I can’t go home.
I say it to myself again and again, lighting sage in my apartment where I, alone, pay the rent. Where I find safety in solitude.
I used to see everyone as a threat. Those who had a tough exterior, I saw as a physical threat. Those who were intelligent, an intellectual threat. Those who were stern, an emotional threat. Those who were men, a sexual threat.
And I felt good enough for no one. I wasn’t innocent enough for the Catholics, calm enough for the stoners, wise enough for the AP students, quiet enough for the bookworms, pretty enough for the populars. In my head, at least.
These were projections of my own insecurities. The idea that I would never be enough. I had so many reasons not to see myself as such.
Most of us don’t live this way in adulthood. We don’t file human beings under labels that will never fully define who we are. I don’t identify with the version of myself who trivialized her existence with a few words.
But on the off occasion I visit that town, show up at the bar with old friends, grab a coffee next to the deli I worked at in high school, I start to wonder—question—who am I?
I feel a familiar pit in my stomach. The racing of my heart. Like I’ve just come down with a virus. My hands start sweating and my body starts trembling with goosebumps. I have to get up and pace or simply run away, flee the scene as if I just committed a crime; I start panicking like I did when I was kid, running alongside my mom’s car and begging her not to leave me at school because it felt less like home and more like a jail cell.
Where do I belong? Where can I file myself away? Certainly not here.
It’s hard to feel safe when your mind is a minefield. When the slightest misstep can be deadly. I have thoughts I fear I cannot come back from and memories that pull the trigger.
I remember being a timid freshman in a huge high school, sitting in math class next to a boy I knew from my previous private Catholic school. We chatted quietly in the back of the room as everyone around us seemed to blend seamlessly into the chaos, and he told me about a business he was starting with his cousin. I feigned interest, because that’s the nice thing to do, and I was nothing if not polite.
I asked about his cousin, how old he was and whether he lived in town. He said he was a few years above us, at a different school. Then, he said his name, and my stomach dropped to my feet like a heavy weight slipping out of my grasp. If only I’d been strong enough to hold it, to carry it around with ease.
The name belonged to the boy in my closet at age 4. The boy who’d put his mouth on parts of my body I’d never even explored with my hands. The boy who stood between me and the door—my only way out, back to my parents, my brothers, my safety.
I hadn’t heard about him in years, nearly forgot he existed, forgot what he did to me, because that’s what the mind does when it can’t be still with a memory. When it can’t process the agony. It shuts it down, brushes it under the rug, then shames you for the way you go about the rest of your days. I hated myself, but I labeled him a victim. Of his parents. Of society. Of whatever drove him to label me one.
At that moment in class, I froze, but my friend kept talking. I asked to go to the bathroom, where I held the sides of the sink in front of a dirty mirror and felt the impending doom. All those years in therapy, and I still hadn’t learned how to breathe.
This town will never bring me peace.
I will never be whole if I stay in the place that broke me. Because the girl I grew into was a sum of those who hurt her most, and that bitter taste in my mouth never turned sweet.
That wasn’t the end; it was only the beginning.
The start of me stifling the truth to keep others comfortable. Pretending what happened was nothing but two kids experimenting—something to laugh off, even though I spent the next few years in intensive therapy just to make it through a single day. Quickly brushing away my tears when kids in class asked why I was always crying.
It was the start of fear and my need for control. I didn’t feel at home, where it occurred, but if I wasn’t there, what would happen to my parents? My brothers? My pets? I was homesick for the very room in which I lost my innocence, and none of it made sense.
It was the start of losing sleep and falling to my knees in the bathroom, sobbing, screaming, dry-heaving, waking the whole house till my parents sat next to me and rubbed my back, till my brothers poked their heads in and asked if I was okay, ignoring how early they had to be up the next day.
It was the start of feeling hollow and filling my emptiness with others’ words. With others’ judgments. With others’ ideas. With others’ labels. But never my own.
It was the start of going quiet instead of saying no. Of “It’s not his fault your shirt was too low.” and “If you don’t give him what he wants, he’ll get it from someone else, and you’ll end up all alone.”
I’m starting to think that would have been the better choice. Because it was in my solitude that I found my voice.
They aren’t all to blame. If you don’t communicate, how is anyone supposed to know that you’re crumbling inside? That the very thought of being alone with a man makes you cry? They’d deem it social anxiety or label me “flaky.” I think that’s part of it, you know; I wanted to be loved, so I pressured myself to fit the mold.
I wasn’t just scared of being rushed. The disturbing truth was I was more afraid of not being good enough.
So when I opened my mouth, I didn’t know what to say, and I’d curse any words that made their way out of my head.
I started writing them down instead.
I’ve always wanted to run away. I fantasize about it often, to this very day. Packing up and flying somewhere new to start free. I close my eyes and picture relief waiting across the country.
I’ve moved to countless different towns, but never so far that I can’t drive home. I’m attached to a place where I’ve felt my lowest of lows. I feel so much peace when I’m alone, but I crave loving arms around me—someone to hold me close.
I think about people from my hometown a lot. Those who have been through traumas I have never endured. They’ve lost parents and siblings, lived in poverty and lacked security. How do they stay? Don’t they wish to escape? Did they have a sense of comfort, a support system that didn’t turn away?
It’s not that I wasn’t “safe.” I had a roof over my head and parents who gave me everything they could. I had brothers who would fight off my heartbreak and walk me to class when I couldn’t find my way. I had friends with the purest souls—the only people who understood.
Still, I was always afraid. Maybe of myself. Of the demons in my brain. I’m not proud of who I was, but I am proud of who I’ve become. And I don’t ever want to lose her, watch her light fade back to gray.
So, no; I can’t go home.
For I’ve been building one in myself. In different zip codes. In a healed mind. In a body that sheds trauma like crumpled leaves. In a place I will not feel the need to flee.