On Graduation Season

Sandwiched somewhere between the anniversary of my high school graduation and the anniversary of my college graduation, I look back on that time in my life with scant nostalgia. This open letter to my parents is to fill them in on the ceremonies they weren’t alive to see.

Dear Mom and Dad,

My sister and I have been known to joke about what it would have been like for one or both of you to have a Facebook. We could picture Mom duck-facing and peace-signing in the selfies she would have posted, with nothing but the utmost sarcasm and irony.

But since you both passed away within three weeks of each other in 2006, I doubt either one of you would have even heard of the social media platform.

Whatever the case may be, my account has been alerting me in the past few days to the anniversaries of my high school graduation (Class of 2012) and my college graduation (Class of 2015). I know you would have been proud, Mom, to see me finish with an International Baccalaureate diploma after you dropped out of high school. And I know you would have been no less proud, Dad, to see me walk away with a Bachelor of Arts after you dropped out of community college.

Regardless, my memories of school are tinged with a bittersweet edge, at best. It didn’t help that I developed borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder from growing up for the first twelve years of my life with two parents who had terminal substance use disorder, compounded by being born with bipolar I disorder. The behavioral health challenges didn’t die with you, Mom and Dad, not even when Grandma and Grandpa gained legal guardianship and provided my sister and me with the adolescence you wanted for us.

On the contrary, my chronic mental illnesses will overcast the rest of my days.

All of which is to say, even though I won prom king in high school, I never felt a secure embrace of popularity. On the socioeconomic spectrum, I might have landed closer to “preppy” than many of my classmates, but I wasn’t a jock like you were, Dad, with the shelves of athletic trophies lining the wall in your basement until Mom tore them down in a furor.

For starters, I was gay – my peers may not have known it at the time, but they no doubt suspected it, what with my effeminate accent, mannerisms, and tastes.

Indeed, I only won prom king because I was splashy enough to perform the choreography to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” in front of the entire school at the pep assembly for the dance.

No, they might have voted for me because I made a spectacle out of myself, but they didn’t “include” me because there was little else for them to enjoy about me. Many a time, I ate my peanut butter sandwiches in a corner of the library because there wasn’t a seat for me in the cafeteria. No less frequently did I cut my wrists at home because I hadn’t been invited to some party or other on the weekends. Even at the grad parties I was invited to in the wake of prom, my peers would turn their backs on me and ignore me as if I were someone dead.

I don’t blame them, though – with my untreated mania, I can acknowledge I left an obnoxious scent trailing behind me at every off-campus excursion I invited myself to, name-dropping the members of the “upper crust” I’d been hanging out with or attempting to make clumsy conversation about pop culture references. As though that weren’t vainglorious enough, I also neglected what few “true” friendships I had in what proved to be my futile pursuit of more.

But, in all fairness, my crush was part of that crowd, and falling in love with him marked the first time I accepted my queerness. No longer did I wake up in tears after a sex dream. No longer did I stare for hours at photographs of Megan Fox on Google because the other guys in class said she was hot, trying to force myself to see what they saw. No longer did I pray for God to make me straight, because my crush helped me realize: how could the best thing that ever happened to me be wrong, when it inspired me to become a better person, one who “deserved” him? Assuming there is a God, wouldn’t he want to make me gay so long as it brings out the best in me? If you were already prone to manic episodes, wouldn’t you be that much more desperate for your first crush’s attention, too?

Which brings us to my first bout of depression, the one that would set the tenor for my undergraduate years.

It was sometime between the first semester and second semester of senior year at Littleton High School. I woke up in the middle of the night when it hit me that, unless we attended the same college, I would most likely never see my crush again. It felt as though the hollow in my chest had gone a corpselike cold, and my broken heart was radiating those chills throughout my body. It wasn’t until more than a year and a half later later that I could identify the symptoms for what they were, but at the time, it was but the first of many sleepless nights from 2011 or 2012 to 2018 or 2019, when I was at last prescribed with atypical antipsychotics.

For that reason, my academic career at Colorado State University was an unhappy one. My journalism major and film minor should have been three of the most fulfilling years of my life, spent studying the critical theory I’m so passionate about and sharpening my talents to the end of contributing as meaningfully as I could to that body of work.

Instead, Fort Collins didn’t agree with my clinical depression any better than Mexican food would have agreed with the food poisoning I incurred from one of our family trips to Casa Bonita, Mom and Dad. Old Town may have inspired Disnelyand’s idyllic Main Street USA, and the city as a whole may have been ranked among the happiest places in the country, but during my late teens and early twenties, I wasn’t ever in the mood for it. Yes, people moved from miles away just to wake up every day to the view of the Rockies, but those mountains provided the backdrop for the worst moments in my life. It wasn’t enough for me to go thrift shopping for flannels and Toms on College Avenue to feel less like I was wandering through a living death. Unless you were twenty-one or older, there was almost nothing to do on the weekends except crash house parties, and it wasn’t until after graduation that I overcame the experience of growing up around your alcoholism, Mom and Dad, and tried my first drink.

Not that liquor would have been a healthy method of coping with my sickness, anyway.

You’re the one who instructed me in that lesson, Mom. Although I was still too young to understand your condition before you died – not that I would have been qualified to pathologize you, anyway – my hypothesis is that our family doctor misdiagnosed you with unipolar depression, then catalyzed a manic state after he showered you with antidepressants. To be sure, the Xanax and Tramadol you indulged by the handful would nudge you into a psychosis unlike any I’ve ever witnessed in anybody else who’s gotten high in front of me.

Only schizophrenic tendencies could have compelled you to start eating burnt spaghetti with your fingers at dinner one night, slurring that “Mommy’s fine” while marinara dried in your hair.

As a result, I’m sure you would have appreciated the manic cycle that chased me throughout high school, and the depressive low that entangled me throughout college. More important than graduating from my education, I have since taken my first steps toward graduating from my disabilities. I am currently stabilizing the climate of my emotions with Abilify and Lamictal. I am also enrolled in a weekly dialectical behavior therapy group for my borderline personality disorder – in fact, we meet tonight. It is to both of these regimens that I owe my motivation and discipline to complete a Master of Arts degree in creative nonfiction at the University of Denver with a perfect grade-point average this past November.

No, Mom and Dad, you didn’t get to see me graduate from LHS or CSU (or DU, for that matter), but I’m beginning to lead the life you would have wished for me, and I felt triumphant enough for the three of us when, medicated and regulated, the State of Colorado certified me in the personal essaying that reminds me of your most dynamic, nuanced, holistic, and balanced characteristics.