My junior year of high school was a bleak, discouraging time indeed. It seemed as if everything converged together to make my life sad and difficult.
I started the school year while still recovering from a serious illness, during which my weight had dropped to 80 pounds. My mother’s neuromuscular disease progressed to the frightening point that she was bedridden, and I lived with the dread of losing her. In the middle of that already difficult school year, my father changed churches, which meant another move. I stayed with a dear friend during the week to finish out the school year, and my father picked me up every Friday so that we could spend weekends together as a family.
But there was more.
As I’ve blogged in the past:
Back then, and for… many years afterward, I was hiding a deep dark secret, one so deep and so dark that I could only cope by refusing to think about it, by pretending it away. That didn’t work well. As a teenager, I was filled with the constant, overwhelming sense that there was something very much wrong with me, but I had no idea what — and I never connected that sense with the hidden burden I carried. Fear, shame, and secrecy had become a way of life for me. So had a form of denial so profound that it was almost as if I’d created an alternative reality for myself…
One of my former teachers, Mr. Bottaro would often stop me on campus and ask how I was doing. He never believed my polite responses or automatic answers. “No, really,” he would insist, his eyes trying to search mine for the truth. “Come up to my room and see me,” he would urge, no matter what I answered. I knew he saw…something.
Finally I decided to take him up on his offer. I would sit in front of him, let him look in my eyes, and tell him that there was something terribly, seriously wrong with me but I was too afraid to try to think about it. Surely he would be able to figure it out. That was my plan, anyway, to beg him to help me, when I arrived on campus early one morning. I was on my way to his classroom when another teacher stopped me with devastating news.
Mr. Bottaro was dead of a massive heart attack.
For much of that school year, I felt as if I was drifting along in somewhat of a foggy stupor. I felt on the outs with God, to the extent that I actually tried to make up my own religion, one with an impersonal god. Needless to say, I found nothing remotely comforting about my pretend construct.
When my despair seemed overwhelming, God would send me rays of light in the midst of my discouragement. My father was a loving, accepting, and reassuring constant in my life during that tumultuous time, kind of like a Rock of Gibraltar, only far more comforting. Plus, I had some truly wonderful friends. One of my classmates was Catholic, and I met a young priest from her parish who came on campus at lunch time just to hang out with some of the students. His kindness and compassion — and the fact that he looked like a kid himself — left a huge impression on me. And I couldn’t ignore the fact that no other pastor or youth pastor was visiting our campus.
But the youth pastor at our new church, and his wife, loved me — they loved our entire youth group deeply and personally — despite my sometimes off-putting and prickly ways. In fact, they are still dear friends to this day.
Somehow I survived that year. I went to summer camp, re-dedicated my life to Christ as so many of us did, and went on to have a wonderful senior year of high school, my only year at a private Christian school.
But I was still carrying around deep, hidden wounds, as much as I tried to ignore them away. The idea of trying to get help had died with Mr. Bottaro.