Journey to Health, On Writing, The Anxiety Files, The Work of Becoming

you learn to survive, then you learn to come back alive

mississippi river

I started my adolescence with all this fire and verve. All these goals and plans and dreams, and oh my god, I laughed at adults who told me “I hope you make it.”

Hope? I would.

I memorized New York City street maps, because someday, I’d leave Minnesota. I told adults who asked me if I wanted to be a mother that I only wanted to “after I was old and done living,” because I was too greedy for the world to imagine tethering myself. I installed a computer with only one working program (a word processor) and typed 250 pages about a girl who wanted to lead. I carried notebooks with me, and asked for books on writing for my thirteenth birthday. I registered for classes that I was technically too young for, and just didn’t tell anyone my age (until my classmates asked me join them for a post-class drink, and I had to say catch you in five years). I was going to be a writer someday. I knew this is how I’d get there.

I’ve written so much about the something that happened. Depression and anxiety caught up with me, and carved me from the inside out. Even after I got the help you get (meds, talk therapy, coping mechanisms, etc.), I wasn’t quite unstuck. Like silt in a river, I drifted and settled beneath the current. I stayed like this for years.

Movies and memoirs tell us there’s one big moment for us to change ourselves, but I have a theory that we’ll all do this many times over the course of our lives. Rise from a waking sleep, and realize that this life is partially, if not wholly, our own.

I spoke with a woman who is reaching the end of her career, and still preparing for her next act. She told me that she’s never regretted her choice to pursue what she was passionate about, not even when the money didn’t follow, not even when the dream jobs became untenable. When I told her I was still trying to figure out how I will pursue, she said, “If I could give you two pieces of advice, you need enough drive to understand your passion and how to follow it. And don’t ever, ever, ever delay your goals for a man.”

Elsewhere, I read an essay by a brilliant writer I admire, “I used to be a woman who did things. I was a doer, a maker, a builder.” I read that, and remembered the younger version of myself who assumed, at twenty five, that that’s who I’d be by now.

This isn’t about regret (although, to sing Sinatra, I’ve had a few) or some misplaced “I thought I’d have done x, y, and z by twenty-five” (we’re not expected to deliver in our first act), but rather about what happens when you start to feel the weight of time slowly building.

When I was a teenager, my favorite song was Bruce Springsteen’s “The River.” A beautiful, and terrifying song. I rolled one lyric over and over, trying to make sense of it. “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse.” He’s said that this album was his first attempt to hold both life and death in the palm of one hand. When you listened to this album at fourteen, you can’t understand all that pain. I held that line so close to me, because even though I knew (they way you only can when you’re fourteen, sixteen, eighteen) I’d never lose sight of my dreams, it haunted me.

About eighteen months ago, I laughed out loud when someone asked me what my dreams were. We’re really still asking those questions like they matter? We haven’t all given up and given in to the grind? Then someone else asked me the same question, a guy in a bar who I’ll never see again, and I felt the way you feel when you drink champagne on an empty stomach — all fizz and light and warmth in your fingers and your cheeks. Now, my boyfriend and I talk about dreams like they’re worth holding on to. He talks about mine like they’re worth fight for, and what’s even crazier to me, is I’m starting to believe it again.

I’ve been coming out of the fog for well over a year now. Survival is only one part of recovery. Reclaiming hope, reclaiming possibility, reclaiming not just the ability to, but the courage to dream, reclaiming my right to want something out of my life. That’s what comes after learning how to survive.

It’s like driving through the night. The earth starts to roll towards the sun again, and there, where there was only black, is the horizon. All clean and endless and there again.

Traveler

new york city, dublin, london: tell me everything

We are traveling this summer! We’re going to New York City! We’re going to Dublin! We’re going to London! Then we’re going back to Dublin!

My boyfriend and I booked tickets a few months ago, but it’s taken the snow melting from the sidewalks (this week) for me to get we’re-going-to-be-in-Europe excited. I love guidebooks, and already have ones for all three cities (evidence above), but I want to hear from people who have been there. Where do we go? What do we do? What restaurants do we need to try? What museums do I need to visit? What bookshops do I need to see? What bookshops do I NEED to see?

Each of these cities have been jewels on my tongue for years. I visited New York when I was a teenager, but the other two will be all new. I’m all the things you are when you travel: excited and anxious and ready to be wowed and hopeful that it will bring with it clarity/creativity/wonder/an awakening. Mostly, though, I’m kind of in awe that I booked these tickets, and kind of in awe that in just a few months I’ll be standing on foreign soil, walking on streets whose names I’ve memorized from maps and books. In the weeks after booking the tickets, I kept turning to my boyfriend and shouting “We’re going to Dublin!”

It’s still a few months out. For now, though, I need you to tell me everything good. Heavy emphasis on books, food/drink, weird crime stuff, and anything not included in my guidebook.

Lovely Living, The Work of Becoming

questions that don’t need answers: on the what’s next of it all

“Let whatever mysterious starlight that guided you this far guide you onward to whatever crazy beauty awaits. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you’ve got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that’s all.” — Cheryl Strayed, Tint Beautiful Things

Back in 2011, when I was a college kid losing myself in the black vortex of untreated mental illness, I told everyone who would listen what I was struggling with. Anxiety, depression, daily panic attacks, Zoloft to treat it. I had known so few people to have mental health conditions, and the few people of with conditions, I only knew about through backroom whispers. It was foolish of me, but I thought what I was going through was so unique. No one else I knew was frightened by meeting friends for a movie! No one else I knew had their chest go tight and their vision blurry and their stomach sour three, four times a day! No one was irritable like I was, sad like I was, unnamably hopeless like I was.

Of course, that wasn’t true, but I didn’t know people who had – or at least who talked about having – any mental health conditions. There were some backroom whispers about tiny pills swallowed daily, but nothing or no one that said to me ‘mental illness is real, is common, is treatable.’ As the number of people who told me “I experienced the same thing” mounted, I wanted to shout why didn’t anyone tell me?

Why didn’t anyone tell me that this blackness has already been charted?

After writing last week about my depression, I was overwhelmed and grateful, as I always, always am, at the number of people who reached out to say that they got it. My god, people, life gets so lovely when we all stop hiding what’s supposed to make us lonely.

I’m also really happy to report that this week was better than last. After historic snowfall over the weekend, winter seems to finally be breaking. The sun has shined every day, and I finally ditched my down jacket. I read a sharp, intimate, breathtaking book, wrote two short stories back to back in a voice I barely recognize, and got really excited about bullet journaling. Then, on the one low day of the week, when I raged about stress and cried at the DMV, my sweet, sweet boyfriend reminded me that it’s okay to not always be okay. Like they say, a day at a time.

These last twelve months have been momentous and beautiful, and have given me the opportunity to, above all else, ask myself, to pull from Mary Oliver, what it is I want from this one wild and precious life.

I’m twenty five, and this seems like a good age to ask big questions. Or maybe every age is as good as any other, and I am ready now. What do I want out of life? Not just out of my days, but the whole grand sweep of it. What do I want it to have been when it comes to an end? How do I give my heart to someone, and what do I do when they give me theirs? What is purpose, and how do I find mine? What’s a career path, and how I build mine? How do I tend my roots without sacrificing my growth? What does desert feel like when you life in?

What comes next, and how do you decide when next comes? How do we even make that decision? Or do we just wait until there’s not decision left to make?

I think, again of that question Elizabeth Gilbert asks: who are you going to blame your life on today? Who get to be in charge of me today? And when will I learn to give myself permission to let that person be me?

Even when I can provide an answer, they only breed more questions. Like fruit I’m plucking from a tree, new ones ripen every day.

I know a few things for certain. That I must write. That I must love someone deeply and let them love me deeply too.

For a long time, I was a girl with no windows. No way for the light to get in. Then I torched my tiny room, and watched it burn. Unanswered questions thrill me. I’m young, and I’m curious, and I’m just the right amount of broke to be neither optionless nor tethered. It’s a miracle. That’s what I keep thinking: it’s a goddamn miracle to be here.

So what do you do? How do you build a wild, curious, thoughtful life? How do you love yourself and love your loved ones and love this world well? How do you keep these questions from becoming boxes that require answers, and allow them to be a journey in themselves?

Odds + Ends, Overcoming, The Anxiety Files, The Work of Becoming

everything you’ve been feeling? yeah, that’s depression

Late last week, after an episode of television left me unreasonably shattered, I remembered: This is what depression feels like. (How did I forget?)

I’ve experienced three major depressive episodes in my life. Darknesses so unnavigable I thought I’d never be a whole person again. But depression doesn’t usually come for me like this. It’s more likely to come in mild, stubborn waves. Instead of night that won’t end, it’s like clouds that refuse to part.

When I’m back under the clouds, I can’t understand how I ever forget that this is what depression feels like, but I always do. Maybe it’s a stubborn leftover from childhood, that hope that, once they come, sunny days will never leave.

But as steady as the sun comes, so do the clouds, and all my hallmarks signs of depression are back — and have been for several weeks. Brain fog, poor concentration, fast tears, a blue undertone, worries that seem unsolvable, a general sense that it’s all too much to bear.

It’s taken me three days to write these measly 800 or so words, because my brain feels both empty and waterlogged. This too reminds me I’m depressed. Accessinglanguageis usually themostnaturalthingI do. Maybe that’s why depression (even more so than anxiety) feels frightening — it cuts me off from the very act that heals me.

I like growing up, though, because I’m getting better at my life. Right now, I’m getting better at accepting that I can’t “fix” my way out of depression. Exercise or yoga or meditation or reading a good book — all these things help soothe me, but they’re not “cures” for depression, despite what the internet tells you. All I can do when I’m here is hang on. To myself and to the resources I have, and I wait for the days to get better. (And they always, always have).

This is a mild and functional depression, and some days are easier than others. Some days are even easy. Tuesday was an easy day — cheerful, productive, bright. I fell asleep at ease. Wednesday was not, though. My brain was a wide blank desert, and every time I tried to dial in to my work, my blankness intimidated me and left me in tears. I wanted to crawl back to bed, and hide from the light.

I’ve been on hiatus from my blog, because work and life crowded out the time I usually set aside to write, and I didn’t do a good job of creating time elsewhere. I once listened to an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert where she said that when she wakes up in a bad mood, she asks herself: “Who are you going to blame your life no today? I was quiet here for several months last year, and returned in the fall to kickstart my creativity and retrain my writing muscle. Another month and a half of radio silence is good proof that I derail my own goals better than anyone else can.

Although, I hate the language of goals. Especially when I’m in my depression, I’m reminded that our resources are limited, and sometimes, you just can’t do everything you want to. Self discipline and commitment and “crushing it” all have their place in forward motion, but “no excuses” and “hustle harder” is just so antithetical how life actually rolls. I want to finish a draft of my novel by April 30. I told myself I’d write six days a week to do that. Last week, I opened my notes every day, and didn’t write a single word.

All that being said, I want to get back into a regular habit of writing here once a week. I like the space it gives me to think, and I like the small platform it gives me to connect with the people who share in my struggles and triumphs and questions and curiosities. That, more than anything else, heals me.

Reading Lately: The Woman in Cabin 10 + What Alice Forgot. After eschewing the novel in favor of essays for a year or so, I’m back to my roots. These last two novels I read are both highly marketed, highly marketable “commercial novels,” and while I dislike the snobbery of “literary fiction,” I see the difference when I read novels like these. These two novels are page turners/page burners. I’m not keeping either now that I’ve finished (I keep only books I really love and plan to return to), but losing myself in their stories reminded me of why I love books.

Watching Lately: Big Little Lies + Criminal Minds. I’ve been rewatching Big Little Lies (but only while I workout, because #motivation), and this show is so nuanced and complex. My boyfriend and I are also deep into Criminal Minds. We play this fun game during the credits where I shout out all the mug shots I recognize, and he buries his head underneath the couch cushions. (I didn’t say who it was fun for…). As much as I joke about loving creepy crime stuff, there’s something particularly fascinating about the gender dynamics at play in the true crime world. Women know — and we have this knowledge reinforced daily — that we are vulnerable to crime in ways that men are not. Our bodies and our lives only remain our own insofar as we are aware of how quickly they can be taken from us. Again, with the jokes, but I think women feel a little bit better when we know all the different ways we could be killed.

Working on Lately: Being kinder to myself. I’m not talking self-care or “treat yo self,” but rather about the way I talk to myself. I shared on Instagram this week the negative comments I made to myself about my appearance. I try to approach the world with grace and care, but when I think about how I approach myself, it’s all sharp edges and hard lines. Of course you’re lazy. Of course you’re not pretty enough. Of course you don’t deserve that. It’s exhausting to live under such a barrage, and yet I choose to do it to myself! Why? I’m the one that gets to decide how I treat myself. Why do I choose to be so mean?

Behind Us, and Before, Creating Home, The Work of Becoming

how did we wind up with so much stuff?

I never thought much about the stuff I owned until I needed it haul it across my city half a dozen times last summer.

I have so much of it. So much clothing. So much kitchen gear. So much hand soap. (Why I own so much hand soap is beyond me). So many books (but we’re not touching those, ok?). At one point this summer, I sat on a sidewalk, ringed in boxes and furniture, and I cried, because why do I have so much stuff to haul up and down so many staircases?

There’s very little psychology behind what I own or why I own them (except perhaps my books, but again, untouchable. Let them be fat in peace). I own as much as I do, because of circumstance: For a few years, I lived in one place, and had the luxury of being still long enough for stuff to accumulate in corners. My village, the friends and family who love me, have been generous with what they own, and I’ve become the (grateful) recipient of many items they’re removing from their home. This past summer, I rebuilt my wardrobe, giving myself permission to buy clothing that fit and flattered my body. For many years, I largely only wore second-hand or clearance clothing that only sometimes fit me, only sometimes made me feel confident.

There’s little to no pathology behind why I own what I do, buy oh my god, why do I own so much?

I think often about the kind of life I’m building. That’s what this whole space is dedicated to: the process of becoming who we’re meant to be. What I don’t want is for my belongings to overtake me. I want my collection of items to be slim and agile. Utilitarian and well-loved and appropriate for small apartments. (Except! For! The! Books!).

Since my move this summer, I’ve been slimming down what I keep. Kitchen gadgets that only do one thing, clothing that doesn’t fit, decorations aren’t sentimental or don’t serve a purpose. All into bags to be given away. I was jubilant one day when I opened a drawer in my kitchen and found it empty, even though all my dishes were clean.

This all goes back to my desire to cut back, to reduce. To cut back on all the noise. All the commotion. Everything that demands my attention.

I want to travel.

I want to write.

I want to build relationships where I am known and I know them.

I don’t want my time, or my attention, or my money monopolized by gadgets or trinkets. Do you ever think about how much time you spend attending to your stuff? Cleaning it, sorting it, dusting it, arranging it?

What donation bags of clothing has to do with my desire for deep friendship, or the tentative ways I’m returning to (and trying to finish) my first novel, I’m not sure. But they seem connected. I invited people in to my home a few weeks ago, and I glowed with all the commotion, all the happy conversation. So few people have been to my apartment, so few friends have visited me.

I’ll move again this summer, and when I do, I don’t want to haul dresses I bought when I was a different person. I don’t want to pack souvenirs collected in places I can’t remember.

On the morning after I moved in to my apartment, I fell in love with the light. It was clean and bright, and it spilled into my empty apartment like an invitation. Like something essential. I keep thinking about that morning. How I had seven books, and my laptop, one pocket sized notebook, and a coffee maker. How everything else I owned was somewhere else. How even though I’d gone to sleep lonely and a little bit frightened, I woke in a room suffused with light.

Lovely Living, Overcoming

how you get through the hard days

Urban Bean, Minneapolis

“As though there existed a parallel reality of darkness, with dark-fences, dark-trees, dark-houses, populated by dark-people, somehow stranded here in the light where they seemed so misshapen and helpless. Oh, isn’t that why shadows get longer and longer in the evening? They are reaching out for the night, this tidal wave of darkness that washes over the earth to fulfill for a few hours the shadows’ innermost longings.” Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Boyhood

I’m exhausted. Do you ever have weeks like that? Where each day feels, for no good reason, like a desert to cross?

We’re short on daylight, but really long on daytime.

February’s always been a hard month. Seven years ago, I was two weeks into the spring semester, and I begged my date to drive me to my parent’s house. I couldn’t return. A week later, I’d misread a bus schedule, and be deposited into a then-unfamiliar downtown. I’d cry on the transit station’s teal carpet, and call my mom, my dad and a doctor. I’d cry for three days straight.

I’ve had dark days, but none as dark as those. What I remember from my seasons of depression are that the days feel impossible, and there is no reason other than they are. Maybe my body is remember what my mind tries not to. Maybe a week of for-no-good-reason long days is my body’s way of reminding me that it’s okay to have days that aren’t okay.

The funny thing about being happy after being unhappy for so long is that you start to become afraid of the joy. Like it might run out. Like maybe you’ve only been given a short period of bright before you return to darkness. When the days stretch, and I get grumpy, and I want anesthesia for the waking hours, I get scared that maybe this has all just been a grace period. Maybe I’ll go back to being lonely and weak and tired and sad and scared. Maybe that’s who I actually am.

I know this isn’t true, but how often does fear care about truth?

I know I’m not returning to that black country. I sometimes wonder if I ever will. Right now, that depression feels like a house for which I’ve lost the keys. I can’t get in anymore.

Even on hard days, the joy of my life, the gratitude for it outstrips the undertow. My feet, as my grandpa always said, point towards the sunny side of street. A few hard days don’t make a depression, or even a dip, but they do remind me that joy is deeper than happiness. That happiness is good, but always fickle. That it’s okay to not always be megawatt.

Guys. We’re human. We’re not designed to live only in the light.

We live in an age where happiness is hocked. It’s a commodity we can buy, a challenge we can accept, a level we can unlock, a hack we can perform. I don’t want to hack my way into eternal sunshine. I don’t want to close-circuit myself to the range, to the all of it all. I like the symphony, the range of notes, the swell and the fade. Some days are hard because they are. Some days aren’t, and that is okay too.

How do you get through the hard days? You just do.

Light comes as steady as the dark.

Lovely Living, Traveler

rome + sardinia in photographs

This past summer, I went to Italy. My mother, whose long loved the country, took me, the gift of experience.

I went to Italy with my dad’s family when I was eight. We spent a full month touring the country — Sicily, where my grandmother’s family is from, Rome, Florence, Venice, Sirmione and Sorrento. My memories of that trip are children’s memories: Playing games with my cousins in Rome, pulling away from the sick dogs in train stations and on the streets of Naples, begging for gelato, lemon and strawberry, everyday, multiple times a day, watching my brother fly across a hotel room on a bed that hadn’t been secured to the floor.

I tossed a coin, still lira in 2001, into the Trevi Fountain at dusk, and refused to tell my family that I wished for my writing to be publishedMount Etna experienced a “flank eruption” in July 2001, and I watched BBC news reports of rolling lava and crying women: We’d been there a month earlier, heard the mountain rumbling, and even though the sky was clear, I remember my cousins and I deciding we were hearing thunder from a storm we couldn’t see. When we visited Sorrento, we swam in the ocean, the water a jewel tone that even the beaches of Sicily couldn’t rival. My memory is that the beach was rocky, but the ocean floor was covered in shattered pottery. We sliced our feet on ceramic edges, and dove to the bottom to retrieve the bright, broken pieces. This can’t possibly be right, but, like I said, they’re all the memories of a child. I saw at my eye level, filtered what I saw through eight, short years, and so much of that trip has either fallen away or has taken on a kind of magic-glaze.

This past summer’s trip to Italy was as much a reprisal of the 2001 trip as it was its own, new experience. My mom has visited Italy several times, and is familiar with Rome, in particular. As we prepared for the trip, she told me over and over again that she just wanted me to see the country that she had fallen in love with.

I’ve been wanting to, and trying to, write about this trip for several months, but I can’t quite unlock my experiences. For a myriad of reasons, the trip was as emotional and difficult as it was awe-inspiring. I found myself reckoning with a fragility within myself. I cried in the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere over decisions that now feel like mistakes. I flew home with hives covering my hands and feet.

It took several months for the trip to mellow into what it is for me now: a new door opening inside of me. It was an invigorating two weeks, a thoughtful and, at times, painful two weeks, and while I was ready to come home at the end of it, I think I was so ready to come home, in part, because I was so excited about the life I had back here. Back home, I felt both new and old all at once. The girl I’d once been dusted off, and returned to where she belonged. I’m not sure I was ready to travel quite yet. Not sure I was ready to learn who I was in a foreign country while I was still so thrilled to be where I was at home.

For all it was, this trip was, above all, beautiful and breathtaking. Italy is. My mother’s kindness and generosity and excitement to show me the country she loves so much was (is) beautiful and breathtaking. Photos don’t do any of it justice, and while I’m not sure my words will either, I do hope to write more about this trip, once I’ve had even more time to let it settle.