Nothing Comes From Nothing
"nihil fit ex nihilo"
Nothing comes from nothing.
The rain washes over the streets of Manhattan in April and all that’s left behind is the occasional rotting cardboard sign. Months of darkness will soon dissolve into the sheen of another hot summer, but for now, I run along the drizzly East River just after sunrise. Beside me is my dog Remington, who is afraid of canes, small people, and sudden movements. She trips me at least twice, dodging something that isn’t actually there, though her fear is real. The mutt drives me crazy sometimes but then I remember that she was plucked from an Alabama kill shelter after someone decided she was cute enough to be wanted. We all have our baggage, and so I continue to love her even when she rips the leash from my hands and jumps on the doorman to bite his fingers. He’s afraid of her but he smiles politely anyway, to mask the discomfort we both share.
Someone told me she was struggling yesterday and I asked her to keep fighting; if not for herself then for me. She said her alcohol tolerance used to be much higher and it made me proud because this means she’s healing. Even though I forget it myself sometimes, it is tenacity that gives value to the fight of life. Each punch can feel like the beginning of another collapse, when instead, each is a new beginning. We learn from a young age that we must fight for what matters to us or be engulfed by what it is we are up against. We fight to be treated like we are valid in feeling as deeply as we do, like we have worth irrespective of our appearance, even though men on the street only want to talk about our asses. We embark on what can be a long, scary process to find medications that will rewire our brains correctly.
In high school, I saved a white feeder mouse from getting eaten by snakes and named him Lois. My Greek au pair, Asimina, got rid of him in the middle of the night because she said he was “unclean like the devil.” She also called my brother “the prince” and me “the peasant,” which struck me as strange, but didn’t feel altogether surprising. Sometimes I felt as disposable as Lois apparently was. I still don’t know where he went.
I used to like the rainy days because I thought it couldn’t get any worse and that was as close as I could get to optimism. When the rain came down outside my architecturally-void monolith of a high school, it felt more appropriate than when the sun would shine. I was into desaturating photos at the time, editing pictures of my friends and my school down to black and white prints with a single remaining color. I loved the way a green ring or red flower would pop when surrounded by shades of black and white; pigment that would keep me rooted to an otherwise monochromatic world. All the while, I made self-deprecating jokes and wore sweatpants every day – laughing it off like it was just ‘my style’ – while confronting the dysmorphic reflection of a girl I hardly knew.
I was the kid who believed I had good judgment; the one who dismissed any evidence that said otherwise. The teachers blabbed that my “prefrontal cortex” was this and that, that my body didn’t know how to ‘adult’ yet because of it, and that my brain would not object to stupid decisions. I couldn’t see it.
The oval scar I got at Cozy’s when I was sixteen will always be a reminder of those hectic car rides into the city that ended near the sketchy park with the fat rats and man who threw bottles at the iron fence. There was an American Apparel there and a Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs; all very exotic. Tattoos and piercings abound, 1st and 1st will always summon memories of leaving the world behind to be the ‘grown up’ I thought I was being. Sometimes I walk by the same intersection on my way home from work - passing girl-droves just like my high school crew - to let the reality of change set in once more. “Uh,” I said as I walked into Cozy’s nine years ago, “I’m so stupid. I forgot my ID in the car.” First silence…and then, “okay go on in but remember it next time.” I honestly looked twelve.
The hookah coals that fell on my lap later that night, a consequence of clumsiness, burned right through my jeans and left a gnarly scar on my thigh. This was when it was still believed that smoking hookah wasn’t bad for you, despite the hours of tobacco inhalation. Gold star for me, the girl who believed it, or, at least, the girl who didn’t really care. I had no idea who I was, and enmeshed in the present, I saw no conceivable future. My body was the enemy so what did it matter anyway? I couldn’t feel a thing as the fiery combustible rocks sank deeper into my unloved skin. But the years I spent trying to be ironic usually still ended in 4 a.m. renditions of bad Taylor Swift songs and harmless mistakes. It felt like a very typical sixteen-year-old experience, but I see now that it absolutely wasn’t. As the internal war raged on, so did the mastery of my denial; the deep suppression of feelings that would soon detonate in one accelerated display.
I bought cigarettes a couple towns over when I was bored. I hardly ever smoked because I find the taste disgusting, but I liked the way it sounded – “Marb 27s, please.” A boy had told me 27s were the ones to buy and I didn’t question it. Later that summer, the same boy flipped me from a steel chair into the pool. On the way down, the slate edge took a nice 12-inch slice of my back with it. I laughed instead of crying because I felt obligated to never admit when someone hurt me back then. I remember the first time I walked up to the counter and butchered the word “Marlboro.” I walked out, mortified, before the woman could answer. I had blown my shot and everyone knew it.
One time I spray painted something on a bench and I still feel badly about it. I also agreed to be the driver for “car parties,” which were as stupid as they sound. Of course, consequences were a nonissue. At one of my house parties, we carefully assembled paper towels on my best friend when she passed out on the recliner in my back yard. This is what I believed being a good friend and party host should look like. I’ll never forget the time my mom said to me, “is your friend okay?” after I’d carried most of her dead weight to the couch from the lawn chair. “Mom...yeah, she was tired,” I said at 8 p.m. during what would go down as the biggest party of our high school career. That one can’t help but make you laugh.
It felt easy to be bad and hard to be good; I couldn’t just suddenly establish myself as an “achiever.” I had once been so proud of my perfect middle school attendance record and yet I was so indifferent that my attendance, or lack thereof, almost prevented me from graduating high school. My beloved Blackberry gave me the power to have absolute control over my image as I navigated the mess of everything behind closed doors. Tears can't be seen through hard plastic. Dying inside, I texted jokes and stories, made people laugh, felt I owed it to them. I stayed so busy I hardly came home and dodged everything and everyone that could have actually helped me.
I went off to the archetypal pothead school but wasn’t a pothead myself, trying to figure out, with no urgency, if I was going to be someone. I ate Chinese food on the floor and harbored a cat named Oliver in my dorm; drank Four Lokos before they were banned on campus and read Weber in the dark under a flashlight. In my mind, I still made a pretty good screw-up because it didn’t require me to pretend that I was smart, or pretty, or going somewhere.
Once I separated myself from the old pseudo-identity I had no respect for, I managed to pull a 180 and begin to see tiny glimmers of personal potential. As I used to tell an insecure friend, you have to pretend you’re the person you want to be even if you don’t believe you are. Someday, you realize you’ve just naturally melded into her. We don’t always recognize our capacity for this kind of progression, but it starts with just a tiny vision and some courage. So, I started writing, studying, cooking, running, and battling the side of my brain that still told me I couldn’t be an “achiever.” Imposter syndrome is a real affliction.
Years later, I am my person, even if it takes regular upkeep to see it. I took accountability after 22 years and yet sometimes I still want to slide back into a world where I’m invincible again; where nothing can hurt me physically and so nothing is to be feared. But I come back down from this place to the reality that this perception was just a dangerous product of denial; of pushing down pain, anxiety, and fear to a place that condenses the unmanageable into something disguised as control: careless indifference.
I was so not me back then, needing to be center of attention always, and crashing hard when I was alone. I walked anxious circles in my room until only indented wood remained. I was a person even I wouldn’t want to be around, whether or not the tiniest morsel of authenticity lived, waiting, under the ugly façade. Believing I was worthless overshadowed any consideration of whether I could be better. Authenticity felt like a nonstarter; there was simply no place for who I really was. So, I buried the many complexities of myself in a deep place, so out of reach, that I hardly knew they were there; and if they were there, no space existed in which they would be welcomed. I was a shameful and unforgivable excuse for a life. I am asked all the time how it's possible that I was so broken when I seemed so together. Ironically, living a lie, being a person who hardly resembled my actual identity, was exactly how I seemed so complete. One of my favorite poets said, “you are not weak just because your heart feels so heavy.” I was not weak, but I was not ready to be the ‘complicated girl.’ Until one day, I owned it.
What if I had been nicer back then? What if I'd reached out to people who were suffering from some of the same demons as I, and if I’d stopped stuffing my struggles into an internalized ball of self-hate? I was perceptive enough to know who you were, strugglers. Does that make me a jerk? What if I'd forged this community earlier to give solidarity and hope to others consumed by the crushing weight of a perfect town and school? What if instead of the sort-of-preppy, bitchy jock, hiding behind the walls of her closet and heart - decent at writing but writing about nothing important - I had lived bravely as the person I was? Nothing comes from nothing, and I gave nothing.
What if I walked into my old school right now, found the empty girl I was back then, and said, "you're going to be okay. You will be someone, someday”?
I beg you to know that it is not selfish to start living for yourself – to stop striving to fit a mold that is inauthentic to you – and to just be. All will fall into place, and I assure you, everyone else will be okay. Everyone is okay.