Here’s more of the true story of when I was sixteen and ran away from home and hitchhiked over a thousand miles and all sorts of things happened.
Chapter Four: Should I stay or should I go except I’m not really asking; I’m definitely going to go
Okay, so we need to get into why I ran away (and hitchhiked hundreds of miles and got arrested, but first the running away part).
Here are three true reasons:
1. I was bored and wanted an exciting adventure.
2. I had lots of older friends who did not live with their parents, and it drove me crazy that I was often the only one who had to ask permission to go to the movies or wherever. I felt absolutely ready to live on my own.
3. I was incredibly angry at my folks, and I had good reason.
My relationship with all three of my parents (mom, dad, stepmom [and also my current stepdad, who wasn’t around yet when I went hitchhiking]) now is terrific, which makes this hard to go into. Not because I think I was wrong, but because they’ve apologized and we’ve moved on.
My parents divorced when I was five and had joint custody of my sister and me — a week with my mom and a week with my dad. I am glad I was raised by both of them. I wish they’d been ten years older when they had me. They both remarried, and I did not get along well with either of my stepparents. My stepdad-at-the-time was a horrible person, thankfully out of the picture by the time I was 16. (My mom is married again now, to a truly wonderful guy; thus the ”at the time” qualifier.) My stepmom was not a good stepmom when I was a kid, but we get along well now that we’re both adults. My mom and dad did not protect me from my stepparents the way they should have.
My childhood was a mix of very happy and very unhappy. I started out in a sort of idyllic neighborhood full of lots of wonderful kids my age who all had kind, supportive parents like mine. Then I got older and my folks split up and I had lots of trouble in school (I know now that my ADHD was a big part of that); luckily I read at a high school level by the third grade or I would have probably been written off as stupid (I mean I still kind of was written off that way, but not like I might have been). I was a weird little kid (see again: ADHD) and so was bullied a lot both at school and at home by my stepparents. There were times I had no friends and it was very hard.
When I was thirteen, after a truly miserable and lonely year, I started the eighth grade. I met Linda, she introduced me to Melanie and Lisa and a bunch of other kids, and suddenly I had a group of friends who actually wanted me to sit with them at lunch and called me on the phone and invited me to go roller skating and it was wonderful. I got my first boyfriend (David) and my second boyfriend (the incredibly swoon-worthy Andrew), and I had slumber parties and killed it at the Eighth Grade Dinner-Dance, and it was all everything I’d hoped having a social life would be. People talk about how awful being thirteen was and I just can’t relate. The summer after eighth grade was a dream of beach trips and camping and mall trips and laughter and some light making out with the boyfriend.
Then September came, and I was shipped off to boarding school.
I got there the day before I turned 14. It was bad. It is still hard for me to write about, to communicate why it was so bad for me. It wasn’t one of those evil “rehab” boarding schools for degenerate youth, or anything. They didn’t beat or starve or rape us. Most of the girls there really liked it. But I reached a level of unhappiness I hate remembering. I’d finally found friends. I had finally been normal, or at least friends with kids who thought it was cool that I was weird. And now I was at boarding school, and I was back to being the strange, awkward kid. My shyness, which I’d spent a year kicking off, returned with a vengeance. All I wanted was to be back home with my friends and my boyfriend, going to the school they were all at together. Back where people liked me. Trying to look at it objectively, I recognize that of course it didn’t help that everyone could tell how little I wanted to be there. A lot of the girls were horribly mean but I can’t put too much responsibility on a bunch of teenagers for how unhappy I was. There were some nice girls too, but I was so shy and so sad it didn’t matter.
I started out with a roommate, but she made a stink about how I was too weird to share a room with and got me moved to my own room. I’d sit in that room and it was like the loneliness ate my soul. I’d been lonely at school before, but I’d always had a home to go to at night — a place where even if people were mean there were also people I knew loved me. This was a different kind of loneliness and I couldn’t cope with it. Please know that I am not guilty of hyperbole when I say it drove me insane. In April, after I’d shaved off my eyebrows and cut off all my hair with a pocket knife, the school finally kicked me out, saying I was obviously about to kill myself. I went home and eventually I got better. Kind of. It was a long time before I really felt good again. I still, thirty-five years later, have trouble writing about it. It was bad.
I don’t really blame my parents for sending me to boarding school. I don’t think they should have after I begged them not to, but it made sense. My sister was at boarding school and absolutely loved it. My parents had both loved boarding school, and so did all my aunts and uncles and cousins. It had always been the plan that I would go to boarding school for high school. So I don’t think it was all that wrong of them to send me.
What was wrong, what was absolutely unforgivable, was that they didn’t bring me home when it became clear how unhappy I was. And it was clear. I told them, the school shrink told them, teachers told them. I went home for vacations and begged not to be sent back, and was sent back.
Of course they had reasons. They weren’t being mean on purpose. They still thought boarding school was the best thing for me.
I don’t care. I went insane with sadness, I nearly killed myself, because they did not do the thing it was their responsibility to do.
I was a ridiculous handful for the rest of my teens. Super rebellious. Not just the running away and hitchhiking thing either; I was a crazy headache for my folks. And here’s the reason: As far as I was concerned, they had forfeited all their rights as parents. My mom couldn’t tell me something was dangerous when they’d allowed me to get so close to dying. My dad couldn’t tell me something was in my best interest when nothing could be more against my best interests than what they’d done. They’d ask me where I was going or where I’d been, and I just honestly didn’t think it was any of their business.
It was a long time before I could put that into words, of course. Back then I just felt fury and contempt. Now, as I say, I have a good relationship with them. We’ve talked it all out, a few times over.
But it’s why, even though I do understand how scared they must have been when I ran away, it’s hard to have much sympathy. When I was on the road all they wanted was for me to come home but two years before, when I was worse off than I’ve been at any other point in my life, they could have brought me home. I begged them to let me come home. And they wouldn’t. So they had little right to try to get me home after I’d finally stopped wanting to be there.
Okay, so anyway, that’s why I didn’t think much of my parents. For tenth grade I lived with my mom in the suburbs (my dad and stepmom moved into the city the moment boarding school happened) and went to school with my friends, and that ended up kind of sucking (I was a fucking weirdo for a LONG time after I got back from boarding school. Seriously screwed up). So then my dad convinced me to live in the city with him and my stepmom and go to an “alternative” school for my junior year. The school was good but I was not nearly organized and together enough for that sort of open curriculum (and completely uninterested in any help my parents might offer), and I found my dad and stepmom impossible to live with. And they really were pretty awful parents, but beyond that was the horrible anger and horrible hurt I felt. So it wasn’t going great.
And then I met Shadow. Remember him? I loooooovvvved him.
I wrote up the story of what happened the day I decided to run away. The fight that instigated it. It surprises me that at 49, the story can still make my hands shake and my heart beat faster. It was just one fight of many, but it reminds me of how bad things were in that house. I sometimes look back and think of how I was pretty and popular (not at school, but elsewhere) and my parents were well-off, and I wasn’t really physically abused, and I think maybe I had nothing to complain about. I definitely had it better than a whole lot of people. But it was bad. There wasn’t physical abuse, but I was treated horribly. I was told I was useless and made to apologize, every single day, just for existing.
So I wrote the fight up, and I’m not going to put it here. I love the people my folks have grown to be, and I am 100% certain that if they were living with a teenager today, they wouldn’t behave the way they did back then. It makes me sad to think about people who know them now reading the details. So I’m not going to include it.
I’ll just tell you: We had a fight, and I still think they were 100% wrong and that their behavior was atrocious.The fight ended when I stormed out of the house. I was so angry it felt like my body was going to fly apart.
Shadow and I had already been planning to meet at the nearby McDonald’s, and by the time I got there I had a plan. He talked about hitchhiking all the time. He had hitchhiked all over the country. (I think this was probably true? When we hitchhiked he had obviously done it before, but also he did a lot of dumb stuff so hard to say.) He also talked all the time about his family in Washington State.
So as I slowly ate a McDonald’s ice cream sundae, I suggested that we hitchhike to Washington State and visit his family. He immediately agreed to this with no hesitation at all and thought we should start immediately. I was sensible enough (like, the bare minimum of sensible) to think we should wait a few days while I packed and scraped together what cash I could. But we agreed: in two days’ time, we would leave D.C. and hit the road.
When I got home my dad was waiting for me, to inform me that I was now grounded. So it was just as well I’d already decided to run away.
This chapter was kind of a downer, so here is a picture of me from a few years later, when I was 18, dressed up to go to a club, and living in an awesome house with a bunch of punk friends. See how happy? So, it all worked out. (This is one of very, very few pictures of me smiling from back then, because I thought I looked goofy when I smiled. Such an idiot, I was.)