I had a happy and uneventful childhood and the usual awful middle school experience. I had been an A student all of my life, with very little effort. I had been treated as something of a prodigy as a child, mainly due to my mom’s intense grooming and pushing. Somewhere around sophomore year, I realized that there was more to life than being brilliant, and I was determined to find that something. I started by deliberately dumbing down. I got negative attention from the kids every time my name was posted on that honor roll list, so I decided I wasn’t going to be on that list any more. I started bringing home B’s. I think one report card had two B’s on it, and my parents posted it on the refrigerator, marked in red ink, “a sad day.” I tell this to illustrate how academically intense my household was. Two B’s and it was A Sad Day. My parents decided that my local private school was failing me and I was miserable (brilliant deduction) and made the worst of all decisions: they would send me away to boarding school. My poor parents, Wally and June Cleaver, failed to understand that in the rest of the world, “boarding school” is not synonomous with achievement, it is synonomous with “fucked up kids.”
So I went to my new school. I was determined that one thing would happen – I wouldn’t be a geek anymore and I would have cool friends. I would run with the in crowd, and not have my chair pulled out from under me or spit balls put in my hair any more. This would occur no matter what I had to do. No matter what. Unfortunately, this school revered four things: academic achievement, sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. They were obsessed by the sixties. The dorm circle rang with The Who and The Beatles and The Kinks and Led Zeppelin. Kids played frisbee outside with their hair tied back with tie-dyed bandanas. Afros on curly-headed kids of all races were cool. Pictures of pot leaves and copies of Timothy Leary’s writings and The Moody Blues and guitars graced the dorm rooms. I was in way over my head. I knew nothing of any of this. But I was going to devote myself, 24-7, to learning this and fitting in unless I died.
I tackled the music. To this day I have a working knowledge of music from the sixties through the nineties second almost to none. I have a CD collection spanning five decades – hundreds and hundreds of CDs. You see, I internalized everything that went on at this school as The Way To Be. Except for the academics part. I was going to give that a rest. I tackled the clothes. I put holes in my jeans and got ratty old t-shirts and got rid of all my wanna-be preppy regalia from my previous academic institution. I bought drug-addled posters and put them up in the room and in my windows. And I tackled the drugs. I had heard whispers about them from the cool kids at the old school, but I was so far removed from all that that I hadn’t even been around kids who were drinking before. Again, way, way over my head.
I tried drinking first. Of course I pulled the Swill Mixed Alcohol Until I Vomit routine at the first party I went to, disgusting everyone. But for some reason, this was something I wanted to revisit. And then my roommate taught me how to smoke pot. And how I loved it. I loved acting stupid, even stupider than usual. And then I found quaaludes. And speed. And LSD. I would put anything in my mouth that anybody handed me, just to be cool. I had lost my mind. Completely distracted by my coolness, I missed my first bout with depression, chalking it up to the loss of a quirky punk rocker with a mohawk who had caught my eye. I took up smoking cigarettes, Marlboro Reds, calling them “Cowboy Killers” and sitting in my dorm room closet learning how to blow smoke rings. I was so distracted that I completely failed to fill out any applications for college whatsoever. Just completely didn’t notice that the kids around me were all filling theirs out. As it turned out, it didn’t matter.
As my classmates matured into senior year, I found myself hanging out with younger kids who were easily impressed. One night, two of the kids came by my dorm room and wanted to know if I wanted to go up on the mountain and smoke some pot. Of course I agreed. Since it wasn’t dark when we left, I didn’t think to turn off the lamp in my dorm room. And that one lamp changed my entire life.
The staff head of the dorm made his evening rounds and found my lights on, along with those of the two boys I had gone off with. He tackled them first, knowing that they would be pushovers, and sure enough, they blurted out everything. Armed with this information, he came to me, and I had little choice but to confess to my crime. I was suspended immediately and a hearing for my possible reinstatement was scheduled.
Now keep in mind, up until now, my folks knew about none of this. They were an hour away, and had no idea what I had become. After all, I never went home. I stayed in the dorms every weekend to party. The irony with the cigarettes was, the school had a smoking permit for students. If the parents signed the permit, kids could smoke in designated areas. In an extremely stupid case of reverse psychology, my folks signed the permit. Just one more thing to illustrate my coolness! I took up smoking immediately. When my folks came to pick me up after the expulsion, to say that they were blindsided would be like saying, well, they were completely blindsided. They were both grim and stern, and my father cried when my petition for reinstatement was denied.
They took me home, and this was where the real craziness took over. Mom got me into the state college where they taught; with my grades it was a shoo-in, but I couldn’t start until January. This was October. Instead of making me get a job (which is what I would have done, to keep me out of trouble, or putting me in rehab, which I would have laughed at but they probably ultimately would have peer-pressured me into shape), they left me at home. Every day. While they went to work. So I watched soap operas all day, stole their Eisenhower dollars to buy cigarettes, and found me a dealer who could keep me supplied with weed. I had no transportation so I walked to the Zippy Mart every day to buy a pack. It was my only exercise. I smoked a pack a day, and took a shower before the folks got home so they wouldn’t smell it on me. I smoked outside. They didn’t smell it because they never got that close to me. They never hugged me, they never asked what was going on with me, and they just basically gave me the cold shoulder. They never even asked me what kinds of things I had done. They really didn’t want to know. I guess they figured, if they didn’t talk to me, I didn’t exist. And I didn’t. That nonexistence was the most pitiful period of my life.
The event, with a night and the dark and a lamp, changed my life forever in one quick stroke. I went, in my parents’ minds, from prodigy to damaged goods. But this did not straighten me out. It strengthened my resolve. I would still be a cool kid. No matter what. My mind was set. And so was the addictive personality, although it took me years before I would figure that out. Everything changed. But nothing did.