Dies irae, dies illa, solvet saeclum in favilla

I’m sitting at a teahouse in Eugene listening to Mozart’s Requiem in my headphones… really loud. I’ve had trouble getting myself to write lately. Writing makes me feel so naked, I’m always afraid my underlying emotional volatility will spill out like a genie from a bottle, and I won’t be able to cram it back in again.

I have a separate peace with myself… I’ve figured out how to stay clean, but that’s it. Maybe I was naive to think that the same brain that forced me to shoot heroin for 11 years was a functioning brain in any sense of the word.

I’m not “better.” Will I ever be “better”? I am just BARELY able to keep the surface of myself from falling apart, keep up the facade that I am just like any other student going to class and sitting at cafes writing. The reality slips through every now and then, I say strange things in class and then kick myself later. I still can’t make eye contact. Talking to other humans is always an adventure… depending on the day, I might come across as a capricious eccentric or as a seriously disturbed basket case who can’t follow a simple conversation.

I remember 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 years ago, all the way up to January 2014, I prayed to a god I don’t believe in with the force of a million suns, that if I could just stop doing heroin, everything would be perfect, forever. Did I really believe everything would be easy after that? I think I had a hard enough time picturing a version of myself who was able to think about something other than heroin for longer than a few seconds.

You are shipwrecked in a stormy sea, thrown into the drink from your shattered hull, drowning in dark water. Suddenly you come to a tiny island and drag yourself coughing onto a rock. You kiss the ground and sob from joy. Then you look up and realize your tiny island has no fresh water and no source of food, and the ocean stretches out on all sides.

Life is change. That time I had an ego-melting mushroom trip in 2003, when I became the entire universe, I looked into the heart of everything that is, and saw the nature of reality. Exponentially increasing strangeness. That’s what I saw. I saw the infinite complexity of everything, laid out before me, and just when I would start to comprehend what it meant, it would jump up a dimension, get stranger still, strangeness squared, cubed… The strangeness is eating itself, is what I thought at the time, as I rolled around on the floor and bit Eva’s thigh so hard I drew blood. But that’s a story for another time.

I suppose things do improve, slowly. Remember when I wrote about my door last year? I think that was in my old blog, maybe? How relieving it is to have a door that locks, to have control over my own space, to have no one in my personal space who is touching me without my consent. I don’t stare at my door so much anymore. I still think about the door when I’m feeling extra panicky. The door tells me no one can hurt you here. Do I sound crazy enough yet?

Now I have more anger than fear. I imagine that every guy on the street is going to catcall me or try to grab me… even though that never really happened much in Eugene, it’s more of a big city thing. But I’ll see some guy on the street who is about to walk past me and imagine that he’s about to say something, and I involuntarily picture kicking him in the balls, scratching his eyes out, and this wave of rage flows over me just as I pass him… then he says nothing, walks past, and I try to take a deep breath and keep going. Not every guy is a scumbag, I try to tell myself.

There is this scene in Top of the Lake, maybe my favorite TV show, ever. It was a mini-series, six episodes. Directed by Jane Campion, who directed The Piano. Anyway. It’s a dream-nightmare of gorgeous, moody, blue-tinged cinematography. The main character, Robin, is played by a beautiful Elisabeth Moss. She’s a detective who comes back to her hometown and gets involved trying to find a missing girl in a town full of secrets. When she was 16, she was gang-raped, and one of the rapists is still around in the town. She has never dealt with the trauma, and being back in this town that time forgot, where misogyny is rampant, dredges up her memories.

One night Robin’s drinking at a bar and her rapist, Sarge, sidles up to her and tries to pick her up with a lame joke that serves as a metaphor for the whole story. He doesn’t recognize her as the girl he raped some 10 years earlier.

Random guy: Hey! – Do you know what the perfect murder weapon is?
Sarge: No, get fucked, that’s what I do.
Guy: Go on, you tell her then, Sarge.
Sarge: An icicle stalagmite. Ta-da! Cause after you stab them, it melts. It self-destructs. … I know you from somewhere, don’t I? You’re not a Sydney girl, hmm? Too classy for you to be a Sydney girl. I reckon it’s like a picnic races or something.
Robin: You don’t remember me, do you?
Sarge: Probably the royal easter show, I’m thinking.
Robin: No.
Sarge: Yeah? Did we fuck or something? We fucking did, didn’t we?

Robin is trying to control herself but a millisecond after he suggests that maybe they had “fucked,” she calmly, in one fluid motion, smashes her wine glass against the bar, stabs him with the broken glass, and starts screaming:

You remember me now asshole? You remember me now, asshole? Do you remember me now? Do you remember me now you motherfucker? Fuck you, piece of fucking shit! Fuck you piece of fucking shit! Fucking remember me now? Do you fucking remember me you piece of shit?
…as her boyfriend drags her out of the bar and throws her in a puddle, and she falls into the water, sobbing.

The first time I saw that scene, I had the most intense emotional reaction to anything I’ve ever seen in a movie or TV or read in a book… the whole show was very emotional for me, but that scene reached into the darkest corner of my soul, where all my hate and anger had been hiding, and pulled it out to the surface in the span of a minute. The scene comes out of nowhere — most of the rest of the show has a slow-build feeling — and then suddenly there is this flash of pure cathartic rage. I wanted to BE her, I wanted to be stabbing that guy, I wanted to be stabbing him continuously for the rest of my life. None of the drugs I’ve done even come close to comparing with the rush I got from that scene.

I didn’t even realize I had that much rage in me before I saw that. I would complain to M. or whomoever was around, telling them stories about my sick, horrible escort clients or my abusive exboyfriends, sure, I had anger. But that scene sliced through any defenses I had left. I felt like I was the one who had been stabbed, but it felt fucking good.

For days, weeks, and months after I watched it, I thought about that scene every single day, many many times a day. I would play through it in my mind in the shower, as I got dressed, in any downtime at school, lying in bed at night. No matter how many times it ran through my mind, it never lost its power.

Last Christmas I was home at my parents’ house. I had the DVD, and decided to watch it again. I watched the whole series from episode one, but the whole time all I was thinking about was getting to that one scene. It’s in episode four. I knew I was going to feel something when I saw it again, but I wasn’t prepared when I started sobbing, loud, ugly, with tears streaming down my face. I skipped back and watched it again. And again. And again. Probably 20 or 30 times, mouthing along with Robin’s words: YOU REMEMBER ME NOW? Then I pressed stop and just sat there rocking back and forth and wiping my snot off my face.

Those outpourings of emotion are good, I think. My therapist told me that people with PTSD don’t start feeling the fallout of their trauma until the trauma is over. While you’re still in the horror, you’re running on adrenaline and pure survival instinct. Whether that’s for a momentary attack or years at war or a decade of incremental abuse and violation…

I didn’t start having those emotional breakdowns until I got clean “for real” in January 2014. Before that I would have freakouts and panic attacks but the pain didn’t cut into my soul, it was surface pain. It was, how do I get through this moment, how do I get through this one situation… or usually, how do I make $300 today so I don’t get dopesick again. I wasn’t really FEELING the weight of everything I went through. It feels good, now, in a way. It feels good to cry, like I’m working through all that shit. I don’t think I ever cried about it — I mean REALLY cried, about all of it, not just about whatever was happening at that moment — until the second time I watched that Top of the Lake scene.

This entry probably makes it seem like I’m losing my mind… well I’m always losing my mind… but things have been good. I graduated, for one. I got an internship up in Portland, probably at WW. (It’s through a program, so I still have to be placed at a publication.) Just when I thought I was through with Oregon and Portland, 100% ready to move to New Orleans, I get this dream internship. “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.” ha. I can’t really handle Portland anymore. It’s always been perfect, well now it’s too perfect. I can’t handle being around people who have never had any real problems. I know I’m irrational and that people in Portland have problems too. Well, I’ll see if it feels any better now that I’m clean and (possibly) employed, or at least interning.

There were places where the luxury dropped away, where I waited. I saw something flash open then lost it.



There’s a story for you, that was to teach me the nature of emotion, what emotion can do, given favorable conditions.

tearsofjoyThe second time I had coffee with Miranda, my teacher/mentor, I told her the story of when I found out I got into J school. I wrote about it in my other blog but I still need to transfer the entries over. My old-school readers probably remember.

It was a perfect storm of emotional triggers for me: my father was being particularly awful, and I wasn’t so great myself that Christmas, 2013. I had only been clean for two weeks when my father and I had a huge fight in Chicago and I managed to run off, take a bus and then a cab from downtown to my old hood on the West Side, walk a couple miles to Chicago and Homan — “my” corner from when I lived there in 2011, I tried dozens of corners before deciding that was the best and most reliable location — score heroin, buy needles at the Walgreens at Western and Chicago, shoot up in a coffeeshop bathroom a block away, and meet my family nearby, in less than two hours. I think I told them I was having coffee with a friend. I remember crouching on the floor in this icky bathroom trying to hit one of my tiny wrist veins for about 20 minutes while I ignored my mother calling me over and over.

Two days later M and I had run out of the heroin we bought… had just enough to make it through a big dinner with family and family friends without getting dopesick. And then I got the email on my phone.

It still makes me almost cry thinking about it. I can’t remember the actual sequence of events, I only remember flashes. Seeing the email — not really reading it, but seeing enough flashes of individual words that I could comprehend that they had let me into journalism school — my heart was already racing so fast by the time my shaking hands managed to open the email on my phone — when your hands are shaking that much, opening an email is very difficult… I completely lost my hearing, tunnel vision, all I could see was the email on my phone. I showed it to M, and that’s when I started crying, quiet at first, then louder… I cried for 10, 15, 20, 30 minutes… I have no conception of how long it was. I just remember wiping my snot on M’s shoulder, burying my face in his sleeve, sobbing harder than I have ever cried in my life.

When I told Miranda about that scene, she asked me, “So was J school everything you thought it would be? Was it as good as you were expecting?”

“Yes,” I said, “110 percent. Not every single class, but overall, it’s been better than I even expected.” She seemed happy with that answer. I had trouble not breaking down in tears just telling her the story, so I wasn’t able to get many words out about how J school has helped me more than almost anything other than M’s emotional support. At some point, the support of people who love you isn’t enough, you need validation from people who *don’t* love you. At least I do. I’m a high maintenance recovering junkie, I guess.

Her question surprised me. It had never occurred me to judge my experience at J school. It wasn’t even about the school, really, at all. It was about proving to myself that I’m not a failure.

The real question is, did J school, or anything else, for that matter, give me the self-worth I craved? Yes, maybe. In the sense that I don’t think of myself only as a worthless junkie anymore, yes, for sure.

That evening at the restaurant, as M led me out, because the family friends and the waitstaff were getting concerned for my well-being, since I physically couldn’t stop crying no matter how hard I tried, I clung to his shoulder, completely blinded by tears, sobbing as I walked, hardly able to walk at all. The texture of the jacket he was wearing that night, a Carhartt waterproof canvas jacket, tan, dirty. Leaving a layer of snot on the waterproof coating. My hands gripping his arms, feet shuffling along through the ice and snow, slipping and stumbling toward the car that seemed to be 100 miles away.

tearsofjoy3The dark clear night sky, shining stars and glittering snow, my bare hands going numb from the cold, as waves of joy and relief vibrated through my body. Probably the most intense physical/ emotional experience I’ll ever have.

It wasn’t about school, a future career, or any of that, it was just the sudden realization that it would be possible for me to change. That I didn’t have to be stuck in addiction forever. One tiny step toward whatever it is that I would do after my addiction.

I thought about everything I’d been through, not just the addiction, but the rootless, aimless life I’d had, full of failure and trauma and a litany of woes. It all flashed in front of my eyes like I was about to die, scene after scene of awful memories, surprisingly vivid, but also distant, like I was finally putting those things to rest. One and a half years later, I’m about to graduate, but that moment still feels like it happened five minutes ago. I’m still there, sobbing like a prisoner granted reprieve.

I wonder if I will ever experience relief that visceral again. I hope I never have to.

something shattered inside the words we use… to have wanted a story, whereas life alone was enough

Even after almost two years back at college, and six months clean (or 15 months, if I add the time before my August relapse), I still feel like an intruder in this world. Like an undercover agent. And since no one knows who I am, they say things around me that they wouldn’t say otherwise. Yesterday in class I learned a journalistic convention that made me so angry I had to restrain myself from outright yelling at my classmates.

I’ve always been able to pass as “normal” — I kept all my teeth, I almost always had a place to sleep (even if that place was sometimes a car or a motel), I had enough nice-ish clothes from the times when I was making more money, and I still talked like someone who grew up in the suburbs. In 2008-9 I reached my lowest point, and I was too depressed to shower more than once a week, but my hoodie and jeans were still relatively clean and I would put a hat over my dirty hair. I would still get whistles and propositions, so I guess I still looked okay.

Now that I’m clean and “better,” my appearance and demeanor have made it almost too easy to slip back into the “real world.” Back when I first started doing heroin, I marveled at how I had spent my whole life in the “real world” and now I had found this thing that opened up a whole other side to life — like Alice stepping through the looking glass. A whole world where nothing matters, no one cares, there are no goals or aspirations, only the all-encompassing high. You think nothing can separate you from your own personality, but heroin can. The effect was one of a disorienting scale shift. Everything I had known became tiny, irrelevant, forgettable. I had to create a neologism for the world I lived in until age 22 — I called it the “real world.”

The darkness was just as big as the real world, if not bigger. Once you find that you have a choice whether to live or to fall into a deep waking sleep, everything changes. You might think you’d miss the good parts of your life, but what really happens is that you will be so glad the bad parts are gone — no more anxiety, depression, worry, disappointment — that you decide you can live without the joy and personal relationships and hopes and dreams. I didn’t do it consciously, I struggled against it, but the darkness won.

And now I’m back in the real world. But I’m still on the border. Some days I almost forget that the darkness is there. Some days I can feel it more, can feel that everything in this real world is a chimera, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

It bothers me how easy it is for me to pass as someone who wasn’t injecting heroin and sleeping with strangers for money for 11 years. I feel like I should be covered in scars, like my skin should be a different color. People treat me like they would treat anyone, but I wish I got more credit for making it to class every day, which still shocks me.

You’d be surprised how often stuff like drug addiction and prostitution comes up in class. Last term a guy in class told us how he had written an article about escorts, and everything about his tone was mocking, even though he didn’t mean it to be. He called the women “whores” and ridiculed them for asking to be paid for the interviews. He explained it like they were just too low class to know anything about journalism. I kept my mouth shut.

Then there are the casual jokes about “whores” and “junkies” that seem to come out of nowhere. I can never think of those people the same way again. A kid in my Russian class made some offhand disparaging comment about “whores” last year, and it still colors the way I look at him. “Oh, so you believe some human beings are worthless… noted.”

Yesterday was by far the worst prejudice I’ve encountered, though. Mostly because it exposed a layer of entrenched classism in journalism that I guess I was hoping wasn’t there.

It was in my interview class — a whole class about how to conduct interviews with sources. One of the things that comes up every class period is the ethical issue of changing quotes. Non-journalists probably think that ethics dictate you never ever change a quote, but that’s not how most media organizations operate. You are allowed to take out stuff like “um” and “like” and “I don’t know.” You can cut off parts of quotes and some editors allow you to splice together sentences from different parts of the interview to make a coherent statement. This all exists on a continuum, with some reporters arguing that nothing should be changed, not even the “like”s, and some arguing that you can pretty much change anything as long as the meaning is the same.

The hard part is deciding where on that continuum you fall, and what rules you will use to decide what to change. Most freshmen students start out in the “no changes” camp and slowly relax their rules when they see how difficult it is to do interviews and how rarely people speak without random interjections. My professor, John, is on the far side of the continuum, believing that as long as you preserve the person’s meaning, it’s okay. Most journalists will put something in brackets if they need to add a word for clarity — like, “then I started using [heroin].” The New York Times even uses a bracket to show that a certain word wasn’t actually the beginning of the sentence. Like, “[T]hen I started using [heroin].” That way you know if part of the sentence has been cut. John says you can just leave out the bracket and write, “Then I started using heroin,” without indicating that you are adding words for clarity.

Where it starts getting difficult — and where I have to struggle not to yell at people — is when there are issues of grammatical errors. You’d be surprised how many journalists argue, with no awareness of how hypocritical they are, that if a doctor or lawyer makes an error, you should change it, but if a person living in a trailer park does, you should leave it. My teacher, John, and three other people were arguing this. That if the person is “educated” you should give them the benefit of the doubt and make their speech grammatically correct.

The example was a doctor in one of my classmate’s article who had said, “some people that…” instead of, “some people who…” [“That” is only used for non-humans; “who” must be used when referring to a person.] My classmate had left the error in the quote. John said she should have corrected it.

I’m okay with some reporters having a more liberal view of quotes than I do — if they do it across the board. Which they don’t. These three students argued that if you’re talking to a “homeless person” you should leave in the errors and maybe even leave in the “like”s and “um”s. I was so angry that I think my face turned red. If this doctor is so educated, why did he make the error? In reality, no one talks without errors, not even grammar nazis like me. I constantly say “me and so-and-so” when I’m talking. Very few people talk in coherent, error-free sentences. My professor found grammatical errors in almost all of my classmates’ articles (not mine!) — if a group of journalism students can’t even get their grammar correct in their written assignments, how are we supposed to expect other people to talk that way?

John and these three classmates were arguing that in the case of the homeless person, you want to preserve their “dialect” — essentially, preserve the features of their speech that make them sound lower class. But if a card-carrying member of the elite makes a mistake, we should change it — we’re all friends here, up in the vaunted world of white collar jobs and college educations. It makes me so fucking angry and so fucking sick that these people can’t see how classist this is. What if that homeless person has a college education but has fallen on hard times? “Educated” is a word my classmates kept throwing around, which they seemed to think was a hard and fast category that could never intersect with being homeless or speaking with grammatical errors.

At first I thought I was hearing them wrong or that they hadn’t thought it through carefully enough — but they continued to argue with me and the other sane people, that treating interview subjects differently based on their perceived class is perfectly reasonable. I am still so angry it’s difficult for me to articulate why. It seems so self-evident to me why this is wrong, but I said most of what I’m saying in this blog entry, while looking into their eyes, and they still didn’t get it. I started to wonder if I’m crazy, wonder if a majority of reporters would show this shocking prejudice.

And I wonder what they would say if they found out about my past. In this class, I happen to be at or near the top in both writing skill and knowledge of grammar, just based on my grades, my professor’s questions about grammar and writing, and how few of my classmates know the answers. That’s okay, I’m 15 years older than them, I’ve had a lot more practice. But what if they knew I was a “whore” and a “junkie” less than two years ago, that I was even homeless briefly? If I made an error in an interview, would they change it, or leave it in to preserve my exotic low-class “dialect”? How the fuck do you put people in these categories?

I wrote my article based on an interview I did with another escort. I actually thought it was kind of boring. She didn’t have any scary stories where she feared for her safety — you’d be surprised how few escorts have been in actual danger. She’s a heroin addict, has a three-year-old son who lives with her parents, and is pregnant with the child of an unknown client. Only the last of those facts seems shocking to me. Junkies who have lost custody of their children were everywhere back when I was using.

But my professor praised me for getting such an unusual interview subject, and said, “This is great, because of the 14 of us in this room, how many of us have been a heroin addict or a prostitute? None.”

I was sitting there, trying not to laugh or cry.

And my interview subject had made plenty of grammatical errors, and I had left in some of them, and John said nothing about those, didn’t suggest that I correct them like he had suggested changing the doctor’s quotes in the other article. Because this prostitute apparently had a low-class “dialect” that we wanted to preserve, like an anthropologist stalking an exotic tribe.

It almost makes me want to tell the class about my past, just to try to get through to them, to show them that these categories aren’t as solid as they think. It’s awfully hubristic to talk like this about homeless or lower income people, as though none of us might ever end up in a situation like that.

My writing class last term included me, the junkie/whore, as well as two kids whose mothers had been drug addicts and had been in and out of jail, and two girls who were working at chain stores putting themselves through college. The Hispanic kid from the bad neighborhood in L.A. who hasn’t seen his mother in years — who wrote one of the best essays in the class, a letter to his absentee dad that almost made me cry — regularly spoke in what people would call “black” vernacular. So, if I’m quoting him, is he “educated” or is it a dialect that will add color to my piece? What if the subject doesn’t want their quotes changed? What if they want to preserve their unique way of speaking, not sound like a politician, bland and boring?

The funny thing is, when this topic came up in that writing class last term, that L.A. kid was the only one in the class arguing that you SHOULD change the quotes of “educated” people but not lower class people. The kid who was in a gang at 14 and somehow got his shit together and made it to college, was arguing that it’s okay to correct doctors and lawyers but not homeless people. I guess it’s aspirational — we all want to believe that we are the educated ones, that we will get the benefit of the doubt, that if we are interviewed the reporter will make us sound like the smart people we are.

Well, I don’t want that. I don’t want anyone to smooth over my mistakes. I want them to see my scars.

“Yes, there are moments, like this moment, when I seem almost restored to the feasible. Then it goes, all goes, and I’m far again, with a far story again, I wait for me afar for my story to begin, to end, and again this voice cannot be mine. That’s where I’d go, if I could go, that’s who I’d be, if I could be.”


the people of the open wound

Why does writing cause so much more anxiety than other creative pursuits?

This question came to me while reading T Magazine last week, which had mini-profiles of a few writers. For those not in the know, T Magazine is the fashion/design supplement to the Sunday New York Times, which is included every month or so. I usually don’t read T because it is one of the most ostentatious offerings to the temple of lavish materialism, all surface and glitz. But I was flipping through this one because it was the Spring Design issue, and I have a weakness for architecture.

(First I encountered the Platonic form of those houses where you aren’t allowed to touch anything and every room looks like a hotel. This “renowned advertising provocateur” [?] keeps any sign of his own existence out of his NYC condo; his books and even his expensive art collection are hidden in closets and drawers. Even the bedroom is devoid of personal belongings. He said: “I didn’t want it to feel like a home. I wanted it to feel like a hotel.”)

But maybe T Magazine was trying to change its reputation from a confection of conspicuous consumption to something with more substance, because they included this feature about seven writers and where they work. That’s when I encountered Adam Thirlwell describing the room where he works as a “place of anxiety” and Tom McCarthy admitting, “It’s tempting to stare out of the window most of the day. Who am I kidding? That’s what I do.” Then there’s one of my favorite Riff columns in an old NYT Magazine, about self-doubt and writing, which contains this quote:

Because if I had to identify a single element that characterizes my life as a writer, a dominant affective note, it would be self-doubt. It is a more-or-less constant presence in everything I do. It is there even as I type these words, in my realization that almost all writers struggle in this way; that the notion of a self-doubting writer is as close to tautology as to make no difference, and that to refer to such a thing as a “struggle” is to concede the game immediately to cliché, to lose on a technicality before you’ve even begun.

He also refers to “the little voice in your head or the booming baritone in your gut that wishes you to know that what you are writing is entirely without value.” I started thinking, why is writing like this? I don’t know of any other creative activity that is so associated with anxiety. When I was a studio art major (painting, photography, drawing) or when I played in orchestra in high school, I never felt this way. I didn’t sit in front of a blank canvas obsessively cleaning my workspace rather than painting, I didn’t get to the darkroom and immediately remember something I just had to do because I was scared of developing photos, I didn’t dread going to orchestra practice — in fact, all of those activities were very enjoyable.

The problem with the other vocations I’ve tried (including anthroplogy and other non-creative fields) is that I was never sure I was good enough at them. But that over-arching lack of confidence didn’t infect the everyday level of actually doing the thing. I was perfectly capable of working on my art; I just didn’t think I was a great artist or that it was worth pursuing for the rest of my life. I didn’t have anxiety about music, I just didn’t like practicing my instruments enough to choose music as a career, and wasn’t sure I would ever be professional-level good. But it never even occurred to me to procrastinate working on art or music.

The strange thing is that writing is the only thing I’ve done where I do have the overall confidence that I am a good enough. I know I’m a good enough writer that I can make money off it. I know I can produce an amazing memoir. I never felt like this about art or music. My confidence in my writing borders on egotism. But it doesn’t help the daily activity of actually doing the writing. Down in the trenches, none of my confidence in myself as a writer helps me actually write without that sheer terror that is familiar to any writer.

I just googled “self-doubt” and “anxiety” with “writing” and found so many posts calling it a “cliche” or the “biggest problem for writers” that there’s no need to quote anyone else: Anyone who writes — or anyone who knows a writer — knows that writing and paralyzing panic are inextricably linked. This is not related to the concept of writer’s block, which I wrote about in my last entry. Whether I’m writing “for myself” (memoir or personal essays or blog entries) or not for myself (reporting and freelancing), I experience this overwhelming sense of dread and jittery apprehension. Even just thinking about writing makes me feel like I’m looking over a 500-foot cliff with no railing.

The worst part of journalism, for me, is the interviews, which are on a whole other level of panic that we won’t get into here. But I’ve found that even after the interviews are done and transcribed, working on writing the article — which for me is the “easy part” (ha!) — takes every ounce of willpower I possess. I know what I’m going to write, and once I sit down to do it, the writing itself comes out in regular intervals of sentences and paragraphs, but my brain is constantly telling me it isn’t any good. Sometimes when I make it to the end and submit the article, I’m able to relax and feel a little pride in my work — but a lot of times I end up hating what I’ve written, even if others (professors, editors, friends) tell me it’s great. I find this quote (from that Riff piece again) very accurate:

The following, for example, is a frequent enough occurrence in my professional life: I’ll pitch an editor with an idea for something I want to write about, and they’ll tell me to go ahead with it, and then I’ll straight away begin a process of deconvincing myself, of deciding that the article I’ve persuaded someone to pay me to write is actually not worth writing at all or that I’m not the person to write it. And at this point, of course, it’s too late to back out, and I have to go ahead and write it anyway; a whole routine that is very time-consuming and enervating in the extreme.

The fact that professional writers who publish stuff in the New York Times sound just as anxious than me, if not moreso, is not very comforting. Think about it: how many books or articles have you seen about the self-doubting writer? And how many have you seen about the self-doubting, panicked artist or designer or musician or actor? (Stage fright doesn’t count.) I can’t think of ever seeing something about a non-writer consumed with misgiving whenever they attempt to practice their craft.

I’ve found one of the most useful things about going to school for journalism is that it has forced me to write. Much of what I’ve learned is common sense or I could have found in a book, but having someone force me to write journalism has helped immensely. And once I wrote a few articles, I felt a little better knowing that I could do it. But the anxiety remains.

And it’s actually worse for my personal writing. I have more than five books about writing memoir, but I’ve barely read them. When you think about a project for more than 10 years, a project that encompasses everything you care about, most of the important events in your life, and a chance to find meaning in chaos — which you have used to justify all that misery, because “at least I have good stories, at least I can make a memoir out of it” — I’m not sure any writing project can approach that level of significance, and of course the more important the writing is, the more the terror devours me.

As I thought about why writing is like this, I realized that the storytelling, narrative aspect of writing, and its solitary nature, makes it almost the closest to the experience of living, compared with other creative acts. Movies and plays purport to imitate reality, but they require dozens of people and hours of practice before the finished product. Art and music evoke emotion but aren’t narrative.

Writing is like being alive — it’s like the stream of your thoughts. It doesn’t have any bells and whistles to disguise this feeling of being naked before God. No equipment is needed other than pen and paper (or laptop), and the end product is words, only words. In that sense, it’s more personal than anything else. It’s the result of one person, which means that only one person is responsible if it turns out badly. Some visual art is just as solitary, but the artifice can disguise the personal.

Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, there is nowhere to hide when all you have is words on a screen or page. When someone would tell me I needed to play a passage differently in orchestra, it wasn’t about me, it was just about needing to practice or correct a misreading of the music notes. When my art teachers gave me a mediocre critique on a painting or photograph, it was just a product of my hand, it wasn’t ME. But writing is only me. The closest thing to being inside my head. No wonder it’s so hard to start. Or finish.

turned my brown eyes blue

Last night I had maybe my favorite dream I’ve ever had. The part that haunts me is when I found myself in front of a mirror briefly. I almost didn’t notice, but just as I was turning away, an impression flashed through my mind. Something isn’t right, I thought. I turned back to the mirror and saw with a shock that my eyes were blue. I leaned forward, staring. They were not just blue but icy blue, so icy that the inner part, including the pupil, was blanched white.

In the very first instant that I saw my white-blue eyes, I knew that the change was a psychic wound from everything I had been through. I only remember vaguely the rest of the dream, but I can FEEL those eyes. They weren’t milky, they were glowing, pouring a blinding incandescence, not outward, but into myself, staining all of me with this radiant chill. Not reflected moonlight, not warm sunlight, but self-created starlight: cold, faraway, steady and eternal. White so white that it could never be another color again, light so bright it was bending time and space and curving around me and into me.

I couldn’t see actual rays, and it wasn’t like I had flashlights for eyes. It was light I could FEEL, that I knew was there behind those icy blue-white eyes. I don’t know what part of me in the dream had this “knowledge” that traumatic experiences could bleach brown eyes blue, but it felt so obvious, like there could be no other explanation. As I stared, I realized that I liked myself with bright icy eyes. I could have a staring contest with the sun and win. I could throw shadows across a room. I could illuminate my way through the darkness.

* * *

Lately I’ve been waking up incredibly early — 3 or 4 or 5 am sometimes, and no later than 7. Even though I go to bed at midnight or 1 or 2 am. I am wide awake by 4 and have to fight to get myself back to sleep so I don’t feel horrible by noon. The weird thing is that I *want* to get out of bed when I wake up at 4 am. Not like when I was dopesick and I was so restless my body would kick itself out of bed on its own accord while my mind begged to go back to sleep. Now the thoughts start and I want to get up and start reading or writing or doing whatever it is that I’m doing that day. It’s usually pitch black and then gets light a while later. My window by my desk faces east, and the sunrise is gorgeous.

Class doesn’t start until 11 am, and by that time I feel like I’ve already lived a lifetime. 2nd year Russian, five days a week. I dream in Russian sometimes. The other night I had a dream I was overhearing some native Russians speaking, and noticed errors in their speech, which made me feel better about when I can’t remember the genitive plural declension for сестра (сестёр) and брат (братев). (Words related to family are highly irregular, especially in genitive plural, which could be a metaphor for something, I guess…)

I’ve been clean for over a year. Well, I slipped last August, but only for a few weeks, so I decided it didn’t “count.” I’ve always thought it was really depressing that if you use for one day, you have to start the clock all over again. I was clean for 8 months before that and it didn’t seem right to erase all that.

Things were complicated. I tried to leave M, unsuccessfully, as it turned out. I tried to find a new place to live, couldn’t find anything I liked, and in the midst of that I was panicking more and more from working on the school paper… mostly it was the people I worked with. The editor I had a crush on graduated, and everyone else there sucked. The editor who replaced him, who worked directly above me, the person most responsible for my content, is maybe the worst writer I’ve ever encountered, with no sense for news, doesn’t even read the fucking news. She would tear my stories apart until they were unrecognizable, adding grammar and spelling errors, and even worse, changing the tone so my writing sounded cutesy and stupid like her writing sounded.

The clique-yness of the place drove me crazy, too. A whole bunch of mostly nerdy wallflowers have their first opportunity to be in an exclusive club, and take full advantage of excluding new people. “New” = I worked there for 10 months and even hung out with them socially a few times, was super friendly, and still felt excluded.

When I agreed to stay and work for the summer, they told me that my 45+ hours a week of UNPAID reporting work would be reduced to about 10 hours/week and I’d only have to write one story each week. Well, it turned out to be just as much work as during the school year. The two editors directly above me double-teamed to follow me around criticizing everything I did… I missed one day of work because of an awful hangover and had to get some big lecture and sign a “contract” that I wouldn’t miss any more days… meanwhile Ms. Awful Editor had missed over half our Sunday staff meetings and most weekdays because she kept going out of town for music festivals (EDM, puke. Why were 100 percent of my coworkers into EDM??).

The night after having to sign that “contract,” I relapsed. I was completely losing my mind with fear that I had gone through so much to go back to school and that somehow I wasn’t cut out for working in journalism. I couldn’t deal with my terrifying interviews and evil editors at the same time. I quit the paper and got clean again but September through December sucked. I was convinced my whole college degree would be for nothing.

Maybe it is… but this quarter I am taking a feature writing class, and my teacher, Miranda, is fucking amazing. I have to restrain myself from giving her a huge hug every day, and it’s a real struggle to not laugh at her jokes more than the rest of the class or answer every question or monopolize class time with my questions. She is a freelance writer who has written three books, two of them memoirs. She talks nonstop about how journalism isn’t dead and how we can make money writing. She’s the only professor I’ve had so far that didn’t spend every class period telling us we will never work in journalism because print is dead. She tells us realistically that we aren’t going to get rich writing, but that we can still make a living if we are creative about it.

Also, Miranda and I have been having coffee and discussing publishing my memoir. She tends to be overly excited and positive about everything, so it’s hard to gauge what my chances really are, but she has taught a memoir workshop at a writing conference for years, and seems to think that my story has a real chance of getting published. She told me that her agent would definitely take me, but that I could also try my pitch at this conference in August. She’s also been giving me advice about privacy issues. She actually changed her last name before her first memoir so that she wouldn’t run into issues with people recognizing her abusive father in the book.

I never know if people are just being dramatic, but when she asked me what my memoir was about, and I told her, she said, “REALLY? ARE YOU SERIOUS?!?” about 20 times in a row. That was when she gave me her agent’s name. She advised me to use a full-name pseudonym for both my memoir and any personal writing I come up with. I never really thought about publishing personal essays, but she told me that her students that end up published during college or after graduation usually start with personal essays, first-person narratives either about their life or something they experienced. Shit, I could write that stuff in my sleep. That’s what I’m already good at.

We are going to move to the Bay Area after I graduate so M can work in restaurants, and I’m going to make millions with my memoir. /sarcasm. But I stopped feeling like the degree is pointless. I would have gone through four years of college just to take this one class with Miranda. Anyway, I’m so close now. I’m going to walk in the spring, take two more classes over the summer, and then I’m done. It only took me 15 years to get through college.

I wrote the first chapter of my memoir. It’s about that day those cops found me overdosed and one of them said to the other, “Let’s shoot her up with Narcan to see if she’s a junkie.” It’s one of the best things I’ve ever written. Working on the memoir has made me see that it’s very different from blog writing. You have to use suspense, pacing, surprise, dialogue, and all that shit I thought non-fiction writers didn’t have to think about. It’s amazingly cathartic, though. Even though I wrote about most of this at the time, it’s different writing something I intend to be published. Like I’m writing the definitive version and can finally close the door on each thing I write about.

M says I should divide it up into multiple books — I surely have enough material already to fill six volumes, the My Struggle of a female American junkie. And there’s enough I haven’t written about — not just stuff I didn’t write about at the time, but feelings, description of the characters, physical details, and so on — to fill another six. But this is one book. It’s one story. The last 15 years are one story arc. It’s a classic riches to rags to [spiritual] riches story. I had everything, I destroyed it, and then I got back a different everything.

* * *

a.baa-Nature-eyeAfter I had that dream, I googled “turned my brown eyes blue.” I could have sworn that was a phrase, an idiom, something I had heard before. It turns out that it’s a country song from 1977, but that’s about it. And in the song it’s only about a broken heart, with “blue” as a metaphor for sadness.

That’s not what it was like in my dream at all. My eyes weren’t a gloomy blue, they were a searing, shining white-blue, like burning ice.

Like cold so cold that it hit the other side of the spectrum. That this violates all laws of physics doesn’t change that I can feel it is true.

Frozen into light. The pain that turned my brown eyes ice-blue, and they burn.

They burn.