First, though, I have to talk about mental illness, artistic ennui, and "The United States of Tara."
Hey, I guess I never really ever could say
That I saw it coming
But when you push a feeling far away
Still your body's humming
And I held it in
Long as I could then
But now all that's changing
This story starts during the holidays last year. I was in a less than awesome place, as I almost always am at that time of year - on top of the usual holiday chaos most folks deal with, my day job goes completely overboard with work and stress for year end....but this year there was the added layer - as there had been a couple years prior - of a major child rape "scandal" weaving its sick way through news and blogs and pop culture. Cue sleeplessness and anxiety and emotional volatility and all the fun that PTSD can be. It got so bad that I stopped looking at my Twitter feed more than a couple times a week. I only logged onto Facebook to message back and forth with a friend who shares some of my issues around anxiety and abuse. The "Mark All Read" button on my feed reader got a serious workout almost every day. I couldn't watch Rachel Maddow or Jon Stewart or any of the other sources that I count on to stay informed about current events and politics and activism and most of the things that shape my world outside work and music. I distracted myself with cookie-baking and holiday music; sometimes it almost worked.
It got so bad that, when I sat down with my guitar and a notebook and a pen, I would stare at the blank page and nothing would happen. I would play the same covers - George Michael's "One More Try," The Eagles' "Take It To The Limit," "Somewhere Different Now" by Girlyman - over and over, trying to find something of my own to express. Night after night, nothing.
So, I guess you never truly ever can know
Where on earth you're headed
You just barrel on down that road
Till that road starts bending
Here we are again
Not a bitter end
But the end of something
My therapist sat with me in her office, and we talked about going back to two visits a month. I'd been really happy about cutting back to one visit a month after starting out at two a week way back in the day, but I knew things were getting rough again. I hadn't regressed back to daily panic attacks yet, but I could tell that the basic functionality I usually maintained pretty well was wearing a bit thin. We talked about deep things, heavy things. I told her sometimes I felt like my entire life was built on top of a bottomless black reservoir of rage, pain, despair. I told her that, yes, I had been much better about letting myself feel my feelings; if I felt like crying, I went ahead and cried....but I never felt better after. It wasn't cathartic, it wasn't cleansing. It was just one more way of being in pain. The reservoir never seemed to get any less deep.
I'd come home from work and try desperately to turn my brain off. I watched the entire series of "The United States of Tara" in, probably, less than a month. I felt drawn to it - seeing so many sides of my own experiences...having been a child of a parent with significant mental illness and knowing the incredible unfairness of that, the constant internal battles and the inevitable, horrible mindfucks; standing on the inside of my own mental illness, and watching how it laid down challenge after challenge not just for me, but for anyone who cared about me, too. Then, of course, there was the part where we learn (spoiler warning) the root cause of all Tara's issues: she was molested by her stepbrother as a very young girl.
My first reaction was: well, I'm doing great, ain't I - at least I haven't dissociated! My next one was: the world of pop culture thinks what happened to me is bad enough to cause a person to shatter their identity into seven different people. That's how fucked up the world thinks I am.
That is how fucked up the world thinks I am.
Well, I guess I know a thing or two about hell
It's when you lose your fire
You go back to the same old well
Without the same desire
I've been treading earth
From the time of birth
You can't stop this turning
That's why it took me so long to dig into the work of trying to heal this bullshit, that's why I didn't talk about it for most of my life, that's why it was always this thing that I knew, in the abstract and in my gut most days, was not my fault...but I still had to be ashamed of. Thirty years I spent (mostly) silently bearing the pain of something that was so awful, so horriffic, it could justify massive dissociation - because silence was easier than bearing that pain openly and adding on the spectrum of bullshit that comes with that openness. Because that's how fucked up the world thought I was, and I didn't want to let them know they were right - because, on some level, "that" was how fucked up *I* thought I was, too.
In the very last episode of the show, there's this moment when Tara's husband (played by the always fantastic John Corbett) totally loses his shit. He breaks down in a screaming rant in the middle of a family dinner. He throws a turducken across the room. I can't even describe to you the sound I made watching that moment. I was instantly crying the kind of sobs that hurt. He says: "It's not fucking funny, and it's not fucking fair, and we deserve some fucking mercy!" Exactly, something in me was screaming: we deserve some fucking mercy.
Life, though....life doesn't care about fair or mercy. Life marches on right over the top of pretty much everybody, and no matter how sad or tragic or deserving or horrible, the options are simply and starkly: keep living, or don't. I get furious that that's what it all boils down to, but there it is, whether I like it or not: keep living, or don't.
So gee, I guess anyone could've been me
Staring at my reflection
Wanting just a little bit of relief
From my self-deception
There's nowhere I can run
This is how it's done
You just start all over
So: Dear Sugar.
One afternoon in May of 2010, I followed a link on Twitter (tweeted by the also inspiring and badass and fucking fabulous Shannon), and read this column through tears ("This is called fuck yes!"), and then another and another, until I'd read all of them. There were twelve.
I happened upon Dear Sugar at a time of pretty intense transition. I had recently moved into a new apartment, alone. My job situation was super complicated and stressful. I still wasn't really "over" the massive triggering that started with the whole Polanski business. I was having panic attacks every morning before work, and really struggling just to get through every day. Two months later, I Nervously Broke Down and spent three months off work getting my head on straight. To encounter Sugar at just that moment was a little bit like a beacon for me. It was amazing to me to see someone giving such radically compassionate advice - to see someone hold both the precious fucked-up-ness and the everyday amazing-ness of the human condition - while also pushing people to be fucking real with themselves and others - while grounding in gratitude and joy and beauty - while acknowledging the gravity of the truly terrible that sometimes must be lived with. I don't want to say that Sugar's the reason I eventually got some professional help, but I would be lying if I said that the tenor of her advice didn't give me hope that there was a chance I'd find help that would actually help, without making me feel like total shit.
I wrote Sugar a couple different letters over the months after finding her column. She didn't answer them, and I'm frankly glad. They weren't the real questions I wanted answers to, anyway. I bet she knew this when she read them, hearing the empty places of the words I didn't write just as clearly as the words I did. I could totally be projecting, but I just get the sense that Sugar has a really good bullshit detector.
Earlier this week, on Valentine's Day, this dearest of Sugars came out as Cheryl Strayed. I had never heard of Cheryl Strayed, but I immediately went and read all of her work I could find online. Then I ordered both her books. Because Cheryl is Sugar (the second one, anyway) and Sugar (the second one, anyway) is Cheryl - the writing (I could find) isn't really all that different, even without people asking for advice. Because, for some people, telling their life story is the best advice they can give. And - maybe I'm projecting again - because it seems like maybe there might be someone else walking around creating joy and light, and carrying a bottomless black reservoir of rage and pain and despair, and not pretending otherwise. Not pretending those things are mutually exclusive.
And that's some shit I want to read. And also, you know, vote with my dollars and support indie artists and whatnot.
"Healing is a small and ordinary and very burnt thing. And it’s one thing and one thing only: it’s doing what you have to do."
- Cheryl Strayed, Love of My Life, The Sun, Sept. 2002
I've spent most of my life ignoring, bottling, denying, and suppressing my emotions; it wasn't perfect, but it's how I survived and managed to grow into someone reasonably functional who I didn't totally loathe. This process over the past couple years of, like, stopping that? Has been incredibly challenging on many levels, but I am fucking doing it. Even when it's not fun, even when I feel like it's pointless, even when it turns out I am a goddamn cry-er. Even when it's all bottomless black reservoirs and no fucking joy. I'm strong enough to handle all that now, I think. Maybe I can do enough meditation and yoga to find some kind of peace. Maybe I can take enough deep breaths followed by more deep breaths to find a still center from which to move through the rest of my life like a serene Buddha.
I think probably not. I like the word "fuck" way too much. And besides, I'd just be happy with getting to a place where dinner out with friends doesn't make me want to hide in my bedroom for a week.
Because I'm an artsy type, I tend to look to artsy types for inspiration and comfort when I'm feeling overwhelmed. There are a few artists whose voices have been hopeful, twinkly lights during my own personal dark nights: Girlyman, Patricia McKillip, Van Gogh, even (don't fucking laugh, assholes) John Mayer.
And this time around, a wee little advice column written by Cheryl Strayed, for which I am grateful beyond my ability to express. But:
* Lyrics quoted are from "Empire of Our State," from Supernova by Girlyman.