Telling Your Truth
I'm not much for sticking to New Year's resolutions (let's be real; is anyone?), but at the beginning of this year I set the ambiguous goal of being bolder and more open. That's meant talking about the hard stuff and being brave enough to bring my full self to the party, flaws and all. I first tackled this daunting goal back in January by talking about my hospitalization in a teen psych ward in my graduate lecture at the Bennington Writing Seminars. My lecture was on representations of mentally ill women in fiction, and I felt I would be doing the subject an injustice by not talking about the lens through which I was approaching this topic, as a mentally ill woman who had been institutionalized, like many of the characters I was discussing. I was terrified to stand at a podium in front of a room of friends and strangers and talk about my struggles with an eating disorder and bipolar disorder. But, when I did it, something amazing happened. People I'd never met came up to me to thank me and share their stories. I got Facebook messages about how meaningful my lecture was to them. My dear friend Ellen, who deserves a lot of the credit for me finding the strength to talk about my demons, texted me "Be proud of your struggles, love. For they shaped you into a warrior with the ability and duty to lead others who are also struggling out of the dark." (Seriously, she's the best.) By telling my truth I seemingly have reached some people who needed to know they were not alone, but I've also realized that others are struggling with similar things, too. It's given me strength, this camaraderie, this ability to talk about the things that scare me. It's been a tremendous weight lifted off of me, this newly-found honesty. It's helped me be bolder and more open, with myself, and others, and showed me this incredible support system.
A huge part of this journey into a bolder, more open self has been writing about my experiences, my pain, my doubts. This space has created an avenue for me to be honest about what I'm going through, and I'm grateful to the magazines and journals who have seen value in my stories. The process of sharing my demons publicly has helped me conquer them (or, you know, face them head-on and continue to be beaten down by them again and again, then maybe find some peace. Let's not pretend I didn't spend an hour sobbing in therapy this week.). When I published an essay in HuffPost this year about a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy I experienced five years ago, one of the most physically and emotionally painful experiences I've had to date, I felt a huge sense of relief. It was out there, this thing I never talked about, that had been weighing on me for years. Strangers reached out to thank me for my story and share their own, and I hope that offered them some relief, too. I was no longer alone.
This week, I had an essay about my manic episodes during my MFA program and my bipolar diagnosis published in OC87 Recovery Diaries (which, by the way, I've found to be an excellent resource and comfort). I was afraid to share this one, which was so raw and honest about something difficult and shameful that people don't like to talk about. I think, as a society, that we're getting better (I hope) at recognizing the very real and pervasive effects of mental illness and that something must be done about it, but it's still not socially acceptable to say "that's me," or, "I need to get the fuck out of here right now, I am freaking out." Back to my super-friend, Ellen, who was the first person I met who had experienced similarly debilitating anxiety and depression, who lamented with me physical spaces on campus that were not designed for people with anxiety who needed to escape immediately, who talked me down from a panic attack, cut me half a Xanax when I needed it, helped me into her car when I was shaking. This friendship and others I have discovered, which have allowed me to be my complete self, have been life-changing for me. By being more open, I've had amazing friends step up to the plate and really listen, for which I am so damn grateful.
In addition to the short story collection that's well on its way to being finished (I hope), I'm working on a memoir. It's about mental health, addiction, eating disorders, and mother-daughter relationships. While this year I've become much more comfortable telling the story of my mental health journey, I'm still terrified to talk about issues with my mother and her substance abuse. I'm afraid of the way she'll react, the even further distance it will put between us, and the backlash. I so deeply hope that I can effectively convey the love behind it all, how much she means to me, how much I still respect and look up to her, and want nothing more than to help her, though I feel powerless to. She is this incredibly strong, powerful, brilliant woman whom I've always revered and who inspires me, and it is so painful to watch her hurt herself, just like she's had to watch me hurting myself over the years. It was at Bennington that I finally met people who could empathize and understand what I was going through (I tried to stage an intervention days before going to school for the first time). I don't want to offend my mother, but in talking about these issues, I know it's inevitable. And the thing I've come to realize is that her story is my story, too, and that I need to tell it.
Recently I mentioned this to my writers' group, to which some family friends belong. I was workshopping a section of my memoir and I confessed how scared I was to show it to them because they knew my mother and I didn't want to shatter their perception of her, the image of herself that she works so hard to maintain. "Just tell your truth," a friend (who is an important mother figure to me) said. Because that's all we can do. Tell our own truths. Another friend in that group is also writing a memoir, which is titled Tell (read some of it here. Seriously.), which has gotten me thinking about what it means to tell, to bear witness, to say something, which can often be the hardest thing to do. As I explore often-painful parts of myself in my essays and memoir-in-progress, all I can do is tell my truth and, in doing so, let go of the pain a little bit, and maybe even connect to someone in a deeper way because of it. Because truth is power, and it's the greatest power I have, the only way I know to be bold and open. So, tell your truth. I'm listening.