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  • Alexandra Hillenbrand

Finsta - do I really hate myself or am I the funniest person alive?

This quote was written in my notes app 3:31 a.m. on January 6, 2021. I literally just, in this moment, realized that was the day of the insurrection. Well, there's my alibi.

I have always used humor as a tool for protection, a coping mechanism, and a way to talk about hard things without having to be serious. Mainly, I've used it as a bridge to break through my seemingly reserved and shy exterior.

I think I was mute for the first 4 months of high school. I spoke periodically, but I would also go full days without uttering a singular word. I barely even had permission to talk to my older sister. She was a senior when I was a freshman, and boy did she make sure I knew the power discrepancy between us.

I was vaguely depressed, maybe, but mainly because it felt like nobody knew me at all. I am not a meek person, at least not internally. But in that environment, I was. I felt like people took one whiff of me and could smell my lack of luxury brands, awkward mannerisms, and innate boringness. I was probably projecting, but still I wasn't fitting in. I talked to my parents about transferring.

"I'm not happy," I told my mom.

"You just need to let your light shine."

As poetic as that advice was, I didn't know how to do that in real life. I was so painfully shy that trying to start a conversation always felt like pulling teeth. Then, I also was convinced it was too late to be outgoing when I already had labeled myself as so quiet. So, I came up with an alternate strategy. I made a Finsta.

Before private stories, there were Finstas - or fake Instagrams used for humor and relatability. They were all the rage in the year 2015. I named mine "Hillenbruh", a word play off of my last name and the internet trend of over-utilizing the word "bruh". In a Hail Mary, I followed all of the girls in my grade. The posting was easy. Every single funny, random thought or observation I ever had, I would upload to the account. And I had a lot of them.

Immediately, I started to make real friends. I baked cookies weekly, brought people Dunkin', posted frequently, and tried to get everyone to like me. It was the freedom of breaking the ice with my account that made me finally capable of being myself or at least, an overly exaggerated version of myself. People thought I was funny, absurd, and unhinged mostly, but they started seeing me as a viable option to include in conversations and even in plans! I was nicknamed "Hillenbruh" by some people at school. Everyone loved me, or at least, they thought I was interesting. I was people's "favorite person". I got added to group chats, invited to birthday parties, and to lunch on half-days. I was so happy.

I was also so superficially confident. I could make obnoxiously self-deprecating jokes and pretend to feel comfortable with newfound closeness. But, when a friend said "I love you" to me before we fell asleep at a sleepover, I couldn't say it back without feeling clunky and awkward. I didn't know how. I was still so content trying to earn love, that I didn't realize I could just relax with what I had. That's when it all went to shit.

Oak Knoll was a place where I had found a home. Then, all of a sudden that home was ripped out from under me without any eviction notice. Junior year, my persona lost its novelty. It no longer was shocking that the shy girl was funny. New group chats were made and I wasn't in any of them. People had caught onto me. They knew the cookies and baked goods and jokes were a desperate plea for friendship, friendship they were no longer interested in giving. They also knew I would never say no. Requests for blondies, jokes at my expense, I let it all happen.

I shut down. People I considered best friends wouldn't even include me in the same half-day lunches and mall trips I was once privy to. Birthday parties too. Nobody wanted me around. I got sad. Really sad. I wanted to transfer again, but I was more than three-quarters of the way done with high school. It was truly so awful. I had no friends for a while. Everyone called me "Hillenbruh" or some version of a loving nickname. But, at that point, I was just a sideshow whose demise everyone witnessed soundlessly. If they even noticed.

I think it's probably really hard being around a person who is depressed when all you want is to live your adolescence in peace. I remember my dad telling me he overheard an old friend of mine saying, "Alex doesn't seem like herself anymore." But how was I supposed to be that carefree, humorous person I once was? I was dejected from the constant rejection. From pasting a smile on my face, just to go home, peel it off, and spend every weekend left out by every person I thought I had convinced to care about me.

Was it my fault? No, but I certainly did not help my case. I didn't handle the rejection well at all. In fact, the way I handled it made it easier for people to further continue to exclude me. I was unrefined, emotional, and self-righteous. I thought teenage girls would be rational to being called out for exclusive behavior. Well, they were not. In turn, I was just as defensive, if not more.

As a child, I was taught that standing up for myself was right. In high school, I learned that telling someone that it hurts your feelings that you weren't invited to a party didn't mean they were going to invite you to the next one. It just meant they would get sneaky about how they excluded you the next time. And that maybe they thought you were crazy. Yipee! It was a lesson that at least helped me with self-preservation in the future.

It was also a lesson about figuring myself out. There were valid reasons why, at the time, it was easier to leave me out. I shut down all the time, I was hyper-sensitive, and I said everything that came to my mind. But, I was also incredibly loving, generous, and admitedly, somewhat hilarious.

I tried so hard to fix myself without any sort of external support. I tried to mend friendships by making myself so easy to be around. By apologizing for anything and everything. But, I knew nothing would ever be what it once was. The truth was, I felt too much way too deeply for the environment I was in. I think maybe I needed to be at the sort of school where crying in the hallways was acceptable. Maybe then, I would have decided it was never that deep.

Every lesson I learned in high school was just that - I'll say it, my most overused, overhyped phrase - an opportunity for growth. I learned that special connections don't come from posting something funny on Instagram. Because I am always going to be funny. Whether or not it takes me five minutes, an hour, or a week to warm up to you. I am also always going to be inclusive. I know what it feels like to feel like an outsider in a conversation or an environment. If I see a person who appears to feel this way, I make myself their personal jester until they can walk into a room and let their light shine without needing me.

I make it my goal to never feel like a stranger to anyone. To open up my heart, my home, even so generously, my private story. Of course, I also learned other lessons in this area. That my energy is valuable and should be mutually reciprocated. That friendship does not need to be 'earned' through baking someone's favorite cookies or making ridiculous spectacles of myself. I can do those things, of course, but I only should do them for myself. And trust me, I do.

My finsta was a way for me to protect myself from ever being real. It was a character, a persona. Of course, let me not emphasize enough that I am hilarious. But, I'm not nearly that much of a performer. I like to sprinkle in my humor with some intellectual conversation and genuine connection. Like a little comedic cherry on top of an ice cream sundae of friendship.

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