My high school experience was a lot like most: acne, angst, and anxiety for the future. There were a couple of additional issues. I was dealing with a potentially deadly tumor in my head. And, yeah, there may have been some depression too.
Depression can be a) appropriate, b) a little too dominant, or c) a full-blown disease. The first is just life (learn to deal with it, suck it up!), the second can respond well to counseling (maybe you should talk to someone, eh?), and the third requires militant intervention to save lives. The trick being, can you tell them apart? You don’t really want to tell someone with a brain chemical imbalance who is self-treating with alcohol to “suck it up”. Or maybe you do, you sick bastard.
In all 3 cases however, friends help tremendously.
It was my senior year at Wasco Union High School and most of my tumor-related medical trials and tribulations were behind me. I hoped! I was in an elective physics class populated with top students which was held in a nice lab setting. We had a young teacher full of excitement and eagerness. For someone like me, it was a playground. And at every class we played with something new.
One day we might pull a string as we walked and then plot the results and analyze to determine distance, velocity, and acceleration. Another day we might play with springs and compare potential and kinetic energy. Sometimes there were cool magnets or force balancing tables.
All of this, and surrounded by smart kids like me. Everyone wants to fit in, and kids can be cruel. But not here. Not in this class.
This class was simply a joy deep down in my heart and soul.
But lurking around in my soul at that time also was the big black bear of depression.
I knew the bear because I could see it attack my mother on a regular basis. She lost her husband, my Dad, when she was only 27. She raised us 3 kids alone. Many of my close relatives on both my Mom and Dad’s side dealt with this too. I had an aunt who had tried to kill her kids. Another relative lost it when she first tried drugs. My paternal grandfather probably dealt with depression considering how he died in jail. And looking around at my friends at school I could see the signs in some of them. Was it the chemicals used in the farms, I sometimes wondered? Maybe it was just that German stock that most of us came from. Defective genes? Was there really any hope for a good life?
Misery everywhere, it seemed to me. Let’s be real. The future could only be bad.
Over the course of the last half of my high school years, a huge non-cancerous tumor, the size of 2 large eggs, had been removed from my sinuses before it could creep into my brain. The 5-hour operation along with numerous preparations and follow-on procedures had taken a physical toll. Try as I might, I would not be breaking any swimming records in my senior year. Logically, I should have been happy to be whole enough to be contributing to the swim team’s successes. But that would be a logical reaction. And depression is not logical. So, yeah, it was taking a mental toll too.
“You are probably going to be OK. Keep checking back in with us every few months.” That’s what Dr. Shell said. He was trying to be upbeat.
Probably OK. That’s what I heard.
Then there also was that huge hole where the roof of my mouth used to be.
To get at the tumor, the doctors at the UCLA Medical Center had to cut the left side of my throat, pinch off the carotid artery, lift the skin off my face, and also cut up into the roof of my mouth. This would do the least permanent damage to my face. But after it was all done, I no longer had a soft palate.
Now you know, of course, that high school boys not only want to be accepted. But it would be great if pretty girls smiled at you sometimes too. Logically, it helps if you smile first. But depression is not logical. And how can you smile when you are wearing a device in your mouth to keep your sinus snot separate from your mouth saliva? How can you smile when half your face is still paralyzed from the surgery and the only thing you can manage is a crooked grin?
And, yeah, acne. Teenagers. There’s always acne.
Poor me. Sob.
That was the big black bear that was mauling me in that physics classroom that day. I was trying to get the better of all my negative thoughts because I knew one thing for sure, nobody likes a victim. I was NOT going to be the victim.
What must I have looked like on that day to the rest of my physics class? There was the sadness. But there was also a fire and a rage to put it all behind me. My friends must have seen the dark cloud inside, the grim countenance, and the hesitating manner.
One of them, Craig, came up to me during a lull in the nerd play.
I had just whipped out my handkerchief to catch a huge glob of saliva that had made its way up into my nose and was unfashionably dripping out. I was trying to do this in a way that did not attract attention.
Here is what I was thinking: “Ugh! Not Craig! He’s got to be the dullest person in this class. And how could he even show his face! I remember how he used to not show up for swim team practice! Let down the team! Doesn’t he have priorities? I don’t know why all the pretty girls like him. Please! I don’t want to talk to him! I don’t want to talk to anyone right now! The others know to leave me alone, what’s wrong with him? Oh, I know what he’s…”
So Craig comes up to me and says: “God! Charlie! It’s got to be bad enough, but you’ve got to deal with saliva dripping out your nose! That really SUCKS!”
He probably doesn’t even remember doing this. And keep in mind all that nonsense I was thinking about Craig was not true at all. He is a great, outgoing guy. Get real, everyone misses some sports practices. And anyone would love to have him as a friend. I had just slipped into a angry revere that would have had me bad-thinking everyone around me, projecting my self-hate onto them. The best I could think of them would be their terrible pity towards me.
And the effect of Craig’s words was, OK, well, it was miraculous. Something actually snapped. Through my clumsy nose-wiping a lopsided grin jumped out of my face unbidden. Then there was also a real physical reaction. A warm glow actually filled my body. The sadness, anxiety, and fear could not withstand the onslaught of his smile. Despite my black mood, I laughed with Craig at the pathetic spectacle of my temporary handicap.
Like some cheap theater trick, suddenly the room was once again filled with light. And filled with my friends. They all harbored one thought for sure, I suddenly realized, and it wasn’t pity. They wanted me to do well. They were glad I had gotten through my surgeries and glad I was back in the game.
I rejoined the group and the nerd fun.
Really, life is very good. How could I have thought otherwise?
And, oh yeah. It’s a little late maybe. But, thanks Craig.
Postscript: The amazing mutant healing power I have exhibited throughout my life resulted in the entire roof of my mouth growing back over the next year. I could easily have never regained that and had to wear a prosthesis the rest of my life.
Post Postscript: Angelfire.com tells me that the title of this piece “No man is the whole of himself. His friends are the rest of him.” can be attributed to the Good Life Almanac. This was the theme of the reception I held after the ceremony where my Mom and my Wife placed my new rank of “full colonel” on my shoulders back in 1998.