When I was in 9th grade, I went to a public school for the first (and only) time of my life. I left a very small Roman Catholic school complete with a nun — an Irish Sister of Mercy, ironically named Gabriel, who would yank us up by our hair and smack us with rulers for speaking out of turn. I was incredibly miserable at this school, having transferred there from a slightly larger and pretty much less religious Episcopalian school in 5th grade. By 5th grade, these kids had all been together for years, the cliques were formed, the playground battle lines drawn, and besides, I was shy, bookish, had buckteeth and glasses, sported unfashionable hair, and was — most discomfitingly — not Catholic. I stuck out like a sore thumb when the children lined up for Communion. Hell, I hadn’t even been baptized yet. And the small comforts the nuns would hand out — laminated Holy Cards with a colorful Saint on one side and a prayer in tiny type on the other — were indeed small when I didn’t quite have this whole Saint thing down yet.

After a few years of trying like hell to be a Saint — spending 5th through 8th grade renouncing my interest in witchcraft and herbs, eschewing makeup and soccer in favor of picking the most austere Confirmation saint I could find on short notice, and catching up on fourteen years worth of sacraments in a couple of years — I figured “to hell with this.” When I went to high school I went to hell.

I lived down the street from one of the “cool kids,” an older guy with a mohawk who skated and knew lots of people with tattoos and dangerous hair. I would sneak out of my house at night and go to his, and sometimes his mother let him throw keg parties, so sometimes I fell rather than climbed back into my bedroom window. I insinuated myself into his circle of friends. I threw my virginity at him, too, and he eventually paid enough attention to me to notice and relieve me of the troublesome thing. And at my new school, as at all schools, like attracted like, only I was now an easily identifiable misfit with a t-shirt instead of just being bookish and bucktoothed. I had added black hair dye to my list of accessories and that sort of thing can make a big difference.

I don’t remember much of that year, and what I do remember has little to do with class. I think we diagrammed sentences in English, but I’m sure I got accused of being a drug addict when I wrote that my favorite poet was Poe. I think we did algebra in math class, but I’m sure I spent most of it passing paint markers back and forth with a girl who had the coolest pair of white leather skull buckle boots I’d ever seen. I think I took Chemistry or something, but I’m sure I got sent to the principal’s office for threatening a redneck who had threatened me and my friends and passing him a note in that class that I had written in blood. I’m positive that my parents were told that I couldn’t keep going to school there unless I got psychiatric help.

Well, I made it through freshman year and only failed two classes, but my parents weren’t taking any chances and put my ass back in Catholic school clear across town. They took me to a psychiatrist too, but I don’t remember any of that. I wasn’t too keen on the school, had some of the same problems only sort of worse, and was told near the end of my sophomore year that I couldn’t keep going to school there unless I got psychiatric help. This was all getting rather repetitive to me, and I decided I wasn’t going there anymore, and took the first step towards acting on this decision by putting extra clothes in my backpack that morning, leaving campus after my ride dropped me off, catching a bus with a friend to her boyfriend’s house, and getting puking drunk on a bottle of Scotch she had stolen from her parents when she was packing her runaway-bag.

When I came to, probably puke-covered but I don’t really remember that either, my mom was in the front yard. She threw me into the car and sometime over the blurry course of the next 48 hours I found myself admitted to a residential psychiatric treatment facility for adolescents, whereupon I was strip searched and had my shoes confiscated.

After I toed the line long enough to get some privileges (like being able to wear shoes and possess stamps), and realized that I just might not be getting out of there anytime soon, I sent a letter to the pen-pal column of some teenybopper magazine. I don’t remember what it was, but then — this must have been 1988 maybe? — even in Tiger Beat or whatever there were always dramatic people advertising for dramatic pen pals. In those pre-email days, when your friends would make envelope art and send you mixed tapes — remember that? — I received at least 200 responses to my probably dramatic and certainly silly little advert. But letter writing was something to do, and I must have answered fifty of them. Maybe thirty replied in turn.

I had said something about being a skinhead (what we used to call SHARPs back then, not the Nazi kind) and something about being female and something about gloom and depression, I’m sure, since that was de rigeur. Most of what I wrote was a pose, a slight fiction, but my reasons for doing it were real enough. It was part wanting to have somebody to write to, part wanting to meet cool new people and not having any way to do it since I was hospitalized, and part wanting to have somebody besides a doctor or my bulimic roommate against whom, or with whom, to create myself. I didn’t have a very good sense of who the hell I was after about six months in there. I mean, I was a patient — that was clear. I was a daughter — that was clear too. I had taken a lot of tests and had a very thick folder full of Medical Opinions that I knew nothing about — yeah. I was a prisoner — that was pretty clear too. But I was trying to find something else to be against, some other space to be where my bracelet didn’t hold all my necessary data. I was forced to sit still in there long enough to uncork some of what I was so damned mad about, and part of it was that aspect of adolescence that involves other people’s labels and expectations and restrictions and that too-full sense of being stuck in space that belongs to everybody but you. I listened enough to know that my anger was relatively common, but that my reactions to it were a little extreme. So I was sure, I was just sure, that somewhere — out there in the world I didn’t even remember how to walk in unaccompanied and unmedicated anymore — there was somebody I could talk to, somebody to answer the eternal cry of the fifteen-year-old: “Nobody Understands Me!” I knew there were people out there I could be who I wanted to be with and wouldn’t have to constantly rub at the remainder marks I was sure everyone could always see on me — I wore one that said “the runaway daughter” to my parents’ eyes, the “devil bitch” to my former classmates, “slut,” “troublemaker,” “so-and-so’s ex,” “lesbo bitch,” “obnoxious,” “angry,” “psycho,” “biter,” whatever. I had everybody’s diagnosis but my own and I wanted to be free of all that shit, at least in a letter. I wanted to write in my own name, for once. And I wanted to know somebody had survived that kind of shit — more than survived it, had thrived. That somebody as fucking angry and catalogued and diagnosed and medicated as I was was out there somehow, obnoxiously creative and reasonably happy and able to give me hope.

And then I found her, in a letter postmarked Baton Rouge.