When you’re young, you don’t ask yourself if you’re happy.
Most of us are happy in our our youth, but when you get older it’s no longer assumed. When you’re older happiness is something you have to fight for. There’s so much negative energy in the world, so many reasons to not be happy, that you have to fight to stay positive and above the noise that surrounds you. You don’t think about existential questions when you’re young. You just play with your friends and stay in your own little world. It’s not a bad place to inhabit.
I saw my first therapist when I was in middle school. My stepmother had suggested it, and although it seemed like a good and constructive idea, I didn’t understand the relationship and how it was supposed to work. I would talk a little bit about what I’d been through or experienced, but nothing had sunk in yet. I was too young for therapy to be effective, and I guess that’s a compelling argument in favor of waiting: wait until your kids are older before you tell them traumatizing news. Wait until they’re old enough to understand something before diving in to the pain. When you’re young, you hear and see and experience things, but they don’t always seem to register.
My father had just remarried. In addition to a stepmother, I also gained two stepbrothers. Our house was in a perpetual state of chaos, but I don’t remember feeling too strongly about it. When you’re living these changes, and your world has been rocked and shaken to its core, it’s hard to extricate yourself and look at the situation as a casual observer. You’re just sitting there try to make sense of it all, and more than that, you’re just trying to fit in and not be weird.
In addition to our new family members, we were also getting a physical addition put on to our house, and my room was under construction. One of the walls of my room became a hanging curtain made of plastic, and I still remember the red glow of my lizard’s lamp that served as a nightlight. My stepbrothers each took a room upstairs near mine, while my sister got a room all her own on the other side of the upstairs. When friends asked if I liked my stepbrothers, I think I told them no, but I’m not sure I felt that way. In fact, I’m pretty sure I told people what they wanted to hear, or what I thought they wanted to hear, or I told them what I thought it was that people in my situation would normally say, as if my situation was normal at all, as if there was some sort of playbook/script/blueprint to follow.
I wasn’t happy, but I wasn’t sad either. I think that I was pleasant, and although there were angry moments with my new family members, I attribute those moments to growing pains more than anything else. We were all figuring out how to coexist. I honestly thought it was going to be my father, my sister, and me going forward. That was all the family I needed, and I assumed everyone was happy. My father saw things differently than I did. He wanted a wife as well as a mother figure in the lives of his kids. I don’t blame him; I just didn’t expect this outcome. Gaining family members right as you’re about to enter middle school was challenging, and I was already awkward. It definitely didn’t help that both my stepbrothers were more popular that me.
I was on the outside looking in. My sister had just entered high school, and when she was home she sought the refuge that her new room provided. My stepbrothers were actual brothers, and they acted like it, with all of the fighting and yelling that being brothers entails. I was just a kid who was floating through, looking for something to cling to as the winds of change threatened to blow me away.
I stood in my stepbrother’s bedroom years later, acutely aware that I was nearing the end of high school. Sure, it was the end of an era, and I was nearing the end of my teenage years, but I wasn’t unhappy. I was optimistic that college would be better than high school. I might miss certain aspects, things like announcing at sporting events and stats keeping at road basketball games, but I got to announce games in college so that didn’t end. I’d miss friends, sure, but I wouldn’t miss too many of the classes. There were so many that just weren’t interesting or particularly relevant. Now, I’d get to take courses that piqued my interest. My best work in high school happened when I loved the subject matter.
That was about the time I started thinking about life’s bigger questions. Given that my brain had already succumbed to “Senioritis,” I was in need of something else to focus on. I wanted to tell my stepbrother about something that had been on my mind for a while (our relationship had improved), but I didn’t know how to communicate it. I hadn’t been able to put my finger on what I was feeling, but in that moment I was able to, as if a full and intact thought had floated up to the surface like a bubble in a boiling pot of water.
“I want to go back to therapy. I’m happy, but not as happy as I should be.”