I don’t want to write this today. Is this becoming a theme?
Last week sucked although, admittedly, the obstacles I faced were probably more psychological than real. This week I have the real ones as I’ve got some sort of cold-like with sore throat, coughing, sneezing – the works. Is every attempt to lose weight going to be like this? Only once last week did I dawn my exercise clothes and walked for over an hour just for exercise. Then everything, including diet, fell apart.
But I have been digging through my old writings again, searching for patterns. Clearly this battle has been going on for a very long time.
I flipped through some old “morning pages” to try and find answers. On March 8, 2009 I wrote: “So I started reading The Writing Diet by Julia Cameron. She’s the one who suggests morning pages.”
And so Morning Pages have been in and out of my life since then. I’m endeavoring to do them now, although I took the weekend off. I took the weekend off of everything it seems.
2009 was a significant year. It was the year I could find no other alternative but to move home with my parents after I’d been hospitalized about two months prior. This was the hospitalization that led to SSI Disability on the recommendation of two different psychiatrists and one psychologist. I felt ashamed then but I wrote it off as temporary. Sure, there was no cure for my mental illness but I could learn to manage it. I could pass as “normal” if I wanted to, or so it seemed.
Continued from that same day, “I’m tired. I never knew living at home without a job could be tiring. There is constantly something that needs to be done, whether it’s building a bookshelf with my dad or helping my mom preserve her scrapbooks….On top of that it’s hard for me to stick with one project because I always feel I should be doing something else. Like this writing. I don’t know yet how useful it will be and I’m already struggling to keep my eyes open.”
Later that year I learned I had a condition called hypothyroidism. Untreated it’d been causing insufferable drowsiness. As it turned out, it was a common side-effect of the lithium I’d been taking but it seemed to all my doctors that taking one more pill for my thyroid each morning was far less risky than trying to come up with psych meds that had fewer side-effects. And the new drug worked. The only downside is that it, too, does not cure. It only manages. So I’m on thyroid medicine for life, too (probably).
March 9, 2009 I wrote “This is the largest I’ve been in my entire life.” Unfortunately, not much has changed. The only thing I’ve learned is not to even bother searching for clothes in a store that doesn’t have a “plus-size” section anymore. Even if I’m only going in to buy a hat or a handbag, I feel like the everyone else in the store is disgusted by me.
March 10, 2009: “I weighed myself this morning and I was one pound more than I was yesterday. This trying-to-lose-weight thing is incredibly frustrating. I think that’s why I’ve given up in the past.”
That’s one reason I don’t weigh myself anymore but last week I had an appointment with the psychiatric nurse practitioner and his nurse weighed me before our session. As I’d been trying to eat well and exercise the past week, the number she told me was not pleasant. But then I asked her if she had my weight from before (last December) and she said yes and told me what it was and I was a full 3 pounds lighter. Success? Not really. There’s about a 10-pound rage I’ve fluctuated between since 2009 and I was still within that range.
I took some time away from morning pages until 2016.
On January 27, 2016 I wrote (regarding weight):
“I want to blame the medicine. Weight gain is almost always a key side-effect of psych meds and I’ve seen some of my fellow SMI folk refuse treatment on that principle alone. There’s this feeling that fat is so repulsive that we’d rather suffer depression, mania, or hallucinations than gain weight. Is that really what society teaches us? Outward beauty is more important than mental health?
“Anyway, I don’t think psych meds are entirely to blame, at least in my case. My clothes started feeling tighter around my 19th birthday. I shed those pounds a couple years later when my best friend turned me into a runner and even after a knee injury took me out of the game, I didn’t gain weight again for a little over a year. That weight gain coincided with working the third shift at a call center. Exercise became difficult and my diet was not so great either. My medicine probably played a part too, at least when I was willing to take it…”
The pages go on to explain all the more recent obstacles I’ve had toward achieving weight loss. Of course many of them are superficial or apply uniquely to my situation.
There are more morning pages to consult, but this is all I have the energy to do for tonight.
I’ll give a report next week, but I have a feeling it won’t be much better.
I can see right away that I’m a terrible at keeping my word. I mean, I’d hoped to be asleep by about 9 PM and it’s not going to happen. Not if I want to write this. Or maybe I’ll just write super fast. Yes, that will happen and there will be no errors for you to point out! (sarcasm intended)
My first week of trying to become a better person was met with fear and anxiety which physically manifested somewhere in my chest. In other circumstances that may have been cause for alarm but not this time. No, this time I fully embraced it because I knew the only way not to feel it would be to revert back to the unproductive me. So this kind of fear is welcome. It makes me feel I’m on the right track, even if last week felt like a small failure.
The good news, I learned that coffee doesn’t have to taste good for me to crave it. So I rinsed off the old French press and brewed a pot first thing in the morning (most days). Monday, of course, I set out on my first intentional exercise in ages (a neighborhood walk) but it turned out to be quite nippy on a March morning before sunrise, even in the Valley of the Sun. So I turned back and traded my shorts for sweatpants. The following day I waited until after sun-up to exercise. This works for now but when the summer heat finally hits, sunrise will be the only time to exercise outdoors without dying of heat stroke. For most of my fit friends around here, the gym becomes a necessary tool for staying in shape. I don’t belong to a gym and trying to join one is a bit complicated for me but I’ll figure something out.
Three days out of the four I’d committed to were days I did some form of exercise (usually walking). The rest of the week I made excuses. Not good excuses, but at least this week I can start over again.
Food? My blender from Wal-Mart was definitely not a waste. I did what my friends told me, experimental variations of different ingredients: peanut butter, frozen fruit, spinach, non-dairy milk, apple slices. It was all lovely! Well, apart from the cleanup. The key is to clean it up before anyone else in my family tries to. I’m still working on that. At least I have a nice, thick re-useable straw. It’s perfect.
I ate normal food too: salads, stir-fry, eggs and meatless sausage for breakfast…
Writing? I started doing morning pages again (as suggested by Julia Cameron). But as far as novel writing goes, I hit a creative block last week. I have so many doubts about my characters! And, to be honest, I’m kind of getting bored. Now I realize that if I quit because of boredom and/or creative blocks, I’ve already proven I don’t have what it takes to be a professional writer. But is that really what I want to be anyway or is that just the only option I feel is available to me? I’ll get back to you on this.
Over the weekend I went to this “Mental Health and the Gospel” conference which was kind of amazing because it actually happened in a church with participants from several Christian churches. But it was also kind of frustrating because the focus was on common mental health issues like depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction.
Don’t get me wrong! I’ve suffered some of these too, but the thing that I long to hear someone talk of more than anything is the psychosis and hyper-religiosity which is perhaps only experienced by a fraction of a percent of church-goers, but I was one of them and I think the pastors who spoke with me could’ve definitely used a little help in dealing with my particular issue. Some didn’t even see my experience as a symptom of mental illness. This didn’t help me when I was still in denial as well.
Now it’s Monday. Time to act like a grown-up and get back on a schedule (one that is sure to be disrupted in the near future but I gotta at least try).
I wonder how it feels to be a caterpillar transforming in its chrysalis? Does it feel pain? Does it feel fear? Does it know it’s going to become a butterfly in the end? Did it ever see itself as beautiful before, when it was just a caterpillar? Has any caterpillar ever chosen death over transformation? Or is a caterpillar bound by the laws of nature to accept its fate?
I was a butterfly once, or at least I played one when, in second grade, I was assigned the role of “butterfly” in our school play “Goin’ Buggy.” It was a silent role but when the chorus sang “pretty little butterfly come fly away with me,” myself and, I think, three other girls spread our wings (which were made by a parent, I think) and pretended to fly to the back of the room.
I loved to sing back then and I thought I was kind of good at it too, although, in listening to cassette recordings from those days, I clearly didn’t have the gift I thought I did. But I kept practicing. I kept trying to memorize the songs I enjoyed listening to (mostly songs from musicals because, let’s face it, at that age my musical tastes where inherited from my mom). From ages 9 to 19, my voice improved enough to convince other people that I could, in fact, sing. I even had the luxury of taking private voice lessons and performing solos at church and school and retirement communities. People told me I was good, not just friends and family but complete strangers too. After while, I came to believe them and to think singing was my only true gift. Why else was it easier for me to become someone else through songs rather than words alone?
As a freshman in college, I began as a vocal performance major, but it only lasted a semester. Being around so many people whose voices were far superior to mine had a sobering effect. I was left with no choice: I had to find a new calling and, eventually, I did.
I’ve always been hyper self-aware and self-conscious in any social setting. Even now I carefully study the people around me and measure myself up to them. Yes, counselors have warned of the danger in making comparisons, but I can’t seem to give it up completely. In fact, that’s one reason I still feel shame even though most of the time no one criticized me at all. But in the rare times when someone does criticize me for something that makes me look or seem weird, I pay attention and made a concerted effort to change. It’s a thought-process I carried to the extreme when I studied abroad in France when I made it very clear that I wasn’t just in France to learn French. I was in France to become French.
You’ll learn how that all played out when you read my memoir someday but for now, let’s bring you up to date.
I turned 38 last week and, as my peers like to say, “shit just got real.” I’m freakin’ old! (or so my 18-year-old self would’ve said) and you know what? Very little has changed for me since I started this blog a little over 3 years ago. Oh, the lost ambition! the failure! the tears! How the hell did I end up on a one-way train to “Loserville”?
No matter. Now’s not the time for psychoanalysis. No, we’ll save that for other blogs. Rather now is the time to change and I’m gonna take a bold step and tell you that I’m going to be challenging myself in both work and fitness until it becomes habit forming and I want you to be a part of it.
This is a picture I took back in 2016. I basically look exactly the same today. In other words, I’ve tried stuff like this before and failed miserably but this time has to be different. It just has to. So I’m doing all the things my friends and internet research has instructed me. I’m goal-setting, scheduling, journaling, list-making, and having friends hold me accountable. Last but not least, I’m blogging about it once a week starting today. Stay tuned.
I’m behind on my writing. This was supposed to be done as soon as I returned from L.A. and I did try and scribble a few notes, but there were too many distractions.
Forgive me. That’s always my excuse. It doesn’t matter where I go or what I do. There are always too many distractions. I could be locked in a small room with nothing on the walls and no access to the internet or any other means of communicating with the outside world, just a pile of blank sheets of paper and something to write with. Yet even in the silence my mere thoughts would distract me and I’d invent stories or write lyrics to a song no one else would want to hear or sing. I’d daydream about how my writing would save me from a life of poverty and shame; about book signings and hugs from strangers who somehow felt less alone when they read my words. I’d fantasize about traveling the world on book royalties and reuniting with friends I haven’t seen since my youth. Perhaps the daydream would then turn dark as I’d wonder whether they’d remember me or even want to see me. I’m old and fat now. When they were part of my life I was young, spirited, and fit. I can’t reverse the aging process but maybe I could have a decent figure again.
Let’s talk about failures. So far it seems that all I’ve done is fail.
I’ve failed to finish the degree I truly wanted.
I’ve failed to stay in any romantic relationship.
I’ve failed to hang on to any job for more than a year.
I’ve failed to be a faithful friend through thick and thin.
I’ve failed to keep my promises.
I’ve failed to keep my faith.
I’ve failed to love myself.
I’ve failed to become a responsible adult.
I’ve failed to stay safe.
I’ve failed to stay healthy.
I’ve failed to do as the doctors advised.
I’ve failed to manage my mental illness.
I’ve failed to be the change I want to see.
I’ve failed to keep fighting.
I’ve failed to keep hoping.
I’ve failed to keep believing.
Thankfully, I’m not the only one who’s failed and, if we’re honest, I’m sure most of us have a longer list of failures than we’d care to admit. Therefore, that sense of connection was sure to be found at a museum that celebrated failure like The Museum of Failure, a pop-up show at the A+D Museum in Downtown L.A.
I’d wanted to see this exhibit since I first read about it. Of course, back then it was a world away in Sweden. But when I saw that it was coming to my neighboring state of California, just 400 miles away, I managed to make a short road trip around it.
Last April I’d visited The Museum of Broken Relationships in Hollywood. There, heartache was celebrated and I was moved to see otherwise ordinary objects become meaningful when given a beautiful and sad story. All the while acknowledging the irony of having such a melancholy museum adjacent to the Walk of Famewhere so many of the honored celebrities had publicly suffered the pain of broken relationships, perhaps even because of the recognition they’d worked so hard to achieve.
One might call a broken relationship a failure but on the flip side, every failure can be a learning opportunity. We do we so often try and bury our brokenness as if it’s too shameful to bring to light? I’m writing from a Starbucks and I can tell you this, if a barista fails to make a drink correctly, tell them what was wrong and they’ll gladly remake it for you, free of charge. They’ll apologize, of course, because that’s just good etiquette. But then they’ll remake it better than before and they’ll become at their job in the process.
I walked to and from my motel and the Museum of Failure that 26th day of January. It was a 2.8 mile walk each direction (according to Google Maps). The museum didn’t open until 2 PM that day allowing me to leave early with ample time for exploration and photography in between.
Though the museum focused on design failures, the failure to provide help for the ever-growing homeless population almost right outside the door was even more pronounced. I wrote some about it last year when I visited L.A. It’s something I wish I could do something about but there’s no blanket solution and I don’t know where to start so how could I blame anyone else for feeling the same?
I know one thing: money alone will not fix it. So I took photos and talked with a few people. That was all. I may have given $5 to someone, I can’t remember. All I know is, after seeing the way the homeless were living, all my complaining about my cheap motel seemed trivial.
Broken relationships, failures – they all kind of fell under the umbrella of everything that Frank Warren’s Post Secret organization seems to cover. I mean, all of us are weird. All of us hurt. All of us seek comfort, love, and understanding. We all need to be assured that we’re not alone
So I went to thePost Secret: The Show last night. I went alone. But that’s normal for me at this point in life. I went to L.A. three times in the span of a year and never bothered to invited anyone to join me. I hear people complain about going to the movies alone, but I’ve been going to the movies alone since I was 19 or 20 and now that I’m almost 38, it doesn’t phase me anymore. There is beauty in being alone and I truly enjoy it at times. If I’m in the right mood, I meet some of the most interesting people when I’m alone. Although few of these strangers I have memorable conversations give any false impression that they themselves are “normal.”
So I go to this Post Secret show alone and, on one side, end up sitting by young couples who appear normal and, on the other side, a young, single person who maybe came with the young people on the other side of her. I don’t know; I was too afraid to ask. But all around me I could hear joyful conversations between friends, family, and husbands and wives.
I was fine, at first. But then my secret was read on stage and I lost all semblance to “normal” I may have walked in with. And wow! Frank Warren himself surprised us by taking the stage and leading a Q and A. One of the women who stood a couple times and owned up to her own heart-wrenching secret looked so familiar. We’d met before, I think. But where had we met? I suppose I could’ve asked her later when I saw her again in the lobby, but I didn’t. I was too afraid. The place where I’d hoped to find kindred spirits turned out to be a weird, alternate dimension that I’d stepped into by mistake. Besides, I was convinced that, although I’d not owned up to my secret, everyone could see right through me.
The actor who’d read my secret stood in the lobby. I was a little surprised to see that no one was talking to him in that moment. But a single glance at his face and I became overwhelmed with shame. I couldn’t talk to him let alone approach him. It’d be too humiliating and he’d probably judge me harshly or worse, he’d pity me. Why did I share that secret? There were so many others I could’ve chosen from. Why did I pick that one?
Outside I climbed to a higher place, away from it all but still with in view of the theatre.
I wrote some thoughts then left, figuring it was too late to redeem myself. Why do I have such annoying thoughts?
I listened to Gungor’s song Am Ion repeat in the car. It’s a song of both introspection and prayer; an intimate conversation with God. From the very first time I heard it, I felt like this song was written just for me.
Then, I pulled into a parking lot and spoke into a camera.
I follow Post Secret on almost all the social media outlets. It’s mostly, but not always, secrets. Sometimes they seem to promote people reaching out to people, especially when there’s a strong movement to prevent suicide.
I used to be suicidal, but I don’t want to kill myself anymore. It’s been many years now since I made any attempts. Thankfully there are no new scars on my wrist or anywhere else on my body since 2008. But the loneliness is still crushing at times. I live with my family for now and I stay alive in large part for and because of them. But sometimes I fear being alone when they’re all gone. I hope I find someone before then to spend the rest of my life with. If not, at the very least maybe I’ll have a friend I can move in with, someone who likes cats. Or I suppose I can move into one of those groovy senior citizen communities where I’ll have my own place, but I can still hang with others like me.
You see, just a few months leading up to the prank I’d already begun an informal investigation into my addiction to Facebook “likes” (or “likes” on any of my other social networks for that matter – Twitter, Instagram). I started by asking my friends how they felt when others “liked” their posts. They were about 50/50 in terms of being greatly affected or completely indifferent. But those who could live in a world of social networks, share things, and not feel disheartened when nobody formally “liked” their posts, felt foreign to me and curiosity got the best of me. I actually wanted to be like them. I wanted to be able to share whatever I wanted with whoever I wanted and not care what other people thought. I even went so far as to begin filming a humorous video in which I engaged in a handful of attention-seeking gestures in hopes of understanding what I needed to do to maximize the number of “likes” I received.
During my research, I began to notice something about those who seemed indifferent to social media “likes.” They may have been immune to the emotional pull of Facebook, but the real root of “like” addictions is our common need for approval.
Think about it. Deep down, don’t we all want approval from someone? I discussed this with a friend who never cared about whether or not anyone “liked” what she posted on Facebook she freely admitted that her own self-esteem was boosted whenever her boss praised her for a job well-done. For the rest of us, maybe we seek the approval of a parent or pastor or spouse or close friend. If that’s the case then really the main difference between FB and RL is the level of superficiality. Why does it matter what someone I barely know thinks? Why does it matter how someone I haven’t seen in 15 years or more reacts to a post? Honestly, if social media didn’t exist, would I even care?
In many ways, social media is like an adolescent popularity contest. It’s refreshing to meet one of those rare souls who manages to be secure in who they are regardless of whether they fit in with the cool cliques or not. It would be fantastic if we could learn to love ourselves or even just to like ourselves like that.
I’ve spent enough years in and out of psychotherapy to know that my own “like” addiction is strongly linked to my life-long struggle with low self-esteem and trying to find my self-worth. Combine that with unstable moods, a stunted development into adulthood, and some kind of personality disorder and you have someone at a very high risk of engaging in an unhealthy relationship with Facebook.
Despite the frustration of often feeling unheard and unwanted on FB, there was one thing I always prided myself on in all my posts and that was my commitment to honesty and vulnerability. So you can imagine the betrayal many of my friends and followers must have felt the day I decided to tell a lie.
True, in my mind it didn’t exactly register as a lie. It was a meant to be an innocent joke, a harmless prank. Lots of people do pranks, right? I mean, once I remember a Facebook friend announced that he was engaged and no seemed angry at him when he later confessed that he made it up. And perhaps it was a the memory of his prank still lodged somewhere in my subconscious that made my own decision to change my relationship status just for fun feel okay.
Admittedly it was an impulsive decision. I’d never had the occasion to change my relationship status before. The last time I was in a serious relationship was a year or so before I had a FB account. Then one day I was hanging out with a good friend, painting the walls at her place, laughing, regressing, and making up silly stories. In one story we imagined a romantic relationship for us and, swept away in the moment, I logged onto Facebook and updated my relationship status to say “in a relationship.” Then I watched wide-eyed as the “likes” and “congratulations” poured in.
Then I thought, how strange that all that honesty and vulnerability I’d freely dispensed up until then remained in obscurity without any of the available reactions put to use. Yet a mere change in relationship status and suddenly everyone I know is awake and cheering for me.
I continued my ruse for a few more days. Only a couple of friends persistently tried to call my bluff but I refused to allow anyone but me to blow my cover so I misled these friends as best I could. I even tried to enlist the help of a mutual friend. But it all backfired when I made a fake break-up video that some mistook as a real cry for help (compelling me to remove it immediately and consider a career in acting). After that I reset my relationship status to “single” and tried to derive a deeper meaning from it in a follow-up post.
I tried to make it a kind of teaching moment, lamenting to all who cared about what a sad commentary it seemed that people see the act of being in a relationship as far superior to remaining single.
But my friends politely and lovingly disagreed with me. They believed the “likes” had more to do with Facebook’s algorithms that tend to make changes in relationship status more visible to other newsfeeds than anything else I post. So I can’t take this personally, in other words, but at least some of my friends are willing to engage in meaningful conversation about it with me.
For the next few days, I couldn’t stop thinking about my failed prank. Even though only one person directly expressed their disapproval to me and no one unfriended me, I felt an immense sense of guilt. I mean, honesty is perhaps the most important virtue I look for in a friend and I’ve always tried to model it, almost to a fault. But who would be able to trust me now?
In the midst of my inner-turmoil I realized something. Despite all I’d done, I didn’t actually hate myself. Yes, I’d learned a very important lesson and I desperately wanted to talk it out with this one friend I’d somehow offended, but when they turned down my invitation, I pursued it no further. I figure when they’re ready to talk, they’ll let me know. There’s a good chance this particular conflict isn’t really about me anyway.
So what changed in me? How did I come to love myself after so many years of self-hatred?
I guess part of it was planted in me over the summer when I attended family counseling with just my sister and me. We live in the same house and, for some reason, especially in recent years, almost all my anger and frustration has been directed toward her. But she was never the source of it all and so I had to learn to redirect my anger. I had to learn to treat her with the same respect I do everyone else. And yes, I’m still working on that, but it’s getting better.
At the same time I was receiving one-on-one counseling with a different therapist. She taught me about early childhood trauma and how it still can have a strong grip on us well into adulthood. This led me to identify a trauma trigger that had plagued me for as long as I can remember and, when set-off, had me crying right then and there, no matter where I was. It wasn’t a big deal when I was a kid but as a woman in my late thirties it’d become increasingly embarrassing.
The trigger, for reasons still unknown, turned out to be any situation in which I was caught breaking a rule without realizing it and, as soon as another person made me aware of what I’d done, I’d emotionally become a child again, reacting as though I’d done something terribly wrong and would have to be punished. Suffice it to say, I’ve lived my life as an avid rule-follower to the best of my ability, as a way of (on a subconscious level) avoiding punishment, real or imagined.
So I told my counselor this and, though she didn’t specialize in trauma therapy, she still gave me advice for someone who was dealing with PTSD from any sort of trauma. She told me that whenever I feel the tears and the fear of punishment overtaking me, to tell myself that whatever it was that happened to me in my childhood isn’t happening to me anymore. This is a different time, a different place, with different people. And low and behold, I’ve not had those uncontrollable tears triggered since.
Why would the conquering of such a minor trigger result in a greater self-esteem? Well, remember, those were uncontrollable tears that manifested in the public sphere with not even warning enough for me to run to the nearest ladies room and hide. Of course, the key word here is “control.” To be able to control an emotion that I was unable to control for many years means I might have more control over my life than I previously thought.
For those of you who follow the enneagram, I’m a four and I’ve only just begun to delve into the positive aspects of all that entails. But at least in knowing I’m a four, it’s as though everything about my personality, including my craving for constant validation, actually makes sense. Admittedly I’m no enneagram expert. I’m just putting that out that there in case you happen to be like me. It is a beautiful thing, even for someone like me who longs to be “unique” or “special” to basque in the knowledge that she can be just that and still feel connected to others.
This past year I wrote a book, a memoir. I’ve not yet found a publisher nor have I actively sought one out, but it still feels like an immense achievement and it has sewn in me the desire to write more, take more photographs, and create more videos. I’ve never won the masses over by doing any of these things, but for once I’m okay with that. It’s enough now just to know that my work is out there. Anyone can find it if they want to.
Anyway, here’s to 2018! May it be the best year yet!
Though I can in no way enforce this, I do you think your viewing experience of my latest video would be much more enhanced if you knew a little bit of why I chose these specific songs and images.
Let me start by saying I put a lot of thought into this. Nothing heard or seen in this is without meaning, at least for me. However, it began as sound. About 6 months after I returned from France (roughly 14 years before this video was made), I sat alone in my dorm room with a tape recorder and began speaking my thoughts into it. I don’t remember exactly what compelled me to do so. Perhaps I meant for it to be a letter, a “talking letter” as my dad called them when we made audio cassettes to send to our relatives when I was a child and all my extended family lived out-of-state. Then, when I was in France, I made “talking letters” for my best friend and my parents. Occasionally I’d take my tape recorder with me as I roamed to capture the sounds of other people’s voices as well. But most of the time it was just me, alone in a room, longing to share with my thoughts with another human being.
The six months leading up to my first bipolar manic episode were, up until then, the most challenging, exuberant, and melancholy moments in my life. There was a constant, unprecedented flux of emotion and, whether it was the highest of highs or the lowest of lows, I longed to tell someone about it, anyone. But once I’d made the decision to live alone in a tiny studio apartment in Montpellier, I came to the instant realization that no matter how happy I was at the end of the day, having no one to share my thoughts would instantly bring me down. And so, with no a computer of any sort, no TV, and rarely enough money to buy more minutes for my prepaid cell phone, I talked into my cassette tape recorder, I prayed and read my Bible until God felt completely real and became my sole companion, and I wrote like mad until I actually succumbed to madness.
Music calmed me in my solitude. I didn’t bring any sort of portable CD player with me because I intended even before I left to buy a plug-in mini-stereo once I arrived in France. Originally, I wasn’t even going to bring my own CDs because I was so committed to hearing French and only French, but at last I caved in and packed a small CD wallet with Christian music, much of which had already brought me comfort over the years. I justified this decision by reminding myself that, as my French friends in the US had informed me, this kind of music wasn’t even available in France. In the end, I was grateful for my decision and all the songs you’ll hear, except the first one, came from that collection of CDs. By contrast, I was actually tricked into listening to the song by Avril Lavigne. You see, in my loneliness I would often wander through the music stores and listen to the samples they had on display with their complimentary headphones. One day, when I was particularly sad and lonely, I saw the name Avril Lavigne, mistakingly assumed she was French, and began listening to her songs in the store when I stumbled upon “I’m With You” and felt as though she’d written the song just for me because that was exactly how I felt in that moment. So I impulsively bought her album and played it over and over again in my studio. Eventually, in the height of my mania, I made a mixtape for a friend beginning with her song and ending with “The Time is Now” by Twila Paris, the song which, as you’ll learn when you read my memoir, was the song that happened to be playing when I encountered God in a mystical, terrifying, and beautiful moment in which I neither heard voices nor had visions but felt, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he was there in the room with me, reminding me that he was there for me and that I needn’t be afraid.
The order of songs on the mixtape was intended to be a soundtrack to my journey from beginning to end, from mourning to dancing (actually side A was all English but side B was the same idea, but all French music) Thus, “The Time is Now” became God’s words to me as well. A few days later, I’d abandon everything and walk into the unknown only to be intercepted by French law enforcement en route to Spain and ultimately taken to a psychiatric hospital in Thuir, France. Three weeks later, my dad flew to France to bring me home to the States – not that I wanted to go home, but no one gave me the choice. They told me I was sick and that I wasn’t able to think clearly and that everything they were doing was in my best interest. I didn’t believe them, but I obeyed, thinking this was perhaps God’s plan for me after all. After all, did Jesus resist arrest even though he knew he’d be beaten and nailed to a cross to die? No.
I made the audio track before I pieced together the images for this video. In fact, this is a remake of a similar video I did about 6 or 7 years ago. The only other faces you’ll see are people from that time in my life, people who would have been on the receiving end of my emotional outcries. I understood very little of what I was going through back then; they understood even less. But I still count them as friends and, even though we’ve not seen or spoken to one another in what feels like lifetimes, I still hope that, should we ever meet again, the spark of friendship will reignite and we’ll laugh and sing as we did when we were young.
It suddenly dawned on me the other day when I was talking with the makeup artist and salesman at Nordstrom. He told me that I needed to take better care of my skin or else no amount of makeup of any kind would look good on me.
But, I argued, it’s all too time-consuming and besides, I have a difficult time starting any new habit, especially if such a change would make me healthier or more attractive.
Well, he said, I think that’s really more of a self-esteem issue than anything else.
That was it. I was dumbstruck and the uninvited tears resurfaced. It wasn’t really a dramatic moment, of course. My voice remained calm and my breathing steady. In fact, I could easily dismiss such tears as allergies even though I knew full well that wasn’t true. No, what he said had actually triggered an involuntary emotional reaction. I could feel it in my chest and in my spine.
I smiled and requested a tissue, apologizing profusely. I’m sorry for this pitiful display of weakness I can’t seem to control. I’m sorry you had to witness it. I’m sorry it exists. I’m sorry I exist.
Then I blamed it on the bipolar disorder, although I knew that was kind of a lie. But it just felt easier to be dishonest at the moment than to take a stranger into the labyrinth of all my abnormal psychologies. He played along and started telling me about someone else he knew with bipolar disorder and my tears let up.
If a mental health professional were to sit down with me and ask me right now if I have suicidal thoughts, I would have to say no simply because I don’t have any sort of plan. I’ve not been collecting sharp objects or hoarding medication. I’m not romanticizing about death in my private fantasies or anything. No, I can assure you beyond a shadow of a doubt that if death takes me before I grow old, it won’t be by my own hand.
Then she’d breathe a sigh of relief and write somewhere in her notes like: this patient is not suicidal. She can keep her shoe laces, her drawstrings, and all the under wires in her bras. She is free to go where she pleases, no need to be monitored 24/7.
But she wouldn’t be completely right. I don’t meant to say I’m in immanent danger. But I’ve also not fully bought into the idea of growing old, especially when I perceive that phase of life as being incredibly lonely. I mean I’m 37 years old, my peers all seem to have spouses or kids or nieces or nephews or some combination thereof. They don’t seem afraid of entering their senior years completely alone because they have a plan for coping with old age. They seem confident in knowing their life will always be of value to someone. But I’m not confident, at least not for me. Furthermore I’m the youngest of my own family making the odds favorable that I’ll be the last in my family to go so what’s the point in prolonging such misery?
My diagnosis of bipolar disorder many years ago seemed to solidify this morbid take on life. After grieving my old life and spending most of that grief in denial, depression, and anger, I finally decided to take care of my chemical imbalance. I also spent years in and out of therapy because, let’s face it, I suck at dying and I figured if didn’t learn how to at least “pass for normal”, I’d lose the few friends I had (who were the people I longed to spend most my time with) and never make new friends.
It was hard but I did what I could and it kind of worked except for that nagging feeling I carried with me that I’d never be good enough. You see, back then I was woefully behind all of my peers in this race called life and, since then, I’ve felt that it’s too late to catch up. I’ve fallen too far, perpetually left in the dust.
On the other hand, it’s not like I perceive anyone else to be as doomed as I am. Even those who have greater struggles than me I tend to hold in greater esteem than I hold myself and I know I’m a hypocrite for thinking it. But give me every intellectual argument in the world for esteeming myself and believe me, I’ve heard it before. Telling me again and again that I’m valuable and loved will never be enough because internally I will be telling myself this: You’re only saying this because you’re my friend (family member, mentor, pastor, counselor, etc.) and you have to say this. You don’t really mean it. I’ll say thank you because that’s what you want me to say but I never have and never will believe you if you so say anything kind about me.
I’ve been wondering a lot lately why I can’t follow my doctor’s orders when it comes to taking care of my diet. I’ve been wondering why I can’t stick to a regular exercise routine or remember to follow the dentist’s instructions each night and wear my night guard. But now I think I know . The reason I can’t get on board (and stay on board) with any new habit that’s good for me physically is because I just don’t see the point anymore. I’ve almost stopped believing I have the ability to impress anyone let alone me. Yet I still write. I still photograph. I still hope in a way, but it’s not enough.
To be sure, my struggle with how I see myself predates any mental illness diagnosis, but it had a fighting chance when I was in college, at least in the three years leading up to my first hospitalization. In my late teens and early twenties, I began opening my mind more and allowing myself to change. I even went in search of change (as many young people do) by going out-of-state to school and, ultimately, across the ocean. With each new city, state, or country I stepped into, I knew I had another chance to be a new and improved version of me. But the illness reset much of that progress and it became harder to move forward when so few of my peers stood with me anymore.
I guess the question, then, is, how do I fix this? After all the emotional damage, how do I truly learn to love myself?
I love long drives and it had been a while since my last solo retreat so I decided to go someplace different this time. I decided to drive to Los Angeles, California, the heart of the TV and film industry and, coincidentally, only about a 7 or 8 hour drive from home. I only had two goals when I arrived: to visit the ocean and The Museum of Broken Relationshipsin Hollywood.
My reservations were for The Santa Monica Motel in Santa Monica. It wasn’t a particularly fancy place but I was on a very tight budget so it was the best I could do. Besides, I wanted something near the beach, preferably Venice Beach because it was listed on Discover Los Angeles dot com as the best beach for people-watching. But Santa Monica would have to do.
This wasn’t a vacation. I hoped to have time and solitude for prayer and introspection but I also hoped to learn something new. I just wasn’t entirely sure what I’d learn and, for me, that was part of the fun.
The desert as a landscape easily gives way to contemplation. Desert Center, for example, was almost a ghost town. I was the only tourist that day which made the landscape seem all the more alien. But I still chose to walk along that dusty main road and take pictures of abandoned buildings and decapitated palm trees. I might’ve ventured further but the “Keep Out” and “No Trespassing” signs managed to deter me. I’ve never been much of a rule-breaker.
Further down the I-10, I made it a point to stop for the famous Dinosaurs of Cabazon which I’d seen from the road many times but never up close. There was a gift shop inside the brontosaurus (the incorrect word I’d learned in my childhood but most certainly was still used when these were built). When I went in and I was the only customer. The young 20-year-old girl working there seemed bored and starved for conversation. So I chatted with her for a bit as I picked out postcards and cheap dinosaur figurines. I told her about my what I liked to photograph and she told me about the photography class she took at her high school. Then we talked about travel and college. She was sweet but seemed even more naïve than I was at her age and that’s saying quite a lot. But at least she’ll be able to tell the next generation about the time she worked inside a giant dinosaur.
Back on the road, I thought a lot about all the crosses I passed. I see them in the city as well but for some reason the ones along the desert part of the I-10 baffled me. I think it was because they seemed so inaccessible. Driving at 65 mph or more there was no way to gather more than a mere glimpse. It was enough time to know someone died there but nothing more and it irked me. Who were they? Who chose to commemorate them with a cross? Was it a family member, a friend, or maybe some stranger who’d been at the scene? If there were fresh flowers, who’d traveled all that way to lay them there and why? What are we supposed to remember about them anyway? Is it important to know where they died? Wouldn’t it be better to know how they lived? Would it help us to know their names, stories, favorite songs or who they hoped to be? And why does this bother me so?
I saw more and more luxury vehicles the closer I came to Santa Monica. Shiny Mercedes, Porches, Priuses, and Jaguars began to surround me. But it all made sense once I realized that many of them were exiting at Beverly Hills. Then I started to wonder who might be driving them. Was it someone I’d recognize from film or TV? Could it be a celebrity I admired or had a crush on but who would inevitably leave me tongue-tied were we to actually meet in person?
When I checked in at my motel, I asked the guy at the front desk how far we were from the ocean and he told me it was a 12-minute walk from there so I quickly dropped everything off in my room, grabbed my jacket, my camera, and the tripod, and hastened to the beach to capture the sunset.
I held nothing back as an amateur photographer. I let myself look foolish in every way except when talking to strangers. This would not be a night for asking strangers if I could take their pictures. But there were beautiful, athletic people all around me, running and cycling. There was even a kind of outdoor gymnasium for acrobats or gymnasts or something, complete with rings and high bars and slack-lining. I thought of my own frumpy, out-of-shape body and felt more like an outsider than ever. But at least this time I could call myself a “tourist” and my awkwardness would make some sense.
I hung around a little past sunset to capture the carnival lights on the boardwalk and then wandered home. As I walked, I couldn’t help but notice the prevalence of homelessness right in front of me. But it was dark and I was too fatigued to wrap my mind around the crises of homelessness yet.
Friday was my only full day in L.A. and I’d printed out directions from the motel to The Museum of Broken Relationshipsbefore I left Arizona. The museum itself, however, wasn’t open until 11 so I headed down the road to Venice Beach and began photographing and filming the surfers. I could tell these surfers were passionate about their sport. It was inspiring to watch as they waited patiently for just the right wave. Sometimes the waiting seemed to take forever until at last one or two surfers would stand and ride a wave for 2, maybe 3, minutes tops. The wetsuits they wore protected them from the chill of the Pacific but once they returned to the beach, I’d see them shiver. As an outsider, my temptation is to ask, was it worth it? But these surfing addicts tell me in no uncertain terms that it’s totally worth it. The waves are quite possibly their greatest love.
I only had a couple hours to spend on Venice Beach, so I walked quickly, but I also made frequent photo-stops. On the peer I saw the occasional body resting beneath worn blankets. The coast can be a chilling place to sleep, especially at night. I wonder how long I’d last in such conditions.
The fishermen were gathered at the end of the pier as were the sea birds.
Venice Beach was obviously a dog-friendly area and many of the dogs were full-bred pedigrees. Their owners doted over them as though they were their children. Both owners and dogs were well-groomed and well-mannered. Dog people sometimes seemed to outnumber ordinary people so no one felt compelled to stop and say, “Oh! Your dog’s so cute! Can I pet him?” But try walking a cat and it’s a completely different story. Suddenly all the attention is focused on you and your furry feline and everyone has questions. Everyone wants to take a picture.
Next stop: Hollywood.
I can’t remember where I’d first heard of The Museum of Broken Relationships. I want to say that Post Secret posted something about it on their Facebook page back when the museum opened about a year ago. After that, I immediately started following them on Instagram and kind of fell in love. But let’s face it, they had me at the word broken.
It’s expected for us to celebrate success in life. Most awards are given to people who have achieved something. We celebrate what we build, not what falls apart. We celebrate what we repair, not what we break. But I think what we often forget is that much of what we create is built on and from the rubble of failure and brokenness.
The museum was a little underwhelming to me, but I blame myself for that. I’d built it up so much in my mind that it was almost destined to disappoint. What I loved most about the museum, though, were the stories. There’d be an object (or a series of objects) and then a story to accompany them. The objects were meaningless by themselves. But with a story to go with them, they became exceedingly more valuable. I kind of wished I hadn’t shredded my ex’s old letters and pawned the engagement ring now because they would’ve been worthy donations (so long as he remained anonymous). But there was no museum like this back then.
Also, although most of the “broken relationships” on display were between two people who were in love, there were a few that fit in the “family” or even the “friendship” realm as well as breakups with religions, faiths, or ideologies. The heart and soul of the museum, however, are the personal stories from ordinary people and, as a memoirist, I crave this kind of stuff.
The museum is in the heart of Hollywood on Hollywood Blvd. Hollywood “stars” line the sidewalk just outside the door and it’s impossible not to see the irony. A “star” represents someone who’s made it in the entertainment world and that person will never be forgotten. But if we never achieve fame, it’s unlikely anyone will remember us beyond a couple of generations after we’re gone. There will be records of our existence but no stories. I’m not entirely sure why, but it saddens me to think of this.
Playing the role of “tourist” that day, there never seemed to be a convenient time to sit down. Once a tall, good-looking man in a white shirt tempted me with a chance to sit for two hours and watch a free movie. It took me a minute to realize that he was a Scientologist and we were, in fact, right outside the big Scientology building. So I turned him down. Of course, he insisted he wasn’t trying to convert me but I just smiled. I wasn’t witty enough to know what to say nor was I in the mood to discuss our differences in beliefs. In the end, I just told him I had to keep walking and there are plenty of other tourists he can try and ensnare. He doesn’t need me.
After our encounter, two things struck me about the Scientologists’ method of proselytizing. First of all, I only saw attractive people working as “missionaries” – I mean like movie star attractive. In other words, they were way out of my league in terms of appearance. Second, they seemed to be gifted at speaking more than one language so I assume they’re fairly intelligent. So why, when he described the movie he was handing out tickets for, did it sound like a story straight out of a science fiction novel? Why did he seem to sincerely believe it to be the true story of the origins of mankind?
Scientologists weren’t the only ones seeking converts on Hollywood Blvd. I saw a street preacher wandering around with a sign telling us all to repent. The strange thing was, he wasn’t really preaching. He was just carrying a big speaker around with a recording of another preacher. This was a new, I thought. I’ve yet to see Phoenix street preachers stoop to such levels. Once more, he left many of us with the impression that he was probably foreign and maybe he didn’t fully understand the message he was sharing in the first place.
I reminded myself that Hollywood was built as a place to create fantasy. Movies are supposed to be escapes from reality. So pretending to be a street corner preacher didn’t seem very far-fetched. Playing “let’s pretend” is what Hollywood does best.
It was hard to think of the glitz and glamour of Hollywood with the disturbing reminder that homelessness was right before our eyes and couldn’t easily be ignored. Like many others, I walked past several several folks in need because there were just too many to count. The homeless problem in L.A. is to big a problem to ignore. It overwhelming and just feels like a lost cause much of the time.
Sunset Blvd. wasn’t any better and it’s even more frustrating when you realize that Beverly Hills and Sherman Oaks are just around the corner. Many our favorite rich and famous Hollywood stars live around there in their secluded mansions, indulging in wasteful luxuries when they could better use their wealth to help the suffering people right outside their doors.
Then again, it’s not a situation that you can just throw money at and hope it will go away. Each homeless person is an individual with individual needs and individual problems. There’s no blanket solution.
Here in Phoenix, it’s not as bad as L.A. but it’s getting worse. I’m currently trying to chat with people about realistic solutions. I don’t know the hearts of our favorite stars but I can’t believe all their hearts are hardened. I know of at least one person from Beverly Hills who felt compelled to help the homeless and did. That’s Caitlin Crosby, founder of The Giving Keys. Sadly, I don’t know of other individuals from the entertainment industry who are actively doing something for the homeless in L.A. But if you know of anyone, please tell us. We could use a little more hope.
He sat me at a table near the bar overlooking all the other tourists who actually had people to eat with. Directly facing me was another “table for one.” I glanced up at him now and then, not wanting to stare. I wonder what would’ve happened if one of us had invited the other to eat with them? I thought I detected a foreign accent when he ordered his food. What if he spoke French? That would be so awesome because I love to speak French! Then again, he probably wouldn’t want to be seen with someone like me. Nothing like being around movie and TV stars to remind you that you’re not attractive.
On my way out, I asked the hosts about the stereotype I’d heard that almost all servers in that area were trying to become actors. There were three of them up front just then and the girl on the left shook her head “no.” The guy in the middle said it wasn’t true in a serious tone. But then the tall, good-looking guy to the right smiled and said, “I’m trying to become an actor! And I know a lot of my buddies who are working on the floor are too.”
I laughed. See? There’s a reason the stereotype exists.
Getting back to the motel on a Friday night in Hollywood without any kind of GPS proved to be a fun challenge. Parking seemed to be pay-only and street parking was filled to capacity. How do I pull over and check my old-fashioned paper map? Eventually I found a McDonalds parking lot and made it to bed at last.
The next day, on my way back to Arizona, I opted for a change of scenery and took highway 62 through Parker, Arizona instead of I-10. After driving through Twenty Nine Palms, the road became pretty quiet. I wasn’t surprised, though, since, when I’d left the last town, the sign said something like: “No Services for Next 100 Miles.”
Along the way, I pulled over to the side of the road because I saw what seemed to be a shoe shrine. Across the street and along the railroad tracks I’d already become baffled by the names and dates written with stones. How did the people get there anyway? There weren’t many pullouts until I arrived at this one where the foundations of old buildings were on the ground, covered in broken glass.
I was alone in the desert and it made me feel a little uneasy. But I had to take the pictures of the shoes. It was all very unusual. I mean, why were these people driven to do this? Some of the shoes had writing. Was this how they wanted to be remembered? Was there a superstition attached to leaving shoes here? Did they think it would bring them good luck? Who’s idea was this?
Not a single car drove pass the entire time I was there. Were all those shoes left in the cloak of darkness? Maybe it wasn’t real. My mind does play tricks on me sometimes. Oh, but I have photographic evidence! And, of course, the internet:en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rice,_California
I stopped taking pictures after the shoes in the desert. The stories those shoes could tell if they could talk!
At the end of the journey, everything I’d seen seemed to be pointing at a greater truth. But I have to be careful when and how I derive meaning from objects and experiences. My mind has worked against me before. And yet the mystery and the mysticism of faith and life never ceases to enthrall me. From roadside crosses to broken relationships to Hollywood stars to homeless people to discarded shoes: there is meaning in it all.
P.S. I took some videos too and put them together in a kind of slideshow with a few of the stills and two songs that have come to be very important to me over the years. Hope you like it.
Who can say what it was that really derailed me earlier in life leaving me stuck on the margins of Western society, watching as everyone else lives more respectable and “normal” lives than mine?
Maybe it was the word I misspelled in the all-school spelling bee in (I think) fourth grade. I proved to be the best speller in my class only to be publicly embarrassed when I misspelled the first word I was given (“cosmetic”). Or maybe it was the private joy I felt when my sixth grade teacher told me I was the only one in the class who tested out of seventh grade reading class only to have the humiliation of testing back into reading in eighth grade.
Again in seventh grade, I’d earned a spot in the talent show after auditioning with a piano arrangement of the title song from “The Phantom of the Opera” by Andrew Lloyd Weber and yet I couldn’t perfect it let alone memorize it in time for the performance. It was so terrible, in fact, that my piano teacher urged me not to perform it because she believed doing so would be both an embarrassment to her as well as to me. But the teacher who’d organized the talent show told me it was too late to drop my act and so, the night of the performance, my best still wasn’t good enough and, when it was over, I ran backstage to my friends waiting in the wings and cried.
That same year, the junior high principle called me into his office to tell me I’d tested high enough to be in accelerated English and I turned down the opportunity to move up because it was only offered during one period which conflicted with choir. I actually thought music mattered more back then. In retrospect, the adults shouldn’t have left that kind of decision to a 13-year-old.
I suppose the downward spiral could have started in tenth grade when I auditioned for the school play “The Crucible” and completely bombed. I was so terrible the drama teacher wouldn’t even cast me as an extra. Later on, when the school performed the musical “Grease,” I wasn’t even cast in the chorus. I’m quite sure that’s when my Broadway dreams officially shattered.
Singing was something I still thought I was good at. After all, I’d had voice lessons, I’d been a favorite for choir solos throughout junior high and high school, I sang in the praise band at the church youth service and had been a regular church soloist since sixth grade. But then, when I joined the Christian singing group known as the Continentals for a 10-week tour one summer, I auditioned for a solo the week of rehearsal camp, one I’d practiced repeatedly back home, but there I completely choked. I couldn’t even find the right key, a problem I didn’t remember having before. So I remained in the background all summer (though I admit, the role did kind of grow on me).
Regular blows to my confidence took place throughout my adolescence and continued well into my young adulthood. My one great surge in confidence came shortly before my most significant mental breakdown, the one that lead to an involuntary hospitalization in Thuir, France. For me, that was actually the turning point for everything in my life. After that I was never really sure I was good at anything. That thought pattern has been so prevalent in me that not even psychotropic medication and therapy have been able to completely resolve it.
Go back to school, some of you tell me. Well, I’ve tried that but it never goes well. I mean, I barely earned my bachelor’s degree. My university transcripts are nothing to boast of.
True, I’m writing and, although I don’t feel I’m a great writer, I enjoy writing and sharing my thoughts.
I saw an add once from RELEVANT magazine calling for new writers. RELEVANT happens to be one of my favorite publications and when I saw the ad, at first I thought about what a joy it would be to write for them. Then I wrote a response but never sent it. It was basically an anti-résumé, meant to be delivered attached to a giant, red flag.
Today is my 37th birthday and one I happily share with Victor Hugo and Stan Roberson. However I’m acutely aware that at my age I’m nowhere near where Post-Modern Western society expects me to be.
Don’t get me wrong. It doesn’t bother me to be childless and single. If that were the only problem, I think I’d be fine. But the milestones I truly regret not having achieved by now are independence and vocation. I just want to be able to say to a stranger “this is what I do and I’m good at it and I enjoy doing it.” At last I’d have respect and then perhaps the younger folk will come to me for advice and encouragement (and I’d freely give it them).
There is a downside to trying to change at my age, however. The psychological damage is now so deeply rooted and widespread that the process of recovery is going to be much longer and decisively more painful than it might’ve been when I was younger. But I have to wonder, “now me” is the “me” I know best, but is there another version of “me” trapped beneath the rubble who still needs to be set free?
I’m almost done writing the latest draft of my memoir, a story that spans nearly three years of my youth – from age 22, when I was most innocent, idealistic, adventurous, and passionate, until age 25, when I felt most powerless and hopeless.
My story isn’t really a love story, though, at least not in the traditional sense. But there are traces of romance here and there. I rediscover them as I flip through my personal writings and I’ve polished and edited some of those bits for you, too, so that you can join me on my journey to reconstruct a life
Historically, the longest relationship I ever had was with a guy I met while I was still a senior in high school. We were both working at a bookstore together and I remember how hard it was to believe that someone I liked actually liked me back. I was in such a state of disbelief that I tried to destroy the relationship from the start. We’d gone on an evening walk to a nearby park where I told him all the reasons I didn’t think he should date me. I confessed every sin and every fatal flaw I could think of and, to my amazement, he didn’t run away. He didn’t even flinch. In fact, he continued to write me poetry and create thrifty and imaginative adventures for us to go on for at least another year. But by our second year together, our relationship went downhill. I won’t go into details. Let’s just say we both share some of the blame.
Our breakup happened shortly after I turned 21. We were even engaged for a little bit (although it never really felt like it). A year later we met up for dinner. True, part of my motivation was to see if I had any residual feelings for him after all that time. But I was relieved to know those feelings had completely dissolved. I could hop on my plane to France knowing there was no reason to return. I was free.
The time period covered in my memoir was one of the most fruitful periods in my life in terms of personal writing. I didn’t write daily, but I definitely carried my diary with me more often than ever before. Beginning with my study abroad in France, I also developed a ritual of writing semi-regular generic emails, or, what you might call predecessors to blogs such as this one. Of course my writing was nothing to boast of, but at the time I thought it was quite prolific. It would actually frustrate me sometimes to try and write a story or a poem and suddenly face a writer’s block that seemed nonexistent moments before when I was scribbling in my diary. Now I look at those old diaries and analyze my younger-self. Today, I’m trying to figure out how I became so confused about love.
My first three months in France aren’t covered in the memoir. In earlier versions I wrote about them. I wrote, for instance, of the only five men I ever locked lips with in France and, believe me, it went no further than that because I took the whole “saving myself until marriage” thing pretty seriously and it threw some of the Frenchmen I met for a loop. Most Europeans lose their virginity around 17 or 18. I was 22 and still hadn’t lost mine (and wouldn’t for a very long time). It was like I was from another planet. But at least no one tried to force himself on me. At least they were cool with moving into a conversation or leaving me alone entirely. For me, it was disappointing how uninterested many guys seemed once sex was off the table. I couldn’t understand because deep conversation was almost the epitome of intimacy in my world. In any case, once I settled in Montpellier, my kissing days were over (save “la bise” a.k.a. “French cheek kissing”). I had one French guy-friend and I told him in no uncertain terms that the next man I date will be the man I marry. To my delight, those words didn’t send him running. We stayed friends for the duration of my time there. Sometimes he’d talk to me about girls he dated or wanted to date and I was happy to listen and encourage him in his romantic endeavors. My only regret is not being able to say goodbye. But then again, I wasn’t able to say goodbye to anyone in Montpellier, but you’ll understand why when you read my book.
Here are some thoughts from my personal writings about love followed by reflective commentary from more than a decade later. But, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. Then, when my memoir is finished and published, you can read it and have a better understanding of the story as a whole.
Here’s a playlist of songs that would have influenced my thoughts about romance back then. All of them are from musicals because musicals are stories and each song is part of a greater story. I love that!
I didn’t know yet to identify it as such, but that weekend I was suffering from major depression triggered by grief. To be alone at such a time in a city practically made for lovers made the weight in my chest even heavier. In response, I turned to God, personal letters, and my journal. I walked alone at night heedless of the catcalls that follow young women far more often in France than in the States. “Discutez avec moi” was never an invitation simply to talk. There were expectations behind those words I wasn’t about to find out.
The French guy in this case had misinterpreted a smile I’d given him one evening. Americans smile at strangers far more often than French people do and I knew that even then. But like any idealist, I believed this guy could change. I thought we’d meet up and he’d be okay with simple conversation. But then he saw the Celtic cross around my neck and realized there was a reason I wasn’t “putting out.”
Since I arrived in Montpellier six months earlier, there’d been no kissing, no hand-holding, and very little hugging. Physical affection had been reduced to the French cheek-kissing ritual known as “la bise” which isn’t really kissing, if you think about it. There is a very light touch of one cheek to another but the kissing itself is mostly in the air. The sound of lip-smacking solidifies it. No actual kissing; just really loud pretend kissing. The above writing came at the climax of my mental breakdown. It was meant to be my last entry ever before I diminished into the world, weaving in and out of different lands and cultures without a name or passport and demonstrating a Mother Teresa style love in every village and every town. Mother Teresa never married. If she could live an impactful and meaningful life without a husband then so could I, right?
I elaborated a bit more on this in my “epistles” from the psychiatric hospital in Thuir, France.
Still delusional, I fought against the very idea of romantic love. In my head the memories of lonely Frenchmen who thought love and sex were one and the same were fresh on my mind. One of my very last memories of such a misunderstanding was a day or two before I left Montpellier. I agreed to help a very tall young man with his English. He told me he was a Christian so I used a Bible verse from either the gospel of John or 1 John (it was a while ago) for our tutoring session. I had him read it and then asked him what he understood. At the end of the meeting, he invited me to his place for coffee. I was smart enough to know that “coffee” was usually a euphemism for sex and so I politely said no to which he replied, “but Jesus said to love your neighbor! Come to my place and make love to me!”
I shook my head and said back to him, “Jesus didn’t mean that kind of love.”
One of my guy friends had professed his love for me over the summer. Before he went away in the fall, he burst into my dorm room to tell me how he felt and request a farewell kiss. But I turned him down. I enjoyed hanging out with him but I didn’t feel the same for him as he did for me. And yes, there is something empowering about rejecting someone’s advances toward you verses being rejected. Besides, by this juncture in the story, I’d been given a diagnosis and I’d researched it extensively. I knew there was no guarantee my medication would always work and I’d never have another breakdown. I wondered if it was fair for me to date anyone.
Rich Mullins never married. He was engaged once but that’s the closest he ever came and towards the end of his life some were dubbing him the “happy celibate.” He didn’t eschew that title either. He said in an interview once that maybe God did want him to be celibate and the way that he accomplished that was by breaking his heart.
I love Rich Mullins and it saddens me at times that I didn’t come to love him until after he died. But I was also still a teenager when he died and he was in his early forties. The point is that, even after death he had such a strong influence on my life that I began to think more and more of celibacy as a gift. Jesus didn’t even marry so why did it seem like everyone in Christianity made such a big deal about marriage?
I recommend you read Paul’s chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13. It’s often read at wedding ceremonies, or so I’m told. I actually haven’t been to many weddings. My “touched with fire” reference is both to Kay Redfield Jamison’s book of the same title and the only textbook manic episode I’ve ever experienced. Someone told me once that mania has a way of bringing your greatest desires to the surface. For some that means becoming overtly promiscuous. For others it means going on a wild spending spree or impulsively taking a plane to London. For me it meant living out and sharing a New Testament kind of love. Of the four Greek loves, I’m referring to agape. Look it up.
The rules of love change when you discover you have feelings for someone you don’t want to have feelings for.
Just when I feel like I can accept not falling in love (or at least not being loved in return), someone I’m interested in shows interest in me. It is unbelievably annoying. So does this mean celibacy isn’t my calling in life? Does this mean that the next guy I date won’t actually be the guy I marry? And how much of my story do I tell him? I owe it to him to give him some sort of warning before he chooses to be in a relationship with me. He needs to have a chance to get out while he can!
This becomes the story of my life, at least the romantic end of it. There will be one more short-lived romance before I turn 30. It wasn’t ideal but anyone who knows me knows I can easily fall into self-pity and self-hatred. I see my flaws much quicker than I see my gifts. But when someone loves me and I don’t fully understand why, I begin to think maybe I’m not such a royal fuck-up. If someone I love can love me, then there must be something about me worth loving.