When I was in high school, there was this really brief period where I felt as if I was actually having what I always thought was supposed to be the high school experience. You know, the kind that you see on TV, where everyone has a ton of friends and every weekend you go to some crazy house party where the adults are perpetually away for the weekend and someone’s older brother or sister happens to be home from college, available to buy everyone booze and beer.
I went to an all-boys Catholic high school, it was one of these giant institutions that pulled its student body from various corners of Long Island. What this meant was that I didn’t really have any hometown friends, aside from the few guys that I went to grammar school with who also attended this high school.
But sometime around junior year, one of these few guys befriended a clique from my town’s public high school. One night I got an invite to a party at some kid’s house, someone that I didn’t know at all. I mean, I knew a lot of the faces, I’d see them at basketball games and stuff like that. But never in a social setting.
Just like that, I went from not knowing anybody to befriending a couple of dozen people. And like I mentioned earlier, it really was all of the crazy that you see on TV, house parties on the weekends, insanely casual parents of people who I’d just met that had no problem letting thirty or forty teenagers get drunk in their basements and backyards.
I had drank beer and the occasional mouthful of liquor before, but the closest that I’d ever been to getting drunk was almost finishing a six-pack with a couple of guys behind a playground supply shed one summer night. This high school party scene that I was now suddenly a part of, there was beer pong, people brought funnels, everyone was smoking pot.
Marijuana was something that, as a little kid, all the way up until my junior year of high school, I promised myself I’d never touch. I don’t know where it came from, but I had a legitimate fear of drugs, like all of those videos they showed us in school, every warning about how it only takes one time for this stuff to ruin your life, I bought it. I was genuinely afraid.
But then it was like one day, I was at my second or third one of these parties, someone offered me a little pipe and I consciously felt that terror not only go away, but there was a total shift in attitude, a complete one-eighty from fear to an embrace. I took a few hits and got really stoned, I woke up in the morning without any lasting permanent damage and I thought, wow, that wasn’t really anything to be afraid of.
And it went like that for a couple months or so, each adventure seemingly more outrageous than the next, all the way until one night, some guy got his hands on a box of cigars. Everyone lit up but, not really knowing how to smoke a whole cigar, everyone got bored. I don’t know how what happened next actually happened, but a couple of guys started taking the their cigars and burning each other’s arms with the lit ends.
One after the other, everyone present got sucked up into the frenzy. It became this macho test that nobody present made any effort to back away from, to stop and think even for a second, what the hell is going on? And then it was my turn. I didn’t put up any fight either. I was drunk, I was high, I felt invincible.
And the next day when I came to, I looked at this oozing open wound on my right bicep, I couldn’t make sense of what had happened. This thing took forever to heal, and it was right below my t-shirt sleeve, so there was no use in covering it up. I made up some bullshit story about working at the restaurant, how I’d accidentally dropped a lemon into the deep fryer, causing a huge glob of grease to splatter in a perfect circle on my arm. And everyone bought it, my parents, the doctor that summer who looked at it curiously during the course of my annual physical.
I still tell that story. There’s not much of a scar now, but it’s noticeable under the right lighting. I’ve told it so much that part of that lie has actually grown pretty deep roots, that sometimes it takes me a minute or two to remember the truth, that I got sucked up into some weird animalistic moment of mass insanity. Someone had a crazy drunk idea that caught and spread like fire that night at a party.
I’m totally embarrassed to write this all out, I’ve never really told anybody I’m close with, but there’s got to be some lesson that I can take away. One is that, whatever I was trying to get out of being part of that group, friendship, acceptance, none of that stuff was ever there in the first place. As quickly as I had been taken in by my group of peers, I was summarily rejected a few months later when, one night at a different party, some kid I’d never met before decided he didn’t like my jokes or whatever. He convinced everyone to turn on me, casting me out on the spot.
Another is, in what ways is whatever was inside of me that night still a part of who I am today? I’d like to believe that I’m an independent thinker, that you’d never be able to find me sucked into poor decision-making by peer pressure and the social dynamics of groupthink run riot. But I don’t know. I thought I was independent back then. To what extent am I truly self-aware of the decisions I’m making day-to-day?
I guess it’s a good reminder every now and then to look at that barely visible scar on my arm, to be grateful that a superficial inch or so of skin is the extent of the physical consequences. But it’s a scary reminder. Just like how my convictions abruptly reversed course in a split second under the right circumstances, in what other ways might my values today be similarly overturned? It’s a good idea to take stock of my life and ask, how much freedom do I really have over my everyday actions?