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Pilcrows



In sixth grade, our music class completed an unusually in-depth theater unit that culminated in the performance of a few short scenes in front of the rest of the school. I did well in that unit, and I was rewarded with a monologue, something to do with baseball, which I’m guessing was a metaphor for something else that I don’t remember. I held a bat in my hands while I spoke, and at the big finish, I expertly mimed hitting the ball over imaginary fences. 


On the day of the performance, I was overtaken by a serious case of the giggles, and my speech came out oddly strained as I tried to get through it without laughing. But my classmates mistook the stifled laughter for stifled tears, and a few came up to me after the performance to make sure I was okay. To this day, the memory makes me shudder with embarrassment, not because I messed up the scene, but because the peers I didn’t talk to afterwards - and likely a few that didn’t believe me - may still be out there in the world, thinking that two and a half decades ago a monologue about hitting a baseball might have made me cry.



In the fall of 2009, I was driving back to Greenville, Mississippi, my home for the two-year commitment I made to Teach for America. I had been visiting a college friend in Nashville over the holiday weekend, one who had chosen to stick it out and try to build a career in Music City, one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country. My friend was defensive about his decision to stay, though no one that I was aware of had asked him to defend it. As if graduating from college presented another opportunity to leave the nest, and he had failed to do so.


But this soft and forgiving version of failure seemed like a joyful alternative to what I was doing and where I was headed. 61 South stretched out in front of me, straight as an arrow, slicing through the expanses of flat nothing on either side. I felt like I was driving off the face of the earth, except the road just kept going, and though I could see to the edge of everything, it never got any closer. My gut sunk lower with every mile, until I could hear it dragging on the asphalt beneath my car. 


It occurred to me, maybe for the first time, that this might not be what I was supposed to be feeling. That the challenges I was facing as a first-year teacher in a frighteningly foreign environment, with nowhere to turn for support but the fellow corps members drowning alongside me, with nothing to keep me afloat but the empty rage of a newborn social justice warrior and a bottomless supply of Miller Lite, weren’t just the next in a series of coming-of-age moments that all college graduates had to face. That maybe this really was too much.


I pulled out my phone and sent a text to my friend. “Are you happy?” I asked.


After a few minutes, a reply: “What do you mean?”



I sat across from my dad at the Chili’s high top table, positioned gracefully between the empty bar and the women’s restroom. I eyed the latter, wondering at what point in the meal would be the most effective time to make the one temporary escape we are socially allotted during an interminable meal like this one.


Coming back home for the summer in between my first two years of teaching was a paralyzing experience. Like intermission at Sweeny Todd but you get lost looking for the lobby and end up having to make small talk with people who are there to see Oklahoma. What do you talk about? Do you even try to explain the experience you’ve been having and are about to return to? Do you ask how their show is going, even though you already know and also don’t care? Or do you just stand in the corner, staring at nothing and trying to process what you alone just saw, both the darkness and the beauty? The experience itself is overwhelming enough; the contrast might just push you over the edge.


At lunch, I could feel the silence hanging from my hunched shoulders. I stared down at whatever monstrosity of an American-comfort-food-turned-salad the menu told me me was “on the lighter side.” Buffalo Chicken, Santa Fe Crispers, Quesadilla Explosion. Fractions of bacon and a river of ranch filled up the small portion of my brain that was available for coherent thought.


My father and I are alike in that we are both thermostats; we have the power to set the temperature in the room, no matter who else is in it. I pride myself on using this power for good, but on that day I couldn’t bring my energy up to match his, and the air between us was too thick for even him to ignore.


“Carrie, are you doing okay?” 


In my family, a simple and direct question like this is the equivalent of a full-blown intervention. I shrugged it off, “Yep, I’m fine, just tired,” and he accepted the evasion, “Yeah, I bet.” But his concern landed on my shoulders, gently pushing them down another half inch. 



I was illegally parked in the garage underneath Home Depot across the street from my office building. University employees were not allowed to loophole the intricate and wildly inconvenient campus parking system like this, but as long as I was sitting in the car, no one bothered me. Certainly not while I was crying.


I navigated back to the search page on my phone and clicked on yet another quiz, this one titled “Free 3 Minute Depression Test with Instant Quiz Results.” Three minutes later, I read yet again that I had “mildly severe” depression. Relief and excitement overtook me. I went back to the search engine and clicked on one more quiz, just to be sure.


Yes, I was stuck in a messy romantic situation. I had lost my virginity at the ripe old age of twenty-five to a charming coworker who told me he “wasn’t ready to be in a relationship right now” and wanted to “keep things under wraps” but had no problem acting like a loving partner when we were together, even going so far as to drop the L word. My heart was cracking open for the first time, slowly, and in secret. But that couldn’t have been it.


It couldn’t have been the reason I had been spending most of my time in bed, but getting almost no sleep. It couldn’t have been the reason I was losing focus at work and pulling away from the friends and family that loved me the most. It couldn’t have been the reason I felt like there was an elephant sitting on my chest all day every day, or that I never sang along to the radio anymore. That couldn’t have been it. That would have been pathetic.


And here was the great and powerful internet, telling me that wasn’t it at all! Praise be to Taylor Swift, I had a mental health condition. A problem that came with a solution - or at the very least, with actions I could take to feel better that didn’t involve emotionally processing my colossally terrible dating decisions. Not on my own, anyways.


I quickly dug up the phone number to the university’s office of mental health services and tried not to sound too excited about being depressed.



The office of My First Therapist was inside one of those adorable houses in midtown that had been repurposed into commercial spaces, likely because no homeowner without a Nobel Peace Prize and a trust fund could afford the ever-rising mortgages on their own. I entered with determination, both to make this therapy thing work and to have a productive conversation, as opposed to the wracking sobfest that had been my consultation the week before.


She was pleasantly old, like a great aunt who calls you by your childhood nickname and asks if you packed enough snacks before you leave for college. I wondered briefly if she would be able to relate to my frivolous twenty-something life problems, but surely they’re trained to deal with all sorts. Workplace Drama 101 on Mondays, Advanced Romantic Disfunction on Wednesdays, and a one-time workshop on How to Tell Your Mom You’re Depressed on the first Saturday of the month. 


One thing I’m still not over is the bizarre feeling of imposter syndrome I get when the therapist asks why I’m there and what I want to work on that day. As soon as the problems come out of my mouth, they’re frantically chased by gushing qualifications and an urgent desire to let her know that I know that my problems really aren’t that bad. Like there’s someone out in the waiting room carrying heavier trauma, waiting for their turn, and their sweaty grip is starting to slip.


“I just went through a breakup, and it’s been hard because he’s someone I work with, so I see him every day and I can’t get past it. Which isn’t really that big of a deal, it’s not like I want to get back together or anything, turns out he’s kind of a dick, but I feel, like…sadder?...than I think I should, given the circumstances. Like my emotions and the thing causing the emotions don’t really match up.”


A few minutes later she’s rolling out the EMDR (Eye Movement and Desensitization Reprocessing) machine and telling me to follow the blinking dots with my eyes while she asks me questions about my dating life. It’s a new technique, she explains, that is used to help get soldiers past the trauma of combat. Frankly I think she’s just as interested in getting through this conversation with as little eye contact as possible as I am.



“Hey, it’s me. Are you busy?” I hear the unmistakable background noise of a bar fade slightly as I imagine he moves towards a quieter spot.


“What’s up?”


I take a deep breath, trying to clear the sobs to make room for intelligible words. “I don’t really know, I’m just having a really bad night.”


Pause. “What’s wrong?”


“I don’t know, I can’t fall asleep, I feel like I can’t breathe, and I keep crying, but I don’t even know why. It feels like someone died, except no one died, it’s just the feeling.”


“So nothing’s wrong?” I can physically feel him glancing back to whoever he’s with. Except I know who he’s with.


“No, nothing’s wrong, but I feel awful, and I just wanted to talk to someone. I’m really scared.”


An even longer pause. “Honestly Carolyn I feel like you’re being really selfish right now.”


I’ve never been punched in the gut before. It hurts more than I would have thought.


“That’s a really fucking hurtful thing to say.”


“What?”


“I said that’s really fucking hurtful.” In the tragic context of our relationship, it felt like violent retaliation. And, though I didn’t know it then, the planting of a small seed in dry, shallow soil.


“I’m just saying, I’m over here dealing with some real problems. Like you haven’t even asked me about seeing Amanda the other day, and that really sucks.” (He had crossed paths with his ex-girlfriend on campus the day before.)


“You told me you didn’t want to talk about it.”


My phone beeped in my ear, the battery quickly dying. I reached for the charger by my bedside, but I had moved it to the plug under the kitchen table the day before while I worked. I frantically rolled out of bed and crawled under the table to plug the phone in, then stayed there, curled up on the floor, holding my breath to stop from crying, listening to nothing.



I sat alone in my rental car in the parking lot of a high school in suburban Dallas. Part of my job as an admissions recruiter was to travel to high schools around my assigned territory and spread the good word about my alma mater and all it could offer to the youth of tomorrow. The waiting in between sessions was less than comfortable; I had more than enough time to get from one towering private high school to the next (and the next and the next), since they were all located within a handful of blocks from each other, but not enough time to find a place more appropriate and less creepy to wait than the visitors’ parking spots by the front entrance.


I kept the car running to avoid dying from heat exhaustion, like a dog that gets left behind during a quick grocery store trip, and the speakers continued to play tracks from Pandora’s Comedy Icons channel. I had heard the hundred or so rotating bits so many times that it served as white noise, engaging my brain just enough to dull the racing thoughts but not so much I couldn’t operate my Garmin, or reread the airplane safety pamphlet for the six hundredth time, or fall asleep at the end of a long day. I owe my survival to Demetri Martin as much as to any therapist I’ve ever had.


Three minutes before my session was scheduled to start, I finally turned off the car, hauled the box of brochures out of the trunk, and walked through the front doors of Fort Worth Country Day, a school so grandiose I half expected to have to cross a moat in order to gain entrance. In the foyer, I glanced up at the oversized plaque displaying a quote from the honor code of the college I was there to represent. Talk about preaching to the choir.


Some of my recruitment trips, like the ones to public schools in south Texas or rural Arkansas, gave me the chance to stretch my outreach muscles and share information about the college experience with students who might not hear it from anyone else. But most were like this one, regurgitating pamphlets and pre-canned quips to fourth generation alumni who had already memorized said pamphlets, not to increase our reach to new prospective students but to dutifully shake the hands that fed us year after year. 


Now I’m standing in front of a classroom filled with rapt blonde children and I don’t remember how I got here. Now I’m floating near the ceiling, watching myself recite study abroad statistics and drop squirrel jokes to enthusiastic nods and too-loud laughter. Now I’m pointing to the exits and demonstrating how to inflate the safety vest, while the passengers politely stare through me, pretending my words and actions mean anything at all.



Things I Googled while sitting on the toilet in the bathroom across the hall from office of my graduate school fellowship:


Do antidepressants make you constipated?


Why do antidepressants make you constipated?


Antidepressants that don’t make you constipated


Home remedies for constipation


Is constipation worse than depression?


Can your mental health ever be fully healed?


Am I allowed to hang out with my therapist?


Am I allowed to be best friends with my therapist?


How to casually run into your therapist in the real world


Does my therapist think I’m cool, or is she just pretending?


How to tell if you’re your therapist’s favorite patient


How to make office work more interesting


How to make proofreading fun


Is The Office utopian or dystopian?


How to quit your job without burning any bridges


How to fund grad school without working


Average student loan interest rates


How to fund grad school without working or taking out loans


Why isn’t he texting me back?


Average text message response time


Signs he’s into me


Signs he’s not into me


Where to stream He’s Just Not That Into You


How to stop obsessing over a new relationship


How to be cool while online dating


Most affordable vibrators


Possible career paths in education


Education jobs that aren’t boring


Education jobs that aren’t stressful


Education jobs that don’t make you want to beat your head against a brick wall


Is the education field right for me?


Easiest way to fix the education system


How long can you stay in the bathroom before people start to notice?


How to explain why you were in the bathroom for 45 minutes


Can my boss see my search history if I’m connected to the office wifi?


How to poop fast right now please I’m begging



The principal’s office was a study in opposites, tall white walls and light wood furniture, designed to give an air of cleanness and light, covered in an absolute maelstrom of scattered papers, stacks of malfunctioning Chromebooks, and cheap black pens that had been chewed within an inch of their lives. The maelstrom himself dashed around the small room, dictating a text message to his phone while signing a piece of paper on his desk and balancing a spinning plate on his head. Sure, he was my boss, but he was also the annoying guy who talked too loud in Intro to Secondary Education, and I had to tilt my head and squint a little to take him seriously.


After a few minutes of sitting quietly while he continued to work, I glanced at the digital clock above his desk. I thought of the doctors that charge a full copay for late or no-show patients but often stroll into their appointments an hour after the scheduled appointment time.


Finally, he set aside the ninety-seven things occupying his attention, and sat down across from me at the dining-room-sized conference table next to his desk. He slapped a fresh yellow legal pad down in front of him and started taking notes before we had even begun talking.


As always, the first ten minutes of the agenda were a time to check in with me, to show he cared about me as a person and was addressing any concerns I brough to the table. I had been trained as a manager myself, coaching one of the teachers in my department, so I saw the strings pretty clearly, but I went along with it anyway.


“How are you? How’s your week been? How’s your boyfriend? What’s his name again?” I managed to toss in a response to the last question. “Dre.” He scrawled “BOYFRIEND - DRE” in big letters across the top of the notebook page. “But we broke up about a month ago.” He quickly crossed out “BOYFRIEND - DRE” with the energy of a toddler who had messed up a drawing. I laughed, which seemed like the only possible response to such earnest absurdity.


The personal check in dispensed of, we started in on the real meeting agenda, which meant analyzing my juniors’ practice ACT scores and doing our best to squeeze as many additional points out of them that we could before the state-administered exam taking place the next semester. 


At some point in the conversation, I started to cry. God’s honest truth, I couldn’t tell you what he said or what I asked or what we saw that made the tears come. You wouldn’t think they should have, in a conversation about data and percentiles and where a quick mini-lesson on scattergrams might fit into the AP Calculus curriculum. But come they did.


I can only tell you that we worked in an environment of pressure and chaos that we did our best to cover with a thin blanket of accomplishment. I can tell you that my brain - all our brains - existed in a constant state of flight-or-flight, and though fight won out 95% of the time, occasionally the weakness broke through. I can tell you that quietly weeping during that meeting did not feel like catharsis, but like the engineers that open a small section of the dam for a few minutes and let a tiny fraction of water through, only to prevent for a little longer the raging sea on the other side from drowning the entire village.


Because I am a woman, my first instinct was to apologize profusely for such an unprofessional show of emotion.


“Don’t worry about it,” he assured me, waving it off with his hand like someone flicking away a buzzing fly. “People cry in here all the time. What’s next?”



Subject: Today’s Meeting


Good afternoon,


I wanted to reach out to acknowledge and apologize for the fact that I was not very helpful in today’s meeting. I should tell you that I have been struggling with depression for several years now, and while I am in a much better place than I was when I was first diagnosed, I do still have moments where my emotions become disproportionate to the situation, and that is what happened today. 


My brain was overwhelmed by the amount of information that it was trying to process, the pressure of students’ impending deadlines, and the responsibility that I feel to execute each piece of my new role with the precision and thoroughness it deserves. I hesitated to jump in on the conversation, because I was worried that my input would be overly emotional or unclear, and I knew that would not be helpful to anyone.


I want to note that I am not actually overwhelmed by this work or the expectations placed on me, and in fact I am excited to jump in on this new push for early application submissions. It just so happened that my brain chemicals were not as thrilled about the idea as I was, and it made it difficult to actively participate in the discussion.


Anyways, I just wanted to provide that context and let you know that my lack of engagement was not due to a lack of investment or understanding of what lies ahead. I will get next week’s action plan to you by midnight tonight, and I look forward to receiving and implementing your feedback.


Sincerely, Carolyn



The school building was in transition, and the human resources representative gave me a brief tour of the new entrance and atrium that was under construction, the ceiling soaring high above us and the charter network’s values - joy, excellence, growth, etc. - freshly painted above a wall of windows that led to a courtyard with infant trees and wooden picnic tables. She did not walk me through the back half of the building, through the dim and dusty rows of classroom doors that did little to quiet the commotion behind them, or to the temporary trailers that housed the overflow while construction was taking place.


It’s a very specific experience, moving through a workspace that is not yet, but might soon be, your own. You’re an outsider coming in, and you view everything with just a slight hint of derision. That’s not where we keep the copy machine. Our staff bathrooms aren’t locked. The students at my school don’t roam the halls during class. But at the same time, you’re looking for its potential, trying it on for size, imagining what it might feel like as your own. Whether you take the job or not, you’ll never see it in exactly that way ever again.


We walked through the empty computer science center and into a small meeting room where the principal was waiting. He gestured towards the empty seat across from him at the small conference table, and I took a seat. He shuffled a stack of papers in front of him and asked me to talk about my professional history, which I assumed was outlined in the very documents he was holding. I mentally rolled my eyes and began answering the question.


For the first time in my life, I spoke in an interview with the relaxed confidence of someone being sought, rather than someone doing the seeking. I had just been unceremoniously removed from my dream job - a job at which I had been quietly kicking ass - for reasons that spoke more about the school itself than it did about me, and the experience had finally broken me of my will to appease. Moreover, I knew this guy needed me. No one hires a school counselor in the middle of February because things are going well, and I was grossly overqualified for the position. The chip on my shoulder felt like wings. 


After about thirty minutes of half-hearted performance questions, I drew my line in the sand. “I’m not looking for a job, I’m looking for my career. I want this to be a place I can stay for a long time, and that means sustainability is my highest priority. I won’t work nights or weekends unless absolutely necessary. I prioritize my work/life balance. I don’t do dismissal duty or coach basketball teams or chaperone the prom. I’m not going to do whatever it takes. And you need to be okay with that.”


Okay, I almost definitely didn’t say all of that, but neither did I beg for my life, which was a step in the right direction. Whatever I did say caused the principal to nod solemnly and give me the usual spiel about ample planning time and how much he values a strong staff culture. I don’t know how much of this earnest speech - which I’d heard too many times before - stemmed from genuine hope, how much from pure obliviousness, and how much from the desperate desire to fill the position and cross this task off his list. All I knew was that I was done doing “whatever it takes,” whether the world believed me yet or not.



I hate walking through school hallways in the time between classes. It should be a joyful scene, students transitioning from one place of learning to another, connecting with their peers, blowing off steam, finding joy in the few minutes of true freedom they can find throughout the day. But for me and my order-seeking brain, it is a scene of chaos, a situation over which I should have, but could never possibly have, total control. I have learned that any small attempts I make to quiet a particularly loud conversation, or hurry along a late student, or correct a uniform infraction is akin to spitting into a five-alarm house fire, so I simply put my head down and walk as quickly as possible to wherever I am headed.


In this case, I was headed to my office, which was located in the corner of the computer science center, right next door to the small meeting room where I had interviewed for this position just a few short months ago. I closed the door behind me and pulled down the blinds, exhaling with relief. The chaos of passing period was still audible, but muffled, along with it my sense of responsibility for anything happening on the other side of the door.


My coworker and officemate didn’t greet me with her usual empathetic smile, and in fact her chair was turned away from her desk to face the corner of the room. She didn’t say anything when I entered the room, which was unusual, and the air was thick with anxious tension, so I quietly moved to my desk and began going through my email inbox, all the while keeping a concerned eye on my friend. Eventually, she took a deep breath, turned her chair back towards the center of the room, and resumed her own work. I asked no questions, and she offered no explanations, but we worked in a comfortable silence for the rest of the day.


An explanation would come via text message later that evening. “Sorry if I was off today, I had a panic attack after my meeting with the boss man, and I just needed some time to recuperate. I went to the gym and I’m planning on getting at least twelve hours of sleep tonight. Thank you for being such a supportive co-worker and good friend, I appreciate you.”


Something warm pressed against my heart. I felt like she had handed me a gift, a very important and very fragile gift that I could either gently accept and promise to care for, or ignore and let fall to the ground. I knew what it felt like to have such a gift be violently rejected, and I didn’t consider it for a second.


“Don’t worry about it, panic attacks are the worst. I used to have them all the time in my last job. I’m glad you’re taking some time to heal, let me know if there is anything I can do.”



“Carolyn?” An attractive blonde woman about my age poked her head into the waiting room and smiled at me, waving me back to her office. 


After the routine first-time-patient questions (Why are you here? What do you hope to get out of this? Are you planning on killing yourself right this minute?), we began talking about my week. I had reached out to Courtney on the advice of a coworker, primarily because she specialized in body image issues among women, but it didn’t take long to start in on my other primary source of stress: work.


As we neared the last week of school, my days had been filled with last-minute graduation panics, tough tuition and financial aid conversations, and summer break goal-setting. My work wife was leaving the school, and they had not yet decided who the other counselor would be, or what her role would be, or how the new addition would impact my own responsibilities. Our school leaders were frantically trying to fill the many vacant teacher roles, including the teacher that I managed, and I had attended multiple interviews over the past few days in between my student meetings. I had begun to compile the materials I had created and recreated that year that I thought would be most helpful for the rising class of seniors, as well as brainstorming the new vision, mission, and goals that we would almost certainly need to rewrite, again, once our new team was in place. And our leadership team meeting had run late the day before because our principal - who was also leaving at the end of the year - needed to ride the bus to ensure that an argument between parents would not come to blows in front of their students. I relayed all of this with the weary but casual tone of someone who did not view this as anything but an ordinary week in the life of a public school employee.


Courtney looked at me, unmoving, her pen hovering above her notepad. “Holy shit, are you okay?”


The question took me aback. Of course I was okay, hadn’t I just explained to her the relatively calm week we were having? But there was something both vindicating and disarming about getting such a reaction from someone for whom this definition of calm wasn’t the norm. Like when a man points out how uncomfortable high heels must be, and for just a moment we can drop our guard and say, “Yes! They hurt like a motherfucker! Thank you for respecting the struggle!” right before we slip on the shoes and go about our day. 



I gently placed the Wendy’s bag and accompanying plastic cup on the doormat, snapped a picture of the food with my phone, tapped on the apartment door, then strode away. Quickly enough that I could get out of sight before the customer opened the door, but not so quickly that it looked like a bizarre ring-and-run to any of the other apartment building residents who might be watching from their windows. As I walked, I marked the food as “delivered” in the UberEats Driver app, then turned the corner and approached the long flight of stairs that would take me back down to the parking lot.


I paused at the top of the stairs, putting my phone and keys back in my purse to ensure my hands were free to firmly grip the railing as I made my way down. An image of myself missing a step and tumbling to the bottom flashed in my head. I wondered if I would break any bones, or just bruise. If any of the residents were watching and would be able to call an ambulance if something were to happen. I set down each foot firmly but carefully to avoid rolling my ankle. I made it to the bottom.


Driving to a local BBQ restaurant to pick up my next delivery, I kept a close eye on the cars coming at me from the other direction. I adhered to rules of the road I didn’t even know I remembered from the brief Driver’s Ed course I took as a teenager. Grip the steering wheel at 10 and 2, stop quickly enough at traffic lights that you can still see the back tires of the vehicle in front of you, wait for the car to rock back a little before pressing the gas again at a stop sign.


If my hand slipped right now and I drifted into oncoming traffic, would that minivan have time to swerve around me? If I hit him head on, would I die instantly, or simply break all the bones in my body? If the ladder in the pickup truck in front of me came loose, would it go through my window, or simply shatter it, propelling thousands of glass splinters into my face? Would the emergency medical team be able to access the contact information in my phone, and would they know who to call? Would my sister answer during the workday, or wait until five thirty to check her messages?


I have always been a worrier (a warrior?), like most of the women in my family. But this was a new kind of darkness, a bizarrely calm understanding that pain and death were imminent. It felt permanent, and that scared me more than the worries themselves. 


A few days later, I tried to explain it to my new therapist through the Zoom box that had become the entire scope of our human interaction.


“It’s like the worst case scenario is now my default assumption. I always knew bad things could happen, but emotionally, I always assumed everything would work out, because up to this point, it almost always has. I assumed the tornado heading our way would drift off path before it hit us, because it always has. I assumed the deadly pandemic on the other side of the world would be controlled before it got to us, because it always has. But now the switch is flipped, and I’m constantly preparing for the worst thing to happen, because that seems to be the norm now. But I’m not even panicked or scared of the worst thing, it feels so matter-of-fact and inevitable. I’m just waiting to see what’s going to happen next.”



I dumped the prepackaged cup of frozen berries into the single-serve blender, then added the almond milk, peanut butter, and protein powder. 


There’s something about making a smoothie that makes me feel like I am truly on top of my shit. People who make smoothies have healthy ingredients in their home that they bought from the grocery store. They have the time to combine those ingredients and turn them into a balanced and convenient meal, usually before they even begin their workday. They own a single-serve blender. They care about their health. They poop every single day. Now that I was working from home, there was no excuse for me not to become one of those people.


I wedged the container down into the bender attachment and hit the “smoothie mix” button. Nothing happened. The blades whirred, and the blender made its patent airplane-taking-off-in-the-middle-of-an-air-raid sound, but the ingredients barely even shifted. I removed the container and shook it up as hard as I could, to provide the berries with the physical and emotional encouragement they needed to dive down towards the blades and transform themselves into liquid breakfast, then I reattached to the blender and hit the button again. Nothing.


Technology not working has always been my quickest route to anger. Computers that don’t turn on when the power button is pressed, televisions that refuse to load the show I’m trying to stream, cars that won’t start. The combination of urgency, expected convenience, and a complete inability to do anything about the problem never fails to take me from zero to rage monster in record time.


So it was no surprise that the faulty blender was making my blood boil. I hurled the container into the sink so hard it bounced out and landed on the kitchen floor, unblended berries flying across the room. I dropped to my knees and screamed “FUCK YOU!” at the top of my lungs, doing my level best to hurt the blender’s feelings, make it sorry for the inconvenience it had caused me. The dog startled from his spot on the couch and ran to the bedroom, leaving me alone with the berries and my demons.


Lying on the kitchen floor, exhausted by my own emotions and the sheer absurdity of the situation, a new kind of fear dawned on me. Maybe I hadn’t actually been getting better, but had only been distracting myself with the chaos of work and the seemingly more urgent problems of my students. The weeks on end at home alone were finally giving my pain the time and space it needed to be acutely felt, clearly heard.


It’s incredible how loud your mind can be when the rest of the world goes quiet.



Cry, dammit.


I was curled up on my deepest, squishiest couch under my thickest, fluffiest blanket, the dog curled up at my feet. The familiar sounds of “Edelweiss” drifted from the TV, and a bowl of ice cream slowly melted on the coffee table.


A few hours ago, my mother had called to let me know that my great aunt had passed away. Aunt Podge had been a bonus grandmother to me and my older sister, and as many of my childhood memories featured her as my parents. Singing and dancing along to The Sound of Music, chasing squirrels away from the birdfeeder, making ice cream sundaes on New Year’s Eve, learning to needlepoint. I hadn’t spoken to Podge in months, and throughout my adulthood, our phone conversations mostly consisted of me trying to end the call and get back to my Very Important Life. She had been sick for some time, and her death brought the sadness and guilt that comes when you lose someone you know you’ve neglected, an emotional bill come due.


My first instinct when I hung up the phone was to go right back to work. I had things to accomplish, good to do in the world, distractions to follow down the rabbit hole of productivity. But a few minutes in, I caught myself. The words of Glennon Doyle and my latest virtual therapist reverberated in my head: Feel your feelings.


It was less than shocking when I was told by the mystery lady behind Better Help chat  window that I had been strangling off my feelings for most of my life, stuffing them down into my stomach, which digested them into nausea and anxiety. What was more startling - though in retrospect I supposed it shouldn’t have been - was the remedy. Feel your feelings. Let yourself be sad, angry, frustrated, regretful. Be in pain. 


It was the exact opposite of how I had been approaching my mental health up to this point, doing my level best to counteract and ultimately defeat those negative feelings with therapy and half marathons and medication and leafy greens. Wasn’t the point to avoid feeling bad? Now you’re telling me to embrace it?


But I’m nothing if not a follower of instructions, so I put on my good sport hat and gave it my best shot. I closed my laptop, turned on the movie, made the dessert, and situated my body in optimal crying position.


It took some time, but the tears came. Sadness curled around me like a snake, compressing my chest and igniting a sharp pain in my heart. I felt shame for not connecting with her more often, and regret that my own niece and nephews wouldn’t know her as I did. I ached for my grandfather, who had lost his only remaining sibling. I uncovered a hidden fear that my own life might end in the frustration I know she felt when she was moved from her home into a sterile and uncomfortable nursing home. And a more immediate fear that I might be the one who has to order the move for my own parents.


I felt myself sinking, but by the time the Nazis had arrived in Salzburg, I had started to drift back to the surface. The sadness and fear and regret and pain had run their course like a common cold, and as the credits rolled, I admitted to myself that I did in fact feel better. As if feelings all these feelings allowed them to pass through me, rather than take up residence within me.


Well I’ll be damned.



“Hang a left at the next light.”


I struggled to maneuver my dad’s monstrous SUV through the narrow streets of my hometown’s city center. Since the effects of my new medication had finally forced me to quit drinking, I convinced him to let me drive home from my little brother’s birthday dinner, which (as always) included copious amounts of wine, the cost of which would have put a significant dent in my mortgage payment. 


My stepmom and siblings had decided to hit the town after dinner, so it was just the two of us in the car, rehashing the gentle drama of the evening, handing down judgment with the confidence of two people who considered themselves to be uninvolved.


“Sometimes she says things that just don’t make any sense at all.”


“Yeah, well, he doesn’t need to jump all over her every time she makes a misstep.”


“And why does she feel responsible for everything that’s happening all the time?”


Dad being more than a little tipsy and me stone cold sober, we were both freer than usual with our words, and I - feeling brave and reckless - brought up the T-word with feigned casualness.


“One of the best conversations I had with a therapist was when she told me to stop giving so much of a shit about other people’s problems and emotions.” I don’t know why, after all this time, even mentioning my mental health struggles around my family felt like walking into a crowded room naked.


“I love therapy,” my dad replied nonchalantly, as if it was a completely normal thing to say. As if those words wouldn't flip my worldview upside down. As if I hadn’t spent my entire adult life thinking “Man, if only Dad would just go to therapy and work his shit out.” As if I hadn’t spent all that time in my twenties finding and struggling with and finally accepting the value of mental healthcare on my own. “I went to therapy with your mom when we were getting a divorce, and I loved it so much I kept going for two more years. I think everyone should go to therapy at least once.” 


I kept my eyes on the road, staring down the traffic lights like maybe they could explain what in the actual fuck I was supposed to do with this information. Suddenly my family felt as unfamiliar to me as the winding streets of the town I had left nearly two decades ago. I wondered how many times my dad and I had suffered silently next to each other, how many years of pain and confusion could have been saved by one honest conversation. Maybe none.


My dad’s voice emerged again from the fog. “Here comes the next turn.”



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