Her scars are healing.
They criss-cross her arms, her thighs. They’re mostly the work of the razors she stole from her dad, with a few here and there from a Bic lighter. She doesn’t hide them anymore. It’s winter now, but in the summer she wears short sleeves, T-shirts, tank tops.
She hasn’t made a fresh cut in over four months. She’s happy.
Sophomore Maddie DeTommaso used to hide. She wore cardigans and sweaters to cover her forearms, constantly tugging down the sleeves so that scabs wouldn’t peek out.
It went beyond embarrassment. Maddie hid her scars because she was afraid — of her parents’ disappointment, of her classmates’ taunting, of herself.
She’s not afraid anymore. She’s strong. She’s happy. But three years of fear almost stole Maddie’s life away from her.
The fear started in sixth grade. Maddie was the kind of kid who cried when people squished bugs. She cradled life delicately. And when she was bullied, each taunt and shove cut more deeply.
Maddie remembers being called names. Being told she was fat. She remembers sitting alone under a tree at recess, crying and then hiding those tears. She remembers running home each day to fall asleep in bed, exhausted by the colossal weight of living each day.
“I was just tired, every second,” Maddie said. “There was this feeling of hopelessness, from a very young age. Honestly, when you feel that there’s no hope and you’re in sixth grade, you don’t think there’s any point.”
At first, she tried to change. As a sixth grader, Maddie started her first diet. And her second. And her third. She tried cutting carbs, then protein. Then she stopped eating at all.
It didn’t help.
She couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was watching her, always. At home, it was her parents, constantly nervous she would dissolve into tears again. At school, it was everyone else. Teachers, students, even her friends. She thought she could feel them watching her, whispering, pointing out her flaws.
“I just wanted to hide,” Maddie said. “I wanted to be small, small enough that I could get away from everyone looking at me. I wanted to disappear.”
Her parents had no idea. Her mom, Doreen, knew that Maddie was a quiet girl, gentle and even fragile at times. But at the time, she had no idea that her daughter was depressed.
“I look back, and I see so many signs,” Doreen said. “She spent a lot of time alone, in her room, and she was so detached. She wanted to please us, so she hid as well as she could. But I wish I had just known what to look for, because it is obvious to me now.”
Life got harder. The next year, seventh grade, was a year of firsts.
There was her first boyfriend. Maddie thought she loved him. When he dumped her after a week, she felt lost, lonely. She would date 14 more boys that year — each one short lived, each one a blow to her confidence.
She thought they would fix her. She was wrong.
There was the first time she cut. Most of her friends were online, met on Facebook and Tumblr and chat rooms. Most of them were depressed.
They showed her pictures of their wrists bloody from fresh cuts. They told her it helped. She believed them — it hurt, but it helped — so she kept doing it. On her wrists, on her thighs. It was a distraction.
“I remember the first time I cut, I was just thinking about how much it would hurt, but how I had to do it,” Maddie said. “Then it got to the point where I couldn’t wait to come home and do it, where I was thinking about it all the time. I felt like it saved me.”
There was the first time she tried to kill herself.
It was in the Village, after school. The few friends she had were making fun of her. Again. The exhaustion was swallowing her, the anger was swallowing her, so she climbed on top of a bridge and tried to figure out how to fall precisely on her head.
Her friends pulled her down. She couldn’t decide if she was relieved or angry. She tried two more times.
The second time, she swallowed enough ibuprofen to kill herself, then leaned back on her couch and waited. Her parents came home and found her too early. At the hospital, they made sure her bloodstream was free of any lethal painkillers, but they didn’t notice she was still filled with self-hate, with anger, with depression.
So she tried again.
The last time was the summer before eighth grade year. Boyfriend number 15 had just dumped her. Her classmates at school made fun of her cuts in the halls. In one of her last classes of the year, a boy pretended to hang himself, laughing as he said, “Look at me, I’m Maddie DeTommaso.”
“It’s unbelievable, the cruelty that she was experiencing during those days,” Doreen said. “There’s only so much you can do as a parent to protect your child from that. We did what we could, but I always felt like it wasn’t enough.”
She was afraid to talk to her parents about the things in her head, and she was definitely afraid to tell her friends, who seemed to be dwindling each day. She felt alone.
“I remember taking the pills and then thinking, ‘Oh God, I just did that,’” Maddie said. “I think I knew it was the last time at that point. I knew something had to change. I’d either die or I’d get out of this hole and make a change.”
She lived. And everything began to change.
In eighth grade, Maddie stopped talking to people who hurt her, who lied or gossipped or made fun of her weight. She found a group of people who liked art and music, who didn’t want to talk about depression. And as her classmates grew older, the bullying began to slow down.
She stopped relying on long-distance friendships. She spent less time online chatting with her Facebook friends, who encouraged cutting and suicide. Instead, she dove into art, into songwriting. And she began to feel her mood lighten.
“Before things got really bad, we had no idea what she was fighting against,” Doreen said. “Once we knew, we fought it together. It was little things, just drawing her out of her room, finding ways to separate her from negative people and the bullies. It took a lot of trial and error, a lot of just talking things out as a family.”
It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t quick. It took three years of choosing to be happy, choosing to pick up her guitar instead of her razor. It took coming to East, where students don’t poke her scars anymore. It took time.
But now that time has passed, and Maddie looks toward the future, a future without depression.
“What’s happiness?” Maddie laughs. “Happiness is feeling free.”
She remembers the first day she was acutely happy. It was in the summer, at an art show, with a small group of friends. They found an old swingset and clambered on. Maddie and her friend competed to see who could swing higher, pumping their legs to gain more momentum.
The wind blew her hair back, away from her face. She closed her eyes, gripping the chains of the swing tighter, and realized she was happy.
“I thought, ‘This is what this feels like,’” Maddie said. “It’s being with a group of people who love me, being happy who I am, not feeling like I’m being watched or have to hide. I want to feel like that for the rest of my life.”