Recently, I was walking by the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with my friend Matt, who’s been my confidant/den mother since our mutual adolescent burning-down days, which is exactly the period of life I want to discuss here today—a time when things were going so shittily for us that we and our whole group of friends agreed to replace “How are you?” with “How’s your self-destruction going?”
Matt and I looked out silently at the river, along which a sailboat was silently moving. There was a sunset, the sky was pink and purple, the wind was warm. A peaceful scene. We watched as the sailboat glided under the arch of a stone bridge, and I said, “I don’t think I’ll ever understand anyone who sees a beautiful thing and doesn’t hear a tiny voice that says, ‘Throw a rock at it!’”
Without hesitation, Matt agreed. “Like that time I set a living room table on fire at a hippie’s house party because they were too happy. It made me feel uncomfortable. I felt unwelcome.”
A sailboat at sunset, a lack of conflict, a general accumulation of things going “too well” will all trigger this little voice inside us that tells us to throw rocks at this thing.
We laughed and I went home, but we kept talking over Gchat about that voice:
Matt: There’s something almost like an itch in the back of my head that’s not really happy without chaos and probably some squalor, and an insecurity about not living fully or not being authentic, for whatever either of those two terms are worth.
Me: What do you think that’s about?
Matt: You can argue that death, sex, and birth are what make people human. And that living like you’re unafraid of, or even courting, destruction and death can make you feel really, really alive. And that being unafraid of destruction is almost like having superpowers, because it lets you do things other people won’t.
Look for me in the years 1999–2005 and you will find a 13-to-19-year-old girl carrying out the kinds of tomfoolery that are classified in medical literature (and by parents and health teachers everywhere) as “adolescent risk-taking behaviors.” These are things that authority figures see as as dangerous, illogical, foolish, or (generously) misguided, and that you may see as normal. The early psychoanalyst and friend to no teen Sigmund Freud named this force the Death Drive (aka Thanatos—cool) and saw it as motivating all self-destruction, self-sabotage, self-harm, and the -seeking part of goal-seeking, reward-seeking, novelty-seeking, thrill-seeking, and sensation-seeking. But well before he ever put a name on it, I’m sure my teenage ancestors were catching as much shit for it as I did.
In the spirit of accuracy, I filled out an adaptation of the Rapid Assessment for Adolescent Preventive Services, a medical survey that screens for these “adolescent risk behaviors.” Deep breath, and a trigger warning for antics. Here we go:
I lied to my parents as a rule, even when it wasn’t necessary. I drove, without a license, and very many miles above the speed limit, cars that were full of my friends yelling at me; I had unprotected sex with a multitude of partners of all genders (and contracted chlamydia); I took diet pills to lose weight, which is not to say I exercised, ever (another risk behavior). I cut and otherwise damaged my body on purpose, because sometimes I got so low that I thought that was the only thing that could snap my mind back under control. I threw shit or kicked in walls when I got angry. If I heard there was a fight brewing, I would head toward, not away from, it. I sought out violent situations. I got tattoos and piercings all over my body. I hung out in darkened squats and threw whole watermelons out the windows of speeding minivans (these two weren’t on the assessment). The one category where the “yes” checkboxes got a rest was substance use: I was straightedge, which meant I didn’t use alcohol or drugs, but, to quote Teen Lola, “look at my judgment when I’m sober.”
It seems like it would be easy to stop doing any of these things, since they are so shitty for you. Just stop, and you won’t die. Simple, right? But the way adults explained my actions to me—whether in health class or at the dining room table—conveyed an underlying (or overt!) message that I didn’t know what I was doing, or that even if I did know, they knew better. I was so spiteful about being invalidated 24/7 that if anyone tried to tell me what was “best for me,” I would willfully do the opposite, even when I suspected they were a little bit right. That way, I figured that if whatever I was up to knocked me down, at least I would get to drag everyone else down with me.
Why was everyone such a hater? Because the number-one cause of death among adolescents worldwide is behavioral, not biological—in the most recent data (from 2010), “unintentional injuries” were found to have caused 48% of all deaths among people between the ages of 10 and 24. Numbers two and three on the list were suicide and homicide, respectively. The Handbook of Adolescent Health Risk Behavior, which I was disappointed to learn was not an instruction manual but a rather dry medical reference book, states that “the majority of current threats to adolescent health are the consequence of social, environmental, and behavioral factors…[including] a broad spectrum of behaviors and related outcomes such as substance use and abuse, violence, suicide, eating disorders, teenage pregnancy, and sexually transmitted disease, to name but a few.”
The other thing that pissed me off was that no one ever listened to my reasons for doing dumb, dangerous things. They just kept telling me that I needed to stop, and I kept ignoring them, repeat forever, never to be resolved…until now. For today, my Rookies, we will settle the case of Average Risk-Taking Teen vs. The People Who Think Teens R Crazy. At stake is my firmly held belief that if engaging in “risk-taking behavior” were always a completely negative experience, nobody would bother—we’d all just be playing Wii Bowling or something. I hope to show here that every individual, regardless of biological age, does the best they can for themselves, for what they consider to be valid reasons.
Recently, Marc Maron’s interview podcast WTF featured John Darnielle, the singer of the Mountain Goats and this writer’s #1 personal forever-hero. The interview turned to Darnielle’s adolescence with an abusive stepfather:
John Darnielle: A person doesn’t get like that by himself…. You don’t just wake up one morning and say, “You know, I’m just going to suck at marriage and fatherhood. I’m just going to become abusive.” That happens to you because you came from a place where that happened to you.
Marc Maron: Even if that’s the case, and being a rager myself, I imagine you’ve had to wrestle with it…
JD: You know, rage is not an issue for me. I became a lot more–
MM: You turned it in on yourself?
MM: It’s all going in. “I’m going to beat me up.”
JD: Became a self-mutilator, became a big drug addict…
MM: “You’re not going to kick my ass, ’cause I am!”
JD: I’m better at it! “You’ll beat me, but you won’t get out knives.”
I listened to this part of the interview three times. I transcribed it for myself before I’d even thought about writing this article. These sentences stand out: (1) “This happens to you because you came from a place where that happened to you.” Destruction came from destruction: John internalized his father’s abuse and turned it on himself. (2) “You’re not going to kick my ass, ’cause I am!” You can hurt yourself first. (3) “I’m better at it!” You can hurt yourself best. When you have no choice in whether you’re going to be hurt, hurting yourself first and best—controlling the speed and manner in which the hurt will come—is a viable option.
Later in the interview, John says this:
A lot of drug abuse that arises from having been abused, and from being in environments that deprive you, is about wanting to feel power. [It’s] wanting to say, “Well, I can control something…. I can control the rate of my own destruction.” And, of course, that’s a myth. You can’t really [do that]. I think if you do, it’s largely just luck—luck and fear. I don’t know about you, but the fact that I didn’t die—there’s a part of me that stands in judgment of the me who failed to die.
The truth, as all teenagers know, is that what appear to authority figures to be whiny, dramatic, needlessly self-destructive roll-your-eyes teenage behaviors are usually necessary measures for the purpose of staying alive. The first time I made this connection was when I read Kate Bornstein’s book Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws. Many of the “alternatives” Bornstein offers—doing drugs, having sex—are precisely those behaviors that my elders used to call “risk-taking.” But she approaches them not as unnecessary health hazards, but as necessary chances you take to keep yourself from killing yourself. The one off-limits coping mechanism, she writes, is being mean to others: “Being mean triggers shame and regret, not to mention bad karma. Shame and regret are nature’s way of telling us to forgive ourselves for whatever we just did, apologize and make amends for it if we can, and try to do better next time. That’s how we learn to be kind as we keep on in life’s journey. No one is perfectly kind, compassionate, and generous. But you can live a kinder, more compassionate, and generous life by following just one simple rule: DON’T BE MEAN. Anything else goes, anything at all.”
Kate, I’m sorry. Teen Lola was a hater. I wasn’t nice. Actually, being totally vicious was my specialty. And my nastiness was always directed right at other people’s pain—usually, ironically, built around anything that could be considered self-destructive. Bored in AP Statistics, I wrote a letter on the back of my honor roll certificate: “People say I shouldn’t make jokes as dark as I do, but at least I’m not a cutter. At least my coping mechanism isn’t one that’s annoying and makes people hate me.” It’s yr girl! I had internalized authority figures’ opinions on what I and my fellow teens were doing to cope with our pain, and aimed those judgments at everyone around me, as armor for myself. Bornstein helped me see those choices as not really choices: Everyone was doing the best they could. That realization made me hate that cruel and judgmental part of myself.
I showed my friend Jacqui what I’ve written here so far, and she said, “When you imagined yourself behaving differently”—or, to interject, beat yourself up for not behaving differently—“you were doing it as a different person who could do different things.” In other words, it was OK if I couldn’t change a single fucking thing about myself, or what I had done, or I what I was doing. I was doing everything I could, to the best of my ability, to get through adolescence. I was not bad, even if what I did brought me embarrassment or hot shame or stigma or grounding or cost me friends or made people write shit about me on the internet. These motivations are definitely not true for everyone, but they were for me, and realizing that there were multiple truths–mine, versus the ones put forth by research studies and my parents–allowed me to allow everyone to be a little bit right, and nobody to be wrong. I didn’t have to be so pissed at everyone anymore.
Then something kind of amazing happened: I realized that the people I hated most were the ones who reminded me most of myself, and once I showed compassion toward them, I had to apply some to me too. Being mean was a coping mechanism that I’d grabbed when I needed something, anything, to help me survive high school. Given what I was working with, I couldn’t’ve done any better. But now I was dealing with something new: forgiveness. When I forgave myself, I saw my survival strategies in a different light. I realized how self-destructive I was being, and I cared about myself enough to want to stop.
Hold up, though; it wasn’t easy. The period between acknowledging that I was hurting myself and stopping stretched out for years. But once that self-forgiveness process starts, you can’t stop it. Being kind to yourself is inevitable. I was never being foolish, illogical, or misguided; I didn’t have a death wish. I had the opposite: I was fighting to survive. I just did it wrong—I fought myself. That same impulse is what makes me eat well, sleep, draw boundaries, and be kind to people today. I’m glad I never lost it. ♦