What’s not news is that high school is, for many, hell. But the effects of one’s experiences during adolescence (and for this purpose I’ll use “high school” as shorthand for the general puberty-through-adolescence time period, which can include middle school and junior high) are often minimized, at least in my anecdotal experience. For most of my adulthood, I’ve been keenly aware of how my high school experiences have shaped me, mostly for the worse, but even the most well-meaning and caring people in my life minimize them, saying, “But it was just high school. It was tough for everybody!” The message being, really, get over it.
I know better now. Especially after the tough work of recovering from PTSD brought screaming into prominence by a violent attack a couple of years ago, I’ve come to understand just how formative my experiences between the ages of 10 to 18 really were. I won’t go through everything I’ve learned, but suffice it to say, “get over it” was never an option — one forms an understanding of one’s self and one’s surroundings at a time when the mind is most malleable, and most prone to rely upon the lizard brain, as it were. When painful interactions take place, it’s not just unpleasant, the adolescent brain goes into fight-or-flight mode. For me, being the subject of relentless bullying and mockery and humiliation at the hands of my peers, I learned to be in fight-or-flight mode during almost all of my waking hours. My lizard brain never got a chance to rest.
How could that not shape how I behave today? How I perceive myself, and how I believe myself to be perceived by others?
All this comes to mind as I read an amazing piece in New York Magazine by Jennifer Senior on a growing understanding of high school’s effect on us into adulthood. The gist is that research is showing more and more that a) we are far more affected by, and haunted by, our high school experiences than we’d previously believed, and that b) high school itself is a sociological shitshow, a horrible environment to place hundreds of strangers who are all mushy of brain and lacking in self-knowledge. It was, to say the least, eye-opening.
One thing that was enlightening to me was an explanation of what causes this shitshow to begin with. Senior writes:
Absent established hierarchies and power structures (apart from the privileges that naturally accrue from being an upperclassman), kids create them on their own, and what determines those hierarchies is often the crudest common-denominator stuff—looks, nice clothes, prowess in sports—rather than the subtleties of personality.
So right off the bat, I was in trouble. Small, clumsy, uninterested in sports, quirky. I was predestined to be screwed. Plus, I was new: I entered middle school having just moved to the area, and I had no connections to anyone in school. Like I said, screwed.
At the time they experience the most social fear, they have the least control; at the time they’re most sensitive to the impressions of others, they’re plunked into an environment where it’s treacherously easy to be labeled and stuck on a shelf. “Shame,” says Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, “is all about unwanted identities and labels. And I would say that for 90 percent of the men and women I’ve interviewed, their unwanted identities and labels started during their tweens and teens.”
Now there was a word with resonance for me. Shame. Shame permeated my every thought and breath during those years, and its essence is still palpable to me today. More on that:
Shame [is a] . . . global, crippling sensation. Those who feel it aren’t energized by it but isolated. They feel unworthy of acceptance and fellowship; they labor under the impression that their awfulness is something to hide. “And this incredibly painful feeling that you’re not lovable or worthy of belonging?” asks Brown. “You’re navigating that feeling every day in high school.”
Most of us, says Brown, opt for one of three strategies to cope with this pain. We move away from it, “by secret-keeping, by hiding”; we move toward it, “by people-pleasing”; or we move against it “by using shame and aggression to fight shame and aggression.” Whichever strategy we choose, she says, the odds are good we’ll use that strategy for life, and those feelings of shame will heave to the surface, unbidden and unannounced, in all sorts of unfortunate settings down the road.
And so I have. I hid as best I could, I tried to blend, to not be noticed. On top of being mired in self-loathing, I was also exhausted from the effort I expended to avoid attack in the first place.
And, as I learned, these patterns did not disappear as I grew up. They manifested themselves even in what should have been the safest, most welcoming, or benign of circumstances, causing me to perceive danger to my sense of self in all situations, causing me to be stunted and paralyzed. I carried with me the shame.
I’m now much more aware of this as a physiological phenomenon than I ever was. Even when I experience this fear, this shame (and I still do a lot), I can at the very least identify it as an artifact of a bygone time. Even if my body and my lizard brain are in fight-or-flight, my higher self can at least understand what’s happening, and perhaps take steps to mitigate. Take the trolling and abuse I’ve been subject to on Twitter and on this blog, for example, because I dared suggest that people in privileged situations should do more listening than arguing. When I’m attacked for this, even by those who are clearly not worthy of my attention, my heart rate rises, my chest tightens, blood flows from my brain to my muscles as though I’m getting ready to run away from a tiger. I’m in fight-or-flight again. I’m in high school again.
But look, there’s no escaping that high school has shaped me, for better or ill, so there’s no point in pretending I’m totally at ease now, or with simply letting it all go — particularly following my assault. Like it or not, I am as I am, which includes the baggage of shame I have been lugging with me since I was 10 years old. The silver lining is that I can identify it for what it is, I can learn from it, I can use it to help my son and daughter manage better than I did, and I can make it serve as fuel for creativity and thought.
That is, when my heart rate goes back to normal.