Rebuilding Bridges

By Jac Morrison

When I was in grade school, I had a hard time speaking. Whenever I’d try the words would bundle up and lodge themselves in the back of my throat until I forgot what I was even trying to say in the first place.

I think if someone had taught me how to use my voice as a kid, I wouldn't be writing this.

but they didn't, so here I am.

My mother keeps her sadness hidden beneath down comforters, rocks it to sleep with small yellow pins.

My mother and I are mirrored versions of one another; undeniably the same and undeniably opposite.

I take after her in the way that my sadness can consume me

but unlike my mother I do not quiet when it calls, instead

I call back.
scream, even.

I have been ill my whole life. When I was a kid I cried and cried until the other children bullied me out of elementary school; chased me around the schoolyard and called me crybaby. When teachers asked why I was upset I would tell them I was afraid.

afraid of what?

I'm still unsure.

These days, I am not much different. When my sickness consumes me there's not much I can do besides cry. When this happens it's like I am right back in elementary school -- words trapped behind my tongue like flies on duck tape. Now that I am older it is much more volatile. The swarming in my throat doesn't just die out anymore, it redirects itself:

re-manifests, and consumes me, pulls on my puppet strings and turns me into someone I don't recognize.

But it is me all the same.

I'm learning that when your brain is sick it can make you cruel.

Cruelty is easy;
cruelty requires no empathy,
cruelty is defensive,
cruelty builds walls and toughens skin.

In the past I have refused to acknowledge the way my sick brain can make me mean.

Anxiety manifests as outbursts of misdirected anger, insults made out of frustration, tantrums and snap decisions.

Sadness makes me cold, empty, uncaring.

Mania lets me walk over people without realizing, helps me become enthusiastically selfish, watches me burn all my bridges at once.

If I want to live a life where my mental illness doesn't wreck everything it touches -- I have to accept that my actions are my responsibility, regardless of their fuel.

It's okay to make mistakes, to be emotional, to be radically yourself in a world that tells the mentally ill that we are less valuable than our peers; but it is imperative to keep yourself accountable, even at your worst. It was not until I took responsibility for the ways I acted while I was ill that I began to learn how to stop these behaviors in their tracks. Through it all, I learned to forgive myself — to harness my mental illness, and to prevent it from ever poisoning my life again.

 

What’s Your Sign?: On Horoscopes and What the Internet Is Saying About Me

By Jaclyn Jermyn

“What’s your sign?”

My friend leaned closer towards me and squinted, as if my facial expression was going to give away the answer.

“Taurus,” I said quietly, looking down at the drink in my hand. I knew what she was going to say next. Of course I was a Taurus. I am often described as stubborn and possessive by those I am unfriendly with—reliable and fiercely loyal by those who are fond of me—all apparently classic Taurus traits.

I do occasionally glance at a horoscope to see what the world apparently has in store for me. It’s sometimes hard to resist the temptation when the internet is telling me that apparently this will finally be the month that I find true love or lose a lot of money—usually it can go either way. I try not to make a habit of it because aren’t I just unconsciously holding myself to someone else’s standards? Maybe I want to be more of a gentle, peaceful Libra this week.

When I turned 18, or maybe it was 16, my grandmother gave me a folder with a stack of yellowing paper stapled together inside of it. This was my natal chart, otherwise referred to as a birth chart and loosely related to more widely known horoscope concepts. Wikipedia defines a natal chart as “a stylized map of the universe,” that is, “calculated for the exact time and location of the native's birth for the purposes of gaining insight into the native's personality and potential.”

This stack of papers that my grandmother had quite possibly been hanging onto for the entire duration of my life, was supposed to have me all figured out and as I started to read through the descriptions, I couldn’t help but think that maybe the universe did have me all figured out or maybe I was just once again holding myself to someone else’s standards.

I don’t have that original packet anymore, it’s probably in a box somewhere in my parent’s basement, but I did my best to try and replicate it by using astro.cafeastrology.com because it was the first option that came up on Google:

Taurus natives are sensual folk—and this includes sex, but extends to pleasures in all areas: they delight in the sensual pleasures of food, a comfortable blanket, a richly colored aquarium to look at, the smell of flowers or spring rain, pleasing melodies coming from their stereos, and so forth. Some might even say they live through their senses more than most. 

This is fair, I think. I can’t speak to whether I live more through my senses than others but I do take pleasure in moments and feelings and then work very hard to get them back, even after they have passed.

In love and relationship, there is an earthy kind of possessiveness that may be considered jealousy by some, but there is actually quite a difference between being possessive and being jealous. Taurus natives are rarely jealous and petty. They do, however, think of the people they love as theirs—it adds to their sense of security.

This is absolutely true and it tends to get me in trouble. Security is key for me in a lot of aspects of my life.

You are a humanitarian who aims to treat everyone as equals. You seek to be unique and original, and you do your best to avoid bias and prejudice. Social status is less important to you than belonging to a group of diverse personalities. Your identity, in fact, is somehow linked to a larger unit than yourself. You have high hopes and goals, and tend to look at life in terms of opportunities. You have magnetic appeal, as people sense your broad tolerance and openness. The friendships you establish are crucial to your development.

Well, I at least hope that that part is accurate. Can anyone confirm? This would be a nice thing if it is in fact, true.

The thing about reading through these passages is that I got further into the text, I started started skimming over the parts that didn’t fit quite right or those that were a stretch to apply to myself. This leads to an overwhelming sense that “wow, yeah the whole thing was spot on,” when I look back on the experience. But no one person can be fully explained by the time and place they were born. We grow up. We meet new people. Sometimes, in my case, we move far away from where we were born and mix with different cultural values that help shape us. Of course, my East Coast elitism occasionally shines through but that Midwestern niceness has seeped into my life as well.

So, yes, go look at your natal chart. Waste an afternoon trying to twist someone else’s loose astrology to your life experience. Send screen shots to your friends when parts are just too accurate, it’s laughable. But you’re still a complex human being who is far more than what the internet says about you. Or maybe that’s just my stubborn Taurus self talking—I hate not being right.

 

I Don’t Want To Be A Mom (Sorry, Mom)

By Anna Brüner

When I tell people I don’t want to be a mom, they assume I don’t like children. True, I am the first person to mutter obscenities under my breath when your spawn starts crying on the airplane. I roll my eyes at Facebook friends’ pictures of the horrid “little diva” and “Iittle player” ensembles they force upon their unwilling 8 months olds. I think people who bring their kids to a bar (I don’t care how good the fried ravioli is, Donna) are shitty. I was the only person in my 10th grade health class to leave during the birthing videos, where I didn’t even make it to the bathroom down the hall before puking in a janitor’s garbage can. Being in the same room as a pregnant woman makes me obscenely uncomfortable. I hate feeling sticky.

But I’m also the person who plays peek-a-boo with toddlers on public transportation. I’m the one who humors your child while you argue with customer service. At family functions I disregard all of my closest relations and opt for playing restaurant with my cousin’s four year old daughter. I make goofy ass faces in public just trying to get your squishy newborn to smile. I also worked as a full time nanny, and it was the most rewarding job of my life. I like kids. I love kids. I think kids are infinitely better than their adult counterparts, full of love and wonder and uncorrupted by the world.

But I don’t want to be a mom. 

When I tell people I don’t want to be a mom, they tell me things like “oh, you will someday” and always raise their eyebrows in the same way that eludes to them envisioning the filthy act of my procreating. It’s fucking creepy. I get told things like how I would be a great mom, how I’m so good with kids, how any kid would be lucky to have me as a mom, etc, etc, etc. Great compliments, believe me, but I don’t need them. I don’t need to be told what kind of mother I would be. I don’t need to be reminded in monologues about the glory of pregnancy and the beauty of childbirth. I don’t need to be lectured as if I am failing somehow, as if not having a child is the same thing as dropping out of college and developing a heroin addiction. I don’t have to bombarded with unwanted encouragement, when I’m sure my partner has never been asked from the age of thirteen why he might not want kids, or have his uncertainty about wanting kids deliberated upon by anyone who strikes up a conversation with him.

I’m sure I would make a great parent, in other ways. I don’t think I’m selfish for never wanting to become pregnant. I don’t think refusing to go off of my bipolar medication for nine months, refusing to give up my lifestyle and possibly my career, for a human being who got no say in being created. If I became pregnant, I would cease to be my best self. I would become unmedicated, mentally unstable, possibly dangerous to myself, and would put both myself and an unborn child at risk every single day. That, to me, would be selfish.

My own mental health aside, even if I were perfectly “well-functioning” and stable and healthy and the kind of person who could actually eat kale and not live off of sushi and martinis, even if I offered no danger to the parasitic little person hanging out amongst my organs, I still would not feel right about bringing a child into this world. I am terrified of the future. I am terrified of war, illness, hate, violence, and all the other atrocities people commit against each other every single day. I don’t foresee it getting any better, or at least better enough to the point that I would want to bring one more person into the garbled, chaotic mess. I could never justify bringing a new, pure human life onto a dying planet. I won’t. I refuse. I don’t want to be a mom.

But, as I said earlier, I could be a parent. I could offer my home and my love to a child who is already here. I could try to give them the best life that I can. I would try my best to make sure i help them become the best person they could be. I would teach them not to hate, not the judge, not to be afraid, not to engage in violence, not to turn a blind eye away from those in need. I would teach them to respect and protect life, to reach out to others who need help, to be an example. Maybe, if I am very very lucky, I could raise a person who would find a way to make the world better. Who would solve problems. Who would mend hearts. Who, if they wanted to have children of their own, would feel confident enough in mankind to do so. That, I would try my very hardest to do, and maybe, in that sense, I would be a good mom. 

On TV Shows and Trigger Warnings

Courtesy of Netflix

Courtesy of Netflix

Warning: Contains spoilers

I'm in line at Midway Airport, waiting to go through security. It's already a less-than-ideal situation - I'm late, my bag is heavy, I'm hungry. The woman next to me is talking loudly. It's impossible for me not to hear her say, "It's annoying! He's just so OCD sometimes!" I bristle. I think, "OCD is not an adjective." I think, "I'm lucky that I haven't had to deal with mine in a long time."

That woman might have cursed me, because I spent the New Year ringing in a fresh set of intrusive images, a major component of the OCD experience that is excluded from the average person's understanding of the disorder. My mind gets stuck sometimes, cycling the same thoughts over and over. I lie in bed forcing myself to push images out of my mind, fighting what feels like myself but is just my diagnosis. On December 30, 2015, I started season 3 of House of Cards. The Netflix Original series follows  Frank Underwood, an incredibly corrupt House majority whip who connives and manipulates his way to becoming President of the United States. Perhaps he eventually becomes king of the planet later in the series. I don't know, because I couldn't make it past the first episode of season 3.

Douglas Stamper is Frank's right hand man. He does the dirty work that leads to Frank's success — bribing Congressmen, killing prostitutes who know too much, and more. In the first episode of season 3, he wakes up in a coma. The cinematography is excellent, but harrowing. He can't move. He's scared. All he wants to do is go back to work for Frank, who is directly responsible for the terrible injuries he's been hospitalized for. When he recovers, Frank doesn't want him, that’s when  my empathy kicked in. He had thrown his life away for this man, and without him to work under he has nothing to live for. He relapses on alcohol, after abstaining from drinking for 14 years.

For four days, I saw Douglas Stamper's bruised face in my head sporadically every hour of the day. Dancing at a club on New Years, working, laying in bed to go to sleep. I stopped watching TV before bed because I couldn't handle it. The minor keys in the Mad Men theme scared me. Bob's Burgers scared me. I was afraid, and it felt like I was afraid of myself.

I believe in trigger warnings, but I had never expected them to become so widespread. My first experience with the word "trigger" being used in that context was in a mental health treatment center in Wisconsin when I was sixteen. Thinking I was very, incredibly punk, I wore my favorite shirt — black, with an image of a cat with a machine implanted into its’ brain. It said, “CONFLICT: THE UNGOVERNABLE FORCE” and below the image, “TO A NATION OF ANIMAL LOVERS.”  I didn't know that one of the patients on my ward's OCD was oriented around the death of her kitten growing up. When she asked me to not wear the shirt around her, I listened. We were all very sad in there, each with unique but similar struggles, and I wanted the other patients to feel safe. I wanted them to have the best chances of recovery, so I wanted them to be comfortable. We all helped each other. If someone turned Law and Order SVU on the TV, I could say it triggered me and the channel would be changed without argument. When another patient who had an intense fear of germs and bodily fluids needed to do exposure therapy, an element of treatment that involved exposing yourself to your fears in a safe environment, her behavior specialist asked me to take a TB test so she could watch. I held her hand after when she shuddered.

Trigger warnings meant recovery, they meant compassion and safety and community. I never expected to encounter them in a place outside the hospital. When they suddenly appeared in popular culture outside of a hospital context, I was surprised, but excited. It made me feel like the world was becoming a more compassionate place. Maybe it was naive, but I never expected people to dislike them. But then again, I had never been neurotypical.

A trigger warning could never have prepared me for the way that House of Cards scared me, but there are many instances where  a trigger warning has helped me in the past. When I left the hospital, regular life took a lot of getting used to. I got nervous going to the mall because there were so many people around me. All I wanted was for the world to be more like Rogers Memorial. When trigger warnings started showing up on social media years later, I had adjusted to real life and didn't feel that I needed them. At the end of the day, trigger warnings are focused on cultivating empathy. — you can never know what someone else is experiencing. There is nothing wrong with being kind and considerate. No one should fault another for taking the time to warn someone, to say, "Hey, I don't know your experience, but if it includes this specific thing, you might not want to read/watch/listen to this."

On The Strength of Seeking Help

By Gretchen Sterba

I’m sitting on a chair, covered in brown scratchy wool. I’m wearing a flannel in the 85°F summer weather because one of the directors of the program thinks everyone in the program should “cover up.” The walls are an eggplant white, an offbeat color for a treatment center. I was at least expecting a melancholy shade of either yellow or blue. A girl who has short hair that’s blue, the kind of color you would see coming out of a paintball gun, is sitting across from me in the circle of chairs knitting, her foot tapping rapidly in a state of anxiety. I look closer and stare at the multiple scars of self-inflicted cuts on her chest.

I look at the white board behind her and read in my head the list in purple Expo marker.

9:30 a.m.: “Name, Rate (1-100), Emotions, Current struggles, Skills Used/Achievements.”

Two years ago when I was here—a treatment center for people facing problems in depression, anxiety, substance use, eating disorders, etc.—I was a senior in high school. I had just had my heart broken for the first time, got diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, started gaining back all the weight I lost after months on Weight Watchers, starting my senior year of high school. I was lost in the world at eighteen. After finishing attending group therapy sessions and learning type of skills to manage our mental illnesses during my time there, I thought I was golden. I was in there for less than a month, missing school all day at this outpatient program (partial-hospitalization, to be exact) and I was about to return to high school, my beloved dance team and company, ready to finish this year off because college was on the horizon.

When high school ended, I enrolled in a Big Ten school that I ended up hating, and applied to my current college about a week into my freshman year. Over the course of two years, a lot has changed. While you’re in high school, you’re told change is upon you with adulting and such, but you never really think about it ever— the idea that your actions will always have consequences, how you treat people actually affects the shit out of them, and your mom isn’t always going to be there to make your doctor appointments or do your laundry.

I guess when I was discharged out of the treatment center senior year, I left everything I learned there. I physically felt better, more upbeat and happy that people shared the same feelings I felt, but I can’t remember myself utilizing the positive ways I was taught to cope in depressing, dark situations. Thus, it led me back to their young adult program in the summer of upcoming junior year of high school.

Then I became an advocate for myself. I was the one who decided to get myself help. This year, especially, has been one of the most difficult years of my life. I worked a job that I loved, but I was also stressed out  because of the intense hours and high pressure atmosphere, which led me to shedding weight. This was all in addition to school, and having a crazy roommate who made me feel incompetent in my own apartment.

I started to cope in negative ways, false attempts to try and nurture me temporarily. I wanted to become numb to my problems because I didn’t believe in my own ability to face them. I had no faith in myself, because I was unable to love myself. I started to live like it was Groundhog Day; going to class, work, class, then work again, finally isolating myself in my room until I fell asleep.

I began realizing that all the adults and teachers who said that change was upon us when I was eighteen were actually right. I started reading more, formulating opinions on culture, feminism, politics,  and I grew up a little. I also started losing friends one by one, like leaves dropping off autumn trees. I grasped the fact that everything and everyone is temporary. The people who I put so much love and trust in ended up leaving me, and I wallowed in my pity and found no positive, healthy ways to get out. I was stuck in that cycle for months, it felt like a lifetime of pure sadness, there was no hope of being happy.
 

Finally, at the end of my sophomore year of college—after blowing large sums of money on these short-term coping mechanisms and mindless activities, deciding to stop taking my anti-anxiety medication because I thought it wasn’t helping, having to excuse myself from class to go puke in the bathroom because I was so anxious, only being able to eat one small meal a day because I never had an appetite—I vouched for help. This was not me. Where the fuck was Gretchen?

I came to my mom, shaking and in tears, telling her I needed help. I was sick of being aggressive and irritable, unproductive, secluded and wallowing in my depression. I told her I needed to go to a place, not just once-a-week therapy, but a place where I would be able to get real, consistent, stable help.

On my first day of PHP, when I sat on the uncomfortable chairs and observed the girl with the blue hair, I felt instantly relieved to be among people who were here, struggling with their various issues, not wanting to get out of the bed in the morning, like me.

One guy told our group that he was anxious and had panic attacks before family functions. Check. Another girl said she was struggling with problems of self-hatred and self-hate. Check. She shocked me, because she came in with her grande Starbucks, sporting a Dutch braid on her gorgeous blonde head and a slim, naturally tanned body. I felt a bit guilty that she had shocked me, because we are all taught that all people have problems and battles we’re not aware of at face value. She was a prime example.

When it was my turn, I expressed my concerns openly and honestly, because I was in a safe space. Now that I’m about to have the third week of being a patient/client there under my belt, I really have learned so much. By learning skills, which I thought were totally elementary and lame at first, I already feel in control of myself. When I feel anxious, I do a skill called “grounding” where you use one or all five senses to keep you distracted from your toxic thoughts and focus on the present. I talk to both sexes in group and at breaks and almost always seem to find a type of relief because I know they really know what it is like to feel depressed and anxious every day. Just knowing someone is there and that you’re not the only person in the world who feels lonely, friendless, and fucked up, is empowering and reassuring in itself.

Being vulnerable is not always easy.

One of the hardest parts is admitting you have a problem and getting professional help. So whoever is reading this (probably my family members on Facebook), I hope you decide to act on your strength if you feel like you’re losing yourself or going through trauma, because the strength is there. It always has been.