Chapter XI: Flash
Because there wasn’t enough going on in my life at the start of my last year of high school, joining the journalism crew and adding one more thing to my completely full and very broken plate seemed like a good idea.
Now, even as an adult I’ve always been one to keep as many irons on the fire as possible in an effort to pursue every avenue of potential success…..or so I enable myself to believe.
In truth, it’s an unhealthy coping mechanism based in emotional avoidance and compartmentalization.
When you’re a child who’s grown up in a violent environment where your safety is not assured, you learn to somewhat ignore the bad feelings that result from violent interactions with your abuser. So many of the building blocks of the hierarchy of needs are not being satiated, meaning the concept of balanced processing of painful emotions is completely written off as non-essential. Additionally, due to the lack of compassion I received in the home my entire childhood had conditioned me to believe that the processing of emotions was not only non-essential, but also a sign of weakness.
The more responsibilities I had, the less time I had to sit around and think about how absolutely miserable I was. Even after years in therapy, it is still a behavior I have to remain highly aware as it can disrupt my forward momentum.
Something surprising happened as I loaded my plate up fuller however, I actually found my life’s passion. My journalism teacher in high school was without question a saving grace and somehow saw something in me that I wasn’t even able to see in myself. Timing is a bitch and while she saw this talent when I was still in the depths of the heroin days, she kept me anchored enough in reality that once my final semester of high school began the fire ignited within me would never be extinguished.
Photography had always piqued my interest, but I came of age in a time of great turmoil in the art world. We were shifting from analog to digital, the internet was beginning to take over the world, and people found themselves taking sides in what appeared to be the rise of the technocracy.
Emotionally investing in photography as a child just seemed like too much work. A summer or two here and there I would get enrolled in an arts based day camp program as a child, but I distinctly remember never being able to successfully develop a roll of film as a child and the discouragement that resulted. Even all things considered, I was always a deeply sensitive kid that could never handle failure or criticism well.
The first time I held a DSLR it was fall of 2007 and I was seventeen years old.
“You have to be very careful. Treat it like it’s your baby.” My journalism teacher told me as she tasked me with the responsibility of photographing a JV softball game.
At first, I relied on full auto features, because quite frankly while she was explaining how cameras worked, and while every human being prior had tried to explain to me how cameras worked, I didn’t pay attention……..perhaps that ADHD diagnosis wasn’t bullshit after all?
No, I wasn’t paying attention to what I was being told. I was paying attention to what I was feeling when I held a camera.
With pictures, you can tell any story you want. You can tell the story of your final year of high school, your favorite band’s tour, or even your childhood. You can tell whatever story you want and however you want it told. Capturing the energy you want with your images allows you to sit with your emotions surrounding them as you are ready.
The first few sets of assignments I turned in were in truth, poorly exposed, framed and noisy. This lead to something magical I’d never experienced before though. My journalism teacher pulled me aside one day and quizzed me on how I would expose a shot in the room we were standing in.
“You weren’t listening that day in class and I realize that. You’ve got a lot going on, and that’s ok. Let’s go over what we can do to bring your shots up to par. You’ll enjoy this more if you do.”
No berating. No belittling. No abuse.
She coached me that day on how to use my camera so that it didn’t work against me, and the fire within me exploded. Not only was this something I was passionate about, I received approval and validation from an alpha female in a position of authority.
Sometimes, it’s the 7,000 piece of iron you throw on the fire that does the trick.
Every single assignment I could take on I did, and despite most aspects of my life beginning to deteriorate as my addiction issues hit their climax, my passion for photography grew with every shot I captured.
As I returned from my holiday detox horror show, it was apparent that something had shifted dramatically in me. Falling to hysteria at the drop of hat, snapping at members of the journalism staff for bullshit reasons, and constantly bringing everyone down with deeply disturbing and poorly timed attempts at jokes.
Without the drugs, I was just a wild, rebellious teen with mommy and daddy issues. Regardless, something inside me craved to continue to feel that electricity that seemingly ran through me when I held a camera. I was going to have to figure out some means of stabilizing emotionally and I was going to have to figure out how to make photography the priority of my adult life.
Slowly as the final semester of high school crawled forward, my body began to heal from the withdrawal and things seemed to take some sort of semblance of normalcy.
Or what I imagine the closest thing to normalcy the average seventeen year old was experiencing at that time.
Spring came, final photography and page assignments were handed down, and I’d made the decision that having been lucky enough to have gone to prom twice already I was going to skip out on the last one. My journalism teacher understood, agreed, and we planned for other staff to document the event. It was settled.
Until that is the teacher who was organizing prom that year showed up to the journalism lab on the Monday before the dance with a piece of paper in her hands.
“Prom Queen. You got nominated. Wanna do it?” She held up the piece of paper that had the tally’s for our names.
I’d never really been popular, even though I had many friends and some social status. I also considered myself this weird kid on the outside even at the end of high school. My time there had been gifted with ample social development, but prom court?
Suka la minka & get tha fuck outta here.
But, there was a part of me that imagined what it would be like if I actually was the queen. Would my mom finally be happy with me?
She’d always told me since I couldn’t be pretty, I could be smart. Well, then it turned out I wasn’t actually that ‘smart’ and she’d all but given up. Prom queens were pretty. They were popular. They got to be the star. Perhaps me being nominated would make her happy.
Gleefully, I told the other teacher I wanted to do it and asked me journalism teacher if it was ok.
“Stop asking for approval for things like that. You need to have fun.”
She was firm, but compassionate all at once.
I called my mother from the Mac lab to tell her what I thought was genuinely exciting news.
“What? You don’t even have a date. You can’t go. You already did the stupid go with friends thing last year, you can’t go if you don’t have a date. This is just so embarrassing. What are people going to think of us?”
Completely defeated I just broke down weeping.
My journalism teacher came into the room.
“Ok, I don’t know what’s going on but you’re really freaking me out.”
I explained everything that my mother had just said, how all I wanted was to make her happy, for her to just be happy with me and with herself. All I wanted was for everyone and everything to be ok.
“It’s not your job to do all of that and your happiness does not need to be based on the happiness or lack there of in another human being. Your happiness is supposed to come from within and no where else”
I stammered out a few I’m sorrys’ as I caught my breath and slowed my crying.
“And as far as a date goes, we’ll get one of the boys on staff to take you.”
Date acquired, prom, graduation and the final week of drop deadlines for yearbook came and went by in a flash. Before I even realized, this woman who was my refuge was not in my daily life anymore. Regardless, her impact remained.
I was meant to be the source of my own happiness, and at that age all I knew was that photography made me happy, so I best chase after it.
Despite throwing every penny they could spare through tutoring at the problem of my poor test taking abilities, I had graduated high school with a semi-decent GPA and plans to move onto community college like every other kid that fucked up on the ACT.
College life was anti-climactic and I found myself more interested in going to raves and high. Just because the opioids were gone didn’t mean I wasn’t still an addict. All the same, while party hoping through old paint factories I captured many a decent image of the STL underground EDM scene and the praise of my peers.
It was becoming clear to all around me that photography was not only a passion, but something that with time I was becoming increasingly good at. So, I’m this kid born to boomers and I’m supposed to go to college, get my Mrs., have a career, have a baby and be happy by 25 right? But growing up to be the next Annie Lebovitz doesn’t exactly fit in with that picture meaning I would have to forge my own path.
Wearing them down for months and months, I finally convinced my parents to take me to an open house at an art school in Chicago. They quickly gave us their Kool aid, used ample double speak skirting around tuition costs, and had us hook, line and sinker the first day. They would get a child that would attend a respectable college institution and I would get to do college on my terms. Eager to keep chasing this passion and even more eager to get away from my family, with some help I’d finished and submitted my application before we even returned to STL.
It was the Monday before the 2008 presidential election and I’d been campaigning for Obama and obsessed with everything Chicago. Planning to get in the durango and make a quick road trip up north, I was preparing to see the man who I believed would usher us into revolution in Millennium Park.
Getting sent home early from work, I came in through the garage door to my mom smiling ear to ear. My acceptance letter had arrived. She was happy.
Happy tears streamed down both of our faces, she praised me for my efforts and told me she always knew I’d become something great. Hard to believe considering her actions over the 18 years prior, but hey, I’d take what approval and validation I could get.
Dancing on cloud nine, I shared some wine with her that afternoon and felt like everything was going to be ok. I survived the pain killers, I survived my ego, I survived puberty. Maybe everything was so terrible in my childhood because that’s just life.
It’s not fair you know, and maybe this whole time I’d just been a little too sensitive to all the things going on around me. But everything was going to be ok now.
I’d work until the following fall, build a savings, continue to take pictures at raves, hang with my friends and while I’d be starting later than everyone, I was going to go to college and be normal. Everything was going to be fine.
5:23pm Monday, November 3rd 2008.
My flip phone rang. It was a co-worker and classmate from high school.
“She’s gone Sarah. Jana is just gone.”
Cloud nine evaporated into rain sending me descending into darkness. Collapsing into tears I retreated to my room where I hid until morning.
We were all just together a few months ago. How could this be happening?
How could she be gone?
It was the day Obama was to be elected. A day that would have meant so very much to Jana and she wasn’t there to see it happen.
By sunrise I’d become aware of the nature of her passing and found myself far more lost than I’d ever been. She’d killed herself.
How could this be?
How could someone who was so much stronger than me, so much smarter, funnier and overall just a better person than me and really any of us fall to the darkness?
At eighteen, seemingly overnight, the idea that sorrow could take even the strongest of us became something I was forced to grapple with head on.
In a flash, reality came crashing down.
Everything is not going to be ok.
All images are copyrighted material of Sarah Rue. These images may not be used without the expressed consent of the owner under penalty of law.