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Senior Portraits - Terah Van Dusen

In my senior portraits I am wearing brown and green cigarette pants and a pea-colored spaghetti strap shirt. Most likely I looked like all the other girls in Sierra Vista, Arizona who went to that studio for their senior portraits. But when I look into the eyes of the seventeen-year-old girl in my senior photo, I can see that something is off. I see something that even I don’t fully recognize in that person. But I do recognize it, because I remember her pain (my pain), her distance (my distance), so well.

The photographer, he was just doing his job. But whether he knew it or not, he was photographing a child who had so many drugs in her system that her teeth were chattering, even though it was seventy-five degrees out. My body had hummed with a mix of ecstasy and despair. It wouldn’t be long before I needed a fix.

That morning, a Saturday, none of my friends from school accompanied me on the drive to Sierra Vista. Maybe I’d pushed them away already, not wanting to raise suspicions about my drug use. My former best friend wasn’t speaking to me. Neither was the old boyfriend. My grandmother, my legal guardian, hadn’t wanted to come with me that day, either. I can’t remember why the circumstances were what they were, I just remember the clamminess of my hands as I gripped the steering wheel. I just remember the lightness of my legs—temporarily elated from the methamphetamine—and it felt like I didn’t have any legs at all. And it felt like it was just my feet alone in my Candies platforms, pushing the gas pedal and pumping the break as the road dipped and rounded the red dirt buttes. I looked down at my legs to make sure they were still there. The cigarette between my lips tasted like nothing that morning. A pleasure I used to enjoy was lost in the mess. I wasn’t just spiraling, I had spiraled. I was seventeen.

When I walked through the front door of the photographer’s hole-in-the-wall studio, I thought two things: The first thing I thought would come to the mind of any teenage girl: There’s literally no one else in the studio. Is this man capable of threatening or harming me?

The second thing that came to mind was how unprepared I was for the intimacy of the situation: I would literally be under his lens. I fidgeted as I put my purse on the floor, and although he showed me where to hang it up, I knew I wasn’t that kind of client. He would soon know, too. My things went on the floor. That’s just the way it had always been with me.

Fortunately, the photographer turned out to be completely professional. Even as we drove in his car together to shoot at an outdoor location, I wasn’t concerned. Just experiencing a fading tweeker high. Heaviness in my head, punctuated by a heaviness in my legs. The true weight was the heaviness in my heart, though.

Like the counselor I’d met with recently—the free one through Cochise County—the portrait photographer looked right through me. At least with this guy it wasn’t his job to try to “understand” me, like it was the counselors, and so continued my predicament of being a child addict.

I stopped to consider this, as I flipped through the senior portraits. I hated all of them…the bleakness in my expression, my pupils the size of eraser tips, the push-up bra and tight shirt. I felt on full display. The makeup and stylish clothes couldn’t hide the lackluster of my skin or the hatred in my heart. It couldn’t disguise whatever this new thing was. This new me.

Maybe people just don’t want to see the truth, the way things really are, I thought.

Like when I was a kid, and I assumed that people—everyone—knew what was going on behind the scenes in our family home. But they didn’t. Because they didn’t want to see it. I volleyed between wanting and not wanting this Very Bad Thing to be discovered. Now I was carrying around two secrets: the fact that I’d been preyed upon by a member of my own family, and the fact that I was a teenager addicted to methamphetamine.

I handed out my senior portraits when people asked for them. But I never gave them out of my own accord. I worried that someone else might see what a profoundly sad and scared girl I was. Faux smile, clenched teeth. Seventeen going on…imploding. Hip bones peeking out. My grandmother hated the photos, so at least we could agree on that.

I wanted help, for my addiction and for all the past misery I knew I needed to sort through. But it felt like a dream where when I screamed absolutely no sound came out. One good thing came out of the mess…I picked up a notepad and a pen and I started writing. Twenty years later and I still pen memoir. Although I haven’t met a counselor I can trust enough to open up to, I have been open to journaling, reiki, acupuncture, walks in nature, yoga and meditation. I am divorced from addiction to the extent that I don’t even smoke cigarettes anymore, though I’m far from perfect. I’ve learned that pictures don’t always reveal the truth, but when it came to my senior portraits, they sure did.


Terah Van Dusen is an indie author with four published books. Her personal essays have been featured in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, The Manifest Station and Underwood Press. She is a reporter for the Fern Ridge Tribune News in Veneta, Oregon. A three-year-old girl named Autumn calls her "mama."


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