I’m going back to Issaquah, where sadness makes sense

Jan. 20, 2023, 12:07 a.m.

Author’s note: This piece and its title are inspired by a poem by Danez Smith.

My first thought when I return home from Stanford is that the world here is cast in a whole different color palette: mottled greens and earthy browns, muted tones shrouded in overcast gray. I think, no wonder Twilight was shot with that depressive blue tint. This is it: overbearing, yet accurate.

On visits home, I always pay my respects to the sprawling park that raised me, a five-minute walk away. Here, the landscape is stark and brutally juvenile, as if rendered by a child: scribbles of green crayoned onto bulbous rock forms, bare trees jagged against the paper-white sky. I perch on the edge of what I like to call my dissociation bench, staring down at my murky reflection in the pond water. Like me, this park is half wild thing, half contained creation; half stifled by home, half free and wandering.

Each time I return home spawns a deep reflection into who I was growing up and how I continue to be shaped and defined by the places that surround me. Every now and then, I’ll catch myself slipping back into the throes of childhood: watching the width of my arms and thighs multiply in the glossy black water; feeling my tongue fumble and forget how to speak as I avoid eye contact at the cash register. Something about being home reeks of the intense self-doubt that characterized my youth, and in a town as small and difficult to leave as ours, sometimes that scent feels impossible to escape.

On a recent coffee date with one of my closest friends growing up, she told me she’d had a setback a few weeks ago. A mutual friend, with whom she’d had a fraught, often painful relationship, had re-entered her life and brought with her a spiral into the same emotions that had plagued her years ago. My friend told me how frightened she felt. She’d thought that she’d grown so much since then, had matured into an emotionally resilient woman who was secure in the beautiful and sustaining relationships she’d developed in her new home. It haunted her: what did that growth even mean, and how much did it even matter, when a few texts could send her sprawling right back into the person she’d once been?

My friends and I would often joke, post-leaving, about how we’d finally made it out of Issaquah. How it had been a gradual thing, each of us leaving one by one as our claustrophobia grew insurmountable. For one friend, admission to a private high school an hour away was the ticket out during eighth grade; for another, their family’s move to a larger house brought with it an escape from Issaquah’s scrutiny in sophomore year.

I was one of the few who remained until the last possible moment, caught in Issaquah’s grasp until I finally got into Stanford. Some days, I resented that.

When COVID-19 struck, it brought with it my first reprieve from daily visits to Issaquah High, and in that awful moment, I felt myself take a breath. I had gotten to a point of social anxiety where I would hide in the first-floor bathrooms every morning until the bell rang. Everywhere I went there were eyes: I was simultaneously a nobody and known by everyone. Each moment I passed by the glass case of trophies in the hallway would prompt an obsessive glimpse at my reflection, a harried pat-down of the flyaway hairs on my head, a panicky feeling bubbling up in my chest. When 2020 came about, in the quietude of home I began finding moments of self-love; began the arduous journey toward feeling in tune with my body. Later, it often felt like an important revelation that I’d needed to make it out of Issaquah for my self-love to fully be realized.

A few days ago, another close friend from home chatted with me late into the night about a conversation with a college friend, who claimed to have never been dissatisfied with her own appearance. When our shared experiences of dysmorphia had functioned as such formative traumas in our adolescent lives, it felt almost inconceivable to have never looked in the mirror and feared what stared back, to have never looked at another woman and ached sorely to switch bodies. Living in Issaquah, we undoubtedly had our own fair share of privileges, but what a privilege that must have been, to grow up in a space that doesn’t wear down at your insecurities until you’re beaten to a pulp.

When we discuss the ache of home, my friends and I often struggle to pinpoint what exactly made our experience living here feel so raw. Was it Issaquah itself, or just the normal growing pains of adolescence? Were these pains intensified by the people and world around us? Was this a unique struggle for our group of high-achieving peers, who shared the burdens of grappling with queer identity and cultural frictions while navigating grating academic pressures? Did this pain end up serving a purpose — fulfilling that everything happens for a reason bullshit — and shaping us into stronger, more resilient people? Yet why is it that some of our peers in college seem to have grown up never having experienced a similar kind of hurt?

These kinds of conversations with the women who raised me are both grounding and jarring. After living in college with people who have only known this adult version of me for a year, it feels rare to find myself in the presence of people who truly get it. People who understand me in fewer words, who also feel the inward tug of deep-seated loneliness when they speak of their hometown. Since coming to California, I’ve often felt like Stanford is a place where sadness should not exist. With its campus decked out sunnily like a vacation resort, palm trees that can’t help but look like plastic lining every street, Stanford feels like this utopia where all the pieces fell into place and we are living out a long-held dream. A place where work hard, play hard is more a lived reality than an aspirational mantra. Whenever my age-old insecurities inevitably creep back into consciousness at Stanford, I feel this sense of incongruity, this disjointedness. The visibility of my anxiety does not belong at this school where duck syndrome prevails, where I must keep up this work hard, play hard facade to hide the way I am paddling furiously beneath the surface.

And the phenomenon of duck syndrome is real: sadness does exist, but more often than not it’s swept under the rug. What becomes visible, instead, is how differently we all grew up from each other, the layers of childhood privilege present in different pockets of the student body. The way some of us grew up with vibrant cultural communities their whole lives and now don’t feel the same need to prove themselves worthy of a place where there was a gaping hole in the past. The way some of us never had to unearth an identity hidden deep within us and unlearn the heavily internalized shame threatening to rebury it. Sometimes when I speak to my Stanford friends about the ache of home, I can feel their good-hearted sympathy sprinkling down on me, like rain in a California drought. Yet when I speak with my home friends about this ache, our empathy radiates between us like an embrace: a shelter we share within Washington’s cold.

I do not write this to mean that I am dissatisfied with the friends I’ve made, or even with Stanford as a whole. In California, I’ve had the space to grow into womanhood, and I’m grateful to have learned so much from the diverse upbringings of those around me. But when I sit on dissociation benches steeped in California sun, sometimes I long to be held by the people who truly know me, who can read my melancholy in a single glimpse and feel it echo in the chambers of their hearts.

California, with your color palette of sapphire and gold, with your days of perpetual light — do you know this kind of warmth? Not the glittering heat of a sun’s rays, but the love that radiates from the chests of those who bore witness to their coming of age — of the only warm things for miles around?

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