Dark Socks

One of my favorite quotes from The Simpsons is when Lisa says, “I learned that beneath my goody two shoes are some very dark socks.”

In my early teens, I was sent to juvie for eight months for self injurious behavior. Before that, I was a bit of a goody two shoes, compulsively following most rules I was given. But one of the first things I learned from the juvenile correctional program was that some rules are made to be broken. By my third day there, I learned that I had to break the rules in order to poop.

One of the rules there was that we were required to shower every day. My first shower was prompted by someone saying, “You, shower now.” I did as I was told, and when I stepped out of the bathroom 15 minutes later, I was met by my enraged peers, closing in on me like a pack of angry dogs. By occupying the bathroom for more than ten minutes, I had apparently communicated that I’d decided I was more important than anyone else there.

The next day when it was my turn in the bathroom, I spent about five minutes on the toilet before hopping in for a quick shower. I got out, dried my head enough to put in my hearing aids, and vacated the bathroom in just under ten minutes. This time, everyone looked at me with disgust, like I had shit on my face or something. I got in trouble for being unsanitary because I had spent less than five minutes in the shower.

The day after that, I tried to poop faster, but I couldn’t. I stopped in the middle to go turn on the shower so I wouldn’t get in trouble again. When I finished on the toilet, I had just enough time to wet my hair so people would believe I’d showered. It worked. I didn’t get in trouble.

I began to see the dark socks peeking out from beneath my goody two shoes. I learned to feign showers regularly so I could poop in the toilet without getting in trouble for being selfish or unsanitary. It makes almost as much sense as sending me to juvie to punish me for punishing myself.

Laura Gail Landmeyer

Today is Laura’s birthday. She would have turned 35 this year, but she died when she was 18. I knew her for less than a year, but she had a huge impact on my life. We were in foster care together. She was nine months younger than me and she was like a little sister to me. We loved each other even though we didn’t always get along.

We bonded a lot over our shared appreciation of the little bits of freedom that many teenagers take for granted. We had both been institutionalized for mental illness, so we got excited about things like being allowed to wear shoes, listen to the radio, and have private conversations. When Laura and I first met, I said something profane, and her face lit up and she exclaimed, “Wow! We’re allowed to swear here?!”

Being allowed to go outside by ourselves felt like the ultimate freedom. I have fond memories of warm autumn nights when we’d walk to the public boat launch on the lake. We’d sit on the dock with our toes in the water and look up at the stars. I’m glad we got to do that together. When you’re in an institution and you get to go outside at all, you don’t get to see the stars.

Laura idolized me. I liked it at first because it made me feel important. But after a while I got sick of her always smoking my cigarettes and wanting to go everywhere with me. I needed breaks from her sometimes. We had been fighting when she died. I had wanted space from her, but then she was gone. I was absolutely devastated. I fell into a deep depression. I went over a month without changing my clothes or bathing.

One important thing I learned from Laura’s death was that losing a loved one unexpectedly is extremely painful, even if you haven’t really enjoyed their company lately. That is to say, even if everyone is sick of me, a lot of people would probably be really devastated if I died. When I have felt suicidal, I have not been able to convince myself that it wouldn’t hurt anyone if I died.

Laura suffered a lot in her short life. Her mental illness made her life scary. The illness itself frightened her. “Getting help” always felt like a punishment. People were mean to her because she was strange. My memories of Laura have shaped my activism. I like to imagine a world where she could have felt safe.

I think about her when I try to encourage others to be respectful with how they talk about people with mental illnesses. I think about her when I try to raise awareness of the punishment camps we call mental health care facilities. I think about her when I try to make my neighborhood more walkable.