What Callie Learned from 90210
BY CALLIE JAYNE
I grew up in a white neighborhood. And I mean white, only .6% Black.
Growing up around all white people messes my mind up. I have a sense of self-hate that’s hard to overcome. There’s massive pressure to be what the white world expects of me, fit in with people who don’t look like me, fit their standards of perfection — quiet, proper, well-dressed.
While receiving so many negative messages about people who do look like me, I grew up thinking that I was better than other black people because I spoke, behaved, and the way my hair looked.
I buck back against the system — I don’t fit in. I am the skater kid, the Wiccan Kid, the one getting kicked out of Mr. Lesh’s classroom copying dictionary pages as punishment outside.
Watching 90210, I learn about cutting. The girl who cuts on the show gets the help she needs once Donna finds out she’s harming herself. In Beverly Hills, rich white folks get therapy, but we don’t talk about mental health in my world. It’s not that easy for me.
At 18, I’m away at college. Loneliness, high expectations of success, and unchecked mental health issues lead me to a suicide attempt and a stay in one of Boston’s fine hospitals.
After getting back home, I meet this dark, tall, handsome Jamaican man. Bryan. We soon start dating. One night his friend Jan stops by and asks, “You wanna party?” and takes out some drugs.
It’s not anything I’ve seen before. “What is that?” I ask her.
As she starts to prepare it, she tells me, “It’s like coke.”
Alright, I’ve done coke. That’s no big deal. Let’s party. Jan teaches us how to make a pipe out of a Smirnoff bottle, a pen, and takes the diamonds out of her ears to poke holes in the foil. She sets us up. “Here, try this.”
It’s not until after I’ve already started smoking this stuff that I find out what it is. Crack. Immediately, I love it. For the first time in a long time, I feel like everything could be okay. Like I have the ability and the skills to be anything I want to be. We talk about our dreams and the future, and what life could be like for all of us. But after the high wears off, meeting those expectations is a lot harder than dreaming them. So we want more, and more, and more.
All our money and free time go to crack. Our lives go to crack. I lose my apartment and move in with Bryan. Every time we try to stop, our wealthy friend Jan comes by with drugs and her diamond earrings, and we start all over again.
She has access to all the fancy rehabs. Rich white folks in Boston are like the ones in Beverly Hills. They get to rehab. They get help. It isn’t that easy for us.
I am doing lines at work to get through the day. It gets really bad when I don’t show up for finals. All my teachers try to get me there. But I can’t bring myself there. When Jan isn’t around, Bryan and I are scrounging and selling things to get our next high. Late at night, checking the floors for rocks — most of the time, we end up smoking kitty litter. It is time to get clean.
I try staying with friends — so many of them take me in, in the middle of the night, and put me up. I take advantage of every situation, even the kind guy who offers me the world to be with him instead of my drug-addicted boyfriend. I always chose the drugs.
Rehab is a failure for me, and I start thinking that maybe it is time to go home, to a place where I can get sober, where I can reconnect with people I know. Leaving college isn’t an option, though. We go to college. That’s what we do.
One day, I’m crossing the street. A disheveled woman with dirt on her face, wearing a ratty coat and layers of clothes, walks toward me. She grabs me in the crosswalk and says, “Don’t be like Whitney. Whitney never gave up the drugs.” She means Whitney Houston. Even though she knows I am addicted to crack, I could be more if I give up the drugs — time to go home.
I don’t think my mom was ever accepting of me leaving Northeastern. She still brings up the student loans that she paid for my one year in college. A symbol I had failed the expectations she put in front of me.
The path to getting clean is a long one. Drugs are everywhere I look. Back home, friends are smoking crack. I spend my time hanging at the local park, drinking, and doing drugs. Again and again, I try to get sober.
I’m standing at the bus stop. The bus is over 45 minutes late. It’s snowing, and I’m late for work. A man pulls up and offers me a ride. I joke about not getting murdered. He laughs, and I get in. The next thing he says to me is unbelievable. “So that you know, I sell crack.” He tells me to take his number if I need a ride or anything else and drops me off at my job. He must’ve been out recruiting potential addicts because he didn’t like taking money from “pretty girls.” There were other ways we could get our drugs.
It gets terrible again, dreadful. I move out to live with a man who gives me unlimited drugs in exchange for me, I guess. I don’t live there long, eventually finding a new place with new friends, who also do drugs. WHY DOES EVERYONE SMOKE CRACK? Crack is whack ya’ll. What the hell?
It’s Andrew who eventually helps me get clean. He’s such a douche, and outside of the fact that he gave me my oldest daughter, I want to give him credit for nothing. But, it was time, and he was there. He doesn’t throw me away every time I make a mistake, disappearing for days at a time to get high. He takes me to NA meetings and eventually knocks me up, which becomes my most significant reason for staying clean.
When I get pregnant with Liliana, I am five months sober. I am given two options — “get married” or “get an abortion.” So I choose the path of creating the life that’s expected of me. The life that is leading towards a white picket fence. The life that gets me the nice husband and the ring. I know I want to leave him before I marry him. It takes a year. Leaving him is reminiscent of leaving college; this isn’t what we do. But I did.
I never thought about my life as a black person in a white space until I understood racism. Those struggles, piece by piece, bit by bit, brought me to a different perception of my expectations and a newfound refusal to submit to the set forth ideas. When I gave up trying to live up to the expectations that white people have put on me and what a familial structure is.
I think I’m pushing myself to have this neatly closed ending. Like, this is the moment when I stopped allowing societal pressures to impact my behavior or, this was the moment when I stopped using unhealthy coping mechanisms to handle my emotions. But I don’t think that moment has fully happened yet, you know? But I do know that we do have to talk about this. We’ve got to talk about this. I’m talking about this. Right now.
Callie’s story was originally written and performed as part of TMI Project’s Black Stories Matter program and was recently released as an episode of The TMI Project Podcast. Season 2: Black Stories Matter launched on October 28th, 2020, and new episodes air every Wednesday.
Black Stories Matter provides Black-led true storytelling workshops where Black folks can write about, share, and reflect upon their experiences without having to justify, explain, or defend the truth of their lived experiences. The culminating content — written stories, live storytelling performances, videos, and podcasts — is accessible to an all-inclusive audience.