My loneliness is killing me. — Britney Spears, “Baby One More Time”
Besides glimpses where I saw behind the curtain, I got pretty much everything I wanted when I was a kid. I was lucky but I also didn’t want a ton in the big picture; my favorite thing to ask for when I’d get good grades was more books which my family always said yes to. Our Christmas mornings were big with lots of gifts for everyone but so much of it wasn’t asked for as much as my mom thought this was the way to show love, to fit in and really be American. I was an only child with five American Girl dolls (with matching wardrobes and furniture, of course) because every year had to be outdone by the next one. I was just given stuff I didn’t need and sometimes didn’t even want. It created desires where there weren’t necessarily naturally any—created the idea that you needed stuff, specific stuff, to be valid.
The only Kevin Smith movie I like is Dogma (1999) and the part I love most is said by main character Bethany (Linda Fiorentino): “Faith is like a glass of water. When you’re young, the glass is small, and it’s easy to fill up. But the older you get, the bigger the glass gets, and the same amount of liquid doesn’t fill it anymore. Periodically, the glass has to be refilled.” This aspect, the way our desires grow without necessarily giving us the means to fulfill them, speaks to me about faith but also a lot of things really. Both our genuine needs and especially the things we see and then desire in ads or posts (sometimes the same thing) scrolling through social media are a constant reminder of what we don’t have that we could or should have. Social media, especially spaces like Instagram, are the equivalent of someone walking into homeroom with a Tiffany heart necklace and making you feel like every single thing you own is garbage.
Yeah, it’s a lot like high school.
High school was the place I realized that not only would I not get everything I wanted from my family but that I shouldn’t even bother asking. I think I would have realized this at pretty much any high school I went to but I realized it quickly and intensely because I went to a private Catholic prep school. I had always gone to private Catholic school, but before this the parents drove about the same types of cars. In our area, all these Catholic elementary and middle schools fed into the three private Catholic high schools and I got into arguably the best one in academics and sports and honestly most things. It was so good that of course it also attracted families with lots of money and lots of expectations for their kids.
My parents got divorced the summer before I started high school and filed for bankruptcy at the same time; I moved in with my grandparents for some sense of stability but I was flailing and keeping everything so deep inside. My mom always said that private school would be an equalizer of sorts because everyone had to wear uniforms. She had bad memories of not having cool clothes in high school and never wanted me to feel lesser than. Uniforms didn’t do much for designer purses and jewelry though. If the Tiffany necklace and multicolor Louis Vuitton bag didn’t make me feel bad then seeing my dad’s 14-year-old truck in between a Hummer and a BMW in the pickup line at 2:30 every day would do the trick.
I’m the truest Scorpio moon you might ever meet because I am secretive and withholding to an unhealthy extent. The trauma I’ve experienced is also a factor, true. All of this means that I carry shame very heavily and I will keep my walls up if I feel unsafe. And being a teenager with a changing, hormonal body and a complicated home situation getting messier by the day meant I kept everything inside. It’s not that I didn’t have friends in high school but the ones I did have I kept at arm’s length. I felt like I had two lives, one at home and one at school, because I didn’t want people to judge me but even more so, I didn’t want people to pity me. The very small handful of high school friends I stayed friends with into adulthood eventually learned more about my background and who I am as a complete person; they understood but I also don’t think they entirely did. I was so painfully lonely.
When I was a freshman, I started talking to a guy in my Latin class who I really liked. He was so funny and sweet and the one time he grabbed my hand in the hallway between classes, I felt like I was floating. He asked me out to the movies and I froze. I wanted to go but I also worried he would eventually have to see that my house wasn’t in a gated community, that it was small, that most of my family spoke broken English. I told him I’d think about it and then I blew him off. He called me almost every day for a week and then stopped trying. He didn’t talk to me for the rest of the schoolyear in Latin and we didn’t talk at all after that. Later in high school, we were at the same party where I had too much to drink and he insisted on driving me home. I refused to tell him my address and he dropped me off at my friend’s house, looking at me before I got out of the car.
“You know I wouldn’t care where you lived, right?” His hands were still on the steering wheel. “I wouldn’t have cared.”
I wanted to believe him but I couldn’t. I got out of the car and walked to my friend’s door. I couldn’t believe him because I had already tried to let someone in and they had failed me.
Through most of high school, I was best friends with a girl who I instantly clicked with; we became inseparable. We hung out every weekend, going to the beach or just watching movies in her room. We were so close and I loved her family like my own; they took me on vacation with them and just included me in everything. She and I also connected because we both felt poor in our high school even though we definitely weren’t in any real sense. Her house was bigger than mine but it wasn’t big. Her parents bought her a car when she started driving like my grandparents did for me but it wasn’t a Mercedes-Benz. It felt like it was us against the world or at least the world we existed in daily.
So I did open up: about my mom’s alcoholism, my parents’ divorce, my insecurities, my shame, everything. I let her meet my family and come over and just be a part of the things I didn’t let anyone into. It felt so good to have someone I could trust entirely. That’s why it crushed me when she betrayed me.
She would probably tell you it’s my fault because I abandoned her or something but we did what messed up teenagers do: we got into a fight about something I literally cannot remember almost twenty years later and our friendship ended. It made me anxious to see her at school but I threw myself into schoolwork and extracurricular activities and other friends. Soon she blew up everything for me by telling someone who told someone else who told someone that I was poor and my mom was a drunk. I had classmates and people I barely knew asking me about it or whispering and looking at me in the cafeteria and I just wanted to shoot off into space in a rocket. And I shut down again. I had other friendships in high school, even ones that eventually became closer, but I just focused on getting out and starting the rest of my life somewhere that wasn’t this weird money bubble.
It’s weird because I was still lucky, you know? I went to private school. I got a good education. I got access to so many things that furthered my life. But it was also hell in so many ways. Some of which was of my own making but I was also a kid just trying to figure out how to survive in multiple environments that felt so unsafe. Money is weird. It’s not normal to see your friend’s dad buy her a new Mercedes when she got a good SAT score (which ironically was lower than yours). It’s not normal to see high school classmates come back from summer vacation with new boobs or chins or cheekbones. It’s not normal to have so much money that you never really have to think about money. Maybe it’s not that it’s not normal as much as it’s just not good.
My loneliness ain’t killing me no more. — Britney Spears, “Stronger”
I’m far from those high school feelings these days but it’s not like I figured these feelings out years and years ago. The ubiquity of social media combined with moving to Toronto really made those insecurities rear their heads. I fell in with people who spent a lot of time on their image or their brand and constantly trying to network and see if someone could do them a favor. It led me to be friends with people who wren’t good for me, who judged others based on what they had as opposed to who they were. It felt like high school all over again.
One of the lowest points came with a former friend who was grieving the loss of a parent at the same time I was grieving my mom’s death. At a friend’s birthday dinner a few weeks after those losses, she turned to me and looked at my then 18-month-old iPhone.
“Why do you still have that ghetto iPhone?” She slurred, a few drinks in. “You need a new phone.”
It struck me in the same place that would become activated in high school: the back of my throat. A clawing, anxious tightening. I thought about how my friend had told me about the significant inheritance and life insurance she received upon her parent’s death. I knew it wouldn’t fix her grief but I felt the same rage I felt when I had to take out student loans for university when many of my classmates had their parents foot the whole bill for their schooling. I thought about how while wasted my mom had spent my entire college fund on a motorcycle she rode once; I thought about how my mom was penniless when she died. I looked at my friend after a minute.
“Some of us don’t get inheritances when we lose a parent,” I said. “We just get a dead parent.”
“Not even life insurance?”
“Not even life insurance.”
She turned to talk to someone else.
I wish I could say our friendship ended then but it didn’t for a few more years. Not because I was happy but because I still felt a need to be good enough. Our unhealthy friendship and the way I used to relate to others, through comparison, weren’t good for me. The dark places I’d go to in my brain when I’d scroll through social media weren’t good for me. It took me a long time to end that friendship and even longer to realize I don’t have to use something that makes me feel like shit, that I could just unfollow and unfriend the people and things that weren’t serving me and instead focus on me and everything that brings me joy or at least peace. I am in the middle of the two places I’ve been: closed off or casting pearls before swine. I am deliberate and thoughtful in who and what I trust and it has made all the difference.
I don’t think you can shut out everything but you don’t have to willingly lie down on the conveyor belt to get Clockwork Oranged by rich people and celebs. Like you’re going to encounter it out there at some point so why choose to see it willingly? Even being married, even having good friends in my life, I still get lonely because well, I’m a person in the world. I miss people and have moments where I feel misunderstood and alone but that’s actually ok. It’s ok to be lonely sometimes. It’s ok to be alone sometimes. It’s ok to not be ok sometimes. It’s ok to step out of the cycle. It’s ok to choose to not surround yourself with things that make you question your worth. It’s ok to change your mind. It’s ok to set boundaries to feel ok. It’s ok. You’re ok.
And if you’re not ok right now, you will be. The glass has gotten bigger but you can choose what you fill it with.