high school

Millennials Tell Us Whether Life Really Gets Better After High School

Whether you were a nerd, a goth, a queer, a jock, a cheerleader or a douchebag, you’ll see a bit of yourself reflected in these life-after-high-school stories.

by Mica Lemiski
13 November 2018, 11:37pm

Among the many things that drove me bananas about the Kavanaugh trial—and his subsequent appointment to the Supreme Court—was that it seemed to confirm the idea that people who were assholes in high school are still assholes now, and worse yet, they are succeeding, thriving, and winning things that matter way more than the title of “Prom King/Queen” or “Athlete of the Year” did in high school. This seems to go against everything the underdogs, we freaks and we geeks, were told as teenagers. We were told, it gets better. We watched movies like Back to the Future and thought, hey, if someone as dweeby as George McFly can find love, buy a house, have a family, and get a cool job that allows him to boss around his former terrorizer, Biff, while wearing aviators, then sweet, maybe things will work out for me, too.

But do these types of Herculean, zero-to-hero stories ever happen in real life? As evidenced by the stories below, the answer is “yes , but.” As in, yes but I still suffer from PTSD due to the trauma I went through as a teen. Or, yes but due to the fact that I became a pathological liar in high school in order to cope, I still find myself being untruthful for no reason sometimes.

Then there’s the whole “they peaked in high school” narrative. But ask yourself: is a jock-turned-junkie something to celebrate, or do we need to cast our teenage pettiness aside and root for the people we once envied because we understand that high school was a weird time for everyone and people change?

That’s up to you to decide, I guess. But whether you were a nerd, a goth, a queer, a jock, a cheerleader, a bitch, a douchebag, a mathlete, a theatre geek, or a bassoonist who ate egg salad sandwiches for lunch, my hope is that you’ll see a bit of your old self reflected in the life-after-high-school stories below. If there’s anything we can glean from these tales, it’s that even if life isn’t all better after high school, it’s at least somewhat more interesting.

Trevor, 25

In high school, before I was out as gay, I started experimenting sexually with one guy in my grade, and I made the mistake of telling someone else. That news just spread like wildfire because, you know, nothing is sacred at that age. I was relentlessly harassed after that. People would call me “fag” and “homo,” and gym class was the worst. In the change room, I’d focus on the floor but still, the other guys were like, “Oho, Trevor’s looking at everyone’s dicks!” Or I’d be walking down the hallway and boys would cup their mouths and say, “Trevor’s a faggot!” or something like that. I’d just be like, “cool, whatever,” and try to brush it off, even though it was hurting me.

It got worse when I started to go into drama and music. I was basically in drag for one of the plays I did—painted face, eyelash extensions, heels and all that—and I’d have to come to class after matinees with makeup still on my face. This one particular person would always be like “here comes the faggot” and the teachers wouldn’t do anything. They’d say “that’s enough of that,” but they didn’t take it seriously, this homophobic harassment. Homophobia wasn’t really talked about then, and I was in a Catholic school.

The rumours people made up about me were bonkers. Stuff like, “Oh I saw Trevor at this party and he was sucking another guy’s dick.” I decided I wanted to control the rumours. I became a pathological liar about my experiences, as a defense mechanism. I would make up a lie about having sex with a certain guy in my grade and then I would tell one of the most popular girls at school. And then next thing I knew, I’d hear the rumour from other people, like, “hey, did you hear that Trevor had sex with that person?”

I couldn’t stop telling these lies. I was lashing out at guys who had made fun of me, the slightly awkward, popular dudes about whom people weren’t sure if they were gay or not. So they would get teased and I’d be like “haha, how do you like it, motherfucker?” But I couldn’t turn the lying off. It started to spiral and spiral and I began telling outrageous lies to my friends. It became this shield and I never let anyone get to know me. From time to time I still find myself exaggerating things and I’m like, “why did I say that?”

I felt like I had to go away to university and do something big so that people knew that my art and my music wasn’t just for nothing, like it wasn’t just some gay hobby. But I didn’t find my true queer community until after university, in the army. I auditioned for ceremonial guard, and it was in that first summer of ceremonial guard that I found my queer people. In my band specifically, it was 60 percent queer, and in my brass quintet, four of us were gay. I felt masculine and validated in my sexuality because I didn’t have to be some kind of femme queer to be gay. I could be in the army, be strong and masculine, be sensitive, you know, all of these things at the same time. It’s funny because people think, “oh, you’re in the army, you must be this misogynist, racist, xenophobe,” and it couldn’t be further from the truth in the musician sector of the armed forces.

And now, being away from that, I’m getting more involved in the actual queer community. I’m making friends with trans people, I have friends who are non-binary, and these are the people I want to be around. In my mid-twenties, I’m no longer worried about what people think of me and whether they view me as successful. I have my partner, we’re engaged, and I’m surrounding myself with people who make me a better person.

John, 29

In high school I definitely fell back on the fact that I was the sports guy. I excelled in sports, teachers liked me, all that. But even with my parents, the sports thing was my identity. If I didn’t have sports and being popular as an identity—well it was my whole identity. I was a popular guy and went to a lot of parties but I did not feel comfortable socially unless I was drunk. But out socially, I was always drunk. I would be loud, and an asshole, maybe even a bit of a bully. But through all this I felt like shit. Because I was always super anxious too, to the point where, from grade ten to twelve, I couldn’t even do a presentation. I’d skip them and take zero. And in English classes where there was a chance I might have to read out loud from, you know, a Shakespeare play or something, I would just skip the class.

When school was coming to an end, there was a bit of relief because I wouldn’t have to make excuses about missing presentations and that, but I also had a big time impending sense of doom because I wasn’t going to university to play sports or anything, and so that part of my life was coming to an end. Because sports wasn’t really “me,” but it was something that I could grasp onto. It was like a mask.

After high school, I had no identity. And it all progressed. That’s typical of addiction. I started to smoke weed all day every day, I got super drunk on weekends, and it progressed to a point where, five years later, I still had no identity and no idea what I was going to do with my life. I was literally the town drunk. I went from having a lot of friends to having like three friends who I’d reluctantly hang out with because we did the same drugs. Life became miserable. I’d spend my pay checks immediately, I was addicted to drugs, and I’d contemplate suicide all the time.

The breaking point came between Christmas Day and New Years, about three years ago. I just couldn’t drink anymore. I would drink and then just puke immediately. So I went to my parents house, but they weren’t there. I checked my voicemail and it turned out they had gone to Arizona and had been trying to get a hold of me for a few days. I’d never felt so shitty in my life. That day I signed up for rehab, but it was a two-month wait to go. I didn’t end up going. Then it was two more years of trying to fool myself, saying I’d only drink on weekends and stuff, but I was just avoiding the inevitable. When I told my parents I was signing up for rehab again they said, “oh, but I thought you had it together?” Together? I didn’t know what that meant. I mean I was holding down a job but I was fucking miserable. I would go on benders for like four days where I’d spend all my money and end up in horrible places, literally like a crack shack with people I didn’t know. It was getting worse and worse. I tried all different careers, too, wondering what it would take to make myself happy.

When I gave treatment an actual try, it was a long haul. I was there for like seven months. I didn’t think it was going to work. But when you’re in treatment, you see people whose lives are actually getting better, you see the process working, and I think there was a lot of levelling out for me, too, because I’d been using pretty consistently from like age 20 to 28. I got on medication for anxiety and depression and was monitored by a doctor, and yeah, life slowly got better. I found that doing recovery, gaining actual self esteem came with the process.

Emily, 30

I went to a very white, rich suburban school and lived in subsidized housing. I wore black and dyed my hair but I wasn't super goth, yet I would have popsicle stick crosses thrown at me and people would dump “holy water” on me and my friends. The worst part about everything in school for me was that we were always told to talk to an adult or teacher but our teachers thought we were a problem and not just trying to exist the way we felt like it. We were always the ones to blame for anything that happened, even though the other kids were the ones getting physical with us. We were told to wear less makeup, not dress in black, stop wearing weird shit, stop dyeing our hair, etc. Nothing ever happened to the normal kids. I wasn't even really a goth, I just dyed my hair weird colors—still do—wore black eyeliner—still do—and wore mainly hoodies and baggy pants. So one of the biggest things in Jr. High and High School that I changed to be less of a target was my sense of humor. It's always been dark and not mainstream. It took me awhile to regain who I was but my humor is one of the most important things in my job right now.

Life basically got better when I left high school. I ended up dropping out and getting my GED. Emotionally I was way better off once that happened. I had friends in the writing industry and I was looking for a job when one came up of simple graphic work—adding images for thumbnails on—then I started taking on more and more. A co-worker was going to Italy for a month and so I trained to cover her, then she was let go and I took over her very extensive duties. The connections I made at cracked and the work ethic I'd shown got me in the door at and I now run their whole social media department. Now I own my house, I bought my first new car, I work with a ton of hilarious and amazing people—all because I decided to stop hiding who I was.

I still have issues occasionally in stores, get weird looks because of my hair. Sometimes when going to my step kids’ school functions it's the same thing, people looking down on me because I'm different. I just try to do what I can to support the school and be involved in the community so they know I'm not some weirdo hermitted up in my house. We live in a small town so a lot of people know other people's business, and it doesn't hurt that a lot of people are aware of roughly how much money my husband and I make, and I think that makes it a bit better.

The friends I have now are a lot more accepting because we're all kind of cut from the same weird cloth. My family is more accepting because I'm 30, it's no longer “just a phase” and I'm making good money mainly because of who I am.

Andee, 24

I feel like I had a good high school experience. I really had it figured out. I had my one best friend but I was acquaintances with pretty much everyone. I could hang out with the cool kids if I wanted, but also hang out with the not cool kids, which meant that I didn’t have a lot of social capital I felt I was losing if ever came time to stand up to something. So once, a couple people in my class were throwing around the N-word and I was very against it and confronted them about it. I said, you know, this word is not for us to say and it’s not appropriate and it can be triggering for people. You might think you’re only using it between yourselves but I’m hearing it and I have family who are African descendants. But they continued to do it, and they posted it on a graduation Facebook group that had all of the grade 12 students in it, some of whom were black, and they threw that word around publically, like in posts, and I was like, “that’s not okay.”

After that I became known as the policer of language. But I didn’t care. Because I knew I had a compass in me that told me what they were doing wasn’t OK, and if that compass brought on a certain label? Well I didn’t care. But now in my work, I find myself being very passionate about reconciliation and decolonization, but it’s tricky because if I use the word decolonization at work, well it could potentially make me look like I’m anti-establishment or anti-government. So I find myself now being more afraid of taking these steps.

So, life is better after high school because overall you have more agency, but then again there’s a lot more to lose than simply social capital when you stand up for things you care about in the working world. Like, my professional career is now something that sticks out in my mind when I’m acting out or standing up to something that I don’t believe in. Do I have to censor myself to remain professional when really I wanna say like, “fuck you,” to the prime minister? But when it comes to social media and what I tweet angrily about, it’s always in the back of my head that certain things I say might close doors for me, and I have to be OK with that.

Julie, 29

I grew up in a really small town, so when you entered kindergarten, you were sort of assigned an identity and that’s the person you were assumed to be for the next 12 years. So I had some limitations as a kid—I was a stutterer, I still am a stutterer, and we’re only like one percent of the population—and I was also really tall. I was kind of ostracized, not only by my peers but also by my teachers. Plus there was a lot of abuse in my home because my father was and is an abusive, narcissistic psychopath. Like hardcore abusive, but it sort of went unchecked because we were relatively upper middle class and so didn’t really fit the stereotype of the abusive family, so to speak.

I went through a period of self harm from the time I was 12 until the time I was 18. The trigger was usually an argument with my parents or an incident at school. It was my parents putting me down—which they frequently did—or a negative encounter with a peer. It was so weird because on the surface it was this small town with an image like “aren’t we so nice?” but in reality it was a fucking snake den. But yeah, years of self-harm and thoughts of suicide. I had a lot of suicidal ideation, I thought about it every day, I swallowed a bottle of aspirin, I permanently damaged my hearing because of that. I still have some self-harm scars but there are only a couple of them that are still noticeable. I forget that I have them sometimes.

My academic performance wasn’t great, but after high school I did two years of community college—or as I call it, purgatory—and it was there that I really started to blossom in terms of confidence, study habits, all that. I went from being afraid that I wouldn’t graduate from high school because of all the depression and anxiety that I suffered to transferring to a four year school and graduating with latin honours.

Then when I was in my early twenties I really started to come into myself physically because I guess you could say I am somewhat conventionally attractive. In high school I was never considered to be pretty because if you were at all ethnic-looking you weren’t considered to be good-looking, and I never fit the blond-haired, petite cheerleader look that was so popular.

Anyway, I started booking modelling work, had a really good run as a commercial print model, graduated with honours, lived in three countries, you know, have had some ups and downs too—my mother passed away, I cut contact with my father, went through some abusive relationships and some dubious choices in my early twenties—but now, I have a very good career, a good circle of friends, I have a wonderful partner who loves and supports me, a cute cat, a nice apartment. It gets better. It’s not perfect, but I hope that for other people that have been through isolating or traumatic experiences in high school, hearing about someone who’s also been through it provides a modicum of comfort.

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This article originally appeared on VICE CA.