Lost at Sea
The first time I was completely alone after high school, I remember fearing the weight of the world would crash through me — devastating what I considered my personality. I was in my college dorm a few weeks before the fall semester attending the institution’s first-year orientation. The walls were blank, the rooms were empty, and I didn’t know anyone. The lack of definition in my surroundings seeped its way into my being and I felt less defined as a result. Throughout my years in high school, I had related to myself through the lens of others. I had become so driven by others’ expectations, that when that weight finally lifted it felt like I was no longer anchored to what I understood as myself. I was aimlessly adrift at sea — uncertain what parts of my personality would keep me afloat or get left behind. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered the waves of expectations are not unique to high school or growing up. Throughout life we view ourselves in this context. A single entity submerged in the waters of culture. You can spend your whole life getting thrashed around by the current. In that college dorm room, I felt the waves were coming.
I haven’t felt that way for some time, but the familiar sensation of bobbing in the ocean returned to me when I was standing in a bar in Boston for my high school’s 10-year reunion. High school was a difficult time for me — something I share with every other person on the planet. A generous assessment of my high school experience would be to say, “it wasn’t my peak.” It would be more accurate to say I was a smelly, resentful kid with no friends. My method of survival as a teenager was to minimize my inconvenience to others, which didn’t leave much room for introspection or personal development. I floated through school on a raft of defense mechanisms and ugliness — like an isle of trash in the pacific. It wasn’t until college I realized this wasn’t an ideal foundation for the rest of my life. I dispensed of the ugly raft and began a voyage into the most unchartered territory there is: into the depths of my own thoughts. I came back from that experience as a healthier person, equipped with a better understanding of who I was, but no one at the 10-year reunion would know that. Returning to high school meant I’d have to face the worst fragments of myself I’d left behind. Some of those fragments were people I once knew. Some of those people would be at this reunion — bobbing in the ocean along with me.
The two people who came to mind were the only identifiable friends I had from middle school to early high school: Dan Vietze and Erik — the former I referred to exclusively as “Vietze.” Our friendship was built on a bond familiar to anyone whose felt like an outsider. We didn’t have a place in our school’s social circles, so we created an exclusive counterculture of our own. We founded an island of misfit toys within the ocean of our school’s culture. There we held a high value for the obscure and unknown, identifying a piece of ourselves in the neglected artists and interests in the world. This became the basis of our friendship for four years. We shared music tastes, played video games together, met up during lunch, and planned summers around each other’s schedules. This friendship was my escape from the rest of the world and for a time it was idyllic.
Like many high school relationships, my friend group had its fair share of pranks and jokes at each other’s expense. But the friendship was already built on feeling excluded from life, so when pranks exacerbated our disconnect with other people, they held more weight on our emotional state — at least for me. This reached a breaking point in my sophomore year. I was already a poor student throughout school, but after failing two classes my freshman year I got signed up for guidance counselor meetings. Through these meetings, the suggestion was made my friends were confounding my poor performance and I may want to examine my relationship with them. Suddenly the island I saw as paradise looked like hell. I wasn’t escaping from the world, I was stuck on a pile of garbage slowly sinking to my death. This thought synthesized with my general frustrations in life and directed it toward my friends. I felt empowered and decided to cut them out of my life completely, believing it would root out all other problems in my life.
Obviously, that wasn’t what happened. My friends didn’t take my declaration against them very seriously. I was being dramatic, and they knew that, believing I’d get over it in a few weeks. But the narrative I had spun for myself was too empowering to back down from. I blamed them for my worst self and the resentment renewed itself every few months when I discovered another personality fault in myself and perceived it as a piece of ugliness clinging on from the days when I knew them. Our friendship never recovered, and we eventually lost touch.
But that was ten years ago, and things were different now. I wanted to know what happened to them since high school. From afar, it seemed like both of my friends landed in different social groups during the second half of high school. Erik got a girlfriend and seemed to rely heavily on that relationship. I never saw a photo of him without his girlfriend close in the frame. Vietze — on the other hand — didn’t look like he was on a good path. There was a shed across from my high school which had the reputation of attracting drug users. I saw Vietze at the shed more and more frequently as graduation neared. By my senior year, I heard he was experimenting with prescription painkillers — a departure from our drug-free friendship. I remember wondering if I was obligated to do something, as one of the people who knew Vietze before he started on this path. I was taking psychology at the time and asked my teacher for her insight. She gave me some sobering advice:
“You want to help your friend, but he doesn’t want your help. He wants to do drugs. People like that will manipulate your concern to get more drugs. They’ll bleed you dry and drag you down with them. You can’t help people like that. Please trust me on this and stay away from him.”
This is the memory that plays in my head when someone at the 10-year reunion tells me Vietze died of a drug overdose more than three years ago. He would’ve been 25-years-old. When I’m told about his death, I realize the day I told Vietze I wasn’t going to be his friend anymore was the halfway point of his life.
When I think of Vietze, I think of him in math class. Our teacher had assigned a problem set and decided to check-in on my friend to see how he was doing. He looked like the attention had completely paralyzed him. He was unsure of himself and hesitant to speak. Vietze looked to the teacher to direct his actions and refused to put forth his own ideas unless prompted repeatedly. I think this is how most people knew Vietze — a quiet kid who kept to himself — but this was an obfuscation of his personality not an example of it.
In our friend group, Vietze was the de facto leader of our trio. We all shared clever quips and biting critiques of everything and everyone, but Vietze had a rare talent. He navigated our friendship without ever being put in a compromised position. He was rarely the subject of our jokes and often decided things for the group. He was the only one who could safely introduce new music or interests to the group without ridicule. This was an unstated power we ceded to him, but he could only wield it when he returned to the island of our friendship. In waters of real life, he held back, saving his comments for us: “That math teacher is so annoying,” Vietze said to me after class. “I can’t do the problems with you standing over me.”
This personality quirk defined Vietze and Erik as much as it defined my younger self. It comes from feeling like an outsider. We’d lambast the popular trends of our peers in private, but when we were flung into the waters of life, the truth became unavoidable: we were terrified of being rejected, left to drown without anyone’s notice. This mutual fear created our initial bond, but we never talked about it. We didn’t know there was something to talk about. It’s part of the emotional immaturity of being a kid — not to mention the vague life experience that takes over in bouts of depression (which I’ve written about before).
Without knowing it, we inverted our mutual fear into a goal to pursue. The winning strategy was to further assert our outsider status. We believed we existed on an island away from the “cliques” of high school, but we played the same game with more destructive rules. Our default modus operandi was the opposite of anything kids our age were interested in. We staked our territory early and created petty fiefdoms to call our own. Erik was the artist of our group and introduced us to hyper violent and offensive cartoons on Newgrounds or Ebaumsworld.com. Vietze was the music aficionado, preferring 1970s rock bands or modern alternative rock — but not pop alternative rock like Staind or Puddle of Mudd — a band needed to be unknown to everyone else in the building to be cool. I was big into video games, an interest so wildly ridiculed at the time I didn’t require a further niche within the medium to further my oddity.
I can’t speak for Vietze or Erik, but in this alternate world I felt I could be myself. Out in the waters of life, I’d get thrashed about by others’ expectations. I stayed silent when people yelled at me, I suppressed my daily frustrations with life, and I felt powerless in both the structured school environment, and under the oppressive gaze of my parents at home. With my friends, no topic was taboo, our music reflected our rage, and we were empowered to do anything — even if it was only in the context of Grand Theft Auto or riding bikes around town unsupervised.
Later in Life
As juvenile as this relationship was, it underpinned what I consider some of the best parts of my personality. As an adult, I still maintain a massive appreciation for novelty — specifically things that are strange or counterculture. While this mostly exhibits itself as the dumbest collection of saved YouTube videos on the planet, it’s also the basis for my openness to new experiences or willingness to challenge my own views. My experience with my friends has also made me a more empathetic person. I think most people are right to shrug off the mean-spirited comments from angsty teenagers or internet trolls, but with an adult perspective it’s easy to see how my younger self wasn’t so different from them.
My friends and I were engaged in a classic “us versus them” dynamic. We had created a new culture where we were not only the top of the hierarchy, but we were the rule makers. We used cultural tastes to reject our peers before they could think to do the same to us. We liked “real music” and “cool things,” but they had inauthentic interests. Even if one of “them” managed to share similarities with us — it didn’t matter. Their interests were impure. They were incapable of liking the same things as us in the same we did. We had successfully “otherized” our peers and felt superior as a result. That feeling was enough to push our fears aside, if only temporarily.
As it turns out, there is a remarkable amount of overlap with “I don’t like popular kids because of their tastes,” and “I don’t like liberals because of their forced diversity,” or “I don’t like white people because of their privilege.” It’s a language of resentment that comes naturally to any person entrenched in misery. The cause of this misery might be due to how an individual is treated, or their environment, or the moment in life they were born into — but although people cannot dictate how the world reacts to them, they can control how they react to the world. I know from experience — a blanket rejection of the world is not a healthy approach and does not solve your problems.
More often than not, the banding together under hateful rhetoric is to obscure a deeper fear. For my friend group, it was fear of rejection. We had an intuition we were undesirable from the way our parents treated us, or how school administrators viewed us, or our lack of success when we pursued our interests. All of those fears get pushed aside when you convince yourself you don’t like other people. I imagine it works the same way if you hide your fear of failure by deciding the economy is rigged against you, or the only reason people doubt your ability is because they’re racist. These resentment-fueled narratives are not exclusive to a political party (consider: “My business didn’t succeed because taxes are too high” and “I can’t get a job because rich people hoard all their money”). I know throughout my life I have been tempted by variants of these narratives at moments of weakness, but I’ve managed to leave them behind.
The success of my voyage in life is not because I’m such a great person, it is partly due to luck. I happened to have a phenomenal high school English teacher who showed me I was good at writing, gifting me a passion and purpose in life. I lucked out by having parents willing to send me to a ludicrously expensive university where I found new friends who wanted what was best for me while I pursued my goals. I managed to forge new friendships with like-minded individuals who have helped me get to where I am today. Where would I be if one of those values had changed? If I never found a passion? If I never went to school? Or if one of my few friends arbitrarily decided to leave me behind — booting me off the raft I thought we were on together — leaving me to watch his life go on while the waves thrashed me around?
Every year I joke to my friends I should apologize for who I was a year ago. After my 10-year reunion, I think I owe an apology to my friend Vietze. Because I was so caught up in my own head, I didn’t recognize my friends were having the same problems as me; because I believed my struggles were heroic, but their struggles were unimportant. I could have broken our unstated agreement to never talk about ourselves and risk a difficult conversation for both of our sake. I could have been optimistic about our ability to improve our circumstance, instead of leaving them behind like a piece of garbage that couldn’t be salvaged. I feel like I owed them that, because the experience of their friendship is part of what made me succeed in life.
Just before my 10-year reunion, I was on a business trip in Philadelphia. I was walking through the corporate hotel hallways and discovered a familiar feeling. The walls were blank, the rooms were impersonal, and I didn’t know anyone. But a lot had changed since I last felt this way. I no longer looked to others to dictate my own actions. I had my own values, shaped by my own experiences. I felt the confidence of my character emanate into the world around me. I was a freighter ship cruising through the waters toward my own destination — I paid no attention to the waters crashing against me. I knew while I walked through the halls of that hotel, somewhere in the material of my vessel was the influence and memory of my friend Daniel Vietze.
And maybe, that’s all that’s left of him.