I want to be tough and tender for you. I want to be strong enough to shoulder your burden when it's too much for you alone to bear. I want to put aside all of the things that prevent me from being vulnerable with you so that you have access to the realest version of me. The barest, most stripped down version. I want to give you access to my exposed heart so you can watch it beat through the places where my skin is worn thinnest. I know I can trust you.
You, who inspire me so much. You punks and queers, you radicals and artists. You beautiful, brave soulds – full of coffee and hope, spreading your light to the places it seldom reaches. I want to be home and hearth for you when you've been away in the weary world for too long. I want to be the first bite of a steaming meal at a table of friends when you've been crammed into shops and offices and onto busses for long miles and days.
When it's hard – when the work is exhausting and stops being rewarding, I want to fill your depleated tank. I want you to know that you are important and needed. That you are vital and appreciated. No one will begrudge you your rest or question your feelings. Take a nap, read fiction for fun, spend time in the woods or in a steaming, fragrant bath. Take care, whatever that looks like for you. Take the time and space you need. Come back when you're ready. I'll miss you, and I'll be waiting for you to take the care you need. I can't wait to see you at your best.
So, I wrote a book a while ago. It was fine. A memoir. It's not the strongest writing I've ever done, but it was super therapeutic (for me) and I hope it helped someone who read it, somewhere. I don't think about it much since it's long out of print. But then I happened to be looking up a pub date and saw that someone was reselling it for $180. Totally absurd. Anyway. I posted about it on facebook and people commented and then I realized that it might look like I was fishing for compliments. I wasn't (and am still not). I'm not great with compliments. I appreciate them, but get weirdly self-conscious about them. Are the people in my life just exceptionally kind? (Yes, obviously.) Are they humoring me? (Possibly.) Do they think I'm bragging? (I hope not. Amazon algorithms are a weird thing to brag about.) Should I stop drinking coffee when I can taste colors? (Of course not. Power through until you can also taste numbers!)
So, I decided that I'd start organizing my work by type (short fiction, creative nonfic, novels, academic papers, etc). I'm going through a stack of flashdrives to see what in recent history is worth saving to reuse later or try and publish somewhere. I wrote this at some point while I was writing Everybody Else's Girl. I don't think this made it into the book in any real way, but it's a thing I've been thinking about and it's writing I'm not too embarrassed by.
(Obvious trigger and content warnings for poverty, addiction, abuse, suicide, etc.)
There are other people from similar circumstances whose lives have turned out differently. Who gambled on religion or drugs and booze or a no good husband. Whose days are dedicated to family and home, to ailing parents, to getting high, to working a job that pays just enough to scrape by. There are people who dreamed of, if not bigger things, of different ones. Who thought that maybe life elsewhere had different possibilities and pursued them in spite of the unspoken accusations of abandonment and betrayal that lingered on the lips of people left behind. There are people who didn't make it out at all. Reckless boys who drank too much and drove too fast. Women who lived too hard and loved too much and wound up ghosts, haunting the dreams of the people who miss them most. I have watched the people I grew up with destroy themselves in violently tragic ways – with guns, cars, with fists and each other, by their own hand or that of a pissed off dealer or a jealous lover. I have watched too many people fade from vibrancy into the slow, wasting misery of addiction and poverty. I have loved them, and hurt for them, wanted to save them but not known how. And I've tried to make different choices. Not better. I don't presume to know what rounds out anyone else's life. I do try, with everything I do, everything I write, everything I am, to honor the people who walked me to where I am.
I have a difficult relationship to the word survivor. I recognize that it is an easier and stronger word than victim. But it has always seemed too pithy and simplistic to encompass all of the subtle complexities of living through trauma. Is it surviving if everything you do feels weighted down by your past? If you feel like the scars your abuse left you with are so obvious that strangers can see them? Is it surviving if you feel haunted by an army of ghosts?
I know that it's complicated. I know that everyone who lived through poverty and addiction feel different about their lives. I know, even as I write this that the lens of experience is as ever changing and unpredictable as that of a kaleidoscope. My feelings will change with time and distance. My perspective will shift, my anger and grief will wax and wane. I will not feel in ten years or ten minutes how I feel right now. Regardless, if living this long through such mean experiences have taught me anything, it's how to thrive. I'll think a lot and I'll be sad sometimes, but the really sweet moments will be made that much more so by the hard things they sprouted up through.
I am writing this for my brother, who was killed before he had the chance to fall in love, to experience all of the hell of adolescence, to to realize the trauma that we might have lived through together. I have always felt robbed of that validation – that Justin, the one person who bore witness to my entire life died tragically young, before we bonded as much more than young antagonistic siblings.
I am writing this for my friend Chuck, who died a few years before I got clean and moved away. He reminded me of Justin in a lot of ways. They had the same sort of gentleness to them. The same tender, unbearable beauty.
I am writing this for Pam, who overdosed on heroin long before it was available in the area. For the daughter she left behind and the legacy of loss that girl might be wearing wrapped around her bones.
I'm writing this for Z, who watched her mom press a gun to her temple as a threat to her father. When he didn't listen, her mom pressed the trigger, violently altering her life forever. Her dad swept her out of the room as quickly as he could, but when he went to prison several years later, she was shuffled around between family members and the foster system.
I'm writing this for the countless classmates locked up for possession, distribution, or sale of controlled or illegal substances. Who cut teeth on the weed and whiskey so readily available in their households. For the addiction bred into us to dull our fire, keep us subservient, to stigmatize us.
I'm writing for the peers living quiet lives of desperation, their dreams withered down like grapes by an early frost. For the early pregnancies and lack of options, for the lack of birth control and the shame and guilt associated with abortion. For the people trapped in jobs that barely pay a wage high enough to keep them off food stamps, and especially for the people on welfare and the special kind of hell that you endure from well dressed strangers judging you from your place in line at the food pantry.
For the living survivors especially. I want this to resonate. I want the people written off as nothing to celebrate what they have. The passions so fierce that they burn up and fade away, leaving you a shell. The trauma lived through and never talked about, buried deep in humiliation and remorse. I want you to see how this is your story as much as it is mine. How I'm writing this for you. And how beautiful you are and how similar we are. We who have lived mean lives and come out the other side of it. How you're always working to get to the starting line – to be even with everyone else. How much we need, but also how much we offer. We turn ourselves inside out to prove how broken we still aren't, not realizing all the while that it's the cracks, the places we've come apart and knit ourselves back together, that we're strongest.