Peace on Earth, Don’t Kill All Men: Surviving the Holidays as a Holly Jolly Asshole in a Sea of Humbugging Haters

I don’t know why, but it always seems like the words come to me in the wintertime. Specifically, around the holidays, when I am in that unholy pocket between nostalgic melancholy and overwhelming dread for the future–sprinkled with a little topping of seasonal depression.

What is it about these cloying Decembers that seem to have so much potential for memory-making, hearth-warming harvest-joy pumpkin-spiced wool-socked carol-singing sepia-toned photographs to string on the mantel with ribbon next to the pine-scented Christmas tree? You know, part of that image makes me wane with nausea and the other is like, “God I love Rudolf.”

I actually like Christmas. The “holiday season” if you will. I enjoy the baking of cookies and saccharin songs, how everything is cinnamon scented in the grocery store. I try to ignore the existence of traditions like Black Friday and the lilted accusations when someone admits to being a delayed shopper who leaves all gift-buying to the 23rd (ahem, me!). My fiance–excuse me let me just get used to typing out that word, nope–hates Christmas. The season, the joy, all the hearty mirthful cheer. He establishes rules that we cannot watch holiday movies until at least December 1st, must save the classics for later in the month, cannot listen to the songs until appropriately celebratory and cannot stalk outside of the neighbor’s traditionally well-decorated house of Christmasvomit. But he’s a good sport. He knows that this time of year is many-layered for all of us, and he puts up with my need to be merry with a rather endearing Scrooge-like quality that ultimately gives in.

He, and others, have asked why I indulge so in this need to be jolly. I have scanned through my mental Rolodex of Christmas-past and have not really found any viable excuse. Thinking back, I’ve been through a lot of fucked up shit around this time of year. Having been an ongoing purveyor of shitty childhoods, it’s not like Christmastime was the worst time of the year, considering most of it was pretty bad, but there are memorably awful things: my mother being very sick with ovarian cancer is probably the most tangibly traumatic childhood Christmas–though strangely the most traditional. The tree that year was enormous and real, bombarded to the point of tipping with finely wrapped gifts. I recall that year we went to Midnight Mass, something that has never happened before or since, and stayed up half the night drinking cocoa and eating cookies, me on a squeaky violin carving out a painful rendition of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. That was the year that I turned 8, and knowing that there was a symbol behind this particular Christmas, that if Mom didn’t make it we would at least have this to hold onto, I was maybe naive enough to let these just be a series of good days as opposed to the universal “fuck you” it was meant to be. But it turned out that my mother healed gloriously and my child-self considered this a Christmas miracle. This was, at once, the best and worst Christmas of my life. I was a needy, vulnerable little kid, often compulsive in devotion to symbols and traditions–strange little superstitions that if things didn’t go exactly as I imagined them or planned, the very demise of humanity would be totally on me. I think from then on, I sort of convinced myself that if Christmas didn’t stand for something, didn’t represent everything we’re told it’s supposed to, my life would utterly fall apart, and poof, Cinderella at midnight, one shoe on and covered in pumpkin guts.

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Stoked AF at Rockefeller Center. Check that camera. 100% holiday hustle.

 

An eternally optimistic little neurotic, life basically did continue to fall apart and I’d keep being like, “Well thank baby Jesus that Christmas miracles are still a thing.” My sister, more often than not, ruined every other viable childhood Christmas–by stealing things from other people and presenting them as gifts; having a huge episode that necessitated that we not see other family or friends and stay home sullen or split up; having a tantrum that invoked her need for every gift she didn’t get; or just straight up not showing up because she’d run away a few days earlier or something. Meanwhile, I’d be gleefully rifling through my stocking all “Fa la la la la!” and thinking to myself “Don’t you dare fuck this up with your own feelings. KEEP IT PERFECT.” Not to mention that both times my parents split was around the holidays, that my dad’s mood on Christmas was always that of a deflated balloon, that my mother, by association would throw up her hands and often just say “fuck it” closing herself in her bedroom while the rest of us halfheartedly played with whatever new gadget we’d asked for and ultimately just ignore each other. Not your typical holly jollies.

Add to my weird bizarre Christmas litany the fact that my birthday is December 20th, which is basically just not acknowledged for the mere fact that people are broke and when you’re a kid with a Christmas birthday that shit gets fused and it’s just what happens so suck it up. But I was all deranged, walking around and thinking that my birthday was made extra special with all the glee of Noel rubbing off on everything and everyone and how lucky was I that my birthday parties so often got canceled because of inclement weather. How sweet of you universe, to offer up a white Christmas just in time for the occasion of my birth? While literally everyone around me was rolling their eyes and counting down the days until all that candy cane bullshit was just another bad memory, I’d be praying for time to slow itself down just a little bit so that I could make it last that much longer. Advent Calendars, while delicious, seemed a bit too much like rushing the inevitable. Time goes fast enough already, why not just eat all that chocolate at once come Christmas?

Then, the years that proceeded my sister and father’s split from the family was usually just Mom and I tiptoeing around our mutual loneliness and acting like the last-minute necessities we could afford were prized vessels: “How did you know I was running out of paper towels?! Multi-vitamins?!?!? You shouldn’t have! Everything I’ve always wanted.” As I’ve gotten older, these sort of intimate Christmas’s, whether held at her house or my apartment, became these awkward little races to see which one of us could wrap up the day faster and return home to our own celebrated traditions, solitary with our televisions, leftovers, and pets. I’d still be wearing red and green pajamas and tearing up over the end of Home Alone.

Now that I am a full-blown nester, the holidays more revolve around making sure that my own need for spiritedness is satisfied by small things like an adequate Christmas tree that the cat won’t be able to destroy, an appropriately festive mantel, jingly bells on the doorknobs…you know, things that would basically make me vom any other time of the year. I am not a traditionalist by any measure, and more often than not I am a sarcastic snob who basically craps on all middle class ritualistic behavior and yet I’m like, “Ooh ooh! The Santa Clause is on! DON’T YOU DARE SHUT OFF THAT CINEMATIC GENIUS!”

And yet, things are still hard. I am still me, even on Christmas. I am still prone to those inexhaustible winter blues, the inevitable mess my life becomes while trying to “be healthy” this time of year, the rush of gut-wrench that lands like a mace in my bowels when using the “heart” reaction on every happy Facebook family photo, knowing that my own broken family will never pose for any such picture, unable to even mentally gather the last Christmas I spent with my sister some distant eon ago. As a little kid, rifling through the recycled wrapping paper, trying to ignore the already let-down clamor of those sharing space around me, I’d imagine how I’d build my own holidays as an adult and funnel every iota of all that magic precocious child yearning into a future with eggnog and a real family dinner where everyone sat down in one place. The very idea of this fantasy was enough to shut out the reality that my kid-self refused to face. When we’d return to school after the holidays, my “What I did over Christmas Break” essay was always overly-enthusiastic and full of straight-up lies. More often than not I was begging various friends to let me sleep over their houses so I could revel in whatever their families did and pretend I belonged in their Christmas card-stock.

What is both comforting and tragic to my adult self, in retrospect, is the truth. Being a therapist around the holidays is perhaps one of the more perspective-building experiences I’ve ever had. There doesn’t seem to be a single person I’ve met with in the last month who can’t match me in the failed holiday department. The stories are one in the same that begin with hopeful reverie and end with Santa Claus being the joke you cried about after everyone else went to bed. No one kissed her under the mistletoe. The turkey was burnt. The presents were discarded and only the boxes were played with. Someone died on Christmas eve. Everyone got drunk and someone said something awful. Uncle Addict didn’t showed up and his deleterious behavior ruined the whole fucking night. And these are the typical stories we all know. They only get worse. They only land with more tears. I have never had more weeping clients keel over in my office than I have had in the last two weeks.

One of my clients, re-hashing a particularly brutal holiday anecdote, tried to catch her breath between sobs. “I just want it to be over,” she heaved. “It’s the most terrible time of the year.” I had to do my very best not to set her statement to music in my head and found myself asking, a perhaps naive and maybe even insulting question. “Do you ever think it will be different?” She just sort of looked at me, continuing to cry and blow her nose: “What do you mean?” The question, in the moment, was more for me than it was for her. Does continuing to be hopeful this time of year make me an idiot? Or is it sort of lovely that I still so sincerely want for this to be true? I don’t know the answer.

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“Lil Chubby” – our squat and festive shrub

And maybe that’s where I’m coming from here. No more the terminally sanguine child unwilling to see all the darkness and potential for let-down this season seems so wholly to represent, but the possibility that this shitty, damaging, joyless symbol of every spent expectation could be made better just by turning it into something different. A languishing of conjecture perhaps, a throw your hands in the air and say fuck-it kind of thing, a “let’s ditch the turkey and order take-out” testament to doing whatever feels right and good and downright merry in the face of every broiling negative that trolls all potential for joy this time of year. Maybe, for some, it means not acknowledging the day at all–and for this to be fine.

For me, it still looks like a thousand cookie cut-outs shaped like reindeer and all the movies posing what-if sentiments to my jaded little child-mind. What if we all got along for a change this year? What if we all actually wanted to be here in this moment? What if we let this day pass uneventfully and lived the rest of our lives trying to maintain some semblance of meaningful or thankful without stupid fucking Amy Schumer and her relentless Old Navy cacophony of hell?

In the meantime, I validate all the “Fuck Christmas” hate speeches that tirade themselves through my office all day, and sometimes for camaraderie’s sake I throw in a “Yeah, totally” and then I go home, take the long way around the block so I can visit the Christmas house, plug in the fat little tree leaning sideways against the wall, straighten the couple of cards we have decorating the mantel and cue up the Muppet Christmas Carol with not only hope, but a dose of resignation, too. Fuck it, it’s Christmas. God Bless us Everyone.

(Did I mention, I’m a Jew? Oh yeah, I’m a Jew. We’ll get to that next year.)

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On Nesting, Turning 30, and Still Feeling Like a Stunted Adolescent

I get a call from a client who I’m seeing today for her first session. She knows me. When I was a caseworker, we spent some time together. We were both really depressed at the time, but given the nature of my job, she wasn’t kept afloat of my mental health. She doesn’t know that I wrote a poem about her, after she tried to overdose. How, as depressive narcissistics are wont to do, I equated her detriment to my own and convinced myself I would become her some day if I stopped pushing away love and relying on my bitter resolve to get me through anything. Eventually, I started spending an hour or so a week with her, in her trailer. We both liked to do arts and crafts, and she loved watching HGTV and drinking decaf. We’d hang out on little lawn chairs in her living room, knitting and making small-talk. She’d constantly be trying to hand off her belongings to me with little back-handed insults: “My daughter gave me this package of diabetic socks. That bitch knows I don’t have diabetes. Here, why don’t you take them. They’re actually very comfortable.” That sort of thing. I had come to love her, in a way. To look forward to our visits, which seemed less of a home health-care check-in, and more like a social obligation with a friend I was sort of intimidated by. When I was preparing my move to Chicago for grad school and visited her a last time, she hugged me tightly, and I knew that she would miss me. I also knew–could feel–that tired sentiment of hers on repeat: “Someone else is leaving me. Everyone always leaves me.” Perhaps this was the nucleus of our bond: I was also used to being left behind.

Fast-forward two and a half years. I am back in Massachusetts from Chicago, go figure. Having decided that Chicago was too far from my family and so cold that even New England winters seemed tropical in comparison, I sucked it up and returned to a place I had felt I was done with forever. My boyfriend, who had put up with two years of nearly unbearable long-distance (never again, never again), didn’t want to uproot himself and move to who knows where to do who knows what. It didn’t seem fair to keep meandering down this void of not knowing who I wanted to be, let alone where I wanted to be. Besides, after two years of Midwestern hot-dish-charming hospitality, I was ready to get back to some New England salt. The old organization offered me a job off the bat to come back as a full-time individual therapist–almost unheard of for new social workers. In the back of my mind, I felt this queasy sense of failure. I couldn’t make it work somewhere else. Well, I could. But I didn’t want to. Was this place I had come to resent in my separation really the home I was suddenly meant to return to? I still don’t know the answer to that. I have been back for six months. I still feel like I’m floating and my ether is just a little stickier than it’s supposed to be. Is ether supposed to be sticky?

So back to this phone-call. For the purpose of anonymity, we will call her ‘S’. She says, “They tell me I have to be in therapy, but I hate everyone. I literally hate everyone. But they won’t give me my pills if I don’t come. They tell me you’re back. I’m coming to see you, but I’m not trying to grow or change or any of that crap. I’m just coming because I have to.”

I try to hide the laughter in my voice, “S! Is that you?!”

“You know damn well it’s me. You people have the caller i.d.’s. Can we make an appointment or not? I won’t be bothered to come in until after Christmas. I’m not leaving the house until after that mess is over. Do you need any spices? My neighbor must think my food is bland or something because outta the kindness of my heart, I made the old dingbat some lunch and the next day she brings over this whole shelf of spices. Like, don’t do me any favors you old bag. It’s probably poisoned anyway. That house is just one puddle of cat piss after the other. Anyway, you want ’em?”

“Thanks, but I’ll pass.” She’s just as I remembered her. The cynical “don’t act like you know me or give a shit about me” tinge in her voice is exactly the same. I can clearly imagine her sitting in one of her folding plastic lounge chairs in front of her ancient TV wearing a cartoon-cat covered sweatshirt and some brown velour leggings, drinking Crystal Lite while watching an infomercial. The image is at once comforting and tragic. Despite all the books that I’ve read, the conferences I’ve gone to, the personal work that I have done myself…that same thought injects itself into my narrative, that one that I can’t ever seem to shake: “People don’t change.”

Sure drunks can put down the booze, addicts give up the needle, fat people go on diets. Our habits can change. Our environments will ebb and flow. We age and become different manifestations of ourselves. But meaningful change? Those dark and buried secrets within ourselves? Will they ever stop feeling so terrible? Will I ever stop feeling so afraid? And as quickly as I have become cognizant of this fear, I am transported back into that old habit of mine: Using S. as a marker of comparison for my future self. I fall back into it so organically. I don’t even notice.

I don’t necessarily think that there’s anything wrong with that. I am an exceptionally hands-on, visual person, and I know that truly grasping things and making logic out of them often requires some sort of physical semblance of reason. Why do people become therapists in the first place? Yes, there is a helping quality there, there is a micro-desire to give people your attention and insight and kindness and warmth, but is it not, above all, about understanding them? I currently have 37 clients on my caseload, all of whom I meet with on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, and despite their range in experiences, phobias, tragedies, traumas, addictions, desires, etc. I still find myself, in session, making comparisons. While I resist the urge to do so vocally, I make these connections in my head. I try to find snippets of myself in these lived lives. Is this selfish? Or is this just making me better equipped for the work? How can I not  transport myself into the lives of these people when all I know about them are the glimpses of them that they open up to me while sitting on the couch in my office? It’s the perfect career choice for the overly-imaginative child who liked to speak in a British accent to herself and pretend she was an orphan well into her adolescence. Or even more so, that kid who likened herself a less cool Harriet the Spy, always studying people and writing down observations in a Top Secret marble notebook: “Janine from next door wears floral sweater, AGAIN. Her husband Tom has grey chest hair.”

I still don’t know if what I’m doing is right. And I don’t just mean work. I mean, life. On the outside, I think that it all looks pretty normal. I live in a nice, cozy apartment with my boyfriend. We work full-time, make meager but stable incomes, pay off student loans and grapple with issues that appear to be age-appropriate frequent-flyers: Should be legally bind (don’t I make marriage sound so romantic?)? Spawn? Try to own property? And what comes first? Do they make chickens or eggs for these sorts of decisions?

Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I went into a car dealership and I bought a fucking car. A really solid adult car, at that. A Subaru, dammit! And while I basically had to finance the entire thing, and I have no business buying a car (except that I need one, and my current one is 20 years old), I kept having these out of body experiences where I was like, “Wait, did I just sign that?” “Did they just give me that title?” “Why do they think I’m responsible enough for this?” “Aren’t they going to call my mom?” And I think that this constant questioning of myself and my actions come from a place deep down that really believes that I’m faking everything. That everything I do is just one big lie bent on proving to the world around me that I’m okay, and even more than okay, I am like totally well-rounded and secure enough that people COME TO ME FOR THERAPY. Every time I say it, it’s still shocking to me. I live day to day under the guise of stability while praying to whatever universal force I can aim my prayers at not to wake me up to a world of crippling depression, where that guise of functionality is no longer an option.

 

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I just turned 30. I know that a big part of these feels is this number. All through my 29th year, every “older, wiser” person would gripe at my age: “You ready for the big 3-0?” Duh-herr, just as ready as I was for the big 2-9 or the big 9 for that matter. Of course nothing has changed. Not in a way I can feel anyway. I mean, I look at Facebook and my newsfeed is 90% puppies, kittens, and babies and 10% marital glamour shots. That feels new. That feels different. But then I can’t help but watch old movies of people who have their lives together, sitcoms of young beautiful people making it all work out, and they’re all supposed to be like 26 or something fucked up. And I know that the defense for this is “yeah, that’s the movies,” but like, some people really do have their shit together, and how is that possible?

I guess it’s also important to mention that I spent much of my 29th year in constant, chronic pain. What is still waiting to be diagnosed: is it a pinched nerve? Is it a herniated disc? Is it that other disease that I can’t pronounce that basically means chronic ass pain? All I know is that there were many months out of this year that I was doubled over in severe discomfort because of my lower-back. Just getting in and out of bed, my car, my desk chair was enough to make me put off things like walking to the other side of the room. And you never know how frequently you drop things when bending over is such an excruciating task.

And what really hurts? Well, besides the pain? My social life has suffered substantially. I used to be someone who would go out bar-hopping and dancing multiple times a week. I’ve always been down to travel on impulse, be sporadic and spontaneous, immerse myself in the physical world. Suddenly, I’m an indoors girl. I’m afraid of erratic terrain. The very idea of falling makes my heart race. So when people called to ask me to go Mo-Town night and I was in too much pain to actually change my clothes let alone dance in tight, sweaty, slippery quarters for the next several hours, and because the pain didn’t improve the next time or the next time after that… I kept saying no. And my friends stopped calling. I know that part of this is age-related. My group of friends right now are fiercely split between those of us who are in committed long-term relationships, shacked up with their significant others, watching Netflix in bed and spooning…and those who are single and pub-crawling and Tinder-dating and resenting/pitying us nesters. I get that.

But the other part of me can’t help but feel that people think I’m boring now. I think about who I was just 3 years ago. A somewhat promiscuous, often-drunk version of myself who couldn’t get on stage without two shots of whiskey to recite a poem, followed by a night of reckless abandon and often some illicit decision-making to top off the evening. Today? I barely drink and seem to have adopted some sort of alcohol allergy (is this aging, too?) where I’m hungover before I’m drunk and switch over to chaser no chaser, before I’ve finished my beer. I know that I have my purpose. On nights I do go out, I find myself longing to be home before too long and I wonder if this is because I no longer feel able to hold my own or if I’m afraid that a ripple of shooting pain will set me off to a place I can’t recover from, and more terrifying than anything, that I’ll need to ask for help. So I stay home, most of the time. And maybe for the first time in my life, I don’t know who to call anymore. This sounds more dramatic than it is. I have friends. I have wonderful friends. They will always get in touch with me because they need things edited, or because they want advice or the perfect funny come-back to their OkCupid stalker. But it’s fewer and farther between and despite the love of my partner and my pets, which is ongoing and consistent–I’m lonely.

Some gift of the birthday gods made it possible for me to have a nearly pain-free week from December 15-22 when the boyf and I went to Iceland to celebrate my 30-year milestone. I had been having a couple of good weeks before that, and tried to play them down and not give them too much notice, but when I made it through a 5-mile day with only a few periods of stiffness and sciatica, I felt, for the first time in a long time, a sense of relief that I might be okay. I know that it is too soon to say that I am in the clear and I know that these sort of injuries are a part of life and the pain can return to me as easily as it came, but for today, I am not doubled over. Today, I am getting up from chairs and picking up dropped things with ease. Tomorrow might be different, I know that. And even though I walked around that icy tundra like a toddler taking her first steps, I spent my 30-year-day under a volcanic water-fall overlooking the Arctic ocean and it was a goddamn beautiful thing. I could explode with goo and gratitude for how lucky it felt to be me in that moment. There is so much joy left to be had.

What this all culminates to is not a cry for help, a desire to be told how to live my life, a gesture of helplessness in which I need old friends to call me and remind me that they still love me. It’s just an acknowledgement really, of the passing of time, and how it keeps passing, and faster at that. And while it continues passing, I continue searching for myself, and searching within myself to understand the gripping challenges of this life, beyond my own experience. It’s an exercise in maturity, maybe, to admit how fucked up I feel all the time.

It’s a scary world out there, and it’s way less scary for me than it is for a lot of us. I know where my next meal is coming from, I know that when I leave my office I am going home to love and warmth. I have been gifted a small place in this journey that is likely inconsequential and will pass like a hapless wave, but I’m only 30. I have so many more things to be scared of.

 

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Crying and Masturbating: Getting Cozy With Depression and Living Without Meds

For going on about 5 years now, I have dabbled in the use of anti-depressants to keep me in a sort of grounded mode of consciousness where the goal is getting things done in a way that doesn’t result in me curled up on the floor, watching Disney movies, while sobbing. And by “things” I mean, like laundry. Basic human-need stuff. As a writer, sometimes the cloying continuation of having depression was helpful to me. It meant I could take myself out of my life and insert it into something fantastical, like a piece of fiction or even getting really into a TV show or movie, and responding to it in the same sort of imaginative way that I did as a little kid: “Oh, that character represents something meaningful to me, so I will now adopt their persona.” I did this all the time as a youngin’. If you read my last post then you know that I did a lot of dissociating to help me manage what was going on in my fam. I watched the movie Matilda obsessively and would then creep around the house, pointing at things maniacally, and then pretend that my pointing was met with some magical result. “MOM, DID YOU SEE HOW I JUST MADE THE CLOCK CHANGE ON THE STOVE?!” “DAD, I JUST WILLED THE DOG TO PEE IN THAT CORNER! AREN’T I *MAAAAGICAL*?!” That sort of thing.

This coping mechanism carried me into my early twenties. I went through various heartbreaks and hurts as every human does, which was sometimes stippled with periods of intense depression which was most notably weighed down with crippling anxiety, most often in the periods right before bed where every unwanted thought imaginable would careen down the highways of my crazy-making mind and blink on repeat: “Everyone you love will one day be dead.” “You will one day be dead.” “When you’re dead no one will care because you are unlovable. And stupid. And faking it all the time. And ugly. And you’re not funny. And people can see through you. Eat more vegetables. Stop hating mushrooms. Be better than who you are. Oh, yeah, you’re GONNA DIE.” This resulted in me needing to always have to sleep to some sort of noise: sometimes music, but often TV, and by TV I mean, like 99% of the time, falling asleep to Frasier. I don’t know why, but that pompous psychiatrist has soothed me to sleep for like a decade now.

I had always been good at self-soothing. I knew that when nothing could calm my anxiety, I could stand up and do jumping jacks, and that accelarating my heart-rate was some sort of realization that being alive and in the moment was a comforting thing. I had been doing this all of my life, and later learned that this sort of practice had a name: Mindfulness. For that reason, I always have a hair-band on my wrist. Unlike jumping jacks, which cannot always be done in public without explanation, this little trick is really discreet. Popping it against my flesh is a helpful reminder: You exist. You are real. Other people do these sort of exercises in contrast to self-harming. While cutting has never been my thing, self-harming looks like all sorts of different things. To me, it sort of manifests as an Annette Benning in American Beauty kind of tantrum, where I try to slap myself into recognizing that I need to pull my shit together and it turns into a big old meltdown. Not really productive. The rubberband trick works way better and results in fewer  throbbing headaches. So between that, Frasier, jumping jacks, a constantly loaded schedule, and a knack for convincing people to spoon with me, I did a pretty good job of getting by on my anxiety-savvy in a jam toolkit, up until I was about 24, that is.

Then in 2009, a dear friend of mine died suddenly. I had just talked to him on the phone a few days earlier, and he’d sounded as alive as ever. He had just moved to Philadelphia and we chatted briefly about planning a visit and then caught up about the respective writing projects we were working on. When I got the call about his death, my reaction, I can imagine, was very cinematic. At the time, my roommate was this endlessly nervous kid who walked to the hospital every time he got too stoned, so in retrospect, my reaction in that moment, still makes me feel sort of apologetic. I became a hurricane: I started knocking things over on shelves, tearing through the apartment screaming and breaking things, and eventually tore through the screen door and outside onto the patio where I projectile vomited onto the ground a story below. It was not pretty, and it’s the only time something emotional has resulted in a reaction so physical. The immediate result of grief is a powerful force, and if you need anything to convince you that you’re alive, that sort of news will do it to you, in the worst way possible.

Following the tumultous aftermath of my friend’s untimely passing, I became nothing more than a slightly higher functioning vegetable. So like, a weed? I was still alive and taking up space and expanding in size and piles of crap I kept adjacent to me, but other than that I was nearly non-functional. I stopped going to work and ultimately quit my job, I moved from my bedroom to the couch downstairs so that the traffic and momentum of people who lived in the apartment were at least reminders that I wasn’t completely alone (nervous stoner roommate moved out shortly after my puke-splosion). I didn’t leave the house, and I barely left the couch. I ate my meals there, I slept there, and if life had afforded me a bed-pan at that juncture, I would have likely accepted it gratefully. All I did, all day long, was watch The X-Files. Luckily at this time, I did have neighbors who, recognizing my decline as something out of the ordinary, did come over often to partake in watching the show with me, and so instead of seeing it as piteous suicide-watch, I delusionally convinced myself that these encounters were actually social events. To this day, I maintain that I was not suicidal. The thing was that I was too depressed to put anything like suicide into frame, to have a plan, to think about it in anyway beyond a sort of abstract notion that sometimes depressed people jumped off high things. I didn’t want to do that. But if I somehow just happened upon death, I wouldn’t have run the other way, maybe. Perhaps the most unusual part of this period for me was my need to keep it to myself. Here I was, physically decompensating in a very overt fashion, but when someone would be like, “Hey Lauren, how ya doing?” I would list off how okay I was. “Doing great, another day of job hunting. Gonna maybe go hiking this weekend.” In actuality, my roommates were talking amongst each other and trouble-shooting how to have a sort of “We’re worried about the imprint in the couch you’ve created since you haven’t moved from it in 3 months” intervention.

At 24, I had seen my share of tragedies, had lost relatives and suffered miserable break-ups, and had my full share of coming of age chaos, but this was the first time that I had encountered the loss of someone my age, someone who emblemized life and adventure and brilliance and charisma, and the very unceremonious and seemingly nonchalant way that he just ceased to exist all of a sudden made me feel like everything was suddenly useless. Those persistant racing thoughts before bedtime suddenly became my constant internal monologue. Why bother doing anything, ever, when the end result was always the same? There was no running from the eventuality of decay and death, no one was safe, ever. That thought flooded me and everything I tried to do. I look back at my journal entries from those dark days and it’s like reading the words of someone floating through a thick layer of mud. “I tried to go to the store today, but when I stood up from the couch, I thought my knees would give out. I heard Sam downstairs and I wanted him to see me off the couch, so I stood next to it until he came upstairs just so I could lie and tell him that I had just come home from somewhere.” This was an everyday occurance.

At some point, my savings depleted itself and I had to get a job. It took three months of nothingness to propel me into forward motion. It didn’t take long before I was hired at a residential group home for children with “behavioral disorders”. The quotations around that phrase is for another post, and all the many layered things I feel about the utter bullshit surrounding childhood mental health diagnoses. But aaaanyway, these kids had all lived the sort of tragedies I couldn’t even fathom, and working in that environment, while grueling, perplexing and complicated, did offer me a well of perspective. I still came home every night with a desire only to drink whiskey and go to bed, but there was purpose to my days now.  The thickness of my depression was still weighing heavily in my life, but I at least could say that I was functioning now.

After six months, my insurance finally kicked in. I hadn’t been in therapy in a really long time, since being traumatized as a kid, but I felt that this was something I was willing to explore again, especially as my professional interests began overlapping into the therapeutic service arena. When I called the only available provider I was disheartened to find out that there were no available therapists at the time. “None at all?” I asked the receptionist. “No, not right now. But we can put you on the waitlist. In the meantime, do you have any interest in seeing our psychiatrist? He has some current openings.” The thought never crossed my mind, but suddenly I heard myself saying, yes, I was interested, and accepting an appointment.

Photo on 2-11-15 at 7.45 PMThe idea of seeing a psyche doctor was very foreign to me. I grew up with a very anti-pharmaceutical, homeopathic mother who shook her fist at the medical model every chance she could. I had been taught to believe that antidepressants were meant for social control, antibiotics for creating phantom sickness, and that pain medication would ultimately get you addicted and turn you into an unrecognizable villain version of your former self. In fact, when I broke my arm after graduating from college and had to spend 6 weeks looking at chunks of my bones sticking out in jagged directions from my shoulder to my elbow, I took my Percocet as prescribed. After a few days of taking the meds, I had a fight with my mom who accused me that the Percocet had “changed me” and I actually flushed the remnants because I was so convinced that I was being controlled by a pharmacological mastermind bent on making me into his minion. Conditioning, folks. It’s real.

Anway, I went to see Dr. Somers with the expectation that he would infer I was not suitable for medication. I even made a point to downplay my current circumstances: “Oh a friend of mine died somewhat recently. It’s been hard for me.” He started asking me all these questions that didn’t seem to have anything to do with my presenting concerns and after about a half hour of note-taking and scrutiny he inched his chair a little closer to me and said, “Lauren, has anyone ever diagnosed you with major depression?” Um, no? At least not…professionally. Dr. Somers scribbled something down on a pad and handed it to me. “This is a script for Celexa,” he said, “I think it might help you.” Dr. Somers spent the next 45 minutes answering every excrutiating question I had as a first-time antidepressant taker. I wanted to know every detail of what I could expect. He was very patient and gave me the basic run down: side affects, mood changes, apetite, etc. I left feeling informed and reasoned to myself that millions of Americans took antidepressants and I was depressed, so why should I be a martyr to it? I promptly filled the prescription and became a statistic.

At first, I didn’t notice anything different with the Celexa, aside from some more physiological odditites. I had to take it with juice,  because anything else would give me heartburn. I couldn’t take it too close to bed because it would make me jumpy, but I couldn’t take it too early in the morning, because it made me nauseous. I figured out a good schedule for taking it but other than that, it was weeks until I noticed any emotional changes. I was told that it would take about this long to have any effect, so I sort of stopped noticing after a while. Then, one day, I had a fight with an ex of sorts who I was still actively trying to pursue. They said terrible things to me, accused me of being crazy, and made me feel all the awful things that a messy relationship will afford. I sat on my couch, that favored of depressive locales, and made my go-to crying face. Nothing happened. I sat there for like 20 minutes attempting to will myself to cry, but nothing was coming out. It was off-putting. I knew myself enough to know that any other time in my life I would be doing the whole crying so hard it was coming out in a silent gag type thing. And sitting there, just making the face was like trying to throw up after a night of drinking before the nausea actually hit you. It was terrible. I put on the saddest song I could think of and when that didn’t work, I just sat there blankly. “Well, that was weird,” I thought to myself. I couldn’t describe if there was something empowering about it, or if it was mind-bogglingly counterproductive. I had spent my whole life using my crying face as a means to unwind and come to terms with my complicated feelings. I felt betrayed by my body that some outside intruder was preventing this outlet.

Eventually, I did notice that things were improving for me, little by little. I was sleeping in my bed now, I was going out with friends, attempting to date, eating vegetables. All the little self-care things that had been part of my past regimen slowly brought themselves back into focus, and my life became worth living again. I definitely attribute part of this to Celexa, and the passing of time, because cliche cliche cliche, whatever. It heals the wounds.

Over the next few years, I kept up with antidepressant use. I had been so terrified of falling back into the doom and gloom of that awful period of my life, that I became very conscious of monitoring my moods. Certain things did trigger med changes: for example, when I entered a new relationship and realized that no amount of inventive skill could help me to achieve an orgasm, I switched over to Welbutrin. When Welbutrin became the conclusion for what I can only describe as vibrating vision, I switched over to Lexapro. When Lexapro made me dizzy and nauseous more than it actually helped my depression, I went back to Celexa and finally, landed on Zoloft. There were times when I felt well enough to ween myself off of a med, and a couple times, like a total dumb-dumb, I just quit cold turkey and learned quickly that withdrawal effects of antidepressants are worse than the actual experience of depression. But, for all intents and purposes, I have been medicated for nearly five years. (Mom, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry I betrayed you. My bad.)

While I have many doubts about the pharmaceutical business and feel whole-heartedly that there is a lot of evil mixed up in the efficaciousness of psyche meds, I have worked in mental health settings for the last six years. I have seen firsthand what going off and on and up and down with your meds can to do a person, psychically and physiologically. Beautiful things can come from medication, but ugly things can result as well. I came to a point in my life where I wanted to know who I was again, without meds as a crutch.

Fastforward to the here and now, and I am a month and a half into being a non-med user. I tapered off slowly, as directed this time, after deciding that I was ready to take the chance and let unadulterated Lauren out of her cage. Besides, I reasoned to myself, if I need them again, they will always be there. There is no shame in the med game. I feel like I need to put flashing lights and neon colors around this statement. THERE IS NO SHAME, MY FRIENDS. This is not an anti-meds diatribe, this is just me. Psyche meds help maaaad people, and I am no exception. I just felt I was ready to break out of the pillbox.

It’s strange how depression hits you. It’s sort of this insulating shell, and despite its overall shiftiness, for lack of a better term, there is something deeply reminiscent and almost nostalgic-feeling when it creeps back up on you. A few days after I cut down on the Zoloft, I could feel a sort of pull in my brain, like an “Oh there you are,” recognition greeting me from my brain to my heart to the nerve-endings erupting all over my body. It was nothing like the worst it had been, not even close. Just, this sort of exposed feeling. Almost flu-like, that if I rubbed up against someone lightly on the bus it would make me ache. It was this sensitivity that I noticed first, as I began my taper.

It’s funny that one of the first thoughts I had when I felt myself sort of sinking back into the familiar of my depression was that it didn’t make sense. I actually said to myself, “That’s weird, I didn’t feel this way while I was on meds.” Like, duh. Anti-depressants most definitely have a numbing quality that becomes most apparent when you’re off them. In addition to that feeling of susceptibility, I did notice some positive things. First and foremost, my drive to write became more distinct than it had in a long time. I force myself to write constantly, because I know how good it is for me, how I use it to process and reflect and all the other things that writing does for everyone, when they commit to it. But now it was like a need. I started feeling inspired, getting lines of poems caught in my head and repeating them over and over to myself until I had some paper in front of me, and then, miracle of all miracles, actually remembering what I wanted to say! So often I’ll think, “oh, there’s a good line,” and then I’ll blink, and it’ll be gone.

Also, my dreams have become way less intense. I know there is a chemistry-related reason for why your dreams become so out there on certain medications, but Lexapro in particular, gave me so many bizarre nightmares, practically on a daily basis, that it eventually became the reason why I stopped taking it. But Zoloft was also weird for the dreamscapes and I have noticeably less adventurous sleep patterns these days, though, sadly, I do notice that I’m not sleeping quite so well, despite the lack of weirdness.

Then of course came the randiness. It had actually been sort of nice to not feel so controlled by my libido, especially living in Chicago and away from my boyfriend. Being long-distance sucks no matter what, but when you’re not going off the wall due to lack of sex, it seems sort of manageable. But now, I feel like a 16 year old boy. Spending serious quality time with my sweet baby Hitachi (seriously ladies, best purchase of my life, do yourselves a favor), it feels sort of off-putting to start having weird sexual fantasies about strangers on the bus, your neighbors, your co-workers, your professors…. It’s not like sexual feelings, like, oh I really wanna tap that. It’s like, I WONDER WHAT HIS FACE LOOKS LIKE WHEN HE BUSTS and inappropriate thoughts like that all day long, paired with the fact that yeah, I can’t have sex right now because commitment, and God that’s hard.

Perhaps the most overt and disconcerting part of being full-blown, unadulterated Lauren, is the constant crying. Now I am someone who is relatively quick to tears in the first place. I like watching sad movies and crying, I like listening to sad songs and crying, I like reading sad books and crying. You get the idea. But it’s a private experience. I am not someone who cries in public, really ever. And usually, it’s a certain mood I am in, where the tears will be welcome or at least expected. Lately, I feel like I am constantly on the rag. It’s like this cloying emotional constancy that everything in the world is so tangible and wide-open and isn’t that so beautiful and awful at the same time? Just in the last week alone the following things have made me cry: A little boy running up to his dad on the street and grabbing his hand, a perfectly-shaped snowflake, the way my dog looked at me when I got home yesterday, my Nana telling me she loved me, my boyfriend not responding how I envisioned he would when I told him something, an article I read about a Trans sex worker in El Salvador, an NPR story about an invisible soccer game, a picture of Bruce Jenner making a sad face, every picture that Humans of New York posts on Facebook ever. I just feel way too in tune with everyone’s emotions and it’s making me so uncomfortable, because I like to wear a facade of togetherness, and this is really soiling my own vision of myself.

Lastly, there is this desire to nurture and love that is very new to me. I mean, that doesn’t sound right, it’s like a very specific maternalism. I think that this can be attributed more to my age and stage of life than anything else, but literally every time I see a baby-anything, my first impulse is to figure out a way to make it mine. Enter the kitten that I adopted last week, and you may start to see this trend.

Last week, which felt like the height of my reconnection to the experience of depression (can I stop calling it that? Can I just call it, “not entirely enjoyable fuzziness”? Because I feel like that’s more accurate…anyway), I found out that my friend couldn’t take care of the cat he adopted. Normally, I would be like, “Oh what a shame, seemed like a good cat,” but at this point in my life, before I had a chance to even understand what I was doing, I was calling the shelter where she was now staying and agreeing to come pick her up and make her mine. It was like a completely unthinking move, which is scary, because like, what if that was a baby? Okay, not likely, but you know?

Luckily, little kitten lady, or Hillary Rodham Kitten, as I have aptly named her, is somewhat of a terrorist but a loving addition to my family, which until now has been just me and my dog. I am afraid that if this Winter is any indication of what’s to come if I maintain this feeling of my feelings regimen, I will just keep adopting animals until my life is just one weird exotic creature harem, where I’ll be at the center, just crying and masturbating at the same time.

So this is where I’m at right now. I’m not sure why I decided to “out” myself in this way, but I think that the most cohesive thing that I can think of is the fact that we attach so much shame to our feelings, to asking for help, to being honest about them, and I just think that’s a bullshit way to live. For the last two years, I have been working as a therapist, and if I’ve learned anything it’s that being authentic and transparent is the best way to navigate your relationships, professional or personal. It seems like too much of a chore to be on the other side, as the therapist, and to be this sort of stone-cold beacon of non-feeling. I want my clients to know that I understand and have lived with pain and confusion and nothingness, and that, sometimes I need to snap a rubber band on my wrist so that I don’t have a panic attack.

I don’t mean this to say that I want to be so straightforward in my experiences that I am divulging personal details and crying on their shoulders, I just want to be able to express a kind of “yeah, buddy, I get you,” vibe because what is the point of a clinically frozen interaction? I don’t need to tell patients that I’ve taken meds or have experienced depressive episodes, but I think that having those encounters and talking about them as they are relevant is a strength, if nothing else.

Recently, an acquaintance sent me a Facebook message, asking me what my experiences of mental illness were, based on how much I talk about this subject. After she sent the message, she followed it up by saying that she immediately regretted asking, because it was too personal. I think this is my point, living is hugely personal. Being, and feeling, and grieving, eating, fucking, crying, shopping, EVERYTHING, all the verbs, are so subjective, but there is overlap. There is no such thing as the phrase, “It isn’t personal” because if it weren’t, we would not have narratives, words, tangents, or feelings. The essence of the word personal is being a person.

So, it’s a struggle. It’s weird to feel so open and thin-skinned and there is a discomfort in not having the routine of taking a little white tablet before bed every night that will keep me from getting too caught up in myself. And I don’t know if this is it for me, it might just be a temporary thing. I might decide next week that crying in Thai restaurants while waiting for my bubble tea feels too weird. Or maybe I’ll get used to this, and it will be just another invigorating life experience that gels together all the other ones that have lead up to now. Who knows? All I know for sure is that I have a cat and a dog cuddling in my bed right now, that the heat is on and Frasier is cued up on Netflix, that I’ve been writing a story and cooking a lot of soup, and that things are starting to come together, even if it’s in a haphazard “I glued this shit together with Mod Podge” kind of fragile.  So I’m going with that. And if shit gets too real, well, I’ve got this rubber-band.

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Not an Only Child: Giving in to the Grief that is Emily

I was on the phone with my mom a few days ago; just catching up about the basics. I had mentioned that I was meeting a new friend for lunch and that I was looking forward to it. She asked me a couple questions, mostly, “What are you going to eat? Where is she from? How did you meet her?” etc. I had said that it was funny, because I felt that we had a lot of similarities: grew up in rich suburbs but were definitely not rich kids, left high school early, went on for advanced degrees, love cheesy horror movies, blah blah blah. Mom was all, “Well you know there’s probably some sort of spiritual alignment of the universe and crystals, candles, and spells,” or something weird. And then she asked me, “Does she have any siblings.” No, I replied, she was an only child. “Oh,” Mom said, “Well, that makes sense. You’re sort of an only child.” It wasn’t the first time she’d said something like this; I had heard the phrase before and just sort of sighed loudly and moved on. But this time it gave me pause.

“But I’m not an only child,” I responded, not wanting this conversation to launch us into an argument, but unable to let it go all the same. “Oh, you know what I mean,” Mom countered. But I kept at it. “When you say things like that,” I started, “You minimize the experience of my loss. It’s like you’re erasing my history and taking away the ownership of my title as a sister. It was a huge part of my development, and continues to be a guiding influence in my life.” Mom sort of apologized, in this way that I knew I had surprised her and threw her for a loop. In the thirteen years since I’ve seen my sister, I’ve barely spoken about her. In a lot of regards, I’ve kept her hidden. But I haven’t forgotten about her.

It’s a terrible thing to think that it might be easier if Emily had died. If it was tragic and we mourned and we were able to regard her with love and affection, as someone who was taken from us who we miss every day. I don’t know if it would be any less painful or not, but at least there would be a finality to it. There wouldn’t be some person walking around, sharing my likeness and my blood, who I know is leaving a trail of chaos wherever she lands. It wouldn’t be the sort of familiar rift that tore apart so many people that I love, and I would have a deeper understanding of the cruelty of the universe, perhaps. People die, it’s just reality. But Emily’s not dead. The last I heard, she was living in New York.

Featured image    The first few years of my life were pretty straightforward. I lived in a two-parent home on Long Island. I had a big sister, five years my senior, and my life was safe. My parents’ often played the song Our House, by Crosby Stills & Nash, so emblematic of our little unit, right down to the two cats in the yard. And everything was easy. For a little while, anyway.

Emily started acting out when she was about 7.  Little things, like stealing school supplies from other kids in her class, or lying about a grade she got. Things quickly progressed; I remember being around 4 or 5, and Mom caught Emily filling her pockets with things at Marshalls, how we dropped everything we were buying and left the store, Mom screaming in the car on the way home. When she was in 5th grade, Emily accused her teacher of touching her inappropriately. My parents, wanting to give their daughter the benefit of the doubt, enacted a painstaking and demoralizing investigation of the teacher, who swore up and down that nothing had ever happened. Eventually, after getting caught in various lies, Emily admitted that she’d made the whole thing up. Following this incident, my parents relationship started to dwindle, I was dragged from therapist to therapist, often having to sit in the waiting room by myself while one specialist to the next, gave their insights into what was wrong with my troubled sister.

When I was 8 and Emily was 13, Mom was diagnosed with Ovarian cancer. Dad, who had moved out two years earlier, moved back in to take care of things. It was a dark, terrible time. Mom was in and out of the hospital for treatment, she’d be doing a little better, and then she’d get sick again. My grandmother came to stay. At night, I slept with Mom’s pillow because it smelled like her. I was often excused from school so that I could stay home with my Nana and go visit Mom in the hospital. I remember thinking, at that young age, that Emily might be good now. That since our Mom was sick, she would just stop acting out and let everyone be. But Mom’s sickness was fuel for her; she told teachers and friends at school that she was dying, she talked about it all the time in this way, that even then, I knew was sinister. While we all waited with bated breath to hear good news about Mom’s prognosis, it was as though Emily was hoping for the worst, so that she could use it to her advantage. When Mom did eventually get better, by some miraculous feat of nature, Emily continued to tell people she was sick. She even told some people that Mom died. Someone in my class, whose brother was the same age as Emily, expressed her sympathy to me.

As is the norm in small towns, Emily quickly grew a reputation for being a fuck-up. She would terrorize students and teachers alike, and lo and behold, I would have teachers who knew about her, and dreaded my appearance in their classes. My own needs were often put on the back burner while my parents catered to my sister and continued reaching out to specialists and gurus, refusing to put her on medication based on my mother’s holistic beliefs. There was always something going on: Emily had stolen some precious bauble from a family friend’s home; Emily made up a terrible lie about an acquaintance; Emily had run away from home and no one could find her. In the background, I was an awkward, shy little kid, constantly writing in my notebooks, sent to play outside or with the neighbors so that my parents could figure out their shit.

Eventually, I was old enough, at 12, to be my parents’ spy. I’d have to come right home from school and give a play-by-play report about what Emily had gotten up to until they came home from work. As latch-key kids, my parent’s worked until the evening, and instead of doing normal after school activities, I had to park myself in the living room and make sure Emily wasn’t getting into trouble. I hated this role, was constantly resented by Emily, who would often become physically and verbally abusive in the face of my “goody-two-shoes”-ness or would make me swear I wouldn’t tell Mom or Dad about certain things. I occasionally would fall under her spell: Emily was smart, charismatic, and it was easy to fall for a lot of what she said. As an adolescent to her teenaged antics, her existence was a mysterious anomaly to me. She had boyfriends and grown-up clothes, kids who swore and smoked cigarettes on our front lawn, loud music and a life I was kept away from. And always, always, Emily had attention.

Eventually, she ran away and she didn’t come back. She ended up at a shelter for abused teens, convincing the staff that my parents abused us (they didn’t, ever). When a social worker came to speak to me, I had to sit through a series of painstakingly humiliating questions akin to “Does your Dad ever watch you undress?/Does your mother ever pass out from drinking?” I cried the whole time. The social worker eventually determined that based on the appearance of our house (clean, nice, suburban), that nothing bad was going on here. Of course, she was right, but the irony of how many terrible things that were likely taking place on well-to-do cul de sacs was not above my understanding. Emily was kicked out of the shelter and had to come back home.

After that, the chaos continued. I was a teenager myself now, and I was under constant surveillance. In all the years I had grown up in my house, I often felt invisible. I was sent away for summers, given orders to leave rooms while my parents were brainstorming for Emily, but now, I was older. I was always a good kid, but any sort of step towards misbehaving was viewed as a warning sign that I might be going downhill. My mother became an over-protective force of embarrassment, insisting that she know where I was at all times, without question, and that every parent of every friend was called on a constant basis. A particularly awful memory was a day in 9th grade that a boy I had an enormous crush on invited me to go to McDonald’s after school. I had told my mom that I was staying after for some extra help, (it wasn’t a complete lie, either), but afterwards I went with him to get a milkshake. Mom came to check on me, because “she could tell I was lying,” and when she didn’t see me at the study session, a friend told her where I was. The McDonald’s was just a few blocks from the school and it was no big deal, everyone went there after class. But not me, I was my sister’s keeper. Mom stormed into the restaurant and grabbed me by the hair. She pulled me out and into the car, screaming at me in the parking lot, a bunch of kids from my grade looking out the window at the scene and laughing. When we got home, Mom called me a slut. I knew she was acting out of fear, out of her inability to effect her older daughter in this way, but it hit me in a place that I’ve never quite recovered from. I love my mom with everything I am, but I didn’t deserve that.

That year, I got a beeper for my birthday, but when Emily gave out my number to all the boys she met at the shelter and promised them that I gave “good head”, I had to give it away. When she promised me off to one of them and had him corner me after school in the parking lot, I had to scream at the top of my lungs until my English teacher heard my cries and scared him off.

My friends were always fascinated by my sister’s existence. We lived in a white-bread upper middle class town where everyone knew everyone else’s business, and nothing ever happened. My sister was a constant source of gossip and amusement. What had she done now? Their parents were always asking me, “How is Emily? Is she doing any better?” No was the answer. No was always the answer. Emily spent the last few years of high school running away and jumping from one group home to the next. There was always a story that garnered some sort of sympathy. And people who didn’t know about her always found her charming. She was hired as a nanny one Summer, she spoke endlessly about how much she liked it, and how sweet the kids were who she was watching. I remember a few calm weeks when we thought we were seeing some change in Emily. Maybe this job was good for her. Then I came home one afternoon and found that my shelf of beloved trinkets had been wiped clean: the only doll I ever loved, my favorite gold locket, my baby bracelet, a blanket I slept with every night. Emily gave them all to the kids she was nannying. I never got them back.

In my sophomore year of high school, Emily went on a popular talk show. She told the host a million false sob stories and none of us even knew that she had signed up for it. After it aired, everyone was talking about it. I wanted to disappear. Shortly after that my dad moved out, but for good this time. Without a second thought to what I had been through and what I needed from a parent, he moved to New Mexico. We don’t speak often.

I was a junior when Emily got pregnant the first time. She was 21. We’d already been estranged for some time, but all of a sudden there was a baby involved. I would talk to her on the phone and ask about it, part of me wanted to see her, part of me had not stopped caring about what happened to her.

In June of that year, she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, Joshua. I was 16, and enamored the moment I touched his little brown foot. My mother, in spite of herself, accepted her role as a grandmother and made it her business to keep this little boy safe. One day, Emily dropped Joshua off for us to baby-sit, and she didn’t come back. One thing lead to another, we found out that Emily had been pawning off her pregnancy like anything else of value she’d ever had in her possession. She had promised his adoption to nearly a dozen families, had taken money, food, shelter, clothes; anything you could possibly give to a young, needy mother. When someone finally filed a police report about what she’d done, which was decide after Joshua was born that she’d changed her mind and planned to keep him, an investigation began and Emily took off. My mother instantly became his sole guardian, determined to find him a loving family.

Joshua stayed with us through the summer. I adored him. I couldn’t get enough of him. His baby smell, his wiry hair, his beautiful mocha skin, his laugh. Even when he’d wake me, wailing in the middle of the night, I felt I had a purpose. I loved him with every ounce of my being. As the summer drew to an end, Joshua’s adoption became a reality. My mother had found the perfect family, and one August morning, it became finalized. The day Joshua left, I was carted away from the house, stricken with such an immense depression that I didn’t speak for days. I had grown so attached to my nephew, and the pain in losing him was something I can still barely bring myself to think about. It was after this experience that I had made the decision to cut Emily out of my life. It was too painful, too toxic. The amount of people she had hurt and her lack of remorse was something I could just not tolerate any longer.

My junior year of high school was a complete blur. I barely remember it at all. I walked through the halls in a glazed over sadness and could not bring myself to talk about Joshua. I kept to myself, ended friendships, soothed myself with terrible teenaged sex, and coasted through my classes. When that year was finally over, and a door opened that allowed me to leave school and start college a year early, I jumped at the chance to get away. And I didn’t look back.

The last time I saw my sister, I was 16 years old. In a few weeks, I’ll turn 29. In the time since I’ve seen her, Emily has given birth to four other children. During each pregnancy, she has committed the same fraud: maliciously promising her baby to a multitude of families and getting money in return. Inevitably, this has caught up with her and she has been in and out of prison, jumping from state to state.

Mom has given up on Emily ever changing, but because she is a mother, and because she has no choice, Emily is always on her radar. She has been instrumental in finding safe homes for each of the baby’s that ultimately always get taken away from her. Four out of five of the children are in the same home; the same home with Joshua, who is now 12. Those four kids share their lives with my mom, knowing her as their Naunie, in an open adoption. I have not been able to bring myself to meet any of them, have not had the courage to speak to Joshua who I think about every day, who I cry for often.

I have hidden this part of myself away for a long time. I know that much of it is repressed, that I don’t bring it out because it scares me, it hurts and I know that it has the power to swallow me. When I speak about my depression openly, sometimes I forget that there is a source. Sometimes, I just blame it on the Winter. Over the years, Emily has reached out to me several times, but I don’t believe that she will ever change. I think that she is the kind of sick that will only leave more heartache in her wake.

A couple weeks ago, I was at my social work internship meeting with a client for therapy. My father called me, which is unlike him, as he never calls. I excused myself from the session for a moment, knowing something must have been wrong. “Something’s happened to your Mom,” he said. “A social worker called me, she’s been in an accident.” As a social worker, I know what it means when one of them calls to tell you there’s been an accident. It’s only bad news. I hung up with my dad and called my Aunt and then my Uncle. No one answered. I flew down four flights of stairs, dizzied and hysterical, out into the cold Chicago air. Without my coat, my keys, or a direction, I paced the street and finally called my mom’s cellphone, hoping that someone would answer. When she picked up the phone, sounding completely normal, I collapsed on the sidewalk and heaved. She was totally fine. There was no accident.

When I called back my father, he sounded nonplussed. Apparently, Emily had told a social worker in jail that my mom had been killed in a car accident, and she called my father to verify. My dad still believes that she will change, “I love her. She’s my daughter,” he says to me over the phone, while my heart is still beating out of my chest, the fear that something has happened to my mother still lingering in the back of my throat. I do not understand why he has never given me this love in return, why he has it reserved for a person who has only caused pain wherever she’s been. “She’s sick,” he says.

Emily has been a deeply buried secret since I’ve moved away from home. Every so often, she comes up in conversation, because despite my pain, my anger, my resentment, there is still love. There are moments, few as they are, that I remember fondly, things about her that I still see when I close my eyes: the shape of her hands, fingers long and slender, her tan unblemished skin. I’ll say, “That reminds me of my sister,” and inevitably, someone will say, “You have a sister?” And I’ll nod and say, “Yeah, but we’re not close,” and quickly change the subject.

I know that in my hiding, in my avoidance, I am stalling growth. I am pretending that this pain is not my own, that it belonged to someone else, who lived and died and started anew. But there was a child who lived in that shadow, and that shadow had a name, and it was Emily. She exists. She is a part of me. She is my sister, my blood. She is a stranger to me, and I will never understand her, and perhaps, will never forgive her for what she’s done, what she’s taken.

I don’t want to forget what happened, as hard as it was to go through it this way, to backtrack through the memories and put them to a page. I know the path I have chosen, in large part, is because of Emily: how I grieve, how I process, the profession I am in. Any time someone is surprised to learn I have a sibling, I don’t want to have to go into the details, to say, I lived this fucked up childhood, and this is why. But I don’t want to deny it either. I don’t want to wear it as a shroud. I don’t believe in things like, “I am better for it,” and “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” but I do believe in letting go, and I am all for release:

Dear Emily, you are my history. You are my wound. You are my sad story. You are my painful scar. You are that dull ache, that persistent gnaw. Emily you are my sister. And I am not an only child. I was never a child at all.

Still, I wish you peace. Still I fill myself with love and hope you feel it.

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I JUST WANT TO BE LOVED, IS THAT SO WRONG?! The downward spiraling of a neurotic’s pursuit towards self-love

Here’s the snapshot: I am nearing my apartment, moments away from having a piss myself emergency, stack of mail in one hand, leash in the other, my very excitable dog pulling me down the street while attached to that leash. I get out my keys and see a woman, a few yards away, approaching to get into the building. Even though my hands are full and I have to fumble to open the gate, I wait for her and let her in, because that’s the nice thing to do, because it’s polite. If this were me I would have been gratuitously thankful, “Oh my God thank you so much, you didn’t have to do that!” Like, overkill gracious. Really, all I require is a brusk thanks, but what does this woman do? She walks right by me, doesn’t say a word, and to top it all off, she brushes past me, like physically moves me out of the way, so that she can get to her destination faster.  My rational mind just swallows this, feels like poopy-shit, and trudges to my apartment. But my insecure, self-conscious, and sensitive mind feels hurt! She wants to yell, “YOU’RE WELCOME!” She wants to throw a stick. But mostly, she wants to say, “WHY DON’T YOU LIKE ME?! I’M A REALLY GREAT GIRL!” Fatal flaw that it is, I am overwrought with the need to be liked, and in general, care way too much what people think of me.

Where does this come from? I’m not really sure. It’s been with me since around Kindergarten. I have a vivid memory of being in my tap dance class, where we were paired up alphabetically. My partner, somehow, was also named Lauren Singer. (Yes, seriously, we ended up going to the same high school and even getting each other’s SAT scores, wtf?!) Well, this Lauren Singer decides that she doesn’t want to hold my hand. I am 5 and she is 4, and I am all like, “THE FUCK OTHER LAUREN SINGER? I CAME FIRST!” I probably didn’t phrase it in this way exactly, but that very early symbol of rejection has stuck with me, nearly 23 years later. Why didn’t Voldemort Lauren Singer want to be my friend? Why didn’t she want to hold my hand? What in the fuck kind of cooties did she think I had?

This aspect of my personality was one that I was able to hone by being a likable kid. I quit tap dance and joined little league instead. I learned a bunch of obnoxious songs and mastered the joys of hocking loogies. I wasn’t a bully, I knew how to share, blah blah blah. This stuck with me as I matured into an obnoxious adolescent and ultimately well-intentioned teenager. Basically, in retrospect, I was very much a Lindsay throughout my most prominent years.

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All of this being said, I have never had to fight much to be liked. Friends have come easily to me. I am a non-intimidating teapot of a human being, so my threat-levels are low; I am a self-deprecating funny girl, and us gals have oodles of chums: we’re not trying to steal your lovers, we usually have snacks, we’re clever on the spot when you need some good cheering up, and we can rock a good theme party, so really, what’s not to love? Okay, I can be irritatingly snarky, I sometimes don’t know how to segue out of a sarcasm tangent, I have too many opinions about everything, I am a hapless gossip, and I will steal your pen. But, other than that, I’m a pretty okay lady.

What is this leading up to, you ask? Well, I guess it’s just I’ve felt pretty…disposable lately. And it’s not a feeling that I am taking too well. Justifiably, there are factors here that have explanations: first, I do tend to make things about me when they’re not necessarily about me. People are getting older, relationships are changing, folks are settling down into their romantic nests of never leaving the house to hang out with buddies, cliques form of their own accord, and I have been running around like a maniac for the last year. I guess I just have higher expectations of people than I should at this point in my life, and as I type out these words, I’m like fuck that, your expectations should be high, but I feel bummed out all the same. [I should also use this opportunity to make a small disclaimer, that there are people that have punctuated my life in ways that have ALWAYS made me feel loved, and who have ALWAYS been there for me. These people most definitely know who they are, and should know that these feels are in no way directed towards them. What’s more is that no one, even those that might happen upon this post who are guilty of falling off the communicado-train, should take this rant personally. I am a sensitive ball of mush, but I ain’t mad atcha. I just, you know, feel all the feelings.]

Anyway, I returned to Northampton, MA this summer for a three month stretch of time, mostly to make the most of my break from grad school and to be with my boyfriend, because long distance is the suck no matter how many tits you send through snapchat. For the most part, being back with him and getting to re-group from an incredibly challenging and soul-crushing academic year made everything worth it. I had a good job, I spent a lot of time writing, I self-published a book, I did a fair amount of traveling, I read for pleasure, enjoyed the beautiful outdoor landscape of New England, and basically, you know, just made the most of my summer. But my social life? It left a lot to be desired.

My boyfriend’s and my schedule were such that more often than not, much to our chagrin, we were like passing ships in the night. Four nights out of the week my schedule was 9-5, while his was 4-midnight. While it was hugely lame, I just figured that this would leave a lot of time for me to see my friends. What I learned instead was that my having being gone for the 9 months prior, meant that my relationships with people I had once held dear to me, would completely transform. What happened instead? Well, it wasn’t a total loss–I spent time with friends I had really only considered acquaintances before and let those relationships gel into more meaningful ones, I used my melancholy as a creative outlet, I organized a therapeutic writing group. I was productive as hell this summer; but for the most part, I was also fucking sad.

I feel like this is a sort of pathetic piece of writing. That it reads like something that needs validation–like I want you to tell me, “I LIKE YOU, LAUREN.” I recognize that, and yet it isn’t what I want, nor do I feel that way in sharing this. I guess, more than anything, I am using this as an opportunity to voice a discrepancy I have with myself, that as someone who needs a lot of attention, being put on the emotional back burner really sucked. I felt the nine months I had been gone hit me like a ton of bricks. I was out of the loop. Those people I had once considered my closest friends, people that I spent my year in Chicago bragging about, had disappeared on me. I spent a lot of time feeling like I was being stood up on prom night in the months I spent in Massachusetts. I’d wait by my phone and try to will it to do something, but it would just sit there, and eventually I’d cave and play as many games of Candy Crush as time would allow. The people in my life I had come to rely on as always being there, well, they suddenly weren’t.

With extra time on my hands and a lot of room to shit on myself for being a boring person, or a lame excuse for a pal, or the kind of superfluous entity that people just don’t really need around, I got depressed, as is wont to do. It wasn’t that people were actively avoiding me or that they didn’t want me hanging around then. It was just that my presence wasn’t missed, people weren’t hanging out among their everyday groups of chums and thinking to themselves, “Hey, Lauren is missing…” and if they were, they definitely weren’t inviting me to fill the void. I tried my best to take this in stride, be present in my relationship, and keep my shit together. But in most respects, I was holding in a lot of sad. I still am.

It’s the depressive periods of my life that have afforded me the most creativity, so I used this “feeling like a bag of hair” motif to do a lot of writing. Because I don’t necessarily have the time or resources to maintain a website, I often use Facebook as a platform to share my writing. One day I wrote this sort of declaration of my insipid-ness, an awkward girl’s diatribe on her existence. It received a lot of good feedback, it reified a little faith in myself that I had been lacking, and then, someone whose opinions I had always trusted, commented that it was like a MPDG manifesto. I’m still not sure if this was meant to be an insult (I asked but she never responded, so I’m thinking yes?), but it sunk me. Suddenly, I couldn’t see the positive feedback I was getting, and was consumed by this idea. Was this all I was? Just an expendable stock character in people’s lives, someone to bring whimsy to a situation with no actual substance? I spiraled down into a very adolescent train of thought and convinced myself this had to be true. How could it not be? There it was, the very words, staring back at me.

Fast forward a few weeks, and it’s my going away potluck. A lot of folks did end up showing to say their goodbyes, and I was touched. But for the most part, people really didn’t have a whole lot to say to me. I recall my boyfriend trying to cheer me up by saying, “Look at how many people came!” and in my petulance I responded, “Yeah but no one’s even talking to me. I probably don’t even have to be here. They just knew there’d be food.” The deck at my boyfriend’s house is full of my friends, but I am sitting in the center of it alone feeling like the biggest douche in the universe. Everyone seems to be having a good time, but I am holding back tears, unsure why I am so sad about leaving a place where very few people sought out my company in the first place. Perhaps the deviation of what I thought would be a place I could always go home to is the very thing that I am mourning. I am displaced, I do not belong here anymore. I said my goodbyes, people made promises to come see me off in the morning, Some of them did (oh man, those pancakes were good), but most of them did not. I left. It was unremarkable.

It has been two weeks since I’ve been back in Chicago. Those feelings haven’t gone away, I wish they had. I try to adjust back to my life here, but feel that things have shifted in the city as well. Those three months were a long three months, and relationships have changed here, too. I feel my own absence and it tugs at me. I learn that my friends celebrated a birthday without me, that they went out for a fancy dinner and it slipped their mind to call. Am I hurt? Yes. Is it their fault? No. It’s me. It’s that insecure 16 year old who doesn’t feel she has shaped her personality enough to be meaningful, who is terrified of being alone or forgotten. Who worries that her friends will give her something generic for her birthday, like body spray, because there are no unique aspects to her existence.

I am still waiting by the phone. I want my friends to say, “I love you. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you.” But it doesn’t happen. The dull ache of this loss is not something that will subside until I am able to see myself as someone who deserves to move on. It’s an exercise in self-love, and I know that and yet I give it to myself so rarely. From the outside looking in, I say to myself, “You are the kind of friend that I would want,” but is it true, or just something I say to keep the demons out?

Is is a constant struggle, this pursuit to treat myself well, to not have the tape on repeat that I am all the terrible things that years worth of convincing has lead me to believe. I war with words, knowing that this very thing that soothes me, writing, is a device unto its own, a gimmick. It is the only differentiation that sets me apart from any other over-indulgent depressive–it is my self-soothing tool. I say to myself, I will stop using Facebook, I will stop being in constant pursuit of approval, but…I need those likes as a measure of self-worth.

I don’t hate myself. I recognize myself as human. Deep down I am aware of this. I try not to get sucked in by jealousies and let the jabs at my tender psyche diffuse. I know that I am better for sharing these parts of myself than for letting them fester, know that deep in the throes of all my misgivings and tiny disasters, there is goodness, and that to the core, I do not wish ill on people I love, or anyone for that matter, and I do not live selfishly. But I want more for myself. I want the people I love to feel the swell of my absence and call me on it. I want to have a rich inner life of my own, and I do not want to be a non-essential character, or a status in a newsfeed that connects love and worth to thumbs up symbols. No more manic pixie dream girl.

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Self-Awareness, You Are Shitting on my Social Work Parade

I am sitting in the basement of the John Crerar library, an hour and a half before my shift starts.  The basement is my favorite part of this building, claustrophobically cramped and overflowing with books just waiting to turn into dust.  There is a single computer available, next to a shelf crammed with ancient microfilms that were once someone’s precious science babies.  I think of all the people who sat miserably at this desk and probably snuck crumbs of a bagel into their mouths even though the “NO EATING” sign looms all sinister-like overhead.  Once upon a time, my 70 year old uncle sat here in this very spot, tapping his long fingers on a type-writer, while musing over the waste of his young life, at 25.  We spoke on the phone yesterday, he asked, “Is U-Chicago still the place where fun goes to die?”  No? I don’t know? But maybe Crerar is.  Everyone here looks so downtrodden, all the time.

Here in the basement, the stacks are on a movable track, to make more room for less loved books and when I come down here, I cannot help but shimmy through the narrow quarters and run my fingers down the length of each abandoned spine and imagine who else has hidden here for refuge.

Crerar is a science and research library.  If it weren’t for the fact that I work here, I doubt I would have ever stepped foot into this place.  I work as a shelver, mindlessly stacking books on a wheeled cart and replacing them in Library of Congress order, Lucinda Williams blasting her wretched lullaby into my ears while I try to focus on decimal points, to dissolve thoughts of my own melancholy.  To be present.

Image       I try to find the humor in this place.  My two supervisors are a pair of the most fantastically awkward people that I may ever have the pleasure of interacting with.  They sit together in flanked desks at circulation: one obsessively dribbles eye drops into his pupils every five minutes and smiles secretively to himself while intermittently whispering under his breath.  To interrupt him from his private thoughts is to be scowled at cantankerously.  He is impossible to read and I often wonder about his personal life.  I cannot tell whether he is in his twenties or his forties.  He is a misanthropic anomaly of a human being.  My other supervisor looks like a young Santa Claus, who may have spent his best years as a raver.  He is a red-faced jolly-looking guy, long hair unkempt to his shoulders, his big belly often protruding out of a soft-woven bright orange sweater, baggy jeans falling over his turquoise canvas sneakers.  To see him is want to crawl into his lap, but interacting with him is a fascinating conundrum.  He is painfully, compulsively shy.  You say hello to the guy and it’s like he wants to creep back into the turtle shell this life never afforded him.  It isn’t right that he should look so colorfully welcoming.  I just want to see what these two guys do when they’re not in the library.  In my fantasies, they go home to the same apartment and share lo mein out of take-out cartons while watching “Cheers” re-runs or something.  I want them, at least, to have each other.

Crerar has saved me from spending all of my time in the monotony of academic over-thinking.  I can fall apart a little bit here, and unapologetically so. While climbing step-ladders and stretching the length of an aisle to replace a wrongly-stacked hardcover about hermaphroditic apes, I can be painfully cognizant of my own slowly creeping mortality. While thumbing through pictures of cancer cells in lab rats, I can muse over my own worthlessness.  The type-A mentality of this school to be so demandingly on top of my shit all the time is fizzled out a little bit here.  No one knows I am a student.  I am just a grumpy lady wearing headphones wheeling a big old cart.

 Social Workers were never meant to come to Crerar.  If they were, the colors would be more neutral, none of this off-red carpeting.  There would be motivational posters and free coffee somewhere; not crinkled pictures of dissected frogs yellowing haphazardly outside the elevators.

More and more I am on repeat, rewinding through the syphilitic question of what the fuck I am doing with my life, and why I am racking up a lifetime of debt (again) to go into a field I’m not even entirely sure I am equipped for.  The endless droning of verbosely hopeless reading material on the uselessness of this profession doesn’t quite seem to help this spiraling out of pessimism.  Last night, I ate a pot brownie in hopes that some sort of substance-boost would make me feel less depressed, but instead I sat on the toilet for 20 minutes staring at the wisps of mold starting to appear on the corners of my shower curtain and tried to make crying faces.  Nothing happened, so I went to bed.

I am not…unhappy…per se.  I am just, so self-aware. There is a map drawn of the next eight years of my life and none of it looks particularly inviting.  I graduate from UChicago with a degree to practice social work, I find a job, I work for two years or so to accrue hours for a license and then I find a place that starts at a semi-decent salary willing to pay off my loans at some point in time and then work as a therapist.  I will be miming thoughtful phrases to some iteration of “vulnerable population” on how to self-improve before going home and stewing in my own suspicion of each of my utterances.  I try to talk to my dad about this through a text message–my fears and doubts of becoming a ‘professional’ and he says, “You’re going to be a great writer.”  “Dad, I’m in Social Work school,” I say.  Ten minutes later:  “Oh.”

Next week I have an interview to be a suicide prevention counselor.  I bought a tweed blazer with corduroy elbow patches to wear with my cheap Target dress and sensible Mary Janes.  I obsess over whether to wear my hair in a top-knot or straight down, and fear whether my asymmetrical gutter-punk mullet will make a bad impression.  I flutter over a brief moment of wanting to jump out the window and then remember I am trying to get a job in suicide prevention.  What the fucking fuck?

Part of me thinks that I am an idiot for going back to school.  Or for not waiting somewhere else in academia to be discovered clutching the underpinnings of a memoir about my dysfunctional family life.  Stuck in Western Massachusetts and sifting through the pile of bullshit that are all of my problems. I loved being self-deprecating and mildly celebrated in my small city where people stopped me on the street and said, “Hey, you’re thatLauren eggplant girl!”  Where sarcastic hipsters got high in second-story apartments and listened to scratched records from the Salvation Army drinking PBR while resenting themselves so egregiously.  There are fewer people to make fun of here, in segregated Chicago where the problems are real and the questions are bigger.  I want the ground to thaw. I want to walk along the Lake and feel confused by the freshwater current.

Or maybe I should just stay in Crerar.  I can hide in the stacks and sit on my cart, pushing myself through the side panels when my feet start hurting.  I can look at endless figures of statistical data without ever understanding their meanings and feel mildly comforted by own ignorant perception of  the world in black and white.  I can be humbled by the vastness of science and feel immensely small in comparison to the formulaic undercurrents of the world, mapped out in data and numbers too big to equate to anything tangible.  I love how meaningless I am, really.  Soon enough all my struggle will just be energy back into the earth. NO ONE CARES ABOUT WHETHER I LIVE OR DIE IN THE GRAND SCHEME OF THINGS! ISN’T THAT WONDERFUL?!  Oh yeah, I’m gonna make a damn fine therapist.

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Devil in a New City: Week One Down, I’m Still Alive

It’s 95 degrees out today and it’s supposed to be hotter tomorrow. The weather report says that these are record high temperatures and the little exclamation point indicator warns against going outside at all if you can help it, or to stay in an air-conditioned area. It seems as though the extreme heat has been following me all summer. I can’t remember ever sweating so much in my life, and I wonder if your sweat glands expand as you age or something. Or if stress or anxiety increase your moisture content. There’s a part of me that wants to WebMD “too much sweating” but I have no internet for another week. It’s sort of a relief.

It’s been one week since I arrived in Chicago. All of the tempestuous worry leading up to the move makes being here seem less stressful. There’s no going back now. I did it. I’ve unpacked all my things, pooped in my bathroom, and masturbated. I officially live here.

Hyde Park, like the rest of Chicago, has a clear-cut segregational divide. It seems split between the old-timer townie population: largely Black upper middle to working class families, while the other half consists of current students and graduates. The University of Chicago, a city in and of itself, is the glittery beacon in the center of Hyde Park, adjacent to the enormous (like literally, the biggest one in the Western Hemisphere) Museum of Science and Industry in Jackson Park and a pretty eclectic shopping district. The streets are wide and flat, the breeze off the Lake is glorious, and the brick and stone architecture of the old buildings and houses on any given block are breath-taking. I couldn’t have picked a nicer neighborhood. My building is a mid-18th century three-story brick structure flanked by two wrought-iron gaits and a narrow courtyard overrun by small garden projects, clay pots overflowing with basil, and tomato plants lining the cobble walkway up to my front door. You might even forget you were in the city if it weren’t for the back entrance: dim bare-bones wooded staircases leading down to a series of alleys, sewer drains and dumpsters. At night, walking through the back entrance, it’s impossible to ignore the scurrying of the rats behind the garbage, the occasional casualty flattened on the sidewalk.Chitown

My favorite part about Hyde Park? Lake Michigan. In an effort to not spend too much money (because moving is damn expensive, I dropped over three grand in one month!), I have been navigating the cheaper side of Chicago: the park district. Lucky for me, I am three blocks from a beautiful dog-friendly park. On one side it looks like any other city park—well-kept greenery, a small fountain and various benches under chestnut and linden-berry trees. After about 500 feet you come to a wide, echoey tunnel full of buskers and skate-boarders. You walk through and when you come to the other side, you’re in a different place entirely. The beach.

Now, I’m not entirely ignorant. I know that Chicago is on the water, I know that Lake Michigan is a Great Lake. I had some expectation. But, I was not anticipating this sort of vastness. Lake Michigan looks like the fucking ocean and if it weren’t for the fresh water, I’d have never been able to differentiate the two. Come through that tunnel, you are navigating a sandy beach. The waves are high, the current is strong, and the water is turquoise blue and inviting. Look out along the horizon, you can see swimmers diving like fish against the Chicago skyline. Oh, to be ignorant in a new place can be glorious. It’s like being five.

But, it’s also intimidating. And alien. Today is the first day that I am completely alone. It is the first time in weeks, really. Leading up to my move I spent every waking moment with my friends, spending nights with my boyfriend, and soaking up every second of social time until I left, sobbing in the passenger seat of a 16′ Penske moving truck. My friend Dean co-piloted the drive out here and stayed the week, which was punctuated by spatterings of other visitors from home: Mark and Giselle, who drove my car here for me and left two days later, and Henri who hitchhiked here from Michigan to spend some time before heading further west. Dean, who lived here for about six months some years back, carted me around the city on small driving tours, wandered around my neighborhood with me and bought me cocktails at Bar Louie, a swank little spot just down the street.

But today, I am alone. This is the beginning of life here. And it’s too fucking hot. I rally out of bed before 11am (a feat!) to take the dog out for a walk. It is still a novelty going downstairs and checking my mail in the foyer of the building, and I am pleased that today is the first day I receive mail intended for me and not the prior tenants. A bill from MetLife, new debit card, new AAA card, and my final paycheck from work. This is a huge load-off, as I don’t get the first installment of my living-wage loan until September 30th. I walk around the block and try to go off onto side-streets with grassy patches for Rufio. The sweat is already pouring down my forehead and collecting in the divots of my collarbones. The heat’s not supposed to break until Thursday. It’s only Monday. Because I’m in a new place, I’m trying some new identities on for size. I thought today I would pin up my bangs and wear gold eye-shadow with black eyeliner. All I can see in front of my face are glittery sparkles where the shadow is running down my eyes. I hurry back upstairs to my apartment to clean myself up. It looks like someone scrambled an egg on my face. Maybe I’ll just give up and get back into bed.

Fast forward twenty-four hours, and I find myself in the campus library of U-Chicago. I am sitting in a small internet cafe drinking a Diet Pepsi and dissecting a bran muffin. There is a sort of guarded familiarity about being back in academia. It’s not like being in the city, because you can tell that most of these folks don’t leave campus. They carry everything that’s important to them—their laptops, backpacks, notebooks and phones. They wear U-Chicago t-shirts and hoodies and their student I.D.s on lanyards hanging round their necks. Speaking of student I.D.’s—I just got mine. I think these things are designed to accentuate your insecurities. In keeping with the theme of sweating like a pig, there’s a nice little sheen of grease highlighting my forehead and my nose looks like it belongs on the face of a seventy-year old man. But enough vanity—I’m officially a student again, and that’s cool, right? Especially since I can ride the bus for free and judging by my experience with mass transit this morning, I imagine I am going to be screwing up a lot.Image

Today has been sort of a mind-fuck. I woke up to the them music of The L-Word looping on my tiny T.V./DVD combo player (I might have bought the second season DVD box set for three dollars at a Salvation Army yesterday) and someone either having really aggressive sex upstairs or someone aggressively working out. Either way, I’m jealous. Someone up there is either getting laid, which I’m not, or waking up early to work on their fitness, which I’m not. I write “EXERCISE” in big capital letters on my white-board in the kitchen. I hear U-Chicago has a sweet athletic center, with a big-ass pool, so I literally have no excuse to not take advantage, since it’s free for me.

This morning, I opt to leave out the new glitzy makeup regimen and figure that the new Lauren might just be someone who wears long skirts and sandals instead of short skirts and tennis shoes. That’s a change I can manage for now. I look on my transit map and figure out the closest way to the University and once on the bus, realize that my stop is closed for construction.

After I watched it zoom past the window I stood up and did one of those frantic little kid double-takes and started maniacally asking everyone on the bus if I screwed myself or if I could get off at the next stop and still be variably close to the school. “Oh my God, oh my God, I think I missed my stop! Can you help me?” Everyone pretty much ignored me, likely (and correctly) assuming I was just another pain in the ass new student.  One guy popped an earbud out to say, “Calm down, baby,” and then returned quietly to his music. Apparently all was not lost, as an angelic elderly woman told me that all I had to do was head East two or three blocks and I would come upon my intended destination. All I had to do was figure out which way was East. I did, eventually.

I found my way towards the University of Chicago Law Building, where I met my friend Sam, and we walked to a cozy little coffee bar and ate some lunch. I haven’t seen Sam for ten years and though we were able to re-assert comfortable dynamics and engage like old friends (which we are), I sat across from her and tried to remember any interactions we’d had in the past. I couldn’t. I know that Sam is funny. I know that we played in the orchestra together. I remember she dated a sweet, gawky kid in high school and that we took gym class together and goofed around. But as far as actual conversations, I had nothing. It’s weird, childhood. You know these people for years and years and then time creeps up on your hindquarters and memories blank out. Still, it was nice to see a friendly face, to hear little snippets of information about my neighborhood, and more than anything refreshing to come face to face with someone who had left our hometown and was into cool things, and nerdery to boot. Also sleazy dancing, so friendship has been re-established, thank you common ground!

Now, I’m wasting time in the library, trying to take some advantage of the internet before going home, back to my apartment and the sort of swirling-dust quiet that has become too much for me these last few days. It’s only been a week, but already I am craving a schedule, a regiment to keep me out of my head so much. I have been finding things to do—mostly wandering around my neighborhood, buying smoothies or Pad Thai, going to the Target nearby and buying useless household items, sitting by the lake with Rufio and counting the sailboats and the jet skis, wondering if by this time next year I might know someone who might take me sailing.

It is lonely here, I won’t lie. It’s a foreign feeling, to be so displaced. I have spoken to my friends a bit in the last few days and though I was ready to leave Massachusetts, I never tired of the people. I hear that they are going to the dive bar downtown and running into each other and I can’t help that twinge of jealousy I feel in my gut. It’s sick, really. I am in a goddamn metropolis and all I wanna do is shroud myself in blankets and materialize my man-dude so we can make out and watch Ken Burns documentaries. At least the extroverted, active little gremlin that lives somewhere inside of me is forcing me outside everyday, forcing me to bake cookies for my neighbors and doing that whole, “Hey look, I’m a self-depreciating asshole who likes contemporary fiction and Thai food, do you want to be my friend?” But the other part of me—the whoa-is-me-this-is-all-so-tragic-I-have-to-sleep-til-noon part—just wants to time-travel six-months into the future where all this adjusting is behind me and I know what I’ve gotten myself into. Part of me knows that even writing this is somewhat of an admission of my depression—it seems I can only write when I’m blue—but there’s something equally cathartic in recording things as they happen. It’s one of those “maybe I’ll look back on this and laugh” kind of things before it happens, so I’m writing to my future self a decree to get over all this sentimentality by being overtly sentimental.

In two weeks, I start school officially. I will meet people and these achy feelings will fade. I will have a life again. I won’t have time to sit in cafes and sigh wistfully while wondering what all my friends are doing without me. I am trying to savor this solitude, because, looking back, I have been here before. As an undergrad, I felt so out of my element, so completely alone, and within months, I couldn’t imagine a life before Simon’s Rock. I stopped calling New York home. I have tried to remember the earliest moments of being new to my environment, of getting lost, of meeting the people who soon became my lovers and friends. I can’t do it. I don’t remember what it was like to be without that comfort. Maybe that is why leaving a place can be good. Constant comfort can’t be good for anyone.

Will Chicago be my new Massachusetts? It’s hard to say. I know that I like it here. I know that I am someone who eventually does settle into her surroundings and evolves. Will I be someone else here and try to forge some edgier more confident identity? I don’t know. I feel like me wherever I go—this awkward, insolent chick keeps following me, even to Chicago! But I do know that I’m proud of myself on some maternal-self level that I did this. That I left all that comfort and cush and catapulted myself to somewhere I’ve never been with nothing but my own ass to land on. So, ya know. That’s good. Mission accomplished. The girl across from me is biting the tip of her pen, every three seconds she checks her phone. I turned mine off so I would stop doing that. I wonder if she’s new here, if there’s someone that she misses, someone she’s wishing would call her. I want to ask her, but, I can’t. I don’t want to hear that she’s fine, she’s just waiting for her friend to text her about dinner. I want her to continue being my silent comrade, to make up a story of her own feelings of loss and anxiety. I don’t want her truths to ruin that.

It’s time to go home. There’s nothing left to accomplish today and I’m hungry and hoping that outside, the heat has broken at least a little bit. Tomorrow is supposed to be nicer.

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