The Fluidity of Faith

 

faithfluid

When I was in my early twenties, I felt a certain “spiritual stirring”. I was a newlywed, at the time, and expecting my first child. I felt like I finally had some of the things I’d been longing for all my life – a husband, a home, the best paying job I’d had to that point (but it actually wasn’t well-paying at all). I would soon have a family of my own. In spite of this, I found myself fighting feelings of unhappiness and deep depression.  I didn’t understand why. In hindsight, I now realize that these feelings had more to do with a chemical imbalance in my brain and a dysfunctional marriage than any kind of “spiritual” issue. Still, I wanted answers. I’m an analytical person by nature. I do research. I Google. I pull every issue into its minutia and evaluate each speck. So I set out to dissect the “spiritual.” Of course, Catholicism strongly discourages this type of shenanigans. Maybe it’s because I never attended parochial school or maybe it’s because I did attend the school of hard knocks. Either way I was just defiant enough to look beyond The Church and not care about the consequence to my immortal soul. I was open to any and all philosophical, religious, and spiritual orientations. I read books. I attended worship services. I had heart-to-heart conversations with devotees of many religions and spiritual persuasions. Although he was no longer a practicing Muslim, my husband at the time had been raised as one. I found the faith interesting and horribly misunderstood, but I felt no connection with it. Oddly, I identified most closely with an obscure faith called B’hai – in theory, anyway. Unfortunately, there was no B’hai presence in my community, and I never felt strongly enough to seek it elsewhere.

 I was working as an assistant home coordinator at a group home for developmentally disabled adults during this time of “spiritual quest.” My co-workers were lovely, kind, and caring people. They seemed super happy. I wondered what made them so damn happy. So, one day I asked the happiest of these happy people – the only male direct care worker. The group home was his main gig, to pay the bills and support his adorable little family, but he was also a Pentecostal minister. I learned that nearly all my co-workers were “born again” Christians. I was somewhat familiar with this “born again” thing. My father was not Catholic, and although they didn’t necessarily raise him in the in the Baptist church, my grandparents considered themselves Southern Baptists. As were many men of his generation, my dad was the boss of our family, so my mother could offer no objection when I went to visit relatives in Tennessee during the summer with my grandparents and attended Baptist services or when I begged to go to Vacation Bible School at the Methodist church with the little neighbor girls. So here I was working in this warm, cozy, joyful place with a bunch of sweet happy Protestant folks that were high on Jesus. Of course, Pastor Happy was more than eager to lead another lamb to the foot of the cross. I was in pain, so I held his hands and prayed with him to have my soul saved. I sound bitter, don’t I? I’m really not. Pastor Happy was a truly beautiful human being and really did “walk the walk” of The Savior. He saw that I was suffering, and he wanted to help. I’ll admit being “born again” did help…for a while. I’ll tell you that there is nothing quite as intoxicating as having the “joy, joy, joy, joy down in your heart” when you’re surrounded by others who seem to have it in every square inch of their bodies. In the long run, though, I knew I was just faking it. It simply didn’t feel right or natural to me, and there were times that it actually felt quite strange– like the first time I heard someone “speaking in tongues.” That straight up freaked this Catholic out! I was raised to believe that when a person does something like that they need an exorcism not a microphone.

 My stint as a full-blown born-again believer, complete with tax-exempt tithing to First Assembly Churches, the Christian Broadcast Network (Yup! That is Pat Robertson, folks), and Chuck Colson Ministries was short-lived. Look, I acknowledge the ridiculously of this period in the evolution of my belief system. Luckily, cynicism is not a quitter though. Like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, she builds slowly but gets louder and louder and LOUDER until she is heard. I abandoned my “new-found faith” almost as quickly as I had embraced it. Still, the yearning persisted.

 It was about this time that I discovered the book Embraced By The Light by Betty Eadie. It’s Betty’s account of her near-death experience, and one of the most vivid detailed accounts of an NDE experience on record. I found it incredibly compelling. Betty describes her experience in great detail, but what struck me most was her discussion of how she learned that, before we are born, we are presented with a life and a mission, which we can accept or reject. We are made aware of every detail of said mission, every detail of the life, and the ultimate purpose of both. We can accept or refuse, without consequence. For some reason, the idea made perfect sense to me and resonated deeply. The ideas in that book stayed with me for years and years. Even after tragic events that would unfold far into the future, I never forgot them.

 When my daughters were young, I resisted the urge to indoctrinate them in any religion. Their father wasn’t too keen on the idea either, and we hadn’t been married in the Catholic Church anyway. I didn’t feel compelled to have them baptized or to receive first communion or be confirmed – to receive any of the sacraments, as I had in spite of my family’s ultra-loose grasp on the faith. I arrived at my decision, though, mostly because I’d come to feel as though faith and spirituality are only meaningful when we find our own way to them rather than being dragged down a path. Most of the time, while the girls were growing up, I felt satisfied with that decision. It wasn’t until my oldest daughter hit a particularly difficult period in her development that I began to have doubts. She was a willful and rebellious teen. Somewhere in the back of my Catholic mind, I wondered if it was because of her Godless upbringing outside The Church and being raised by a Muslim father and agnostic stepfather. Catholics are taught that devotion to God and The Church is the key to a happy life. Maybe if recommitted myself to Catholicism and The Church, God would forgive my transgressions and fix my failures as a parent, even if I couldn’t erase my decision not to raise my children Catholic. I started going back to Mass every week. I prayed the Rosary every single morning and pleaded for the Blessed Mother’s intercession. It’s pretty ironic that, during a time when I was most devout, I should suffer one of the greatest losses a person can endure. My daughter was killed in a car accident. I remember devout Catholic friends, fulfilling their roll as “guardians of the faith” saying, “Give your pain to the Holy Mother. She understands more than anyone what it’s like to lose a child. She lost her only son.” It didn’t help. My daughter’s death reignited the cynicism that had been deposited in my heart and mind from every trauma I’d ever suffered. How could a merciful God strike such a blow to someone that had already been through so much, someone who was trying so hard to be a faithful servant? You needn’t cite scripture, my devout friends. I am familiar with the tale of Job. What can I say? I’m just no Job. Losing my child all but extinguished the compulsion I once felt to be a good, devoted, and obedient Christian.

 It’s been many years now since the loss of my daughter and the spiritual crisis that followed. My feelings have softened…a bit. If pressed, I would still say that I consider myself “a believer.” I still love the beauty of The Mass and never fail to feel awestruck by its ancientness. Much to my husband’s chagrin, I still observe Lent. Why? Because I appreciate just how much such a small sacrifice or minor inconvenience can remind me of how good I really have it. I adore Pope Francis. I think he’s a good and compassionate man. In fact, I think that somewhere down deep within the heart of The Church, Christ and his message of kindness and compassion lives on. I still don’t regret having not raised my children as Catholics, though. I can’t imagine the additional pain and guilt my youngest daughter, who is gay, might’ve endured if she’d had to contend with the judgment and condemnation of a 2000-year-old institution in addition to that of society. These days I really couldn’t really label my spiritual beliefs as “Catholic” or “Protestant” or “Agnostic.” I will tell you that I believe in the connectedness of all human beings. I believe we are connected to one another. I believe we are connected to the natural world. And I do believe in a divine presence of some sort because I just find it so unlikely that the incredible beauty that exists in the world could occur randomly.

 I have also come to believe that all of us are here, on this planet, for a reason – for a mission, one that we signed up for even before we were born. In our current physical form, that mission might be unknown to us. Still, we live it anyway, as we were destined to do. For some of us, the mission is short-lived. It is impactful all the same. What I know is this – a life is like a pebble. It strikes the water and creates ripples. Those ripples expand exponentially. They move things in the water. They cause pond-dwellers to jump or move. The movement of those life forms stirs the sediment on the pond floor, which, in turn, sets in motion more activity. We cannot know the full impact of a life, whether it is short or long. We can only trust that there is a bigger picture, like an expansive eco-system, of which one life is a small but important part.

 I think faith is so much more than religion. It’s more than clinging, steadfastly, to the teachings of a certain belief system. It’s even more than believing without the benefit of seeing. Well, at least, I think it can be anyway. I think faith can be the best of being human. I think it can be seeing the divine in one another. I think faith could change the world if we didn’t equate it with religion. If we could only view faith as a fluid – taking the shape of its container – we’d be better off as a species. I will never be “anti-faith.” I still think “faith” is a good thing, a positive thing. Label me, if you must. But don’t label me with a religion. Label me as what I am – a faithful human. Namaste.

 

 

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A Misshapen Heart

handheart

My sister was born in the fall of 1970. I was five going on six. Having been an only child for so long made the adjustment of sharing my mother’s attention with another particularly difficult. In retrospect and after having experienced what it’s like to go from having one child to having two, I now empathize with how impatient and frazzled my mother was with me during her first few months with a preschooler and a newborn. As a child, though, I felt adrift and alone. I remember her telling me, “Now that your sister is here, I just don’t have time for this anymore!”

We were living in a three apartment building that my father’s parents owned. My grandparents lived in one of the downstairs units. Our place occupied most of the second floor. A woman and her elderly father lived in the other downstairs unit. The building was in a rundown urban area. There were few children around, but in the ramshackle building next door, there lived two ragamuffin little school-aged girls. Always in dirty clothes, it looked like they rarely bathed or washed their ratty brown hair. They ran wild through the neighborhood day and night. Attracted by the only swing set for blocks, they found me one day in early spring, swinging happily in my backyard, determined to touch my toes to the sky. Desperate for playmates, I eagerly obeyed their every command. They loved treating me like their baby doll by brushing and braiding my clean blonde hair and by painting my tiny fingernails and toenails. I followed them everywhere. One day we visited the downstairs neighbors, the woman and her father. We had fun. More importantly, we had cookies. The wild girls were gone one day, so I went there alone.

The old man was the only one home that day. The girls called him Mr. R. They adored him so much that, with the crayons and paper my mother gave us to help keep me occupied, they often drew and colored pictures of him. I could see through the screen door that Mr. R. was sitting in his easy chair watching television. I knocked. He came to the door with a broad smile and invited me in. “I’ll go get some cookies for us,” he said. He returned with the package of cookies and settled back into the recliner. He patted his knee and motioned for me to come sit on his lap. It started with a tickle. I felt my face flush with pleasure. The tickle turned into a touch. It felt good, but it felt bad, too. When he was done touching me his lap was wet, and I knew whatever had happened was bad, and I was bad for letting it happen. I told my mother about the “tickling” visit. Her face registered the briefest moment of shock before saying, “You don’t need to go back there. Okay? Stay away from that apartment.” Here’s the thing, though. I didn’t stay away. I went back again…on another day when the wild girls weren’t around.

This time the daughter was there, too. She brought out the cookies and smiled at me. She seemed nice. She asked me if I wanted to see the rest of the apartment and took my hand. She led me to the only bedroom at the back of the tiny apartment. I now realize how odd it was that a middle-aged woman and her elderly father would share a one-bedroom apartment. She sat me on the edge of the bed. Mr. R. followed us into the room. She sat beside me and put her arm around my shoulders. Mr. R. stood in front of me, smiling like he had the last time. Then the woman put her hands on either side of my head. Mr. R. unzipped his pants. My memory of what transpired next is this: the feeling of the nubby, chenille bedspread beneath my fingers; the glare of the light fixture above me; the buzz of that same light fixture ringing in my ears so loudly it made me feel dizzy; the smell of perspiration; and a salty strange taste I would only remember again years later during my first consenting sexual experience.

For some reason, they didn’t feel the need to tell me not to tell. Maybe they knew my mother had told me to stay away. To my child’s mind, though, that made it my fault. I didn’t listen. I never listened. A few days later, after my bath, my mother was brushing out my hair in front of her bedroom mirror. I looked at my reflection and felt disgusted. “Look at that ugly girl. What an ugly little girl.” For many years, I mistakenly believed those words had been spoken by my mother, and I hated her for it. It turns out that those words were my own thoughts. Those thoughts signaled the beginning. It was then that a handful of tiny black seeds were planted within me – the seeds of self-loathing and shame.

Though it went largely unnoticed by my parents, my behavior changed after that “visit.” I became anxious and secretive. I had an unusual curiosity about things adult and sexual in nature. At a time when most children abandon thumb sucking, mine intensified. I spent hours alone in my room spinning and twirling and pacing to the music of records on a little record player that would automatically kick back to the start and replay a record over and over again. It was like hypnosis. It sent me, deeply, into an internal world of my own making – one in which I could control everything that happened. Much later in life, I learned that this behavior is called dissociation. Dissociation is a common psychological coping mechanism for children suffering abuse. My parents just chalked it up to my “weirdness.”

We moved into a tiny two-bedroom house in a suburb a few miles away the August after my sister’s birth. We were a growing family. We left the place that would chart the path of my entire life, but the events that happened there never left me. For some strange reason, that place is still the setting of my dreams sometimes.

A few years later I suffered another instance of sexual abuse at the hands of a friend’s mentally ill relative. This time I was old enough to understand how wrong it was. My friend was dealing with it too, though, on a regular basis. I thought telling would get her in trouble. So I didn’t. I don’t know if my friend eventually told someone or if the abuse was discovered another way. I do know that it eventually stopped. Still, the strange behaviors that began when I was younger never went away completely, and they only intensified after this. I was dissociating more than ever – hours and hours at a time. I’m certain the music playing loudly from behind my closed bedroom door over and over again didn’t seem out of the ordinary for a girl my age. I’m not sure if my parents ever had a clue about the pacing, though. I also started lying and stealing. I overate constantly and was obsessed with food. I engaged in crazy, OCD-like behaviors. I have a distinct recollection of feeling an urgent need to have every hanger in my closet equidistance apart and to keep the crayons in my crayon box at school arranged in Roy G. Biv order – the order of the spectrum. I was still sucking my thumb at the age of nine. I didn’t stop until I was twelve. I suffered insomnia, and I engaged in a variety of alarmingly adult-like behaviors. All these things should’ve looked and sounded like a four-alarm fire to my folks. Unfortunately, their own dysfunctional family background made them blind to it, so they did nothing. I guess, once again, they considered all to be a part of my peculiarity.

We moved again when I was twelve going on thirteen. Enduring such a transition for any child that age is difficult, but it was particularly hard for a kid as battle worn as I was. As I got older, things only worsened. My lack of confidence was excruciating. I had trouble making friends. I had three or four female friends, but, by and large, I wasn’t very social and had little interest in doing the normal things that teenage girls do together. Conducting even the most normal interactions with boys and men, even my male teachers, was impossible for me. The typical contentiousness of an adolescent’s relationship with her parents only exacerbated the angst already inside me. It was then that my battle with depression and suicidal thoughts began. I withdrew further into myself. I was still dissociating, but after a summer with my grandparents and being forced to display a semblance of normalcy, I’d trained my mind to do it without the pacing. I only needed the music now. The music…and the tiniest glimmer of hope that things would get better…is what kept me alive during this time.

I emerged from adolescence rudderless, socially and emotionally stunted, and lacking even a thread of self-identity. I had grown up spending too much time in a world of my own making to be able to conduct an adult life in reality. Needless to say, it didn’t go well. I couldn’t find a career path. I was desperate to get away from my emotionally and psychologically abusive family. I was even more desperate to find a relationship, though. And, as it often does, desperation resulted in poor decisions. I dropped out of college. I did a lot of stupid, dangerous things and put myself in situations that were incredibly risky for a woman. I got involved with men who neglected, used, and mistreated me. I even married one…all because I was once a little girl who went looking for love and attention only to find malice.

I wonder who I’d be now if it wasn’t for that fateful day in the tiny apartment. Would I have had the self-confidence to pursue my dreams? Would I have actually known what my dreams were? Would I be so guarded and mistrustful of people? Would I have allowed boyfriends and husbands and bosses and friends to treat me with such cruelty? Would I have treated myself better? Would I have expected more?

The little black seeds that were planted all those years ago took root without me really even knowing. All the abuse, neglect, and mistreatment drove the roots deep. They grew so well and so strong that they’ve been next to impossible to excise, even after all these years. I’ve tried to pull them up. I’ve tried to dig them out. I’ve tried to burn them down. I’ve tried to eradicate them with religion and therapy and medication. I’ve medicated myself with food and drink and drugs and other reckless, self-destructive behavior. Nothing has gotten rid of those roots completely. The person I am today had to grow around them. My mind is more cynical because of it. My personality is a little darker. My soul is a little older, and my heart…my heart is forever misshapen.

I’ll never stop working at those roots, y’all. I’m still fighting to rescue that little girl who was trying to touch her toes to the sky that day, and I still love, even if it is with a misshapen heart.

“Come on Ramona. Make it your mantra. Fuck what they taught you. Take back the life that they stole.” (from Ramona by Night Beds).

 

 

 

 

Living “Danishly” Through The Dark Winter

hygge

I am not a fan of this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. The days leading up to and immediately following the winter solstice often send me into a downward spiral and drive me to seek any and all possible ways to maintain equilibrium. The gloom of fewer daylight hours is accentuated by the even greater than normal lack of sunlight that my region endures due to its proximity to Lake Michigan. Natives of this area have coined the term “perma-cloud” to describe the continuously overcast conditions that persist from November to mid-April. The darkness makes me want to hibernate. I feel sleepy and sluggish and crave comfort. Holiday preparations are a brief distraction. I love the festivity of the season, though I don’t care much for the pressure of holiday shopping. I love the colorful lights, the sparkling decor, the cheerful music, the delicious food, and the warm celebrations with family and friends. After New Years, though, it feels like the weight of a long, dark winter comes crashing down upon me. There have been years when my husband has found me taking down the Christmas tree and packing up holiday decorations on New Years Day with tears streaming down my face in anticipation of the dark days ahead.

This year I am determined to deny the cold dark winter its power to rob me of my wellbeing. This year my strategy can be described with a single word – hygee. I have been reading about the Danish concept of hygge (pronounced hoo-guh). Though there is no direct English translation for the word, Helen Russell, the British journalist who wrote “The Year of Living Danishly,” defines the term as “taking pleasure in the presence of gentle, soothing things.” I’ve also heard it described as a certain “mindfulness” that allows you to recognize and appreciate things in the present moment. Boiled down further, the term encompasses “all things cozy.” In my mind, though, hygge mostly means creating an abundance of daily moments of self-nurturing – moments that will get me through the cold somber tones of winter in Michigan and to the warmer, greener, sunnier ones of springtime. From what I understand, the Danes take their hygge very seriously. It’s practically a part of their national identity. That’s probably why they consistently rank as one of the happiest populations on the planet. Coziness and comfort is a lifestyle for them. From how they decorate their homes to how they dress to the things they eat and drink, it’s all about the hygee. They even have cozy café areas in everything from laundromats to bicycle shops. And riding around on a bicycle is the epitome of hygge.

Okay. So, I probably won’t be doing much bike-riding in the harsh elements of a Michigan winter; though I suspect those fat-tire bicycles I’ve seen folks using to ride in the snow would be considered the height of hygee to a Dane. I will, however, be making time to go out and walk my dog when the snow is falling gently. I’ll have my essential oils diffuser misting lavender and chamomile. I’ll sleep under a cozy comforter and in the soft pink glow of a salt lamp. I’ll make sure there’s a fire in the fireplace while I cuddle up with my dog, sip warm mulled wine, read, and write. When the dreary gray days of winter combines with the weight of the pressures I feel on the daily, I will seek out even the tiniest slice of hygee. And, even if it’s only for a moment, I will live “Danishly.”

 

The Exit Sign

exit

I confess. Part of me is afraid to put this out there. Yet another part is strongly compelled to. This post is real. This post is raw. Why? Because it’s time to throw back the curtain and expose an ugly hidden “shame” to the light of day. I’ve struggled on and off, all my life, with depression and suicidal thoughts. There have been many times when the voice of darkness has whispered into both ears, drowning out any and all other sounds. “They’re better off without you,” it says, “You’re better off dead.” And so ensues a spiral that sends me down into the pit of despair. I always know something is wrong when I can’t find the words in me and when that part of me from which writing comes feels numb. In my mind, I know what’s going on, yet I am shackled by my emotions. They imprison me. They bind me and prevent me from acting to help myself. When I feel this way, I am numb from the pain, and this pain is a tricky thing to explain. If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I sometimes use it as a type of therapy…a catharsis, if you will. So, be advised, this is not a feel-good, fun, and humorous post. I will hedge a bet, though, that it’ll hit home for some of you in a scary-ass way. I will speak my truth here and hope it allows someone somewhere to understand a loved one…or, perhaps, themselves.

I’ve been trying to kill myself, in one way or another, ever since I was a child. Haha. I can feel you wincing already. Why can’t I just say, “end my life” or “commit suicide?” My dad liked to call it “committing sideways” or “going chop suey (crazy).” Nice, huh? Saying, “kill myself” embodies the reality of the feeling – you hate yourself so much that you feel compelled to murder yourself. Or maybe it’s that the pain is so deeply embedded within you that the only way to end it is to end you. I know, I know. It sounds brutal…and that’s exactly how it feels.

My attempts at self-destruction have taken a myriad of forms and have persisted throughout my life. I realize that reading something like this stated so frankly will make many of you uncomfortable, and, to you, I apologize. What can I say? On behalf of my fellow sufferers, I feel compelled to paint a crystal clear picture of what it is like to feel this way – to wish for…pray for…hope for…a day when you can just escape the pain. Yes, as hard as it is to understand, some people wake up many days feeling like they simply shouldn’t be here. I don’t know what brain chemical is responsible for that bullshit, but trust me when I say that it exists.

I was sexually molested when I was five. I was molested, again, from the ages of nine to eleven. I tell you this because I believe these events shaped my brain – physically and chemically. Yes. Really. Neuroscience has proven that trauma does, in fact, influence the development of the brain. With that being said, both the perpetrators of these crimes are now deceased, so there’s really no point in making an issue of the “who, what, and where” of it all. And, again, I’m simply mentioning these events because they – combined with the emotional, psychological, and (to a degree) physical abuse of my upbringing – were major contributing factors to my lifelong mental health issues. Depression is not always the result of trauma, of course. There are plenty of people that suffer from depression who had an uneventful childhood and grew up in a loving, supportive environment. That’s an important point. Depression is an illness, and like other illnesses, it’s indiscriminate.

Gentle readers, I’m writing this post in an effort to help you understand…those of you that love of us. I want you to know. I passionately want you to see that it’s us, not you. It’s not your fault that we feel this way. Hell, technically it’s not even our fault. It’s just the messed up chemistry of our brain and the raging battle deep within us. I know you feel like, “I should’ve seen it. I should’ve known.” Nope. No. Believe me. Some of us are really, really good at hiding it…and I mean REALLY good. In fact, some of us could get an Academy Award for how convincing a performance we give…and some of us actually have.

With all that being said, please don’t be mad at yourself. You love/loved us, and that should be/should’ve been enough. Know that there were times when you and the fear of hurting you were the only things that kept us here. Please don’t be mad at us though, either. Please don’t be angry that we got so lost in the maze of our confusion that we couldn’t find our way out…even though we heard your voice calling. It’s what we fear the most – you being mad at us and hating us as much as we hate ourselves for not being able to get it together. Please, just keep loving us – whether we are still here or not. That’s the other thing we fear – losing your love. Please know that we love you, too, even if you doubt that love in light of what we’ve done/contemplated doing to you.

If you had asked me thirty years ago if I thought I would still be here today, I could not, with any certainty, have answered in the affirmative. And yet here I am. As I’ve gotten older my battles have been fewer, with more time elapsing between them. I know it’s still inside me, though. Maybe it’s sleeping. Maybe it’s waiting. Maybe it’s looking for me to trip over some bump in the road and go tumbling so it can swallow me up for good. I don’t know. What I do know is that the words are here right now. I can find them. I can feel them. They’re flowing, freely, into my fingertips and spilling out onto this page. So, for me, it’s how I know I’m okay.

One of my favorite “self-help” authors, if you want to call her that, is Glennon Doyle. Many of her books and articles discuss what it’s like to live with depression, addiction, and suicidal thoughts. She describes the feelings and experiences with an eloquence I can only dream of having. One of her articles likens attempting or contemplating suicide to trying to use an emergency exit. Afterward, the sight of the “exit” sign remains at the edge of your consciousness. You know it’s there, glowing just within the peripheral vision of your mind, even if you’re not thinking about using it right now. “If I need it, there it is. There it is, if I need it,” you think to yourself. I know loving someone with one eye on the “exit” sign sucks. What can you do? Just hold our hand when the lights go down in the theater. Squeeze it when you feel us tense up. The tension is us wanting to leave, but, if our hand is still in your hand, we probably aren’t planning on using that exit sign today.