Light in the Shadows
“you’re cheating! There is no freaking way you can win six rounds of poker!” the scrawny boy across the table from me said, throwing his cards down in frustration. I chuckled as I scooped up the pile of red and blue chips, adding them to my pile.
“I warned you that there was no way you could beat me, Tyler. Not my fault that you didn’t take my advice,” I said. Tyler grumbled under his breath, but grabbed the pile of cards and started to shuffle them again.
I leaned back in the wing chair, waiting for my roommate to deal. I had been at the Grayson Center, a private facility for teenagers experiencing mental illness, for almost three months. I was enrolled in a ninety-day program and my time was almost up. Looking around the recreation room, I realized I would actually be kind of sad when I had to leave.
Which is weird considering how much I had fought coming here in the first place. Once I had gotten over my anger and resistance to treatment, though, I almost came to enjoy my time here. I found that the staff and the other patients did something I never thought possible.
They showed me how to heal.
And that’s what I was doing. Slowly. Not that I expected a perfect fix in three months. I realized my healing would take years. And there were days I never thought I would be able to leave and live a decent life outside the support of the center and the safety of its walls. But then there were good days, like today, when I felt like I could take on the world.
Like I could find my way back to Maggie.
“What’s with the goofy smile, bro? You look like an idiot,” Tyler said good-naturedly as he tossed out cards. I blinked, taken away from my happy thoughts, and picked up my cards.
“Nothin’, man. Just having a good day.”
Tyler smiled. Other guys would probably have given me shit for acting like an emo pussy. But not the people here. We were all here because we needed to have those good days. So we understood the importance of happy days for those who had them.
“Cool, Clay. Glad to hear it. Now, focus on the damn game. I want to win some of my chips back,” Tyler retorted, concentrating on his hand.
I grinned before beating him soundly yet again.
The group sat on the floor, kids relaxing on oversized cushions. Looking around, I could almost imagine this was just a bunch of friends hanging out together. Except for the two adults who sat in the middle asking them questions like, “Tell me about your relationship with your family,” and, “How does that make you feel?”
Yep, group therapy was a blast.
The girl to my right, a dark-haired chick named Maria, was here to deal with her severe depression and promiscuity brought on by serious daddy issues. She was trying to figure out how to answer the question that Sabrina, the female counselor, had just asked her.
“Just think about your happiest memory with your mother. It can be something simple like talking to her about your day, or a time she smiled at you,” Sabrina prompted gently. Maria’s problems, like those of most of the kids in the room, were rooted firmly in her relationship with her parents.
Today’s group topic was trying to acknowledge the positive aspects of our familial relationships. To say this was hard for most of us was an understatement.
I dreaded the groups when we had to talk about our parents in a more positive way. It was so much easier to vent about how crappy they were than to find something nice to say.
“Um. Well, I guess there was a time, I was probably like six. And my mom took me to the park and pushed me on the swings,” Maria volunteered, looking at Sabrina and Matt, the other counselor, for approval.
They each nodded. “Good. And how did you feel then?” Matt urged.
Maria smiled a bit. “It felt good. Like she . . . I don’t know . . . loved me.” The smile on her face was sad and my heart hurt for her. I understood her need to feel loved by her mother all too well.
There was some more processing to help Maria identify and handle her feelings, followed by a period of silence while everyone allowed Maria time to get herself together. Then it was my turn. Matt looked at me expectantly. “Clay. What about you? What is a happy memory you have about your parents?” The group looked at me, waiting for my answer. Over the last two and a half months, this disclosure thing had proven difficult for me.
I didn’t reveal personal details very easily. It had taken Maggie,
the person I loved most in this world, a long time to get me to open up. And if it was hard for me to talk to Maggie, then it was nearly impossible to get me to open up to a group of strangers.
But over time, after lots of individual and group therapy sessions, I was able to loosen up and talk more about what I had experienced. The things I felt, my fears, my pain, and what I wanted most in my life. And I found that the more I talked, the better I felt.
I began to recognize that these people weren’t here to judge me or make me feel bad when I talked about wanting to kill myself or how hard it was for me not to cut. Cutting had always been my form of coping. Comforting and familiar, it was easier to make myself bleed than to face the truth of my issues. And these people didn’t look at me like I was crazy when I would break down after a particularly gut-wrenching session. This was the most support I had felt from anyone besides Maggie, Ruby, and Lisa in my entire life.
And it felt wonderful.
So, with all eyes on me, I thought really hard about my answer to Matt’s question. And then, just like that, I had it. A memory that was actually good and not tainted by anger and bitterness. “My dad taking me fishing.” Sabrina smiled at me. “Yeah. It was before things got really bad. My dad wasn’t the district attorney yet, so he had more time for me. He picked me up from school early one day and drove us out to a lake. I can’t really remember where. Anyway, we spent all day fishing and talking. It was nice.”
I smiled as I remembered when I could be with my dad without wanting to rip his face off. Matt nodded. “That sounds awesome, Clay. Thanks for sharing that with us.” And he was moving on to the next person.
The memory of that time with my dad made me feel pretty good. I was feeling that way a lot more lately. Less of the crazy depression and anger, and more of the happy-go-lucky thing that I
never thought I was capable of experiencing.
I’m sure it had a lot to do with my new medication. After I came to the Grayson Center, my new doctor, Dr. Todd as we kids called him, put me on a new pill. Tegretol helped control my manic mood swings without turning me into a zombie.
It was pretty great. And even though I had moments where I strangely missed those energetic highs, which Dr. Todd told me was normal, I sure as hell didn’t miss the crippling lows. The psychotherapy that I attended three times a week was also helping a lot. It was nice to not have to worry about hurting myself or someone else. To think that maybe I would be able to get my shit together and find a way back to where I belonged.
I shook my head. I couldn’t think about her here in group. That was something I saved for when I was alone. Because if I started thinking of her now, I would invariably remember how much I hurt her and how I fucked things up so royally. And then my good mood would evaporate in a flash. Snap. Just like that.
I must have zoned out for a while, because I realized that the other kids were getting to their feet. Maria grinned at me. “Earth to Clay!” She reached for my hand to help me up. I looked at her a moment as I stood. Maria had a nice smile and really pretty eyes. But she wasn’t Maggie. I dropped her hand quickly. I tried to pretend that I didn’t see the disappointment flash across her face. We walked together out of the common room and headed down the hallway to the cafeteria. “That was pretty tough today,” Maria said as we joined the others, who were getting in line for lunch.
I nodded. “Yeah. It’s kinda hard finding something nice to say about my parents. You know, considering they’re a bunch of self-absorbed asses,” I joked, picking up a tray. Maria giggled behind me.
“I know what you mean. My mom is a cracked-out deadbeat
who refused to protect me from my dad because it got in the way of her next high. Thinking of the ooey-gooey times together is hard.”
I took a plate of pasta and a salad and moved to drinks, getting myself a bottle of water. Maria followed me to our regular table near the large window overlooking the gardens. Tyler and our other friends, Susan and Greg, were already seated.
“Hey, guys,” I said as I sat down. Greg scooted over to make room and Maria sat on my other side.
“How was group?” Tyler asked around a mouthful of sandwich. Maria and I shrugged in unison and we laughed.
“It was group. How about you guys?” Maria said. The other three were in a group for substance abuse while Maria and I were in ours. Susan Biddle, a short girl with brown hair and big brown eyes who reminded me a lot of Maggie’s friend Rachel, snorted.
“It would have been better if loudmouth Austin hadn’t decided to be a total dick to Jean.” Jean was the substance abuse counselor at the center. And Austin was this place’s Paul Delawder, the dick who had destroyed my MP3 player my first day at Jackson High School back in Virginia. The guy Maggie had jumped to defend me from. I smiled at the memory of my brave girl.
Maria elbowed me in the side to bring me back to the conversation. “Fuck Austin. He sucks,” I said, smiling. Greg, Susan, and Tyler agreed and the conversation then focused on the movie the center was showing tonight.
Every week, if we had earned enough merits and were doing well in our therapy, we were rewarded with a movie night. We earned merits for completing various chores that the behavioral aides and therapists assigned us. This week my job was to keep the common room clean. I shared the job with three other kids. I had earned all of my merits for the week, which was pretty cool. I had lost a lot of them my first two weeks here. So getting to join in the fun stuff was about the most exciting thing that happened to me anymore.
It wasn’t like we left the facility or anything. But it was nice to hang out with everyone in a nontherapeutic way and watch a movie without having to talk about our feelings. Everyone could just relax and remember for a little while that yeah, we were still teenagers.
Maria, Tyler, and I walked back to my room after lunch. We had an hour until afternoon sessions started. I had a one-on-one with the substance abuse counselor, Jean. The others had sessions either with their counselors or in groups. That was the thing about this place. It was one big session after another, with a tiny bit of school squeezed into the mix. We had two hours in the morning for schoolwork provided by the Miami School District, then the rest of the day was all about dealing with our issues.
Maria flopped onto my bed, making herself at home. I had gotten pretty close to her since I got here (in a purely platonic way, of course), and she often came back to the room to hang with Tyler and me. But it still felt weird to have her on my bed, even if she was just sitting on it. Because I didn’t want to see any girl but Maggie May Young on my bed.
Even though I had written Maggie a letter a month ago telling her to move on, it didn’t mean that I had moved on. I couldn’t stomach the thought of being with anyone but her. No one else mattered. I had a feeling that Maria was starting to like me as more than a friend. And even though I hadn’t done anything to encourage it, I felt like I was going to have to say something to her soon.
No way was I going to hurt another girl I cared about.
Tyler got on his computer and started typing out emails. I pulled up my desk chair and straddled it backward, resting my arms on the back. Maria leaned over and picked up the framed picture on my bedside table.
“She’s really pretty,” Maria commented with a twinge in her
voice that I couldn’t identify. Maria had picked up the only picture I had in the room. It was of Maggie and me from the Fall Formal. We were sitting beside each other at Red Lobster and both made faces at the camera. I didn’t need to look at the picture to remember how things used to be between us. It was all I could think about. Every second of every day. All I did was think. About the good times. And the bad times. And all the messed-up stuff in between.
Maria gave a small sigh and placed the frame back in its spot. “Do you ever talk to her?” she asked me. I always felt strange talking about Maggie. Even though things had gotten ugly between us, my love for her was the one pure thing in my life. I wanted to keep it all to myself and not share it with anyone. She was the last thing I thought about before I went to sleep and the first thing my mind went to when I woke up.
I constantly wondered what she was doing, if she was happy, if she had started dating anyone. That thought hurt. A lot. Because I really did want her to live her life, even if that meant moving on from me. But that didn’t mean I had to like it. “No. I don’t think that would do either of us any good,” I admitted, repositioning the picture frame so I could see it.
Maria frowned. “Why? If you love her so much, don’t you think talking to her would be a good thing?” I gritted my teeth. Explaining anything regarding my relationship with Maggie made me defensive. But I forced myself to calm down, using those breathing techniques the counselors had been drilling into our brains for months.
“Because, Maria, the fact that I love her is the reason I can’t go turning her life upside down anymore. I won’t fuck with her like that again. She’s been through enough because of me.” I sounded so pathetic. Maggie’s hold on me was as unyielding as ever.
Maria’s face softened, her eyes getting that dewy look that girls
get when a guy says something sweet (Maggie used to get that same look every time I told her I loved her). “She’s lucky to have your love, Clay. I hope she realizes that.”
I swallowed, getting a little uncomfortable talking about this with Maria, particularly with Tyler playing on his computer five feet away. Maria reached out and squeezed my arm, her fingers, I noticed, lingering on my skin. “Just keep doing what you’re doing and maybe one day you’ll feel like you can call her.”
I smiled. Yeah. Maybe . . . one day.