So, comedian Bo Burnham has songs from his Netflix special Inside streaming everywhere now, and this morning my friend sent me this little ditty about aWhite Woman’s Instagram. If you haven’t heard the song, to get an idea where he’s going with this, look no further than the song’s chorus:
“Is this heaven or is it just a white woman’s Instagram?”
The stanzas are comprised of lines about the photos white women post to their Instagram accounts, photos of latte art, couples holding hands, and bobbleheads of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I was dying laughing while listening to the song until I started thinking about my own Instagram. “Shit. He’s talking about me.” It’s a little unnerving to feel so thoroughly seen and exposed by a man I’ve never met.
Yet, here are some selections from my Instagram:
Guilty as charged.
The song is, as most observations Burnham makes, dead on. The white women I know all have Instagram pages filled with artsy photos of cute puppies, flowers, birds, food we’ve prepared, and glasses of wine we’ve poured for ourselves. Middle class white women of Instagram, this is us. We couldn’t deny it if we wanted to. The evidence is ample. We’ve all done it, and now we’ve been called on it.
I started thinking about what it means. Why do we share carefully curated scenes that promote the illusion that we live perfect lives of contemplative beauty and genuine art? Are we that superficial and attention seeking? Is that what it comes down to? We also share shots of ourselves without makeup (to prove that we can be brave) and adorable photos of our significant others, children and pets (because we love them), but we’re careful about those too because the Internet saves everything. We are, however, less of a shallow caricature than our Instagram photographic snippets represent and Burnham’s song suggests. We know others will be bored with photos of dirty laundry piles, messy desks scattered with work, children mid tantrum, or groceries on the counter. And we don’t want to share photos that remind us of our struggles with money, marriage, family members, depression, anxiety, hormonal fluctuations, sleeplessness, disease, and death, because Twitter is where that crap should live. Besides, no one wants to be Debbie Downer with her measly 33 Instagram followers.
So, yeah, we play with our iPhone cameras on portrait mode and attempt to portray our white-women lives in the most idyllic way possible. It’s true, Bo. You nailed it. Our accounts are a bit canned, but may I suggest it’s because we’re uniquely positioned to document the positive little things, the things that make life beautiful and worth living despite the unending dirge about climate change, poverty, violence, political upheaval, and racial and social inequality?
I say keep posting those life-affirming-if-a-little-cliché photos of golden retrievers in flower crowns, fuzzy, comfy socks, and footprints in the sand, white-women friends. Put on your floppy sun hat and strike a pose on a quiet beach at sunset. Position your hands so to appear you are holding the Eiffel Tower. Photograph that damn glass of wine you earned at the end of a long, hard day. Remind the world that there is good out there. And, Bo, you go back to singing about straight white males because that is music to our white women ears.
So accustomed are we in the United States to gun violence that yesterday’s shooting at a King Soopers grocery store initially only registered in me slightly more disgust than the shootings last week in Atlanta. When my mother-in-law casually mentioned the developing news story before dinner, I decided not to investigate immediately. The story would likely be the same as we have seen myriad times before. Innocent citizens going about the business of their daily lives, murdered by some disgruntled, disturbed male in possession of a deadly weapon. It was just another day in America, a place where the right to procure military-grade weaponry trumps the right of every day citizens to shop, worship, view movies, attend school, or enjoy a concert or social event without marking out an explicit exit strategy just in case. We accept metal detectors at sporting events and music venues as part of normal life. We sigh when we learn of another shooting, and then we move on and wait for the next one. It’s inevitable as the phases of the moon.
As a graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder and a former 8-year resident of the Boulder area, I naively imagined my favorite college town was immune to such tragedies. Boulder, set against the backdrop of the Flatirons and the Rocky Mountains, is a highly educated, liberal-minded town, the kind of place where the hippy vibe and omnipresent Subaru Outbacks belie a laid back, outdoorsy spirit and not the inner-city mean streets where you might imagine a shooting spree would occur. Boulder, with its protected open spaces, fine dining, and university ties, seemed insulated to me somehow. But nowhere in this country are you safe, and I should have known better than to imagine Boulder was an exception.
I have written about gun violence before. A long-time Colorado resident, I’m no stranger to the spectacle of mass shootings. I was 30 when two teenagers shocked the nation by shooting up Columbine High School in my hometown of Littleton. In 2012, I was 44 when we were returning from a trip to the mountains and I had to inform my sons about a mass casualty event in an Aurora movie theater, 20-some miles from our home. The following year we witnessed another school shooting down the street from our home at Arapahoe High School. Now, in 2021, we once again had to discuss a horrific shooting in a place they have visited many times. They were not exactly surprised.
As a parent, the most difficult part about the proliferation of random gun violence is not the fear of losing my sons in a mass casualty event (although they never get dropped at school — or anywhere else — without that thought crossing my mind), but is instead the tough conversations I have with them after more innocents have been murdered. Our oldest was born two years after Columbine. He and his brother have grown up in a world I could not have imagined as a teenager hanging out in malls and skating rinks and concert halls without a thought in my mind about guns. Their youth was defined by fear of gun-related violence. The toll that school lockdowns and shooting safety drills have taken on their psyches is measurable in their anger, frustration, and anxiety. After I informed my oldest about the shooting yesterday evening, his response was predictable. He immediately became angry, swearing that he would never raise his own children in this country. He then pivoted to fear, asking me if I had given any thought to expatriating to a less gun-happy country. Finally he settled upon bitterness, saying only that he was “done” with it. If in the past 21 years since the violence at Columbine we adults haven’t been able to find a solution to this situation, he knows there is a little hope for change going forward. Our divided political landscape suggests he is correct in this assumption.
Our sons are disillusioned. Their reality is that adults have failed them on sensible gun legislation, among other things. They are frustrated and scared and angry, and you can’t blame them. They are right. The ever-present threat of death at someone else’s gun-toting hands has gifted their generation with legitimate mental duress. When you’ve been doing lockdown drills since elementary school, barricading yourself in a classroom and hiding under your desk in preparation for becoming a human target, you might feel unimportant and unheard. On January 6th when the US Capitol building was attacked by a violent mob, both our sons said that maybe now the lawmakers would be able to understand what it’s like to be a student in today’s schools, to be hiding and fearful. Gen Z is filled with depressed, anxious, and lost individuals. Youth suicide rates climbed 56% between 2007 and 2017. Today’s kids are struggling for many reasons, and the adults in the room seem okay with it. Or at least we don’t seem to care enough about the mental and emotional health of our own children and grandchildren to make substantive changes for them.
I’m sorry, boys. I’m sorry adults in my generation and others haven’t done more to protect you and your peers. I’m sorry I’ve had to tell you too, too many times about lives lost in pointless shootings in schools and theaters and churches and shopping centers. I’m sorry that my donations to organizations fighting for commonsense gun legislation, my letters and calls to our congressional representatives in DC, and my attendance at various protest marches against gun violence weren’t even close to enough to help effectuate meaningful change. I’m sorry that our government hasn’t made headway on this issue and that we’ve accepted that your loss of innocence and sense of personal safety are the price for protecting the Second Amendment and the freedoms of those who choose to own guns. You deserve better. I see that. I see your fears and I know how these preventable tragedies vex you and affect your mental health. Your elders have no legitimate excuses. And I’m sorry.
My journey towards personal growth is, I imagine, similar to the one many other people have undertaken. It’s one step forward, two steps back on perpetual repeat. There have been times when I have felt that I was getting there, wherever “there” is. But there have been many more moments when I have realized with considerable chagrin that I am not as far along as I had hoped. The secret is now and has always been just to keep moving and not give up. I may never make it to that mythical place where true mental peace and emotional well being reside, but I can keep heading there, even if I occasionally feel like Sisyphus pushing that damn boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down for me to move upwards again in perpetuity.
As disappointing as it has been for me to accept, I am human. I spent my first forty years simply coping with the life choices I made based on a model of my life that others crafted. And I was living my life disconnected from why I was heading in the direction I was going. I was merely going. Then, I woke up. And when that happened, I got sad. Sad that I had gone along unaware for so long, sad that I had stopped believing in my dreams, sad that I had decided to take a path others chose for me, and sad that I had perpetuated the self-restrictive mindset I developed as a young child to endure mental and emotional abuses. I wallowed in the sad place for a long time, flailing around, unsure of how to save myself, sometimes unsure if I was even worth saving. Just when I’d make a breakthrough in one area and walk from the darkness towards the light, my eyes would adjust and I’d realize I’d escaped one small hole just to land in a different, slightly roomier one. C’est la vie.
Last night while having dinner with my family and discussing my struggle to find peace, my sister-in-law pointed out that the decision on which way to proceed ultimately comes down to one notion. You need to look at your options and decide which one you can live with and which one will only lead to regret. As time for me on this troubled, beautiful planet wanes via the non-stop aging process, I need to choose: do I continue worrying about making others comfortable and happy with me or do I carve out a place where I am the protagonist and not simply supporting cast in someone else’s story? We all have life choices, and they usually come down to how much work we are willing to do and how much pain we are willing to endure. Some people aren’t cognizant enough to realize they have choices or that they have already unconsciously made one they are following. Some people decide that choosing between options is too difficult and requires too much work and decide to remain on their current trajectory. I am once again at a fork, and I know I need to step off the old, well-worn path and onto the new one. I’ve made my decision. I’ve been slowly gathering fortitude and momentum. Right now, I am the little, toy car that has been wound up and is being held above the ground, poised for release. I just need to set my wheels onto the path I know is right for me, let go of fear, and see what happens. I need to choose myself and leave others to fight their own windmills. I cannot help them, just as they cannot help me.
I have been working to make peace with myself and my decisions for a long time, but I kept getting caught up in other’s expectations and feedback. You can’t move to the next phase of growth until you let go of the comments and obligations put in your way by those who would keep you tethered to your old paradigm because that is what benefits them. All of this is to say that I’ve been working for a long time to run out of shits to give about what others would tell me is the “right” way to live. One of the best books I’ve read recently is Untamed by Glennon Doyle. So much of what she describes as her journey feels like my journey too; she’s simply farther along on her path than I am on mine, which means her words can serve as a beacon for me to follow when I am uncertain and thrashing about. One of the quotes from that book that speaks to me the loudest is this one:
“This life is mine alone. So I have stopped asking people for directions to places they’ve never been.”
While others can offer input, they don’t know me, my heart, or my potential. I alone control those things if I am brave enough to own my power. I’m choosing to recognize that my path is mine. No one else knows what directions to give me because this is not their path and, ultimately, it is not their choice. Allowing others to lead me along in my life, like an ass on a rope, has gotten me too far down the wrong road. But I’ve had time now to stop, to look back, and to contemplate where I’ve gotten to by allowing others to hold the reins. I know for certain now that the path that will lead me to regrets is the one I’ve been traveling. I know I can do better for myself, and those people who really love me and appreciate me will cheer me along even if the direction I’m heading isn’t one they understand. The rest? Well, the rest aren’t my problem anymore. I gotta choose me or I’m lost forever.
“Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind – even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say.” ~Maggie Kuhn
I haven’t spoken to my father in six months. This is not the first time in our relationship when silence has come to fall between us. When I was 23, we had a dispute that led to two full years cessation of contact between us over questions I had regarding a car he had previously owned but that I had purchased from him. During those two years, birthdays and holidays went by without any notes or cards or calls. Even my paternal grandmother stopped acknowledging my existence. I was exiled because I’d had the temerity to ask for advice regarding something that was now my problem. The argument we had over the car and the period of time when we were estranged came to an end only after I had gotten engaged, and my mother told me the right thing to do would be to reach out, share my news, and ask him to walk me down the aisle at my wedding. I didn’t want to do it, but I acquiesced, convinced it was the decent thing to do.
This most recent period of estrangement began in September, but it had been brewing for years. I had asked him a multitude of times not to send me ANY political or religious email forwards, as we hold diametrically opposed views on those topics, among many others. On my birthday in May, he came by to bring me a card and, while we were standing socially distanced from one another in my front yard, he chose to celebrate my birthday by insulting me. We were discussing the necessity of masks during the pandemic, and he let me know that maybe if I watched “real news” as opposed to fake news I would know better. The remainder of that brief visit was strained. We kept our distance after that until in September he sent me another political email, one meant to instruct me once again in how wrong I am regarding my political views. I had had enough. I replied to his message, said I could only assume he had no respect for me or my repeated requests, and therefore I was blocking him from my phone and my email, and taking a break. I was proud of myself for standing my ground. I have been at peace ever since.
Yesterday morning, as usual, I got an emailed, advance photo of the mail to be arriving in the afternoon. In yesterday’s photographic evidence was an image of a long envelope addressed to me in my father’s neatly printed handwriting, all capital letters. I froze. Peace was gone. My stomach flopped nervously. My heart began to race. My mouth lost all moisture. My hands trembled. I began to perspire. My mind raced. I sat in the car for a long while trying to calm myself enough to walk into the grocery store. As I think about that envelope now, the same anxiety pulses through me. I can hazard a guess as to what is written inside, but I don’t know for certain as I could not bring myself to gather in the mail from the box yesterday. So it sits there still as I try to decide if I want to travel down that road again.
Most of my life has been a steady stream of people, beginning with my parents, telling me how to treat my parents and how to feel about their actions. For forty-plus years, their words kept me in line. They told me that I owed my parents respect and support and kindness and gratitude. They told me I was lucky because I’d had a home, food, and a couple new outfits at the beginning of each school year. It’s not like I was chained in a basement for eighteen years. I should be grateful. About seven years ago, however, I came to see things differently. I began noticing the anxiety that surfaced when my phone flashed with my parents’ numbers. I’m guessing that if you come from a family where your parents taught you through their words and actions that you were loved, respected, and cherished, you feel that same way about them and can’t imagine not having them in your life. You want to take care of them they way they took care of you. But what is your responsibility to parents when your memories of them aren’t happy and filled with love? What if thoughts of your parents bring you only PTSD? What then?
It’s only recently that I have come to understand that living your life out of duty and a sense of fairness to others in a way that compromises your own mental stability is not a healthy way to live. I don’t know what’s in that letter in the mailbox from my dad. I suppose it could contain an apology or a plea to end the discord between us. I imagine that is unlikely, though, as I have never received such a thing from either of my parents yet. My parents, god bless them, are just who they are. They believe they have done right by me, the best they could, better than they got perhaps. But my cotton-mouthed, trembling-hand anxiety belies that notion. My body’s physical response means that it understands danger and aims to protect me even if I have been unwilling to protect myself. I’m 52 now, old enough to comprehend that if the thought of speaking to someone sends you into a panic attack, you can choose not to speak to them. The dozens upon dozens of small infractions by my parents built up over the years, leaving me with a fight-or-flight mentality where they are concerned. Seven years of weekly therapy has not been able to untangle that mess. I’m better now than I used to be because at least I am able to recognize the apprehension and discomfort and to honor it. I’ve learned that I have choices. I’ve learned that it’s not right to feel dread when you think of seeing or speaking to your parents. It’s not normal. It is not a universal experience. You know who taught me that? My sons. They did not have the same childhood I did. I raised them to know they are my entire world, the sunshine in my heart. And now as young adults they look out for me the way many children look out for their aging parents. They want me to be safe and happy and to know I am loved and appreciated.
So, I may go get the mail today and set that letter aside for a day when I am stronger and know its contents cannot hurt me. Or I may let my husband read it and decide what to do with it. Or I might just run it through a shredder because everything I need to know about our situation has already been played out cyclically for decades. I’m not certain if speaking my truth here will cause members of my family to become angry with me. I’m not sure who I might alienate with this admission. I only know one thing. I need to stand my ground and put other people’s ideas about how I should treat my parents out of my field of view. They haven’t walked in my shoes. They don’t carry my scars. And maybe if I turn off the gaslight I have been carrying around since it was handed to me in my childhood I won’t be able to read that letter at all.
“I’m not all knowing yet, but I am knowing.” ~Joe, age 6
Our son starts college next week. Although it’s taken 19.5 years to get to this milestone and I’ve had ample time to prepare myself for its eventuality, I find myself shellshocked. Not going to lie. This transition has hit me harder than I thought it would. You see, since my sons were born, I’ve played a little game with my heart. I’ve tried to convince it (and rightly so) that my sons are not mine. I mean, they’re mine biologically, but I have spent their lifetimes reminding myself that they don’t belong to me. They are now and have always been their own entities. I have carried on this charade in my head to protect myself because life is precarious. You may create their existence, but your offspring are meant to leave you, one way or another. The job of parenting is both the best and worst on earth. You get to witness the growth and development of this amazing creature who is part you but wholly not you, and then you get to stand and wave goodbye as they (hopefully) get into their own car, pull into their lane, and drive away. What a stupid, incredible ride we’re on.
My oldest has been my nearly constant companion. He is, what others negatively describe, as a momma’s boy. He’s my buddy. I’m not his friend, but he is mine. His absence is going to affect so many aspects of the life I have known that I don’t know how to begin to process it. The only thing keeping me afloat right now is the flip side, the narrative that I have pushed since he was born. He’s his own person, and he deserves and has worked hard for his chance to explore his purpose, to take his opportunities and see where they might lead him. And while I will miss him like crazy, I have also never been more proud of anything in my life. This kid is boundless. He’s no stranger to difficulty. And true to his new school’s motto, per ardua surgo — through adversity I rise — he has, and I believe he will continue to do so.
When he was finishing first grade and told me through tears that he didn’t want to go on to second grade because he was too dumb, I worried. How was this kid going to thrive? How would we get him there? It took a while to get him on the right path, but we did it. I found help. I found school psychologists and hospital psychiatrists who explained to me what obstacles he needed to overcome. I sought out schools that would help him develop not only study skills and common knowledge, but life and coping skills. And along the way, he learned how he works. He has a deeper understanding of who he is at 19 than I had of myself until just recently. He has that self-knowledge because I helped him change his narrative. Together, we flipped that script. I pointed him the right direction, and he did the work. Our persistence has brought us to the week he leaves for college. And I am a tangled mess of emotion, equal parts excitement and weepiness. What I am not, however, is anxious, because I’ve seen this kid discover his own power. I know he gets it.
In the end, when he is off at school, what I will be left with is a wise and grateful heart. I know he has roots. He loves his family. He knows what home means and he carries it everywhere he goes. I’ve done a mother’s job and I’ve done it well enough. Now it’s time for us both to grow again, to expand our horizons, to stand on the precipice of the future with our eyes trained on what possibilities lie ahead for us. We may not be together, but we will never be apart because we share a story. We’re just beginning a new chapter. And while I don’t know where this story goes from here, I have reason to believe its authors know how to craft a compelling script.
I have Covid-19. I got the positive test result last Thursday evening, a full four days after I visited an urgent care center for a PCR test. I’d been having mild cold symptoms for a week when I opened a jar of Vicks Vapor Rub and couldn’t smell a whiff of it. Damn. They aren’t kidding about that loss of smell thing.
Although hundreds of thousands of Americans regrettably have already died due to the virus, experts estimate as few as 1 in 10 of us have contracted it. With that in mind, I thought I would share my experience with it.
The most commonly listed symptoms of Covid-19 are fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, and sore throat. I didn’t have any of these symptoms, which is why I believed I had simply caught your basic, garden-variety cold after Denver had a 50+ degree temperature drop in less than 24 hours. There was no reason to suspect it might be Covid. The county I live in had, at that point, some of the lowest case numbers in the Denver metro area. And since the beginning of March, I haven’t eaten in a restaurant or visited a bar. I’ve not been to a wedding or a party. I haven’t spent time in crowded places, indoors or out. Although I often have groceries delivered, if I have to visit a store I have done so at off-peak hours staying more than 6 feet from others, turning around and exiting aisles when other people enter them. I use hand sanitizer when I go out and wash my hands and disinfect my phone as soon as I get home. I have taken, according to the experts, all the necessary precautions to stay healthy along with the other three members of my household, and yet here we are. Two positive cases and two presumptive positive cases. What can you do?
Fortunately, my family and I have no comorbidity issues. Overall, we are in generally good health, and I think that has helped us keep our viral load at a level where our immune systems are able to work as they should. It’s been over two weeks since the onset of my stuffy head, my taste and smell have returned, and I am confident that when my quarantine ends on Friday I will be feeling 100% healthy again. My family and I are still checking our temperatures and conducting daily pulse ox readings to be sure we are on the right track, but so far so good.
The most difficult thing about our mild Covid cases has been the stigma of having it. Our youngest was Patient 0 in his junior class, the one who caused in-person classes to be cancelled for two weeks. Friends and family ask us daily how we are feeling, as if they are expecting us to take a turn for the worst, and their fear has made me more uncomfortable than my symptoms. I keep wondering if I am missing something and if the other shoe is about to drop and I will be in the hospital tomorrow. Others inquire as to where we think we got it, as if it matters and as if we had been irresponsible somehow, and I have to shrug because I have no clue. We had been with no one who had symptoms or had tested positive. We just came in contact with it somewhere at some point. Covid-19 is like the honey badger. It doesn’t care. It goes where it wants and does what it wants.
Given how case numbers are exploding across the country and no one seems to be going into forced lockdown, I trust the scientists who expect 40-70% of our population will have contracted this before a vaccine is readily available to all. As each day passes, I hear more and more about new cases among friends and their families. After my experience with Covid, this is my advice. Wear a mask in public. Take care of yourself. Make sleep a priority. Stay hydrated. Take Vitamins D3 and C. If you get any symptoms that seem like cold or flu, pay attention to them and record when they start. And get tested if you aren’t feeling well, even if you have only mild symptoms. This virus has become politicized, but it is not political. It doesn’t care if you are liberal or conservative. It doesn’t care if you think you are being careful. I know people who have thumbed their nose at its existence and haven’t contracted it yet, but they could and might yet still. We were taking legitimate precautions and that might have helped reduce our exposure and keep our symptoms our mild. I’m glad we are not huge risk takers by nature and heeded the science. And I’m grateful now that we are coming out on the other end with at least some immunity to it, no matter how short-lived it might be.
Hospitals across the country are becoming overcrowded, and healthcare workers are struggling and also getting sick. Some areas are nearing the time when doctors will have to make hard decisions about who is favored to receive potentially life-saving care. Some areas are running out of healthy care workers to staff hospitals. The bottom line is that this is serious, whether or not you want it to be, and the situation is only getting worse. And you just don’t know if you will be one of the unlucky ones who becomes an unfortunate statistic of this pandemic. I know we all have limited time on this planet, but if you take any precautions at all in your life, be it seat belt or bike helmet or flu vaccine, be careful out there now. Covid-19 is a pathogen. It doesn’t care what you believe about it.
Please, look out for others even if it seems like a bother or a burden. We’re in this together, and our common enemy thrives when we pretend it doesn’t exist.
I am your garden variety, classic introvert. To be at my best, I require alone time. And, by alone time, I do not mean an hour sequestered in a room while others rattle around on the other side of a closed door. I mean ALONE, as in no one present I have to answer to, no one to request my assistance or bend my ear, and nothing on my agenda or to-do list. That is how I recharge. Alone time is what enables me to be a marginally decent human being in the company of others most of the time. Without it, well, I start to lose my shit. Not only do I become irritable, but I feel adrift. I forget myself. I forget who I am and what inspires me and what makes my life worth showing up for. When I exist only as part of my coterie, I shrivel. It’s not that I don’t love my people. I do. They are almost everything. The intersectionality of our lives makes the yearly trips around the sun fascinating, joyful, and worthwhile. As an introvert, though, I just can’t show up for them as the best version of myself when I don’t have time to unplug from the world we share and plug into my own space. Sometimes my brain needs to be powered off so it can start up again fresh.
So, imagine my chagrin when in March, Covid-19 brought my peaceful, recharging time to a screeching halt. After what had been three quarters of a school year during which I had between 7-9 hours a day completely to my own devices, suddenly there was no alone time to be found anywhere. Initially, it was sort of amazing. I reveled in it being the four of us, keeping each other and the world safer by staying home together. I staked out my claim in the master bedroom, my husband set up his office across the hall, and the boys did online classes from their basement boy cave. As we adjusted to grocery delivery, weekly take out instead of dining out, and a sudden cessation of driving and shopping and living in the outside world, there was some bonding. After six weeks, though, life got real. I mean, we really weren’t going anywhere. None of us. We were all there. All the time. Nowhere to run. And once the novelty of our new uniforms of super cozy lounge-pants wore off, well, things got dicey until it got warm enough outside to venture out.
After spending a solid three months in each other’s presence, two things became crystal clear to me. First, we know each other well and like each other. Second, if we were to continue to like each other in the future, we would need more room to spread out. Because dealing with a pandemic and widespread political division and unrest isn’t stressful enough during a year that increasingly felt like the dawn of the apocalypse, we bought a new home and moved across town because that is how we roll. I naively thought the additional space would serve as a buffer for my introvert nerves. But, at the end of the day, wherever you go, there you are. And so I found myself still anxious and disquieted, albeit from a much larger and nicer enclosure. I had upgraded my twitchy self from a small aquarium to a deluxe Habitrail with its long tubes to escape to different spaces and a larger wheel on which to occupy myself by spinning for miles while still not actually getting anywhere.
On Sunday night, I hit a breaking point. I decided I might either end up in handcuffs or in a straight jacket if I didn’t make a break for it. So, with my family’s blessing (which felt more like several feet pushing my cranky butt out the door), I reserved a cottage 46 miles from home for two nights away, no noise, no schedule, no meal prep. Just me being me, whatever that looked like in the moment. And it has been glorious. I missed me. I’ve read, taken hikes, enjoyed a bottle of wine I didn’t have to share, sat on the screened porch and observed nature. For dinner tonight I had cheese and apples. Just cheese and apples like a picky 3 year old. Earlier today I spent about 20 minutes wandering through a cemetery and I found myself tearing up. All those lives. Were they well lived? Many, it appeared, were short-lived. If I survive this pandemic (fingers crossed), what story will I tell about my time in it? Life is fleeting and it’s for the living, and I need to be doing more of that. I need to tune out political noise, turn off the television, and go on more walks, hikes, and bike rides. I need to find things that feed my soul and do them. I need to be willing to ask for space so I can recharge. We could be in this a while.
Funny thing this pandemic. As an introvert, the words “social distancing” sounded promising. Then I learned that socially distancing myself from most meant non-stop socializing with a few. I know people, myself included, have been worried about our extravert friends because they need human interaction and without office time, sporting events, dinners out, concerts, and parties, they have been sad puppies. And they have been great about sharing what they miss and need. But, I would urge you to recall on occasion those who don’t share much. Check on your introvert friends too, the ones who are trapped in their homes with people full-time. PEOPLE. ALL. THE. TIME. They might need someone to vent to or a cottage to run to or, at the very least, a phenomenal set of noise-cancelling headphones and a door that locks. We’re all just trying to survive right now, going through these new motions and figuring out as we stumble along. Keep an eye out for each other. And, make it a priority not just to stay alive but to be alive because this life is all we get.
I suffer from a not-so-secret addiction. I rather obsessively play Words With Friends. I downloaded it to my iPhone in 2009, a month or so after it was launched, and I have been playing steadily ever since. According to the app, I have completed 5,423 games. No lie. I suppose I could (should?) feel bad about the time I have wasted playing this silly game, but I don’t. This game is brain food. I am keeping my mind sharp, attempting to stave off the Alzheimer’s that runs in my family. Yep. That’s what I tell myself.
During the past year or so, I began finding random males starting new games with me more often than before. It took me a while to determine that these men found me through the Lightning Round section of the app. At first, naive gal that I am, I simply accepted the games without question because, did I mention, I am addicted? Any new game is one more game than I had before, which is a good thing, right? Maybe not.
Last weekend I had some downtime and spent about an hour playing Lightning Rounds. When I finished, I noticed that I had 12 new games waiting for me. Twelve. All were from men I did not know. All had chat requests pending. I showed my phone to my husband and told him I was going to open a can of worms by accepting all the game play and chatting with these guys. Curiosity had gotten the best of me. What was their deal?
From the minuscule photos the app allows you to post (they seem smaller and smaller as my eyes get older and older), the men appeared to be between the ages of 40-60. All of them had accounts that had been started within the last nine months, most started within the last week, which was the first red flag. Nearly all of them used two first names as their user names, names like Christopher Matthew, names that would be hard to research. Most of the photos showed respectable looking men, although some appeared to be stock photos rather than personal ones.
Their initial contact with me varied. Some simply started with a basic hello, while others added a compliment or a pet name, hello my dear or hello beautiful. Okay. Whatever. I played my turns and responded honestly but succinctly to their questions, trying not to give away too much personal info but still offering enough so they would continue the game and the conversation. All the while I played investigative reporter, digging for dirt, trying to get at what lurked beneath the surface.
My initial assumption was that these men (fingers crossed) were using WWF as a dating app. Maybe WWF was, as my son suggested, Tinder for old people. He looked at the photos and brutally surmised that “those are the men who can’t mate, Mom, because the ones who can don’t have to go on a word game to do it.” So, there you have it. Perhaps these men were attracted to fifty-one year old me, but only because they couldn’t mate with anyone else. But, I digress.
As the chats wore on, I began to notice patterns in the different conversations. While it seemed that two of the men were legitimate human beings looking for a love/sex connection (their accounts had been active for months and not days), the other ten were something else entirely. Those men either claimed to be Americans living overseas or foreigners living in the US, which explained to some extent their less than stellar English grammar. They almost always said what city they were from and followed it with a state name written out fully, not abbreviated. Tell me. How many Americans do you know who will tell you they are from Las Vegas, Nevada, or Houston, Texas, rather than simply saying they’re from Vegas or Houston? Some of them used their broken English to extoll my “beauty.” Most of them had far-fetched but intriguing job descriptions. When the first one claimed to be a diplomat in the Middle East on a peacekeeping mission, I giggled to myself. By the time the third one mentioned a peacekeeping mission, it didn’t seem as funny. Another few guys mentioned being contractors who worked in drilling, specifically mentioning oil fields near Aberdeen, the Gulf of Mexico, or the Nevada desert. Their stories contained enough verifiable information to make them seem credible, but they were also just quirky enough (and somehow close enough to other tales I was reading) for me to understand these were frauds.
I continued chatting and taking screen shots of conversations and sharing them with my husband who got as caught up in my experiment as I was. My favorite chat was with a guy who claimed to be one Paul Bauman. Because his name seemed plausible and was accompanied by what appeared to be a legitimate photo of a high-ranking, career military officer, I conducted a Google search and discovered the real Paul Bauman is a Brigadier General working at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Ummm…yeah. The conversation became even more curious when less than a day later he told me that he wanted my email address so we could always keep in touch and, because he was in a war zone, he might not be available for days. Uh huh. It’s common practice for a Brigadier General to tell random women he chats with on Words With Friends about his covert missions. Seems legit.
In the forty-eight hours I conducted my chat experiment, my contact with these (ahem) gentlemen eventually led to each of them asking me to chat with them on Google Hangouts (wasn’t that being shut down?) or What’s App. All of my chats ended only one of two ways. They either determined I was not going to be a willing and easy target and stopped playing with me (the next day I noticed the game was missing from my feed and their user name had been deleted) or I would have to block them when they unrelentingly pestered me for my phone number and/or email address after I had plainly and repeatedly stated that I do not share that information.
There’s a reason why I have, in the past, eschewed games from random males who start them. Even on an innocuous app like Word With Friends, there is always opportunity for someone to take advantage of the kindness/decency/loneliness/naivety of others. Sharing personal information on the Internet often can lead to hacked accounts and even identity theft. Sure. There are some people out there who may legitimately be looking to meet the next great love of their life through an app like Words with Friends, but it’s less likely than you might expect or hope. Most of the Casanovas on WWF might be, as my son suspects, scammers on their computers somewhere in Asia (hence the serviceable yet oddly formal, broken English) trying to gain access to your accounts by collecting your email and using personal information you share to crack your passwords or, worse, people who will prey upon your emotional vulnerability to befriend and then defraud you after you’ve taken them in.
I’m not saying Words With Friends is a den of iniquity. It is, after all, just a word game. But you might want to watch which words you share with people who might not be your friend after all. On the plus side, after my little experiment, my husband now sends me WWF chats that mimic the messages I received last week. He’s pretty funny and, luckily, not just some poor guy who can’t mate.
I am in a weird place. I don’t mean I’m at a bat mitzvah for a bearded lady or a Buddhist retreat for biker gangs. It’s not that kind of weird but, for me, in the spectrum of my life it’s unusual. For a while now, I’ve been parading around masked as a functioning adult while I am mentally checked out. I don’t have GPS coordinates for where my brain is currently located, but I am acutely aware that it is not with me. I suspect it followed through on a thought I had for a fleeting moment years ago when the boys were young and I was overwhelmed. Perhaps it got in a car, started driving, and kept on going until it was in the Yukon and then stopped somewhere silent amidst towering pines that sway in the wind, where it could rest and breathe and stare straight up into the emptiness of the sky to swallow the current moment and be peaceful in the present. It must be happy there because it hasn’t returned my texts or sent a postcard.
Meanwhile, my life has been proceeding without it, my body carrying out the day-to-day routines that comprise my life (grocery shopping, laundry, cooking, appointments, etc.) while my mind is on hiatus. Outside the house and in front of others, I function on autopilot appearing totally unchanged. Inside the house, away from the judgment of others, I disappear. Incapable of dealing with the heaviness in my heart, I check out. I binge watch television or flip mindlessly through my social media feeds. I spend hours playing games on my phone. I look at real estate I will not be purchasing. I load up and abandon myriad online shopping carts full of items meant to fill the void I feel. Sometimes I even doze at midday. I am not myself. I would like to coax my brain into returning, although I’m not sure I have the energy to manage its re-entry.
Depression is a place many people live and understand. I have never been one of those people, though, fortunate enough to barrel through life with imagined purpose. I love to create and move and learn and grow, but I am not doing any of those things. I miss them, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to do them. This is how I know depression snuck in a back door when my best self was distracted by life changes I didn’t want to allow, like my children growing up and my family members suffering from illness and my own body betraying me with its aging. And, me being me, afraid to ask for help or admit weakness, I went missing.
I’ve been gone for a while now and, dammit, I miss me. It’s time to find my way back from the endless forest. I know it’s going to be a long, desolate road home. It starts with a lot of walking and a little hitchhiking help from a therapist or two. As I get closer, it will include a lot of fake-it-until-you-make-it bravado. The journey out of depression can’t begin until you recognize there is depression. Well, I’ve finally got that part figured out, and that is progress. As comfortable and safe as it has been sitting in bed, taking up space, and remaining checked out to protect myself from the pain of all the things I cannot control and don’t want to accept, it’s time to come back. The Yukon is a lovely place to visit when you need to catch your breath, but it’s isolated and lonely long term. It’s no place to spend the rest of my life, however long that may be. I need to stop wasting my ephemeral time.
I’m heading downstairs to bang on my drums, to beat out a rhythm I hope my brain will hear and follow home to a long overdue reunification with my body. If you catch me glued to Netflix or on my phone playing video slots, give me an encouraging, two-handed nudge forward. I understand now that I can’t do this alone, and this is why I am calling out my depression here. Hold me accountable. Send up a signal flare. Put me back on course. Let me ride on your handlebars when I don’t think I can walk anymore. I could use a little support, loathe though I am to admit it. I promise to do the same in return if you ever need it.
Fifty (or fifty-one if we’re being specific) is a marvelous thing. With five decades behind me, I now understand my place in this world much better than I have before. I’ve learned that I am not as important or influential as I thought. I am not responsible for everyone else’s feelings. After fifty years, I am free of the burdens and expectations of others. Mostly.
I was raised to believe I was the direct cause of other people’s suffering. You know the phrase, “That sounds like a you problem?” Well, everything negative that happened in my interactions with others was a me problem. It all rested squarely on my shoulders. If someone was unhappy with me, it was because I was selfish or lazy or thoughtless. There was no onus on the other person. I was to blame. Always.
The natural consequence of believing that my every mistake, misstep, or misspoken word made me less likable was a conditioned level of fearfulness around other people. I didn’t dare express what I liked because someone else might not agree and that would be awkward. I didn’t feel comfortable asking for what I wanted because that might put someone else out. I was terrified others would see how naive and foolish I was if I spoke up, so I kept to myself. I played along. I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t impose. I didn’t want to rock anyone else’s boat. It wasn’t until I hit fifty that I realized my concern for not rocking anyone else’s boat meant I never learned to sail my own.
For most of my life, the you problem comment bothered me. I found it haughty and mean-spirited. Eventually with therapy, I began to understand that diagnosing a you problem had less to do with being dismissive of someone else’s feelings than it had to do with being responsible for my own. A you problem is a problem you are responsible for. Nothing more. Nothing less. As long as I own my part, it’s okay to wish, hope, or expect another will own theirs. Believing someone else is responsible for their own feelings is not dismissive of my responsibility to them. It acknowledges that I am responsible for only my part in the transactional nature of our human relationship. It allows another the opportunity and responsibility to accept their fair share. It’s equality.
I still live my life trying to be decent and fair to others. I still try to consider other’s feelings and cause no harm. I still strive not to be a burden. I just no longer accept that I am 100% responsible for someone else’s reaction to what I say or do. I can only be responsible for myself. If you’re reacting negatively to what I say or what I need, you should examine why it bothers you because that is a you problem. It feels good to let you shoulder your own feelings and expectations. It feels good to let that go.