My dad told me a story about Elton John, how one summer when he was working construction, one of his hit songs came on the radio - the same summer Elton John came out as being gay.
Construction workers aren't the biggest fans of homosexuality, as it turns out, but on this particular summer day, they heard the song, and instead of hurling insults or turning it off, they turned the volume up to as loud as it would go.
My dad said: Music can do that to people.
I think of that moment a lot when I think the words, I’m mentally ill. How it can lead people to simply turn away. How it is so stigmatized, it can give people the power to simply shut me out.
What unifying force do we need? Will something allow us to transcend the stigma?
Maybe one day, I will hold my breath after someone hears that news about me, and instead of turning me away, they will want more of me. They will want the volume all the way up.
The Buddy Willard Chronicles
Buddy Willard asked Esther Greenwood: Who are you going to marry now, now that you've been... here? He motions to the well-kept grounds of McLean Hospital, which isn't specifically mentioned by name in her famous novel, but is where Sylvia Plath got her inspiration for The Bell Jar.
I just finished reading The Bell Jar, having read it once before a long time ago. I am familiar with the notion of a man asking me who I would marry 'now', 'now' being after my stint somewhere secret, somewhere unsavory. I sat on a man's lap once and he asked me that, and I felt something like interest towards him - that someone could be so casual about locked wards and sickness, as if life ever really exists outside of that. But also, how sinister it is to dismiss someone because they have suffered in a stigmatized way.
I remember the rejections, how the men would say, "I didn't want to tell you this over the phone," and they would break up with me in crowded bars in front of their friends. I have taken Ubers home, numb and inconsolable, and I have spent time dissecting my actions and words. At another point in The Bell Jar, Buddy Willard, Esther Greenwood's old boyfriend, asks her if it is 'him' who 'makes women crazy', as he had dated her and another girl at the mental hospital.
Going back to sitting on that man's lap, the one who told me we couldn't "really date" because I had "been in the hospital," I think of how idiotic that sentiment is. That we can make each other crazy, or be crazy, or have people judge us for being crazy. It's so stigmatized, this business of mental illness. I can gratefully say I have not seen that man in years.
The moment everything changed was when I could look back on this man, who I had at one point loved very much, and think of him not as better than me for not having suffered in a hospital, but as lesser than me, for putting me down.
Reflecting on The Bell Jar, and stints at McLean Hospital, is hard. It hits close to home. But the moment everything changes is the moment you realize you deserve better than men who judge you for it.
There's a famous self portrait of Edgar Degas, the guy who sculpted and painted ballerinas. He painted himself in searing accuracy, until you get to the bottom left corner. He left it blank. An open, empty space of white canvas (now faded into pearl white).
I think to myself it must have some greater meaning. But maybe that's the meaning of what he did, leaving it blank - he wants you to wonder.
It is art, after all.
When I started writing on this website in April 2020, I had no idea what I was doing. Instead of being a masterful painting with one blank space, I was a blank space with perhaps one small space of mastery. I wrote apology letters to my sister, who had banished me, and wrote about the men who had hurt me. I wrote a piece about the walls talking to me for a challenge, and got some good feedback. Perhaps I had found my niche.
Sometimes I reflect on that period of time. Why did I write?
I needed a self portrait, I think. Something to sustain me. I was in lockdown with two other people, both men who wanted nothing to do with me, and vice versa. At one point I only had champagne and eggs in our fridge, which one of the men commented on in disbelief, and the only way I could combat his words was to write about it.
April 2020 needed some kind of definition, and I was happy to shatter any illusions I might have had about normalcy. The world wasn't normal, but neither was I, and I finally had a way to get it out in a constructive way. (Cooking the eggs and getting drunk on the champagne at 2PM wasn't the constructive way, as it turns out.)
As I typed out responses to each challenge, I became more and more myself, the blank spaces disappearing.
But of course, or perhaps, every artist leaves some illusion, some mystery. I hope I have a blank space, some piece that's missing, that only I can harness - perhaps for my art, perhaps for myself.
Forrest Gump said: Life is like a box of chocolates. But I'd argue it's a walnut: crack it open, and little useless shards fall out. Or maybe that's just what someone who has 'aftermath' says. I say that because at one point, the walnut was whole, and not broken, a bad analogy. There was a distinct before, and after.
Today I walked around my old college campus, the one I spectacularly dropped out of after one semester. I have a lot of somber thoughts about this experience. I went to the campus cafe and had a muffin and coffee and wrote down some thoughts on a napkin in blue ink. I prefer blue ink - on some documents, your signature is not official unless it's in blue ink; that's how you discern it was not forged, that's it's real. I am not forging these thoughts, this peculiar feeling of separateness.
I watch the college girls around me. One is staring at me. I like that, that I'm someone worth staring at. I don't question it. I do question the clothing choices - all parkas and mittens, zany hats and corduroy pants. And then I realize I'm judging them because I couldn't be them.
I dropped out, choosing mental illness over conventional quirkiness.
The girls fifteen years ago, when I went to this all-women's college, were horrible. They were mean, bulimic, and petty. I overheard one girl, when told I was to join a party later that evening, yelling - how could you invite Alison to this party? She's weird. I'll never forget her. She was my roommate.
Today, walking around the campus, I felt like I hadn't had the upper hand, the advantage. It wasn't just mental illness. No one understood the particular feeling of being disliked for who I felt I really was. For I had thought I was interesting back then, both for having a mental illness and not, but I most certainly wasn't. I was just eighteen. And young, and naive - so naive it makes me wonder that I lasted even one semester.
The 'aftermath' is what happens when you give up something that could have been great, and then spend a day fifteen years down the road admiring the girls you could have been; the infinite possibilities of them dressed up in winter clothes, but I just see straight through them to ghosts.
In fact, I wrote down "ghost" on my napkin, but that probably meant me.
This piece must be so boring to read. I feel boring just re-experiencing these emotions.
I wish I could wrap this up neatly. But these feeling just sit there, lame and intolerable to sit with.
I could connect this back to my walnut analogy, but who cares? When you crack open something not meant for you, it falls apart, sure. It sits in a million little pieces.
A million little sorry thoughts that add up to only one girl staring at you, and probably not for the reasons you think.
Attempts to Escape
Naguib Mahfouz said: "Home is not where you are born; home is where all your attempts to escape cease."
Perhaps starting this piece with a quote about home is contrived. But I've always struggled to define it, for myself.
My "hometown" is where I tell people I'm from. But when I tell them about my "hometown", it's actually my second hometown. I don't speak about my first hometown, the one where I'm really "from."
I lived in my first hometown from ages five to eighteen, making it my 'real' hometown. Because those are the years you become a person, right? "High school." "Prom." "Puberty." These might ring a bell for some. For me, they represent that feeling you get when you get an ice cube put down the back of your shirt. And then having to watch the ice melt while you feel the cold wetness of your shirt cling to your body.
My first hometown was a farming town with a top-notch school system, where I graduated number twenty-four in my class of two hundred. It had a "downtown" that consisted of a Dunkin Donuts and CVS and a gas station. It was a plastic bag put over your head; the risk of suffocation was always there, although if you were quick, you could pull it off just in time to see the bored looks of your high school contemporaries.
I don't mention this hometown to anyone because I almost died there. Not of boredom, but of depression. It was a WASP filled wasp nest, and I was the lone wasp who declared I had a mental illness, and was shunned for it. No one wanted anything to do with me. The bored looks of my high school contemporaries turned to pity, and then confusion. I had been so 'normal.' And now? I was asking for the plastic bag.
I'm not proud of who I was. I was learning what it meant to be depressed, and sure, that's hard, but it was also so pathetic. While everyone was doing 'normal' things, I was in therapy, hospitals, doctor's offices. I was stunted, and it was only later, in my "second" hometown, after age eighteen, that I learned what it means to be a human being. And not a corpse, or a wasp.
So, there it is: my initial hometown was a hell hole of sorts, but maybe that's just high school, growing up, etc. When you ask me where I'm from, I'll mention my second hometown, think fleetingly of my real, first hometown, and then smile, content that "home" is no longer somewhere I want to escape from.
I used to think I was somehow special, that my trauma made me superior to others. Surely, I thought: no one has suffered the way I have. I would watch girls laugh with their mothers, speak without their voices shaking, move their bodies without twitching, and I would seethe internally.
I am not in poverty. One out of every five people have been molested - also not me. I do not have ailing health, or a bully. I am, in fact, lucky.
So why do I feel this pressure to be more damaged than everyone else?
I read a book once where a girl in a psych ward cuts her hair super short and starves herself to emaciation, and goes to group therapy and laughs at the idea of recovery. A man pulls her aside after the group session, twisting her arm, and says: "You can cut your hair as short as you want, you can not eat for as long as you want, but in the end, it's still you underneath."
I feel the pressure, not only to be more damaged than others, but in a complete contradiction, I also know that I need to overcome my insecurities.
I was talking to my therapist the other day and name dropped a prestigious college on the east coast, where I'm from, and she said: "What's that?" and I was completely taken aback. What did she mean, she'd never heard of it?
I felt foreign, pretentious, but more than that - very east coast-y.
Perhaps, then, it's where we come from - and our own personal biases - that make us who we are, and put a unique pressure on us.
Maybe it's not my fault that some guy twisted my arm and told me to essentially F off.
But maybe it is, and maybe that's my unique pressure - to overcome myself.
She said I was bright blue when I was born, that they had to rush to put me under heat lamps. I wonder about that, an allergic reaction to exiting the womb. But it was only the fuse.
Turning sixteen felt like crushing up my birthday cake and sticking it behind a napkin on my plate. It tasted like apples, only 45 calories if you get a small one. I ate two apples a day for an entire summer as my only sustenance; the summer I turned sixteen was a test - could I continue to survive life, living in a "blues" state of mind?
Someone once said you go broke slowly, then all at once. Depression is like that. One day you're a happy little girl, brought back to life by heat, and then the next day the heat consumes you - a flame that festers, and then catches hold of every single neuron you had hoped could connect to serotonin.
I still can't really believe I survived being sixteen; perhaps I am a phoenix, rising from the ashes, but I'm probably just average.
Flames can be blue at the base. Perhaps I have merely risen from my natural state - hot, cold, a contradiction and an omen of what is to come.
Shadows that live in winter
they say no two snowflakes are alike, but how do you workshop that in writing class? everyone comes with the same story, just with a different structure, and that's when it hits me - I'm as unique as a light fixture, missing the point entirely.
I took a creative writing course once, a long time ago, when I wasn't yet bitter. I sat next to a girl who opened like a flower when it was her turn to give her input. she read a poem of hers out loud, about her boyfriend's mom. but her voice wasn't hers. it was a poet's - I ask you: do snowflakes change shape when they know they're beautiful?
ten years later, it isn't her poem that sticks with me from that class. it was her voice, the way she spoke. how each word became an icicle, right in the eyelid.
I think of "every snowflake is unique" as a parody. but maybe it's the structure, the shadow they cast on each of us, individually.
I wonder if she knows she was an icon. the applause after her reading was electric. all these years later, she is a shadow that exists in winter - unique and structurally sound, even after it hits the ground.
you're better now
sometimes I imagine
I didn't find you
in a darkened room
with your palms
like a shrug
or a truce
I took you
to the Emergency Room
you cried for the first time
in that hospital bed
like a newborn
exhaling its first breaths
clutching my hands
red in the face
you asked me
if it gets better
if you could be saved
sometimes a sob
looks like telling someone
you love them
when it's time
for the hospital staff
to give the medicine
that won't save
but will only elongate
I honor Sylvia Plath (“Figs”)
Sylvia Plath has that famous line - the one about figs, and how there are so many to choose from, it's impossible to know which one to choose. She wants it all.
As I write this, I sit uninspired, by everything. I'm bored - all the time. I drink my coffee in the morning to wake up - for what? To do the 9 to 5? I'm tired.
Sylvia Plath has another famous line - "I want so desperately for the good things to happen." It's grim, with a suicidal flavor. And it opens a large can of worms.
Like - what happened to her figs?
Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. We have so many choices thrown at us, every day. It's overwhelming. There's no way to enjoy all the figs.
And if you don't choose a fig, it drops to the ground and rots. It's too late.
As I sit here, enjoying my cup of coffee, I have to wonder why I'm uninspired. My phone literally has an internet search engine on it that could come up with any idea my heart desires to pursue. But I remain stagnant - overwhelmed by possibility, I have shut down completely.
I wonder if Sylvia Plath hadn't picked "poet" as her fig, if she hadn't picked "marrying Ted Hughes" as her other fig, if she'd still be with us. It's an impossible question to answer.
It's impossible to know when too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. But it remains entirely possible for there to be too much good, too many options, too many figs.