There is a distinct possibility that time and anger have exacerbated my memory of my days at PEP.
I remember the first two years being okay. I remember the day I teased Max for not knowing when to turn his paper over and it somehow came out obnoxious and grating. I remember playing basketball in study hall, back when people were allowed to sit together. I remember a sleepover with Danielle and Alyssa, laughing ourselves silly until 4am watching Youtube videos of squirrels drunk on fermented pumpkin. I remember my 17th birthday when the two dear friends I had left made a crosstown scavenger hunt for me that ended in a surprise gathering at the theater for a showing of Sherlock Holmes.
And I remember, at least vaguely, the night a few weeks after our tenth grade year ended, when a person that I thought was one of my best friends opted to tell me over text and the course of several hours that I was one of the most hated members of the (very small) class. I still carry a terrible fear of abandonment that started that night. Six years ago.
And that was the night I started cutting.
Junior year was the beginning of the end. Senior year was the end. I don’t remember what all happened because I wasn’t sober for most of it. Don’t blame my parents for that. They did try. I remember coming to class smelling of cigarettes, forced by a rhetoric teacher who treated us like toddlers to give improv speeches about what finally meeting Jesus would be like, as if I, a suicidally depressed teenager had any concept of what a happy life after death looked like. I left that class in tears. And I’m sure that nobody really thought, “she can’t imagine what being loved by Jesus is like because she’s so sad and lonely.” More, “Wow, can’t even get through a 60 second speech. Way to be.” That same teacher told me one time that if I needed her, if I needed somebody to talk to, that she was there, and the one time I asked for it, the one time I tried, she didn’t answer.
I knew she was a busy mom with two kids. But you know what you shouldn’t try and do if you can’t actually do it? Promise to throw an attention-starved teenager a shred of hope.
I remember one time I was hanging out in study hall, messing around with my younger sister. I stole one of her shoes and ran across the gym, near the table where the administrator of PEP Mason was chatting with the parent monitor of the day. A boy from her class (so at least five years younger than me), charged across the gym, came at me from behind, and shoved me so hard I hit the floor and slid. In front of the administrator of PEP Mason and the parent monitor of the day.
Who both looked up at me, made eye contact, and went back to their conversation.
Yes, let’s teach the young Christian men that putting their hands, even jokingly, on a woman who’s not expecting or inviting it is okay.
Let’s teach the young Christian women that there is, in fact, nobody in their corner.
You gave me a history teacher that told me it was my duty as a female person to get married, make my husband happy, and have babies.
You gave me a history teacher that told me asking questions was the arrogance of youth and used his precisely 120 minutes a week to attempt to brainwash us all against the evils of rock and roll and feminism. Who one time decided to wax poetic on the “ideal American beauty” and pointed out different girls around the room as fulfilling that beauty or not fulfilling that beauty. Guess where I, a short, brown-haired, brown-eyed woman, fell on that range. Guess what telling a 15 year old girl that American men will not find her as attractive as her blond classmate has to do with history.
You gave me a rhetoric teacher that took my writing, my senior presentation, the last great joy of my life, and gave me a D for reasons I still don’t understand. My classmates who saw me give the speech were shocked. My mother, who is a sweet, kind woman, shouted “what the fuck?!” when I called her in tears after picking up my grade. I know I did good work on that project. I know I should have gotten better than a D. Especially if you’re going to give an A- to a twenty minute speech about how sunday afternoon football is emptying the modern church. That was the culmination of his six years under your tutelage? And you were proud of it?
I look back on my last two years at PEP with a kind of self-loathing horror. No, I should not have turned to alcohol. I should not have turned to cigarettes. Or started cutting. Or sneaking out. I should have done my homework. I should have slept more. I should have tried.
But also, to this day, I am stricken with anxiety.
To this day, I am faltering under the weight of a depression that, if understood by any other member of the Program, was certainly not talked about.
I leave rooms when they get too loud. I left my high school graduation for fifteen minutes to smoke a cigarette and stifle sobs against a lightpost.
I pause my workday once a week to have my Traditional Sunday Afternoon Fifteen Minutes of Hysteria in the bathroom. I drink too much, even now. And I still don’t sleep, but now it’s not because of the 5 cans of Nos I’ve had today, it’s because I ruined my adrenal glands from drinking 5 cans of Nos a day trying to stay awake for days at a time in high school because the nightmares were worse than the exhaustion.
Rarely in my time at PEP or my time at Wheaton do I remember looking at the community around me and feeling as though I could be real with them. When I was real with the people at PEP about my struggles and my suffering, I was told that I was uninvited on the senior trip because people’s mothers were not comfortable with my existence near their children. When I was real with the people at Wheaton, I was met with concerned nods and quiet “mm-hms” and no mention of it ever again, because doubting Jesus probably means temporary insanity and you’ll be back to normal by chapel on Friday, Valerie, you’ll be fine.
I assume with some acidity that there is a proper Christian way to suffer. I assume that there was some particular way that I could have presented these torturous nights that I went through that would have made my classmates and my teachers more receptive to the fact that there was a member of their community who needed something more.
Some of them had been my friends since we were kids. Best friends. The kind of friends you stay with when your parents are in the hospital with your new baby brother who turned out to have Down Syndrome. And I guess, I guess I just wish that someone had asked me if everything was okay.
And not believed me when I said it was.
Why couldn’t you all just read my mind?
And I just wish that I had known I was being selfish and obnoxious before another teenage girl felt that she needed to tell me about it. I wish I had stopped. I wish I had been a good friend.
And I’m sorry I wasn’t.
But if there’s one thing you get out of this (I assume with some acidity that my credibility was ruined when I admitted to the underage drinking), I hope it is that ignoring mental health issues, especially in teenagers, especially in Christian teenagers, is going to kill somebody someday. It almost killed me. You cannot in good conscience maintain a teacher who takes their time and authority in a classroom where they are meant to teach history and spends it criticizing the physical appearances and hopes and dreams of the teenagers, especially the teenage girls in his class. You cannot in good conscience ostracize the children in your community as soon as they behave in a way you don’t like. Mrs. Lange and Mrs. Treft, depression is not contagious. I was not selling your children drugs. Letting me go on my literally-once-in-a-lifetime senior trip would not have made either of them turn into me. And I’m not even going to touch on how you let my brother’s classmates abuse him because that is an entire other matter and today I’m just talking about me.
You voluntarily take responsibility for the education and worldview of other people’s children. And you voluntarily, repeatedly put those children in situations where their opinion is not heard and their stories of mistreatment are ignored. How many students came to you with stories about Mr. Clayton? My sister was literally removed from your school so she would never have to be exposed to him again. And yet he still works for you. You, PEP Mason, support him in his treatment of your daughters.
I left the Church sometime in the last two years. It was gradual. One day I woke up and realized that I didn’t remember the last time I went to church. I didn’t remember the last time I’d cracked a Bible open. And I didn’t miss it. The thing about feeling terribly alone is that no matter how many times grown-ups tell you that Jesus is there for you, it doesn’t make him any more there for you at 3:30am when you’re staring at the wall for the fifth hour in a row because you can’t sleep out of fear. What was wrong with me? Did I just need to believe a little harder? Be a little less lonely? Take just one more step into the unknown? I was always told that “God was there in the darkest times,” and I’d say I had those and He wasn’t.
I lay part of the blame for that at the feet of the PEP Mason staff and teachers. There is only so many times a kid can be told that she is part of a community but only as long as she conforms perfectly to their expectations before she decides to get up and find a new community.
Mrs. Gray and Mrs. Marinkovic, you were the exceptions. Thank you for everything you did for me while I was trying to hit the finish line of high school. There were more than a few nights there when I thought I wasn’t ever going to see it. But you helped me. I still talk about you both as being hugely influential people. You saved my life. Thank you. And Mrs. Swedes, I don’t even think you work there anymore, but thank you for the unending times you tried to help me with pre-calculus, even as I skipped your class and slept through it. Even if the math never came to me, your grace has stuck with me. I studied so hard for the Wheaton math competency exam and I passed with flying colors.
So I went to two Christian colleges. I got my Bachelor’s in English Literature, no thanks to that rhetoric II teacher whose name I’ve shamelessly forgotten. I got two cats and nine tattoos. I work for Apple as a technician and I’m really good at it. I’m finally in therapy for my mental issues, which, incidentally, do go back to before high school. I drink my decaf coffee black and my occasional beer expensive. And I did quit smoking, finally. Not the kind of graduate PEP is happy to point to and say, “Look we did that,” but you know what? In a lot of ways you did.