“Stay sweet,” “Don’t ever change,” “Most likely to succeed,” “You made our school proud”—these are just some of the words I recently revisited on the pages of my high school yearbook from my senior year. Twenty-six years later the phrases now prompt the questions: Did I live up to my classmates’ and teachers’ expectations? Did I let them and myself down? Did I turn out to be the person everyone thought I would be?
In high school, I was essentially a classic overachiever, a good student while also involved in every genre of extracurricular activity. I was an All-American Swimmer; in the marching band, concert band, jazz band, choir, school plays and musicals, student government, various academic groups, homecoming court. My head is spinning just thinking about it. I’m honestly not sure how I kept up with it all. Not once did I pick up a drink or drug or even consider getting into any kind of trouble.
It’s no wonder that people had fairly high expectations for me post-high school. And on the one hand, I suppose I did succeed in that regard, at least for a while and as far as many people knew. I went to Middlebury College, and after graduation, I lived in various cities in the United States and Europe while working for a travel agency. Next, I went to Seton Hall School of Law where I did well and met my future husband. After graduation from law school, I got married and had a family and successful career. It all looked very good. I suppose it even matched the yearbook indications. So if we left it at that, it all panned out as planned and predicted.
Unfortunately, however, it didn’t end there. Because the formerly “perfect” high school sweetheart had developed a major drinking and prescription pill problem somewhere along her travels, and though she had been able to keep it hidden and relatively under control for a few years, it eventually took a toll and stole everything. I got divorced, stopped practicing law and went to rehab—not exactly the picture envisioned by my hometown all those years ago.
The pain that goes along with hitting a terrible bottom and losing all that you’ve worked for and identified yourself with for years is tremendous. I felt like I let everyone I loved and who cared about me down once I couldn’t keep up with the double life anymore. As I lay there in bed during those first few nights in rehab, I honestly didn’t know how I would go on or survive the shame. I was in such a deep, dark, frightening hole, I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to climb out of it.
Inevitably, I did find that I was able to rediscover myself and fill that empty shell of a human being with a new sense of hope and promise. After much hard work, I am now sober, focusing on being a good mother and living a healthy and simple life. I’m not exactly where I thought I would be at this stage of my life, but I am slowly realizing that it may end up being a better life than I could have imagined.
When I recently read through my high school yearbook, I thought about the words and what they mean to me now: “Stay sweet.” Well, I’m not necessarily as sweet, but I’m definitely more real! “Don’t ever change.” Ha! I’ve certainly been through enough changes for one lifetime. When I read that, my first thought was that I’m not even close to the girl I was back in high school. I was such a perfectionist, such a good girl who could do no wrong. Now I am admittedly, hopelessly flawed—and better off for it, I think. But on the other hand, that girl was certainly driven and hard-working, which is a quality I, thankfully, like to think I still have. It is what has gotten me through the dark period and pulled me back into the light. So in that respect, I haven’t completely changed, which is a little twisted but a valid perspective.
“Most likely to succeed.” Hmmm. Well, I have had my successes on paper I suppose. But I also lost a lot of that along the way. Though I am sure this wasn’t what most had in mind, to me my greatest success is getting sober and starting my life over from the ground up. I hope that counts for something.
“You make our school proud.” Wow. Well, I certainly didn’t feel very proud of myself for a while there, but I have recently come out openly to people from my past about who I really am and what I’ve been through. And I have been overwhelmed by the abundance of caring and support I have received in return. Most had no idea of what had been going on in my life and still remembered me as the girl they knew in high school, and yet they didn’t judge me and were very encouraging, reminding me of my strengths and positive qualities.
I have determined that what it comes down to is that while in some ways I am completely different from that pretty picture of a girl I see in my high school yearbook, with the lofty words scribbled across the pages, I also had to reach down deep and find a part of that person again. It’s as if I’ve been reborn from her innocent soul again. The truth is we are both fighters at our core.
One dear friend who is still, not surprisingly, one of my closest friends today, wrote on the very last page of my yearbook, “Stay true to yourself.” Maybe he knew me better than I knew myself. Either way, it is certainly a sentiment that wears well.
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