Adolescent Angst

I was a happy, sunshiny kid, but at a certain point that all changed, and I became a withdrawn and anxious adolescent. Maybe it was because I moved across town to a different school in 8th grade, or maybe it was that being young for my grade level finally caught up with me. Besides being younger than my peers, I was a late bloomer, which meant that I still looked like a little girl while the people around me were in the process of developing adult bodies. I also was smart in school. For all these reasons I was bullied for the better part of two years. I remember one day finding myself alone in a classroom with one of my tormentors, who politely asked me a simple question about an assignment. I was so baffled to find her treating me like a human being that I could hardly think of anything to say in reply.

My tendency towards aversion most likely developed at this time. I had interests that put me at odds with most of my classmates, particularly classical music. I saw my first opera at 8 and was enraptured by it. My parents had a tendency to take me everywhere, to symphony, ballet, art museums, the opera, and the theater, and to talk about literature and philosophy at home. On Saturdays the Metropolitan Opera broadcast blasted through the house. I played piano and violin, emphatically uncool in the sixties. When my friends asked me what I got for Christmas, I shuffled my feet and mumbled something about a recording of Paganini’s first violin concerto. They looked at me funny and dropped the subject.

It’s not that I didn’t like the popular music of the sixties, but given a choice, I would always go for the music I loved over the music I liked. I had a few friends who shared my interests, and we clung to one another for dear life, developing a worldview of us vs. them. And then there was the awful family secret. I remember an occasion in 6th grade when my teacher tried to tease information out of me (how the conversation got started I have no idea), showing skepticism at my faltering responses. By the time I was looking at colleges, my violin teacher strongly recommended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. I couldn’t tell him that I could never go there because my brother was in the State Hospital in that town. Finally, my mother called him and told him the source of my reticence. It was embarrassing and disturbing at the same time. Here I was, preparing for what everyone said was a brilliant future, and here my two siblings were, sequestered away in places of darkness and shame.

I never told anyone, not my best friend—the girl I shared sleepovers with, in whom I confided my crushes, my feelings about my parents, almost everything—nor any of my friends; I never spoke about it with the boyfriend I passionately loved, nor any other boy, until my senior year in high school. I remember telling my friend Carl because he had a brother who was also in a state hospital, but I don’t remember how we sussed each other out on our common experience. Another male friend, Philip, the least tactful of my friends, prodded and poked at me enough that I eventually talked to him about it. I felt guilty and violated. And then one evening when I was babysitting, the friend keeping me company began to hem and haw to the effect that she had been told by our mutual friends that there was something she should never ask me. What was that, I wanted to know, thinking it probably had to do with our usual topic of conversation of who liked who. She hemmed and hawed some more, claiming that she would never, ever tell me, until finally she blurted it out: “They said I should never ask you about your brothers!” Dead silence. Years later the very thought of it would reduce me to tears, because on that evening so long ago, for the first time, I felt understood.

It was my mother who most strenuously demanded the code of silence. My friend Philip criticized her for it, but she had her reasons, and I accepted them. The dominant theories among psychiatrists at midcentury held that just about everything going on with a child could be attributed to attitudes and actions of the mother; even a hint of maternal reticence could trigger severe mental illness. Fortunately, early on she had a doctor who didn’t think that way, and who told her she’d done absolutely nothing to cause my brothers’ affliction. “What about my daughter?” She asked; “how will this affect her?” “Oh, she’ll be a little neurotic, just like the rest of us” was his reply. Then there was the refusal to subject our private tragedy to other people’s idle curiosity. I discovered later, when I decided to talk about it, that answering one question after another made me feel worse than if I’d remained silent.

Going to college was an opportunity to start out fresh, but I soon realized that I was still the same person with the same backstory and the same hangups. As a freshman at a women’s college, I began college life with a series of mixers and parties to introduce our class to the men at nearby schools. People were forced to make snap decisions about one another based on appearance and not much else. The dates that resulted from these encounters were difficult and stilted. I discovered that alcohol went a long way towards easing my shyness, but drinking led to further complications in the long run. Among other things, I ended up with a string of “boyfriends” who were fun to be with as long as we were both pleasantly drunk, but otherwise of no real interest. I also had to contend with the exhausting task of setting limits and sticking to them.

After struggling in this way for a couple of years, I found someone and became attached, or rather, dependent on him. Our brief marriage ended soon after we left college and tried to build a life together. I found myself at the age of 24 back in my parents’ home, going through a divorce and feeling like a failure.

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