Judging Strangers' Most Private Pain
It's a strange thing, judging strangers' most deeply personal pain, but that's what I've been doing as I edit A Tether to this World: Mental Health Recovery Stories (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2021). I've read narratives of suicide attempts and hospitalizations and panic attacks, depression and schizophrenia and PTSD. There are stories of abuse and neglect and addiction. I'm immensely grateful and honored that these beautiful humans trusted me with their stories, and, in many cases, their anguish. These writers poured themselves onto the page. The intimacy of these narratives, though, makes my job even harder. I can accept roughly 30% of the submissions I received and, let me tell you, this is not easy. How do I reject a person's trauma?
I try to remember my friend's words in workshop when I shared an essay about my eating disorder and being the child of alcoholics: I want to honor your story. Know that my critique is of what's on the page and not your lived experience. I want these writers to know that, that I honor their experiences, the torment and resilience and yes, love, and my judgement is on the words and not what happened to them.
I know it's not easy to share what feels like the worst parts of yourself, the thing that makes you broken or wrong, your darkest shame. But the thing about stigma is that it won't go away unless we talk openly about mental illness. It's only been in the last two years that I've found the courage to talk publicly about my bipolar disorder, eating disorder, and trauma. It started with giving a graduate lecture on mentally ill women in contemporary fiction, which I knew wouldn't feel genuine unless I included my own experiences, such as being hospitalized for anorexia at the age of thirteen. I was finally saying, this is me. The people you're talking about is me. And people responded. Both friends and people I didn't know came up to thank me for sharing my story. So I kept talking.
I wrote this essay for OC87 Recovery Diaries (which publishes true mental health recovery stories and is a great resource) about the series of manic episodes I had while in grad school. Again, strangers reached out to thank me for sharing my experiences, and to share their own. It was humbling to have reached people, to know that mine is a story one can find among other stories and, hopefully, feel a little less alone.
Last winter, I attended Mental Health Awareness Day at the Vermont Statehouse and I was interviewed on the news! I was so grateful to meet other advocates and people and family members living with mental illness, to feel connected to other Vermonters going through similar experiences. For me, it's been a relief to share my story, the weight of secrecy lifted from my shoulders, knowing that others will help carry it. I hope the writers in this anthology feel that, a weight lifted from them, with a line tossed to others who are suffering.
The stories in A Tether to this World (a reference to Hannah Gadsby's "Nanette" on Netflix) will help bust stigma. They're bold and evocative and real. I feel as if I've gotten to know these writers through their traumas and healing, that I can see the best parts of them, as they reveal the worst. Their stories validate my own, and, I hope, readers will find that, too. I am honored that 127 writers shared their struggles and heartache with me, to be able to give that a space. I want them to know the care I took with each story, the love I feel for every writer who reached out from the dark. I hope that those whose work I was unable to accept will understand that my decision is not a critique of them, and I ultimately had to go with the pieces that broke my heart, that plunged me into darkness then pulled me back out again, that gripped me with their searing pain and rage and hurt, that made me believe in love and healing and recovery. I can't wait for you to read them.