Part Two: The High School You Didn't Attend

by Kait Mauro

Your mom says everyone was a lot less worried about you in high school than they were during your childhood and when you were an adolescent. She says you were outgoing and a “go-getter.” She doesn't call you that anymore; now your family reserves that term for your two younger sisters. For the first year and a half of high school you still lived on Bevington Rd, in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, and you found adventure and independence in riding the 67F bus down to Oakland and spending hours in the library, the art museum or reading in the cafes. You'd bring home as many books as you could carry and just devour them. All of the “teen section” librarians knew you.

Once you got grounded by your mother for saying “fuck” while you were having an argument and had to miss a reading at the library by a young adult author you really liked. One of the librarians got you a signed copy of one of her books and gave it to you the next time you came in because they knew how excited about the event you had been and that you'd had to miss it. It meant a lot to you. You were still being “unschooled” and both of your parents worked a solid amount, so mostly you kids were left to your own devices. That's how you remember it anyway.

The Carnegie Library was your safe haven. You remember feeling very anxious one day and taking your books to the most hidden, private part of the stacks you could find, just wanting to feel safe and like no one could find you. The floors were made of an opaque glass, so you could vaguely see the shadows of people walking through the stacks on the floors above or below you. It was a grand, very beautiful building. You still like to go there on the rare occasions when you visit your hometown.

But you also used the computers there a lot for bad things. You developed some version of disordered eating, never serious enough to qualify as an eating disorder or make you lose a shocking amount of weight, but your weight was on your mind constantly. You would try to fast, though you never lasted as long as your goal. You found a community of other girls like you on an old blogging website called Xanga and would spend hours looking at “thinspiration” pictures and writing listed-posts of what you had eaten that day, how many calories you'd consumed and how much you had exercised. You'd write about how much you hated your body and how much you wanted to be thinner. The other girls would comment on your posts:

“Stay strong.”
“Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels!”
“Hunger hurts but starving works….”

You became obsessed with becoming skinny and “perfect.” You thought if you were smaller people would love you more and want to protect you. What you thought you needed protection from you are not sure, maybe yourself in some subconscious way.

You would abuse laxatives, eat fiber tablets when you were hungry to try and quell the hunger with as few calories as possible, chew food and then spit it out — sometime “consuming” an entire meal this way, weigh yourself every morning and constantly scrutinize your appearance in mirrors and other reflective surfaces. You would work out in your bedroom until your whole body, all of its muscles, were shaking for ten minutes after you'd stopped.

All of this got worse as high school went on and then went into remission when you got to college, the weight-obsessed thoughts only appearing from then on occasionally when you were under intense stress.

On the outside, although all of this inner self-hatred was going on, you think you appeared to be doing fine. You had a job as a hostess at a restaurant when you were 13 & 14 and liked earning money on your own, as your parents were never the type to give out any sort of allowance. You had a job for a lawyer neighbor who is now on trial for raping his wife. You used to find Playboy magazines in the supply cloets there and they made you feel gross even though you never opened them, just saw the covers. Later you had a job in a chain café. The first job was okay but your boss was creepy and used to put his hands on your waist when there was no reason to and that used to really bother you. You quit the third job when you were applying to colleges and they kept scheduling you forty hour work weeks, even though you told them you had a lot to do with college applications and couldn't work that much. You'd had three different jobs, not including pet and babysitting, before you were 17 years old.

Freshman year you were in a musical, Les Miserables, at the local high school. You were also in a choir and would go to rehearsals for that once or twice a week and you went on several tours with the choir, including one to Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. Although you weren't in school, you had friends through the choir and the various church youth groups you were in over the years. Even then, though you had been raised Christian, you weren't quite sure you bought into the whole Christianity thing but you liked going to the youth groups because they gave you a chance to be social and have friends.

Most people who homeschool or unschool their kids are in one of two camps: hippies or religious zealots. Your mother swung between the two categories many times during your childhood. You remember her telling you things like  “he won't buy the cow if he gets the milk for free.” She took you to different “Christian Homeschooling Groups” and you got kicked out of one because a tiny slice of your stomach skin showed when you raised your hand one day. You used to pretend to be sick to avoid them a lot. You'd put on this tinted chapstick that for some reason made you look really pale and ill.

Your family moved about 30 miles outside of the city to a two hundred year old horse farm when you were 16. You missed being able to get around by bus, having no car, and felt more isolated there. By then you had pretty much gotten out of the horse-craze. It became much less fun when your younger siblings got involved and it wasn't just your dad and you anymore.

You were in another musical your sophomore year at the new local high school by the farm. You started dating a boy, Christopher, who would be your boyfriend for most of high school. It was hard because he lived in the city and you lived 30 miles out but you found ways to spend time together. Sometimes you would go stay with your grandparents for a few days because they lived right near your old house on Bevington Rd and then you could still take your beloved 67F down to Oakland and do what you used to do, see Christopher, go to choir practice and just generally have a little time to be in the world instead of isolated on the farm. You still remember you used to catch the bus at 11:17am. You can't even walk to a gas station from the farm, that's how rural it is. There are no bus lines there.

You remember December of your sophomore year you stayed up, barely sleeping at all, for almost a week straight, making Christmas cards by hand and writing long individualized notes in them for every person you knew. You must have made one hundred cards. You don't know why you did this but you were prone to go on kicks like this — getting obsessed with a project, focusing on almost nothing else and getting very little sleep until it was completed. Yet you didn't feel tired. You felt energized and grateful and excited and alive, more alive than usual. You loved these times.

One of the first stories you ever wrote and published online was called “Cinnamon,” you don't remember being suicidal but something about the idea of always having a way out of any situation appealed to you.

“So, Anna, do you know why you're here?” she asks.

“Because my mother doesn't understand the difference between having a plan and planning,” I tell her. I try to be matter-of-fact, I try to match her professionalism, but irritation glimmers at the edge of my voice.

“Hm,” she says. I can tell she isn't really concerned. She scribbles a few words on her clipboard, looks up at me. “And what makes you feel this way?”

“It's the cinnamon.” I tell her. She looks at me, raises her eyebrows a little, the universal signal for ‘please continue.' So I do, “I'm deathly allergic to cinnamon so I make sure to always have some with me. Here,” I reach for my purse, pull out a thin, sealed tube, hand it to her. “I like to keep my options open, see?”

“Anna, if you're having suicidal thoughts…” she begins, but I cut her off. “If you're planning to kill yourself, you're having ‘suicidal thoughts.' If you simply have a plan but no direct intention to follow through, then you're just thinking about suicide. This is the difference no one seems to understand.” She's looking at me like I'm crazy.

“It's only about keeping my options open. If I am going to be here, and I have no intention not to be, I want to be here by choice, by my choice, everyday,” I tell her again. “If you're not in control then you're the victim.”

More scribbles on the clipboard.

You think you may have seen therapists on and off during high school but you don't remember why, who they were or what you talked about.

Christopher and you had a rocky, childish relationship where you broke up and got back together a lot. When you broke up for the last time, you suddenly needed him back and you told a very ugly lie to try to get him to come back to you. You said you would tell the things you didn't want to admit but you cannot admit what this lie was, it still sickens you that you were so desperate and dishonest. You felt abandoned and, an omen of one of the future diagnoses you would receive, you reacted frantically to avoid abandonment. You confessed to the lie and you never got back together. He once gave you a card that said he loved you because he thought you'd make a great mom someday. It makes you cringe just to think about someone saying that to the 16-year-old you.

Your senior year you got accepted to Washington University in St Louis for college, on a pretty good scholarship, and you were ecstatic about it. Applying for college when you've been “unschooled” for most of your life is different than it is for more traditionally educated people and you put so much work into your applications and making yourself look like someone who could handle Wash U. You aced your interview with the head of admissions. You've never known if your uncle being the dean of the art school was part of the reason you got in or not.

Your parents divorced shortly before you got accepted to Wash U. They'd been telling you and your siblings they were going to for years so it was kind of a relief to have it finally happen and not have anymore fighting between them in the house, though you felt incredibly sad for your dad in his crappy little apartment with hardly any furniture and no decorations. You remember crying a lot, while on the phone with a friend, the first night he wasn't living in your house anymore. When you got the acceptance email from Wash U in the early hours of one morning, you were so excited you called your dad and woke him up and he said not to wake him up for “things like that” again.

You wrote a book, inspired by your friend Brittney, who was a pen pal you'd met on the Xanga disordered eating circuit. You titled it “One Six Billionth” and it was basically a collection of your view of the world at 18-years-old, during your final semester of high school. When you recently went back to retype and republish it as a second edition you noticed things jumping out at you, things that seemed perfectly normal then, but now also seem like omens of the diagnoses you would receive a few years later.

You wrote things like “It's six o'clock in the morning and I still haven't gone to sleep,” and “Something about today is just so beautiful, it's breaking my heart. I can't quite put my finger on it. When I woke up this morning I felt like I could fall in love with absolutely everything. It's the craziest feeling.”

By the end of high school you had quit the choir, burned bridges with or just slowly withdrawn from most of your friends and were just ready to move onto the next era: college and St Louis.