Caitlin Flanagan: You thought you were free, but history found you
What I didn’t know that day I shook hands with my cousin was that forces were in motion that would change the course of my life. I didn’t know that my parents would soon separate and that my dad would move from our home in Connecticut to Washington, D.C. I didn’t know that, a year later, I would be in Minnesota with a stepfather who was dealing with undiagnosed mental illness. I didn’t know how hard it would be to maintain my focus and drive when there was so much chaos at home. I didn’t know a lot of things.
When I first got to high school, I still clung to my dream of higher education and fought to keep up my grades. But they were slipping. I was slipping, sinking into chemical dependence. Not too long after my parents got divorced, I discovered the joys of alcohol and marijuana. In middle school, I had written my best friend a letter about how I would never do drugs. And yet, by the time I was 16, I was smoking weed daily and drinking as much as I could. All of my potential and focus went into creating the most talented party-girl persona I could.
The persona became the person. I remember sitting in my room as a teenager, playing Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” on repeat. I’d listen to that song, and I’d often wonder who I was wishing were there. It’s taken me almost 25 years to realize that I was longing for my former self—longing for the girl who had hopes and dreams and potential. Every day, that girl felt further and further away, until one day, she was gone. I nearly failed my senior year. To the great shame of my parents, I attended my high-school graduation drunk.
In May 1998, I should have been finishing my first year at an Ivy League college. Instead, I was in a state-funded halfway house in Minneapolis trying to recover from a heroin addiction. I distinctly remember sitting in the cafeteria at a table by myself, looking around at the other 40 women, wondering, How did I get here? How did any of us?
Maybe you chose never to go to school, or you did go and you’re sitting in your childhood bedroom rightfully upset that you can’t graduate with your friends. Maybe your parents are unemployed, and you’re trying to figure out how to provide for your family. Perhaps you have a loved one fighting for their life, and you’re sitting in a hospital waiting room asking yourself, How did we get here? Maybe you’re single and haven’t hugged another human in weeks. Wherever you are in the world or in your life, I can almost guarantee that you didn’t have “social distancing due to global pandemic” on your 2020 bingo card. Many of us are asking the same question: How did we get here?
Julian Zelizer: The next great generation
It was during those seven months in rehab that I first heard the joke “Want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.”