Thoughts Provoked by a Cardboard New York City

I’ve learned mine can’t be filled,
only alchemized.

— Stephen Dunn, “Emptiness”

 

The other night I was at a comedy show in a church basement with walls covered by cardboard cut-outs of the New York City skyline. Little white Christmas lights were peeking out from behind, creating the illusion of twinkling windows at night.

What,” began the sarcasm of the final comic, gesturing at the cardboard skyline, “you mean none of these buildings are in Jamestown?”

And I laughed harder than I had all night.

It was a relief, to have the delusion acknowledged. It made me feel better about how I’d been staring at the whole set up, all night, wanting to throw up due to some unearned feeling of homesickness.

The twinkling Christmas lights: they reminded me of all the nights I refused to sleep as a little kid. How I’d insert cassette after cassette into my Fisher-Price boombox—the one with the microphone and color coded buttons—trying to stave off my dread of public school, and dumb-kid jokes, and being unable to read through key-rings of word-cards at what the state deemed an “appropriate” pace. (I’d often hide in the bathroom and pretend I was Sailor Moon as I tried to come up with an argument that’d convince my mother I needed to be home-schooled.)

Thinking of those lost cassettes, the Oliver and Company soundtrack came to mind.

More specifically, Huey Davis’s opening song, “Once Upon a Time in New York City”, which—having mild OCD—stayed, that night, lodged in my mind, on a loop, until bed. Where I dreamed that my little niece came to me with a picture book, flipped to the very last page, depicting New York City in different shades of blue, twinkling like Christmas Eve.

It made me consider how a lot of the novels I like to read are about suburban life and its inescapable triviality; about characters who settle and try to pretend like they’re not mentally ill, or terribly addicted, or irreversibly repressed.

In season seven of American Horror Story one character, Meadow—a very pathetic and desperate person who wears big hats—says, “I wanted to be a painter, but I was too drawn to the normalcy of a middle class lifestyle.”

And I felt that to an extent; to a point where I at least didn’t forget about it.

Every time a person says, “Come to New York!” — “You belong in New York!” A small part of me is quietly objecting: But what about cul de sacs that smell like fabric softener? Crate and Barrel? Squishy blankets? Familiar faces? Empty movie theatres? It’s not “me” exactly, but still it’s there. This dull enduring self-rejection. What do I do with it?

Of course Meadow, who should’ve been a painter, chooses to drown herself in white wine and joins a murderous cult. Is that who I am, deep down? Or am I a brave little cartoon kitten with luck on her side; fate combined with a series of mishaps that ultimately lead to all the right things: adventure, friendship, purpose, home… (What I’d like to boast about having from my apartment walls.)

I once wrote a short story in which a young woman, drawing on a paper napkin, suddenly looks up, struck by clarity, and says, “Sometimes I can’t even imagine my world as the same one where little children go missing.” And the guy she’s talking to suddenly gets an overwhelming urge to break her hand.

I am both characters, is what I’m trying to say.

My many selves are in constant conflict, as if identity were a Rubik’s cube only the very, very, self-assured can solve.

Lately, I’ve been worrying: do we ever really get over our adolescent insecurities, or are we all just some variation of our sixteen year old selves? (I’ve been admitting a lot of weird things to myself, like: Yes, Nicole Richie’s anorexic body had a lasting effect on me. Yes, I am depressed in a way that only medication can fix. No, I am never going to have a “group” of friends like St. Elmo’s Fire. Yes, I have been caught in a cycle of denying these things since adolescence.)

Answering my own question, as I am wont to do, with the words of somebody else, Joan Rivers popped into my head: “It doesn’t get better. You get better.” So, yes, maybe our adolescent insecurities never really go away—our learned anxieties and aversions; our social and interpersonal hang-ups. Maybe all one can really do is accept these things as a part of herself. Try to get better. Learn how to deal.

I read my friend a letter, which I gave to my ex best friend. In it I explained why I couldn’t be friends with her anymore; how the position I was in completely inhibited me from being a good and supportive person to her. How my initial inclination—to be fucking pissed—was totally eclipsed by the fact that I wanted her to be happy. That, I felt, the best thing for me to do was remove myself.

I finished reading, and my friend asked, “Why did you blame yourself that whole time?”

Looking back, if I could have answered her with more clarity, I’d say: Because I have this sneaking suspicion that a lot of people think I don’t blame myself enough. (There it is, that prevailing adolescent phantom: What Other People Think. I know, it doesn’t really exist—nobody really thinks about anybody that much. Not as much as they think about themselves. Harsh judgments are short and fleeting. Most people say nasty things they don’t even mean, just to make conversation. A majority of the time, they don’t even know what they’re talking about.)

But it’s a good thing I couldn’t. Because, even with my clarity-driven response, I know I’d still spiral into self-doubt. My answer would become a game of Mad Libs. (I blame myself because I am stupid; because I am annoying; because I am boring, bitter, ugly, empty. Because I deserve it. Because I can take it. Because I don’t need it. Because she can have it. Because I wanted to be egalitarian, and/or civil. Because I am terrified of all the things I cannot see, and therefore, change, about myself.)

Self doubt. What Other People Think. Two things I’ll always carry. Things that won’t get better, but require my getting better. Like a bonsai; how a tree still finds a way to be what it is, however small and subdued—

“It doesn’t feel fair,” I texted.

“Because it isn’t,” my friend texted back.

Again with Joan Rivers: “It doesn’t get better. You get better.”

If we go backward in time, twenty-one years, little-me is lying in bed with her cassette player, listening to “Once Upon a Time in New York City”. Shocked by the carelessness of other little kids; totally dreading it; wishing she didn’t have to deal with it; not knowing that she was listening to a song about a place, just as sleepless as her.

Remember. She gets better.

But, for now, the twinkling Christmas lights will have to do.

Your insides, always fighting for you, even when you aren’t, will have to do.

Remember. People often misunderstand each other because they don’t understand themselves. Some will count up all the things you don’t have, in comparison to themselves, as a means of maintaining some imagined order. It’s okay. Let them have it. They’re trying to get better too. And even if there’s a hole you’ll never fill—some lack you can’t atone for—there is the melting ice—waiting outside the church basement that is posing as someplace else—speckled from being eaten through by salt. It’ll understand you when no one else will.

A friend is a friend is a friend.

There is a city that never sleeps, just like you.

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Love is Leaving the Light On: 2017, In Retrospect

what stops things for a moment
are the words you’ve found for the last bit of light
you think there is

—Stephen Dunn, “What”

 Will the waters be rising soon?
The waters will be rising soon.
Find something or someone to cling to.

—Kim Addonizio, “Storm Catechism”

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Donald Trump was inaugurated and that’s when the countdown really started. 10. So a blonde walks into a bar… 9. A guy looks up and decides to stay… Did you know, the second day of this year 31 twisters touched down in the south? This one-day total was higher than the whole month of January 2016. Would it be fair to say that this is the most accurate way to describe 2017: Concentrated. Loaded emotion and knowledge, packed into the smallest increments of time: Moments, like DMT. Doesn’t it feel like half of us are rewinding, while the other half is trying to fast-forward? Personally, I think the film is going to rip. (I saw a picture of a house torn in half by a tornado, and thought aloud: “Isn’t it crazy how nature can cut through your living room when you least expect it?”)

Anyway—let’s not talk about politics.

He said, “Hey, I think you’re really pretty.” And I laughed, hysterically. I’m on the latter end of 25 now. Plucking away at the keyboard of a MacBook that I can tell is crashing, slowly. It creaks like a haunted house. I swear to god… I’m typing this now, and a major part of me believes the girl I was seven years ago—the girl I was when this MacBook was new—is alive and well, rolling with the back roads. It’s 3 AM and Kid Cudi is still relevant somewhere. She believed a full tank of gas, combined with the beat of something melancholy, was how modern witches flew: Is it weird that I feel so much closer to her now than whoever I was this time last year?

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Today is the oldest you’ve ever been, and the youngest you’ll ever be,” and I think about it all the time. (How youth is a warm blanket, and time is a rubber band, holding you like a hammock. The view is nothing but stars when you’re in your twenties; this brief moment in history when your reflection actually matches an idea you had of yourself.) I’m only saying this because of what a middle-aged woman told me in passing, “I still feel young. Whenever I look in the mirror, I don’t recognize myself.”

Once, for a fiction-writing assignment in college, I had to kill off one of my favorite characters. I decided to write about death as a reversal of time and the transcendence of space: Shattered vases pieced themselves back together and floated back to their allotted shelves. She looked out the kitchen window, and found her house had drowned over night. Sperm whales were floating by, casually as birds. She looked down and realized her hands were no longer knotted from arthritis. Having untwisted themselves, and flattened out their own wrinkles in the night.

When my best friend and I were teenagers, we’d talk about heaven all the time. She’d ask, “How old do you think people are in heaven?” And I’d say, “Young, probably.” She’d say, “Really? I bet they’re ageless.” And I’d think about that for a moment. How, in my head, “ageless” implied youth—at least a hint of it. It was then that I first understood “ageless” as a word for when one feels the most herself. Which varies, depending on who and what your experiences are. (The damage of trauma can leave one frozen at the age of 2.) Imagine: Navigating a majority of your life without feeling like yourself—being unable to experience joy without distrust. I asked my friend, “What’s better, wisdom or innocence?”

She said, “Wisdom.” She was certain.

But I gave innocence a little more credit: Without innocence, is wisdom even possible? Isn’t new wisdom only acquired by experiencing something, through fresh eyes—and then, somehow, managing to restore innocence? In February, new evidence was discovered supporting the theory of intermediate black holes. Though most scientists still poo-poo the idea of these masses actually existing. Mostly because, if they were to find an intermediate black hole—one that was for sure “intermediate”—it would force science to rethink the development of the universe as we’ve always understood it. (Apparently the rate at which black holes form, makes the possibility of moderately sized ones unlikely—at least on this plane of reality.)

Have you ever looked at a picture of a black hole?
It has the terrifying resemblance of a human eye. Making me wonder: What if a black hole is just a retina, taking in light and generating new memories in the mind of a beholder? “There’s a whole universe inside you!” At least, that’s what the inspirational quotes say. And isn’t that the theory behind black holes—that there’s a whole other reality on the other side. Is it possible that the earth—the entire solar system—has already been swallowed? Black holes are massive. I bet we’ve been swallowed thousands of times, and none of us even felt it. What if that’s all a new iPhone release is?

Getting swallowed by a black hole, and nobody noticing.

Domestic Violence was decriminalized in Russia this year. The bill was co-authored by two women. (Forgive me: I can’t seem to wrap my head around this idea where there’s any room for tolerance when it comes to women getting hit by men they love.) Homicide is the fourth leading cause of death in American women ages 15-24, and I can’t help but wonder how many of those women were killed by a boyfriend or father-figure. Did you know—though women are just as capable of domestic violence as men—statistically speaking, only male to female violence ends in death or serious injury? Which is another way of saying: I went to the Women’s March in Seneca Falls and cried, because it was the least hated I’d felt in a long time.

This year, I fell in love.

8. He pulled a bouquet of flowers out, from behind the couch… 7. So a blonde burst into tears, out in the parking lot… My best friend said my anxiety was only natural. “Last year was horrible for you, and you’re terrified… Being in love with a real person is terrifying.” And I thought: Why is “real” love so rude and intrusive? Like: I was perfectly happy in pseudo-relationships with guys who’d never even try to love me properly. Why’d he have to come along and wreck a good thing? Sometimes I wonder if I have that same problem Dr. Phil is always accusing anorexics of: Do I want to be alone with my disease? (A high school boyfriend once said, “I don’t get it, it’s like you enjoy being sad.”)

I didn’t know what to do! My life had turned to a Taylor Swift song in a matter of weeks. We were dancing in the kitchen to the sounds of our own voices, with the shades drawn and the TV turned off. Our cell phones were on silent—tucked away and lighting up elsewhere. Free of judgment—among the bottle caps and half-drunk coffee mugs—I found my hand floating to his forearm, without much thought. Heard myself describing him as “too good to be real”. When is it okay to let go and trust someone? (I think of my mom, over coffee, giving advice about love: “You’re never going to know for sure.”)

I had this dream where a brunette, lawyer-type, woman led me to a tunnel. The tunnel was covered in blue pool tiles, and water reflected in golden squiggles on the ceiling. It was unclear where the tunnel led. The woman explained that the ability to see things as they really are was on the other side, objectivity in its purest form. Then everything blurred and fell sideways in that vertigo-way dreams do—

Back to black holes.

What if being swallowed by a black hole is all a New Year is? The same old reality, with a few variations: A 69th moon is orbiting Jupiter; Time Crystals are a physical certainty; Another mass shooting, and another mass shooting, and another, is cemented in history; Mass extinction is deemed a possibility; A Total Solar Eclipse has come and gone; Girl Scouts can be Boy Scouts; Some stars have exploded and some people have just started existing…

I read this list of words for complex emotions on Thought Catalog. One that resonated in particular was “Sonder”, defined as: “The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own…”

Sonder used to overwhelm me, used to make me believe I should be doing more than I was—made me hopeless with the thought that I would never be big enough. It sharpened my awareness: Everything is a mere particle to something else; an ant is to a human, as the earth is to the sun, as the sun is to the universe and everything else… But this year, I decided: Even particles can stand out. I re-thought of all my favorite artists as tiny crumbs: Lady Gaga is a fleck of silver glitter, on a piece of pink construction paper; Virginia Woolf is a water molecule in a Cumulus cloud, reincarnated as a blue eye contact… (I have often described myself as Cheeto dust, though it’d be cool if I turned out to be plain dirt. Dirt can be mud, and mud can be elephant sun block. Which, as dirt, is what I would aspire to be.)

6. Out of nowhere, he decides to fold… 5. So a blonde screams across what feels like a decade of lost love: YOU DON’T JUST LEAVE PEOPLE AT THE FIRST PANG OF DOUBT… You know, just because the earth’s dirt doesn’t mean we should treat her that way. Still: Earth Day came and went. Donald Trump decided to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement—after already signing an executive order that would revoke or negate numerous policies that dealt with climate change. (President Obama initially made the agreement with Paris and administered the revoked orders.)

Is it just me or is Donald Trump, like, insanely jealous of Obama?

I mean, whatever; humans are jealous creatures by nature. We steal from nature, out of jealousy, all the time. Ivory, tortoise shell, endless varieties of fur, the heads and tails and hides of “exotic” beasts… I Googled a picture of a harvested sea turtle, his shell was cracked with bits of sore-red peeking out. It looked how a hangnail feels—if the hangnail were hopeless and all over someone’s back. When I see stuff like that, I wish I could turn to someone and say: It’s narcissistic to assume an admirable quality belonging to something else would be of better use to you and, therefore, is yours for the taking. (This sentiment extends to everything, and jealousy constructs nothing, so I’m considering this as a resolution: To always tell the truth about the good that isn’t mine, maybe.)

Anyway, let’s keep talking about politics.

Donald Trump lifted the ban prohibiting elephant products from being imported into the U.S. This, predictably, made people upset—more upset than how he treats minorities and women… But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t almost cry. Why do humans have to own everything? My friend told me, “Elephants can get Stockholm syndrome.” She said, “When I went to Thailand, they explained it at this elephant refuge—the only way to get an elephant to do what you want is to break their spirit.” (America, I know your spirit has been wrung, and possibly broken. Please, don’t surrender to your captor; nothing rekindles hope like justified anger.) Did you know, there are reports of elephants showing compassion for other species, at considerable costs to themselves—that their care extends beyond their own kin?

Suggested Resolution: Be more like elephants.

4. He goes home to his apartment, alone… 3. So a blonde recedes, back into her imagination… Over the summer, when I was alone, I wrote about green lights. I played Lorde’s “Green Light” in a cyclical fever and read about the biology of fireflies. I revisited The Great Gatsby, the green light having always been a symbol that evaded me. (Though, I suppose, that was the whole point—it can be whatever you need it to be. Never Land… Or whatever.) The closing lines of The Great Gatsby have always been beautiful, but it took a sudden shift in awareness to fully comprehend what they mean: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

We experience time in a forward moving direction, but all we know for certain is what has already passed us by. In this way, getting older is like being in a room that’s slowly filling with water; it’s easier to live in the past, the certainty of water, than it is to live for all the open space left around you. (Right now, the water’s merely up to my shins; just enough to wade and splash in.) With age, it’ll get easier and easier to float on; to sit back and watch the world fill up with the stuff of my life. I’ve accepted that time will eventually step in and complete my imperfect aquarium…

My uncle drowned this year.

His face was right there in my mind’s eye, and I didn’t expect to—but I cried. And my grief felt like it’d been hi-jacked from somebody else, like it wasn’t my place to feel. But on car rides, between work and back, my mind kept taking an inventory of all the facts: It was sunny, but the wind was strong; he’d just sold his sail boat and wanted to take it out for one more go; he was notorious for taking risks; people heard someone crying for help…

I asked myself existential questions: What does it feel like when a body betrays the soul inside it, realizes help is not coming? Is it a slow caving? Does it break your heart? Is it okay? Does it start out cold and then get warm? Do you wake up in a house underwater and find your mother, ageless and gazing out the kitchen window… Do you stand beside her and watch the whales float by…

November 11, 2017: My sister’s baby is born.

As a writer, I have learned that things can come together just as quickly as they fall apart. And to hope that, in spite of the world falling apart at large, each individual life has found some refuge in the squares of his or her calendar year. Did you know, a couple survived the California wildfires by wading in a neighbor’s swimming pool?

(Thinking back to my dream, about the tunnel, I like to imagine a swimming pool was on the other side—a swimming pool surrounded by fire.) This is how it feels to be present—to be in love—at this point in history: The water might be freezing, but everything else is burning. Bless the wet T-shirts protecting our faces from the embers, these moments we spend above water…

I may, or may not, have felt inclined to listen to Rent throughout the month of December. And I may, or may not, have the opening song stuck in my head: “How do you measure a year?” Last year I measured in lessons, so this year I’ve measured in moments of clarity: Is there a word for the complex emotion that comes upon realizing, your heart will never break that easily again; that you’re not a silly girl anymore?

Though I’ll miss the 2 AM texts and all the conversations that led to nowhere, though there are still some toxic attachments I’ve failed to cut: All I really want when the day is over, and our government has traded us in, is pizza, wine, and him; swapping memes and watching the snow fall; net neutrality on my busted lap top—

Clarity.

It dawned on me—one night when my parents were out of town, and I came home to a darkened house—like I suddenly remembered I’d left a candle burning: Love is leaving the light on. Though it flickers and it wavers and, when I’m in it, I struggle to forgive myself. I’m just another moth to a flame, surrounding this swimming pool… 2017 has been terrifying. But when the anxiety subsided and the fire dwindled, I realized, someone left a green light on, and—I swear to god—the moment we met beneath it, we were ageless. 2. He says, “I never stopped loving you…” 1. So a blonde decides to try again…

Here’s my written midnight kiss: The second you step back to appreciate anything, it’s gone. Turn all your lights on.

“Crazy” Girl: Thoughts on Healing, Wholeness, and Compassion in a Morally Divided World

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Nobody knows who the real crazy people are.

—Chuck Palhniuk, “Exodus”

I said, “It might sound sad, but it really isn’t—at least I’ll always have my own company.”

My mother said, “You were always very good at being your own friend.”

And F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams” popped into my head like scripture: “She had come, in self-defense, to nourish herself wholly from within.”

I thought about how he made the statement sound so damning by sticking “self-defense” in the middle of it.

I thought about the character he was referring to: Judy Jones, one of literature’s first manic-pixie-dream girls. A beautiful depressed girl who smiles at chicken liver the same way she smiles at all the men who obsess over her—allotting her that added edge of derangement. How a story about a girl like Judy could only end with her being married off to an abusive asshole, rendering her dead in the spiritual sense. Hence: Winter in “Winter Dreams”.

It’s the tired tale of Manic-Pixie-Dream Girl turned Snow Queen. These are the kinds of female characters I held close in adolescence: Alaska, from John Green’s Looking for Alaska. Effy Stonemen, from Skins seasons 1, 2, and 4. And Daisy, from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Their plotlines, however poetic and mysterious, only serve as limiting windows of female irresponsibility and destruction. With their characters constantly acting out, as if to beg producers, and writers alike, for some semblance of normalcy—the potential to grow beyond female trauma and spiritual death.

A level of complexity they’re, unsurprisingly, never granted.

(Alaska kills herself—or does she?—right after the novel’s male protagonist decides she’s a shallow bitch. Effy hits that jealous girl Katie in the head with a rock, tries to kill herself, fails, grows up to be a dead-inside businesswoman who sleeps with her narcissistic boss and, eventually, loses everything. Meanwhile, Daisy runs down her “horrible” husband’s mistress, totally ditches “nice” guy Gatsby for said “horrible” husband, and is ultimately rendered “horrible” herself.)

“She had come, in self-defense, to nourish herself wholly from within.”

I only recently began to understand that, as individuals, we’re supposed to “nourish” ourselves “wholly from within”. That this is not a defense mechanism reserved for the jaded and two-dimensional girls of fiction.

It’s not a defense mechanism, period.

☁︎

“I was an asshole, you were crazy…”

I understood this statement as a backhanded apology and my mind flared red at “crazy”. TRIGGERED! I stopped talking to him, completely. Stifled what I wanted to say: I’M NOT CRAZY, YOU’RE JUST AN ASSHOLE!

When I got home, I saw that he’d texted me.

“I’m just trying to make peace.”

I threw it back in his face.

“No you’re not.

If you were, you’d just admit that I didn’t do anything to you.

Which I didn’t.

I liked you, and you didn’t like me back.

If you’d just admit that we’d be fine, but instead you label me ‘crazy.’

Which I’m not.”

Could I have a sent a more guilt addled string of text messages?

He said: “I’m not an asshole normally, but circumstances between us weren’t normal.”

I couldn’t let it go.

“No. I treated you, and talked to you, like a human being. And you didn’t reciprocate that courtesy. And you know it. I’m so sick of everyone trying to return to my life from this past year. I don’t want anything to do with any of you. Like, you’re only talking to me because you’re bored and you know I have a boyfriend. You don’t care about me at all… You ARE an asshole normally. You just don’t want to deal with that reality.”

Then my personal favorite, (in the style of Season 2 Snooki of Jersey Shore) I said:

“I WAS A FUCKING GOOD PERSON TO YOU!”

He said: “I didn’t reciprocate that. I treated you unfairly and that’s why I’m an asshole. To be honest, I only see you as crazy because you’d press my emotions on purpose. You knew it got to me… I really want to come to an understanding.”

Still. I couldn’t let it go.

“I don’t think there’s any understanding to come to… Whenever I came to you looking for an ‘understanding’, you talked to me like I was a piece of garbage. There’s just no space for that anymore.”

Then I waited fifteen minutes, for my “crazy” levels to fall back into equilibrium, and texted him, again, as my normal self.

“I know I’d get really angry, but that was always after I felt like I’d been so patient and understanding. Like I have a limit! I honestly did care about you, at the very least as a friend. So some of the stuff you’d say to me would blow my mind… And I know I wasn’t perfect. I know I kind of walked all over you with my moral high ground, and acted like I was perfect when—I guess—I would do some stuff on purpose to upset you.”

He said: “Thank you.”

And it was like the masks had finally come off: I did X, you did Y. Can we finally leave the alphabet behind?

We often wear the masks of black and white identities, “crazy” and “asshole”, to correct the times when we allowed ourselves to be vulnerable.

This is especially true of the millennial generation.

I recently read an article that said psychologists are seeing more instances of personality disorders among millennials than any other generation. Presumed causes being, the rise of social media and having “liberal” parents.

(It’s the same old complaint of irrational entitlement in anyone ages 18 – 35:

Latchkey kids and Fruit Rollups are ruining society!

 Trace amounts of Red Dye #5 have poisoned the personalities of our young people!

 Everyone knows participation trophies lead to moral insanity!)

 It’s all bogus to me. I think millennials are just more open to the reality of mental health than the generations that preceded them. Therefore, there’s going to be more instances of personality disorders among us. We’re open to being diagnosed in the first place. (Unlike Debra from 152 BC, who’s probably just as borderline and narcissistic as the rest of us.)

Still, I think millennials struggle with interpersonal relationships. And it probably does have a lot to do with the options that the Internet and technology have granted us. Combined with the fact that, prior generations can’t empathize with the complications that coming of age with limitless information has created in our daily lives.

No one knew how to prepare us for the kinds of problems we’d face, being so goddam available to our peers and the world at large.

Therefore, it’s a particularly painful and confusing time to be a young person in general.

If you’re a millennial woman: You are living in the age of “love yourself”, yet no one told you how difficult this journey to self-acceptance would be.

There is just as much pressure to be independent and unapologetic as there is to be “liked” and validated by men.

Gender roles are changing; the whole concept of gender itself is changing. And yet, it’s still a debate whether or not you should be granted access to birth control.

The Internet has granted everyone constant access to you and your insecurities. The audacity to harass women no longer requires a level of grandeur reserved for the pathologically entitled. Now normal, everyday-type, men can say whatever they want without even having to look you in the eye:

*unsolicited dick pics*

“Can I fuck you in the ass?”

“You’d be a l0 if you lost weight.”

“Too good to say hi?”

It’s all as easy as clicking Send.

You are told: “Purge your life of toxicity!”

“Move on!”

“No one is worth stressing about!”

But you are also expected to be empathetic and diplomatic—don’t speak of anything or anyone in condemning terms: Rape and Assault are big words.

You are told women can do, and say, and be, whatever they want. And yet, a man who admits to sexually assaulting women is more qualified to be president than a woman who has dedicated her entire life to politics—just get over it.

“Do what’s best for yourself!”

It’s the recurring message on social media.

But nobody talks about how difficult it is to decide what’s best for yourself.

That being a girl means growing up having always viewed yourself through the lens of everyone else, only to be advised to un-learn that lens.

Then, on the flipside, there’s millennial men.

My ex boyfriend is sensitive, and quiet, and reserved, by nature. But our conservative community has forced him to split his personality in two. He can’t rectify his true nature against the image of machismo he’s supposed to project.

This fills him with a rage that he doesn’t know how to talk about; he resents his being hardwired for compassion, a “feminine” quality. So he treats his own heart like a problem that needs to be constantly corrected.

Whenever I hear the word “pussy” I feel myself tense up.

How do I convey the collective trauma tied to such a simple word?

The other day my friend told me that most boys don’t learn how to properly communicate until around the age of nine, whereas girls somehow “just know” their entire lives. She said it was due to the differences in how boys and girls are encouraged to play. (Female-play is focused on forming relationships and narrative, whereas male-play aims to make things explode and die.)

The two boys who shot up Columbine in 1999 are an exaggeration for how toxic masculinity has divided millennial boys into two categories: Sociopaths, and guys who are so repressed and misunderstood they just give up trying to communicate emotion altogether.

I’m being borderline right now, talking in such black and white terms.

But that’s the point!

How else do we cope in this world of contradicting messages, evolving roles, blurred lines, muddled information…

No wonder we call each other black and white names, like “asshole” and “crazy”, in the heat of an argument where we’re just trying to cope with how wrong we’ve both been.

It’s really, really, really, hard to feel whole in this polarized world. To not cling to the first diagnosis that only vaguely describes you, or somebody else—just trying to find a cure for the emptiness of your own identity juxtaposed to everyone else’s.

I would know: You can’t limit your “crazy”-self to the weekends and expect to wake up whole on Monday.

You’ve got to integrate her into your “real”-self eventually.

☁︎

I’m used to being called “crazy”. It’s a label that’s been thrown around, behind my back and to my face. Sometimes it’s meant as a compliment, and sometimes it’s meant as an insult. I used to try and combat it, saying I preferred “eccentric” or “passionate”. I went the feminist route, saying: “Crazy’ is the label we give women who expose injustice and mistreatment.” Because, honestly, the label used to really offend me.

I took it as: Literally out of touch with reality; vindictive bitch; can’t own her shit; victim-complex… I had yet to understand this label as a relative one, its meaning depending solely on the perception of the person who uttered it. That it wasn’t necessarily true or untrue, but a snap-judgment. One that I could give power, by constantly combatting it, or simply let be, by choosing confidence in my own reactions and perceptions.

(It happened last week, as I was lying in the backyard. I was reading This is Water by David Foster Wallace. More specifically, a passage that went something like: “If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important—if you want to operate on your default setting—then you, like me, probably will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying.” And the vitamin D must have gone to my head, because I heard myself thinking: I probably am crazy. Why should I be ashamed of that?)

This epiphany probably had a lot to do with something that happened a few days prior. I woke up with a hangover on Sunday morning, only to find that I’d texted my ex-boyfriend the night before, while in a vodka-induced depression:

“DON’T YOU DARE TELL PEOPLE I TREATED YOU BADLY!”

(Okay, it wasn’t in all caps. But that’s how I read it in my head.) And when I read it, I understood: This is why people call me crazy in the negative. Then, the solution: Apologize, admit it was crazy, and controlling, and inexcusable, and move on.

Maybe it was the full ownership of what I’d done and what it meant: That I am not perfect. That I forgot I’m capable of being wrong, and this reality doesn’t add or subtract from who I am—it just is… I don’t know how something so simple seemed to heal all the internal damage of my most emotionally taxing, and humiliating, year. But it did.

I thought: My “crazy”-self has always been my best teacher, why should I deny her?

(So many nights I got drunk and slipped out of my own body. Let my “crazy”-self run rampant, allowed her to do and say whatever she wanted. And when I woke up, the next day, I denied her existence: That must have been my estranged evil twin; we don’t talk anymore.)

See, the thing about my “crazy”-self is that she’s not inherently “bad”. Sure, she’s the part of me that acts according to habit and ego; who demands apologies that don’t want to be given, who searches for feeling where there isn’t any, who chooses the cup with a crack and then cries when it’s empty… She’s not inherently “bad”. She’s just misguided! Which is why she got “bad” when I stopped taking responsibility for her. My identity was split in two, and trying to find meaning in that kind of life was like trying to feel my way out of a pitch-black maze.

☁︎

I was watching Shannon Beador of The Real Housewives of Orange County, have a nervous breakdown at the slightest mention of her nemesis: fellow housewife Vicki Gunvalson. When I realized: Shannon Beador is the perfect example of what happens when self-doubt meets trauma. Ever since Vicki made those “allegations” of physical abuse against Shannon’s husband, Shannon (an already anxious person) has become even more anxious. She’s always one second away from flinging a plate at somebody’s face.

The “ramifications” of what Vicki said triggered a reality in Shannon that she can’t totally confront or forgive.

Which isn’t to say that what Vicki said was true, or okay. But to point out that, whenever someone hurts or betrays us in a way that we can’t find any rhyme or reason for—other than selfish gain—our integrity is compromised. It’s compromised because; we can’t truly forgive someone until we’ve made sense of their behavior. And if we can’t make sense of their behavior, we’re deprived of our only power: To forgive. Which ultimately makes one wonder: What’s so wrong with me that I can’t just “get over” this?

I over empathize with Shannon—in spite of all her erratic behavior—because I understand what trauma looks like. How it transforms your character into an exposed nerve ending that you’re constantly defending. You feel stripped of any power, because you’re convinced whatever you’ve experienced has used up any good you had left; you can’t remember who you were before. And, as if that weren’t confusing enough, trauma-therapy often means coming to terms with your role in the suffering that was, essentially, forced on you. You have to admit you’ve failed yourself the same way other people have failed you, which is just as frustrating and backwards as it sounds.

I’ve read Sierra DeMulder’s chapbook We Slept Here at least a dozen times now. It’s a collection of poems about overcoming trauma and abuse. And I’ve noticed that every time I read it, I understand the overall message a little better; the same way I understand myself a little better as life goes on.

There are a few lines that I only just started to understand a few weeks ago:

“Are you afraid of how
much it looks like you?
How it has
his mouth but your eyes.”

The “it” in this sample can mean anything: abusers, traumatic experiences, repressed memories, grief… The overall message is meant to point out how fear creates boundaries that might be more damaging than healing. An “Us vs. Them” paradigm where distinctions become so rigid, compassion is stopped dead in its tracks. You start thinking in black and white terms, because you just don’t want to take on the complications of blurred lines anymore; you can’t take the risk of seeing yourself in a person who hurt you.

In the throes of incomprehensible pain, this makes sense: You don’t want to identify with your abuser! (Your bully, your “enemy”, your whatever…) You want to be as far away from that dysfunction as Shannon Beador wants to be from Vicki Gunvalson. But the paradox is: These distances have a funny way of giving the people who hurt us, even more power.

Exhibit A, Shannon freaking out on Lydia McLaughlin, over the mere mention of Vicki:

“I’m NOT like Vicki Gunvalson,” Shannon says.

And I wonder: Are you afraid of how much it looks like you?

We have the power to see ourselves in difficult people and experiences, which is a power—though we forget this when we’re busy combating the “enemy”, and our own mental problems. We forget, because we so often act according to fear. To our own limited experiences and nagging anxieties: But what if I’m used and devalued, again? What if I’m misunderstood and rejected? What if I’m wrong?

I told my therapist about this anxiety in myself, and he said:

“I’m going to advise you to keep letting people take advantage of you.”

Which sounded bat-shit crazy at the time!

So I didn’t listen. Instead I acted according to fear, for months. And I felt like such shit because, I was totally numb; I couldn’t regain a sense of connection with humanity, and it hollowed out an emptiness that made me feel nothing but frustration and anger. Like, I’d experienced depression before, but I’d never lost a sense of awe in everyday things. No matter how depressed I got, I’d always been able to look at a tree and regain a feeling of wonder—that something more was out there. But this “depression” was different. I couldn’t see myself on the other side, and I’d lost my faith in peoples’ ability to change.

For the first time in my life, I was jaded.

☁︎

My therapist said, “Two gifts you offer other people are friendship and affection.”

Then he added, “But gifts aren’t always appreciated.”

(At work the other day, an older man’s total came to a $1.21. He pulled out some change and said, “Oh! I got lucky today!” He handed me a $1.06, probably thinking the nickel was a quarter. He seemed excited about his “luck”. So I pretended like he’d handed me the correct change. On the way out, he turned back and said, “I don’t care, but just so you know—you shorted me a nickel.” Then he walked out the door in a huff. And I stood there, fuming; thinking of how I’d knowingly short changed myself to protect his good spirit, only to be accused of doing the opposite.)

I understood what my therapist meant: You can’t hold the door for other people and then get angry when they don’t say, “thank you”.

The lesson being: If you spend your life constantly expecting to get what you give, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

I didn’t used to be this way but, in recent years, I think I got tired of relating to so many people—got worn out from not feeling related to in return. Woe is me. I began to turn my personality inside out. I lashed out in moments where—previously—I would’ve felt more inclined to try and understand. Held grudges over situations I usually would’ve forgiven, or forgotten, immediately.

Exhausted from feeling duped by people I cared about, I drew bold boundaries between myself and everyone else.

You’re bad. I’m good.

Please step away from my circle.

But viewing life this way only made me feel more isolated, more stagnant in my emotional growth, and like “less” of a person.

I didn’t realize, when my therapist advised me to keep letting people take advantage of me, he was advising me to keep being myself.

See, for the longest time, I believed loving a narcissist made me a narcissist. That, as a kid, something must have been severely wrong with me for feeling sorry for the serial killer on death row—entertaining the idea of his innocence: What if this isn’t justice? Because, sometimes… I feel bad for Donald Trump. (The other night, I had a dream I was running down a collapsing staircase alongside a gradually shrinking Donald, who eventually became too small to save himself—so I picked him and carried him to safety.) Or how, when my family watched The Reader, I heard myself saying of the Nazi character, “But we don’t know what it was like in Nazi-Germany; how can anyone say with any certainty that they would have helped the Jewish people when we’re 73 years away from the situation?”

I thought even considering these taboo figures and ideas made me “bad”. That—when it came to narcs, and serial killers, and D.T., and Nazis, and my pity that said: How ugly and lonely is the human mind that only has enough space for itself—having a pang of compassion for the compassionless, somehow meant: I must be evil too.

I didn’t realize: Being able to consider the perspectives of inconsiderate, even outright condemnable, people, just means you are capable of understanding difficult truths; that you not only have the grace to empathize with friends, and family, and people like you, but to understand psychologies and perspectives, vastly different from your own.

Those months where I felt nothing but numb and empty, angry and afraid, I wondered—not from a place of moral judgment, but tender curiosity:

Is this how the people who hurt me feel, all the time?

☁︎

I’ve noticed that the initial response to particularly empathic and compassionate people is often one of suspicion, followed by confusion: How can this person possibly be so damn forgiving and sincere?

 Sincerity combined with idealism often looks and sounds phony. Mostly because: To love and appreciate, or forgive, anyone from a place of true sympathy, generally, isn’t the “cool” thing to do. Especially when we’re the ones on the receiving end of that sympathy: How can someone be so gullible as to pity a wretch like me?

We scoff at the sensitivity of others because its existence heightens an awareness in ourselves that we’re not always ready to face; makes us consider our own behavior in ways we’d rather combat than examine. This is why we, so often, speak of the open-minded and romantic individual as a mentally and emotionally fragile being.

In Chuck Palhniuk’s short-story collection Haunted, one story, “Exodus”, serves as a kind of allegory for everything I’ve just expressed. It’s about the depravity of objectification and how our (American) surrounding culture and society, normalizes this depravity. Making anyone who passionately opposes it seem like they’re going “crazy”.

The story focuses on a woman named Cora, who is an abuse advocate in her town’s police department. From the beginning, she is established as a deeply empathic person, described as a woman who “couldn’t buy just one stuffed animal”. Her house is a fortress of unwanted items, meant to emphasize her inability to abandon anyone, or anything; to “look away” from injustice and mind her own business in matters of neglect and abuse.

Initially, the other characters like Cora—at worst, they’re indifferent to her. She only begins to become a “problem” and subject of distrust when she upsets the status quo. The catalyst to all her controversy being when she accidentally orders two anatomically correct dolls (used for cases of sexual abuse, so children can recount what happened to them via demonstration) instead of anatomically detailed ones.

A.K.A. Cora accidently buys child sex-dolls.

She’s upset about her mistake from the get-go, apologizing to the director of her department and promising the dolls won’t be used. However, the director doesn’t see anything wrong with the situation and insists that the dolls are perfectly good replacements for the old, anatomically detailed, ones.

Soon after, Cora has a waiting list for the dolls. Detectives and officers begin reserving them for “off site” cases. However, it quickly becomes evident that the dolls are being reserved for sex. When Cora raises the issue to the director, she’s met with laughter and an alternate perspective, “Consider this tit for tat.” The director sites how women objectify men everyday, using them for sex and money—or as sperm donors. She says, “What do you think a dildo is?” She dismisses Cora’s concern over what grown men reserving child sex-dolls for masturbation might imply or mean. She doesn’t see it as cause for concern because the dolls aren’t real. She says, “If it helps, just think of each one as a seventy-pound condom.”

This is when Cora becomes increasingly eccentric. She does everything she can to protect the dolls from violation, cleaning them every time she gets them back and buying them new clothes. At one point, she decides to super glue all their orifices shut. When that doesn’t work, and the dolls come back with all the glue cut open, she inserts razors into their mouths and behinds. Still, nothing seems to combat the unacceptable behavior of her co-workers.

Her sanity finally reaches its tipping point when the director sits her down and insists that she just “get over” it. The director says, “It was a tough call… deciding if my entire team is crazy, or if you are… overreacting.” In this moment Cora realizes she is nothing but a 120-pound condom to the people around her. As a result, she loses it and steals a gun from the evidence room. She takes the dolls, loads her car up with shabby stuffed animals, and drives away with a Breather Betty riding shotgun. In the closing paragraphs it’s noted, “Nobody knows who the real crazy people are.”

The reason this story has resonated with me, for so long, is its main point: Cora is treated like she’s crazy because she’s the only character with a conscience. Rendering her a threat to everyone else’s hedonism, and a walking symbol for the unexamined lives of everyone around her. Extending back to what I mentioned earlier: We scoff at the sensitivity of others because its existence heightens an awareness in ourselves that we’re not always ready to face; makes us consider our own behavior in ways we’d rather combat than examine.

See, I’ve noticed that we like Cora-girls in theory but we don’t like them in practice. (The same way the pursuit of Justice is beautiful in theory, but a motherfucking bitch in practice.) No one ever tells you: If you’re going to lead a life guided by truth and justice, you’re going to be swallowing your pride constantly. You’re going to be forced to confront the darkness in yourself, over and over and over again. (Which I think goes against human nature on a certain level. It’s unnatural to choose discomfort, and that’s what makes truth and justice such a difficult pursuit.)

Recently I was reading an essay called “Tan Lines” by a Canadian Indian writer, Durga Chew-Bose. It’s an essay about why she’s always dreaded summer. Focusing on how she associates summer with racist rhetoric.

She writes: “Growing up brown in mostly white circles means learning from a very young age that language is inured to prejudicial glitches. Time and again, I have concealed my amazement. The semantics of ignorance are oddly extensive and impossible to foresee.”

She sites mothers at soccer practice and the pool, how they’d always comment on her skin as a child. How what they said was always intended as a compliment, but—for reasons she couldn’t place—made her uneasy. That, when she got older, her tanned white friends would place their arms beside hers and say with pride: “I’m darker than you now.” Sending a shock to her system, and hurting her in a way that she didn’t anticipate or understand.

As I read the essay, I thought of how many people would read about Chew-Bose’s experience and think she was “overreacting”. That she was looking “too far” into things—creating implications that weren’t there.

I remember wondering: Why isn’t a proclamation of pain enough to change people?

When we listen to another person’s experience with suffering or oppression, especially when what they’re saying contradicts the world as we’ve always understood it, it’s difficult to not react like: BUT WHAT ABOUT ME?! Making us skeptical and judgmental, rather than vulnerable and receptive enough to examine our past selves. To admit: I used to do and say some problematic shit. We close ourselves off when we question the validity of someone else’s reality as a means of protecting our own. And I think, at least most of the time, this isn’t necessarily done from a place of hatred, but fear. (Though fear and hatred are close relatives, and I’m not denying that.)

I guess I’m considering all this, now, because we’re living in a time of anxiety.

Right now, everyone is afraid. This divided political climate is the result of everyone feeling like something has, or will be, taken from them. And I believe that, as a white, cisgender, straight girl with no real history of persecution or exclusion, it’s my responsibility to not recede into self-doubt. To up my game in the arena of compassion and not fall victim to my own, ultimately vain, cynicism and despair. To, insanely enough, renew my faith in humanity…

Anne Frank wrote, “In spite of everything I still believe people are really good at heart.”

(On NPR, a few months ago, a psychologist was talking about how there’s been extensive studies on psychopathic brains, but hardly any on especially empathic ones. Which she found curious, considering everyone falls somewhere on the spectrum of feeling for humanity—between too much and not enough. What psychic qualities set empaths apart?)

I can’t help but believe Anne was so far on the end of feeling for humanity that she possessed an otherworldly spirit. That she was so full of conscience she could be deemed pathologically graceful, or gracefully insane.

She’d have to be, to believe what she wrote:

In spite of everything…

I no longer interpret “crazy” as an insult.

☁︎

I keep wondering what all my favorite female characters of my adolescence have in common—Alaska, Effy, Daisy…

I know it’s not just their paper flat personas of female “irresponsibility” and destruction.

I know it’s more than that.

But the answer doesn’t occur to me until I’m re-reading Leslie Jamison’s essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”, for the third time. An essay where Jamison divides fictional women (and real-life women) into two categories: Wounded and Post-Wounded. The former is characterized by self-indulgent self-pity, while the latter is defined by self-indulgent self-awareness. (Another way of saying “Basic” Bitches vs. “Cool” girls, essentially.)

I realized both groups were annoying in their predictability, in their resistance to not become each other.

And that’s when it clicked: The female characters of my adolescence occupy a third category.

They weren’t in pain, or in denial of pain, so much as they were trying to escape it.

I think of Alaska and her alcohol, and her walls of books, and her crashing car; of Effy hitting that jealous girl Katie in the head with a rock and running away; of Daisy crying over silk shirts and gunning down her husband’s mistress without looking back. How nobody knows for sure what any of it meant: Did Alaska crash her car on purpose? Did Effy mean to hit Katie? Was Daisy really driving?

The female escape artist is sick of being defined by the anatomy of her nervous system, from being measured by how much or little she feels. She’s the one girl in the story who decides: You’re going to turn me into whatever you want anyway, no matter how many times I prove I’m more complicated than this plot—might as well opt out and become the metaphor!

In the words of Taylor Swift: “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative.”

I realize my life has been a constant struggle between being down-to-earth and a total space case. (With my head in the clouds, and my feet on the ground—what an age-old cliché.) I’m a realistic idealist, yearning to make people aware and forget all at once. Constantly pretending what’s happening isn’t really happen, while acutely knowing: Holy shit, this is really happening. Sincerely wanting everyone to be okay—to feel special and necessary and forgiven—while also secretly wishing everyone would get what they deserve: Karma!

I realize what Taylor Swift hasn’t: There’s no being excluded from your own narrative.

Yes, often we are innocent victims.

And we are all saviors, to someone: the “nice” guy, an un-judging friend, your sweetheart…

But we are also the sadists, and “crazy” girls, and arch nemeses.

Lady Gaga said it, “There really is no difference between the victim and the bully.”

Which is to say: Everything in this world is relative and a matter of perspective.

And that’s the only thing I know for sure, a big fat truth I’ve been struggling to balance for the past two years:

Are you afraid of how much it looks like you?

 Nobody knows who the real crazy people are.

A guy who, I feel, used to torment me, always looks at me with what I now understand as sincere sadness. And I realize I see myself in everyone and everything, and it has me all twisted up inside. Giving me so much joy and depression, filling me with such pride and shame. I have a headache and a heartache… I feel equal parts pathetic and admirable for being so affected by another person…

So, as I write this essay, I ask myself: What does healing look like, in a life where the only certainty is that everything is uncertain?

And I understand: It’s taking ownership of how you see yourself in relation to the world.

That we are not mirrors for each other, so much as we are magnifying glasses.

That I’m not crazy, some people just say I am because—let’s face it—there are times where I acted poorly and needed to recognize it. (And anyway! Isn’t the idea of “crazy” Cat so funny? Like there’s this fairytale version of me running around peoples’ brains, stealing the big toes from all her ex-lovers. I forgot some perceptions really are so ridiculous.)

It’s realizing that what you hate isn’t a person, place, or thing, but your own fear.

I’ve been so afraid of rejection, and failure, and being seen for who I am without mercy, that I forgot how to be merciful with myself. Which only made me less merciful with others. And—god—none of us are anything without mercy. How did I not see? Every rejection, and failure, and misunderstanding I’ve experienced, was a chance to remember: I don’t need acceptance, or success, or permission to feel whole.

It’s choosing to not be that scared person anymore.

I chose to see myself in the people who were less than kind to me; realized that no one was all that intimidating once I considered that, maybe, they were in just as much pain as I was, if not more. That my fault was never in being compassionate, but in believing others’ cruelty had anything to do with me.

It’s writing about the kind of magnifying glass you wish to be.

I hope I leave your world in Technicolor.

giphy2

Divided States, United Dreams, and All the Dinosaurs in Between (A Prose-Poem for What It Means to be Anti-Trump, as a Millennial and White Woman)

Out beyond ideas of

 wrongdoing and rightdoing,

 there is a field.

 I’ll meet you there.

 

—Rumitrump-13

My boyfriend says, “The Doomsday Clock is three minutes to midnight,” as I set up dinosaurs the size of Polly Pockets between Jenga blocks. “Our parents lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis—two minutes to midnight—so I try not to think about it too much.”

I pluck a yellow Brontosaurus from the coffee table. I marvel at its neck.

Our generation has been able to hold onto childhood for longer than any other. Every time our parents called us ‘special’ they were clearing out some space for us to dream. Tying our baby blankets around our necks in the style of superheroes, and introducing us to the backyard: ‘Go imagine the world in ways we couldn’t allow ourselves.’

I try placing the Brontosaurus on the rim of my boyfriend’s beer as a reminder that the world hasn’t ended, and we’re both still here.

But my hand quakes, and the dinosaur falls straight down the tab.

My boyfriend laughs, “Extinct.”

For a moment I’m reminded that, in the novel I’m reading, a fictional author writes a fictional children’s story about how the Brontosaurus never actually existed. A scientist got his dinosaur bones mixed up, and what he thought was a Brontosaurus was actually an Apatosaurus with a Camarasaurus’s skull. However, many museums never bothered to correct their placards—society was already familiar with the Apatosaurus as the Brontosaurus, and this understanding of the dinosaur was popular.

Which is to say: Society preferred the Apatosaurus when it was something that it wasn’t, so how much influence does truth actually have when it comes to popular interpretations of history?

I don’t mention any of this to my boyfriend as he dumps his beer into a glass and saves the Brontosaurus. Instead I tell him about how, before Donald Trump was elected president, I believed all my coming of age milestones had been met.

I say, “I didn’t know I had any more innocence to lose before that.”

trump

As Americans—we are so removed from our country’s history of imperialism. This fine line we’ve cultivated through a poo-pooing of emotional intelligence and truth in our history lessons, between innocence and ignorance.

I am twenty-five years old and Christopher Columbus still stands like a fairytale character in my imagination. Not as a rapist, not as a leader of genocide, but as some brave little soldier brimming with wanderlust and round-world theories. A Disney cartoon, essentially.

I’ve observed grown men throw mini temper tantrums over credit card machines asking for a preference: ‘English or Spanish?’

My boyfriend tells me he’s hopeful. He says, “Trump will get impeached soon, there’s too many people involved with the resistance—too many people and organizations are being vocal about not wanting this.” And for the first time in my life, I realize: I’m the cynic in this conversation.

I say, “It’s not that Donald Trump getting impeached wouldn’t fix a lot of things. It’s that our country allowed this to happen in the first place. Our qualified female candidate losing to a deluding playboy and what that means…”

trump-4

My boyfriend lights up a cigarette and I remember the time my best friend classified my “type” as “casually dressed white guys who smoke.” I wonder: Why?

I go all self-analytical.

It’s easy to deny a part of myself with the scent of cigarette smoke, like I’m just a grain of Cheeto dust lodged between two carpet fibers in a shutdown roller rink—the disco ball still spinning. A reminder of a ‘simpler’ time when people just ‘didn’t know any better’. My secondhand role in it all serving as a testament to my innocence: I’M NOT THE ONE DOING THE BAD THING!

Contemplating this strange nostalgia shifts my thoughts on American privilege to thoughts on white privilege.

One time, at a Halloween party, over chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs, I listened to a conversation between two guys. They were talking about Black Lives Matter, and the election. Both of them were Trump supporters, their conversation playing out like a football being passed back and forth: ‘Not all cops [this]’ and ‘Not all cops [that].’

I stared at a beheaded stegosaurus, bleeding ranch dressing, and gradually lost my appetite.

Everything felt reminiscent of ‘not all men [this]’ and ‘not all men [that]’, and the one wrinkle in my forehead deepened.

I held my breath before I spoke: ‘Just admit that racism is real and white privilege is real; just admit it. The fact that people who were born and raised here are referred to as “black American” while we get to be just “American” is enough proof that white people are the template of American society. We don’t know what it’s like to experience racism as a threat to our lives, just admit that!’

But neither of them gave what I said much thought, and the only response I got was: ‘Well, my uncle’s a cop.’

I feel silly going all lovesick for my boyfriend and his cigarette when I think of how, earlier in the day, I was watching Cristela Alonzo’s standup special, Lower Classy, on Netflix.

She had this joke about how you’ll never catch people of color reminiscing for “the good old days”. She said, “You ever notice it’s only white people saying that shit?” Then she joked about a hypothetical Lamar, and how he spends his weekends cooking and cleaning for free at his neighbor’s house, “like the good old days”. She capped the whole spiel off with, “You never see that conversation.”

Lovesick with nostalgia over my boyfriend’s cigarette, I can’t get that joke out of my head.

White privilege painted over caves used like catacombs by the KKK for lynchings. Replaced 245 years of slavery with ‘heritage’ and ‘states’ rights’. Erased our memory of segregation with poodle skirts and pastel thunderbirds. Rationalized an entire history of racism and genocide with: ‘Well, I didn’t do that.’

My boyfriend puts out his cigarette, and I understand my longing for the past is a privilege in itself. That I’m lucky my historical memories can be categorized with labels as benign and painless as “when restaurants were still divided between ‘smoking’ and ‘non”.

trump-3

Malcom X theorized that peaceful protests were only effective if the subject being protested possessed a conscience.

He said, ‘America has no conscience.’

I tell my boyfriend I’m beginning to believe empaths are like unicorns, belonging to a different plane of existence. I say, “There needs to be more emotional education in our
schools. Too many people think of empathy as a natural feeling, but it’s not. It’s an intellectual process. That’s why so many empaths appear kind of cold—they’re intellectual feelers and emotional learners. They react slow.”

The other night I had a dream I was blowing bubbles through a sniper. They shot out at a rapid pace, in smoky neon colors. They all collided into each other and, as they popped upon impact, made an explosion that took the shape of a multicolored mushroom cloud. After I looked all around me and everyone was cheering, but all I felt was depressed.

My boyfriend reacts slowly.

“Hm,” he says.

The morning after Donald Trump was elected president, I overheard my father talking to my mother in a hushed voice outside my bedroom door. ‘This country is mentally ill,’ he said. And my chest felt like it was on fire with how much I loved him for saying that; like I needed to avenge all those slow and steady tortoises who’d rather lose the race than become a tyrant—

Is there someplace safe, where they can dream?

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I confess to my boyfriend, “I feel less and less connected to reality everyday, like: Did that really just happen? Is this really real? It’s like millennials are being forced into crippling anxiety and depression because we’re being pressed between the past and the future at all times. What does it even mean to exist in the present?”

At my parent’s house, a show about the universe was on National Geographic and some scientist said that parallel universes exist. He said it in the sense that, every impossible thought is possible in some other dimension. Therefore, every dream you’ve ever dreamed, every fantasy you’ve ever had, every future that didn’t come to fruition, is actually happening someplace else.

I complain to my boyfriend about a common breadcrumb of human understanding, “So many people say if they could go back in time, they’d kill Hitler. And every time this comes up I feel like asking: What else? What else would you change?”

I was thinking of parallel universes as I watched a talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson.

He said the only evidence of time travel that he could conceive of is found in the great geniuses and artists of the past. People like Einstein, Picasso, and Newton. People who, he said, ‘had a vision of the future better than we even understand ourselves.’

I thought of Anne Frank and, without much warning, she sat down beside me on the living room couch. She told me she was a time traveller, too; that it wasn’t as hard as someone like Newton would have you believe.

She said, “Anyone can time travel.”

She said, “You just have to pull people forward somehow…”

She went on to explain that, in order to pull people forward, you don’t have to come up with a new law or theory—not necessarily.

She said, “You can do it with a feeling.”

Then she slipped out of The Now, caught a wormhole back to her better universe.

My boyfriend says, “Stalin killed more people than Hitler, a lot of people seem to forget about that.”

I Google “Stalin vs. Hitler”, and find an article titled: “Genocide: If Stalin or Mao killed more people than Hitler, why is Hitler considered the worst?”

I click on the link and I’m led to a chart of illustrated dictators with their corresponding names.

Depending on who I’m looking at, there are one or multiple red drops beneath each name.

One drop symbolizes one million people.

I don’t read the article; I just stare at the chart—taking in the drip drip drip of it all. (Our understanding of evil as an accumulation of deaths, and my knowing that it’s so much more than that.) I want to be worlds away from this psychopathy that condenses the dehumanization of millions to a drop in the ocean: It’s all in the past; It wasn’t that bad; We don’t talk about that.

I hope I’m not appropriating the anger of others, but I resent being part of a world where whole individuals are erased—drip—just like that.

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In my tiny hometown, a part of the rust belt, I’ve often felt like Van Gogh—seconds away from cutting off my own ear. Seconds away from sending it to a Trump supporting ex as a reminder of what I’d rather do than accept his president’s spineless rhetoric as truth.

There are TRUMP – PENCE signs at the ends of driveways, advertised in front windows and on the backs of pickup trucks.

Sometimes, I get the feeling that they’re watching me. That they’re creeping up on me, like some vague shape of a man I don’t know, in the night.

Talking about this feeling seems fruitless, like playing a rigged game of rock paper scissors: Capitalist Patriarchy covers White Woman and—therefore—covers everything else.

I ask my boyfriend, “What’s the term for feeling responsible and powerless all at once?”

America, I have a dream.

(Which is to say: I have contributed to a parallel universe where everything I’m about to describe is possible.)

I collect every TRUMP – PENCE sign from sea to shining sea, and walk to a field—out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing.

I color over all the names, and lay down every sign to form a template that stretches on for miles.

I take a permanent marker and, starting with the first sign, write: ‘Hillary Clinton, first female president of the United States.’

Then I move on to the next sign and write the same thing with my mother’s name, shortly followed by the names of my sisters and grandmothers—my female friends and peers.

On each sign, I write the names of every American woman I know followed by ‘first female president of the United States.’

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I do this until I can finally start writing the same thing with the names of all the American women that I don’t know, who are not like me.

I do this until every American woman is accounted for, illegal immigrant to transgender.

And, in this universe, I don’t care how flowery my efforts look; no one gets to call me vapid or unrealistic here.

I’m free to imagine better places where each sign is a reality, rendered absolutely possible
because someone wrote it down somewhere.

And once my work is finally done, I’ll lay in my bed of unrealized dreams.

With my head resting against the pillow of my name, I’ll put my hand over my heart and pledge allegiance to the sky.

Whispering, ‘United Dreams…’

Meanwhile, I set up dinosaurs between parallel universes as my boyfriend muffles the sound of the clock’s ticking.

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The Invisible Man is My Doubt: Thoughts Provoked by a Near Death Experience with My Retainer

“I think about the end just way too much
but it’s fun to fantasize.”
—Twenty One Pilots, “Ride”

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A couple years ago, I almost choked on my retainer. Apparently it slipped off at some point in my sleep and, as it teetered on the back of my tongue, I woke up with it seconds away from plummeting into my throat. After spitting it out, I stared at the ceiling for a solid ten minutes and contemplated how close I’d come to having an obituary that would’ve read like a pun on Spike’s, One-Thousand Ways to Die.

I know.

At some point in time, everyone wonders what the conditions of his or her own death will entail.

Often we like to imagine ourselves dying peacefully in a chair, or vegetative and elderly in a hospital bed. Sometimes, when we’re feeling romantic, we picture ourselves taking a bullet for a stranger at Target. Or else, on the flipside, when we’re feeling nihilistic, we come up with dramatic suicide plans that’ll be utilized when we’re “old and useless.” (These plans usually involve a straight jacket and being ejected from a helicopter flying over Russia, while naked.)

But no one ever thinks, “I’m going to die choking on a retainer.”

After my anti-climatic near death experience, I obsessively thought of gory, terribly dramatic, “What if?” scenarios. Like: What if the elevator moves before I get all the way inside and crushes me? What if I catch Ebola from a fuckboy and start rotting from the inside out? What if I go temporarily insane and start gouging my own eyes out with a steak knife?

Or worse: What if I actually choke on my retainer tonight?

I imagined the paramedics finding me in my bed with crusted drool stains around my mouth and a stray post-it stuck to the butt of my pajamas. One of them would trip over a stack of feminist literature, while the other would survey a pile of dried out carrots and ranch dressing on a plate beside my bed. The room would reek of a dead writer’s last effort.

Then, I imagined how people would react once they heard the news. I pictured everyone saying something along the lines of, “That bitch would choke on her retainer.”

And, somehow, I found this worse than the idea of death itself.

I think because it implied that I would’ve died the way I lived: Clumsily, just hoping to preserve straight teeth.

With this realization, I became acutely aware of all the things I own that are decorated in skulls: T-shirts and tights; a poster of a skull formed by crooked tree branches; a glittery holographic skeleton, hanging from my doorknob. It was like I thought staring at my morbid insides long enough would make me more okay with the fact that someday they’d be my reflection.

Which, living in a society that is obsessed with repressing any inkling of death, it only makes sense that I’d start by repressing any evidence of it on my own face.

(Religious retainer wearing included.)

If I think about it long enough, a walk down the CVS cosmetic aisle really has become an anxiety-fueled practice: Am I willing to sacrifice voluminous glamorous lashes for lengthy natural ones? What are the pros and cons of blackest-black vs. very black? And furthermore, what happens when all the different mascaras stop working and I start getting old?

(The small layer of fat that didn’t used to peek over my waistband makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, like a purr from Hannibal Lector. The bags forming beneath my eyes jump out, like boogeyman, whenever I look in the mirror. And Angelina Jolie’s face, more vital at age forty-one than my own at twenty-four, condemns me to a life of desperation: Can I get a Snap Chat filter, in real life?)

I know it’s silly to be afraid of aging when I’m still so young. (Like: Maybe you should worry about getting a real job, asshole.) But, understand, this premature fear is actually just a way of dealing with an even bigger, much more rational, one—

The fear of dying before I can create a life that can’t be summarized with how I died.

A few days ago, while my mom was driving, I confessed, “You know, I think I’d like to die around forty-five. I think it’d be best if I just F. Scott Fitzgerald-it.” (My logic behind this sudden epiphany being—Forty-five is old enough to have lived, but not old enough to feel old.) Appropriately, “Closer” by the Chain Smokers was playing on the radio, gleefully proclaiming, over and over: We ain’t ever getting older!!!

And I thought: Fuck, we really might not if Donald Trump is president. Which, the thought of it is terrifying: Will the world end? Will everything be erased? Shakespeare, the pyramids, MY FUTURE?!?!?!?!? Never mind the fact that he’s reminiscent of a genocidal dictator! *Cough* Hitler. I HAVE SHIT TO DO!

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I can’t live in New York someday with that asshole in office. How am I supposed to feel safe, in such a populated space, with a hot-head hovering around the big red button?!

NUCLEAR WAR IS NO JOKE!

I envision the whole world, erased. And then I think of me, erased. In this way, I’m no better than the most bigoted Trump supporter. Only instead of being like: No, don’t take my guns away!! The constitution! Equal rights for minorities and women?! Booooo!!! I’m more like: DON’T TAKE THE POSSIBILITY OF MY BEING REMEMBERED AWAY! I’m not ready. Like. I haven’t met Taylor Swift yet! I still need to read Beloved. How does the last season of Orange is the New Black end?! I’m supposed to write something really, really, good someday. I can feel it! I’M NOT READY TO BE A DEAD GIRL YET!

But. Wait. Let me admit something totally paradoxical, and awful—

There isn’t a single girl alive that I’m jealous of. (No offense, I just like myself.) But, the dead ones? SO JEALOUS! Sylvia Plath had my heart (and envy) the moment she said, “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.” Same thing goes for Amy Winehouse. (My green-eyed monster heard she was known for becoming cutting whenever she felt bored or misunderstood, and it groaned: I want to be known for becoming cutting whenever I feel bored or misunderstood!!!!!) Sometimes I read Marina Keegan’s “Winter Break”, when I’m feeling particularly morose and millennial. And every time I envy her for having written the story equivalent of a knot in my got. How did she craft a world so modern and realistic, and yet—so romantic and irrevocably unsatisfying? Then I cry. Partly because I wish she was still here so we could become friends, but mostly because: WHY CAN’T I DIE IN A TRAGIC CAR ACCIDENT AND GET ALL MY WRITING PUBLISHED?!

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Dead girls. It’s my whitest white-girl complex. Forever young and magnificently angst-y, all preserved in the amber promise of “what could have been”. Like, damn. Can I be too good for this world? I’m pretty fucking sick of it! And still—I understand. All these dead girls died the way I’m afraid of dying: Mid-sentence.

And I know—

In the game of life, you can’t win.

You’re going to lose.

Something is always going to be left unsaid.

Sylvia will never know how it feels to be loved. Amy will never be known for anything more than, “No, no, no…” And Marina didn’t get a say in her first, and only, book.

When I look at the lives of female artists who suicide-ed, and overdosed; whose boyfriends lost control of the vehicle… they all seem so tormented by something they know for sure is going to get them. By some invisible man in the room…

I’ve felt his presence too.

When he whispers into the ear of every artist, every person: What’s the point?

A loaded question that often drives me to type faster, thinking: I’ve got to get to It before It gets to me…

There’s a pain in my right hip, and the alarmist in me whispers: Ovarian cancer.

I think: Don’t consult Web MD. Don’t consult Web MD. Just go to the Doctor…

But I’d rather stay home and write instead.

I’d rather write than pick up the phone.

On the days when my mind feels cloudy with depression, I worry about malaise as a side affect of some pre-existing condition. This makes me type even faster, despite my mind being too fogged up to access the thing I want to say—despite being afraid I’ve never had anything real, or good, to say.

What’s the point?

It’s not death itself that triggers this sense of urgency; it’s the thought of dying and only ever having lived in an unrealized dream.

Drooling and half-choking, with perfect teeth.

Caught between waiting for it to be over and hoping it’ll never end.

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Interview with an Objectified Woman (Love Letters for the Toxically Masculine)

“She knows more about the human condition
and suffering and terror and degradation…
She knows something you don’t.”

—David Foster Wallace, “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”

“Here is a flower
that needs no water.
It can grow anywhere,
nourished on nothing.
And yes.”

—Kate Addonizio, “You with the Crack Running Through You”objectification

For the past year and a half, I’ve been working on a collection of seven essay-letter hybrids that are about finding closure in my past romantic relationships, especially ones that have hurt me. Initially, I wanted the collection to be all tongue-in-cheek, written in a “hey, wow, fuck you,” kind of way. But, so far, every essay has wound up sounding more like, “hey, you know what, I just really wanted us to understand each other and I’m sorry that didn’t happen.”

The project has gradually turned into an exploration of objectification, hook-up culture, and how being “used”, in various ways, affects millennial girls. It takes into consideration the experiences, and gender ideals, that have shaped the men of our generation as well. (Why are so many of them controlling and manipulative: Selfish?) All while I, as the narrator, try to make sense of this culture and my part in it. Overall, it’s the story of my struggle to distinguish between romance and reality: Am I really this crazy-emotional, self-projecting, insignificant little girl that all these guys have made me feel that I am? Or am I just trying to love people who don’t understand how to love anyone? Who objectify relationships and the women they share them with?

I know it sounds kind of stupid—like why are you only thinking about this now?—but, until recently, I’d never considered the reality of how damaging objectification is. For me, objectification has always registered as an ambiguous concept that was used to describe distant things, like Britney Spears dancing in a belly shirt with a python. I didn’t consider it an everyday problem, or something that all girls experience—at one point or another—in a way that is traumatizing.

But yeah, Objectification is a major part of being a girl.

Basically, as girls, when we’re treated like a thing—a one-dimensional person—we internalize this feeling of not being entirely real. As a result, we smother our emotions and discredit our perceptions in a way that affects how we relate to ourselves, and the world. Like, this issue is deep. And admittedly, I didn’t fully comprehend that until a past weekend where I did, or almost did, a number of vengeful things that were very uncharacteristic of me. Things that ultimately had me wondering: Have you really become so disconnected from the opposite sex that you had to resort to acting like—this? Like an emotionally abusive asshole? Have you really been so disrespected that you’ve accidentally become a reflection of all the people who have disrespected you?

Bottom line: After enough people have treated you, and spoken to you, like you’re a houseplant, you’re bound to not be the same. You’re bound to feel like “damaged goods” (an objectifying term in and of itself), and you’re bound to approach interactions with new people, especially men, in a way that is often guarded and disconnected—maybe even mean.

So, how do we cope? How do we not become as inconsiderate as the people who have not considered us? How do we protect our humanity despite being angry, and aware of the fact that we shouldn’t have to protect it? How do we not blame ourselves for the ways we have been mistreated, while also, maintaining enough respect to not become hateful and vengeful? Emotionally abusive ourselves?

It all keeps coming back to consideration (which is synonymous with love in this context). It keeps coming back to fighting to stay considerate despite having had your heart broken by inconsideration. Which. Shit. How do we do that when some guys have been cruel in ways that stick with us for life? How do we exercise compassion for people whose emotional world appears to be toxic, or else, completely dead, while also, maintaining boundaries? The answer is—

I don’t know!

This whole thing has turned into one giant cluster-fuck! It’s become cluster-fuck-y to the point where I’m obsessing, and obsessing, and obsessing… Every answer I seem to come up with just immediately morphs into another question. And not knowing how to make sense of everything I’ve been through this past year—getting used by guys, mostly—I decided to divide this whole essay up into questions, and answers. Hoping that maybe it’ll all lead to a satisfying conclusion so I can finally move the fuck on.

Q1: So, what happened the weekend you started obsessing about all of this?

For the first time, ever, I did something with the intention of making someone else feel uncomfortable.

It sounds funny: I wore an Iron Maiden shirt with the sleeves cut off and didn’t brush my hair. I ran up to this guy—someone who used to go out of his way to make me feel uncomfortable, but wasn’t doing so on this particular night—and catapulted middle finger first in his direction; I flicked him off just for existing in the same space as me.

Which, in a lot of ways: It was funny.

Like: HA! HOW DO YOU LIKE IT DICKWAD? *aggressive wink-y face*

But, if I’m going to be honest with myself, it wasn’t funny. I was actively disrespecting someone who was finally respecting me in the way I’d been asking to be respected—by leaving me the fuck alone. And how did I respond?

By pulling some petty, unprovoked, borderline harassment-y shit.

Then, later that same night, I got the urge to hit—to actually, physically, hit—this guy that came out with my group. (Him and I have this unpleasant high school history where he’d string me along emotionally, and then, abruptly, reject me in a way that was straight up insulting, and usually done—intentionally—with an audience.

Example:

Him: Cat hold my hand.

Me: *holds hand*

Him: Gross, I was just joking.

Me: *looks over and seven of his friends are laughing*)

So yeah, after a school year of that humiliation and an incident last summer where he thought it would be funny to rip my hair out, I was still fostering a little bit of animosity.

The whole night I humored his flirting with revenge on my mind—something that never mixes well with alcohol. But it didn’t matter, because I never got justice. Just the same tired shit: Him flirting with me all night, only to say, “Just kidding,” while all his friends listened.

As the whole situation unfolded, I said, “This is bullshit! You’ve always taken advantage of my feelings because you like how it makes you look. You use me to make yourself look desirable.” Meanwhile he just stared back at me, with a full-on smile and a twinkle in his eye that said: I know. What are you going to do about it?

I reflexively clenched my fist, but the moment I realized what I was about to do I backtracked and said, “Get away from me, I’m leaving.”

Because I realized: That is not something I do.

The next day, I felt really weird about being pushed to that point—to the point of being so uncharacteristically violent and vengeful. My guilt was telling me that I deserved the humiliating aftermath. (Revenge should only ever come in the form of a fantasy, or good art—leading a good life. Otherwise, forget it. You’re just going to make yourself look stupid and mean.) But another part of me kept nagging: No. That’s not fair. It’s not fair that you’re blaming yourself for being pushed—disrespected—to the point of not being able to ignore it, of feeling like hitting is the only way to make someone else understand…

Clearly, I felt very conflicted.

Hoping to offset this emotional funk, I went out with some friends. And—you guessed it—even in the company of other people: I felt weird.

Someone who was supposed to be one of my best friends was with me, and the whole night she acted too cool for me—flaky, and aloof, and like I wasn’t there depending on who was around. While also, somehow, giving just enough friend-type attention to make me question whether or not this perception was all in my head.

Then, a little later, the guy I’d been seeing on and off for the past few months showed up. And when I tried talking to him, he straight up ignored me to my face. There was no mistaking it. He looked right at me as I said, “Hi,” and then booked it. Mind you, this is someone who—just hours earlier—had been texting me for a nude, which I didn’t send because I don’t do nudes. (I don’t think I’d be able to resist the urge to make it totally gross and terrifying; I’d probably pose like a Velociraptor.) And the moment we were face-to-face? He was pretending I didn’t exist? Mentally switching me off like some kind of hologram?!

I said, “Well, I guess I’ll just go die in a hole,” for dramatic affect. Then I walked around aimlessly, feeling incredibly disconnected. I felt like the building was an aquarium, and the people around me were fish, and I was just some girl trying to survive in a place where she was meant to drown.

I remember thinking: I’m never going to be normal.

I remember wondering: Am I damaged goods? Is that what this is?

Then I realized: I have been nothing but a prop in the lives of so many people.

Q2: What does that mean?

It’s like, guys, and even some girls, think of me as one of those two-headed babies made of memory foam and sold in Halloween stores. Like, every so often some dude picks me up and shows me to all his friends, like: “Bro, bro—check out this weird ass mutant baby I found next to the sticky bats.” And then they hit each other in the face with me, and decide to buy me because they think it’s funny. Then they take me home and hide me in weird places around the house until October ends and they can finally be like: Okay. Halloween’s over. We can put Cat away.

Or, to put it in less analogical terms: The people who have used me most were the ones who liked knowing I was around, but didn’t necessarily like me. They liked the novelty of me. They wanted to see what a weirdo, relatively attractive, feminist girl was like. But that was it. Because after about a month, something always happened. Like: Shit, this prop is cool, but it’s also kind of creepy and weird. Or, once again, less analogically: Shit, this girl is perceptive. And after this realization it was like: Let’s keep this thing at arms length—like, I like it, but only when it’s making my life interesting, and not so complicated.

At least, that’s how it feels.

Just.

Enough people have told me, You go away when you’re supposed to, and you only come out when I want something extra, that, sometimes, I find myself getting really pissed off, out of nowhere. Like, my capacity for being told to turn off the complicated parts of myself, and to deny my full existence, has finally reached its limit, and now I’ve got to act on all this pent up rage. *Cue Shoshonna* STAY OUT OF MY EMOTIONAL WAY!!!!!

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I flicked a guy off over this!

I wanted to hit someone over this!

I walked the line of becoming disrespectful. Of wanting to consciously hurt someone because I couldn’t put my anger into words anymore.

Being treated like a thing had become so painful that I wanted to force other people to feel it too…

But right before I could cross that line, something always happened.

I always stopped to consider it—

What happened to the men of my generation?

What made them believe abusing women this way was normal?

Q3: Wait, who hurt you?

It’s not necessarily a “who” so much as it is a “what”, and the “what” was the end of my most serious relationship.

After I broke up with my ex, I was so afraid of what he thought that I blocked him on all my social media accounts, and didn’t have Facebook for two years. I had this inexplicable anxiety that made me desperate for a hiding spot; I felt a constant shame for who I was, combined with a deep confusion about what that even meant anymore.

I asked myself: Who am I?

Which eventually led to a deeper, more rhetorical, question: Is it normal to believe you’re nothing without some guy’s approval?

It took a long time, but eventually I understood what happened—

The love I’d grown up with (one that was patient and accepting; above all, conscientious of other people as differing individuals) had been erased and replaced with:

I love you, but only as much as I can control you.

It was like my ex believed love was synonymous with approval; that it was supposed to be some kind of cat toy you could hold over another person’s head, and then revoke the moment their behavior became less than ideal. Like he believed our love was only “good”, or worth anything, when I was scrambling to catch it. When I was being “cute” and mildly desperate—what he wanted, or expected.

After a certain point in our relationship, I was straight up impersonating the kind of girl he wanted because I felt like I wasn’t allowed to be myself anymore. Honesty had become impossible—if I presented any part of myself that didn’t fit the “cute” idea he had of me, he’d get dismissive and reduce whatever it was that he didn’t like as gross, or boring, or selfish—or (worse case scenario) deserving of an icy silent-treatment.

My friends, or people from my past, were: Gross.

The vacation I went on without him was: Boring.

Hoping to study abroad one summer was: Selfish.

Wanting my perspective and feelings validated was: *Silence*

He refused to be happy for me, which made me feel like I was supposed to hate anything that wasn’t him; that it was somehow “wrong” not to. I began to believe that any fault I found in him was due to my own “false” perceptions, and not because of his actual words and actions.

I just couldn’t accept that this person, who I’d fallen in love with, actually resented the brain inside my head. That he’d totally ransack the parts of it that he didn’t preoccupy and eradicate them if it were possible. Why would I want to believe that?

But one day, he admitted to spending a few hours creeping my Tumblr.

He concluded, “I don’t like it.”

He said it with an edge, like something he’d seen had disturbed him.

I didn’t know how to react to the tension, so I feigned ignorance and said,

“Really? I love it.”

End of discussion.

Later that night, I couldn’t dismiss the thought of how irrationally disgusted he’d seemed. Wanting to understand him, I scrolled through my own Tumblr and tried to imagine how it must have looked through his eyes.

I saw cigarette butts stubbed out in a chunk of snow to make an icy porcupine of addiction; a yellow house, half-gone and still standing; Lana del Rey, smiling; two young men sleeping together on a dirty mattress, their limbs entwined, tired but smiling; a black model taking on the runway with two bruised eyes; a gif. of a defeated young man, his dark hair spilling everywhere as he gave up, exhausted, and fell into the lap of a waiting girl; crude writing on the tiles of the Men’s room reading, “IN HER KISS I TASTE THE REVOLUTION”; Dwight Schrute playing “You Give Love a Bad Name” on his recorder; blank graph paper…

I imagined these varying images through his eyes, and I realized—

Where he probably saw disease; devastation; a crazy girl, lying; sin; ugliness; masculine frailty; the male ego being dethroned by female intelligence; the offense of humor among chaos; quite simply, nothing worth thinking about…

I saw the human condition; endurance; an honest artist; love in a hopeless place; beauty that doesn’t care whether or not you agree; what women could be if men would let down their defenses; humor as the only space where chaos can’t bother us; a better future; possibility…

My life had a hopeful undertone that he couldn’t find for himself. He could only watch as I wrote meaning into things, or explained why someone was worthwhile. He could only watch as I made something out of nothing. He couldn’t do it for himself. This life, to him, was all about the physical—money; cars; having a “good” body, and a “hot” girlfriend. He wasn’t concerned with its deeper layers, but I was!

And, in a way, I think he expected me to make his life seem purposeful. I think he expected me to pull the meaning out of him and shove it in his face, like some sort of contract he could sign off on. But I failed miserably at that. I don’t think any human is capable of making another human life make sense—not so resolutely. It’s unfair to expect another person to do that.

See.

Judgmental and controlling were parts of who he was, and I loved him in spite of that. Really. But somewhere along the way, I sensed that it wasn’t right for him to think he could control who I was. And our relationship was going to keep falling apart for as long as he treated my resilience to that control like it was some kind of character flaw.

So I left, hoping it’d inspire him to forgive me for being myself while also knowing that it probably wouldn’t.

Which was the most heartbreaking realization of all.

I realized that my ability to forgive my own humanity, and deeply appreciate it with all its varying manifestations, in others, couldn’t exist in him. That he’d lost it a long time ago, and now, could only experience it vicariously—through a girl (any girl) who he couldn’t help but treat like some kind of prize.

I understood: He held onto me, with such force, because, he knew, something was missing that wasn’t supposed to be.

Q4: Let’s backtrack. The guy who asked for the nude, can you elaborate?

I’d been seeing him on and off since February. He texted me for a nude and when I said, “I don’t do nudes,” he said, “Guess you don’t really like me that much. Ttyl.”

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Three hours later, I saw him in person and he ignored me when I tried to say hi.

After that, we didn’t speak for two weeks.

But—

I’m a grudge-loving Nazi, so I had to eventually confront the issue.

When I started to text him about it, I wanted to say: In what world is texting a girl for a nude, proceeding to manipulate the girl into feeling guilty about not sending the said nude, and then ignoring her to her face three hours later ever an okay way to treat someone?

I wanted to say: Where do you get this false sense of entitlement? Why should I ever relinquish control over who gets to see my body for someone like you? Someone who can’t do anything, unless it’s on his own time? Someone who can’t even say hi, unless it’s on his own time?

But instead I said: “You are a monumental jerk.”

Because, like that one Tom Gates quote, “It’s a lot easier to be angry at someone than it is to tell them you’re hurt.” And anyway, I was bound to torture myself for it. Overtime, I felt conflicted about reverting to name-calling. For the next week, I thought of this guy and ricocheted between contempt and consideration, like:

Who the fuck does he think he is?

But also:

What happened to make his ego so fragile that being told “no” was the ultimate insult?

Who called him a pussy?!?!?!?!

I hate that I gave a shit but, for some reason, I had a really tender soft spot for this guy. There was just something about him that I felt akin to, right off the bat.

He seemed sensitive and like he was hell-bent on punishing himself for it, like someone once shamed him—probably in the name of masculinity—for daring to express a human emotion, and now he walks around feeling simultaneously wounded and annoyed in a way that looks a lot like stoicism. This contradiction of feeling, this being one way, but wanting to be another, to the point where you turn yourself into a walking defense mechanism—I relate to that. And every time I got to a point where I felt comfortable expressing this sentiment, he’d immediately shut me down and tell me I was seeing something that wasn’t there.

Like we’d hang out for three consecutive weekends, and the moment I started showing the desire for a deeper connection (God, kill me: I sound like a contestant on The Bachelor) we’d have to stop talking for a few weeks, like: Lather, rinse, repeat. The whole cycle was straight up stupid on my end because I allowed him to constantly deny any mutual feelings, and be the sole definer for whatever “we” were. When the truth was pretty obvious: It’s not all me, dude. I call, you respond. (And vice versa.)

No part of it was fair, but still—I rationalized for him, empathized with him, and apologized…for having feelings.

One time—because I kissed him on the cheek in public—he said, “You come on too strong,” and, out of habit, I immediately started explaining myself.

I said, “I know, but I like you—I like being around you.”

He said, “Why? You don’t even know me.”

Which wasn’t entirely untrue, so I said, “I know, you’re right. You’re so right. But, listen, I don’t always know how to act when I have feelings for someone. I either come on really strong, or I totally disappear. I—”

I paused to think for a second. I wanted to explain as efficiently as possible; verbal communication hasn’t always been my strong suit, and I didn’t want to scare him off.

“I was in a really controlling relationship. He was super codependent, and going through that has made me want to understand all the ways I’ve been codependent. And I’m learning to not treat other people like extensions of myself…to appreciate everyone as an individual within reason—”

I paused again, thinking: How do I explain? How do I explain the should-be-simple emotion that is appreciating him, as a person? That is wanting good things for someone based on mere observation?

I finally finished, “What I’m trying to say is, I like you in this way where I don’t want to possess you, or like, claim you—I just really want you to be happy.”

Things I left out: Because at the heart of everything, I think you’re very sensitive and open. And you should celebrate those parts of yourself instead of smothering them. Otherwise you’re going to handicap yourself in relationships, and life. You’re never going to be fulfilled if you don’t tell people the truth about how you feel—if you don’t respond when someone strikes up the nerve to ask.

He got cold in this way that he gets, indifferent and dismissive.

He said, “I don’t share those feelings. And anyway, I don’t believe you.”

He kissed me shortly after, but all I felt was punched.

I’d opened myself up to him, over and over again, and was constantly met with a concrete wall.

It wasn’t until this moment that I finally began to accept it:

Maybe this is as deep as he goes.

Maybe what I thought was a wall was actually rock bottom.

 Q5: How did you cope with that realization?

I re-read Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen”, and seized the opportunity to project my current predicament, all over it. This time around, I read the fairytale like an allegory about the relentless *eye roll* force that is a girl’s love for a boy, and his cold indifference to it.

Here is my very long-winded summary of the story:

A demon creates a mirror that distorts everything beautiful, and magnifies everything ugly. The demon is so pleased with his creation that he travels all over the world and tricks people into looking at it. Which ultimately distorts the gazers’ views of themselves and the world. Eventually the demon decides to up his game by flying to heaven in hopes of distorting the angels’ views too. But on his way up something happens, and the mirror shatters into a million pieces that fall down to earth. The pieces of the mirror get lost in the world, and eventually wind up stuck in the eyes of certain humans. Irreversibly distorting their views of the world. After this intro, the story zeros in on the friendship between a little boy named Kay and a little girl named Gerda. When the two children are first introduced, they both enjoy the same games and have a mutual affection for each other. However one day, Kay gets a sharp pain in his eye. (It’s one of the mirror’s pieces.) And in that moment, Kay begins to resent Gerda and anything that might hint toward the existence of vulnerability. Gerda cries for Kay and he tells her she’s ugly when she cries. Then he begins tearing the heads off roses. (It’s all very dramatic.) After this incident, the two children grow apart. As Kay gets older, he becomes very good at locating the insecurities of others. He learns to use this knowledge to his advantage, and everyone reinforces his behavior by calling this ability “clever”. (A.K.A. Kay is kind of a narcissistic dick and everyone’s just like: “You could be a really great salesman!!!!”) Meanwhile, Gerda never stops caring for him as she observes him from a distance. Then, in the next chapter, when Kay is sledding with some friends, he encounters the Snow Queen—a figure who represents emotional indifference and self-preservation. Kay thinks she is the most beautiful and comforting thing he has ever seen. (Go fucking figure.) So when she abducts him, he goes willingly. The next day Gerda notices that Kay is missing and immediately sets out to save him. In her first attempt to save Kay, she decides to throw her favorite shoes into the river as a sacrifice for his return. But when her shoes come floating back without him, she assumes she didn’t throw them far enough. So she crawls into a docked boat, hoping the shoes can be thrown farther from there. Instead the boat gets knocked loose, and Gerda is carried away by the river. As she floats away, she recognizes that the world away from home is beautiful, but she also realizes that it’s very lonely. (Her loneliness is reiterated throughout the story.) As she searches for Kay, she comes across many happy, safe places with people who want her to stay. But she opts out of every comfortable home. She leaves all sorts of good things behind under the notion that something feels like it’s missing—which is Kay. But before Gerda finds him, she suffers a great deal. When she finally reaches the palace, where Kay is located, she is half frozen. And when she finally finds Kay, he is sitting at a table, doing puzzles and arithmetic—logical things. He is pale and icy and doesn’t even recognize her. After experiencing so much hardship, only to find her friend trapped in such an indifferent state of being, Gerda begins to cry. The heat of her tears thaw Kay’s heart, and he begins to cry himself. His tears are (supposedly) provoked by Gerda’s compassion, and the piece of evil glass is washed away from his eye. He finally sees the ice palace for what it is—empty—and he recognizes Gerda, as his friend. For the first time since they were children, he’s happy to see her. She kisses his face all over, and the color returns to his cheeks. Kay comes back to emotional life, and he’s set free from his indifference. They grow old together, and live happily ever after.

The End.

The main issue I have with this story, as I’ve interpreted it, is that it’s so obviously a fairytale. Totally ideal, with its most realistic aspect being that the life of the female protagonist is difficult and unfair—Gerda does all the G.D. self-exploration!

Gerda sets out to find Kay, and on her journey much of what she experiences is existential: Loneliness, and isolation. The emotional toll it takes on anyone who makes sacrifices for someone, or something, she truly loves. Gerda finds herself. And then she finds Kay. And as a result he finds himself in her. Which: When has that kind of romance ever saved anyone? Especially a boy and his emotional world? When has that ever actually worked anywhere other than in like, A Walk to Remember?

Trick question!

In real life, a girl could kiss a boy like Kay all over, everyday, for years. And the color would probably never return to his face. He’d remain stubborn in his indifference. In what he’s already decided the world is. While a girl like Gerda would remain isolated in her connectedness to the world, unable to share this chaotic, slightly invasive, compassion with the boy who was rendered incapable of feeling it, so long ago.

I swear—

This disconnect is tragic, but it’s real.

Many boys learn that masculinity (to “be a man”) is synonymous with emotional indifference, and as a result many girls learn to repress and compartmentalize their emotions, to self-objectify and disassociate. Which: How do boys and girls possibly relate in a way that’s sincere when they’re both trapped in this discourse that relies on insincerity? On the withholding and smothering of emotion? On so much selfishness and self-annihilation? Like: Hello Passive, meet Aggressive!

Nobody wins in this dynamic!

But I’m willing to argue that the girl definitely suffers more because of it.

As I read “The Snow Queen”, I think the part that stuck with me most was when Gerda threw her favorite pair of shoes to the river. How, when they came floating back without Kay, instead of realizing her own worth—that the shoes were hers—she assumed she didn’t throw them far enough.

Q6: Wait. Have you ever considered that you might be objectifying men?

Of course I’ve felt inclined to ask myself: Do I objectify men?

Or the question has been brought to my attention whenever the subject came up, like:

“Cat, you call some guys fuckboys. Don’t you find that a little dehumanizing?”

And the answer is no.

The word “fuckboy” is often thought of as the male equivalent to “slut”. But I don’t think the concepts behind these words are necessarily synonymous. “Slut” is often used to shame any girl who is different—who challenges our culture’s rigid norms surrounding female sexuality and gender. Or, quite frankly, it’s just a way of saying a woman is sexual in any capacity. And I mean any. From what she’s wearing, to how she interacts with men… all the way down to the fact that she has a vagina. A.K.A. “slut” is always a judgment birthed from ignorance. It’s never grounded in anything real, and it has very little to do with who a girl fundamentally is as a person.

Whereas “fuckboy” isn’t used for men who have “too much” sex, or are “too” sexual. It’s used for men who cheat, and lie, and intentionally play with women’s feelings. Overall, it’s a term used for men who just aren’t very respectful to women. It’s another way of saying: He’s one manipulative dude. Which, I can’t lie. I’m glad we finally have a word for the man who takes “womanizer” to a whole new level. I’m glad “player” just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Because male manipulation of female emotion (lying one’s way to a woman’s body) is so commonplace in our culture, that we actually glorify it. And I hate feeling like there’s nothing I can do to make people understand how fucked up that is. To me, the reality of it is so obviously nauseating. Like, why do so many of us fist bump men who are kind of—for lack of a better word—sadistic in their dealings with women? Honestly. My anxiety surrounding this glorification is so acute that I feel like puking whenever I watch Crazy Stupid Love, and listen to Jacob—Ryan Gosling’s “fuckboy” character—dumb his “understanding” of women down into a very mind-rapey science, like:

  1. Play your strengths
  2. Buy her a drink
  3. Never talk about yourself
  4. Keep the emphasis on her
  5. Tell her to go home with you

 

I feel sick because my head is spinning with the question: BUT WHAT’S THE POINT OF DOING ALL THAT IF YOU DON’T ACTUALLY WANT TO GET TO KNOW HER?!?!?!

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What’s the point of having sex with a girl if you don’t actually admire her in some way that goes beyond: “She looks good and she can make me feel good”? Just so you can say it happened? Does anyone really gain anything of substance from that? Does anyone walk away from these “it didn’t mean anything to me” sex-capades feeling good about themselves?

I guess my point is, in all of my “romantic” relationships—whether it was “casual”, or a boyfriend, or a F.W.B.—I valued the other person in a way that went beyond what he could do for me. I found all these guys interesting, and made a genuine effort to get to know them for more reasons than finding them sexually attractive. Because, I decided, even after they ceased to be a part of my life, I’d always want good things for them; that I believed something about each of them was worthy of my respect.

A.K.A. I have never referred to a man as “just sex” and I never will.

So, one night, when the question came up—

“Cat, you call some guys fuckboys. Don’t you find that a little dehumanizing?”

I responded without really thinking, “No, because at the end of the day, no matter what, I still think of these guys as people. I wonder who they are when I’m not around. I consider why they are the way they are, and change my treatment of them accordingly. Do they do the same thing for me? Probably not.”

Which earned a feeble agreement, “Okay. Yeah. I get it.”

After that, for whatever reason, I got the urge to text that guy, the one I thought “maybe this is as deep as he goes” about.

I got the urge to text him even though it’d been another two weeks since we’d last spoken.

Since he’d said, “I don’t believe you.”

I thought: If this were a movie, what would I say to make him believe me?

“The birthmark beneath your eye makes me crazy…”

“The most beautiful essay I’ve ever written was about you…”

“Last weekend when I was out of town, I felt homesick for the first time since I was little and all I wanted to do was see you…”

To say any of that would be insane.

Humiliating for us both since he doesn’t feel the same.

This is real life, what difference would any of it make?

I confessed to my friend, “I want to text him.”

And she snapped me out of it, reminding me of my own conclusions.

She said, “Cat—he doesn’t think of you, as a person.

Q7: So, how did that night end—I mean, instead of what texting him would’ve probably led to?

Some female acquaintances and I sat around a TV until five in the morning. We watched rap music videos. Most memorably, Drake’s “Hotline Bling”. We wanted McDonald’s but we were too drunk to drive. So. Being incapable of stifling our appetites, and wanting something to complain about, we started discussing “the way guys are now,” and giving detailed accounts of our most recent “romantic” hang-ups.

The conversation eventually set me off and had me saying, “My disappointment isn’t even really about ‘wanting a boyfriend’ and then getting rejected. It’s more about dealing with this realization where I’m like, Wow, you really think this little of me, over and over again. It’s exhausting. It’s got nothing to do with ‘commitment’ or ‘wanting something more’, it’s just about wanting to meet someone who doesn’t have some ulterior motive when he’s getting to know me…or like, isn’t just putting on some kind of show so he can say he ‘got’ the weirdo feminist girl for his douche-y trophy case. Basically, at this point, all I want is for a guy to say ‘I’m sorry I hurt you’ instead of telling me that my feelings are all my fault and I shouldn’t—”

At which point one girl interjected, “It sounds like you want to be loved.

The way she said “love” you’d think I’d described something completely unthinkable, undesirable even. She said it with a level of aversion that implied she’d come to some sort of conclusion about me that screamed: Weak. (Capital ‘W’.) Meanwhile, I was thinking the thing I’d just described was a crumbling expectation of basic human decency in “romantic” relationships—not “love” necessarily.

I felt like saying:

And what do you want to be when you’re 80?

Still praying on a 3 AM ‘Sup?’ text?

What is it with our generation and its aversion to attachment in “romantic” relationships? Why do we spend so much time denying it when the majority of us feel it, or, at least, want to feel it? Why do we pretend it doesn’t matter when it isn’t there? That it doesn’t hurt when we’ve been “used” or “objectified”?

All night I wound up wondering:

WHERE HAVE ALL THE REAL PEOPLE GONE?!

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Q8: What do you mean by that?

It feels like, whenever I’m around my peers, I’m standing in a group of four-dimensional objects pretending to only have three. Pretending that their “relationships” with all the other objects are as simple as complimentary pairing, like salt and pepper—You’re a boy and I’m a girl. We are straight. Therefore we go together, like so. *awkward hand clasping* Meanwhile, I’m just standing in the corner like:

SALT, DO YOU EVEN THINK PEPPER IS SPECIAL?!

(And vice versa?)

I think it’s difficult for our generation to ask these questions when “pursuing” someone. Mostly because it means acknowledging a fourth dimension in ourselves, and the person we’re pursuing. It means asking: Is this desire based on anything real? Which means stepping into deeper water, and also asking: Am I doing this because I “want” her? Or because I want to be with her?

Depending on the answer, asking these questions might mean someone’s conscience saying, “No, you can’t have that.” It might mean realizing that another person’s autonomy and feelings are more important than what we “want”. Which is hard! I’m not saying it’s easy to get real and say: You can’t have that thing that you want, because that thing is not a thing; it’s a person and should be treated as such. It’s hard to forgo what you want in favor of protecting what is real.

Like—

No wonder that guy didn’t “believe” me when I said, “I don’t want to possess you…I just really want you to be happy.” Navigating the very vapid, very empty, “hookup” culture that is millennial “dating” would make anyone jaded—maybe even annoyed—in the face of something so sincere. It’d make anyone believe “I like you” is synonymous with, “I want to own you,” and not a selfless attachment to someone else. Like: I want good things for you, even if those things have nothing to do with me.

I understand why he didn’t believe me!

But, the thing that sucks is: I did mean it; I still do.

I still mean it despite the fact that we didn’t end on the best foot, and despite the fact that it ended with me admitting a lot of unrequited thoughts and emotions that I’d stifled—a conversation that ultimately made him back away. I still mean it despite the fact that I never got the validation I wanted—knowing whether he cared for me in the fundamental way you care for someone who is a part of your life, however temporary. That he understood: I am a person

See, for the longest time, I was trying to force him to recognize me, to think of me as deeply as I thought of him. I kept telling myself: If I could just say the “right” thing, or explain what I feel in the “right” way—then he’ll understand! He’ll respect my feelings then! I was being little Gerda, always thinking she didn’t throw her best shoes far enough. I wasn’t taking my own advice: Life is not a fairytale. You’re kisses don’t open dudes’ eyes to jack-shit…

In real life, at some point, if someone’s not making any effort to understand you, when you’ve been nothing but understanding with him, you’ve got to get real with yourself and say: My love won’t pull him into emotional consciousness. When you throw your best shoes forward and they come floating back, you’ve got to remember: I love him, but I love me too.

You’ve got to take your shoes out of the river, because—

You cannot save anyone.

(Especially someone who does not want to be saved.)

You cannot make anyone understand your reality.

(Especially when they don’t want to understand it.)

You can only love them, and sometimes that means leaving them alone.

(Stop kissing what doesn’t want to be kissed!)

Sometimes you can only ever love someone, safely, from a distance.

 Q9: Wait…what’s this whole thing about again?

I guess this has become about more than objectification of women. It has also become about the men who objectify women; the men who don’t see them clearly for who and what they are.

It’s about objectification in general; how we use people and hurt them through our using; how we objectify relationships and “love”, and forget the importance of genuine connectedness and understanding.

It has become about what we say and don’t say, about how confusing the dating world (and life) can be when we live during a time where it’s considered “weird” and “crazy” to say how we really feel.

Ultimately, it’s about love and our generation’s anxiety surrounding that level of empathy for another person. Why, for some reason, we find that level of empathy shameful. How I, personally, don’t know how to relate or cope in this insincere culture where empathy is considered shameful—practically “asking” to be taken advantage of…

In short: I don’t understand our generation because it’s not easy for me to close myself off to other people.

 Q10: How so?

I’m eager to love—almost always ready to forgive to the point of self-induced amnesia. In a way, I’m gullible. I want to believe that everyone has a chance; that we’re all capable of dramatic change. That at the core of everyone is an innate desire to be sincere and love for the sake of loving. Despite whether or not it gets us anything in return. Like—

I’m the kind of person who feels more when she looks at the back of rusty van than when she looks at a Lamborghini. I am sentimental and idealistic; I hold onto the good in every person I meet, for dear life. You have to pry it out of my fingers. Slap me in the face with reality, over and over again, before I begin to see a toxic person clearly.

It’s very difficult for me to believe that there are people in the world who are not like this. That there are people who will consciously use whoever’s closest and most vulnerable; who will start relationships based on how much they can take without giving. Who think of the people in their lives as tiny objects caught in their orbit. Who believe that nothing outside their control could ever possibly be beautiful—or worth anything.

But this whole year has felt like one long lesson in: Cat, these types of people exist and you are exactly the kind of person they take advantage of.

And I didn’t know how to cope with that realization! I tried being “okay” with being treated like a piece of debris in someone else’s orbit, out of love. Because: He’s had a tough time. Because: I can see he’s hurting. Because: I can’t just abandon someone like that… And then, when that got to be too emotionally taxing, I started dishing out a bunch of well-earned “FUCK OFF”s.

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Neither way felt right, or good. I can tell you that much. It wasn’t easy, finding the happy medium between caring for people who’d continuously hurt me, and maintaining a sense of dignity. Honestly, it was a really confusing, painful, rage-inducing process; I was constantly plagued with self-doubt. Always thinking I should have held on a little longer before I decided to let go—

And that’s the other thing! These people who were bad for me, who treated me like a thing, they had a way of holding onto me too! They had a way of sensing when my compassion was about to wear off, because that’s when they’d suddenly turn around and treat me like a person. It was so painful and confusing—never knowing what to expect like that. To allow so many people to treat my sense of worth as if it should come with a price tag. To convince myself that, for whatever reason, they had a right to do that.

Q10: Can you be more specific?

That guy, the one I flicked off at the beginning of this essay, he treated me like a thing.

For at least three months he had me feeling like life was Cruel Intentions, and I was Reese Witherspoon. Seriously. I think he saw my mutant-baby-doll self (remember that analogy?!) across the room one night, and thought: Wouldn’t it be hilarious if I played with that? As a result, he convinced me to like him, and then, once he accomplished that, he became hell bent on punishing me for it. There’s no point in trying to make sense of it. The fact of the matter is: It hurt realizing I’d just been a point on his scoreboard, and then, for whatever reason, his favorite pissing ground.

So. Yeah.

I got drunk and flicked him off.

It was one of the many ways my conflicting feelings manifested themselves.

But, after everything was said and done, it wasn’t a true representation of how I really felt about the situation, or him, or even myself.

Clarity came later, when I had a run-in with him at the grocery store.

Where, the moment we recognized each other, we both stopped and just stared.

Q11: Was Ellie Goulding playing on the radio?

*YOU DON’T MESS WITH LOVE YOU MESS WITH THE TRUTH!!!!*

I can’t remember because I was too busy staring at his eyes, how they’re equal parts empty, and enchanting. How it’s the emptiness that makes them so enchanting. You could fall into it over and over again, be whatever he needed you to be as long as it meant he was looking at you…

I thought of the book I was reading at the time—The Diary of an Oxygen Thief. How the main character admits he gets off on abusing women, emotionally; how he rationalizes his complex under the conviction that his female victims are actually more sinister than himself. With, what he perceives, as a very “female” narcissism and lack of self-awareness. He puts it like this, “They say the sea is actually black and that it merely reflects the blue sky above. So it was with me. I allowed [them] to admire [themselves] in my eyes.”

Thinking of that, I wondered more deeply: What does it say about me if I wanted someone like him to love me, so badly? (Writing this now, I’m considering the thing I don’t want to consider: What does it say about me, when I’m so clearly using him as a character in my story? When I’m using a two-person experience to create an allegory that might only work in my favor? Only communicate what I saw or wanted to see?)

I thought of us as two worn out objects belonging to the same drawer: The toxically masculine and the self-indulgently feminine; he’s the Kanye to my Taylor, a total anti-muse.

I realized: If there’s one thing we have in common, it’s jealousy.

 Q12: Which means?

He is jealous that I am allowed to cry and want and create; that I can express myself in a way that is open and all my own; that I possess a hope that cannot be taken; that no amount of humiliation, or neglect, or manipulation, is enough to stop me from finding a better life…

And I am jealous that he is allowed to be unapologetic; that people will always make excuses for him—will respect him based on nothing. That he can fuck and use and take and leave whomever he wants; how he can walk away from so much pain and never once consider himself damaged…

I swear.

Staring at him, staring at me, I didn’t want to hate him. Honestly, my first instinct was to run up to him and say, “Hi!” Ask him how he was; choose amnesia. I wanted to act as if the one moment when we laughed together, and maybe even genuinely liked each other, was the only one that was ever real. I wanted to forgive him.

I wanted to say: I wish we could start over, as real people.

But I couldn’t do that.

Q11: Why not?

Because, when he walked away, I realized I was shaking.

That it’s true when people say, “People forget what you say and do, but they never forget how you made them feel.”

That I’ll never forget how he made me feel. Which, apart from one moment in time, was insecure. Like I didn’t have as much of a right to be here as anyone else.

That I can’t deny the truth: He wasn’t just the person I laughed with that one time. He was an infinite number of people. A whole goddam sea of experiences, and complexities, and contradictions, that—for the most part—failed to come together in way that made me feel worthy of anything good…

It feels like I’m constantly forgiving air, because:

Is he there?

Was he ever?

Do I matter?

Did I ever?

It’s suffocating, never knowing how much, or how little, you mean to someone else—

or even yourself…

Q12: How do you move on, from these years of being “used”?

First, I need to acknowledge that I have changed. Walking away from all of this (a relationship founded on conditional love; a guy who could kiss me one minute, and then the next—couldn’t care less what I thought or felt; a guy who saw me laughing across the room and consciously decided, “Wouldn’t it be funny…”) has changed me. But not in the negative ways you might expect.

One night my friend and I were joking around, jadedly, when I laughed, “What if the general population can be divided like this: 25% are narcissists, 25% are sociopaths, 25% are psychopaths, and only 25% are empaths? Like, what if, basically, 75% of the population is horrible, and only 25% is kind of okay?”

He said, “I was going to say 98% is horrible but I guess that’s why you’re the idealist.”

We both laughed before he continued, more seriously, “Really though, Cat, your problem is you refuse to admit you’re above anyone. And I love your idea behind it. I can tell your mom taught you to give people the benefit of the doubt, which is so beautiful and right and innocent. But…”

I let him think. Even though I knew I was probably about to take an emotional blow that I wouldn’t agree with.

He finished, “It’s just not what people do. And you need to understand that you’re a human in a world of drones and apes—the guys you date, I could tell they were terrible in five seconds. So. Stop choosing to give your kindness and creativity away to worthless fucking assholes.”

I knew he was trying to compliment me, but the word “worthless” made my heart drop into my stomach. And I realized this might be due to differing experiences related to our genders. It might have something to do with—he’s a white male in a first world country, the most elevated form of privilege. While I’m a female who, although also white, and in a first world country, has been subjected to a sense of worthlessness, so real, that hearing anyone being called worthless doesn’t feel like a compliment. Instead it feels like a tender soul-bruise just got bumped, and now my nerves are ablaze with some deranged compassion. (One that’s probably akin to Stockholm syndrome.)

I couldn’t help but react, as always, emotionally.

I snapped, “I refuse to ever regret caring for anyone. I will never regret that, and I’m sick of anyone who tries convincing me I should. It’s not my fault if someone sees this quality and decides to use it against me—it’s not my fault. I didn’t choose it. I don’t condone it. And I refuse to become bitter because of it, to think of myself as ‘above’ anyone. Those guys should probably figure some shit out and learn about introspection. I get that. Maybe they should even try being a little more like me. I’m not so pride-less that I haven’t thought of that. But at the same time, they’ve totally wrecked my ego in a way that’s actually really valuable, and moving. So. Maybe loving an asshole is a lot like having a bad acid trip! Or something. I don’t know! But it doesn’t matter. Because, despite everything, all the manipulation and bullshit, I still don’t have the space in my heart to believe anyone is actually worthless. It goes against who I am. I’d be a hypocrite. I can’t do it. Even if I ever accidentally say it, I don’t mean it.”

He said, “Whoa, that’s beautiful,” and I chugged my beer to offset the turmoil explaining this resilience had inflicted.

Eventually we went for a walk, and at one point I found myself standing at the cusp of some woods. Everything beyond the first row of trees was black and whispering with crickets. I stared intently at the darkness and felt an ache that I’ve always found both gut wrenching and inspiring, like staring into the past. The lie of it all was so tempting. How nothing in the future could ever possibly be better…

It’d be so easy to walk into those woods and never come back.

It’s the first thought I have whenever I stare into any black space really, an intense desire to disappear and become as unreal as this world has made me feel. It’s just like staring into the past. A pseudo-unknown. You think it’s ballsy to dwell there, and then you remember. The lights were turned on a long time ago. You won’t find anything better because you’ve seen it all, and the mystery was… never really there. So you’re forced to understand that the real darkness, in this cruel world where people use people, is where love is still possible. In all that land surrounding those woods, so laden with other people. The only true unknown…

To keep loving, in spite of inevitable suffering.

Which is the second thought I have whenever I stare into black spaces, or the woods at night—

Into the eyes of a boy who believes that the sea is actually black and it merely reflects the blue sky above…

Staring into those woods I thought:

So what if I only saw what I wanted to see.

How could that be wrong, when all I wanted to see was something good?

I forgave everything:

To the ones who hurt me, and used me, and treated me like a thing, you might not understand this but—

Here is a flower that needs no water…

Fear and Self-Loathing on Leap Year: An Extended Look at One Millennial Girl’s (Very Real) Existential Crisis

It’s often not cool to be the one
who puts themselves out there.

 —Emma Watson

 BUT

It’s better to just admit that you are a complex being
and travel into the unknown sometimes.

—Margot Russell, “Letter to a Daughter”

I blamed it on a lot of things: My headband being too tight. The unseasonably warm weather. The fact that February 29th actually came this year. Or the other fact—I watched the Amy Winehouse documentary two days prior…At one point, I remember, someone snap chatted me, “You little Hunter S. Thompson,” and I was all grinning demon emojis about it.

See I don’t know what the hell possessed me, but I recently lost my mind and thought I was somebody else for 72 hours—like I must have been channeling Britney Spears circa 2007 because I smoked a cigarette! (Something I’ve avidly avoided because A. I’m not an edgy teenager living in the UK and B. Cancer.) But I smoked a cigarette (among other things) and it was not okay. Because, before this point in my life, I’d always been that one sensible person who said: “My mind is screwy enough without drugs, and I really don’t want to fuck up the few happy chemicals I have left. I’ll stick with vodka, thanks.”

But what did I decide to do over my birthday weekend?

Oh, you know, just fuck up the few happy chemicals I have left.

And it was serious! But it was also kind of funny. But also, really, really, serious!

So now I feel like I have to write about it because the whole thing got me obsessing over substance abuse and self-destruction, which eventually became an obsession over the concept of selfdom like—self-loathing and self-love. What does this all even mean, especially for girls? What kinds of things do we use and abuse to forget ourselves? Why do we even want to forget ourselves in the first place? And then it all became a matter of rejecting black and white thinking; of considering how American society is still very puritanical in the sense that our collective logic looks a lot like this:

This is good. This is bad. What’s a contradiction? What’s a paradox? Stop. Don’t make me think and relate too much! Let’s keep it simple by marginalizing everyone who isn’t me. See, you’re like that, and I’m like this. I don’t want to understand and I don’t have to, because: We are not the same.

Which, eventually, led me to ask myself: How should I be?

Because, after my birthday weekend, I was forced to really look at myself and reconsider the person I was becoming; the whole experience being a major wake up call, like: Okay I’m not an addict or suicidal. It’s not that bad. But, I’m not as happy as I could be, and it’s driving me to do things that I wouldn’t normally do. So, why am I hurting? Why am I acting up? Why am I so inclined to self-destruct? How do I transcend all these tiny prisons I’ve made for myself? (Or the ones that society has made for me?) Maybe I hate myself more than I thought…

And that turned out to be the big realization—the lack of self-love thing—because, honestly, I’ve never really been the biggest advocate for self-love.

(There’s this anonymous quote that gets reblogged on Tumblr all the time, and I hate it. It’s: “You’re not a bad person for the ways you tried to kill your sadness.” And every time I read it I go all critical, like: Okay, maybe it doesn’t make you a bad person fundamentally. But sometimes the ways we try to kill our sadness are just outright selfish, and we should hold ourselves accountable. We should look in the mirror and say: ‘It’s not that bad. I should be better than this. How can I be better than this? How do I not take it out on other people, or myself in a way that hurts other people?’ We should think about this!!!!!)

But goddam I really must hate myself, because on my birthday I went to the ER with extreme (self-induced) anxiety and heart palpitations, and the whole time I kept reiterating to the nurse:

“I’m so, so, stupid. I promise. I’m not someone who does this! This isn’t me! I know, I look like a junkie right now, but I’m not! I finished college! I’m actually really intelligent!!!!! I’m just unhappy, this is just me being really unhappy…”

And he was an angel.

He said, “Look, most of us have been here. I should be dead after all the stuff I did in college. I know you’re not a degenerate because—nobody really is. Some people just get made to feel that way.”

Then he shot me Lorazepam.

Part I: My Birthday Weekend a.k.a. The Weekend I Thought I was Britney Spears Circa 2007 a.k.a. Rock Bottom a.k.a. Just Kidding (Sort Of)

Friday: I snorted cocaine off the corner of a credit card in a bar bathroom like some dark take on a Hilary Duff song: Why not (why not) / Take a crazy chance / Why not (why not) / Snort cocaine with friends… The guy I used to have a really gross crush on was bopping around on the other side of things; ping ponging between being outside and inside, like the indecisive maniac that he is, and his presence was wearing on me. It was making me feel like I needed to be up, so up I went. (Cue Hilary Duff: Why not?!) Later in the night he made the mistake of locking eyes with me, which, hopped up on cocaine, I went in for the kill. I walked up to him with a one-track mindset, like: MOTHERFUCKER CAN’T EVEN EVADE ME THIS TIME!

“Why don’t you like me?” I asked, but mostly demanded.

He got all fidgety, looked both ways behind his back, tried evading the question:

“You know, the girl I’m seeing now…”

I’m pretty sure I made a nasty face that was a combination of: Ew. Come on. Really?

“Don’t be like that. She’s a good girl,” he said.

“And I’m not?!” I asked, indignant and slightly distracted from my coke-addled agenda.

“Well, you are, but—I heard things. You played video games with my friend, and—”

I cut him off, “So, you don’t like me because, I played video games with your friend?”

(I couldn’t help but laugh as I asked, because: I heard that you like the bad girls, honey. Is that true?)

“That’s not it, I know you didn’t do anything…” He trailed off.

“So, then, why don’t you like me? What did you hear?”

He kept looking around the room, trying to find an out—presumably—but my focus was relentless, he was stuck and he knew it. So finally, he just admitted it,

“You put yourself out there too much.”

GOTCHA!

Cocaine said, “That’s a compliment.”

He kissed me, out of nowhere, just to blindside me, before he disappeared.

The comedown said, “It’s not your looks, it’s who you are—again.”

So—

Saturday: I said, “Give me an Adderall.”

Which was stupid!

I had a presents!

A balloon with my name on it!

What more could I possibly need?

An Adderall, apparently.

Like: Fuck me. Who do I want to be again? Oh, Up. I want to be Up, again.

So up I went.

Sunday: I forgot everything until morning. I woke up with a long red indent across my forehead from my headband being too tight, and a text message from a guy I’d been seeing that read:

That was really stupid of me.

I ignored the text, ripped off my headband and, for the first time on a Sunday morning, thought:

I’m not ready to be sober yet.

So I chugged a large coffee and watched my birthday balloon blow away as I had this horrible sinking feeling, like:

Something bad is going to happen.

Determined to outrun the feeling, I texted my friends from out of town:

The weather’s nice; I’m coming up.

On the way there, what Tony Bennett would have said to Amy Winehouse if she were still alive kept floating through my head like a weird premonition:

Slow down, you’re too important.

But I decided to dismiss it.

I got to my friends’ apartment, and we drank beer until the room got dim. Our conversation went back to high school, and my friends confessed that one of our English teachers told them they weren’t allowed to sit with me anymore because they’d “corrupt” me.

I laughed, like: Too late for fucking that.

Then my phone pinged and I got a text from the guy I was seeing that said:

I’m going out, we should meet up.

Forgetting whatever he did to make me mad the night before, I went home.

I had one drink, which turned into two, and then three…

My guy’s friend asked me about what I do.

I said, “I’m a writer.”

He asked, “Like, for money?”

“No,” I explained, “The only job I’ve interviewed for that even kind of had anything to do with writing—they told me my voice was too strong, like I’m too opinionated.”

I saw my guy nodding in the background like: Yes, you are too opinionated.

Hence, drink number four.

Later, he left me waiting outside Kwik Fill with his cigarette and a bottle of Sprite mixed with Codeine.

I got bored waiting.

I smoked his cigarette and killed half the bottle because:

Why not?

Part II: The Comedown

Monday morning, my birthday, I ran into the ER. I bolted for the security guard and, trying to appear normal and optimistic, said, “Hey, I did a lot of shit this weekend and now I’m experiencing really bad heart palpitations! I think I’m gonna die…where do I sign in?”

Dude didn’t even flinch, just grunted at a clipboard.

I signed in and sat around waiting, thinking: They’re not too hasty considering someone thinks she’s gonna die…I clung to my chair’s arm rests like the safety bar of a roller coaster. I felt like my heart was hurtling itself against my ribcage over and over. I kept waiting for it to just stop, I was so convinced it was going to just stop. Like: This is it for me. I’m that person right now. One more component to the avid drug problem: Cat Olson Dies After 72 Hour Bender…

When they finally called me in, the nurse stuck wires all over me, like, “I have to expose your left breast for this one, is that okay?”

And I practically shouted, “OBVIOUSLY!” Like: I’M DYING! STRIP ME DOWN AND HOSE ME OFF IF YOU HAVE TO! WHAT’S MODESTY EVEN? WHAT’S IT GOT TO DO WITH EVOLUTION?! THIS IS SURVIVAL OF THE LEAST MODEST! EXPOSE ME, LIKE, FIFTEEN MINUTES AGO!!!

And he laughed. He actually fucking laughed. And right then I realized how I must have looked, all sweaty with black eyeliner all over my face, glitzy purple nail polish like a 12 year old girl, wearing a half-shirt that said: Part-time mermaid.

He was the first to ask, “Drugs?”

I said, “Okay, yes,” point-blank.

“Which ones?”

I put up a hand and started counting down the days by substance abuse, “Friday I did cocaine…Saturday I took an Adderall, and last night I drank…codeine?”

He laughed again, “So you’ve had a weekend,” and I became acutely aware of the airy way in which I admit horrible things.

“Yeeeeeeah, pretty much. And I realized this morning that I have no idea how these things react to each other, and I panicked. Soooooo…”

“Now you’re here.”

STARTED AT THE BOTTOM, NOW I’M HERE!

He stuck me with an IV and left me to wallow with a TV remote. Which wasn’t good because, as soon as he left, the panic set back in, only this time it was accompanied by extreme agitation.

I felt all wrong inside my body and I wanted to move around as if it were possible to outrun myself. All I could think about was how much I hated myself, how much I wanted to not be me. It was a weird kind of guilt, like: I don’t deserve to live after this.

I hit the buzzer.

The nurse came back and I said, “I can’t be alone right now.”

He said, “What’s up?”

My voice finally sounded as panicked as I was, “I really feel like I’m going to die, and I know you have things to do, but talking to someone is the only thing that can distract me from this horrible impending-doom-feeling right now.”

He said, “Trust me, everything about you is normal. You’re just really scared because your body is trying to sort out everything you’ve put into it. I promise, you’re not dying.”

“I really, really, don’t feel okay though, and I’m having a hard time talking myself out of it. I’m usually really good at talking myself out of panic attacks—this is different. Like I have a history of depression and anxiety, I know how to deal with those things. But I can’t talk myself out of this—”

He stopped me, “You need to get a hobby.”

“But I do have a hobby! I read and write all the time!!!!!!”

“No, listen, that’s not a hobby, that’s your job.

“No!” I said, for some reason, even more panicked, “It’s really not for me, I love it so much. I’m really passionate about it.”

He said, “I get that, but no matter how much you love it, it’s still work that keeps you in your head. What do you do just because, to relax—other than drink?”

I couldn’t answer because the anxiety was real in that moment.

I kept saying it like a crazy person, “I’m so scared, I’m so scared, I’m so scared…”

He said, “Be honest, how many times have you done cocaine?”

“Only a few times! Like I can count the times on one hand, I promise you! After this—never again!”

I knew I was starting to sound a lot like Lindsay Lohan:

I’ve only done cocaine ten to fifteen times…

And they (meaning three nurses and a psychologist), finally, gave me the Lorazepam because it was obvious I wasn’t going to calm down on my own. Then they had me psychoanalyzed by a psychologist who I swear looked just like Sigmund Freud—which totally could have been a hallucination at this point because I was starting to feel like I’d crossed some line that was putting me on the outside of reality; like I had been banished to crazy-people land. Nobody looked like they believed a word I said.

They all kept looking way too deeply into the fact that I scratched myself with a paperclip in the seventh grade, despite my defense, “I was a middle-schooler in the mid-2000’s! We all scratched ourselves with inanimate objects, or else you were bulimic!!!”

Which ultimately worked against me because it sounded an awful lot like:

Hell yeah I’d jump off a bridge if it looked interesting enough.

They asked me why I did this to myself, “Is it about a boy? Did a boy make you feel like doing this?”

“Really?” I asked, “Can’t my problems be more interesting than that?”

I’m sure they unanimously thought: Probably not.

Finally, they asked the big one, “Do you want to hurt yourself? Are you suicidal?”

I started crying.

The psychologist said, “You’re clearly upset about something.”

I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say because (not to sound too cliché):

It’s all too much and never enough.

I kept crying because I didn’t know how to say:

I love the world so much, it’s overwhelming; I wish I could swallow it like a big pill and experience it all at once.

I didn’t know how to say:

I’m angry because it’s always got to be about a boy. It’s never allowed to be a shitty choice I made for myself.

I didn’t know how to say:

I’m sad because it’s not that deep—some of us just get this really shitty feeling called disappointment and it’s tough to overcome.

So instead I croaked, “No, I don’t want to die. I’m actually very idealistic.”

The psychologist stared back at me with a straight face and it made me feel like ripping out my IV and heading for whatever constitutes as the medical hills, because:

I’m so sick of straight faces.

Because?

I’m so disappointed with myself for not knowing how to be.

☁︎

When I finally went home, my parents were looking at me like: What’s your deal?

It was 6 PM on a Monday, and I was practically sleeping in my birthday cake.

I went to bed after a few halfhearted bites of ice cream and, still woozy from Lorazepam, I read the yellow cutout letters decorating my bookshelf through half-shut eyes:

NOTHING IS A TRAGEDY AND EVERYTHING IS A JOKE

They appeared to be dancing, bobbing up and down as if they were floating in the air like water, and I remember wondering:

Why can’t everything be the way I dream it; the way I want to believe it?

Part III: One Week of Experimental Sobriety

 Day 1

At the hospital they essentially told me to be ready for a weeklong hangover—but goddam I never expected to be that paranoid. I sunk into a depression that led to an anxiety that said: You broke yourself. All your cognitive abilities are shot. You’ll never be able to comprehend a book again. You’ll never write again. You ruined it, and you deserve this.

Which, the guilt was real. At work I felt heavy bodied and kept idealizing the lives of little kids going through my line, like: Don’t do cocaine sweet baby angels, just stay at home with your sheep pillows. At one point a little boy who looked about nine said, “You have hair like Queen Elsa,” and I immediately ducked behind a wall of dish soap for an irrational sob-fest, like: If only he knew, I’m not an ice queen. I’m just a stupid cokehead!!!!

Like I really wish I could’ve controlled these moments of self-indulgence, but I really felt as if the last innocent piece of me had died. And yes, it was really melodramatic and irrational because, hello, that’s what a come down from uppers will do to you, but I couldn’t stop thinking it:

I’d do anything to go back to the before.

☁︎

That night, I couldn’t fall asleep until I’d had a very, very, focused meditation session. (Short-term cocaine abuse symptoms include: Insomnia, disturbing dreams, obstructed sleep…) Which, was all done in vain since I woke up two hours later in the worst pain. And after consulting WEB md. (a foolish impulse that always ends in herpes or cancer) I—get this—went back to the ER. And the same nurse who had been there for my nervous breakdown two days prior was taking my blood pressure.

He got to the shameful question, “Any recreational drug use?”

I looked at him out of the corner of my eye, “I was here two days ago.”

He laughed and said it like I was an old friend, “Cocaine-girl!”

I looked at him like: I hate you.

Then I said, “I think I have herpes.”

He said, “You might!”

I said, “This is the worst week of my life.”

He laughed again, because apparently I’m the joke of the ER, like:

Thanks for the compassion, guys. I really appreciate the lighthearted way in which this group of medical professionals treats my substance abuse and vaginal disrupt. So respectful.

He said, “Really? The worst week of your life?”

I thought about it and understood that there were worse weeks to come, like the week one of my parents dies, which:

Do you really want me to go into a crying spell right now, asshole? Because I can. It’s basically my specialty, waterworks like you wouldn’t believe…

He quickly added, “You’re only twenty-four, you’re fine. Do you even realize the amount of actually crazy stuff I see here everyday? You’re not a coke addict—you had a panic attack that was drug related—and now you probably just have a UTI.”

I mean-mugged him all the way to the bathroom with my plastic cup, like:

YOU’LL BE SORRY WHEN I’M DEAD! OUT IN THE GUTTER! JUST LIKE FLAUBERT!

Which, I’m an asshole, because I didn’t end up having herpes, or an STD even, just like he’d said.

Lying in the hospital bed, waiting for my discharge papers, I texted my friend: “Pretty sure this is some high-power’s way of saying: ‘Hey Cat, do you want to be a cokehead with herpes? No? Didn’t think so. Cut the shit!’”

She responded: “You know I woke up in the middle of the night on your birthday, just like Miss Clevelle in that children’s book with all the little girls? I literally woke up, like, ‘Something isn’t right with Cat!’ Don’t do drugs ever again!!!

I texted back, “I might never even drink again. I’m afraid of everything now.”

Right as my other friend texted, “I hope you fucking sleep.”

And on my way out, I walked past the nurse who’d checked me in earlier.

He called after me, “Remember, you’re only 24—you’re doing okay!!”

I looked back and joke-laughed, “Haaaaaaa,” because I felt uncomfortable, like I didn’t deserve that kind of affirmation, but in retrospect, I know

I should have thanked him.

Day 2

The depression and anxiety didn’t get any better, it actually got worst. And distrusting the nurse’s claim, You’re not a coke addict, you had a panic attack that was drug-related, I Googled: Ways to manage cocaine withdrawal.

All the results were like: Basically you’re fucked for a while—but you can run, or, worst case scenario, eat some chocolate. Just don’t drink alcohol.

So I immediately dominated the treadmill, and stuffed my face with chocolate chips like Harry Potter after a dementor attack.

And still!

All I felt was anxious.

So I got depressed and sobbed as I texted my ex-boyfriend for the first time since I’d dumped him, like: Sorry I was such a piece of shit.

Then I went to work and sobbed again because a baby smiled at me and I felt unworthy.

After that, I restocked shelves and composed a mental list of all the things I’d taken for granted prior to my stint with recreational drug use:

  • Sitting still and feeling content with the lack of motion
  • Drinking caffeine without picturing a fatal heart attack
  • Not distrusting those sparse moments that felt a lot like: I’m about to be normal again!!

When my shift finally ended, I drove to 7/11 and loaded up on comfort food.

What was another side affect of cocaine abuse?

Increased Appetite.

Shit!!!!

I was stuffing my face with Hershey’s chocolate in the parking lot and listening to John Mayer’s cover of “Free Fallin’”—which isn’t even a song that I like! But the moment those first few words were uttered (She’s a good girl / Loves her Mama…) I fucking lost it and started sobbing again. I was trying to convince myself, like a crazy person: I am a good girl! I’m a fucking good-ass girl! And the second I took a breather from this disgusting display of self-pity—like honestly, what is this? Secret Life of the American Teenager?—I looked at the car parked across from me and saw a girl that I kind of know. She looked like she was crying too.

Then I remembered—it was the night of this guy’s vigil.

To summarize the details: Overdose. He was young. Mid-twenties? Went to my high school.

Hearing about his death felt weird because, even though I never knew him well, he was someone tangible. He was the first person to die that was within the realm of my seemingly indestructible, we’re-all-going-to-be-young-forever, bubble—a member of my immediate community and generation. Like, I’d see him walking around places. His posts appeared on the newsfeeds of all my social media accounts. We had mutual friends! I didn’t know him, but I knew enough to feel strange when I found out I wasn’t going to see him walking around anymore.

And no matter what way you flip it, this is a tragedy that every young person who knew him, in some capacity, must have felt—we all must have felt some uneasiness at the news. Because—I’ve seen his picture—it’s not easy to believe that death, and a really dark death at that, could touch a face that looked so open, like so much fun.

How does death touch someone who looked so easy to love?

And, seeing this girl who knew him, I understood something very important:

There are certain substances that you can’t compromise with.

I shot myself with a dose of reality:

Cocaine is a hard drug like heroin is a hard drug.

I scolded myself:

You can’t always come back from these things the same. And if you choose to do them, you have to deal with the consequences in a way that’s productive. Now stop crying to this cheesy song because you’re lucky to have found the line; you know you’re going to be okay.

And then finally, for a second, I felt like my old self again.

I quoted Sloane Crosley in my head, like the insane lit-nerd that I am:

I’m a good girl—but I do not love horses or Jesus and I’d burn America to the ground for a sliver of my former happiness.

Day 3

After a night of strange nightmares that had me thrashing around, I woke up and something felt different. First off, my brain felt less cloudy, which made me happy like, Maybe you can comprehend a book again! Then I ate a saltine cracker and it tasted like heaven, which is questionable because, it’s a saltine cracker, how good can it be?

I still felt exhausted, like there was led in all my limbs, and things were still pretty dreary on the emotional front. But I at least had a sense of gratitude again—one that I’d forgotten about.

I’ll admit, these past few months I’ve been very unhappy, and I’m wondering if, prior to my ER visit, it hadn’t really occurred to me just how unhappy I was. And with bouts of major depression, the first thing to happen before finally getting better is—laughter. I’ve read about people being majorly depressed, until one day, out of no where, some tiny thing happens and they just laugh so hard because that tiny thing reminds them:

Life on earth is very small and stupid. Why am I trying so hard?

That kind of happened to me on this day.

I was at work, and an old co-worker came in looking for Totally Awesome cleaner. I showed him where it was and I thought I heard him say, “Thanks, I need it to clean my bum.” And I froze for a second, because I was about to take what I thought I’d heard very seriously. I was about to say: Hey, maybe you shouldn’t. Until he saw the concerned look on my face and was like, “What the fuck do you think I just said?!” So I told him, and I know it’s so idiotic—like how old am I? Am I nine?—but I bent over laughing.

I actually had to clutch my sides as I got it out, I said, “I really thought you just told me you were going to douche out your asshole with Totally Awesome.”

He was looking at me like: Are you okay? Are you going to be the same after this? But being the first person to make me happy in a long time, I didn’t even care, I just asked without even thinking,

“What are you doing tonight?”

☁︎

That night I went to hang out with him and a few people. I played beer pong sober and drank a Pibb X-tra. Then a guy man-splained SCAT to me as I noted how even the way he ate Cheez-Its was cocky. I thought: He’s lucky I’m not drinking. But then, in the end, I had to be grateful for him because, when I considered having a drink, he was the only person who said, “Hey, you don’t want to. You said you didn’t.”

So thanks for looking out for me, cocky cheez-it-eating stranger. You’re the reason I looked at the snow, going all glittery beneath the streetlamps, and could see that it was even dreamier sober.

Day 4

“Does this shirt say: ‘I’m sober’ to you?”

Me and my friend were at the mall on a Friday and I was asking about a T-shirt covered in cartoon dinosaurs.

She laughed and said, “I love how you get one real birthday every four years and you chose to spend yours at the ER.”

“I know,” I said, “I hate myself; I’m getting this shirt.”

☁︎

Later that night, at the bar, my friends kept fucking with me and making Cocaine-Cat inspired variations of Selena Gomez lyrics, “All of the downs and the uppers, send Cat straight to the ER…”

There was a group of guys sitting across from us and one was ultra clean-cut with hair gelled back in a way that looked a lot like: I’m either in the army or I hate my mother. He smiled at me and said, “Let me know when you’d like another soda water.”

Eventually, he overheard me telling the bartender, “I thought I was Amy Winehouse for 72 hours…” and his face lit up.

I knew what he was about to say, I could feel it coming—

“Don’t you dare say it!”

But he said it, “I love crazy.”

I said, “You say that now, but I don’t think you really know what you’re saying.”

Because, this is a “compliment” I’ve gotten used to.

It’s one that always forces me to become conscious of the war inside my mind, like:

Do you really love it, or do you just love the idea of it?

In Chris Kraus’s experimental memoir, I Love Dick, she describes schizophrenia—the crazed queen of mental illness—as limitless empathy, no understanding of where the rest of the world ends and you begin; as feeling too much, all at once, and constantly worrying that it won’t be enough; the exact opposite of sociopathy. And having always had a deep, irrational, fear of schizophrenia, Kraus’s interpretation of the illness helped me understand why:

Because I feel a lot.

And I struggle, I admit, to find the line between me and everything else:

Is it you, or is it me? Is it the world, or is it this place? When should I think of you, and when should I think of me? When should I practice self-awareness; when should I practice self-love? When should I speak; when should I listen? Can I trust myself to know the difference?

I’ve expressed the turmoil I’ve felt over these questions to many people and I’ve often been told, “You think too much,” or, “You care too much,” or, “You need to relax,”— “You should calm down.” I’ve been told, “You’re overreacting,” and “It’s not that important.” I’ve been asked, “Why does this matter to you so much?”

And now I resent the words: Too much.

Like, I get it—you love crazy.

That is: You love it until it becomes too much.

Hence the rejection: “You put yourself out there too much.”

Yeah. Well. Fine.

But I’m going to contradict myself right now and say—

That’s you.

This is me: I don’t want to live a life that’s complacent.

Because: I’m not okay with the way the world is, and I hope someday it’s different.

To you this might be “too much.”

But, to me—

It’s passion.

Does that make me crazy?

Possibly!

Oh fucking well.

☁︎

Gelled-back hair guy was supposed to meet up with me, but he didn’t show.

So I texted him, “What happened?”

He said, “I had to go home, it was probably for the best.”

I said, “Okay, it’s cool.”

He said, “It certainly wasn’t you though.”

And for the first time, in long time, I could confidently say it,

“I know.”

Day 5

I’m weak. I had a long island.

IN MY DEFENSE: I felt better, I didn’t over-drink; earlier that night I was brave and read over the signs of chemical dependency in my ER folder (something I’d avoided doing), and everything came out negative, like: No, I do not take a coffee mug of wine with me whenever I go to Wal-Mart, and I have never resorted to spitting at someone over a miscommunication.

So I had a long island with my friend, and I told her my birthday story in depth. I got to the ER part, “They looked so deep into the fact that I scraped myself with a paper clip when I was in seventh grade—”

“That’s bullshit,” she said, “I tried sawing my wrists open with a souvenir license plate when I was thirteen, and I’m fine now.”

“That’s what I said!”

We both looked around the room like: This conversation is ridiculous.

I wondered: Why were the girls of my generation so sad? Why did we all think in terms of blood? Why were some of us bulimic and melancholy? Cutters, or dating guys too old for us?

I thought we were supposed to be past that.

Why did we all want to hurt, so bad?

Sometimes I think we felt inclined to do these tiny acts of self-destruction because we wanted to remind ourselves that we were real; because we were so bored, and our problems felt so dumb, that sawing at our wrists with souvenir license plates felt like a good idea, like: Hey, I’m here.

Or, something really fucked up, sometimes I think we did these things as a way of saying: Hey, I’m with you.

Hence: Is it about a boy?

I don’t like saying it, but sometimes self-destruction really is that co-dependent.

Amy Winehouse, allegedly, was so infatuated with her husband Blake Fielder that she wanted to feel whatever he felt. At one point she even admitted this sentiment to him flat out, “I’ll do anything you do.” And, in her case, this meant drugs, and a lot of hard drugs at that—something that really makes me question the romance behind the Nicholas Sparks concept:

If you’re a bird, I’m a bird.

Like: If you’re a bird, I’m a bird — I’ll do anything you do. — If you’re on crack, I’m on crack. — Oh shit! This whole thing just stopped being cute!

But nobody ever seems to call it what it is, and that’s: Emotional Abuse.

In the Amy Winehouse documentary (Amy) it’s constantly implied but never stated: Blake killed Amy. Or, the kind of love Blake and Amy had killed Amy. Or, Amy didn’t know it but she was confusing intensity and fear with love, and eventually it led to a number of addictions that killed her.

Nobody ever says anything along those lines. It’s just subtly implied, because nobody wants to admit that a seemingly good thing like love or devotion—romance—could potentially kill you.

But it can.

Amy said, “I fell in love with someone I would die for…and that’s a real drug, isn’t it?”

And I was like: Yes. Yes, it is.

See Sierra DeMulder’s definition of Soul Mate:

“Not the person who makes you the happiest, but the one who makes you feel the most.”

I’m almost positive Blake made Amy feel the most. And, for what it’s worth, Sierra DeMulder has admitted to experiencing a very emotionally abusive relationship.

So.

The one who makes you feel the most?

It’s basically the equivalent of saying: The one who fills you up, and then deflates you, fills you up, and then deflates you…

And being someone who is finally coming to terms with her history of emotionally abusive relationships, I was terrified by how well I understood Amy Winehouse’s decline; how easily I related to Sierra DeMulder’s poetry. It’s been a long time coming, and it’s something I’m working on, but I’ve finally started admitting to myself: I once cut myself to feel closer to a guy. I once isolated myself from all my friends, concealed my past, and turned myself into—essentially—a pet girl, for a relationship with a guy who would summarize the two years I spent trying to be whatever he wanted with, “We had some great jokes.”

And now?

I’ve done cocaine to feel closer to a guy.

I guess I get it.

Scraping myself with a paperclip was kind of fucked up.

So whenever people ask about the scars I just say, “I forgot.”

Because it’s less humiliating than the truth: I wanted to feel close to someone with deeper issues than myself.

Because it’s less invasive than screaming in people’s faces: I’M HERE AND I WANTED PROOF!

It’s hard to explain how damaging emotional abuse can be; how you come out of it having to build yourself back up again; having to re-order yourself in a way that’ll keep this whole cycle from happening, again. It’s hard to convince some people that you’ve been deeply wounded—traumatized—when you’ve got nothing to show for it. Like you can’t take out a picture of your former identity and say: Look how he rearranged it, how he confused it into oblivion…

Maybe sometimes we hurt ourselves because we want someone else to see an invisible thing that happened to us—

I don’t know.

But I hate that I’m still struggling to solve the same old riddle:

How does a girl love selflessly without being self-sacrificing to the point of self-sabotage?

I don’t know.

I don’t know.

I don’t know.

☁︎

Later that night, I re-watched The Virgin Suicides just to pacify myself with Cecilia Lisbon’s truth:

“Obviously Doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen year old girl.”

 Day 6

My friend got me Lemonheads and took me for a drive.

He let me control the music.

I played Boxcar Racer: I wish I had power / I wish I could lead / I wish I could change the world / For you and me…

I played The Pixies: The creature in the sky / Got sucked in a hole / Now there’s a hole in the sky…

I played a remix of M83’s “Wait” by Kygo: There’s no end / There is no goodbye / Disappear / With the night / No time / No time / No time…

I looked out the window and watched the world fly by, like: Tree, Tree, Tree, Telephone Pole, UFO.

I remembered a few lines from one of my own crumby poems: “Life is not the song ‘Wait’ by M83 / You can’t hit replay / And it never hurts you the way you want it to…”

The world kept flying by: No time, no time, no time…

(Sometimes, actually all the time, I go for long drives to nowhere, in the middle of the night, by myself. And every time I do it, I never feel like going home. It’s like there’s this voice pulling at me from the back of my head, saying:

Just one more loop, you can turn at the next road; it’s not time to go home…

I’m beginning to understand that I’m like that about everything—

I was the one who kept saying, “Just one more line,” until it was 8 AM and the drugs were all gone;

I was always the last girl to fall asleep at slumber parties—

 It’s all too much, and never enough.)

I looked up and realized the night sky was making my soul feel too big for my body; all I wanted to do was punch out the passenger side window and get my knuckles all bloody.

I felt a familiar ache that made me feel like howling:

I’m a bad girl, cause’ I don’t even miss him…I’m gonna to free float out into everything, I’m gonna haunt this whole world, never leave it behind…

(This is me trying to un-write that cowboy Tom Petty’s cheesy lyrics:

If you’re a lonely cowboy, then I’m a lonely space cadet.

This is me trying to exhaust you:

Play that song one more time. Are you tired? I’m not tired. Let me run just one more mile. Get me one more drink. Stop, where are you going? Stay one more second. I’m so in love with everything. I don’t know where to place my hands—don’t you know what it’s like? To want to place your hands on everything, to want to hold on for one second longer than what’s considered polite? ‘Cause I’ve got to! I go all OCD when it comes to this. I’ve got to get this moment right…

This is me saying:

Match me; love is not enough. You’ve got to understand me.)

I felt like confessing:

“I’m afraid I’m difficult to love.”

But I couldn’t give up that information because, I think this guy would really love me if I’d let him, and every loving boyfriend I’ve ever had, I broke up with after being told I was “too idealistic” one too many times.

So I got lucky.

A running doe saved me from giving myself away.

She hopped out in front of the car, just barely escaped, and the whole time, my friend kept a straight face.

“Holy shit dude,” I said, “You almost hit that deer.”

He said, “Yeah, but I knew I wasn’t going to. And anyway, I didn’t.”

I laughed because he should’ve been the poster child for the kind of philosophy I’ve always hated:

It could’ve happened, but I knew it wouldn’t and it didn’t. Why dwell on it?

It’s a little too lethargic to be carpe diem, but it’s not quite nihilism.

So I thought of Tegan and Sara:

I’m not the hero, but that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t brave…

And I realized:

I want to be someone who can acknowledge the good in the light and the dark and not be afraid—not be afraid of the fact that none of us are ever perfect, or all right, or very good; to be able to turn the things I thought I knew inside out, and then this way, and that way. Until I finally understand them enough to either, let them be, or begin a life committed to changing them for the better; to keep putting myself out there and taking chances within reason

See,

I know I have this deep need for all of it, or none of it; a feral itch to make nowhere and everywhere my home; a tiny voice always advising me to run from one extreme to the other; to know and experience it all; and sometimes I take shit too far, sometimes I have to reign myself back in and remember:

Slow down, you’re too important.

This is my one life; my one mind, the only true home I’m ever going to know.

Sanity and sobriety are such fragile, underrated, things.

You can’t afford to lose your sense of reality.

You’ve got to put on a clear mind and deal with it in a way that’s brave.

This is me saying:

I’ve got to forgive myself if I want to keep going.

Like:

I know I fucked up and did cocaine for a while; I smoked a stupid cigarette; I drank Codeine like a sexist rap artist…but the world didn’t end, and I didn’t lose my mind—we didn’t hit the deer—and I can make out a sliver of truth now,

I can still be brave; I don’t have to be anything I don’t want to be.

Day 7

On this day, a lot of interesting conversations happened. For example: A customer coming through my line at work asked, “Why isn’t there a ring on your finger? Are all the boys afraid of you?” And I laughed a little bit; I smiled as I realized it, “Actually, yeah.” He got a good kick out of that. Probably because I said it in a way that emphasized: I just don’t care how true this conversation is. (I’ve never really dreamed in diamonds—the thought of it has always made me a little nauseous.)

Anyway, on this same day, the seventh day, the guy I’d been seeing said: “I have fun with you, but there are no feelings.” Which stung a little bit. It made me feel like—to this person who I’d been spending a decent amount of time with—I’m just a nice chair, and he likes the chair, but it’s spring cleaning, and now the nice chair is starting to take a up a little too much space. Like:

“You’re fun but, [you’re too opinionated].”

“You’re fun but, [you put yourself out there too much].”

“You’re fun but, [you’re difficult to love].”

(That’s me playing a special collection of Mad Libs called: Why Doesn’t He Like Me?)

So on the seventh day, I wondered all day: What’s wrong with me? Why doesn’t he like me? (Two trite musings that inevitably lead to a bunch of other existential bull shit believe it or not.)

I asked a close friend, “What’s wrong with me, like why do I deal with so many harsh rejections? And don’t say I’m choosing the wrong guys, that’s not an adequate response anymore.”

And he said, “I don’t know. I’ve always thought you were great, but it’s like you’re always searching for something.”

That was the extent of his response, which I decided was true but too abstract.

I went looking for a second opinion, and asked another friend the same question. He said, “You’re a real woman and not a lost child. Most people are lost children.”

Which was also abstract, and only semi-true because I am still, very much, a lost child (just like any other millennial, I wear cat pajamas and my mom opens my mail for me). However—I guess—my being conscious of this lost-ness, and not being at ease with it, is a type of maturity. Making me, in some ways, a “real” woman. Like I at least have some grasp on who I am and what I want, and that’s more than, from my observation, some twenty-somethings can say. I don’t think I’m going to be like Marnie from Girls, marrying some bi-polar narcissist and rationalizing an inevitable divorce away—even on the wedding day.

I don’t think I’m ever going to lose myself to another person that badly.

At least, I think this is what my friend means when he says:

“You’re a real woman and not a lost child.”

I think he’s saying:

You don’t change what you believe for anyone, not even the people you fall in love with.

Which, I’ll admit, is probably really intimidating. Because culturally—especially as little girls—we’re taught that “falling in love” is all about selflessness, and “becoming one”; about sacrificing experience and knowledge in favor of—

What?

Being “mature” or some shit.

Like: Look somebody wants me! I’ve got it all figured out! I’m an adult! A selfless adult!

Which just isn’t something I’m looking for at this point in life, so I suppose I have to be a little more understanding when guys tell me, “You’re fun, but…”

Maybe I’m just rationalizing; just trying to put a positive spin on a lot of heartache, but I’m learning to hear these kinds of rejections, not as a bad thing, but as, “You’re fun, but [you deserve to be free].” Like, it’s not that I’m difficult to love, it’s that I’m still busy becoming my own person. And I can’t blame someone for not wanting to fall on the wayside as I do that. I can’t blame someone for not complying when I say: Hey wanna get even more lost? Follow me around for a while!!!! *rainbows, butterflies, oops we’re doing cocaine!*

Which brings me to my other friend’s response, “You’re great, but it’s like you’re always searching for something.”

Because he’s right, I am always searching for something.

I’m always searching for the idealistic world I’ve created in my mind; I want to see it become a reality. But it might never become a reality, at least not in my lifetime, and that’s a sense of loss and disappointment I’m dealing with on a daily basis. Furthermore, I’m not sure how many people actually relate to this kind of sadness, so, by default, I feel very lonely; I feel very misunderstood; I feel like I’m constantly explaining myself, constantly having my views tested simply because they deviate from the way things are, or the way some people want things to continue to be.

It gets frustrating.

I get depressed.

I start getting impulsive.

I make bad decisions to forget.

But: I’m trying.

I’m trying, so hard, to lead a life that says: I want better quality of life for all women.

And if I were to self-destruct, to totally self-annihilate, because I can’t get past some guy’s rejection of me due to a subconscious intimidation linked to sexism; because I can’t get past a sociopathic professor’s agenda to bully me into silence (to quit writing), and some people doubting my perception of this experience due to my gender and politics, then it would be an insult to all the women who went crazy and died because they lived during a time where their only options were to either comply, or self-destruct; when women’s desires and opinions really were 100% illegitimate, and completely repressed.

(Sylvia Plath killed herself to be taken seriously. So did Virginia Woolf.)

This is what I mean when I say:

I don’t have to be anything I don’t want to be.

I’ll take all the luck I can get, and right now my luck is this:

I am living during a time, and in country, where I don’t have to comply or self-destruct in order to be heard.

I have the power to transcend all these tiny prisons and become bigger than my circumstances.

This is the part where I start to believe in the significance of that gooey concept called:

Self-love.

This is the part where I regurgitate a self-love quote I found on the Internet:

“Stay away from people who make you feel like you’re difficult to love.”

Now I’m going to take a piece of negative criticism and turn it into a poem about self-awareness:

All the people who love you are beyond you.

They’re already out there.

Go there.

Part IV: Epilogue?
“You’re so free.” — “What does that even mean?”

This random forty-something-year-old man was giving me unsolicited advice at Applebees. He said, “Baby, cocaine’s bad for your soul.” And I was just like, “Yeah, duh, trust me. I know.” Then he bought me a plate of chicken wings and I bitched and laughed about my life. Eventually he said, “Don’t do cocaine anymore, you’re too free-spirited to sabotage yourself like that.” And I joked, “Or I’m just blonde and 24 and you’re forty, creep.” And he said, “Whatever, you’re still different. You’re smart, but you seem so free.”

Which: What does that even mean?

People say stuff like this to me a lot: “Cat’s a free bitch.” — “You’re the baddest.” — “You deserve to be free.” — “~Wild n’ Free~”

I’m learning to define what all this means within my own terms. And I’m slowly realizing that, to be “free”, and a girl, doesn’t mean you’re not afraid to dye your hair blue, or that you wear a lot of black and don’t give a shit when your mascara goes all over the place. It doesn’t mean you do tons of drugs and self-sabotage in the name of “rebellion”—that shit’s irrelevant to bad-assery, totally frivolous and temporary. It’s just teenage angst seeping into adulthood and distracting you from becoming whoever the hell you’re supposed to become. (Or, even worse, rendering the person you’re supposed to become impossible.)

Therefore, to be “free” and a girl means not falling into the same old traps. It means refusing to accept someone else’s watered down versions of you—mad girl, sad girl, good girl, bad girl—and defining who you are, for yourself.

It means forgiving yourself for being a complicated person with three dimensions.

Like—

You still exist when no one is looking!

You are not a ghost of yourself!

This is your only shot, and it’s real!

Don’t fuck yourself over; don’t let someone else bully you into fucking yourself over.

And, yes, in a sad paradoxical twist, being “free” as I’ve defined it means life is going to be more difficult for you; it means that, sometimes, not very many people are going to like you, or understand you. But you’ve got to push past that because—you deserve to be fulfilled. You deserve to look back on your life and know that you did everything you could to achieve the best quality of life imaginable.

We all do.

And if there’s any piece of wisdom I’ve gained from the brief moment in time where I forgot myself, and lost control of my life, it’s this:

I decide.

I decide whether or not to treat my own worth like a thing.

I decide what criticism I internalize.

I decide to move on from anyone who makes me feel like I’m not real.

And I’m going to be okay if okay’s what I want to be, because—

I’ve decided.

Poetry for Lost Girls

lost girlI was in the midst of a Red Bull induced panic attack. Sometimes I took my Citalopram and sometimes I didn’t. I never went to class. But I remembered the defense mechanisms from the one day I spent in psych class like some kind of prayer that went:

Repression

Regression

Projection

Sublimation

and…

Displacement?

They became the titles of poems I wrote when I should’ve been in bed. None of them were any good. But I wrote one called “The Incentive to Relate” because that was another thing I learned about in Psych class.

The final lines of it went: I even wore their shoes around and said / “see you’re not alone.” / and every single one told me / “but I still feel it.” Because I felt that, and I didn’t want anyone else to feel that, but I guess it’s inevitable when you’re 18, 19, 20…and trying to find your way out of the woods that was your adolescence.

☁︎

Me and K were like Wendys among lost boys.

We spoke in code about our feelings for the types of men we were among. All emotions were dumbed down into cave-talk; summarized in twos like: Hot n’ steamies, cold n’ empties, warm n’ fuzziez, numb n’ pricklies…

One guy told me he didn’t trust me because my eyes moved too much, and at the time, I had this paranoia that I was a bad person in disguise, so I said, “You shouldn’t. I definitely don’t trust myself.”

Then K, with a stomach full of absinthe, looked outside and got all misty-eyed for the frozen lake. We ran out the backdoor and walked on ice like life was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and not cold or uncomfortable; a place that could actually be beautiful and ugly all at once without the worry of some ideal illusion suddenly cracking and caving in beneath you; more like a movie, something you watch and feel but never really live…

We ran back inside, and met this guy who after one too many jäger bombs started referring to himself as The Oracle. We asked him questions, and he started rubbing his temples, pretending like he was summoning the other side and not just staring at the insides of his eyelids.

“Will we ever be happy?” we asked.

He opened one eye and smirked like he knew something we didn’t know.

“No,” he said curtly.

And we laughed in spite of everything.

☁︎

Our friendship was like this: I was Heartache, and she was Wrath, and together we made Misery because that’s how much we loved each other’s company.

We joked about super moons, and second comings. We got McChickens during tornado warnings. We gazed out kitchen windows and watched as lightning turned the sky into a touched plasma globe…

Some guy said the rapture was supposed to happen. But we weren’t surprised when nothing happened.

We knew that nothing probably happened to anyone—or we weren’t chosen.

Either way, it was all one giant joke to us, one more ironic reason to buy a T-shirt.

And that’s the simplified version of things.

☁︎

I had a boyfriend at the time, but he was more like a third wheel; our teddy bear and designated safety blanket.

He was a grizzly guy—tall and tree-like—with a design like veins and vital organs tattooed all around his forearm. He wore glasses from the sixties and had skin like nicotine.

His name was M and we took him everywhere.

One night we were all at K’s apartment on campus. Our friend had just traded us whiskey for vodka across train tracks, and we squeezed the last few drops of wine from a box. We pulled the empty bag out and blew it up like a balloon. M labeled it “my happiness” and we played a metaphorical game of capture the flag.

I remember I got it, but then M snatched it back and popped it.

“Cheater!” I shouted.

“That’s life!” he retaliated.

I glared, but got over it because he molded me a dinosaur with the wax of a candy soda bottle as a peace offering.

Meanwhile, K had been pounding back whiskeys, and she was ready to make her way across campus to whoever it was she wanted that night.

She left, and when it was just me and M, I remember he started talking on and on about how he wanted to watch the moon explode—to see what happened when the oceans engulfed us.

I stayed quiet; I just stood there and listened.

M was an artist who created things that were beautiful but had no meaning. This is why he felt nothing when he burned them or broke them or popped them. Knowing this, he looked at me and said, “You’re all morals and I’m all impulse. We’re never going to work out.”

And I stared back at him, just blinking, like I didn’t know anything. Like I didn’t know he was crazy, like I didn’t know he was right; like I wasn’t the same girl who’d cringed every time she felt a spring peeper pop beneath the car’s tires that night; like I wasn’t someone who would only ever love chaos in theory.

I kissed him as a means of filling the space, and the next day we found K grinning at Starbucks with a bruise on her knee. “Let’s go,” she said, and we sang along to “Missed the Boat” by Modest Mouse the whole way home, like we didn’t know it was the anthem for everything that was wrong with us:

While we’re on the subject
Could we change the subject now?
I was knocking on your ear’s door,
But you were always out.
Looking towards the future
We were begging for the past
Well, we knew we had the good things
But those never seem to last
Oh, please just last…

☁︎

I always wore this fuzzy hat with bear arms and bear ears. We called it Balloo—like The Jungle Book. And I often slept on couches and floors; dorm beds, and reclining chairs; all the futons of faraway places, with my hands tucked into Balloo’s paws like mittens; the rest of him bundled up and doubling as a pillow beneath me.

I did this while K found herself in the bunk beds and basements of Victorian mansions; lying on the cot of an off-the-grid shack-house; nestled away in trees sprouting from coves on the shore of Lake Erie; kicking up water in her underwear while some envious girl got mad; clipping feathers in her hair and saying, “Let’s go,” just when the moon got full.

I was beginning to believe we were less like Wendys and more like the lost boys—lost girls, if they would’ve been written to be a thing—taking on each night like: Second house to the right. Who cares til’ morning.

 ☁︎

One night we found ourselves at a big house in the middle of nowhere. It was the kind of house that’s tall and looming, Victorian, and weirdly gothic with black shutters and barred windows that all come to a point; a house that looked expensive from the outside but, upon closer inspection, was actually a fortress of cat piss and dogs without leashes.

On the back porch, which was sunken and caving in, we found M in a drum circle of bored looking white kids with dreadlocks.

K and I knew we didn’t belong so we stole their vodka and fifteen minutes later M laughed because he found us crouching behind a bush. We were taking swigs in the name of social anxiety until liquid courage coaxed us out—a.k.a. we killed the bottle and kicked it into the woods.

Everyone had moved from the porch to a bonfire out on the lawn at that point.

One guy was playing an acoustic version of “Sweetest Girl” by Wyclef Jean on guitar and everyone was singing along harmoniously, like they took this ritual very seriously: Cause I’mma tell you, like Wu told me, cash rules everything around me, singin’ dolla dolla bill ya’ll—DOLLA DOLLA BILL YA’LL!

We looked at each other like: What year is it? Where are we? Is this real life?

And I realized that the place was a purgatory for lost childhood.

I found Batman with his face scraped off; Mountain Dew cans everywhere; a stuffed Barney, abandoned and still smiling on the pavement, like he was clenching his teeth and mumbling to me: Is this real life?

Later, M and I got into a fight about the state of our relationship because I was never not mad at him about something.

We were both standing at the top of a hill overlooking the road and, at some point, a beagle scuttled past us. We didn’t think much of it because I had just gotten done saying something that put M over the edge.

It was the first time he ever snapped at me; he blindsided me with a level of honesty that I didn’t know he was capable of.

He said, “One minute you’re so vulnerable and gentle, and the next minute, it’s like I can literally feel how angry you are. It’s like the calm before the storm, except, the tension never really breaks. I swear to god, you have this crazy fucking ability to dictate the emotion of an entire room. All you have to do is shift your eyes a certain way, or twist your mouth—like you’re finally going to say whatever the fuck is on your mind, but then you never do, and nobody ever knows what’s hit them; no one ever suspects that you’re the reason there’s a knot in their gut because who’s going to blame the quiet girl? Especially when she’s always got this stupid lost look on her face. But I know you, and you’re not vulnerable or stupid, and you need to stop pretending like—”

That was when we heard the thud. It came from the road at the bottom of the hill.

It was like a thud-crack; like the sound of a car hitting a large stick.

“What was that?” I asked, not entirely sure what I was asking about—the rest of M’s sentence, or the sound?

But M ignored me. He just said, “Shit,” and ran away, down the hill toward the road.

I edged closer to a part of the hill, where the road was visible, and I saw the little lifeless blob.

I knew what it was.

It was the beagle that had scuttled past us just a few minutes ago. Only now it was dead.

My stomach clenched and I don’t know why I started crying over a dog that I didn’t even know. But it all felt like Peter Pan, and bedtime—the time when Neverland was said to become threatening; when the benign world that was your bedroom became malignant beneath the cover of night and something as unthreatening as a chair could look like a lurking figure; a looming disaster…

Except, this was different.

The dead dog was definitely dead, and the looming disaster wasn’t just a trick of the eyes.

Nothing was make believe anymore.

Up until that point, I’d told myself, and I’d told myself, that everything around me was make believe—that this was all a trial run. That a truck was a truck and a dog was a dog, and everything was that simple. When in reality, a truck was only just a truck and a dog was only just a dog until the two collided, and one kept on going while the other was reduced to a shell of thing that was no longer alive. And I realized: Beauty fades and puppies die and this is real life.

After that, K and I stopped hanging out. I started going to class. She got a boyfriend, and I eventually dumped M for a guy who was the opposite of crazy.