Thursday, September 20, 2018


There are good days and there are bad days, and for all of my life I've tried to make the bad days look good.

When you're little and things are off at home - when there are secrets to be kept, unstable adults to be managed, abuse to be endured - you learn how to make everything appear pleasant; you learn how to hide. It's a difficult lesson to unlearn, because your whole life is based on a fundamental dishonesty, and you've never had the crucial childhood experience of valuing truth. When other kids are owning up to their childish misdeeds, when your teachers encourage integrity, when you should be building an indelible identity, you're working on the daily task of making everything okay. You struggle and strive to maintain a facade because you know that somehow, if people see what's going on, your world will fall apart, and it will be your fault.

And when you grow up - when the legacy of all those lies eats away at you from the inside - you don't really know how to be a person. How to tell the truth. How to stick up for yourself. The lies poison you even as you smile and assure others that everything is fine.

I'm turning 32 this year, and in a few days I'm also reaching two years of sobriety. A lot of my growing up has happened in these past two years, because active drinking was just another way to hide. I'd mix my craft cocktails and smile and count down the seconds until I wasn't thinking about the lies anymore. Near the end of my alcohol use I'd pour my five o'clock Sazerac - because I stuck firm to my rules of when and what I was allowed to drink - and I would think, I don't even want to remember my name. And that habit was just an extension of the habits I learned when I was small. No one knew that alcohol was becoming a problem for me, just like no one knew that there wasn't enough food in the house, or that I didn't always have clean clothes, or that my first small glass of beer was poured by a parent when I was under ten years old. 

In these two years, I've had to face a lot about myself and a lot about the things that happened when I was young. It's been a constant dialogue between the person I want to be and the helpless person I was. I've unlearned so many bad habits, and I've made so much progress, but the urge to make everything look good has remained. That was my first lesson. That was my lodestone, the structure of my existence. 

I've spent a lot of time asking myself what my calling is in life. I don't have a normal job, so how do I justify myself? How do I describe what I do? And what I've come back to, again and again, is that I feel called to be honest about my struggles with mental illness. I've hoped that by telling my story I could help someone else, or a handful of someones. I've tried to speak plainly about depression, mania, disordered eating - I've tried to communicate my normal so that others might feel less alone. 

But I find myself bumping up against that fundamental dishonesty, because I still live my life as if everything is just fine. Nothing to see but a polished veneer, nothing to be worried about as I dazzle and deflect. Most of the time I get away with it, but I know down to my toes that I can't continue. My life is so beautiful in many respects, but if I don't deal with the hard stuff, the ugly stuff - if I don't admit to myself and to others that I have bad days - I am sober in name only. I am constitutionally incapable of being honest. 

When I was small I never learned that there was both value and joy in speaking honestly. I never understood that I might get help if I asked for it. I learned, instead, that I could make adults smile if I were clever and well dressed - I learned that a cutting joke or a vintage gown could distract from the bitterness at home. And I went home, and I drank, and I spun out the evenings in music and conversation, and I came to understand that things weren't too bitter if the vodka was cold enough.  

While my father passed from life into death - while I could have, should have felt the pain and sorrow of his illness and of those long irrevocable martini afternoons - I grit my teeth and layered on makeup and didn't let anyone see me cry. I didn't let anyone see I was angry. And I'm still recovering from that denial - I'm tired all the time, world-weary and sore. 

As I approach my two year soberversary, I know I have to let go of that tightfisted control over what other people might see. I know I must ask for help when I need it, and that I must set limits to preserve my mental health, and that I cannot simply fake it until I fall apart. And if my calling in life is really to be honest - if I want to speak my truth and help people who are too scared to speak their own - I must actually live up to that ideal.   

Dishonesty is its own sickness and its own addiction. If you can fool others, it whispers, you can fool yourself.   

So here I am, almost two years sober, and I've been ground down like a river rock and worn smooth like sea glass. I've been blessed in so many ways, and I'm also quietly angry a lot of the time; my anxiety is a significant issue and I get traumatic flashbacks in the bathtub. On days when I can't get past the bad things I struggle to write, paint, play an instrument; on good days I am aware of just how lucky I am. And I worry, rather too much, about making other people uncomfortable - I worry about awkward conversations, or denial from people I love, or rage and resentment as I set limits and stand up for myself - but I'm going to funnel all of my ambition into this new pursuit, honesty. I think it may help others; I know it will help me.

I need to learn this new lesson, the first lesson and the most important - 

Always tell the truth. Even when it's hard. Even if it hurts.

It might not look good. But eventually, life will get so much better.         

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

First Day

I didn't go back to school today.

When I was in the sixth grade I developed my first lesson plan. I came from a family of teachers, and I was passionate about Shakespeare, and I imagined explaining iambic pentameter as a heartbeat, the iamb and the I am. I held that lesson plan close to me for a long time - as I got older I wanted to be an actress, a singer, even a housewife - but in my mind I felt the inevitable pull of education.

It seemed like destiny. It seemed the simplest answer to the question, "What do you do?"

I have been blessed with wonderful teachers, both those within my family and those at school. My fourth grade teacher - the inspiration for my Shakespearean lesson - gave me a passion for language, for storytelling, for literature. My middle school drama and music teachers recognized the value of me, the odd and angry girl in the corner, and my eighth grade English teacher encouraged my creative writing and made me feel like my imagination was worth something more than escapism and dreams.

My high school French teacher was probably the most gifted educator I have ever met. He taught in the guise of various characters, all identical brothers with vastly different personalities (one even on the run from the police) - and in between laughter and puzzlement and warm affection for this strange, strange man, I discovered I had learned French, almost effortlessly. 

I've had acting teachers who told their own fantastical stories, who required my vulnerability and who called me on my nonsense. I've had philosophy professors who taught me just how limited I am - challenging, demanding, thrilling. My writing professors stripped away my pretensions; my anthropology professors made me question what it means to be human. And as the child of teachers I've been keenly aware of this incredible gift - passing on knowledge. There is no higher calling.

And it is not for me.

That's probably the hardest lesson I've ever had to learn. In some ways it has broken my heart.

I didn't go back to school today. I know what that first day feels like - for about five minutes everything is fresh and new and exciting and terrifying, and then you settle in for the long haul, nine months of perseverance. Old behaviors crop up and new behaviors blossom, habits to be unlearned, home life hurts tucked away for a few hours, if at all. Each child is a knot of complexity; every kid has baggage. The teachers certainly do. And in all of that the goal - passing on not only knowledge but love and support and a capacity for survival - must be achieved.

I never was able to see it as a job. I think maybe there are some teachers who can go in and be unmoved - who have an impermeable membrane, a concrete-hard wall, a barricade against all of that childhood complexity. I didn't have that barrier - teaching seemed more like a spiritual calling than a way to make a paycheck. I was entrenched.

What the kids felt, I felt, too. Simply being around that many people every day was like being in a panicked crowd, each person wearing a different offensive perfume, jumping, shouting, crying; I overloaded. My sensitivity was what made me good at my job - I think teachers do need to understand their students, to respect their needs - and yet I had a surplus, my heart too tender.

It's hard to know where that tenderness intersects with my own fragility as someone with chronic illnesses. That's the tricky bit I'm still working on - in every aspect of my life. And having any illness throws into question what life might be like if one were entirely healthy. In other words - am I not meant to teach, or am I incapable of teaching?

Part of my daily work is coming to terms. I am in many ways entirely capable, and yet I know there are things which are a lot harder for me than for others. Being around people can be quite challenging - just as in a classroom setting, I pick up on the emotions of others wherever I go. It's like carrying a load of other people's suitcases, stuffed with the things they won't admit to themselves. And there have been in the past year many high pain days, pain being another invisible burden, something you can't and do not want to share with others.

I still think that teaching is probably the best thing a person can do, and I think there are probably more lesson plans in me, saved up and stored away. But in coming to terms with my life - not as I thought it would be, but as it truly is - I have realized that, perhaps, this higher calling is not meant for me.   

And there are lots of things I can do - from making killer crab cakes to playing the piano to hostessing and singing and telling the occasional joke. I love my family, take care of my husband, and if my life is altered by illness it isn't ruined. 

If there is anything I could teach, on this first day of school, it would be a lesson that we have all, at some point, needed to learn - which is that we are valid, valuable people, with paths we cannot predict. Lives shift and change, some dreams are dashed and some hopes fulfilled, and each step we take is a testament to our success, to our survival. We make mistakes and we get our hearts broken and nothing about our lives has to adhere to rules others have set for us or that we have imagined for ourselves. Your first job isn't your last. Your college major won't necessarily be your profession. Your twelve-year-old self doesn't get to dictate the rest of your life. And if there are bumps in the road - illness, tragedy, obligations - you must be gentle with yourself. You must know that every morning you wake up you have already won.

I hope that everybody out there on the front lines - the teachers, administrators, students, parents - had a great first day, and that it felt fresh and new and sparkling. I hope that it was a day full of promise. And I raise a mug of coffee to the tender-hearted teachers, the madcap geniuses, the literary nerds, the questioners, the dreamers, the people who make a difference. Thank you for all that you do.

My heart is with you. Rock on.