comfort isn’t an endgame

I went for a walk in the rain today, trying to train myself, as Mary Oliver instructs: Attention is the beginning of devotion.

The air was cold, and the tips of my fingers, ungloved, stung as they adjusted to the wet. I repeated to myself, again and again, that I don’t need to be comfortable, that comfort does not need to be my aim.

The park was deserted, except for a three other people, and I dropped down into small valley that water, once, carved out. Underneath the birds, and the rains, and the rushing water, music played in my head. I repeated lines to myself, and tried to pay attention. I was out, because I needed it. On a primal level. These last few months, I’ve made jokes about wanting to lie down in the dirt, but underneath the laughter, I think there is something profound and true in my desire to touch the ground. I was an outdoors girl. I hiked (in flip flops, as my mom will tell you), and I camped, and I tried to build for myself small words of my own that didn’t need shelter from walls or the root. I’ve been out of touch with that part of myself, and I’ve suffered for it.

Today, I stayed in the rain even though it made me uncomfortable, because I knew that I needed it. I sat on the trunk of a fallen tree, rushing water on either side of, and watched the current move dark over stones and branches and other unseen things. I stayed there, and watched one large log, hung up on brambles and rocks, be pushed in and out of visibility. Deep fears of what lies underneath the water stirred in me (I pictured dead bodies, then I pictured my own, if I were to slip from my perch). I let the discomfort build, but I was safe, and because why do I always try to turn away from fear?

I walked slow enough to see wildflowers, bright and beaded with rain. I knelt at a dark pond, and watched bubbles puncture the flat surface. Small green things lay just underneath the water – early spring grasses, a maple leave, wild green with black veins. I put my hands into the water, and then I pushed them into the dirt. I wanted the tactility of mud on my skin, the feel of small vines – life finding its way – giving way underneath my fingers. I scratched into the earth, and pulled up fistfuls of black mud, muscular with roots. It smelled rich and rotten, and was cold even on my numbed fingers. I smeared my hands with the dirt until they were dark and streaked and gritty. I turned my palms up; the rain made clean circles on my skin again. Later, I knelt at the creek, and let the current, warm compared to the mud, wash away the rest of the dirt.

As I knelt, the trees above me flapped, and a great blue heron landed in the water in front of me, its body a thing of lethal grace. I froze, so as not to alert him, and watched it move through the water. He stepped slowly, his body rising and falling with the shifting depths of the creek bed. As I watched him, I tried to remember which dead relative (of mine – or was it someone else’s?) had loved blue herons.

He walked against the current, spindle legs adapted for the water in a way that mine, if they were where his were, were not. Once he moved past where I could see him, he stopped long enough to let me move, come closer than I had been before. I sat, this time, on the wet rocks, and continued to watch him. I’m sure he knew it too. He plucked his way, delicate, through the water, catching minnows in his beak, until he heard something I did not in the woods, and lifted his wings into flight. I stood with him, and watched him circle above me, and above the creek, and then above trees. I continued to watch until I couldn’t see his movement any longer, the woods returned to their raining stillness.

It didn’t matter if someone I loved once loved blue herons. This moment was mine, not theirs, firmly of this earth, and of my silent attention.

I walked back to my car after that, my fingers too numb to bend, and my legs and hair drenched in rain, and thought about Mary Oliver, and why we need homes not of beam and nail, but of existence itself.

How wonderful that the universe is beautiful in so many places and in so many ways. But also the universe is brisk and business like, and no doubt does not give its delicate landscapes or its thunderous displays of power, and perhaps perception too, for our sakes or our improvement. Nevertheless, its intonations are our best tonics, if we would take them.” Mary Oliver’s, Upstream

How to Undo Fear: On Fear, Fearlessness + What’s In Between

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When I was a child, I devoured books about strong girls. Old fashioned novels about girls who lived in the woods, and who loved life with this big, abundant abandon. Girls who faced the worst life would give and rose, who were willing to be brave and unapologetically smart. I read Gone with the Wind for the first time when I was ten, and I revered Scarlett O’Hara in all her petty meanness and selfish immaturity—here was a woman bent on survival.

I consumed stories about fearless women, because I imagined that someday, I would grow into a fearless woman. This word—for me, it was a world unto itself.

I think as a kid, I spent more time thinking about my identity than I did trying to create—or at least project—it. Because of that, there were a few individual words—fearlessness among them—that became so big, so prominent in my mental geography. I was this, or at least I would be, when I grew up.

There are a few moments from my life that stand as highway marker, and this is one: In the middle of my freshman year of college mental health crisis, I got lost on a city bus. I misread the schedule or misread the bus—I’m still not sure which—but I wound up getting deposited at an empty transit station, in the wrong downtown, on a street that I did not recognize.

I was terrified.

And not because I didn’t know where I was. This was only six years ago—I had a cell phone with a GPS, and access to both the city wide bus schedule, and people with cars would could come pick me up.

I collapsed in an empty hallway, on a carpet with green and gray squares, and I began to weep. I was so, desperately afraid of absolutely everything. The life I’d been dreaming of since I was a little kid was far, far too big for me, and I was only at the beginning. I was staring down the barrel of my adulthood, and I knew deep in my bones that I was not fearless. I was fear. Without realizing what I was doing, I had accumulated and indexed fears until I was a walking atlas of them.

I was afraid: that my parents would be killed in a car crash, that someone in the transit station would approach me with a question, that I would be invited to a social event and not know what to do, AND that there would be a social gathering and I would not be invited, that my brother would be killed by a shooter at his high school, and that I would never make any friends. I was afraid that I would never write again. I was afraid of my dormitory hallways, and especially afraid of the cafeterias, and afraid of how lonely I was, and afraid of how difficult it was to make friends. I even remember lying awake one night and worrying that I would never have friend with whom I was close enough to fear that someday they too may die a painful and untimely death. (Crazy, I know).

I was a whole landscape of fear, a country of worry held together only by very fragile bones.

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In the months following that breakdown, I had to deal very seriously with my identity. It is truly the only time in my life when I felt utterly lost from myself, and at odds with who I thought I’d been. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t “fearless,” because although I was not, my identity was unstable at a much more fundamental level. I did, however, have to confront the magnitude of my fears.

Ongoing treatment and care for my anxiety has significantly lessened the weight of fear in my life, and the strength of my fears have lessened— less “what is my parents dies in a car accident?” and more “how would I afford another car payment if my transition drops out.” But they are still very, very much with me.

I used to think that I was letting down the young version of myself who thought that strength would be measured, like it was for my heroines, by how little I feared. But here’s the thing. I’ve reread most of my favorite books from my childhood, and I don’t see fearless women anymore. I see fear. These stories are shaped by fear! They’re only compelling because of the fear. Because it’s not a lack of fear that makes Anne beg Matthew and Marilla to keep her, or that makes Hermione brave enough to partner with Harry, or that gives Eowyn the strength to pull off her helmet and look evil in the eye. It’s the decision to act in spite of the fear.

Every single character that I ever adored all had a set of fears unique to themselves, and every single one of them saw their fear, their worst fears, running after them, and not a single one of them ducked. That’s why I loved them. That’s why I wanted to be them.

Fearlessness is not the goal. For me, fear is a companion that I didn’t invite into my house, but that is here, because sometimes it keeps me alive. Maybe it will change, but I doubt it—I’m predisposed to panic, and my craft is my overactive imagination. At this point, fear is in the house, and I can’t make it leave.

I can, however, make it sit in the corner, in the uncomfortable chair, facing the wall. I can tell it to shut up when it starts to drown out the guests that I actually invited over. When it convinces me that the phone only rings when someone dies, or that I can’t take down my Christmas tree, because my dad cut it down, and what if my dad dies before he can down a new tree for me, then I’ll send it to a different room, and make it stare at a blank wall in there.

Giving fear power in the moments when it doesn’t have a valid claim only makes the moments when fear is real, and when it is warranted that much harder. Because fear comes when what we love is threatened. And if we’re being honest, life does not promise to protect that which we life.

One of the very few things we’re promised is suffering. Life will hurt badly. As a friend reminded me after my grandfather died, what I was feeling just then was the result of the very best that life can give—86 years lived, 64 years married, 6 children grown, 14 grandchildren, 5 great-grandchildren. That’s the best, and that aches.

We’ve all read this before: If we live long enough, everyone we’ve ever loved will die, and if we don’t, we’ll leave behind people in pain.

Fear cannot change the facts. It will only make it harder to live with them. This is a hard truth to hold in your hand—I believe it maybe 2 out of every 50 days, and I act out of that belief only 1. Fear is powerful and seductive, and it is almost all empty promises, broken cisterns that leak water when you’re most in need.

Life comes after us, whether we want it to or not. And all my fearing, all my empty worrying, my obsessive indexing of catastrophe, has not prepared me for what happens when the thing I’ve feared becomes the thing that’s real, and takes its own seat at the table.

 

A Body of Belonging: Image, Self Worth, and the Cruelty I Deal to Myself

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On Thursday morning, I woke up, and before I’d even finished dressing, I made myself cry.

You’re fat. You’re ugly. Your jeans do not fit, and that tee-shirt was made for a smaller woman. Everyone will see this.

I caught my reflection in the mirror while I was dressing, and without a hint of hesitation, I gave myself this articulate dose of abuse before I’d even brushed my hair.

Hot, shamed tears came spilling down my face as if I’d been insulted by someone outside of my own mind, and for the next thirty minutes, I fussed with my appearance, trying to make style my reflection into something that voice in my head wouldn’t insult. I repeated these words to myself, you really do look like a potato, maybe if you curl your hair, people won’t notice it. No? Try tucking the shirt in. It still won’t look good on you, but you’ll have at least done what you can.

My worth is tangled up with my pant size, my beauty thrown in with my weight. I’ve had these all confused for years now, since early in my girlhood, really, but I’m in an especially cruel cycle of self-loathing right now. I stand in front of the mirror, and I pull at my flesh, tally it as evidence that I am notskinny, and because I am notskinny, I am less. I see the way that my body continually changes, shifts, morphs, and I hurl abuse and obscenities at it. I tether myself to the tyranny of something — the scale, the pant size, the softness of my flesh — and in doing so, I tear myself to pieces. I break myself down in tiny, compromising ways until my heart starts to look like what I’m chasing for my body — Less.

I was far, far too young when I decided that my body was, if not an outright enemy, a thing to be feared and controlled.

For reference, I’m a conventionally small woman. I’ve been roughly the same size since I was 10 years old: 5 feet, 4 inches, somewhere between 120 and 140 pounds, long legs, short torso, a soft layer on top of developed (read: big) muscles. As a child, that mean I was massive, but as an adult, it means I’m shockingly average.

As a young girl, I was was tall. This is one of my earliest perceptions of my body. Tall. And being tall meant something good, something exciting. I saw my height as a gift, specifically given by the women in my dad’s family. They too were tall. My aunt, my girl cousins. Together we were tall, and when I made school-house friends with two other tall girls, I was proud of my tribe. Tall girls. We could see farther and reach higher. We took up more space than our peers, and when you’re little, being big makes you feel strong.

For a long time, I liked my body. Or not such much liked it as didn’t notice it. My mom rocked body positivity (although I don’t think we called it that in the ‘90s), and when I heard my elementary-age peers mimic their own mothers and complain about wide hips or milk with fat in it, I told them they were stupid. In third grade, I watched a friend throw away three of her five chicken nuggets, because she was “dieting” to stay “right at fifty.” The next day, I loaned her my girl power/changing body book, and told her to read the chapter about anorexia and bulimia. In my head, she was stupid, and I was strong, and even though I wasn’t allowed to eat school hot lunches (waste.of.money, my mom reminded me), I knew that no person should ever diet, especially not an eight year old girl who weighed as much as I’d weighed as a healthy toddler.

My body was my tool, my toy, my vehicle. It was my mountain hiker, my tree climber, my soccer player. In my body, I camped, and I climbed, I read and I wrote. It housed all my excitement, all my wonder, all my fears, and all my dreams. It was me, and I had no concept of war with myself. How could I split Torrie from Torrie’s body, they were one in the same. One whole piece.

I hurts me, now, to think about how soon after the chicken nugget episode that I began to turn on my own body. That summer, I was harassed by boys for the first time — teenagers from down the road yelled something lewd and indistinguishable to me while I played in my driveway. When I heard them yell, and realized it was at me, I ran scared into my garage, confused and overwhelmed. I attended a birthday party that involved swimming, and for the first time, I realize that my body was somehow different than my peers. I saw them, with their straight, flat planes of girlhood, and compared it with my own topography of soft swells and ripples. This was the first time I feel uncomfortable in my own skin, and I remember trying to use the water to hide my grown-up form from my much smaller friends.

In increments, I learned to regard my body with increasing shame and suspicion. I stopped being proud of my height, and began to understand myself as burly. Hulking. I learned how to do that thing that every girl at one point learns — where you stack your arms, one on top of the other, and wrap your arms around your stomach, hands curling over you waist and hips — to hide a stomach that had taken on a soft layer years before my peers. The visceral memory I have is of a girl trying to retreat, trying to pull back into her small. While my female peers began blossoming, each at their own rate, I continued to see other girls through a lens of envy and shame. I became used to, but not comfortable with, being the tallest, thickest girl in the room, and if other girls my age struggled with their own bodies, I never knew, so buried underneath my own nascent insecurities.

At the same time, I was also diving into words. I read with a new kind of voraciousness, sought out learning wherever I could. I begin writing the way I imagined adult writers wrote, and, once summer, I even wrote a 300 + page behemoth of a first “novel.” I didn’t have many friends, and the ones I did have didn’t often call. I kept myself from lonely by building words inside my own head. As I grew confident and proud of my brain, of how I could think and communicate and create, I, I wish I could have understood that those were all functions of the same body I was disassociating from, all part of the same team.

My parents, in a move that was ultimately loving and, surprisingly, not shaming, encouraged me to begin exercising. I spent the summer before high school learning about how protein fills you up, and cardio strengthens your heart. I didn’t track my weight or my calories or my measurements, but I began to regain some of the joy I once felt about my body. I became stronger, more confident, and mid-way through high school, I ended my fatwa on sports, and joined the Track and Field team. I was a sprinter (who ran exceedingly slowly), and while I added nothing quantifiable to the team, I learned about how much my body could do. How strong it could be. Some of the softness I’d accumulated melted away, and while I didn’t realize this until the mother of a friend complimented me on “my new hard body,” I did like that I became less aware of my body. It felt like a miracle, a few months later, when I saw myself in the mirror with two other girlfriends that we all looked remarkably the same.

I continued to be active, joining the Cross Country team and proving to myself that I could run an entire mile without dying. Not just that, but I could run two, three, four, seven miles without dying. (I didn’t push myself any farther. I still believe that running a full eight miles without stopping would kill if not my body, definitely my soul).

I was confident, yes, more comfortable, yes, proud, again, of my body and it’s abilities, but I never fully became unified with it. I never learned to love it. I continued to have flesh ripple out where I didn’t want, and continued to pluck at skin and call it excess. I amassed an arsenal of mean girl tricks I could play on myself: comparison and jealousy and magazine cover envy. Every few months, I discovered a new part of my body that could be wrong, and developed corresponding anxieties. After school sports were replaced by an after-school job (one that boasted a perk of constant bread and butter, if I wanted it). High school ended, and I slipped deeper into the anxious depression that would cripple me in the spring of my freshmen year of college. I was increasingly less active, increasingly more sedentary. My emotions flared uneven, and I isolated myself. My body continued to shift and change, and while I remained objectively slim, every few months, I added a couple more pounds onto my frame.

My body remained a thing of discomfort. It betrayed me in dressing rooms when the clothing designed for teenagers and young women couldn’t accommodate my body, and the clothing designed for adult women made me look ten, fifteen times older than I was. It shamed me when strange men used it as an opening to yell filth and degradation from sidewalks. It remained a symbol of my non-belonging, so whenever I was in social setting that made me uncomfortable or anxious, I would slip back into the same confused shame that I associate with being the only twelve year old that needed to wear a real bra. I learn how to manage my mental health, and graduated, and got a real job, and learn how to be a writer. I now lose and gain the same five to ten pounds, and although my clothing hangs when I’m on one end of the spectrum and strains when I’m on the other, I look essentially the same.

I have entrenched myself into a sick, repeating cycle of love and hatred that feeds on the fit of my jeans and the number on a scale, and what is maybe the worst part, is that I am not alone. I’ve just told the world’s most boring story: Twenty-first century woman is uncomfortable with her body. I am violent and abusive with myself. I let my own brain produce chatter that would turn me apocalyptic and vengeful if someone else said it to me outloud. My worth is dictated by the level of disgust I feel at my own form, even though I know the body science of water retention and food digestion and general, basic, healthy fluctuations. I eat chocolate, then condemn myself. Pull fistfuls of flesh away from my bones, and offer them up as fat. I do what I did on Thursday morning, and whip myself vicious over a body that is healthy and happy, if maybe a few pounds in excess. I have not an ounce of kindness on days that I’m feeling “fat,” and when I feel pretty, confident, at peace or even happy with my body, I allow myself only the slightest nod of approval.

I break myself to pieces, and it hurts. It hurts every time I tell myself I can never eat sugar again, because there’s an inch or two of grabbable flesh around my middle. I scrawl vitriol across my body — too thick, too wide, not flat, too much giggle, not enough definition — and whenever I hear someone try to care for me in the way that I’m not letting myself, I brush them off, tune them out, give them reasons why they’re wrong.

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This body is a home. I’m realizing this slowly, and only in pieces. I live inside this flesh, and each cruel word I attach to it is a scar. It’s a mark of ugly anger, of rejection and hatred. I am tired of rejecting myself.

Three times, I’ve let needles scar ink into my skin. My foot, my wrist, and my shoulder. Together, they are strength, brokenness, wonder, and home. Each it’s own direction, it’s own invective. I have them all purposefully, permanently in my skin, because I want my body to be a record. I want it to be a testament of strength, a capsule of celebration, a record of beauty. A home that holds the wear and care and deep, deliberate embrace of a rich, undulating life.

This body cannot bear the weight of my own cruelty. Not if I also want to embrace the overwhelming fullness of this life

You are within yourself one person, and I want you to be whole. I want you to be whole no matter how you thicken and swell, droop and fade, as you invariably will. I want your body to be a place of strength, and of peace.

A place where you belong.

The Anxiety Files: This Land is Mine and I Can Choose What to Let In

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For the last couple weeks, I’ve been moving at a velocity that frightens me.

Most of this activity has been necessary—work demands, groceries need restocking, and friends have birthdays that need celebration—which made it okay for a while. But then, this miniature season of vibrating stress started to feel more like a state of being, and all my protective walls began to draw themselves up.

At some point in the last few days the strong current of life-moving-a-little-too-fast intensified into a flood. I could feel it in my body. The stress took on a dangerous physicality. My heart beat had become a bang, even when I was still, and inside my rib cage, my lungs snagged on rib bones, sharp, painful breath. My fingers fluttered. A tight, heavy ache had set into my shoulders, and my pupils were constantly dilating. Stress had hijacked my body, and, to extend the metaphor, was about to hand the controls over to my illness.

Anxiety is a darkness that lives inside of me. It feeds on stress. It delights in my fraying. It is chemical and inhuman, and it is intent upon my undoing. I know this, because I’ve been undone by my anxiety, been ripped apart and left hollow by onrushing adrenaline and unchecked cortisol in my bloodstream. I’ve been left bared and scared and sobbing in a downtown transit station by the toxic chemical imbalances that do deadly things me.

When I was first diagnosed with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I had no tools. I was given a vocabulary and a set of breathing exercises and a prescription for Zoloft. For a long time, that was enough. That was a compounding miracle, actually. That alone helped me. The medication steadied the neurological reactions that I still don’t fully understand. It allowed my body to become healthy again. It gave me the time to seek out the rescue I needed, and then, after I’d come back to the land of the living and the laughing, it gave me the safety to experiment with other weapons against my anxiety.

There are some tricks I’ve learned—apples and chamomile tea helps, as does deep pressure on the tops and sides of my shoulders—and some powerful coping mechanisms—deep breathing can reset the nervous system, and loud music distracts my thinking. There are a handful of other weapons I’ve gathered, that do more than just beat back the anxiety, but actually serve to feed my humanity. A phone call to a friend or to a parent can stop a panic attack in its tracks. And very little can stand up against Isaiah 43:2, because “when you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”

More than all of these things, though, I think I’m learning how important making choices—before I hit the point of panic—really are. I say “I think,” because this is such a new revelation (a baby of a thought), because maybe I’m totally full of shit. But maybe I’m not.

At least for me, panic and anxiety operate entirely outside of choice. If I slips into the really heart of anxiety or panic—that tenting of vague, oppressive, overwhelming fear and danger—I’m usually past the point of choice. I’m in survival mode, and I am hanging onto whatever edges of reality I can, hoping that when I emerge, the damage won’t be permanent. (I have to believe it never will be).

But that period beforehand—that time that I was in this week, where I could feel the flood of life intersecting dangerously with anxiety, but before I was caught up and swept away in it—I am still autonomous.

This life I have, this body that I’m in, this soul—they’re mine. They’re mine to be the gatekeepers for, and they’re mine to protect from the threats within and threats without.  (Those of you who are wiser, more experienced, less blind are saying what did you think they were, Torrie.)

This land is mine to let in and let out, and if I am healthy enough, cognizant enough, tuned-in enough, I can chose to pull up my walls against the external factors that trigger my internal illness. This weekend, I took Friday off. I sat in a coffee shop, and I read. I wrote. I edited my novel manuscript. I stared out the window at passing cars. I watched individual leaves shake and stir in the wind. I had lunch with my dad, and I drove with a friend on errands errands. I moved slowly, and I breathed deeply, and I weighed every decision by the questions what will this let in? and what will this keep out?

And you know what? I feel like a whole person again.

My fraying edges have been bound up, and the internal shaking has been stilled. My anxiety has been beat back down, and for a little while at least, it should stay there.

My Bully Keeps Asking Me One Question: Who Do You Think You Are?

Rocky CoastIn the last few weeks, I’ve reached some new heights in my still-low-slung writing life. I joined an online writing group, and was paired up with a talented, thoughtful children’s lit writer. I asked friends and family members to read drafts of my writing, even though they had no real incentive to do so. I finished a short story—really finished it, with all the drafts and rewrites to prove it—, and submitted it to a contest, and a few small literary journal. Last night, I sent in my application for a small grant. Hell, I started this blog—that felt big for me.

After years of writing, writing, writing, I’ve started to do small things that are natural, normal, and necessary steps on this mythic path of “becoming” a writer. (Although I’m trying to get myself to believe that I am a writer because I write, in the same way that I am a reader because I read).

Each time I have done something, this mean little voice, with all these mean little worlds, has almost stopped me. This voice that just won’t stop hammering away at me—who do you think you are, Torrie? Why do you think you can do this? Every time I decide to step out of my comfort zone, all my fears, and insecurities, and fragile self-worth bind themselves together to remind me that I can’t do what I want to do, and that I shouldn’t do it either. These demons wail together so that I imagine people in my life—kind, compassionate people—thinking to themselves, or saying to other people we both know “why is Torrie doing that?,” “who does Torrie think she is?,” “where does she get off thinking she has the right?”

I am my own accuser, constantly reminding myself that I have neither the talent nor the worth to lay myself before an unsolicited audience. And the nugget at the center of all these interlocking anxieties is this epically large fear that I have of being laughed at—being made the fool by my own self.

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I know why this fear is so out-of-control big. It’s because I have these piercing memories of being picked on, and laughed at in elementary school. The most vivid, though not the worst, of these memories is this one amalgamated memory of this same stunt that two or three girls in my second grade class would repeatedly pull on me.

I was largely friendless, ignored, though I didn’t know why, and quite, because I didn’t want to give my classmates more reasons not to like me. These few girls would do this thing where they’d start a conversation with me, in the library, or in the bathroom, or on the playground. All places where we’d have natural reasons to be moving. They’d give me a reason to talk to them, to answer them and try to engage with them, and then while I was talking, they’d move to somewhere I couldn’t see them, and would leave me alone, talking to myself. When nobody responded to me, I’d realize what happened, and I go looking for them, always finding them hiding, and laughing, and asking me how long I’d spent talking to myself.

The most vivid piece of this memory, the piece that was constant each time they pulled this stunt on me, is the sinking, humiliated feeling that I should have known better: Who was I to think that people (outside of my loving family) would want to talk to me? Would want to be friendly with me?

The bridge between feeling the presumptuous wanna-be in my writing life, and feeling the fool in the 2nd grade classroom is this: Both of these experiences involve me reaching for things that I deeply want. In 2nd grade, I wanted friendship; I wanted the girlhood comradery that is silently and inherently promised to school-aged children. Today, I want publication. I want my writing to be given a life outside of me and my laptop. Because in 2nd grade, I was burned when I grabbed onto an opportunity to fulfill that desire, the bully inside of me is now trying to convince me that I am equally as foolish and undeserving of seeking publication/recognition for my writing now as I was in seeking what I thought was a branch of friendship then.

(Is that bridge starting to appear?)

Every day, I fight against that mean little voice inside of me (so much meaner than any little girl) who is constantly accusing me of upjumping my position, of asking for things that I don’t have the right to ask for.

As I’ve started to be bold—or at least marginally bolder—with my writing, I’ve had to do some serious thinking about these internal condemnations, so that, in turn, I am able to banish its presence and power within me.

Here are those accusations, those things that I fear:

  • What I have to say or do is not worthy—does not have value—and I should know that, and I should not act like it does have value.
  • People will laugh, actively and cruelly, point-and-laugh-at-Torrie laugh, because they will see what I cannot: That I am of little value.
  • People will ask themselves the same questions that I, in my accuser’s voice, ask myself. Who does Torrie think she is? (This question kept me from starting a blog for years, and still keeps me from talking openly about my writing).

Here’s what I’m trying to say to these fears:

  • Writing or the written work I produce, does not define my value or worth, and one person, or one review board, or one editorial team also does not decide my writing’s value and worth. I believe in my writing right now, and someday, I may very well decide that what I’ve written isn’t valuable or worthy—but that still doesn’t, cannot, bear wait on my own personal value, or the value I see in my work today.
  • People just won’t laugh at me. Especially not strangers reading my work from their computer screen. It’s actually selfish of me to think that someone would take that kind of time and energy to point-and-laugh at a piece of writing that they don’t like, written by a writer they don’t know. (So many of my anxieties are selfish, or at least deeply self-focused).
  • People probably aren’t asking themselves these questions about me. It’s much, much, much more accurate that people are just ignoring me. Because this fear centers more around people I know (versus people I don’t know or people I won’t ever know), it has more power to weaken me, but it shouldn’t. People who care about me, or who find an interest in what I have to say, will pay attention, and people who don’t know me, who aren’t interested, who aren’t stirred by what I have to say will ignore it. And both are equally okay.

Pebbles

For the last five or six years, I have been toiling away at my computer screen—several different computer screens—writing, and learning about writing, and building an unshakable writing habit. I’ve produced thousands and thousands (literally) of typed and hand-written pages, and I’ve scrapped thousands of pages as well. I have written some really, really terrible stuff, and I’ve started to write some stuff that isn’t so terrible. Lately, I think I may have even written a few things that are coming close to good.

As I start to get closer and closer to good, and maybe even come within shooting distance of publishable, I’ve started to send my work into the world, to family and friends to read what I’ve poured my soul into, and to editors to consider. These are steps towards boldness, and steps towards publication, both of which I desire, and I am so glad to have taken these steps. Chances are, in 4-6 months (the average response period for literary journals, contests, etc.), I will start getting rejection letters, and none of them will say who in the hell do you think you are, thinking you deserved this?

Because I am the only one who speaks in my bully’s voice, and she? She’s a mean little bitch.

Wildest Grace in February’s Gray: Fighting Back a Crippling Anxiety

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It’s nearly the end of February, and I think most people agree that February is better behind us than in front of us. Too far past the first snow fall, a white Christmas, and the novelty of winter, and too close to the snow melt, the return of birds and open water and roadside flowers. It’s a month of gray—February gray. The gray of a city, state, an entire region, blanketed in snow, spattered with slush, dyed dull by the wind, and kept ironclad by the weak sun.

It’s a smack-you-upside-the-head-and-make-you-wonder-why-you-left-your-mother’s-womb gray.

February scares me, and not because of the cold or the wind or Valentine’s Day (who honestly likes this holiday), but because February once tried to tear me apart.

Or, more accurately, anxiety once tried to tear me apart in February.

During the winter of my freshman year of college, the ‘10-’11 winter, the winter it snowed so wet and heavy that the Metrodome collapsed underneath the weight of it all, I got smacked down.

I spent the first five months of college feeling increasingly not-quite-right, but also not-quite-wrong—more reserved, less passionate, much crankier—and then, on February 1st, the bottom fell away. I got turned around and lost on a Twin Cities bus line, and when I was dropped off in downtown Minneapolis instead of the northwest corner of St. Paul, I started to cry. And I didn’t stop for nearly fourteen hours. I cried while I wrote papers, cried while I read, cried while I talked to my friend and new roommate (who didn’t know any better than me what was happening), and then, after a full day of tears, my parents picked me up from my dormitory to take me home—their house was the only place that felt safe.

I was eighteen years old, barely half-way through my first year of college, and I felt like I had already failed.

It seemed like all that college had taught me was that I was not the person who I thought I was. That I was much less of a person, a scared shell of the girl I wanted to be. In those dark days of early February, crippled by something I could neither name nor describe, I convinced myself that that was all that I was ever going to be.

Everything scared me, but it wasn’t a fear that I recognized. I was alienated from the outside world, crippled by my own distortions, living very much on the outside of people and on the inside of myself. My dormitory seemed foreign, campus, though I really loved my classes, was overwhelming in size and scope. I thought I was a burden and an inconvenience in the friendships I was making—thank God that the sweet girls and women who were befriending me never let me push them away. I anchored myself to bad TV, and thought that I was without value and consequence, nothing worthy within me. Better to atrophy than try to make empty look full.

Scared at how I was shrinking away from the world, my parents rallied around me like a two-man army, and helped me find help. I was diagnosed with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder and a minor panic condition. The chemical messengers in my brain, designed to keep fear and adrenaline in check, were short circuiting somewhere along the line, allowing my blood and my brain to be charged with false fears and paralyzing insecurity.

The diagnosis gave me a name and a language to put to the yawning chasm within me, but it did not stop the hole from trying to swallow me. I spent the rest of February, the rest of that spring, clawing through darkness to get at the light.

People who loved me planted themselves, like trees, alongside me, and let me use them as touchstones and as footholds. My parents, though they were as confused and as afraid of what was happening to me as I was, pressed back against my distorted reality. My friends, these sapling friendships that hadn’t been given time to bud, rose up like an old-growth forest, and gave me shelter. The love of a God who promised to know me better than I know myself embraced me, and then braced Himself against my fears.

My recovery, my fight back to the surface, followed the seasons. Through the dull gray of February, when I felt dark and cold at deep, deep levels, into the ugly, melting renewal of March, until all of a sudden, I found myself awake and alive—and glad to be it—watching Seattle light herself up from the observation deck of the Space Needle.

By the grace of God, with the help of family and friends and doctors, my anxiety—generalized anxiety and panic disorder—has fallen back. Not gone (I don’t think it will ever be gone), but what once was a wrecking ball is now a tapping, a reminder of what I need to be healthy, but no longer a thief coming to destroy. It’s been four Februaries since my illness tried to beat me down, and every year above that darkness is celebration and triumph.

A wildest, February grace caught me in my free-fall, and lifted me back up.