How Not to Live Your Life

One day as an 8-year-old (or so) child I did something terrible: I stole a playmate’s necklace in cold blood. She told me it was magic – but I was old enough to damn well know better. It was just a plain, sparkling pink key necklace – plastic with a gaudy plastic gem in the center, hanging on a cheap pink ribbon. But still, I wanted that magic all to myself. I waited until the rest of the daycare had gone outside for recess, and lingered behind to “get my coat” from the coat and bookbag room, found it in her storage cubby, and absconded with it in my pocket. She asked me if I had seen it later toward the end of that day, and I added lying on top of stealing, and I even pretended to help her look for her missing necklace.

Luckily for me, I felt awfully guilty about it. After a few days of seeing my friend upset, I returned it – at which she lit up and thanked me for finding it (which caused me to feel even worse about taking it). Although you’d think I learned a lesson that day, it turns out I have a pretty thick skull, and that was nowhere near the worst of my transgressions. I’ve lived a virtual version of “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” complete with the oddity of the Cuíca in the background. Yes, this was only the beginning of my juvenile delinquency, yet I live on to tell the tales.

For example, my best friend, Dalles, and I were always getting into mischief. We lied all the time. We stayed up late watching Saturday Night Live, and if my mom yelled at us, we giggled and pretended to be asleep. We loved to play down by the creek at my house, and hated having to come in. Sometimes, we would hear her calling us inside, but ignore her for just a few more minutes of play – we had set up our own small version of Disneyland! “Sorry, I guess we didn’t hear you.”

A short time later, maybe around the age of 10 or 11, my mother had been dating some jerk for a few months. As a joke, he had made a printout of an FBI wanted poster with his picture on it, and showed it to us. I thought I could make a funny joke as well, by showing it to my best friend at the time, and claiming that I found it in the guy’s briefcase – and please not to tell anyone! Well, my friend told his mom, who – guess what? – called the FBI, apparently. I just remember people with suits showing up, and my mother getting really angry and calling my friend’s mom, yelling a lot. Joke was on me, I guess. I wasn’t allowed to have my very best friend over ever again (or go to his house), and my mom ended up marrying the jerk that would later try to get inappropriate with me. Very funny lie, and totally worth it. (Not).

The next year, I remember taking the cigarette butts out of my grandmother’s ashtray before she quit smoking, and relishing the puffs that I would sneak after she went to bed. The fear and thrill of getting caught – and yet, the twinge of sadness at pretending to not know what was going on when grandma says the next day she thought she smelled smoke on me in the kitchen. She lived a few blocks down from the shoreline at Myrtle Beach, and she would take me swimming often. Never wanting to cease my play when playtime was over, I pretended not to see grandma waving to me in the ocean, trying to signal to me to swim back in. But grandma didn’t put up with my bullshit. “You fuckin’ saw me,” she said.

Then, a few years later, there was the great big series of lies and deceit that I told when my mental illness, namely my eating disorders, began in earnest. I learned to lie and almost never feel guilty about it – after all, I’d convinced myself, if I was hurting anyone it was only me – and not even, really, since I needed to lose weight anyway. I lied morning, afternoon, and night – about if I ate, what I ate, or how much I ate of it. I lied about how much I exercised (I fidgeted constantly), how much I thought about food (a lot), or if I pushed food around on my plate to avoid eating it (I did). I started to find websites where there were other people like me (mostly girls), called pro-ana websites – where we shared our stories of our pathetic lives, and how much we exercised, how much we thought about food, and how we pushed food around on our plates to avoid eating it. There was this neat thing I found out about called the “opaque cup” trick, where you take a bite of food, chew it up, and then spit it out into a cup you couldn’t see through, to be disposed of later. In fact, I remember there being a whole section on tips and tricks, and suggestions for lies to tell your parents. Like, for instance, dress in baggy clothes, and tell your parents you ate at a friend’s house – or ate a big lunch! (Just don’t tell them you threw it up later). And then, there was a section on how to cover your tracks for your website and internet browsing history – and if you forgot to do that and your family outs you, trying to act all concerned, brush it off and tell them to relax – you’re simply researching for a school psychology paper. Then there was a whole other realm of lies that I just couldn’t wait to open up: the overeating and barfing. Lying about how your mom’s groceries (a month’s worth of Little Debbie dessert cakes) disappeared in a few days…lying about the boxes and boxes found disemboweled of their tasty contents, shoved under your bed or in your closet (“Sorry, I must’ve had those there for a long time and let them accumulate”). Lying about why your shower was so extra long (that food’s gotta come out sometime – sooner better than later, and throwing up effectively took quite a bit of time for me to master), or if you couldn’t take a shower that night, lying about why you needed the large Ziploc bags, or why you needed plastic grocery bags to clean the catboxes at night (“Why does the cat litter smell so…putrid?” “Sorry, I must’ve let them go too long without cleaning.”). At the buffet or cheap fast food joint, you lie about feeling so unbearably full you could comfortably vomit right across the table in full public view and not even care – like Monsieur in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. Instead, what you say sounds like, “I think I could do one more plate.”

Lying is second nature now, and you no longer really care if anyone believes you or not. Hell, it sounds true enough. True enough to you. Only it’s kind of hard to remember exactly what you said. It doesn’t really matter anymore anyway though, because you don’t feel like much of a human anymore. So you start self-injuring, and cutting yourself, just to feel somewhat alive and real for a few short moments interspersed with the walking daydream/nightmare you live. So you have to cover up your cuts, but that’s no problem-o – you’ve been wearing baggy clothes to cover up your weight loss for a while now (“Why are you wearing long sleeves; it’s 90 degrees outside?” “I…am…just cold? I don’t know.”).  Opening your own skin has become just as routine as blowing your nose or urinating – just a little fluid escaping never hurt anyone. In fact, it probably helps you lose weight – wouldn’t blood loss speed up your metabolism in the healing process, or something? Surely it requires increased energy. And if you want to find new and exciting ways to hurt yourself, be prepared to be artfully concealing – like snatching some needles from your uncle’s counter during a family gathering – needles he used to give his farm goats antibiotics, that you could draw your blood with and squirt it around the corners of your room like a miniature crime scene – but don’t take enough for anyone to notice. Maybe also grab a large ring or other piece of jewelry from their cabinet, just for giggles. Tears and regret, giggles; whatever. The coolest lie by far that you’ll get to tell about your self-injury, though, is if you get found out. The huge scar I got from accidentally slicing a piece of my upper arm flesh off, and then having to put three stitches into it to stop the bleeding by cauterizing a regular old sewing needle with thread through candle fire (I wouldn’t dare tell my mother and get in trouble), I was lucky enough to have it resemble a burn a few months later (“Um, the oven rack slipped out when I was grabbing the cupcakes out. No, really.”) Even your friends that see the scar on the back of your neck from dragging a large kitchen knife across it in a fit of anguish, get the easy unbelievable story: “Branches “thwacked” me on the back of the neck when climbing the hill through that brushy area on the way to your house…yeah, I guess it did cause a lot of blood.”

Now that you have no friends and have become a seasoned expert in lying (I mean, you could practically have a degree in this shit), you decide it would behoove you to take up underage drinking, for more of a challenge – the starvation isn’t working fast enough, and bonus for drowning your sorrows while abusing your body more. So you get to find unsavory people to hang out with to help you sneak around and lie to your parents. It’s a lot of trouble to coordinate stories for where you’re going to be and when, and who with – but not trouble enough to not do all that. Sometimes even their parents will help you lie to yours, if you’re really lucky. Then you have to lie about the smell of spilling alcohol in your friend’s room, when her mom tries to have a serious, concerned conversation with both of you about it (“No worries! It was just citrus-scented facial astringent. Really! Sorry we spilled it on the carpet, though – we’ll clean it up right away.”)

Then you have to find a bad decision of a guy to enable you to keep making all these bad decisions and lying. Like when you show up at home with a neck brace from getting drunk with him the night before and falling from a 10-foot balcony you were puking off of, and your mom forbids him from being welcome there – so out of spite you move to Georgia with him, where his family lives (except maybe he sort of lied to you a little, and by family he meant abusive stepdad that molested his sister growing up, and cousin who is just a family friend that buys his weed from a sketchy crackhead). Then shit gets really bad. You end up living in a roach-infested apartment with no electricity and no food (hey, weight loss though) and no air conditioning in the middle of summer (the summer before you were going to try for the third semester after high school to attempt college), right above a scary cokehead that beats on your door for an uncomfortable 20 minutes straight when you’re home alone, while your deadbeat boyfriend is working at Applebee’s to bring home old nachos for the only meal you’ll share for three days. Aside for having no friends, you have to lie to the only family that will still speak to you, and tell them, “No, everything is fine, everything is good,” because anything otherwise would somehow admit defeat, and feel like admitting to every single lie you told in your life. So, everything continues to be fine and good, until your mom calls you to tell you about a dream she had about your uncle Steve, the one that killed himself a few years back after finding out he had Hepatitis from sharing needles during his many years of drug addiction. In the dream, Steve said to your mom, “Hey, have you seen your daughter lately? I just saw her, traveling down the same road as I did.”

Then, things start to take a little more perspective. Maybe, after thinking about it, it wouldn’t be quite so swell to starve and drink yourself to death in a strange, hot city where you know no one, and there’s no air conditioning (come to think of it, doesn’t that sound a little like Hell?). Maybe you’re even a little hungry, and homesick, and you could really just use a friend to talk to. Maybe it wouldn’t kill you to tell the truth, even when it hurts, because you made a mistake – well, maybe, quite a few of them. Maybe you break down in tears when you realize what you’ve done with your life, sobbing for what you’ve done and left undone, and perhaps for what will be of the future, now that you’ve messed things up royally. Maybe you get a second chance when you don’t know how to change things, and an unexpected check comes in the mail from your grandmother who passed away several months ago, and had a savings for you that no one knew about – and it’s just enough to cover airfare back home – a real sign. Maybe now you decide that it will be your mission to tell the truth now, always – even when it hurts – no, especially when it hurts.

Maybe, just maybe, that pink plastic key necklace from so long ago really was magic. That guilty feeling I got from taking it? Yeah, that’s there for a reason.

© 2016 Megan Berry