The Life You Never Knew You Changed

The Life You Never Knew You Changed


H called me.  I was in my new second home, the university library, writing a policy memo on the conflict in Yemen.  I knew something was different about this call.  I stepped out of the library and picked up the phone.

“Hey, what’s goin on?” I answered naturally.

“Um,” she was quiet.  I listened intently.

“Derek P, you know.  He passed away today.  He crashed into a semi-truck.”

I grew up in a small, coal-mining town in Utah.  As mentioned before, I was the only half-Asian around and I was often teased for being ‘weird.’  Luckily, I had great friends to help me survive the battlefield called elementary school, but middle school was an entirely different playing field.

In middle school I was separated from H, my best friend, left to survive the adolescent world of tween life by myself.  It was brutal.  In middle school, I was not only teased for being a minority (Asian and non-Mormon), but also for being an absolute nerd.  I loved fantasy novels, video games, and anime (gotta love sailor moon).  I was a nerd in every sense of the word and, while being a nerd is cool today, it was definitely not the thing to do back then.  I was heckled and teased so much I would often skip class to escape the torture.  It was awful.  My classmates treated me like I had the plague, and I was so alone and isolated I often felt that perhaps it was true.

And then one day, a boy with sandy blonde hair and beautiful green eyes approached me in class.

Hey, you played that new game right?” he suddenly asked.  I winced, afraid this was somehow going to turn into a prank.

He smiled, “I just started, and it’s really good!  Can you tell me how you defeated the first boss?”

We started talking and I was giddy with excitement.  Pretty soon, we chatted everyday about how far we got in the game, about class, about life.  He didn’t care that I looked different from everyone else, that my hobbies were weird or that I wasn’t the most popular kid in school.  I was extremely shy as a young child, thus making it difficult for me to befriend others, and his kindness helped me to open up.

Since my separation from H, Derek was the first person to treat me like a normal, human being.

Like most adolescent girls my age, I developed a crush on Derek.  I wrote his birthday in my calendar.  I stared at him longingly from across the classroom.   When he met up with me before class to talk about the latest games and fantasy novels, my heart skipped a beat.  Although I knew it was all platonic, just talking to him for those few short moments everyday was a highlight.

When we graduated into junior high, of course, Derek and H started to “go out.”

For some reason, I wasn’t jealous or even upset.  It seemed to make perfect sense.  My crush ended, I was reunited with my best friend H and she was dating a cool dude.

Back then, “going out” meant holding hands during lunch break and leaving love notes to each other in lockers.  Although Derek and H’s relationship didn’t last long, it was a courtship that turned into a friendship and lasted for years.

What I didn’t know back then was Derek’s troubled family life.  His parents were both constantly in and out of jail on drug charges, and when they weren’t in prison, they were probably high at home.  Derek was raised by his grandmother, but after she passed away he also started to fall into the drug scene like his brother.

That’s what happens when you live in small town America: drugs.  Many of my high school classmates were either experimenting with drugs or heavily addicted–and the surprising thing was, they weren’t deadbeats.  They were the ones succeeding, getting good GPAs, leading the class.  My classmates didn’t fit the stereotype they taught us in drug prevention assemblies.  The people that did drugs were the high-achievers all around me.

After high school, many of us went our separate ways.  I heard that Derek battled addiction, then sobered up.  He seemed to be getting his life back on track and, though I didn’t keep in touch with him post-high school, I was delighted to see his Facebook posts and observe his recovery.

I wasn’t close to Derek.  I hadn’t talked to him face-to-face for years.  I always thought, though, that if I went back to my old hometown and happened to see him, I would say:

Thank you.  Thank you for talking to me in middle school and making me feel human.  You have no idea how much those morning talks meant to me.  You have no idea how much your actions, which you may not even remember, changed my life.  Because of that, I will never forget you.

My only regret is that I couldn’t have said these words sooner.  Before he relapsed.

Before he crashed into a semi-truck.

“Is this Mary?” a familiar voice asked when I picked up my phone today.

It was my old friend from high school.  I hadn’t talked to her in over ten years.

She also battled with addiction for years.  In fact, during senior year I was in agony trying to pull her out from the world of addiction, but it was already too late.  I thought I lost her.

“I’m sorry for how I treated you.”  She’s been sober for 4 years, “I meant to call you sooner, but I was scared.  Thank you for being a nice person.  I’m sorry I wasn’t better back then.”

The phone call moved me.  I wasn’t mad at her.  I never was.  In fact, I hated myself for abandoning her when she may have needed me most, but I felt so helpless when facing her addiction.

I’m glad she didn’t meet the same fate as Derek.   I’m thankful that we got to speak on the phone and express our regrets and gratitude.  Our conversation was littered with the words “I’m sorry,” “thank you,” and most importantly:

Let’s meet again soon.

It was emotional for me.  Our small town was strained by the hardships of poverty and ignorance.  In my small town, ‘getting out’ was the pinnacle of success.  Escaping the vortex of small-town America and going to university, which perhaps is a no-brainer to most Americans, was a sign of achievement for many of us in our graduating class.  My town suffered from a drug abuse epidemic and, unfortunately, this disease spread to many of my classmates.

This is for Derek… and for all people in his situation.  You influence lives.  You may not even know it, but you helped me survive middle school and thus get me where I am today.

I’m the life you never knew you changed.. and I just want to say: Thank you.

Does anyone else have stories from growing up in a small town?  Has drugs been an issue in your life?

15 thoughts on “The Life You Never Knew You Changed

  1. I am trying not to cry all over my keyboard. I am not succeeding.

    Such a lovely post, Mary. It’s a good reminder that we are all flawed, complex people, made up of many parts.

    I am so sorry for your loss.

    1. Thank you Autumn. We weren’t close friends, but since he played such a role in the formative years of my life, hearing about his passing really made me stop, pause and think. I guess this post was a tribute to him, because maybe he thought nobody cared, which is why he did what he did–I just wish he could have realized more people cared than he thought.

      Thanks again for reading 🙂

  2. This is a really beautiful post Mary – I think it’s all too rare that we tell people how they have changed our lives. The last thing I ever said to my dad was “you should go now”. At least I gave him a hug goodbye but those words have always stuck with me. He died when I was 14. I can’t really put into words how much I wish I could have a conversation with him as an adult, all the things I wish I could talk to him about. Maybe because of this I do try to let people know how much they mean to me and they are often really surprised to hear it but I think it’s sad that the best things ever said about someone is often at their funeral, imagine what a difference it could make to their lives if they heard those things while they were alive!

    1. I’m very sorry to hear that you lost your father at such a young age… that must have been so hard. I’m glad that it’s helped you be more open and loving with those you care about. We can all do a little more of that.

      My father has been very ill recently. I used to get sad about it, but now I’m grateful: at least I have time to talk with him, spend quality time with him and build our relationship so I have no regrets. I have some friends that lost their father/mother very suddenly, and that must be very unbearable.

      Thanks again for being so open. You’re amazing, Cat! You’re a really strong person.

  3. My dad took my brother and I to live in a small town thinking that would get us away from drugs…Maine has an awful drug problem. I half jokingly told him, “There’s nothing to do but to use drugs.” I lived outskirt of Boston before then. Not a good place, either. I drank in high school but didn’t do drugs. Now I barely drink. Just a glass of wine once in a while. I knew people who did drugs. Some got out. Others didn’t. I lost my best friend from Iraqi War…lunchtime suicide bombing around the holidays. I still can’t believe he’s gone. I still remember what I said to him after graduation. I told him I will see him at the reunion jokingly. I kind of forgot why. I wish I didn’t told him that. I never even bother to show up at the reunion. No point.

    People thought I was a freak because I was mostly deaf, spoke weird…being born with fetal alcohol syndrome, and all. Battled depression, attempted suicide but somehow managed to pull through. Felt isolated even through high school.

    Ever since I went back to the States…I feel empty.

    1. Oh my god Eileen, I’m very sorry to hear about that. I imagine small town Maine being a very difficult place to grow up as well… When 9/11 happened I remember everyone in our class (especially the males), standing up and saying they would join the military and fight for our country. A lot of them did. Maybe it was the same where you were.

      I’m glad you made it through your small town struggles, especially with all of the hardships you had to endure. But hey, we both made it to Asia and kind of found our real place of belonging, right

      I’m with you on feeling empty in the states. I just spent 3 hours trying to vote and they wouldn’t let me. I’m so done with this country. Ugh.

  4. Yup. Small town America and drug abuse. Even in idyllic Hawaii, we had an alarming drug problem. Something about “nothing to do” or “seeming bored”. Alcoholism is another big problem, at least in Asia, in small towns.

    And yes, getting out of said small town is a big fuckin’ deal.

    It’s funny what we remember and perhaps it is not surprising that kindness is what carries us and what we do hold on to for years and years.

    I’m sorry for your loss, dear. Thanks for writing a beautiful tribute to your friend. xxoo

    1. Yup, the “boredom” effect. Makes drug use run rampant.

      This wasn’t a problem in Japan (or China). Maybe because they make the kids study all day and night.

      Actually, Japan was ideal because the kids study until 3pm and then they’re forced to do “club activities” until 5-6pm, which keeps them busy.

      Glad you can relate about the “escaping small town America” bit. It’s hard.

  5. if I may play the devils advocate here,

    but those small towns all have a community college with every subject matter in trades etc to learn. those small towns also used to have companies that used those young peole for labor, but foriegn companies drove them out, or the military industrial complex, which it seems allot of us have to work for. So why not give Trump a chance? if he can bring it all back and reverse what allot of you have been describing as the America of no return then whats the harm? see, I look at things differently, not at the symtoms but as to why, maybe something I picked u from the Japanese (isikawa diagram?), like look at it and work backards. like whats that US politican doing in Japan on his visit at trade shows etc? is he really bringing jobs back to the states? how does it benefit Japan? how many of the management staff in the US at that company are not Japanese? the Japanese send their kids to jukkos and other events and they learn English to exort the Japanese business model abroad; I know because I have taught these students going abroad to work. do we need the Japanese to come teach us, to work for them? there is really no need for Americans to adopt a fanatical education system like Japans becasue that crushes innovation and invention, and we have the resources to create and enjoy that enviroment. Japanese cant afford that lifestyle or the hole model comes apart. Its a heavy subject but thats where Im at, and it jives with almost everything Ive read from long time exerts on Japan. obvisouly I need to move to somewhere else )

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