The last day of April was my first time in the booth. “The Booth” is what my memoir class calls it when it’s your turn to have pages workshopped. You go around the room and one at a time, each one of your classmates gives you feedback on your writing. You’re not allowed to say anything, not allowed to explain or defend your work. You just listen, as though you’re in a soundproof booth. The instructor goes last.
For my first booth, I had written just six pages, the tiniest slice of my life detailing two incidents: one, my father’s near drowning when I was a child, and two, a flight from Los Angeles to Seattle where a stranger asked me some very pointed and very none-of-your-business type questions about my family in general and my mother’s death in particular and I lied, blatantly, to her face.
That experience on the plane was not the first time I’ve told a lie. In fact, I’ve told many, many lies over the last several years. The biggest and most frequent lie I’ve told is that I’m OK. I’ve told it to strangers to make them comfortable. I’ve told it to friends and family to keep them from worrying about me. And I’ve told it to myself because I wanted to believe it. Because I’m so, so tired of not being OK.
As we wrapped up the booth session, my instructor closed her comments by saying, “I just want to tell you how sorry I am. To absorb so much loss at such a young age is painful, and wrong, and I wish it wasn’t so.” And because I wasn’t allowed to say anything, this time I didn’t lie and tell her I was OK. I just listened, and took it in. And then I got on the subway and went home, crawled into bed, and slept until dinner.
It’s not easy to admit that I’m a liar, not easy to admit that the way I want to see myself is different than the way I am. I don’t want to complain, and I don’t want to be sad. I want to be a survivor, rather than a victim.
And in truth, I am a survivor. I have survived a great many things. I have survived my mother looking at me with vacant eyes and telling me she wanted to die. I have survived the knowledge that I was unable to keep her from dying. I have survived the months of constant fear over what would happen to my terminally ill father, living alone in a house he refused to leave. I have survived the guilt over the relief I felt when he died, because it meant I would no longer have to worry about him.
And speaking of guilt, I have survived the wrenching guilt over the fact that I left the person I promised to love forever, because I cared less about his pain than I did about being free. I have survived the guilt that I didn’t grieve for my grandmother as she succumbed to advanced Alzheimer’s disease, because I blamed her years of cruelty and emotional abuse for breaking down my mother’s fragile psyche and leading her to turn to alcohol in the first place.
I have survived the death of the sweetest man I’ve ever known, my Grandpa Gerry, survived the hospice nurses telling me he could bleed out in front of me, or that there might not be enough morphine to keep him from pain. I have survived dark nights of the soul, survived not being able to get up off my apartment floor for days at a time, survived my own broken heart.
But what does all this survival mean? There’s nothing particularly noble or admirable about it. It simply means I stayed alive, because as terrible as staying alive was, it was better than the alternative.
My, “I’m gonna sell all my stuff, move to New York and start over,” move was an act of rebellion against all these years of surviving. I wanted to do more than just survive. I wanted to thrive. I wanted to change my life. No matter how many people told me how hard New York was going to be, I didn’t care. After all I’ve been through, I told myself, this will be easy.
It wasn’t. For the first time I realized the comfort in living in a place where people know you, where they share your history. No one knows me here. And in a city of so many people, so many of whom are suffering, my problems seem small and insignificant. I seem small and insignificant.
The truth is, I’m ashamed of myself. I’ve been given the gift of survival, and what have I done with it? I’ve squandered opportunities and time. I’ve spent money I’ve inherited from my parents foolishly, hoping that “treating myself,” would make me feel better. I’ve been spoiled and selfish, spent far too much time feeling sorry for myself. I’ve been called brave and I haven’t deserved it.
Last Sunday, I woke to the most glorious day. It was cloudy, but not rainy, with a gentle breeze and the slightest chill in the air. I sat in the arm chair of my living room, windows open, curtains parted. And for the first time, I noticed that the formerly barren trees climbing upwards toward my eighth-floor balcony were suddenly full of lush green leaves, and birds were singing. “This is spring,” I told myself. “This is perfect. Hold on to this.”
And in that moment, I made a decision. I will no longer apologize for the fact that I am not OK. I will no longer apologize for the fact that I don’t fit into normal life, or that my journey doesn’t look like everyone else’s. I will accept myself as I am: searching, messy, not as together as I’d like to be, but moving forward anyway. I will try harder to open my palms in gratitude for all I’ve been given. And I will keep writing my story, flawed and sharp-edged as it is, always with an eye toward a quote my teacher ended our last memoir class with, from Abigail Thomas:
“Be honest, dig deep, or don’t bother.”
Until next time, friends.
sounds like you’re ready to bloom, like those flowers that hibernate all winter, just surviving under the snow, and then when conditions are right, out they come?
Thank you my friend. I think so. I hope so. Something is definitely shifting. ❤️
Truth is a place where so many things can happen…even the ones that we long gave up on…glad to hear you’ve decided to live there…welcome to the most freedom in life you will ever have (as well as one of the most insane places you will ever be), haha 🙂
It will all be worth it…eventually…enjoy the ride!
Your piece is very moving – honest and courageous. I am sorry for all your losses. I understand about moving away – spent the first half of my life running instead of facing. Your insights demonstrate a wisdom hard won. I wish you well going forward.
Please may I ask don’t berate yourself for the things you did while surviving (when you said you were selfish, etc.). The acceptance and refusal to apologize for who you are and where you’re at is an act of kindness to yourself and that is so important. I’m just reeling a bit from the death of someone who suffered from depression – he was a kind and caring man, if only he were able to see himself as someone deserving of love and care for as much as he loved and cared for others. Maybe we could all stand to be kinder and gentler with ourselves. I saw someone else recently post how they can appreciate where they are now, as long as they give love to all the “me’s” along the way, and is a thought I’ll try to practice going forward. Your post is beautiful and thoughts are with you as you begin this new phase. x
It takes strength to confront your own grief and vulnerabilities. Ever forward
Girl your work always resonates with me, and this so so SO much so. I think we are all liars. I have always answered to how are you? With Okay. I can count on one hand the amount of people I have willingly admitted to NOT being okay. Even when my sister was killed and I was battling an eating disorder, everything was okay. I think as humans and the society we live in, it is ingrained that we are “okay.” Anything less makes people uncomfortable, and why? We all go through crap, some definitely more so then others, but as humans it is okay to NOT be okay one hundred percent of the time. The fact that you realize that, makes you stronger and more real then most people. So much love to you sweets. ❤
Spring has been found, spring was sleeping in at a Bed and Breakfast in Calistoga, Napa Valley, California, Wine Country.
There is no doubt she has tossed away her snow shovel and burned her drop bottom red booted long johns in forcing the death of winter, thus she stands tall at highest tower, Purple inner lined black cape, silver sterling pin centered with crystal amethyst. She shouts, once, then shouts again demanding the rebirth of spring, then ravens exiting the long forgotten well, rising upward, parting in flight they turn to the cardinal directions, arcing. Croaks the crocus, blooms the painted tulips, for her the meadows of clover, and sounds of Silence no longer hushed, for spring had truly spoken, spring has truly come, dance around the May pole.
It was my birthday, my dear wife and loving little boy both made me the most delicious dark rich chocolate cake and most delicious Dark fudge rich thick frosting. The kind of frosting which must me drizzled upon rich creaming vanilla ice cream Sundays, and cup cakes. The weather here is still in a funk, not sun hot days, but blended days mid 50s to mid 70s a few days. You quite fickle or rather quite iffy to say the least of it.