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There is sex after sexual abuse

June 3rd, 2010

As a survivor of sexual abuse, I wasn’t sure that I would ever be able to fully enjoy a sexual experience as an adult.  For a long time, I didn’t know what to enjoy it even meant.  The side effects were shame, guilt, panic, and suicidal thoughts.

The first time I had sex, I was drunk.  That set the theme for me from that point on, I couldn’t participate in any type of sexual activity unless I was drunk or on some type of mind altering drug.  Even then, the “ick” came through at the end of the experience and sometimes lasted for days.

Then, I got sober and EVERYTHING became harder to carry out.  I was used to functioning high during the day and drunk at night.  I was in a relationship at the beginning of my sobriety and it wasn’t going so well at the time.  Within the year, we would have broken up for the last time after many attempts over a five year period.

Between that time and me being five or six years sober, sex usually meant I would have some type of panic attack.  Before, after, during.  A lot of times during and I would cry.  I tried to warn my partners that sometimes I get a little weird and cry.  Most of them seemed to understand and were compassionate.  (I now know that this is a common experience for most women and even some men.)

Around three years sober, I found myself wanting to die more than I wanted to live and I went to get some help.  For the next three years, I saw this therapist and she guided me through the Courage to Heal Workbook.  I hated almost every hour of it, and would frequently cancel appointments with her.  We did some major work in that whole area and I thought it was going to kill me.

In one of the early sessions I asked her if she thought I would ever be able to move beyond the problem, she told me I would if I did the work.

I believed her.

She said it would always be a part of me, but if I did the work I could rearrange the reactions and find coping skills for the parts it left behind.

No one had ever said that to me before.

During that three year period with her, I was single and celibate.  It didn’t help that I gained a bunch of weight and basically didn’t care much for my outside appearance.  This is a typical side effect when you are working through major stuff like that.  It won’t last forever.

It was a really, really fucked up time for me and I knew I was transforming myself for the good, but afraid of what I would end up with.  It would prove to be one of the most important things I could’ve ever done for myself, and beyond my wildest dreams.

I would’ve liked to just fast forwarded to the good part (being able to enjoy sexual relations) but there wouldn’t have been a good part if I hadn’t trudged through the bad part.

Oddly enough as I got better towards the end of the three year work, I started losing weight without even trying.  I started cleaning my apartment, getting rid of things I didn’t need and my life seemed to almost get itself in order.

This would prove to be a benefit for doing the actual work in therapy, one I hadn’t anticipated.

As for my sexual situation, that got better too.  MUCH BETTER.  I tried things I’d never tried, I was fully present, and I finally got what people were talking about, and I wanted to make up for lost time.

I’ve wanted to write something like this for a long time, I want people to know that we can recover in a way that allows us to enjoy certain aspects of life.  By no means am I “cured” and I’ve had flashbacks here and there (depending on what is going on in my life at the time) but it doesn’t paralyze me anymore and I can talk myself through most situations.

It does not paralyze me any more.

We all deserve a healthy sex life, and I’m certain that all of us on some level, whether you were abused or not have struggled with sexual issues.  I blame religion for a lot of it.

It’s a taboo subject (much like mental illness), and the only way I have found to heal is by discussing it with a trusted source that helped me to find my way back to the present in order to enjoy so many things we never dreamed of actually enjoying.

Sex is CAN be good and it CAN be your friend.

Auto Pilot

March 22nd, 2010

My therapist has learned that sometimes if I’m having a hard time getting something out, I’ll disguise it with a bunch of small stuff that doesn’t make any sense, the words just leaving my mouth like a bunch of clowns leaving a clown car.

He’s gotten good at throwing in a “STOP RIGHT THERE”.

I don’t like that I do it, I’d much rather cut to the chase and say what needs to be said.

Towards the end of my last appointment I told him that I needed to get my affairs in order, and getting a job was at the top of the list.  I told him part of the reason I hadn’t gotten one was because I’ve been sad and lazy.

So he did the STOP RIGHT THERE, and said “those words you just spoke were authentic”.

“That I’ve been sad and lazy?” I replied, my head turned sideways like a dog, with the confused look.

See, I like to think that I am an authentic person all the time.  I had to toss that one around for a bit, quietly in my own head.

Typically when he points something out like this, it’s something I am already vaguely aware of.  But this, this being authentic was what I already thought I was.

Slowly, one of the layers in my head pulled back showing me what it was hiding behind the curtain.

Ohhhhhhh…..  I think I comprehend that now.

What I saw is that sometimes I am doing auto pilot, saying the things I know sound like the right answers.  Auto Pilot.  The dominoes started toppling over revealing nuggets of myself that I’d scooted off to the side for future reference.

FUCK.  That’s a pretty huge key to a lot of other stuff that I need to sort out.

I guess you could say that I’ve been “contained” for a few years now.  Meaning, things are shitty.  I know they are shitty, but I know they’ll pass because everything eventually passes right?

It isn’t that I was conscientiously trying to withhold information from myself, rather I think it was a way of protecting myself from something.  Or protecting someone else from my “something”.

Suffice to say, I’ve been turning this around in my head for the past week trying to get a firm grasp in order to deal with it properly.

Overcompensating for a truth I’ve been trying to avoid.  A truth that will shake some things up in a way that I don’t want to be shook up.  I don’t want to put on my big girl panties and deal with it.

Back to that again

March 1st, 2010

I said, “I don’t want to hurt this person, I’ve spend a lot of time trying to deflect their pain”.

“But aren’t you hurting yourself in the process”, he asked.

I said, “In way, yes.  But…”

His response, “But what?  Isn’t that how it was as a child?  You put others before you, you weren’t important.  You were made to be responsible for other peoples emotional well being and that’s never the job of a child.”

“Oh” I thought aloud.  Back to that.  It always goes back to the origin doesn’t it.

If I take care of them, they will at some point take care of me.  Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?  No.  That’s how we think it’s supposed to work but it never comes out that way. Not for me anyway.  Maybe someone, somewhere (besides Hollywood movies) it’s worked like that.  Never for me, yet I keep trying to complete that cycle and I lose myself in the process over and over again.

The source of that thinking, if I can protect the others, take their beatings for them, take the blame, take the spotlight and make it all my fault, I can control it and, somehow make it better.

No one comes out and asks me to do this, it’s one of those wordless agreements that we all make.  It’s an entire script, in my head, set on auto pilot.

My therapist suggested (about a year ago) that I needed to have a conversation about that wordless agreement, to tell the other person that I could no longer hold that position.  I was losing myself in the process and it wasn’t their fault, but I needed to resign from that job.

Sometimes, I think other people don’t mind that we lose ourselves as long as we serve as a prop for them.  (Again, auto pilot behavior.)

Once you’ve established that type of “agreement” it’s hard to move away from it.  It takes time, more conversations, discipline.  I have discipline to change my behavior, or I’m pretty sure I do.  It can be done even if it is like trying to turn a commercial ocean liner.

Funny how it is that I forget this small detail, that I push myself to the side in order to make things better for another person.  Not because I’m a martyr, I have ulterior motives (see above “If I take care of them…”).

All this collected crap manifests itself in many ways.  Much like plant roots, seeking the water and nutrients it needs to survive all the while hidden underneath the ground never seen by the casual observer.

Until something starts to wilt or die, then the journey begins again to find the source.  In order to make it right.

“Sorry, Your Princess Is In Another Castle.”

February 16th, 2010

I call bullshit.

I call bullshit on people saying, “You’re so brave.” Look, I know it’s a nice thought, and nicely meant, and I should be flattered and all, but the truth is, there’s no bravery involved when you have no other choices.

I simply had to find my way out of depression. Even though I was productive while I was depressed (almost freakishly so), I knew I couldn’t continue at the pace I was running at for too many more years. I’ve never had a backup plan—no parents to swoop in, no partner to stave off the hand-to-mouth scenario.

(Believe me, that’s not a complaint—you can’t buy motivation like that.)

For a not insignificant number of years, I tried to be gentle with myself. I reconciled myself with the obvious conclusion that I was doomed to be a writer-slash-artist. Rather than hide that, I tried to let it grow strong. This was when I was just beginning to get an inkling of how messed up things were; luckily, at the time, I had no inkling of the work that lay ahead. I cried to friends. I cried in therapy. I cried during massages. I cried in the car.

Oh god, all those poor ex-boyfriends.

It was all about Releasing and Getting In Touch With My Feelings.  That sounds trite, but it was what it was. Spade called. Then, after a few years, I realized that, even though I was making incremental progress in my behavioral choices, the pain I was in just wouldn’t budge.

So I manned up.

As hard as it was, I forced myself to shut some parts of my healing process down. I had to move on. I had been trying to wait ‘til everything resolved itself organically, but all of a sudden I knew that would take years longer than I had already spent. I was living with my mother, and that had to stop before I could truly get better. In order for that to stop, I had to get a better job than teaching four-year-olds how to make tiny boats for Thumbelina in the afternoons. In order for that to stop, I had to become a less cryey person in the mornings. In order for that to stop, I had to shut down. What kind of job was I ever going to get that had flexible hours and time off for uncontrollable sobbing?

So I did the corporate dance. And I liked a lot of it—it was social and I liked working hard. It seemed healthy. Made me forget my sadness a lot of the time. I got promoted time and again. But I gave too much, and so I’d burn out and feel like a failure again.

So I became a Pilates instructor. It was social, it was movement-based, it was something I loved doing anyway, and it could happen on my own schedule, around my writing and teaching artist jobs for several non-profits. It took me three years to realize that, while I loved all of those jobs, none of them paid enough, or had regular schedules, or any sort of reliable income.

So I became an Office Manager.

Except this time, instead of straight-up corporate America, I worked at a non-profit. Non-profits organizations are great to the artists who work for them, because they don’t care what you wear and there are no meetings. There’s no paid vacation, but they give you comp time. This was in early 2007, when I was first diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and all those other things I’ve blogged about before. And this was the job that supported me while I opened up all those messy things I had tucked away and worked through them. I had been blogging about them for five years, but I hadn’t actually been working on them with someone.

I was ready.

I was so ready that it actually didn’t take very long to unplug myself from the destructive and misguided thought patterns that were making me depressed. In a way, I was lucky, because my depressive behavior was caused by external events that had happened early and had sent me down the wrong path. It was like I had been working my way through a massive video game for decades, only to reach a dead end.

“Sorry, your princess is in another castle.”

When my therapist said she thought I was out of the woods, I asked if I’d have to stop coming there. I was only paying $7 a session on a sliding scale, and I pictured a long line of unhappy people on the other side of her door. She said, “Oh Hell no! We’re just getting started.”

Turns out it takes a bit of work to be not depressed. It’s like you *thought* you knew how to use a bike, but what you’d been doing all along was hoisting the bike over your head as you waded through water. Sure, it’s technically easier to ride it on pavement, but you still have to learn from scratch. You need the training wheels and the encouragement. So for the next year, once a week, I’d report back as to how things were going, and my therapist helped me calibrate my responses and find my balance.

Now it’s easy peasy.

For those of you who’ve been reading my blog since I moved to New York in late 2008, you know it’s been logistically tough. The biggest challenge was moving three times, each time leaving behind stolen possessions, leaky apartments, or a pantsless roommate. But the counterpoint to that was the good job I found at the start of the recession. And now, after almost a year and a half of uncertainty, it seems I have some slightly more solid options before me. I’m one step closer to maybe someday being a full hire with paid holidays/sick/vacation and health insurance. Maybe even two steps closer, hard to know.

What I’m trying to say, in a thousand words or less, is that if there’s a big difference between carrying a bike through water and learning to ride that bike, there’s an even bigger difference between learning to ride a bike and riding that bike well.

You remember how it feels, right? You’re wobbling along, afraid of every pothole or stick in the road, when all of a sudden you look up and realize that you’ve got this, you know this. You’ve known this all along. It’s easy. Just go headfirst, into the wind. The bumps will work themselves out.

Now that I’m no longer fighting with my bike, I find myself zooming down a wide, flat road on which there are some choices coming up. For the first time ever. Kind of. Yeah.

Now we’ll see if I’m brave.

Happy Binary Palindrome Day–01/11/10

January 11th, 2010

Hi everyone. A ton of great stuff is happening that I hadn’t planned on, including a job promotion that gets me back to full-time status, and shooting my first short film.

After years of fighting to get to a place where I felt like I was on solid ground, I’m at a place where changes are happening so rapidly and I’m overwhelmed with positive thoughts for the first time in my life. I used to spend so much energy at first getting sucked into depressive thoughts, and then applying the tactics I had learned in therapy to manage those negative thoughts. Now I’m suddenly in a place where I am happy and excited for all sorts of wonderful new things that are coming into my life.

I’m looking forward to reporting in February with a post that spends more time on all this good stuff for which I am so grateful. I wonder how my writing will change from being so happy.

It almost feels like I’m a new person.

Premature Evacuation

December 10th, 2009

I work at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. As you may know, each year around Thanksgiving, a giant evergreen tree is trucked in and trussed up in time for the televised “Lighting of the Tree.” The tree is big. It’s so big that decorating it takes weeks. And scaffolding. Lots and lots of scaffolding.

Now, this is only my second Christmas in NYC, but I’ve already got my own ritual for this event. I, along with everyone who works in the building, evacuate at 3pm before the crowds gather to watch the tree get blown up and sung to by rock stars.

Occasionally, I get irritable in New York. Sometimes when I’m walking and people (confession, I call them tourons, but I don’t mean you) stop on the sidewalk and impede the flow of foot traffic, I clench my jaw and widen my eyes in exasperation as I pause and wait for a path through to make itself known. I walk quickly, but I don’t run over people—they more or less veer into my path, like cicadas bobbling into a windshield.

As I’ve said on Twitter, if you lack the spatial awareness to step aside when exiting a door, elevator, or escalator, you’re probably really bad in bed.

Occasionally, as I walk through the city, I’m glad for the jostling, because it makes me feel connected in a sea of well-dressed anonymity. At these times, I’m filled with the spirit of kum-ba-yah, and I’ll often find that I’m smiling to myself. It’s not forced, it just happens. Who knows what brings it on—maybe I had a really good doughnut that day—but I certainly prefer being at peace with humanity rather than being a steaming bowl of annoyed.

But I digress. This post is supposed to be about managing mental illness, right? And, as I type this, it’s 8 days late according to my self-imposed monthly deadline. I’ve known I wanted to write about the holidays for at least a month, so why have I stalled?

Because I kind of hate the holidays.

And believe me, there are reasons.

This is a whole book, this here topic of me and the holidays.

It’s genetic.

No, really.

It started with my grandmother.

Okay. [Deep breath.]

My grandmother was a Jehovah’s Witness. She wasn’t born that way. She chose it. And she was one of the 144,000 who are actually going to join God in Heaven. Well, she’s there already. She died six years ago this month.

I hardly knew my grandmother. My few memories of her center around rare visits during which I watched her shove vitamins down her Siamese cat’s throat and slather enormous quantities of hand lotion on herself and anyone within arm’s reach. Once I turned age 12, these visits stopped. With a complete lack of irony, my mother said she didn’t want my grandmother to hurt me the way she had hurt her. There were a few feeble attempts at communication over the years, but that ended when I got a note from my grandmother saying how worried she was because I was going to burn in hell for going to college.

You may know that Witnesses don’t celebrate holidays. My mother grew up never celebrating her birthday or Christmas. This of course meant that the holidays assumed an importance to her that was…spectacular.

I don’t remember a single holiday from my childhood (I’m talking even Independence Day) where my mother didn’t end up yelling. As I got older, and began to stick up for myself, her screams turned to sobs that I had caused by…well…by sticking up for myself. I was hollowed out after each encounter, and once I realized this pattern wasn’t going to end, I began methodically desensitizing myself by unplugging emotionally from the holidays as best as I could.

I evacuated.

One way I learned to manage the holidays was to encourage group gatherings. On those lucky holidays, we’d celebrate at a friend’s home, and keep the crying and humiliation confined to the car. (And here the memories are starting to come back. Ugh.) Another way I learned to manage the holidays was to stop going home. Of course there were repercussions to this decision, but it felt like survival more than a choice. For the most part, my mother has understood when I’ve chosen not to go  home. As much as she has lashed out, there’s always been a part of her that has known things were really messed up and simply not known how to fix it.

Now, my grandmother had been a traveling private nurse, and in her late 60s, she checked herself into a nursing home because she said she was ready to let people take care of her. It was her turn. She then went and lived for another 20-odd years. To me it just seemed like giving up. My mother said for years that she thought her mother might die soon, but this time, in 2003, I knew it was serious. I hadn’t planned on going home for Christmas that year, but my mother sounded destroyed by what was happening to her mother, so I was down in Florida at the nursing home the next day. All three of us were in the room when my grandmother left this world on December 18.

I’ve written elsewhere at length about what transpired in the days and weeks following. We had some wonderful talks as we parsed apart the legacy of choices that had led us to where we were. But then something snapped and there she was, glaring and furious because I had rolled her coins. (Funny because it’s true.) I remember saying, as things devolved, “I never understood why you kept me.” It wasn’t an accusation, it was a genuine question borne out of the confusion I’d always experienced at being told I was loved one moment and treated with contempt in the next. She quietly responded, “I don’t know why I did either. There were plenty of other people who would’ve taken you.” She later clarified that she meant that, for all she gave up in order to raise me, it seemed that it was all for naught because I didn’t know that she loved me.

I’ve only called a suicide hotline twice, and this was one of those times. It actually ended up being funny. The fact that I had counted out my sleeping pills wasn’t what scared me—it was that I was suddenly deeply altered, like I had checked out. I was calm, affectless, and almost in a trance as I counted. The very freaked-out part of me that wanted to live then promptly sat on the floor, sandwiched herself between the bed and the wall, and called a hotline. I was on hold for so long—what with it being the holidays and all—that by the time I finally reached someone, I basically said that I couldn’t take up his time when there were clearly so many people needing help right then. I didn’t know at that time that the name for one of the conditions I had was Passive Suicidal Ideation, but I knew enough to know that, even though I wanted to give up because I couldn’t seem to find a way out of my pain, I wouldn’t really *do* anything, as seductive as that thought was at the time. So I hung up once I felt connected again.

The next day, after my zombie self unlocked the bedroom door, my mother came in, sat down on the bed, and made a solemn promise to me that she would never let an event like that happen again. I snorted a little because I didn’t believe her—belief like that costs too much. I remember thinking that’s right, it wouldn’t happen again, because I’ll do my best not to be that vulnerable again. I told her, “You can’t promise that.”

I don’t think my mother has ever really had a full round of therapy. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to navigate her particular emotional minefield without professional support. I know I wouldn’t have made it had I not had the help of others far smarter than I. I remember thinking at the time that if it were that easy for her to stop ridiculing me, why had she tormented us both over the years. I didn’t believe she had that kind of control over herself. But, I guess I had scared not only myself, but her as well, so even though she lacked the understanding, she made a choice of will to never behave that way again. I had forgotten she’d even made the promise, until she reminded me recently. I have to say, I think she’s kept her promise.

And I think maybe that’s love.

In a few weeks, I’m visiting my mother for Christmas. She’s been so self-aware lately that I recently asked her, “Are you getting therapy and not telling me?” (Answer: No, but she’s had time to think things over.)  I’m not hoping for a wonderful time, but I’m not dreading it like I used to. I’m actually a little optimistic, because you have to be, right? But I’m also on guard just in case, because I know there’s a part of her that is so hurt that she might lash out. And there’s room for that now without it making me crumble. It’s my job to defend myself, though it’s still new and difficult—it feels like I’m not allowed, like it hurts her.

Whew. Okay. That wasn’t sooooo bad.

The holidays can be rough for some of us. There’s not enough time, not enough money, not enough warmth and ease. We each find our ways of coping with the strain—I know I deliberately let myself get a little numb. I evacuate. I have my rituals of checking out. Where I used to love singing carols and decorating my home, I just sort of don’t go there because it would make me sad. And I used to love giving gifts, until the lean years when I was embarrassed that I couldn’t afford to give them. So my protective choice to emotionally ignore the holidays means I don’t appreciate the outdoor festivities, but I do have friends who get excited, and that makes me happy, because even though I don’t look forward to the holidays, I understand that for some, it’s a time of renewal in the midst of the bitter cold. For others, it’s a time of grieving. For me, this year, it’s a time for both—I know the holidays will probably always be a trigger for me, just like they are for my mother, but I also can slowly begin to let my guard down and hope that it might be just a little different this year. Which is terrifying, by the way.

Many people are struggling with mental illness, and some also are fending off emotional violence in the home. I’ve never felt ashamed for having had depression and all those other things. In a way I sometimes think I’m lucky because the root cause of my depression wasn’t chemical, it was external, circumstantial, a problem to be solved. (Though I’m guessing the decades of depression had a chemical effect.) I’m still working on telling my story in a way that doesn’t hurt my family by revealing too much of their part in things, but I’ve always believed that sharing our stories can heal on both ends of the transaction.

And I believe that I am entitled to my story.

Sort of.

I’m working on it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to bundle up and head home through the holiday crowds on Fifth Avenue. I have gifts to buy.

Bean Sandwiches

November 13th, 2009

The other night I got to craving a bean sandwich.

Ever had one? Spread two slices of soft white bread with some mayonnaise. Sprinkle one slice with salt. Open a can of baked beans and carefully spoon a layer of beans on the other slice. Depending on how dry you like your bean sandwich, you might want to press the spoon against the inside of the can to drain the beans a little along the way. Place the other slice of bread on top. Cold beans taste better.

A bean sandwich can be a little bendy, so the tidiest thing to do is to eat it over a plate to catch the spillage. The stress of maneuvering a sandwich that’s dropping its beany innards onto a paper towel while you shove it in your mouth can result in a wolfing down of the sandwich.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.


When I was little, bean sandwiches were a treat, a welcome break from cheese sandwiches, leftover goulash, or beans and franks served with iceberg lettuce salad. In the summers there might be tomato sandwiches, or even sweet banana sandwiches, all with mayonnaise and salt, never cut in half.

So a few weeks ago, when I found myself craving a bean sandwich but lacking the ingredients, it dawned on me that those bean sandwiches that were such a treat were a creative, protein-rich solution to a severely limited grocery budget. We ate bean sandwiches because we were poor! And I loved them!

I called my mother to share my realization, and she got a proud chuckle out of knowing that it had taken me such a long time to figure her trick out. When I was a child, any difficulty I had from being poor had nothing to do with an awareness of money, and everything to do with my mother’s struggles with rage and despair, and my father’s loud absence.

Looking back as an adult, I have great compassion for what my mother went through, raising a sickly child alone on welfare.


Learned Helplessness is one of those light-bulb explanations many depressed people get from any garden-variety Cognitive Behavioral Therapist. It’s often accompanied by a new understanding of the misguidedness of living your life as if it were run by an External Locus of Control, and the realization that some of us were raised in families where Cluster B Personality Disorders thrived. The gist of Learned Helplessness is that if someone experiences a lack of control over painful events in their life, they sort of give up trying; even if they later have the ability to stop the painful events, they won’t try to change their circumstances. They give up.

If we’re lucky, these definitions spark synapse-firing epiphanies that free us from destructive ways of thinking about ourselves and our place in the world. If we’re extra lucky, our attempts to change our own behavior inspire any family member suffering from Cluster B disorders to reach for emotional health as well.

The sticky part is that, even with all of this Oprah-worthy self-awareness, undoing decades of self-destructive habits of thought is more than a little difficult.

It’s one thing to name your enemy; it’s another to destroy it.


Hope is a tricky thing. So is money.

I never really understood from a big-picture perspective how to get money. It was always just dribbling in here and there, randomly. When I was 8, I knew I could earn a dime for doing chores, or for helping my mother tidy the racks of clothes in the store she managed. At 13, I started babysitting and working odd jobs, sometimes without pay because I just wanted to be useful.

I remember helping my mother open many stores in malls as an adolescent. I was too young to be left alone overnight, and so I’d be taken out of school and off we’d go to a Holiday Inn adjacent to a mall somewhere in the middle of…oh…Tennessee. I’d spend my days either watching soap operas in the hotel or helping assemble four-ways and tee-stands with a rubber mallet in an unfinished store. We had usually brought a cooler of bologna sandwiches because room service was too expensive.

When it came to getting school clothes each year, my mother would bring trash bags of damaged clothes home. She was supposed to have taken them to Goodwill but she brought them home so I could go through them first and pick out my clothes. I was a freshman in high school wearing clothes from Dress Barn.

Naturally, when it came time for me to get a part-time job in high school, I worked in retail, since that was the only job I’d ever seen adults do (all of my mother’s friends were also in retail). I watched my mother run herself ragged and develop health issues from travelling and working long hours in retail. She always put herself last, and is still paying a heavy price for mortgaging her health.


I went to four different high schools, the last one requiring a move in the middle of my senior year, just when everyone was applying to college. Over the years, as I had bounced from school to school (12 total), I was labeled either as gifted or as in need of remedial instruction, depending on how far ahead or behind I was. By senior year, I had sort of given up on learning anything, and had developed an attitude of gaming the system, even going so far as to change an F on a report card to a B.

I was accustomed to taking diagnostic tests and talking to Guidance Counselors, and I passively went along with this latest one’s idea of applying to college, even though I had no clue how that worked—no one in my family had ever gone to a four-year college.

My best friend’s mother had gone to Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, and it was decided I’d apply there. I can’t remember the other schools I applied to, but I do remember what happened months later, when other students started to get acceptance letters. The Guidance Counselor and my mother both found it odd that we hadn’t heard from any of the colleges I had applied to. They also found it odd that none of the checks for the application fees had been cashed.

I had never mailed the applications.

Besides not feeling confident in completing the applications, I couldn’t really see the point. These colleges all cost thousands of dollars, and my mother was doing well enough at that point that the odds of me receiving needs-based aid were very slim. I knew my father wouldn’t help—he hadn’t called when I graduated high school. When I turned 18 there was no card from him, but he was so glad to be rid of his obligation that he sent the last $128 check for child support a month early.


A flurry of last-minute calls were made, and all of a sudden I was listening to a woman from Agnes Scott tell me over the phone that they would be happy to have me without an application, on account of my test scores and probably a good word or three from my friend’s mother. I knew this was a generous offer, but I couldn’t understand why everyone was ignoring the fact that we didn’t have the money.

So I became an assistant store manager in a mall. And then I went to a community college. And then I started therapy. And then I transferred to William and Mary. All baby steps toward believing there was a point to thinking positively. In college, I was fortunate to have some wonderful professors who were kind in light of my shyness, and who were supportive of my creative writing. One professor even let me turn in a 220-stanza poem in lieu of a term paper.

It still seemed to me that the only way to get money was to run yourself into the ground. I worked up to six jobs at a time to pay for my food and housing while my mother paid the $3,000 annual tuition.

In an attempt to further things along, I applied for a research grant administered by the college. As I sat in front of four professors, explaining my project goals, I quickly realized that I was supposed to have already researched my proposed subject thoroughly. They asked all sorts of questions, but of course that was why I was applying for the grant in the first place, so that I could drop my part-time jobs and find the answers. I was embarrassed, and there was a shift toward disinterest on my examiners’ part as they leaned back in their chairs.

After graduating with High Honors and watching my classmates move on to graduate school, I became a temporary office worker.

You can compare my relationship with money to my relationship with my creative goals, or even with love. I’m lucky to know what I want, and I’m lucky to have had the occasional mentor (not that I’ve ever had a love mentor, but you know what I mean). But I never seemed to be able to figure out how to get what I wanted. So I started wanting less. And less. I started telling myself to just make do with what I had. After all, who was I to think I was entitled to anything other than bean sandwiches. Besides, they’re delicious anyway. Right?


Fast-Forward an Undisclosed Number of Years

I just finished my first year in New York City. I heard someone say once that people don’t move to NYC to have it easy. The first day I started looking for a job was the day Lehman Brothers fell. I’ve had stuff stolen and I’ve laughed off an attempted mugging. I’ve had three apartments, two of which have flooded.

But I’ve had far more gifts and opportunities come my way than challenges. A family friend gave me several bags of nice clothes, I found a contract position at a television network, and I’ve started to publish articles as a freelance writer. I’m making friends, I have a good apartment, and I have a savings account. I even bought some clothes that were not from a thrift store.

Still, it’s proving hard to let go of some fear-based habits. Back in DC, I got by on as little as $11,000 a year as a teaching artist and playwright. In 2006 I lost 18 pounds in 3 weeks because I was depressed and couldn’t afford groceries. The depression’s been gone for more than two years, but I’m not so proud as to think that it will never circle back around.

I have a protective tendency to worst-case-scenario everything. It’s not that I expect something tragic to happen like, “She was happy for the first time in her life, too bad about that speeding bus.” It’s more that I try not to rely on anything, because I don’t expect things to last— work, friends, food, shelter.

Now, sure, it’s wise to understand the impermanence of things, that life is fluid and you can’t always be on an upward trajectory. And I know that the hard times I’ve been through have helped me to thrive my first year in New York. And I’m lucky to know that I can get by on bean sandwiches if I need to. But lately I’ve begun looking at my life as more than an exercise in endurance. I’m no longer bracing myself against something awful catching me off-guard.

I’ve started to see past my circumstances, to believe that I can try to change them. That’s not to say that with the attempt comes guaranteed success, but I see the point in trying. I’m unlearning helplessness. And I can see the steps I want to take toward turning my creative goals into reality.  

And yes, I have the especially good fortune to know that, if after trying, I don’t succeed, I’m perfectly content to console myself with a cold bean sandwich.



I want to thank Leah for letting me be a monthly contributor. We haven’t met in real life (yet), but we “met” years ago through our blogs, and we recently reconnected on Twitter. I also want to thank you for reading, and to thank those of you who leave comments. I think writing and reading are two of the most powerful and intimate ways people can share themselves.