Perhaps the scariest phenomenon I’ve ever been unfortunate enough to experience (and mind you, this is scarier than the mouse incident, so ya’ll know shit’s about to get real) is something I like to call, “The Leech-and-Keep.”
It’s essentially when a friend takes every facet of your personality – from your preferences, to your interests, and right on down to your general dress and demeanor – and passes it off as their own.
Which, in layman’s terms, is simply, “Bitches be crazy.”
It’s happened to me with almost every friend I’ve ever had, and the creepiest thing about it is that you don’t really see it coming. The threats always start small, and almost normal – suddenly they have a poster of your all-time favorite band, or they recruit your help in nabbing a boy who loves Brand New and whose favorite poem is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” because they don’t know squat about either of those things except for the fact that YOU do (tip: never EVER be a Cyrano. Fuck that shit), or they “accidentally” repeat a joke you made – or, worse, retell an experience that’s specifically yours – and reap the ensuing laughs and glory. Then before you know it you’re staring at an exact replica of your Facebook profile complete with your list of favorite books, bands, movies, and quotes (true story, by the way), convinced that this person has flown way the hell over the motherfucking cuckoo’s nest and wondering if, “I’m getting Single White Femaled!” is something the local police would understand.
What appalls me every time (other than how close I’ve possibly come to death), is that out of all the people in the world on whom to perform the leech-and-keep, they’ve somehow landed on me as a good option. Me. Someone whose list of maladjustments could run longer than George Clooney’s list of lovers. The girl who, up until three months ago, had no idea why anyone would ever file their nails. Someone who’s never been on the Cool List. Or on the Cool List Waiting List. Or even on the waiting list of the waiting list. If it wasn’t absolutely terrifying, I’d piss myself from laughter because, man, did they land on the wrong girl.
And then I’d get mad because even if the reasons behind the leech-and-keep are completely human and universal (low self-esteem, lack of confidence, the need to be loved and noticed), quite frankly buddy, I’ve paid my dues. I’ve earned it, being this way – being who and what and how I am. It’s something I’ve had to fight for.
I first fully realized it when I was 11 years old, during a spelling bee in my language arts class. There I was, pushing up my glasses (the really embarrassing ones with Bugs Bunny on the frame that I thought were really hip until some douche-lord eighth grader pointed them out and laughed, introducing the apocalypse to my entire belief system), my chin and forehead plagued for the very first time with the first pustular pimples of adolescence, tugging on a t-shirt large enough to be a dress because I didn’t want anyone to notice what was growing at an absurdly out-of-control pace under there, sweating obscenely and trying desperately to remember the hundreds of words I’d written a hundred times each the night before in preparation for what, at the time, was THE SINGLE-MOST IMPORTANT EVENT OF MY ENTIRE LIFE. It was between me and another kid with an A-streak, and I was just about to spell out “pharaoh” when one of my classmates blurted out:
“Just let Jayne win. She looks like she might cry if she doesn’t.”
And just like that, with me as the epicenter of everyone’s maniacal guffaws (I remember all of you, by the way, and mark my words, someday, somewhere, when you least expect it…I will find you), it hit me.
I was a freak.
I know that when people say that, they’re usually being hyperbolic as hell, and I also know that I have quite the reputation for being hyperbolic as hell myself, but I swear I’m being at least 90% realistic here. I mean, I was a proud member of the 4.0 Club. I also started the club. I was the only student allowed to spend her lunch period in the library because the librarian felt that sorry for me. I was the kid who was guaranteed to get hit in the face with whatever object we happened to be playing with in gym (and the aim was so perfect sometimes that I could swear I was a target). I broke out in hives during tests and quizzes, I won themed short story contests, and you bet your fuckin ass I won that spelling bee (and would’ve cried if I didn’t – son of a bitch was right). So let’s just be honest here – that description alone is the definition of it.
What’s even worse is that, until that spelling bee, I was the kind of freak who was so far gone into freakdom, that she had NO IDEA she was a freak. Which was odd because everyone else seemed to have been clued in ages ago.
Three things happened once I figured it out for myself:
First, came denial and self-hate. WHAT DO YOU MEAN I HAVE TO START IDIOTICALLY STUFFING MY SNEAKERS WITH ANOTHER PAIR OF SOCKS SO IT LOOKS LIKE I HAVE REVERSE-BUNIONS?! WHAT’S COOL ABOUT THAT? WHY! WHY CAN’T I STUFF THEM CORRECTLY, WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME!
Second, came giving the people what they wanted. YOU WANT A FREAK? I’LL SHOW YOU A FREAK! I’LL SPRAY-PAINT GOLD STARS ON MY BLACK LEGGINGS AND WEAR KNEE-HIGH COMBAT BOOTS AND WEAR MY HAIR LONG AND PINK. THEN! I’LL SET YOUR LOCKER ON FIRE. SUCK IT.
Third (and this part is my favorite, this part is THE BEST part of the whole process), came NOT GIVING A FUCK. Yes, I’ll wear my combat boots if I want to. I’ll listen to metal if I want to. I’ll audition for school plays and start literary magazines and say whatever the hell I want and do whatever the hell I want and hang with whoever the hell I want. To quote the great (and at times terrifying) Henry Rollins:
“I am here and I am this way. I have ended up.” And there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.
The thing is, I understand all too well the motivation behind the leech-and-keep. And I see it at its ugliest when it has to do with a relationship. I’ve known so many girls over the years who have drastically changed themselves to better suit whoever they happen to be dating, to the point where their interests are conveniently synchronized, their beliefs ever-matching, and their opinions repeated with the same intonations on the same words until it would be impossible to discern where one person ended and the other began – though it was always painfully obvious who came first. Not only is it sad, but it’s exhausting keeping up the appearances of a forced connection when the more productive thing to do would be to ask why there’s a need to prove there is one to begin with.
Whatever the case, whether it be in friendships or in romance, the leech-and-keep is really just the need to be liked, wanted, and admired; the desire to impress, please, and fulfill all expectations. We all want others to think we’re interesting. We all want to blend in at the exact same time that we want to stand out. The irony is that in our attempts to stand out, we look to others who already have, and simply mirror their paths, condemning ourselves to be second-hand carbon copies of the originals who’ve already learned one very important thing:
We’re all infinitely more interesting when we’re genuinely and confidently ourselves.
Inevitably, in our friendships and romantic relationships, we’ll find ourselves evolving and expanding our horizons, taking an interest in things we never would have before. (T, for example, has turned me on to Electronica and some extremely un-Jayneish Italian and French pop.) We might even notice that the words and phrases often uttered by our friends have suddenly snuck into our own speech patterns like lovably creepy little squatters. (I’m often told that anyone who hangs out with me enough displays an increase in Cussing Propensity [yeah, I’m making that a thing]. This is now a point of pride with me.)
Those things, when they happen organically, are GREAT. They speak to a genuine connection – one that you don’t have to manufacture, or even really think about. They speak to something real and true – and ultimately, those are things that you want to hold onto.
Just, through it all, maintain the things that make you distinctly YOU.
There’s something freeing and refreshing about having your own voice – about having opinions, interests, beliefs, hobbies, passions, truths, reasons, perspective, stand-points, and a whole inner life that’s just YOURS. And it isn’t to say that they have to be things that no one else has ever said or done or believed; they just have to be things that only YOU – as the person you are, in the place and time you’re in, with the identity you have – can say and do and believe. I’ve learned (and it’s taken me a long time) that confidence and self-assurance go beyond just recognizing yourself; it’s also having a self that you can be proud of, and then simply just being proud of it – standing up for it, defending it, at all costs. There is nothing more powerful and admirable than that declaration to the world that the person you are is YOURS alone, and you dare anyone to try to take that away.