Stories for Lent: #18 Taste for a mess

I Kondo-ed my stuff towards the end of last year. “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying” was still a hit, and I was looking for a way to make my life easier, neater, more in line with the person I was hoping to be. (Not gonna lie, the barrage of enthusiastic beauty gurus on YouTube recommending that book also had a part to play. I mean, have you seen a streamlined Alex drawer? It’s a thing of wonder.) For a little while, I sat there, enjoying the look of a clean floor, the lack of guilty unread books, the gaps in my wardrobe left by ill-fitting garments that made me look like someone’s Nana. I breathed a little easier, having divested myself of the things that made me feel bad, things that I was holding onto despite them serving no purpose other than making me feel guilty.

Then the mess started creeping up again.

*

Those of you who have read these Lenten stories so far will notice that perfectionism is a recurring theme in my life. It is not THE Siren Song, but it is a pretty compelling one nonetheless:

“If only I was better at juggling my work-life balance.”

“If only I bought less stuff.”

“If only I said no more.”

“If only I was skinnier, prettier, and kept up a regular exercise schedule despite being constantly ill.”

“If only I didn’t have all those messy, ugly, human feelings whenever I went to a doctor, I wouldn’t get so offended when I was treated like a piece of meat on the patient’s seat.”

Yes. Let us make our lives more sterile, more streamlined, more empty. Get rid of all that you don’t need, anything that doesn’t “spark joy” immediately. Forget about the fact that you’re depressed, that you over-exercise and under-feed yourself, and you are liable to have an epic mood swing at any moment. Turn your space into a doctor’s surgery, and practice being the piece of meat all the time.

And yes, I realize how deranged all of that sounds. I’m living this life because there’s no-one to tell me otherwise.

*

I painted yesterday, for the first time in months. Just a rough pencil outline, followed by a crush of colors, mixing on the top side of my palette and making a big, glorious, murky mess.

It wasn’t what I wanted, not entirely, but it was oh, so satisfying.

When the acrylic dried down and faded into less shocking hues of blue and brown and green, I got my pens and I went over the finer lines, adding and defining, bringing out the eyes and lips and hair tendrils that I couldn’t get quite sharply enough with a brush. It was still a mess, but one that I understood, one that I could navigate.

One that, dare I say, I was comfortable in.

Stories for Lent: #17 Endings

I’ve been debating this past week or so, on whether it’s time to lay a project to rest of not. From its conception – on one long, isolated, Maltese holiday – to its finish, on the afternoon I fell off my bike in a canal – it took me over 4 years, tons of effort, and several grudge matches with my depression to get the story down and start querying. I won’t say I’ve done everything possible – there is still the option of paying a professional editing service to have a look at it, or taking one of those London courses that will get me networking as well as learn the basics of an opening scene (again).

But… I have a choice to make. I can either put in the deposit for a car, taking just this little bit of control of my constant traveling, or I can pay an editor to look at my book. It’s a tough one to make, and depending on your personal disposition, you will choose differently. Some people will say that no expense should be spared when you work towards your career, especially when it comes to the arts. But a sad fact of my life is that I have made considerable sacrifices to get into careers – not all of which are writing-related – and they were not worth it. Not even for the sake of saying “at least I know better now”. So short of something coming out of my grant applications, or my (long-suffering) beta readers finally catching enough of a break to read what I send to them, I’m looking at the very real possibility that this project will have to be shelved, if not indefinitely, then for at least a very long time.

And yeah, in case you were wondering – this is really, really painful.

*

I first had the idea of becoming an author when I was in 8th grade, and I quickly came to realize that it’s not something that can happen overnight. But the real decision came five years later, as I was gearing up to go to university and realizing I didn’t have the spine to fight my parents about the kind of studies I’d be making. I didn’t take the decision lightly – I researched it, I read up on it, I thought really hard about the pros and cons of it (I am, after all, an over-thinker). I knew being a writer wasn’t easy, or that it would pay well, and if I couldn’t sell the idea to myself, how would I argue it convincingly to anybody else?

(For anyone wondering whether to go into the arts or business after school: it doesn’t matter. I swear it doesn’t. If you’re not going into a highly technical field, like engineering, or medicine, or law, or any of the natural sciences, the debate is worthless. Pick whatever “soft” field you like best and enjoy the hell out of it. Economics only appears sound, but it’s the sort of field you should only get into if you have a natural inclination for it. I assure you, your lecturers don’t want you in their courses if you’re going to pick your nose for three+ years in their classroom.)

I did make a bargain with myself, though:

I would do the studies that I was expected to do, and I would try to do well in them because it’s no good sense to put all your eggs in one basket (I didn’t know, then, that having too many baskets can be its own sort of Hell). I would be diligent and committed. But I would also work towards becoming an author, and I would be as serious about it as any other profession. I would treat it as the apprenticeship it is, and see if it pays off at all.

Mind you, that’s not how it turned out. The reason why people go to university in the first place is less about the lectures themselves, and more about the structure and the space to experiment and figure things out for yourself. Juggling two different apprenticeship routes and giving them the same amount of attention and care is not doable. Not for 4 years straight. And despite my best of efforts, the writing fell by the wayside.

That’s not to say I never stopped trying. But it took me a long time to get to a point where I was happy with what I was putting out. And now, I’m faced with the possibility that my best is not good enough, and that I have a lot more to learn.

*

Well.

One thing I will say is this – the years I spent in higher education were not in vain. My degree hasn’t gotten me the windfall job I was hoping for, that would give me freedom to write without financial constraints (talk about fairy tales!) but what I did get was discipline. I learned to work in stages, to give myself enough time, to plan, to think ahead. I learned that things sometimes don’t work out, despite your best efforts, and that fairness has nothing to do with it.

I took a few falls, and I discovered I’m not as easily breakable as I am.

And, although I hate this cliche as much as any other recent graduate, I did, eventually, start to accept setbacks (and even the deaths of projects) as an opportunity rather than a personal failure. (I know, I know, the cringe!) I’m not saying that it doesn’t suck when it happens – case in point, I’m taking over 1000 words to explain to you why exactly this project is a big deal for me, even as I contemplate shelving it – or that it doesn’t make your question everything you know about yourself. But it’s physically impossible for everyone to be a winner all the time (out of the millions of manuscripts submitted to publishers, only a handful get the green light! A handful out of millions! Imagine those odds!) and the only way you recover your self-esteem, and live to write another book, is by finding a way to bounce.

Bounce from the disappointment.

Bounce from the (oddly personal) rejections.

Bounce from the doubt, and anger, and despair. Bounce away from the fear that you will never be a writer, that you are bound to work rubbish jobs for an eternity, that your soul will be suffocated under the demands of the mundane (cars! Health insurance! Medication!) and the pressing weight of the years.

The only way to do that is to make your next project even bolder, crazier, and more audacious than the first. Smile, I tell myself. Camp NaNo is coming up, and you’re not yet put into a marketing slot. You can still write what you want. What more can you ask for?

Stories for Lent: #16 The great over-thinker

I spent most of Monday morning writing, writing, writing. You’d think I ran out of steam, but no – today was the same. Julia Cameron said somewhere that when we are writing more (in our morning pages), that’s when we’re ready to write because we have a lot to say. Then I looked at what I’d actually written and I realized I’d been going round in circles for about 6 pages.
Well. Nobody said that the journals had to be published. In fact, I do believe that’s the point.

Notebooks, journals, practice runs, warm-ups… if reading memoirs of the craft has taught me anything, it is that writers need permission to write in circles. Me, I feel like sometimes I need to be told to stop and just get on with whatever it is I have a problem with.

Like many others (it seems) I, too, write in order to explain things to myself. I take a bunch of messy feelings and try to transcribe them into sentences, and then go over everything, syllable by syllable, deconstructing until I have something at least vaguely resembling coherent thought. I’m an over-thinker – this is what we do.

But is it always a good thing?

*

I can think of a case (or ten) where my inability to shut my brain down saved me from making a big fool of myself. I can also think of two more cases (or twenty) where it led to me making an even bigger fool of myself. Funny how that works?

If nearly a decade of typecasting Katherine Heigl into movies has taught us anything, being a neurotic, career-driven, over-thinker of a woman is the worst thing you could be, and the best thing you could do is to loosen up. (Usually through a very good porking. Who says we have no use for romance?) And indeed, the easiest humiliating memory to spring to mind is when I took eight months to work up the guts to tell a guy I fancied him, never mind the fact that he completely ignored it when I drunkenly propositioned him a few month earlier. But then you have to wonder – when you have to imbibe your weight in cider for liquid courage, is it really your brain that’s the problem, or the romance? Was I trying too hard? Or did I know something, deep down, and didn’t want to acknowledge it?

It’s probably not a coincidence that this particular year was one of the most painful in my life. The one before, I had completely bottomed out from anxiety and stress. I’d stopped writing. I’d stopped enjoying myself. I was drowning in self-recrimination and self-pity. The one that followed, I was finding my way out, but slowly, and with many a stumble along the way. I was still struggling to write. I was still struggling with food and exercise.

To an extent, being in that group, and having a crush kept me sane. But then I hitched my wagon a little too close, started taking the things they said too much to heart, started using random criteria pulled out of hearsay to value myself.

And that turned out SO well!

*

The biggest irony is that for all my over-thinking, I remained absolutely blind to so many things – that year, the one before, the one after, too. Blind to the way I was poisoning my own attitude to food. Blind to how I was using exercise as punishment, rather than an end in itself. Blind to a myriad of flaws in others, convinced it was all my fault. Displacing blame for my own behaviour where it wasn’t due. In the end, my over-thinking made a huge clusterfuck of things, so huge I had to drop it for a while because I couldn’t carry it anymore.

And then comes the challenge. Sitting on the floor in the middle of the mess and trying not to punish the over-thinking brain, not making another resolution to “fix myself” but rather to move forward and be myself instead.

It’s hard. Accepting who you are for what you are.

Stories for Lent: #15 The advice I never give myself

Dear Agony Aunt,
My question to you today is fairly short and sweet: how do I get less needy? Or, alternatively, how do I stop feeling so bad about being needy?

People seem to think that I am a tough person, and I have to say, I like that a lot…. until they start coming to me with all their problems. It’s like they seem to think that, because I’m tough, I can handle it when they break down in front of me and carry them until they’re okay to walk on their own again. It’s a lot of pressure. I’m starting to feel like I’m surrounded by people who need, need, need, and take, take, take. I find myself thinking how unfair this is, how it’s never my turn to be needy, how I’m the person they turn to in a crisis, but never just have over for coffee, or do fun things together. I feel like they never appreciate my company for its own sake, but rather, the way I always lend a sympathetic ear and keep their confidences after they vomit whatever shameful secrets were plaguing them onto me.

I know I’m a horrible over-thinker. I can’t shut my brain down. I also have horrible, grandiose expectations of myself. I never cut myself enough slack, because I feel like there is no space for me to cut myself some slack. And lately, I’ve really been struggling with my feelings. Finding myself unmoored after a big move, with an unsympathetic GP and fighting for access to therapy, I feel like I’m floundering.

And I’m scared of opening up to my friends. I know we must all make ourselves vulnerable to receive the help me need, the help we deserve, but every time I’ve tried to do so in the past (from kindergarten to this day) I’ve been rejected and made to feel like my neediness is a bad thing. That it scares people. It all just feels like such a bullshit Catch 22 – I need to be tough because my neediness scares people, but I can’t be tough all the time, and the strain of it is destroying me. What do I do? How do I change my mindset?

Thanks,
Needy Nelly

Dear Nelly,

Your situation feels like a Catch 22 because it is a Catch 22. Unfortunately, it’s a trap that you walked yourself into, and a problem which you – over-thinker and emotional rock extraordinaire – believe that you brought onto yourself. How dare you not always be pulled together and tough? How dare you lend a sympathetic ear to other people? Don’t you know that they will use you like a dirty dish rag until you are ripped to shreds? Don’t you know that they will not respect you? Why did you market yourself as tough when you really are not? You MUST carry on, or else they will demand their money back.

This is the feeling I’m getting from your letter – this loveable and oh-so-familiar mixture of frustration and guilt that drives sales of self-help books (and the readership of this site) higher and higher each day. You think that your personality is a fixed constant that should never change. You think that emotional resilience is an unending resource. You also think that anyone but you is a needy, despot child that will not accept “no” for an answer and must be carried through hell and high water because you, and only you, are the only competent adult on the planet.

By the way, I’m not trying to beat you further into the ground, Nelly. You are the victim of the exact same DIY, fix-yourself-because-nobody-else-can mentality that everyone else is suffering these days, regardless of their gender or social standing. But before you can extract yourself from this trap, you need to let go of this idea that you’re the ONLY PERSON, EVER, to have this problem. It is not helping you, and it will certainly not help your friends understand you if you act like your problems are beyond their scope of understanding, or coping ability.

Okay, I’m done with the shading. I promise. Pinky swear.

You’re asking me how you can become less needy, or, alternatively, how to be okay with being needy. That tells me that you’re aware, at least on some level, that neediness is a natural human emotion and one that isn’t inherently bad. Hell, you nurse people through their neediest moments, and you still call them friends, so clearly this isn’t just a quality you find intolerable or beneath your notice. So here’s the short answer – you cannot become less needy because neediness is not an objectively measurable state of being. We all have it, to one extent or another, and it is valid regardless of the degree to which you find it in every person. Yes, some people need others more. Yes, sometimes the strain of taking care of those people makes it hard for us to be there for them all the time. Yes, the caretaker-to-caregiver ratio in the world is wildly skewed and it’s not fair that certain people who seemingly have it together cannot be bothered to lift one dainty finger to help someone in need while you and your fellow bleeding-heart liberals run yourself ragged saving the world.

I’m saying this in the most affectionate way possible, Nelly – the fact that the world seems unfair and you think yourself on the side of good doesn’t automatically entitle you to any superpowers, or preferential treatment. You are not exempt from being needy, and you have to be okay with being needy.

So how does that work? For starters, drop any ideas about needy people being somehow less-than whatever it is you hold so important being. (Tough? Put together? Whatever it is, it’s not more important than your health.) We already covered that. The next step is to forget any lingering notions you might have about being both caretaker and caregiver. Empathy IS a finite resource, and your stores are pretty depleted. Use them for the worthiest cause there is right now – yourself – because if you keep giving and giving and giving to others, you will burn out, and nobody will thank you for that sacrifice. It’s suicide by helping. You would have driven yourself into the ground for nothing.

Tell the needy people in your life ‘no’, and trust that they are adult enough to find alternative help. You’re not the only one who can keep going to her jerky GP to try and get a referral to a therapist. You’re not the only one who can write to an online advice column. “Eat, Pray, Love” and any derivative thereof is sold in supermarkets and local bookstores across the country, and if those cheap bastards can’t fork up the full price, Amazon sells used copies. Everyone needs to take responsibility for their own wellbeing, and that can’t happen while you’re offering yourself up as a free therapist to them.

Is it going to be easy? Probably not. There will most likely be some pushback, especially if people are used to depending on you. Face it, see it for what it is, and let it go. That’s not your concern. You’re doing the right thing by protecting your own heart and your own health.

I want you to sit down and imagine something with me. I know it’s hard and you can’t think beyond holding off until the next day, and then the next, and then the next, but I want you to imagine yourself in a few weeks from now. The dust has settled. You are in therapy. Your “friends” are not ringing you for therapy because they know you won’t answer them. You will have gained enough perspective to see things clearly. You will have started to accept yourself as a human being that needs help sometimes, not an infallible iron goddess.

Yeah, I know. Not exactly badass. But imagine this, too – people inviting you out to just hang out, no strings attached. People enjoying your company for its own sake. People appreciating your advice because they know you don’t offer it freely anymore. People listening to your needs.

This is what healthy boundaries look like. And it’s glorious as hell.

Will it shake off a few people? Quite possibly. But is it really worth holding onto friendships that are entirely self-serving (on their part) and soul-destroying (on yours)?

Protect your heart, Nelly, and see how much more people will appreciate it.

Love,
Agony Aunt

Stories for Lent: #14 Sit Down

“I’ve been struggling lately, to be honest.”
Those were some of the hardest words I have said, in a very long time.
Pop culture tells us that when someone confesses to something, it is the form to forgive them as fast as we can and move on. This is why, sometimes, designated forgiveness days can feel a bit hollow – you never know if people really mean it or not. And then, there’s the pressure to forgive even when you don’t feel it. For some people, that can be really hard.
The truly difficult part, though, comes when forgiveness is just not enough.
*
I said the words in the debrief before a shift. I didn’t plan on doing it, but I thought I might as well – it’s a safe space, and we all understand each other. I assured my colleagues I could leave my feelings at the door and focus on the work. And I did – for the next 4 hours, I became so absorbed in my work, I only stopped to get more coffee and go to the bathroom.
And then my supervisor pulled me aside to follow up on what I’d said.
Suddenly, I wasn’t just sharing something to a room full of people eager to get to work. I was being asked to talk about my feelings, and there was no time limit to it. And I realized, faced with those feelings, that I wasn’t okay. I wasn’t okay at all.
I hated it. It felt like I was being called to task, like I’d done something wrong and now I had to explain myself. Not by my supervisor – he was gentle and forgiving and unflinching, even when I started to cry so hard I couldn’t speak. We are not in the habit of sweeping things under the rug at my job…
But I’d confessed to something that couldn’t be fixed with a quick chat and a cry. I wasn’t just struggling. I was burning out, and I had to take a break.
And though my supervisor stressed that it wasn’t punitive, to me, that’s exactly what it felt like. I felt like I’d failed everyone, and I’d failed myself.
*
Forgiveness – it’s not easy, not to others, not to yourself. You can say the words – it’s hard, but you can do it – but to feel it? I’m not sure. I’ve tried to forgive other people when I still resented them, and it was impossible. I’ve tried forgiving myself, and it was devastating.
I’m sitting here, writing this, and feeling down that because I’d missed the mark so horribly, I wouldn’t be able to help others. I’m sitting here, beating myself up because I spoke up, when clearly, I would have been okay. I’m beating myself up because I’m expecting someone to come along and reassure me, when I know that no matter what they say, it won’t reach me until I accept it, too.
How do I even begin to accept it?
Sugar’s column, “Write Like A Motherfucker”, springs to mind. I think about what she said, that underneath the sadness and depression there lies tremendous arrogance. That while you might forgive someone for being human and fallible (and not be able to write on demand), you are not willing to forgive yourself. You hold yourself to a higher standard because you believe you are somehow better. You think you should be able to carry the world on your shoulders, because somehow, that is the kind of person you believe yourself to be. Superior.
Where does forgiveness start? If you follow Sugar (and I don’t see why not), it’s with humility. It’s accepting that you struggle and that you need a chance to catch your breath. It’s saying that about yourself without shame, without expecting someone to come in and pat you on the back and reassure you that you are still a superior human. Without sugar-coating it. Without acting, or cracking jokes, or trying to entertain.
Self, you need to sit down now. Sit down. That’s all you need to do. Sit down.

Stories for Lent: #13 Love

(In the tune of I dreamed a dream)
There was a time, when I loved exercise,
And the water was warm,
And the pool was inviting
And to swim was a song,
And that song was exciting.
There was a time.
Then it all went wrong.
(You gotta love the Les Miz for their earworms.)
*
To say I have a love-hate relationship with exercise is giving the love-hate relationships too little credit. I loathed and adored it, at different times in my life. I hated physical education at school for its rating systems and the way it pitted small children against each other, mostly because I was always coming out on the bottom of the pack. I loved solitary sports, for the peace that came with them (praise the silence of the pool, and praise the dead hours when you can have a lane to yourself). I was my biggest protector when it came to skipping classes (either because of illness or because I just sucked at basketball). I was also my worst punisher when I skipped a day in my half-marathon training schedule (You will COLLAPSE on the day! You will make a fool of yourself in front of people with phones and Internet connection! You will also get so fat your trousers won’t fit you!)
There’s guilt, there’s self-righteousness, and then there’s what I was doing, which was full on abuse.
*
That’s not to say I didn’t have a little bit of help. You can’t throw a rock and not hit another self-proclaimed diet genius who cracked the code for abs, or nutritionist who thinks they discovered the truth about our diet. Papers need to be sold, the obesity epidemic is a catchy title, and we can still make fun of fat people, so what harm could it do? After all, the people suffering believe they deserve it.
There’s the well-intentioned doctor who noticed I was stressed enough to prescribe St John’s Wort, but also a starvation diet in order to get rid of my acne.
There’s the blogger who found she could manage a chronic condition with a change of diet and wanted to share her experience, and who I chose to follow because what she described sounded marvellous, and she seemed to love her life.
There’s the friend who made fun of a fat woman on the street, then the other friend, then this one guy I had a crush on, and I thought I had to work hard to make myself worthy of love.
Let this sink in: I thought I had to work hard to make myself worthy of love.
On some days, that meant staying away from sugary sweets and drinking lots and lots of coffee.
On others, it meant going to training, even when I was sick, or injured, or jet lagged, or right on the worst day of my period.
*
There were times when I exercised for the sake of it, and it was wonderful. One of my fondest memories is the summer when I would rise at 6 AM so that my grandfather could take my brother and me to the communal pool by the marina. We’d get in at seven, as the sun was starting to rise, and we would swim and swim and swim, drinking the gorgeous morning air, until we got kicked out with the rest of the plebians an hour later. Then we would go back home and eat like kings, and the days would be beautiful and exciting and I’d be happy to be alive.
I still have such days. Training sessions where I just can’t wipe the smile off my face, no matter what sensei says. Early morning runs when I’d stand at my mid point and just hum with excitement. Swims in the pool, swims in the sea, where the water would be heart-stoppingly cold and every stroke would feel like a lover’s caress.
But on the worst of days, I wasn’t doing exercise because it pleased me. I did it for punishment.
A particularly memorable run stands out in my mind – an 8-miler, smack dab in the middle of a sunny day in June. It was the Monday after I graded to an orange belt. I was still trying to detox my life from sugar. Two friends of mine had recently been in distressed. Take a moment, and imagine it. Imagine how tired, physically and emotionally, I was feeling. How hungry. And then imagine running while the sun beats down on you and your mouth is slowly getting drier and your own sweat won’t stay on your skin for long. You pass your usual checkpoint. You pass your second checkpoint. You head for the third. You head for the furthest you’ve ever gone to.
See, for some people (people with chronic conditions, or sick people) a particular diet might be life-saving. For a normally healthy person, who also does a lot of exercise, that diet can make them tired. It can make them irritable. It can make it very difficult for them to be there for their friends, without exhausting themselves in the process.
I ran and I ran and I ran, and my pedometer kept telling me I wasn’t there yet, and my skin felt tight with salt, and I was thirsty, so thirsty. I thought I would collapse, then and there, and just listen to the cicadas chirping. Even in the UK, where the seasons are so mild, running at high noon can be devastating. When I turned around to go back, I kept thinking how nice it would be if I just ran into the canal to cool off.
I got home, and blended some yoghurt with raspberries (low-sugar fruit!) and ice, and drank like a camel. And then I broke down and looked for eating disorder support because I was not okay.
I just wasn’t.
*
These days, it’s slightly easier to tell when I’m loving and when I’m not. Slightly. Not entirely better, but I’m not as blind as when I laced up my shoes that Monday. I like to think that I would know better than to push myself when I was at my breaking point. But who knows? The thing about love-hate relationships isn’t how bad they are at their worst – it’s how good they are at their best. The promise of one makes you put up with the other. It doesn’t change whether it’s your relationship with your partner or your body.

Stories for Lent: #12 Missing You

Here’s what I never told you:
When you made fun of a fat woman on the street, I felt it like an insult to me. I wondered what you might be saying about me behind my back, even when I was the smallest person in our friend group.
I was even more hurt when I tried to redirect the conversation into a more positive direction and you lot didn’t listen.
When I couldn’t see you for a while, I waited for you to text and see how I was.
When I went to an event you were at, I felt like I had no right to sit with you because it had been so long.
When you didn’t come to talk to me at all that night, I was hurt.
You said we were friends, but when I stopped seeing you, you didn’t bother to try and find me.
And I still miss you, motherfuckers. I still miss you.
*
Being young, isolated and depressed is a scary thing to be.
Being young, isolated, depressed and heartbroken over lost friendships? Devastating, but also confusing as fuck.
It would have been so much easier to figure this out if I was in a romantic relationship. There’s a template for that, an etiquette for broken hearts and betrayals. No-one writes songs about broken friendships – not listenable ones, anyway (Taylor Swift, I love you, but “Bad Blood” makes my ears bleed.) Movies where friendships are the primary focus are so rare, they make fucking headlines. There are one million and ten articles on the Internet instructing us about the best way to dispose of our ex’s stuff, but how the fuck do you deal with a signed edition of your favourite book that your friend gave you right before they stab you in the back?
No idea.
*
Here’s what I did when my friends didn’t call or text, didn’t try to get together, didn’t bother to respond to my emails: nothing.
For a while, I was angry and riding a wave of self-righteous indignation.
Then I tried throwing myself into activities and online forums, to prove to myself it wasn’t me that’s the problem.
There was a period where I’d just sit and watch youtube videos and browse online retailers forever because it’s a material world, I’m a material girl, and shiny things make me feel better for 0.0000001 seconds.
I tried meditation and bored myself to death.
I tried yoga and decided I wasn’t skinny enough to be down with the rest of the Earth Mothers. I also hated juicing.
At no point did I address the actual problem head on, which is this: I was friends with people who didn’t care for me beyond our shared interest, and I’d let myself get invested in a fantasy that they were. If I had actual relationship experience, maybe I would have recognized the pattern early on. Instead, I broke my own heart and didn’t realize it until months later.
It sits here, bruised and stitched up and beating, but it’s hesitant. It’s not sure it can go through that again, at least not so soon. And it’s my unpleasant duty to throw open the window blinds and pull at its covers and coax it out to get fresh air. To step outside and get ready to tumble.
It’s still holding onto you, though. Even after all this time, it’s still holding on.

Stories for Lent: #11 Beautiful People

I like to say I was an artist as a child, but in truth, there was only one thing I painted – pretty women. Most often princesses, with beautiful hourglass bodies and even more beautiful gowns. The day I figured out how to draw in profile was a major revolution for me, a turning point for variety where I practiced button noses and Egyptian-painting eyes until the cows came home (it took a critique from a guy friend of mine to get me to start painting eyes as they look like in profile, but that would be years later).
I like to say I drew a lot, but the truth is, all my princesses looked the same. I don’t think I’d be able to tell one year from another if I only had those drawings as a compass. I seemed to think that, against all evidence to the contrary, all women looked the same. Or at least, the women worthy of being immortalized in art.
*
I wish I could say I didn’t remain this shallow for long, but the truth was, I was drawn to beautiful people – my teachers, who were also artists and thus cooler, in my mind, than anyone else, because they made art as well; my friends, or so-called friends, who had long hair and better drawing supplies that they let me use (if I asked nicely); later, when hormones started kicking in with full force and boys started to become attractive as well as annoying, I went through a stage of crushes on the prettiest classmates I had. (Valentine’s Day was supremely disappointing in those years.)
Then the pendulum swung the other way – kind of. I came across a few teachers who had more than singing praises for me, who challenged my drawings. I forced myself to notice more things – shade and half-shade to add dimension, and how the “realistic proportions” of a human face wildly diverge from the “ideal proportion” (I actually hated those classes. All the people I drew seemed too big, too… fat, for my taste.) When I tried branching out into drawing animals (horses were a big deal at one point) my teacher sat me down with some Old West comics and had me stare at drawings until I got the kind legs right.
Slowly, my mental landscape started to change, at least in the way I drew things and people. I saw that there was a place for animation and for realism, I saw there was room for weirdness and messiness. I also started to see attraction in mistakes, in little deviations from the norm. I would give a woman wrinkles, or make her wink, or turn her hair into a mass of triangles, or put sunflowers in the place of her eyes, and suddenly, there was a story leaping out at me. I added moles. I drew less placid, serene Madonnas, and more open mouths and dimples and surprise. I tried – poorly – to make faces come alive, and I seemed to succeed most when I made mistakes.
With actual, living and breathing people, the change took longer. One might say it’s still going.
I stopped crushing on pretty boys – that was the first big indicator that something was happening. Then I began to notice the weird things, the imperfections. Tattoos and body piercings, for one thing, and not just on the models on the cover of “Skin Deep”. Haircuts and the way they shaped the head. The way some people’s eyes become animated when they talk, or they see someone they love.
And then there’s me, and the reflection I can’t always face, but occasionally appreciate. I found the guts to chop off the hair I’d painstakingly grown over the years – first, a little bit, then more and more, until it’s as short as it was in nursery school. I started to wear skirts, realizing that nobody was looking at my leg. I learned to wear red lipstick, despite the fact that every once in a while, I hear a voice in my head telling me that I look like a clown.
It’s progress. It doesn’t look like it, doesn’t feel like it, but it’s progress.

Stories for Lent: #10 The Poison Ivy Moment

There’s a section in Stephen King’s “On Writing” where he describes a childhood incident involving a bathroom emergency and poison ivy. Later in the book, he compares being on drugs to wiping his ass with that poison ivy again. I keep coming back to that page. I keep coming back to his description of his family too – his family who didn’t talk about feelings, bottled things up, and danced in the jello.
I’m thinking that everyone has a “poison ivy” moment – where you do something that’s bad for you, even if you know it. I’ve had several.
The last one involved bird shit.
*
I’d been running and running and running. Not physically – a monster cold struck me down, grounding me home until further notice – but in every other sense of the word, I was firing up on all cylinders, with no rest and no fuel. School stuff, writing stuff, stuff for next year, stuff for last year, work kept piling up and I gleefully added to it, circling short story competitions and adding them to my calendar without any consideration as to whether I can pull them all off or not. The novel I’d been working on for years was getting rejection after rejection, and in order to keep my head above water, I decided that quantity would be the name of my game for a bit. Like a lame inspirational slogan, I would dream less, and do more.
And I did dream less. I also slept less, and I made myself feel bad for not eating less, too. Anybody with experience in recovery knows this is a dangerous cocktail.
It got bad enough for my supervisor to pull me aside and tell me I needed to take a break. To be sent home in tears is humiliating enough – to be sent home in tears because you’re clearly working too hard is the stuff of C-grade romantic comedies, except there’s no handsome best friend character waiting in the wings to sweep me off my feet (as soon as I get done with the hard work of “fixing myself”, because that’s what we’re all fucking about these days. DIY self-improvement.)
I’m supposed to feel lucky. We caught it in time.
*
This past week, ever since that episode at work, I’ve been walking around as though I’ve been shell-shocked. Work started to fall away – one task after another, I handed in assignments and said goodbyes for the holidays. I got well enough to run, well enough to receive my purple belt, but the inside of my head is full of debris and balled-up to-do lists.
Self-care is a strange beast, one I’m not entirely comfortable with. Sitting with myself for long periods of time, and trying to figure out what I need… it’s deliciously self-indulgent, and two years ago, I did a bang-up job of training myself to hate everything that’s delicious. Like Emma Woolf, I’d developed a secret hatred of anything soft or comforting, while simultaneously craving it like crazy.
To go out into town, with no purpose other than to treat me was only fun at first. Very quickly, I became agitated about finishing a short story I’d started the day before so that I didn’t have it hanging when I left. I worried about missing the train. I worried about getting to the station on time. And then, once in the shopping center, I couldn’t stop looking for things that irritated me: the queue at the haircut salon was too big. There were too many people in the drugstore. I couldn’t find what I’d promised to get for my Mum. The underwear drawers at Victoria’s Secret were badly stocked, and why were their pajamas so dreadfully beautiful and expensive?
And when things couldn’t get any worse, I looked down and saw bird shit, all over my jacket and my trouser leg. I suddenly realized why a homeless man had yelled after me a few minutes ago.
I’m thinking about another memoir on writing, Dani Shapiro’s memoir, to be precise, where she describes a book called “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, and Very Bad Day”: “and just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse, he saw people kissing on television.” (Still Writing, p 80-81).
Standing in the middle of (another) haircut salon, using the last of my hand wipes to manage the damage, I don’t think I felt such despair. Not even when my supervisor pulled me out of shift and I ended up breaking down in tears in front of him. There’s catharsis in crying – even when things are at their darkest, the act of it zaps you of your energy, leaving you too tired to worry about anything else. I couldn’t cry in the salon. I didn’t feel like I had the right. It was just a little bit of guano, for fuck’s sakes, why was I being so hung up about that?
But it’s not just about the guano, is it? It’s not just about the poison ivy, or the people kissing. You can look away, you can get something from the pharmacy, you can take a wet wipe and scrub yourself clean. But when things have been building up, one on top of the other, over a long period of time, and you don’t take a moment to check your foundation, eventually it all falls apart. Possibly on top of you.
That’s what was happening. My pile was falling apart, projects and other half-finished dreams knocking off my head before finding the floor.
*
The high priests of our DIY self-help culture tell us that this is a valuable moment, and I guess in retrospect, it is. At the very least, it makes for a good scene in a C-grade romantic comedy (The climax: Katherine Heigl ugly-crying on the street, before rushing to her best guy friend’s home, mascara smeared from the rain, and the two end up having Teh Best Sex Ever right there, against his door. Coming to your local cinemas this Valentines’ Day.)
What is rarely, if ever said, about poison ivy moments, is this: They suck when they happen. You feel tired and wrung out and shell shocked. None of the things that used to help distract you or bring you joy help. It seems like you’re so tired, you will never feel happy again. You know that statistically and realistically speaking, that’s impossible, and yet you believe with all your heart that you will be that one outlier who never gets better.
Those lucky enough to know how to be gentle with themselves manage to get to the end of the day and then fall gratefully into sleep. It doesn’t feel like a victory – in fact, it feel anything but – and yet, when you barely have the energy to keep one foot in front of the other, walking is still an achievement.
I was lucky yesterday.