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writers

Guest Posts, pandemic, writing

When The Smoke Clears

March 24, 2021

By Joanell Serra

Early one morning in February 2020, I found a spot on a bench in downtown Oaxaca and scribbled in my journal. Sunshine, my personal drug of choice, spilled like a pool across the cobblestones. I was meeting nine people in an hour to go on a temple-climbing adventure, followed by a Mezcal tasting. I knew every minute of the day’s schedule because I had created it. I was hosting my first international retreat, women had flown in from both coasts to experience this magical city with me.

I can’t believe it’s really happening, I wrote. It’s almost ridiculous to be so happy in February.

Already a few days into the trip, my seasonal depression had ebbed upon arrival like mist burning off a lake. My asthma also cleared up, my migraines became infrequent and even my degenerating hip complained less.  Winter blues and chronic pain paled in the light of Mexican sunshine.

For years, winters were a long slushy slide into despair, until I came to understand that along with medication, meditation and therapy, winter travel was crucial to my mental health. I shifted my career for more flexibility and for the last five winters I’d travelled to sunny locations whenever possible. It was a much healthier option than increasing my medications or slipping into a dark place. This retreat was a high point, combining work, community, and Southern travel during my most vulnerable time of year.

A month later, the contrast from that blissful week in Oaxaca was stark. I contracted COVID-19 on a plane from NYC back to California. Because of the medical providers’ lack of knowledge, my asthma and poor testing, things spiraled. I was both sicker than I’d ever been and told it “definitely isn’t Covid.” (But it was.)

I landed in the ER one afternoon as my oxygen was low, where I was treated like a leper with a bomb strapped to my back. I sat alone, surrounded by yellow danger tape. I knew if I got better, I needed to do something creative and impactful in response to this experience.

Fortunately steroids, antibiotics and TLC from my family brought me through.

Weeks later, I was given the opportunity to co-edit an anthology titled (Her)oics, about women’s pandemic experiences around the country. Grateful, I jumped in.

As the spring and summer unrolled, things got progressively worse in the world, while we managed a new order in our own house. Both my husband and I were suddenly home full time. Our youngest joined us, after his employer laid off all his employees, and a second son and his partner, having escaped Manhattan, moved into our extra room.

There was much to be thankful for—I had recovered and no one else got sick. And while the house was crowded, it offered enough outdoor space to make it work. We tried to enjoy long dinners together on summer nights, marveling at the concurring blessings and hardships.

But the news of increasing racial violence brought new distress, as we collectively tried to protect our youngest son, a young man of color, from the pain of feeling “othered” both locally and nationally. Our middle child, who lives nearby, was fighting things off with a compromised immune system and the oldest was a public school teacher. Each choice we made as a family seemed fraught with danger.

I felt like I was juggling swords on a seesaw. As long as I stayed centered, nothing dropped. But the summer weather was my ballast, and everything changed when the fires arrived in Northern California.

Supernatural, Mars-like and apocalyptic. It was hard to find words for our sky, a thick orange haze from morning to night, with no real sense of time. Being in Sonoma, every whiff of smoke brought back a barrage of fire memories from 2017 and 2018. My phone beeped incessantly with a “Red Flag” alerts and the the air quality index stayed in one zone, “dangerous.” We boxed up our photos and valuables, and kept a suitcase packed by the door in case we needed to run.

“Have shoes and keys ready,” became my before-bed mantra to the family.

Despondency descended.  My work as a therapist became increasingly challenging, and my writing stalled.  I pictured my words floating off the page like ashes, no substance to pin them to the page. What does a seasonally depressed person do, if their “happy” season goes up in smoke?

Of course my asthma kicked up badly, and when I called my neurologist due to increasing migraines, he wasn’t surprised. “We’ve all been inhaling toxic smoke for weeks.”

Through all this, I worked on the (Her)oics anthology. In a sincere effort to be inclusive to diverse experiences, I offered free online workshops before the submission deadline. I worked closely with emerging writers on their pieces, sometimes through three or four drafts. The first piece to make me cry was about a family with three teens, grieving the loss of their father in quarantine. The first to make me laugh was a woman announcing she planned to survive the pandemic with weed and masturbation.  My heart broke for the woman who could not see her son, who lived in a group home. My anger rose as I read about a writer in Arkansas going to work every day in person, despite her diabetes, in a state that would not mandate masks. My anger turned to pride as she revised the essay, and shaped it into a powerful piece which we included.

Every submission moved and inspired me. I noticed I wasn’t as depressed on the days I met with writers and that my sense of isolation faded as I connected to “strangers” through their stories. I woke with a sense of expectation, eager to see the new submissions.

One writer, Parnaz Fouratain, submitted an essay titled Writing, and other Uncertainties. Her last lines stunned me, because they spoke for me, for this project. “It is a time to be awake, to see the world, perhaps, the way a child sees it, uncertain, bewildered, open. And when this time passes, and the peace and silence returns, the words will come, and we will all tell our stories.”

Eventually the fires abated. We had made it through another fire season, still standing. And to my relief, I’d fought off a surprise attack of depression, not with travel, or sun lamps or increased Prozac. My medication was listening to women’ stories. This was the newest antidote in my arsenal against SAD: the words of other women, the stories of displaced souls, the bold and naked truth of heroines. In my bleakest winters, Prozac and therapy had gotten me through. In this season of raging fires, I drank instead from a fountain of truths.

Joanell Serra MFT lives and writes in Northern California. An award winning playwright, novelist and short story writer, she has published stories in Eclectica, Blue Lake Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Poydras Review and elsewhere. Her Debut novel, The Vines We Planted (Wido, 2018) was a Los Commadres Latinx Book of the Month Club Pick. She is co-editor of the (Her)oics Anthology, a collection of women’s essays about their pandemic experiences. out March, 2021 with Regal House Publishing. Twitter @Joanell, Facebook and Insta: Joanellserraauthor. 

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This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Converse-Station, Guest Posts, writing

The Converse-Station: Jane Ratcliffe Interviews Caroline Leavitt

February 21, 2021
coma

My first introduction to Caroline Leavitt was several years ago in a private writers’ Facebook group where members were raving about not only Leavitt’s chops as a writer, and her generous wisdom as an editor, but the seemingly boundless magnitude of her heart. I was intrigued. Slowly I began reading my way through her work and was spellbound by the precision of her language, the propulsive thunder of her plots, her vivid, particular insights, and the way tenderness haloed every cell of her worlds—even the tough stuff.

All of this carries through in her latest novel With or Without You. On the brink of a comeback, rock musician Simon encourages his girlfriend Stella to celebrate a little too hard. Stella, a nurse who knows better than to mix drugs with alcohol, does so anyway, driven by a yearning to revive a love and life that that had long been lost to her. Rather than a revival, Stella first slips into a months-long coma and then comes the other side with a whole new set of yearnings, ones that surprise her, along with a staggering artistic talent that forces her to honor this new version of herself even if it means she has to leave behind things she loves.

Leavitt is no stranger to comas. After giving birth to a healthy baby boy, a rare blood disorder caused her to hemorrhage so severely she was put into a medically induced coma for three weeks and underwent numerous extensive surgeries. Given memory blockers to ease the trauma, Leavitt spent several more months in hospital before finally returning home to her husband and son with her dramatically altered body.

This isn’t Leavitt’s first time channeling her experiences into her work. 2003’s Coming Back to Mes Molly’s experience more closely aligns with Leavitt’s. Slipping into a coma after giving birth, she too remembers nothing. Leavitt found this novel actually fed her triggers rather than provided any solace. So Leavitt decided to write about a woman whose experience was the opposite of hers; a woman whose life was actually improved by the coma. And hence Stella was born.

Caroline Leavitt and I chatted over Zoom about quantum physics, the miracle of our bodies, and what it means to be healed. As it turns out, the rumors were true, her heart and wisdom do seem to know no bounds.

 Jane: Like Stella, you were in a coma for three weeks. As you were coming out of it, you had the distinct impression that “This is like The Matrix and my other life was a lie.”  Stella also wonders if “everything she had lived before was a fake world.” I found that really fascinating. Could you could talk about this experience of these dual realities?

Caroline: Quantum physics says that time is a man-made construct, and that eventually it’s going to stop. I remember when I woke up in the middle of my coma, I had this sensation that everything before this was not real. And this is real. I felt that I was in a high glass, steel and concrete building. I could hear a laugh track and I thought, I’m in a TV show and there are people walking around. It was very vivid. As vivid as me sitting here and talking to you. I just felt I can’t move but I have to. This is a nightmare and I have to get out of it. And I didn’t know if anybody from my other world was going to be with me. I was terrified. And then a woman came over to me, I guess she saw that I was awake, and gave me a shot. I went under again.

For Stella, I wanted it to be a little different. I did want her to move away from her past world into a new world. But I didn’t want it to be as traumatic as it had been for me. So I did a lot of research. I talked to Joseph Clark at the University of Cincinnati and he told me that when people are in coma your brain is firing and rewiring, and things are changing. He said they don’t know exactly what happens, but some people come out with totally different personalities. Angry people can come out very peaceful. And a lot of people come out with sudden new talents. There’ve been cases of people who’d never spoken a language and they’re speaking fluent Mandarin. There was one woman who asked for a violin repeatedly. And her family said, “Why? You don’t play violin.” They finally got her one and she was a virtuoso and started playing concert halls.

They don’t know where that comes from. It could be from cellular memory from generations ago. Or it could be changes in the brain. Whatever it is, I thought, that’s incredible. And it made me wonder what else the brain can do. We construct our realities and we live in those constructed realities. But what if there’s something different?

Jane: Stella doesn’t go back to her former life. Did you return to your former life?

Caroline: Not totally. It’s very funny for me to say but the coma was a kind of gift to me because it really changed me in a lot of ways. I used to be a very shy introvert, and I became much more extroverted. I still was on all these funky meds for a year and they made me look really bizarre. I was on massive doses of steroids. I was huge, like a circus lady, and my hair fell out. My skin turned gray; even if I put makeup on, makeup on gray skin is very weird. We had no money and our medical bills were in the millions. My husband had lost his main gig because he was spending too much time with me and our baby. I had a friend who worked for Victoria’s Secret and I used to write catalog copy. I called her and said, “Do you have any work for me? We’re so desperate.” With those catalogs you can get ten or fifteen thousand just for writing about blue sweaters. So she said, “Yeah, I have a project for you. Come on in.” And I said, “Look, I can’t come in because I’ve been really sick. I’m okay now, but I look a lot different.” She laughed, and said, “Don’t worry about that, that doesn’t matter.”

So I wear a muumuu, that was the only thing that fit me. And I put a kerchief around my hair. You could tell something was wrong. I tried to put on makeup and it looked terrible. I got on the subway, and immediately there were four teenage girls all highly fashionable, and they were snickering at me. I got to Victoria’s Secret and everybody there is twenty-years old and beautiful, with rivers of hair and glowing skin and tight little dresses. And here I am in a muumuu and kerchief. As my friend came out, I saw her face drop. She walked over to me holding work in her hand and said, “I’m so sorry, I cancelled the project. I should have told you, but best of luck and blah, blah.”

I remember walking out and my husband, Jeff, was waiting for me. I was really upset. And Jeff said, “You know what, fuck them.” We were walking by a store and there was this skinny, little sundress. And Jeff said, “Do you like that dress?” And I said, “Yeah, but I can’t wear that. My arms are too big.” And he said, “Yes, you can. I bet you’ll look great in it.” So he talked me into going in there. And I bought the dress. And I wore it. And every time I said, “My arms are flapping,” he’d say, “no, they’re not. You look fine.” When people looked at me, he would look at them and they’d back off. That changed me. It’s really hard not to be sucked into what people look like especially in New York, but after that day I pulled out of that. I began to realize not only doesn’t it matter, it’s wrong.

What I started to do is when I would walk in the streets, I made it a point of finding someone who looked like they really needed a compliment. Usually, it was old ladies who had taken the trouble to dress nicely. I would walk by them and say, “Oh, you look really nice.” And they would get radiant. And I thought, well, that’s much better than walking around worrying about whether you’re wearing something that the New York City fashionistas are going to approve of.

The other way that the coma change changed me is I have a real sense that any moment anything can happen. It can be something good. It can be something bad. So I’ve told myself that the moments that I have left, I’m going to be the kindest I can, work as hard as I can, be as loving as I can. And not worry about the stuff that I’ve always obsessed about, things like fame, and who likes me and doesn’t like me. All this kind of stuff that I feel is ridiculous now. And I’ve become calmer. I used to be upset about everything. In that way, it’s been it was a real gift for me.

Jane: Did your experience leave you a more empathetic person? It sounds like it did. Or did if it leave you more fearful in anyway?

Caroline: No, I’m not afraid of anything anymore. I used to always worry about what should I say and if I say something wrong are people going to think I’m stupid or whatever. When people are showing me that they’re sad or something’s terrible, in the past I would try to rush in and fix it. Now I rush in to listen. I think a lot of times people just want you to bear witness and just be there.

Jane: Both you and Stella have the experience of feeling disconnected from your bodies. What is your relationship like with your body today? Did the coma strength it or weaken it?

Caroline: When I was in the coma, they didn’t know what I had, they just knew I was filling up with blood. So they did these five emergency operations. Nobody thought I was going to survive so they really made a mess of my stomach; they cut muscles, my belly button that was over on the right. I have scars up here. And scars across here. And I’ve indentations from the drains. When I got home, I had to learn how to walk and do all this stuff. But I was so happy that I was here, and I had survived. And there was my baby. So I began to look at my stomach differently. I could never wear the tight clothes I’d worn before because my stomach is sort of triangular. But I began to see it as a medal of honor.

A few years passed and the doctor said, “If you wanted to repair your stomach, you could.” And I thought about it, and I realized I didn’t want to because this is the body that got me through what it got me through. I look at these scars and I see badges of honor. My husband has been great about it. He will look at those scars and say they’re beautiful.

Jane: I love your husband.

Caroline: Oh, he’s wonderful. Even when I was bloated and had no hair, he always made me feel beautiful and desirable. And that things were going to be okay. And that that helped a lot.

Jane: America is living through such tumultuous and traumatic times now. Has what you’ve lived through provided you with any particular coping skills for times like these?

Caroline: It has actually, because I know that feeling of fear and worry over what’s going to happen next. And I have learned that you have to stay in the moment and not project too much. I had a nurse I loved when I was in the hospital. She came in when I was panicking because they wouldn’t let me go home; they kept saying you have to another three weeks and then another three weeks. And this nurse came in in the middle of the night when I was really upset, and she said, “I’m going to give you a gift. What you have to tell yourself is start small. Do you think you can get through the next ten minutes?” And I said, “Yeah, probably.” She said, “Okay, so that’s all you’re going to do. You’re going to take life at bite sized and once you get through the next ten minutes you going to acknowledge that and then get through the next ten after that.” So that’s what I do now. I don’t want to ruin the moment I have now, by going into a fantasy about what it’s going to be like, if I or someone I love gets COVID.

I’ve had enough terrible trauma in my life that I know what can work and what can help. And I also know a little bit more about how to help others. As much as people don’t want to go through these terrible things, it really helps to be a better person in a lot of ways.

Jane: You wrote an essay about being in a coma for The Daily Beast, at the end of it you write: “And in the end, creating her [Stella], writing her experience, made all the difference for me. In the end, that was what healed me.” Can you talk about how this happened? And what does being healed mean to you?

Caroline: Well, that’s another great question. The first novel I wrote about my coma, which was directly after the coma, was very much based on me. It was sort of dark, because I was feeling dark at the time. There wasn’t a lot of hope at the end of the book, it just ended with Molly, the woman who was like me, not knowing if she was going to get better. And I didn’t feel better after writing that book.

When I wrote Stella, because she actually was better in so many ways, I just felt like thanking her, because her journey made me feel a whole lot better, and made me feel that tragedy is not always tragedy, because there were things that come out of it, that can give you better things and richer things. And I just loved her so much. It really felt to me like she was leading me by the hand saying, “look, this is okay, now. You went through that, but there are new things, and let’s move on and look on to the future.” When I finished the novel, I felt like, Oh, I don’t have to write about coma ever again. And that was kind of a nice thing, because it made me feel Okay, I’ve processed that. Now I can write something else.

Jane: So is that what being healed feels like to you, that you don’t have to keep processing that experience anymore?

Caroline: Yes, because I would keep processing and processing and thinking about it and worrying about it. And things would set me off. If I saw a soda that I had when I was in the hospital, I would panic. And now, the only vestiges of the coma that I have left is that I don’t like going to sleep. I’m very afraid of that.

Jane: Well, that actually ties in with my next question. Stella develops an understandable fear of going to sleep because she’s afraid she won’t wake up again. I think post-illness PTSD is more common than we realize. Do you have thoughts on this?

Caroline: Your body definitely remembers. I had gone to a therapist, and I felt like my mind was okay, but my body kept reacting and reacting and reacting. There’s muscle memory. It’s not like your mind; you can’t talk it away. So then it just becomes a question of how I was going to handle it. Writing about Stella helped a lot. And as I said, the only thing that I’m still not quite sure what to do with is the whole thing about going to sleep. I’m very afraid that I’m going to go to sleep and I’m not going to wake up. The only way I get around that is if I can make myself so exhausted, I will sleep. I don’t want to take sleeping pills. I tried melatonin. It didn’t really work. I tried wine that didn’t really work. Plus, I woke up feeling terrible. So it’s a process. I always think everything has a cost: happy things, sad things. The happy thing is that, okay, I’m alive. Nobody thought I would live. Twenty-four years later, I’m fine. And I’m healthy. And if the cost is that I have to grapple with this fear of being asleep, then I’m going to deal with it.

Jane: Growing up, Stella’s parents had been “bohemians” and hadn’t provided her with much security, often not having enough money for the electric bill. As an adult, Stella became a nurse because “she had never wanted to be that scared again.” Yet, of course, she is that scared again; possibly more so. What are your thoughts on safety and security? Are such things possible? If not, how do we stay sane amidst the fluctuations?

Caroline: That’s a really good question. For me, it comes down to stopping the panic before it starts. It’s actually something I learned in cognitive therapy. You can’t catastrophize. Say you don’t have money for the rent. And you say, “Okay, I’m going to get a job to make sure I have steady income.” And then that job fails. You can start catastrophizing and think, “I’m never going to get another job, and I’m never going to be happy.” I try to be in the moment and say, “Well, has that happened yet?” The answer is usually no. “Has it ever happened in your life that you’ve never been able to get a job and that you are on the verge of being homeless?” No. “Do you have skills?” Yes. “So you could get a job if you wanted to.” Yes. It’s a series of practical questions that I ask myself so I don’t fly off the handle.

Jane: Libby, Stella’s friend and doctor, ruminates about a plane trip where a man had suffered a severe asthma attack. She rushed to help him, only to be pushed aside in favor of a male paramedic. And during her hospital rounds, she faces daily misogyny. Despite strides forward, this is a common experience for women in most professions. And now during the pandemic, with so many children home, women are having to set aside their careers to keep the home front running. What was it like to write a character like Libby who is brilliant and capable and yet undermined simply for being a woman?

Caroline: I loved writing Libby. I talked to a lot of female doctors because I wanted to be sure that this still happened and they had story upon story upon story where every female doctor has to be twice as good as their male counterparts. A lot of people would say, “I want a real doctor,” when a woman doctor would come in. The women would say, “I am a real doctor. Do you want to see my credentials?” It didn’t matter whether they had gone to Harvard med school. People always preferred the males.

It’s in every profession. It’s less so in the literary profession, but it’s still there. If you write about a domestic drama, then it’s women’s fiction. But if a man writes about a domestic drama, then he’s Jonathan Franzen and it’s brilliant and look how well he knows women. And he doesn’t know women at all. It’s just a male version of what a woman is.

I think it’s a constant battle for women to keep saying, “you’re wrong, and we’re going to keep going forward and sooner or later, all these bad, stupid feelings will die out and women will prevail.” It’s terrible in medicine. Women doctors are not given the opportunities that male doctors are. People who are the chiefs of staff are male, male, male, male. I wanted to write about that.

Jane: Listening to you, I’m thinking how we’re so thrilled about Kamala, and it is thrilling. But we haven’t even had a woman President yet. We’re thrilled just to get to Vice President.

Caroline: I know, I know. The scary thing is when you think of somebody like Hillary Clinton, who could have been president, there were a lot of women still who weren’t ready to accept that. My sister and my mom, both did not like Hillary. And I kept saying, “Why not?” And it boiled down to, she’s too strong. And I said, “Well, don’t you want a strong woman?” Or they’d say, “She’s not nice.”

Jane: Look who we ended up with! Not nice! Ugh.

Caroline: I know. It’s so bizarre. So there’re a lot of women who do not help that at all. I got to know the nurses really well at the hospital, and I loved them. And a lot of them would tell me that they were the ones who really knew the patients. And they were the ones that really advise the doctors. I would say, “Well, do the doctors listen to you?” And they would say, “if it’s a woman doctor, always. If it’s a male doctor, they would get upset, ruffled feathers about it.” And I thought, Wow, that’s really ridiculous to have that going on now, but it does.

Jane: The more Stella embraces her new talent of painting, the more her psychic abilities awaken. Do you think we all have these abilities and have lost touch with them?

Caroline: Because I believe in quantum physics, I don’t think there’s anything really woo-woo about talented psychics who have intuition, or can read things, or can tell certain things. I truly think that thoughts are energy, thoughts are out there in some form, and talented psychics can pull that out and see it. And I didn’t want Stella’s talent to be seen as anything woo-woo. I wanted her to be seen as, well, her brain has changed and maybe she can go into a parallel universe and tell what’s going on, or she’s just more intuitive. People don’t listen to their intuition. There’re a lot of times when you have a gut feeling about something and you don’t follow it, but if you do, then that can be opened up.

I’ve had moments in my life where I’ve known things. When I was really young, I was engaged to this guy, and I used to tell my friends. “I know he’s going to die.” And they would say, “Oh, come on, what are you talking about?” I knew he was going to fall off his couch and die. My friends would say, “You’re ridiculous.” The night before he died, I had a dream that was really disturbing, and I told him about it. He said, “Oh, you’re just nervous about the wedding. We’re getting married in two weeks.” And the next day, he died. He had a heart attack and fell off the couch. So I kept thinking, How did I know that? I mean, that seems like a little close. But maybe it was in the atmosphere, and I was able to pull it out.

Jane: Even as Stella evolves into a more independent, creative, and true-to-herself woman, she longs for who she used to be, who, in part, was someone living her life to please others. It’s almost as if she feels guilty for leaving behind the people who weren’t truly supporting her. I think women in general struggle with this, even if it doesn’t involve an illness.

Caroline: You know, as soon as you said that, I thought, oh my god did I do that and then I realized I most certainly did. I grew up in a family where I was the people pleaser and the fixer of the family. I was the Pollyanna and it was really important to me that everybody be happy, and everybody be loving, everybody liked each other. My sister had this terrible personality change when she turned seventeen. She became very hostile to me to the point of viciousness. I went to my therapist said, “What can I do for her? What can I do for her?” And the therapist said, “Well, you know what, you might have to do something for yourself, which is to separate yourself from that viciousness. Just say something like, I love you, I’m here, but I’m going to live a happy life. And now the happy life might not include you.” And that’s what I’ve had to do. It was a terrible decision, but I feel much better, because I’m not getting screaming phone calls. I’m not getting things that I’ve sent her returned to me all ripped up. But I do feel a yearning that like, Oh, if only I could help her because that’s what women are trained to do. But sometimes you have to realize that you have to save yourself and live your own life. I’m not harming her life. I’m just saving mine.

Jane: The novel ends on such a positive note. Toward the end, Stella says, “We all have multitudes inside of us, each of them young with hope. Any moment, something amazing can happen.” Do you share Stella’s optimism?

Caroline: I do. Because I have seen myself change. It wasn’t easy. I grew up intensely shy and fearful. I would never tell anything dark or any secret. When I went on book tour, I had to learn to speak to people. I began to carry talismans. I had red cowboy boots, because I thought any woman who wears that is kickass and brave. And when I wore them, I felt that way. And I began to experiment more. I would tell people deep emotional truths that embarrassed me just to see what would happen. I learned that people opened up more to me when I did that, and I became more and more emotionally honest.

I started writing more essays saying, this is what happened to me; this is this is the truth of it. And it felt so freeing, because my mother would always say, don’t talk about family, never say anything bad about your sister or your father. And I thought, well, how can I heal if I don’t mention that? And I found that writing about it made me feel more connected to the world. And I also feel that’s the way I want to live. And I don’t know what else I’m going to do or be, but I love the feeling of being brave. I do feel that we can change. We can have these amazing lives. It does take work, and it does take pain. But it’s like in writing, you learn to sort of like the pain because of what it can teach you.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Cruel Beautiful World, Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, Girls In Trouble, Coming Back To Me, Living Other Lives, Into Thin Air, Family, Jealousies, Lifelines, Meeting Rozzy Halfway. Her essays have appeared in Salon, Psychology Today, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Modern Love, among others.

Jane Ratcliffe’s work has appeared in The Sun Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; Creative Nonfiction; Longreads; Guernica; Vogue; New England Review, and The Believer; among other publications. She holds an MFA from Columbia University. She lives in Michigan with two cats and a dog.

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Verge, by Lidia Yuknavitch, is out in paperback. These short stories will grip your heart and mind.  The writing is sharp and the empathetic portraits of broken people will stay with you long after you finish the collection.

If you haven’t already, pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Books, Guest Posts

Strung Out: Prologue

February 13, 2020
recovery, drugs

A note from Angela And Jen: Erin Khar has a spectacular book coming out next week and has graciously shared the prologue with us so we can share it with you. Enjoy this excerpt and preorder the book. Trust us, this is one everyone will be talking about.

By Erin Khar

Prologue
October 2015

 “Mom, did you ever do drugs?”

The words of my twelve-year-old son, Atticus, lingered in the space between us. A car horn from the busy street outside could be heard from our fourth-floor apartment in Greenwich Village, punctuating the moment. Parts of myself, other selves, past selves, collided headlong into who I’d become—a mother, a wife, a writer, an advice columnist.

At that moment, I wanted time to stop. I wanted Atticus to remain too young to understand the perils of drug addiction. I know how drug use can obliterate a life; I didn’t want any part of it to touch him. I wanted to protect him from the harsh realities of the opioid crisis that is ravaging our country. But this impulse to look away, to avoid confronting the opioid crisis and pretend it’s not happening, is the very thing that keeps us in danger. How can we recover as families, as a nation, and create a healthier space for our children if we don’t talk about it? We must be willing to share our experiences and be willing to examine the opioid crisis from all angles, even the angles that hit close to home.

The fact is every eleven minutes an American dies of drug overdose. Overdoses are the leading cause of death in this country for people under fifty-five[1].

A lot has been reported about the role of the pharmaceutical industry in the opioid crisis. And undoubtedly, the proliferation of drugs like oxycodone flooding the market via doctors has created a whole new generation of opiate users who may not have found their way to addiction otherwise. That’s not the whole story. Not everyone who gets a prescription for opioid pain killers becomes addicted, and not everyone starts with pills.

But over two million Americans are currently struggling with opiate addiction and nearly 20 percent of them are young adults. Even more staggering, use among young women is up, and the incidence of young pregnant women using opioids has increased by as much as 600 percent in some areas over a ten-year period[2].

To say we have an opioid crisis is an understatement. You can’t go a day, let alone a week, without the opioid epidemic infiltrating the news cycle.

And yet, so many people ask why anyone would do drugs in the first place.

The simplest answer is emotional pain. We live in a time in this country when everything moves so fast, when we are confronted by an altered view of other people’s realities through social media, the social and political climate is divisive, and the guarantee of creating a better life for ourselves than our parent’s generation has all but disappeared.

Our approach to mental health care is broken. Free and subsidized services are limited at best. The people who are most at risk—those in poor and marginalized communities—have financial and social barriers to accessing help.

The American ethos of putting your nose to the grindstone and persevering does a great disservice to our mental and emotional health. When you can’t get out of bed in the morning, when you have no self-worth left, when you’ve had childhood trauma, when you suffer from any form of PTSD, the option of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and overcoming addiction or other mental health issues is not possible. And that’s not a moral failing.

The stigma associated with opioids, with heroin, with “being a junkie,” prevents people from reaching out. And that stigma is killing us. Americans are stuck in a spiral of shame, and that shame drives the vicious cycle of relapse that many drug users get caught in.

The only way to break through that shame is by talking about it. It is terrifying to admit that you need help, to admit that you are addicted. This is especially true when it comes to heroin. Heroin use conjures up the gruesome images we see reported. Even among people who experiment with drugs, who drink and smoke pot and try cocaine, heroin represents some moral boundary—one that is reinforced by media. Those who cross that boundary, who “choose” to use heroin, are marked with shame.

Shame is a gatekeeper that prevents people from seeking help. Stigma is bred from that shame.

That stigma has killed so many. That stigma almost killed me.

*

I turned toward the television. Atticus had been half watching the news. A successful female dermatologist from Long Island had been found dead here in New York City, presumably from a drug overdose. She was married, had kids, seemed to have it all. The reporter speculated on the double life she led.

From my chair across the living room, I didn’t look up from my book, ignoring the question that hung in the air like a balloon that was quickly deflating.

“Mom?”

“What was that, honey?”

“Did you ever do drugs?”

I paused again, suspended in the moment, making a quick mental inventory of how to answer. The truth is I did do drugs, a lot of drugs. I used heroin off and on from the age of thirteen until I got pregnant with Atticus at age twenty-eight. I never got into pot or alcohol. I’d needed something to take me further away. I took Valium and Vicodin, I dropped acid and  took X and mushrooms, I smoked crack, shot the animal tranquilizer Ketamine, and snorted the occasional line of crystal meth, but I always came back to heroin. I wasn’t fucking around; I craved unconsciousness, but I wasn’t about to tell my twelve-year-old son that. Not yet.

“That’s a complicated question. You know, alcohol’s a drug.”

I tried not to visibly cringe at my own deflection at my son’s question. Confusion spread across his face, between his freckles. He looks so much like me, except for the freckles, but we’re so very different.

“Why do people take drugs?” he asked.

The first time I used, I took a pill. It was a Darvocet, an opiate. I stole it from my mother’s medicine cabinet. The bottle was expired, with my grandmother’s name on the label. I was eight.

“Well, people take drugs for different reasons. Sometimes, they try drugs because a friend talks them into it, or they are trying to escape something in their life. But drugs never help anything. They usually make things a lot worse.”

I did not tell him that, in some ways, the drugs were once what kept me alive.

He squinted, scrunched his nose, clearly thinking about what I’d just said, licking his lips the way he does when he’s concentrating. “I don’t understand why someone would take drugs,” he said definitively and walked out of the room.

A wave of nausea started at the top of my head, rippled down, anchoring itself in my stomach. Nausea was nothing new. Vaguely nauseous was homeostasis for me when I struggled with addiction. I put down my book and followed him. I saw my reflection in the hallway mirror. I was a healthy, happily remarried mother and writer. I was not the desperate and broken twenty-something, frighteningly thin and green all the time, the one who was married to his father for all the wrong reasons, the one who was constantly chasing an exit, any exit.

I stood at Atticus’s open bedroom door. He was lying down on his bed with his iPhone in his hands, watching a video on YouTube. His bangs were getting too long, and he kept pushing the straight brown strands of hair aside. He looked just like he did when he was a baby, just like he did in the 3-D ultrasound photo I have, head to the side, one arm up, his hand in a fist against the cheek of his round face. But he was not a baby. He was in those awkward years between childhood and early adulthood, the years that demanded the conversations that I, as a mother, wanted to have with him, wish someone had had with me, but I was petrified. I didn’t want to shatter his image of me. If he knew what I’d done, who I’d been, would he still respect me, still love me? Could I still be the mother I’d always been? Aren’t you supposed to protect your children? Atticus was only a year younger than I was when I first started using heroin.

I knew I must have been doing something right because he didn’t understand the impulse to use drugs. He thought they were stupid. He wasn’t searching for a way out the way I had. We’d talked about it when we watched reruns of my all-time favorite show—Beverly Hills, 90210—together. He’d asked me questions—when David stayed up for days on end doing crystal meth, when Dylan smoked heroin and crashed his car, and when Kelly went on a cocaine binge with her boyfriend and landed in rehab. He had a concept of the consequences, but he didn’t grasp the reasons. Until now, he’d never considered the possibility that I may have done drugs. And now this question.

How could I explain it to him? Would he understand? I thought about what I could impart by telling him—or telling someone who may be struggling with opioid addiction—my story. I wanted him to know that drug use doesn’t look the same across race, class, and other privileges, but that it stems from a primal place of want and loneliness. I hoped that when the time came I would be successful in communicating a story of experience, strength, and hope, one that might make a difference.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/11/29/upshot/fentanyl-drug-overdose-deaths.html

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/09/magazine/children-of-the-opioid-epidemic.html

 

Erin Khar is the author of STRUNG OUT: One Last Hit and Other Lies that Nearly Killed Me, forthcoming February 25, 2020 from HarperCollins |Park Row Books. She is known for her writing on addiction, recovery, mental health, relationships, parenting, infertility, and self-care. Her weekly advice column, Ask Erin, is published on Ravishly. Her personal essays have appeared many places including, SELF, Marie Claire, Salon, Huffpost, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, HuffPost, and Redbook. She’s the recipient of the Eric Hoffer Editor’s Choice Prize and lives in New York City with her husband and two kids.

Upcoming events with Jen

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, writing

A Writer Changed My Life

May 4, 2019
writer

By Pam Munter

As a writer, I’ve been asked more than once: What book changed your life? My response is always the same: It wasn’t a book. It was a writer who never wrote a book. I wish I could say she was my hero but I barely knew her. Sometimes the most surprising act of kindness can transform a life.

Her name was Clara McClure and her family lived in a white clapboard house across the street from us on eucalyptus-lined Hartzell Street in then-middle-class Pacific Palisades. It was the late 1950s, long before the dawn of cultural feminism. This was the era of “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Father Knows Best” the traditional family unit writ large. Nobody was a stranger in our neighborhood, full of stay-at-home housewives, including my mother, who frequently met in each other’s homes in the mornings after the husbands and children were gone for the day. They’d drink coffee, smoke their cigarettes and talk about family members and other neighbors who weren’t there. Continue Reading…

Books I Will Read Again, Guest Posts

Books I Will Read Again: The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld

September 5, 2017
Denfeld

Hi, Angela here. Because of the amount and variety of books I read, I get asked all the time for book recommendations. I love talking about books and thought it would be nice to make book recommendations a more regular part of the site, hence “Books I Will Read Again.” When I finish a book, I do one of three things with it: donate it to a local book drive, pass it along to a friend, or keep it on my bookshelf to reference and read again. This space will be filled by books I keep. I hope you like this new feature, and I hope you like Rene’s book.

The Child Finder is out today, buy it here, or at your favorite independent bookseller. 

By Angela M Giles

I met Rene Denfeld in early 2015. She had an essay about suicide published on the site and I reached out to her to thank her for addressing a subject that is close to me. We exchanged a few emails and established a connection. Then I read The Enchanted and became a fangirl. Then I learned more details about her social justice work and I was in awe. Rene is a force, on paper and in the world, and when I was offered the opportunity to read The Child Finder, I didn’t hesitate. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, memories, Women

Over-The-Counter Medicine

August 31, 2016
pharmacy

By Monica Drake

There’s no place more optimistic than a well-stocked pharmacy. Gleaming clean and rocking the high blast and buzz of fluorescents, everything on the shelves is there to save your life while it cushions your vanity. Crowded, tidy aisles scream, You can be healthy, strong and beautiful! When I was young enough to never need anything beyond an occasional shot of nighttime cough medicine—that sweet, Kool-Aid purple nurse in a bottle—but old enough to be out on my own, I had a job dusting cures, ringing up sales. We carried Epi-pens for anaphylactic shock, because even slight allergies can go seriously wrong. I read trifold pamphlets during the slower retail moments, making myself a student of human health. I learned that it can be the first exposure to an allergen, the tenth, or the hundredth time your body processes some unknown ingredient, in a kind of secret internal roulette, but every single second of the day there exists a slim chance: your immune system could kick into high gear and shut down your throat. It might start with an itch around your eyes or in your sweating armpits. Your blood pressure will drop, silently, and painlessly. That drop in blood pressure has the potential to undermine and weaken your brain’s decision making skills. Some people grow so cold they can’t stop shaking. It’s like a ghost has landed in their bones, when shock sets in. If you have it bad enough, your face can swell to twice its usual size. Then your cheeks sag into jowls and your eyelids get fat and you’re fifty years older than you were ten minutes before. Your skin will lump up in hives.

An allergic response can clog your lungs with fluid and swelling and then constrict your airways, cutting you off from your own life. This happens every six minutes, to somebody. If you’re fast and lucky, one jab with Epi-pen turns the whole mortal disaster around. You’ll be back in business! An Epi-pen can save your life. It’s a brilliant invention. A pharmacy has what you need.

Want to get high? It’s in the bins, drawers and vials. Time to sleep? That’s there, too. Continue Reading…

Q & A Series, The Converse-Station

The Converse-Station: Alice Anderson interviews Maggie May Ethridge.

May 28, 2014

Hey there, Jen Pastiloff here. Welcome to the newest installment on The Manifest-Station. The Converse-Station: A place where writers interview writers. (Thanks to author Elissa Wald for coming up with that name.) I am so excited by the idea of this series, I can hardly stand it. The readership on the site is so high that I figured it was time for something like this. Today’s interview is between two of my buddies, Alice Anderson and Maggie May Ethridge, and I couldn’t be more excited. I am a hardcore fan of both of these women and I think you will be too, after you read this. Magggie’s book came out today. You can buy it here. I hope you do. Smooches, Jen.

Alice Anderson

Alice Anderson

Maggie May Ethridge

Maggie May Ethridge

One Wild and Precious Marriage. An interview conducted by Alice Anderson.

I’ve been a fan of Maggie May Etheridge since the late-90’s, when I first became aware of her as a blogger with a knack for elevating the ordinary moments of life to a higher realm. I’m dating myself, but I don’t mind telling you that “Flux Capacitor” held an unwavering spot in my Myspace top ten. And I’m not alone in my admiration: a frequent comment on Etheridge’s blog is, “If you ever publish a book, I will be first in line.” Well, queue up y’all, the day has arrived! Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes from a marriage, a memoir of true love and life’s unexpected bumps in the road, is released today (by Shebooks, a curated collection of quality e-books written by women, for women.)

Atmospheric Disturbances is essentially a love story, with all the requisite complications and disasters. When Maggie and Mr. Curry (as she calls her husband throughout the memoir) meet, it is one of those universal pivotal moments when we first meet the eyes of someone we might love. Not the clichéd movie moment of love at first sight, but rather the soul-deep recognition of someone who’ll become part of you, who somehow already knows you. It’s that precipice, that moment before the moment electricity that carries Etheridge and Mr. Curry through the years of marriage and blending children and having two more and making a life. And then an unwelcome guest arrives at the table: mental illness. When Mr. Curry is diagnosed with bipolar, Etheridge asks: Am I welcome at the marriage table when my husband is lost to bipolar and my wedding band is being twisted in anxiety underneath the cloth? Less about the diagnoses of bipolar than the way we survive the rough times, Atmospheric Disturbances is about scaling the precipice, and somehow falling not into darkness, but into light.

Alice Anderson: There are two layers of “history” that feel like myth in this story. There is the history of childhood, in which you paint yourself as a solitary, lonely soul. And there is the history of the beginning of your relationship with Mr. Curry. Both have a kind of mythology – the way our histories can come to be a metaphor for our lives – and the “moral of the story” of the history with Mr. Curry seems to be the answer to the mystery to the childhood struggles. The cure, as it were. When he was diagnosed, did his illness feel like a slap in the face to the healing his presence in your life had so clearly provided? 

Maggie May Etheridge: Absolutely it did. The slap in the face that I render Mr. Curry in the memoir was a direct reflection of the internal experience I was having a shocking pain, unexpected and heartbreaking. Our marriage before he became sick was so life affirming, so healthy, and so beautiful that I had felt I was over one part of my life – the part where I felt alone in the world, cut off from kindred spirits – and on to the other, and I expected that whatever challenges came our way (which they did! poverty, disease, yes we have done both) we would meet them together, with this relationship as our backbone. When Mr. Curry became ill I was left alone to deal with it, because the person I know retreats when he is sick. Sometimes when he is really ill, I imagine his brain, inflamed and irritable, swollen up around the real person he is, trapping him. Bipolar is an absolutely ugly, brutal disease and the way it can destroy a person’s life breaks my heart over and over. Witnessing other people with this disease who do not have family support is tragic; they become completely lost. Bipolar is like cancer in that there are many treatments but no one can tell you if they will work or if they do, how long they will keep the thing at bay.

Alice Anderson: You mention your gratitude that he allows you to talk about his diagnoses at all. Can you talk about how Mr. Curry came to agree to you writing this material? I love the line about him wanting to allow you to do what you do, which is to tell the truth. But you seem to have left out the specific details of those difficult waves in his bipolar – was this intentional? Did you have to draw a line in the sand in what you would not talk about regarding the waves of his bipolar phases? 

Maggie May Etheridge: I absolutely drew a line in the sand and left out most of what happens. When I was writing this, I was drawn toward expressing with the words, the sentences, the emotions of feeling estranged from your lover, of feeling abandoned, hurt, confused, guilty – drawing up those emotions around a few sketched details vs. a diary where I write out many specific experiences and then clearly state how I felt, how he felt.

Originally when I began writing about this, it was online on my blog Flux Capacitor. I had asked in 2009 if I could write about it and he said no. I respected that. Over time, he approached me and changed his mind. I think this was because we could not afford a therapist for myself, and he was very ill, and I needed something and he gave it to me. I wrote about this on my blog and the relief was immense. Not only was I able to express myself, I was able to connect with other people who were, for one reason or another, struggling in their marriages. And I found that even people with more solid and healthy marriages would come forward and say they loved the writing, because even the best of marriages have the darkest of nights.

Alice Anderson: One thing I felt most when reading this is that it is a love story. Do you agree? In what way did you (if you did) want the love to overshadow the trouble in the piece? 

Maggie May Etheridge: I had no intentions when I wrote this except for to stay true to my inner voice, my experience of the world, and to leave out or later erase things that felt wrong, cruel to my husband or my family. I deeply love my husband. We were best friends for years before we married – both of us had children in other relationships, children that have known each other since they were born. We met as teenagers and he was in love with me a long time before I realized I was in love with him. Falling romantically in love with someone you already have a deep trust and friendship with is thrilling in all ways – not only are you incredibly passionate and excited, like all new love, you also have the deeply satisfying knowledge of their personhood. This is why, when my husband became sick, it was such a shock. I knew him, and then it seemed overnight, I did not.

Alice Anderson: You talk about the way we view love and marriage in our culture as something that is supposed to be painless, over the rainbow lovely. You manage, in your writing, to infuse even the most difficult parts of the story with a visceral love that feels real and true and fierce. I’ve found that sometimes “trouble” can bond me to a lover. Do you feel the trouble (meaning the rough times, the bipolar phases, the struggle) in your marriage has increased the passion? The loyalty? 

Maggie May Etheridge: No, I really do not. I think the passion and loyalty that comes though in this memoir was built before he was very ill, and in the times when he has not been. The person that is truly beautiful. He is loyal, intelligent, funny, charming, gentle – so gentle – open minded, the hardest worker you will ever meet and aware of the brevity and beauty of life. The love I have for him is from this man, this person. This is so powerful that it carries me during the long stretches when he is ill – because I do not believe that love is just an emotion. I deeply believe that real love is a commitment to support and cherish a person regardless of your emotions. This does not mean I don’t believe in divorce, but I believe how you divorce – your side, nothing else – is also an extension of that original love and commitment.

What the trouble in our marriage has done, the pain, is to make me deeply question and investigate what it means to be a person. What does it mean to love someone? What is the line between loyalty and self-flagellation or martyrdom? If a person has a brain disease, and all markers of that person disappear and leave behind new markers, is this the same person? How do you take care of yourself while taking care of someone who is attacking you without knowing what they are really doing? What is the meaning of commitment, of honor? What do I want my children to see and learn?

The pain has also caused a great deal of guilt in my part. The guilt at times has been the worst part of the entire disease for me. Guilt that I cannot fix him, no matter how many vitamins or supportive words. Guilt that I feel so furious and hateful toward him when he is sick. Guilt that sometimes I have to choose between taking care of the kids and him, and I always choose the kids. Guilt that I want so much for myself.

Alice Anderson: How did you choose the title, Atmospheric Disturbances, Scenes from a marriage?

Maggie May Etheridge: I am devoted to titles. I love, love a great title and have my own ideas of what a great title is. When this phrasing rung in my head, I just fell in love with the words. It perfectly fits the memoir, which are literally scenes from our marriage.

Alice Anderson: The last line in the piece, “And wait for him” is incredibly sad, the reader feels your isolation and pain. In any way do you feel like you’re losing your sense of self when you’re in that prolonged time of waiting? Have you found a way to weather those phases with less pain over the years? What do you do to hold your sense of self steady? 

Maggie May Etheridge: I feel a loss of self, yes, primarily I think because we have four children and they are the focus of my life. When he is ill, and I am parenting, there is very, very little left for self-expression of any kind. This can be absolutely brutal. Holding my sense of self steady comes from two places- connecting through books, writing, poetry, friends and learning, and living up to my own moral obligations. When I am working hard, engaged emotionally with my kids, meeting my responsibilities, moving toward patience, kindness, humility, devotion – then I feel strong and connected to every human being who has come before me who has done something very difficult or painful and remained true to their ideals. What gets me through the worst of life is when I can look back and feel satisfied that I can be proud of myself, that I did my best, that I loved well. In the end, when you lie down in bed at night, this is the comfort. Because we cannot control anything else, and sometimes we cannot even control ourselves. So if most of the time, we are doing the best we can, loving well, then we can be satisfied we are making a good life and that the people we love know and feel loved.

Alice Anderson: Speaking of love, I love the various locations in the book – they’re all sort of quintessentially California. The parks and basement clubs and convenience stores and burrito joints and even Mr. Curry’s truck traversing the edge of the Pacific. I found myself “seeing” the story as I read it, with the sort of a burnished SoCal light cast on average places. You elevate the basement club and the average neighborhood park with your language, the way a sunset elevates an otherwise simple cloudy sky. If you were to have a book party, which of these locations would be closest to your heart, the perfect location to celebrate the messy, lovely, wild love that unfurls across the pages of this book?

Maggie May Etheridge: A Cali. bookstore on the beach, where we’d all drink coffee and then disperse outside for a walk. I love California, I love San Diego. I am originally from Jackson, Miss. and the two places have meshed together in my person. I am deeply aware of my Southern roots and spent a lot of time in Miss. growing up, visiting my grandparents back there, including my 4th grade year – we lived there and I went to school. I absolutely love Southern writers. They speak closest to my experience of the world, slightly surreal, odd, infused with magic, terror, love. When I write scenes of suburban life, I often feel echoes of the impression that John Irving’s The World According To Garp suburbia left on me, that heightened sense of place.

Alice Anderson: In the scene where you break the window, Mr. Curry seems like the stable one in the relationship, coming to the rescue. There is an old Southern saying that any marriage can last forever as long as only one person is crazy at a time. Agree? When Mr. Curry is in a bipolar episode do you feel required to “buck up” and be the strong one? It seems he picks up the slack of this when he’s doing well. You speak of “not keeping score” but do you feel that it all evens out? How is does the burden of mental illness affect the balance of a marriage?

Maggie May Etheridge: I absolutely have to buck up when he is ill. We have children that need stability and love and when he is ill, they need it more than ever. When he is well, he absolutely picks up the slack. In some ways, he’s more even-keeled that I am when he is well! His nature is gentle, kind, patient.  But no, the balance does not even out. This disease has ravaged more years of our marriage than it has left untouched. Not everyone experiences it this way – some people are more responsive to medication than Mr. Curry has been. We have tried many different medications, therapies – at one point I researched and found ‘the’ premiere bipolar expert here in San Diego, a professor and writer and lecturer who only sees a small amount of clients for $500 a pop, and we scraped the money out of our sad account and he saw this man. Nothing has ‘worked’. The longest reprieve has been a year and half. Right now, he is doing gluten free, and that has made him healthier, maybe more clear headed, but not ‘well’.

Alice Anderson: I noticed you quoted Mary Oliver’s “one wild and precious life” in one scene – your voice is very poetic throughout. The language is taught and plain, yet elevated and opaque, much the way Oliver’s language is in her poems. You seem to be taking Oliver’s poetic advice, which is to “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” Why was it important to you to tell this story?

Maggie May Etheridge: I think Oliver’s poetic advice is the intention behind my writing. As I mentioned before, I originally started writing about our marriage with the intention of just letting some of the pressure out, which is what writing does for me (usually. sometimes my novel makes me insane with pressurized words that won’t inflate correctly.)

Alice Anderson: You talk in this book about the way Bipolar is an invisible illness, how people can’t see it, don’t rally to help the way they would something more visible and concrete. I think this is a universal feeling for those who have an invisible illness and it’s worse for one for which there is no cure, because people grow weary and feel that after a given time, the person should “be better” or “cured,” even if there is no cure. Did you feel compelled to bring this into the light? Do you have a sense of advocacy on behalf of families who suffer with the way bipolar can wreak havoc?

Maggie May Etheridge: I see myself as an advocate for mental illness awareness in general. I have anxiety and have suffered with various forms of this my whole life, and mental illness of all kinds runs rampant in my family history. With bipolar specifically, I think of an acquaintance who once told me that I should not separate Mr. Curry from bipolar the illness, that essentially I was fooling myself, and yes it is a disease, but it’s who he is, also. I sat on that for some time, rolling it around in the muck of my experience and reading. It’s not true. And really, it’s the essential devastation and greatest point of pain for people who have this disease: the true person they are is not recognized, they are seen as their illness. Can you imagine people saying, “Hi, I’m Amy and I am cancer.” the way they would say, “Hi this is Amy and she is bipolar’”? No. Bipolar is an actual disease of the brain that can be seen on MRI’s. I have lived with my husband for over a year where he was not ill, and he was a whole and complete person with no signs of the behaviors that arise when he is ill. He may get lost in the disease, but I will never see him as an illness, and I consider it my cherished duty to always retain awareness of him as the person he is when not ill, to honor that person who I have promised to love. I think of this when he is ill: if he was trapped in isolation in prison, faultily accused and deemed guilty, would I leave him alone? Or would I slip notes in the door, say prayers, smooth his hair when he slipped by me in the hallway? Love is not powerful unless you infuse it with a sense of purpose, even if that purpose is simply to hold on to the truth, no matter who else forgets.

Alice Anderson: Thank you for talking with me about Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes from a marriage. If you had to sell this book with only one word, what would that one word be?

Maggie May Etheridge: Marriage.

Alice Anderson: If I had to sell it with just one word, I’d choose: beauty.

Click book to purchase.

Click book to purchase.

 

Maggie May Ethridge is a writer, poet, and novelist close to completing her second novel, Agitate My Heart. Her work can be found in various online and print publications including Diagram, Role/Reboot, the Nervous Breakdown, and the Huffington Post. Originally from Mississippi, she resides in San Diego with her husband and four children. She blogs regularly at Flux Capacitor and can be found on Twitter @FluxCapacitor74 and Facebook. Her essay “What Do Wives Do?” was included in the Equals anthology 2013.

Alice Anderson is a poet and writer whose poetry collection, Human Nature, won both the Bobst Prize from NYU and the Great Lakes Colleges Association’s Best First Book Prize. She is featured in the anthologies On the Verge: Emerging Poets and Artists in America, and American Poetry: The Next Generation. An adjunct professor and single mama of three, she is at work on a memoir, The Season of Ordinary Time. In 2009, Anderson suffered a traumatic brain injury and has learned how to walk, write, speak, and read again. You can find her on Facebook, as well as on Twitter and Instagram @AlicePoet.

Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. She is a writer living on an airplane. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. Jen’s leading a long weekend retreat to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif. She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you (Dallas, London, Seattle, Sioux Falls, Atlanta  etc.) She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.

Dear Life., writing

Dear Life: Who Are My Peers?

February 12, 2014

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88Welcome to Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column.

Your questions get sent to various authors from around the world to answer (and please keep sending because I have like 567 writers that want to answer your burning questions. Click here to submit a letter or email dearlife@jenniferpastiloff.com.) Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. We are “making messy okay.” Today’s letter is answered by Angela G. Patel, who also is an editor for this site (and one of my closest friends) and… who is attending my Writing + The Body retreat in a couple weeks with author Lidia Yuknavitch! The retreat is sold out but email info@jenniferpastiloff.com to be added to wait list.

Send us your questions because there loads of crazy authors waiting to answer ‘em. Just kidding, they aren’t crazy.

Well okay, maybe a little. Aren’t we all? xo, Jen Pastiloff, Crazy Beauty Hunter. ps, I will see you in Vancouver in a couple weeks! My first workshop there! 

 

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above. No yoga experience required. Only requirement: Just be a human being.

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above. No yoga experience required. Only requirement: Just be a human being.

By Angela Giles Patel.

Dear Life, 

Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward’s remarkable memoir, an extended exploration of the deaths of five young black men in a Mississippi community (including Ward’s own brother), caused me to look anew at my own life, which also has been marked by trauma: Sudden loss of a parent at a young age; chaotic adolescence culminating in pregnancy and marriage at the age of 18; a marriage marked by violence and drug abuse (my husband’s); an acrimonious divorce followed by a decade of custodial interference; single parenthood in a hostile urban environment; poverty; emotional instability; the experience of 9/11 as a resident of New York City; life-threatening disease; the sudden loss of an adult child; and now the recurrence of life-threatening disease. Yet I am white, well-educated (MFA from a major university), well-spoken, and, for now, after many years of struggle, financially comfortable. So people assume—and I generally do not set them straight unless I know them very well—that I have led a relatively easy life. Largely because of the trauma in my life, I stopped writing for many years, only recently picking it up again and finding great solace in the process.

The question that plagues me? Who, exactly, is my peer group? White people of my educational status and socioeconomic station seem to lead suchcharmed lives in comparison. Yet who else available to me has the literary insight to give me the feedback my writing needs? Because of the lag between my MFA experience and my return to writing, I have lost touch with my teachers. And while I generally felt supported and valued by those teachers, I felt like a fish out of water when it came to the other students.

I recently moved out of New York City to a much smaller city in a different region of the country. In my new town, I have spent time in a critique group with other writers, all of them younger than me, some of them with children still at home, most of them married, all healthy…. And while they have been generous and insightful in many ways, as I continue writing I feel the lack of an essential understanding, and I feel increasingly that the poems and other writings (fiction and nonfiction) I am excavating from my traumatized interior are burdensome to them and impinge on the happy lives they are trying to build and maintain. I don’t think it’s a matter of age, although I am sure that age plays a role (I am in my mid-50s). Most writers in workshops are relatively young. Older writers with the skill to offer literary criticism tend to be 1) successful already and, hence, unlikely to be interested in offering criticism on a regular basis, and 2) ready to settle back and not work (or network) so hard, having already established connections with other writers and artiststheir age.

My question really is an existential one in this era when the fortunate can afford to isolate themselves from the unfortunate—and usually prefer to—and tend to be fundamentally uncomfortable hearing about difficult life experiences. Yet, I feel very strongly that the unfortunate often have extraordinary insight into the true nature of this earthly existence—but very few avenues for expressing it. I don’t know how I would have survived, emotionally and intellectually, without books by writers like Jesmyn Ward, Viktor Frankl, Sylvia Plath, and others that reflected my own inner experience.

Somewhere there must be good writers who can offer feedback without feeling uncomfortable about difficult subject matter, who have the personal and artistic integrity to see the intrinsic value of such subject matter, and who can offer literary criticism without trying to psychoanalyze the writer in the process (a common problem). How do I find them?

I know it is important, in the meantime, to continue writing. I know someone else’s response shouldn’t be the dominant reason one writes. And yet it is hard to continue over time without a peer group and without feedback. One can only get so far on one’s own.

Thanks for the chance to pose my question,

Aspiring Writer

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Dear Aspiring Writer,

The comfort you have found in writing is quite familiar to me and you are absolutely right, there is great solace in the process. As writers we have to write, even when it hurts. And there comes a time when every writer has to decide if they want to share what they have written.

Clearly, you are at the stage with your work where you want your voice to be heard, but I am not convinced that you are looking for peers. I am even less convinced that the peers you think you deserve exist. Your criteria is stringent and exclusive, and by that I mean terribly narrow. You dismiss younger writers because they are inexperienced and can’t relate to your work, and you dismiss older writers because they are above putting in the time you think your writing deserves. You want to have people who can relate to your pain read your writing, but they need to be of a certain class so that they can offer you “literary” feedback. No matter how good your writing is, and I have no doubt it is good, you have whittled your potential peer group to a nub.

Here’s a thought: stop looking for a peer group and start looking for a tribe. Look for people who connect with your soul, not your experiences. Put together a group that can give you a variety of opinions. Don’t dismiss feedback because it isn’t literary enough, some of the best feedback you will ever get will be a gut reaction rather than a clever assessment. Honest feedback will tell you when you are being self-indulgent, so here is some honesty: you need to look at why you want people to interact with your work. If it is to congratulate you on what you survived, that’s fine but you need to own that and not hold unsuspecting readers accountable. If it is to get feedback on the quality of your work, you need to own that as well, because it takes a heavy dose of humility to have your painful experiences rejected, trust me on that one.

If you are writing for more than you, if you are writing because you feel diminished if you don’t write, if you are seeking to hone your craft, then absolutely get your work in front of people however you can. Go to readings, check out a local indie bookstore for author events, ask booksellers about book clubs and writing groups. There are also a number of online forums for writers. Stanford has a decent writing program that covers most genres. LitReactor has classes as well as reading groups. You get the idea.

Be prepared though, the hardest part of getting feedback is really listening to the feedback. You need to be humble enough to hear what is being said, grateful enough to listen to the finish, gracious enough to be grateful, and brave enough to reflect on it. Believe me, it’s not easy. Rejection hurts, especially when it is a rejection of your own experience and pain. But it happens. Often. Never forget that you can learn something from everyone you share your work with. As you form your tribe, feel free to send a sample of your work to “Dear Life” and I will be happy to chime in.

All the best,

Xx Angela

 

Please note: Advice given in Dear Life is not meant to take the place of therapy or any other professional advice. The opinions or views offered by columnists are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed physician or mental health professional. Columnists acting on behalf of Dear Life are not responsible for the outcome or results of following their advice in any given situation.

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