We all turn our lives into stories. It is a defining characteristic of our species… Every time we tell the story again, we don’t go back to the original event and start from scratch, we go back to the last time we told the story. It’s the story we shape and improve on, we don’t change what happened. This is also a way of protecting ourselves… By telling the story from the story, instead of from the actual events, we are able to distance ourselves from our suffering. – Ann Patchett
Two days prior to the presidential election, I had an epiphany. No, not one in which I predicted our country would prefer to identify with a lying, tantrum-throwing man-baby who’d gleefully used racism and misogyny to blast himself toward the White House. If I had realized our nation was about to snap backward like a rubber band at breaking point, I may have chosen a different time to launch forward in my sudden self-improvement quest.
But, as has been noted, the ugliness of the presidential candidate did confirm the worst of how far too many men in our culture view – and use – women. And, as has been noted, many women including myself had been losing our minds about it about it.
I’ve written so much about sexual assault, what it’s like to live in a society where men help themselves to your body and other men applaud or excuse that behavior, what it’s like to have daughters in this world. I’ve pleaded with guys I know to truly man up and actively work against rape culture. I’ve shared many Facebook posts on the topic, “Look! Look! Please!”
And so many guys get it! Strides have been made! And yet, instead of rejecting a man who boasted about doing whatever he wanted to women, we elected him.
But back to three months ago.
I was still functioning in the sense that I was working, socially engaged, cooking meals, reading many books, but the darker threads running through my life had tangled together such that I couldn’t escape, couldn’t sort them out. In fact, every time I tried, the knots tightened. The hurt around sexual assault and betrayal, challenging family dynamics, the general headfuck of getting older, and on top of everything, exponential professional growth I was anxious to be worthy of. I had a lot spinning through my brain.
And so I found myself, three months ago, not exactly the person I want to be. I hate being messy, ugly, less than my best self. Maybe “epiphany” isn’t the right word, as the realization wasn’t so much a moment of sudden revelation, as it was an acknowledgment that what I was trying to carry had become too much. That my strength had ebbed. That maybe I was dumb to shoulder it all in the first place.
What’s the word for when the obvious becomes so? As anyone near me could’ve pointed out, I clearly needed some serious therapy regarding my inability to deal with the veneration of the guy who assaulted me. It had broken in me something I hadn’t been able to fix. In fact, I’d only made it worse through my own inconsistency and (no small matter) by steadily pouring alcohol on my feelings, a move forever like trying to put out fire with gasoline.
So the first step was to stop drinking completely so I could more accurately assess and own my feelings. And also not be an asshole.
The second step involved my long-suffering friends, who not only tolerate my endless self-analysis, but offered me encouragement, reassurance and such steady love that I may explode with gratitude. I count my husband among them.
And then the usual steps one takes to sort out one’s mind: meditation and therapy, self-help advice (including my own) and doing good unto others, an immersion in work and family. I’ve learned to “note” my feelings, which means to acknowledge them without drowning in them, to let them roll on by without me: “Oh, look. There’s anger. That’s an interesting feeling. Oh, hey. Grief. I know that feeling. I’m going to set it over here for a bit while I do something else.”
I’m also learning more about the place between perfection and failure. My therapist recommends I figure out how to be comfortable there.
(Here, from a friend, is one of my favorite responses to me fretting about my worth: “Is it perfection you seek? Well, let it go. Enjoy the shit out of your gorgeous self and life. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow there’s a car accident and your legs have to be amputated and the nurse feeds you nutrition liquid in a plastic sack. Consider yourself supported, with much love and admiration.” With advice like that, how can I not be humbled? How can I not be brave? How can I not dance and see myself through kinder eyes?)
I hadn’t planned on needing to cope with a Trump presidency. I joke that I picked a lousy time to back off of drinking, that I wouldn’t have bothered with solving my own issues when the country’s determined to be dysfunctional. But intentional or not, the truth is, this was an excellent time to start untangling myself from what’s been tripping me up. I need to be as strong and sharp as possible to protect my family, my friends, my beloved world from the increased harms coming our way.
This is the part of the post where I can’t remember why am I writing this all down. What, Jennifer, what is the point of all this sharing? It’s a hard moment to get through – who do I think I am, after all, assuming someone out there wants to know any of this? – and yet because I have sustained myself on the words of others throughout my life, I keep typing.
And because sometimes people have said to me my words mean something to them, I keep typing.
Like a week ago, when a friend said to me about her efforts to up her own game, “You’ve laid so much of the groundwork already.” As if I had given her a gift. But that is what we do as friends, isn’t it? Guide each other? Hold on to each other? Make each other stronger? It’s love on love on love on love.
And so I keep typing.