On Wednesday, May 25, 1988, I received my diploma from West Mifflin Area High School, a blue-collar suburb of Pittsburgh.
A few weeks later, my parents had a graduation party for me as thousands of parents had done before. We had lots of food, tons of canned pop, and almost no guests.
I don’t have a lot of clear memories of that time frame. I remember sandwich buns and meats and cheese. I remember the pop cans nestled in a cooler with ice. I remember transferring all of that food and pop back to our family fridge late in the evening.
My friend Keith came. Another friend a year older, Mike Sheridan, came and raved about my latest Joan Jett album. I’m sure a few others were there.
My graduating class was over 200 people. Over 30 high school classmates of various ages lived in our neighborhood.
I’m sure some friends had to work or go to other parties.
At the time, I tried to put on a brave face as my very worst fears came true – no one liked me. When I walked upstairs where the adults sat, I heard my aunt say she had always felt sorry for me.
No one came to my party.
I had always been an oddball kid, lingering on the fringes of other groups of friends. Our age group was very big on having a best friend, but I was perpetually a third wheel when there weren’t enough best friends to go around.
I moved around perimeters, forging occasional alliances, even friendships, that fell apart. I just assumed it was me. I had no idea how to be a friend, settling for being accepted or tolerated. I joined band, not because I liked music but because it gave me a group, a sense of belonging.
I was also useful because I was smart. When it was time for academic group projects, I was in demand. I had tons of tutoring sessions. I had no qualms about letting people who were nice to me copy my work or cheat from me.
I had friends, but I never felt close to them. I was never anyone’s best friend. I moved from circle to circle and then moved onward. During class bsnd trips to Opryland and Disney World, I wandered the grounds by myself. No one actively shunnned me if I joined their group for awhile, but no one asked to join them.
What I didn’t have language for at the time was the trauma surrounding me, my family, and my community. I suspect that some kids stayed away because they had their own secrets to protect. Others felt or their parents felt the gothic-like secrets we closely guarded and kept their distance.
West Mifflin was a surreal place of aging veterans and the biggest brightest mall in the land. It was almost like a land people lost.
It happened again when I turned 30. I bought the fixings for a big party, a handful showed up. That one I remember, that hurt I felt.
Most people tell us to let it go. Others cling to the damage. I keep it tucked away, bringing it out occasionally to examine. As I resume EMDR work this week, this has risen to the surface so I’m examining it again.
These are sad moments, pitiful even. But they are far from the worst moments. I got up the next day, made a sandwich and drank a pop for lunch. I had two FT jobs that summer. Life went on.
I know now that it wasn’t me. I am sad not so much that it happened as I am that I internalized all of the rejection and isolation.
I won’t be throwing any parties soon, but perhaps one day.
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