Surely Failing

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No one ever talked about realizing my failures when I was a kid. I grew up thinking that you should avoid taking missteps and exposing your deficits at all costs. The willingness to make mistakes, the ability to suspend judgment, and the courage to not know the answer were not considered skills, and they were certainly not valued or rewarded. I am hopeful, though, that attitudes toward failure, ignorance, and success may be shifting.

Recently, my four year-old niece amazed and delighted me when she seemed entirely unsurprised as I read her a story about embracing failures. The premise of Rosie Revere Engineer by Andrea Beatty is that discovery and innovation can only happen through many trials and even more errors. Rosie cannot become a successful engineer until she accepts that her “first flops are something to celebrate.” That idea makes sense, but unlike my niece—who seems to understand that working hard and messing up over and over again are a normal part of exploring, learning, and accomplishing new things—my aversion to failure is fairly ingrained.

I didn’t realize that creativity, experimentation, and invention depended on the ability to cultivate imperfection and acknowledge faults. Now, I can see that my preconceived notions about intelligence and success were not only shortsighted and maladaptive, they were just plain wrong. Yet, my heart doesn’t always allow those thoughts to permeate and settle down.

Truthfully, I am afraid of obvious and complete failure. I don’t have enough courage to openly founder on a regular basis. I worry about how people will judge me and, probably more realistically, how I will judge myself. My visible failures and conspicuous ignorance regularly diminish my self-esteem.

But that is not the greatest consequence of my illogical views about aptitude, competence, and failure. When I judge myself harshly and unfairly based on arbitrary and unrealistic standards, that reasoning has a way of bleeding into my assessment of everyone. I wish I could say that I never use superficial measures to make snap judgments about people, but I can’t. And that’s the most shameful aspect in all of this.

My parents were intellectually elitist, and my father was a profound snob when it came to language and literature. His propensity to judge himself superior in all things literary while finding others wanting both intimidated and embarrassed me. Of course, my upbringing does not excuse my judgmental impulses, but it may help explain them.

My father spoke with this vaguely English accent that wasn’t entirely fake but was exaggerated when he was showing off. For example, you could often hear the change in his voice when he used esoteric words. I think he would say that he chose those words because they denoted precisely what he wanted to convey. Except he was never concerned when his audience could not comprehend his perfect words. Not only did it not bother him when most people needed to use a dictionary just to translate one of his personal letters; he actually prided himself on his ability to induce this problem.

I can remember my fear of writing Christmas thank-you notes to my father’s family when I was younger. I have messy handwriting; I am a bad speller; and I struggle with punctuation. So when I wrote my short, pedestrian, and not-at-all-astute letters, I often thought about how incompetent I was in contrast to my father and how embarrassed he would be if he ever saw my letters.

Although I was always daunted by my father’s view of his own intellectual prowess, I eventually began to see how judgmental he was. Soon, I started to feel embarrassed about his prejudices and his tendency to venerate them.

I will never forget my utter humiliation when one of my friends brought her unsuspecting boyfriend to my father’s house for dinner. Almost as soon as they arrived, my father sat the poor guy down and began to ask (but really interrogate) him about his understanding of the differences between the words “insure,” “ensure,” and “assure.” To me, it felt like some kind of freak-show parlor game that my father trotted out in an attempt to simultaneously impress and humble his juvenile guests. My friends smiled politely and sat there quietly while my father performed, opining on all the ways people incorrectly interchange those words. I, on the other hand, cowered as I tried to fade into the background, hoping it would all end soon.

I am guessing that when most people use those “s-u-r-e”-words, they don’t worry about failure or judgment. Even so, I will probably always think of my father’s unfounded prejudice whenever I consider those words. That said, while I may be able to blame my father for making me self-conscious about language use, he is not responsible for how I interpret and reevaluate my own small-minded and biased thoughts. Perhaps, I should be grateful that I have vivid memories of my father brazenly criticizing others for making mistakes as inconsequential as the misuse of a single word. Those memories remind me to correct myself when I find that I am drawing conclusions about people based on trivial errors.

At some level, I sensed early on that my father was missing an important piece in understanding people and their abilities. Still, it took me a while to realize that he was actually the one who was unsophisticated and ignorant about mental acuity. Now, when I think about my father’s habit of judging intelligence and failures based on petty measures, I notice the irony. In those situations, it was not the people making grammatical errors or misusing words who were failing; the failure was my father’s. He was not wise enough to acknowledge his own limitations and ignorance. I think he may have been even more afraid to fail than I am.

As I write this post today, I realize that my feelings about failure and success have shifted over time. I have come to believe that some of the smartest people of all are those who readily risk failure, unabashedly admit their ignorance, and consistently refuse to judge others arbitrarily. I hope if I keep working at it, my attitudes and behaviors will continue evolving.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that I would not have started this blog if I had thought there was any chance that my father would see it. (He died eleven years ago, so I considered myself safe on that front.) Nevertheless, I have been writing, failing, and learning in front of an audience for almost three months now. If my father were still alive he would probably find hundreds of ways to criticize my writing. Even without him, though, I know there are still many scornful people out there like him. And yet, I keep posting. This suggests that I have become at least a little less afraid of exposing my ignorance.

I may never learn to “celebrate” my failures, but I am more motivated than ever to try to change my thinking on the subject. I now know that when I berate myself for my missteps and flaws, I am strengthening rather than weakening my baseless and irrational prejudices. If I want to alter and eradicate unfair biases, then I have to be willing to tolerate everyone’s mistakes, including my own. 

 

 

 

Runaway (Part II)

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Part II (Part I here)

After arriving at the police station, I remember standing alone in a room the size of an office cubicle, with three men in dark uniforms inspecting me from behind a glass window. The walls were close. My head felt too heavy, and I kept jerking it to try to hold it up. I was in a sort of daze, teetering in a narrow space between two dented, muddy orange-colored doors on either side. On my left, I noticed the teenage guy from the police car peering in through a small, double-paned window at the top of the locked door. On my right, there was an identical door, but as far as I could tell there was no one on the other side. I could kind of see a dim hallway beyond it, and I assumed it led to the next place they’d put me.

“Take off your shoes!” The men were yelling at me. “Take off your shoes!” It sounded louder and clearer this time. I glanced down at the floor and could see why I felt so wobbly. My ankles were crossed and I was squeezing my thighs together, balancing on the edges of my feet. My shoes? Reaching out to the wall behind me, I steadied myself. I bent down to remove my left shoe, and then as I was taking off the right, I started listening to the men in earnest. They had stopped shouting. I guess because I was finally acknowledging them and complying with their orders, they no longer needed to act openly hostile toward me.

Now, though, I could hear them talking about me and laughing. One said, “She’s probably pregnant and that kid out there’s the father.” Then they all cracked up. “Maybe they were planning to get married,” added another. Again, the cackling. I probably blushed a little before I quickly shifted to thinking about how sexist they were.

In fact, I had barely looked at that boy, and I had not uttered a word to anyone. Why couldn’t I have my own reasons for running away?

I don’t blame the boy for being confused. A couple of months before, we had met in Las Vegas while I was on a summer trip out West with a bunch of other kids. He had wanted a break from visiting with family, and we were looking for something age-appropriate to do in a casino. Our chaperones insisted that we not go too far, so we all hung out near his car in the parking lot behind the building. For the afternoon and most of the evening, we had loitered and flirted. When we parted, the boy and I had exchanged addresses and kissed good-bye. Still, I had felt certain I would never see him again because we lived on opposite sides of the country.

I guess he saw things differently. He wrote to me several times, even though I never replied. I liked getting romantic letters from an older boy, but I mostly read them out of curiosity and then stuffed them in a drawer.

Then I got a letter inviting me to come visit him in Long Beach whenever I wanted. It didn’t matter when, he wrote, because he and his 24-year-old brother lived alone. He promised his brother would be “cool about the whole thing.” The invitation to go to a place where there would be no parents to tell me how I had messed up, embarrassed them, or made them furious was the most exciting thing that I had ever seen. It seemed like a safe way out.

A few weeks later, without any warning or explanation, I had shown up on his doorstep carrying a large suitcase. When he opened his apartment door, though, I could see policemen hovering behind him. Just like that, my one shot at getting away disintegrated. Then in kind of a chain reaction, every sense in my body began shutting down. With my ears ringing, my eyes glazing over, and my voice muted, my mind felt like a blank video screen snowing and crackling with static.

I have no idea what the police and that poor guy discussed while I stood there feeling empty. All I know is that I could not participate in their conversation. If I had not been out of it and speechless, I would have told the boy not to get in the police car with me. If I had been able to communicate, I could have explained that I had traveled all this way not because I wanted to be with him, but because I wanted to escape.

Now, as I glanced at him lingering behind the thick metal door at the police station, furrowing his eyebrows with concern, I really did feel guilty. I wanted to tell him that I was sorry and that it was not his fault that I didn’t have feelings for him. I didn’t know him, and if he thought he knew me, it was only a fantasy.

I couldn’t handle any more made-up stories. The pretending was what had made me feel so crazy. I wasn’t crazy, though. I was a 14-year-old girl who was scared and tired of living with stories that had never been true. So I had packed my things and stolen my mother’s credit card and some money to pay for food, a hotel room, and transportation to take me as far from home as possible.

(Part III here)

Runaway (Part I)

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The inside of the police car didn’t look that different from the three taxi cabs I had taken on my way to California. I sat in the back of this car too, on the same kind of undivided, greenish-black vinyl bench. Again, a sturdy piece of plexiglass separated me from, and obscured my view of, the driver. But it was not the same.

I could have been anyone in those taxis. I had been anonymous on the bus, the airplane, and even in the hotel that first night. I had chosen to travel from Baltimore to Long Beach on my own, and I had reached my intended destination without help from anyone. Now I was being taken away, escorted by three strangers who knew my name, knew where I was from, and knew that I was a 14 year-old girl. They didn’t know me, though, and they didn’t have a clue about why I had fled more than 2,500 miles from home.

The police officers up front were chatting (I think trying to engage me in a discussion) while the 17-year-old guy I had ostensibly come to California to see was reaching out across the seat to offer me his hand. Just 24 hours earlier, I had stood outside the Los Angeles airport gazing at the boldness of the mountains. The combination of their jagged and rounded edges highlighted against the bright, beautiful blue sky had somehow felt reassuring. I remember the lightness that washed over me then, and I think I felt free.

Now that I was pressed up against the door of this bleak and stuffy police car, with a well-intended but oblivious guy grasping at me, I longed for that sparkly feeling, but the glow of confidence had vanished. I knew these men and my parents would make me return home, and when I got back there would be no mountains, or calm, or lightness, or certainty. The sight of the boy’s unfamiliar and unwanted hand stretching closer to me reminded me of all the false relationships that I did not want and all the connections that I would never have. I needed to retreat. I turned away from him and said nothing, twisting my shoulders and neck to look out the window instead.

I didn’t know where we were exactly, and wherever we were going, I wouldn’t recognize that place, either. I needed to look back, though. That was the only part of all of this that was still mine. I wanted to know what I had missed—even if I had fucked it up and would not get to experience it again for a very long time. Except there was nothing to see. None of the streets, houses, or buildings looked special, and the people walking and driving by were just as ordinary. I was the only one who knew what I was leaving behind, but at that moment even I couldn’t see it.

(Part II here)

Motherhood

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I want my children to grow up feeling loved, cared for, appreciated, and accepted for who they are. I wish I could say that I am certain they feel all of those things as I hoped they would. It’s hard to know for sure.

I childishly thought I could secure their inalienable rights to these assurances just because I wanted to do so. No one told me that trying in earnest might not be enough.

I cannot promise my children the security and self-esteem they deserve. I don’t have what it takes to always get it right. Neither my love for them nor my desire to protect them is enough to ensure that they will never feel unwanted, or broken, or empty.

I can tolerate the boredom, the frustration, the lack of appreciation, and even the Sisyphean nature of motherhood. What hurts is the reality that, despite my best efforts as their mother, I still might have failed at what was needed most.

Lonely Brain Freeze (journal entries 1/27/13-2/8/13)

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From a year ago:

1/27/13

My brain feels clogged, or stalled, or stuck in the process of shutting down. Writing the date in my journal may be the only thing that keeps me in touch with something logical and real.

1/28/13

I can’t motivate to do almost anything. I don’t feel like doing. I just want to quit.

1/31/13

I don’t see how any of this will or could get any better. My concentration and ability to function are slipping. If I have no options, will I have to adapt?

2/4/13

Holding onto the good is not something I do well. I wish I knew what to wish for. Today, my husband should have been celebrating a well-earned work accomplishment. Instead, he was trying to convince me that my sense of self was terribly distorted right now.

2/5/13

Last night, I walked the dog at night in darker and riskier places than I normally frequent. I was thinking if someone mugged and killed me that would solve several problems. In that fantasy, though, I worried about the dog being harmed. I can’t continue.

2/6/13

Today, I made an appointment with a psychiatrist, but I hate feeling remotely hopeful. It feels like a trick. If I get distracted or involved with something temporarily, I will still have to return to the I-hate-myself world. It is much easier to live in that world when there is no hope. If you hate yourself and what you do, then you can just hope to die, which is not a task that requires a great deal of skill or effort.

2/8/13

I want something. Something for me. Something that is mine. I need to know that there is something out there for people like me. What can I do? How do I pursue something without knowing what it is? What would it be if I had chosen for myself all along?

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In two recent situations, I felt acutely aware that words by themselves do not suffice. I had many of them at hand, but they just sat there in my mind, stacked up like bricks, walling me off from my feelings. Usually, I experience a blankness or a short circuiting of thought when I feel blocked, but this was not my own forgetfulness, emptiness, or malfunctioning. I had lots of excuses for my walls of lousy words, but for once I didn’t feel they were lousy because of my own shortcomings.

The first situation arose when someone thoughtfully asked me for recommendations on how to respond to a rape victim’s disclosure. I appreciated the question, but all of the responses that occurred to me felt inept, deficient, or wrong. The sentences I wrote in reply made sense and ostensibly said what I wanted to say. At the same time, the very act of crafting sentences felt superficial, and being superficial felt disrespectful. How do you express layered feelings of sympathy, concern, impotency, and sadness to people who are in pain?

I think I struggled to respond to the question about words for rape victims, in part, because I know that victims and their experiences vary widely, and I didn’t want to suggest specific reactions that might not be appropriate for everyone. Even so, I could envision the tone and quality of some words and even some of the accompanying body language that might reassure. At the same time, the actual words that came to mind seemed glib and too little, almost artificial.

The second situation arose when I got a message from someone who has had a debilitating, chronic disease his whole life and was recently diagnosed with another major and probably terminal illness. This person had seen my blog and had written to me to say that he was enjoying reading some of my posts. I was simultaneously flattered and horrified, worrying that he was wasting his precious time on my blog. I also had this strong feeling that, if the world made any sense at all, his body would be healthy and mine would be the thoroughly diseased one. I sometimes wish that my heart would stop, while, I assume, he spends a lot of time wishing that his won’t.

Regardless of that irony, I was glad that he had contacted me, and I wanted to reply promptly. Again, though, I was stumped. I could write about how genuinely sorry I was. I even thought about the understandable and sincere ways that people often talk about courage, strength, and perseverance under these kinds of circumstances. But all of that felt trite and too easy. In my mind, the limitations of words felt like betrayals, and everything that I knew to say risked belittling his experience.

This is going to sound crazy, but as I thought more about the irrationality, immediacy, and intensity of feelings, I remembered something my younger son used to do when he was learning to speak. At the time, this son seemed to have an unusual need for me to always look the same. Back then, I guess I rarely wore my hair in ponytails, so when I did, this distressed him tremendously. He would cry and reach his arms up in the air, stiffly stretching out his fingers before retracting them into fists, and say, “No hair, Mommy! No hair!” He didn’t know any other words to demonstrate the intensity of his frustration or his deep desire to make it better, and yet I knew what he meant right away. With the unselfconscious use of three baby-words and one gesture, he conveyed his strong and desperate feelings, and what he truly felt was unmistakable.

Artists often speak of wanting to approach a painting like a child, without reservations or preconceived notions. I have never heard of writers who wish they could write (or really speak) like babies. Still, I wonder if unsophisticated words and small gestures might work better than poetic language when we are speaking directly to people who are living with sorrowful, grave, and unfair experiences. There is something aptly sincere, pointed, and powerful in baby-talk that gets lost when we start to think about the proper expression and delivery of our feelings. I believe wholeheartedly in the value of exquisite sonnets, paintings, symphonies, photographs, and the like. These forms have an astounding ability to connect us to complex emotions on a number of levels. At the same time, all of those forms carry with them a level of abstraction and artifice that removes us—if only ever so slightly—from the potent reality they try to represent.

Adults are not going to start speaking like infants anytime soon, and I’m not suggesting they should. Still, it would be something if we could express our raw and unadulterated emotions like my son did and other babies do. Their body language and economy of words often have the power to communicate very specific emotions instantly and more effectively than anything else I have experienced.

I did my best to reply to these two people who deserved heartfelt responses. If either of them feels that I failed them, though, I don’t think they would be wrong. If I were to translate the feelings I wanted to convey into a combination of the most basic words and a single gesture, I would reach out my open hand and say, “I wish…”

For My Sister

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After hiding it for six years, in 1991, I finally told my parents that I had been raped when I was 15 years old. My father responded, “I want you to know, dear, that doesn’t change the way I feel about you. That’s just more data for me to process.” Those were his exact words, I think, and I’m pretty sure the conversation ended there. When I told my mother that I was going to a rape support group, she said something like, “Oh, that’s nice. I think so-and-so’s daughter is doing one of those.” I once told a guy I had been considering dating about what had happened, and he said, “That’s not that shocking.” Those are not the only inappropriate reactions that I have ever heard, nor are they the worst. Even so, they give you a sense of the awkwardness that often seems to descend whenever we try to discuss rape.

I suppose it’s hard to know what to say or how to talk about sexual assault, in part because the word “rape” gets used in so many different ways. People are always trying to explain the word further by qualifying it with adjectives like “legitimate,” “violent,” “marital,” “stranger,” or “date.” This confuses things by opening the door to interpretation.

by walter CraneRedRidingHood_thumb[10]I believe that modifying the word should not change its fundamental meaning. Just like you can’t be “kind of” pregnant, you can’t be “kind of” raped. For me, rape can and should only be identified by asking one question: was someone forced to have sex against her or his will? That’s it. End of story. Once this question has been answered with a yes, all the circumstances and mitigating factors in the world cannot change the fact that someone was raped. Clothing, previous sexual history, preceding physical interactions, marital status, or alleged magical powers “to shut that whole thing down” are not relevant in determining if rape has occurred. To be clear, I am not suggesting that all rape crimes are the same, because they are not. Honestly, I struggle with whether my story merits strong feelings, especially when you compare it to the worst stories. However you qualify it, though, it was still a rape.

Fortunately, there are people who get it—people who are not so clumsy, inconsiderate, or sexist when it comes to talking about rape. I am immensely grateful that the first person I ever told was my older sister. She was and is one of the few people in my life who has truly been there for me, supported me, and in many ways kept me sane. I was so young when it happened that I didn’t even know what to label it. But when I called my sister that night, she didn’t falter or hesitate. She was not “processing” the story as something that I did or something about who I was. When I told her what had happened, she knew right away; it was about what he did and who he was. And she said so with sincerity, concern, and love.

The day after it happened, I told a second person. I stayed home from school and set up an emergency appointment with my psychiatrist. Her response devastated and silenced me for years. She said I wanted it.

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I don’t know why she said that. I only know that it took me a long time to believe that she was simply wrong. A year or so after that response, the same doctor managed to do a number of things that horrified even my parents. She was promptly fired, but her initial reaction had already made its impression on me.

I used to worry that maybe that psychiatrist was right. I mean, after it happened, there were no obvious physical marks on my body. I did not have to go to the hospital. The police were never involved in any way. And for more than six years, only my sisters and a few of my closest friends knew anything about it. My experience was not “that shocking.” Without a witness or physical evidence, how could I prove that I did not “want it” or that it was “shocking” to me? What if I could not convince people to check off the “shocking” box in an opinion poll? There was no video footage to discover. There was only my memory, and maybe that just wasn’t enough. Maybe I didn’t deserve to feel scared or upset or hurt.

The person who raped me was not a stranger. I was in my own house when it happened. My mother was close by, asleep in her bedroom, but I didn’t yell out to her. I couldn’t, because no one scared me more than she did. She might kick me out of the house again, or scream at me the way she had before and blame me for embarrassing her. It never even crossed my mind that she could or would help me if I tried to yell out to her.

I wished that I’d had parents who could have rescued me. Afterwards, I wished that they could have supported me, told me that it was going to be alright, that it wasn’t my fault, and that they were sorry they hadn’t done a better job protecting me. Except, my relationships with my parents just weren’t like that, and I knew this when I was 15.

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The thing is, whether that is shocking or not, it won’t make me feel more sure about why it had to happen or less sure about how it felt. Check whichever box you want. Either way, my parents and I will never have the kind of relationships that we wanted. And either way, I got hurt.

http---americanart.si.edu-images-1929-1929.6.127_1aIf it hadn’t been for my sister, I probably would have blamed myself for the rest of my life. Without her, I would not be writing this post today. Perhaps most people would think what she did back then was not particularly complicated or miraculous. She just listened to me and believed in me enough for both us. What she did was extraordinary, though. She was only 18 when I called her, but even then she was more thoughtful, caring, attentive, responsible, and loving than *all* of the adults in our lives put together.

I am not certain that I deserve to feel hurt by what happened to me. I still can’t quite say “rape” out loud in a sentence about myself without mumbling and slurring the word. I also can’t say that I am not at all embarrassed about what happened. I don’t think it was my fault, but I still feel ashamed. Someday, I hope I’ll get better about all of that.

Perhaps in the not-too-distant future I will enunciate the word “rape” and describe my personal experience without any shame. I hope that when I do, no one will need to question me about what I was wearing, or what I was doing an hour earlier, or why I didn’t scream for my mother. None of the answers to those questions will tell you whether I was raped or not. But if anyone asks about how I became strong enough to talk about my experience with rape, I will not falter or hesitate in saying that I have an amazing older sister who helped me.

Permission Slips (journal entry 1/24/13)

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From a year ago:

Carbon monoxide. I *smelled* it when I put the car in the garage. I know—it has no smell, but the exhaust fumes made me think of it. And now, I can’t stop thinking about it. I keep hearing Regina Spektor singing about it. When I read that stupid message on the Dove chocolate wrapper that said “Give yourself permission,” I wanted those words to be true—real for someone like me. There are a lot of people who eat chocolate; does everyone have permission?

I don’t want tomorrow to come. I don’t want to face another day of lonely brain freeze. I don’t want to continue dragging myself from one obligation to the next feeling that profound sense of being a burden. I am just a weight pulling people down. And money spent to try to make me better is being wasted. I am a useless, extraneous expense. How is this good for anyone? That is the question that is always on my mind, but there are never any convincing answers.

Maybe the hardest part of feeling this way is that you really can’t talk about yourself or your thoughts with anyone you love or care about. It would only be upsetting to them. But the whole reason you might want to talk about it—instead of acting on it—is because you specifically don’t want to hurt those same people. So, that’s the catch.

My therapist is at such a loss for what to do with me that she is encouraging me to consider “alternative therapies.” I said I might be willing to try them. But then I remembered, of course, any additional treatments would mean additional costs. And the truth is, I don’t want to try. Trying is for people who believe that success of any kind is not only possible, but desirable.

What I want is to attach a hose to the exhaust pipe of a car, sit on a heated seat, bring the hose to my mouth, inhale deeply, and go to sleep forever. There. I said it. Nobody will hear it and nobody can know, but out it came without filter. The thought is just sitting there on the page. It doesn’t feel sorry for itself, and it doesn’t want pity. It’s a series of words that follow each other across the page. With 100 or so letters, the idea is out in the open and it means something. If someone were to see those letters squishing together to fit on the page, would it make a bit of difference?

What is a bit of difference anyway? What would it look like? I want to kill myself, but I can’t. Nope, no bit is emerging as far as I can tell. I can’t do what I want, and I will never be who I should be.

I have to pretend it is better for my family and me if I stay. I can’t check out without hurting people or abandoning my children. I know I can’t do that to the people I love. But my not wanting to hurt any of them is my only reason for staying. I have no reasons of my own.

Stay and pretend. That’s the best I can do. Pretend because suicide creates pain, sadness, and frustration for the survivors. I get it in the obvious sense, but there is still something fundamentally backward about the whole situation. When someone desperately wants to be put out of her misery, it is the people who love her who force her to endure that very same misery.

 

The Safety of Closets

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If feelings can’t be wrong, why are they allowed to be your enemies? It seems like a major design flaw. Emotions should not be powerful enough to consume you or tear you down if you can’t even call them wrong. It’s not fair. Try screaming, “You suck, fear, you piece of shit!” or “Fuck you, self-loathing, you cruel abuser! It won’t convince the feelings to see the errors of their ways. None of those words will have any impact. A feeling just is. I know, I get it, but I would be lying if I said I’ve been able to accept it.

I want my adversaries to be clearly evil. I don’t know how to fight amorphous, supposedly neutral feelings. That is far too nebulous. I long for clarity. I need an exacting plan of attack against mortal enemies.

My nemesis is a massive, slimy, shape-shifting blob of bad feelings that follows me everywhere I go. I am attached to it. Not attached, like I love it and don’t want to give it up. We are attached because there is an unbreakable umbilical cord that connects us. A sinewy, stretchable cable runs from the center of the blob’s power source to the middle of my back, where it shoots straight through me, anchoring itself right between my rib cage. Just like a real umbilical cord, the cable acts as both a tether and a oneway conduit. Except the blob does not want to protect and nourish me, it wants to undermine and stifle me. And with its cord fused to my body, the blob can both restrain and infect me—limiting my actions and dispatching all the accusatory and hostile messages that it wants.

I cannot always tell where the blob is or what it’s doing. Sometimes, the critical thoughts pour through the cord flooding the channel, but at other times there is only a steady trickle. The blob’s power and size as well as the distance between us also vary. However, regardless of the blob’s proximity, its dimensions, its force, or the rate at which it transmits its negativity, it is always there. Hence, I have dutifully learned to acknowledge it. I have studied it. I have tried to identify its methods and understand how it came to be. I have not made peace with it, though. I have not forgiven it for all the times that it’s held me back, sucked me in, or sought to poison me.

I wish I had the tools or skills to completely escape the blob’s influence and control over me. I have tried to flee by pulling away as far as I can. In stretching the cord to its absolute limit, the hope is that I will somehow manage to weaken the cable long enough to sever our connection. Initially, this helps; the cord’s fibers become stressed almost to a breaking point and its channel significantly narrows. Inevitably, though, either I collapse from the exertion, or—in response to my efforts—the blob expands and refuels itself with hardier vitriol. And when that happens, I think if only I could turn to face that vicious blob and simply say, “You are wrong.” But, I can’t, because it’s only a bunch of feelings. A gigantic, pulsating mass of aggressive emotions that will snap me back, just before it swallows me up and tries to smother me.

For the last two weeks, I have been thinking about how to explain what made me the way I am. Depression is part of it, but that is only a piece of the story. Brain chemistry is not only about our genes. What determines who we are and how we feel depends on both our physical makeup and our lived experiences. The timing, intensity, and frequency of all our traumatic and encouraging experiences affect who we ultimately become. I suppose it’s possible that I would still be the same person today if things had been different, but I doubt it.

On this blog, I have written about my feelings and talked about some of my experiences. But my story—where I came from—is something I have been too afraid to tell. (That makes it sound so intriguing and important, which it probably isn’t.) Nevertheless, I tried for much of last week to write about one small section of an unusual but sad adventure of mine. I was only striving for a tiny excerpt from my past, when the blob sprang up and shot out. Before I knew it, the blob was growing and deftly pursuing me while simultaneously injecting me with huge doses of self-doubt and shame.

I tried to scramble away from the blob. I worked at batting it back. I tried to block the cord’s channel and ignore all of the contemptuous criticism. I charged ahead, typing words into my computer, struggling to portray what happened. But I couldn’t beat it. My efforts only made things worse. I found that as I got deeper into the narrative (on the verge of revealing scary feelings and family stories), the blob got bigger, stronger, closer, and more venomous.

Eventually, it always slimes me, thoroughly coating and crippling me with my own negative feelings. It turns them against me: perverting my outward anger into self-hatred; twisting my sadness into shame; turning all hope into hubris. Once this happens, everything I do is tainted. Instead of walking, I do this hunched-over-shuffling thing. My body feels heavy, cumbersome, and droopy as I limp along. Or, I get all jittery and can’t sit still. I have to be biting my nails, or pulling at my lip, or fidgeting in my seat.

The hardest part, though, is the closets. It’s not the bottle of rum, the pack of cigarettes, or the tub of hazelnut gelato that I have to resist. I’m not joking. When the blob has infected or enveloped me, I have to muster up whatever strength I have left to fend off the overwhelming urge to run and hide in a closet. I feel so desperate, I begin to believe that if I could just steal away, slamming the door behind me, I would be sheltered and safe. I dream about finite, predictable, innocuous spaces where I can be alone and shut off from all risk. So, I delude myself into thinking that stowed away from the rest of the world in a closet, I will be able to vigilantly and reliably guard whatever self-respect remains.

Although I didn’t succumb to the lure of a closet this time, I still surrendered to the blob. It won. I gave up. It stopped my writing, and I let it. The blob was trying to convince me that I could only tell my story if I did it without assigning any blame and without exposing other people’s mistakes. But in my stories, there were real errors, and they weren’t all mine. The truth is, several people screwed up in a number of ways. I can’t get around that without hiding the facts or denying my feelings.

Disingenuous feelings and gaping holes in context make story fragments meaningless. Who did what, when, and why matters. And the feelings matter even more. You can’t separate those things from a story without destroying it. So, I am stuck—frightened of the repercussions that seem unavoidable if I try to claim and share my story. The stakes feel too high.

Take it or Leave it, Now or Later

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New Year’s resolutions have never been my thing. I guess, I don’t really understand how you avoid thinking about your behavior on all the other days of the year. Admittedly, I am a depressed, low self-esteem worrier, but honestly are there people who do not routinely look back at what they have done or forward to what they wish they could do? Are there days when you are supposed to shun self-reflection? If so, when are those blackout dates, and could someone please tell me how to refrain from questioning and berating myself on those carefree days?

Seriously, though, I want to stress that I am not criticizing people who have already determined that the first day of the year is the best time for self-improvement. On New Year’s day, if you promised yourself in 2014 you would eat a healthy diet, work out more regularly, get sober, or no longer post indiscreet selfies on the internet, you should be applauded for taking steps to better your life. Those are all admirable goals. However, I would just like to say that I think, in general, January first is one of the least conducive times for changing bad habits.

For starters, it is always an awful idea to put all of your expectations into a single day or even a couple of weeks. And, it’s not just any day; it is the single most conspicuous day or few weeks of the year. People are watching to see whether you can follow through on your resolution at these times. That is far too much pressure.

Furthermore, how could anyone—living in this part of the world—think that the month of January is a favorable time for most of the lifestyle adjustments listed above? January has some of the shortest, darkest, coldest, and least temperate days of the entire year. It also happens to be the month that follows the handful of “holidays” that tend to be the most pressured and rife with family expectations and disappointments.

In other words, January is one of the most stressful and challenging times for anyone to eat well, exercise more, drink less, and stay offline. Striving to correct your imperfections and work hardest on your vices, at a time when everyone is struggling, seems a little like throwing a kid, who is afraid of swimming, into the ocean when there is a strong undertow.

When and how should you work on changing yourself or your habits? The short answers are whenever you want and it depends.

According to psychologist Jeremy Dean, the time it takes to break an old habit or start a new one depends largely on which habits need changing. In one study, on average, “it took 66 days until a habit was formed.” However, the bad news is “There was considerable variation in how long habits took to form depending on what people tried to do.” Not surprisingly, for example, training yourself to drink a glass of water in the morning was far easier than forcing yourself to do 50 sit-ups. Many people in this study accomplished the former goal in only 20 days, but the latter goal was still not a habit for many after 84 days.

The good news is these studies prove that some habits are changeable in only a matter of days. Moreover, as psychologist Daniel Gilbert suggests, trying to gain greater control over your life is not only a normal part of being human, it also can improve your mood. Gilbert’s most exciting finding may be that even the “illusion of control…seems to confer many of the psychological benefits of genuine control.”* He states that some researchers have concluded that regardless of whether your sense of control over a situation is real or imagined, the benefit to your mental health is noticeable.

For more pointed and specific advice on changing habits, you might try reading New York Times reporter Daniel Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit. Duhigg says that all habits (good or bad) conform to the same pattern. There is a three step loop that we experience every time we practice any habitual behavior. First, there is a cue (a trigger), followed by a routine (the actual behavior), and then a reward. Duhigg argues behaviors turn into habits because “The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.”  “To change a habit,” Duhigg proposes, “you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.” However, he acknowledges that, “Genuine change requires work and self-understanding of the cravings driving behaviors.”

Obviously, I am probably not a good source for what works when you are really determined to make a fresh start. For this reason, I cannot in good faith offer anyone any advice. Therefore, I will not try to tell you how to do anything. Instead, I will report some of the other seemingly pertinent words of wisdom that I came across over the course of 2013.

  1.  Make to do lists no longer than a Post-It note with specific, actionable, baby-step goals.
  2.  One of the best ways to combat negative distractions is positive distractions.
  3. The most recent research shows that successful change requires a substantial dose of experiential learning (i.e., mistakes and failures are part of the process).
  4. Talent or innate skills are only a tiny percentage of success; consistent, unglamorous work is what counts.
  5. Change happens when we become aware of what we are, not when we try to become what we are not.

Some people may have very little difficulty sticking to and achieving their New Year’s resolutions. If that has not been your experience, though, I hope you will remember that modifying your behavior at the start of a new calendar year is not the only way to affect change in your life. As far as I know, neither Dean, nor Gilbert, nor Duhigg seem to think that the most important factors in changing your habits have anything to do with New Year’s resolutions.

January first is actually a fairly arbitrary, unusually lousy time for transitioning to new ways of living. April 3rd, June 12th, or September 22nd are just a few of the 364 other possible dates when you also might be successful in forming new habits. From what I can tell, if you decide to transform some aspect of yourself, becoming self-aware about your triggers, believing in the value of a proposed change, having a willingness to work and fail at it, and your sense of your ability to control the outcome, all matter far more than when you decide to go for it.

 

 

But wait, there’s more:

(Unfortunately, I am horrible about always citing my sources when I am quickly scribbling down ideas on whatever paper is within my immediate reach. This means, I don’t always know who said which thing; and when I do know whose words I liked, I often can’t remember where I recorded them. Perhaps, my New Year’s resolution should be about becoming an organized notetaker. Anyway, to give some of the writers some of the credit they deserve, I have tried to compensate for my incompetence by including an appendix of sorts below. In it, you will find additional, directly and tangentially relevant statements and a list en masse of all of the sources that I can verify. I apologize to any academics out there who are shuddering in horror as they read this.)

Appendix

Somewhat Relevant 

  1. Sleep is more important than food.
  2. Doing nothing for some short period everyday is just as necessary as all those things on your to do lists.
  3. By doing a little everyday, you can get a lot accomplished.
  4. Successful multi-tasking has been scientifically proven to be virtually impossible.
  5. Practicing focused attention boosts our concentration, and helps with stress, anxiety, and addictive behaviors.
  6. People don’t notice your mistakes as much as you think they do.

Less Relevant but not unrelated

  1. Hope is a combination of setting goals, having the tenacity and perseverance to pursue them, and believing in our own abilities.
  2. A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.
  3. There are no meaningful guarantees.
  4. Fixed selfhood is a myth.

Sources

(Please note, I would not necessarily endorse all of the following sources, but clearly I found parts of them useful. Also, I swear I don’t only read these types of self-helpy materials. However, if you need to make a quick list of short, easily digestible advice, many of the sources below work rather well.)

  • http://www.brainpickings.org
  • Brown, Brene. The Gifts of Imperfection.
  • Dean, Jeremy. Making Habits, Breaking Habits.
  • Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit.
  • Gilbert, Daniel. Stumbling on Happiness.
  • Glei, Jocelyn K., ed. Manage Your Day-To-Day.
  • Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow.
  • Krznaric, Roman. How to Find Fulfilling Work.
  • Perry, Philippa. How to Stay Sane.
  • Ruben, Gretchen. The Happiness Project.
  • Watts, Alan. The Wisdom of Insecurity.

Footnote (from paragraph #7)

*I am sorry to say that this does not apply to the clinically depressed who, Gilbert notes, “seem generally immune to this illusion.” I suppose our only consolation is that the reason we cannot benefit from those delusions is we tend to be more capable of estimating “accurately the degree to which [we] can control events” (yeah, yet another perk for the mentally ill).

Monday Morning

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Why can’t I call in sick to the adulthood office, just once?

What if there were a central location or an agency—some sort of human resources department—that could make hiring/firing decisions, or maybe a committee that could offer the possibility of furloughs? Then, I could call up and say, “Hello, is this the bureau of adulthood? Yes? Fantastic. Sorry, I can’t make it in today. You’ll have to find someone else to fill in for me.”

But there is no such place. You have to report for duty daily—24/7, rain or shine, in sickness and in health as long as you live. There are no other options in life. You can never go back to non-adulthood, not even for a short visit. It doesn’t end after you are dead either. You can still be responsible for (i.e., blamed for) things that happen both before and after your death.

You don’t get hired, or elected, or chosen. You can’t quit or ever be fired. Adulthood is the biggest adjustment of your life, but it happens without your consent and often without your awareness. You don’t get to choose when it begins, and it will only end for you when you die.

One day it appears, and then you are permanently saddled with liabilities, constraints, and obligations. It is the point of no return—irreversible responsibility for the rest of your life.

My hands are dropping, my eyelids are drifting down, and once again I am fighting off and terrified about another day to push through. I can’t prevent it. Tomorrow will wake me with a nagging, beeping alarm, and I will feel sick to my stomach that it came again so fast.

Shirts in the Armoire (journal entry 1/9/13)

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January 9th, 2013

I should consider myself very fortunate. I love my husband and children. We are all relatively healthy. We live in a nice place where, for the most part, we are safe and never have to worry about whether we will be able to afford the things we really need. Why isn’t that enough?

Why can’t I be happy with what I have and who I am? Why should I expect to have a job that I like or find interesting and intellectually stimulating? Why does it matter that I don’t like myself? I have no right to complain.

Still, here I am wishing I could escape—knowing my desire to run away is unacceptable. I have to stay. I can’t escape from these circumstances or these feelings.

I have spent so much time and energy wishing that I could be someone else or just not be at all that I am left with emptiness. That is what I have. I am unhappy and at a loss for how to make it better.

I am not even sure better would be enough. I still can’t say what I want or who I want to be. Except, I am certain this complaining, lost, unaccomplished, feel-sorry-for-herself person is not it. This is who I have become, and I alone am responsible for not making other choices and for not being willing to take risks.

When I contemplate or try to remember being an artist, I feel like a phony and a failure. I am a wimp—afraid to be incredibly uninspired and mediocre.

If only I had control over my thoughts and feelings, then I could stow them away like pressed and folded, men’s dress-shirts in cardboard boxes. Sitting on wooden shelves, neatly stacked and organized to fit, behind the mirrored door of an armoire, boxed shirts could wait.

Directly into the Sun

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Squinting longer at the writing wasn’t helping. All of the words were ones I recognized, and the whole thing was only three short sentences. Yet, I couldn’t face that line and a half of text on my computer screen because the words were praising me.

I was scared. I felt like someone trying very hard never to look directly into the sun. I wanted to protect myself from some horrible fate like burnt eyes. I let that thought distract me and quickly googled what happens when people stare at the sun. If you look straight up at it, soon tears will pour out of your eyes as they burn, swell, blister, and crack in succession. How could those three glowing sentences have that kind of power?

Still, I had to turn away. The words didn’t though. They stayed put—backlit and sturdy in bold black type. They were peering at me, but I was looking past them or maybe through them. It was like a stupid staring contest with the tenacious text winning. It was obstinately glaring at me as if to say, “what the hell is wrong with you?”

I shut the lid of my laptop, and the words disappeared. I left my office, walked upstairs, and went to sleep. When I woke up too early the next morning, I rolled back and forth in bed unsuccessfully pretending I was not awake. I kept thinking about those faceless teachers from Charlie Brown TV specials.

The dialogue for the adults in those cartoons never changed. They always said, “whah, whah, whah, whah, whah, whah,” and the Peanuts‘ character would just gaze blankly back at the grown-up unable to comprehend a word.

As a little kid, I could relate to the way that, no matter what the children asked or did, it always earned them the same response. What I didn’t understand, though, was why the adults were using nonsense words. My parents and caregivers were quite clear with me. They mostly said and I always heard, “you can’t, you can’t, you can’t, you can’t, you can’t.” Except, unlike Peppermint Patty or Sally, not only did I know what the adults said, I understood what they meant. They were telling me “no” because I was either bad, mean, or difficult or because I was not good, smart, or talented enough. It was that simple.

I suppose my capacity to absorb positive feedback is actually more like the Gary Larson comic strip about a dog and her owner. In it, there are just two cels with the same identical drawing of a man talking to his dog. One caption reads “what we say to dogs,” and the other says “what they hear.” The only word the dog understands is her name Ginger. All the other words are meaningless to her. I am slightly more fluent in human than Ginger, but my struggle with certain word combinations is not much better than hers.

I grew up with a very limited understanding of myself, and now I can’t translate phrases that don’t match up with that understanding. Part of my brain works normally. I can listen to, sort of acknowledge, honestly say thank you, and smile in response to flattery, but then I lose it. My abject fear of admiring statements provokes incredible mental gymnastics in my head. I compulsively start dissecting the interaction for metamessages, twisting and distorting the phrases looking for ways to justify and explain away the well-intentioned and gracious words. This means my brain cannot fully accept positive recognition and internalizing it would take some kind of monumental gestalt shift in my psyche.

Nevertheless, the three short sentences were haunting me. My normal tactics were not working. Usually, I employ “interpretive techniques” like these: that person said ____ because she feels sorry for me and is worried about my low self-esteem; this person told me I was ____ because he thinks I am decent and doesn’t want to hurt my feelings; those people didn’t notice all my mistakes because they were distracted with more important things; these people sugar-coated things for me to protect me from my inevitable embarrassment; and so on. I know. Now, you’re just dying to say something nice to me. Aren’t you?

The reason my typical strategies were failing me had to do with the context in which I came across these particular sentences. The person who wrote them did not think that I would be seeing the email, and this fact was tripping me up. The words were not for my benefit, but I think, they were still favorable and about me. I don’t have a contingency plan for what to do when someone says something good about me if those statements aren’t about shielding me from my true awfulness or about the other person’s ulterior motives. In this case, neither of those factors seemed to be at play.

When I went back to try to focus on what was said in that email and concluded that I was totally unprepared and unarmed against this type of assessment of me, I knew I was lost. In truth, I have felt lost a number of times over the last 5 weeks. I feel as though I am bobbing along in some sort of surreal ocean where everything seems impossibly foreign or unrecognizable, and equally inaccessible. It is like I am surrounded by a flat, monotone sea where there is absolutely nothing within my reach and there are no signs or landmarks to direct me home. 

I am assuming that keeping my head above the water is a smart way to exist in this unfamiliar place, but really I have no clue about how to navigate any of it. Maybe sinking below the surface and fully submerging myself in this alien environment would mean that I could learn to see the world differently or even better. Unfortunately, though, right now—with my recalcitrant fear of scorched eyes—it feels more like I am flailing about like a blind fool who will never find her way.

That said, I am attempting to abide by the 5 day rule. It is similar to the 5 second rule, which applies to food dropped on the floor. In parenting land, if you pick up the food within 5 seconds, it is still deemed edible. I have adapted this concept and applied it to compliments. In my anti-positivity world, if someone says something flattering about me and I can still recall it 5 days later, then maybe it was palatable and I should accept it.

Today, I can only recollect one of the three sentences; it said “wow.” Shockingly, I am not particularly optimistic about what I will be able to retain in the future. But, when I consider that even dogs are capable of understanding and learning three letter words, I can almost imagine myself 3 days from now remembering that positive sentence as something someone once said about me.

Relinquishing Shame

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You do not envision yourself imploding under normal circumstances. It doesn’t even cross your mind. But have you ever felt so thoroughly ashamed that it seemed as though your body might have been injected with an intractably painful shame serum? Didn’t it feel like your blood was instantly saturated with devastating and immeasurable embarrassment? Sometimes, it seems just like that. In a matter of seconds, you imagine the failure cells traveling through your body, and you become certain when they ultimately reach your outer extremities you will have to implode from the sheer, uncontrollable force of mortification.

But then, nothing happens. You don’t implode or explode, or disintegrate or evaporate. Just nothing. And strangely in these moments of no visible activity, when you realize that there is not going to be a drastic and obvious end to this unsustainable, agonizing predicament, you may feel there has been some sort of mistake. You did not implode, and it feels abnormal.

That is how powerful feelings of shame can be. When humiliation overtakes someone (even a rational, normal, healthy person) in such a complete and unyielding way, it is not unusual for that someone to begin to wish for the impossible. People often talk about the power of love, but I think in many instances shame rivals feelings of love.

Perhaps, the immediacy of embarrassment is what makes it so viscerally all-encompassing. Or maybe, it is the fact that when you think about shame and strip it down to its barest form, it is really about you and only you. Love, hate, joy, sadness, and anger are all feelings that can be about internal or external factors, but humiliation is always connected to your feelings about yourself.

This is why you can only feel ashamed of other people when there is a particular connection to your own individual experience. If you do not approve of what someone is doing, you do not feel embarrassed unless it is related to who you are as a person. In those cases, feelings of disappointment, anger, or discomfort transform into feelings of shame because the other person’s behavior echoes something you personally experience as shameful. At some level, you worry their actions reflect or point out who you are in some disgraceful way.

Unfortunately, though, many people do not realize or want to acknowledge that it is their own behavior or situation that is causing the feelings of embarrassment. And so, instead of looking at themselves, they project their shame onto other people. The problem with sub-consciously displacing feelings about our own humiliating experiences is that it not only denies us the chance to address these issues directly for ourselves, it also has the potential to unjustly transfer the weight of our personal struggles onto someone else.

All of us have probably done this at one time or another. However, that does not mean we can’t do better in the future. If you feel ashamed of another person, maybe before you blame her or him for that unwanted emotion, you could consider fully the true origin of the embarrassment. When you care about that other person, don’t you think you owe them that at the very least?

I am not an expert on shame, but I have spent a lot of time being the shameful child, daughter, partner, relative, and friend. If you have read some of my other posts, you may know that I am actively trying to learn how to stop feeling embarrassed about being depressed or mentally ill. Part of my goal in outing myself publicly through this blog is to work on resisting notions of shame both for me and for other people who may have felt or still feel embarrassed about their mental health.

As a result, I have been thinking quite a bit about this issue of shame. I have begun to wonder if there is a way to return it to its legitimate owner when it clearly has been misdirected. I am not talking about some kind of spiteful retribution, though. I mean genuinely giving it back. I suppose this idea is a little crazy, but I don’t think it is entirely absurd.

Of course, you can’t and presumably don’t want to engage or waste your time with people who are ashamed of you from afar. But, for the people who truly matter (the nearby critics), maybe there is a way to openly or even subtly allow the shame to bounce off of you and back to them.

Today, I am going to try to redirect some of the embarrassment that a few of my relatives and friends have felt in response to my publicly announcing that I have problems with depression and anxiety. I will call these people my “Shaming Crew.” They are in no way the only shamers from my past and I would guess from my future, but for today they are the ones on my team.

Dear Shaming Crew,

I don’t know why my choice to share my stories and thoughts about my mental health is embarrassing you. I do not wish to deny your experiences or your feelings, but I have to tell you that I do not believe your humiliation—in its current manifestation—is serving either of us very well.

You should know that when you are ashamed of me, it makes me feel unfairly judged and bad about myself. As for you, when you focus your embarrassment on my actions, it seems as though you might be missing an opportunity to resolve your feelings of shame about your own behaviors and experiences. Therefore, I would like to ask if you would be willing (for a moment) to turn your evaluating lens away from me and face it instead in your own general direction. Perhaps in doing so, you might discover a better way to escape those horribly uncomfortable feelings of disgrace, which I understand can be truly oppressive.

I hope you can read these words and realize that I mean them wholeheartedly and without irony. Also, just in case it is helpful, I want to go on the record as promising that nothing I say or do can ever be a reflection of who you are. I swear I will never possess the power to change that fact no matter what. I alone am responsible for my actions, and only you can represent yourself.

Sincerely,

Francesca

P.S. Thank you for allowing me to relinquish what is rightfully yours. I genuinely feel less ashamed now.

She did it knowing that everyone would distort what mattered, and no one would remember why.

Near Misses

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He did not set out to rescue me. He is not a martyr without goals of his own, and he is also not someone who thinks he can just swoop in and save the day. His thoughts and feelings about the situation are not all neatly defined, systematically organized, or carefully roped off in the heroic-thinking part of his brain. He is not a hero. Even if he had that mentality, there are no clear-cut solutions; and there are certainly no magic wands.

My husband is a real person with real complexity and real emotions that are messy. But he loves me, and, in many ways, I am still here because of him. He is part of my own unwitting-police-force-of-potential-survivors. And so far, he has chosen to stay with me—despite all the “near misses.”

Those are my husband’s words—“near misses.” From his perspective, every time I become severely depressed and I don’t succeed in ending my life it’s a “near miss.” I had never thought about it that way, but then again I don’t really know what it is like to be on the other side of it. He is the one who has to live with the helplessness, fear, anger, and sadness that he feels anticipating, hoping for, and then recovering from a “miss.”

Both of us are wrestling with my depression. We are both considering and calculating the risks. I worry about the potential survivors, while he worries about the possible loss. Although I would guess that the proximity to actually losing me is only part of the struggle for him. The constancy of living under these circumstances—the reality that the threat has always been there and will never go away entirely—must feel unbearable at times. When I think about this undue and inexorable burden on my husband, I find myself shuddering with insurmountable regret. It is my illness that does this to him, so the culpability seems like it has to be mine.

Recently, just after my husband had talked to me about the experience of living with “near misses,” I heard a story on the radio that stopped me in my tracks. In it a woman, who was living on the lam with her escaped-convict lover, said that she “knew what it was like to suffer for heroic love.” Those last two words grabbed me and racked me with guilt. It was not the first time I had ever heard that phrase, but on this day my thinking sort of went into slow-motion as I fixated on what those two words together really meant.

Was suffering for love a heroic act? Was my husband suffering because he had the misfortune of falling in love with someone like me? I know that on a bad day, I would feel absolutely sure that he was suffering and it was all my fault. But it was a good day when I heard the reference to “heroic love,” so I was trying to assess things in a more balanced way.

Honestly, I tend to bristle slightly whenever people use the word hero. Heroes by today’s standards are portrayed as so brilliant, magnanimous, and/or courageous that they somehow always manage—all on their own—to overcome adversity in pursuit of their unflinchingly and myopically focused goal to better the world. Collaboration, support, distraction, ambivalence, bias, ulterior motives, and selfishness never figure into modern day stories about heroes.

Unlike those imaginary, impossibly perfect characters, my husband is fallible. And yet, everyday he must choose whether or not to stay with me. He has to look at me as I am with all my problems, annoying habits, and imperfections, and decide. I suppose that is what we all do when we truly love someone.

Four weeks ago, in a post about why I started this blog, I mentioned a conversation that I’d had with my husband. I wrote about a pivotal moment when I became painfully aware that my failure to be more open about my health was hurting him tremendously. What I did not address in that post was why we had been having this discussion about living with depression.

We had quarreled about something that I can’t even remember now, and it had ended badly. My husband had blurted out something in anger that really hurt me. As a result, I was convinced the words that had come out of his mouth in that moment expressed everything he truly believed.

Once the two of us had calmed down some, we finally sat down to figure out why we both had gotten so upset. In trying to explain what had happened during our argument, my husband said something I will never forget. He said, “thoughts are not pristine.”

He is so right. Thoughts are not tidy little packages that can always be unwrapped, opened, and interpreted without any ambiguity, confusion, or conflict. And feelings, experiences, and memories are no different. They are also rarely uncomplicated, or “pristine.” This may seem absurdly obvious to most people, but I am someone who has a difficult time holding onto these realities. For whatever reason, it is easier for me to imagine things in fairly childish, black and white terms. I have to struggle to see the gray.

However, the truth is, sometimes it’s not all my fault. Sometimes there is no one to blame. And sometimes feelings of love, concern, and happiness get mixed up with feelings of anger, frustration, and fear. That’s just the way it is.

I think what bothered me so much about the woman on the radio—who felt she had “suffered for heroic love”—was in part the self-aggrandizing tone of her statement and in part her apparent misconception of love and heroism. The way she was using the word hero didn’t seem to account for doubt, frustration, fear, or anger, and the love that she was describing seemed entirely one-sided.

Maybe my husband will always have to suffer more than some people because he had the bad luck of loving someone with my particular issues (someone who has needed and may still need an inadvertent security force, or someone who may someday just skim by another near death). But he is not staying with me because he is a hero. That notion diminishes what he has done for me and what he might do for me again in the future.

Whatever happens between us it won’t be tidy, straightforward, or pristine, but it will be the best that each of us can do with what we have. And if I ever believe that either of us is choosing to stay in this relationship because of some abstract, lofty ideal of “suffering for the good of others,” then I will know it is no longer love that is keeping us together.

When You Are Depressed

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On a good day, it feels like you are on an endless hunt for something that you know does not exist. As you pointlessly search, though, you can’t stay focused because your brain keeps short circuiting. Thoughts dart in and out of your mind long enough to sense things, but not long enough to know anything. You feel paralyzed by the not-knowing and frozen in your disappointment, and everything else feels far away and unstable.

On a so-so day, it’s more like you are mourning the loss of something you never had. The grief aches and scratches at your insides, but you can’t release it. Instead, it pulls you inward and you lose all connection to the you who was once capable of enjoying small silly things like the velvety softness of your dog’s ears or the warmth of toasty sand curling between your toes. Even love begins to fall away. You can’t make yourself smile back at your smiling son or force yourself to hold on while your husband tries to squeeze you tight. And soon you feel yourself shrinking into nothingness with no idea how to make it stop.

But on a bad day, when you’re lying in your bed with a quivering lip and you can barely drag the blankets up over your head to block out all the light, tears stream down your cheeks without sound. You try to crawl into yourself—into a place that will feel safe. But you cannot make your body small enough, and there is no place to go.

You are certain that you have always been a horrible, useless burden to all those people who you love; and you are even more certain that you will never be anything else. Then you calmly recognize that you cannot escape alive because you are no longer you. And you start to tell yourself that if you commit suicide, maybe people will excuse some of your failures and judge you less harshly.

You think of it like a surgical excision—momentarily painful, but quick, efficient, and ultimately curative. You imagine those people you love being free—free from the you who has failed them and dragged them down into this darkness. You see yourself no longer feeling ashamed of who you are, and you see them no longer needing to tolerate and make excuses for you.

That thought (that image of freedom) lifts you just enough so that you can begin to contemplate how to do what needs to be done.

Rhyming Lies from Childhood

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The taunting retort from childhood about sticks and stones is a flat out lie. It’s way worse than the Tooth Fairy/Santa fibs we tell our children. At least with those lies, children get to enjoy the fantasy while it’s happening. And eventually, when adults divulge the truth, kids can still feel that they profited from the story.

The “names-will-never-hurt-me” lie, however, sets children up to feel confused and ashamed about any pain incurred because of those “harmless” words. Actually, children are not the only ones who suffer as a result of this myth. Adults also fall prey to this fallacy—often berating themselves for feeling hurt when someone says something that offends, distresses, or wounds them.

The thing about hurtful words (unlike physical injuries) is there is usually no tangible evidence for the afflicted recipient or those around her/him to see. There are no bruises or cuts to identify as painful. There is no place to put a bandaid, or a clear method for treating the symptoms. So when you are hurt by someone’s words or non-violent actions, in addition to the emotional stress that you experience, you must also grapple with what exactly is causing the pain (i.e., why you feel the way you do). Furthermore, even if you are capable of discerning the reasons for your discomfort, it still may be quite difficult to “make it better”—especially when the remedy involves another person who has feelings of his or her own.

Emotional and physical injuries are not the same. In reality, though, that difference is the reason healing psychological wounds is often trickier than treating physical ones. Because of this, emotional injuries can have longer-lasting, lingering, and sometimes chronic repercussions. Yet, we want to believe that we cannot be hurt if there is no bodily harm.

I understand the value in teaching children that you should try to ignore and walk away from people who are mean to you, but the message that it never hurts is false. Denying feelings does not make them go away. And when we pretend that someone’s real and painful experience does not exist or should not be, we only compound that person’s suffering exponentially—making them feel unjustified and wrong, in addition to feeling hurt.

If you are really lucky, though, sometimes there are signs that physically mark emotional pain. I have a very small scar on the outside of my right thigh that helps me remember. It’s been there since I was four years-old, when a pair of scissors made a gash in my leg and I needed stitches to stop the bleeding.

Decades later, the only sign of that physical injury is a one-inch-by-one-centimeter patch of skin that is smoother and lighter than the area around it. The stitched-up cut healed well; I have no memory of that spot on my thigh ever hurting me; and the mark that remains is almost imperceptible. Nevertheless, I have learned to be grateful for that scar.

I used to believe that my scissors-story was a cautionary tale about sharp implements, blood, hospitals, and stitches. I always thought the story began right before I fell out of bed, but I was mistaken. The real story has nothing to do with blood or stitches. The story that matters 40 years later started before I ever had the scissors in my hands.

I have no residual pain from those scissors (the “stick that broke my bone”), but I have not completely recovered from the pain that I do remember from that night. I am fortunate, though, because I have a small, barely visible trace that marks my experience—tangible evidence of what really hurts.

Deep Down and Way Back

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I always feel I am bad and difficult because that was what I was raised to believe. Although I am an adult now and I have had my own family for over twenty years, I can’t abandon that childhood identity. Logic and reason didn’t figure into it back then, and they don’t make a difference now, either. I can tell myself all I want that children aren’t bad or that, in my adult life, no one says I am mean or troublesome, but none of that will change how I feel.

It’s in my blood. And when I try to let it go, it hurts more than keeping it inside.

I can remain composed and talk calmly about many traumatic events from my childhood; doing so helps me to better understand some of the ways in which my identity became ingrained. I could tell you stories about what happened as if we were discussing the way you fold laundry. I could even joke about the craziness, and sometimes I might laugh. Probably most of the stories wouldn’t be very funny to you. Yet, my ability to interpret painful memories without feeling is an adaptive skill that has often proved quite useful.

However, I am not so good at protecting against the small moments or the quick flashes from the past that seem to disarm and overwhelm me. I cannot predict when those memories will crop up. But when they do, I go to my panic place feeling ashamed that I allowed such a silly incident to affect me so deeply.

With one unexpected trigger, a glimpse of something from deep down and way back appears before I can stop it. Recently, a very small, seemingly insignificant flashback brought me to tears. I wasn’t exactly recalling an event. It was more like I was remembering a feeling, and tacked onto that memory there was an image.

I saw myself crouching in the way back of my mother’s station wagon, not in a seat, but riding along kind of like a dog. My sisters are in the regular seats in front of me, and my mother is asking us to behave (to stop fighting, or yelling, or being…bad). She begins to lecture me about how I don’t know when to stop, but my sisters do.

I remember wanting something then and knowing that I couldn’t have it. I am not even sure that I knew what it was. It was just something missing, something I couldn’t find. I was alone needing help—needing to feel safe, good, and loved enough to ask for that help. Instead, I felt like I would always be without this thing that I was missing. I would always be on the outside (in the way back)—alone.

That was the image. It was nothing, but remembering it made me cry. As soon as I felt the sadness trying to take me back, I began to criticize myself for grieving over such a childish thing. Simultaneously, though, I had this crushing desire to scream. I wanted to yell out so that someone could hear me. I wanted someone to know that I had this profound sorrow. I was wishing for someone who could understand what it felt like back then, when the only identity I had was “the bad child.” But I couldn’t say anything out loud, and it didn’t matter because I knew it wouldn’t make the feeling go away.

The other day, someone asked me if I ever freaked out when I considered that at some point my life would just be over and that would be that. I knew the answer right away. No, never. Dying means that the struggling and thinking about all that never was and never will be ends forever. No more feeling sad, ashamed, or hurt.

I don’t want to continue on as an unwanted passenger being carted along in the back of that car, but I don’t know how to get out. I cannot escape simply by opening the door and walking away. Everything I was taught about myself is in that car, and without that I have no idea who I am.

PPD: Public Posting Disorder

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As it turns out, there are at least 6 (probably many more) famous quotes about how life is like a merry-go-round. If you haven’t heard any of them before, I bet you still could guess why that analogy is a popular one. Things about going around and around, or being on a ride, or reaching for the brass ring often figure into these metaphors. I am clearly a pessimist, but still, until yesterday, I always thought that a merry-go-round was not at all like life.

Merry-go-rounds are boring and predictable. All you do is sit there and watch the world going by, while you pretty much stay in the same spot. And even if you are motivated to reach for that brass ring, all you get is a brass ring. (I don’t know about you, but I have spent zero time coveting those.) Given my lack of respect for the merry-go-round comparison, I was a little annoyed yesterday when I pictured myself as a frozen animal pinned in place by a rotating post.

In my defense, I was not actually comparing life to a carousel. Rather, I was trying to come up with a way to describe the physical sensations that I was experiencing after posting something on my blog. Immediately after hitting the publish button earlier that morning, I was overtaken by another bout of Public Posting Disorder, PPD for short (not in the DSM IV or V yet). I wanted to be able to convey how it feels physically, and this carousel-post image came to mind.

Whenever I post anything online in any way (including clicking the like button on Facebook), I instantly feel like my chest is collapsing in on itself and I am going to vomit. Luckily, the duration and severity of these episodes is usually directly proportional to the degree of my personal exposure. I believe PPD falls under the category of what research professor Brene Brown calls a “vulnerability hangover.”

My physical symptoms don’t really worry me though. I can understand why my rib cage might be pressing down, trying to break away from my sternum. It is simply attempting to restrain my racing heart, which seems to be bursting to get out. I don’t totally understand where my heart wants to go, but if it were to escape, I’m honestly ok with that.

Normal people who experience a variety of abnormal physical changes in a very short period of time might begin to worry that whatever is happening is fatal. However, I can assure you I am not concerned about that outcome. PPD is a problem for me mostly because it makes me feel like I am a crazy person. When I analyze what causes my acute symptoms in these instances, there is nothing rational to explain my body’s disproportionate response.

Here is the chain of events that pretty much precedes every incident: 1. I notice thoughts and feelings in my mind; 2. I question, criticize, and sometimes accept said thoughts and feelings, still only in my mind; 3. I decide to type one or more of the acceptable ideas into one of those blank rectangles available online; 4. I open up my computer, get online, and pick a rectangle on the site of my choice; 5. I drag my cursor into the chosen rectangle and then try to type words in complete and coherent sentences; 6. I read over and edit my writing (multiple times);  and finally 7. I click the blue and white publish button or hit return, depending on the website.

That’s it. There is no blood involved. There are no guns or knives or explosives. There are no booby traps, claustrophobic spaces, or torture devices of any kind. There are also no officials or guards policing my actions—just waiting for the chance to punish and humiliate me. And if you were wondering about vicious aliens or mythical, menacing monsters, there are none of those either.

When I look at the steps that have triggered all of my episodes of PPD, I can only conclude that I am insane. I mean—what the fuck?

And now, since I came up with my carousel-post image, I have to worry not only that my subconscious is totally screwed up, it might be horribly cliche as well! My only consolation is the analogy may have less to do with the merry-go-round part and more to do with the twirling post part. Perhaps the connection in my mind came from the triple meaning of the word “post.”

Regardless of my excuse for my “post analogy”, which does happen to occur post posting (sorry), the image does illustrate my PPD sensations fairly well. So here it is…when I am in the midst of a PPD event, it feels like an internal post—running from the bottom of my throat to just under my belly—is rapidly spinning around, trying to suck in everything around it. It seems that whenever I risk exposing myself, I disturb my core being (my post).

I thought about the posts you sometimes see at the barber shop with the swirling red and white as an alternative image, but they’re kind of rare now and they’re missing the impaled creature surrounding them. I do apologize for the double entendres and the sort-of-cliche image. That said, I would like to suggest that someone in the throes of PPD should not be held responsible for her limited brain function.

A gift

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When we were saying good-bye, my teacher gave me a present—a rust colored book with a small dark brown label on the cover. In gold writing, it said “Pictorial Webster’s Artist’s and Writer’s Notebook”.

She did not have to give me anything; really, she didn’t. I had been her student for only a short time, and I am guessing that the semester she had spent working with me had not been the easiest. This teacher has a very generous spirit, though. Regardless of whether giving a parting gift was unusual for her, the unexpected present made me feel appreciated or special, or one of *those* emotions that I have a hard time acknowledging. 

I had just finished art school, where I had been making very large, graphite, figurative drawings—work that never contained words. Yet, my teacher had not given me an art book or a sketch pad. She had chosen something else for me.

Written on the back cover of the book, it says, “each page in this notebook features an engraving from the original 19th-century Webster’s dictionaries,” and it goes on to say it includes,”lots of blank space for sketching or [emphasis mine] writing.” In addition to this, the artist Johnny Carrera begins the preface by saying the book is explicitly not for artists or writers “who have never been intimidated by a blank canvas or page…for whom life’s beauty and fury come streaming out in orchestrated flourishes and paragraphs.”

When I first began using the book, I did what I had done many times before. I picked up my typical materials of pencil and eraser and set to work. I genuinely tried for weeks to put something down on the (not entirely) blank pages, but nothing seemed to be coming to me. I don’t mean that nothing was “streaming out in orchestrated flourishes.” I simply had nothing to offer. Hence, I laid the notebook aside feeling I’d failed.

Other than a generalized sense of desperation, I don’t remember what drove me to try once more. But months later, when I opened the notebook again—instead of drawing figures in pencil—I chose to write words in ink. Given my history, my depression, and my sense of myself, the only explanation I have for my willingness to attempt something new is the intentionally ambiguous nature of the book itself. The ambiguity allowed me to consider other possibilities.

I was supposed to be an artist not a writer. When I say “not a writer,” it is not just that—up until two weeks ago—all of my “public” writing had been limited to email and research papers for school. I also get abnormally and absurdly nervous whenever I think someone might see my words. In addition to this, I had hoped that completing my masters in fine arts would mean that I would be comfortable expressing myself through images.

Nevertheless, when I began writing, I treated the switch as incidental. I didn’t think of writing in my journal as a creative or artistic act. The most drastic departure for me was actually my decision to write with a pen. I would not be able to erase anything and all my mistakes would be visible forever. The ink’s permanence was scary, but it meant that who I was and what I was feeling could not be denied. It made it real.

I was severely depressed, but finally I was choosing to do something—something untempered by “shoulds.” I had found a safe place to store my truth; a place where all my monotonous, ugly, and aberrant thoughts could be tangible. The journal was my private testament.

After two months of writing fairly regularly, on a day when I was very low, I wrote about how I wanted to commit suicide. I talked about what I would do and how I would do it, but I also wrote that I was not allowed to act out any of those fantasies. I felt trapped.

I was forbidden from doing the one thing that I knew would solve everyone’s problem. As I wrote about my feelings, in this notebook that my encouraging and supportive teacher had given me, I thought about permission. Had my teacher given me permission to feel this way and to write these things, or was I completely distorting her intentions?

Whatever her motives were, she probably didn’t think I would use the journal to talk about my desire to kill myself. On that night in January when I wanted more than anything to die, I could not see that the equivocal nature of the notebook was in itself a gift. I was not open to the idea that maybe what she had given me was the possibility of something else.

My teacher gave me the chance to do something risky and the opportunity to see myself differently. Whether or not she knew what she was giving me with this present (a book or an idea) doesn’t matter. She gave me something because she wanted it to be mine, regardless of what that might mean.

I used the journal she gave me for a over year before it started to fall apart from wear and tear. Two weeks ago when I started this blog, it was almost exactly a year after I began writing in ink and also just as the book’s binding was beginning to unravel. These two things may be coincidental and not remarkable, but there is also a chance that they helped me by daring me to reach farther—to find another way and another place to share my experience. 

Shortly after I finished school, I sent my teacher a thank you note and she graciously replied with a letter back to me. In it she wrote, “here’s what I hope for you: one day you will wake up and have totally forgotten that you once thought you weren’t any good.”

Mostly, I still wake up the way I always have, but some days I can see that it is impossible to know for certain that I am not a writer or an artist, or a story teller, or an idea-connector, or even someone who is good enough.

Lying in Wait

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My depression is always lurking close by. It waits for me. Even if I allow other ways of thinking and feeling to creep into my mind, depression eventually captures and distorts them. Like an incumbent who is a known entity, with years of practice, and loads of undivided support, it will always win—defeating its competitors with ease.

When I feel it taking hold and I know I am surrounded by my own personal army of contemptuous doubters and fear mongers, I don’t feel scared. I feel numb, hypnotized by the you-are-so-lame mantra. The seductively appealing film of shame and fear and insecurity that washes over me doesn’t feel like a threat; it feels like home.

Specialness, Red Carpet, and Chocolate Memories

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The image that popped into my head was a red carpeted walkway. I had been thinking about hope and how I don’t trust it. Then there it was—not a generic red carpet, but rather a very specific place from my childhood. A place I hadn’t thought of, much less seen, in a long, long time.

Just to clarify, though, not trusting hope is not the same thing as believing it does not exist. I am not certain that nothing good will ever come my way. But my fear of disappointment is so strong that allowing myself the possibility of a brighter future feels extremely risky. Sort of like, as a child, I knew that if a stranger offered me a chocolate, it didn’t matter how appealing it was or even that it was right there within my reach. I was supposed to refuse it, and I was convinced that spending time dreaming about how the candy might have tasted would have made me only want it more. So I try awfully hard never to indulge in hope from the future or in chocolate from strangers. (Other than on Halloween, when I let my kids indulge and then I indirectly reap the benefits—the chocolate ones).

Admittedly, depressed people are not the most rational thinkers when it comes to hope. Still, that image of the red slanted path from years ago was so specific and seemingly arbitrary that I couldn’t let it go. Why—at that moment when I was contemplating my anti-hope tendencies—did this particular memory surface from the billions of others that could have occurred to me? It had to be something about the way that place made me feel, because I am pretty sure red carpeted ramps don’t symbolize hopelessness for most people.

So what was it about this ascending walkway in an ordinary, smallish mall where my family used to grocery shop? I remember as you walked into the mall, you could see the entrance to the path straight-ahead forming an upside-down but squared-off u leading to the second floor of the building. It looked a little like a wheelchair ramp that is now sometimes a building code requirement. This path-ramp-thing, however, was fancier, much wider, and more stretched out than the handicap accessible ones that you usually see, and it was covered in carpeting made of that nubby, industrial material colored burgundy but mottled with flecks of darker colors. Fencing in the entire walkway were black wrought-iron railings with twisting balusters. This whole unusual structure sat in the middle of a windowless, dark atrium between the grocery store and another big chain store across the hall.

Ok, so hopefully (no irony intended), you are picturing something similar to the image that is in my mind. You are probably thinking, “huh, it sounds kind of odd, but not particularly eye-catching.”  And I would agree. But you and I are adults now and our perspectives are slightly different from those of young children.

There was something individual if not special about that path. My sisters and I would play there while our mother stood in line to pay for groceries. We chased each other up and down the walk, unconcerned about the bustling adults below us rushing their shopping carts in and out of stores. We used to run from the main floor of the mall up the first leg of the ramp, turn left to cross the width of the building, and then creep up the last sloping passage, which led to a single door in an otherwise solid brick wall.

The door was always locked and I never saw anyone entering or exiting it. At the time, I concluded that whatever was on the other side of that door was off limits to me. That logic makes sense when I think back to it. But what I find a little sad is that I have no memory of trying to picture what might be just inside or beyond that door. I never tried in any way to imagine that mysterious space.

I think I enjoyed running with my sisters there, on our red carpet path. Although when I racked my brain, thoroughly scanning for all memories relating to that place, I started to question a few things. I had a flash of wondering about the color. Was it actually red? And then I reconsidered whether or not there had been adults (maybe store employees) who had scolded us for running or for using the ramp as a playground. I am guessing that if I went back to the mall today, I would discover several details that are different from my memory.

Memories are not solid. And I suppose, they are never right. The only thing I know is that this strange place made me feel something similar to hopeless. The walkway was definitely peculiar, but my sense was this was not an asset. Instead, I felt this path stuck out in a way that was not acceptable. It just didn’t belong in this dinky, grocery store mall. But worse than that, I had determined that the path’s uniqueness was a total waste. I was a little girl then, and I thought that building a grand promenade that only led to a dead-end was just a cruel trick.

Naked

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My inability to express myself creatively is always on my mind. I clean the kitchen, buy the groceries, do the laundry, exercise the dog, cook dinner, put away my children’s mess all the while feeling like I am missing something—a limb, or all my clothes, or…my identity.

It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes, but in reverse. People see me in mother’s or wife’s or maybe even artist’s clothes, but the truth is I am naked. What they see is an illusion. Those identities don’t fit. They are not really there. I know this because there are no magical threads or fabrics to make me whole.

People Cry

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As far as we know, human beings are the only animals who shed emotional tears. People cry. They might cry contemplating Nelson Mandela’s death. They might have tears streaming down their faces at a wedding, or on the anniversary of a presidential assassination. Some people weep witnessing the birth of a newborn baby, or watching a movie on an airplane. Others shed tears during an AT&T commercial, or noticing the look on a child’s face when her helium-filled balloon breaks away and sails up into the air. I welled up listening to the sound of a musical note struggling to reveal itself.

On the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, I heard a story on Morning Edition that made me cry. My tears surprised me, though, because, just a moment before this particular story, I had been feeling somewhat irritated. For days leading up to the anniversary and all day on November 22nd, everything seemed to be about the immeasurable greatness of JFK and/or the unparalleled tragedy of his death. I realize there may have been thousands of people who cried mourning the loss of one of America’s most famous icons. However, perhaps because I am fairly cynical and depressed, I was not one of them.

Actually, what brought me to tears listening to yet another piece about JFK, was the sound of a misplayed bugle note. The radio story was called “At Kennedy’s Burial Ceremony, Even ‘Bugle Was Weeping.'” David Greene introduces the story by saying “as the president was laid to rest, a bugler, Army Sgt. Keith Clark, had an awesome responsibility—delivering a note of finality with the playing of ‘Taps.’ It’s something he had done perfectly, hundreds of times.” Then the radio cuts to a historical clip from the ceremony and you hear the first 3 notes of a bugle playing Taps. Before you get to experience the “weeping” horn, though, Greene quickly interrupts long enough to say “but on the sixth note, the instrument itself seemed to choke up.” So then, when the radio show cuts back to Taps at the ceremony and you hear the 4th, 5th, and “off” 6th note, it is impossible to miss the poignant moment. I heard it and cried.

But why? Sgt. Clark described the tenor of the 6th note as a consequence of “the enormous pressure he felt.” He had not made an embarrassing mistake, though. That note was right. It felt pure and honest. I was weepy because I could hear both the intensity and complexity of human emotion in that single note. Listening to those first five slow and somewhat trembling notes followed by one that seemed to be caught and stumbling was awe-inspiring, beautiful, powerful, and overwhelming.

Together those sounds perfectly and completely demonstrated the bugler’s sense of utter helplessness. Crying, at its most primitive level, is about the need for help. I cried because through the music I could feel the bugler’s pain. Not only did that astonishing accomplishment humble me, it also reminded me of my own vulnerability.

Scientists believe that crying is a social behavior that developed to inform others in our group (and maybe our enemies too) that we are in need. According to the Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets, emotional tears “signal helplessness.” We cry to communicate. Our tears are a signal to the people literally nearest to us that we are vulnerable and in need. Even when we are alone, our brains still respond as if there might be someone close by to treat us gently or to offer us assistance. Leading psychologist Jeffrey Kottler believes that

humans cry because, unlike every other animal, we take years and years to be able to fend for ourselves. Until that time, we need a behavior that can elicit the sympathetic consideration of our needs from those around us who are more capable (read: adults). We can’t just yell for help though—that would alert predators to helpless prey—so instead, we’ve developed a silent scream: we tear up.

People who cry as adults because of happiness, sympathy, reassurance, or the sublime are no different. Emotional tears signal our connection—conscious or not—to feelings of helplessness from the past, present, or future. Crying is the most basic and functional way for people to convey our own individual and our shared impotence.

We cry when we feel empathetic, relieved, sad, scared, angry, joyful, or hopeless. Regardless of whether we are crying in awe or in pain, our tears are directly related to our experiences of feeling small and powerless. People cry because we know we are human.