Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Learning to hide between the mirror and the wall

Flying over the Atlantic to Europe for the second half of the tour felt like physically disconnecting from my life and my problems. There was an entire ocean between my parents’ choices and me – the physical space also gave me the mental breathing room to think about who I was outside of the context of my mother’s accusations of my father.  Maybe I wasn’t doomed to be a social pariah, deemed untouchable by my community. Maybe…
 For the first time that summer on tour I was able to enjoy the company of others and keep my depression at bay. The sights and sounds of London elated me; waking up in Paris was a dream. I never wanted to go home. Then I reminded myself: I didn’t really have a home.

The two weeks passed by in a rush and as my departure date grew closer I began to asphyxiate on anxiety. My breathing would come in shallow gasps and my vision would sometimes blur as I thought about the great unknown of my future waiting back in the States. All too soon I touched down at JFK.
I have no memory of arriving at New Eden. It was likely late at night and I was sleep-deprived and jetlagged. Upon arriving in my mom’s apartment I passed out on a mattress on the floor. My sister watched over me as a slept, almost as a sentinel to guard me against the nature of the reality I had just entered. I must have slept fitfully, dreaming of nighttime beasts and glowing eyes. “Did you see The Midnight Carnival?” I asked her, sitting up but half dreaming. She giggled and helped me back to sleep.
After the hangover of grogginess passed, I awoke to a world of seemingly-endless cinderblock hallways. Walls were painted with marine-grade paint, as though each year the sins had to be pressure washed away. My sister told me about the urine smells, the fly infestation and the nighttime cleaning vigils.  I fed her European chocolate that I had brought home, hoping to help ease the pain.

Our first weeks at New Eden were solitary ones. There were only a few live-in staff members on the premises. While exploring my new horizons I met a former staff member who was moving out. He warned me of evil lurking in the halls. I raised an eyebrow at his superstitions. Long ago I had learned to suspect many First Gen and their grip on reality.
He saw my dubious expression and narrowed his eyes. “There is a dark spirit that hovers around here, like a cloud. When it descends like a storm, you’ll know.” He glanced up at the dorm buildings and gave a near-imperceptible shudder, as though he feared invoking the evil of which he spoke.
And the darkness did descend.
Students arrived and school began. The first few weeks were relatively peaceful and I used them as an opportunity to try to recover from the trauma of the previous summer. We had morning service each day, and I would arrive early to spend a few solitary moments in reflections. Service took place in the same basement where most of our classes were held. Though the place smelled as though a rot had firmly taken hold I would sit, cross-legged and barefoot, waiting for everyone else to arrive and trying to concentrate on my breathing.
Many times I could only get small gasps. My lungs ached for more air but could never seem to pull in enough before my throat would constrict. During the morning services I would search for words to hang onto – words that could be the calm in my storm or that could offer me a sense of peace. Despite my search, despite my internal pleas to God, I didn’t find those words.
After The Most Horrible Day, where I learned that there were no true allies to be found and no safe harbor of friendship, I stopped attending morning services. Instead I hid in my room. There was a small crawl space in my dorm closet, behind a built-in vanity mirror, that I learned I could fit myself into. Many mornings I would curl into that space and trycommune with the silence.

After the headmaster counted who was missing from morning service, the dorm mom would search our rooms. I would hear the knock on the door, and an inquiring voice from the other side. She would try the door and find it locked. Then there was the jingle of keys and the distinctive click as the master key allowed her entry into my sanctuary. She would look under my bed, in the closet and anywhere else she thought that a teenager could hide.
She never knew about that tiny space between the mirror and the wall. Nestled next to the cinderblock, it never occurred to me to consider the physical contortions that I put myself into in order to hide from these people. But hide I did. And there, with my nose nestled between my knees, I continued working on my breathing.

In and Out.

Each day became a survival game and every student found a way to rebel against the bondage of obedience that was prized over learning. I slept in the back of my American History class every morning, learning how to move my hand in a mimic of note-taking while dozing. I learned that my Oceanography teacher hated anything against dress code, so I wore Birkenstocks to class every day and flaunted my blue toenails, only to be dismissed from class regularly for my defiance.
Even with the bravado of defiance, many of us didn’t know how to protect ourselves from the insulated lifestyle of the school. Our schedules were regimented as though we were serving a sentence as opposed to seeking an education. Faculty members were suspicious of our every move, our every conversation and any kind of opposite-gender interaction. In true trickle-down form, that suspicion and pathos seeped down into the student body.
Instead of the school being a New Eden, it was a hotbed for our own dysfunctions to grow. Though the school was advertised as a haven for parents to send their children into, where the ideals of purity and heavenly-mindedness were upheld, most students struggled with one form of self-abuse or another. Sex, drugs, alcohol and food were all indulged in excessively. Everyone knew not to use the dorm restrooms in the morning, as they would usually reek of the night’s aftermath.
My depression often prevented me from being able to eat. I was never popular enough to be included in the drinking and the using, nor did anyone ever express sexual interest in me. If they had, I was too mentally wound up in a melodramatic emotional affair with “S” to notice. Instead, my excess was turned inward. Through that inward turn the darkness truly descended.

It was shortly after our 9pm curfew. There was screaming down the hall; someone’s fists were pounded in rhythmic slams against a door. The slams weren’t requests for entry; they were just another desperate prisoner’s pleas for release. Somehow the noise complimented the bass line of the Reggaeton that reverberated against the cinderblock walls.

I sat in the dark of my room, with only candles for light. My back was against the locked door and I had given up on breathing that night. I drew my air in ragged gasps through gritted teeth as I gazed down at the knife in in my hand.

Little rivulets of blood sprang up under the blade as I dragged it across my wrist. It was too dull to do any real damage. It was meant for sharpening my drawing pencils, but it did enough. Horrified and mesmerized, I continued digging as I found deeper relief with each slice.
That night an addiction was born and for years afterwards I turned to it for relief. I never dug deep enough to cause visible scars; breaking the skin and seeing blood was all I needed. Long sleeves and fingerless gloves covered the outward manifestation of my sickness, but I would still stare greedily at sharp objects when I felt the need to cut or keep stashes of safety pins and bottle caps around, just in case. Inside I admired other people’s cuts, accidental though they usually were – in my mind I would equate a form of relief with the physical injury.
My only takeaways from that year at New Eden were a barely-achieved degree, suspicion of every church member that I met, and an addiction to self-injury.

It took me years to stop cutting, and then many years after that of fighting the urge. But a moment finally came where I knew that I had to stop. I had been good during most of my first semester away at college, but returning home for winter break to the toxic environment of my parents sent me into a panicked downward spiral. I found a plastic bottle cap and dug incessantly into my wrist. By the time I was done, my arm looked mangled.
I returned to school with a bandage and a brace on my wrist, hoping I could pass it off as an accidental injury.

“What the hell happened?” My college roommate asked when she saw.
“I fell. On some ice,” I lied.
We looked at each other for a long time. She searched my eyes and seemed hurt by what she saw. Her shoulders fell in resignation and without another word she turned and left the room.
 She had been my first friend when I had come to college. She had helped me get a job at the college paper; she’d given me a copy of The Vagina Monologues to help me reframe my ideology of womanhood. She had shared with me that she was struggling with an eating disorder. I finally realized that my addiction was keeping me from being truthful, on so many levels, and that I would never be able to connect with another person until I stopped hurting myself.

I wish that I had been brave enough back then to seek help, but in the church we were discouraged from seeking “outside help.” Oftentimes denial of a problem was deemed a reasonable enough solution. If that didn’t work, then shaming a sufferer into silence often did.Today, I hope that the young people in the church who are suffering from self-inflicted scars can find it in themselves to seek help. I hope that, with everything going on in the church right now and the institution crumbling from within, people can find it in their hearts to accept each other and not continue to shun and shame. And to any fellow sufferer: please, please, please do not feel ashamed for seeking help. It is the bravest thing that you can do.

Even in the darkest moments of our lives, there is love and acceptance in the Universe. You are beautiful, you are loved and you deserve to be healthy. Tell yourself that every day and eventually the pain will not be able to sustain its grip. One day you will wake up, and you will remember how to breathe.

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