I grew up in Marin County, California, population very tiny, price of iced coffee astronomical, NIMBY-laden, blossoming with Mediterranean greenery, beautiful and quiet and expensive. It is a very dull place to grow up; to date, it has the highest teen drinking rate of any county in the United States. This makes sense to me, especially now that I am back.
I am no longer a teen, of course – in fact, my 10-year high school reunion date approaches – but to be here as a visitor from the place I still feel like I escaped to, as someone who kept failing to launch and ending up in her childhood bedroom, culminating in a year spent in bed healing up from a brutal accident, feels like – what? I’m still pawing through the layers of memories and feelings I’ve had throughout my years here. It’s a little sickening. Most of the time I was not happy, and I am trying to figure out if I am happy now.
I’ll save you some time and refrain from writing out an entire autobiography but, put simply, I have not had a very happy life. Much of that unhappiness occurred here, in this house whose dining room table I’m typing this at, or nearby, at the local high school or at therapists’ offices downtown. Some of it happened in San Francisco proper, 20 miles south of here, where I’d get too stoned and have panic attacks. I didn’t understand then where they came from but now it makes sense – life was too unhappy for me to be smoking weed as blithely as I did.
I went to university for four years and landed right back here once I was finished, wracked with borderline personality disorder, licking my wounds from an abusive relationship, involuntarily off the coke but still drinking as much as I could put down before I blacked out on a nightly basis. Skip forward: I got a little better, moved to New York. Skip forward more: I got in my accident, ended up back here again. I cried when I learned that I’d have to go back home, curled up in my hospital bed and yelled “I can’t fucking believe this! I don’t want to go home! What the fuck am I going to do now?”
Well, I want to say to my past self, you’ll be patient, or as patient as you can possibly be, and you’ll get better, and you’ll leave again. And thirteen sluggish months later, I did.
What is it to be back somewhere you’ve found poisonous for so long, and do your best to wipe yourself clean of any expectations, and still be saddened? What is it to try so hard to wring some joy out of what feels to be a dry sponge? I’ve been here for a week, and have been to places I liked – coffee shops, bookstores, beaches – but I have realized that any joy I’d once felt at those places was a tainted one, enjoyable only relative to what I was feeling at the time. A nice iced coffee in an ancient, arching building was preferable to lying in bed all day, but it was still a coffee taken in the town I’d been trying to escape from since high school, and therein lay the bitterness. Coming back from my new life across the country, one certainly not perfect but much preferred, its effect was, now, simply depressing.
I feel guilty for this. I try to love my hometown, I do – it’s not that bad, after all, is pretty and quiet and is getting (relatively) trendy, has good restaurants and, for the most part, nice residents. I no longer feel the need to flip off my high school when I drive by it or scan places for former dreaded classmates. I understand now why people move here, settle down. It’s a comfortable place.
But for so long I wanted to leave. So goddamn long! My last stay here was especially excruciating – this place is small enough that I’d inevitably bump into someone who knew me, or at least of me, while my father was wheeling me around the downtown plaza before I got my prosthetic legs post-accident. Everyone knew about my “situation” – that’s what people here have been calling it since I’ve been back, my little situation – and everyone felt the need to stop by the house, say hello, check in on me, whether invited or not. I felt, then, so deeply like a failure: I’d done terribly in high school (and everyone knew), had a messy time in college (at least all my parents’ friends knew), and now here I was fucked up and gnarled and crippled with mom and dad taking care of me (and everyone knew). The shame ran through me like a switchblade. I could not escape it as long as I was here.
I left this past February when I had enough money and a place to live. That was it. I needed out so badly, would sometimes cry with frustration upon waking up in San Rafael yet a-fucking-gain, and though my first months in New York were miserable (my leg got an infected cut, rendering it impossible to do much more beyond occasionally leave the apartment to buy food), it felt worth it. I think it was. Life isn’t anywhere near perfect in New York, but neither is it a place I desperately want to leave.
I tweeted-and-deleted earlier that “who knew an entire metropolitan area could be so deeply triggering.” Not really a joke. Deeply fucked up things happened here, or if not fucked up at least deeply sad. I’m staying in my (remodeled) childhood bedroom, where I once cried until I threw up upon learning that I wasn’t allowed to do a coveted summer program due to an eating disorder. I still remember the pattern on my bedsheets, the soft golden sunlight dappling the walls as I wept so hard I felt bile push up through my throat. That’s the thing: it really is beautiful here, physically, at least. The produce is ripe and sweet and the sunsets are rich red-and-gold on a near-daily basis. But that somehow makes it feel more evil, more insidious – it hides the sickness that I felt for so many years, makes me feel as if it’s not justified. It’s so gorgeous here! How could I have ever been so sad?
And then the plane touches down, and I remember.
I think of the very first lines of the novel The End of Eddy –
From my childhood I have no happy memories. I don’t mean to say that I never, in all those years, felt any happiness or joy. But suffering is all-consuming: it somehow gets rid of anything that doesn’t fit into its system.
– and remember how I felt when I first read them. God, that’s relatable. But I’d rather die than write a whole novel – than go back and focus for a year, two years, however long, on my former life – just to tell a story about it to other people.
I’m telling it to you here. Some of it, very little of it. But that is as much as I can do, as much as I can stomach, before feeling like I’m folding in on myself just to torture myself. Maybe not being able to dwell on the past too much is good – in some ways I think it is. But I just wish it did not make me so sad.
Tomorrow I head back to New York, back to “life” (whatever the hell that entails lately), back to my friends and my room that I have missed. At some point in the future someone will ask me where I’m from and I’ll say “this little town in the Bay Area” like I always do. And then I will hope that the conversation flows elsewhere.