Sit up straight. Eat vegetables. Peppermint oil on everything you own. Talk less. Pay down your library fines. Open and close like a fist. Take medicine for your migraines. Let the light hurt you. Go to mass in Times Square for whatever reason. Put quarters in the saint boxes and flip on electric candles. Write 1000 terrible words that make you angry. Then 10,000. Rage on the Internet. Get tired of your narrative of sadness. Disgust yourself. Get on birth control. Imagine a room full of glass plates you can smash. Get nauseous. Get bored. Stay angry. Be disgusted. Consider becoming a fighter so you can punch things. Dye your hair. Swallow your tongue. Get into school. Fall out of love. Fall in. Like breathing. Wake up in the middle of the night. Win the lottery in your head. Let the heat from the sidewalk grab you and drag you down. Have nightmares about a man standing over your bed with a face full of nails. Delete your Facebook. Bring it back. Don't be bothered when people dislike you. Be very bothered. Get angry at god. Say sorry. Put your chin out. Road rage, repent. Eat sour apples until your stomach turns. Put your forehead on greasy display by pinning back your bangs. Take advice you didn't ask for. Say thanks, say sorry. Be quiet so your coworkers don't know you're there. Don't let people lie to you. Be a cycle. Always turning. Burn things down. Sew things together. Hate it all. Try to transform it into Love. Outsmart your reckless. Put rocks and nail polishes on your windowsill. Throw blessings around your apartment. Get rid of expectations. Put on shoes and walk your dog until there is nothing left in your head. Your therapist pats you on the arm: This is an exciting time! An exciting time, Emily!
I have been dealing with a lot of strange body anxieties lately, in and out of the doctor, freak problems that spring up and then subside. Nothing serious. But it makes me feel dissociated from my body sometimes, like I'm watching myself take antibiotics and put follow-up appointment cards in my wallet on a movie screen. I am going back on hormonal birth control, and I'm really scared it will take away my creativity and make my depression worse. Or make me put on weight, which I worry about the most, and then feel foolish for making that my chief concern. Isn't it a weird thing, being a woman, and carrying all those random things in your pocket to palm over when you're in the house alone and don't want to wash the dishes or make the bed.
I woke up this morning very sore, from running around all weekend like a crazy woman. Yesterday's migraine dulled down to a low headache. The sun hurt my eyes and I had shoved all the covers and blankets off the bed in my sleep. I wanted to take a sick day, but I have a presentation this afternoon I can't miss. So I came into work, and now I am worrying about all manner of things just like I would be at home, except in business casual. I keep realizing I have my jaw locked, like some armor.
I have a tendency to think of my constant anxiety as a pathetic hobby that I'll later outgrow and regret how much time I wasted on it. So the anxiety compounds with self-disgust. My therapist says I should instead befriend it, as it will probably always be there, but be reassured that I don't have to heed its advice all the time. I consider this when I am at the doctor's office last week, sitting there on the table, in nothing but a paper robe. After that appointment's vulnerability, I went back to work, trained a group on a new computer program that they didn't care about.
My therapist moved to a new office. It is much nicer than her old office. When I move to St. Louis I will have to find a new therapist and I am nervous about this. I asked her if we could keep up my appointments but have them over the phone. She said my move would be a great opportunity to find a new doctor, and get a fresh perspective, learn new lessons. I don't buy it.
(For what it's worth, I do understand the privilege in all this: being able to take a sick day, to have a therapist in the first place. I don't take it for granted; I am just trying to sort out what's in my head today.)
Yesterday was Mothers Day. I wanted to get together with my mom for dinner but it didn't work out. My mother planted marigolds, which is something we used to do together at the yellow house when I was little. I remember seeing her long nails in the dirt and thinking that one day I would try to be that glamorous, that one day I would wake up with all those womanisms pre-loaded, next to my hot rollers and diet pills. So far, no dice.
This weekend me and my friend Dave Heinzel shot our new short film. I wrote it, he produced it, and we co-directed it with a killer cast and an outstanding crew. Over the span of two days we worked on that film for 26 intense and rewarding hours. All these plates were spinning in the air and everyone was keeping their own gears churning and it was a glorious alchemy and deathly challenging but fun as hell. It is a weird thing, to have your head in the plot of a screenplay for so long. When I took my dog outside this morning I just kept blinking at the trees. It is a mental whiplash, to return to my own life. It sounds silly. Sometimes when you step outside your mundane narrative, finding the thread back to Monday morning isn't as straightforward as you would think.
I've noticed this phenomenon, and I'm calling it Father John Misty Syndrome. In the next few paragraphs, I'm going to try to explain it (without going down this existential hole like I tend to do).
FJM Syndrome is a byproduct of a generation who is hyper-aware of the online versions of ourselves under constant curation. Because of this hyper-awareness, we post everything with an annoying reservation, a trite post-script that always seems to say, in so many words, "ha ha don't worry I'm also in on the joke of my life." It's self-deprecation, to the extreme.
I know for me at least, it's a self-defense mechanism. I want to connect with others because I am a human and humans are social animals. But connecting with others puts me in an inherently vulnerable place. So I dress up genuine attempts at connection with this filter of "Nah just joking LOL."
For a long while, I was convinced I needed to rinse my hands of the entire social media monster. It was fueling a lot of my self-loathing. I couldn't post anything without going back to it and thinking it was too fake/too obnoxious/too liberal etc. In addition, having a feed full of everyone trying to sound smart and cool was bumming me out.
I think the remedy is to cut out the self-deprecating bullshit and be more earnest (shoutout to my BFF, Kendra, who inspired this post). To be constantly self-deprecating (in an effort to belittle ourselves and/or be more "likeable") has an adverse affect where it keeps us from true connection. Slash makes us look like assholes.
If we were just honest-- really honest-- about our real feelings, that's powerful. Shared not just our "cute" flaws (I read romance novels! I cry at dog food commercials!) but our "not cute" ones too (I hold grudges until they consume me! One way I alleviate my anxiety is to pick at my skin!).
What if we were just open about what we need and how we want to feel and let that be its own currency? Take it or leave it?
As I'm growing up, I'm trying to do less cool-kid posturing in favor of more authenticity. It's a young man's sport to try to seem cool all the time. And giving up on the Ultra Cool game is such a psychic drag lifted. When I get it right, I really don't care what others think. Their opinions just fall away. What a relief, to be uncool, and okay with it.
After saving up for months, in February I treated myself to a 10 day vacation. I first flew to Washington D.C. for my second AWP. (AWP, if you don't know, is kind of the mother-ship of writing conferences.) After AWP, a friend and I rented a car and drove five hours to New York City. Then I stayed by myself in the West Village for a week in a bizarre and adorable little hotel called The Jane.
I planned this trip with the intention of going big. Last year's AWP triggered a monumental shift that I was eager to experience again. (Long live Los Angeles, my favorite place on earth.) Additionally, I had never been to NYC, and I was excited to make myself go it alone, put myself out there, break things down, build them back up, Eat Pray Love, blah blah blah.
But in all seriousness, I think the best two vehicles towards personal growth are art (making it/experiencing it) and travel. Both kind of shove me around a bit and make me reckon with myself in a way that is usually very generative.
I loved New York: the pastrami sandwiches, the yellow cabs all brutal against the Hudson River, the way everyone looks like they're waiting to be photographed by a street-style blog, the burn of too-hot coffee on the steps of the Met, a dog tethered to a tree, waiting for his owner... it truly feels like the pulse of the world.
I rode the subway to Brooklyn and got dumplings with my friend Sean. I read Chen Chen in a shitty diner called "STAR ON 18TH." I put my thumb over the Statue of Liberty from the 8th floor of the Whitney. I journaled on the High Line. I went to the NYC Ballet (my seats were surprisingly affordable, due to their position two miles above the stage). I had root beer floats and Bento boxes.
I discovered I'm depressed again.
When I look back at the past several months, my classic depression tells are all there. I've been quick to panic, quicker to rage. My sleeping has deteriorated (I lie awake for hours worrying, and then when I do fall asleep I dream of stressful situations, like getting fired or loved ones dying). My drinking has increased, mostly me drinking alone. That nihilistic, pervasive feeling of being forever on the outside of things has been creeping into more and more moments of life, making mundane tasks seem monumental and hopeless. I've been retreating into myself because my social anxiety has been so bad. I've been plagued by a lot of compulsive thoughts. I've also been grieving the national climate, and then feeling guilty about grieving.
This has been going on for months, and until this trip, I had been stealthily ignoring it. But on vacation, my depression forced itself front and center. My bad drinking habits were the first blaring cue: one night, I got so wasted I threw up on myself in a cab-- a stunning new low. Another night, I martini'd my way through hundreds of dollars (decidedly NOT in my budget), ended up at a jazz show in a basement (?), blacked out, and suffered through a two-day hangover that left me shaky and suicidal. (I am better now, do not worry, and taking a serious and overdue break from drinking.)
I cried my way through the city. I went to the Rose Room at the New York Public Library and cried. I watched Titanic three times in a row in my hotel room and cried. I went to museum gift shops and cried. I went to diners in Chelsea and cried. I saw 50 Shades Darker in a multiplex, ate a whole box of Buncha Crunch, and cried.
(Also-- that last image is funny. Whatever. Okay! Fine! I saw a matinee of 50 Shades Darker by myself in Manhattan! I contain multitudes... Whatever! Laugh at my sorrow!)
Make no mistake-- I am incredibly grateful for my friends, my family, my job, to be doing what I'm doing, to be able to go to New York and writing conferences. But that doesn't change the fact that my baseline melancholy is cranked up and that's just the way it is. I have had three major depressions in my life. I think I am currently in my fourth. I always feel like I'm depleted, running behind on my own life. It's this uncanny sensation of not measuring up, like I'm failing not only myself but everyone around me too. I berate myself: I should be a better daughter, a better employee, a better friend, a better woman, skinnier, less hairy, clearer skin, better at yoga. Meanwhile, the dishes pile up in the sink. I'm always nervous. This is my particular flavor of depression.
That said, there's something about naming it that makes me feel better. I know I'll come out on the other side of this in a few weeks or months, but this is not a triumph narrative right now. It's just an admission that I'm depressed and I'm done denying it or beating myself up for it while it's here. It's like a cold. You don't get a cold and talk to yourself like: "I'm so worthless because my nose is running! I'm so weak to have all this sinus pressure!"
Look: Soon the days will get longer. I can't wait to plant some rose bushes in my yard, set up my front porch with potted flowers, and make sun tea. But right now it is cold and I am mourning something endless and nameless and that's that. In the meanwhile, I'm taking care of myself in those basic ways that aren't always easy but keep me functioning. By naming it, I know it'll get better. By naming it, I stop weaving it into my persona. I step outside of it and look at it as a separate AFFLICTION.
Anyway. New York City is infinite, dirty, wondrous. It is a big holy mirror. It looked at me unflinchingly, and told me what I'm hiding from myself. For that I'm thankful, and nonetheless depressed.
Over time, especially over painful times, our memory starts playing tricks on us. Things we swore we’d never forget begin to distort in the remembering. Instead of pulling memories up from the ether completely, we instead remember flashes, colors, the way the air tasted for a millisecond, abstractions. The look on her face when.
I assume this is a biological mutation where, if we could remember things in all their fullness, we would jump out the window. Trauma is painful. Faulty memory becomes a protective scab.
All I know is-- today, and tomorrow, and every day after that, it is our grave duty to remember everything-- even that which hurts in the recollection.
Today’s the day. In addition to protesting, making art and sharing it, and staying angry, I am pledging to keep a daily journal for the next four years. I encourage you to do the same. It is a small but mighty way we can resist. We need to witness and write things down in all their inelegance and brutality despite how much it hurts.
That way, as things morph and distort in the way memories do, as despair settles in and becomes the new normal, we can keep track of what really happened. We have a weapon-- a record of our thoughts, fears, the national climate, the things being taken from us. Our records become our anchors. This is powerful.
Paradigm shifts happen in increments, daily encroachments that pervert the status quo so stealthily we don’t realize it’s happening. But if we write down what we witness, every day, we stay vigilant.
Every day of Trump’s America, I promise to answer the question: What does America look like right now? Put my finger to the pulse and feel it. Then write it down.
They are going to lie to us. Tell us we’re misremembering. Tell us the media has tricked us into false memory. It has already begun, and it is the surreal stuff of nightmares. But with our secret record, we can look back and recall the truth. We can open up our notebooks, find the day and say--
No. You’re wrong. That’s not what happened. HERE is the full picture, in all its blood and rage. I remember what you did, I remember it completely. And I will not forget.
My dad once told me "Today it will be hard out there. Go out there anyway." My phone ticked down to three percent. I sat down to write about ritual and my computer crashed. They estimate Phil Connors was stuck in the Groundhog loop for 30 years. It is very hard to become an ice sculptor. I own these jeans that never fit right but they cost $80 so I always wear them. I do my best writing in emails. When I was a teenager I loved an older man and my therapist says he loved power. I would eat only fruit for days, carry around dirty strawberries in a Ziploc bag. One time he told me "You don't buy a gun because it's pretty." I've tried all my life to be popular and skinny. In 2007 Sam and I had a long email chain called "crash boom bang," another named "you're the life of the party patty." How does a woman trust herself? All this hair growing thick and fast. Love me, blonde world. Things will crack you up. The "J" stands for "John." Sometimes I worry that I'll open my eyes one morning and a skill I've built myself on will be wiped away. No warning. Apparently, Asprin is a wonder drug. A guy in a Star Wars shirt ran massacre in an airport with everyone quietly nodding. I want to walk for miles but it's the ice making me distrustful. I'm worried about money. I had my friend meet me in an unheated building and take my picture. All of this I'm writing here is real. I'm making a short film. It is about being nineteen. Do you ever write something and then worry it's the last thing you'll ever make? Do you do nice things because you're nice or because you think someone is watching? Hey-- they demolished another building downtown. No warning. Apparently Aspirin will make your guts bleed. The tail light in my car is busted. We always think things are winking when really they're broken. This summer I fell out of love. Fell out of a very large web, fell out of the topsoil, fell out of a tire swing. Found myself in the dictionary somewhere between pulverize and queen.
despite the endless string of catastrophes this year i do think i grew a lot personally... probably true of most of us as turbulence fosters growth. anyway i answered these questions because reflection is important... especially when i feel like i'm grinding my gears a bit.
top 5 moments of the year:
-going to LA solo, specifically the night i went out for pho with emily and katie and a few other really tall and intimidating people and then we went to awp prom aka that dance party at the hotel
-going to Seattle solo, specifically the mornings where i went to the amazing coffee shop on capitol hill that was sucked straight out of 1998 or when sam and i navigated all those firsts like renting a car and boarding a ferry with said car and found that amazing little diner on the island on the way to china's lovely wedding
-the day i got my dog because it was this moment i had really longed for for years and i was so excited to have a pal
-studio show season 2 finale party because all of my friends came together and we celebrated all of our hard work... and there was a lot of great food catered by copper pot
-the day we shot the "Prairie State" trailer because we planned the day so well so we really got to have fun with every shot
what are you really glad is over:
the bad relationship. the election. growing out my hair!
how are you different today than you were 365 days ago?
i am braver maybe. angrier. better hair
is there anything you achieved that you forgot to celebrate?
traveled solo two times despite intense anxiety go me
ooh! i got like, for the first time, really confident in my body
who are people who really came through for you this year?
everyone. i have a great crew :)
what is something you tolerated for a long time, but now you will not?
people who complain about situations they refuse to change
what old beliefs did you let go of?
that i should be sorry all the time just for like, taking space
that i knew enough to hand out advice
that my body was unworthy or whatever
that i needed to wait for some kind of external validation before i could do things i enjoyed
that chirping about shit on facebook did anybody any good
what was the one thing you found really challenging, but can now see supported your growth?
ending a bad relationship (taught me to put myself first)
joining the studio show (taught me to put myself out there)
if you could go back in time, what would you tell yourself this time last year?
put some lipstick on you look dead
I lit a candle called "Warm Rustic Woods" which I bought exclusively because of the absurd name and drew a super hot bath, the point of which was to wash away all the psychic gunk I've been collecting like little pieces of lint lately.
Baths always sound like a relaxing thing to do but typically end with me just lying there, overheated and worrying. I was hunched over, scraping the soap scum off the handle of my razor blade, because this is the kind of shit I do when I let my nails get long, and then I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the silver of the faucet and thought about how that angle is really unflattering, and then I saw how gray the water had gotten from the soap and the salts and the shaving cream and then I thought about how I'm practically douching with all these chemicals and here's hoping there isn't any pussy-freak-outs in my near future, and then I was thinking about all the hair on my legs I guess I've been missing for like, years.
I've been applying to residencies and grad programs, which has stirred up a lot of insecurity (collective yawn from the void). For background, for these programs you have to write a "statement of purpose," which is essentially just like, where you talk about yourself as an artist and how you situate your art in The World At Large. I usually leave my house and draft these things at like, the laundromat or the Hawaiian BBQ or something, and then the next day think they're awful and rewrite them crinkled up in some unfortunate similarly-unflattering position in my room, with pizza face and greasy hair, and then that happens a few more rounds until I feel good about the thing and then I send it off and then the next day I say By God I think I'll have a bath I certainly do think I've earned it and then in the bath I get struck with the realization that it was probably a really shitty statement where I didn't even realize how self-absorbed or conceited I came across, and then I start thinking of like, how maybe this is just My Thing, like something everybody knows about me but me, and how I will never know, because even if I ask people what they think they will not tell me the truth.
Earlier in the bath I was thinking about how I really should work on letting go of what other people think, because I can't control it and besides it's an immature thing to obsess about and unproductive. So many of my peers are out changing the world because they just buck up and do it but I'm over here in the tub spazzing. Then I was thinking about blogging, and how I love it and hate it in equal measure; I love it because it has connected me with some really lovely folks, and I hate it because everything self-reflective I write in this format I end up really hating because I think it sounds so fucking like, narcissistic and contrived and like, totally preoccupied with its own narrative.
Earlier than that I was thinking about this big huge blow-out fight I had with one of my closest family members about Motherfucking Donald Trump, and how so much of the anger I've been carrying has been explicitly because this specific person cannot understand my anger, but it still makes me so angry because I want them to get it, to get the fury of the collective, to understand it isn't just Oh my candidate lost bummer but like, something apocalyptic, and they don't.
And then I was thinking about this online class I'm taking, and how I haven't engaged with my classmates enough at all because I've been so swamped with everything else, and then I was like Well you shouldn't have added an online poetry class to your plate, and then I was thinking of the ways in which I self-sabotage, like overloading my schedule, or insisting on perfection when it never is remotely realistic because I am not an android, or like, the self-fulfilling prophecy of self-loathing.
And then I was thinking about how I'm so tired of this version of myself, the ugly underbelly version, where I worry on such a loop that there truly doesn't seem to be one benign thing in my sphere at all, where I like, stay up late and pick my face or like, eat something and then go lift up my shirt to see if like, my stomach looks any different, or like, the version of me that is so quick to anger and exceeds at letting my temper ruin just about everything.
Don't you sometimes wish you believed in God? And you could just spit it all out and say "Shit man, IDK, here ya go" with like, a shrug, and move on, get an ice cream, make out with somebody. But I don't. So I spew it on the Internet like a proper asshole Millennial, still salty about this shitshow.
I just called him "Pa" and lived with him from ages 12-18. We shared a bathroom and a thin wall. At night I would smoke cigarettes out my open window and ash in an old chocolate box, and listen to him spinning records in the next room. Mostly old country. A lot of Hank Williams Sr. and Patsy Cline. That kind of thing. I would paint or write or like, try and ferment my own wine in my closet (an altogether gross endeavor, but me and Kendra still drank it).
My grandpa and I shared a purple bathroom and I became expert at drawing his insulin and flicking the bubbles out of the syringe, finding the fleshy parts of his arm to stick the needle where it would hurt the least, bandaging his wounds when he would bump into something and the Coumadin would make him bleed and bleed, speaking loudly so he could hear me, holding his arm when we walked, moving through life at a slower pace and trying to make peace with it. Made him breakfast sometimes-- he liked two vanilla sandwich cookies, a cup of black coffee made with well water, a banana, and a can of spicy hot V8. He had his own name tattooed in a ribbon-heart on his arm (when asked why: "I was thirteen and didn't have a girlfriend so I got my own name") but wrinkles made it unreadable. He was colorblind and an excellent listener. He tried to teach me how to drive stick in the pasture when I was fourteen, and I crashed the '92 pickup truck into an animal trailer.
When he was getting very close to death, I would slip him treats despite his diabetes. The last night I saw him was my eighteenth birthday; he was in the hospital and my mom made a vegan lemon cake and dyed it pink and we ate so much in the mint green hospital room and it was so good, and then I left early to go to a party with a bunch of people who aren't even my friends anymore. And then a few days later, in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, with a light snow falling, he died. That was that.
There's so much more to tell you about Walt. His marriage to Marilyn, their foster kids (my mom being the last of thirteen, the one they decided to adopt), his Air Force days, how he wore big Coke bottle glasses that made his blue eyes the size of tangerines, helping him program his flip phone, how he used to run a laundromat, the kind of aftershave he used. But not today, I am too impatient.
Despite myself, I move fast, panic fast, drink fast, cry fast. My grandpa was always calm and contemplative. It used to piss me off so much. I wanted something-- anything-- to rile him up, but it was impossible. I was an angry teenager, and I have grown into an angry woman.
Since the election, I have been so angry. I go to work and I am angry. I read poems and I am angry. I think of my relatives who voted for Donald Trump and I'm angry. I think of the half of white women who did the same and I'm angry. I look at the National Book Award winners and I'm angry. I get on Facebook and I'm angry. I get off Facebook and I'm angry. I do my job and I'm angry. I feed my cat and I'm angry. I write poems and I'm angry. I think of safety pins and I'm angry. I do yoga and I'm angry. I take walks for hours and hours and I'm angry. I'm trying to hold my anger but it is unwieldy and burning and the fact that it's unwieldy and burning makes me angry.
I don't know what to do. I've been thinking a lot of my grandpa and if he were alive what he would be thinking about all of this. When I am at my most volatile and pissed off, my mind inevitably goes to him. What would he say? Would he have voted for Trump? In my heart, I don't think so. I hope not. I don't think he would respect a man like that-- a man who's behavior you already know, and already hate or have already somehow pardoned. Whatever. I like to think my grandpa would call it like he sees it, I like to think he would see it the way I do, and I like to think this whole nightmare would have even-- maybe?-- pissed him off.
I like to think all these things, but I know they're just dreams. Like the American one. Dreams like that do nothing but gobble up space in my dumb head. And even that-- ready for the punchline?-- makes me angry.
Still don't have many words about the election. Finding myself cocooning into people and art.
So art news. My second short film "Aftermath" is live now. I'm very proud of it; it's starring the incredible Mary Young, who was a joy to work with. It was also a big technical accomplishment, as our camera wizards Chis and Dave built a brand new dolly (named Hello Dolly!) to shoot it in one take. We had some excellent players involved including Seth Adams, Adam Nicholson, Kathleen Fitzgibbon, and Ty Poppenhouse. Clare Frachey made a kick-ass song just for the film. It was the most complicated film I've made yet (aka, the more complicated of the two so far) and I'm proud of the end product. I hope you enjoy it and I'm endlessly grateful to the team that came together to work on it.
Additionally-- in September I talked about Mental Thrillness and other projects in an interview on The Studio Show, which was also a delight.
Other than that, I don't know. I've been writing a lot of letters. I hope you're taking care.
A few months ago, I read this article and it blew my entire perspective on self-care wide open. Specifically, her idea of indulge vs. nurture totally floored me. I urge you to read the article and the blog as a whole, because it's fantastic, but I'll distill her concept of "indulge vs. nurture," as I understand it, so we're all quickly on the same page.
Essentially, there are two main categories that self-care falls into: indulgent and nurturing. Much of what we think about when we think "self-care" falls into the "indulge" category. If we're in a bad mental place, we get told to "treat ourselves." I want to emphasize that I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with indulgent self-care. Sometimes, you've spread yourself too thin tending to others and responsibilities, and you do need to do something really special just for yourself-- like buying lipstick, or taking yourself to the movies (going to the movies solo is one of my favorite things, by the way).
Nurturing self-care, on the other hand, is all about maintenance. This type includes the boring shit you are wise to keep on top to keep yourself on an even keel, things like: basic hygiene, nutrition, adequate sleep, and a clean home environment. Frequently, when we are feeling depressed or anxious and we think we deserve to "treat ourselves," what we really need is to nurture ourselves. For instance, you can decide to treat yourself to some ice cream, but if you don't have a clean bowl to put it in, what's going to make you feel better isn't having ice cream-- it's doing your dishes. You know?
Again, I want to stress there's nothing wrong with indulging. It's healthy to do nice things for yourself. It's just that treating yourself more than you nurture yourself won't really help your mental health in any lasting way.
I've known about this concept for a few months, and I think about it all the time. That said, it is really difficult to implement. The truth is, nurturing self-care, most of the time, is fucking boring. Indulgent self-care, on the other hand, is fucking fun. While nurturing self-care habits will certainly make you feel better in the long run, indulgent ones come with an instant reward-- maybe short-lived, but instant nonetheless.
And god damnit, I like my things instant: my coffee, my gratification, etc! So when I'm feeling depressed or anxious, if it's the choice between self-care that's nurturing, like taking a shower, cooking something healthy, and going to bed, vs. getting takeout falafel and watching Mad Men in my underwear until my eyeballs bleed, it's a non-decision. I'm already powering up the Netflix.
I was cleaning the bejeezus out of my apartment, and I was thinking of how I could get myself to choose nurturing self-care. In the throes of a depressive episode, choosing healthy self-care is really hard. Then I realized: why not automate the choice? Why not take some of my most powerful tools for nurturing self-care and turn them into non-negotiables?
If I make a list of non-negotiables (based on nurturing self-care) that I must do every single day, then when I'm in that space where I'm feeling dark and heavy, I can run through that checklist before turning to more indulgent solutions. This way, the decision is automated, so I don't have to choose in the moment between something nurturing and something that's frankly way way more fun. If I make sure I've checked off all my self-care non-negotiables, and I'm still feeling low, THEN I can feel confident about treating myself. At least my basics are met.
Defining self-care non-negotiables is tricky, especially if you're a perfectionist or neurotic like I am. You don't want these things to become a source of stress themselves, or a really cumbersome to-do list. They just need to be things that always give you some sense of peace when they're completed, and conversely cause you a lot of background stress when they're not. This is not the place to implement some crazy workout routine, or like, instill an art habit that isn't there yet. Those things can be great, but that isn't the point of the non-negotiables. They need to be manageable and chosen carefully.
I hesitated at the idea of sharing my list, because I don't want to assert that these are the types of things that should go on yours. I just thought about what personally helps me feel calm and relaxed, and went from there. So I share in the spirit of openness, while also asserting that everyone's list will look very different (including mine, at a different time or headspace). Without further ado, my current list of daily self-care non-negotiables includes:
- Doing yoga
- Walking my dog
- Washing my dishes
- Taking a shower or bath
- Getting at least seven hours of sleep
Boring, right? Nonetheless, when I thought of the things that greatly contribute to my anxiety and depression when they aren't attended to, and conversely provide a healthy and comforting foundation of wellness when they are, it was the list above. I also understand that, if I were majorly depressed, my list would look a lot different, and that's okay. Nothing's ever set in stone.
Briefly, I'll explain my reasoning on each non-negotiable:
- Doing yoga: Of course doing yoga is excellent exercise, but like many women, I've used exercise as punishment/body hate before, and so I lean away from that reasoning. The reason doing yoga is on my daily list is because when I'm doing it, I'm so focused on the poses and my breathing that I don't have any space to worry. My mind tends to somersault through fears and anxieties, rinse and repeat. To get a little break from that, even if it's 15 minutes, does wonders for my mental state.
- Walking my dog: Walking is exercise and thus carries the same disclaimer as yoga did above, but the main reasons this is on my list are because it forces me to 1) get outside and interact with my world, and 2) shift the focus off myself and onto someone else [my dog!]. When I take my dog on a walk, it keeps him healthy and happy. Knowing I have the capacity to keep my dog healthy and happy makes me feel like I can certainly manage and advocate for my own health and happiness.
- Washing my dishes: It may sound strange to have a chore like this on my list, but my mental state has a direct correlation to the cleanliness of my apartment. If shit's a mess, so am I. Keeping my dishes clean, even though it's just one element in a clean home, helps me feel like I'm capable and in control of my surroundings.
- Taking a shower or bath: This one's a little embarrassing. Basic hygiene is another element that is directly tied to how stable I'm feeling. Simply put, when I'm really depressed, I don't shower. I could unpack that for days, as it's probably a combination of feeling unworthy or too hollow, but if I'm at least making myself get clean every day, it helps me feel like I'm above water.
- Getting at least 7 hours of sleep: This one's easy. When I'm depressed, I'm so perpetually nervous that I avoid sleep, and then being tired makes my depression and anxiety even worse, and it very quickly becomes vicious and consuming. Making sure my phone is off and I'm in bed with enough time to feel fully rested the next morning is major.
Some of these things may seem stupid, obvious, or childish to you, and that's fine. I'm not super proud I have to make myself shower every day. Sometimes it makes me feel like a little kid. But ultimately, it helps me to set these parameters around my life. It's weirdly and yet immensely rewarding when I've done everything on my list. Then, at the end of the day, I know I've at least taken care of myself a little bit, which is so essential when depression makes me feel like I don't deserve to be nurtured.
And then if, at that point, I want falafel and Don Draper, fuck off, I'm treating myself, understand?
If it becomes too painful to watch, you are allowed to turn it off. It doesn't make you a shitty American.
If someone wants to talk about it and you're just too beat, you can be polite and firm and say "I'm not going to talk about this."
If you want to tune in, just be mindful of how it's making you feel.
There's no weakness or shame in just shutting your laptop, turning off the TV, and watching some kitten videos on your phone instead. You likely already know who has your vote.
We're in the 11th hour of this election season and we're all very tired-- I know I am. So just remember that if you want to get off the ride, you can, and you can always come back when you're more rested, even if that isn't until you show up to your polling place in a month.
Don't keep watching and feel rotten.
Don't keep watching and start drinking.
Don't keep watching and start arguing with your folks on Facebook.
Watch if you want, but be mindful.
Other things you can do: go buy some groceries. Do yoga. Take your dog on a walk. Meet up with your friends. Go see a movie. Make some involved dinner. Take a bath. Stretch. Paint. Play cards. Have sex with somebody but keep the political dirty talk out of the bedroom, for once (hehehe).
I'm going to a debate-viewing party tonight, so this is mainly a self-reminder. You can be informed and a good citizen and still know where to draw the line in order to be kind to yourself. :)
I have lost my whole day to a bad hangover. On days like this, I feel like I'm being a bad dog owner because I want to just lay around and I'm very sad. I'm done drinking for awhile. My house is really messy right now. Last night ran into and had a very long talk with my ex boyfriend. I need to clean my body and my house. I'm definitely done drinking for awhile. I don't like this. I woke up and felt so heavy. I don't need help in the being depressed department, so why did I drink so much last night? Why do I drink so much sometimes? Because I guess I use it to punctuate very happy moments and very sad moments, and there were several of both last night, so I drank and drank. This is a boring story lots of twenty-somethings tell on Mondays and forget on Thursdays. "I gotta cool it on the drinking." I know all of that. I know I would be in great shape if I just picked up some of my belongings and put them where they're supposed to go, if I tidied up a little bit, if I went ahead and washed my dishes even though I don't feel like it, or if I walked the dog. I'll probably do that after I post this because I'll feel dumb about not getting my errands done due to some bad hangover. I ate feta fries today because I was hungover, and squeezed fresh lemons on them, and talked with my mom on the phone. I took an Uber to my car, which was downtown, and I was shaky and feeling really gross, and my driver who looked about seventeen told me that when his girlfriend is hungover she swears by Cherry Pepsi. My mom used to drink Wild Cherry Pepsi when she taught line dancing and I thought she was the most glamorous woman on the planet, with her long floral dresses and cowboy boots from a place called Abilene Texas and her big brown hair which she would set in hot rollers. It's so hot out, and boring, and I'm lonely and addicted to my smartphone. All week I've been working on a blog post, not this one but another one, that's better written because I've been drafting and redrafting it, but it still isn't ready and hasn't felt right and that's the frustrating part of artmaking, you know, when you feel that itch to make something and it just isn't coming out the way you want it. All these things will feel better soon. I just like to document a low moment to remind you that I am not authority on this stuff, I have all these tools and tips that make things better and sometimes I just don't use them for whatever reason, probably because I'm hungover and feel heavy. I'm done drinking for awhile because I just feel like sober Emma is generally happier and kinder to other people and is able to wake up before noon and keep her hair clean. I don't think I have a problem with alcohol, I just think sometimes I overdo it and when I do it's really fucking lame and makes me feel like a stupid 25 year old, which I am, but I don't need reminding about it.
A few years ago, I got an incredible opportunity. I had just graduated from college and was so depressed that I hardly left the house. (I talk more about that time here.) In an effort to rectify that, I took a volunteer job gardening for a Montessori preschool down the street from my apartment. I worked there a few times, digging up dead lavender plants and turning over topsoil, and then I got hired part-time as an afternoon caregiver.
By this time, I had gotten certified to substitute teach, so I would sub during the day at the public schools, get off around 3, and then go to the Montessori until 5 or 6. I loved working at the Montessori. I totally clicked with the founder and the other teachers, the kids were so smart and inquisitive, and I saw a lot of potential in the Montessori methodology.
The school was interested in expanding their services and becoming an elementary school, and they got a grant to do so. They asked me if I would be interested in getting training and certification so I could head that program and teach first through third grades. It was an incredible offer and I was floored that they wanted me in that capacity. It felt like the perfect job, to get to work with kids every day, and then go home and write. I love working with kids because you can see their progress each day-- it's tangible. I wanted to take the offer.
But I didn't.
No good reason/a million good reasons. I wasn't sure I could commit the handful of years necessary to properly establish the program. I wasn't ready to be tied down. I didn't know if I would be financially secure. I worried I wouldn't be any good at it. They wanted my ex-boyfriend to get certified as well to start the grades 3-6 program. I didn't know if we'd be together that long (spoiler: we weren't.) We said no.
A few months later, I got the job I have now and we moved away. Make no mistake: I'm happy where I'm at. I'm still working in education, although I don't interact with students directly. The work I do is worthwhile. I have made many connections and learned so much. Next month, I will have been at this job for two years. I just signed a year lease on a new apartment.
The Montessori opportunity is firmly in my rear-view. Saying I "regret" not taking that chance is inaccurate. I don't regret it. I just feel a hollow wondering. How would things be different had I done it? How would I be different? WOULD I be different?
Labor Day is a depressing holiday for me, probably because it's the death-rattle of summer, which means everything will start dying off. The cold will settle in my bones and stay there until spring. Maybe this is why I'm feeling particularly weird and sad.
Also, when I'm really sad, I feel acute guilt. I have an excellent support system. People love me and care for me. I am lucky and grateful. So I feel guilty for being sad-- for not coping well with my excellent resources and support systems. And then I feel super shitty for wheatpasting it all over the Internet. I worry people think I do this for attention, or that I'm being a downer. I don't know. I get very in my head about it.
This morning, as I got ready for work for the first time from my new home, and I tripped over unpacked boxes, and wiped away a doorframe spiderweb, and locked the door behind me, I got magnificently sad about the sameness of it all. The hallway outside of my duplex smells like the temple where my grandpa used to take me. The keys to each new apartment are pressed the same. The nosebleed I got this morning tasted like every nosebleed I have ever had. I go to therapy, I do yoga, and the next day I'm raging because I can't get my mind to quiet down. Everything I do is-- somehow, at once-- new and routine.
Do we fantasize about our unlived lives because in that version of the universe we might be different, or better, than we are in this one? Who are we kidding, anyway?
Song in My Heart by Diane Suess
If there’s pee on the seat it’s my pee,
battery’s dead I killed it, canary at the bottom
of the cage I bury it, like God tromping the sky
in his undershirt carrying his brass spittoon,
raging and sobbing in his Hush Puppy house
slippers with the backs broke down, no Mrs.
God to make him reasonable as he gets out
the straight razor to slice the hair off his face,
using the Black Sea as a mirror when everyone
knows the Black Sea is a terrible mirror,
like God is a terrible simile for me but like
God with his mirror, I use it.
We've always had two sides of us: our external persona and then our true selves. You could argue this is probably essential to participating in any kind of society: you have to play by set rules (basic hygiene, manners, constructed social expectations) because otherwise we're just a bunch of stinky, lonely animals. Those rules you play by (since they aren't inherent) are therefore learned skills, and arguably, our external personas.
But with the advent of the internet and social media, that divide between the true self vs. the projected persona-self is exaggerated to caricature-like extremes. If I look at my life objectively, I see I am not hero or villain-- I'm a neutral protagonist. But if I look at the persona of myself I have crafted and presented to the world, I see that I not only consistently paint myself as the hero, but I also make other people or events (that are objectively neutral) to look antagonistic. Why do I do this? To polish up the persona I'm presenting.
Do you find yourself misrepresenting your life in order to build your brand? By "your brand" I mean the persona you present to the world.
Think telling white lies to make yourself more interesting. Think sharing a story from a decidedly slanted perspective to make yourself seem victimized or angelic, therefore justifying any (however objectively irrational) overreaction.
So what's the solution? I don't think it's unhealthy to have an inner life that is private and wholly yours, but I do think that a preoccupation with public persona is a slippery slope. Like think of when the scales fully shift, and you're a Kardashian, whose public persona (you could argue) completely overtakes any inner life. Not dissing the Kardashians-- I think they're harbingers for the way we're headed. Maybe?
But where's the happy medium? How do you present yourself thoughtfully and honestly while maintaining your own inner life?
How do you balance both without being deeply lonely?
1. Resolve that you're going to quit saying "sorry" when you're not really sorry.
2. Interact with another human.
3. Become cripplingly self-conscious with something innocuous you said, begin to sweat.
4. It comes out of your mouth like lava: SORRY
5. Internal monologue: GOD DAMNIT EMMA
6. WOW IT'S BEEN AN HOUR AND HERE YOU ALREADY SAID IT
7. CAN YOU NOT FINISH ANYTHING IN THIS LIFE?
8. Resolve again-- this time with feeling!-- that you're going to stop saying sorry.
9. Successfully omit "sorry" from your vocab for a length of time, typically 12-48 hours.
10. Internal monologue: I wonder if Dave thought I was being Really Bitchy the other day when I didn't say sorry when our schedules couldn't align. And maybe my coworker Bill?? And NOOOOOO, what about that old lady at Kroger?! She probably thinks I'm the poster child for the decline of decency... and shit! And do my parents think I'm a good daughter since I didn't say "sorry" when I wasn't available to visit? Maybe I'm NOT a good daughter! I'm probably NOT at all, WHY DO I EVEN BOTHER
11. Go on "sorry" bender for 48-96 days. Record every instance of unnecessary sorryspeak in yr journal with tally marks.
12. Existential despair.
13. Rinse & Repeat
Haven't posted in a long time because I don't feel like I have a grip on anything anyway, and I don't mean that in an off-kilter or depressing way, I'm just being real in the fact that I'm not on top of my shit and I'm just letting myself not be. I'm not keen on posturing as some authority figure on keeping mental illness issues on an even keel because that isn't authentic to my experience. Sometimes you learn a lot and implement a lot and make so much progress but other times you do what you fucking can and it's hard and you're only treading water.
So that's this summer. I've been busy. My friends and I made a short film. I joined up with a generous, welcoming art community. I've been writing. I got a new job. I got a dog. I've been feeling really lit the fuck up, which has been lovely, on one hand, because I've been feeling inspired and creative. I love it. But that mania can swerve into treacherous territory really quickly, and it has been doing its fair share of that too. I've been coping with some weird health issues. I've been smoking cigarettes again. I haven't been sleeping much. Drinking a lot. Super overwhelmed at my new job, even though I love it. Feeling like I'm forever falling behind.
Last night I went to my mom's to pick up my dog and before I knew it I'm sitting at her kitchen table at one in the morning eating banana creme pie and crying about how stressed I've been. And my mom's just like "You need to slow down."
So. I'm sitting here with greasy hair and yesterday's mascara and a messy house, feeling like a girlshell, and I'm trying to let myself be a little all over the place without wallowing in self-pity/doubt/existential doom. I guess that's the balance I've been trying to strike lately-- how do you let yourself feel your dark feelings completely without wallowing and being self-destructive? How do you ride the wave of a fast sexy summer and not drown?
It's hard. Aren't you worldsick? I fucking am. I don't believe in America anymore. I don't know if I ever did. I'm starting to think justice is a pipe dream. "Freedom" is a safeword people use to keep killing other people. Dude, Donald Trump is probably going to be our next president. It's like some Second Coming shit.
I guess I can take comfort, then, in the fact that I'm not the only thing that's messy. Everything is messy right now. Everything is fucked up. That's the only redeeming part of chaos, right? It levels the field. Great things can be spun in the wake of a storm, but to get those raw materials, old things must first get ripped apart. So I'm just buckling in, I guess, and trying to ride out this ruthless changing.
Month of Courage was a success for me in ways I didn't anticipate. Not only did "putting myself out there" reap benefits I wasn't prepared for, but it also pushed me past my comfort zone in new and exciting ways. During April, I rebooted my editing business, generated gobs of new poetry, blogged frequently, socialized often, and wrote and directed a short film with some very cool people. All of these things were output driven. I was going out and "doing the thing."
I was trying (subconsciously, probably) to keep that momentum going into May and keep working on projects, saying "yes" to things that scared me, and really "going for it."
But I've found myself struggling in the past week or so, because the poems aren't coming, the obligations are starting to really feel like obligations, and I'm more sensitive than usual. I'm tired. I've got to pump the breaks.
For a long time, I adhered to a narrow definition of a vibrant creative life. I thought that I needed to be in a state of constant creation to be a "real" artist. If I wasn't writing every single day, I wasn't a writer. To this end, I would set up daily routines (that were, in hindsight, overkill), thrive for a week or a month, inevitably falter, and then berate myself for not living up to the creative ideal I had shoved down my own throat.
However, I've learned that I am absolutely a real artist-- it's just that my creative process is not a linear constant-- it's more of a tide, ebbing in and out. In The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron likens the creative process to a well. Sometimes it is full, and you draw from it heavily, but then, the waterline gets low, and you must do the less lauded but equally essential work of filling it back up again.
I think this also draws back to our patriarchal culture model. The idolization of that constant, hammering creative output is the masculine side of creation. It makes sense that we would ignore the more feminine, intuitive underbelly to that process, wherein you hunker down, listen, and be receptive to what you hear. Where you forage small things instead of going in for one big kill.
It also ties to capitalism. We're obsessively trying to up our Gross Domestic Product. Worth is directly tied to production. You cannot reap profit from stillness. You grind, grind, grind, and never pause. That's why we feel guilty on days off if we don't "do anything." Breaks are not a worthy part of this model.
But taking a break is sometimes all you can do. So I'm scaling back this month, and doing the regenerative work of filling the well back up. I'm not going to feel guilty when the words aren't flowing, when I don't feel like going out, when my body wants more sleep. I'm going to honor this phase of nesting and quiet. I'm going to refocus from output to input-- what can I do to nourish and nurture? How can I be still? How can I be gentle? How I can I feed myself? How can I honor the waiting?
Do you ever feel this craving-- to just hide away and put yourself back together? Do you honor that tenderness?
My first is at fifteen, slinging neon syrups at a shaved ice truck. I make $5.50 an hour under the table. I swat mosquitos while grabbing ice blocks, spin that "Wildflowers" album on repeat (a gift from my first boyfriend). I watch teenagers spike their slushies on the picnic tables under the attached canopy. Sweep empty rum bottles from the gravel at closing. Break down the machines and dunk them thrice through the sanitizing sinks. My grandpa Walt picks me up from my shifts and lets me drive the truck home for my permit hours.
Then I'm sixteen, vegetarian, working at Kentucky Fried Chicken, which is funny. The polo shirt and pants I wear are heavy with grease, the floors slick with it. I am miserable just because I've been reading Howl, but everyone I work with is really nice. I spend my breaks drinking chocolate milk and smoking on a milk crate behind the drive-thru. I am in love with someone much older than me. My boss makes me cry when he scolds me for looking sad. I keep my uniform crumpled under the glove compartment.
Here I am, seventeen, working in the kitchen at the local hospital. I work here with one of my best friends, assembling cafeteria trays for patients and cleaning them when they come back. When the plates come through the conveyor belt they're clean but hot as hell. I grow callouses and grab them quick. One of the cooks is a raging bitch and knows it. Still, I buy some Avon jewelry from her, and when I pick it up from her house she is sitting on her porch in a good mood.
When I am eighteen I am still working at the hospital, but I pick up another two jobs. The first is in retail, at a successful chain, and it is exhausting but oddly satisfying. Who knew selling jeans could be so genuinely rewarding? My bosses are very sweet and even sympathetic when I dye my hair black. I get my first credit card and go to town.
The third job I pick up is a nighttime custodian gig at a paper plant. I report to work after getting off from the other two jobs. I meet another custodian there, who is a recovering meth addict, and we split the building in two to get it clean fast. The other custodian wears her blonde hair in one long braid, which she shoves under a baseball cap. She punctuates long silences with a well-told story a few times a week. She takes no bullshit from me and has excellent character judgment. A man who works at the plant sees me cleaning windows and starts staying late to visit with me. He doesn't talk much about himself but asks me a lot of questions. One night I wheel my trash can into the conference room and he's sitting there in the dark, waiting for me, drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup. "That man is a pervert," the other custodian says after the shift, over cigarettes. "But you shouldn't roll your shorts up like that neither."
Then the getting off ritual where I rev up my red car and light a cigarette and turn up the radio and drive maybe to the gas station to buy cigarettes or Big Gulps or weird cock rings as a gag or maybe to my friend's house where I wait outside with my car in neutral so her mom doesn't hear her sneak out or maybe to a boy's driveway where we get stoned and make out and listen to Strawberry Jam or maybe to Taco Bell and then home to watch Westerns with my grandpa, that is, before he died, and my friends went away to school, and I moved out, because after all that I just drove.
We can work with that! Use this Very Helpful Worksheet to troubleshoot the root causes of your bad vibes and get you feeling better fast.
Let's begin with the basics. Can you recall the last time you:
- stood up and stretched your legs?
- drank a glass of water?
- took three deep breaths?
- ate something healthy?
- got some good sleep?
If you feel like one of the above is lacking, address it and DO NOT PASS GO BEFORE YOU DO.
Okay, now that those Basic Needs are addressed, let's continue. Look around you.
- Are your immediate surroundings messy or cluttered?
Maybe pick up and put away five things.
- Have you been scrolling on social media, comparing yourself to others, feeling generally worldsick?
Turn off your phone for the next hour.
- Have you been isolating yourself?
Call (don't text) a friend or family member on your next break just to say hi.
- Have you been hard on yourself?
Forgive yourself, then pass each thought through the filter "Would I say this to my best friend?"
-Do you feel overwhelmed?
Make a to-do list for today. Limit it to three things and start on the first one.
-Do you still feel lost/tangled/garbage?
Can you make some art about it?
If you're still in a bad mood, try letting people know. Your community cares and will catch you.