(photo by the wildly talented nylonsaddle)
When I was in the seventh grade a girl told me I had ugly feet. I take that back. She announced I had ugly feet, proclaimed it as if it were a common and necessary fact that any and all need know lest they be caught unawares by the awesome terror of my metatarsals.
It was summer, or nearly there, at a friend’s co-ed pool party. The day was winding down and we had just matriculated inside to watch a movie or MTV or whatever was hip in the mid 90’s for kids who had cable, and were all huddled around a tiny color tube television, sprawled together (yet clearly and awkwardly separated by anatomy) on chairs and couches and the hard, cold, Spanish tile floor. Limbs were thrown askew everywhere and blankets were strewn haphazardly about. We were propped up, or together, on pillows – angling our preteen bodies perfectly for both TV viewing and boy ogling (because duh. BOYS!!!). My feet were outstretched and a blonde, beautiful girl looked at me suddenly, gasped, and without hesitation alerted the room to the heinous appearance of my feet. “Holy crap, Athena. your feet are so ugly! How can you even think it’s okay for you to be barefoot?!?! Go put socks on.” Of course, everyone laughed and stared at my feet en masse, so I got up to grab socks from my sleepover bag. “Whatever they’re just feet” I mumbled sort of quietly and one hundred percent passive aggressively under my breath. “Geez.”
When I got back to the party, sock-clad and defeated, the beautiful blonde had taken my now vacated spot next to the cutest boy there. A coincidence I wouldn’t realize until later in life. The only spot left in the room to sit was behind everyone. On the outskirts. Alone.
Where she had been just moments earlier.
The party continued; the room remained swathed in joy and effervescence despite the poison bristling my skin and shame penetrating my bones. A simple joke at my expense — wielded with no intention other than to bring one girl who felt alone and unseen more admiration, attention, inclusion — wrecked me. The comment about my feet would inevitably morph into something so much more destructive. It became a pit of doubt and self loathing and total inadequacy growing ever deeper, wider, and more powerful in my gut.
Over the next two decades an offhand remark would become my Hexxus.
In a singular moment of one girl’s pre-pubescent flippancy I learned to hate myself and to be convinced that no matter how good or kind or wonderful I was, I would never ever ever (no matter what!) be truly enough for someone (anyone!) else. I began to apologize for my appearance and my presence, later I would also beg forgiveness in the quietest and most diminutive ways, for my words and my ideas. I learned how to be – and how to stay – small.
Eventually I got over the comment about my feet and it’s corrosive effect on my self worth (Thanks, THERAPY! And EFFEXOR! And SELF HELP BOOKS! And Everyone Who Has Ever Loved Me (and my feet) Forever And Ever Amen.) Through a lot (I mean LIKE SO MUCH, holy shit) self reflection, and amazing, healthy, trusting adult relationships, both failed and successful, I realized how ridiculous I was being and feeling. Of course my feelings were valid (yours are, too). And of course it took work to get over and under and finally through the pain caused on that fateful night a lifetime ago but the work was wholly worth it.
Now that I’m on the other side of the Great Foot Debacle Of Our Time, I’ve realized some things: We are all going to hurt someone (probably a few someones, actually) in our lifetime. It’s one of the inevitabilities and certainties of life and love and relationships and growth and being alive and fucking things up sometimes and the simple fact that people are inherently different from each other. But here’s the life changing part: It’s okay to forgive yourself for those mistakes (holy shit, right!?!?!) and is actually just as important as forgiving someone else for causing you pain or sorrow or misfortune or anything less than a totally awesome experience. We’re all trying as hard as we can to get through this thing called life – not just the big moments (big hurts and big joys), but the messy or mundane or boring or bitter middle stuff too. We’re learning and changing and growing and doing and by default we’re going to say the wrong things (your feet are so ugly!) or make friends with the wrong people who want the wrong things from us (money! validation! encouragement! therapy!) or let people into or out of our lives at the wrong times (If we’d have met now instead of year ago we’d be besties! F YOU TIMING!!). That’s to be expected. What’s remarkable is that we have control over what we allow to touch, shape, change, or mold us. We can take the hurt and allow it to sow seeds of shame and anger and jealousy or any of the other emotions that we (ALL!) experience that do not serve us, or we can let those bad things go and choose to only hold onto the good stuff instead.
Though much of who I was at the age of twelve is largely unchanged (Hi! I’m AWKWARD! I make jokes when I’m nervous! I’m still the same SIZE!) I have managed to learn a lot since then (Liquor THEN beer! Credit cards are literally the worst! Clean your apartment before you move out! BE NICE TO EVERYONE!!). I’ve learned – largely the hard way (because the easy way is for dummies!) – that although words matter – some of them just don’t.
Although everyone’s truth is important, no one has the power to make any of us beholden to theirs. We get to decide what matters to each of us. What shapes us. What becomes of us. Though everyone we encounter will touch our lives in some way and we can’t always decide what or when or why, we can almost always define how. Even when, especially when, it’s scary or uncomfortable or bound to change us for the better.
Most importantly, at least for the purpose of this diatribe, in the ten (okay fine 23) years since seventh grade, I’ve learned that like love, empathy does. That it’s a verb not a noun. Having the ability to share the feelings of another person doesn’t have to mean that we literally know what they’re going through, because often there’s no way in hell we are going to be able to grasp that, but rather that we see them as a human who is trying to breathe in and out and take one hard step after another and not fall over and break their face today. The girl at the party? She just wanted to be seen. While I wholeheartedly disapprove of her behavior, I completely understand her emotions and subsequent quick-tempered (irrational!) response. Had any one of us – her friends – turned around to see her sitting on the outskirts of the room, forgotten and alone, we’d have quickly called her into the fold and my feet (and delicate twelve year old soul) would have remained unscathed.
It took me two decades (and also hurting a few really amazing people in ways similar to how the seventh grade beauty hurt me) to realize that it was never about my feet.
(But then, it never really is.)
It’s been one year since Robin Williams’ death. Three hundred sixty-some days since the reality of depression rocked most to their core. For those of use who battle(d) depression, Robin’s passing elicited an all-too-familiar feeling. Some were discouraged, “if Robin can’t win this fight, what hope do I have?” was a phrase uttered by many. It’s really easy to succumb to depression. To let it envelop you wholly, pull you under it’s seductive, mysterious, alluring spell. It’s
harder hardest to fight. It’s hardest to pull yourself out of bed and choose to live another day. To breathe another day. To not-die-today for one more day. To Carry on.
It’s easy for those who have never battled depression to tell us to “get over it” or “it’s not that bad” or brush off our feelings as if they’re nothing more than a distraction. A nuisance. But for us it’s visceral. It’s written on our bones and seeps through the marrow. It’s who we are. And it is who we are that helps one another. It’s our shared experiences that bond us all together, that remind us we are not alone. We are not islands. We are not abandoned souls clinging desperately to the cliffs of community, waiting for a hand up or an invitation in. We are already there. We are here. We are together. We can win this battle. All of us.
This is my story.
This is my fight song:
I was an awkward androgynous punk rock teenager who lived for Bjork and Beck, Ginsberg and Kerouac. For feeling and fleeting romance and unrequited everything. In the winter months I lived on ski slopes, my sanity teetering precariously on the edge of my snowboard, my cheeks a permanent shade of wind burnt pink, softened only by steaming strawberry lattes at the coffee house nearby. I spent the summers with friends; lazily dragging my nine-year-old-boy’s body alongside their fuller, more female forms, in tepid lake water – drying on docks in the last light of dusk. I drove to the middle of nowehere to write. Something. Nothing. Anything. I was always writing. I was overeducated and under taught. Stimulating but not stimulated. I was supposed to be thriving in the perfection of my idyllic, picturesque, quintessential midwestern town. But I wasn’t. I was barely surviving.
I was suffocating.
The day I lived was like any other; the warmth of summer was still clinging to the crisp, cooler breezes of fall as November blew across my mother’s apple trees, the overripe fruit kerplunking on the lawn, feeding and fattening the deer my dad would hunt in the weeks to follow. Election coverage droning on the nightly news, someone beating someone else, this state going blue, that one turning an unexpected shade of red. Crickets and frogs still chirped outside my window, the last reminder of a season ended. Ending. Everything was perfect.
Until suddenly it wasn’t.
There was something about a boy, or a your-ass-is-grounded-for-life sized long-distance phone bill. Something painfully insignificant but hugely earth shattering that led me to go Girl: Interrupted and chase a bottle of Tylenol with a box of Benadryl, as if it were the only solution to my woe. I tipped my head back to swallow a few more pills and realized I was out of water, so I headed out of my room, passing the bathroom without a pause, forgetting entirely that it was there. I walked into the kitchen where my mother was making dinner. She was cooking her usual faire, something wholesome and savory and stereotypically Middle American. The smell of chicken and thyme permeated the floorboards; sweat was beading on the glass over the sink, dripping down the window in perfect Morse Code dots and dashes. The sound of simmering sauce punctuated, with the most perfectly timed staccato rhythm, the yells from Wheel Of Fortune in the next room. Vanna White slayed me. All those dresses. Never wearing the same one twice. Episode after episode. Smiling. Happy. My parents opting, yet again, for mind-numbing syndication over a meal together at a table. I added that to the heap of all-that-was-terrible and grabbed a glass. Maybe there was something about my stature, the way I was holding the glass, my bulbous, swollen eyes and dripping nose. Maybe she just had a sense. Maybe the timing was just perfect. But at that moment, before I turned to go upstairs, my mother looked over her shoulder and saw me. I stopped to look back at her, my eyes wild. Scared. The instant our eyes met I realized the gravity of what I was doing, what I had already done, and it hit me that my escape plan was faulty. In that instant I knew that mine would not be the only life that my death would claim.
I looked up at her – my beautiful, flawed, crazy, wonderful, loving, hippie of a mother – and uttered quietly, with a calmness that surprises me still, for her to call 911. She didn’t ask why. She didn’t scream, but instead lurched forward, whizzing past me without missing a beat and dialed. I collapsed to the floor. My mother wrapped her small body around me and, while she rocked me with the gentle cadence of her sobs, I waited to die. I waited to be saved. I waited for sirens. I waited for absolution. For lightness. I waited for nothing.
The only thing I didn’t wait for was exactly what I needed most.
Fast-forward five years; I’m in college, sort of. I have a boyfriend, sort of. I know what I’m doing with my life and where I want to…shit. No. Scratch that. I can’t even write that with a straight face. I was clueless as fuck. No. Really. I had no idea what or where or when I was going or who I wanted to be. Typical early twenties-itis. Then two planes hit those two buildings and everything sort of got hurtled into perspective in a massive THWUMP. Life bitch slapped me across the face and I wasn’t even old enough to drink. I was staring down the barrel of a gun with “What Do You Want To Do With Your Life, Girl” etched into the side of it, and it didn’t take long for that barrel to turn into a chasm. I dug my heels in and steeled my resolve. Which worked only momentarily. Before long I was losing control, I was slipping dangerously close to some invisible edge that I knew was sharp, too sharp, actually, so I started swallowing pills again. The kind of pills prescribed by a doctor (my doctor) that alter your brain chemistry and soften the blow of living a life so entrenched in feeling everything a little too intensely. Once they reached peak saturation in my bloodstream I didn’t feel anything. Not joy. Not sorrow. I couldn’t laugh. I couldn’t cry. I had become comfortably numb. I was twenty years old and had turned into a goddamn Pink Floyd song.
Fast-forward a decade(ish); I’m in the twilight of my thirties. Married. A couple of wombfruits. A nice house and a good career and a great creative outlet (or two or three). Friends. An (okay maybe entirely unhealthy, albeit fun) infatuation with donuts. All the things I was supposed to go after in life were tidily arranged in a line of “here is why you’re happy.” Except I wasn’t. At first, I thought it was the winter. That Seasonal Affect Disorder had grabbed hold and the polar vortex was sucking the joy out of me. I waited for spring. For the ground and my mind to thaw. Then spring came, and turned slowly to summer. I thought I had beaten the winter blues. Tucked another depression victory neatly under my take-that-you-fucking-asshole-disease belt. The sun was shining. The weather was flawless. We had just moved into a new house in a great neighborhood. I had the best season of my business ahead of me. Then one morning, without the slightest hint of warning, I awoke in a cavern. My chest was tight. I couldn’t breathe. I knew. It took me longer that I anticipated to realize that it wasn’t the winter. It wasn’t a shortage of Vitamin D. It wasn’t short days and long nights and cold so intense it could crack your bones. All of that was gone and yet there was a gaping hole filling up what was once overflowing with happy. Depression had me under its spell again. By the time I knew what was happening, I was almost buried in blackness. I had patched and taped and covered and smiled over it too long, and the wave was upon me. I had lost myself in the blackness again, and I was hell bent on getting out.
I battled depression quietly all summer, and the spring and winter before that, if I’m being honest. I surrendered countless nights to insomnia. I lost my appetite on some days only to find it return, voracious and insatiable the next. I went through mood swings and anger and a heavy fucking case of the never-not-good-enoughs. But I battled. I journaled and I talked to others. I clawed and gnawed and kicked and screamed my way out, and now, in the throes of yet another winter, I’m sitting at my computer on a cold Tuesday evening, with the sound of my wombfruits and the smell of over-cooked tator-tots drifting through my home, writing to you. And I’m happy. Not in the contrived my-therapist-tells-me-to-use-positive-words way. Or in some patched up but still broken way (though, let’s face it, we’re all a little broken, aren’t we?). But in the real way. In the way that we convince ourselves doesn’t exist when depression grabs us and swallows us whole. This happiness is quiet. It’s knowing. It’s rooted in my marrow. Despite the straight-jacket-ness of a depressive-disordered person’s hardwired bio-chemistry, I have found happiness again.
The point of this soliloquy, though, darlings, isn’t that I’m happy, though that is a topic we can get to another time. What matters today, right now, is that I am here. That I am not afraid to talk about where I’ve been or what I’ve been through. I’m not going to pussyfoot around it anymore, or avoid telling people that depression is a thing. It’s real and tangible and visceral and life-threatening. I’m not going to deny that it’s a part of my life. Like my big teeth or one squinty-eye, or wobbly bits, it’s with me now. It’s who I am, but it does not define me.
Since Robin Williams’ death it has become increasingly important for me to tell people that I battle depression. I want to decrease the stigma and get people talking about it. I want to answer their questions and let them know that it’s the wicked siren of disease, luring in any willing victim. Singing beautifully, hauntingly, desperately towards us, calling us home.
I hope that sharing my story can strengthen the resolve in others. In you. To fight like hell. To battle. To tell depression to FUCK OFF. I want to remind you that you’re here. You’re beautiful and alive and perfect. Sure, you feel broken and flawed but trust me, you’re flawless. I want you to know, I need you to know, to believe and breathe and become the truth that, more than anything, you are not your scars. You are not the lies you tell yourself. You are not what depression carves you up to be.
There’s a forest through the trees darlings. Contrived as it sounds and trite as a #soblessed humble brag, but true nonetheless, things do get better. Sometimes they get worse again for a while. Sometimes it’s a rollercoaster. Sometimes the rollercoaster is exhilarating and perfect and everything-it-was-ever-meant-to-be-wahooooeeeee! Sometimes it sucks.
I can’t make you promises. I’m not going to pretend I can, or that I have all the answers. I have only a few. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we are all made of stories. Some are linear, while others are jagged and rocky, a cacophony of sound of movement and imperfection. I know that whatever our paths, whatever our pasts, in this moment, we are all infinite. We are boundless. We have everything in front of us, even if it’s too dark at times to see it. I know that self-love and self-care is hard work. It’s the hardest work. But it’s the most important. I know that reaching out to others is the scariest thing ever. Being vulnerable is like being on the 50-yard line of the Superbowl and singing the National Anthem naked. But I know that asking for help, or someone to talk to or sit in a room with you while you watch Hoarding: Buried Alive or sketch or eat your feelings or do something, anything, that makes you feel saner than you’re feeling when you want to give in or give up or scream or cry, is crucial. We are not islands. We are tribal creatures. Find your tribe or lurch out towards the darkness where we all reside and call on them. Call on us.
If depression has taught me anything, it’s that the rules it writes for our lives aren’t etched in stone. They are malleable. Fragile. Tactile. Their existence depends on one simple, delicate and incredibly vulnerable caveat: our willingness to follow them. After fifteen years and three bouts of depression I think I’ve learned most of the rules.
I’m ready to start breaking them.
Today marks three hundred and sixty some x’s in the “WIN” column for those of us still here. Three hundred plus times we’ve opted to get out of bed. To breathe. To keep going.
To carry on.
And because sometimes we all need a little extra help:
It’s been over a year since my first installment of Letters To A Stranger, a project that deep down I think I’ve wanted to do my entire life. In the last twelve months I’ve answered two letters, the only two that ever appeared in my inbox. Until a few days ago when this letter arrived:
This letter is years in the making. Its first version was born when I was 18. It was amended when I was 22 or 23. Now I wish to add perspective only age and experience can bring.
I woke up vomiting down the front of my shirt. Tequila. To-kill-ya. Dammit. The people I was drinking with in a dorm room yelled at me to get out. I had just moved into my freshman dorm and wasn’t adjusting well. I was looking for something to do, and as usual, drinking was the most appealing option. I hadn’t known the people I was with for more than a few months if I had to guess, and there were some friends visiting at this “party,” too. I recall stumbling down the stairs and back to my dorm. A guy walked me to my building. When I came to he was raping me. I do not know his name, nor do I recall his face. My body still remembers his crime.
Fast forward. I’m 22 or 23 – same difference to me. I had been out to the bars and went to someone’s house for an “afterbar.” I was excited to be spending time with a particularly attractive guy that I’d met a few times. I never would have taken him for a rapist. I got very drunk and at one point was forced to my knees. This man’s penis was forced down my thrown as tears ran down my face while gagging racked my body. My body still remembers his crime.
Here I sit, heart pounding. No one – NO ONE – I am close to knows both of these events happened to me. No one knows that twice in my life my body was treated like a carnival ride – free to anyone with access. No one knows the shame and disgust that rise in my throat now, many years later, as I recall these events. No one knows how angry I am that they occurred. No one knows.
Society would have me believe that I’m making this shit up. I was drunk and stupid, and I should have made better choices. With our paltry prosecution rates of rapists, society would have me believe these men did nothing wrong. They did nothing more than take what was in front of them. They were “being boys.” But Society is SO FUCKING WRONG!
I am a woman you know. I have a successful career. I have incredible people I get to call family. I enjoy loving, fulfilling relationships with female and male friends. And this is my secret. Our sick society wants this to be my secret. I just can’t let this letter live within me any longer. It has festered alone too long. And my body is ready to be rid of these crimes perpetrated against it.
I might believe these criminals were the reason I couldn’t tell you how many men I’ve slept with. I might tell you these criminals were the reason I have an STD that I will have for life or the reason I had several others over the years. I might believe these criminals were the reason I kept drinking for so long. I might try to tell you these criminals weren’t at fault for assaulting me. I might try to admit that it was my fault for being a dumb, drunk girl trusting the world wouldn’t trample her genitals and sexuality into submission. I might… But I don’t believe that for a moment.
The truth is I pushed. I screamed. I cried. I FOUGHT. I did not submit. And I will not submit today. Today I am sending this letter as a battle cry for those of us who have been wounded by others’ violent crimes. Today I am owning my survivorship and grieving for the years I kept this secret. But I will not lie down. I will not play dead. I am alive and vital and beautiful and powerful beyond even my belief.
So – those criminals took nothing from me. They are the reason for NOTHING! They do not, and will not, have any power in my life. I claim full responsibility for any mistake I’ve made since those criminals tried to defile me as long as they get zero credit for any piece of my life.
I do not write this letter for condolences or pity or any weird hero worship so many survivors receive. I write this letter as a testament to survival and a flourishing spirit that would not be taken down by those criminals. I write this letter to unburden my soul. I write this letter to encourage people to understand they likely know someone with emotional weight of sexual assault in his or her past.
I’ve read and re-read this letter a million times, it seems, waiting for the perfect words to form in my brain and spill out onto this screen, my fingers flicking these keys with fervor, prose pouring out of me in waves, washing you clean. Though you didn’t ask for a response in your letter, you didn’t cry out in need for absolution or advice, I can’t not offer you this:
When I was in middle school one of my friends did 500 sit-ups a day. Every. Single Day. 500! I asked her if it was hard and she simply looked at me, not missing a single beat, and replied matter-of-factly without a hint of condescension or annoyance, “of course it’s hard. But it get’s easier, you know.” We were twelve, maybe thirteen, but her wisdom has stuck with me for the two decades since and came to me in a dream the night after receiving your letter. Suddenly, as I wrote this story out on a piece of paper to another young woman who was, in fact, looking for advice, what I needed you to know became wonderfully clear.
Of course it’s hard. Of course the things that have happened to you and the crimes committed to you have made things hard. Of course dealing with society’s treatment of victims and seeming tolerance of their oppressors is hard. Of course fighting like hell to have a semblance of resolution or forgiveness or normalcy following your assaults is hard. It’s the hardest thing and I’m so proud of you for battling. For pushing and persevering and believing that, absofuckinglutely, you are powerful and beautiful beyond measure. Even more so, I’m proud as hell of you for sharing your story with me, with my readers, with any who may stumble upon this post so that they may have a beacon to turn to when things get hard.
Those criminals did take something from you, though, Woman. They took something from every single one of us when they preyed upon you, and your beautiful and brave fight back is what saves each of us a little more. It is our collective salve, the balm to wounds that are otherwise untended. Aching, deep, raw. Keep talking. Keep lifting up others through the power of your story. Be ready to hear thanks and have people look to you as a pillar. Not because they worship or pity you, but because there is so much strength in having the courage to LIVE YOUR TRUTH OUT LOUD, and everyone wants to touch that. To put their hands on the belly of your bravery and feel it kick. It’s not hero worship to thank a beacon for casting it’s light upon the stony shore so that we may better see the dangers that lie before us.