It’s a bad day in 11th grade. It’s a sad day in 11th grade.
There isn’t a particular reason behind the sadness and the badness, other than the fact that school always feels like I’m wearing an ill-fitted dress on a day full of photographs.
This day feels particularly wrong. Like not only am I wearing an ill-fitted dress on a day full of photographs but the fabric of the dress happens to be itchy wool and I can feel rashes actively coming to life on my skin. And I want so badly to claw at the rashes with my nails, but I can’t because they’re popping up all over the naked skin of my stomach and I’d have to reach up my dress in order to have my way with them, and that’s just not something you can do in public. So you resort to suffering silently in acute discomfort.
I think of that commercial for yeast infection relief cream. “That itch you can’t scratch.”
I begrudgingly open the door of my older sister’s convertible. I longingly watch her speed off into the real world. I slowly march up to the entrance, push through the school’s front doors which are so heavy it’s like they’re made of iron, and deposit myself into the fluorescent hallway. I feel that familiar wash of sickness.
I can’t shake the sick feeling. I never can at school. Not because I’m not popular. I am. In my own way. I guess.
I feel sick because something about the academic environment knocks me out of alignment. But terms like “out of alignment” are not part of my vocabulary yet. I have yet to go to a yoga class or read the works of Abraham Hicks, so I have no tools in my repertoire to make sense of these negative, visceral emotions.
I feel especially bad in Chemistry.
Homesick almost. Not for my parents. For myself. I feel dumb in chemistry, and I know that I’m not dumb, and the disconnect between feeling something and knowing something is a very lonely place to live.
My friend Luke, a pot-smoking, hoodie-wearing boy I once kissed at a party, slips me a note. “Want an Adderall?“
I look at the note a few times.
Even though I wear black tights and high heels to school; even though good girls find me intimidating and bad boys want to date me, even though I am best friends with Sasha Levine who had been rolling on ecstasy since she was in the seventh grade, even though I am really talented at the art of winging my liquid eyeliner and shooting sultry, dismissive glares at boys across classrooms; I am afraid of drugs. Hard drugs.
Is Adderall a hard drug? I wonder. Well, it’s prescribed legally by a doctor. But aren’t so many doctors money-driven and corrupt? It’s sort of scary to put something in your body that’s made in a lab, right? Mushrooms, pot — they are derived from the earth, at least. But how can you trust something man-made when men have proven to be so untrustworthy?
“Yes.” I write. I slide the note back to Luke.
He reaches into his pockets which are baggy and low-slug, for he is the last teen boy in the early 2000s to conform to the discomfort of skateboarding in skinny jeans. He opens his hand, hopefully, and hesitantly— like it’s a ring-box and I look at the pretty-blue-pill holding court in his palm for a long, meaningful moment. Like I’m being proposed to and am not quite sure if I’m ready to commit to this person for the rest of my life.
And then I remember I am in class and have to act quickly if I don’t want to get into trouble at school. And even though I’m really good at winging my black liquid eyeliner, I don’t like getting into trouble at school.
I snatch the pill out of his hand and toss it into my mouth. I swallow it like the pill is me, in a wedding dress, walking down the aisle toward the wrong person. With an accepted sense of regret. Well, this wasn’t smart, but there’s no turning back now.
The pill is weirdly easy to take down without water and it tastes sugary — too sugary, the kind of diet coke, chemical-laden sweetness that depresses me.
The bell rings. I perk up. I’m headed to the only class I (sort of) like, “Women Writers.” It’s taught by a lesbian. An achingly intelligent lesbian, who radiates butch prowess. I don’t have a crush on her. But I have a crush on her.
That day we are breaking down the chapters we’ve been assigned to read that week, from the famed feminist book “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin.
“This book is so boring.” Sighs a trouble-making-sweetheart named John who plops down, like a dog in a cartoon, in the desk next to me.
“It’s a f*cking masterpiece.” I snap. I feel a sudden swell of passion for the assigned text I’d read the night before. And I can’t wait to tell everyone how I feel about it.
The lesbian teacher swags up to the blackboard, vagina first. She has that “my vagina doesn’t need a dick” confidence about her that really commands a room.
“What do you think is prompting Edna’s resurgence of passion toward her art?” The lesbian teacher asks quietly, but powerfully, like Meryl Streep in the Devil Wears Prada. The lesbian doesn’t wear Prada. The lesbian wears denim, as lesbians often do.
My hand flies up in the air. I don’t even think about raising it, it does it entirely on its own. My arm is suddenly its own entity. A far more confident, less hesitant entity than its teenage owner.
The lesbian teacher nods at me.
“Edna is feeling the desire to create art again because she’s awake now. And one does not attain an ounce of creative desire if one is sleep-walking through life. It’s why art is deemed dangerous in oppressive cultures.” I feel my pupils expand. “Art brings people back to life and when people are alive, they’re more likely to rebel against rigid societal standards. They aren’t robots anymore, zombie-like creatures going through the motions.” I feel a rush of smug, intellectual euphoria. “Edna is no longer a robot! She’s paying attention. She’s her own free-thinking person, not just someone’s wife.” I scoff at the word wife and continue. “She’s independent. She’s her real self for the first time in years. And she’s inspired to express that real self.” I take a gulp of air. “Through her art.“
The whole room is silent.
I have control over the room. It makes me tingle between the thighs.
The lesbian teacher sees me for the first time. “She has autonomy.” She says slowly like she’s finally realizing that her student, the one with the long black hair and the black tights and the inappropriately high heels, is a kindred.
I slowly nod back at her, like I’m her equal. I’m not her equal. But man, do I feel like it.
My heart pounds.
Autonomy. What an intense word. “Autonomy,” I say aloud, with clear confidence. I pick up my pen and write it down in all CAPS in my notebook. A-U-T-O-N-O-M-Y.
For the rest of the class, my hand keeps flying up and my mouth keeps flying open and words keep flying out into the air, which smells like socks, which smells like high school.
I begin to verbally challenge every student who dares to speak.
“Chris, the book isn’t about an affair. The affair is a metaphor for feminist rebellion. Edna’s affair serves as a mere catalyst for her to find herself.” I’m using words like “mere” and my lazy stoner (boy)friends all look terrified and turned on at once.
“Mike, you clearly don’t understand the weight of autonomy.” I clip.
When the bell rings, I’m pissed. “HOW CAN WE REALLY ACCOMPLISH ANYTHING IN FOURTY FIVE F*CKING MINUTES!” I shout.
“Language, Zara.” The Lesbian teacher says her eyes soft and twinkly. I can’t even let my eyes twinkle back at her, because I’m so enraged that this fabulous, conversation is about to be interrupted, for what? A dismal class, like…what’s my next class?
Social Studies. Purr.
I’m physically turned on, nipples hard and all, by the idea of social studies. I debate my way through the whole class, making nuanced observations about the intersections of race and class, throughout our sordid American history, prompting a boy named Nick who smokes menthol cigarettes and never participates to say “yo, Zara’s the shit.”
I can’t even absorb this unlikely compliment, because I’m speeding down the cerebral highway so fast it’s like I’m a girl on the run. Like I’m in a hide-speed chase with a cop and can’t afford to feel feelings because if I do, I’ll comprehend that I’m eventually going to get caught and arrested and when you think of consequences so dire as that, you’ll feel afraid and you’ll stop speeding and instead pull over and surrender and I don’t want to pull over and surrender. Not yet.
When the final school bell rings, instead of being overcome with the bliss of school freedom — instead of feeling unshackled from the demoralizing tethers of having to ask for permission to use the bathroom — instead of feeling released from the steel-barred prison and let loose into a field of wildflowers — I feel annoyed.
I’ve just gotten into the rhythm of school and now the beat has shifted and I don’t want the beat to shift, for I’ve *just* mastered this rift! I’m sweaty and bitchy and the fresh air doesn’t feel right. It feels too emotional, too visceral, too abstract. It feels like a butterfly happily fluttering along in mindless groove, and I feel more like a sewing machine, a faultless manmade machine, that doesn’t just flit about for the f*ck it but has a purpose. Has intentions. Has shit to get done and complete and put back together.
And then I remember that I hate man-made things. I don’t trust men. I trust energy. The environment…what’s happening to me?
WHO AM I?
And then I remember I swallowed that pretty blue pill.
And I experience my first ever chemical crash.
Have you ever come down from speed? It feels like you’re soaring in the air and suddenly someone came up behind you and clipped your wings and now you’re spiraling toward the pavement, about to land headfirst into the dark, painful realities of life on earth. In an instant, you go from feeling the wind against your face to the gravel in your teeth.
So, all of that was chemically induced? Was my passion for the Awakening even real? What kind of bullshit have I been spewing at people all day?
I feel shame. Deep shame. Drug shame.
I don’t want dinner that night. I’d rather run the New York marathon with a hangover than eat. I pick and pluck at my food and am increasingly cranky and nasty to my mother. And even though I’m a teenager with a pack of Marlboro lights hidden in the folds of her backpack; even though I’m a hormonal girl with tits and chin acne — I’m never nasty to my mother.
That night I can’t sleep. My panicked heart desperately thumps around the cage of my chest, like a bunny caught in a trap. Everything feels cloaked in badness. Usually, that’s how school feels. But freedom, my bedroom, my leopard-print sheets, never feel bad like they do right now.
I decide I’m never taking a pill that makes school feel good and freedom feel bad, again. Ever.
Even if, for a moment there it did, indeed, make me feel powerful. Like I was a thriving part of “the system.”
But these pills, they’re not worth this horrible crash. I also don’t want to take anything that changes the very core of who I am. Right?
And that is the beginning of a very toxic relationship, I’ll grapple with for a decade to come.
My debut book GIRL, STOP PASSING OUT IN YOUR MAKEUP: THE BAD GIRL’S GUIDE TO GETTING YOUR SH*T TOGETHER is available for pre-order on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and BAM! If you send me a screenshot of your preorder, I’ll send you swag!