Archive for category Identity
I’ve been quiet since Friday. The Connecticut tragedy incited a PTSD reactive response, and to keep myself safe, I pretty much shut down my online presence. Everything I read, whether it was pleas for better gun control or essays on the prevalence of mental illness in the psyche of your typical mass murderer, sent me spiraling into a place I find difficult to describe.
Even worse, I’m having a manic episode, or I was having it right up until yesterday. I don’t like talking about my own mental illness. I’m ashamed of it. But I try to have courage and talk about it because I hope that by speaking out, I can educate others and help other people who are mentally ill.
This country needs to be willing to look at mental health issues even when there isn’t a tragedy. We need to attend to it when the small defeats and victories of friends and neighbors take place around us day in and day out. And for the love of all things good, we need to be really, really careful when something tragic occurs. Before we blame mental illness or gun control laws or try to assign blame to anyone or any single condition, we’d better take our time to research all the issues and get the answers right.
I’ve read a lot of articles, or to be honest, skimmed the ones that were too painful, that blamed the shooting on mental illness. Every time I read something like that, I cringe. The mentally ill are not more likely to commit acts of violence; in fact, they are much more likely to be the victims of violence. As painful and scary as it is for me to seek help when I’m feeling ill, it’s tenfold times more painful and scary to get the help I need in a charged atmosphere of blame-storming for a heinous mass murder.
As S.E. Smith wrote:
As always in cases of rampage violence, mental illness has been dragged into the mix, and I’ve been watching the Internet for the last three days with a growing sense of both deja vu and horror. None of the things being said are new — all of them are in fact very bone-achingly familiar — and all of them are extremely unhelpful, dangerous and counterproductive.
The American Psychiatric Association states that the vast majority of people who commit violent crimes do not suffer from mental illness.
Substance abuse is a much bigger risk factor for violent behavior; in people with untreated mental illness (a shockingly large number due to the difficulty involved in accessing services), drug abuse is a confounding factor in acts of violence in many cases, not the underlying mental illness. Socioeconomic status, age, gender and history of violence are also more significant indicators of the risk of violence.
You’re more likely to be hit by lightning than to be injured by someone who suffers from schizophrenia.
And yet if you believe the stories and anecdotes widely published this weekend, you will do what people typically do: you will stay the hell away from mentally ill people. Each time a tragic event like the one in Connecticut occurs and mental illness is raised as a proximate cause, people pull away even more from the mentally ill. In other words, the very stigma associated with mental illness intensifies, and those of us who most need love, compassion and support receive even less.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I get the treatment and the care and the compassion that so many of my ill brethren do not receive. Most people don’t even know that I’m ill. You see, I know the warning signs. In the case of manic episodes, my mind starts racing. Creative thoughts pile onto creative thoughts, and then it gets faster and faster and I can’t stop working won’t stop working don’t want to stop working and it’s amazing the things I can get done . . . but I feel an overload, an imbalance, a systems shutdown approaching. But like a jet plane hurtling through the air on cruise control, I cannot switch directions, not even when I know exactly how it’s going to end: nose down in the mountainside.
Crashing hurts, and it makes no sense to an outsider, but with time and medication and therapy, I’ve gotten much better at engineering less destructive crash landings. The most important thing I do is to radio ahead to the tower, or tell a few friends that I’m losing altitude too fast, and that I am, frankly, feeling ill. In other words, despite the stigma that attaches to my illness, I reach out for the help I need.
I was on the phone this morning with one of my best friends, and she just sort of sat with me. She told me that she loved me no matter what, and that she wasn’t going anywhere, and that my illness didn’t make her not want to be my friend. In fact, a few of my friends called me. They won’t let me fall through the cracks, and when I crash land, they’re there to pick up the pieces.
That’s what grieves me about so many of the articles I tried so hard not to read this weekend. For every one that begged for compassion, three more confused mental illness with violent propensities. And you know what this does? It rains down shame, ugly, dark sickly-familiar shame on those of us who suffer from mental illness. As gut-wrenchingly difficult as it is to seek treatment, this sort of fear-mongering makes it that much harder for people like me to seek help.
It takes courage to seek help, and it takes courage to admit you’re ill. Fallacious arguments that connect mental illness to violent propensities make it even harder. Please have compassion and use discernment when you address issues of mental illness. After all, you never know who could be affected by the words you use.
I grab my jacket and my wallet and my cell phone and my room keycard and my Sportsband and I head out of the Clarion Hotel, down a hill or two, and walk for about a mile until I spot an old white building which is almost blocking traffic. It’s the old library here in Shepherdstown, West Virginia and as crazy as it sounds, the damn building was not so much built around the street as the street was built around it.
I peer into a window of an old red brick building and try to make sure that Hypnocoffee is open and it is, so I open one door, step into a vestibule, and open another door, which takes me into the best coffee shop I’ve ever visited. Maybe that doesn’t sound right; after all, this is a small town and a small shop that lacks name brand recognition, but it’s the truth and I swear it.
I’m on a working vacation with my husband. He’s working, that is. I’m supposed to be working too, but I’m a writer and I spend most of my time walking around and taking the sights in and trying to find stuff to write about. Travis is busy from eight to five. Anyway, this leaves me lots of time to search for stuff to write about and to me, that’s another way of saying that I’m going on an adventure.
Before we left, that fine man of mine spent hours researching coffeehouses in Shepherdstown. “Cutie, I just want to make sure you’re really comfortable,” he explained. He’s either really solicitous or I’m a pain in the ass when I travel, or it’s a combination of both. The truth is, he researches coffee as if he were the coffee version of an oenophile and I’m downright picky about what beans I drink.
There is a really popular coffee house here, called Lost Dog Café. Fortunately Travis warned me that there baristas were rude; their coffee, bland, so I didn’t take it personally when the young woman at the cash register tossed an empty cup at me when I ordered a large brew. She barely made eye contact, and I felt out of sorts and shy as I paused and looked around. Lost Dog is a cool place. It’s all funky, with lots of color, a kaleidoscopic array of chalk scrawled all over chalkboards, t-shirts and mugs for sale, and a directive to be artsy-cool or drink coffee somewhere else. That made me laugh because I’m making my living as a writer. I write real stuff. But looking at me, in my 41-year old mother of three very imperfect body, baggy jeans, running t-shirt and Brooks running shoes, well, no one would ever know that I’m a creative type. And that’s all right with me.
After all, it’s what you do, what you create, not how you look when you create it, that really matters.
And that brings me back to Hypnocoffee. They are first, and above all else, a coffee roastery. You won’t find any t-shirts in here, or fancy mugs, or poseur political slogans. And that’s okay with me. Because what you will find, or what I’ve found, is the best cuppa Joe I’ve ever quaffed.
“Woooo, Cutie. Check this out. They employ the pour-over approach.”
I glanced at my husband, barely paying attention. “Uh-huh.”
He shifted his iPad in his hand so that I can see it. “Look. Check it out.”
I nodded, and he showed me what looked like a giant hourglass, with a white paper filter filled with fresh-ground coffee and almost boiling water on top.
“They say this makes the best coffee, ever. It’s the latest thing, and it’s taking the coffee house by storm.”
“Mmm, nice,” I murmured, my eyes searching for the pages of my book.
“So you’re going to like, no, love this place.”
And you know what? From the moment the coffee hit the roof of my mouth yesterday, I loved the dark brew and the place that brewed it.
The barista is a young guy, and yeah, I’ve reached the age where all creatures under thirty are young guys. Getting old can be a bitch, you know? This young guy wears a bow tie and his eyes twinkle when he talks, especially about coffee. “Yeah, you’re going to love the pour-over,” he predicts, with a smile that starts near his eyes. “It blows the doors off French Press coffee. And I know French Press coffee,” he adds, in response to my own benchmark for comparing coffee brewing methods. “I used to work at a place where we made coffee out of these industrial size French Presses.”
I take a sip and smile, again feeling shy. It’s hard for me to know what to say to people, so I usually stop trying to figure it all out and just tell the truth. “It’s awesome. Great coffee.” I tip my 12-ounce white cup at him and smile, crossing the small shop in about seven steps before I reach the inner door.
That was yesterday. It’s Tuesday, and I’m back again. It’s my kind of place. As Hemingway would say, it’s a clean, well-lit place, and I’m comfortable here. I’ve met Tony, the owner, and he’s a runner and a father and a busy man who, like me, is doing what he loves, loving what he’s doing, and doing it pretty damn well.
I’m thinking too much, too fast, too much, too fast. Damnit. What if it’s a really really bad idea to self-publish Ripple? Should I have kissed many more asses? Why didn’t I kiss more asses? Who do I ask to do my advance reviews? Is it any good? I know it’s good. But there are millions of would-be writers out there. Am I just like the rest of them? Am I really a loser? A wanna-be, would be, could be but can never will never be?
Should I go back and try to be nice to the people I’ve been ignoring? What about all of the pages that I’ve not been talking to because I’m talking to other pages and writers? Should I be trying harder? Should I be on my knees groveling, or at least gladhanding? I have stopped interacting with so many pages and blogs and it’s all a kaleidoscopic mishmash of should-dos and can’t and won’ts and I have no fucking clue how to sort it all out. Why do I have to be the one to handle this?
The real question is why do I need to be the adult here? I don’t feel like an adult. I don’t feel like I’m in control. Not I. Or not me, depending on how the rest of the sentence goes . . . no. Not I. Funny. I never really studied grammar that much or even wanted to learn it. I was above the rules but the real truth is that I always sensed, nay feared, that the rules were above me.
There. That’s the truth. Icky ugly truth. I play this whole act, this “Your rules not mine” rebel act long and hard but you know what I’m hiding? This deep fear that if I play by the same rules, throw the football on the same exact field with the precise dimensions and markings that all other writers obey, everyone will find out (who is everyone) that my writing just isn’t good enough.
That’s my icky ugly inner fear. It’s fucking debilitating. Should I stop cussing? Just an aside, but is it? Last night I made this poster, and I consciously went with the word “ass” as in “work your ass off,” because it was authentic. But I also know that a lot of my inspirational friends won’t share anything that has a cuss word in it, and while 10,820 fans is plenty, every new fan equals a potential reader. Then again, my freakin’ name has a curse word in it, so does that make me ineligible for being shared by the goody two-shoes of pages?
Not that there’s anything wrong with goody-goodies. Oh my gosh. Part of me wants to be a good girl and part of me wants to be a badass and those two sides of me will forever lay siege to one another! Right?
And should I put one space or two after a period? Am I the only old-school holdover who still goes with two spaces? I like two spaces, not one, but I don’t wanna stand out, stick out, or run alone.
Or do I?
As far as the cussing thing, my characters cuss, and so do I but I’m also a born-again Christian and I need those fans—the moral majority (giggle) too. I need as many fans and readers as I can get because hell, I’m trying to sell books, right? But what’s the point of selling anything if I have to change who I am to make a sale? How boring, stupid, phony, cruddy, pointless . . . is it to change who you are just to make a few extra bucks?
Speaking of a few bucks, what the hell am I doing self-publishing Ripple? Seriously, what the hell am I doing? Did I decide to ignore the traditional publishing houses for a reason other than I’ve been telling everyone? Was it simply because I was scared Ripple wasn’t good enough? Did I think that the rejection of everything that I am and want to be would be so awfully soul-crushing that I couldn’t chance it? God help me if I have to face the exact same pain that every other writer faces.
Yep. Maybe it always comes back to God. And needing His help. I’m scared, and I’m about to jump off a big limb that’s hanging over a muddy bank and into these swirling waters, and as much as I love crazy adventures and especially swirling waters, I’m so afraid that I’ll smash into unseen rocks and end up all bloodied and concussed and broken-hearted.
This is one of those times I wish I could call my mom. But I can’t and I won’t but I will . . .
One kid, then a second, and then a third jumped-tumbled off the high bus steps and gang-tackled me. After hugging them back, I walked behind the boys with my daughter, who chattered about her day.
“I have something I want to ask you about,” I began, my arm resting on her shoulder. “All of you.”
She squinted up at me through the afternoon sunlight. “Why? What?”
I started to explain what was bothering me as we kicked our shoes off by the steps to the laundry room. Standing there, with my fingers wrapped around the door frame, I felt off-balance. One time, years ago, I had shut the door on my son’s little fingers when he used the frame to maintain his balance, and since then, I’d been afraid of sticking my fingers in the space between the door’s edge and the door frame. And yet for some reason, I still did it every day anyway. Once I got my purple and bright yellow running shoes off my feet, I breathed a sigh of relief that my fingers were intact, and slammed the thick white laundry room door behind me.
I removed lunchboxes from backpacks, stacked the three backpacks in the space between the china cabinet and the dining room wall and set snacks in front of the kids. For a few minutes, everyone talked at once about their day, three overlapping voices forming the ever-shifting mosaic of our life as a family.
I leaned against the kitchen counter top, which is where I usually stand when I’m in the kitchen. Since the accident, I almost never sit down at the table. It’s become my new normal and no one thinks anything of it. When my husband isn’t around, sometimes I jump up and sit on top of the counter, right near the spice drawer, which is where I used to sit as a child. This annoys my husband. He thinks it’s going to break the counter, so it’s one of my many guilty pleasures, I guess.
“So, guys, I need to ask you something. I have this race tomorrow, but I’m thinking it’s going to take me away too long from you. That’s making me feel really bad. It seems unfair.”
“Yeah, Mom, you are gone a lot on the weekends. Why do you have to work so much?”
I sighed and looked at Maddie. “I’m writing a novel, hun. And it’s important.” I took a deep breath. Was I really gone that much? “Anyway, I would be gone, like, the entire day, from before breakfast to dinner. And so I wanted to let you decide. And whatever you decide is fine with me. I’ll honor it. If you want me home, I’ll not go to the race.”
Jim’s eyes brightened. He didn’t need to speak. I had his answer.
Then Maddie did one of her smile-shrug-hair flips, with a dozen other facial expressions thrown in for emphasis. She’s able to convey more without speaking than any other little girl I’ve met. With her voice rising to a higher pitch as she spoke, she spoke. “I want for you to do what makes you happy, Mom.”
I sighed. “No, I’m asking you what makes you happy.”
She twirled her hair. “Well, it will make you happy to run the race, won’t it? You’ve trained for it. You’d be disappointed if you didn’t run it, wouldn’t you?”
I felt like Hell. She cared about me—that was obvious. She wanted me to be happy—that was also obvious. But did she just not want me around? I tried to pull it together. “I don’t want you to miss me while I’m doing something that will make only me happy. What you want is very important to me.”
She shrugged. Her faces twisted in concentration. “You are gone a lot on the weekends. But we’re okay with Dad.”
“So you want me to be gone then?” It was a stupid thing to say, but before I could right the ship, Ben, with a bored look on his face, swung around in his chair and exclaimed, “I want you to go run it. We’ll hang out with Dad.”
That stung. I tried to inspect him, to understand his words, to find the hidden resentment, but I think he was just speaking without filter, saying what he really was thinking, which he usually does anyway. Tears were rising, but I pushed that back down.
“Am I really gone that much?”
Maddie wince-smiled, and I tried to read everything she was thinking, just as she was trying to read me.
“Okay. Maddie. Please. What do you want me to do? I want to be here and I want you to be happy. That’s job one. Be a good mom. Take care of y’all. That’s my job. What you need to concentrate on is not what makes me happy. I want to know what makes you happy, okay?”
She nodded. I could almost see the gears moving in her head.
“So, do you want me to stay home tomorrow? You have the deciding vote. And it’s perfectly okay.”
She smile-shrugged again, and twirled her hair. “It would be nice to have you around. But what about all of your training?”
I breathed. Finally. “The training is fine. There will be other races.”
I crossed the room and opened the fridge door. As I pivoted, slamming the door shut behind me, I thought real fast. This was absurd. I was being absurd. This wasn’t really their decision. It was my decision, all the way. Even if it hurt me that Ben didn’t seem to want me home, I wasn’t going to run from my responsibility. Even if staying home meant admitting I’d been gone too much, I wasn’t going to run from this. Even if it meant facing my guilt, I could do that. I could even face my guilt for being away too much and being too busy and too absorbed in my work without turning it into a shame-making session with my past, present and future ghosts haunting me.
Because, you see, I thought to myself, I can control how the future works out with me and my children by slamming the door shut on this race, and this disengaged parenting, right here, right now. They won’t remember the Saturdays I disappeared, or at least won’t be haunted by them, if I change–if I manage to be here going-forward, most Saturdays and Sundays. I’m in charge of how our family turns out, and all I got to do is be here, and when here, actually be present. I can do all of that without sacrificing my work, and my happiness.
After guzzling half a liter of ice-cold water, I rubbed my mouth on my sleeve and then nuzzled my daughter’s head. “I’m sorry I’ve been gone so much. I’ll try harder.”
It took a few more passes for us to reassure one another that all was well, and then I changed the subject back to the contents of their day. And as they unpacked their day like a woman unloads the contents of her purse, I tried to sort through my feelings. Feeling guilty paralyzed me, and so I had to try to set that aside and think things through. Had I been gone too much? Maybe; maybe not. Children can be self-absorbed. So can I. I never really grew up. In some ways, I’m still a life coming into being, rather than a finished product. And the thing is, I was profoundly unhappy when I was just a stay at home mom. No offense to SAHMs (Hell, moms that don’t work get their own acronym just like some neighborhoods garner their own zip codes, so they must be doing something with all of their time, right?), but I lost my sense of self when I stopped working.
I love being a mom. But I didn’t love being just a mom. I’m not much good at most things domestic, and I never felt comfortable with the other SAHMs. I felt like the ugly swan around them, and deep down, I knew I didn’t belong. As the days revolved and became years, I felt constrained and trapped and overwhelmed with the unchanging routine of it all. I wasn’t very good at running a household and I never wanted to be.
Which is not to say I didn’t love being home with my children. I did. And they knew I loved them. Maybe that’s why they didn’t mind when I disappeared for hours on my long runs—because when I got home, I brought my grinning self to the threshold and bestowed hugs and laughs and well-timed winks. Running made happy, and being happy made me a better mom. Within limits, running made me a better mom.
I guess it’s all about balance. I’d never quite found it. Every day I reached out and tried to hold onto something stable to find it, because I was always moving so damn fast. But as a mom, I had to be my own doorframe. I had to provide the ballast to keep the ship afloat, and to do that, I had to stand still, if only for a few moments at a time, or else I was going to run my family aground. And ships, like families, get pretty messed up when that happens.
It’s been raining this morning since I woke up. The house takes on a grayish tint without sunlight and I’m thinking about grabbing my red running jacket and heading out to run over tree roots and through mud and into puddles. That will come later. For now, I grab a sweatshirt, my husband’s thick black fleece one, and edit and write and think and create, hoping to sculpt some beauty out of the uncertain edges that make up my rainy morning.
I don’t write to anyone else’s requirements anymore, and I love that. I love the freedom of crafting words according to my own artistic needs. For far too many years, I wrote what and how and when I was told . . . by partner, court or client.
Please forgive me, kind friends who have bestowed lovely blogging awards on me, but I simply cannot spend time writing to spec, so to speak. What I love most about this writing gig of mine is I can blaze my own trail. I have total and complete artistic freedom, and this is more precious to me than almost anything else, save my family.
Artistic freedom is a beautiful and mighty thing. I was thinking about this last night while talking to a dear, dear friend of mine. You see, I will never work for anyone else again. I’m going for it. I’m all in, as far as my choice of vocation. I am blessed to be doing for a living the one thing I love most: writing.
While I don’t write to spec, I love to riff off other writers, and my favorite source for improvisation material is my dear friend, Deborah Bryan. A few weeks ago, I received her post, Let’s Get Real, in my in-box and I sat there, all hunched over my brand-new Macbook Pro, reading the results of five minutes of unfiltered, fearless, straight up “this is what I’m thinking and fuck it all I’m going to tell you what’s on my mind” writing. And I grinned and howled and felt at home, as if she and I were sitting on her balcony drinking tea and watching the cars race past on the freeway overhead.
So here goes.
I know I write well. Am I arrogant or just honest? I suck at a lot of things and am average at best at many more.
For example, I strive to be a good mom. In truth, I think I’m a mediocre mom, but that’s better than telling everyone who will listen that I’m a great mom and consistently proving otherwise.
I’m mad at Facebook. My friends call Mark Zuckerberg something different. They switch the “Z” with an “F” and I think it’s funny but then I feel guilty for calling him bad names even after I use his product all day, every day. That said, he is trying to make page owners like me pay for what was once free. My friend, D.Z., explained that he should be paying us, the content creators, for what we do. We get Facebook users to linger more online, and the more our followers linger, the more likely they are to click on the paid advertising links.
I’m bored with this rant.
I’m bipolar and hyper and unable to sit still. I interrupt people too much; smile when I’m sad; giggle when I’m mad; and hate to wear dresses or uncomfortable shoes. In fact, the real reason I’m a writer is so that I can wear athletic shorts and a t-shirt every day.
I love my hair. It’s long and sort of dirty blond, not quite auburn, and not yet silver. It makes me feel feminine and pretty, which is hard for me. Usually, I don’t feel pretty or even feminine. It isn’t safe to be soft and pretty. It scares me. And typing that makes me wanna cry . . . but I don’t cry much and I don’t feel like being sad today.
Loud noises give me a headache. Violent TV shows give me nightmares. Every time I see a gratuitously naked woman in a movie, the little child in me screams in pain and fury. Shades of Grey’s success infuriates me. What the hell is wrong with people anyway? Why is this book popular? The book celebrates abusive sex and the writing sucks.
This world we live in is so awful. Damn it all.
But this world is beautiful too. I hear the raindrops hitting the leaves in my backyard. It’s raining harder and harder and not every drop makes the same noise as it hits the green and yellow leaves. It doesn’t sound discordant, and I wonder how many raindrops it takes to create harmony.
I laugh too loud. And so do my kids. Sometimes I worry that they laugh too loud. I worry that I laugh too loud and too much so that people will like me more.
I’m terrified to publish I Run because I’m going balls to the walls and telling my story, my real story. What will people think? What will my birth family do to me if they find out about what I’m writing?
Did you know where the phrase “balls to the walls” originated? It comes from the aviation world. On an airplane, the handles controlling the throttle are often topped with ball-shaped grips, referred to by pilots as balls. Pushing the balls forward, close to the front wall of the cockpit increases the amount of fuel going to the engines and results in the highest possible speed.
In other words, balls to the walls means giving your maximum effort. That’s the way I live and love and write. Consequences be damned.
And that, my friends, is a wrap. I’m going to write like this more often because it feels good.
I’m heading out for a run in a few minutes. While I’m gone, please feel free to tell me something unfiltered about yourself in the comments below.
When I started this blog, I promised to be honest. Of course, being honest doesn’t mean saying whatever the hell is on my mind, either. If I’m not getting along with someone I love, I’m not going to go public with it. My relationships mean more than my audience reach or edification. But I can talk about me, if I’m losing my mind, or losing my shit, as I prefer to say (or did prefer until a few people challenged me for having my characters cuss too much) then I might as well talk about it with you.
I used to write this mind-bendingly honest stuff when I started my Facebook Page. 8,000 fans later, I wonder if maybe I’ve lost myself in the never-ending search for greater popularity. This need to find an ever-greater number of LIKES on my page speaks of hubris and dependence on others to define my own self-worth, so I resist it, oh man, how I resist it. Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate being liked. In fact, I love it . . . right up until I find that I’m forgetting what makes me—me.
And that’s where I am now. It’s not just my Facebook Page, or even my blog here, which is much smaller. It’s my book.
I’m almost done with draft three, which consists of fixing inconsistency in POV (point of view). Mostly this is an easy fix. I have three main characters and each scene either needs to be written from the perspective of one of the three characters or it can be written from third-party omniscient POV. The thing that is confusing me to the point where I want to send the entire manuscript to the trash is if I’m in third party omniscient, how much can I show of each character’s thoughts and feelings?
I’ll figure it out, no doubt. But I don’t want to lose my mental stability in the process. I’m trying so hard to hold onto the essence of what makes these scenes true and real and (I hope) beautiful . . . and now I hold this Exacto-knife to each scene, cutting the excess. But I’m scared, so scared, I’m cutting the essence, the muscle, the dimples that make a face special—OUT along with the fat.
I’ve studied both the science and the art of writing and I’m an artist, not a scientist, when it comes down to it. I write according to feel and I try to hear my characters in each word I fashion. I think great writing is almost a mystical process, one that unites mind and heart and soul with a seamless tap of fingers on keyboard. There are some right and some wrong ways to go about writing, but if I had to define what makes a book great, I’d have to respond that it sounds or reads or even feels right.
Some people speak of magic formulas and objective guidelines to writing novels. And for sure, there are rules and guidelines, but so often, these rules and guidelines exist to be flouted. For me, citing and obeying too many rules and techniques can reduce the magic of writing to a mathematical formula, or what my friend The Monster in Your Closet calls “The Dread Writamatician.” And when I try to apply these formulas to my manuscript, I skate into a place of angst and frustration that feels all too close to mental instability.
That’s why I quit writing so many years ago. I could not reconcile objective standards with my inner definition of beauty, and I fucking lost it. Really—lost it. I made it through all of that, but only after I chose surviving over living my dream, and if I have to make the same choice, I think I’d choose a balanced, sane life over art again. But it’s not an easy choice. I love my art that much.
So where am I? This third draft is pretty much making me crazy. I’m scared and frustrated and for some reason, angry, and I don’t know why I’m angry. I think I’m angry with myself, to be honest.
But that said–I’m fine. Well, no, I‘m not at all fine, but I will be fine after I get over this funk. I know I’m putting too much pressure on myself and I’m closer than I’ve ever been to sending Ripple to the trash bin. I won’t. Instead, I’ll go for a run and I won’t stop until this pain of creating makes me feel too much like destroying.
I’ve followed the Jerry Sandusky case with a bit of self-protective distance until yesterday. Revelation after revelation exposed both horrific child abuse and an even worse phenomenon: a Code of Silence that protected a football program while it sacrificed the safety and welfare of young men. Not only did the football coach I’d so admired uphold the Code: so did the athletic director and the Penn State University president.
For my entire life, my identity has consisted of two major facets: athlete, and intellectual. I admired Joe Paterno and his football program. His players seemed to abide by high moral standards, and they graduated.
Like so many heroes of mine, Paterno proved weaker than I expected. Despite knowing that a boy was raped by Sandusky, a PSU coach, in the locker room showers, Paterno did not report this to the police. He figured that the Program, with all of its heft and power, could handle it internally. The Code prevailed. The Code of Silence.
Three things were sacrificed to this Code: the abused boy; subsequent Sandusky victims; and the psyche of abuse victims throughout the world.
I try to write about this and my brain shuts down right HERE. Grief takes over. I’m so confused.
I’m spinning. Sorry. Where was I? Victims and how we feel when the authorities protect abusers. THAT. Yes. My chest grips me and I cannot access words, but I will try. Those of us who suffered abuse suffered something much worse: silence. Our own silence, and the silence of people who knew that we were abused. This hurts worse than the touch of hands that had no right to touch our bodies.
It’s so hard to explain. I tried to advocate for shutting down the PSU football program last night. My poster, now taken down, said:
Stop Child Abuse. Shut down the PSU Football Program.
Sarcastic and offended PSU supporters attacked me, but as a friend noted, the discussion was pretty civilized. You know why it was civilized? Because I kept it so. I swallowed my anger and took care of everyone else. To the PSU grads who felt attacked, who mourned the potential loss of their beloved white and navy-clad football players, I said I was sorry.
And I was sorry for their pain. But I wasn’t sorry for advocating the shutting down of a football program. The student-athletes who get a free ride at PSU can transfer to other universities, and be paid to run up and down a field of green for four years. They will receive a free education.
I’m not sorry for believing that shutting the program down will help shatter the Code. Shut it down. Send a message to future coaches and athletic directors and university presidents: your team is not above the law. If you protect the abusers, you will suffer consequences. It’s too bad that the consequences will affect players and fans and alumnae. But we live in an interconnected world. We do not own the teams we follow.
Ownership. Funny, that it comes back to ownership. The rights of each person begin where the rights of another person end. Sandusky violated those boundaries when he raped that boy in the showers. From that crime rained down shards that cut so many others. And so much of it could have been prevented, if the men who knew of the crime reported it to the authorities. Those men represent a university, and since they acted on the university’s behalf, the university must bear the responsibility and face the punishment.
Am I disinterested? No. This case means a lot to me. My Little El cries out, “No one ever took care of me,” and the mother I’ve become sees her own boys shivering in the corner of some university’s showers ten years in the future. My anger and my pain and my grief rage inside me right now, and I am struggling against it, trying not to self-destruct by burning too hot.
This anger and grief is crippling me today. I feel scared and alone, and yet I know I can’t sit with this too long. Soon. Soon I will rise and move and run again. Soon. This fire burns too hot inside, but I will rise. Soon.
I looked up when I heard the angry tone. I searched the faces in the crowded classroom.
Who was she talking to? Why are they staring at me?
The more she said, the more they stared at me. Like a confused, sleeping child hunting for a lamp in the dark of night, I looked for someone’s hand to grab but the only thing I could find was my desk, so I held on so tight my fingers hurt. I was twelve years old and this white-haired, plum little old art teacher, with words stark like winter sunshine on a ski slope, screeched, “Why must you act like such a dyke? You should be ashamed of yourself, wearing boy’s clothing.”
On the outside, I appeared calm and collected but I was dying inside.
Years later, my brother’s voice startled me. “E! Mom needs to talk to you!!” Setting my copy of The Fountainhead down, I took a deep breath and tried to loosen my right shoulder. It was tight from all the pitches I had thrown that morning. Each summer day between my senior year and first year of college, I threw 150-200 pitches, lifted weights for an hour, and ran at least three miles. I had a crush on Jon and a best friend named Tracy and we were inseparable—closer than I’d ever been to any of my friends.
Too close, apparently.
I opened my parents’ white bedroom door and tripped on a stray piece of loose carpet in their otherwise pristine room. My parents sat on fabric-covered bedside chairs and I wondered what I had done wrong because Mom’s brow was furrowed and Dad’s mouth was tight and he was glaring, not leering, at me. They assured me that “I needed help,” and that they wanted to help me because no one should be condemned to a “homosexual life sentence.”
I still didn’t understand what they meant until she held up my once-gay uncle’s letter as if channeling Senator McCarthy when he brandished his infamous list of Communists. This uncle of mine had undergone a spiritual awakening. He had seen the light and stopped his sinful fornication with other men, and ever since, he spent his days searching for other gays to save.
In his mind, I was yet one more gay in need of salvation. You know, because I dressed in jeans and white athletic t-shirts and didn’t wear makeup and wasn’t screwing some guy . . . and had a best friend that I hugged and even held a lot . . . surely, he reasoned, they reasoned, I needed help. Because I was gay and all. So my parents read his letter and asked all of these questions and told me I was going to hell and their words poured over me like cascading water falling fast, so fast, over rocks in a waterfall and I was falling, falling . . .
On the outside, I appeared calm and collected but I was dying inside.
So I grabbed the keys to my Subaru, and my journal that my mom has since hidden from me, and I drove down I-71 toward Pennsylvania, playing chicken with the guard rails for hours and hours. I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure. Was I going to hell? Did they know something I didn’t? I had never had sex with a man; then again, I knew what it felt like to be turned on and boys, not girls, got me going that way. I pulled over and wrote in my journal that I wanted to die, and then I kept moving west on my drive of death until the rain poured down so hard I couldn’t see. And then I chose to keep living and figuring all of this shit out and I gripped the wheel and made it home and once home, I drunk whatever I could find that night until the pain . . .
A few days ago, the phone rang and I answered it on the second ring.
“El?” She whispered, her voice ragged and ravaged by grief.
“Yes? It’s me. Talk to me.”
For a moment she cried too hard to speak. I knew what it was about. Someone we both know said that gays are sinners, destined for hell’s fires.
With my left hand, I swung my strawberry blonde hair out of my eyes and pressed the receiver into my right ear, and I waited.
“God loves me!”
“I know, hun.”
“GOD LOVES ME!! He loves me!”
“I know. I know He does.” I repeated the same words and felt her grief in my cold heart.
“Enough! Enough! How many more children need to die?” She was howling, like an animal wounded and left to die, and I held still, very still, trying to breathe, and listen, and find the right words. We both know the statistics: four out of five teenagers who commit suicide have been bullied on account of their sexual orientation.
I nodded and mumbled something useless.
“How can he say I am a sinner?” I pictured her tear-rimmed, blue eyes with dark rings circling them and her own hand gripping the phone, and my mind danced between knowing and not knowing how to comfort her.
“How can he say God doesn’t love me? HE MADE ME!! He knew me before He made me!” I could barely understand her because she was sobbing so hard.
“I know. I love you. I know. I know.” I said the same words over and over, as if I was hugging her and patting her back. I felt so fucking useless. “I am so sorry,” I added, as I sunk into my rocking chair, my throat gripped by her grief and my own pain.
On the outside, I appeared calm and collected but I was dying inside.
There are many ways to die. A piece of me felt broken and grief-stricken as I sat there in my rocking chair, wishing I could hold my dear, precious friend, as she wept at the persecution she and so many others face. This inward death is my marker for each gay child who dies when the vocal violence of human hatred drives her to choose too soon her own death.
The death I almost chose.
In the dream I was running again. From one stride to the next I ran from a snowy field to a drought-starved dead ball field. And then I was failing a chemistry experiment again. I kept digging through my pockets to find the missing black pieces but my Dad was yelling at me, or maybe it was Professor Smoot, and the parts fell through my fingers. He scowled at me, professor, father, softball coach all in one, and I stifled back a sob and begged for another chance. But it was too late because the fumes from the experiment nauseated me and I ran, oh how I ran, to get away.
A bird screamed, once, twice, and I awoke to a bleeping alarm clock. “The first time you told me,” she mused, “I didn’t believe you.” I stared at her and wanted to leave but my feet remained rooted to the floor. She assessed how I was feeling but my face betrayed nothing. “And even now, I believe you 92%. It’s just a bit much, you know?” She sighed and raised an eyebrow, disapproving of someone, or something, but not of herself. In her mind, the story of my childhood unraveled like a two-headed snake biting itself.
I rushed to make her feel better for doubting me. “Yeah I know.” I gestured at my black SUV that contained three car seats and transported children from one suburban location to another. “ How can someone who drives one of these, and raises a pretty normal family in a nice neighborhood with a garden and all of that shit really have come from that sort of childhood?” I reassured her that her doubts were normal but she didn’t need the reassurance. I did. I needed to know that a real friend could disbelieve everything that I’d been telling her over the course of our friendship and still be a friend.
I was lying to myself, sort of, but I knew. I knew that I deserved better. The worst thing you can say to a survivor of sexual abuse is that you don’t believe them. You see, we bury the abuse, but it haunts us, first in our dreams. We race from winter to summer, one step to the next, never able to take the temperature of the parents who nurture one moment, and look away or touch us the wrong way the next.
When the memories float back to us, we dig through them, searching with desperation through the crevices of our mind, for the black pieces that infect us. These parts, these fragments, slip through our fingers and we chase them as if they are butterflies in springtime. But when we catch them, we discover that the butterflies have turn into spiders. We bottle them up inside our hearts until we realize they sting us with their venom if hidden from the light of day.
With hope and terror, we hunt down those spiders and release them. As we let them go, we pray that no one will insist that we are casting off butterflies, or worse, shadows. Lies.
I tell no lies.
In the dream, as in life, I am running again, running.