So I'm standing in line at Starbucks this afternoon (thanks to all of you who have purchased gift cards to help fund my espresso addiction in this economically dry season), and I can't help but notice the emotional state of my barista, Kristy. Most baristas at Starbucks seem to have been trained to exude sunshine and rainbows with their glowing smiles and conversational ease. They're breezy, for the most part; they're takin' orders, makin' lattes, lovin' life. (They also have a pretty sweet job, earning full health insurance benefits for just 20 hours a week, while pushing one of America's last legal drugs). Kristy, though, seems to have missed a memo. She's not breezy. Her smile doesn't glow. In fact, she sort of looks like someone has just killed her puppy.
This doesn't sit well with me. I can't very well just take my double tall nonfat extra foam cappuccino and leave. I gotta know what's up. Something's not right. So, because somewhere deep inside me is a junior high school social worker who missed her calling, I dig a little.
"So, have you been here since like five in the morning?" It's a good ice breaker. Everyone knows those poor kids in the green aprons start work at the crack of dawn, and my guess is that doesn't go over well with a teenager.
"Pfft," Kristy replies. "Shyeah. Yesterday and today. I just wanna get out of here."
"I'll bet you do," I say. "It's pretty awesome weather out there for February. I hope you can get out there and enjoy it soon."
"Yeah," Kristy sighs. "I'll probably just go home and sleep anyway, so it doesn't really matter."
"Mmm. Probably didn't get much sleep if you had to make it here by five."
"Actually, I went to bed at like 7:30 last night," she says, sweeping her pink and black bangs across her forehead. "If you're asleep, you don't notice how badly your life sucks."
"This is true," I say, waiting for more.
She obliges. "I swear, all my friends and I are like that. It's like, why would we want to be awake, right? Like, why would anyone actually choose to be awake rather than sleeping? I mean, seriously." She hands my gift card back to me. I notice the tattoo on her left hand: TWLOHA.
"To Write Love on Her Arms, right?" I ask, gestering to her hand.
"Yeah," she says, smiling just enough for the pendant lights to create a glint on her braces. She looks surprised that someone like me (someone, you know, like, old) would be familiar with the acronym. "It's just, you know, a thing. It's just something I'm sort of into."
"You must really care about that cause," I say. "I mean, tattoos are permanent. Did your parents ask what it meant?"
"They didn't even notice the tattoo," she says, a disgusted look coming across her face like a shadow. "And I've had it for, like, two months."
I glance outside. I should go. My kid's gonna be home in fifteen minutes. But I can't. I take a slow sip of my coffee and proceed with caution. "Really," I say. "Two months and they never noticed?"
She shakes her head, razor-edged strands of hair swinging side to side. "So..." I say, running my finger over the top of my to-go cup, "If they ever happen to notice, what are you gonna tell them?"
"Huh," Kristy scoffs, picking at her cuticles. "Tell them I'm into cutting? As if."I nearly choke on my cappuccino. She has obviously missed the mission of To Write Love on Her Arms. I can't believe she is telling me this.
I thought about Kristy for the rest of the day. Not so much because she is an anomaly (she isn't), and not because I am particularly horrified by those who self-harm (I'm not). The thing that got to me, as I replayed the conversation throughout the day, is how casually she spoke of her self-injurious behavior, and about the collective state of depression of her circle of friends. And from where I sit, observing the world from a concerned layman's point of view, the problem is not only that teenage depression is an epidemic. The problem is that it is trendy.
One would have to be living under a rock to be unaware of the current "emo" culture. Movies like "Prozac Nation" and "Numb" and "Girl Interrupted" have gathered a cult-like following (and I have to admit that I own the latter). Rhianna's hit "Disturbia" was nominated for a Grammy tonight for best dance recording. We dance to lyrics like these:
It's a thief in the night / To come and grab you / It can creep up inside you / And consume you / A disease of the mind / It can control you / It's too close for comfort
The good news is, there doesn't seem to be much stigma in being clinically depressed anymore. This, as I see it, is progress. But progress can progress too far, can't it? Marya Hornbacher, in her memoir "Wasted," says it this way: "People who’ve Been to Hell and Back develop a certain sort of self-righteousness. There is a tendency to say: I have an addictive personality, I am terribly sensitive, I’m touched with fire, I have Scars. There is a self-perpetuating belief that one simply cannot help it, and this is very dangerous. It becomes an identity in and of itself. It becomes its own religion, and you wait for salvation, and you wait, and wait, and wait, and do not save yourself."
And that, I think, is why Kristy was on my mind all day, and why now, at one o'clock in the morning, I find myself troubled not only for her, but for her entire generation, which happens to include a lot of kids that I love to death. Once depression becomes identity, what motivation is there to seek out help and receive healing? I gave Kristy a telephone number to someone I thought she might find helpful. I told her I would see her again (and now I have an excuse to return to Starbucks, which is always convenient).
And now, at 1:00 am, I am going to leave her, and the rest of generation black, in the hands of God. Otherwise, quite frankly, I'll end up depressed. I'm just sayin'.