sisters reading on rocking chair together

Babies and Butterflies: An Study Of Adolescent Development

I have this vivid childhood memory…though I am not sure if it really happened or if I dreamt it.  I had to have been around four-and-a-half, not much more, because my mother was pregnant with my younger sister.

In this memory, my mother and I are curled up in my bed, leaning against the big-girl pillows, my woven blue blanket tucked tight around our bare toes. We are reading a picture book, and I point to a green stubby worm in the center of the left-most picture.

“Look, Mommy! It’s a baby!”

She reaches over me and places her finger underneath the picture, below the word ‘caterpillar’ and makes each sound, ‘caaa – trrr – pill – rrr.’

“Sound it out with me,” she says. We say it slowly together: “Ca-ter-pill-ar.”

“What is a caterpillar?” she asks.

“A baby butterfly.”

“That’s right! And where do caterpillars live?”

My mother looks at my bedroom wall and smiles, giving me a not-so-sneaky hint. My room is decorated with a flower-print wall, a blue wall, and two white walls with a fancy blue fence. The fence is painted along the room’s bottom edges, almost as if it grew from the floor. My mother stenciled the posts herself.  They look real, except for the blue color. But the blue matches my blue pillows. And my blue blanket. And this fence transforms the room into a garden.

“Garden!” I squeal. “Caterpillars live in gardens!”

“Yes,” she says, “Good job, sweetie.”

I nestle in the crook of my mother’s arm, the little bun at the top of my head fitting right under her armpit. She turns the page of the book. There is a momma lion and her cub. I place my little hand on my mother’s stomach. It is large and swollen.

“The caterpillar is a baby,” I say, “A baby, like this one.”

 

I have always been fascinated by human development—the way we shift from tiny seeds in our mother’s stomachs to people that jump double-dutch, drink root beer floats, develop whooping cough, fall in love.

I am still not sure whether that memory with my mother actually happened, but as a four-and-a-half-year-old, I do remember touching my mother’s swollen stomach, feeling the tiny movements of feet and life beneath my fingertips. I remember my new sister’s nursery and its lavender and light green colors. I remember the obnoxious pink stork in the center of our lawn. And I remember the quiet bundle my father carried like a glass figurine in his arms. The whole process was fascinating.

In my senior year of high school, an exhibit called Body Worlds & The Cycle of Life came to the Chicago Science and Industry Museum. I went for a fieldtrip with my anatomy class and stood in the back, walking a hundred or so feet behind everyone, taking it all in. One of the first sections of the exhibit featured actual preserved embryos and babies at different weeks. There was a zygote from one week after conception, then a seven-week-old embryo, no bigger than a blueberry. One of the most powerful glass cases held the body of a twenty-eight week old fetus, fragile and small enough to hold in my hands, unborn, each finger and toe defined.

I remember standing in front of that glass case, blinking back tears as I admired the soft folds of plaster skin that formed the eyelids, the waxy arms and legs. A sign underneath the case said something about third trimester abortions, how this twenty-eight week old baby would classify as a third trimester fetus.

The baby looked so real, so alive. I could almost see the thin arms moving in the amniotic sac; I could imagine the strong kicks against the mother’s belly.

I have always been in awe of the complexity of human life, our changes and growths, how a fetus can develop different senses in the womb, responding to stimuli before birth, or acquiring sensitivities to different tastes in the amniotic sac: sweet, bitter, salty, sour.[1] It has always amazed me that even a sense of hearing is developed prenatally; I remember talking to my baby sister, leaning against my mother’s stomach, hoping in a kindergartner sort of way that I would hear something back. My mother talked to the baby too. She believed, like most mothers, that her unborn child would recognize the tone and inflections of her voice. When I held my sister just hours after birth, and she smiled at me when I spoke, I felt that smile was a recognition. She had remembered me.

Standing in front of that glass case at the Body Worlds exhibit brought me back to my four-and-a-half-year-old hand on my mother’s stomach, feeling each kick. It brought me to hours after my sister’s birth, holding her like a sleeping puppy in my arms. It brought me to months later, watching as she underwent rapid changes—learning to hold her head upright, move her arms and legs, scoot herself across the floor, babble and coo. I watched this growth intently. It was her arms and legs first, extremities sprouting to lengths disproportionate to the rest of her body. Then it was crying and laughing melting into words, and floor-shuffling becoming crawling, then walking—and everything happening simultaneously—a structured sort of chaos.

 

There was a small period in my elementary school life when I wanted to be a doctor, one that took care of mothers and small babies. I think this was a result of the spinach spoon-feeding I assisted my mother with, and at age five, being too young to change diapers and thus not experiencing the true horror of it all. Though profound, the career path was short-lived, as I realized I was terrified of needles and all too sensitive to be able to hold back tears when seeing someone in pain.

My sister grew to be a lot tougher than me. When she was six or seven, I held her tiny hand in mine as the doctor inserted a numbing agent into her ripped-open chin; she had slipped on the edge of an indoor swimming pool. While she sat stone-faced in the doctor’s chair, I, eleven or twelve years old, cried enough tears for the both of us.

My sister is both beautiful and tough. She has always reminded me of a butterfly, delicate-winged but resilient. As a baby, she was the perfect caterpillar. Each scuttling movement across the kitchen floor was worm-like; she would inch forward with determination, every day one scoot closer to crawling. And like the newly-hatched caterpillar larva with its disproportionately large head and few bristles of hair, she looked like most babies, half-bald and big-headed.[2]

A caterpillar develops a unique set of color patterns, hair, spine, and fleshy filaments, becoming unique and differing from its appearance at birth. This was my sister with her tiny upturned nose, oval brown eyes, and little high-pitched giggle. Where I had inherited my mother’s curly, dark brown mess of hair, my sister’s was straight and golden. Where I had been given my father’s strong, short legs, my sister’s were feminine and long.

As humans grow, we undergo rapid changes, physically, mentally, linguistically, and emotionally. We become different and unique. We develop tiny toe nails and crescent-moon smiles. At eight weeks we are the size of a raspberry. At week twenty-eight, like the Body Worlds baby, we are the size of an eggplant—very much alive.[3]

A human develops immensely, yet even in this, we are so dependent on the world. Like caterpillars, we rely on our surroundings. We need security, stability as if to counterbalance to the turbulent growth inside of us. But this inner chaos is both beautiful and makes us into beautiful beings.

 

Sometimes I want to ask my mother about this memory of us reading. If I close my eyes, I can feel the stiff linen of the pillow, the warmth of my mother’s body next to mine. I remember reading about caterpillars, how they grow from the thick shell of an egg, like my sister inside my mother, only a faint idea to me at the time.

I want to ask my mother if she remembers this book, if I really did point to the caterpillar and then at my future sister, as if to give her wings to grow into. As if to command her into existence. As if to predict who she would become—beautiful, resilient.

 

 

 

 

To read the pdf version and see a complete list of sources, click here.

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sisters laying down on the floor together

Pupa and Puberty: Understanding the Chrysalis Stage

Growing up sucks. There’s really no lighter way to put it. Take a typical girl for instance: as she moves into young adulthood, or the ‘pre-teen/teenage’ years, she not only deals with the development of breasts and hips, but also a suddenly-increased sexual drive (aka. noticing hot guys for the first time), a rush of emotions (bawling her eyes out over an 8/10 on a homework assignment), height and weight fluctuations (suddenly gaining excessive amounts of weight and not fitting into favorite jeans and/or sprouting ten-foot-long legs), pimples (don’t get me started with those)… and the list continues.

What’s fascinating about this stage of development, however, is that even with all the internal and external chaos, this girl will somehow become beautiful (or beautifully awkward in my case). She’ll be like a butterfly, for example. In the pupa stage, the insect is housed by a protected chrysalis that from the outside appears unmoving, but inside, is crazy with changes. There are shifts and growths that make the once-caterpillar into a completely different creature. And this isn’t an easy process by any means. But when the insect finally emerges, it’s fascinating. This is how us humans are—drastic hormonal, biological, physical, sexual, and emotional changes under the protected, yet vulnerable stage of adolescence that eventually leads to us becoming fascinating, individual adults.

The word ‘puberty,’ for me, is one of those turn-off words. When I read it on a page, it makes me squeamish. But that’s just because I know it has to do with the horrible time in my life—middle school and early high school. Yes, from sixth grade until ninth grade, I was a whopping 4’11”, one of the shortest girls in my class. I was at least a head or two underneath everyone else, and if that wasn’t bad enough, my height-challenged awkwardness, accompanied with my newly-budding curves and breasts, made me into a stout, lumpy, square-shaped box. In not-so-nice-words: fat. It wasn’t until my freshman year that I actually grew (or at least saw the positive results of a growth spurt). I gained a few inches to get to my adult height of an impressive 5’5” and my body sort of molded itself into something a little less rectangular. This was my puberty experience—obviously loads of fun.

The first thing to understand about human development is that there’s a difference between puberty and adolescence. Puberty is the age of sexual maturity, whereas adolescence defines the time period—often years long—between puberty and adulthood.[1] The stage of adolescence is often referred to as the ‘chaotic stage’ of human development just because there’s so much going on in the body at once. Puberty, then, is the first phase of the chaos. It deals with the sexual development of the teenager—organs, hormones, and other rapid changes.

One of the first changes for females is the menarche, or a girl’s first period. Then there are physical changes, like the growing and widening of the forehead, mouth, hips, and lips. There is also the influx of hormones and opening of sweat glands on a girl’s face—thus causing the dreaded acne. And if all this wasn’t bad enough, there’s the lengthening and expansion of the stomach…which explains why teenagers eat so much and tend to put on some extra pounds. It also explains my chubby waistline—a totally unfair addition of hormones to an already short thirteen-year-old.

There are also changes in energy, heart rate, and glands. Energy increases, sweat glands get excessive (explaining nerves and sweaty movie-theater-date hands), and the heart grows rapidly, to the point where it is bigger than the blood vessels that pump blood in and out.[2] The increase in energy and the enlarged heart supposedly work to counterbalance the increase in puberal fat and the enlarged appetite—too bad that didn’t work in my favor. But all in all, one of the craziest and most noticeable changes of puberty, (and for me, the change that took forever) is the growth spurt. A teenager gains height through bones growing and hardening—a process called ossification. During ossification, or mineralization as it is also called, “mineral salts…are deposited in the cartilage” which causes the bones to harden and increase in size and shape, forming into mature, adult bones.2  It’s ossification that allows a teenager to grow out of weaker childhood bones and have an increase in mobility and strength; its ossification in my early high school years that finally allowed me to be a decent athlete.

Though this growth spurt occurs over a longer period of time and doesn’t appear to be as ‘chaotic,’ it is the most altering change, and strangely, happens almost invisibly. It isn’t apparent to the human eye; it is noticed only after, not during. In this way, the adolescent stage of development is similar to the butterfly pupa, or chrysalis stage of a butterfly in how the changes occur within the protected cocoon—unable to be directly observed.

During the chrysalis stage, a butterfly pupa appears to be unmoving. The insect will enter into what seems to be a safe area and will fasten itself to the branch, leaf, etc. for support. Then, once attached to a branch, wrapped up all mummy-like to restrict physical movement, it begins its internal growth process, which starts with the larval skin. A new larval skin replaces the old, along with an entirely new arrangement of cells.  The larval structures will also break down and disappear, creating new adult-like organs in their place.  Butterfly sex organs will grow, thoracic tissue buds form into wings, and in place of leaf-nibbling jaws, adult mouthparts form.3 The pupa will also develop unique characteristics. Some pupae are plain or dull-colored while others “have elaborately sculptured shapes or long spiny or knobby projections.”[3]  This is much like a human in adolescence—a human develops sexual organs, hormones, unique facial features, limbs of an adult, etc.  And, just like a human, despite the fact that the insect doesn’t appear to be growing to the naked eye, internally, it is drastically changing.

The word ‘pupa’ is a Latin word that means ‘doll’, which, when I think of the word ‘doll,’ I think of vulnerability. 3 In the chrysalis stage, a butterfly is protected by its cocoon, yet it is still subject to the weather, the environment, and predators. In this same way, an adolescent is vulnerable. Because of the influx of hormones, physical changes, social changes, and emotional changes, the teenager is more susceptible to peer conflict, self-image issues, peer influence, and risky behavior, just to name a few. However, in the way that a butterfly is protected by the chrysalis, a teenager is protected by parents, school systems, or justice systems.

Pupa and puberty. It is easy to see how they are interrelated. The pupa is the sheltered state of the butterfly in which rapid internal growth occurs. Puberty is the beginning of adolescence, a protected stage of human development that involves many drastic hormonal, physical, biological, sexual, and emotional changes. In these developmental stages, both the insect and the human are obtaining the organs for reproduction and appendages for mobility and survival as adults—limbs and wings. The butterfly gains beautifully colored patterns; the human gets birthmarks, curly hair, curves. I might have been more of a late-bloomer, but I survived. I went through my adolescence, my chrysalis stage. I was protected. I was vulnerable. But I grew into the mold of an adult, ready for the end of adolescence, where I could finally (don’t mind the cliché) shed my preteen skin for new wings.

 

 

To read the pdf version and see a complete list of sources, click here.

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sisters hugging in black and white

This Too Shall Pass: On The Chaos Of Young Adulthood

At age sixteen, I wasn’t what you’d call the ‘good child,’ you know, the model daughter, the one my parents worked so hard to raise. Yeah, not so much. Despite their best efforts—the sticker chore-charts and ‘I Can Be Good’ books as a kid, the weekly church attendance throughout high school, and the fancy dinners honoring good grades and behavior—at sixteen I just reached the point where I didn’t want to listen. I wanted to make mistakes. I knew I was going to make mistakes. And that was okay by me. My parents would tell me one thing and I’d do the complete opposite, just to prove them wrong. Just to say I could do it on my own—bad or good. I convinced myself that making my own mistakes was the only way to learn… though it would’ve been a lot easier to just listen to what they told me instead of repeating similar choices and getting the same consequences. It wasn’t that I wanted to spite my parents or anything like that. At least that’s what I tell myself now. As a teenager, I just felt that I learned all I could from them and I wanted to experience the world on my own. Or as ‘on my own’ as a sixteen-year-old who is still completely dependent on her parents financially, lives in their house, eats their food, and has them do her laundry can be.

When I think ‘teenager,’ I think of my high school years, the period between childhood and adulthood—that awkward phase of not being a little kid anymore, but still being too reliant on everyone else to get through anything solo. It’s those crazy, chaotic years of development. But not just the growth spurts and the ugly pimples; much of the teen years is about biological and emotional changes—the surge of hormones and how they shift beliefs, decisions, and ways of thinking.

In my freshman year of college, I took a psychology class titled Human Growth and Development, which focused on people’s life changes. It was an interesting class because for the first time I realized that

  1. An adolescent’s mind is biologically altered during the teenage years and
  2. My parents probably weren’t as bad as I imagined

Of the wealth of psychologists and information we studied that semester, three names have stayed with me: G. Stanley Hall, Anna Freud, and Erik Erikson. Hall is the psychologist that coined the term ‘sturm and drang’ or ‘storm and stress’ which basically explains what being a teen is all about.[1] ‘Storm and stress’ is the surge of emotions: when you’re lovey-dovey and holding hands with a high-school sweetheart one minute, and the next minute screaming at him, demanding to read every single text message sent in the last month… not that I ever did that or anything.

Hall believed that teenagers were on a continual emotional rollercoaster. In his words, “giddy one moment and depressed the next, apathetic today and impassioned tomorrow,” thus completely validating my teenage freak outs1. He was one of the first psychologists that actually began to, and wanted to, understand what being an adolescent was all about. His studies laid a foundation for other psychologists, particularly Anna Freud, who piggy-backed off of Hall’s ideas, then developed her own theory of adolescence that, following in her father’s footsteps, was largely sexual.

Anna Freud characterized adolescence as “a period of internal conflict, psychic disequilibrium, and erratic behavior”. 1 With this definition, she focused on the idea that adolescent ‘chaos’ was due to the increase of sexual hormones in puberty. She also believed that adolescent relationships, sexual development, and the awareness of the opposite sex led to turmoil as well as selfishness. Which, I mean, I can understand. Looking back, at least half of my time was spent obsessing over my appearance, and the other half was spent obsessing over boys. I was largely selfish, or ‘egocentric,’ as Freud would say. I thought I was the center of the universe. If there was a party to attend, it just made sense for my mother to abandon the half-prepared chicken dinner and drive me to a friend’s house. If I wanted to go to the mall, it was just logical that I would skip the family luncheon—duh, I could eat mall food—and my dad could just leave the golf outing with his work buddies early to pick me up. No problem. Freud said it was because of this hormonally-altered egocentrism that teenagers are often over-emotional and rash in their responses, decisions, and relationships. 1 Which does make sense. Though I’m not sure claiming Freud’s theory as an excuse for my sixteen-year-old behavior would have worked on my parents. Or work even now.

The third psychologist I remember from my college class was Erik Erikson, one whose name I’ve known since I was fifteen. Back in my junior year of high school, I was encouraged by a counselor to explore my interests and potential future careers. I took a survey based on studies by Erikson, studies that focused on independence and identity—what Erikson felt were the two most important components of adolescence. I remember sitting in front of that fuzzy computer screen in the counselor’s office, answering questions like ‘Would you enjoy going on a walk outside?’ (well, of course) and ‘Do issues of the environment concern you?’ (obligated to say yes no matter what). The questions were yes or no, and focused largely on interests and how they relate to jobs. Though I’m still not sure how relevant these questions were in determining my personal career path… especially considering the fact that I answered most of them ‘yes’ because I didn’t want my counselor to judge me. Nevertheless, the study is still widely known for its success and Erikson is still hugely popular for his contribution to adolescent research.

One of the major things that Erikson focused on was psychosocial moratorium, or the search for social identity. Adolescence is the experimental period—trying different roles and finding one’s place. Even if those roles aren’t so good…like being a bad ass and sneaking out past curfew…and then getting caught a week later when your parents read about it in your diary. Positive or negative, Erikson was an advocator of finding one’s self (even through the rough parts). He believed that an adolescent who failed to find an identity would experience both ‘self-doubt and role confusion’ which in turn would lead to stress.1  And I guess, in some ways, I see this in myself. In high school having a ‘place’ really did matter. It wasn’t so much the stereotypical Mean Girls popularity contest, but it was definitely of utmost importance to find a group of friends that thought I was cool, find clothes that didn’t make me look fat, and, of course, find the love of my life. Because finding the love of your life is something that’s destined to happen in high school. And you could say I got stressed too. Stressed when my friend group shunned me for making out with a girl’s Homecoming date a week before the dance—not one of my better moments. And stressed when my first boyfriend of two weeks broke up with me. That was devastating.

Research backing Erikson’s theory explains that a typical teenager has many biological changes during adolescence: an increase in the secretion of thyroid and adrenal hormones; the growth of the frontal, temporal, and parietal cortexes and lobes; and the modification of the limbic system, the brain’s emotional control center.1  Stress-causing chaos. Basically what all that means is that biologically, a teenager is going through a lot. Changes in the limbic system explain rash judgment-making, quick-temperedness, and rebellion. Hormone increases that shift pleasure-seeking areas of the brain explain changes in motivation.[2] And on top of all of this, parts of the brain are actually working to make the teenager smarter—spatial reasoning is increased through the parietal lobe, the frontal lobe develops higher-order thinking and reasoning, and the temporal lobe works with language and nonverbal skills. [3] It’s a lot going on, and stressful too, but the changes are vital for adulthood.

As a newly-twenty-one-year-old, I can finally say (with a certainty I definitely didn’t have at sixteen) that I am independent…well…maybe not fully independent… but definitely my own person. Looking back, I truly believed that I knew everything. I mean, I knew how to write a three-prong thesis statement and how to long-divide without a calculator (a skill that has slowly but surely deteriorated in the last four years). And at sixteen, I even knew how to fold laundry and fill a car with gas, so obviously I knew everything.

As a high school sophomore, I wanted nothing more than to be my own person: to do things by myself, to learn all I could, to push the boundaries even. I was emotional, yes. I still am. Though that’s hard to admit looking back and even harder to admit now. At sixteen, I could be watching a love movie and smiling at all the wonderful, ‘Cinderella-story’ scenes. Then, in a matter of minutes, I’d be bawling, throwing dirty tissues at the screen. I could want nothing more than to be around all my friends, and then seconds later I’d want to curl up in a ball in my room. I don’t think I’m that bad anymore… though my boyfriend might disagree. Most of all though, I wanted to rebel. I wanted to make my own mistakes, take reckless chances, go past the limits. Sure, maybe it wasn’t the best plan. And sure, it would have been a hell of a lot easier to learn from those older than me. But then it wasn’t truly my experience.

It wasn’t until that Human Growth and Development class that I realized being a teenager is kind of crazy, but we all go through it. It was an eye-opener to those terrible nights of wondering why my parents hated me; it was an eye-opener realizing my parents probably never hated me at all. Well, maybe not as much as I thought they did. I hope.

At twenty-one, I still don’t have everything figured out. I can now bake a mean enchilada casserole, color-code my laundry, and pay a credit card bill, but ask me where to find each of the fifty states…and I’ll have to use a map. There’s still a lot left to learn.

Now that I’m a year from college graduation, I can look back on my high school years and laugh. And hopefully my parents can too…after they get over the initial wanting to wring my neck. Sometimes that’s all you can do—look back and laugh. And, of course, burn that diary that got you grounded your junior year. Rule number one: always delete the evidence.

When I think about the person I’ve become, I’m proud. Sure, not everything has been admirable. But I learned from those moments: the good, and more importantly, the bad. One of the interesting parts of growing up is realizing that like all things in life, the bad will pass. It’s just hard going through it. But the teen years, with all their biological and hormonal growths and changes, are just a phase. A temporary period. Thank goodness for that.

 

 

 

To read the pdf version and see a complete list of sources, click here.

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Chicago

Fallen Angel: The Effects Of Heroin Use And Addiction In Teens

I wonder what it was like, when you died. Did the color gently drain out of your already-pale face? Or was it a sharp pain, like when the pinprick first pressed into your arm? I bet the scars across your wrists glowed a soft red in the haze of your dresser light. I bet you shrugged your left sweatshirt sleeve down to cover them, leaving the other pushed up over an emaciated right bicep, exposing an inner elbow, blue and thin. I wonder, moments before, if you looked outside and watched the snowflakes as they tumbled around the sky. I wonder, as the needle touched pale skin, if your body went from nagging to cold, numb. I wonder, as this happened, if you had any control over yourself at all.

When your eyes closed and head fell forward, did your mother’s face flash across your mind, folding your clothes in the downstairs laundry room, color-coding shirts, matching socks? Did you think about that boy you thought you loved, away at sea, short military haircut and dirty fingernails, counting on your face in the video camera later that night to get him through the week? Did you think about me, three-hundred and ninety-four miles away, at a small college in Iowa, who cried when she heard the news, cried over a neighbor girl she’d never even talked to?

Did you think about anything? Or were you already gone?

 

I was born and raised in Naperville: a high-class suburb about 30 miles southwest of Chicago. It was, for me, the perfect place to grow up. I was only a train ride from the city, but far enough away that I could feel separated from its fast pace. I was connected, but still distant enough to be safe. Growing up, Naperville had everything for me. From the McDonalds hangout down the street, to the movie theatre and restaurants across the four-way intersection, to the five bowling alleys in a fifteen-minute radius—I was set.  Known for its impressive school district and ritzy downtown area, Naperville was rated by Money magazine in 2005 as the “third-best place to live in America” and “the country’s best place to be a kid” in 2004 by the U.S. Census Bureau.[1] I enjoyed growing up in Naperville. There was always something to do, and if there wasn’t, well, we teenagers could find something.

 

Junior year of high school: I am standing at the front corridor glass window, watching a boy cross the freshly-paved parking lot. It’s almost eleven on a Tuesday and he’s sauntering up to the sidewalk in the clothes he wore yesterday, hair greasy against his sweaty forehead. He reaches the door, pushes it open. With wide eyes he scans the hall, pupils large and black. He smells like outside leaves and wind, but something chemical, too. His movements are jerky, awkward. He begins to ramble about the red sky at night and how fast his heart is beating. There is a twig in his hair and a smudge of dirt across his cheek. His clothes are matted and wrinkled; I can see a joint peeking out of his front jean pocket.

I find out later that he spent the night outside on his roof. I learn that he came across drugs from a friend-of-a-friend, someone he dealt pot with, some guy who owed him. This time it was acid. He took it the day before in the middle of the Art Wing, started tripping then left and walked to his house a few blocks north. He was awake all night, watching the sky shift and change, laughing at patterns and animals and colors that didn’t exist.

In the eighth grade, this boy and I used to be best friends. I would listen to him read Bible verses at Wednesday night youth group, hear him play Eliot Yamin on the piano, and watch him give his lunch-lady mama a hug every morning in the cafeteria. Now his eyes are rimmed red and his skin is thin, bones brittle.

I wonder who this boy is, this boy with matted hair and a dirty face. I wonder if I can still see him as the same person, the boy I knew back in eighth grade. In some ways, I am angry with him. I am frustrated at the person he’s become and the careless choices he has made; yet, when I see those red-rimmed eyes there is a part of me that understands he can’t help it.

I’ve made choices like the ones he’s made. I’ve felt the taste of tequila on my lips; I’ve flirted with the thought of a drug so powerful it could make my mind spin. I know what it’s like to want to pull away from the world, especially when things get hard. Maybe his family, his life, isn’t as picture perfect as it seems to be. Maybe like me, like every adolescent, he felt invincible for a moment. Maybe it was a mistake, one he couldn’t undo, and suddenly he couldn’t stop. The drugs kept pulling him back.

February 1, 2012, a story appears in the Daily Herald Online, a seventeen-year-old resident of my hometown, Naperville, Illinois, was arrested for selling heroin. She was observed by detectives completing a drug transaction in the corner parking lot of Route 59 and 75th Street, about ten blocks east of our high school, in between the Lowe’s Hardware and X-Sport Gym. Stopped at 9:04 pm, she was found to be in possession of “several foil packets and other paraphernalia,” and according to Naperville police, “all of these items tested positive for heroin.”[2]

In the wake of her arrest, the community and the local high school were in an uproar. Public comments were posted under the delinquent’s online mug shot, saying that she was ‘fucked up,’ ‘a shame,’ ‘pathetic.’ People questioned what was wrong with her, why she would do something so horrible, why she would bring this drug into such a safe, highly-praised community. In many ways, she had become the Naperville scapegoat. She was the one who was caught; blaming her was convenient.

After hearing the news of the arrest, I was scrolling through my Facebook homepage when I came across a post from a girl I went to high school with, a year older than me.

February 3, 2012:

Dear heroin-obsessed youth of Naperville,

Is this real life? Can you even get into an R-rated movie by yourself? I don’t want to be in another state and have to worry about my 17 and 14-year-old brothers being pressured to do hard drugs, so if you could please stop getting high and doing illegal shit that’d be awesome. Or AT LEAST limit to underage drinking like any other bored little Chicago suburbanites. Better yet, go read a book. Thanks.

P.S. Are you even old enough to drive yet?

Attached at the bottom of the post was a photograph and link. The picture was of the seventeen-year-old girl, red-faced and swollen eyes: her mug shot. The link, if the viewer clicked on it, connected to the page explaining the girl’s arrest. In the comments, the Facebook-poster wrote that she found out the girl who had been arrested was a dancer in high school as well. She had commented on her own post, “dumb bitch is making us [dancers] look bad.”

My fingers went still, hovering over the ‘add comment’ button for several minutes. I wanted to agree with the user’s post. I had wanted to say that yes, I was scared too. Scared for my younger sister, thirteen at the time. I was terrified she would fall into the trap, be influenced by peers or friends. I had wanted to agree. This girl was only seventeen and a dancer, no less. She could have had a future, but she was selling drugs. Why?

But I couldn’t. I couldn’t write anything. There was something bubbling up inside me, a feeling that made the tips of my ears red and my eyes water. I was angry. I couldn’t believe the words of this Facebook-poster only a year older than me, so harsh and judgmental. It was as if she’d never been a teenager herself, never taken a shot of vodka or considered the thought of drugs, even for a moment. The nerve to bash someone who could be dealing with pressures from home or school, who could have accidentally slipped into the wrong crowd, who could have been coerced by ‘friends.’ She was only a few years younger, dressed in a white and black tie-dye t-shirt—a girl who looked like any other seventeen-year-old. But she had done it. She had used heroin and she had sold it. Her choices were affecting others. These choices—to use, to sell.

I rested my hands next to the keyboard, eyes still fixed on the page. It was easy to write hate-filled social network posts from hundreds of miles away. It was easy to point fingers, to blame this girl and other heroin users. But I couldn’t blame her. She made a wrong choice. She was suffering from addiction of both mind and body—incapable of control. This girl looked like half the other teen girls I knew: my teammate, my younger sister, even me. Yet, I still wasn’t sure if I could fully sympathize with her story. A part of me knew she wasn’t completely innocent; choice or addiction she was still somewhat responsible. But the other part of me, the part that loves the rush that comes with a sip of alcohol, could see her as both—a tragic victim of uncontrolled cravings and a product of her own terrible choices.

 

In an article in the Beacon News, author Denise Crosby reveals an entirely new perspective, this on the side of the seventeen-year-old. The girl’s lawyer described her as a “bright, articulate, and highly motivated girl who, like many teens in the western suburbs, became addicted after being introduced to heroin by a so-called friend.”[3] The lawyer had argued for the girl, saying that public opinion displayed her as a drug dealer, when in fact, she was just a teenage girl “struggling with addiction.”

The article also mentioned the emotional perspective of the seventeen-year-old’s mother, that “neighbors turned against the family; someone even put up a sign on their property that read ‘Drug Dealer Lives Here.’” The family “had to fight to get a traditional congratulatory sign for seniors posted in their front yard, despite [their daughter’s] graduating with honors.”

When I first found out about the arrest, my stomach turned over. I couldn’t believe that this had happened in my hometown, the place I had known and grown up in. I felt bad for this girl, this poor girl who would now become the poster child for drug abuse throughout the country. This girl whose name would be recognized at every college campus, on every news station, and at the top of many Google searches. I couldn’t understand why a privileged Naperville teen would have to turn to heroin. Sure, high school gets tough and family issues are hard. Sure, peer pressure plays a role, but heroin?

Towards the end of the article, the seventeen-year-old’s mother responded to the sign in her yard and the other hate-filled online messages, “It’s that holier-than-thou side of the community that hurts these kids so much….We were also judgmental before.” 3 She is right. Society’s opinion is not focused on responsibility or being moved to make a difference; rather, the focus is on finding someone to blame. And this blame was the reason I couldn’t respond to the Facebook post. I didn’t know why this girl had turned to drugs, so I couldn’t write anything.

 

Several months prior, in July 2011, two high school males were pronounced dead due to drug-related causes. One boy, as the Daily Herald Online reports, “was found unresponsive on his back porch July 6,” and according to the DuPage coroner’s office, “died of heroin intoxication related to recreational drug use.”[4] The two boys passed away only five days apart.

 

January 2012: A month before the seventeen-year-old girl’s arrest, another teenage girl, one who lived down the street from me, passed away from heroin-related causes. A shocking article published March 2012 read, “The light was on in [her]…bedroom late that January night… [Her father]…walked in and was startled to find his 18-year-old daughter curled into a ball, face down in front of her dresser. He feared the worst when he felt the rigidity of her shoulders and saw the discoloration in her face. There was foam around her mouth, but no breath escaping.”[5]

After the seventeen-year-old’s arrest, the story of this eighteen-year-old’s death resurfaced, becoming a major issue in Naperville, as it connected back to the deaths of the two boys the previous summer and made links between both users and dealers in the community.

At this point, the issue of heroin use became more pressing. In the last year, Naperville had undergone six heroin-related deaths with victims ranging in ages from seventeen to thirty. 5 In 2011, 47 heroin-related arrests were made, with an increase of 78% felony drug charges and a rise by 450% in heroin arrests alone.5

In the weeks to follow the eighteen-year-old’s death, a public forum was held. Her parents were in attendance; however, they were presenting another side of the heroin issue—a side in contrast to the majority of the community. Their opinion centered on the idea of drug addiction. They were in support of their daughter, presenting the underlying, painful fact of her death: her inability to free herself from heroin’s hold. For her parents, the issue of heroin was more complex than using vs. not using. It was understanding what it meant to completely lose control to a drug, to have no choice. For these parents and other parents of addicts, the focus was on awareness rather than blame.

 

This debate about addiction vs. choice continued in the wake of the seventeen-year-old’s arrest. The Facebook group Open Hearts Open Eyes, started in 2012, dealt with this controversy directly. This group of 7,845 members from Naperville and surrounding areas, and with numbers still increasing, serves as a board for thoughts, stories, support, questions, advice, comments, and fears. Current and recovering addicts share their successes and failures, give support to those who are struggling, and ask for support themselves. Family members type tearful messages about addicted children, brothers, sisters. A worried mother asks about a son, missing for three weeks. A friend writes a love note to one he’s lost, encouraging others to stay clean. On October 13, 2013 a mother writes, “I believe addiction is a disease. However, I also believe to use or not, to lie or not, to steal or not, etc. is a choice.”

 

For the Naperville community, it is only a short drive to Chicago down I-290—the Heroin Highway, as it is referred to by locals and the Naperville police. An addict, with shaking hands and tingling fingers will get behind that shiny suburban car and drive down the expressway, with no regard for police, or getting mugged, or even dying. For an addict, it is a loss of control. But yet, it is always a choice—a choice to consume, to buy, to sell.

There are the facts of addiction, the struggles of withdrawal. At the same time, there is the community’s perception: a drug user is one who is weak-minded, unable to choose the right path, unwilling to change, careless, stubborn. Or, in the case of the high school males, the seventeen-year-old dealer, the eighteen-year-old girl—a drug user is simply ‘fucked up.’

 

July 2012: After my sophomore year of college, I return home for the summer and attend a party at a friend’s house. I step outside of the house for a breath of fresh air and sit on an over-turned recycling bin on the edge of the driveway.

A girl in a skin-tight black skirt, heels, and a loose white blouse walks towards me. She stops about two feet away, lights a cigarette, then takes a drag. She looks down at her cell phone.  The screen light shines on her pointed nose and harsh brown eyes and I recognize her face. It’s been two years since I’ve seen her, almost five months since her arrest.

She notices me staring. “Hey,” she says. Her voice is scratchy, thick.

“Hey.”

I take a moment to study her. She looks the same—thin, curvy, dark brown eyelashes. She’s still pretty, but now in a more dangerous way.

I remember back two years. We became close by association, through mutual friends. She wasn’t the type of girlfriend to call when my mother and I fought, but I could call her if I wanted to chill with a few people, wanted to get high.

“How are you?” I ask. It’s a stupid question. It cannot span the past two years; it cannot make sense of her arrest or answer any of my questions.

“Sober,” she returns.

The lines of her face appear drawn and tight. She gazes out at the street, the cars and quiet neighboring houses. I ponder the double meaning of her reply.

It seems like just a few months ago we were passing blunts back and forth, counting to four, holding our breath then exhaling slow. Those were the days of my rebellion, the period in high school where I dated the bad boy, tried pot, blew stoplights, lied to my parents. In the span of two years, I had changed. The transition to college smoothed the rebellious wrinkles, made me wiser with alcohol and cars and friends and boys.

She turns and holds out her cigarette to me, “Want a drag?”

I had moved on, but she had continued, somehow gotten herself entangled in the spiral. Marijuana turned to heroin. A casual smoke turned into a perpetual high. Then a need. The need to float, to feel that release. And the need to sell to get money to buy to feel the high. A cycle.

I get up from the recycling bin, wobble for a moment on my stilettos, then cross the space between us. I touch her cigarette to my lips, take a long drag.

“It’s good to see you.” I say. And it is.

I pass the cigarette back. For a moment our fingertips graze. Hers are cold and bony. And suddenly I understand. Suddenly I cannot be mad at her for putting our hometown on the map for the youngest heroin dealer in the country. I cannot be mad at her for the deaths that follow, though indirectly, still connected to this poisonous drug. I cannot be mad at her for the downward spiral, for the changes, for the choices. In this moment, as our fingertips touch, we are the same. It was a mistake, and she is the lucky one. Alive, breathing.

“Take care of yourself,” I say, as I turn to head into the house.

My own voice echoes quiet in my head, it could have been me.

 

I wonder what it was like to feel that high. To have everything come crashing at once, to feel a release so strong you’d chase it anywhere, everywhere. I wonder if you were sad when you pushed that needle into your arm. I wonder if you were scared, or lonely.

I was in my dorm room when I heard the news. It hit me in the chest and I immediately started crying. I had seen you around the high school. You wore thick eye makeup with rainbow-colored eye shadow. Your hair was short and choppy; you had pale lips and wore low-cut tops to class. In the mornings you smoked and straightened your hair in the D-Wing girl’s bathroom. Eight in the morning just listening to rap music and getting high.  

You never cared what the others thought of you. You wore sandals in the snow, walked the six blocks to school, showed off your thin collar bone, screamed in the middle of the damn hallway.

It hit me, when I heard that you passed. I found myself crying, head bent over my diary, writing line after line in a poem.

I called it “Fallen Angel.” An ode to a girl I never knew.

 

 

 

 

 

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