I keep thinking about a dream I had several months ago. It was brief and blurry, but one element has remained persistently clear: I was sitting across from myself [a clone? A reflection? That part I’m not sure of, but there were two distinct yet identical presences of me], and the self that I embodied said to the other, reassuringly, matter-of-factly, “I would do anything for you.”
The caring was instinctive, deeply rooted, the way I feel in my waking hours about my boyfriend, my family, and my dearest friends — a level of protectiveness and pride I feel especially about my nieces and nephews: I don’t want anything bad to happen to you. You are strong and beautiful and talented. I believe in you. I’m here for you anytime. I love you beyond words.
Why don’t I treat myself that way?
Well, a couple months ago, several weeks after having had that dream and having it echo in my mind since, my self-care and -compassion were put to the test.
In one simple misstep, I slipped and fell in the yard, landing with one leg curled awkwardly beneath me and my foot bearing the weight of the rest of me collapsing. I’ve replayed that moment countless times since, as if I could retroactively change my footwear or my armload of stuff or whatever it was I stepped on that caused my foot to slip, and each time I’m struck by the notion that I had no idea in that instant how it would ripple out to affect the entire trajectory of my summer and my physical and mental health.
I don’t intend this to be a pity party nor to belabor the details, so I’ll give the abridged version:
The sprained foot led to a blood clot in my leg, which has continued to cause periods of swelling and discomfort as well as send my anxiety and depression on a seemingly endless roller coaster.
The prescribed blood thinner required me to stop taking another medication that had long been very helpful for me and left me scrambling for an alternative, none of which have proven satisfactory.
It was a hot summer to have one leg encased in a boot brace — although that brace has been a godsend in allowing me much better mobility than I had for the first few days, during which I couldn’t put weight on the foot without intolerable pain.
This whole experience has been an eye-opener as to how many elements of my typical day are not easily accessible, with any stairs, gravel, or hills leaving me unsteady at best and at times incapable of navigating without help. That is to say it’s opened my eyes to how very much I was taking for granted before.
The dream was not a stretch in that I have long been one to talk to myself — even out loud, even in public — but this too has now been manifesting in new, gentler ways: “We’ve got this,” I’ll say to myself. [We?! As if, again, there are two of us in the conversation!] “Okay, here we go. One step at a time.” I am aware that I am someone in need of caring and more willing to give myself that care than probably ever before. As I step slowly in and out of the shower or turn gingerly to rinse my hair, as I stretch my cramped-up calf muscle, as I climb into bed and appreciate the shedding of a long day, I am carrying myself differently, with more awareness, patience, and forgiveness.
While I wish it hadn’t taken an injury for this slowing-down to happen and I’m eager to start feeling more like myself again, I hope that as I continue to heal I can maintain this new perspective.
And I wish it for all of you, too — without the dramatic catalyst! Let’s adopt an attitude of showing up for ourselves. We need it more than we may realize.
My debut book is out(!) — and its content packs a punch. A story like this may upset you or inspire you. I hope it will do both.
The Man Behind the Curtainis a memoir I coauthored for a survivor of sexual abuse whose family and community tried to silence her when the truth came out. As I’ve blogged about before — in introducing you to Jessica and in interviewing her as we neared the finish line — there’s no denying that this is difficult subject matter, and that’s precisely why we felt it needed to be heard.
For too many years, Jessica was the one made to feel guilty about what had been done to her, including feeling guilty if she tried to talk about it — even long after the abuse had been reported and investigated, even long after her rapist stepfather was convicted and imprisoned. The people who continue (yes, present tense) to revere her abuser and portray Jessica as a liar have made grand attempts to shame her into continued silence. As I write about in the book’s afterword, Jessica told me in one of our early meetings, “Every time I tell my story, I apologize for my story.”
This is maddening. Jessica knew it wasn’t right but had to wrestle with that for years, often alone. I knew it wasn’t right upon my first meeting with her, scribbling down page after page of notes by hand as the earliest notion of a book took shape. Now our readers are experiencing that fury, too — and I must say, I love to hear that.
“I was so enraged I wanted to throw the book across the room on multiple occasions,” wrote one reviewer. Another wrote, “This book will make you angry. And it should. A brutally honest depiction of the abuse that a young girl faced, and the heartbreaking account of those closest to her who refused to believe it.”
I want you to feel angry. I also want you to feel proud of Jessica, as I do and as so many readers have told us they do, and cheer for her as she finds her courage and her voice amidst all of those causes of anger.
And I want you to know that Jessica’s story, as shocking and infuriating as it is, is not unique. I want you to be all the angrier to think about the countless others who have lived a story like this or are currently living it. And I want you to be all the more inspired and hopeful and proud to think about each one of those people stepping into their own power. Jessica and I hope that a book like ours helps them, and their loved ones, along that journey. As we write in the book’s last chapter, we’re aiming to “help others take their own first step — or second, or hundredth — toward healing, and toward hope.”
Michelle Bowdler’s memoir, Is Rape a Crime? A Memoir, an Investigation, and a Manifesto, served as a torch guiding my way through my research and writing. In an essay she wrote for Lit Hub, “When Your Memoir Has the Word ‘Rape’ in the Title,” Michelle addresses a struggle similar to Jessica’s: “The temptation to hide the word because the reality of rape is so horrific only made it more critical that it stood front and center in my book. As it was in my life, it would be in my words. If I hid the word rape and its impact on me, it would make anything about my life a lie, an omission, a nod to shame and silence.”
In working to suppress the shame and self-doubt, people like Michelle and Jessica used something terrible as a catalyst for something great, providing a guiding light to other survivors who are still trying to find their way through.
I see a similar light emerging from the darkness when I watch a woman address her church about the abuse their pastor inflicted upon her as a teen, or when I read about the reckoning currently unfolding for the Southern Baptist Convention — which encompasses Jessica’s family’s church — about sexual abuse from the highest ranks, covered up for decades by its executive committee. When I hear these stories, I am simultaneously furious and hopeful, with each emotion amplifying the other. I’m honored if our book can evoke a similar cycle of feelings for our readers.
Yes, the things Jessica experienced can be difficult to hear about. The fact that she and too many other people have lived those difficult things makes it imperative that others of us are willing to hear about them and discuss them. We may not always understand or know what to say. We may feel powerless in response to such horrible things. But we can listen. That seemingly simple action holds a lot of power.
In listening, we acknowledge the victim as a fellow human being with a story bigger than their abuse, with a life still to be made. We bear witness, we learn, we grow.
Another reviewer of our book wrote, “This is admittedly a tough read from an emotional standpoint, but it is well worth the pain to read how Jessica persevered.”
Jessica and I are both so grateful to our readers for being willing to take this emotional journey with us. Collectively, we come out the other side of it stronger. I hope continuing to share stories like this helps us find a way forward, toward a time when there are far fewer of them to tell.
Sometimes I feel sad or angry that these past 19 months (and counting) of your childhood have been so heavily shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. I do very often feel both sad and angry about all the time I’m missing out on with you and restless to get to the end of this difficult stretch so that I can be with you much, much more.
I recently found myself thinking of this strange time we’re in as “the lost years”: we’re missing out on so much, with plans continually cancelled, postponed, or dialed back. Again and again, we say “hopefully soon” or “maybe next year,” even though we’ve been taught to live in the present and not take a day for granted. So many things are on hold and uncertain, and it’s easy to feel frustrated, tired, and scared.
But then I get to see you or talk to you and am reminded that these years, these days, are not lost. You are continuing to grow, learn, laugh, and find joy throughout it all. You continue to give and inspire love so powerful, so unconditional, that I’m humbled to be a part of it. And you remind me that that’s what we should all be aiming for, always.
There is so much changing around you all the time, and yet you continue to roll with it and accept it. You understood when birthday parties had to be held by Zoom and dance classes had to be (still have to be) held with 6-foot squares taped out on the floor. You adapted to remote learning, and now you’re navigating being in school in person with so many added safety precautions and restrictions. You wear your masks without question and try hard to remember to keep safe social distances. You are much better about these things than many adults. You understand the big differences that little actions can make.
You run around playfully with your masks on. You give masked hugs or air hugs and say “I love you” on video calls. You ask me what kind of hand sanitizer we just used because “it’s a good one.” You make a game of changing your facial expressions, with exaggerated eyes, and seeing if I can guess whether you’re smiling behind your mask.
You tell me about the video game you’re playing, or the clubs and activities you’re starting, or the friends you’re making, or the boy in your class you think is cute, and the world feels normal again. You remind me of all the good there is in every day, and you remind me that I don’t want to lose sight of any of it.
You have more wisdom and clarity in your 9, 7, and 4 years than many of us have managed to acquire in decades. Given all that you’ve accomplished during these restrictive times, I can only begin to imagine all that you’ll achieve and inspire in others as the world continues to open its boundless self back up to you. Thank you for helping me to remember what matters and what’s good.
The return of the Trapper Keeper combines several of my favorite things: writing, office supplies, organization, and nostalgia. I had a Trapper Keeper in elementary school that I assume was originally used for in-class purposes, but I remember it best as my first at-home creative writing notebook / folio, using each folder within it to safeguard a separate work in progress — all written out by hand, of course. This love affair started before we had a computer at home, and then the comfortable routine of drafting on the built-in clipboard and filing away the accumulating pages continued for years afterward.
My Trapper Keeper evolved as I did, its folders adorned with stickers and scribbled with the names of crushes that came and went. I doodled and wrote notes to myself (sometimes to my future self) on just about every usable surface area, including along the inner spine and on the cardboard cover beneath the plastic that gradually peeled away from it over the years. While mulling over ideas, or when feeling what I now know to call anxious, I would pick at that plastic backing or run my pen along the ridges of its design, the swirls and lines quickly becoming familiar, well-worn paths covered in ink.
When I saw this recent Instagram post from Elizabeth Berkley promoting the Trapper Keeper’s relaunch, I was indeed “so excited” (and appreciative of her excellent hashtag use, as any Saved by the Bell fan will understand), and I soon zipped over to my local Walmart to snag one. The excitement built as I searched the back-to-school aisles for the right section, hoping they’d still be in stock. I’m not ashamed to admit that, once I found them, I let out a little eeee! from behind my mask. They were there, they were real, and they were beautiful!
I was thrilled to find that Mead stayed true to the product’s roots and kept all the essentials — the front interior pocket, with holes that help you see what’s inside and also are addictive to trace; a couple of folders in the 3-ring binder; the clipboard hinge in the back; the Velcro flap closure — and even the aesthetic of the designs. The Trapper Keeper has aged well. It’s an effective homage to the original while also a practical purchase for current use. (That’s not just what I told myself while justifying its $9.97 price tag.)
I hope it goes without saying that this is not any sort of official advertisement or sponsored post. I’m not big-leagues enough for that. I just really, really love this product.
Just a couple years ago, I had wanted to get my nephew something for Christmas that would help organize his many writings and drawings and was dismayed to find that Trapper Keepers were no longer around. It would have been perfect! I searched several places for something similar and came up short. There are semi-comparable products aimed at professionals, portfolios that snap or zip shut, but they fall far short of the whimsy of the Trapper Keeper.
Maybe it is largely because I’m a sucker for nostalgia, but the product’s entire design really feels like something special. There’s an important interplay between the colorful prints, the satisfying ripping-open of the Velcro, and the way everything stays tucked neatly inside. Creativity seems inherent in this product. It encourages kids (and adults!) to imagine, explore, brainstorm, and make the abstract concrete. To return to their ideas and build upon them. To believe that they have ideas worth returning to.
I’ve kept my old one around for all these years as a time capsule of sorts, commemorating my early writing days and the sense of boundless purpose and potential they held. I’d occasionally thought about using it again, but I didn’t feel right about disturbing its state, starting a new chapter of use after so many dormant years.
Now, instead, I can start this new chapter in its own cozy enclosure. I’m excited to see what purpose and potential it helps me discover.
A few months ago, I introduced you to Jessica, a survivor of rape and sexual assault whose forthcoming memoir, The Man Behind the Curtain, I’m coauthoring. We’re nearing the finish line on the writing and aiming to self-publish later this year — stay tuned for exciting updates in the coming months!
Here, I talk with Jessica about what the writing and healing processes have been like for her, what she hopes to accomplish by sharing her story with the world, and what’s next for her — including a major personal life update she never thought possible.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity, including some context from me in brackets.
VAL: In our book, you talk about how you’re no longer willing to let yourself be punished for someone else’s crimes, nor to let your past define you or your future. Tell us a bit more about that journey, how you came to make and embrace that shift in your thinking.
JESSICA: It was all about surrounding myself with positive people, to shut out the negatives. As soon as they found out what had happened to me, my grandparents were so supportive. Consistently going to therapy also really helped. My counselor, Debbie, was and continues to be a very positive person to be around. She understood all the feelings I had and even came down to Tennessee from New York for the trial. They all reminded me, and helped me to keep reminding myself, that everything my stepdad had done to me, and everything my mom had done by turning her back on me, was not my fault.
V: What are some of your proudest moments from the last few years? Are there things you’ve accomplished that you might not have thought possible before?
J: My job [as a flight attendant] is really hard to get into, and I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do something like that because of how much everybody had put me down for years. So, I’m really proud of that, and also of being in a healthy relationship, finally, with such a supportive partner, Matthew. Other than from my grandparents, I didn’t grow up with an example of what a good relationship should be like, so I’m grateful to be able to have that now for myself.
Also, Matthew and I recently found out that we’re having a baby in December! One of the nurse practitioners I had seen after the abuse was reported said she didn’t know if it would be possible for me to have children in the future. Because of that and the trauma of my past, I would not have thought that this could happen for me. We’re so excited!
V: What do you know now that you wish you’d known back when you were a teenager, enduring the abuse and then the trial?
J: I wish I had better coping skills back then. I would shut down a lot; I was just putting one foot in front of the other, doing what I had to do. Now I know how to cope if I start feeling panicky or really anxious. The main one I use is to hold onto an ice cube, which brings my focus onto that and slows my thoughts.
Another important thing I know now is that I’m going to be okay without my mom being in my life. I’m making peace with it. Because of the baby, I’m no longer open to her being in my life. That door is now closed. It was cracked open for years.
V: Has it been difficult to revisit your past in working on this book? How have you navigated and worked through that?
J: Sometimes I do try to avoid it so that I don’t have to think about the past. I’m to the point where I don’t think about it every day. It’s almost like that was another life, one that I haven’t dealt with in so long. But I navigate it by allowing myself to feel however I’m feeling, instead of trying to bury those feelings.
V: What has been the most surprising or rewarding part of working on this project?
J: Honestly, when we announced it on social media. [See, eg, Jessica’s Facebook post and my Facebook post.] There had always been so much negativity surrounding what happened, so seeing all the positivity and supportive reactions was really nice — and surprising. I look forward to the book coming out, even if it just helps one person.
V: Are there any resources that have been particularly helpful to you as a survivor of rape and sexual assault?
J: While I was actively dealing with the aftermath of the abuse, the truth coming out, and the trial, my attorney connected me with Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA), who became such a helpful support network. [Their mission, in part, is “to create a safer environment for abused children” and “to empower children to not feel afraid of the world in which they live.” They have chapters around the world.]
Also, again, therapy has been so helpful, including a therapy group I found while I was living in Chicago that was focused on sexual assault. It’s great to know that those resources are out there.
And I always rely on family and friends who have been really supportive and who keep me positive.
V: What do you hope readers will learn or gain from your story?
J: I hope readers who have gone through similar things will know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and won’t always feel so negative about it or so alone. And I hope people will learn signs of what to look for if something might be happening to their children or to someone they know and will learn about the damage it can do if they’re not supported.
V: What’s next for you? What goals do you have for the next few years?
J: I’ll be focusing on the baby. I can keep flying till about 36 weeks, and then, between maternity leave and baby-bonding leave that the airline offers, I won’t be working for about 5-6 months. I do want to go back and continue flying after that. But mostly I’ll be focusing on protecting my child as they grow up. I want to make sure my child doesn’t have to recover from their childhood like I did.
I’ve written before about the mixed emotions I feel as I near the end of a good book: there’s excitement to find out how it will end, a little worry as to whether I’ll be satisfied with that ending, and also a particular sort of sadness, deep in my rib cage, about parting ways with it. When I’m immersed in a great read, it can be so absorbing that I can’t help but leave part of my mind in the book’s world as I’m moving about in my own; the characters’ voices and predicaments continue to play out as if on a TV screen in the corner. I find myself wondering about them — how they’re feeling, what will happen to them. The haze of that other realm, the texture of the language, follow me around and beckon me to come back soon.
This is often true of TV shows and movies, too. While I enjoy creating my own vision in my head while I’m reading, the provided visuals and audio of the screen add so many more crevices to explore and cozy up with: the costumes, the sets, the actors’ vocal inflections and facial expressions, the music… (The music is utterly essential — I’m planning another post soon about the infinite ways music is tied to emotion and memory. Stay tuned!) Friends, The Office, Community, Gilmore Girls — I came to care about those characters and their worlds so deeply that I felt as if I truly knew them.
One of the things I’ve missed most during the pandemic is going to the movies. In recent years, I became a proponent of going to the movie theater alone. It’s the best way to allow yourself to become fully transported into the story. This is how I experienced some of my favorite films of the past few years: A Star Is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman (no coincidence about the run of music movies!), and my second viewing of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (which I found mostly to be lovely but in many ways to fall short of the 1994 version, which happens to be my favorite movie of all time). I’m excited to say I recently ventured out to resurrect this tradition and see In the Heights. (Highly recommend.) As the opening musical number swelled and reverberated through the room, I was buzzing with adrenaline and such profound gratitude. I would argue that going to see a movie alone is nearly on par with attending a live concert in terms of savoring a fully immersive consumption of entertainment. And it’s a consumption of content — as a writer, it always comes back to that for me. Someone else has created this piece — these words, notes, visuals, etc. — and, in sharing it, has added content to my life. They have imparted an experience.
The ability of words on a page (or acted out on a screen, as the case may be) to make us laugh or cry or gasp is what solidified my dream of being a writer. I read a sappy Lurlene McDaniel novel in junior high and remember crying actual, full-fledged tears when one of the main characters died — and immediately afterward feeling a full-bodied awe at the fact that those tears were brought about by symbols on paper. I’d always been an avid reader and enjoyed making up poems and stories of my own, but that was the moment I knew: I want to doTHIS.
We invest so much of ourselves in all of these types of content that it’s only natural to have such high demands of them — we invest not just time but emotion: hope, curiosity, vulnerability, the expectation of some sort of escape. We don’t want to be let down by the writers, the characters, the actors; we feel appreciative when they come through for us and impart an impactful experience.
The other side of that coin is that when we finish good content of any type, there is a mourning period of sorts. We emerge from that other world we’ve inhabited for however many hours and have to adjust to being back in our own familiar surroundings, often with a pang of longing — something, already, like nostalgia — for the friends and atmosphere we’d come to know.
For me, though, the most exciting part of finishing a book is picking out which one I’ll read next. I’m a bit of a book hoarder. My multiple bookshelves are stuffed with favorites I hope to reread someday (or simply feel I must own, even if they don’t get reread in their entirety) and many, many books that I haven’t yet read. A small sampling — maybe 20 or so — are promoted to my bedside shelf as a sort of holding area for what’s to be read soon. There’s a pressure of sorts, an eagerness that borders on anxiety, as to picking the next read. What about all those others still waiting? Is this the one I’m ready for next? Choosing the next show or movie to cross off my to-watch list is a similar struggle. The thrill and uncertainty of these decisions, every time, speaks to the power that quality content has over us.
What great reads or binge-watches have you gotten lost in lately? Share your favorites with me — so I can add them to my ever-overflowing queues, calling to me as they wait in the wings.
When people ask me what I’m writing, I often struggle to find an effective answer, even though — or maybe because — I’ve been focused mainly on the same project for nearly six years now, am passionate about its message, and am excited about its potential. The project is difficult to summarize; it’s a powerful and emotional topic, being authored in a somewhat nontraditional way, and has been an immense learning curve for me. But I’m so grateful to be writing it, and, as the finish line starts to come into view, I’m excited to share more about it with you here.
For me, it all started (the aforementioned six years ago) when my counselor asked me if I wanted to delve more into my creative writing, knowing I was then working a writing-related day job that was leaving me feeling restless and wanting more. She told me that another one of her clients, Jessica, was an amazing young woman with a powerful story to tell; they’d long talked about the fact that it would make a great book. But Jessica isn’t a writer. Our counselor asked if she could introduce us. From our first meeting, I knew I’d been handed a gift — a challenging project, unquestionably, but a chance to help people, to make my writing mean something more.
For Jessica, it all started much earlier, when, at just 11 years old, she was raped by her stepfather, in what would prove to be only the first of many assaults. It quickly became a routine, an expectation; in a twisted power game, Jessica learned that she had to go along with her stepdad’s demands if she wanted to stay on his good side, be able to hang out with her friends, get her phone back after being grounded, have a MySpace page… This horrible routine continued for four years.
Sadly, this was only the beginning of Jessica’s struggles. When, at 15 years old, her boyfriend found out what was happening and reported the abuse, Jessica was met with a new level of fear and shame, as her mother, brother, and church community chose to believe her abuser instead, even as he was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. They labeled Jessica a sinner and a liar and left her to fight through the criminal investigation and multiple courtroom battles largely alone. She had just begun to use her voice and was only further silenced, criticized, and cast aside.
But she is ready to speak now.
In our coauthored memoir The Man Behind the Curtain, Jessica transforms her pain into power and provides a guiding light for those who are still searching for hope. In calling attention to sexual abuse happening at home, by a family member the victim loved and trusted, her story is a powerful addition to the #MeToo movement.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, organized by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. The Center’s website, RAINN and its additional resources page, and Time’s Up (among many others) offer fantastic support and guidance for survivors and their allies. It’s great to see increased conversation happening about these pressing topics.
We’ll look forward to sharing more with you in the coming months about Jessica’s story and our road to publication. We are both so deeply grateful for your support in this journey.
I will forever be someone who was raped and sexually assaulted. I can’t erase that part of my story, despite how much I’ve wished I could. What I’ve just recently started to accept, though, is that those experiences do not need to define me. I will not let them define me. I’ve struggled in silence for too long, assuming others wouldn’t understand and would judge me. I’ve told myself that my voice doesn’t need to be heard — or, worse, that it doesn’t deserve to be. But I see now that I’ve been letting myself be punished for someone else’s crimes. Maybe I can change what this part of my story means. Maybe it can be a source of power more than pain.
Along the landmine-ridden road to my stepfather’s imprisonment, I lost not only him but my mother and brother, who chose him over me. I lost my role as daughter and sister. I was dragged into the role of victim the first time he put his hands on me; I found the courage to speak from that role only years later; and I am still trying to process how thoroughly that role came to define me and my surroundings. Victim came to mean outcast, interrogated, alone. I am trying now to make it mean more, to take pride in its synonymy with survivor, to make it mean something like warrior.
People are sometimes surprised to hear this about me, because, I’ve been told, I come across as a generally upbeat, optimistic person. I try to see the good in everyone and everything. That is partially genuine and partially an effort to help myself focus on the good. Because I have anxiety and depression.
Sometimes I’m fine. Sometimes I’m pretending.
In our modern era of oversharing — inundated by social media feeds and phone notifications and email lists we keep meaning to unsubscribe from — somehow we still have trouble being open about the topic of mental health. Our own family members, close friends, and daily coworkers often hide the battles pressing against their chests. (I’ve done so in all of those interactions, and I’ve often learned of others’ battles only after knowing them closely for many years.) This is a critical failure. Those relationships could be lifelines — often literally — if given just a glimpse of the truths we refrain from speaking.
There’s a cruel cycle at play here: for many of us, a key reason we don’t tell others about what we’re dealing with is the negative self-talk that is so inherent in these conditions (and thus only makes them more urgent): People will think I’m weak, pitiful, not good enough, not up for X, Y, Z. This is especially true when there’s a power issue involved (eg, My boss won’t trust me with that project / won’t think I deserve that promotion) but can be true of even our closest relationships with people who think the world of us. Our rational selves know that those people would not judge us. But our self-image is often vastly different from what others perceive of us.
And, of course, the longer we suppress those feelings, the worse they can get; the longer we avoid those conversations, the harder they are to have.
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly amplified these struggles for countless people and brought on new issues for still more. It can be hard to find the light amidst this long stretch of dark days, during which we’re battling loneliness, fear, and the disappointment of postponed or cancelled plans. I suspect these days we’re all some level of anxious, depressed, or both.
So, I want to share a bit about my experiences, in the hope that it might help others, whether you’re struggling, too, or could be in a position to help people around you who are.
My anxiety makes me feel restless, my thoughts obsessive, my brain unable to quiet down. My depression makes me not want to move, or to feel unable to move. These can be in play simultaneously. It most often happens at night, my mind lit up and spinning like a carnival ride at the same time that my body feels weighed down by a concrete blanket. My body aches for sleep, but my mind won’t let it happen, sometimes for hours.
Writing, exercising, cleaning, or some other burst of productivity will sometimes help lift me out of a depressed stretch or quell my anxiety, as will social time with family or friends. Sometimes, those things don’t help, or they make things worse, or I can’t bring myself to try.
Unfortunately, these feelings typically can’t be explained; it’s not as simple as asking “What’s wrong?” and applying X solution. Yes, sometimes there may be a catalyst that brings on an episode or spurs it into overdrive, but ultimately I’m feeling those things simply because I have anxiety and depression. They are chemical processes that flare up and, thankfully, recede. The lack of an explanation can be confusing for those around me — and for me, too! I ask myself, Why do I feel this way? and think, I shouldn’t feel this way, as my mind rattles off the countless great things in my life.
And then I feel even worse: ungrateful, guilty, and like something must really be wrong with me, if I’m unable to snap out of it when I should have no excuse for feeling down.
Thankfully, this all happens far less often for me in recent years than it did for many years before. There is no question that this is because I’ve put in 8 years of work through counseling (more on that below) and continue to use the tools I gained there. Personally, I’ve chosen not to take medications, as I wanted to focus instead on understanding my processes and triggers and learning how to work through them. But I know many people for whom medications have made all the difference, and choosing to forgo them wasn’t a decision I made lightly. The choice to medicate, and which one(s) to use, is highly individualized and can be a long process.
Some things that have helped me:
COUNSELING! Sooo much counseling. Talking to a professional proved to be absolutely essential for me, even on days when I thought I wasn’t up for it; even on days when I thought I had nothing to say. With time, building that trust and opening up in those sessions helped me to offload tension, gain perspective, communicate better, and listen to myself. Just knowing I had that outlet available — that my next appointment was coming up soon, that I could ask that question or share that progress — came to be such a comfort.
Learning that self-care is time well invested. It may be some of the best time invested, the most important. “Mental health days” can be hard to give ourselves permission to take — we worry they’ll be a sign of weakness or laziness or will invite suspicion: Is she really sick? But if our mental and emotional health aren’t cared for, our physical health, our work quality, and our relationships all suffer.
As I’ve written about before, gratitude has played a huge role in my wellbeing and is something I continue to put into practice. I love Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project one-sentence journal for its simple focus on daily small moments of joy. It has helped me find light during darker days and to remember that things always get better. It’s the only journal I’ve stuck with consistently for any significant length of time. I recently completed a full 5-year journal and started my next one!
Some things you can do to help:
Be willing to talk about it. And be willing to listen. Make sure your loved ones know that you’re available for these conversations.
Understand that trying to “fix” the situation may not be the best approach. Even when meant as reassurance, saying, “Why don’t you just do this?”or minimizing the person’s concerns as “no big deal” can feel dismissive. Just letting them get some words out (much like in a counseling session) can be so helpful. Maybe ask if they’d like advice, or ask how you can be helpful. And just make sure they know they are heard and valued.
Equally important is a willingness to respect their space and their process. For me, anxiety and depression sometimes mean I’m not up for talking or being social or that I have trouble following through on plans, despite my best intentions. It’s nothing personal (even though I worry obsessively that others will see it that way). With a little time, I’ll work through it, and all will be well.
Of course, the perspective I share here is just mine, and others’ will differ in many ways. We each walk a unique journey. But I hope we can work on developing a shared understanding that we need each other, can learn from each other, and can all grow from being willing to talk about the things we too often keep hidden.
There are several movies I make a point of watching every year at Christmas time, in a rather ritualistic honoring of my childhood — one of which, A Christmas Story, stands out largely because it shares my reverence for nostalgia. In fact, part of the reason I love this movie is because my grandpa, who passed away when I was a junior in high school, loved it, and we’d always turn on the 24-hour TNT marathon when we were at my grandparents’ house on Christmas. But I also love it because of how its story is crafted and what it continues to teach me about good storytelling.
The magic of Jean Shepherd’s writing (in the screenplay and its source material, his 1966 book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash) as well as his narration of the movie is that, both as a kid and as an adult, it feels like the narrator is speaking to you in a way that resonates. When I was a kid, adult Ralphie’s narrative voice talked about his childhood in a way that implied he understood me — like he was acknowledging that all kids were in on a secret together. He accurately represented the wants and needs of “kiddom.” We shared the perspective that all of the adults in the movie (Ralphie’s parents, his teacher, even Santa) simply don’t “get it” and are being unfair by denying him his coveted Red Ryder BB gun, the thing he wants most for Christmas. Somehow, the risk of shooting his eye out sounds not terrifying to a child viewer but ridiculously overprotective. Viewing the movie as an adult, I see all too easily that Ralphie’s eager enthusiasm to own that gun —influenced partially by successful marketing and partially by jealousy that his friend Flick is getting one — blinds him to the very real risks involved. Further, I can relate to the parents’ various stressors (even without being a parent myself) — the chaotic pace of the holiday season, the cooking, the broken furnace, the blown-out tire — and settle with them into the simple comfort of watching the snow fall through the tree-lit window, wine glasses in hand, after a tiring day.
Catering to both childhood and adulthood, and blurring the lines between the two realms, surely plays a large part in the movie’s continued growth in popularity over several decades, allowing it to appeal to all ages. It also functions as a key element of the movie’s plot. Ralphie’s mother often reaches across the adulthood-childhood boundary as a calming counterpoint to his father’s temper: asking picky-eater Randy to show her “how the piggies eat,” shouting out “Jingle Bells” with the kids in the car, comforting Randy with a glass of milk and gently closing the door to his kitchen-cupboard hideout, covering for Ralphie about his displaced glasses after he gets in a fistfight. But this theme is most powerfully illustrated by the pivotal Christmas morning scene when Ralphie finally gets his beloved rifle. There is a simple beauty in the giddy, almost nervous smile that twitches on The Old Man’s face as he watches Ralphie tear into the wrapping paper, the way he moves his fingers as if loading the rifle himself, experiencing anew a moment that was so significant in his own childhood. In that moment, the divide between kiddom and adulthood that seemed so vast for much of the movie is collapsed, morphing into a shared joy and, thereby, an understanding.
The task at hand for this narrative style is to talk about childhood with the benefit of perspective gained over time, without diminishing what’s sacred about the childhood experience. The narrator has to embody both simultaneously: to recall the joys, worries, and pains of childhood so vividly that we feel the blows Ralphie lets loose on Scut Farkas, Randy’s inability to put his arms down, the delicate “nuance of phrase” in the double- and triple-dare ritual — but with the wisdom that can only be gained by years more of living, providing a frame in which to display those childhood experiences and analyze them fully.
A couple of my favorite lines illustrate this approach well:
“I went out to face the world again, wiser”
— this after the letdown of using his secret decoder pen to uncover an advertisement for Ovaltine. That last word, “wiser,” is not kid Ralphie’s interpretation but adult Ralphie’s, reflecting back on how the experience shifted his worldview. Kid Ralphie just felt disappointed and annoyed. (“A crummy commercial?”) Adult Ralphie knows how that disappointment, after such feverish anticipation, was significant enough to last and color his expectations of future promises.
“The light was getting purple and soft outside — almost time for my father to come home from work.”
I love that Shepherd describes the time of day this way, rather than saying, “It was 5:00.” It makes sense that a child would recognize that powerful image of the changing sky as indicative of his father’s impending arrival home, particularly on that day as he anticipated getting in trouble for fighting Farkas. It’s also precisely the kind of image likely to stick with him into adulthood and stay closely tied to the emotions of those earlier years.
As I hope soon to publish a personal essay I’ve written about the most formative friendship of my childhood, the Christmas Story narrative runs through my head as a prime example of this delicate task, working to merge those two such important perspectives: who I was at 11 and who I am now at 34. The intersection of the two — what I still carry with me from those playground days and what I only know of them now that I’ve lived a couple decades more — is where that aforementioned magic can happen.
I’m excited to share here an excerpt from that essay, which tells the origin story of my sixth-grade girl gang, as we savored a sudden rush of popularity and struggled to bear it responsibly. It’s important to note, as explained later in the manuscript, that we pronounced the name “my girls” — but we spelled it with an “i” because it looked cute.
The MiGirls [an excerpt]
The girls and I had already become known as a unit, but one particular afternoon cemented us as something of a legacy that reached beyond our own classroom’s walls. It was early autumn. I recall the light on the playground as having a golden hue, near sepia; it seems appropriately solemn for the occasion, so I like to tell myself it’s accurate. Regardless of the lighting and the tricks time plays on the weight of things, that day was bursting with a sense of possibility. I had come to cherish the knowledge that I was someone who could make things happen, whose voice mattered for whatever naïve, trivial reasons to those around me, and on that day I felt an urge to make good use of it.
Harper had been lurking around our tree for days, like a raccoon staking out the potential for some good loot. Creeping ever closer to where we sat in the shade, in a circle so compact our knees were touching, she seemed to be watching for the right moment to enter the ring, as if our comfortable routine were a game of Double Dutch. Listening in on our conversations was the norm, but this was more of a direct, offensive move. Rather than acting as if she were merely passing by as she mumbled to herself, she continued to saunter nearer, staring. Her eyes were always so wide and piercing; they gave me the disconcerting feeling she was just barely holding back some form of hysterics. Typically, our whispered crush confessions and giggle fits would trail off as we tried to pretend we weren’t affected by her encroaching presence, and she would soon get bored and move on. That day, though, we couldn’t seem to shake her, and the girls were insistent that I say something. They made pointed eye contact with me, gesturing subtly in Harper’s direction; there seemed to be an unspoken understanding that I should address the problem.
Harper, too, pegged me as the one: as she ventured closer, she warbled my name and beckoned with a finger that looked genuinely witch-like. What was this quality I was emitting that portrayed me as some sort of leader? I had never knowingly displayed a desire to speak for the pack. Now that the opportunity was there, though, staring me down like a dare my inner critic knew I wouldn’t take, I felt a rush akin to what I assumed being drunk must feel like. I walked away from the tree to talk with her, maybe 20 paces out. Open territory, public territory. Not our hallowed space. Away from its shelter, my composure wavered. Trying to be subtle about it, I took a slow, deep breath as I approached her, the crisp air burning my throat.
“What?” I asked flatly. I tried to evoke an effortless confidence.
She wanted to know if we could try being friends again. Even then, her view of the matter struck me as odd: she saw a friendship as something you could force. Just keep pushing until the pieces fit together.
The other three girls appeared behind me tentatively, like deer approaching a roadway.
As we rattled off the evidence against her like prosecuting attorneys, a small crowd began to gather, 15 or 20 kids, from our class and others. This rivalry had become well known. There was something thrilling about realizing that our peers talked about us, amidst their otherness, their own crafts tables and bus lines.
I wasn’t looking to be cruel; there was simply a palpable, urgent need to be rid of this topic. The dance of tenuous friendship had already been through several exhausting rounds over the previous few years; she was always looking to be absolved for her wrongdoings, though not able to assure they wouldn’t be repeated. For every point we presented that day about her past deceptions, she offered a groundless counterpoint. She wanted us simply to trust her that things would be better moving forward, but there was no trust established as a foundation. The crooked grin on her face the entire time she talked implied that she didn’t even believe herself. She was like a salesman looking to close the deal on a crappy product.
“Let me talk with my girls,” I said as I turned, luxuriating in the slow torture of it, the surge of power. I think we all knew there was no further discussion to be had. I took my time walking away, the other girls falling in line like a school of fish. I think I even put my arms around them, something I felt Rizzo might do with the Pink Ladies, complete with hip-swagger and gum-snap. (We had just watched Grease for the first time during a sleepover, so the feel of it was fresh in my mind. We had been enthralled by it, swooning over John Travolta’s combination of coy sensitivity and an oozing sexuality we didn’t yet quite understand.)
As I said it, I placed a slight, but significant, emphasis on “my girls,” highlighting the honorable selectivity of the classification. It was a moment that would live in blissful notoriety among our peers, verbalizing the bond that had long been observed and respected. I had unknowingly formalized an unwritten rule: the four of us were to be understood, consulted, and revered as a single entity. We were made stronger through our unity, and we were not to be crossed. We were a sisterhood that felt like a legend in the making. We were the MiGirls.
In posting this, I send the happiest of holiday wishes to you all, with hopes for a brighter, calmer, healthy 2021. May your dreams on this Christmas be your equivalent of Ralphie’s spectacular hip shots.
I recently finished reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, which had been on my to-read list since it was first published in 2012. (As an English major, I’m ashamed to admit that I saw the movie before reading the book. I do highly recommend both.) For those unfamiliar, a woefully oversimplified summary is that it’s about Strayed’s experiences hiking more than 1,000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, alone and inexperienced, after the devastating death of her mother and dissolution of her marriage. As the book jacket states, “Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.” How soothing to think of strength and healing as the resolution after madness. That’s precisely the kind of journey Strayed takes us on.
I had the pleasure of hearing Strayed read from the book and speak about it as part of SUNY Brockport’s Writers Forum series in 2013. I was struck by how humble, approachable, and normal she was; after having completed this astounding journey, I thought she would seem somehow otherworldly, untouchable. I was awe-struck by what she’d accomplished. But as she talked about what it was like to stagger under the weight of a backpack so heavy she couldn’t lift it from the floor — she calls the approach she eventually managed to adopt “hunching in a remotely upright position” — it was like she answered my thoughts of Wow, how did she do all of that? with her own enthralled gush of, I know, right?!
That humility is present throughout the book and kept me mesmerized by Strayed’s narrative voice. She acknowledges her own amazement and gratitude about being on that hike, her unpreparedness for it and how that added to its impact on her. She knows she wasn’t well suited for it on paper, but that was one of the very reasons she knew she needed to do it. Which, to me, means she had exactly the right kind of mind for it, and the rest she figured out along the way.
One of my favorite moments is when she describes settling in at her campsite one night, 7,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada mountain range:
“The silence was tremendous. The absence felt like a weight.”
How brave of her to go willingly into that silence, to take that journey inward — accompanied only by a constant soundtrack of her own thoughts, memories, pains, regrets — in order to better understand all that is happening around her. Having gone through a few major life changes myself in recent years (exhibit A and exhibit B, among others), I’ve sometimes felt drawn to the idea of that sort of exploration — a long trip somewhere new all alone, a drive on unfamiliar roads with no destination in mind — but I have yet to conquer the self-doubt that inevitably creeps in as to what it would require of me and reveal to me.
Another favorite moment is when she meets a 5-year-old boy on the trail who sings her a song his mother taught him after learning that Strayed is grieving the loss of her own mother.
She describes him singing “in a voice so pure that I felt gutted” and says she felt “half demolished by the time he finished.”
I love this description of something being so beautiful and moving that it’s painful. That’s how I feel about Strayed’s writing. Her craft is so good, so finely tuned, that it hurts; it’s the kind of beauty that punches you and leaves you stinging.
As I neared the final chapters, I experienced that wonderful juxtaposition of emotions stirred up by a great read: I was eager to learn how it would end and yet reluctant to part ways with it. As I read the last few paragraphs — and immediately read them again — I felt gutted. I felt I was mourning a loss. Like Strayed, I was in awe of the journey and grateful to have experienced it.
Reaching the end of her hike and trying to process its finality, she writes:
“There was no way to go back, to make it stay. There was never that.”
Oof. Doesn’t that so accurately describe, with such aching beauty, any sort of loss? There is no route back to before it was gone, no choice but to continue moving forward, no matter how uncertain the steps may sometimes seem.