Posts Tagged: in my own words

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There is a lot about Philly that can be encapsulated in the metaphor of fireworks. They’re illegal here, but fuck if you would know that come 4th of July or New Years or…possibly any summer night when the Phillies win. People set them off everywhere, because this is a DIY city that’s also a little bit lawless. You make your own fucking light.

I’m from DC, which is a city with a limited amount of spotlight and way too many people trying to stand in it. Stay in the shadows and no one cares about you. DC is a city with lots of poverty that no one knows about. Philly is poor too - an estimated 1/4 of the population lives in poverty - but it’s impossible to ignore. Poverty threads through even the nicest of neighborhoods. Philly is low on resources and always falling apart in one way or another, but people here are often generous and kind. They’re creative in how they approach their cities’ problems, setting up urban gardens and painting murals on even the most desolate and dreary of streets. They raise money through one million tiny community events held on street corners, block parties, in churches. Sometimes the fragmentation of Philly’s social justice network is frustrating, but it’s also heartening. A lot of people love this city and want to help it survive and thrive, even if they don’t always agree on how to do it.

Philly is a mess. Parts of it are dirty, abandoned, decrepit. Other parts are beautiful. Class inequality is evident here in the way it is everywhere, but Philly still has a working class. People can still afford to own houses even when they’re not millionaires, and as a result, people stick around. They build communities and have families and settle in. This is a city that thrives on people knowing each other and connecting, but not just for the purpose of advancing in some ridiculous game of thrones. I found my house by talking to people. I bought my car because I talked to people. I found restaurants and stores and coffee shops and parks because people told me about them. I have never felt more connected than I do in Philly, and I’ve only been here a little over two years. I love that.

Philly is no bullshit. Pretentious people get laughed out of the room. It’s an in joke kind of a place that loves making outsiders feel dumb because they don’t know its secrets, but it’s not exclusive. If Philly had a motto, I think it would probably be something like: “Don’t be an asshole.” Be different, be strange, be queer, be yourself: just don’t be a dick.

I did not love Philly when I moved here. I saw it as a stopgap, maybe a way to get from here to there. I don’t see it that way anymore. I just finished school and got my first job and now I’m thinking about buying a house, about settling in. I feel comfortable here. Philly is the worn-in sweatpants of cities. It won’t win any glamour contests, but it can make you feel instantly at home.

I could go on awhile about the many things I love about this city - its old houses, its food, its diversity - but I want to get back to the fireworks. I walked around the neighborhood tonight and watched probably ten different people set them off, arching and sparkling over the low, flat rooftops. This is everybody’s party, and you’re all invited. That’s Philly, to me. Respect the struggle, celebrate everything. Make shit explode.

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I was 11 years old when Philadelphia came out. I saw it in the theater. I’m not sure how that happened, to be honest. It is not a movie pitched toward 11 year-olds, even precocious ones like me who read everything I could my hands on, whose parents were liberal and gave me books like Our Bodies Ourselves and encouraged me to educate myself. In the early 90s, AIDS was still basically a death sentence. People were doing more about it then they did in the 80s, and there were drugs that could prolong, if not save your life, but there was still way more we didn’t know about the disease than things we did. I remember sex ed classes where they told us how you contracted HIV, drilled it into us over and over, blood sex needles, condoms condoms condoms. Kids were still confused on the playground, though, and rumors abounded about how kissing could give you HIV, shaking hands, using the same bathroom. I had nightmares after seeing Philadelphia, just about the way Tom Hanks looked, the way his body turned against him. I couldn’t imagine anything more horrible than a disease that attacks the very mechanism our body has to protect us from disease, that destroys you from the inside out.

The Normal Heart, Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Larry Kramer’s polemic play for HBO, is a powerful movie. I’m not sure if it’s as good a movie as Philadelphia is, but it is especially powerful because it is airing now, at a time when the tide has shifted so significantly on issues related to gay rights. The America presented in that movie is not the America we live in today. That is not to say, of course, that we live in a country free of prejudice, or that AIDS is less terrifying now just because we have better drugs. If anything it is more terrifying because people are not terrified enough, because AIDS has become old news. That attitude scares the shit out of me, and it should scare the shit out of you.

As a young teenager I picked up a copy of Charles Kaiser’s The Gay Metropolis and read it on the bus on the way to summer camp. I remember being so struck by the idea that there was a time in New York when everyone in the gay community knew people who had died. I tried to wrap my mind around that notion, that you could live so surrounded by death, so constantly reminded of your own mortality. It was heavy stuff for a 13-year-old, and not unlike how I felt reading The Diary of Anne Frank that same year. AIDS had everyone trapped in an attic waiting for the Gestapo for awhile. It still holds us hostage.

Over the last five weeks I have gone back and forth to my hometown of DC three times to visit with my 92-year-old grandmother, who came down suddenly with an infection, went into sepsis and had several strokes, all very quickly. She is infection-free now but she has almost none of her previous cognitive abilities, and it is likely she will contract another infection. She doesn’t really recognize me when I see her now. Every time I see her there is this bizarre moment where I can’t believe it, can’t believe she is like this. It is easily one of the hardest things I have ever had to deal with in my life.

I am not comparing my grandmother’s situation with the millions who have died of AIDS. She has had a long, incredible life. So many who died of AIDS were (are) so young. But that sensation of losing someone before they are gone - that seems to me to be a common experience for anyone who has watched someone close to them die. Six weeks ago she was walking around, talking, being her normal self, and now she is totally dependent on others, lost. What to do with this feeling, this anger, this sadness?

I’m sure I am not saying anything someone hasn’t already said. I guess my point is this: grieving is an experience we all share. It is amazing to me how long it took for so many Americans - including our government - to grieve for the entire generation of men we lost to AIDS. How could we ever have thought AIDS was anything but everybody’s problem?

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Sometime over the last month, I gave up on my second novel.

It hurt.

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Last night I didn’t go out for New Years. I had sort of plans, but I was exhausted, a feeling that’s often been my default for the last year, a feeling I still have even after being on break for two weeks. If 2013 was anything, it was my year to feel tapped out, frustrated, done.

It’s easy to minimize our own accomplishments in a year that brought so many of us to our knees. It’s easy to feel inadequate, or depressed, or even afraid of the year to come. Over the last couple of weeks, when I was finally given some time to slow down and process after the mad rush this year has been, I felt all of these things, sometimes all at once.

But when I look back at 2013 it’s not a dead loss. It’s the year I was given the opportunity to work with juvenile drug offenders and victims of sexual violence, fighters and survivors, people possessing incredible strength and resiliency in the face of extreme obstacles, trauma, deprivation. It is incredibly inspiring to work with people who are that resilient, and to come to understand my place in someone’s struggle: my abilities, my limitations. There were times it felt hopeless and I felt helpless, but I am grateful for that. I am grateful to be able to do this work, even when it feels like I’m failing. I am grateful to be able to try.

I am grateful I was able to write about my own experience with mental illness, and for the conversations that post started, and for what I learned about others close to me from sharing one of my best kept secrets. 

I’m glad I decided to return to writing my unconventional mystery novel after having to put my first unpublishable novel effectively in a drawer for the time being. It is beginning to come together in a way that makes me believe it will be finished one day, even if it never happens fast enough because that is the nature of writing and this business and this life.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to meet so many new people, wonderful people, and to deepen relationships with friends and family and the city I live in. I’m glad to be here, even when it’s hard. We are who we are when it’s hard.

I feel strange saying Happy New Year after a year like 2013, a year that was so unhappy and so hard for so many people. It doesn’t feel right, or like enough. I will say I hope this year brings you happiness, and laughter, and excitement, and love, and that when it’s sad there are people to catch you when you fall. Because if there was anything that I was most grateful for in 2013, it was that.

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I am mentally ill.

I blame October.

Should I start with my diagnosis? That’s what every insurance company in America would prefer: please give us the set of numbers we use to identify your pain and suffering. We will decide if it is valid enough to pay for your treatment, even though we have never met you and have no idea what you feel.

But I digress. Let me start with a story.

When I was 13 years old and in the 8th grade, October happened and I hit a brick wall. I will never know, exactly, what created this wall - Chemistry? Experience? Accumulated years of being the quiet good girl? Internalized anger? Genetics? The current general belief system in the psychology community is that mental illness exists somewhere between biology and what happens to us and around us. Basically: stuff inside us meets stuff outside of us and stuff happens.

In my case, the stuff was a sudden and major depression. Up until that point I had never seen a therapist, had never had behavior problems or mood issues. But within a week or so I was not sleeping or eating, and I was so sad I told my parents I wanted to die.

My parents did not want to hospitalize me. I was so desperate and so scared, though, that I asked to be hospitalized. I wanted someone to figure out what was going on inside of me and fix it, and my parents cared too much about me to do more than worry and love me. Having people who love you is an incredible asset when you are depressed, but it is not enough.

I was hospitalized for close to two weeks, which is not something we do anymore, by the way. Suicidal thoughts? Suicidal attempts? Overdoses? 72 hours. In and out in 3 days. Again, this is managed care. This is the mental health landscape we live in: we want to get you out rather than get you better.

I did get better. I was put on medication - an SSRI, a class of drugs they have since determined you should not give to teenagers, but they didn’t know that then - and saw a psychiatrist and went to groups and talked to people and realized I was not the only person on earth who felt this way. I met girls who had anorexia or addiction issues, a girl who slit her wrists to get herself out of juvie, girls who had been abused and assaulted. Part of me felt my mental breakdown was maybe not as serious as these girls with trauma histories. But part of me also figured out: I think I can make myself better.

I did make myself better. Other people helped, a lot. I went to intensive outpatient treatment for 3 weeks. I changed schools. Eventually I made new friends and I was okay. For awhile. And then, when I was in 10th grade, October hit. It hit me hard. I got hospitalized again. They kept me for less time, but still for more than 72 hours. Intensive outpatient. More medication, etcetera etcetera. The cycle repeats.

Come October of 11th grade, I fell apart again. I got a sinus infection that lasted several months. Too many AP classes. The pressure of college prep and my looming future. Trying to juggle academic stress and being the stage manager for the fall play. It’s October. The bottom dropped out.

But this time I didn’t get hospitalized. I went to therapy more often, and I dropped classes, and I gave up the fall play. I disappointed people. I disappointed myself. I came out okay at the end of it.

I won’t bore you with the details, but there were many other Octobers in the next 10 years that were not kind to me. In college, I dropped two classes and took a year off after a particularly disastrous October. I worked for nine months and transfered schools. Several years post-college I made the decision to apply to graduate school in October while feeling trapped in my hometown and a terrible relationship. It happened again. It happened again. It happened again.

You may have noticed it is currently October. I am a social work student working toward the end of my second Masters degree. I am in full-time placement at an agency that works with people with trauma histories. I have a job. I am taking classes. It’s intense.

I could chalk this October’s horrors up to the curse. Two weeks ago we discovered our cat was ill and had to put him down. I’ve had a sinus infection for 3 weeks. A number of my friends are struggling to get by, including my closest ones. It has been a sad time in my hometown (D.C.) and a sad time in this country and sometimes I think I don’t know when it will ever be less sad, when the cycle will stop.

But this October I am not depressed. I’m sad. I’m angry. I’m frustrated. I’m tired. Not depressed. Maybe it’s because I’m mildly medicated, or that I just understand this better now. I know the warning signs. I know how to say no, I can’t do that. I have too much on my plate. I am not a superhero. I am depressive. This is who I am, it’s part of me, it doesn’t have a cure. It has a treatment, one that is constantly changing and shifting depending on my life and my illness and me.

I know it’s not an October curse because it doesn’t just happen in October. It would be nice if depression was that considerate, if it confined itself to a single month, but it doesn’t. Some Octobers may suck. Some may not. Sometimes I will feel depressed or vulnerable to depression in months where nothing is outwardly wrong. That is the nature of the beast, if you will. It’s how it works.

I could spend a lot of time bemoaning this, but I spent far too much of my life thinking my depression was a thing that was wrong with me, and I’m done with that now. I don’t see my depressive tendencies as weakness anymore. I see them as motivating, as part of what made me want to be a social worker, as a lot of what made me a writer. Many of the biggest shifts I’ve made in my life have been because of my depressions, and those changes have been vitally important and almost always good. My depression is the thing that keeps me in check and in touch with myself, that makes me go, Oh, that doesn’t feel good. It helps me understand others who have experienced what I’ve experienced. Depression is not my weakness. It’s my superpower.

I know many people don’t feel this way. I also know many people don’t know this about me. And that’s why I wanted to write about it - because I think it’s important people know it is not something I keep secret because I’m ashamed. I’m not. I just wish we didn’t live in a world that teaches us we should be.

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Spoiler: It’s not because I’m a masochist.

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I read my first Leonard novel when I was in high school. I’m pretty sure it was Out of Sight, and I read it for a class I took on Film Noir - a class you only get to take at weirdo hippie private schools, and a class that probably shaped me as a writer more than any class I had taken before or since. Leonard was held up as an illustration of contemporary noir, read on the heels of masters like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and James Cain.

The thing is, Leonard’s books hold up. He may have written 45 of them, but that doesn’t make them any less potent. I often think one of the most incredible powers a novelist can have is the ability to make the right choices, to know what to leave in and what to leave out. Elmore Leonard was that guy. As he once famously wrote, “Try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip.” 

The man wrote dialogue like it was easy and obvious, and any writer knows it’s not either of these things. He could sum up a character for you in two lines. His descriptions were always tight and precise, just the details you needed to know. For example: Raylan Givens is a U.S. Marshall who is quick on the draw and wears a cowboy hat everywhere he goes. Leonard didn’t believe in lingering on or worshipping his characters. He trusted his reader to fill in the rest. He didn’t condescend and he didn’t judge his characters. He didn’t write for stupid people.

What Elmore Leonard seemed to do better than just about anyone, though, was move a story along. I’ve always been jealous of that skill, because pacing is often hard for me, a struggle (hopefully) resolved in revision. As much as he had no patience for stories that dragged, though, the story of his own career evolution depended on his own persistence. He wrote 25 books before one became a bestseller. Then he wrote 20 more. I think it’s pretty clear that for Elmore Leonard, writing was a job. Not an art, not a craft. It was a motherfucking job, and you did it until you were done. He once told an interviewer he’d write until the day he died. “A long time ago, I told myself, ‘You got to have fun doing this, or it’ll drive you nuts,’” he said.

Love that guy.

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Just posting this in rebloggable form in case anyone wants to like/reblog it. :)

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  • Question: you're writing your own fashion detective novel? may i ask what it's about?? :) - modernkids
  • Answer:

    Way late in answering this question but I am happy to do it - I was perhaps a bit facetious in calling my second novel a “fashion detective novel,” but it is, for sure, a detective novel that is highly stylized, and maybe that makes it sort of “fashion”? The protagonist is quite the dapper dresser as well.

    If I had to sum it up, I would say the book is the story of three murders, a disappearance, a first love, a failed love, and a whole lot of dangerous secrets. It is mostly about desire and agency. I wrote this somewhat hilarious summary several years ago when I first began thinking about how I would pitch it and even with expansions and revisions it’s pretty accurate:

    Who is Evan Hayden? It depends on who you ask.  In this unconventional mystery novel, six different narrators construct the life of this elusive Vegas casino hotel heir. Through the eyes of those who know (or think they know) him best, Evan emerges as a man of many faces: a lovesick schoolboy; a lonely girl’s best friend; the son of a crazy woman; his father’s criminal protégé – and, finally, a suspected murderer accused of killing his own wife.  

    But the only person who can tell the whole story is Evan himself, and so he does, in the final pages. As a man on the run, he’s trying to clear his name by unearthing long-kept secrets about his family’s tragic past. Evan may prove his innocence – but at the cost of his own life.