You Might Die Trying
School shootings hit differently when I was a teacher. I didn’t process them the same. Shit, I didn’t process them at all. I thought about a possible school shooting at least once a day while working in my classroom…a loud door slam, a noise from a large truck on Route 1…
Even if I wasn’t triggered by a noise, I thought about them more and more as the years went on, for obvious reasons.
But there was something about being in the classroom that made me feel like I had some sense of control. Or maybe I was repressing so much fear and trauma that I couldn’t really stop to think about it actually happening. You can’t stop to question in war. You just have to follow orders and keep moving forward. Tend to the wounded and keep fighting.
I had a family member tell me, “that could never happen here.” That’s when I politely brought up Colleen Ritzer, a tragedy that occurred miles from my school building. But I understand why a family member would have to say that out loud. Because they also thought about me dying in a classroom. It’s way easier to repress, deflect, delude. I knew, as they did, deep down, I would jump in front of my kids. And that was a reality I had to accept. Every. Fucking. Morning.
When my school told us we would be participating in ALICE training, something I actually agreed with in my first years of teaching, my emotional response shifted. It became a hard no. For those who don’t know, ALICE is active shooter training, where you’re taught to fight back in various ways. Part of the training is listening to gun shots, car back firings, etc. Hard no. I refused. I am not a soldier, nor am I a police officer, and never will be.
Two different administrators came to my room. We talked about it. The answer was still no. It was the reason I started up my therapy sessions again because I would fight this all the way to court if I had to. I started telling my therapist things I’ve never told anyone. I figured if I could get it all out, I could get a note as a way out of this training. However, that note wouldn’t get me out of an active shooter situation.
I’ve been out of the classroom for over a year now, and I know various shootings have taken place, but there is something about Uvalde that just feels different. There is something about this incident, for various reasons we can all describe and define, that I know I’ll never be able to shake. This one is sitting heavy in my heart.
At first I thought the blow felt so massive because I’m working from home now, away from the real-life experience of reading the headlines in my own classroom. I don’t think that’s it. I know that’s not it. Here, at home, I can self-soothe in all the ways I never could working on location. Here, I don’t have to hide my tears. Here, I can take breaks and real days off without trying to figure out sub work. (I think that last one is comic relief for the teachers out there.)
Then I thought about how deep I slipped into depression this winter. How severely the despair overtook me in March and April specifically, and how exacerbated it all became between Ukraine, Israel/Palestine, Roe v. Wade, the list goes on. How I kept slipping and slipping into an intense sadness I hadn’t felt since my drug days. A feeling I didn’t think could dive any fucking deeper into the pit. That pit, man. The depths of my abyss doesn’t stare back.
Put all of these things together and you have such a nasty casserole of inedible swill that aims to choke us all, one by one.
I think what frustrates me most about myself is my undying will. This ridiculous speck of undying optimism that has kept me going through my darkest days, through the world’s darkest days. That speck told me (and still does) that people only know what they know, and a good teacher can change the world. I still believe all that, but my ability to teach 9th grade English left on a jet plane one fine day and crashed into the sea. That aspect of me is so truly gone, and yet, there is this deep, deep need to help, to share, to educate, to soothe, to heal, to hold space. However, I don’t have the energy or the space to actually do any of it. Thus, we find internal conflict.
I remember reading Fahrenheit 451 for the first time and promising myself I would NEVER be a Faber. Ever. Yet…here I am, feeling like one, every single day I wake up. And honestly, I’m happier, truly and deeply happier than I’ve ever been. It’s a conflict I cannot explain anymore clearly than I’m attempting to do right now. I’m still working through it all.
So, what does one do with an old dream and new feelings? Or maybe old feelings and no new dream?
Let me tell you a story…
Last week, I heard a weird flapping noise outside of my kitchen window. My cat, Kylo, was scratching at the screen, a behavior he’s never exhibited in his 4+ years in our home. I ended up shutting the window because I was afraid he’d push out the screen and fall.
That night, I went out on my roof deck to smoke a cigarette. I heard the flapping noise again. I followed the sound to the corner of my house. On the side, there is some kind of round overhang that houses electrical wires. I’d seen a bird’s nest in there months prior. Dangling upside down from the wires was a bird. One of its legs was stuck, and it was unable to free itself. My stomach turned, as I reached for my phone to call my landlord. I can’t believe I let that bird dangle there all day. I didn’t know it was a bird, but I immediately blamed myself.
My landlord said there was nothing he could do, so I started Googling and thinking. The roof doesn’t reach to that electrical outlet. There is a two foot gap between the roof and the side of the house. And I don’t have a ladder. Here I go, “jumping in front of my kids.”
Now, it’s in this moment, all I can think about is the Friend’s episode where they poke “ugly naked guy” with chopsticks. There are electrical wires in the way, but if I use a wooden handle to try and free the bird, I won’t electrocute myself right? I didn’t try it, but my neighbor did. To no avail, she couldn’t get the bird free. We called everyone we could think of and all calls said National Grid was the solution. Yeah, like National Grid is going to send someone out to free a fucking bird. I was growing sicker by the minute.
So, what did we do? We watched the fucking bird die. Feet away. With no supports. With nothing to help it. I just sat there smoking cigarettes, telling myself if I was so hopelessly stuck, I’d want someone there with me in my last hours. So that’s what I did, until it was so late, I needed to get to bed.
I took one of my remaining Ativan to sleep because I was so hopelessly devastated over this fucking bird. Because I failed the bird. I should have done more. But I’ve been stuck in my own damn wires for the last few months, desperately trying to free myself…
Is this really about the bird? Yes and no. That entire incident was a metaphor reflecting exactly how it feels to exist in the US right now, or at least how I feel and have been feeling since January. We are all so close to each other, so close to supporting and helping and fixing, but there is literally nothing we can do to stop that damn bird from dying. National Grid could have. There are organizations within this country that can solve a lot of the problems I listed above. But it seems like we’ve been making those calls and nobody is answering the phone…I digress…
When I was in the classroom, I had this false sense of security that I was helping. And that’s not to demean the work I did. I never toot my own horn, and those who know me well, know I struggle to take a compliment. But I was a damn good teacher. It’s the only thing I’ve ever believed I was good at, was put on this Earth to do. But even with the good I did, I was still the girl smoking a cigarette on a roof deck; the illusion of support by making calls and playing a weird version of a piñata game with a broom stick.
I know you want a silver lining. I know you want the moral that will make us all feel better. While I don’t necessarily have that (yet) this time around, here’s what I’ll say: I make sure my roof deck is clean. I have my chairs, and decorative pillows, and solar lights, and umbrella. I have my plants and flowers and fairy gardens. I come outside each morning and attempt to enjoy 20 stupid minutes of Vitamin D. Then I come back out at night with my vampire blood, put on music, and smoke as I watch the stars appear in the sky, wondering what the fuck is going on up there. And smile when the song hits just right. And cry when it hits just wrong. Loving it all because it’s me and the world, alone on my roof.
I can invite people to my roof deck. I can sing from my roof deck. I can make that roof deck beautiful. (Sometimes I scream from my roof deck, too.) And that’s the lesson. That’s all we can do right now. Is focus on making our own roof decks beautiful, with the hope that others who aren’t caring for theirs, or maybe don’t know how, or maybe need someone else’s roof deck for support, will see the example and learn.
But for many of us, we are so worn down from this psychological battle. And that's okay. Because it has to be. I’ve learned it’s okay to tap out. To just sit on that damn roof deck for a minute and remind myself this world is beautiful. That nature is pure magic, that humans have mapped the stars and created scientific genius. That just to be here, whatever this is, is an honor and a blessing, even in the worst of times. (It’d be really cool if we could start working towards the other half of that Dickens novel, though…)
For the last few months, sitting on my roof deck is the only thing I’ve been able to do. And some days, just sitting on it was difficult enough. Sitting with myself. With my trauma. With my past. With an uncertain present. And a future that feels like it will only bring sadness. Sitting, sometimes, is the hardest act of all, and a fucking brave one at that. Don’t let anyone ever tell you differently.
I’ll never give up the fight. Any of them. It’s simply not in my nature, but I’ll tell you this: I’m tired as hell. I’m beaten. I’m broken. And for once, I’m not ashamed to admit it. Any of it. I think we were taught, especially us elder millennials, to “suck it up” too often, to push it down too frequently, and that “it is what it is” as a means to escape. I’m here to say: Fuck you to those who let these atrocities happen, I love you to those who are suffering, and this sucks right now to those trying to tell themselves everything is “fine” because it fucking isn’t.
It’s not my attitude that’s the problem. I do not have a broken perspective. And I don’t need to see the positive in any of this. Because when tragedies happen, there is no silver lining. Stop painting the fucking picture with sunshine and see the trees for what they are. Because until we all sit in that pit, nothing will change. Keep your love and light bullshit away from me.
Here’s the conclusion:
No matter how broken I am. No matter how tired I am. I will never accept the nation and the state of the world in this condition. I will never allow this to be my reality, to look at the country and say, “I’m okay with it.” If that means I live with this existential dread and depression for the rest of my life — so be it. I will not turn away from it. I will not repress it. And I will not accept it. I will allow it to exist next to me as a constant reminder, until we can find a way to change a very broken people, system, nation, and world. I will continue to smoke a cigarette next to the dying birds. Because someone needs to bear witness and not sugar coat the reality.
If you feel the same, you’re welcome to come sit next to me on my roof deck and await the revolution. Bring a song that saved your life, and of course, bring me a fucking Twisted Tea.
# 11 (When the storm is over)
Tonight, I’ll attend my 50th Dave Matthews Band show. #49 was wonderful, and I left Madison Square Garden in a state of bliss. But I woke up this morning deeply moved and saddened. Grief is a funny thing.
Music has always been my best friend. And I mean it when I say that. It has always understood me. It has always been there for me, even as a little kid. It puts words to my emotions and has helped me understand all the experiences of being human, especially when it comes to love and heartbreak. Mom was always blasting something in the house or car: Madonna, DMB, Bob Marley, The Eagles, ACDC, and the list goes on. My dad played in a band for a long time, and even auditioned for Boston, but he was too young to go on tour. It’s in our blood.
I think it’s why I am so attracted to live music and eventually made my way into the club scene and raves. While I am absolutely an introvert, there is something about being in a room filled with people who are seeking a sense of community through song. It’s primal and beautiful. It transcends everything about us: language, ethnicity, gender, and so on. But the club scene itself is a dark and nasty place. It ate me up. Add my addiction issues into the mix, and man, complete chaos. However, that all changed when I finally connected with DMB.
Dave has dealt with a world of shit; tragedy and pain I can barely fathom. His lyrics became another best friend that made me feel less alone in a time of isolation and trying to get clean. It’s like he says: “someone’s broken heart becomes your favorite song.” His concerts also became a safe haven for me, a place where I could listen to music and not self-destruct. He beat back so many problems. He truly gave me hope through his songs that I could do the same.
My first show was in 2005, and I was politely dragged there by my Abercrombie crew. It’s not that I didn’t like DMB. I had listened to Dave since I was a kid. I’ll always remember the red and blue on the Crash album as I put the CD into the 6-disc CD changer. I played Live at Luther on repeat at the tanning salon I worked at in high school. Crush was my gateway song and will always hold a very special place in my soul. And come on, everyone knows at least three DMB songs by heart if you grew up in the 90s.
So, it’s the summer of 2005, and I’m at Mansfield with a whole group of A&F folks. My friend, Kristen, bought great seats for night 1. If I remember correctly, we were in a picture on the DMB website from that show. Night 2, we sat on the lawn. I was so tired and cranky. (I still struggle to attend two shows in a row. It takes a lot out of me as an introvert. I’m about to attend show four this week. I know it’s why I’m struggling today.) Anyway, they played Crash, and something in me just sparked. It wasn’t necessarily the song itself, but the way my heart received it.
I know this may sound silly or hyperbolic to some, but there isn’t a lot I remember from my drug years. I have huge gaps of memory loss from the drugs themselves and dissociation from my underlying trauma. Some people really hold that against me. I can promise you and them they’ll never punish me as much as I have punished myself. But I remember that moment so clearly, listening to Crash, sitting on the grass hill. And I’m sure it’s part of the reason I’ve gone to 11 shows this year. Because there is something about that band that brings me back to myself. To a place of clarity, safety, and comfort. To see them on stage night after night, giving it their all, having so much fun together, it fills a part of me that is an endless void, even if it’s just for a few hours. Say what you will about Dave, Carter, Tim, Stefan, Rashawn, Jeff, and Buddy, but they are all so unbelievably talented. They are gracious and compassionate. And they are trying to do the “right” thing in a weird, weird world. Their passion for music gave me hope at a time when I had none, and clearly, it’s still doing the same today.
So, last night when Dave came out for the encore and shared a messaged about the world and hope, something in me just started to hurt. He sang Singing from the Windows, which he wrote after he saw all the videos of people in Italy playing music and singing on their balconies. It was a moment that lifted him out of the darkness of lockdown. But today, the lyrics are driving a stake into my heart, and I just can’t figure out why.
I won’t pretend the last few years were any harder on me than anyone else. I know how blessed I’ve been through it all. But no matter what we all faced individually and are still facing today, we will be grieving the last two years for a long, long time. We have faced so much trauma as a collective and have been forced to persevere within our families, our jobs, and our communities. Outside of COVID, the US has become increasingly divided and ripped apart by politics, conspiracy, belief, and lack of trust. I am not sure I can or will ever be able to understand the magnitude of it all. Because it’s big. And it’s real. And most days, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.
So, maybe when Dave said that really nice message about how we are so much more alike than different, I felt the weight of our reality, our divided country, and how he hopes a few songs and a few shows can help us find hope and keep us together. It made me think: when I sit down and write, not for work, but for me, I am always in a world of hurt. I think I feel the hurt he was trying to process to regain a sense of peace when he wrote that song.
I’m writing this with tears streaming down my face, grieving things I’m not yet aware of. Grieving things that aren’t even mine. Grieving things I wish others would grieve with me. You can think what you want about me, but I struggle to interact with people, even when I seem calm, cool, and collected. People really frustrate me, yet humanity is literally the reason I wake up everyday and continue to learn. I am a true Aquarius: I dislike people, but I adore humanity. I just want this place to be better. I want people to be better. I want to be better. It feels childish to say, but it truly doesn’t have to be this way.
Some days, it’s just so hard for me to be on this planet and accept this reality. I know I make jokes about money not being real and how our society is so backwards and how we should “burn it all down,” but it’s how I do perceive the world. It’s hard to be so aligned with your perception, yet most don’t see it. It’s gratifying to know who you are and deeply isolating to know most will never understand you. There are things on this planet I will never comprehend and refuse to accept—the violence, the greed, the prejudice, the systems created to keep people poor. And while I do accept being here, because I have to, I swing back and forth from buying into a system I don’t believe in to stay sane and sheer existential dread. But within the pendulum swing, I have a lot of gratitude and joy…
I think knowing Dave feels that, too, with songs like Rhyme and Reason, Some Devil, Seek Up, The Dreaming Tree, Dancing Nancies, Funny the Way It Is, Big Eyed Fish, You Never Know, Eh Hee…to know there is love out there like in the songs Crush, Oh, Rapunzel, So Right, Seven, You & Me…to know he grieves like I do with songs like Grace is Gone, The Space Between, Grey Street, Out of my Hands….and to know we can come together and celebrate with Two Step, Tripping Billies, The Best of What’s Around, Everyday, Granny…”it makes it okay.”
Tonight, I’ll be singing from the balcony at MSG, in pure bliss, at this weird intersection of accomplishments of what I guess is my life, “wondering what will become of me.” I know part of my grief stems from the fact that this is the last DMB show of 2021, and knowing what I know about the world, tomorrow is never certain. I am grieving the loss of teaching and starting over, and know when I wake up tomorrow, it’s time to leave the road trip life for a bit and start a new life for myself that I have been cultivating since May of this year. I am grieving the fact that things will never be the same for any of us. I am grieving who I was, so I can continue to grow into who I am--who I want to be. But like the band always does, they’ll bring me back into myself and help me find some peace tonight.
In summation of what I hope is a moderately coherent brain dump, DMB means a lot to me. That band’s music has kept me going through some dark times, it helped me get and stay clean, and it puts me into an innocent state of joy at every show I attend. If you ever want to see what I look like happy, and I mean the true essence of Platonic forms happy, come to a show with me…I’d love to share that joy with you.
I’m thankful to all the people who travel to see them with me and continue to help me along my journey. Dave is so much more than music for me, and I’m thankful for the few who see and honor that truth.
If you’re grieving today, I feel you. If you’re choosing joy today, I am thrilled for you. If you are angry, that pain is valid. If you are confused, be kind to yourself as you maneuver your way through it. Grief is not linear and the way in which we process grief will be different for everyone. I honor your process and hope one day, we can all come together in our pain and turn it into something beautiful.
When I read, fiction or nonfiction, I develop these very specific visual images in my mind, and they travel with me from text to text. I’m not sure if these emblazoned images are created through experience, TV and movies, or the simple fact of how my gut and brain work together with my mind’s eye, but when I first created an image for the apocalypse, 2021 isn’t what I envisioned.
Let me explain…
I never, in my lifetime, thought I would see the downfall of anything, really. Yet, here I sit, an elder millennial, trying to figure out each day as it’s happening. I did all the right things I was told to do—college and school loans and jobs and “fun” stuff. But now that the US sits at the precipice of a severe divide, an intellectual splitting that seems to keep growing at the forefront of this dialectical war, I see the word apocalypse in a new way. I see my fellow humans in a new way. The concept of zombies and desolate landscapes are far from my new interpretation because this apocalypse, the word connoting the final destruction of the world, really translates to that which we cannot come back from. Every day that passes, I wonder when our footing will irreparably slip.
This summer, I packed up my car and drove across the country alone. I knew it needed to happen, and I knew if I didn’t do it this year, it might never be possible again. For the first time in about a decade, the infinite unknown was a welcoming feeling.
One of the goals I set out to accomplish was talking to people. I just wanted to see what people in all the states had to say, how they felt, without prejudice. Overall, people were kind—everywhere. Even when a Mormon man named Donald in Cortez, Colorado told me I was going to burn in hell if I didn’t repent, I didn’t take offense because it wasn’t what he said; it was how he said it. We sat drinking beers with my friend Taylor at one of the only bars around the Mesa Verde area, letting each other share the wealth of knowledge and experience we had both accumulated over the years.
Not only did we share, but we both set boundaries in the conversation, and we both upheld them. When he made a comment about Trump being a great guy, I shared my views as a woman. He agreed he had no place in that aspect of the conversation and changed the subject. I pushed the boundaries with Christianity, and instead of pushing more to invoke a negative reaction from Donald, I stopped myself and asked him to explain his religious views through genuine words. And I listened from beginning to end. There were also some books we shared in common, mainly 1984 and other pre-dystopian sci-fi, but overall, what I walked away with was a refresher on how to properly enact a dialogue, something that has been lost, nay, stolen from me, throughout the last 10 years of my life.
Today, most people are attempting to persuade others. It’s the reason they are conversing. They have a view or a thought or a feeling and will do anything they can to cram it down the other person’s throat. But a dialogue, specifically based on philosophical and logical principles, is supposed to be about people coming together, to listen and share knowledge, experience, and facts. Whomever has the most facts and experiences creates the most persuasive argument that the pair/group can choose to agree or disagree with, and from here, new perceptions can be birthed.
Dialogue was, and still can be, used to come to some type of understanding. However, to successfully complete this task, one must first “know thyself” and then be willing to see and hear another without ego or prejudice. Easier said than done.
Saying you’re open-minded doesn’t make it so, and saying you know something to be true without any actual experience or data won’t cut it in Socratic seminar. But I think this lost art form, the negation of traditional dialogue, is truly dividing the nation. Fact versus fiction and the inability to learn and discern is becoming an apocalyptic event.
I had a wonderful conversation with a woman in Roswell, New Mexico. She owns a scrapbooking store. Her family had an incredible history with celebrities, the likes of which I’ve forgotten now, but the sticking point for me was that while we voted differently, we had a lot of the same views. At one point I said, “Ya know what, I bet if we didn’t have a two-party system, you and I might vote the same.” She agreed. But getting there took time, and patience, and the formation of a dialogue. We both made a lot of assumptions about each other. She took one look at me and thought I would be a loopy liberal, and I took one look at her and thought she was a Christian redneck. But at the end of the conversation, we both agreed that if we pay taxes, the money should go back to the people (healthcare, education, etc.), that corporations should be taxed, and that both parties are corrupt. I don’t care for guns, but I’m not trying to take hers away. She doesn’t believe in abortions, but she doesn’t think that’s the government’s choice to make. I know this isn’t what Rod Sterling meant, but I started to (re)believe that “people are alike all over.”
The most satisfying conversation I had was in Austin, Texas. I met a group of government defense dudes and spent most of my time there in long conversations with one man in particular. He made a LOT of assumptions about me that he would later reveal, simply based on my looks and the fact I was from “The North.” While he is a libertarian from North Carolina who was in the military for a significant amount of time, again, we were very much on the same page. That dude quoted more Nietzsche and Socrates than I did. From Paradise Lost to Pride and Prejudice, I was a pig in shit rolling around in this form of dialogue. We both left the conversations better for the experience, and as he put it, we left each other with more banners to fly and more bridges to connect others seemingly unlike ourselves. “Jenn, we need to keep raising banners and making connections like this. I forgot how until this weekend. I judged you so hard when I saw you, and yet, our intellectual paths are nearly identical.” I agreed. Something woke up in me again towards humanity, and literature, and dialogue. That entire weekend, we continued to work hard to find common ground and educate the other based on lived experience and data from multiple sources, providing apt clarifications and multiple examples to showcase true understanding. If we found ourselves faltering or without real information, we conceded and let the other speak. We all need to be ready to concede when we speak.
The dialogues I encountered throughout my trip made me miss college. The books, the new perspectives, the people with brains to explore, the discussions based on lived experience, and various texts and studies that were always being updated. If and when opinions were thrown into the mix, they were gently removed and shifted into a place of real understanding through literary supports and actual examples that connect to the person speaking about them.
I think about how many times I spoke about the South before this experience, never having been there until 2021. I think about how many people I’ve spoken with from the South, listed here and the ones that reside in my mind, who judged the shit out of me upon one glance, who have surely spoken of me and my fellow residents of the North without ever having a genuine conversation with any of us. Are you speaking about shit you don’t know; about people you’ve never met? It doesn’t matter which side you’re on. If you are, you are part of the problem. We are always part of the problem.
It’s wild to me that now, in 2021, I hear people saying that public education and college institutions are propaganda machines. Truth is gone. Science is gone. Now reading and writing? I don’t know what everyone else’s college experiences were like, but I had to read a million sources and compile so much data in a logical form of argumentation, looking at all sides, to be taken seriously. Critical thinking and discernment are the only two things that will save us from ourselves, and it’s these two things I value most from my time in higher education because critical thinking and discernment come from self-awareness, the opposite of indoctrination. I feel this concept is lost on many and used as another form of propaganda. Do I think the government is doing this on purpose? Absolutely not. They know people don’t care enough to do the work and learn. There are no locks on the doors to scientific information and books written by authors from now through the first spoken word. It’s easier to create our own narrative than to read 20 books to learn all angles regarding any subject. We are the fools in Fahrenheit 451 who created censorship. All the government did was step in after the two-sided PC war ended.
The moral of the story? I don’t have one. I’m tired. Beat up. Confused. But what I do know is that I am continually trying to see my fellow humans as such—humans. We only know what we know, we are deeply flawed, we are not gods, and unfortunately, there is a lot we don’t know but FEEL we know. The apocalypse for me now looks like a world divided. It’s a psychological battlefield of anger, ignorance, fear, and ego, and because it takes place in the mind, it’s constantly warping our views of reality. It feels like there is no turning back from this distorted narrative that blurs fact and fiction. Real dystopias are categorized as utopias because they look good from the outside but are void of real thought, art, and joy. And if you really pay attention to all the books in this genre, the people/citizens created the reality; the government just upheld it. But that narrative isn’t sexy, and it doesn’t give the people a reason to be mad. It’s easier to create a new narrative and or blame someone else other than ourselves. It’s always easier to burn the witch or label a scapegoat than to take personal responsibility.
I will never claim to know it all, and I wish others would share in this curious view of the world. I always ask myself, what do I know, and know for sure? I can label things, but language is a construct. I can tell you 2+2=4 only because we label the things we are counting. However, if you see two things and then add two more things, you can clearly see the representation of four. The things I’m counting exist outside of labels, but that makes me question sensation and perception all the more. And at the end of the day, these are all things that occur in the mind that we can’t see. It’s a lot of blind faith in ourselves, our combined knowledge, and the concept of reality as such.
One thing I do know for sure is that death is the big truth I believe we are all seeking to understand yet paradoxically ignoring. We run from it with products to make us look and feel younger and vibrant stories of what will occur after our hearts stop beating. BUT we don’t know what happens when we die because we’ve never experienced it. That’s not to say forgo religion or spirituality; I say this because we are bags of blood and bone, flying on a living rock in outer space. That’s a difficult reality to face. It’s why we tell stories, to create meaning for ourselves, our people, our cultures, and our hearts. It’s a chaotically beautiful paradox that is terrifying, confusing, and filled with bliss.
I believe it’s this underlying existential fact, the sole reality of death, that creates conspiracy and political hate because it’s easier to make up a new narrative than to continue to live here with a bunch of people you don’t know with no IDEA of what’s actually happening around us. There is no truth, kids. Only speculation. Even science can only get it right 99.9% of the time, but at least they admit that truth without the abuse of absolutes. To this, I’ll offer some advice I received in my first logic class a long time ago: be wary of people who use absolutes like always and never. Perfection, in its purest iteration, doesn’t exist.
If you want a moral, here’s what I’ll say based on my lived experience: never lose your inner Alice, the girl who was told to think six impossible things before breakfast. We need imagination to create and build and move forward. Imagination breeds dreams and hope. But remember, Wonderland is a scary and dangerous place, as Carroll, a mathematical logician, aimed to create a world without such tools. Alice begged to come back home, to actually WAKE UP from her nap as that world tried to consume her and break her down. Heck, the Red Queen wanted her dead. But when she returned home, she found grace and gratitude for what was right in front of her, and that’s what changed her life. She found solace in her reality, without a fancy narrative to soften the blow.
I am done dealing with certain people. The ones who tell me my truth is incorrect. I tell my story, and they tell me I’m wrong. They rewrite my narrative with their own, telling me what I think and feel, and what is best for me.
How can that be?
How can someone simply slip into my head and dare rewrite a story they’ve never seen? And why would they?
I am done placating these people. These people who replace my narrative with their own thoughts and feelings, and when told their truths are not my own, they pounce like a wild animal defending their young. Yet the thing they defend sits in my heart.
What an odd behavior.
I am working diligently to write my own narrative, and get it right in the way that most genuinely reflects what I think and feel. What I am and wish to become. But they come for me. With their ideas and their stories with constant attempts to negate my own, with this toxic spit slipping from their lips as they denounce the story it’s taken me 36 years to write.
And will keep writing.
"How can I defend myself," I ask myself, as I turn this acidic pit in my heart.
"Don’t," she said, so freely, as if this simple truth was looking her in the face all along.
And with that, she was free.
Bi, By, Bye
(This post was triggered by a comment from a family member. While they were well-intentioned, it brought up a lot of shit for me. I decided to unpack it through my writing and share it for those who need to hear it. To that family member, because I know you will read this: thank you. For that entire dialogue. I love you, and you are now a part of my liberation. You are my cheerleader, and I am forever grateful.)
In 7th grade, I remember having a friend over on a snow day. I spent a lot of time with her in junior high, and we were very close. She was lying in the snow and something came over me. I tried to kiss her. She was NOT having it (lol), but it wasn’t just a moment for me. I kept thinking about her and that moment, fantasizing about what it would be like to touch her, kiss her, be more than friends.
Looking back, that didn’t seem out of place considering our friendship. We would sleep next to each other in the same bed at sleepovers, hold each other, and share our hearts. (AND listen to a lot of 90's R&B while we did.) But I didn’t think anything more of my thoughts or feelings. They didn’t seem to matter. These thoughts and feelings felt NORMAL to me. I had the same thoughts about Aaliyah and Gwen Steffani. They were perfect in my eyes. I also wanted to make out with Angelina Jolie from the moment I saw her. Didn’t everyone?
Fast forward to the NSYNC days of my teen years and WOW, look at Justin Timberlake. Damn, okay, you’re hot. And Han Solo? I ADORED him. And then Usher with that My Way video. Okay, hi, I see you. I plastered my wall with pictures from those teen magazines, ya know, the ones where no one ever read the articles; they just looked at the pictures of hot boys? So now in my teen mind, girls and boys were hot. I had ALL the feelings. For everyone. The fantasies grew, but something else was also brewing—shame.
Fast forward to my first retail job, and my nickname was “the lesbian,” which, upon reflection, I’m not even sure how I got it. I may have told one of my co-workers I was bi, but I also think there was some stereotyping there. And this stereotyping happened in most of my work spaces. I was addressed as “lesbo” and the notes left in the stockroom followed suit. I didn’t get it. Couple that with so much biphobic shit like, “it’s just a phase,” “every girl has a lesbian relationship in college,” and the disdain of bi folks from some of the LGBTQ+ community, and I became riddled with confusion. Now, I realize how, little by little, society just boxed up my feelings for women and hid them deep inside my body. I told myself I was just going through the motions of “growing up.” Society told me boxing these feelings up was normal.
But the feelings never went away, and if anything, they were coddled and cultivated in the club/rave scene. No one gave a shit who you fucked or why or when. Gay nights felt safe, I worked with a lot of drag queens as a go-go dancer in Boston who taught me everything I know about makeup and stage presence, and the more I talked to my friends, the more I realized there was a whole community of bi folks out there who had the same feelings I did. It felt like home. Once again, there was no shame, and the feelings didn’t matter. I could just live my damn life.
However, after my second trip to rehab, I needed to leave the scene, for a long time. The club world was replaced with an undergrad program and a campus that was supposedly inclusive (whatever the fuck that means). But when I returned to college, being bi felt like a novelty for most people around me, and maybe it did for me, too. I am bi, but most of my relationships were and are with men. I had the privilege of not fighting for that right. Looking back, it seems that part of my identity slipped away. Maybe I believed them. Maybe it was just a phase…but now I know all I was doing was packing my heart with shame and guilt to suppress who and what I was and am. I didn’t realize society and my own internal dialogue was feeding the shame monster and that it would continue for years to come.
Thankfully, attending Simmons gave me more of a foundation to find myself. While the grad program is co-ed, the undergrad is all female. They had a lot of classes and programs centering on gender studies and queer theory, and the experience allowed me to feel home and find community somewhere outside of myself. As a TA, most of my students identified as a part of the LGBTQIA+ community and were comfortable writing about it. They inspired me and gave me hope for myself.
But at the end of the day, I never really confronted this part of myself. I knew where I stood but not sharing this aspect of my sexuality with everyone in my life was due to shame. I would pick and choose who knew, and I realize that came from a place of wanting safety. I never realized how much that shame held me back. I couldn’t tell most men because it immediately turned into a conversation about lesbian sex or a three-some. And even most women weren’t very supportive because apparently there is a “right way” to have feelings for women. It became a battle of “you’re just not gay enough.”
In any case, I’m writing this during Pride month and the world’s largest Civil Rights movement, and part of me still doesn’t feel comfortable, still doesn’t feel like I’m being authentic. I’ve always felt like a fraud identifying as bi because of shame, but today, I realized those feelings are not mine. The conversation this morning with my family member made me see that. It pushed me into the shadows of my sexual past and my dating future which resulted in an added therapy session to work this shit through. I never felt like it was “right” to speak on these issues for myself. I always spoke from the place of the ally, not realizing I wasn’t being an ally to myself.
To anyone still reading this, needing comfort from homophobic comments, to anyone reading this who is confused and figuring things out, to anyone who has already done this work and is fighting tooth and nail for justice: I see you, I love you, and I support you. And thank you, for being everything that you are—without conditionals—so I can be who I am, too.
Love is love. Don’t let anyone define it for you. Ever.
I know it's been a while. Like everything, life gets in the way. I've stopped apologizing for that. Here's something I've been working on, but for once, I refuse to perfect it. Enjoy.
Part 1: The Story
Trigger Warning: Alcoholism, Addiction, Sexual Assault
(If you don’t want to read the story, you can scroll down to Part 2: What I Learned)
I put myself into my first outpatient program in December of 2008. It was the day after Christmas. I was at work which at the time was at a Physical Therapy office. We didn’t have any patients that day, but someone needed to be there to cover the phones. It was me and my boss. We were “on call” in case of "emergency." Two hours into work, and I had a total break from reality.
I remember pieces of it. It was like in the movies when someone dies on the operating table and they watch themselves from afar. I was sitting outside of myself, watching my body go through the motions. I watched myself get up from my desk, robotically walk into my boss’ office, and tell her I needed help. She slowly picked up the phone and called the main hospital in our network to get me an appointment.
I waited at my desk for the appointment time and called my best friend, Pete. He came to pick me up and drove me to the psych building because my boss feared me in a car alone. I remember cranking butts the entire way, something he would have never let me done in his car, but this was an extenuating circumstance.
As we blasted our emo playlist, tears slowly rolled down my cheeks. After almost four months clean, I was still a mess. It was time to stop drinking. For good. We got to the psych building, and it was packed. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, huh?
Let’s rewind a bit. I spent that Christmas Eve in a parking lot, ripping butts, blasting music, waiting for my abusive ex to meet me. This is what he did. He would twirl me around his finger and manipulate me into doing the dumbest shit. I waited for hours, but he was never going to show. After years of abuse, that was the night that broke me, and I am forever grateful.
I went home late that night, took way too much of my prescribed sleeping medication, and slept for 14 hours. I’m not sure if I came downstairs that year to open presents, but I remember my Nana coming over and wanting me to eat something. I don’t think I saw my family that year.
Fast forward, and I’m in a psych office waiting for my intake. I had to do a whole lot of paperwork and a drug test. I saw two social workers, a psychiatric nurse, and some doctor, all of whom were clearly in over their head with holiday madness. No one really listened. They gave me two bottles of pills and sent me home because they had no place to send me, and I wasn’t suicidal enough in their eyes. I don't blame them. We have a shit system.
Fast forward. I’m 31 days clean and sober on weird meds that were giving me horrible side effects, I don't have a therapist or treatment support group, and I had the same groups of friends who weren’t able to comprehend what I was going through...I remember meeting everyone in Boston after some event. We were bowling at Jillian’s. It took two hours for them to break me, and I do say break me because they bought me a vodka redbull and literally put it in front of my face. Literally taunted me with a drink. My favorite drink. I quickly relapsed, started doing shots, and I’m assuming someone drove me home. Couple that with the last time a saw my ex that February when he broke a door an inch away from my head, and I was ready to make a change. However, that change wouldn’t come for another year.
Fast forward. It’s spring of 2009, and I suffer trauma from a good friend raping me. The next day, I checked myself into rehab. I started an IOP program (Intensive Outpatient Program). I had to work the day shift at my retail job, clock out at 4:30, and get to the rehab center by 5:00. I’d be there until the program ended at 10pm. The point of IOP is to keep you busy during any hours your don’t have an obligation such as work or family. It's also your own option next to inpatient treatment.
This program changed my life, but I’ll leave that for the next section. During my weeks in IOP, I was preparing for my first trip to Europe where my new boyfriend and I were going to backpack 7 countries. However, he was an alcoholic, and I was newly sober.
Fast Forward: I’m crying at a café at midnight with some random British girl who had just left everything at home to get her dream job in Madrid. She kept me sober that night and got me dinner. The next morning, I got on a plane by myself and flew home. I wasn’t going to relapse this time. And I didn’t.
Fast forward: It's between 2013 and 2015 during my first few years teaching. I started drinking again, but I wasn’t being crazy. I would go out once a week and drink with the crew, but what I didn’t realize was that I was using alcohol to cope. Back to rehab I went. This time, I did so privately. I went to group sessions at night for a few weeks to get me back on track. I needed a reminder of who I was and the possibility of fucking up my entire life. I didn't want to start over. AGAIN.
I still drink today, but only on rare occasions. I don’t keep alcohol in my home, and I usually get a ginger ale when I go out. I’m cautious about when I drink, where I drink, and with whom. Some of the sober community shuns me for this and others “get it.” But here's the thing: my problem was never with drugs or alcohol; my problem was trauma and lack of coping mechanisms. My problem was that I was hurting, I was in a deep dive of codependency, and I had so much to unpack from my childhood/early adult years that I physically couldn’t handle reality. Once I got clean and sober and started actually doing the inner work, the rest began to fall into place.
Even during rehab, I knew I wanted to be able to have a glass of wine for the taste. I LOVE MALBECS. I wanted to have that crisp, malty Belgian beer at dinner with a friend. I LOVE DUVEL. And I fought for it. I did the therapy, I did the rehab groups that focused on being able to live like I am now, and I still do the work today. This won't be the path for everyone who is struggling with substance, but it was for me. That's a choice you'll have to make with your team and your heart. You always have to ask yourself WHY you want the drink. If TASTE isn't your first answer, put it down. I do. Every time.
Now, I am 11.5 years clean, I barely drink, and I’m happy. Genuinely happy. But the number one thing that brought me to where I am now was isolation.
Part 2: What I Learned
Have you ever blown up your life? Took a figurative grenade to it and said, okay, I am ready to change? I have, a few times, because I desperately wanted a new life, one where I was clean, didn’t NEED alcohol, and was enacting my dreams. But this is what people don’t realize about changing their lives, and I don’t just mean through recovery. Change means change. Change means you can’t do the same things or hang with the same people or have the same damn ideas about the world. It means sacrificing everything you have now for something better. And more often than not, when you're in the pit, you have to blow your life the fuck up to get out.
When I went sober for a year, it was wild to see how many friends I didn’t have. How many people picked alcohol over me. How many people HAD to keep going to the club. It really fucking hurt. But that was their journey, not mine. My body was a mess, my mind was a mess, and I was alone. They said the road to sobriety was one you didn’t have to walk alone, but that wasn’t my reality. I had never felt "loneliness" like this...minimal friends, no substance, and no one who understand my pain. At all. Thank the Heavens for my medical support team and the few people who didn’t leave my side. But at the end of the day when I went home, I had to deal with me. I was the only people who could save me. I had to learn to self-soothe.
Just like Odysseus says to his men as they turn to face Scylla and Charybdis, I now say to myself quite often: Haven’t we been through worse? Haven’t we faced our demons and other tragic trials and tribulations along the way? This is nothing compared to that. This concept brings me comfort. Why? Because back then, I didn’t have a stable place to live, I didn’t have a stable job, I didn’t have stable friends, and I didn’t have a stable mind. Now, I look back from the top of the mountain I climbed and thank life for the challenges, because now, I can sit with myself and find peace. Here’s how:
So, how did rehab prepare me for quarantine? It taught me that I am enough. I don’t need more. I don’t need anything external. It taught me how to sit with myself when everything else has to be put in an extended time out. It taught me that I have a whole lot of privilege, and I should show gratitude for it every damn day. It taught me that I know nothing and have so much more to learn. It taught me that sometimes life is in a way that you can’t control, and instead of trying to control it, find the lesson and make the best of it.
There is shit beyond our control, but life is in constant flux. There is a reason one of the taglines for recovery is “this too shall pass,” because it will. For those who need to hear it, this quarantine shall pass, like the waves rolling in and out of the shore. Take a deep breathe, and let that wave wash your troubles away.
After watching the FYRE festival documentaries, I began to ponder some existential musings about my generation and the concept of social media that I had always acknowledged but attempted to ignore due to my snowflake heart. Most conscious citizens are aware that what people post on social media isn’t a true reflection of the person behind the screen, and just because someone’s life looks wonderful, deep down, we know it’s a façade, the filtered face of a calculated identity. But these documentaries exposing such a gross injustice forced me to think about the people involved—the perpetrators and the victims. Because they all had one thing in common—they were millennials. Older generations are quick to place blame and judge this demographic, but this documentary made me go back, go beyond the stereotypes to the genesis. Where did this generation come from, and why are we the way we are? I decided to turn to my 8-year-old self and see what she had to say. Maybe she could shed some light on this label: Millennial. She quickly responded with two stories for me to assess.
In the US, we are conditioned to believe in a few things from birth:
I devised a plan to see if, in fact, Santa was real. I had a fascination with flying saucers and aliens (no one is surprised), so I created a significantly detailed blueprint of the spaceship I desired and mailed it to the North Pole, undetected by my parents. Needless to say, I never received the gift, so I outwardly asked my parents if Santa was real. They said it was clear I already knew the answer, and we moved on. However, the thread I began pulling would soon be my fall from Grace.
When I was 7 years old, Bill Clinton was elected for his first term as President. I really liked Bill. He seemed personable, and as my parents implied, I was born a Democratic Socialist. I still don’t know what those words mean, but I guess it suggested he and I should be friends. I played the flute and thought it was super cool that this politician played the sax. How much more human can a guy seem at 7?
In 1992, my elementary school informed us about the electoral college and democracy. That November, we became ambassadors for the election. Our school held a faux-election, and Clinton won. The experience inspired me to write to the President. I thought he was so cool, so I wanted to tell him all my thoughts and dreams. I needed to tell him I wanted to be president, too, and that someday, I was going to live that dream. I asked my mom to help me mail it, and off my hopes and dreams went to the most important building in the US—the White House.
Eventually I received a letter back in return. I couldn’t contain myself as I ran my fingers over the stamped seal on the outside. I tore open the letter, and out came two pictures and a typed piece of paper. I’m going to be honest, I don’t remember what the letter said. I burned it. But not right away.
Fast-forward to the Clinton sex scandal. In the final months of 97’ into the early months of 98’, I was in 7th grade, and my existential world came crashing down. How could my hero be a dirt bag? Not only was the ideal I created of this man false, but I was convinced the President would want to speak to me personally. Why wouldn’t he? I’m awesome, and I thought he was cool. However, I was too naïve to realize the disconnect between the public and the government. Us and them.
At the end of the day, I was bummed I wasn’t special. And I was super bummed that, later in his Presidency, he lied. I learned a hard truth that day: The President is just a man. Just a man that, like all of us, is human. Every other kid in America got the same letter, and they also had the same crappy man as their president.
Here’s why I burned the letter: I realized Santa wasn’t real. It was in this moment at 13 years old I woke up, became conscious, and saw the veil of the matrix in front of me. But it didn’t end with politics. I lost my faith. I refused to go to church. I started having nightmares. Hyperbolic? Maybe. But for me, this was a defining moment in my life. If parents, politicians, and society could lie about so many things, and deem this transgression a completely normal aspect of our daily lives, what else didn’t I know? Who else was lying?
I am considered a millennial, a word I despise because it’s been given a negative connotation. We are called dreamers, lazy, unrealistic. We are stereotyped as broke kids living in their parents’ basements. We are labeled privileged, unemployed, and ungrateful. But here’s the kicker: all these adultier adults that hate on my generation raised us. They fed us these lies without question, they voted these liars into office, and they continue to do so. They bitch about the system yet despise change. Then they look to my generation to make these changes but constantly tell us we are doing it wrong. Why do people hate millennials? Plot twist: Because when they look at us, we force them to look in the mirror. To look at their teachings, their wisdoms, their failings and short-comings. This is where the heart of the millennial genesis lies—in all of us.
I think, deep down, we all want Santa to be real, and maybe that’s why older generations are so mad. Because they wanted to believe, too, just like we did. But instead of creating a divide, maybe this is the key to bringing humanity together, through the love of magic and a sense of wonder we all wish to share.
I can’t tell you how everyone else is dealing with their loss of Santa, but for me, through all the ups and downs, I’ve found hope. By watching imagined realities fall apart, I realized I can create my own beautiful world of authenticity. By watching politicians lie to the public and make horrible decisions that do not benefit the masses, I realized I can change the world, day by day, by having integrity. Surprisingly, my fall from Grace landed me in a cloud of optimism, and while that concept may be the ultimate gift and curse, it taught me to persevere, even in the face of false idols and cranky old white men. You may say that I’m a millennial, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us.
Check it out, and let me know what you think!
Last week, I started my first byline writing gig at Healthyplace.com, a website that aims to help anyone and everyone with mental health issues, relationships issues, addiction, and so much more. I am beyond grateful.
I was hired as a writer for the Verbal Abuse in Relationships blog. Many of you probably don't know about my past abuse. It's something I may speak of in passing when discussing my "worst relationships," but this opportunity is allowing me to dig deep and share some personal stuff in hopes of helping others safely leave abusive relationships.
In our society, it's easy to see verbal abuse as yelling, screaming, and name-calling, but abuse can be passive and sneaky. You may be the victim and not even realize it.
I hope you'll follow me on this journey through the depths of my relationships and take something from my mistakes, missteps, and misfortunes. Today, I get to own all parts of abuse, stand in my power, and help others do the same.
Here's the link to my intro!
Click Here: HealthyPlace Blog Intro
Peace and love
As a teen, I was led to believe the drugs were coming in from other countries, that we, Americans, weren’t the problem. That the rest of the world was causing drug addiction. I was led to believe that junkies were crazy people that shot up in the streets and meth addicts were something that existed far away from Boston, MA. I was led to believe the war on drugs was something our government was fighting against, that they were trying to protect us from addiction and pain and suffering. But then I had surgery.
I was 17, going into my senior year of high school. It was the last summer of being a kid without any responsibilities because the following summer, I would prepare for college life. This was my first surgery. I was terrified. But a tonsillectomy being such a common operation gave me solace. I felt everyone involved must know what they were doing, and they must have my best interest in mind.
After the operation, I felt great because they had given me a shot of Demerol, a heavy-duty pain killer found in hospitals. Come to find out, it was one of the meds Michael Jackson reportedly abused. Once I got home, the pain meds wore off, and I was in a world of hurt. I couldn’t swallow my own spit, and I was puking from the anesthesia. This was a new level of pain. However, the doctor prescribed a large bottle of liquid Roxicet. Its other name? Percocet. The bottle read: “High risk for addiction and dependence. Can cause respiratory distress and death when taken in high doses or when combined with other substances, especially alcohol.” Cool.
I downed the Alice in Wonderland size cup that provided me relief. But it was more than relief. I felt like I was floating. All my problems disappeared. I felt warm and protected and happy. But the happiness soon faded, as the tiny drink would send me into a downward spiral, one that kept me on the streets looking for pills and in nightclubs looking for the next high. A real-life Wonderland.
The addiction started by taking the medication as prescribed every 4-6 hours for pain. After a week or so, the pain stopped. But I didn’t stop the medication. It helped me sleep, and that became my excuse. I learned others were already abusing said medication, so I brought it around them and started enjoying the substance with others. Wow, this was fun! Or so it seemed, until I began taking way too much which always ended up with me puking my brains out. But puking wasn’t even close to rock bottom. It was simply a side effect I acknowledged.
Then the bottle ran out, but thankfully, people in my friend group knew where to get more. This time, it was in pill form. I took whatever they gave me. Sometimes they were free. Sometimes I paid. Sometimes I would just date the person and sex seemed like an easy trade. Nothing else really mattered than insuring I had at least a few pills on hand. Years later, I would come to find out I was taking OC 80s—a high dose of OxyContin. No wonder my life was such a mess.
The next few years would consist of working in nightclubs as a shot girl, a bartender, and eventually, a go-go dancer. The next few years would consist of multiple sexual partners which left me with HPV, cancerous cells and surgery. The next few years would leave me broke, uneducated, and removed from real friends and family. I OD’d in a bathtub. I hung out with big name DJs. I partied at festivals all over North America. On the outside, it looked like a movie. On the inside, I was depressed. I was anxious. I was terrified. I was exhausted. I was scared. I was confused. And most importantly, I was an addict. And I had no idea what that meant.
I can’t tell you how many times I came close to death, looking for that same high that I felt with pain killers. Ecstasy was cool, but short-lived. Vodka made me sick and violent. Adderall’s main job was keeping me functional during the day. I wanted my pain killers, but the next best thing were benzos. I would eat any pill I could find. Ativan, Xanax, Klonopin. Why? Because it took the anxiety away. It took the pain away. It took the withdrawal away. Ultimately, it took reality away. So where did that leave me? A twenty-nothing in a severely abusive relationship who failed out of college twice, who barely spoke to her family, who had no idea who the fuck she was. And honestly, the only thing that kept me away from heroin was my fear of needles.
What did I learn from three stints in rehab and a long climb out of a dark hole? All of my assumptions were wrong. My best friends were shooting up and doing meth. And they were white, privileged, had money, careers, “real lives”. Where did my drug addiction come from? Not Mexico. Not Indiana in a trailer. It came from big pharma. It came from a local pharmacy that I bought toilet paper and mascara from. It came from a doctor who was supposed to have my best interest in mind. What did I really learn from this entire experience? Capitalism will be the second fall of Rome.
Just call me Double N Jenn. In this section, I'll post everything from life updates to rants to poetry. Because, why not?