T-Minus Five Years to
17. USE GRADES
Dad stands at the bottom of the stairs, the five-week report resting on one of the steps because if he holds it any longer he will crumple it up in his hand. His face is red, the top of his bald head shiny with sweat, and his left hand clutching the newel for support as he glares you down. Slowly, he unclenches his teeth and forces a sharp breath from his lungs. “So, you haven’t been handing things in?”
Prior to this moment, you were lying in bed, texting a friend for her half of the answers to the social studies packet that she asked to split for her own sanity. The moment your name echoed through the house, you knew what was coming.
Whenever five-week reports arrived, you would tuck yourself away, the door to your bedroom open just a crack so no one could comment on it. Content with being out of sight and out of mind, though that never truly worked. The turning in your gut was always present, no matter what grades had been received for that quarter, because nothing was sufficient.
There’s a dance you’d perform. Dad shouts your name, you crawl to the hall, pain sparks inside your chest, and you stand by the stairs so both floors of the house are filled with tension and anxiety. It started in high school, when you finally learned that the conversation, the disappointment, was coming no matter what, and you stopped hanging around the living room. You didn’t like television enough to be there anyway.
It also started with the encouragement to take an advanced technology courses through a nearby university. Keeping all the doors open for the future.
“I. . .” you start but immediately stop because his face contorts with anger at just the sound of your voice. “I might not have handed in everything.”
These courses were supposed to “broaden your horizons.” It was a great idea in sixth grade when being an architect sounded cool. Back before the discovery that math and drawing were required and all you actually wanted to do was to look at the cool buildings.
Here’s the thing, you could explain. You could walk down the stairs, sit in the living room, be level-headed, and tell him that you secured an extension for the project after this had been written. Or you could just tell him that you spent all of the time in that class talking to a friend and writing English papers because nothing about computer integrated manufacturing was of interest. You could say something, anything at all.
Instead you sink to the floor, dizzy with the white-hot panic that starts in your head. At this sign of weakness, Dad launches his lecture. So you sit on the top step, struggling to breathe, wracking your brain for the words he wants to hear, when all you want is to not take the class.
You deserve this.
18. USE HANDS
On the radio they say that the space between the thumb and pointer finger is a pressure point and that squeezing this point can help ease tensions. Mom scoffs at this, her hands sliding up and down the steering wheel to help herself relax. You test it, gently applying pressure and counting to ten. Your shoulders release and breathing gets just a little bit easier. Save this information for later.
When Mom and Dad are disappointed next, either for grades or indecisiveness, you discover that your pointer finger can curl in and reach this small area. Previously, you have realized that the sharp digging of nails into the skin distracts from the emotional pain, drawing attention to the physical. The more it hurts, the better it works. So now it’s time to combine the two, using the little bit of nail allowed to grow when not being picked at to dig into the space, and the added pain assists with reducing tension.
Sometimes it will just be you, alone in a room trying to complete something that was left until last minute or just sitting there thinking. These are the worst moments. Roll into a ball on the carpet of your dorm-room floor and stare out the doorway into the hallway, relish in the fact that Ben from down the hall introduces you as a dead body when his girlfriend comes to visit, and, most importantly, dig in harder when it seems like you might start to cry.
Nick will sit across from you at the table, smiling despite the fact that the happiness has been sucked from the air by the recent events. Every time you look at him, the time he shoved his girlfriend into the wall replays in your head. Force a smile and dig in deeper. Soon you won’t have to see him again, expulsion is imminent, and his last memory shouldn’t be of you sobbing in the dining hall.
Hands are a tough spot to hide. Soon there will be an infected hole, bright red and oozing, drawing attention to your habit. When someone points it out, laugh because the discomfort and the utter disappointment in yourself makes you want to dig harder, but not with them watching.
Find a new place.
Now that you can pierce skin with just a nail, something that allows for you to be in public and in control no matter what comes to mind, there is no reason to bite or tear the nails. They grow, longer than you’ve ever had them, and they're sharp. If they are torn slightly, the jagged edge can cause the pain to stand out more.
That area on your hand will scar as it’s left alone. It’s soft, pink, and round, a cute blemish on your otherwise plain hand. Stop looking at it.
Do it again.
19. USE LIES
The words roll off your tongue, a lie that you hadn’t even considered until you were saying it aloud. Their face will shift, usually from anger to disbelief to acceptance, and you will resist the urge to sigh even though this moment of peace will be short lived.
Wrack your brain for better explanations. These will also be lies, but ones that can be backed up and repeated over and over with increasing amounts of reasonable, assuring evidence that no one will dare to argue with. Kick yourself for not thinking of these sooner while trying to work them into your current lie as best you can.
As for the truth, bury it. Convince yourself of the lie so your face stops burning and your hands stop shaking when you say it.
Yes, the professor has been contacted. No, you don’t remember that conversation. Yes, you are making sure to get enough sleep and remembering to eat three meals a day. No, there isn’t anything else that can be done to improve that grade. Yes, everything is going very well, exceptionally well, please stop asking.
Now, you’ll get caught. You know this, even as the words slip from your lips, but just lie. It’s their disappointment, not yours, that curls inside your chest. Yours is the one that twists inside your gut and makes everything spin. They combine to make that white-hot panic that almost bowls you over, urged on by the inability to take a deep breath while your eyes remain out of focus, large black spots filling your vision so you can meet their eyes without actually seeing them.
Why’d you do it? Do you know? Was it the never-ending fear that everything you do is never good enough? Or was it the desire to just answer the question with what they want to hear, watch them nod expectantly and purse their lips in agreement, and know that they won’t yell at that moment?
The therapist will claim she is there to help. She’ll sit with her computer screen open toward you, allowing you to watch as she types up her thoughts on your case and symptoms with little regard for the paperwork you were asked to fill out earlier. She needs the truth. There is no way to help if she doesn’t know what is actually occurring and how you truly feel about it.
So lie to her too.
She’ll tell you that talking to you is like pulling teeth. Try not to cry about it. She doesn’t know that this is something you are sensitive about because you never told her.
When the truth comes out and people sit before you with grim faces, shaking with anger, and trying their hardest not to send you away, stay silent. You have no more lies and the truth is too far buried, locked away inside some back room in your head surrounded by shame and disappointment. Cry because you are trapped. Not in a lie, but inside that back room, and try not to further insult those calling you out.
“Are you okay?” they ask with genuine concern despite all that you’ve done.
20. USE ALCOHOL
So you don’t want to go home at the moment due to a your parents' marriage problems, but someone handed you a bottle of tequila, and it’s all yours.
The last time you downed tequila, you woke up still drunk in the hospital at seven in the morning. The walk out of the hospital is only remembered by the flash of disappointed nurses with pursed lips and loud voices followed by your pathetic pleading voice checking with the billing lady to see if mom and dad would be finding out. There are holes in the Nirvana shirt now and the walk back is completely missing, but a friend let you sleep on a cot at their house.
This time you don’t chug half a tequila bottle to start the night, but Taylor starts you off with two double shots and a mixed drink, also with tequila. You’ll migrate over to the beer pong table and join flip cup. Finish the mixed drink during these five minutes. Then they start slap cup, pouring any random concoction of alcohol into the cups before arranging them in the middle of the table.
To be fair, you only drink about three of those dangerous cups on the table, filled halfway with a mix of tequila, vodka, and rum. But then Taylor hands over the bottle of tequila and you chug. It’s supposed to burn, but everything is numb and it feels great.
When you walk into the other room, you black out.
From here, the only memories have to be compiled from those around you, and they are happy to share. Janina starts it with the fact that it was over at nine when the texts no longer made sense except for the incredibly clear “Help me” followed by what was likely meant to be her name.
Jasmin says she turned around at one point and you were asleep on the stairs. From there, someone got you into a room where you proceeded to puke enough to fill a bucket.
At some point, Janina remembered the beginning of the semester. Though the hospital would have helped, at least with rehydration and possibly by pumping your stomach, it was best to avoid a repeat offense. She brought two frat boys from a different frat into the house, certain that she couldn’t get you home alone.
Once outside, you stood in the road. This is partially to get hit, though Janina says that you can’t leave until she does and the only response is a bitter laugh, but also in the hope that they are now far enough away to just let you be. Walking must have been difficult, being so drunk you could hardly stand and had to be carefully lead from the house, and you just kept saying that you want to sleep.
Ervin says that he stood on the side of the road screeching your name in irritation, because you were acting like a lost child, refusing to listen to anyone and sitting in the road. He’s wearing a leather jacket with no shirt on as he reenacts this, destroying any possible credibility. However, you did hear from multiple sources that he had to pick you up and carry you home.
They should have left you.
21. USE NEGLIGENCE
When Mom says that she can’t spend the weekend with you, rub your hands up and down your jeans and focus on the texture instead of the fact that your face is getting warm and the tears that were held back when reading in the library are now ready to fall. Class isn’t the time to cry. Hold them in until they create a headache, then drive home in the fog. You’ll make it.
Just because the heavy cream says it expired two weeks ago and is chunky doesn’t mean you can’t cook with it. Pour in the parts that still pour and call it a day. The sausage sat in the refrigerator for three weeks before you cooked it, and that didn't seem to be a problem.
Once your eyes start to close, it’s imperative that you start another episode. No need to brush your teeth or get off the couch. The colors and noises will flash mindlessly, and everything will start to hurt but don’t go to bed. Stay awake as long as possible, thinking about how gross your teeth are or how much acne is forming from the lack of hygiene. Set an alarm for eight in the morning, two hours from now.
Sleep through every alarm.
While classes are important, don’t go to anything before noon. Sure, you are more than capable of getting up and doing things, but why? When the deadline comes to drop those classes you haven’t been going to, have a panic attack about talking to the professors. It’s 17 all over again, it just costs more money now. The shame is already eating you alive so try not to think about what it will feel like to see those E’s at the end of the semester.
You can go five days without a shower if you braid your hair. Change clothes and make sure they don’t smell too bad, but also it doesn’t really matter that much. Being clean isn’t the end of the world. People wear pajamas for a week and no one bats an eye, so that T-shirt can last at least three days as long as you don’t point it out.
If you leave a candle lit in your living room while you sleep, you get to relish in the fact that your house smells like chocolate cake and that it might burn down while you sleep inside it.
Don’t blow it out.
Victoria Armet is a senior at the State University of New York at Oswego where she is studying creative writing and applied mathematical economics. She has been published by Her Campus.