pretty if you managed to stop giving off ugly girl vibes.. I still don’t really know what that meant, but it served to reconfirm what I already knew – I am ugly. If not outside, then inside. Something about me was Not Fit For Consumption, and it didn’t really matter what it was. Everyone just… kinda knew that that’s how that was, so I accepted it. Not Pretty meant that I didn’t have to try, and because I wasn’t trying, I didn’t have to care.
But one cannot go through this life stuck in stagnation, and I would be silly if I suggested that nothing has changed in the 15 years between undergrad and the present day. I’ve done some work with myself, some physical, mostly mental. I have tried to learn to not shit all over things that other people love, because who wants to be around that person, even if the shitting is hilarious? I have tried to learn to accept myself for who and what I am, to stop trying to fit this here square peg into the readily available round hole. I have tried to approach the world with more compassion, more understanding, more empathy than previously. I try to not hold other people to my standard, because I know that my standard is odd and unusual. Not everyone aspires to write inspirational think pieces for a tiny community of amazing people, but some do. It’s ok. Not Everything needs to be For Everyone.
And so this year, as the Dark Times recede to far enough in the past that I can think and write about them without wanting to crawl under my desk and cry, as I become more and more comfortable with the fact that I am like olives–delicious, but Not For Everyone–I thought to myself “you know, if your high school does a reunion, you could probably go.” This thought surprised me; I never expected to be able to approach such a terrible time of my life with such equanimity. But, I thought, I’m good. I have resigned myself to the small pleasures that bring me joy, to the fact that I am not Changing Lives on the regular, to the fact that, 50 years after my death, probably no one will care (I’m still getting my ashes pressed into vinyl anyway, and I will insist that my remaining friends and family listen to the song of my soul when they meet to cele-mourn my passing). I like my job (as much as one can do in capitalism, probably), I love the life that I have built halfway across the world from the family that thought that the best way to deal with an overly emotional child was to torment her to tears on a daily basis, telling her to “toughen up.” I am, in a word, beyond content. I would even dare to call myself happy. It is through this haze of happiness that I asserted that I could, if necessary, meet the demons of my past as embodied by my high school classmates.
O, how pride goeth before the fall! When I cavalierly mentioned to GentlemanX that I finally felt like I could attend a graduating class reunion, should it happen this year, I was 95% sure that this was a moot point, since I have but one friend left from that time of my life. I only had three to begin with. It was not hard to whittle the list down to one. I offered this tidbit up as a conversational point, a merely academic discussion starter, a way to launch a discussion into just how wonderful I am feeling, having found balance again after the Dark Times. Imagine, then, my surprise when imagination became reality, and I was added to a chat group of people from my high school.
My first reaction was one of shock – the one person who continues to know me from those days does so on Facebook and we meet up for coffee when I visit my natal seat. She knows exactly how high school made me feel about myself – small and weird and mean and ugly – and she had added me to the chat. After the shock, resistance set in; when I do remember those days, it is not fondly. We are talking about a group of people who met a girl who tried to commit suicide on her first day back to class by throwing Tylenol (that + a 2-6 of vodka is how she tried to kill herself) at her. No. I did most emphatically not want to meet with people that I barely remembered (some of whose names I didn’t even recognize 20 years later, because marriage). The lenses through which I view my high school years are anything but rose tinted.
But mere weeks before, I had convinced myself that I was good. Proud, even, of my life. In my quiet way, I spread cheer and good vibes, and isn’t this enough? I might not be a millionaire, but neither have I gone out of my way to cause others harm in order to make money. I have a solid group of humans who love me for who I am, some limited skillz in areas of life in which most people do not have any at all, a tendency towards anarchy but also a good, grown up adult job, a bad ass patch jacket and a sick record collection. Really, what more does a girl need? And why, if this is how I feel about my life (and it is, I am cool AF, y’all), did something itty bitty like an invitation from a group of near total strangers to take a drink together throw me into a state of anxious nervousness? Why did I feel like the nopetopus.gif, scuttling desperately away from unpleasant danger?
For weeks, I lurked in that Faceconversation. I watched barely/not-at-all remembered folks delight in reminiscence. I envied the one person with whom I was friendly 20 years ago, but never friends with, who got repeatedly added to the chat group, and each time just immediately exited stage left. I wished for that exact level of giving no fucks, the ability to look at this group of humans and be like kthanksbyeeeee! But somehow, for some reason, this Facebook chat was like a train wreck. I could not look away, even though the carnage being wrought was maiming my own psyche.
During this time, I did what I always do when I am presented with a conundrum; I asked people whose opinion I respect for advice. I explained the situation, trying to convey in a few brief words the antipathy I felt towards my classmates, my current situation, and the predicament before me. I found my feminists first (you!♥) and the response was an overwhelming HELLS NO! The feeling was divided into two camps. First, people reasoned, if I was going into this for revenge (role: BEHOLD, my cool life! How you like this loser now, assholes!!!), I was certain to be disappointed, because one cannot control others’ actions, and who even knows if they would be impressed? Better, it was argued, to just ignore. Second, people reasoned, if I was going in order to be an aloof jerk (role: WHO IS COOL NOW, ASSHOLES?), I was wasting my time. Cool is as cool does, and cool most decidedly does not show up at a place they don’t think will be cool in order to lord cool over people pre-determined to be not cool. Stay away. This, I thought, was excellent advice. The maelstrom of emotions that a Facebook chat group could inspire in me was, I thought, an excellent reason to stay away. Who needs teen angst at 37 years old?
After I spoke with my feminist friends, I started surveying the population more broadly, confident that the advice from the larger world would either coincide with the “o hell no” advice. Weirdly, I found that the advice proffered up by my coven was largely being contradicted by the world at large. Arguments ran from confused “why are you giving these people so much power over you?” to bemused “do whatever you want, but high school was a long time ago.” For the most part, I waved away the rebuttals with a “you have no idea how horrible this time was for me,” and quietly kept my resolution to stay the fuck away.
The most convincing argument, though, came from My New Friend, in Ottawa for a year on contract. Within five minutes of making his acquaintance, I had squinted at My New Friend’s reflection in the rearview and declared “O yes. We’re gonna be friends.” He, and the other human that I met through him that night, are both widely traveled humans who are interesting folk. Our conversation turns around the importance of music, the local scene, on academic politics, on how much sex is required in life, on whether horoscopes actually mean a thing, on food security, on bio diversity… just about anything. But always the conversations are interesting; usually we agree, and where we do not, My New Friend almost always gives me a thing or two to think about after the conversation is over.
We were drinking beer by the river when I sketched my situation for my new friend, and asked him the same question I asked everyone: do I go or not? And if not, how do I bow out with grace when all I want to do is do a little dance of carnage and fire on my way out the proverbial door? I was shocked, shocked, I say, when my friend looked confusedly at me and asked “why not?” All of the above, as presented in a slightly abbreviated form that sunny afternoon, mattered not at all to this man. The past, as he pointed out, is the past. You, he said, are a different person since those days. You have orbited the sun many times, you have had experiences which allowed you to become, if not a better, then at least a different person. What, he asked, makes you think that these people are any different? You are making assumptions about how your interactions with them are going to go based on information that is 20 years out of date. Why not, instead, he queried, approach this situation with the open, curious, generous, sparkliness that you brought to your relationship with me?
I balked. These people had their kick at the can. I would not meet them with an open, generous heart, because they didn’t deserve it. My New Friend asked why not, and I could in no way answer. Leftover resentment? They lacked empathy, compassion, generosity 20 years ago? So did I, that’s not a good answer. They are all the Same People, being from the prairies? This is demonstrably false, these people had scattered across the continent.
My failure to rebut the simple question of “why not?” to my friend’s satisfaction was it for me. For so long, I was a closed off, terrified person. Terrified of being ridiculed for my ruminatory personality, scared of being mocked for the things I hold dear, scared of being dismissed as callous or weird for the things that I don’t care about (hockey. it is always and will ever be hockey. I just don’t caaaaaaaaaare, rest of Canada, #sorrynotsorry). For me, a lot of coming out of the dark times has been letting go of fear. Letting go of the fear that someone is judging my hair to be inadequate, that people are confused by my vocabulary, that people find my foul mouth off-putting. Probably all of these things are still happening – I am a cis-woman navigating patriarchy, after all – but I have somehow managed to not care. If it can be ok that Not Everything is For Me, it can be equally ok that I am Not For Everyone. As long as I approach life with an open, caring, generous, compassionate heart, as long as I do not leave a trail of wreckage behind me, as long as I, above all else, cause no harm, I do not actually need to be everyone’s best friend.
That day by the river, my friend reminded me (although there is no way that he could ever have known, and he most certainly did not put it this way; I chose him for a reason, you know?) that my own story of personal growth is often not about being a “better” person, but rather of being a more open person. Open to other people’s experiences, their perspectives, their inner landscapes. Open to different tastes, textures, colours, definitions, realities, diets, rhythms, languages, melodies. If what makes my life tolerable, if that which attracts the kinds of people that I love to be around is my openness, why is my immediate reaction to meeting people from my high school days so closed, so tight, so protectionist? If these are the things that I genuinely don’t like about the world, why was I so carefully embodying them?
St Vincent sings “Bring me your loves, all your loves / I want to love them too, you know?” and this is a sentiment that resonates with me; I love to watch people loving the thing that they are doing. But I have to be at the table if I want people to bring me their loves. And I want to be present, and open, because no one wants to hand their fragile broken-bird loves to someone who is made out of pointy edges. I am still covered in pointy edges; you have to be penetrating enough to see through my defenses to get at the vulnerable goo beneath. That openness, that willingness to love? It is dangerous, and it leaves one open to the possibility of hurt. Maybe this group of humans is worth the risk. Maybe they aren’t. But I will never know if I just don’t go, and I certainly won’t be handed a treasure if I am not there to receive it.
We cannot help our scar tissue, sometimes. I could not help that my body’s visceral reaction to this invitation felt like hives, that my hindbrain went DANGER and I found myself short of breath anticipating the kind of social rejection that I was subjected to on the regular during my high school days. I could not help the feeling of being pushed off balance by the sudden uprising of so many ghoulish spectres from my past. But my friend reminded me that day by the river that I can control my own reaction to these people, and that one never knows where one might find a jewel. His elegantly simple argument of “maybe they are different people now, as you are” convinced me to approach them with an openness that I might otherwise never have found.
The best part? Every meeting date proposed by the group was a date for which I was not around, so I got to gracefully be all “O dear, too bad, I won’t be there, maybe next tiiiiiiiiiiime!” So I will never know if the demons in my head actually bear any resemblance to the demons that I would have faced. But on the other hand, I also know that I am not what is coming in between me and a potentially boisterously good time, and that is a pretty great feeling, too.
Renée has been writing since she could hold a pen and put a sentence together. Trained in the humanities, she lays claim to the title armchair sociologist, and is fascinated by human relationships. Her favourite pastimes include ruminating on the horrors of the material plane, making yarn art, reading just about everything she sees, dancing, and inventing wild stories about strangers based on their interactions with other humans. She lives in Ottawa, Canada with a dynamic feline duo and her gentleman friend, and feels firmly about the oxford comma’s place in this world.