gabrielle gillespie

I Went to Europe and All I Got Was Depressed

Gabby Gillespie

ISSUE NO. 2 • Are we there yet?

This is what I didn’t say in all my instagrams from when I studied abroad.

Content Warning: This piece heavily discusses depression and suicide

        Do not go to Europe because you think it will cure your depression.

        I do not think any continent has the power to cure severe depression. I have only tried Europe and North America. Australia seems promising, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up.

        I had been in a deep depression for about a year and a half when I packed my bags for old London town. I had asked about study abroad options on all my college tours and planned to go first semester junior year with all my friends since we were freshman. Even though I could feel myself getting worse, I had never let something like a pesky crumbling mental state make excuses for me to sit out.

I nodded along in agreement as family friends told me how much fun I would have. I needed to believe them. Pictures of Europe had decorated my walls and screensavers since middle school, put there not for a burgeoning wanderlust or any desire for cultural enrichment but because Europe is the classic cocoon where you escape anything that troubles you and grow into an impenetrable fortress of confidence and mystique (See: Eat Pray Love, Sabrina, Eurotrip). I fully bought into those Audrey Hepburn Tumblr posts and would think without any irony as self-loathing ate me alive that one day I would go there and leave my issues in the trash can at security.

The cobblestone streets and sunny canals on my Pinterest board did not match up with the landscape of my mind where all the gutters overflowed and citizens choked on smog. I slept three hours a night and five hours during normal daylight hours, laying in bed much of the time besides. I made myself physically nauseous from worrying. I was paranoid constantly and could not trust a single person not to betray me at any moment.  For about twenty months now, I thought in an iambic pentameter of suicidal ideation, with all my regular thoughts being followed by a stressed little “kill yourself” each time. It was the backbeat to all my melodies, showing up even without any summons or triggers. It followed me home every night, taunting, calling my name and telling me to turn around and finally embrace it.

I needed to go to a hospital.

Instead I went to Heathrow.

///

I struggle mostly with passive suicidal ideation where you can think about taking a long walk off a short building all day long but do not have concrete plans or are seeking the means to act on these thoughts. “Volitional moderators” is a term for the factors that turn suicidal thoughts into suicidal behavior. I thought the verb “to kill” over and over, but in only a few moments was I volitionally moderated enough to go “so kill”.

This distinction may seem confusing to those who do not experience suicidal depression. I just said I was constantly thinking about killing myself, so wouldn’t that mean I was always close to doing so? I guess. Yet still in my mind during all those stressed syllables, I could see a veil keeping me from what I could do. I knew when the veil was up and when it was slipping.

I know the veil was actually falling in these moments because I could see what was on the other side, and I felt the panic you get when you know something is coming to kill you- heartbeat quickening, blood rushing, mouth dry, and the clearness of mind adrenaline brings. My broken brain features a piss-poor memory, but I remember these moments crisply even though the action was only happening in my mind, these seconds before some sort of self-preservation kicked in or I got interrupted and the veil fixed itself. So when I say I really almost killed myself then, please believe me. If you said a bear chased you, I would offer the same courtesy. I learned pretty good manners in England.

I remember the four spots I came closest, and now I offer you them so if you are studying abroad or there on a trip, you can take pictures and post them and pretend to not be severely depressed too.

Here is the tourist’s guide to where to almost off yourself (that’s a British term):

1. The High Street Kensington tube stop, London, UK

I passed through this stop on the Circle line almost every day that semester. High Street Kensington is close to the palace so you will see a blend of tourist spots and upscale housing. This was also the stop closest to my school’s campus which has since been demolished and turned into condominiums. The stop itself features a Pret a Manger, a Ben’s Cookies, a stationary store, and a dark restaurant that they will let you pee even if you are not a customer (thanks, guys!).

It was late, and I was waiting for my train after my 6:30 Introduction to Theater class ended. Unlike the average college student abroad, classes were something I looked forward to, as it was a social situation that I could simply show up to without the agonizing of planning and possible rejection. Everyone else in the class walked home together while I alone had to reach my dorm via tube. I thought of my friends walking together, their bond continuing to strengthen after mine had been amputated.

I feel like I missed out on a lot of socializing as a kid so now I create these simple inorganic rules to understand how other people do it. I create values in my head based on minutes clocked together and allocate points to different kinds of interactions- small talk, one point, intimate confessions, five- like I’m playing the Sims. It seemed like everyone else around me was unlocking level after level while my bar wouldn’t move. Those little failures to connect were annoying in the moment but would all pile up when I found myself alone. If I had someone to ride with that night, I wouldn’t be thinking like I was.

I was listening to a cover of “Horse with No Name”, one of the slow, monotone songs that I would retreat into on these rides as they were perfect to disassociate to, a new symptom of my illness that left me somewhat dazed almost all the time.

I was not dissociating right now though. I was filled with dread. I had nowhere to go that I wanted to be. No one else was on the platform, I thought opportunistically, There were no witnesses to feel guilty about. I imagined the smack of body to train, sort of feeling like a belly flop into the community pool but with no pain after the hit. I thought about Mario and Luigi and perfectly timing a jump to the approach of a moving object. I almost laughed at the idea of the beeps that played when the plumber stepped on a poison mushroom going off as I jumped.

The train approached. I thought about the commuters being home late because of my interference, commuters with kids and lovers and better reasons to be on time than I had to be alive, who would resent me for my interruption even while they pitied me. My feet stayed rooted to the concrete platform until I stepped between the sliding doors.

2. North Bridge, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

When you get off the train from London to Edinburgh, you ascend the stairs to the top of North Bridge, which connects High Street and Prince Street. It is a beautiful spot. You can see Arthur’s Seat, a peak of the gorgeous Scottish highlands. From that vantage, you can enjoy the highs and lows of the hilly ancient city. You can also look down through the train station’s glass ceiling, which resembles a mammoth greenhouse.  I crossed the bridge at night, leaned over the edge, and imagined my body landing on that glass, the splat that was me shocking the travelers inside the station.

I had booked my solo trip to Scotland the night before, buying an expensive train ticket, a cheap hostel bunk, and a cheaper bus ticket in an impulsive fifteen minutes. My mom saw the charge and called me, beseeching me not to travel alone, but I refused. It was over the extended break from school in which I had over a week of no plans besides watching reality TV in my musty apartment, dreading a roommate discovered me on the couch, unmoved. I was sick of seeing Instagrams pour in from friends in Italy and Iceland, enjoying plans I had been too afraid of rejection to request inclusion on. I needed to salvage this time with something to share when classes resumed, the silence while listening to others’ joy unbearable.

A group of my friends had already seen Scotland without me, and I knew I would be making sad comparisons the whole time as I saw it alone, but it was the closest place I could go to on a Friday and make it back by Monday. I weighed my desperation against that and showed up for my early train.

Travelling alone is often touted as a wonderful, life-changing experience. A chance to escape it all and really get to know yourself. You’re free to set your own plans and do what YOU want to do. You’ll talk to people you never would have if you had friends with you. Your confidence will sky-rocket and forever will self-assurance follow you.

Studying abroad leaves you alone whether you want it or not. You will be alone waiting at airport gates, riding trains, riding the tube. Alone walking through art museums, laughing at short films in darks screenings, standing on balconies and staring at skylines, watching outdoor plays, finding small joys in being part of the world as a solo observer. You’ll be alone eating meals you put off for too long, drinking coffee in crowded shops and dreading people negotiating seating and outlets. Alone ordering take-out that feels extravagant for just one person. Walking home alone because you thought living separately from your friends would be a good idea, because you were fairly confident they would have refused you if you asked to live with them, because you did not think you could bear that so you avoid asking the question altogether.

        Most of time being alone did not make me feel liberated. I felt I had no say in my state. Attempts to remedy it were short-lived and could never fill the hungry hole I was. I saw my friends rarely enough that when reunited, huge gaps had been carved of their lives that I would never know. It felt like they had all crossed a threshold together and the moment after the fusion, it became unattainable for newcomers. I was lonely with others and with myself and no cultural experience made that go away. I had spent enough time in my head to go far past the point of healthy reflection, a point of constant circling back to flaws and miseries with no one around to take me back to reality.

I had been having a nice enough time in Scotland at first, a little high off my impulsiveness and determined to not let my mother’s worries manifest. I enjoyed a pleasant train ride where I read Macbeth. I went to the coffee shop where JK Rowling wrote and enjoyed an Irish Coffee.

But then the sky got darker. I hadn’t eaten a substantial meal that day, and the effort to secure food is mammoth for the sick like me. I put pressure on myself to find a delectable meal every time, treating a boring meal as some sort of failure to constantly live life to the fullest in this one little way. As I was away, I also needed a place to eat said meal and I was afraid of a judgmental look because I was eating alone or that I would be turned away because of the state of my travelling clothes which limited the restaurants I allowed myself to seek service in.

I finally became ravenous and went to the meal I would eat almost every day abroad after all my spiraling, unsatisfying but attainable and one that came with a place where you could eat alone and be accepted- an egg salad sandwich from Pret a Manger. Pret’s are EVERYWHERE in Europe, and I thank them for being a depressed girl’s refuge time after time. I had one of my lamest moments ever in that Edinburgh Pret as I sat at the community table, watched a new episode of my favorite show on my phone, and sobbed. I wept right into my egg salad on whole wheat with watercress. A pair of young parents and their baby in a stroller stared at me as my mayo-scented hiccups broke through the loud fast-casual eatery.  I guess they would not be one of the amazing people I met in transit.

I used to be more melancholic than anything with a few occasional outbursts, but during this time, my depression created these big, public sobbings. I was a crybaby. A loud fat crybaby with big fat baby tears and big gulping gasps, weeping over how I deserved no place in human existence. I Chris-Crocker-ed it in my bed, on the tube, on the sidewalk, and in hotel bathrooms with people just on the other side of the door.

I put on my headphones and walked to my hostel. But before that, I stopped on the bridge and dizzied myself by leaning over the edge and staring down at the station below.

I was lost in my patterns. Of doing very little then making one impulsive decision in pursuit of happiness, of starving myself and then being unhappy with the taste of what I finally ate, of thinking about killing myself passively and then finding myself here, one jump away from action.

I stepped back suddenly as if my inhibitions in the slam of the door on their way out. It was too cold to debate so I just left. I got some Indian food and a glass of cheap wine. I read on my phone in my hostel bunk and fell asleep before midnight. I had thought about going out alone, even packed an outfit, but I thought about returning to that bridge with alcohol in me and again feared a falling veil.  

3. St. James Park tube station, London, UK

You may have noticed by now I have a thing for trains. A lot of positives to suicide by train. No one would have to find my body, it would be found upon deliverance. It’s also quick, no post-moment to regret it and hope for reversal. And I live in New York City so convenience cannot be understated.

My ideation used to prefer stabbing. I remember watching the end of Romeo and Juliet in the eighth grade and observing how cleanly Juliet went through herself with Romeo’s happy dagger. That age is when I first started having suicidal thoughts, and I would run my hands over the hilt of my mother’s kitchen knives. I was afraid of cutting myself when chopping vegetables, but when I was the proverbial onion, I was not so bothered.  Stabbing is messy and requires quite a lot of strength, especially if self-inflicting. It isn’t quite so easy as an approaching D train or tube, in this case.

I find myself at Saint James Park because I have just left my parents’ hotel, named for another saint. St. Ermin’s Hotel was a secret spy base for M16 during World War II. I had stayed on the daybed in my parents’ room for almost every night that week. I sort of felt like a spy, going undercover with my family of happy tourists while keeping my state secret of personal misery. My dad, slightly amnesiac, kept asking me to list all my trips taken so far, and I smiled as I recounted museums and historical sights, hiding my feeling of inadequacy with how few I had been on, as I found it hard to find anyone to go on them with, two having been cancelled by friends already both for the reason I assumed of hating me. I talked lovingly of the National Theatre, which I spent many hours alone at, sitting on my computer and trying to write or do homework or really just avoid my insufferable roommate.

I had five roommates. Three were from China and were very nice and mostly kept to themselves. One I had chosen, a girl who’d become one of my best friends over the course of last year. I wanted to room with her because I wanted to grow closer to her and because she was outside my main friend group that I often felt periphery to. The last roommate was an acquaintance of hers who had begged her to room with us.

As someone who constantly feels completely unlovable, I try to be nice to everyone I meet. As someone who often felt friendless and bullied growing up, I try to understand that the person most people dislike often has a lot to offer. And of course, as a ~~Feminist~~, I never want to tear down another woman, recognizing the societal factors that make us compete with each other.

All that being said: this girl was a cunt.

She had a face like a puckered lemon and a personality like a palate cleanser. Have you ever met a person with so little self-awareness they sort of become a marvel? Had everyone they met just smiled and nodded their whole life or was the bubble they existed in so opaque they just missed any sort of negative reinforcement?

She was undoubtedly self-absorbed. She spun the strangest details into brags- she had eaten vegetables for dinner, her friend from home dated a millionaire, her mom was very generous to their housekeeper. She was extremely proud of not wanting to go out on a Saturday, of eating healthy food made at home, of spending a day doing homework. Her jokes were undetectable because of her monotone, and if you didn’t laugh, she would spin that into a brag too- she had this dry sense of humor not many people understood. She monologued in her bland vocal fry without interruption even as another person tried to add something, even if that addition was that you had heard this story from her before.  

Boring would have been fine. I can get along with boring. But this girl had a mean streak that came out the moment you stopped listening and nodding with brag after brag. She would disengage the moment you shared something individual, even if your own point contrasted with nothing but the experience of her hearing the sound of her own voice. The only two people I have seen tolerate her after a long period of time were the sort of people pleasers who were so nice they were in complete denial about people’s flaws. My other roommate was one of these people, and she asked me to avoid any sort of conflict.

But she’d tear me up with upturned nose and WASP-y derision. She had a narrow worldview that would have made maximum sense in a Cathy comic. She fretted about her body, said she appreciated how her friends pointed out her weight gain, and talked to me with the assumption all women were similarly preoccupied. She told me a lewd joke a male acquaintance made about her boobs. I said if my friend said that to me we wouldn’t be friends anymore. She literally said “boys will be boys.” On one of our first nights in London, we were at a bar, and a few guys were surrounding her. I went over to ask if she was okay, as women do. The next morning she rebuked me as a buzzkill. At first I stood my ground, but she would prick and prick, and I crumbled.

I look back and pity her, knowing it takes a very sad person to feel safe in such a small box. But at the time, all I felt was pissed off.

A part of me that still liked myself knew she was someone I should be flattered to be an enemy of, but that’s not comforting while she’s eating next to me, when she is currently picking apart the food I eat and the flannels I wear. I would hear her saying my name from another room with the derision she gave everything and want to come out kicking, but then I would think about her untouched arrogance, how she would bring this up for weeks, how I’d eventually assuage. So I stayed in my room and hated myself more for my weakness. I became quiet around her, fortressing myself with loud headphones (although she still talked when I had those on, unable to leave a silence).

I thought I was a fairly docile depressed person, partial to staring out of windows and weepy nights in, but anger arrived that autumn. I snapped over the trivial. I made a mistake and wanted to punch a wall. I, an out-of-shape girl from the suburbs, fantasized about getting to physically fight someone, tired of all my tyrannies being stuck inside my head.

As a fun bonus, this girl also had a casual homophobia I had not encountered much in college and was sort of shocked by to see still out living in this expressively liberal woman. Fitting in with her general Cathy comic tendencies, her sensibility was about ten years out of date, claiming herself tolerant but saying she wanted a gay best friend to dress her and take her out, but that lesbians were “weird,” giggling like a child at the idea of a woman dating a woman. She laughed as she told a story that sounded to me as about a friend earnestly trying to come out to her, but she framed as a joke (To be fair, her jokes were terrible--so might not be able to give her flack for this one).

I had heard all this and mostly ignored it. I was just starting to express my own queerness and did not need to hear her say “weird” with that little-girl disapproval about something I was actually sensitive about (Ironically, she once bragged that she had an amazing gaydar. Guess I was a blip). But then as a fun anecdote, she shared that she and her friends used to make out at high school parties because boys asked them to, a story that most people would be embarrassed about or at least disgusted by the misogyny of, but she thought was really cool of her. I was surprised she said this and she asked snobbily hadn’t I ever done that?

I saw red. The anger said, “Self-pity, take a walk. I’ll get this one.” My words were calm but my face was red and eyes hot with tears. I said how nice it must have been to kiss a girl as a teen and not watch your friends suddenly ignore you, to not worry every hug and compliment would be seen as a come-on, to not hide your crushes because if you shared, you would end up completely alone. I stood and screamed and tried to break this bubble because I was big now and this wasn’t supposed to be a problem anymore. I didn’t want to be afraid again, especially not of people in my house, in my school. Because my current mental nightmare began with meeting a girl like her who when asked what I was worth, everything she did said nothing.

I went to my room and cried and my other roommate came in, upset with me for pushing the issue. She said now the other girl thought I hated her and I answered that I did.

I was rotting. If eating a cheesy meal or watching a stupid movie with a bottle of wine made me feel better for a microsecond, I did it. It’s not like I didn’t want to be better. I held my self-loathing and my self-worth on opposing scales but I really was trying for the second to win, even when standing on platforms and bridges.

But this girl made one side of the scale tip further and further, and I am looking at my photo album and watching the light drain from my eyes. I hid out in cafes and libraries as late as I could before the tube stopped running and I had to go home. Of course, I have an illness. I was depressed long before she was ever my flatmate. She didn’t know she was dealing with a suicidal person. But she did know I was trying to be her friend once. She did know someone had said her words hurt and thought that hurt was silly. She knew it was raining and still pissed on my leg and I don’t need to forgive her.

I can’t forgive smiling to my mom and telling her all her worrying was for naught, lying and saying I was doing just fine over here on my own. I can’t forgive sobbing the moment my family’s black cab was out of sight because I wanted more than anything to be with them so at least when I woke up from a depression nap, someone who wanted my victory was there. I stood on that platform feeling more alone than I ever had. This time the volition wasn’t about a declaration or a retribution. I just wanted to not be in pain, to not have to walk back into that flat.

I got on the train though. It would make my mom sad if I didn’t.


4. Hyde Park Corner Tube Stop

        I have confided my friends how lonely I am and the invites start springing up. Maybe they wanted to make an effort all along and just needed a direction. Maybe it wasn’t about me.  

        We are on a dinner cruise and I take a picture with the people I’ve now known for two and a half years and I feel grateful to have shared life with them. We dance, and I am looking for the people I met when I had no one to talk to and am grateful for them too. My roommate talks to my friends and doesn’t acknowledge me. We roll our eyes as she walks away.

        My friends are so sad to be leaving, and I disguise my immense relief in jokes. In the same way, I thought anywhere was better before I came to London, I am thinking the same thing as I leave it. I feel pricks of jealousy as they share stories and the in-jokes go over my head, but I am a bit hopeful again that I’ll be there for the next memory.

        After the cruise, a few of us decide to go over to a winter carnival. My friends and I admire the lights and walk through the vendors, playing with their handmade toys. It’s a good night.

        I walk to the train station. My friends offer to let me sleep on their couch so I don’t have to walk home alone but I want to be tough so I begin a long journey back.

        I walk through the crowded station and think about how this will be one of my last times alone on a tube platform. The laces on my boots hit my leg with each step.

        I had a good night. I could have been having good nights all along. I could have asked for help sooner. I wasted my parents’ money and worries. I wasted an opportunity I can never get back.

        I had one good night but the hole is still there. It’s still going to be there at home. I might feel like this forever and that is the most terrifying thing I have ever thought. I just keep thinking I don’t wanna don’t wanna don’t wanna. I can see through the veil and the void on that side matches the void on mine. Hopping through the veil at least means I have say in where I am though.

        It’s coming. It’s coming. It’s coming.

        It’s just one more day.

        I pick the void I’m in.  

//////

The first time I told someone I wanted to kill myself was in a therapist’s office almost a year after I left for London. I didn’t realize I had never told anyone until I did. It’s literally something that is always on my mind. It was a secret I didn’t know I was keeping.

I still stood too close to the edges of platforms after I came back. But I also told people I was unhappy without joke or allusion. When I got angry, I hit a bag instead of myself. I made trying new things into my pattern. I worked all day and slept eight hours all at night.

But I still think like that. I know this comes and goes and I’m afraid for its return. We’ve run into each other enough in the last few months. Even when I was doing all the right things, it found me. My life is about to undergo a big change and I won’t be able to write off one bad semester and start over again.

I still haven’t told most of my friends what I almost did, but I told a couple. They had no suspicions at all. Suicides don’t tell people because they want no interference if they ever act. I give people the power to kill me but not the power to save me.

I’m a competent suicidal, who successfully hid behind jokes and Instagrams and good grades for years. I broke alone. I have lots of friends but still thought the the burden of my life would be a relieving absence to them. I gave them even less credit than I gave myself.

I wish I had been stronger. I wish I could get that time back. I wish I hadn’t spent all that money to cry in cafes. I want to know what those months would have been like if I didn’t second-guess love, but I never will. I can only have the scratched future.

Do not go to another country because you think it will cure your depression. No marble statue or Gothic cathedral is going to fix you. But if you are in another country and find yourself alone in train stations often enough to drop your veil, just get on the train. At least then you can go somewhere else.


jesus' mom's first name is virgin

Gabrielle Gillespie

ISSUE NO. 1 • To Have a heart

Gabby wrote this piece for this issue on love and sex as her last will and testament as she is reflecting on how for the first time since kindergarten, she will be not be attending Catholic institutions, and she is thinking of how the Church has affected her even in the most intimate parts of her life.

The Catholic Church remains distinguished among other Christian denominations for its elevated placement of Jesus’ mother, the Virgin Mary. Virgin Mary. One name just like Jesus Christ. You can call her the Blessed Mother or the Holy Mother, but at the end, her full name is that. Going through Catholic grammar school, I would ponder this, working backwards to figure out what “virgin” means. It was not as innocuous an adjective as “holy” but I knew it wasn’t a name in the same way just Mary is. I think my religion workbook simply defined it as “pure.” Even after I learned the general definition a couple years later, it took a little while before the whole story took shape. Virgin meant you never had sex. Mary never had sex to create Jesus, and that’s why she’s a Big Deal. Not because the pregnancy, where she faced the risk of being stoned for infidelity, or you know, because she did the actual raising of actual Jesus Christ. After the Resurrection, Jesus’ conception is the most prominent miracle of the New Testament. By the end of elementary, I had had hundreds of lessons about the angel Gabriel, about Joseph’s misunderstanding, and about Mary herself, but no one thought a basic explanation of sex was relevant to this narrative.

That would not be introduced in the classroom until the seventh grade. Like most seventh graders, at this time, we were constantly making dirty jokes. If I could find some way to tie something to sexual intercourse, the joke would kill. I had never seen a penis before (despite many logged hours of unsupervised internet time), but we were constantly drawing them on any available surface. We once played a grade-wide form of tag where we were spreading “chlamydia.” In the midst of this hormonal storm came “Sex Week.” Every teacher gave their own version of the sex talk to us, even my algebra teacher finding a way to squeeze it in. The centerpiece of the week was a visit from Generation Life.

Generation Life’s website advertises their mission of “building a culture of life by spreading the pro-life and chastity messages to other young people.” On their homepage, they lay out their argument that because most abortions are had by unmarried woman, the best way to prevent abortion is to promote chastity outside marriage. This is built on the Catholic belief that sex should not and cannot exist without the intent to reproduce and make a bunch of little Catholics. In this logic, unmarried mothers and, of course, abortion are assumed evils.

But I don’t think that way yet. I am twelve years old, and it is 2012. I do not question that abortion is wrong, and I have been trained in pro-life rhetoric, regularly spouting it for all my argumentative essay assignments (and one particularly cringy student film) because that topic guarantees an easy A. All my sex education is coming from television, movies, and my peers. I want desperately to be seen as sexy or hot to some, to any man (and I am still brushing off admiration of actresses’ legs as a desire to be skinnier). I was recently forced to wear a back brace to correct my scoliosis, and I sobbed on the ride home from the doctor’s, saying “no one is going to want me.” In other words, Generation Life is creeping in at a girl’s greatest period of vulnerability, when sex is a new concept in my life but one I am desperate to understand and, despite my age and my ugliness, master.

The boys and girls were split up into separate groups which made perfect sense at the time. The separate genitalia was enough to render one gender’s experience of sex as completely foreign from another’s. In the girls, there were two teachers. The first was an older woman who had waited until marriage. The second was coincidentally named Maria, and she was not a virgin. She had had a rough life, leading her down a reckless path of drugs and abuse and worst of all, having sex with her boyfriend at 15. Now she was married, but she said she had apologized to God and to her husband (who was currently in the other room teaching the boys) continuously for her mistake. She lamented how selfish she was because her husband had waited for her, and she didn’t for him.

We covered a wide array of subjects. We talked about pregnancy and saw the biologically incorrect models of the growing fetuses that are recognizably human even when they are the size of walnuts. One woman took out the instructions and warnings from a box of birth control. She stressed how condensed all the language was and how if you weren’t willing to read all of it, you shouldn’t take it (Someone pointed out half of it was just the Spanish translation. It was unappreciated). She read aloud the possible side effects, stressing the possible risk of death as a highly likely one. We talked condoms, not how to use one but how not to. First, we were told that condoms were only 25% effective so basically useless (I was told later that in the boys’ seminar, someone had heckled “So use 4!”). The real point they made, though, was that sex was only meant to create life, and if you used a condom or birth control on top of having premarital coitus, you were doubling the sin, the state of your soul being determined with simple addition.

The centerpiece of this was the tape metaphor. Many have heard of this, but I was able to score front row tickets. Megan, an eighth grader who wore the boy’s uniform every day, was chosen to partake. She was smiling like she always did, and we were all, too, because Megan was the class clown, and we were waiting for her to make us laugh. The lifelong chaste woman put a fresh strip of Scotch tape on Megan’s arm and then ripped it off with a surprising harshness.

“Ouch,” Megan said, chuckling but eyes a little bit wide, the ripping pretty clearly a rebuke for her smiling.

The chaste woman then with much flourish tried to replace the tape on Meghan’s freckly arms, showing how the glue wouldn’t stick as much this time. She held up the tape to the light and pointed out the dead skin cells on it. That was us. Every time we had a different partner, we become a little more like that dirty, finger-printed piece of tape.

Something in me snapped. I got the giggles, bad. The other girls looked at me like a weirdo, an older one telling my friends to “control me,” but as self-conscious as I was back then, I wouldn’t stop even for the sake of peer pressure. I looked back at them like, Isn’t this insane? How are you not laughing? The woman continued her speech, and she and my teachers gave me dirty looks, but I couldn’t be stopped. I was tearing up, I couldn’t breathe. Why was it so funny to me? First, there was the fact that the thing we talked about constantly was now being discussed in a classroom by adults. Also mixed in there was a middle-schooler’s disrespect for anyone with a strong conviction about anything. Finally, there was the one small part of it that this topic was being discussed from an insane perspective that even an ignorant tween like me knew crumbled outside the insular walls of a parochial school. I wanted desperately to know what the hell adult sex lives were, but as clueless as I was, I knew this wasn’t it.

I got a grip, eventually. The seminar ended, with everyone getting stickers that said “I am worth waiting for.”  The boys were reunited with us, and they said their talk was fairly relaxed, with their teacher joking freely about how of course every boy masturbated. I remember being a little jealous of that. Our instructors had acted like we were in trouble from the first moment. At the front of the room, our homeroom/theology/science teacher, Mrs. Rentas, who had come to us that year from a nearby school that closed, was trying to get our attention. On Fridays in her theology class, we did scrapbooking and listened to Christian rap, her singing along to the choruses. Now she whispered, as if afraid of anyone outside the class hearing. She said that even though we shouldn’t have sex, we should use condoms if we do, that she’d lost a lot of people to preventable diseases, and that after AIDs, she was upset someone would tell us not to use them. My class mostly wasn’t listening. It was the end of the day, and we were chatting in our coats, but I remember her serious whisper and restrained anger that an educator had just told us advice that could kill us.

Did that day harm us? My peers became neither an army of celibates or defiantly sexually liberated. Even of those that share anti-choice memes on Facebook, none seem to be following Generation Life’s model of celibacy. It was only 90 minutes of toxicity, and despite other reinforcements in our education, we weren’t in so cloistered a space that it could cancel out the outer world. Yet, I can’t separate this from the general culture of misogyny in my twelve years of Catholic school that I still work to unpack- guys touching girls as a game, a disdain for anyone beyond a certain waist size, sexual reputations being written and rewritten to suit the whims of spoiled boys. The Church does not allow women to be priests or bishops or to interpret catechism in a meaningful way, but during my twelve years of parochial schooling, the majority of my teachers and administrators were women. Yet they seemed complicit in the male superiority of the Church. They passed on an internalized misogyny, telling girls to pull down their skirts and wipe off their make-up to mold them in their image- well-off, Church-going wives and mothers.

On our sixth grade field day, it was going to be almost ninety-seven degrees. I wore blue cotton athletic shorts from Limited Too, thinking only of how I’d beat the heat while still running around during flag football and hopefully winning tug-of-war. All the other girls had seemed to have the same thought with our rainbow of athletic shorts. Then our teacher had all the girls line up in the hall, arms straight down at our sides. A group of teachers were in the hall, and I, a total goodie-goodie, was confused by looks of derision in their eyes. They said a few things, asking us how we could think these shorts were appropriate, implying the girls had conspired this attack on propriety. I had never been in trouble before, and never for something like dress code, my shirts being tucked in and collars straightened always, and I was just plain confused by this new attitude. They marched us down to the nurse’s office, and I remember noticing Hannah, whose mom was a teacher, got to hang back even though her shorts were just as short as mine. Our principal Ms. Lily and the nurse, usually nice ladies who complimented my spelling and helped me use my inhaler, sternly told us to call our parents and ask them to bring us new clothes or else we would spend all of field day with the nurse.

My mom hated nothing more than having to come to my school unless absolutely necessary. I took the bus, and she griped about chess club and carpooling and conferences. By asking this of me, it was like they were trying to get my mom in trouble too. I didn’t know how mad my mom would be at me for dragging her into this. I would have chosen the nurse’s office if she wasn’t giving me such a dirty look right now.

“Hi Mom.”

“Are you sick?” My mom is a loud woman. The principal and my classmates could definitely hear her.

“No. The teachers are saying my shorts are too short. If you don’t bring me new ones, I have to sit in the nurse’s office all day.”

“Your shorts? That’s ridiculous!”

My mom was on my side? I was floored. “That’s what I said!”

“Finish it up,” Ms. Lily interjected. I looked up in surprise. I wanted to really emulate my mom then with a classic “be quiet, I’m on the phone.”

“Uh, can you bring me my tan shorts?” I needed to direct my mom so she wouldn’t bring me something ugly, “And can you bring something for Amanda? Her mom’s at work and can’t come.” Amanda was crying on the nurse’s bed over the prospect of missing the whole day.

“I’ll be there.”

My mom isn’t Catholic. She says in southern California, where she’s from, they didn’t really do that whole religion thing. She came to Church with us but didn’t take communion. She is also a Democrat, whereas almost the entirety of our school was Republican.

In eighth grade, after Generation Life, I told her in the car one day that I just didn’t understand how abortion could be legal. It was murder, plain and simple.

“Do you know what happened before abortion was legal?” she said, launching into the high pitch that meant I was in trouble, “Women did it themselves by sticking wire hangers up their bodies. Do you want to go back to that?”

My mom is not one for subtlety.

“I didn’t know that,” I said, “They don’t tell me that in school.”

“You shouldn’t believe everything you hear,” she said.

I didn’t say I agreed with her because that breaks the laws of twelve-year-old girls and their mothers, but that image horrified me instantly and thoroughly. Next year, when other people would still be doing their argumentative essays on abortion, my stomach twisted at my mother’s words.

Yet, this was sort of a mixed message as my mother was the also one who sent me to Catholic school, saying long ago the public school wasn’t challenging enough. When your teacher tells you something, you’re supposed to believe it. Maybe I was challenged there in all the wrong ways, challenged to sit silently and not ask questions, to not laugh when people say ridiculous things, to not look to outside sources except that one big book and the men who were allowed to interpret it.

I was talking to my mom recently, enjoying the new perk of adult child-parent relationships where you finally heard all the gossip that happened when you were a kid. Every Sunday, Mrs. DeMarco’s daughter Nicole asked her to buy Plan B for some of her friends on the cheerleading team who would have unprotected sex the night before in a guest bedroom at the football-cheer parties. I wondered aloud why these apparent jock orgies never used condoms, but I know now how against them teenage boys will be. These cheerleaders’ own mothers would punish them if they went to them, but Nicole knew her mother would help them out, and Mrs. DeMarco knew if her daughter needed it for herself, she would tell her. On the flip side, my mother also told me about the PTA president who led the bus of parishioners and students to the pro-life rally in DC every year. At sixteen, her daughter was pregnant. My mom derided the mother. She said she heavily favored the son in the family, the way many Catholic moms still do, the way I’ve seen my aunts and relatives do as well. My mom had been hearing about that girl acting out from the first grade, but always the PTA president got her out of trouble and gave her none of the attention she needed. Unsurprisingly, the mother took her to get an abortion, none of the slogans she shouted down in Washington mattering. The rules seem to not apply when it’s your own daughter that wants the choice, when it’s your own sins that would be put under the microscope, and when you have the means, when it’s someone you know and not some anonymous girl in a place you would never visit.  

My priest told me that abortion is a sin, even if the doctor says that the pregnancy will kill the mother, that the slightest chance of preserving the child’s life is the sacrifice every mother should readily make. If she wouldn’t die for her child, why did she even have sex? They despise abortion, but if the sixteen-year-old girl had that baby, they would despise her for it, not praise her for the sin she avoided. Women were instrumental in building the Church and doing the work today the men will not, but still the only great thing a woman can do in the eyes of the Church is have a baby. A woman should not have sex if she will not marry, should not marry if she will not have children, cannot be a priest because she must marry and have children. It’s an endless cycle where children are the balls and chains to preserve women as property.

The most important thing Mary ever did was be a virgin. She carried a child to save a world that would have stoned her for being pregnant out of wedlock. If she had had loving, consensual sex just once before, the Church would have thrown rocks too.