Back in November of 2014, I was invited by a former high school classmate of mine at Concord High School in Concord, New Hampshire, to come back to speak to some students at that same school, where she is now a teacher. The class that she taught had something to do with the law and justice, and she was looking for a few lawyers to talk to the kids about real life experiences in the justice system.
Now, November of 2014 was not a particularly great time in my life to at all be talking about my career. I had just been let go at a busy civil litigation firm for failing to bill 2,000 hours in a calendar year (I hit 1,920. Mea culpa). I was trying my hand at managing my own practice with limited results. And, to be honest, I was a little insecure about it.
In addition, I hadn’t been in that building in over twenty years. This was going to be weird. But, at the same time, I was gripped with a certain morbid curiosity about the request, and I do enjoy talking to kids about the law.
My recollection is that the panel of alumni that she had gathered went fine. Among the alumni was a former assistant district attorney turned highly successful criminal defense lawyer, a real estate conveyancer, a constitutional law attorney, and me, a civil trial lawyer. The kids asked lots of questions, and mostly they were geared toward the sexier parts of the law – civil rights and murders. That sort of thing.
Wrapping up the panel, my teacher-friend asked us to relay to the kids our favorite moment at good ol’ CHS.
And that’s when it all came screaming back. That social awkwardness that I always particularly felt within those four walls. That feeling like I had to have a favorite high school moment, and that if I didn’t, I had done it all wrong. That my life was, you know, less than.
The truth is, I don’t have a favorite high school moment. I had a series of moments lasting three years, and when they were done I was happy to be done with them. So, there I was. Almost 40 years old, and still 17 on the inside, wondering if I should just make something up. Like, “I had sex in the band room once.” Untrue. And, no, you can’t say that to kids, dumb ass.
On down the line through the panel they went. One alumnus won a debate competition. One scored the winning goal in a hockey game. One caught a touchdown pass to win a football game and slept with the homecoming queen on the 50-yard-line afterward. Not really. But you know. Kinda like that. The class mostly sat silent as the former high school heroes listed their impressive accomplishments. Their own little diddy about Jack and Diane. My own pressure mounted in my head.
“Ed? How about you?”
“Favorite memory of anything in high school? Right up to the end?”
And the entire room let out a big half chuckle, and half sigh of relief, with a lot of knowing nods and looks of appreciation thrown my way. High school, it turned out, had not changed much in twenty years.
I tell you this story now because it’s an acknowledgement of my own perceived weakness, and how much that time in my life still means to me, even all these years later. I tell you this story because I suffer from mild depression and it helps to tell this story.
I tell you this story because I read this piece about Grafton’s Alexandra Valoras, and I immediately recognized her words as being my own. And it absolutely breaks my heart.
Before this high school junior took her own life last year, she wrote in her journal:
You are broken.
You are a burden.
You are lazy.
You are a failure.
God damn it, it’s like looking in a mirror. Like looking back through time. My own favorite adjective was “worthless.” I used it a lot. “Useless” was in there too. I was brutal to myself in my own head. But, not a whole lot more brutal than I found high school to be in reality, to be honest. People are awful and kids are the worst.
In the fall of 1992, when I was a seventeen, I too contemplated suicide. I too had a journal, and I wrote a lot of the same sort of things. I’ve since heard suicide victims mocked as having taken the “easy way” out. I never understood that. Have you ever contemplated it? It takes, in Alexandra’s words, some nerve. And a severe depth of sadness and hopelessness. A feeling, as I recall, that you are worthless. You always have been worthless, ever since you can remember. And you likely will be worthless going forward, because that’s all you know.
That was my experience, anyway.
I didn’t go through with it. I was pretty lucky. I had some teachers, some administrators and some friends who noticed what I was going through, and who intervened sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in very deliberate ways. I was very lucky and continue to be very lucky.
It’s never been quite as bad as it was when I was 17, but it’s never been amazing. I still have my moments. And now I do things like drink to dull the pain. Now I have new challenges to tackle, new pressures to endure. New depths to overcome. It never ends. You see it in the moments where I appear not to have any fucks to give. Because, sometimes I don’t. But I am, as ever, happy to still be here.
If you’re reading this and can relate, please talk to someone. We simply don’t pay enough attention to mental health and for reasons surpassing understanding, we don’t take it as seriously as we seem to take physical health. But it’s critical that you do. You have no idea how many people out there feel the same way that you do. Know that you are loved. You are valued. And we need you to be here.