Content disclaimer: Mention of emotional disturbance and turmoil. Minor cruelty and manipulation.
In 2008, when I was in fifth grade, Barack Obama was elected president. I remember my parents celebrating in our kitchen the morning after election day. When he assumed the presidency, we watched his speech in class.
These were my first involvements with the world of politics. I was hooked from the start.
Everything about politics was larger than life. By sixth grade, I’d become infatuated. At first, I wanted to become the president. I spent time charting my path. I fantasized about making it through high school with flying colors, attending Harvard, going to law school, becoming a lawyer, being elected into the Senate, becoming the president. Maybe even the first female president, like my fourth grade teacher had always told me I’d be. I hadn’t paid attention until the world of politics had opened in front of me.
But sometime during seventh grade, I became deeply disillusioned. The parts of politics I liked were very superficial aspects of a very important — and very corrupting — job. I liked debating. Well, that was only important during campaign, and even then it wasn’t very important. Can you really call those presidential debates “debates”?
Besides, my parents had a very negative view of lawyers. They thought all lawyers were sleezebags. How could I make it through law school with parents like that?
I also realized, somewhere along the line, that my view of things didn’t align perfectly with government. Which is not to say I’m an anarchist today, but my seventh grade self was pretty close to being an anarchist. And I’ve still got a bit of that in me. I have this fantasy of living on a farm with my family alone, of being as self-sufficient as possible. People have told me I have control issues.
Let me tell you about my nightmares.
I used to have horrible nightmares. Recurring nightmares. Nightmares about all kinds of stuff I wasn’t scared of in real life. But in my dreams it became large and terrible. I learned pretty early on to manipulate my dreams, to try to make them less scary. Later I’d find out this is called lucid dreaming, but I didn’t know back then.
My worst nightmare was one I couldn’t control. It had a sci-fi setting. The details are very fuzzy, because I’d wake with a jolt, in a cold sweat, every single time, the dream half-remembered. All I remember is the complete feeling of dread and a few scenes here and there. Guards talking in a corridor in low voices about a weapon that’s going to kill everyone. Being in some sandbox or playground-type structure with my childhood friends. They’re all imprisoned there. And I can do nothing to save them.
Worst of all, the very end of the dream. Black. A thin chain of gold. A key traveling along the chain, towards a chink of light. Something terrible is going to happen.
And then I wake, gasping for breath, soaked to the skin, a scream caught in my throat.
In other nightmares, I have to squeeze through a very small hole. I almost get stuck every time. The panic grows. In worse ones, I crawl into a hole, and someone crawls in after me, so I’m trapped. Every now and then, I have a dream where I’m trying to drive up a vertical hill.
I have a twisted mind, what can I say?
I had fabulous dreams during my childhood, too. Don’t get me wrong. I had dreams where I traveled to an emerald kingdom through a portal in my back porch and saved the day. I had dreams where I sailed on ships with pirates. And I had dreams connected to books I was writing, dreams that gave me a clue which way to turn.
These dreams were and are still wonderful.
I think I got the dreaming from my parents. Both of them have vivid dreams, and when I was a kid they were in the habit of recounting their dreams at the kitchen table during breakfast. We had shredded wheat and milk or oatmeal or scrambled eggs with a heaping side of dreams. Dreams of additional rooms added to the house, dreams of strange trips to far-off lands we’d never visited, dreams of panic and dismay. My family is pretty imaginative.
I owe my parents my imagination, too.
Do you know the song “I Bet My Life” by Imagine Dragons?
At a certain point during middle school, when most of the kids seemed to be deciding what they wanted to do when they grew up, I realized I was going to disappoint my parents. Because they wanted me to become a scientist or a computer programmer or a doctor. They wanted me to become some kind of professional.
I felt like anything but a future professional. I didn’t really fit in with my peers. I had some friends, but I hopped between groups. A lot of people liked me and tried to talk to me, but I felt that our connections were superficial at best. I had only a few real friends throughout middle school. I had difficulty working with others. On group projects, I was most likely to take the lead and delegate, snappishly. “Do this. You do that. No, do it that way.” People liked working with me for the grade, but they didn’t like working with me because I drove them hard or, at last resort, might scrap all their work and exchange it for my own.
I was high-strung. I had a temper that could snap at any instant. I had unerring expectations for myself and ridiculous expectations for others. My smarter teachers paired me with struggling students so I could help them learn. I did help them learn, and learned some patience myself in the process, and learned how not to trample over someone else’s feelings.
Kids called me a robot. Others called me an alien. I laughed it off. Inside, it stung a little. I felt a bit like a robot or an alien. On a rare occasion when I did break down in front of my parents, I told them I didn’t feel like I belonged in this world. Like I was different. Like there was something wrong with me. Was there something wrong with me?
In middle school, the doctor — that really great doctor I told you about before — diagnosed me with adjustment disorder of adolescence. No one told me. I guess he must’ve told my parents. And I guess they did nothing, because I didn’t start therapy until high school.
Seventh grade was the worst year. By then, I had become a truly manipulative child. And I was still a child. My homeroom teacher, who taught social studies, got on my bad side by playing a disgusting video about North Korea and demeaning the people there. He shouldn’t have done it, though looking back I’m sure he didn’t realize how demeaning it was. I responded by refusing to perform the Pledge of Allegiance. I did this in part because I thought the Pledge of Allegiance was stupid and in part because I knew it would really bug him, since he was a “good American citizen.” He sent me to the principal for a chat. The principal told me it was perfectly within my right not to say the Pledge of Allegiance.
Another time, we had a disagreement in class. He took me out into the hall and told me he couldn’t have me undermining his authority in front of all my classmates. I looked him straight in the eyes. Undermining his authority? That’s exactly what I’d wanted to do. That’s exactly what I’d been doing, subconsciously or maybe semi-consciously. When we went back into the classroom, I pretended to cry. Everyone gathered around me and hated him.
I felt victorious.
I didn’t really have feelings, except for the ones that lay hidden beneath the surface and rose to the top at night when I was alone. Towards people I disliked or people who had somehow offended me, I acted as if I had no feelings at all. I did whatever popped into my head. With other people, I pretended. Every now and then, I did feel a flash of emotional connection with another person. But I’d write it off.
Writing was my life. And it was my lifeline. I developed one other lifeline through the world of professional soccer and became dangerously obsessed with a couple players and one team, FC Barcelona. I had started learning Spanish in middle school. By the time I graduated eighth grade, I had all the raw material for fluency. The grammar, the vocabulary, hard-wired into me. They remain hard-wired to this day, even after I’ve learned other languages that I thought might replace Spanish — German, Latin, bits of French and Italian. I’ve always been good at learning languages. I can only say that my mind must have great plasticity.
In Massachusetts, there’s this standardized test called the MCAS that you take every year. In seventh grade, one of our teachers brought three bags of frozen bagels into our class. No cream cheese. I’m not sure what she expected us to do with them. Eat them plain, I guess. When my homeroom teacher had stepped out, I picked up one of the bagels and flung it across the room. A flying bagel bonanza ensued. By the end of it, we were in so much trouble. Later that day, when I had finished my MCAS test and was sitting at my desk staring aimlessly into space, I folded a paper airplane, surreptitiously, in my lap. Then I threw it up in the air. It flew up to the ceiling and dove down, making it impossible for my homeroom teacher to determine who it had come from.
He didn’t suspect me. I sat with bated breath. If he accused someone else and “pressed charges,” I’d have to come forward. It didn’t matter if he wrote me up. I had the ear of the principal and the assistant principal. The both of them loved me. No wonder the poor teacher felt I was undermining his authority. He practically had no authority over me.
Fuming, he took the airplane to his desk and threw it into the wastepaper basket. I breathed a sigh of relief and winked at the kid sitting next to me, the one who had been in danger of being blamed.
Some kids spread a rumor that I kept vodka in my water bottle.
To this day, I don’t know what started this rumor. I don’t remember doing anything to encourage it. The water bottle in question was clear plastic, but it was tinted — magenta, I think. And I never once kept vodka in it, only water.
I was a sort-of misfit in middle school. Too lucid for my own good, too intelligent for my own good. I didn’t fit in. Girls looked at me circumspect. Most guys found me intimidating. Yet I was never alone, and no one ever bullied me. If anything, I was more of the bully. I once dyed packing peanuts orange, brought them in, and convinced a couple kids they were Cheetos. They ate them. I was always playing tricks. And I was always pretending.
My appearance changed on the daily. One day, I’d wear sweatpants and a T-shirt and ratty sneakers. The next day, I’d dress up. I’d brush my hair and put on a nice sweater and jeans and flats. I could be a completely different person from one day to the next. I was a chameleon. Sometimes I was quiet and other times I was the loudest person in the room.
Through it all, I coped.
I graduated eighth grade at the top of my class. I got to give a speech at our “graduation” ceremony. They told me the day of I’d have to give a speech, so I had to write it on the spot. I don’t remember what I said in that speech, but I remember it being too long, and I remember vowing to make any future speech shorter.
We also had a graduation dance. I remember wanting to ask one boy to dance. But I didn’t.
I wasn’t a nice kid. But I mourn my middle school self. I wonder what I would have been like if I hadn’t been suffering inside. I think I would’ve been nicer. I might have found my way sooner. Or maybe I would’ve been able to fit myself into the mold my parents had prepared for me, the mold they wanted, and maybe my life would look totally different today. Maybe I wouldn’t be writing to you. Maybe I wouldn’t be writing at all.
When a kid gets depressed, it’s a tragedy. Maybe it’s self-ordained. Or maybe it’s preventable. Likely enough, it varies depending on the case. For a long time, I thought I was completely different, because I knew of no experience like mine. Unfortunately, depression in kids and adolescents isn’t uncommon. And in fact it’s becoming more and more common. But awareness still lags behind, and research lags behind, and often enough no one knows how to help these children, and no one wants to, either, because they often behave in hateful ways.
Here’s what I’ll tell you. If you’re a teacher, or an educator, or find yourself around kids, look out for the ones who act out. They rarely act out without reason. They might want help, but they might not know how to ask. Or they may not even know they need help. I’m not saying to foist anything on a depressed child, because sometimes it can backfire. But one in a hundred times, you might end up saving or at least bettering a life.
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