5. The Stigma

Instead, I sat there, a stranger in my own body, my mind getting louder, screaming at me to do something to make it alright. 

I was eight years old the first time I remember noticing how loud shame had become, how much the pressure to be accepted was taking over.

It happened in my elementary school, which was normally a place where I felt significant, where I was proud of the work I did, proud of the straight As I earned in Gifted and Talented classes. 

One morning, my GT teacher, Mr. Edison, who looked like a young Santa Claus and practiced martial arts during recess, pulled me aside before class. 

“Is everything all right?” he asked. 

“What do you mean? Yes.” I heard the lie fall out of my lips and hang in the air like dirty cigarettes. 

“You failed your math quiz.” He held out the paper with my very first big fat red D- filling the top left corner. 

“Oh.” My eyes welled up, and my gaze fell to the ground. “I didn’t have time to study last night.” 

I could tell he knew that I was crying, but he was too kind to embarrass me.

Instead, he had my art teacher, Mrs. Lawrence, watch the class while he led me through the wide, yellow hallway and down the brown plastic-lined steps to the bowels of the school where Mrs. Sampson, the school guidance counselor, had her office.

close up of blurry rain over lights

At the far end of the back hallway, the air was as dark as the stories of the kids that had to go in there.

The last one who’d been sent to Mrs. Sampson was rumored to disembowel cats; only the truly disturbed had to talk to her.

Now I had to see her, so I must be seriously messed up too.

“Your father moved out. Your parents are separated,” she said, not as a question but a statement. 

It was the first time that I heard it out loud, and it only became true when she said it.

It wasn’t because I didn’t know it was happening, it was because we avoided talking about it at home.

They thought we were too young to understand, or maybe they didn’t know what to say.

It didn’t matter; I didn’t know anyone whose parents were separated, so I felt like a failure.

Like it was my fault for being a mistake, like it was my fault Dad moved out, like Mr. Edison was going to hate me just like Dad did. 

close up of rain over lights dark background

That’s what I thought, but I wonder how things might have changed for me if I’d been able to hear what Mrs. Sampson had to say.

Instead, I sat there, a stranger in my own body, my mind getting louder, screaming at me to do something to make it alright.

But I didn’t know what to do, what to say, how to make any of it better.

I’d have to go home eventually.

I’d have to grow up without Dad.

I felt a giant crack in my world where everything I’d known before was falling through, leaving me empty.

I left Mrs. Sampson’s office, telling myself that I’d have to make up for it.

I’d have to be great enough to prove to Dad, to the world, to myself, that I was worthy of living this life. 

Is escapism holding you back?

Take this two minute quiz and find out