Passing through Beauty


2 hours awake and I still haven’t shaken the fog. I didn’t fall asleep until after 1 last night. I got 6 hours of sleep, but I generally need 8. And I spent the last 2 hours of my day writing. Delving into a question that feels strange to the narrative that I have created. When I woke up, I reread yesterday’s post over my first cup of coffee. It’s fine. Definitely fine. But I doubt that it is satisfactory. I can’t answer something that I don’t want to think about. Or something that I am afraid to think about. What could have stopped what I tell myself was inevitable? Can I even handle the idea that something could have happened differently? That someone could have saved me? I can’t go there for more than a brief moment—only long enough for flashes of an alternate future, never long enough for words to capture it. Maybe someday.

I feel icky. Not quite right. I think it has something to do with my new haircut, but I don’t feel myself. I have a mirror in my bedroom where I see myself often, and the last two days have been hard. I don’t like what I see because it isn’t quite right. My hair is too short. I don’t look like I looked before. I look more severe, less soft. And it isn’t bad but it is not what I expected. It isn’t as easy to pull of and isn’t as natural for me. I feel like I look older, and at 35, I don’t really want to look older. I am old enough for now. And I look it. I feel gross because I do not feel like I look like I am.

And I can’t wash the feeling off like the make up I wear. I can’t push it back like my bangs. I can’t take it off like my glasses. I feel it on my skin. Or under my skin. And I just have to wait until it goes away. I can play with makeup, pose just right in good lighting, and throw a filter on a crappy iPhone picture, but I can’t shake the feeling. I can’t get rid of the bleh, the ugliness, the discontent. The wishing to be more. The wishing for things to be different. Wanting things to have happened differently and for things to be different now.

The self-loathing is difficult today. My brain tells me that this stupid haircut is proof that I’ve been hiding behind something false all along. I was always this ugly. I was always this frumpy. I was always this stupid and crazy. I was always every bad thing I have ever thought about myself. And I’m fighting. Telling myself how stupid that is. It isn’t true. It’s a damn thought cycle. I’m caught in a loop. It’s a trick. It isn’t real. But the mirror I am sitting near is making it difficult. 

I’m sure that I’ve mentioned before that one of my favorite if not my very favorite literary quote is from Saul Bellow’s novel Henderson the Rain King: “Somehow I am a sucker for beauty and can trust only it, but I keep passing through and out of it again.” I love it because I always kind of felt like that was me. Beauty kills me. If I find something beautiful, then I am in heaven—art, kindness, the human body, nature, poetry, love, friendship, possibility—I am just a sucker for it. But it feels like too often beauty passes away and we are only left with an imperfect memory. And I feel that way about myself today. I was beautiful at some point in time—I was good and kind and lovely—but now I’ve faded. Now I’m just a shell and it is finally starting to show on the outside.

But it is just nothing. Beauty is subjective. It is just a reflection, and my dissatisfaction with what I see will pass. I am still me even if I don’t look like it or feel like it. 

Maybe I’ll feel better when the sun comes out. Maybe I’ll feel better if I put on makeup. Maybe I’ll wear a pretty dress. Maybe I’ll put on headphones and dance. Maybe I’ll feel better when I adjust. Maybe I’ll feel better when my hair is longer. Maybe I’ll pull it up or change the style. Maybe I’ll figure something out. Something so that every time I look in the mirror I don’t see something jarring. Something that doesn’t feel like me. Maybe it will only take a moment. Maybe it will take a week. Maybe it is just the hair. Maybe it is the sleep. Maybe it is the rain. Maybe it is more. Maybe it was what I read in my journal last night. Maybe it was the heartbreaking pain I was feeling, and how well I remember. 

I just want to feel beauty. I want to look in the mirror and feel like I like the person looking back. Not just her hair and her face, but her posture, the look in her eyes. Her smile. I want to see the things that remind me that I am strong and happy. And now I see dissatisfaction and fragility. I see unhappiness. I see the depressed woman, not me. And to me, she is ugly because she feels so ugly. She feels like a stain. And I feel like I am just a cheap shell that she is about to break through.

But not today. I know that I am strong enough to hold her at bay. I know that this is just some little imbalance and a hair cut. It is just my depression using anything it can to bring me down. It uses my own reflection and skews it in my brain. It makes me believe that my real dissatisfaction with my appearance—something that is truly unimportant in the grand scheme of things—is proof that there is something even uglier under the surface. It makes me believe that the ugliness I see with my eyes is just a small taste of the real ugliness in my soul. That no one loves me. No one likes me. No one wants to see or hear me. That no one really cares. And if they do care then I have misled them. 

Depression works how it works and it can use anything. Anything. A bad hair cut. A late night writing session. A night of poor sleep. An unanswered message. A rainy day. Anything. Anything. And I just have to deal with it. Just stop looking in the mirror. Do things to make me feel pretty, smart, kind, wanted, cared for. I have to do the work to get through this because if I do nothing then it won’t stop. And maybe I can save today. Maybe someone else will save me from myself today. But one thing is certain—it won’t be like this forever. Oh, and one other thing is certain—my hair will grow. 

What I Needed

When compiling a list of post ideas from some friends, one suggestion was based on the question of what could have helped me before diagnosis? What could have helped me avoid getting as sick as I initially did in 2001? I find this one interesting, because as much as I think about my life and my depression, I try not to look at it with regret, and, thus, I don’t often think about alternatives to what actually happened. For me, I have to accept it all, and so I don’t think about how it could have played out any better. It played out well enough. I’m here and I’m doing something good with the bad stuff that has happened to me. But it is both an interesting and also perhaps useful question to ask.

I have talked about my main journal a few times. It is a brown leather journal that I bought and started on February 3, 2000. I have kept a lot of journals in my life, but I consider this “the journal.” It is the most important one. It is the proof that I was getting sick. It is the evidence that something was happening to me. It is a record of my intense emotional and mental suffering. To me it is like scar. It is the visible evidence of my wounded mind. There are maybe 50 pages of entries from February 3, 2000-January 31, 2001. I attempted suicide on February 14, 2001. It is almost a full year of pain and sorrow. But is also full of love and happiness and dreams and hope.

Inside the front cover, the first thing I have written is a Counting Crows lyric from the song “Speedway” off of the album This Desert Life. I can’t remember how long after I bought the journal that I decided to write it inside the front cover, but its placement (and my memory) proves how important it was to me and how representative I thought it was of my journal. The lyric is “I’ve got somethings I can’t tell anyone. I’ve got somethings I just can’t say. They’re the kind of things no one knows about. I just need somebody to talk to me.”

I thought about going through the journal and making a list of things that I thought I needed—things that I thought would fix me. Mostly I thought that I needed a guy to fix me. I thought love would fix me. Up until the end, I thought that love was the answer. Love is good. Love is great. Love fixes many things. And maybe I did need love. Maybe I wasn’t completely delusional. But that is not all I needed. And love alone couldn’t have saved me. I don’t think.

Because as much as I wanted a guy to love me, what I needed was exactly what I put in the front cover of my journal. I needed someone to talk to. I needed to tell someone all the dark stuff that was going on in my head. I needed to tell the truth to someone. I needed someone to know what was happening to me. I needed to write the journal, but I also needed to be saying those things to someone who could help me. I needed to talk to someone who knew something about mental health. I needed to talk to someone who had some understanding of depression.

And I didn’t talk to anyone like that. I tried to talk to some people, but I was generally met with pity or misunderstanding. I just seemed melodramatic probably. I don’t know how I seemed. I don’t know why no one helped me. I don’t know. I had friends online who I could talk to more openly about my suffering, and some of them really tried to make me happy. But it wasn’t enough. The only thing that could have helped me before diagnosis was an earlier diagnosis.

And now we’re back to my inability to be hypothetical. I don’t want to think about having actually avoided the suicide attempt. It changed the course of my life. I would have to reimagine everything if I imagined not attempting suicide. It was the turning point after which I began taking control of my own life. Once I reached rock bottom, I knew that I had to change. I couldn’t try to live up to other peoples’ expectations. I had to do things that made me happy. I had to live a life that made me happy. Because depression makes me unhappy. I have to get as much happiness as I can whenever and wherever I can because sometimes I can’t remember what it feels like.

On January 31, 2001, my last entry before my suicide attempt 2 weeks later, I wrote: “There aren’t any stars out tonight and I can’t stop shaking either—but now I am fine for a second—now not—how symbolic. I don’t want this.” I knew. In my own way, I knew that I was off balance. I knew that something important was wrong. And I knew that I couldn’t bear it much longer. It was almost laughable how hopeless it was. I was in so deep that I knew that I didn’t have much longer left. And I didn’t tell anyone how bad it was. I was so afraid of being ostracized or rejected. I knew that I was different. I liked being different, but I was afraid to admit it.

There are very few people who I showed my “true self” to at that time, and fewer who accepted me as broken as I was. And I fiercely clung to anyone who would accept me as I was. I felt so unloveable, and the kindness of a few kept me afloat longer than I could have made it alone. But kind words weren’t enough. No one knew how bad it really was. And no one who did have and idea about what I was going through ever thought that it might be an illness. At least no one talked to me seriously about that possibility. And I was terribly afraid of being crazy.

And that in itself is a big part of the problem I was facing. I was afraid of being “crazy.” I was afraid of being insane. I thought that it was all black or white. Sane or insane. Safe or unsafe. Normal or dangerous. I didn’t really even know anything about depression. I didn’t think about mental health. I never considered that what was happening to me was chemical. I didn’t understand how the brain works and the trouble it can cause when it isn’t working correctly.

But I know now. What I needed then was what I have now. What I needed then was what I give now. I needed someone else who was going through what I was going through to clue me in to the fact that it was depression. I needed someone who wasn’t afraid of being stigmatized or rejected to tell me the truth. I needed to read my own damn book. And it is the whole reason that I do what I do now. I think that the only thing that could have prevented my suicide attempt was medical intervention. Early diagnosis. Knowledge about mental health. I needed other people who suffer from mental illness to talk openly about it, and I needed those stories to be more widely known than they were.

But I have no regrets. I had to go through what I went through to become who I am now. I don’t think about what could have saved me. I don’t think about what could have gone differently. Because look at what I have done with it. When someone thanks me for saying the things that they cannot say, I know that it is all worth it. When I say the things that others think no one else feels, I know that I am doing something right. Because I don’t want to change what I have been through, but I want to prevent anyone else from going there. Because I barely survived. My writing is my way to talk to you. It is my way to tell you that you are not alone. You are not strange. You are not wrong. You are not worthless. You are sick. You are hurt. And you deserve healing. You deserve relief from your pain.

I remember once meeting a man who has depression at least as severe as mine. And we were discussing a certain therapy. He asked me if I still had “the thoughts” after the therapy. And I remember that I didn’t need any other information. I knew exactly what he meant. He meant suicidal thoughts. And he was embarrassed but tormented by them. I knew it. And he knew that I knew. That is why he felt comfortable asking me. It was the first time I knew that just being open could do a lot. It felt so good to say what we could not say. It felt so good. It was so painful, but good. And that is what we have here on the blog. A place to say the things we cannot say. I don’t mind saying them. I’m not afraid any more. No. I am afraid. I am so afraid, but not of rejection. I am afraid of depression. I know the real enemy, and it isn’t the petty or ignorant reactions of people who don’t understand. Words hurt but depression kills. And silence gives depression free reign. I won’t let someone else suffer in ignorance. I want to be everything I needed. Because I don’t want anyone else to do what I did. I can’t stop depression. But I can fight stigma. I can speak loudly and often about depression. I can say the things that others can’t say yet. And maybe someone will listen. Maybe someone will hear me. And maybe it will help them.

If you think you might be depressed or that someone you care about may be depressed, check out the Mayo Clinic page on depression. Don’t wait to contact your doctor about discussing your mental health. If you are in crisis, don’t wait to reach out for help. You can always call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. You are not alone. I am here, and I will keep talking, saying the things that I once thought I could not say.

4am, 17 Years Ago


I read this old poem of mine today, and I found it more thoughtful than I remembered. I wrote it the summer between high school and college. I was depressed already but neither I nor anyone else knew. I was secretive and moody but I mostly just seemed like an emotional teenager. But when I look at things I wrote, I know that my depression was already at work.

I wrote this poem, probably late in the summer, in 2000. I was already having trouble with insomnia and I wrote this at 4am, like the title says. I did not record the date–just the time. I thought my thoughts were being ruled by the night rather than by my age, but this poem is very much written by an 18 year old. 

So why is it worth revisiting? There are a few moments worth touching on, I think, as a way to see my depression clearly at work. Here’s the poem. I will share my thoughts after:

4am
I don’t want to be here

I don’t know where in the hell I want to be

I want to be in your grasp

Anywhere

As long as I can see my reflection in your eyes

But not here

And not anywhere alone

There is a different kind of blood running through my veins

It feels different

All it does is create dissatisfaction and desire

Desire for everything I’ve ever dreamed of

I need something to appease my heart

The beat is sad

I want out

I want to go far away from everything I know

I want to feel you on my skin

I want to see pink sunsets

I want something better

I want the courage to actually do something

I want talent

I want opportunity to knock on my door

And I want to be older

I want to be in your realm, not the audience

I want you

I want to rearrange the world and write my own fate

And I want to be in love

I want to close my eyes

I want to be someone else

I want to walk out my door and never come back

I want to know every song ever written

And I want to write the saddest song in the world

Then sing it

I want to peer into your soul

And I want you to peer into mine

I want to climb a mountain

And find all the answers at the top

I want to kiss you

I want to play the piano

And write a book with all the right words

I want to look into a mirror at your house and be satisfied

I want to lose my heart to you

I want you to take my hand in yours and hold it tight

I want to sit with Carlo Marx and contemplate everything all night long

I want to stand in the rain

I want life to be more than it is

I want to stop and start again

I want somebody to talk to

Just to talk

I want to be able to sleep at night and not wake up

I start with my discontent and the vague desire to be elsewhere. As I begin to romanticize my feelings, I actually touch on something noteworthy: “There is a different kind of blood running through my veins/ It feels different/ All it does is create dissatisfaction and desire.” I was being hyperbolic, metaphorical, but I was more correct than I could have imagined. My blood wasn’t different, but my chemicals were imbalanced. And I could feel it. I was different. My body and brain were working differently than my friends around me. And it made me discontent. It made me long for something to make me feel better–to make me feel happy again. I thought at 18 I needed romantic love. But that was just the lens through which I viewed my feelings. I thought it was because no one loved me. And I longed for the love that I thought would fix me. And I thought that I could not find it where I was because if I could have found it there then I would have already found it. I couldn’t understand that the problem was not external but internal. And yet I did understand. I felt the difference inside, as if it was in my own blood, but I couldn’t understand that a mental illness could change my ability to perceive reality and myself so dramatically. 

One of the weirdest things about my first depressive episode is that I really wanted to live fully–I just didn’t want to live the life I had or be the person I was. I wanted a different life. I wanted to do, be, and experience the world. It seemed so beautiful and yet I felt so sad. I thought that if I was different or if I went somewhere different that maybe I would be able to feel content and happy: “I want to climb a mountain/ And find all the answers at the top.” felt like everything I needed was out in the world somewhere. I thought that if I could journey across America like Sal Paradise or go to Africa like Eugene Henderson and become the rain king (“I want, I want, I want…”). I just wanted anything that would work. I was searching. I thought I needed experience in order to find what I was looking for. I was consumed by daydreams of the things that I thought would fix me. And I would ruminate over my inability to have the things I thought I needed to feel happiness. And because I wasn’t going to actually, physically go anywhere, I obsessed over my bad fortune. That fate had put me in a place and time where I could never be content. And I thought that if I could just escape and find the answers to all of my existential questions, then I would be fine again. I would be like everyone else again. But I need a journey or I would wither where I was.

But beyond wanting to take a physical journey or fall in love, I wanted everything to be different. I felt like even if I did all of these things, life would still be disappointing. I was already giving in to the hopelessness of depression: “I want life to be more than it is/ I want to stop and start again/ I want somebody to talk to/ Just to talk”. I go from not wanting to be where I was–time and place were the problem–to wanting all of life to be more–existence generally is the problem. At first I didn’t fit where I was, I wanted things to fix me, but by the end I want everything to be different– a do over. But what I really needed was someone to talk to about all of this. And that is not just something to throw away. That is not just what I wanted as a depressed 18 year old, it is truly what I needed. I needed to be honest and tell someone how horrible I felt rather than just writing about it. I knew that I needed that. But I believed that I was strange. I believed that I was selfish and bratty for feeling unhappy. I was afraid to show my true colors for fear of rejection. As much as I need to talk to someone who could help me, I didn’t. I just wrote it all down and kept it secret. 

And finally, “I want to be able to sleep at night and not wake up”. As I mentioned above, I was already experiencing insomnia as a result of my depression. I would stay up late in my room thinking, ruminating, writing, daydreaming. But sleep was elusive. It sounds like I meant that I wanted to be able to sleep solidly through the night, but I know better. I remember. I wanted to be able to sleep and never wake up. This is some of the earliest evidence of my experiences with suicidal ideation. Part of me was willing to admit that I was so discontent, so unhappy that I would not object to gently falling asleep and never waking up again. I felt that way because as I wrote down all of the things I wanted I became more and more sure that I could never have them, and that I was crazy just for wanting so much rather than accepting what I had. I didn’t have a bad life. I didn’t know why I couldn’t be happy, and why I wanted so much more than I had. And it was too much for me at 18. I felt like I had my entire life in my hands at 18, and I was signing up for an unfulfilling life, and that any other life was inaccessible to me. I felt like I was stuck before I ever began. I felt doomed. But I didn’t realize how doomed I was. I didn’t realize that I was just at the beginning of wanting to sleep and never wake up. I didn’t realize that within a few months I would do what I could to make that desire a reality. 

It surprises me sometimes that I could so clearly feel what was happening–I could write about it–but I didn’t understand it at all. I could feel the changes taking place in my body and my ability to function. I recognized that I was feeling more and more unhappy every day. And my depression made me think that it was all normal. That it was just the truth–the reality of the situation. I just accepted my own destruction as unavoidable. I was destined for a life of unhappiness a the young age of 18. 

But that is how depression works. It hides. It wears a mask and makes you believe that it is you. That you are the depression and the world is as skewed as depression makes it seem. And depression tells you to hide yourself. Depression makes you feel like an anomaly. And it will make you believe that nothing can every change to make you feel any better. And it starts small and romantic. And it is pretty and tragic. And it feels special. But it turns dark. It turns ugly. And it is nothing but a vicious illness. 

There is hope for healing. You can feel better, and the answers to your problems may be closer to home than you think. Don’t let depression steal your dreams. Don’t let it tell you that you will never feel happy again or that only the impossible can fulfill you. There is love, hope, and happiness available through medical help and therapy. Sending you love and clarity. May you see the truth and find the healing you deserve.

Curiosity Killed the Collage?


I spent much of Saturday cleaning my house. When I was working in the living room, I spent some time looking at the collage I made in 2005. I have discussed it on the blog before. I made it for a senior Brit Lit class at UTTyler. I chose to create a collage and give a presentation on it rather than write a final paper. It might seem like less work, but it wasn’t at all. I worked on it daily for 2-3 months, and still most of the material I used had been composed several years before. Most of the collage is made up of poetry and prose I wrote between 1999-2001. I wrote obsessively during that time, recording my thoughts, feelings, and interactions regularly. I also wrote around 30 poems during those years and a few short stories. Pieces of many of these writings are on the collage interspersed with literary quotes and images.

When I finished the collage, I got rid of everything. I deleted or threw away almost all of the originals. I kept a notebook with most of my poems hand written, one of my short stories, and one journal. Everything else–and there was quite a lot–I got rid of. I think it must have been an attempt at catharsis. Or a sacrifice to art. Whatever the reason, I regret it now. While I love my collage–I don’t think that I have made a better piece of visual art–I am not an artist. I am a writer. And I could do a lot more with the words than with the fragmented representation I have now.

I tried to read as much of it as I could–maybe 65-70%, but there is still so much that it obscured. I even ripped off a couple of old pieces today to see what was underneath. Then I was like, “Laura Grace! Don’t be crazy! You can’t rip this apart just to see what is hidden!” I stopped myself, but I am so curious and intrigued.

I finished the collage in the spring of 2005, and it has hung in my living room ever since. I took it from Texas to Oklahoma to Florida back to Oklahoma and now Washington. It has always been the piece of art I was most proud of. I often work quickly when I paint, but I was slow and deliberate with this collage, and I am still so pleased with how it turned out. But through all of these moves I didn’t read it. When I finished it and threw everything away, after I got my A+, I hung it up and never looked at its pieces. I only saw it as a whole.

And maybe that is best. It is a representation of me during those years. Things I loved, dreams I had, memories, secrets. But starting sometime last year I began to feel ready to revisit the details. The more I write, the more I try to remember. The more I want to remember. And it is right there. I’m sitting 2 feet away from it all right now, but I would have to destroy the collage to get to it. And I still wouldn’t have it all. Because there was so much more that never made it on to the collage. And I threw it all away.

Maybe I just wish that I could write now the way I did then. Not style or content, but commitment and quantity. Maybe I miss being so dreamy. Maybe it is that so much bad shit was happening to me during those years and this collage is a representation of the good. It is a representation of my dreams and desires–my true friends, my loves, my hopes. It is a memory of all of the things I loved during the darkest part of my youth. And I loved them deeply because depression made me feel everything deeply. Only the most special, dearest of things could get through to me in those days. But they did get through. I have this entire collage as proof.

So no matter how much I want to see and read what is obscured, as much more useful as the words might be than the collage is, I am not going to rip it up. It will have to stay as is and continue to hang on my living room wall for as long as I love it.

Love/Hate

I’m watching 13 Reasons Why on Netflix currently. It is a teen drama that centers around the suicide of a teenage girl. This may include spoilers, I’m not totally sure. 

**********

A few days ago I started watching 13 Reasons Why, and I am just now a few minutes in to episode three. I actually paused the episode to write this. I’m only watching one episode at a time, so far. It is because I love/hate this show already.

I love that it is engaging and intriguing. The frame narrative is a fun way to emphasize the notion of the unreliable narrator. And an unreliable narrator always makes things more fun. And it is fun without being light or flippant.

But I hate how fun it is. 

I hate that I am enjoying myself. I shouldn’t be so enthralled by the questions: Was Hannah crazy? Is she a liar? Was her suicide justified? Is she vindictive or insane? That’s the mystery for me at this point: Is Hannah mentally ill or going to become mentally ill? Or is this all teenage trauma porn? I hate all of these questions because I feel like I’m trying to figure out a game that ended before it began.

And I wonder–is this what my peers were doing after I tried to kill myself? Were their parents worried? Did my classes, school, or sorority address it or try to ignore it? 

I saw my friends from my dorm once after my suicide attempt–one week after–when I went to pack up my stuff. My high school friends who were there were mostly devastated, but my newer, college friends just seemed uncomfortable as I told them that I had severe depression and was leaving school. They were closed off. Scared. Uncomfortable around me. Quiet and distant. The first feeling I felt was that it would have been better if I had never come back to see them and explain. They would have preferred that. Then I felt sorry for them that they had to be around me. I was so awful. I never wanted to return, and I didn’t feel that I would ever be welcome among them again. 

And I wonder–did my peers think I was crazy or something else? Did they wonder about my sanity or did they judge me as selfish or weak? 

I had several friends who called afterwards to hear me tell my story, but they never called back. I had friends disappear forever. And I had friends too scared to do anything. But curiosity, judgement, coldness, or silence were the last things I needed. They cheapen my struggle. I take offense at the thought that my suicide would be a juicy piece of gossip to chew on. To mull over.

And I realize that I am taking this all too personally. I am trying to figure out where to identify; where do I fit in? I’m trying to stop feeling guilty for being so entertained–Hannah is just a fictional character. And she’s not really dead because she was never alive.

But what bothers me is that when I am ill the line between fiction and reality becomes blurred by abstract thinking. I could metaphorically say the same about myself at times: “she’s not really dead because she was never alive.” That’s great fodder for suicidal thinking. When I feel so dead that I figure I might as well be–when my actual life feels less significant than that of a fictional character–that is why I know that my guilt about the show is real. I’m not the only one feeling how I feel–seeing myself in Hannah simply because I know what it is like to give in. And it is traumatic and tragic. Suicidal thinking is a curse. An unbearable burden.

And I’m only a quarter of the way through the third episode. Whew! 

Tell me NOTHING. I am so serious. Don’t even say, “Just wait…” or “Keep watching.” Don’t tell me if I am right or wrong. I will take it in at my own pace and gain my own understanding as I do. But I thought that it could be insightful to give you some of my initial thoughts. I won’t recommend the show as I am still too early on, and I promise to report back once I finish, if not before. Back to episode three!

Art at 18: Three Vignettes 

On a Saturday morning in March of 1994, I was at a slumber party for my friend’s birthday on a living room floor strewn with sleeping bags and other 12 year old girls. We were watching an MTV video countdown of current hits. I hardly knew any of them. But the number 3 video was “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows. It was like time stopped for a minute. I fell in love immediately. 

At 12, I didn’t really buy a lot of albums or go anywhere to buy albums in the first place. But on my church choir tour to New Orleans the following June I finally bought August and Everything After at a mall we visited. We weren’t allowed to have any secular music on the trip, so I had to be a little sneaky. But I was so excited, so my friends and I put it in my walkman without the headphones and we started playing it in the church van. One of the sponsors heard us (obviously) and took the tape away from me for the rest of the trip. Then I got it back. I obsessively listened to Round Here and Mr. Jones. I would sit on the floor facing my stereo and just fast forward and rewind between those two songs over and over.But then everyone cool I knew was listening to Green Day’s Dookie, and I eventually moved on with the crowd.

December 31, 1999, at 18 years old, I was at a friend’s parents’ lake house for the new year and the guy I had a crush on put on the live Counting Crows album Across a Wire; it starts with an acoustic version of Round Here, and I had never heard it. I still loved that song, and I immediately fell for the whole thing. The song, the guy, the night. All of it was perfect. So I bought the live album. And it was shockingly good to me. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t been listening to it already. (This recently happened to me again with The Cure. When I listened to Disintegration I was shocked that I had lived so long without hearing it. It was so perfect to me.)

Early in 2000, I quickly bought August and Everything After, Recovering the Satellites, and This Desert Life–the three studio albums they had by that point. And I devoured them. All of it. I listened to it all the time for a while. Then I started to ration how often I would allow myself to listen to them for fear that they would lose their magic. They never did. The soft gloominess mixed with emphatic searching of August and Everything After suited me so well as an 18 year old. And I still find myself relating to that album every time I listen to it. Every song on that album has been my favorite song in the world at some point. And no matter how old I get, that album always seems to fit. 

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Before my senior year of high school, I wanted to be a history major in college, probably focusing on 17th and 18th century France. I loved Versailles; I was taken in by the fairy-tale like material beauty of it and fascinated by its characters and it’s downfall. Marie Antoinette particularly stood out to me. (Antonia Fraser’s biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey is brilliant).

But it turns out that French literature of the 19th century would change my path. I read Madame Bovary my senior year of high school, and I had a visceral reaction. I loathed Emma Bovary; she was a monster, and I was angry that Gustave Flaubert would even write her. And yet I was completely enthralled. I hated her and yet loved the book. I had never felt that way about a piece of art. 

In class discussion about the book, my teacher told us the famous story of Flaubert exclaiming, “I am Madame Bovary!” And it hit me immediately like a ton of bricks: that was why I hated her. Because I, too, am Madame Bovary. And I didn’t want to be. I wanted to be content and amiable. I wanted to be grateful and selfless. But I was not content. I was sad and bored. I didn’t “act out” the way Emma Bovary did, though. I turned inward. I tried to rid myself of my discontent and boredom with daydreams and art.

I guess I am still, tragically, a Madame Bovary, as much as I may still love/hate it. It’s personality enhanced by depression. But I accept it. And I try to be more thoughtful than Emma Bovary, although, I do not always succeed.

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In June of 2000, just days after my high school graduation, I went with my family to London and Paris. We spent a good deal of time visiting the major art museums in both cities, and my sister, who had taken some art history courses in college, gave us wonderful details about many of the famous works we saw. She brought the already intriguing museums to life, telling us about why certain works were important.

I knew a little bit about art–a print of Van Gogh’s Starry Night hung in my bedroom, but seeing it in person and hearing about it was exhilarating. On that trip, my favorite museum in London was the Tate Modern, and my favorite in Paris was the Musée d’Orsay. At the Musée d’Orsay, I so clearly remember seeing and being shaken by Van Gogh’s 1889 Self-Portrait.

Van Gogh is a stunning painter, but his works are breath-taking in person. When I finally saw Starry Night in person in Houston when the best works of the MOMA were traveling the US, I was overwhelmed by it. When I returned home, I got rid of my print–it was nothing compared to the original. 

In June 2000–June 11, 2000 according to my journal–I saw Self-Portrait. I entered a room in the museum and looked directly to my right. Before I could even turn my body toward it, everything seemed to get blurry except for that painting. It felt like I was being drawn in by his eyes. It’s so life-like without being realist at all. It feels like it has energy.

Wikipedia’s page on this work states, “Van Gogh sent the picture to his younger brother, the art dealer Theo; an accompanying letter read: ‘You will need to study [the picture] for a time. I hope you will notice that my facial expressions have become much calmer, although my eyes have the same insecure look as before, or so it appears to me.'”

I saw my own insecurities in his eyes. I saw my inability to filter out the static of depression in the movement of the brushstrokes. He seemed desperate. He seemed unsettled. He seemed discontent. I felt all of those things. I get all of those feelings. And sometimes I wish that they showed on my face as clearly as I see them in Self-Portrait.

“The Thought of You is Never Far Away”: More Than Poetry


Last night I pulled out a book of poetry I have. I bought it in an independent bookstore in Austin, Tx in the spring of 2000. Probably in May. I remember because I was in Austin for a poetry competition. In high school I lettered in poetry interpretation. (Ha!) Basically, I performed a 7 minute poem or group of poems for 3 judges, and we would compete at local, regional, and state levels. I was pretty good at it, actually. I went to state my junior and senior year. I placed 4th in the state my senior year. And I really enjoyed performing. There were a lot of rules about what you could or could not do. There was a technique to picking the right poetry. The performance had to be restrained but engaging. Being both a drama and lit nerd, this was my bag.

But it wasn’t just about being the best performer. For me, the exposure to so much poetry was exciting. When I was a sophomore I remember there was this guy from a nearby school who made it to state reading Gregory Corso’s “Bomb.” Usually, picking something by a well known poet was risky. It was smarter and easier to pick something new to the judge to avoid comparisons. His performance was amazing, though, and we all had the biggest crush on him (T.F.). He even had a beard–in high school! I knew nothing of the beats then, and he was one hell of an attractive and engaging introduction. I never performed Beat poetry in competition, but his performance is where my love of it began.

In 2000, at my senior year state poetry competition, I heard someone read a beat-style poem titled “For Carl Wilson” by Robert M. White. I was at the competition with my soulmate girlfriend at the time, and we both scribbled down the title and author. That day we went found Robert M. White’s one and only published book of poetry titled Redemption Songs.

It was published by Oddfellow in Albuquerque in 1998. Last night when I checked online the only trace of Robert M. White or his poetry was one used copy of Redemption Songs on Amazon through a third party seller (it is signed by the author even). This little book of beat poetry is just an obscure footnote. But to me it is so much more. That is why I remember it so well. That is why I still have it. It doesn’t matter that the poetry isn’t groundbreaking because my encounter with this little book was. I can see that random kid performing. I can see the corner of the bookstore where I found it. I can practically feel my heartbreaking all over again when I read it.

My girlfriend and I had our own secret obsession with this little book. We would read it and talk about it, regularly reference it in conversation, and we even used some lines from it as metaphors for things happening in our lives. (“…and [we] missed the street/ so it was longer getting/ home.”) It became a centerpiece of our blossoming friendship. It helped us process being angsty teenagers struggling with (undiagnosed) mental illness.

Over the next couple of years, this book was my constant companion. I filled it with my favorite quotes and song lyrics, underlining my favorite lines in my signature green ink pen. It traveled with me to London and Paris the summer of 2000, and stayed beside my bed in my college dorm room. I remember buying and giving away a copy to someone I loved. It was the most personal gift I could think of. I wanted to give my heart, but this little book that spoke so deeply to me was the closest thing I could think of that usps would accept.

One of my favorite poems begins, “If I had a choice/ in these things/ I would have chosen to be elsewhere/ than here, in this silent room/ surrounded by memory and fantasy.” I think about all the places I wanted to be other than in my dorm room in Texas. I dreamed of California, the Midwest, New York. I dreamed of just leaving. Just getting up and leaving everything behind. Starting over and trying to be happy. Underneath this poem I have a Kerouac quote from On the Road: “…because he had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it and because there was nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars, generally the Western stars….” I just wanted to go. I was bursting out of my skin. I felt so trapped where I was. I felt like I couldn’t escape. I was so enraptured by the beats. I was so transformed by their freedom, by their openness, by their quest to satiate the gnawing emptiness that I too felt, by what seemed like their success in at least feeling if not understanding the essence of life. I thought it all seemed possible. And yet I wasn’t allowed to do that. That or I was just too scared.

I know more now, the mythos is gone. I wasn’t as trapped as I felt, although I wasn’t as free then as I am now. But when I found Redemptions Songs at 18, I thought that maybe I had found the key to my cage. That maybe if I followed my heart–my pathetically beat heart–I could escape the life I was growing to resent. That didn’t really happen. No book of poetry could save me from depression. What was once energizing became draining. The more depressed I got the less likely it seemed that I would ever escape. I tried writing poetry. I tried reading more books. I tried listening to more music. I tried ignoring the things that I hated and obsessively latched on to the things that made me forget my misery.

I used to read this book with wonder and fascination. But it became bittersweet. I would read, “And I dream/ and I hope/ that the sounds of my brain/ cacophony of insane thoughts/ burst into daytime fantasy/ and I stretch my hand to the missionary of space/ hold it high to the stars/ to grasp tight/ to rip this body from this mind/ and this soul from this earth/ into the experience of me/ which touches hard the mind/ to find new future/ for which there is no witness” and feel my captivity deeply. I felt like a prisoner to my conservative Christian upbringing. I wanted to rip my body from my mind and my soul from the earth. And yet everything about that seemed prohibited. I would be breaking the mold I had been squeezed into. I wanted a new future. I thought I wasn’t allowed to have any future except one that I loathed.

It’s a bit silly now. I did escape. And it wasn’t ever really a prison. Depression made me feel that way. Depression makes everything taste bitter. It lied to me about my life. It lied to me about my agency. It lied to me about my value. And it lied to me about my options. Sometimes, I wonder what if I had just left my life in Texas at 19? What if I had gotten out before my suicide attempt? That in itself is also silly. It won’t do to play “what if.” It won’t help. But we all do it anyway. What if that had happened? What if this hadn’t happened? Where would I be now? And then there is guilt that even just wondering makes you ungrateful for what future you ended up with. But we do it anyway.

I wonder every time I look at this little book of poetry. And I remember. I remember being afraid of being myself. I remember being afraid of breaking out of the mold. I remember thinking that poetry could change the world one person at a time. And I remember my disappointment when escape finally seemed impossible. Mostly I remember how much I wanted to live. Just not the life I had. I believed in love, hope, and happiness. I truly believed. All of my favorite poets and songwriters told me that those things existed. But depression made all of those things seem out of reach for me. What had started as a way out, what seemed like the key to my finding happiness, became a painful reminder of all those things that I could never have. Depression made me believe that I could not do what I wanted, that I would never be loved, that I would never be allowed to be happy. And to have discovered freedom only realize that it was not for me was maddening. It drove me to tears and into isolation, and then it drove me over the edge.

The last poem in the book begins, “The thought of you/ is never far away.” That pretty much sums up my feelings about this little book and all it represents. It all happened years ago and yet that time is never far from my thoughts. Having studied poetry in graduate school, I won’t claim that this little book is an undiscovered gem. It’s just a book of poetry by some dude who likes the Beats. But my copy is irreplaceable to me. After 17 years, I still keep it close. It isn’t just memories. It isn’t just poetry. It’s a tangible piece of me at my most tragic and most vulnerable. It is a token of self-discovery. It is a record of the idealism that both led to my suicide attempt and drove my recovery. It is everything that a little book of poetry aspires to be–truly meaningful to even just one other soul. I love it because I found myself in its pages.

Robert M. White, if you’re out there, thanks. You changed my life just as much as Kerouac did.