she came, she fought, + she conquered


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“Smash it all, the source that locked me in the darkness and harassed me / I try to get out but there’s no way out until I find the exit / Pretending it’s for me, the voices disregard my dream / I don’t want to get hurt any more, I close my ears and walk my way.” -Stray Kids

Mid-interview, I ask her, “What is the hardest part about being you?”

She answers instantly, “My mind.” And I’m quiet because I would’ve said the same thing, most days. Hers and mine are stories that overlap in that we both know pain, we both know self-hatred, we both know the dark, we both know the late nights that will forever haunt us. But we’re both here, both healing. 

There’s something so fascinating to me about meeting someone smack-dab in the middle of their story and asking them to fill you in. It places them in control of their own narrative, which means that it’s up to them to show you who they are. Meeting someone one-on-one to talk about their life just drops a veil–all the complexity of social interactions fades into simplicity.

On a Thursday evening, back in September I met someone smack-dab in the middle of her story and, even though she might hesitate to admit it, hers is a beautifully, raw story that is continuing to be redeemed through faith, love, and family.

She’s the sort of person who tells you to be safe when you’re on your way to meet her, but she doesn’t know it. She’s the sort of person who says, “I’ll buy,” but doesn’t know it. She’s the sort of person who fights for the people around her, but she doesn’t know it. It’s just who she is and who you are is typically not something you think about. You just do, you just are, you just keep doing you.

I know all this because she did the first two things within thirty minutes of each other and then the third thing she showed me throughout the two-hour conversation we had that night at Starbucks. Her go-to is an iced caramel macchiato and mine is a pumpkin spice latte. I stood behind her in line, looking up at the menu but then she motions for me to order and slides her card through. “That’s so sweet,” I tell her, touched that someone who’s practically a stranger would show that type of empathy but again, that’s just who she is.

We head outside, mid-September breezes and a patio full of green umbrellas and tables. We take the furthest table we can find, away from loud customers and loud music, and talk for thirty minutes before remembering the original purpose of her meeting me.

She, like me, has lived in Greenville, SC her entire life. But her dream job is to be a traveling photographer, living in someplace like Colorado. For now, she’s in the stage of figuring it out and I nod along knowingly, emphatic. She works at a coffee shop and loves spending her free time either driving around and listening to music or hanging out with her family–her brothers and sisters in law, nieces and nephews, parents, and last, but certainly not least, her cat. Her family is the constant in her life, having helped her navigate some tough times.

“Caring, empathetic, loving, sometimes carefree, I enjoy the little things in life,” she tells me when describing herself. A nonjudgmental person, she wants everyone she meets to know what they did in their past doesn’t define them. It’s a lesson she knows all too well.

“That describes anything anyone would need to know about you,” I tell her. She doesn’t know to what extent, but she’s the only person I’ve ever interviewed and felt chills when hearing her story. When you talk to her, you can almost see how deep her soul goes like God placed her on earth to help him spill out love and beat back the darkness. But to shine so bright, you’ve got to know darkness. We wrap up the basics—childhood, family, cats, dreams, and goals—and I tell her we’re headed into deeper waters. She nods.

High school, she tells me, was when she thought she’d hit rock bottom. It was a time of dealing with self-harm, depression, anxiety, and an eating disorder. Her family was the surrounding force that stepped in and took her to get help, her spending six months in a rehabilitation center that helped her both identify what was going on in her brain and also begin her healing process. Since that time in her life, she explains, she’s hit rock bottom since but keeps fighting. She describes an emotionally abusive relationship that almost took all the progress she’d made away, but she mustered up enough courage to leave. She tells me about another time where the person she loved decided he wasn’t right for her and that triggered the eating disorder, but she kept fighting.

“So what I’m hearing,” I conclude at one point during the interview, looking at her across the table, “…is that you’re a survivor.”

She says it quietly, “Yeah.”

I ask her how she would describe finally coming out of a dark time, feeling that hope is alive again.  “When you see that glimpse of hope, it feels like you just surfaced on top of water that you were currently drowning in,” she explains and I can hear the rawness in her voice, unfiltered.

I nod, murmur, “Yeah,” because I know exactly what she means by that.

“What does it mean to be brave,” I ask, pausing to give her time to find the answer. It’s a question I don’t ask everyone, but I had to know what she’d call it because the word is all but stamped to her forehead.

“To me being brave, from my past experience, is to push away your fears. Push away your fears of rejection, of someone being angry at you, and to just speak your truth. Speak how you’re feeling and to be vulnerable and to show how you’re feeling to people and letting them know how they’re making you feel. And I think being brave is also walking away from things that you don’t want to, but you need to. And just, no matter how hopeless you feel, being brave is continuing to go when you don’t want to.”

I’m quiet for a second, not sure how to respond. “I think that’s a beautiful definition,” I tell her.

I ask her to tell me about the hardest part of being her and she tells me about her diagnosis. Recently, she says, she went back to a psychiatrist who took the time to listen to her and went into more specific detail for a diagnosis than what she’d previously been given. Manic depression, was what the first doctor had diagnosed, but this psychiatrist diagnosed her with bipolar disorder. The hardest part can be relationships, she explains, where it’s hard to be understood when she’s having a rough day. “I just want people to understand that I’m not what I’m diagnosed as, you know, I might go through my mood swings; I might have a really bad day and go off on you. And I want them to know that it’s not meant to be personal and I’m not trying to do that to be rude—I’m trying to control it and it gets very hard and it just…” she pauses, “I just want them to know that I’m not my mental illness. My personality, my being is not my mental illness. I’m not defined by that. That’s one thing that just I wish people would understand because a lot of people don’t.”

“What are you here to do?” I ask her, tilting my head and watching the way she tells her story. She’s here, she says, to spread peace and happiness while also spreading awareness for mental illness. Her story is one that she wants to use to help other people reach out for help when they need it. Her goal is to show others that while times may be difficult, there’s still hope.

“How do you find purpose in your day-to-day life?” The question is one I ask frequently because it’s an answer I’m still looking for myself.

“Some days I can’t, honestly,” she says quietly, “Some days I can’t.”

Her family is a large part of where she finds purpose, she says. She’s got younger nieces and nephews, she explains, and they are a large part of why she works so hard to hang on and continue to heal. She wants them to grow up and see that, while she went through hard times, those times don’t define her and she overcame them, so if her nieces and nephews ever go through a hard time they’ll know she’s there for them and loves them no matter what.

Her older brother is another reason she keeps working towards finding healing. He lives across the country, but that doesn’t keep him from being her world. He was instrumental in her reaching out for help, telling her, “I love you. You’re going to get through this,” she recalls. And now, he’s instrumental in her road to recovery, she says as she tells a story about a time he walked in to find her after she’d harmed herself. He never cries, she explains, but that night he’d cried after seeing her and that memory is one that keeps her from harming herself again. The thought of hurting him by hurting herself is too much.

I ask her to describe what she’d tell someone who’s going through a hard time and she responds with passion in her voice, “You are worth so much more than you think, “she says, “And you have so much to offer this world. You might not know what you’re good at right now, you might be in a funk where you can’t see what you’re good at, but you’re good at something and you’re going to find that out and once you find that out you’re going to be like, ‘Holy crap.’ Whether it be writing, whether it be making music, anything. They’re going to be able to share their stories through that–they’re going to be able to tell people, ‘Listen, I was there. I came out of it. I’m a better person.'”

I ask her what her epitaph would be, my favorite question of the interview because it’s more about legacy than it is anything else. It’s a way of asking, “Who do you want to be?” But for her, I’m really asking, “Who are you? Who are you fighting for?”

She thinks for a minute about what her legacy will be, then says, “She came, she fought, and she conquered.”

“You bet your ass she did,” I tell her. It’s an unsophisticated response, rough around the edges, but it’s the only thing I know to say.

Finally, I ask her if there’s anything she’d like to say. It’s the end of the interview and she tells me all the ways she wishes people would reach out when they need it because the last thing she wants to hear is that someone believed they didn’t matter. “Don’t lose hope,” she says, “Don’t. Because there’s such a bright future for you and you can’t see it, but it’s there.”

We end the interview, I close my notebook, and I can still feel God’s presence. This kid is special and I grab her hands and pray hard for her, that she would know who she is and keep fighting. I give her the biggest hug and leave that Starbucks in awe at God and the stories he’s always weaving and the paths he’s interweaving with mine and all the ways he’s bringing us all out of the dark.

#6, I can’t wait to see where you go, kid. I can’t wait to see all the ways you shine and bring other people into healing and light.

she lived + she loved


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 “Staring at the roots, nobody there to help me grow / I was longing for the rain, you were the flood that made me overflow / A stranger to my skin, but now I’m braver in my bones.” -Lewis Watson

“The rings are fine,” she says, folding her hands for the picture after I ask if she’d like to remove any identifiers for the photo.

They’re hands that have been put to work ever since she was fifteen, balancing serving people and studying and holding onto those who are closest to her.

Mid-September and hurricane Florence is on her way up the coast, the winds beginning to pick up even in our upstate city of Greenville, South Carolina. I meet her at a Starbucks, twenty minutes late, and I rush over, apologizing and remarking that I’d forgotten how heavy traffic could be in that area. It’s been two years since I worked five minutes from where we sat, her sipping on a latte and me unfolding my computer and digging around in my bag for a pen. We take the time to catch up, talking gossip and old times. The jazz music from the speaker outside blares near us and we move to a different table on the opposite side of the patio, only to sit next to another speaker that’s blaring jazz music. We laugh and shrug it off. I tell her my recorder has survived many motorcycles and people laughing in the background just fine.

She grew up in the area, just off central Greenville. Her favorite things are her mom, her dog, coffee, spending time with her friends, and pigs. She loves the colors army green and burgundy. Her favorite book is 13 Reasons Why because of how brutally honest it is, saying that we don’t know what other people are going through. When she thinks of childhood, she thinks of going on vacation with her family and grandparents to the Outer Banks. She feels the most connected to Cape Hatteras because the lighthouse on the island was her grandma’s favorite.

Right now, she works as an assistant manager for a fast-casual style restaurant where she’s worked since she was fifteen. She’s a sophomore in college, studying psychology with a goal of working in either clinical or criminal psychology one day. She dreams of being surrounded by a career, family, and animals.

“Pigs!” she exclaims.

“Oh, you’ve got to get a pig!” I laugh.

One of the most difficult things about being her, she explains, is that she oftentimes feels misunderstood. She explains that with the load that’s placed on her from both work and academic expectations, it can be difficult to take a step away from all the expectations when she needs to. She pauses and then heads into a story I hadn’t heard before, one that changes everything I know about her.

She has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic disorder that largely affects the nervous system. It’s difficult because it makes the smallest parts of day-to-day life more difficult, she explains. I ask her what if feels like and she describes it as her bones breaking, but her nerves also going crazy on top of that. She asks me if I know the sensation of my foot falling asleep but where you can’t stand to touch it and I nod, “Yeah.” That feeling will be all over her body, she explains–her mouth, her hands, her legs.

“Some days are better than others, but it makes doing your average things a lot harder. So literally getting out of bed is harder for me than it is for the average person and like wearing clothes is harder for me than it is the average person since it does have a lot to do with nerves, like if I have too many blankets touching me it hurts. It actually hurts–it’s the weirdest thing ever.” She goes on to say that what makes the disorder even more difficult to navigate is the lack of understanding from many of those around her, including doctors who have been known to say it’s all in her head.

She began showing symptoms at age 8, the doctors telling her mom that they were just growing pains. But her mom, one of her personal heroes, pushed back, having the disorder herself, and fought for her daughter to receive the care she needed. Finally, at age 15, she was taken down to a hospital in the Charleston area to receive further clarification on the things they’d known for years, but it ended up being another shut-door. Though they did diagnose her, the doctor’s only advice to exercise more and steer clear of wheat, gluten, and sugar. It would be later that year when she would receive the medication she needed, but two full years before she began learning to manage the pain. To help manage the pain, she tries to take care of herself by exercising and taking her medication, refusing to allow fibromyalgia to keep her from doing all the things she wants to do.

As she speaks, the resilience she owns shines through and I jot down notes, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that she’ll do great and brave things. We go a little deeper and I ask the question I ask everyone, but don’t always include in the actual post because I think that the most fascinating thing about their answers is that everyone has an answer to the question. With her, though, the answer is integral to who she is. “What do you think happens after life?” I ask.

She immediately says that she thinks souls can come back in different forms and I chuckle knowingly, saying she and a friend of mine would have a lot in common. She has a reason for it, though, and I listen as she tells me the story of how her grandma died, someone who showed love better than anyone she knew and had a deep love of butterflies. Her grandma was like her twin, from the way she interacted with people to her sense of humor.  She died around 8 years ago, with her grandfather following soon after. It was a hard time, she tells me, but something kept showing up in that time, and in all the difficult times to follow–butterflies.

“Whenever anything’s happening in my life that’s bad, I always see butterflies,” she explains, telling me that she doesn’t see them all the time. She began seeing them after her grandmother died and saw them everywhere after her grandfather died. She says without even thinking about it, she just knew it was her grandma.

She tells me more about her grandma as we wind down the interview, how she’s never known anyone who loved as well as she did. Her grandma was the sort of person who would give you the shirt off her back, she says.

“Sounds like she was an incredible person,” I murmur, a picture of a field of butterflies stamped onto my mind.

“She was awesome,” she agrees.

“Where do you feel safe?” I ask her. She laughs lightly, looking past me while she thinks. The answer is weird, she says, but she feels the safest outside. Oftentimes, she’ll go find a nice park and just sit because it makes her feel at peace.

The last question, I tell her, is one I’d given prior to the interview, the one I ask everyone and then use for the article title. “If you were in charge of what would be placed on your gravestone, what would it be?” She’d thought a lot about the question, she says, but only one answer had stuck:

She lived + she loved. 

I nod, jotting it down. It was perfect. I collect her lyrics and close my notebook, that visual of a field of butterflies not leaving me and it’s like I’m seeing her with new eyes. I don’t say it–I typically don’t say the things I mean in person, but I know that she’ll be just fine. I thank her again for coming out and we part ways, excitement all the way home at how much I learned and how much God is part of this project. The moon was full that night, traffic lights turning reds and greens and yellows in sequence the whole way home. I slip into the last rays of summer, feeling a little more like myself.

Hey, # 5–when I think of you, I’ll always think of fields of butterflies and a little girl building castles on Cape Hatteras with her grandma. I’m on the sidelines, rooting for you. All the way, kid.

loving my neighbor–fighting for what’s right + just + beautiful for the world


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“The sun it doesn’t cause us to grow / It is the rain that will strengthen your soul /
It will make you whole.” -The Oh Hello’s

First of September and she drives forty minutes to meet me, to tell her story. It’s a Wednesday and I meet her after work, once I’d taken fifty calls for the day and sat in stop and go traffic for forty minutes. It had been a day, the queue crazy busy even with new agents on the floor and all of us helping prepare for open enrollment. And so, I’d been gripping my steering wheel, worried about getting the questions I’d left back home, and wondering how it would all work out. It was one of the first days where fall was starting to settle in, the breeze just barely starting to cool off and the skies that bright blue that always reminds me of those fall Sundays we’d skip church and go for a drive instead.

I park and walk in and she’s already sitting in a chair, waiting for me. She spots me and grins, greeting me with a big wave. It had been forever since we’d seen each other. I wave back and then head up to the front to order a pumpkin spice latte. The barista is one I know and he asks what I’m up to. I tell him about my project, mentally noting to ask him the next time I see him if he’ll do an interview.

“Wow, that sounds cool,” he tells me. I nod and swipe my card, thanking him and place my card  back in my wallet.

We sit outside and chat for a few minutes before I tell her we’re going to begin recording.

She grew up in a small town in North Carolina–a place she looks back on fondly, where she grew up in a tight-knit community. She talks about how much of a gift it was to grow up in a community like what she did, something she’s just now recognizing. “Everybody just served each other and it was very warm and hospitable,” she says, speaking of the people who poured into her growing up. She explains that it was the sort of little town where you could just walk anywhere, her neighborhood being especially tight-knit. Her and the neighbor kids would run around the neighborhood from sun-up to sun-down, until someone’s mom called them inside. “We had our run of the place for sure,” she laughs.

She went to college out of state, laughing as she says that she’d thought her town was small but then went to a college that was even smaller. Majoring in counseling, she also met her husband while in college and they’ve been together ever since. They moved to South Carolina a few years ago and eventually found a church that became like family to them. She loves spending time with friends and talking, saying, “I feel like we don’t look in each other’s eyes very often anymore and so, getting to do that as much as possible is definitely one of my favorite things.”

“And coffee doesn’t hurt,” I suggest, laughing.

“No, coffee doesn’t hurt!” she laughs, adding, “Especially when it’s loaded with chocolate.”

Outside of spending time with her husband and friends, her family is really important to her as well. She loves writing, running her own blog where she strives to be real and talk about things that matter. She loves to read, only watching tv if she’s wanting to turn off and not have to think. Grey’s Anatomy is the one thing that’s the exception, her having watched every single episode multiple times.

Her days, she says, are simple. Right now she works as a nanny and her husband works in production and technology. They go to church every week and come home, do dishes, all the usual things, she says. For her, she says her work is something she loves but it also comes with challenges, explaining that it can be emotionally challenging to be with children who are learning to navigate their own emotions. She loves how her little charges are like sponges right now, noticing and learning everything they can. As far as writing goes, however, she doesn’t know if there’s a book on the horizon or not but she’s trusting God to show her the way.

I ask her why she’s here on this planet, one of my favorite questions to ask. She thinks about that a lot, she tells me, saying that one of the reasons she thinks she’s here is to see people. Being willing to see people even when it’s hard and messy and uncomfortable, she explains, is one of the most important things. On a day-to-day basis, she says that part of seeing other people is allowing yourself to be seen.

“It starts with me a lot of times,” she says, “Being willing to see myself, being willing to let other people see me.” To her, overcoming pride has a lot to do with being seen because it’s easy to not let even the closest people to you see all the messy parts. Loving and seeing, she thinks, are really similar. For her, to love someone is to see them and to go to bat for them in their needs, whatever those may be.

“Hey, I have skin in this game because we belong to each other.” In her opinion, this simple sentence is what loving your neighbor is all about–standing up for what’s right and fighting for those you love.

However, even that leads into one of the things that can be the most difficult for her to navigate. One of the hardest things about being her is how much she takes on. She explains that she’s always picking up on emotions from other people. She says she’s felt this way since she was a kid, feeling as if she were missing some type of protective layer. The official term for the way she carries emotional burdens, she explains, is empath.  I nod vigorously because I’m one too.

“I’ve never regretted showing empathy for someone, but it is very heavy to carry that,” she says, “And so I think I’m having to practice laying some of that down and saying, ‘I can love you and be there for you and help you carry that burden and still maintain my own sense of strength and personhood and not let everything suck all of the life out of me,’ if that makes sense.” The whole time she’s talking, she looks past me, like she’s gathering up all her thoughts and trying to sort them. She smiles when she’s passionate about something, the emotion clearly seen in her eyes.

“That makes perfect sense, ” I nod, explaining that I know how hard it is to be an emotional sponge.

One of the things she’s been trying to do lately is to be more present, noting that she tends to fill up her time with a lot of things instead of slowing down. They aren’t bad things, she says, but she wants her life to be more intentional.

The recording scares the life out of me as it jumps and I quickly pause it, make sure it’s still there and start a new recording. Ironically, we start talking about seasons and the way she talks about the season she’s in reminds me of crisp January skies and the feel of late winter, right before everything starts blooming. She’s on the cusp of a lot of growth, she tells me. It’s something where she feels it’s hers as long as she can reach out and grab it.

I silently hope she gets everything she’s hoping for and wind down the interview, asking her about legacy. Loving her neighbor, really, is what she believes this is all about.

She laughs when she tells me what she wants on her gravestone towards the end of our interview, saying it’s bound to be an expensive tombstone but I know it will be worth it. Every word, every mile, every season.

And I hope she does too.

just to be remembered would be enough


“The girls need a break–tonight we’re gonna take / The chance to get out on the town / We don’t need romance, we only want to dance / We’re gonna let our hair hang down.” -Shania Twain

She was my first pool-side interview. We walk to the pool from her apartment, holding bags of towels and fumbling over flip flops. An interview near a pool? Why the actual heck not? I ask about her lyrics and she couldn’t make up her mind.

“Well, what’s the last song you listened to?” I ask her.

She laughs loudly, “I Feel Like A Woman by Shania Twain.”

I laugh with her. “That’ll work.”

It’s a Thursday night, late August and I’m dragging her off to do another crazy, uncomfortable thing. She doesn’t like talking about herself or her emotions and I’m always up for a stroll down emotional lane. She walks down the steps of the pool and tells me the water is freezing cold–meanwhile, I’m sitting crisscross at the edge of the pool, keeping my phone carefully away from the ledge. I begin the interview while she bobs up and down in the shallow end, trying to warm up.

We begin the interview and what strikes me is how she’s always herself, reminding me of sunflowers and the shade of cobalt blue that’s always been her favorite. She’s the type that loves laughing and has dedicated her life to being a drama-free zone. She loves weird music and comedies and colorful leggings and going for drives–one thing her and I have in common. What I find in talking to her and listening back to the recording is that a lot of people like to put up a facade and look extra impressive, but she doesn’t. She’s just herself.

She grew up in Greenville, just like I did. She has a cat she loves dearly. In her day-to-day life she wakes up on time every morning, showers, straightens her hair, puts on her makeup, throws on some scrubs, and grabs the lunch she made the night before. As a kid she wanted to be a ballerina and then a veterinarian, before finally deciding to major in psychology in undergrad. I ask her why she gave up on those other dreams, immediately correcting myself and asking if she had found something better. But she answers my first question anyway, saying she doesn’t see it as giving up–she views it as changing and psychology was something she found interesting.  Right now she’s a nurse’s assistant at a local doctors office, responding to voicemails from patients. “We’re basically the in-between between the patients and the doctors,” she explains. While it’s not her dream job, she views it as a means to an end.

“What’s the hardest part about what you do?” I ask. She answers immediately that the hardest part is talking to angry people frequently. “A little thing about [doctor’s offices],” she says into the recording, laughing, “…people are always angry. It tears my nerves up. I’m a very anxious person and I hate confrontation. So why I’m in this job, I don’t know.” The way she says it is so her–emphatic sarcasm paired with giggling in spurts. We laugh and she swims back away from the ledge. “I digress,” she says.

“That’s quotable,” I say, chuckling.

One of my favorite (although one of the most difficult) questions I love to ask is what each person’s five favorite things on this planet are–it can be anything, from objects to things that aren’t something tangible you can hold in your hand. For her, she loves hiking in her spare time, going on vacations to Virginia, and spending time with her family. “I guess I’ll throw those suckers in there,” she laughs, sarcastic, when she’s listing off her favorite things. The last two things on the list are her cat and living on her own. She likes the way being alone feels–like the weight and stress of everyday life kind of melts away when she finally puts the key in the lock and turns the knob to an empty apartment she’s proud to call home.

She’s always been the sort to feel a bit disconnected from her own generation, preferring to be around older people even as a kid. She tells me the story of how she used to walk down to an older neighbor’s house and they’d sit on the porch and talk. Even now, she visits her own grandmother as much as she can and they go to lunch. It’s one of her favorite routines–always checking in on someone who might need her.

In her day-to-day life, she feels like she’s seen as a pretty chill person, but the biggest thing she wishes people would understand about her is that she likes order. Though she’ll never ask for it, she wishes people understood how order functions. We chat about a lot of different things, her floating around and wading to the deep end because she thinks she sees a bug. “Oh, it’s just a leaf,” she laughs, wading back towards me.

We talk about God. He’s something we’ve both struggled with, but she thinks that God is everything. She says he always does what he says he’ll do, saying that if he says he’ll be with us then he will be. I nod and make a mental note that he’s a big part of her story, but we don’t say any more on the subject.

“And um, I’ve got just a couple more questions for you,” I say, looking down at my lap, searching through questions.
“Are we almost done?”
“Yes,” I tell her, laughing.
“You know I don’t like being serious,” she groans, swimming up closer to the side of the pool. “This is taking a lot out of me—I need to be alone,” she giggles, speaking directly into the recording again. It’s her fifth round with the recording, speaking directly into the speaker.
“Where do you feel safe?” I ask.
“Honestly, when I’m home alone. That’s the safest I feel. I feel like everything kind of just goes away—I could’ve had a hard day at work or a stressful something or whatever and then as soon as I get home it’s just kind of gone.”

I ask a few more questions, digging to get to know her more. “I don’t know the answer to this,” she laughs. She goes on to tell me it’s not that she doesn’t like opening up, but that she honestly doesn’t know the answers to some of the questions because she doesn’t think about it. With her, what you see is what you get–funny, orderly, drama-free, and adventurous.

“That’s okay,” I tell her, “We’ll just end with what’s your favorite color?” She confirms that it’s blue, stating that it’s subject to change at all times but for right now it’s blue.

“Okay, and that’s it,” I say, shutting off my iPhone. I turn off the recording, forgetting my final question. “Wait,” I say, looking down at my notes. I ask her what her epitaph would be, if she were able to choose it.

She doesn’t know, though, what she’d want to leave behind as a legacy. “Honestly,” she says, “Just to be remembered would be enough.”

I nod and wonder if she knows how well she’ll be remembered for the kind, giving, fun-loving person she is. She’s already explained more than enough of herself and I know I have my story : the story of a girl who doesn’t know quite how important she is and isn’t sure where this ride is headed, but she’s here for it. The sky is a velvet blue, dotted with bright stars.  I do the only thing there’s left to do–I hop in the pool. We spend the next two hours floating around and chatting.

 

a loving + caring person


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“Who are we to wonder where we’re going? Who am I to tell me who I am? Let’s take it back and take in every moment. Who am I to tell me who I am?” -AJR

I met with her on a Tuesday evening, the day that Starbucks finally released its pumpkin spice latte for the fall season. And I was completely there for it. But her? Not so much. Hers is a story of the life and times of a person who has been able to successfully trek through life without a co-dependence on coffee–something I’ve failed miserably at. I arrived first, grabbed a table outside, and pulled out my computer. I looked through questions while I waited, finally noticing her drive by, a goofy grin on her face. I waved, smiling back. She parked and walked over to me, a casual lilt to her step and a smile on her face. The traffic was heavy near where we sat, the sound of motors roaring constantly.

She’s always been the girl with a casual smile and an easy presence–someone well-loved by the people in her life and well-known for her personality, bringing life into every room she steps into. Her story begins, much like mine, in Greenville, South Carolina. She’s lived in this city nearly thirty years, only having moved briefly outside city limits to attend college where she earned a degree in early childhood education. Her favorite part about living in Greenville are all the different activities available and the growth of the city. And here in Greenville, is where she found some of her deep loves–mountains, music, connecting with friends, and even her young son who arrived in 2016.

Someone largely involved in activities during high school and college– to this day– two of her favorite things are learning new things and playing sports. Some of her best memories take place in Canada where she and her family would vacation every summer–swimming, fishing, canoeing, and playing card games at night. She loved the simplicity of those vacations, not having access to phones and being able to spend quality time with her family.

Currently she works as a teacher, spending her days herding sticky-fingered children and teaching them the fundamentals of the world they’re in. In the evenings, she takes care of her family, spends time with her son, and focuses on coursework for the masters degree in literacy she hopes to finish at the end of summer 2019. Her purpose in life, from her perspective, is split into a couple different parts–on the one hand, she believes part of her purpose is to be a mom and on the other, she works to be an advocate for children. Reading with your child, she says of parents, is one of the best ways to help them learn. And so she’s not just out to make that connective difference in her own child’s life, but in the lives of every child she can.

Advocating for children, she feels, is part of her job. In a broken education system where teachers are run-down and testing is placed on a pedestal, she’s looking to make a difference in the life of each child that walks in her classroom. One of the biggest things she believes needs to change is how content is tested, saying that the education system is doing a disservice to children by basing the system on testing. For her, she wants to see the education system work to bring in better ways of testing content–through projects and hands-on experiences.

As a teacher, with everything she does in an average day, she says that the hardest part of her job is having to battle between everything she knows from her own research and classwork, against what an administration does. Her principal from last year called her a devil’s advocate because of how much she argued the system, she says with a chuckle. The administration, though, doesn’t faze her as she’s looking to make a difference and build the confidence of her students, while making sure they learn everything they need from her.

We finish talking education and start talking life, me digging into some deeper questions. I ask her what one thing is that people typically misunderstand about her. She’s got a kind of far-away look in her eyes when she speaks, like she’s trying to reconcile who she’s always been with who she needs to be. “The misconception is that I’ve got it all together because I’m doing so many things and I’m one of those people to where I break privately and so nobody sees the break and so it becomes this thing to where a lot of people think that they can expect more from me because like, ‘Oh look, she’s got everything under control. Here!’” She widens her eyes when she says this, holding out her hands in a half-joking manner.

“That’s very, very true,” I agree. “Because nobody wants to look like they can’t handle things.”

“Exactly,” she nods, “I want to look like I can handle everything you throw at me and do it perfectly well.”

“Exactly,” I look at my page, writing out some notes, and we move onto the next question. “What is the hardest part about being you?” I ask, watching as she laughs loudly.

“Do these questions get harder as we go?”

“Um…” I look down at my notes, “No.”

She takes a minute to think before saying slowly. “I have made a choice in life to not be open. I have made that choice—it has been a conscience choice and it has caused me to be almost isolated in a lot of ways and to where I never felt like I could share my struggles and therefore my struggles would become more and more overwhelming. And it also made it hard to make those truly deep connection with friends and the older that I got and the more life changes and life stages that I’ve gone through, the more distant I’ve gotten because the less I felt like I could share. The problems got more serious and the bad thing about it is, the problems got more serious and it made me feel like I could tell people less, even though I was struggling more. And it’s like I chose this and it’s a path that I, you know, went on, but as things keep going down these paths it becomes harder I guess.” She goes on to talk about growing up with brothers, how they’d told her they’d trained her to be the perfect woman–with no emotions. They hadn’t meant anything mean by it, she explains, but she wonders about the affect it had on her life. She’d always been friends with guys and had chosen to be the crazy, silly friend, she explains, “But the crazy, silly friend doesn’t tell you about all her problems–the crazy, silly friend doesn’t break down.”

We go on to talk about our moms, how the need to be less emotional tends to trickle down from them. She agrees, saying that she thinks her own mom always wanted to be strong for her family. “And that’s what a lot of us women are—we always put our family above our own needs and so we don’t want to show that we’re struggling, we don’t want to show that to our family because we feel like we’re the rock and we need to stay the rock. And I don’t necessarily feel like that’s a bad thing, but we’re also doing a disservice to our kids if we’re showing them that you deal with struggles by bottling them up and never opening up to anybody about them. I don’t think that’s a healthy way to handle things. I’m never going to be somebody who goes and tells my problems to the world, but I do feel like you need to find at least one person —one or two people— that you fully open up to.”

Nodding my agreement, we wind down the interview and I ask for the lyrics she picked out. I always ask the person I’m interviewing to bring lyrics because I think lyrics tend to say more about a person than sometimes even the person can say. In her case, that’s not the case but I ask for the lyrics anyway.

She says the song’s a little bit silly, but the true purpose of the song is what draws her to it. “We have these moments that define us, but we’re sitting here trying to define ourselves and create our idealized version of ourselves and pushing that out on people like, ‘This is who I am, look at this idealized version of myself,’ and what it does is it stops us from reflecting on the whole. And I feel like I’ve done that a lot—I choose to forget all the bad that’s happened. I choose to forget all the flaws and everything and what it does is it limits my perspective of myself and I lose an understanding of myself, of why I think the way I do, why I make the choices that I do, why I react the way I do. And while I do believe, obviously we do have choices, in who we are because our actions do define us, we also need to have the understanding of who are we in our innermost being too. And I don’t think we’ll ever understand that, but we’re sitting here trying to define ourselves by only our best qualities, it’s not the true version. Who am I to tell me who I am? I am because of everything that’s happened to me—I don’t get to choose what’s happened to me in my life.”

Well, dang–that’s good. I nod and jot down final notes, turning off the recording.

“Oh, wait,” I say a minute later, turning the recording back on after realizing I’d left off a question. “How do you add purpose into the mundane?”

“By being present–in the moment,” she says immediately, talking about how easy it is to get caught up in big-picture thinking. I ask what that looks like for her and she tells me it’s about being focused on who you’re with rather than zoning out, going on to say it brings a better appreciation for who she’s with and what the moment brings.

We left the table that night and she went off to prepare for a day full of teaching and raising the upcoming generation and I walked off to my car, feeling like I’d met a new person that night. I’d met someone compassionate and thoughtful and driven–someone with both eyes on the future while still holding onto the hands of those around her.

And in my humble opinion, if all teachers and mamas are like her…I’m a little less worried about the next generation.

she cared + she loved


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“What it all comes down to, Is that everything’s going to be fine, fine, fine, ‘Cause I’ve got one hand in my pocket, And the other one is giving a high five.” -Alanis Morissette 

She’s the sort of person who would hop on board immediately after even just a short description of what it is I wanted to do with this project I’m working on—where my goal is to interview 100 people and ask them virtually the same things about their lives. The questions are open-ended and point to the true answer I’m seeking: tell me who you are and tell me why you’re here. And, reader, I’ve thought through what this project should be called and have thought up a couple different themes or titles but in my gut I know this project isn’t something I’m naming, but rather it is constantly being named and renamed by the people who are brave enough to let me into their worlds. So this project is called, simply: The Anonymous

It’s an hour and a half until her grad-level stats course and I find her in the middle of a Starbucks with her head bent over her work. I approach the table and she looks up, a smile on her face, and suddenly the attention has shifted from work. I extend the greeting and take my end at the opposite end of the table, asking her if she’d like to grab a table outside where there’s less noise. She agrees and grabs her book-bag, following me to a table under some war-torn umbrellas.

I explain the process, confirm the anonymity of this interview, snap a photo of her hands, promise we can take some more pictures at the end of the interview after we both frown at the results, and press the record button. Prior to the interview, I’d asked for her favorite lyrics but she hadn’t been able to make up her mind. “Okay,” I say easily, “What did you listen to last?” And the song was an older one, sung by Alanis Morissette, called Hand In My Pocket. She tells me she loves the first verse because it represents how your physical state doesn’t have to affect your emotional state, that you can still hold out your hand even when you’re going through tough times. As the interview unravels, she shows her full self to be someone who is both creative and curious, both intelligent and kind, while holding a determination to leave a mark on this world she’s proud of.

Her childhood was split into three parts, she explains. She was born in Kentucky and then moved with her family to Illinois, finally landing in Missouri where she lived until her early teenage years. With those childhood days, she equates freedom and a lack of expectations–something she believes is difficult to bring into adult life. “When you’re an adult, everyone expects you to be something,” she says, “When you’re a child, other kids just expect you to be you and so when you meet up with another little kid to go play they’re just like, ‘Hey, what’s your name?’ and after that everything is accepted. You know, as an adult everyone expects something of everyone else. You come in with preconceptions, you know, they’ve already locked you in a box before you even started talking. ” Expectations, she says, are something that’s difficult to not deal with as an adult, oftentimes feeling the pressure to achieve.

These days she lives in Greenville, South Carolina with her husband and cats–three of her personal favorites. She works as a registered behavior technician, working with children on the autism spectrum to help improve their quality of life. On top of maintaining a work life and a home life, she spends her evenings taking courses for her masters degree in Psychology with a concentration on applied behavioral analysis, which she intends on completing in early 2020. Outside of school and work, some of her favorite things are spending time with her husband, when the fall weather becomes cool enough for her to bring out her sweaters, and grabbing coffee with friends. But her favorite place to be is with her own thoughts, holding a deep love of music and expanding her knowledge as much as she can. Being alone and processing her own thoughts, she explains, is how she recharges so she can be present with her loved ones and give them her full attention.

We get through the basics, with her explaining her work and me jotting down notes and writing in numbers from the recording to go back to and direct quote. I ask her what she’s here, on this planet, to do.

“What am I on this planet to do?” she repeats the question to me, allowing a brief second to think. “Help people.”

“In what ways?” I ask, looking up from my notes. She looks off towards the parking lot when she answers questions, like she’s searching for the words to articulate exactly what she believes.

She expands, “Help people to heal, [be] loved, and cared for and when I come in a room I want people to feel like it’s good to be there with me. And I want to help improve quality of life. Like if I were to just disappear off the planet I would like people to think that their lives were better because I touched them in some way.”

But the road to being someone who helps others isn’t an easy one. Working 8-10 hour days in the presence of extreme emotion can be emotionally draining at times, she says, explaining what it’s like to need to be the calm during those moments when emotions and behaviors can become extreme. “When someone’s in crisis mode, the tiniest bit of extra chaos is going to send them to a whole other level of chaos. So you have to make sure that you are the antithesis of chaos –you are placid, you are a calm lake to their storm because the minute you bring that calm it’s going to deescalate the behavior immediately.”

And what is one thing she wishes she didn’t have to deal with? I ask the question, leafing over my notes and glancing up carefully. She tells me that she wishes she didn’t have to deal with the ignorance of others, either personally or professionally. For an example, she tells me a story of a man who approached her and a client at McDonald’s. “What’s that kid’s problem?” the man had asked, leaving her unsure of what to say so she just walked away. “That level of ignorance about people and how they’re different and how even if they’re different they can mean something in this world, really gets to me and personally, when people don’t understand the differences of others–we all look different, we all sound different, we all act different and when people don’t understand that and expect everyone to fit in a box it bothers me.”

Despite the frustration, she is still on a mission to leave this world better than she found it. Education, she believes, is the way to a kinder, more understanding world. One of the things she’d love to do with her time on earth is to help educate people on the variance of other people around them. “I feel like if people were more educated on diversity, I feel like everyone would be a little more kind to one another. There would be more understanding. And kindness and love are the two biggest things, I feel like, for someone to have,” she explains, emphasizing the importance of kindness in a world full of diversity. She believes judging other people based off of perspectives can’t be done because every person comes from such different cultural, neurological backgrounds.

I ask her what kindness would look like, how it would affect the world we live in.

“Kindness, I view as kind of a form of love,” she explains, “Kindness is loving someone no matter how they’re acting and responding in a way that even if you don’t understand them completely, you’re putting forth your best effort to understand.”

We chat a bit more about her ideas and the importance of a kind world, but with my final question I ask her what she would have as her epitaph, if she could choose it, and she thinks for a minute, looking back out towards the road like she’s accumulating all the thoughts she’s ever had into a simple sentence. It’s a hard question to answer, asking someone to summarize everything they want out of this life, but she comes up with her answer fairly quickly.

Her answer is simple, but profound:

“She cared,” she says, pausing briefly. “She cared and she loved.”

yellow bookcases, lemon crepes, + the art of waking up


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 “Even in my worst times you could see the best in me/ Flashback to my mistakes, my rebounds, my earthquakes/ Even in my worst lies, you saw the truth in me/ And I woke up just in time.” -Dress, Taylor Swift

You know, reader, you really are too freaking good to me. I can take a blog hiatus and still know you’ll meet me here. I can post a 4 AM ranty, insecure status and know that I’ve still got people who love me and are rooting for me. I can work on a project and it fail and I know I can still come back with better, more intentional work. It’s not something I ever want to take for granted, that I’ve been built up and loved on and rooted for. There are some people who don’t like what I say or the way I say it and I’m becoming fine with that because I’d rather create work that’s meaningful to me and a handful of other people rather than creating something based on what everyone else wants to hear. I’m grateful for the path. I’m grateful for the work. And I’m grateful for the people who reminded me that I have a blog that means a lot to a lot of different people when I fall down and get hurt.

And so, every time I come back from a hiatus (fancy wording for someone with SUCH an inconsistent batting average. Get it together, Russell.), I like to do a post that feels more like taking a map and zooming in on a trail. To me, hearing about what someone’s been doing in their day-to-day sets the scene for everything to follow. It’s true that I usually prefer telling the stories of my past because I’m still figuring that part of my life out, but for today I’m going to tell a different story: the story of where I am.  And so, reader, welcome to it. 

There are three things I’m finding some happiness in lately: the color yellow–like the bookcase I smeared with the brightest, happiest yellow I could find right before I moved out this July–lemon crepes, and the art of waking up. It is an art, ladies and gentlemen, and for a long time I didn’t think I could wake up but here I am. When I say wake up, I mean live my life on my own terms and not on auto-pilot.

It’s been 12 months now. 12 months of doing brave and uncomfortable things and conquering them and moving onto the next thing. It doesn’t feel like this is what I’ve been doing, but it is–I know it because when I sit down and think about where I was a year ago, it feels like I was that person years ago rather than simply months ago. Personal growth is a slow and grueling process and I may be the only one who sees it, but…I’m proud of me, reader.

It’s been 18 months since I’ve been paid to wipe down tables and wear a button-up blue shirt for a living–18 months since I’ve been required to wipe down the counters in the bathroom when I happened to be in there…and yet, here I am wiping down the counters in the bathroom again like I know I don’t have to any more. I take an extra paper towel and it’s a side-to-side sort of motion–cathartic, almost. Some things don’t change. Some parts of you stay with you, including the expectations placed on you.

And so, I push open the bathroom door. It’s a Wednesday and I’m 25 and the month is August. It’s the mid-afternoon feel–where you’ve had your two coffees and the center is all quiet, the monosyllabic feel of keypads being typed away at and agents talking in low tones. Will the lights flicker off for three seconds like they did the day before? Or will the members all suddenly call in at the same time? It’s 2 pm and no one knows what will happen in the interim between the quiet hour and 5 o’clock. I plop down at the large, leather swivel chair I finally traded up for, taking it from an empty desk near mine when no one was looking, and swing myself back to the two computer screens in front of me. I pause, looking at the screensaver for today–it’s a waterfall, redwood trees framing the photo. They seem sky bound, reaching up as far into the blue sky as they can. I click the screen, type in my password and reach for my headset. It’s quieter today, than what it’s been lately–armies of members climbing into our queue, demanding answers day-in and day-out. We are the policy guards, the keepers of the rules, the mediators.

I secure my headset and reach for my mint-green chapstick in my desk, apply it with an easy stroke and rub my lips together. I lean back in the chair and wait, stare up at the ceiling. The cord runs from the headset, stretched across the arm of my chair and connects to the phone on my desk. I’ve got my microphone pushed up, away from my mouth while I wait. One minute, two minutes, three minutes, seven. The phone rings and then beeps in my ear and I bring the microphone down to my mouth, breathe in,  and say in my perfected professional tone, “Thank you for calling—-. This is Amanda. Are you calling as an active or retired member today?” I press the mute button to clear my throat and then respond, “Okay, thank you.” I’m at work immediately on my case, copy-pasting information from one screen to the next while I confirm information with the members. “And, ma’am, how do you spell that last name?” I wait, my fingers hovering just above the keyboard. She clarifies and I nod, typing along. In this job, I’ve heard more “V as in Victor, P as in Paul, N as in Nancy” than I’d ever expected to hear.

The week pulls us along. I spend my evenings running from being alone with myself, eating dinner at my parents’ house, working on a new project, and swapping memes with my friends. I get home late, climb up weary stairs and try to stay out of everyone’s way. I charge the watch that emits electric shocks each morning to wake me up and toggle between episodes of The Office and Gilmore Girls to pass the time. We hit Friday with a sigh of relief. I look over at my desk-buddy and she says, “Just a few more hours,” with a laugh. I laugh with her–the joke is: it’s 8 AM. I sip at my latte and lean back in my chair, ready as I’ll ever be for a Friday. I daydream about all the apple picking and lemon-crepe eating I plan to do and wait for my first member of the day.

The next day, I pull into my therapist’s office, early Saturday morning when all the locals are out brunching or sleeping in. I find a spot on the gravel lot and pull out my makeup bag, my hair still damp from the 12 minute shower 20 minutes ago. Friday night was an Ihop night, hanging with friends over pancakes and coffee. The night before that was for storming out of my parent’s house and crying my eyes out in a Publix parking lot.  The weekend before was a night of burying my worries in unhealthy ways and lashing out. This life is a process–an amalgamation of dealing with past hurts while looking forward with both eyes open this time.

I walk up the gravel drive and push open the framed white door into my therapist’s building, climbing the stairs loudly. My dad always said I was like a bull in a china shop. As always, my flamingo mug is in place at the Keurig and a deep sense of belonging hits me as I dig through K-cups until I find my usual: Starbucks’ Breakfast Blend. I pop it in and press start. Three creams and I drizzle sugar into the blend, stirring it with a plastic spoon as I ease onto the couch.

“Well, I am glad to have you back,” she chuckles, asking me what happened with the other therapists she’d referred me to for exposure therapy. It had been my idea, getting help with the deep fears that grip me, but here I am sitting on her couch like we both knew I would be.  I explain the insurance situation, joking about how I have extensive plans of exposing myself to my own fears. We chat about everything–work, family, relationships, goals, self-worth. I head back down the stairs at the end of the session, after shaking the residue from the kinetic sand off my hands and grabbing my bag, and confirm the appointment for two weeks from now. We’re working through expectations and doing brave things.

You should know, reader, that I’m not perfect. Man. I’m so not perfect it’s insane. If I’d had it my way, I would live a yellow bookcases and lemon crepes sort of life–the sort of life you dream about growing up, all the while not knowing that the very same things you’re living is your life. That’s it. The moments that collect dust in the background while you’re reaching for more is your life. It’s not all daisies, man. It’s grueling at times. It’s heart-breaking. It’s traumatizing, even. But it’s yours, right? So it matters?

So, hello there, Coffee Beans. It’s just like me to come back to something in September, isn’t it? This month is all mine, this blog is all mine, and this life is my gift to sort through, build up, tear down, build up again, and give back.

 

Hey Babe: When You’re Drowning.


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“Sensitive people like you and me, we have stimuli constantly being funneled into our brains. We lead different lives, but interesting ones.” -my therapist

Twofoursevenfourteennineteentwentyonetwentyfivetwentyfivetwentyseventhirtythirtyfivethirtyninethirtyninefortyonefiftyfivefiftyfive. I’m counting street signs in the back of my mind, picturing myself somewhere different, somewhere I’m seen. 

Hands tap against the wheel to the rhythm, picturing myself somewhere else, doing other things. Red light. Can I turn right? No they’re too close. Oh no I’m making the guy behind me mad because we both know I could’ve made it. Please don’t honk at me. Oh no he looks mad. Oh no oh no they’re still too close. Tap, tap, tap. Okay, I can go. Okay, I made it. Oh no oh no, speed up or you’ll make him mad. No one likes a grandma driver. Music, loud. Stop thinking, stop thinking, stop thinking–please stop thinking. 

“Where you at, babe?”

Twenty-five, gripping the steering wheel, listening to music that fit the rhythm and speeding down a highway like I can outrun the ever-turning wheel that is my own mind. As if maybe I can outrun the stories, the words, the ever-present anxiety, the constant whir of emotions that comes along with being Amanda Russell. Anxiety is part of the small print that I must have overlooked when non-existent me was like, “Yeah, God, I’ll take the Amanda Russell package for nine hundred.” Because obviously I signed up for this. I mean like…GOOD GOING NON-EXISTENT ME; YOU LITERALLY HAD ONE JOB.

“Where you at, babe?” I’m finding my own self, lost in the dark of my own mind. Some days I feel like a teacher wandering down old, empty hallways, looking for the weeping child in the corner of the hall who can’t find her way back to the room. Some days I feel like I’m having to untangle myself from my own nerves, self-soothe my own self back to the light.

“Where you at, babe?” It’s the thought I think to myself when I’m having a moment or experiencing a deep emotion that I can’t get my grip on. Getting ahold of your own emotions is kind of like cleaning out a pumpkin sometimes: it seems like there’s always more and it seems like there’s always something to get your hands around, but it’s stringy. It’s messy. And you can never grab a handful of the pulp to save your life. Guaranteed.

There are days I wish I could just turn off my mind and think about nothing. See, if I could describe the sound my mind makes it would be simply: static. Echoes of lost sound scattering everywhere and I can’t find the mute button. I’m on my hands and knees wandering around in the dark, but I can’t find that mute button. It’s constant and my mind is constantly weaving stories, weaving words, thinking, rebuilding, counting, stumbling over itself. There is never a minute I’m not thinking, creating, or worrying over something I said, did, or didn’t do. There is never a minute I’m not feeling something and sometimes I’m like a stranger in my own mind, wondering myself what’s going on. And some days my mind is so fast-paced and feelings are so high (because…LIFE) that I can barely keep up. Those are the days I need support. Those are the days I need safe spaces and safe people. Those are the days I put my hands up, take a step back.

That picture at the top of this post? This was my moment for the day, sitting in a parking lot and letting a few tears stream down my face as I texted a novel to my therapist. Today was stressful. Today I was tired and over-caffeinated. Today I had too much on my mind. Today I ripped at the seams a little bit. Today I had to practice some self-care, some kind words for my own self.

Mental health is one of the most stigmatized issues in today’s society and moments like what I had earlier would be seen as weak and deduced to simply the sum of an overly emotional mind. This attitude towards sensitive people and individuals struggling with mental health is something serious and I believe it goes hand-in-hand with the presence of social media. The attitude of  indifference is what’s in and perceived as normal while everything else is considered weak, emotional, or attention-seeking.  And God help you if you genuinely struggle with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or so on. Even cynicism is on its own platform that we call sarcasm or just being real. It’s not being real–it’s being afraid of dealing with emotions.We don’t know how to deal with emotions anymore or engage in honest community and we don’t know how to fix the problem, so we brush it under the rug. As a result, society is weeding out the dreamers, the sensitive, the kind-hearted and the honest. We’re placing more pressure on people to be perfect and that’s funneling directly into mental health issues and exacerbating the problem. We’re replacing real and honest conversations with filtered-over lives and isolated people who find fulfillment from a screen.

If you’re like me and a little tired of social media’s magic tricks where it turns real into fake and if you’re like me and ready to tackle some of these issues head-on, here’s what I do, how I take care of myself, and how I interact with others.

How I Deal:

Safe spaces\\ When it gets tough, I go somewhere beautiful. I want to feel fully at peace and fully surrounded by something bigger than myself. I go for a drive. I walk around the lake. And, of course, Gilmore Girls and a large cup of peppermint tea doesn’t hurt either.

Safe people\\On the days when it gets hard, I reach out. I used to go to anyone with a pulse who would listen and affirm me, but that turned out to just be more damaging because they didn’t know the heart of what I was telling them had to do with my mental health struggles. To be honest, I didn’t even know. But now that I’ve ripped the mask off of anxiety and look it straight in the eye, I know better. I know how it feels. I know the signs. I know where I’m at on the anxiety meter. I have better coping skills and I have a better understanding of what’s happening.

These days I have two contacts I know I can reach out to at any time, but even with them I do it sparingly because I’m aware of co-dependency and I acknowledge that’s not what I want for my life. I acknowledge depending on others for my own fulfillment is not part of the game plan. These two people are the only ones I trust with all the ugly, messy emotions and both of these people I trust explicitly with my feelings because a.) I know they’ll never give up on me or make me feel shame for the way I’m feeling and b.) I know they love me unconditionally and want to see me happy and healthy and c.) I connect with both of them in a way I don’t always connect with other people.

Kind words\\ I think one of the biggest issues with having someone in your life who struggles is not knowing what to say. Not knowing what to say is okay. Trying to get to a point of compassion and understanding is okay. Sarcasm, cynicism, or patronization is not okay. Invalidating someone’s emotions is not okay.

Here’s what we need from others:

  1. I love you.
  2. What do you need?
  3. You’re okay. You’re okay. You’re okay.
  4. I’m here. I’m on your side. You’re not crazy.
  5. You may be feeling kind of crummy, but that doesn’t take away your value. You are loved. You are wanted here. You know that, right?
  6. I’m hearing you say this one thing–what do you think you mean by that?

Here’s what we need from ourselves:

  1. I’m feeling _________________.
  2. I’m feeling this way because ____________________.
  3. The root of this feeling is ____________________.

Make it gold\\ LastlyI turn it into something productive. I write it into an Instagram post. I blog about it. I weave it into part of my language when interacting with those around me. I’m not saying I have it down or I’m good at saying the right thing at the right time, but anxiety (for better or for worse) has made me into a better, more-compassionate person.

So hey, babe? I don’t know where you’re at. But your feelings are valid. Your mental health is important. It’s okay if you’re caught in a spiral right now because you don’t have to stay there. Reach out. Get help if you need it. Even if you’re not struggling with mental health per se, you still need to take care of yourself. You still need to find people who will always have your backs. If  you have reached out or gotten help and you still feel like something is off, don’t be afraid to go a different route. Find people who will take care of you. Find people who don’t view your emotions as a burden or make you feel like you’re too much. You’re never too much and people who can help you become the best version of yourself do exist. Keep reaching out, keep speaking up, and keep building on community. 

Because at the end of the day, we need to take care of each other. At the end of the day, right now, the only people you have for certain are the people around you. And at the end of the day, we all matter significantly more than what we know. 

Hey Single: to the boys that broke and built me.


img_0180Hey single:
I think a lot of times we’re mistaken for indifferent when it comes to finding love. I think a lot of times we’re mistaken for not having a lot of feelings or being the ones left behind in the dust. But none of it’s true. Because the fact is we do have our own stories. We do have our own hurts, disappointments, and insecurities. We’re not always YOLOing our lives away. And for the love of all that’s good and holy, Eat, Pray, Love is not the anthem to singlehood or finding yourself. In fact, it’s a very rare anthem. Being single has a rhythm all its own and it’s different for everyone.

This is not a post I’d planned for the week, but something in me knew it was time to tell these stories. For better or worse, these are the stories of some of the guys who both broke me down and built me up and taught me a little more about life and what I wanted out of it.

Without them, I wouldn’t be able to take myself out on my own ice cream dates or know what I’m looking for or finally be comfortable in my own skin.

Part I— To the boy who took me on my first date:

It wasn’t a big deal. I acted like it wasn’t a big deal, but oh, to me it was. It wasn’t actually a date and I knew that. Because in reality, I’d crushed on you since the summer I was sixteen and you were my brother’s friend who probably had no idea. Because in reality I’d wanted to ask you to the dating outing flat-out, but I was so scared that you’d say no that I randomly brought it up one day while we were both in a group of friends and said I wanted to go with a friend. It was only because another friend pointed at you and asked, “What about him?” that I was even able to muster up the courage to ask, “Would you?” You shrugged and said, “Sure.”

But on that November day, you showed up when I’d been pacing around the house all day, mentally preparing myself for you not to show up. Because who’d actually go to a dating outing with their friend’s awkward sister? But you did. You showed up on time and came up to the door. You waded through the awkward moments where I was shaking so bad, I could barely mumble, “So how was work?” You made the conversation easy when my heart was pounding in my chest.

Then when it came time for the pumpkin carving contest, you just examined our very basic pumpkin and said, “No, we can do better than this.” So we made it into a Frankenstein pumpkin and won. Like the nineteen-year-old bosses we obviously were.

And so, to the boy who took me on my first date: you offered me your jacket and talked about how much you loved your sister. You taught me what respect for other human beings looks like. You taught me what kindness looks like. And most importantly, you shattered the illusion that guys have to be detached, indifferent, or cocky—that whether feelings are involved or not for his side, there are guys who will still be kind and still show up. You set the standard and I’m thankful you did.

Part II—To the boy who kind of knew:
I remember the day she told me I’d have to work with you one-on-one and I told her no. I asked if there was a way around it because I was always so awkward around guys and I didn’t want the awkward encounters. There was no way around it. My friends all laughed at me because lord above, they knew how single I was and that you were one of the popular ones. I remember the first time we started working together, how you had this look in your eyes like you were picking up on all the nonverbal cues being passed around between me and my friends. But despite myself, you became my friend too and I found myself hoping that I would be the one to change your mind about staying single for the rest of your life. But that simply wasn’t my role.

I also remember the day you walked out for Christmas break, how you never said goodbye. I remember how I felt when I realized you weren’t ever coming back. And I remember when I ran into you and the girlfriend I didn’t know you had, how I, at 21, stopped believing that anything good would ever happen to me.

So to you— the boy who taught me about sarcasm and not caring about other people’s opinions: you were my friend. You listened when I spoke and shook your head, saying, “Of course you did,” when I told you about accidentally finding out about my surprise birthday party. You taught me about not taking life too seriously. And lastly, you showed me that even when I feel a connection to someone, it doesn’t make it real. It makes it a dream.

Part III—To the guy who drove me cross-country:
Most people don’t do stuff like what I did—23 and accepting a temporary traveling job where all the videographers are packed into one hotel room, strangers or not. They wouldn’t have said yes despite all the red flags, despite the fact that the first and only travel job involved traveling 13 hours with and staying in the same hotel room as a stranger they’d only met twice. They wouldn’t go out and have their first beer with two men they barely knew just to look cool. But I was so determined to travel, so determined to be seen as cool, so determined to be detached from my good girl roots that I said yes even though everything in me said, “No, no, no.” I simply packed my pepper spray and texted the tag number to my parents and got in the car, driving into Louisiana that November night. The next morning, over orange juice, we sat in sullen silence and I watched a bible study from a few tables away, realizing at that moment that I was directly opposite to everything I’d ever been in my life. I followed you out of that cafe, holding onto my bag and feeling like a fake.

The weekend couldn’t have gone worse as far as work goes. It was my training weekend and you were the only one there to show me the ropes, but the venue was large enough that we needed a team of five but there was only you and me. On our way back from Houston, we were both stressed out and mad at each other. But you bought me Subway and listened as all the anxiety-ridden stories flowed out and I blabbed at least half-way back to South Carolina. You told me about your past and I told you about mine. You taught me how to grow up but you taught me a couple other important things:
1. Grab the keys. Empower yourself. Push yourself to learn.
2. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t be so afraid to get something wrong that you freeze up on the job.
3. People are much more complex than they typically let on.
4. Even if it turns out fine and you learn a lot, don’t ignore red flags. Don’t say yes to things you’re actually uncomfortable with.

Part IV—To Mike from LA:
I don’t even think I’ve told my mama about you, but you were my virtual flirtationship. (Sidenote for the readers: Yes. 22-year-old me had what would be referred to as a flirtationship. You should know I’ve pled the blood and washed my walls with holy water. Jesus, take the wheel.)

If you had to know anything, you should know that I got the app out of loneliness. You should know that I only ever wanted to talk to someone. I got the app because I was so tired of never having anything interesting happen that I downloaded it just to see what would happen. And you were the only one I ever messaged with who was actually a kind person. Sure, you might not have been who you said you were and you might have just been a troll but I didn’t mind. I never had to block you because you never asked for pictures. I never had to hide who I actually was because you just built me up and said things like, “You seem like the kind of person who has the determination to lose the weight. But I bet you’re beautiful,” and “If you lived in LA, I’d take you out.”

(Another sidenote: No, I didn’t have to hide who I was. At that point, it was PURELY recreational.)

At that moment, I really, really wanted to live in LA. Because no one likes being 22 and alone. But you were good with my standards and happy just to talk to me, even if it took me days to reply sometimes. And it was me who said goodbye to the whole friendship after scrolling through the messages and realizing how dead it was—after realizing I didn’t actually know you and it wasn’t actually real. But you respected my decision and taught me that even strangers on the internet can be a positive thing and I’ve never let go of that lesson.

And also, I would’ve gone on that date. One hundred percent.

Part V—Finally, to the guy I met on Bumble.
You didn’t know this, but I’d never been formally asked out. You didn’t know that I was a 23-year-old kid who was just trying to figure out if there was a space in the dating scene for me. You didn’t know that I was more or less just looking for a friend. You didn’t know that I didn’t actually believe I’d meet someone for me on that app. And, lastly, you didn’t know that at the time I’d lost 20 pounds and was actually pretty proud of myself.

I didn’t get what I wanted in that situation—I got someone who made me cry instead. I got someone who called me obese and said I wasn’t pretty enough to be picky. And all because I told you I didn’t want to go to your house after a ten minute conversation.

You taught me two things:
1. You made me think. Anyone who has that high of a standard for someone else, must believe they live up to that standard themselves. When they fall from that standard, they lose everything about themselves that they feel is important—they lose identity. I learned I’d much rather be comfortable in my own skin than struggling to live up to an ideal. So thank you.
2. You taught me compassion for anyone who’s struggling with appearance because I’d never been fully rejected by someone based on my own appearance. It had only been a fear of mine, to be rejected. So thank you. You showed me that I could live with a full rejection and be perfectly fine. And I hope you find some compassion for your own self too.

Psst– hey, single? Before I leave you with these, you should know that these are the stories I’ve kept locked away for a long, long time. I don’t know if any resonate with you or not—this was just what I knew I needed to say tonight, to you. I’m sitting here at 2 am and I don’t know if you can remember a time where you wanted to speak up but didn’t or if you fell hard for someone who chose someone else or if you ignored red flags and went anyway or if you had a little thing with someone only to realize it wasn’t real or right. But if you have ignored the warnings or stayed silent or gotten hurt, you’re not alone in it. Your feelings are valid and you have full permission to mourn the loss of a dream or the loss of a friend.

But you don’t have permission to stay alone because you believe that’s the only way for you. Don’t be afraid to get back up, love. Don’t be afraid to fall again. And don’t be afraid to just see if there’s anything there. Because maybe, maybe not, but you’ll always wonder if you never go for it.

And for lord’s sake, don’t be ashamed of your own story, even if it did result in getting hurt or, even worse, regret. Your story matters. It matters so much because it matters to you. 

 

What I Did Instead of Date.


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“I would do anything for you, sir. Anything that was right.” -Jane Eyre

 

I. Part one: where I’ve been.

Pink and white checkered shirt, short-sleeved. Sunday night. Twelve years old. I’m standing there in front of my mom’s mirror, studying my own body and pressing on my waist like maybe if I applied enough pressure the excess fat would magically go away.

I think I could have a figure,” I thought, “…if all this would go away.

(Thirteen years later. )

“What’s wrong with how you look right now?”

Wednesday nights are my therapy nights. My therapist always looks directly at me, like she’s noting the way I speak, the way I look off into the distance when the words won’t come, the way I rake fingers through my hair when I’m nervous. She’s one of two people who’s ever asked me that question specifically, asking me to dig deep inside my own thoughts and figure out why I don’t feel beautiful right here, in my own skin.

I hear my own voice speak, slow, “Well…it’s not beautiful.”

“Why?” she doesn’t negate what I say or head into motivational-speech time, just keeps eyes on me, waiting patiently.

“Uh…” I trail off, waiting for the lightbulb moment, “I…don’t know.” It just always had been that way, since the moment family members started noting the unusual weight gain at eleven and the way I’d watched my friends slip into the junior section like it was nothing at all, while I was headed into this in-between where I didn’t know what would fit me. Since the church elder told my dad that my sister and I wouldn’t marry more than Ingles bag boys if we didn’t slim down. Since the brown-eyed boy who’d offered me his jacket that night and partly because I’d been afraid it wouldn’t fit, I declined. Since the boy who looked like Peter Pan all grown up ended up with someone who was everything I wasn’t when I wanted him to be different–when I thought I needed him to see me.

“Why don’t you think about that this week?” my therapist suggests. “Why is having more fat on your body something that takes away from your beauty?”

And she leaves me with, “I wish you’d have more compassion on yourself.” It’s a shock to the system when she tells me things like that because no one ever tells us to be kind to ourselves, especially not in a world where Facebook threads are on full-alert and nothing is ever said without the political edge.  

II. Part two: what I’ve done instead of date.

Being in a relationship would have ruined me. 

This realization is one that’s come slow, like a deep breath you don’t want to take before plunging into deep waters. But once you take it, you realize it’s good and right and life-giving. For a long time, I blamed how I looked for why I was so alone. Nothing was right–not my hair, not my thighs, not my stomach, not my slouched-over appearance from trying too hard not to look like a giant in the crowd. I felt huge. I felt ugly. I felt unloveable. But you know what? I know now that I couldn’t have been further from the truth. I know now…had I gotten what I wanted, I never would’ve had what I have now.

When my dream world came crumbling down in 2014, it made all the difference in my life. At 22, I’d finally learned that no one was going to do anything for me and I started doing the things I wanted to do.

I went to the state fair. I got a henna tattoo. I rode a camel because I wanted to.

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I got a pixie cut. And I looked the boy who made me so sad directly in the eye for the first time.

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I made amazing friendships and got to be there for them in ways I never would’ve been able to had I been in a relationship.

I graduated with my friends, road-tripped, took a traveling job and went to Houston with a stranger (note: I’m not saying I was the brightest bulb, but here we are anyway. BLESS.) I volunteered with a nonprofit I was passionate about, found other talents I didn’t know I had, started taking long drives just because, found my own voice, and started the book. I learned to date myself. I learned that I liked rom-coms more than any other movie genre ever. Give me McConaughey or Hanks over De Niro any day. I learned that It’s A Wonderful Life is better in July. I learned that red lipstick is my thing…or at least the thing that I want to be my thing. I learned that red hair is not. I learned that I could do things I never thought I could.  I learned that men’s pajamas are way better than women’s.  I learned how to ignore the trolls that want more than you’re willing to give. I learned how to laugh at the guys who take themselves too seriously. I learned how to be alone. I’m not the least bit afraid of being alone. And I’m not going to give someone the time of day if the only reason I’m with them is to avoid being alone.

Forget. That. 

And finally, finally–I learned I actually liked myself, even when I was having an ugly moment. I learned I liked being in the skin I’m in.

Also, yes I got that cat. And she’s adorable. A little weird, but you know…consider the source, people.

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Most importantly, though, I got to know my sister, my brother, my mom, and my dad better than had I just shot off into whatever relationship I thought would bring me the ultimate happiness. I’m so grateful for getting to know them better.

 

So, hey, babe? Here’s the deal:

  1. You’re going to have a lot of feelings about being single. You’re going to be lonely sometimes. You’re going to be tempted to shoot a message to that jerk on Tinder. Maybe you’re even going to want to backtrack to the last relationship you had and beg for a do-over. The single best piece of advice I can give you is simply: if you find yourself misplacing your value, put it back where it belongs. Your value is yours. It was given to you long before you ever took a first step. Don’t forget it’s there because of something  somebody else said.
  2.  You’re going to be given a lot of advice as a single person. Don’t necessarily listen to all the advice that’s thrown at you. Don’t listen to the people who tell you you’re running out of time or ask you personal questions about how you live as a single person. Don’t even pay much attention to the people who tell you, “Hey, he’ll come along one day. Don’t give up on your prince charming.” BLAH.
  3. He/She might not show up, love. You might not find someone. I might not find someone. But do you know what? I’m still going to get up every morning. I’m still going to write books. I’m still going to show up for friends’ birthdays with cracker candy galore and coffee mugs because THIS IS HOW I SHOW AFFECTION. I’m still going to love every aspect of journalism. I’m still going to be passionate about making a difference and the destigmatization of mental health issues.  I’m still going to send out Christmas cards in mass and dance around my kitchen to Lorde. I’m still going to be me. I’m still a package deal, including all the bits and pieces that no one else will ever know about. And you get to be who you are too. He/She might not come along, but you still get to be here. You get to live out purpose no matter what. That, my friend, is everything.

Make the move. Go for the coffee date. Date around, make friends, don’t think too much, live your life. But don’t settle until it’s right. Don’t settle until you find the one who’s good to you. Find the person who makes you laugh harder than anyone else and sees you for you, even on your crummiest days. But for now? Be yourself. That’s your one and only job: to do what’s right for you in this moment and be present in your own life, with your crazy, loud friends and the cat who definitely loves milk and lounging on the roof more than you.

III. Part three: where it all ties together.

And you know what else? It’s been about a month since I was first asked to define beauty. Nearly a week ago, my therapist asked me to finish some sentences for her.

She started, “I am…”

Immediately, a word popped into my head and I found myself frowning, tilting my head to one side. That can’t be right, I thought. 

I looked at her, “Does it have to be the first word?”

“That’s preferable, but you don’t absolutely have to.”

“It’s just…” I shook my head, “I don’t know where it came from. I don’t think it’s accurate.”

“What was it?”

Sheepish smile, I said, “Beautiful.”

She nods, once, smiling, “I like that.”

 If you asked me what I’ve done, in conclusion, instead of date, I’d tell you simply: I lived. I found my own beauty. But, hey, babe? If you don’t know where your beauty is at the moment, give it some time. You’ll find it. I promise you’ll find it.