My poem, defamation, is live in issue IX of High Shelf Press today. This is one of my favorite poems and I’m grateful to share it with some new readers. Go take a look!
One year ago on July 3, 2018, I came out publicly for the first time. Even though I felt ready and had been waiting for that moment for over a decade, I still felt terrified. I remember writing my coming out post on the couch in my living room and being unable to hit “publish.” Eventually, I had to close my eyes, take a deep breath, and click.
Life has been a tangle of messes since last July, only some of them related to queerness. I just finished my partial hospitalization mental health program and am trying to integrate back into my everyday routine. I feel a combination of devastation and rage every day while I watch children get caged, women dismissed, trans women killed, and black voices silenced. I constantly wonder if I’m doing enough to help us overcome all this darkness. I’ve endured some difficult family conflict through cycles of anger and silence. In some ways, living my life as an out queer person has been a drop in the ocean.
In other ways, though, the luxury of being myself in the midst of all this roughness has made it more manageable. Last fall, I experienced Pride for the first time as an out person (Pride in Atlanta is in October…it’s a long story). I made my partner take pictures of me on every corner and wore every rainbow, sparkly thing I could fit on my body. I knew the queer community was bearing it’s own struggles – inclusion of trans voices, inclusion of POC, rallying around a central goal post-marriage-equality. But it was all to sparkly and new to me for any of that to tarnish the rainbows in my eyes. I was queer and you couldn’t shut me up. It was beautiful.
In the wake of my coming out, I received message upon message from other closeted people from every corner of my life. People I hadn’t spoken to in weeks or years contacted me to say, “Thank you for reminding me that I’m not alone.” My own long and arduous journey to being comfortable with my bisexuality was brought to mind as I talked with people who were still struggling to hold queerness and Christianity at the same time. It made me feel like, even though I was a baby queer, I still had valuable things to say to my community.
The past year, though, has also challenged my self worth in profound ways. In February, I the General Conference live stream at work day after day, waiting for my church to decide its fate. In the end, the United Methodist Church chose exclusion over love. As I watched the final count of votes project onto the screen, I fell to the floor in my kitchen, sobbing. I had given hours and years of my time and thousands of dollars to an institution that I believed could support me in making the world a better place. But instead of acceptance, what I received in return was pain and rejection. Many of my queer Methodist friends and allies remain in the church, and I am so grateful for their continued work to change this broken system from the inside. Right now, though, I am too tired and hurt to give any more energy to an institution that refuses to ordain me and the people I love. Right now, I can’t fight anymore. I am angry. I need a place where my personhood will not be up for debate. I haven’t found that home yet, but I know it’s out there.
Being out for a year has been a roller coaster, but I am most thankful for the small things. My freedom to post memes about bisexuality on Twitter, the bi flag in my pencil cup at work, my t-shirt that says “Jesus was Bi.” I don’t have to pretend to be an ally anymore. I am free to stand up and say, “These things apply to me. This community is mine too.” While my life is not nearly as risky or revolutionary, I feel a kinship this season with Marsha P. Johnson and her contemporaries – tired of being told who to be and where to stand, in pain but able to fight injustice, imperfect but willing to throw up my hands and say “I’m here and you can’t get rid of me.”
*tw: mental illness, hospitalization, suicide, self harm, sexual assault*
At the end of May, I spent a week in an inpatient psychiatric hospital. While I don’t feel comfortable sharing the specifics of what led me to be admitted, I was admitted involuntarily, meaning I did not walk in off the street and decide I needed care. Instead, I had reached my saturation point for handling life’s variables and healthcare providers determined I would be safest in a hospital setting. I never thought I would need to be hospitalized, but in retrospect, I’m suprised it took me this long. I can now see warning signs in myself all over the place, but I wasn’t listening to them.
Late on the Monday night before Memorial Day, I sobbed in the car as my roommate drove me to the emergency room. I texted my boss and my therapist and called my partner, but I remember very little after that. I spent the night in Emory University’s ER, attempting to watch Sex in the City and drifting in and out of conciousness as we waited for the rotating psychiatrist to come and evaluate me. Around 5:30am, my partner left to go home and rest. Around 6:30am, the psychiatrist finally arrived. I talked with him for a few minutes, answering questions about what brought me to the ER, my medical and psychiatric history, and how I was feeling. Not long after, the attending nurse told me I was being taken to a psychiatric hospital. They assured me they would find one that would accept my insurance. I was loaded onto a stretcher and into an ambulance with no specific idea about where I was headed. I was terrified and exhausted, and I slept the whole ride.
When we arrived, I was unloaded along with my backpack I had somehow managed to bring along. Still in blue papery hospital scrubs, I sat scrunched up in an armchair alone in an intake room for what felt like hours, waiting to be processed into the hospital. Eventually, I was able to put my own clothes back on and use my phone to text a few people to tell them where I was. I wrote down important phone numbers so I would still have them after they could confiscate my phone. They took my bookbag as well, and it would be two days before I could get the rest of my things out of it. I was taken to a section of the hospital that I now know is primarily for people who are psychotic, delusional, aggressive, or paranoid. I didn’t fit any of these categories, but the women’s trauma unit I was eventually bound for was full, so I was stuck in holding until there was an open bed.
I walked around for three days in a complete fog. I’m sure the sleeping medications didn’t help, but as the reality of what was happening set in, I began to feel less and less in control of my body. I had panic attacks and cried constantly. I had no idea what was going on. I felt entirely alone. I wanted so badly to process what had happened but felt I had no one to talk to. I watched people get shots of sedatives to calm them after having raging outbursts. I watched one man try to escape twice in one day. I watched another walk around wearing only one shoe, in a psychotic daze for 48 hours until they corrected his medication and he became a completely stable person. I was scared and I had no clue how to move forward.
On day 3, I finally had visitation hours. Seeing my partner and my best friend was both jarring and comforting. They said they were surprised at how good I looked and seemed. Looking back, this is especially strange because of how out of control I felt. All of my defense mechanisms to keep my life together had finally failed. My perfectionism, my obsessive cleaning and organizing, my intellectualization of my problems, and my avoidance of conflict and difficult emotions had all worked for a long time. But the thing about defense mechanisms is that they work until they don’t. I avoided digging deeply into myself for so many decades that I started to believe I could forget that certain things had happened to me by simply not acknowledging them. (Spoiler: This does not work.) I was dishonest with myself and the people who love me about how I was really doing because I was ashamed of the pain I was actually feeling, and, at times, completely unaware of the pain I was actually feeling.
I started to unwrap all of this once I was moved from the chaotic holding unit to the women’s trauma unit. I was surrounded by women who shared my diagnoses and my life experiences. We never discussed specifics, but we just knew. It was such a relief to get hugs from other women after not having any physical contact for days in the other unit. I started to smile and laugh again. “This isn’t the psych ward!” we would yell across the table at each other, as we color pictures of mandalas and animals with dulling colored pencils. We laughed because there was no other way we could make it through. Because we were in the psych ward. And our reality pressed in from all sides as we walked around in our pants without drawstrings and shoes without laces. Our backs ached from mattresses without springs and our eyes were tired from the wellness checks every 15 minutes during the night to make sure we were breathing. It was an overwhelming week. It was a week I never thought I’d have. But it was real, and now it’s a part of my story.
Since being released, I’ve been participating in a partial hospitalization program for women’s trauma. It’s possibly the most difficult work I’ve ever done. I’m not quite ready to share my reflections on the work I’ve been doing in trauma therapy yet because it’s still so close and because I’m still doing it. But I wanted to at least share the beginning of this journey. I want to share this experience because I want to help normalize psychiatric care. Inpatient hospitalization programs are for everyone. If you feel out of control of your emotions, a situation, substance abuse, or your behaviors, admitting yourself to a program like the one I was in could be a helpful step. Inpatient programs help stabilize you in moments of crisis. Getting help before you’re in a full blown crisis is also a valid reason to seek hospitalization.
I’m getting better, but I can’t say I’m getting better every day because that would be a lie. Healing is not linear. I’m learning new ways to cope and some days I use those new coping skills effectively, but other days I don’t. I’m back at work part time, but I’m teaching my self to take it easy. I’m scared to integrate back into “real life”, but I know that I’ll be ready when it’s time. I’m still not sure what all I’m supposed to have learned from the psych ward, but I trust that I’m learning it.
Last year, I wrote about my decision to go on medication for my anxiety. It was a complicated decision for me to actually seek help from a doctor. I’d never discussed my mental health with a doctor before, only my therapist, and it felt like an overwhelmingly vulnerable thing to do. My first appointment with my doctor, I sat on the examination table with sweaty palms and shortness of breath. It’s a little over a year later, and I’m still on a journey toward balance, healing, and figuring out what medications are right for me.
Unlike many physical health problems, the medications for mental health are much more of a trial and error situation. I know that some issues like autoimmune disorders, cancer, and chronic pain can feel this way, too, so I don’t want to discount those experiences. But I’d never had an experience where a doctor didn’t know exactly how to treat me. I’m rarely sick, and when I am, it’s usually with something predictable like a cold or flu, bronchitis at the worst. I’ve had a few surgeries, mainly due to routine dental procedures and sports injuries. I’ve done physical therapy countless times. However, being prescribed a medication in the spirit of “we’ll see how this goes!” is a new and somewhat scary journey.
Medications for mental health can sometimes have side effects that are worse than the thing you want them to prevent. They can cause suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, and depression. They can make you tired, dizzy, nauseated, gain weight, lose weight, hungry, not hungry, the list goes on. My body has always operated on a pretty predictable rhythm. I’ve exercised at least five days per week since I started running cross country in middle school. Growing up, fried foods, red meat, and other unhealthy options were never made available to me, a pattern I took with me into adulthood. Whenver I was experiencing something unpleasant in my body, I could usually point to exactly why that was and do something to make it stop. But these new medications are a different story.
I started out taking Zoloft. I felt like it was helping my anxiety, so we increased the dosage. After a few months, though, I was feeling exhausted and depressed. I went back to my doctor and we decided to try something else. Next, I tried Lexapro. I felt like I had more energy and experienced less side effects, but I was still feeling depressed. After talking with my therapist, I realized that maybe the depression wasn’t a side effect of the medications but was actually a symptom of mental illness. My anxiety had been my main concern for so long, and once that was quieted, my depression was free to settle back in and take control.
The past six months have been a slow trudge through day to day life. Some days were better than others, but I struggled find joy in my work and in my hobbies. Spending time with friends was exhausting, but sitting in my house alone made me feel even more worthless. There were times I had to call friends to come and sit with me because I didn’t feel safe to be alone. There were times when I had to take several days off of work. There were times when I texted the crisis hotline and thought about admitting myself to a hospital. It hasn’t been the best season. But I’m so grateful for the people who showed up for me and for my own ability to ask for help and to get up and keep trying.
So, now, not only am I taking Lexapro but also Wellbutrin. And I’m feeling the best I’ve felt in months. My insides feel less dreary and I’m excited about things instead of feeling burdened by them. I want to be creative again. I want to be spontaneous and try new things. The fog is slowly lifting. I know there will be bad days again because mental illness doesn’t just go away overnight, but I also know that my therapist and doctor will be there for me along the way. Maybe one day I’ll need to switch medications again. Maybe one day I won’t need any medications at all. But for now, the best version of me is the one that takes two pills per day, and there’s no shame in that.
I’ve never chosen a word of the year before. Honestly, it always sounded a little bit corny. I feel the same way about making New Year’s resolutions. New Year’s feels like a tired joke about how Americans are terrible about following through. I have a love-hate relationship with New Year’s – I love the concept of new beginnings and fresh starts but I hate the ways we’ve turned it into a method of being dissatisfied with who we are and how we’re living.
This year, though, I decided to try the PowerSheets goal setting planner for the first time (I promise this isn’t an ad…stay with me). I’ve seen other successful women use it and love it, and I currently have a lot of dreams but need some help making them happen. Plus, I’m a sucker for a good planner, especially one with stickers. Part of the PowerSheets process is choosing a word of the year. Ideally, it’s something that can serve as an umbrella for all your goals and plans.
I looked at all the threads I was weaving together as I dreamed up my 2019. I want to be more intentional: about money, about food, about zero waste, about minimalism. I want to continue my recovery from perfectionsim. I want to take risks even if it means things don’t work out as planned. I want to keep journeying through my trauma toward healing. I want to work towards getting published. I want to clarify my vocational goals. I have a lot to manage, but a lot of it seems to come down to progress over perfection. I can spend the next year wishing that things were different or I can take actual steps toward making things happen. (I’m using a lot of PowerSheets language here…sorry y’all.) After choosing goals and focusing my priorities, bravery seemed like the thing I would need most.
At the end of 2018, I needed a lot of bravery. Politically, autumn was full of triggers of my own experiences. I had to attend an event where my abuser would be present and had to make an emergency mental health plan. Changes in my medication had me feeling less stable than I had in nearly a decade. After Thanksgiving, I took a week off from work because of an intense relapse of depression that nearly had me checking myself into the hospital. Changes at work meant I would be starting 2019 with only 1 coworker out of the 3 I usually have (and running a whole nonprofit is hard enough with only 4 of us). I did not feel ready to take on new things. But as I reflect on what all of the turmoil that the end of last year taught me, it was nothing if not bravery.
Bravery to be honest with my boss about my mental health. Bravery to speak out with my doctor about how I was reacting to my medication. Bravery to work through my memories and flashbacks with my therapist. Bravery to ask friends to come sit with me when I couldn’t be alone. Even though I’ve largely come out of the darkness that was the past few months, I still need this bravery.
I also need bravery to give myself permission to take breaks from all this goal setting – to watch TV and relax when I’m so worn out that my insides feel like sandpaper. Sometimes, I become all consumed with my new goal setting habits and feel guilty when I spend my evenings doing anything but working toward my goals. But balance is absolutely necessary. Spontenaity is necessary. Breathing is necessary. I’m still struggling to manage my time in a way that combines both working toward my goals and resting. I have to keep reminding myself that I was doing some intense healing just a few weeks ago. Being brave is both big and small and I can’t wait to see what it brings me.
In high school, I had no concept of self care. I woke up at 5:52am every day, like literal clockwork. I left my house at 7, got to school at 7:20, got coffee from the cafeteria, and met my friends in the back of the theater to finish homework or talk. I went to class, went to cross country practice, and got home at 6. I did homework, and went to bed by 10:00.
Why am I telling you my daily schedule from 2004-2008? To point out that there was no time for doing what felt good. I enjoyed being on the cross country team, going to school, and spending time with my friends, but I didn’t do anything just for me. I did what I had to do and what was required of me by others. No one ever asked me what it would mean to do what felt good to me. The first time I heard that question, I was 24 years old and having an emotional breakdown in graduate school. It never occurred to me before then that I could do things for no other reason but to care for myself. In high school, I was focused on what needed to be done to succeed in life after high school. Studying, taking standardized tests, being captain of the cross country team, leading worship at youth group, and applying for colleges – there was no time for rest. Rest wouldn’t help me in the future.
What I didn’t realize was that taking care of myself at the age of 16 would’ve made things much less painful 12 years later. I never dealt with my depression and harmful behaviors in high school, so I never healed properly. I went to a therapist in high school, but after a year of meeting, she concluded that there was nothing wrong with me and that there was no reason for me to feel so depressed. She branded herself as a Christian therapist and told me that if I only prayed enough and tried harder, I wouldn’t feel this way anymore. I believed her and tried to move forward. But, because I was never given any real tools to cope with what was actually a chronic mental illness, old patterns continue to resurface.
During the past five years, most of my mental illness has surfaced in the form of anxiety and panic attacks. Medication, therapy, and learning proper self care have helped me move through the hard days. But I was surprised when, this past September, I began to feel familiar symptoms I hadn’t felt in over a decade. My anxiety and depression started an exhausting tug of war of apathy vs perfection. I was paralyzed by the two extremes. I didn’t know how to deal with both of these illness at the same time.
The only thing I know to do now is to listen to my body. I recently heard poet and healer Jamie Lee Finch refer to her body as “She” in a podcast. I’ve adopted that same practice, trying to personify my body in a way that gives her more value. I try to listen to what she tells me, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense. I let her rest so she is free to cry. I take her on walks so she can breathe fresh air and absorb the sunshine. I ask her, “what would feel good to you right now?” because, for decades, no one had asked her that before.
Each year on November 5th, I post a picture of my mom. Some years, I feel strange about this ritual, especially if I’m in a new place where people don’t know that my mom died. I do it anyway, though, because I have to find a way to hold space for her. I think about her on November 5th even if I forget about her the rest of the year, and that feels holy.
For the first 20 years of my life, I didn’t think much about grief. Right after my mom’s death in 1995, my dad took me to grief counseling where I did both individual and group therapy. I’m grateful for that early therapy but it was nearly impossible for a five year old to fully process death. The loss of my mom because more of a “fun fact” that I could pull out when people made “your mom” jokes in high school or when I had to explain why my dad was getting married when I was in the 4th grade. I would wear some of her jewelry or her tshirts with cats on them, but that was the extent of it. I didn’t consider what it meant for me as a daughter or a mother or a person trying to understand herself.
It wasn’t until college that the weight of it fully hit me. I was on a worship team for my university’s chapter of InterVarsity Christian fellowship, and on one of our annual retreats, we had a particularly poignant sharing time. Team members shared about breakups, deaths, friendship struggles, and other things we usually kept close to our chests. I remember suddenly bursting into tears, shocked at my emotional reaction to something I hadn’t cried about for a decade. It sunk in that she wouldn’t be there when I got married, when I graduated, or when I had my own children.
Since then, I’ve tried to get to know her more. It turns out, getting to know a dead person is difficult, but not impossible. I talk to her and write to her and talk about her. This doesn’t make it hurt less. If anything, it makes it hurt more, but if I feel nothing, the grief will fester inside me. And unresolved grief can be a real bitch. My decades of not feeling grief brought about depression and self harm. So, even if it’s been years, it turns out I can’t just pretend that nothing happened. When I recognize that my desires to be perfect and control everything around me have a lot to do with my need to live out her legacy and protect myself from an early death, I can learn to let those things go.
I recently joined a community called The Dinner Party (TDP). There are chapters all over the world, and their mission is:
OURS IS A COMMUNITY OF MOSTLY 20- AND 30-SOMETHINGS WHO’VE EACH EXPERIENCED SIGNIFICANT LOSS & CONNECT AROUND POTLUCK DINNER PARTIES TO TALK ABOUT IT
I’ve only met with this group once, but it was overwhelmingly refreshing to be in a room of people who aren’t afraid to talk about death. One of my close friends recently lost her dad, and as I watched our other friends respond to her grief, it brought to light my own experiences in which people weren’t sure how to approach death. At TDP, I could joke about death, cry about things that I “should be over by now”, and talk about the things that don’t seem to make sense. I didn’t have to put my grief in a box that looked the way others expected it to. Listening to others describe their experiences clarified my own.
Each year on November 5th, I can’t believe how long it’s been since she died, but I hope that as I grow farther away from her temporally, I grow closer to knowing her. I see her in myself as I approach the age that she was when she died. I see the shape of my body when I look at pictures of her. I think about how much she would love my cats. None of this makes it easier, but it’s better than pretending none of it happened.