Content disclaimer: Profanity. Brief mention of rape. bullying. Mention of suicidal thoughts, anger, and violence.
It happened in a crowded cafeteria.
In the crowded cafeteria of my elementary school, the Columbus.
When I started attending the Columbus in kindergarten, the school was only a year old. It had replaced the Dane School, which had been torn down. In this day and age, I’m not sure schools are being named after Christopher Columbus anymore. But back then, we did at least one activity on Columbus every year. We learned about his ships and about how he secured funding from Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain. (I put Isabella first because she was more important. You know this if you’ve learned about Christopher Columbus.)
The Columbus was — still is — an inviting brick building built in the mold of 2000s architecture. Which is to say, sort of bland but sort of timeless, too. All of the schools in Medford besides the high school are the same way.
The cafeteria in the Columbus is this large room. At least it seemed very large to me when I was a child. When I started returning to the Columbus after joining the Big Brother Big Sister program, it seemed smaller.
Then again, it had grown large and terrible in my nightmares.
The Columbus has tiled floors. Some of the tiles are white, and others are colored. When I was in kindergarten or first grade, I made up a game and spread it around my class. You had to keep on the colored tiles, or the crocodiles would get you. The teachers caught on pretty fast and shut the game down. It was the type of game that would’ve been a big hit at my preschool, but it didn’t fly in public elementary school. No, the teachers were too busy trying to keep everyone in line to worry about imaginary play.
I had a pretty good first four years at the Columbus, and fifth grade began pretty decently as well.
I had a sort-of friend who I’ll call Aiden. Aiden had striking green eyes and blonde hair. He was short, but he was the fastest runner in my grade. I mean, he could run like no one I’d ever seen before. He could dart across the gymnasium during games of dodgeball or messy backyard like nobody’s business.
He was, I’m pretty sure, my first crush. But at that time in my life, I was so out of touch with my feelings that I didn’t even know what a crush was, and I didn’t have many girl friends I would’ve discussed crushes with. But Aiden and I were friends first. We teased each other like kids with crushes do. I have no idea if he “liked me back.” It doesn’t matter at all, anyway.
Aiden’s best friend was a kid who I’ll call James. They were opposites. Where Aiden was skinny, blonde, and looked completely Anglo-American (although he was actually part Brazilian), James was black, a little chubby, wore glasses, wasn’t really friends with anyone except Aiden. For a short time in fourth grade, James and Aiden and I were a little trio. We traded Bakugan and played tag on the playground after school. I invited them to the big birthday bash I had at the beginning of the fifth grade year, though I don’t think either of them came. By then, I didn’t talk to Aiden much anymore. We were in different fifth grade classes, and back then my friendship with someone was largely determined by my proximity to them. I found other friends. And he had lots of other friends. He was popular.
But about midway through the fifth grade year, popularity left him.
I don’t know how these things happen. A tide turns, and everything changes. At a certain point, I began counting myself lucky that I wasn’t “popular” — at least not in the traditional sense of the word — and avoided the social cliques that seemed to precipitate these swings in popularity. Some girls had tried to get me to join their clique, back in third or fourth grade. The popular girl had invited me to her birthday party, along with her two close friends. I remember having to try crab rangoon and hating it. And that they tried to teach me Guitar Hero and that later, we peered through her living room door and saw that her mom had left Sex and the City playing on the TV. They giggled about it. It just confused me.
Later, in middle school, I would become semi-attached to a group containing that popular girl and a few others. I helped them with their homework. It was mostly because they were pretty. I couldn’t believe how pretty they were. If I’d been a boy, the dynamic between us would’ve made sense to onlookers. As was, I think most people assumed I was part of their clique. But I never was, because I kept my barriers up.
It happened in a crowded cafeteria.
I’m standing in the lunch line. For years afterwards I’ll wonder how my life might’ve been different if I’d picked a different lunch line or picked a different moment to go get lunch.
There are these large pillars in the cafeteria. I see that Aiden and James are standing on the other side, along with another boy, Denny, who no one likes much. He’s arguing with Aiden. It seems like a normal argument, but then I hear him say something.
I’ve replayed this moment so many times in my head that it’s as if all the sound fades out of the room, and all I hear is Denny’s voice.
“I heard your mother had to get raped to have you, you little bastard,” he says to Aiden.
And I freeze.
In my household, growing up, there was no profanity. Even today, my father swears on occasion, but my mother never does. I’d begun hearing some swearing that year, in fifth grade, but I want to say that nothing prepared me for the immense shock of those words hitting my system. On the surface, I knew all the words. I understood what they meant.
But I’d never heard someone say something so hurtful to another person before. Do you know that feeling, the feeling of hearing someone really cuss someone else out for the first time? And not just them, but their mother. I remember watching all the color drain from Aiden’s face. I remember him grabbing James and saying something like, “Why do you hate me so much? James is all I’ve got now,” to Denny before moving away, across the cafeteria, towards a solitary table. I remember thinking, knowing, that I should say something to Denny. That I should tell him it’s a really shitty thing he’s said to Aiden and that he should take it back.
But I did nothing.
Later on, in middle school computer class, I’d find out there was a word for what I’d done. Or not done. I’d been a bystander. I’d stood by and watched and heard someone getting bullied, but I hadn’t done anything about it. Worse, it’d been someone I’d considered a friend.
Aiden moved away at the end of that year. I remember finding him in the playground on his last day and punching him on the shoulder and saying, “Bye, you.” I couldn’t even muster up his name.
I don’t think he knew I heard what Denny said that day in the cafeteria.
As far as I know, I was the only one — besides Aiden and James — to hear. In sixth grade, it was Denny who told me Aiden was doing badly at his new school. Denny said Aiden was doing drugs. To this day, I don’t know whether it was true. But it planted this idea in my head: this idea that if I’d spoken up that day in the cafeteria and stood by my friend, he’d be in a better place. He’d be happier.
My perception of this event has changed numerous times as I’ve gotten older. At first, I viewed it as the single catalyst that had pushed me over the edge into periods of depression beginning in sixth or seventh grade. I don’t mean passing sadness, I mean depression that had me standing at the edge of my third-floor balcony. I almost jumped at the age of twelve. That’s a story for next time, but I saw this failure to act as the root of all my problems. And I was so ashamed by my failure to act that I didn’t tell anyone what had happened.
When one of my close friends Erica started seeing the school psychologist late in fifth grade because she cried a lot and was very sensitive, I became embittered. Couldn’t they tell something was wrong with me? Just because I didn’t cry a lot, that meant I was perfectly fine? I was dealing with this re-echoing of a single traumatic event. Looking back on it, it sounds like a form of PTSD. But I don’t know.
I started going to therapy during my sophomore or junior year of high school, but not for crying. For anger, after an episode in which I’d thrown and shattered a glass vase into a million pieces on the living room floor. My parents weren’t willing to send me to therapy for sadness, but they got willing when they realized their property — and all our lives — could’ve been in danger.
From sixth grade until my sophomore year of college, I was a girl who was deeply emotionally disturbed — who slipped in and out of depression — but who almost never cried. Crying, for me, was a sign of weakness. I’d been raised by my parents, especially by my father, to cry as little as possible. And, to be honest, I don’t mind that. I think it’s good to be strong. But it becomes a problem when there can be a swirling storm inside, but you hold back any outward display of emotion that might signify there’s something wrong. In the end, people figured it out from the only emotion I did display — anger.
When I told my therapist about this event, I still couldn’t bring myself to recount the words in full. The words that Denny said that had left me scarred.
She told me no matter what he’d said, this couldn’t be the only reason I’d become depressed. Only a person who already had the signs and the markers for depression would’ve obsessed over an episode like this or ruminated about their hand of guilt in a matter like this.
I don’t know whether it’s true. It’s impossible to know. Maybe I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or maybe I was predisposed, and maybe if I hadn’t become depressed over that, I would’ve become depressed over something else. How can we know these things?
And looking back, things will always seem hazy. Was it like the flip of a switch? Did my life plummet from light into darkness? Did the first depression come on suddenly? Or did it happen much more slowly? And what to do with the times in between, where I felt perfectly fine, even on top of the world at times? The truth is, I don’t know and don’t remember.
I remember lying awake at night, reliving the scene, crying alone in the dark, trying to compel my former self to move her feet, to open her mouth, to do something. To do anything. I remember crying myself to sleep too many times to count and feeling more ashamed about crying every time. I remember buttoning myself up, making affirmations, deciding never to cry again, not crying or even thinking about it for months on end. I remember trying to write out the depression, trying to write it away, trying to excise it from my soul like you might try to excise a tumor. But depression doesn’t work that way.
I remember standing at the edge.
I’ve told you things in this episode that I’ve never told anyone. My parents don’t know I considered suicide around the age of ten or eleven, or that I’d thought about death long before that. No one knew. And no one could’ve known. I made it impossible for anyone to find out.
Regardless of whether it was that moment in the crowded cafeteria that pitched me over the edge and into the darkness, I mark it as the beginning. My life was in flux. It was changing. I was changing.
Even once I realized I was depressed, I didn’t think I deserved to be. Whatever that means. I had a good life and a good family. I was intelligent compared to many of my peers. I had everything.
But at night, I cried.
For more information about This is Not a Sad Story and links to previous episodes, visit this page.
If your or someone you know are contemplating suicide or suffering from suicidal thoughts or depression, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline or get in touch with Samaritans 24/7 Crisis Services via phone or text. Please don’t hesitate to seek help. If you’re suffering from depression, believe you will feel better someday. Say it with me: “I will feel better someday.” And always remember that depression can strike anyone. It can come out of the blue, or it can appear for a reason. It can hit if you have nothing or if you have everything or if you’re in-between. It doesn’t discriminate. Never assume you know what’s going on in a person’s mind.
Learn more about depression in young children in this article from Psychology Today.
And don’t worry — This is Not a Sad Story isn’t all this sad! But it is a journey, through darkness, into light, and through dappled shade. I don’t expect my experiences to resonate with everyone, but I do hope to shed some light on depression and personality disturbance in children and young adults and to help others who can relate to what I’ve experienced. Please leave a comment if you particularly enjoy this content!