Can’t Hurt Me Now

You can’t hurt me now
I got away from you, I never thought I would
You can’t make me cry, you once had the power
I never felt so good about myself

‘Oh Father’, Madonna 1989

For a super effeminate card-carrying Madonna fan who sparkled a little bit harder than the Golden, Colorado kids in the 4H program, high school was not always a walk in the park. Or if it was a walk in the park, it was a walk in a park where they yelled “Hey faggot!’ at you. I was routinely pushed and tormented and spent my senior year with charming slurs scratched into my locker door.  It sucked but armed with my smartassed sense of humor and a few tough girlfriends, I survived. Mainly, I just didn’t really show up that often. I mean, ditching class, smoking cigarettes and shoplifting were more fun and less traumatic. By senior year I had friends and wasn’t harassed as much and did my own share of bullying to keep afloat. Like any good Madonna fan, I learned how to strike a good ,”if you don’t like me, go fuck yourself” pose. I worked, I went to concerts and bad teen clubs and oh yeah- I did drugs and drank. But then again, you knew that about me. (Spoiler alert: this drinking and drug thing doesn’t turn out so good for your’s truly.)

As delightful as talking about high school is, there is a point here. Last week, I had lunch with a friend from that institution. She was always one of the good ones. We were laughing about high school and the ridiculous people we survived together. Our 20th reunion was last summer, which I did not attend. I was about to explain why when my brilliant friend interrupted and said, “Oh I don’t blame you. They were awful to you.” She then went on to recall a time when she was walking down the hall with me as the homophobic cretins yelled names at me. She was horrified and the memory has haunted her.. “Thank you”, is what I blurted out as she finished her story. It was a weird thing to say but I meant it from the bottom of my heart. In truth, I don’t know why the hell I said it. Maybe I was thanking her for having the courage to be my friend even though the people in the hallway clearly thought that was a bad idea. Or maybe I was thanking her for her honesty. At the center of my gratitude, as I figured out later on during the day, was her acknowledgement. It was so cathartic to hear someone else say notice that people were awful to me. When you’re in that kind of thing, you think it’s bad but it’s hard to know the truth. To have another person say, “that wasn’t okay” is incredibly healing. See, her younger brother was bullied too for being Jewish. So even though my friend was a popular girl with lots of friends, she understood. I wasn’t alone. It’s important for me to remember, it wasn’t just me.  The county I went to school in was not a bastion of love and tolerance. It had an epidemic of bullying, suicides and racially charged violence in the late 1980s and early 90s. Nine years later, this county’s problems would come to a boiling point and it would be put on the map, thanks to the massacre at Columbine High School.

What’s funny is that I am no longer angry or resentful at my tormentors. Yes, I was thrilled when she told me most of them got fat and look horrible- hello, I’m a human being. But overall, I don’t care.I know was a little shit too and probably caused as much pain to someone else. The best revenge is being fabulous, growing up and moving on. And I think I’ve accomplished those things for the most part. But more than that I have compassion for myself and all of the kids I went to school with. These people can’t hurt me or piss me off today. The key is that I’m no longer hurting myself either. Like everything else fantastic in my life, my forgiveness around high school can be attributed to recovery from drugs and alcohol. Thanks to facing my demons, I don’t have to fake the tough Madonna attitude. I legitimately don’t give a shit and I do so with love. So I bristle whenever I hear about bullying and the well-meaning yet over simplified “It Gets Better” campaigns. Yes, it does get better but not if you don’t do the work. We owe it to ourselves to get better too. I’ll shut up now and  let Madonna explain it:

“No matter who you are, no matter what you did, no matter where you’ve come from, you can always change, become a better version of yourself.”

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And Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now

In 1986, my family moved to Golden. I was 13 going on 14, going on old enough to know better but too young to give a crap. When we got to the little cow town, I scored a best friend who knew who the Smiths were, who knew all the alternative kids in town and who knew how to pour a drink. And thank God because I was ready for one.

At 14 the daily stresses of being not like my perfect brother or as interesting  as my glamorous older sister or as cute my younger brother coupled with the  exhausting  duties required of my full-time position as Family Disappointment began to wear me out. So when my junior high best friend mixed us up a pair of screwdrivers one day after school, I was thrilled. Now I had been warned by my father who at that time was sober for a few years and given the “we have it in our family” discussion by my mom and knew I shouldn’t but the thing was I didn’t care. I wanted to leave my awkward body and this foul-smelling town for a few minutes and a screwdriver sounded like something that could do the trick. And it did. We got drunk and listened to the Smiths and Bowie and my best friend went outside his comfy suburban home and puked in the snow as I watched shivering and trying to keep my equilibrium at bay on the ice. I remember thinking “This is it!” This was the tough rock and roll moment that I had dreamed about. Well except  for in my dream I was in London and not in Golden, Colorado. And I was probably hanging out with Chrissie Hynde or Debbie Harry or Morrissey in my dream. But shitty screwdrivers in suburbia and barfing in the snow were as close as I was gonna get.

My first drunk lead to many more with that same junior high friend. We were even arrested for stealing peppermint schnapps  from the general store our freshman year! Ridiculous. I mean stealing schnapps? You can’t even give that away to most people. But that’s how this drunk and junkie rolls- by any means necessary. Even Schnapps.  By the time I was 16, i had done acid, smoked pot and taken ecstasy. Orange juice and vodka weren’t my gateway drugs though. I’m my own gateway drug. My intense desire to not be present opens the doors for all kinds of idiotic choices. From a fistful of Klonopin at a goth club to No-doze and wine coolers before my junior high dance, there’s no combination of chemicals that I’ve ever turned down. I’m an equal opportunity addict. I’m the Ellis Island of drugs and alcohol. Give me your poor, your tired, your schnapps and meth.

Of course, drugs and alcohol didn’t erase the pain of being a teenager. It probably made it worse. I struggled to find happiness. I was always getting caught in some lie. I never finished anything. I got fired from horrible degrading jobs I didn’t even want. I thought of killing myself but knew I was too lazy and self involved to even do that right. But that was then. I still love the Smiths. I still have days where I want to evaporate and vanish for a few hours. But I remember I have things I want to do and places I want to see and stuff  I still want to learn. Or as Morrissey himself once said, “Everybody’s got to live their life and God knows I’ve got to live mine!”