Liz Labacz’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
“Sr. Mary Joan would like to see you in her office.”
I was not a person who got called to the Disciplinarian office. Not to say I had never gotten up to any mischief, but I almost never got caught and had not, to my memory, actually done anything noteworthy recently.
When I arrived, she asked me to sit. Sister and I knew each other pretty well by that point, most of the way through Sophomore year, from her excellent honors English class. She was an imposing force at my school and plenty of my classmates never saw beyond her tough role as Disciplinarian (and later, Principal), but we liked each other. I like to believe, accurately or not, that I may have even been among her favorites. She remains among mine.
I fidgeted in my chair. She paced for a moment and, with an exasperated sigh, finally spit it out.
“Are you in the Trench Coat Mafia?”
The static electricity that had been building up as my nerves rubbed against each other released in a belly laugh. “I wear a peacoat!”
“Humor me. I need you to just say yes or no.”
That morning, I’d met my friends in the cafeteria for breakfast, where three of us happened to be toting witch hats for a Theatre Arts project later in the day. All of us were lit nerds, so it seemed obvious to take hands and skip in circles, cackling “Double Double Toil and Trouble” and squealing with laughter. But apparently we scared a freshman studying quietly in the corner, who had reported the activity as evidence that the Trench Coat Mafia was alive in our little school. Sister Mary Joan judged the claim as preposterous but, being responsible, had asked the accused just to make sure. They really did try to keep us safe, as best they knew how. No, we weren’t part of the Trench Coat Mafia. No, we didn’t want to hurt anyone. But teenagers have their secrets. We were witches.
Or Wiccans. Or pagans, or something. At least we thought we were. Dancing around in our costumes was innocent, tittering rebellion against our proper Catholic school, but there was real belief behind it, for a while at least. How much would they actually have cared? Maybe not much, but it felt a little bit dangerous at the time. A safe kind of dangerous, which is a good kind for teenagers.
Can I say for sure that we weren’t at least a little bit influenced by quintessential sleepover movie The Craft? No I cannot. Would my fifteen year old self have denied that to the grave? Yes she would.
On some Fridays, we would roll our navy blue skirts shorter and take the trolley from our nearly suburban school to the Bridge and Pratt station, catching the El into Center City and meandering onto South Street. God, we felt cool. We would buy trinkets and organic coffees, poke around in quirky galleries, I’m sure to the annoyance of the curators. Just past 10th Street, I would press my face against the chain link fence guarding what was becoming Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Gardens, a house and lot covered in trash, broken bits of glass and mirror and rusting bicycle wheels assembled into the most beautiful thing I could think of. Sometimes we would roll up notes and leave them in empty Snapple bottles, hoping maybe he would use the glass in some mosaic. Once, I left him my retainer. I thought he might do something cool with it. Probably, he just thought it was gross.
Finally, we made our way to Harry’s Occult Shop. Every memory in there is instagrammed in warm yellow light, with Santeria candles flickering on shelves, the smell of sage and rose hips prominent in a sea of herbs. Some of the books in my house still smell like Harry’s, more than a decade later. The staff was always kind and a little bit mysterious, happy to give advice on the varying properties of stones and plants, how to perform a ritual, the best book to read. For me, I always wanted to know about healing. How can I make people better who are broken?
Everyone I loved in high school was totally fucked up. Wonderful, amazing, awesome people. But we were totally fucked up. Lunch conversation was more likely about the newest antidepressant than about trigonometry. Hospitalizations for disordered eating or self-harm weren’t unusual. It’s sadly not as unique a situation as I thought at the time. In many ways, I had a wonderful high school experience. I have incredible memories of fun, I went to a school where being nerdy wasn’t social leprosy. I learned what it was to love people, really love them and care more about someone else’s well-being than my own. But I was also constantly, constantly scared. Not to say that fear isn’t ever a part of my adult life; I lace my keys through my fist when walking down a dark street, worry when my parents have surgery, but not like that. In high school, I was scared every day. I was scared of the thing that made my brain my own worst enemy, and I was scared every time a friend’s desk was empty. I threw up almost every morning of my Junior year, a reaction I now associate with periods of high anxiety and little sleep, which was just sort of how I rolled back then. (I can boot and rally like a champ, though, which is a skill I probably picked up out of necessity.) I had recurring nightmares about cleaning out someone else’s locker because she was never coming back. And I remember feeling utterly, achingly helpless to stop any of it.
Spells are kind of like prayers, but with a little more action on the part of the petitioner. I grew up saying Hail Marys, but the ritual of a spell felt more effective somehow. I was still asking, yes, but I had something to give (words, stones, herbs) in return. I would stitch up scraps of fabric into a pouch, stuffing it with rosemary and hematite, and stash them in the bookbags and purses of my friends. I burned candles and incense and tried to read tarot, hoping that the cards would tell me everything was going to be ok.
Everything is, more or less, ok now. Nobody died. I’ve been well longer than I was sick. Many of us have houses and jobs, masters degrees and babies of our own. Even people I’ve lost touch with seem to be doing pretty ok, via the grapevine. So, hey, 17 year old me, you can relax a little, maybe stop trying to trick some Egyptian goddess into making your best friend less depressed.
Looking back at the things I believed is an odd sensation, and I tend to lump them together: Santa Claus, Catholicism, Wicca, which is probably insensitive to those who do still believe. Who am I to say what is and isn’t real, so shine on you crazy diamonds. I can only speak to my own ability to believe, which is gone, but it was there when I needed it. My beliefs were a batshit patchwork quilt of stuff I read on the the late 90’s internet, books that smelled like patchouli, relics of my Catholic upbringing, and bits my brain made up to glue it all together in a way that made a sort of sense. No one told me I was wrong, because there is no Wiccan pope, after all. I didn’t exactly believe in separate gods and goddesses, every pantheon of every mythology story I’d ever read, but I thought more that there was a power, a big one, with infinite faces or aspects. Every face with a different personality, some of whom had, perhaps, made contact with different people and civilizations. And the faces had rules, ones that I could learn.
The Maiden/Mother/Crone idea is recurring in Wicca, one that I simply folded into my personal dogma. I was drawn to the maternal aspects the most, ones I viewed as protectors. Isis, the aforementioned Egyptian goddess, was my favorite and most often implored. Great wide wings spread, ready to enfold, I felt certain that not only could she protect me and my friends, but that she wanted to. As the stories go, Isis pieced Osiris back together after he was torn limb from limb, surely she could help some depressed teenagers. Empirical evidence to the contrary, sometimes depression seems more like a curse than a disease, some otherworldly spectre that could be exorcised, not by Wellbutrin but by chants and talismans.
I poured myself into it. I am tempted to say literally here, when really I mean figuratively, of course, but at the time, it seemed literal. I envisioned energy, actual glowing chakra type stuff, moving from me into things or people, another form of payment for the freedom I wanted. I believed in it completely enough that I could see it. I believed in my own power, which in retrospect, I am proud of, regardless of the wackadoo source of that perceived power. I couldn’t accept a world of unbreakable curses. So I believed.
I’m agnostic now. You could argue that I replaced my belief in a higher power or witchcraft with an almost religious belief in the alchemy that is modern psychopharmacology. I put more faith in it than is probably warranted for a science that is so new, as sciences go. Apparently I have trouble accepting that mental health may not be entirely in our control. Yet.
Sometimes I miss the feeling of security that goes with faith. I lost the belief that someone or something is listening to all of the prayers and rituals that happen everyday. No matter. Either way, I think everything, more or less, is going to be ok.
Liz Labacz is a fundraiser and improvisor in Pittsburgh, PA. She writes and performs with Frankly Scarlett Comedy and Arcade Comedy Theater.