An unprofessional writer.

From ages twelve to fifteen, I spent the majority of my time shuffling in and out of Special Ed facilities and mental institutions.

(At fifteen, I dropped out; seventeen, moved out; in-between, wrote poems about pubic hairs and milk jugs, short hyperbolic stories about suicide, plus the first chapter of one creatively horrible novel about a homeless kid’s birthday. But I digress.)

Most of these institutions did not have computers, hence no internet, and of course there were no cell phones. In some places we were allowed to view a few carefully screened movies (I saw Grease an unforgivable number of times); others we occasionally could watch the news. Infrequently we were taught real subjects, like math or astronomy, although these lessons were framed in circumstances ranked from the absurd to the bizarre. In one institution, we weren’t allowed to speak or make eye contact without explicit permission, and all of our incoming and outgoing mail was monitored. (This particular institution did not allow reading, either.)

To say that I was isolated is putting it mildly. I interacted with people in mostly therapeutic settings, where the emphasis was on deeply reflective honesty, or, conversely, shamed confession, regardless of said confession’s relationship to the truth. We were taught that “getting real” was what was going to save our lives. Frequently the staff defined what “real” was, as well as the route to said, but earnest inpatients like me took such opportunities to look deep and attempt to understand any connections the accusations may have held to hidden inner truths.

There it is: getting real. Introspection to survive, whether it’s your shit or someone else’s getting thrown.

Not every patient there had a life on the edge of destruction. Some were just regular, rebellious teenagers with over-responsive, guilty, or neglectful parents with money to spend: the perfect fodder for the troubled teen industry. For many of these teenagers, their lives were profoundly shaped by the trauma inflicted upon them. Others, myself included, had the trauma of the therapeutic environment heaped on top of serious issues at home; we would have benefited more from protection from abuse, regardless of how “real” we got with ourselves. Among us were runaways, drop outs, foster kids, drug dealers, addicts, gang members, and sex workers. These people were my peers, my friends, and my community, both inside and outside of the institutions.

Institutions, particularly residential, long-term institutions, can themselves be rife with standardized abuses so profound that, committed against anyone but “crazy” people, teenagers, drug addicts, runaways, and foster kids, such “therapy” would be widely regarded as torture. Many of the treatments, after all, directly and intentionally employ the same tactics used in thought reform.

Consequently, my socialization as an adolescent was unusual, shaped by an emphasis on authenticity, survival, solidarity, genuine connection, and a highly specialized form of brainwashing, as opposed to, say, who’s going with who to the school dance.

I have a hard time getting along with people who do not share some of these experiences. It’s not so much that they reject me as “weird”, “dangerous”, or “crazy”, although of course that happens, too. But more so, I’ve found that people find most mentions of my adolescence an “over-share”, immediately crass, impolite, and unnecessary, and I, 50-75% of the time, have no fucking idea why they wonder about who is wearing what, who is going with who to what social event, and the pros/cons of the latest gadget.

Don’t you know that you’re alive?, I frequently want to ask. You’re alive, I’m alive, and there are more important things we can say to each other than this crap.

Many people unquestioningly assume that I’m happy to centralize their experiences of life and side-line my own so as to seem more normal. In fact, this is called “professionalism”. “Politeness”. Privilege.

Sometimes I get caught up in thinking, oh no, I can’t do this! I don’t have the skills! Everything I do is wrong! I am so fucked up, so crazy, so broken. This is easy to invoke, considering that my family and a small committee of my educators decided that it was better for me and everyone that I be “treated” in isolation.

Years later- I’m pushing thirty now, a small miracle in itself- when I’m off of Facebook for a day, alone with my family, reading a book, writing a poem (that typically is not about pubic hairs or milk jugs), I realize, no- no, actually, I am a person who has lived through unique and profound experiences, experiences that allow me greater awareness, insight, and maturity; that feed my art and sustain my creativity; that enable deep, rich, and reflective relationships with my child, my partner,and my true friends and loved ones.

Professionalism is a trap that others read self-help books, buy massages, pay for yoga classes, and go on retreats to awaken themselves from.

I grew up in the underworld. I see the world from the ass-end up, and I can choose to avoid the snares that others find themselves enmeshed in. It isn’t easy, of course. Nothing ever has been. Maybe living will get easier- is it supposed to be easy?- but not because I agreed to my own marginalization and got with the game of acting like life is less colorful, complex, and varied than it actually is. More because I will eventually quit evoking that crazy/broken/failure bullshit, and learn to accept that I cannot understand, nor be understood by, everyone.

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