*Author’s Note: Names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.
Picture yourself in each of the following scenarios:
In scenario one, you are an early 20-something, struggling to make ends meet—going out less frequently, just barely able to pay rent. The majority of your time is spent in class or working. When you do return home though, you’re met with peace. You can relax. You don’t feel emotionally triggered.
In scenario two, you’re saving money—relieved from the financial burden of needing to pay rent. When you come home at the end of the day though, stress and anxiety close in on you. You find that you are provided for materially, but emotionally, there is unrest. The same behaviors and conflicts that shaped and scared you when you were a child continue to play out and confront you now.
These are the two options that passenger Noam found himself choosing.
Earlier in the afternoon, I’d pulled into an apartment complex in the Centerville neighborhood of Redding to pick him up. The sun shone down on the pool as I waited for him—double park lights on, engine still running.
A couple of minutes later, a tall, pale-skinned man approaches the car carrying a FedEx box. His mop of dark-brown hair spills from right to left across his forehead, stopping just above his glasses. He reminds me of a slightly shorter, more tech-oriented Adam Driver.
After opening the back door, Noam places the box on the passenger seats, then comes to sit up front. Once there, he takes his red backpack off and sets it on the ground.
Our first stop is FedEx; our second is the Shasta College campus, where Noam is a first-year student.
A straightforward question about how he likes the school (to which he provides an equally straightforward answer: “It’s good for people who want to be liberal arts and business majors,”) quickly segues into a weightier conversation about his current feelings toward life in general.
“I sort of hate the world right now,” he admits.
Before responding, I privately wonder what’s creating these feelings. Dread and uncertainty over our country’s political fate, bought on by the impending election? Recent breakup? Drama in his living situation? All of the above? None?
“It’s just been hard,” he elaborates, without my needing to seek clarification. “I’ve been struggling to pay the bills. I could have gone to school in the Central Valley to save money on rent, but that would have come with a whole other set of issues.”
Noam explains that while he lives in a one-bedroom apartment up here, his family resides down in Turlock, having moved there from the Midwest three years prior for his dad’s job.
Though he’d been given the option of attending college there—where he would have received not just free rent, but also lowered tuition (his dad works at the school), he chose to come to Redding for his education instead.
“Any time it seems like someone’s getting free rent, I think they’re probably paying it in other ways,” Noam speculates. “There’s no such thing as free living, in my opinion. Every situation comes with a price.”
I feel like I understand what he means: that money is only one form of currency, no more or less valuable (though perhaps more obvious and easy to measure) than time or energy. In some cases, coexisting with others depletes the latter to a degree that’s unsustainable.
“Like an emotional price. Or an energetic one,” I clarify.
“Exactly,” he confirms. “An emotional or energetic one.”
He goes on to tell me that all eight of his siblings are currently living at home with his parents (really emphasizing the “all at the same time” bit). On top of that, everyone in his family is “devoutly religious,” no room for grey area at all type of religious, which he states in a flat tone, with Noam being the only member who no longer identifies as such.
Whenever Noam spends time there, he explains to me that his full self doesn’t feel welcome. Home encourages the cultivation of a facade and the putting forth of small lies to get through the day and keep everyone comfortable.
Were he to live there full-time, those small lies in accumulation would take him further and further from his core.
“My issue has always just been with their whole thing about how people who sin are going to hell,” he says, letting out a sigh. “I’m like, ‘okay, I drink now, so am I a hell-bound sinner?’”
He looks out the window for 10 seconds, then back at me, then out again. He seems to be processing as he talks. Each word comes out organically before arranging itself into the sentence. It’s like he’s directly emptying his brain of his thoughts, rather than retrieving canned phrases from a shelf inside it.
“I asked my mom that once. I was really hoping to have an intelligent conversation with her. And she wouldn’t provide her own answer.”
He pauses again, then continues: “Couldn’t, I should say. She went over to the computer instead and Googled a response to my question.”
After perusing a few of the sites, she told Noam that he wouldn’t go to hell because he was her son, and would therefore remain a good person regardless of what he did.
What Noam finds especially hard is that none of his siblings challenge the structure.
“They all just go with it,” he says. This makes him feel alone and like he has no allies.
“I wish I’d been raised in more of like a ‘We don’t know what’s out there, but go find out; question, be curious’ type of environment instead of the one I was raised in.”
His story brings to mind people I knew from the LGBTQ community who have talked about feeling the need to hide their orientations from disapproving families.
I wonder if Noam, who seems to have learned to associate home with a certain level of guardedness as opposed to complete emotional safety, feels similarly. I can imagine the toll this would take, both mentally and emotionally.
Noam says it has.
“If every day you’re going around not feeling good about your life, I guess that means you need help,” he acknowledges. “I don’t know why I’m not getting it. I never thought of myself as a masochist.”
“I think staying at a baseline level of discontent can be comforting and familiar,” I offer. “Like it can feel more stable than the ups and downs of constant attempts followed by repeated disappointments, I mean.”
“That’s what a big part of it is, I think,” he says, nodding.
Then, after a slight pause, he said: “I guess what I don’t want is a therapist who’s just gonna hand me a piece of paper and be like, ‘here, go medicate,’ and then send me on my way.”
“A lot of times, it will be like ‘you’re the patient, I’m the therapist, so I’m gonna use all my techniques to treat you and fix you,’ and it creates this dynamic where I feel like I’m being talked down to. And I want to just be understood.”
He pauses again, then continues:
“Like if I could just find one who’d say something like, ‘It sucks what you’re going through, and other people have been in this situation or are in it right now; yours isn’t that weird, it’s fairly common. Here’s how others have handled it,’ it’d honestly be great. You know? Like that’s all I want.”
He shakes his head. “Maybe I just need to look harder. Give it more of a chance. I don’t know.”
His last words before leaving the car were: “I think a lot of people out there are just going around trying to make ends meet, doing what they have to do, with a mask on (it’s funny that he said this a few years before COVID-19). But you don’t actually know what’s really going on with anyone. What their situation is.”
“I mean, I don’t know yours. I don’t know what led you to drive random people like me around for a living. Or what battles you face when you’re not behind the wheel.”
He lifts his backpack from the ground into his lap.
“Anyway, thank you for the ride. Enjoy that river” (earlier in the ride, I’d told him I was headed to the river at the end of my shift).
Our ride shows me that as common as it is for people to cover up their pain with facades, so many of us ache to be heard. Perhaps within the privacy of the car, in the presence of an anonymous Lyft driver whom you’ll likely never see again, it feels safer to set the facade aside—if only for a few minutes.
I’m also reminded that people surprise us often and that the capacity for our initial impressions to be overturned might be infinite.