Just a fair warning here, folks. I’ve written a lot of pretty intense things on this here blog of mine. Some funny shit, too, but nonetheless. I’ve set the intensity bar pretty high. But this…this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said that “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” The former first lady was a noble gal and all, but let’s cut the shit, Elle. People don’t need your consent to hurt you. And you don’t always have the opportunity to give consent to someone tearing down the walls of proverbial protection you’ve built around yourself. Because if someone wants to break down those walls badly enough, they’ll tear ‘em down. If someone wants to hurt you, they will. I have a lovely set of walls nowadays. They’re strapping and rugged, and they make mama proud. But they’re young lads. I had to build them a few years ago. Because that’s what happens when someone tears your walls down; when people break your very foundation. You’re left with nothing. And you have a choice. You leave with nothing or you stay and rebuild. You have to pick a lane.
And, so we begin:
My high school experience was a sort of two-for-one special. Paid for two years, got the next two free. Now, that may or may not be due to the fact that I spent two years in a private school and two in a public one, but nonetheless. My high school career was anything but typical.
We see bullying happen in the movies and equate it to some sort of exaggerated after-school special. No one actually shoves a kid’s head in the toilet. Kids don’t really stand in the hallway laughing and pointing at that one girl. Right? Au contraire, my friend. Au con-fucking-traire.
There was this group of girls who would bark sweet nothings like “whore” or “slut” every time they passed me by in the hallways. I had the unique privilege of using a locker spray-painted with that one word that rhymes with “bunt.” My guidance counselor joined in on the fun when I told her about my dream school, telling me that I wasn’t the “kind of girl” who could get into a school like Notre Dame and that I needed to set my sights “quite a bit lower.” These guys in my Chemistry class would throw objects at my head on a daily basis. Seriously. Pencils, garbage, even a stapler one time. Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you. Pencils and staplers can give you a concussion, but “bitch” and “cunt” ain’t no thing.
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And maybe it does. Eventually. Today, those girls could yell whatever they want at me. I couldn’t give a shit. I’d gladly take that locker now—with pride. I’d definitely learn to duck when a stapler’s headed towards my temple. And I think that Notre Dame diploma hanging on my wall speaks for itself, Mrs. Smitley. Yeah, they say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But they forgot one big piece of the puzzle. They gave you the SparkNotes version, if you will. What doesn’t kill you may make you stronger, but first it beats the shit out of you. It breaks you. It damn near destroys you.
And that’s what I was. Broken. Nearly destroyed.
By the end of my sophomore year, it was an absolute shitshow. Breaking point reached. I stopped going to school a couple weeks before the semester was over. I was done. Fuck this school. Fuck my grades. Fuck everyone. I shut down completely. I spent the summer blackening both my soul and my bedroom walls. Seriously, I painted them all black and wrote shit on them with silver Sharpie (and by shit, I mean pseudo-angsty My Chemical Romance lyrics). Shout out to my mom, by the way, for just rolling with those obscure punches.
Living with that kind of depression can’t really be encompassed in words. It’s indescribable in that way. Those who know it don’t need words. And those who don’t could probably never understand anyway. But to give you an idea, to give you something, anything, I’ll sum it up with a cute little real estate metaphor because why the hell not. I grew up in Michigan. In Michigan, houses have basements. I live in California now. No basements here. The way I see it, living with that kind of depression—that crippling, unfathomably debilitating depression is like living in a Michigan house amongst a sea of Californians. From the outside, you’re essentially the same. And, really, most of the interior is similar, too. You both have kitchens and bathrooms and bedrooms and living rooms and that one room that no one ever uses but your mom says is super important for reasons you have yet to discern in your twenty-four years of life, but okay, Cyndi, I trust your judgment. Everything lines up. Everything’s the same. But it’s not. Not really, anyway. Because your Michigan house has a basement; another level that no one knows about, that no one can see from the outside. Another level that most houses don’t have. Underground. Hidden away. A place where you hide thoughts and feelings and pains that others could never even fathom.
When I was little and had to get something from the basement, I’d sprint a 3.5 40 up the stairs going back up to the main floor. Why? Because basements are scary as shit.
Depression is scary as shit.
I don’t know much about real estate, but I do know one thing. Basements and depression have one very important thing in common—they house the darkness.
Pain is one of the only processes that is entirely defined by the person experiencing it. No one else can ever feel your pain. No one else can ever understand your pain. And we all react in different ways. For me, I forget. The brain does us a solid sometimes by forgetting. I don’t remember much detail about that aforementioned summer. I don’t remember the days at all. But I do remember the nights. I remember lying in bed staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars I had put on my ceiling when I was five. I remember the deafening sound of my heart still beating. And I honest to god felt like the universe was mocking me.
By the end of the summer, I had to pick a new school. Michigan has this rad deal called “school of choice,” so you can really go to any public school you want. I chose a rural high school in Farmville, USA nearly an hour from my house. I needed to get away. Far away. And, also, I think tractors are neat.
I remember my first day vividly. I was nervous. And that was huge. I was nervous. I felt nervous. I felt something. I felt an emotion, which was more than I could say for the past slew of months.
I was afraid. Fear—that’s how you know. If you have fear, if you’re afraid, then you’re still here. Because it all really boils down to two things, I’ve learned: pain and death. That’s all any of us are really afraid of—pain and death. And if you fear either of those things, then you’re here. You’re still here. There’s still hope.
At 16, I chose to transfer to a small-town, rural high school 45 minutes from my home. I knew no one and couldn’t explain why I felt drawn to this place, but I did. I in no way exaggerate when I say I felt home on my first day of school.
My first day.
And from that day forward, I never once felt out of place. These people had known each other as toddlers, but I felt just as much a part of the community as any other student. The genuine kindness, the compassion, and the love I received in one day was more than I’d experienced in two years at my old school.
I still vividly remember my senior prom. Taking pictures in our dresses and tuxes—on tractors, of course. I remember “fixing” Coree’s dress at her mom’s request so she didn’t show off too much cleavage (those puppies looked top-notch, though, and I wasn’t about to deny the world that glory). I remember my prom date’s tie matching my yellow dress to perfection. I remember sitting on Hailey’s lap, taking pictures with my best friends in front of an incredibly arbitrary black sheet that I’ve still yet to comprehend. I remember loving every moment. I remember living.
I know myself. I know what I can take and what I can’t. Looking back, I’m even more sure than I was eight years ago. If that hadn’t worked out—if the people of Allendale hadn’t done what they did and said what they said—I wouldn’t be here. So, when I say I owe them my life, know that I am literal. That I am certain. I am certain that these people saved my life.
To the people of Allendale, this is a love letter. This is a thank you. To the ones who picked me up and held me when I fell harder than I’ve ever fallen before. The ones who fixed what I thought was irreparably broken. The ones who convinced me to live when I so desperately wanted to die. To the ones who saved me.
If there’s anything I can leave you with, please let it be this. Don’t you dare let anyone tell you that your actions don’t matter. That your words don’t matter. If anything, go into this week trying to leave people better than they were before. Leave people hurting less than before. Because it matters. What you do today and tomorrow matter. What you do in this life matters. What you say in this life matters. What you do today matters. What you say today matters. Remember that. Always.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you don’t matter. You matter. Your actions, your words matter. So, don’t let them go to waste. And, for the love of Jon Snow, don’t use them to hurt people. Because you have a choice in this life. You get to choose who you want to be. You get to choose the words you say, the actions you take.
When I was a sophomore in high school, words and actions made me want to die. A year later, words and actions made me excited to be alive.
So, choose your words wisely. Choose your actions wisely. And always remember that they do matter. That you matter. What you do and what you say matter.
And to the people whose words and actions got me here, whose love kept me alive, my words for you are endless. I thank you. I love you. You matter.