Duality: Lessons from DBT

May is National Mental Health Month. So far this year, I’ve tried to be even more open about my journey with borderline personality disorder (BPD), and I like to think my first step in doing this was my initial post on what it’s like to deal with the illness. Since January, I’ve embarked on an emotional journey full of successes, failures, and–perhaps most important–moments in between.

Last week, I finished a three-and-a-half month dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) course recommended by my therapist. DBT is a framework that focuses on “dialectics,” or the concept of opposing ideas existing at once, through four distinct modules: mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness. Dialectical thinking itself is often hard for someone with BPD to understand, as we often operate in a state of black-and-white thinking (i.e., “This person will never love me,” or, “This illness will always prevent me from pursuing my goals”). DBT helps find the gray area, reminds us that harmony between dichotomies can exist–good and bad, never and always, logic and emotion, all and nothing, self-respect and respect for others–and that recognizing and forming balance between the black and the white is how we can begin to heal.

So every Wednesday for sixteen weeks, I gathered with a group of individuals across backgrounds to learn about the fundamentals of the skills surrounding DBT, led by an expert instructor and social worker. We all showed up around that wooden table for different reasons–some of us dealing with addiction recovery, some working on coming to terms with past trauma, and some, like me, trying to find middle ground within the opposing forces in their brains.

At first, it was hard to fathom. It seemed like an intangible set of principles that I felt I’d never grasp. Sometimes, it still feels that way. But the biggest thing I’ve taken away from DBT is that a lot of these skills have been within me all along–I just needed to hone them. Here are some of my biggest takeaways from this course. Writing them down, I think, is a form of practice–and I strongly encourage anyone who might be looking for different ways to build a life worth living to research DBT.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning or practicing. But now that I have the tools, I’m slowly beginning the process of building up my life again.

Use “and,” not “but.”

This might appear to be a small, even insignificant change, but practicing it in speech and thought has really made a difference for me. As I said, DBT is about the nature of duality in our everyday lives. It’s easy to say something like, “I’m a good person, but I struggle with mental health.”

Yet, both are true. One does not negate the other. Struggling with mental health does not change the fact that you are a good person. Saying, “I’m a good person, and I struggle with mental health” recognizes both realities without invalidating either one.

  • I have BPD, and I am working on improving my life.
  • I am a good writer, and I am bad at math.
  • I can be highly emotional, and I can make rational decisions.

When someone asks me to explain dialectical thinking now, I often reference the use of “and,” not “but.” “And” statements create thought patterns that are nonjudgmental, allowing two thoughts to exist at once that a black-and-white mindset might frame as opposing forces. We’re often our own harshest critics, and learning how to look at ourselves without judgment is difficult. But this, at least to me, is a start.

Balance acceptance and change.

I hate this. I hate this. I want to die. I want to die. I want to die. No, stop that. You’re fine. Get over it. I want to die…

Thoughts these are pretty common when you have BPD. You feel things–very strongly–and then berate yourself for feeling the way you do.

I’ve learned that part of growth within the context of DBT is accepting that feelings are just that: feelings. They are no more or less valid than anyone else’s, they are not “good” or “bad,” and all emotions come from somewhere. Accepting that you need both emotions and logic to orient yourself in the surrounding world is the first step in acknowledging feelings instead of pushing them away.

But acceptance does not equal defeatism. Acceptance does not mean, “I’m going to feel this way the rest of my life and I just have to deal with it.”

This is where change comes in. Yes, I feel things and feel them strongly, but how can I work on managing the intensity of my emotional reactions? What can I change about how I tolerate stressful situations? DBT provides a number of ways to identify certain triggers, situations, and aspects of relationships that elicit an emotional response and how to deal with them–whether it be through distress tolerance like distracting with a favorite activity, or “checking the facts” of a particular social situation when your emotions have taken the wheel.

I’m still learning how to find this balance, to allow myself to feel what I feel and–notice the conjunction I used there–work towards changing my mindset and some of my habits.

Communicate what you need from others.

This is the hardest skill for me. Another side of BPD is operating on the assumption that you are a burden, that your illness is yours to carry alone. DBT challenges this through its interpersonal effectiveness module, which helps people maintain effective relationships and foster safe spaces for ending damaging ones.

One of the very first assumptions we were asked to make as participants in DBT is that people are doing the best they can. Our loved ones are doing the most with the skills they have, and sometimes, it’s on us to fill in the gaps in terms of what we need from them–because no one is a mind-reader.

DBT provides a structure, called DEARMAN, for telling important people in our lives what we need from them. I practiced using this structure once so far, and every part of me seemed to reject the idea of asking for anything. What if I asked for too much? What if my needing something pushed them away? I looked down at my hands; I wrung my fingers, my voice shook. Something I need to reinforce for myself is the idea that asking for what you need is okay. The duality here is, of course, that people are doing the best they can, and there is room for them to improve–we just have to let them know what we need.

I struggle with this every day. Oftentimes, it feels easier to keep quiet, to avoid “bothering” those I care about. I can’t say that I’ve mastered this, and perhaps I never will. But if DBT has taught me anything, it’s not to say “never.”

Create a life worth living.

This is a tough one. It’s actually one of the primary goals of DBT: honing kills for creating a life worth living. What does this mean, exactly?

To me, it’s letting DBT skills work in tandem: engaging thoughtfully with the world around you, learning how to tolerate stressful situations, regulating emotions, and interacting more effectively with others. This is not something you can achieve overnight, and I don’t know when I’ll wake up one day and decide I’ve done it successfully. Life ebbs and flows. There will be days when I feel I’ve taken twenty steps back, and days where I’ve made leaps forward. But the phrase from Rent I’ve had tattooed on my shoulder for six years, “No day but today,” is perhaps more important for me to remember than ever.

Creating a life worth living begins with taking each day and finding something good in it. Participating in activities that I know will make me happy (like sitting down to write this post). Setting small, manageable goals.

There will be days when I feel like I can’t do this or anything else I’ve outlined here. And that’s fine. Because of the dialectical nature of the world, there will be days I do just fine. And that’s fine too.

Feeling okay and feeling not-okay. Winning and losing. Crying and laughing. Loneliness and wholeness. Fear and comfort.

They exist at once, all around us. Our job as humans is to just embrace them all, wholeheartedly, as they come.

TIL: Self-Harm Comes in Many Forms

This isn’t a story about finally learning to love yourself.

This isn’t a story about triumphing over mental illness.

This is just my story, and it’s still going.

Two days ago, I came upon a photo on Facebook’s “On This Day” page–you know, where you see your posts from this day in 2008 and wonder why you allowed yourself to have a social media presence at 15.

It was from my senior year of college, just a few days before graduation. I’m smiling in the picture, but it doesn’t reach my eyes. I’m wearing shorts where you can see clear, razorblade-length cuts decorating my thighs. It took me back to a time in my life that I barely recognize three years on, a time where it felt like someone else was controlling my body and the words on my mouth and the thoughts screaming in my head.

On my walk to work yesterday, I caught up on the newest episode of Dylan Marron’s podcast, Conversations with People Who Hate Mein which he helps foster a dialogue between himself and people who have attacked him on the Internet, or in which he serves as a mediator for two parties that shared hateful words online. (I highly recommend it.) This episode, entitled “Digital Self-Harm,” made me realize that my self-harm tendencies went much further back than I thought, and extended far beyond the physical. Continue reading “TIL: Self-Harm Comes in Many Forms”

What ’13 Reasons Why’ Got Wrong

You’ve likely heard the hype surrounding 13 Reasons Why, the new Netflix teen drama based on the novel of the same name that’s trending for its “gritty” and “real” depictions of assault, bullying, and suicide. Set at the fictional Liberty High School, we follow student Clay Jensen as he listens through thirteen cassette tapes that his dead friend Hannah Baker left behind. Thirteen reasons why she chose to end her own life. Thirteen people’s contributions to her death––including Clay’s own hand in the matter from Hannah’s perspective. There are graphic depictions of sexual assault and, in the final episode, of the suicide itself.

The show has been met with equal praise and disgust, and I can honestly say that overall, I’m in the middle. The acting was decent for a bunch of newcomer kids. The writing was solid (for a teen drama). The cinematography was surprisingly good, too. The biggest standout of the show to me, actually, was Kate Walsh as Hannah’s mother. Her subtle performance was the most “real” thing about the show to me––I loved every minute she was onscreen. I also related to Hannah. I related to a lot of the main characters for various reasons, and I felt for them. A good show does that effectively and effortlessly, and it uses those characters and their stories to effectively showcase the show’s main message.

13 Reasons Why almost achieved that. Until the very last episode. For me, everything the show attempted to stand for fell apart after that.

It’s not really a secret at this point that I need some daily help to get by in the form of medicine. Most people do. In fact as of last year, 1 in 6 Americans take antidepressants and other medicines for psychological disorders to get by. Life is stressful and wonderful and sad and fantastic, and if you need help being okay through all of it, that is not your fault. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s a literal chemical imbalance in the brain. No strict talking-to or desire to “get over it” will change the science.

Clinical depression is not something to be ashamed of. It is something to try and work through as best you can, and it’s all you can do.

I had not read the book version of 13 Reasons Why before diving into this show, so I had no previous investment in the story. I was simply drawn in by the hype. But while I started the show relatively complacent, I finished it angry.

I’m not writing this to make you feel uncomfortable. I’m not even writing this as an overall review of 13 Reasons Why, which is much more on-brand for this blog.

I’m writing it because it is, as the show calls it, “my truth.”

And I refuse to let it align with the message 13 Reasons Why sends about suicide and its aftermath.

*There are major spoilers and disturbing/triggering topics discussed ahead. You’ve been warned.

Continue reading “What ’13 Reasons Why’ Got Wrong”

6 Forgotten TV Shows That Shaped My Childhood

A lot of people look fondly on their early years by reminiscing about their first memory of riding a bike or making a friend in kindergarten.

I often look back on my first memories of television. (Shocker!)

There are loads of late ’90s – early 2000s TV shows that blared in the background of my youth––BracefaceThe Winx Club, Inspector Gadget, Boy Meets World…but there were very few that held my attention for 30 to 60 minutes once a week. I was busy in my own world of Barbie dolls and Sailor Moon fanfiction written in 2nd-grade English.

But occasionally, I hear a song on the radio that takes me back to sitting on reddish carpeted ground in the basement and enjoying an evening with my family after school and homework and dinner. Some on this list are more well-known than others, but some of my earliest memories in my family’s first house involve watching these with my sister or with the whole family.

Continue reading “6 Forgotten TV Shows That Shaped My Childhood”

Brain Yoga: An Ode to ASMR

Think of the sensation you feel when someone scratches your back or plays with your hair.

Now think of it occurring when you hear something as mundane as turning a book page, or experience something as simple as a friend applying your makeup or brushing something off your face. Weird, right?

That’s what I thought up until about an hour ago when I finally Googled the right words at the right time. And it’s actually not so weird at all. (Mostly.)

I first noticed it when I was really young. The “brain-tingling,” that is. That’s the only way I can describe it, and upon doing some research today, I’ve found that’s how most people describe it. It was triggered by anything from a classmate turning a textbook page at her desk next to me, to a family friend’s specific Rhode Island dropped rs, to the silence at Sunday Mass punctuated by microphoned syllables. I can only describe the visceral response this way: a kind of tingling beginning from what feels like the center of my brain, down, down, down the back of my head and neck, sometimes down my spine. Kind of like a shudder, but not the cold or scared kind. Just…a nice, calming feeling. Like being at the beach hearing the waves.

It didn’t happen all the time, but it happened often enough that I thought it something specific to me, some odd perpetual sensory overload that I should just keep quiet about. Nobody else ever described experiencing this type of thing, so it must be me. Right?

Wrong. Today, in trying to describe the sensation to my sister for the umpteenth time, I found myself typing “tingling sensation in response to certain sounds” into my phone’s browser. And, lo and behold, there it was. Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. ASMR.

Before you ask, there isn’t much science behind the subject, largely due to the fact that the term itself wasn’t coined until 2010. The Reddit ASMR board defines the experience as “a physical sensation characterised by a pleasurable tingling that typically begins in the head and scalp. It is commonly triggered by soft or accented voices, personal attention, ambient sounds or watching people work silently, among others.”

The weirdness sets in with how ASMR has been appropriated. If you look up ASMR on YouTube, you’ll find a bunch of videos – sometimes even ASMR-specific channels – that feature 20-odd minutes of the camera subject blowing into the lens, making vague whispering sounds, etc. YouTube culture has added a kind of sexual component to it which, arguably for some people, is a factor. An entire culture, featuring YouTubers “roleplaying” characters that give the viewer specific “personal attention,” has emerged and given the ASMR community an association with sensuality that I don’t think is necessarily a requirement. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s certainly not the exclusive ASMR experience. In fact, I find a lot of the videos to be quite uncomfortable to watch.

For me, it’s pretty much brain yoga. It chills me out like a cup of tea. Sometimes it happens in a group of my closest friends at a coffee shop as someone at the next table types on a computer; sometimes it happens when I’m entirely alone listening to Sigur Rós.

Unsure if you experience this phenomenon? Watch (or, rather, listen to) this video. On the outset it’s completely random (just a bit of styrofoam being crushed by a machine). But if it gives you the brain-tingles, then you’ll know.

If anything, understanding and honing your ASMR can help you relax in general. Once you find the kinds of sounds that relax you, you can even create ASMR playlists that help you go to sleep. But, be careful – as with most things, too much of it isn’t good. You might even become desensitized to it altogether.

Long story short: Yes, you could probably call ASMR a “braingasm” if the sensations for you are strong enough. Mostly, though, it’s just a way to chill out that some people don’t even know they can tap into.

I, on the other hand, have my childhood church’s crappy microphones to thank for my knowledge.

And thank you, ASMR, for existing, and validating that at least in this respect, I’m not crazy.

Falling in (Friend) Love and Why it’s Important

Hi, I’m Jenna, and I’m the single friend.

I imagine you expect a defensive, angry blog post about how I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, how I feel as though I’ve been left behind somehow. And yes, some of that’s true some of the time. Countlessly I’ve been told, “there’s someone for everyone,” or “your time will come.” The pity gets annoying; the relentless optimism from those who have achieved the “ultimate relationship” gets tiring.

But instead of lamenting over what I don’t have, I think it’s important to focus on what I do have: relationships I’ve been able to effectively maintain throughout my life. And I’d encourage those in a similar position to mine to consider this outlook. Because, really–what is the “ultimate relationship”?

The answer, at least to me, is that there isn’t one. Love isn’t like a video game where there’s one route to maximum health points. It isn’t something you win. It’s something you do to varying degrees with various people, pets, even objects or activities. To that end, I posit that friendships can be just as important and fulfilling as romantic relationships. The media doesn’t want us to know that–wants us to sell ourselves to candy hearts and Nicholas Sparks movies–but I’ve found ever since I was very little that I have a tendency to fall into “friend-love,” or platonic love. And I know I’m not alone.

The back flap of Yumi Sakugawa’s “I Think I Am in Friend-Love With You” defines “friend-love” as “that super-awesome bond you share with someone who makes you happy every time you text each other, or meet up for an epic outing. […] You don’t want to swap saliva; you want to swap favorite books. But it’s just as intense and just as amazing.”

The term platonic love comes from Plato’s Symposium and the idea of achieving the ultimate sense of divinity and understanding of truth. It’s a concept that’s been with us for centuries but has been overshadowed by one monogamous (often heterosexual) path. Urbandictionary user Barkwoof posted this definition of “platonic love” which I think describes it best:

[…] a love or special kind of attraction that is beyond physical or carnal desire. Unlike unrequited love or being ‘friend zoned’, in a Platonic relationship both are usually aware and acknowledge the desires they have for one another but this does not manifest in typical romancing or courtship […] thus remain ambiguous. Platonic love may bloom into a full fledged relationship or fade to obscurity.

So essentially: friend-love can become a romantic and/or sexual relationship, but it doesn’t have to. It goes beyond the physical. Sometimes it’s between two people; sometimes you might feel this intensity for more than one friend. Think of Agent Mulder’s love for Agent Scully (which, if you’ve watched the series, transforms into something else altogether, but for the first six seasons is very much platonic), or a mother’s unconditional love for her child. The most fulfilling, wonderful, dynamic, mutually beneficial relationships in my life to date have all been platonic. All the stories and songs claim romantic love makes you feel wanted, allows you to be vulnerable, and requires commitment–but I’ve experienced these things just as intensely with close friends.

You might say, “But you can’t understand romantic love if you’ve never experienced it.”

I’ve felt a strong sense of deep platonic friendship for a few people over the course of my life, and it is as intense as the black-and-white films portray love to be. I do get that swell of joy when “my person” texts me at 2am just to say hello. I get that jolt of happiness pulling them into an embrace. I feel the heartbreak of saying goodbye. There have been a few people with whom I’ve developed extremely strong bonds, and if that bond breaks and I have to let it go, it’s a process for me as any romantic breakup would be.

So I’d say I have a pretty good idea.

For me, best friendships have always embodied everything a relationship should, and in my opinion, the sexual component isn’t necessary for complete happiness. So what if there isn’t one person to fulfill every single one of your needs? If there were someone like that for everyone, we’d have no need to interact with each other. We’d be entirely monogamous in every respect, our lives orbiting around one person only. To me, that doesn’t seem very fun. And it’s frustrating when I watch people with whom I used to be close fall into that mindset. Far too many of them drop everything and everyone else for the idea of the ultimate romantic relationship, the one thing that is supposed to make them complete. There’s the mentality that nothing else matters anymore, and maybe nothing else ever did.

I’m not saying romantic love isn’t important. As humans, we all require different things from each other at different points in our lives. I’m just saying it’s not the be-all, end-all of relationships. In fact, romance might hinder a relationship if it’s forced or unnatural for both parties. Here’s Lauren (coincidentally, one of my oldest friends with whom contact ebbs and flows but always starts again like we’ve never been apart) and her most recent experience with this:

[A girl and I] were best friends over Tumblr. We met last year and started to pursue a romantic relationship. We ended up having sex and quickly found that we just weren’t feeling it. We talked it out and realized that we just love each other as friends and our relationship is better than ever. We root each other on with our love lives and we can talk about literally anything because we literally know each other inside and out.

And what if sex and romance just aren’t your thing? Asexual and aromantic erasure are topics for a different blog post altogether. I know that especially in college I felt the pressure to “solidify” my relationships with some kind of romantic or sexual component (particularly with those of the opposite sex), finding that my peers were constantly searching for emotional fulfillment when it was right in front of them in the form of loyal friendship. Orion‘s relationship with their platonic mate illustrates a bond that is just as powerful:

My best friend and I are getting married when we graduate from college. We’re both ace and we’ve known since we were sixteen that we were platonic soulmates – our love isn’t romantic but it’s the greatest love either of us has ever known and that’s why we’re commemorating it with a marriage.

Again, platonic love isn’t a new phenomenon. But it’s often tossed to the wayside these days. And it’s hard for us who feel it so deeply to be tossed aside with it. Of course, a significant other requires much more doting, affection, and attention than in other relationships–so when those we love tend to wane in favor of zoning in on another type of relationship, it makes sense to us, and we grin and bear it. But significant doesn’t refer to just one type of relationship. For those who regularly experience and give platonic love, significant spans anything from a best friend to a mentor to a soul mate. And it does come with heartbreak. Over the years I’ve come to terms with drifting apart from people I thought were “my person.” People grow and change; it’s inevitable. But it just goes to show that the love songs apply to me, too.

Platonic love is so important. Love doesn’t have to be sexual. As individuals, it allows us to achieve a better understanding of ourselves and what we want in relationships of any caliber. You shouldn’t feel forced to define yourself by your relationships, but to celebrate and grow from their strength. If there is someone in your life (or multiple someones!) who understands you inside and out, who would make sacrifices for you–and you willingly for them–who complements you, who lifts you up: then it’s love. You have love in your life. And if you haven’t found it yet, that’s okay. You don’t have to look for it in the sheets or on a dating site, though you certainly can. Perhaps it’s already in front of you, waiting to be discovered.

And trust me. You aren’t “missing out” on anything. Your “time” is already here. So enjoy it.

This is not a justification or bitter acceptance of my singleness. This is a celebration of those of us who are ever falling in friend-love, those of us who have so much love to give that sometimes we’re kind of overwhelmed with it. I don’t know how long I’ll be “single” in the traditional sense, but in the end, I’ve always felt a commitment to those friends who’ve stuck around to tug at my heartstrings that I don’t think will ever truly fade.

I guess you could say I’m permanently taken (and you all know who you are).

Loss Reborn

Loss is never easy. Grief is complex–so much so that we have names for stages of the processes humans experience to handle it. There’s immediate loss, of course: of a family member or friend, a familiar routine, a pet, a job, a wasted opportunity. It rips into us, shards of ice in warm blood. No matter how many times it happens, loss is always new.

But what continues to baffle me is loss reborn–a sensation of the exact feeling washing over you, years after the initial loss happened. I tell myself–I think we all tell ourselves–that it goes away. They say time heals all wounds. I’d disagree.

Today on the train, I was engaging in my usual morning commute activities–reading, listening to music. Typically, people coming in and out and shifting seats don’t really perturb me. This morning was different. A woman probably in her mid-to-late forties sat down beside me, and a wave of simultaneous surprise and nostalgia washed over me.

I’m not sure if it was wishful thinking, or a combination of an array of scents of people and the rainy weather and the places we whizzed past, but I could have sworn she was wearing my grandmother’s exact perfume.

Gramma passed away in 2011. She was essentially a second mother to me. She took something akin to childlike glee in practically everything–a strong, positive force who’d overcome adversity in her home life as a child to eventually, with my grandfather, create a beautiful new home of her own. She raised my mother and uncle with compassion and understanding (and perhaps a touch of overbearingness), and helped shape my sister and me into the young women we are now. She was my childhood best friend, a selfless individual with almost too much to give. She died within my first two weeks of college. I didn’t get to say goodbye–all that remained was an unanswered email from her in my inbox, which afterward I could not bear to open for many months.

I’m almost positive the scent that I grew up with was actually due to my mother–Gramma didn’t really have a sense of fashion (she preferred baking over beauty tips, despite running her own hairdressing business in the basement of her and Papa’s house when the kids were young); so my mom often bought her clothes, makeup, and the like. Whichever this perfume was, it certainly stuck–I don’t think Gramma ever stopped wearing it. From my very first memories of her, the scent matched exactly who she was: sweet, sharp, clean, familiar, a bit like roses (her favorite flower). I could sense when she’d just been in the room, or when the breeze of the scent indicated her walking past. With my eyes closed, I could recognize her in a crowded room.

And apparently now, I still can.

I hadn’t been exposed to the scent in almost five years. Today, jarred and completely vulnerable on a train full of jostling people, I was overwhelmed with it. I leaned back against the seat and closed my eyes. I remembered sitting in the back of Papa’s Toyota Camry (which is now mine), watching her count on her fingers in sheer delight the hours we got to spend together for the day. I recalled one of her last months in which she explored, with great effort but quiet enthusiasm, the hilly Wheaton campus to see where I’d be studying the next four years. I thought how she never saw me graduate, will never see my sister do the same. Will never see my cousins grow up.

There was a slight difference in it, too, but it was enough–at its core, it smelled like my grandmother, but it was missing the soft simplicity that came with the sensation of her hand on mine. There was so much right about it, and yet so much missing that I would never be able to experience again.

Loss reborn. It stung–stings, as if it’s September 2011 again, and I am 18 and wishing with every fiber of me that I had replied to that email. The swelling will ease, the pain will lessen throughout the day and the remainder of the week. But it will remain, humming under my skin, for the rest of my life. It’s hard to imagine it that way, but in moments like these, I realize that’s what loss is. Constant.

We just learn to deal with it.

I think of Gramma often, but it’s been so long since I could put any of my five senses to her memory.

The part of me in which spirituality has been ingrained since childhood said, It’s her saying hello to you. People have been arguing for centuries as to whether or not that’s a valid observation, so I won’t go there. But I will admit–I felt her there. Make of that what you will. I don’t know the name of the perfume, though perhaps I used to. You might ask why I wouldn’t look it up, or ask my mother about it. But truthfully, I don’t want to. Perhaps it’s best that the source of the scent remain a mystery. I don’t want it to be associated in my mind with a mixture of chemicals–but with a person who shaped my childhood and loved her family unconditionally. The kind of person I aspire to be.

For what it’s worth, I’m saying “hello” back.

A Letter to 12-Year-Old Me

Dear 12-year-old me,

I won’t write as if I know everything now–as if ten years have made that much of a difference, forged me into some kind of Buddha in navigating life. But people tend to write these every so often, and I’ve never written one before. So here goes.

You are twelve. You are in sixth grade and for some reason have perfect skin, and will throughout your teenage years when everyone else is acne-ridden (don’t worry–karma will firmly bite you in the ass in your twenties). You got kicked out of music class for refusing to sing High School Musical songs because you’re just that much of a rebel. You like fanfiction more than you like people. You’ve seen the movie Rent more times than you can count, and trust me, that number will only get higher. You’re making friends on the Internet to whom you’re maybe a bit too attached.

You’re quirky. Spoiler alert: that does not change. But let me establish right now that who you are is perfectly, marvelously okay.

I say this because right about now is when you start to believe the opposite. You are twelve and you’re embedded in twelve-year-old drama: who’s no longer speaking to whom in Social Studies class, which sweaty boy should you nab for a slow song at the next dance. But your mind takes it all to the next level. Your brain begins to set off a plethora of false truths that will make up your entire perception of yourself as you enter high school and even college. I am wrong. I am unworthy. I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be alive. 

There is a name for what’s happening to you. It’s scientific, a chemical imbalance. You don’t know this yet, though. And I wish you’d known sooner. Right now, at twelve, your mind is creating an internal environment where negativity will fester. You are learning to isolate yourself. You do little experiments here and there at school–disappearing at recess, placing your head on your desk for classes at a time–to see what people will say. What people will do. Will they notice? Will they encourage your behavior? Or–worst of all–will they not react at all?

You go through life this way–falling in and out of love with the idea of people. When they don’t return your smiles, it makes you anxious. It makes you think there’s something wrong with you, even if logic and reassurance tell you otherwise. This is the beginning of years of wearing black because you think it’s what you’re supposed to do to match the feelings you have, of sitting on long car rides wondering what it would be like if you jumped out onto the highway.

You are twelve and you already want to leave your wonderful life behind.

I’m writing this to tell you not to do that.

I’m writing this because, ten years on, you really almost did leave your life behind. I almost did. And I want to tell you that no one–no one’s reaction, or lack thereof, to your existence or your words or your actions, is worth your life. People will disappoint you. You will enter college and come into your own, only to find that even that isn’t good enough for your bile-addled brain. You’ll yearn to be “normal.” But I promise you: no one is. You are just that: you. And you might not believe me now, but people actually do like the you-ness about you.

Perhaps most detrimental, you will wish for the experience of unconditional love in someone who isn’t obligated by blood to love you.

I still wish for that. But the difference is, I know now it isn’t my fault that I haven’t found it yet. The fact that I do not “belong” to anyone else does not mean I am disgusting or unwanted. And it’s okay that I haven’t yet found this one particular thing, this thing that songs and stories are written about. There is still time. You have friends and family that truly care about me. You have a promising future that is not worth ruining.

Here is what’s important: you, in your smarts and your talents and your compassion, complete yourself. This life, this beating heart, is yours to control. Not anybody else’s. I can’t say I’ll always practice what I preach to you now, but I can try. I owe you that much, since you held on. For a decade, you held on. So thanks for that.

We’ll make it. I promise.




Over the weekend, I finished reading Gloria Steinem’s newest memoir, My Life on the Road. It was a very interesting read, if slightly disjointed–it spoke to the ways in which Steinem’s idea of “home” was uprooted when she was very young and continued to inform her ideas about travel and “settling” throughout her life. Most importantly, she discussed the interesting people she’s met in a lifetime of traveling, and how they’ve shaped her ideals and her understanding of the world. To me–someone who’s only left New England a handful of times and the United States once–Steinem’s journey was something I watched from the outside. As I read, I admired her ability to relax into wherever life–quite literally–took her. I didn’t realize such experiences could happen so close to home.

This morning on the train into South Station, a man probably in his seventies sat next to me a stop after mine. I was absorbed in my latest read (The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller), so I didn’t really pay much attention to him.

Until, that is, we were squished next to each other in a way only the MBTA can muster, after another man took the end seat in our row. The stale smell of tobacco and the sensation of being overly crowded made its way through my senses.

“Excuse me,” he said politely, leaning his McDonalds coffee cup against my coat as he adjusted his many layers of clothing and various belongings to provide room for all three of us.

This is not an atypical occurrence–trains into Boston are notoriously crowded in the morning and evening commutes. So I figured I’d just do what I always did–bury my nose in my book until the train arrived at my destination.

But then the man spoke up again. First it was in regard to the snowstorm we had over the weekend, general topics of that nature. I took this time with my short, polite answers to appraise him. Plaid scarf, dirty dark coat, a worn black messenger bag in the overhead compartment. Smiling, crystalline eyes. Long, unkempt fingernails. A propensity for talking too close. I thought my lean toward introvertedness would keep me from giving this man too much time.

And then, much to my surprise, the conversation took a turn.

We started talking politics. And I don’t mean that the man began ranting at me–he began asking my opinions, quizzing me on my historical knowledge (“When was the last time the United States declared war?”–if you think it’s a trick question, you’re on the right track. My answer to him was another question: “…Officially?”). I found out he’d been a lawyer (which he jokingly attributed to his frequent questions), and he was unabashed about his opinions. It’s fortunate most of his aligned with mine, but either way, I was pretty impressed with his ability to just let go and discuss his honest thoughts. We pored over feelings on Trump, on America’s current economic situation. I realized I had solid knowledge from many a history course in the back of my head which had not been stimulated in years. An intellectual conversation on the train ride to Boston was not something I expected hopping on this morning, but I’m glad for it.

We switched gears and talked about literature. I found out he wrote plays and studied acting as a passion outside of his profession–though he never sold any of his works. He said his biggest inspiration was the renowned playwright Eugene O’Neill, of whom he gave me an extensive familial history. As an aspiring writer, I found this extremely interesting. O’Neill apparently resented the fact that his father “sold” his acting talents when he bought the rights to The Count of Monte Cristo and performed it with a traveling troupe, Vaudeville style. This, the man explained, was why he never wanted to publish his literary works or make money off them. He’d been afraid of “selling out.” It’s a Bohemian, starving-artist mentality I hadn’t quite heard in a while outside the movies.

In the fifteen minutes we chatted, I felt like I’d taken a million semesters’ worth of college courses. Hearing from someone’s personal experience really solidifies so much of what makes up history. I finally introduced myself and he told me his name was John, just as our train came to its final stop.

One of his last remarks to me was a question: “Have you ever heard of Willie Sutton?”

“No,” I said honestly. It was a response I found myself saying a lot in our conversation, but not bitterly–as a student of liberal arts I feel like you’re trained to be a lifelong learner.

“He was a bank robber during the Depression. When he got caught, a reporter asked him why he robbed banks. He said, ‘Because that’s where the money is!'”

It was a silly joke, but as I told him, it was the 1930s in a nutshell if I’d ever heard it. It set the tone for the rest of my morning. I left the train with a smile, with an openness for whatever came my way. My conversation with this surprisingly friendly man was my intellectual warm-up for the day.

I didn’t exactly travel somewhere I’d never been. But in a way, I had. Who knows which parts of John’s anecdotal out-loud musings are based in fact–but for him, they are fact. They make up his understanding of the world, like traveling made up Gloria Steinem’s. This morning, I got a glimpse into someone else’s worldview. It made me realize: Isn’t every conversation with someone new, or about something new, a kind of journey in itself?

Maybe I’ve traveled farther than I thought.

6 Things I’ve Learned Two Months Out of College

It’s been a long two months of summer heat, vague unemployment, scripted “congratulations” and staring up at the ceiling in existential dread. I’d say the start of my post-grad life so far has been a mix of reluctant self-discovery and necessary grounding of myself. I’ve gone on good job interviews and bad job interviews; I’ve felt inexplicably lonely and deeply alive. In a nutshell, here’s what I’ve figured out, and perhaps it can be of some use to any of you in the same (very lost) boat:

  1. You probably aren’t going to get a job right away. So get used to that. Keep yourself busy applying to as many positions as you can, but also give yourself a break once in a while and focus on doing things you like. Read that book, paint that picture, visit that city. You’ve got the time right now–use it.
  2. You are going to be lonely. Friends you used to see across the hall every single day aren’t going to remember you–not because they don’t like you, but because it’s inconvenient for them to do so. Distance is hard. Maybe you’re the kind of person who will think of them everyday. Maybe you’ll tell them so via text or voicemail. And maybe they won’t text back for days or weeks, if at all. You’ll be lonely in this limbo between having someone always there to rub your back when you cried, and finding someone new to take on that role. But it’s okay. Cherish the people who do send those messages asking how you are. Cherish the family that keeps you company.
  3. People in the real world don’t actually drink alcohol everyday, at least not in unhealthy amounts. That’s called “binge drinking,” and yeah, it’s a real thing they all warned you about at those assemblies in the high school auditorium. Maybe you don’t even like alcohol that much. Maybe remembering the taste of vodka is enough to make you sick these days. Nobody’s pressuring you anymore. Just be yourself.
  4. Just be yourself. Maybe the person you were when you were with friends, isn’t the person you are. Work on finding who that person is. If those friends come back around and accept that new person, then they’re worth keeping.
  5. Things will never be the same again. This is not a bad thing. Four years in the same place with the same folks can be nice and comfortable and wonderful–it can be home. But homes change and people change. Step up. Step out. Start over.