Not always as it seems

January 22, 2009
By Sammy J Vander Zanden, Menasha, WI

We were walking back into Skylark High about six years after our first visit here. Six years of
speaking to students about our story we began to feel more students really connected and listened to
us. I could tell Lianna Mae always got scared and hurt when she remembered those years in high
school and what had happened to the both of us. Before we stand in front of a whole school and share
our deepest, darkest past times we pray that someone will listen and hear what we are trying to say.
That if there is someone out there going through some of the things we talk about or someone that
knows someone else that is going through it that they will get help or help that person get help and
be there for them."Do you remember the time we first spoke to the students of Skylark High? It
was our first time telling the story after graduation. I remember that young 16 year old girl that
said her and her boyfriend were really depressed with their lives and that they promised to help
each other through it but it was getting to hard to deal with. Then she said that they listened to
our story and that it helped them and that they are going to see a counselor as soon as they can,
I said. "Yea, that was the day I realized that I am helping others and that made me feel so much
better about what I was talking about in front of them," she replied. "Are you ready?"I said.
"I think so"¦. Are you?" her voice shook a little as she spoke in reply. "Ready when you
are." I grabbed her hand and we quietly prayed. Then we started to hear students come into the
auditorium. We looked into each others eyes, it was Lianna Mae starring back at me and my heart
skipped a beat in happiness. I love that everyday I see her in her own eyes more and more. We step
out onto the stage and begin making small talk with students. Everyone finally gets settled down and
we begin". Your close friends become strangers, lollipops turn into cigarettes, the innocent ones
turn into sluts, homework goes into the trash, soda becomes vodka, and kisses turn into sex.
Remember when getting high meant swinging on the swings? When protection meant wearing a helmet?
When the worst thing you could get from guys or girls were cooties? Dad's shoulders where the
highest place on the earth and mom was your hero? Your worst enemies were your siblings, race issues
were about who ran the fastest, the only drug you knew was cough medicine, wearing a skirt didn't
make you a slut, the only thing that hurt you was skinned knees, and goodbyes only meant until
tomorrow? And most of us just couldn't wait to grow up". Lianna Mae was that girl who never
seemed to grow up in the world we all did. Blonde hair, blue eyes, 17 years old, 120 pounds, average
height"¦the perfect Barbie that everyone wanted to date or be. She was that girl you thought would
never do anything wrong. She was the teachers pet, the smart kid, the pretty girl. She was every
guys dream girl and every girls best friend. She was always happy and could make anyone in a 10 mile
radius from her happy too. She did everything with anyone who was willing to do something with her.
She would talk anyone into going to the mall, going hiking, to see a movie, or just hanging out. She
would light up a room and she would never let anyone feel left out. She was the actor, the singer,
the dancer, and the one girl you knew you could come to for anything and know she wouldn't judge
you nor make fun of you. I met Lianna my sophomore year. We had all the same classes and loved all
the same things. The day we met was like it was meant to be. We had everything in common and we got
along perfectly. It was the first day, first block. She sat down right next to me and introduced
herself with the most confidence I've seen in a high school. "I'm Lianna Mae Cullen. Who are
you?" she asked. "I'm Abbygail William Vertz," I replied nervously. "Well, Abby, can I
call you Abby?" she paused just long enough for me to nod in reply, "Well, Abby, I know there is
a reason I am sitting right next to you today. So, let's just make the best of it. So"¦ tell me
about you?" she excitedly said. Since that day we learned that we loved High School Musical,
Twilight, Harry Potter, we love to read, and write. And we both were in love with Zac Efron.
Starting that first day in class we knew we were best friends and that nothing would separate us.
She was my idol and because of her I became popular. People always knew my name and someone was
always talking to me or saying hi as they passed by. She was my best friend and I was hers. We would
do everything together and everyone knew it. We talked about everything to each other. We knew each
others deepest, darkest secrets. We even dated best friends. She started dating Miles Wade Beyer and
soon his best friend Edward Jacob Black asked me out. We would double date together and we would
always have a great time. People always said that we could be conjoined twins because we never left
each others side. I always thought it would be like this forever. She would be my maid of honor and
I would be hers. We would go to college together, start a family together, and always live next to
each other, but by junior year she wasn't the same. "Is Lianna Mae home?" I asked into the
phone. "Um"I don't think so"," came a reply, her mother was obviously lying. "Ok"¦
well, when she does get home. Tell her I called and that I really need to talk to her" Um, is she
ok?"I asked. "She is fine. I will tell her," she said, I could hear someone in the backround
yelling in a whisper. I could tell it was Lianna Mae telling her mother to say that she wasn't
home or couldn't talk. I strained my ears to listen but the voice went away. Then quickly before I
hung up she spoke in a whisper, "Abby" I don't know how fine she is. She is home. She has been
home. She just doesn't want to talk or do anything. I'm trying to get her to do something. But
after what happened with her dad". I, well I, I just don't know. Sorry. You're such a great
friend to her.""It's ok. I understand. And I'm not going anywhere. She will have to talk
sometime and I will still be here." "Well, hope to see or hear from you soon, bye now""Me
too. Bye." I hung up with a heavy heart, again. This happens every time that I call. She pretends
she isn't home or that she is sick. But her mom never told me the truth before. She never told me
that Lianna Mae was home. She never mentioned that she knew something was wrong. That was a change.
Later her mom called me, when I guess Lianna Mae was sleeping, and finally explained what happened
between her and her dad. Over the summer her dad beat her and kicked her out. She didn't talk to
anyone over the summer, not even me. I was worried about her, but when she came back to school she
went back to who she always was. No one noticed her very small change from over the summer, but
things were different" I could tell. She would stop doing most things that she would always do. We
always went on a monthly shopping trip. She would try to pretend she wanted to go and make up some
excuse not to, or go and pretend she enjoyed shopping like she used to, but you could tell that she
was only faking it. I knew something was going on but I just couldn't prove any of it. I would
hear of people saying she was crying in the bathroom, but no one let her know that they heard that.
She would say it was allergies when she had tears in her eyes. So I decided to pay her mother a
visit when I knew Lianna Mae was at work. "Abby! What brings you here? Lianna Mae is at work, hun.
Sorry. You'll have to come by another day," she said. I could tell she was skeptical about me
being there and having to talk to me alone, face to face. "I'm not here to see her. I came to
see you. I want to know everything that is going on. It's getting bad, I can tell. I just want to
help her. Please, please tell me," I begged. "Abby, I don't know. It's just really hard for
her. I don't completely understand it"." she looked around hesitant to agree to tell me,
"Ok. Come inside." We walked into the house and sat down in the family room. "Would you like
anything?" she asked unsuccessfully trying to lighten the mood. "No thanks. So, what is going
on?" "Ok, Abby. This is really hard for her now but I know you're a great friend and I know
that you are going to help her get through all of this. You know the story of her dad kicking her
out but what you don't know is that she has been trying to see him. She changed her mind about him
and now she wants him in her life and she doesn't feel like she can live without him. She feels
like she is the cause of what just happened. I keep telling her, everyone is" I KNOW IT'S NOT
HER FAULT!!!.... Sorry. I just" she" I just know it and she won't listen," she paused. Her
eyes seemed to fill up with tears but then disappeared when she blinked. I could tell deep down it
was really painful for her to tell me all of this. "Ok" her dad stopped drinking the day he knew
he had a daughter. He wanted to be a good father. And he was. He really was. I just didn't want
him to be. I never liked him being around. We had different beliefs in parenting, that's why we
got a divorce, and she would get such an attitude when she came from his house because he thinks he
is better than my family. He did the best he could. He didn't know how to be a father and did
what he could. But when she moved out he began drinking again. Out of the blue, drinking until he is
stupid, I mean, he used to drink like a stupid teenager, but now I can honestly say its much, much
worse. Last weekend, he tried to kill himself. She found out, and she went to the house and saw
everything. The alcohol, the blood, and how the house changed. She hasn't been the same since. I
just don't know what to do. She doesn't want to talk about it but she is always breaking down
randomly. She pretends she is ok, when I know that she is far from it. I know it's hard for her to
deal with but I just don't know what to do to help her." My mouth just fell, along with my
heart. My best friend, Lianna Mae, was dying inside and was pretending she wasn't. The happy,
bubby girl everyone knew has been hiding this and been faking it for almost two months. I had to
tell her I loved her, I had to tell her that I was here and not leaving. I just had to. Her mom and
I talked all night about Lianna Mae, school, and just normal teen stuff until it got dark. Then I
headed home not only with a full mind but with a heavy heart. Two weeks before homecoming Lianna Mae
and I went to the mall to get our dresses. This is when I started to notice the little things about
her that were slowly changing. She looked to be skinnier but it was hard to tell. She wouldn't eat
with me that day, no matter what I said. "Lianna, aren't you hungry. You always eat like crazy
when we go on our shopping trips. Are you sick?" I asked. "No" I'm just not hungry. I had a
big breakfast. Um" I promise to eat when I'm hungry," she replied. "But, why don't you
just get something small to snack on. It won't hurt. And then you'll at least have something in
you." I was trying so hard to just get her to eat; I didn't even know why I had the feeling to
try so hard. "I'll be fine. Now let's go check out the dresses at Macy's," she quickly
changed the subject. I was just so worried. I couldn't think of the reason that I needed her to
eat so badly or why I had the feeling that it was a very bad thing for her not to be eating. Come to
think of it now I haven't seen her eat all month. She was constantly in the gym at school working
out; she would complain that she was fat and that she needed to work out even when everyone else
knew she was already in perfect shape. Her make-up was a bit darker too, more eyeliner and darker
eye shadow. Plus, she stopped wearing pink and wore more blue, black, or other dark colors. Her look
was really changing. She wasn't herself on the outside but somehow she tried to keep her bubbly
personality but I could tell it was a fake version of her old self. Some days she would smile but
her eyes told a totally different story. Then, she started only wearing what everyone called
"˜slutty' clothing. Her clothes were more revealing but always covering her arms and thighs and
if it didn't, something would. Whether it was gauze, tape, sweatshirts, or something else. She
stopped sleeping all together too. Her eyes were bloodshot, and she had large bags under them. The
next week she came back to school with a whole new look. Her hair was all black with a bit of red
here and there, and she was only wearing dark colors. Her make-up changed dramatically, her usually
natural tan face turned into a pale face with darkness around her eyes. It looked like someone put a
whole new mask on top of her. I pretended I never noticed the change although it really started to
scare me. Many people followed my lead, but everyone was talking about it behind her back. People
kept asking questions but I was a true friend and kept my mouth quiet. If she wanted people to know
what was going on she will tell them herself, plus, I didn't even know what was going on. She was
still my best friend, and I thought that she only changed her look not her entire life. People
change, and I always thought change was good, but I didn't know my best friend that well and I
soon learned who Lianna Mae really was and there was a lot to learn. A few days later, I went to her
house and her door was wide open. I knew she was home alone because her parents were out of town for
their anniversary. I walked in thinking she just forgot to shut it, she has done that so many times
I just don't understand why they haven't been robbed yet. I paused in the doorway. I could hear
people talking. "Dude, I want a quad." "No man, get a eighth. It's better for you and your
wallet." "Man, this stuff really hits the spot, very rich." "Ha, she just snorted another
line, boy is she baked." I didn't recognize any of the voices or even what they were talking
about. The butterflies seemed to have woken up and gone crazy as soon as the voices could be heard.
I kept walking quietly and slowly just so I could hear more with out being heard. "Man, where is
the UV? I need another shot or twenty!" "Dude, you've had way too much, how are we supposed to
get this stuff to our clients if you keep using it all? You're so dumb. Go in the kitchen and find
the vodka." "Whatever man." As I walked into her living room I noticed that there were about
six people I never saw before. They were all drinking and smoking and doing drugs. At first, I
thought I was in the wrong house; it wouldn't be the first time that happened either. When I saw
them they just gave me an eerie feeling. I just could tell they weren't the type of people I would
want to be near, and they just seemed like trouble. Then I looked past the group of strangers hoping
to see something that would tell me this wasn't the house I thought it was but I saw her family
pictures and knew I was in the right house which I knew was a bad thing. My brain told me to walk
out now but I needed to find Lianna. I needed to make sure she was ok. I just had a bad feeling that
she wasn't going to be ok if I left her there with those people they just didn't seem to be the
type of people she should be around. No one seemed to even notice me, so my guess of a hostage
robbery flew out the window, I wished it was a scary dream but I knew it wasn't so I decided to
just find Lianna Mae. I walked strait down the narrow hallway to her pink and black Paris themed
room to find her on her floor. My eyes could not believe what they saw. Her arm was cut deeper than
the time that my father had to get stitches due to a work accident. I looked around trying to figure
how she managed to fall and hurt herself that bad, I didn't see anything so I looked back at her.
She was just cutting herself with a razor blade, Lianna, Lianna was cutting herself. She was doing
this to herself on purpose! I couldn't tell who she was, I could see in her eyes she wasn't
Lianna anymore, she wasn't anyone that I knew; she was like a monster in a humans body. A blood
hungry, evil monster in my best friends body and I felt like there was nothing that I could to do
save her from the horrible pain it would put her through. She had weed, cocaine, and beer to her
left. My brain just froze, along with my entire body. This wasn't her. This wasn't anything that
I ever saw before. I just couldn't believe this was all real. It seemed so impossible, so unreal,
yet at the same time it was a reality check for me and my best friend. Seconds passed by, seeming
like hours. Finally, my throat managed to squeeze out a scream, and she looked up at me with such
delay and confusion it was as if she didn't understand anything at the time or why I would even be
screaming. When she saw me she just stared at me as if she didn't even know who I was, but then I
saw something flash in her eyes that made her start to cry uncontrollably. She pleaded for me to
help her. Her eyes scared me. At first they were cold, heartless but now they were screaming at me
for help. I was still frozen in the door way and couldn't move. All I wanted to do was to shut her
door and lock it, then to grab her and hold her, and then we would both lie down and just lay there
until someone else came to help us. Then, suddenly my legs moved. I could only tell because I got
closer to her, at first I thought she was moving towards me but she was sitting on the ground so it
had to be me. Everything became a blur, like I was watching a movie that had bad lighting. I grabbed
her by her arm, careful not to touch neither the blood nor the large gashes in it, and ran out of
there pulling her behind me and not looking back. It seemed like the front door kept going farther
and farther away. When I finally got her into the car, I locked the doors and called the police. I
told them everything I knew and saw. "911, what's your emergency?" the operator asked as
though this was her first time ever answering the phone and she had such concern for what my
emergency was. "My friend"¦ Lianna Mae at 128 North Pioneer Avenue" she is hurt. There are
people, older, they have drugs, alcohol, and they are scary. They" she was cutting, she's
drunk" high". Both"¦ I don't know. Please help. 128 North Pioneer Avenue. Now!" I managed
to choke out the words through my tears. "Ok, how old are you? How old is Lianna Mae? Is that
right? Lianna Mae?" I could hear her typing in the background. "We are both 17. Yea, that's
her name. Lianna Mae Cullen." "Can I have yours? "Yea, its Abby William Vertz." "Ok Abby,
where are you and Lianna?" "In my car, in her driveway. Her house is 128 North Pioneer Avenue.
Please hurry." "The police and ambulance are on there way. Did you call your parents or hers?"
"No." "Can you do that for me? So they know what's going on and can come and help you?"
she asked with so much concern. I was confused of why she would be truly concerned. She didn't
know us, she didn't know who we were but she cared. "Yes." "Do you need to stay on the phone
with me until they arrive?" "No. We will be ok." "Ok, now take care. They should be there
soon." The phone clicked and then I felt all alone again. I just couldn't breathe, think, nor
understand what just happened and what I just saw. As I glanced at her, she was looking at the
house, rocking back and forth, hugging herself tightly. It scared me to death. I knew this was not
the girl that I saw and knew my high school years. She was someone else, a nightmare. I couldn't
understand why she would do all of this to herself, why she would ever let any of this happen to
her, and why she didn't trust me or anyone else to get help. I didn't know how to explain to my
parents about what happened. But I knew they would help me. They were supportive people and they
loved Lianna Mae like she was their own daughter. I waited a few minutes after I got off the phone
with the officer to call my parents. Finally I got the words to say and relaxed enough to call them.
My parents were shocked at everything I told them and they told me they would be there as soon as
they could. Their last words were: "Abby, we love you and tell Lianna we love her too." "I
know, and I will. I love you too and I know she loves you too." I hung up and looked again at
Lianna Mae. She was now falling into a deep sleep, I panicked. I've heard that when people are on
drugs, or injured you are not supposed to let them sleep, because it could lead to death or other
bad things. I grabbed her shoulders and shook her a little. She didn't even open her eyes. By this
time, I could hear the cops and I started to panic even more. I slapped her, no movement, not
knowing what to do anymore, I started screaming at the top of my lungs but I couldn't hear it. I
don't know whether I was screaming for her, for the cops, or for myself. Her eyes fluttered open
when the cops and the ambulance pulled up in the driveway. The swat team was there too. They rushed
into the house. I didn't understand why the swat team would need to be there but I guess there was
more going on than I saw. There was a huge drug making business that the cops have been trying to
bust for a couple months and the business was in her house. They arrested everyone inside. They took
me and Lianna to the hospital along with many other people before they went to jail. I didn't want
to leave Lianna's side but they made me. Everything was a complete blur, like a movie that would
never end and I felt like I was someone else watching this. They told me that they just wanted to
see if I came into contact with anything while going through the house. Thank goodness I was pretty
ok I just had to take some medications to make sure that anything I inhaled wouldn't hurt my body,
but that was the least of my worries. I didn't know what would happen to my best friend, I was
afraid something would go badly or she would be put in jail. She wasn't who I thought she was all
along. She hid everything. I didn't know who she was and I know for a fact that if I didn't
know, no one would, which scared me so much more because she didn't feel like we would be there
for her when she needed us the most. I just didn't know how to deal with it; I would do anything
and everything I could to help the best I could. I just wanted to know why and how and when"¦ she
was so different, she was someone else and no one even knew it was this bad, we just thought she was
just dealing with a bit of stress and that things would be fine and back to normal in a couple of
weeks. She was the perfect girl on the outside but deep down she was far from perfect. I still
considered her to be my best friend and vowed to never let her do this to herself again. I vowed to
be there for her as a friend and would stand by her side forever. I wanted her to know I loved her
and would never let anyone hurt her again, and that she could trust me with anything because I was a
true friend that cares about her. After she started getting help she asked me to come to one of her
therapist meetings, she was very hesitant to let me come but I know she really wanted me to be
there. I gladly accepted. I wanted to know the real her and be there for her. The meeting started
and her therapist began with all of us just introducing ourselves. "Abby, I'm Dr. Bayer. I'm
Lianna's therapist. I'm glad you're here. Let's begin. Lianna, would you like to start or
should I start it." Lianna looked away from me long enough to say. "You can." As Dr. Bayer
spoke Lianna wasn't listening she was to busy concentrating on my facial expressions to know how I
felt being there and hearing all of it. I learned that she was majorly suicidal, depressed and
bipolar. After her therapist explained the medical stuff to me Lianna stepped in to explain the
story of how she felt and saw it. She told me about her whole life that she tried to hide from
everyone. Her father and stepfather hated her, and treated her like she meant nothing; her mother
just picked her husband over her daughter. She felt isolated and completely alone, even when she was
in a crowded room. She began doing drugs and cutting over the summer and then it just got out of
hand. She thought she could control it but it escaladed too fast. She didn't know how to control
it and she was too scared to get help. She thought all of the people she knew would leave her and
she would fall deeper into the hole she was in. She felt dead inside and needed to hurt herself to
feel alive. Her eyes and expressions scared me but at the same time made me want to run to her and
just hold her and tell her that I would make sure everything would be fine, forever. When she told
me this she said she was so afraid I would leave her. I told her I would never do that. I was her
best friend and I cared about her. I told her I was so happy that she trusted me enough to tell me
about her real life and let me into her personal feelings and thoughts. She started crying and I
could tell she was happy. I told her I would help her get through this and would never leave her, no
matter what. Going back to school was very hard for her. Many people heard bits and pieces about
what had happened to her and would try to make up the rest of the story. But I gladly stood by her
side and made sure that she felt welcome. Any rumors I would hear I would tell them to shut up
because they don't know what happened and never will unless Lianna Mae tells them herself. For the
first two weeks everyone would try to get me to say what happened but it wasn't my story to tell
so I would just ignore them or tell them I'm not going to do that to her. Many people tried to get
Lianna Mae to themselves to ask her, but I would not let that happen because she asked me not to.
All teachers and staff helped the best they could too. At the graduation ceremony our senior year,
Lianna Mae felt she was ready to tell the school what happened and try to help anyone else she
could. That's when she decided to be a public speaker for depression, suicide, self-injury, drugs,
alcohol, and other teen and young adult issues. She asked me to join her on all of her journeys
because she wanted me to speak of what I saw and how it affected me. I gladly did. "To this day we
are still best friends and she has gotten over her addiction to drugs, alcohol, and cutting. We
still have ups and downs but learned to handle them in different, less dangerous ways. We go around
to local high schools, middle schools, and colleges to speak of how it affected her and me both.
Many people we have spoke to have gotten help or helped someone else get help. I know it helps her
get through each day when she knows that someone that hears her story is going through something
like that and that she helped them in any way that she could. She feels a lot better about herself
and our friendship is stronger than we ever thought it could. We constantly get mail, e-mail, and
phone calls from people we helped, inspired, or just spoke to. They all just want to thank us and
tell Lianna Mae what she is doing to help and how it is working in its own special way. I know it
pleases her to know that there was more that came out of this whole thing. She was my best friend
all along, but she just fell into a hole. She learned that everyone in the world could try to get
you out of the hole but it would never work unless she wanted to get out and actually tried. So,
don't be afraid to email, call, send a letter or even come up to us if you see us and need someone
to talk to." Many students were crying by this time. I could tell it really hit them. I heard a
small sob from next to me. Lianna was crying too. I turned to hug her when she grabbed the
microphone. "I know my story is a little extreme but that doesn't mean your story doesn't
matter. Everyone's problems matter. Don't treat people badly or differently for who they are,
where they came from, or the bad things going on in their lives. Reach out, help each other. Be
there for one another. Do whatever you can to help someone. No matter how small the task it makes a
world of difference." The tears fell like rain as she put the mike down and grabbed my hand. We
turned to walk off the stage when a student started clapping. Soon all of the students started
clapping and we stopped. Tears of joy spilled from my eyes as I looked at Lianna Mae's smile. We
both knew we really got to these students and that we helped them. "Hungry?" I asked. "Taco
Bell, Cold stone, then Starbucks?" she replied.

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