Long Reads is a bimonthly feature, showcasing long-form essays.
I was fifteen. I was profoundly alone and I had just had sex for the first time. I was the only girl in my various groups (the party group, the stoner group, the heshen group, the skater group) who had not had sex. I was the game some of my guy friends played: who would fuck Maggie first? I cherished my virginity. I liked to float on the cloud of being special, pure, untouchable. Everything else about me felt rotten.
I had run away from home during the mid-months of a sweltering hot San Diego summer.
I was living with a guy friend whose single mother was so overwhelmed with the demands and destruction of her own life that she allowed me to sleep in her son's bedroom every night for a week. I slept next to him but he did not touch me. I waited for him to try to sleep with me. He was sixteen — surely he would. I wanted him to move toward me because although I was not in love with him, I loved him, and he was beautiful, and I felt safe with him. He made me breakfast. He made me wear a helmet when we zipped down the Pacific coastal freeway on his motorcycle each day, from his beachside apartment to the burbs where our friends lived. He tended lovingly to the large, ugly burn on my calf I'd created when I pressed my leg into the muffler (I still have the scar). He called me "beautiful" in place of my name.
But he did not sleep with me. He looked at me with love and he did not touch me.
I decided to have sex. To counteract the out-of-control nature of my entire life, I took control over something important, my virginity. The reckless, angry, terrified energy inside of me was beginning to gnaw at me inside out: I had headaches every morning, terrible gas, stomach pains, and my throat constricted off and on randomly, causing a humiliating burping noise.
I wasn't afraid of sex. I was innately very sensual and sexual. I had read Dr. Ruth's Book of Good Sex tens of times. I had read erotica. I had read bad romance books full of blow-jobs by other names. I had done lots of messing around with boys. I had discussed, in great detail, sex with my girlfriends who had already been there. I had read John Updike and Erica Jong. I was fairly sure that I'd be much better at sex than any boy I slept with, based on the boys I had fooled around with. I had said no again and again not only because it felt good to say no, but because I had wanted to really have a good fucking time. I was waiting for that good time to appear. That summer I gave that hope up, as particularly and purposefully as if I had picked a dandelion and blown the fluff off into the sky. I had no belief that I would get anything I wanted.
"I was thunderstruck by the realization that my parents could no longer physically control me."
I chose a different friend than the one I was staying with. I don't remember why. He was harmless and kind and stoned twenty-four hours a day. He was seventeen. One night on the beach I leaned in and kissed him. He pulled away and looked at me with such adoration and amazement, his entire face lit. I thought that I knew exactly what he had looked like as a little boy on Christmas morning. I leaned in and kissed him harder, and decided to sleep with him. That night I went home with him instead of my other friend, and the next night, we had sex.
Three days later, my father found me. He banged on the door of the suburban home and demanded to know why they were allowing his fifteen-year-old daughter to live in their house. I went home silently, full of power. I had run away, and I'd had sex. I was thunderstruck by the realization that my parents could no longer physically control me. The weight of this awakening cannot be emphasized enough. I had spent the first fifteen years of my life on earth terrified of my father and living at the mercy of his moods, his demands, and his weeping tirades that would go on for hours — where he would keep me up all hours of the night demanding to know why no one understood him, appreciated him, loved him the way he loved them.
To realize that he could not stop me from leaving was the start of something entirely new. I was smart enough to know that living with friends would only last weeks, months at most, and already had moved the chess pieces ahead to see myself homeless or abused by strangers. I did not have a fantasy about running away — I had something much more powerful: an appreciation of what freedom was, and the awareness that although I must have it soon in order to make it out of my childhood alive, I also must avoid having it too soon.
And so when I arrived home from my two-week rebellion that summer and my mother gave me an ultimatum, my decision was not hard. Either I would attend ninety meetings in ninety days, she said, or I would be moved into a home for troubled youth. I chose the meetings.
I did and did not want help. I wanted to illuminate what was inside of me, where there was enormous loneliness and suffering. This was why my wrists bore white scars and why I threw up my food. I thought healing would mean lying. I thought allowing myself to be helped would be falsifying documents that stated I was all right or had a happy life when I did not. I thought all I had going for me was my refusal to lie about my life, and I didn't want to give that up.
I was left at The Meeting in the town next to my own, my mother pulling our car into a waiting spot. Her self-imposed job was to take me there and back and make sure I didn't sneak down the stairs and away, pretending I had attended The Meeting. The Meeting was in a two story, short building made of red brick. A small parking lot lined the square building like dirty teeth. The stairs were concrete and led to a left turn. I stood at the bottom of the stairs and looked up at one large window, brightly lit. Someone slammed the window shut and the murmurations of the crowd dimmed. I went up.
Inside the room were old beige couches arranged to fit as many as possible, each with a brown coffee table in front. Each coffee table had a large denim blue book, pens, pencils, packs of cigarettes, endless cups of coffee. The lighting was awkward. In the back of the room there was another, smaller room, where the bathroom and coffee maker and kitchenette resided.
I made my way through small groups of people talking, standing. The meeting had not started yet. I sat down and waited. Each day I did this for a week, two weeks, three. It was part of my agreement with my mom after I had run away that past summer. Drinking and smoking as much pot as possible, skipping class, spending my weekends party hopping and couch crashing, lying, sneaking out, screaming, cutting, and, finally, loosening my virginity off and away from me as an anchor to a childhood I could not claim to have ever really known.
This group is not for me, I thought. Men in their fifties shared about their disappeared, destroyed lives, their lonely apartments. Women without teeth wept as they shared about killing someone in a drunk driving accident. Teenagers who had overdosed and almost died. People who had lost their jobs, their family. I had never come close to losing my life, I told myself...
A Few Times I Came Close To Losing My Life:
1. There were three of us in the backseat and two in front. The driver was on coke and had drunk his body weight in vodka. He was in his twenties, I was fifteen. It was dark, and the small, two-lane road was wound up like a coiled snake. We spun out. I smashed my mouth into the glass window; my teeth hurt, my gums bled. The car came to a stop pressed into the hard dirt side of the road, instead of careening off the other side, which was a steep embankment.
2. I did line after line after line of crystal one night. I was skinny and bulimic. I fainted.
3. I was in the front seat of his sports car. He was driving me home from a college party. It was one or two in the morning and I was going to be in trouble because my curfew was midnight. The freeway was empty. He was drunk. Very drunk. He drove over a hundred miles an hour and I sat silently with my hands in my lap thinking perhaps I will die perhaps I will be home in my bed and didn't feel very much about either option. He slowed down but as we turned onto the exit ramp he lost control of the car. I don't remember what happened after that but I remember later, in my bed, thinking, "Here I am home in my bed after all."
But I sat in that room evening after evening, and something began to happen to me that had never happened to me before.
I began to feel less alien on this planet surrounded by these other people who had the same characteristics as me (skin, hair, bodies), but who were otherwise completely separated from me. I spent my life feeling adrift from all other human beings, so deeply lonely and disconnected that even the weight of arms around my shoulders, hugging me, could not penetrate the emptiness.
In these rooms there were people who opened their mouths and spoke the unspeakable. They talked about the things that I had only heard people talk about in books. One reason that I was such a bibliophile was because it was the only time in my life I experienced affirmation that the events and emotions I saw and experienced were not figments of my imagination. I spent my life gaslit, which was the fire that stoked my intense anxiety, and in The Meeting, person after person took off their mask, laid it down next to them, leaned forward, and opened their mouth to tell one horrible truth after another. I absolutely loved it.
Very quickly, I went from being aloof and disgusted by the people in The Meeting to feeling engrossed — enchanted, even. Who were these people who spoke the truth about darkness with such fearlessness? How did they become this way, accustomed to the night? Where had they been all my life?
I soon became eaten up inside by the desire to lean forward, open my mouth, and say the ugly true things of my life. I wanted to talk about the trees and bushes that I hid inside, the ones outside my childhood window, and how when I shook and cried, the leaves kissed my face and the branches leaned in to me, and I felt comforted. I wanted to talk about the sleepless nights, the smashing fists that broke pots, car windows, glasses. I wanted to talk about the terror of orange carpets in motel rooms.
I wanted to say that I hated myself, and had for as long as I could remember — and that drinking and using drugs were some of the only times where I felt like a person among other people, instead of an alien on earth.
And one day, I did. I was quiet and embarrassed but I kept my eyes level with the others. I wanted to see their faces when I said I was fifteen and I hated myself and in all honesty, I had no idea how to be a human being at all. I watched and what I saw changed my life — which is to say that before that moment, I had the belief that no other human being would witness another person's darkness without getting paid for it, and after that moment, I had the belief that some would.
"When a person is wounded deeply when they are small and afraid of life and human beings, they must protect themselves or else they will go crazy or kill themselves or someone else.
After the meeting some people approached me. I saw all kinds of people: beautiful, ugly, hardened, vulnerable, rich, poor, middle class, black, brown, white, women, men, and some like me — children, really. I saw that regardless, each person was hugged, met eye to eye, and told they were welcome there and to please come back. Myself included.
Months passed, and I continued to go to The Meeting. I honed my teenage skill of disdain and judgement, and sat in judgement of every single person in the room, including myself. I also began to feel a tenderness toward the broken parts of the people who sat in the room with me, a tenderness foreign to me before this.
When a person is wounded deeply when they are small and afraid of life and human beings, they must protect themselves or else they will go crazy or kill themselves or someone else. In order to protect themselves, one thing that often happens is that in place of tenderness, vulnerability, or empathy, there grows disgust and rage when faced with weakness or pain. This is the tragedy behind many of the most horrible acts of human violence in this world, such as an abused child who grows to then abuse their own children or animals. The tragedy is that not only does this horrible thing happen to someone innocent and desperate and helpless, but then that someone is impregnanted with an alien seed of trauma that they have no control over, no tools to deal with, and that will one day be born and kill everything that matters to them. This was, out of all my undesirable characteristics, the one which frightened me the most. It terrified me. I knew that this response was destructive to all relationships, and I had seen it in adults around me — what it did to the people they tried to love, but inevitably crucified.
In The Meeting, the constant, steady, and accepted without notice flow of revealing of weakness, fault, humiliations and sin allowed me to observe, feel disgust, but be forced to stay in place and continue listening, then later often embracing this same person, looking in their eye, and telling them with sudden and complete sincerity how glad I was to see them there, and that I hoped they came back. I was being inundated in the practice of radical acceptance, and it was transforming my heart.
Again and again and again and again, I heard a story from a human being that went something like this:
I was hurt deeply
I hurt myself deeply
and I went on to hurt others deeply
It's so simple. Once, I spoke at The Meeting and shared that this simple cycle was like pissing in a swimming pool. "But you are swimming in your own piss!" I shared. I thought I was very clever. I was fifteen.
After many months of listening to ten of these stories a night, night after night, I was aware that the tenderness which I had begun to feel for those in the room with me was tentatively searching around inside, looking for a way in which I could be tender with myself.
Loving myself was not something I contemplated, but hating myself less vigorously would be nice. It would be a rest after a long walk.
One night I shared in The Meeting and I cried. I felt stupid, exposed, horrified at myself for not thinking of the myriad reasons why surely I should not have said something so deeply personal, and convinced that everyone there was going to have a hard time looking at me. Afterward, many people came up to me and hugged me as usual, looked in my eye, patted my shoulder, and thanked me for sharing.
In the car on the way home, something inside of me was trembling. I was scared because I could not understand what I was feeling. I breathed, and looked out at the night sky, velvet blue and strewn with stars, impassive and infinite. I felt my heart beating, and heart a slight whirring in my ears, echoes of the shouts, greetings and laughter of the discussions after The Meeting. I felt my elbows resting on my legs, and the weight of my mouth.
I was feeling what it is to be able to begin to live in your own skin.