Three years ago, I made an appointment to see a therapist to fix myself. While the list of brokenness is long and would no doubt require a chorus line of therapists, each with a different specialty (much like one of those home makeover shows, with each tile and plumbing and duct specialist exclaiming that this shit needs to be torn out and down and built back up), I felt compelled to seek help because of two specific areas: 1. Post-postpartum depression-depression, and 2. Anxiety attacks related to writing, or more specifically, sharing my poetry.
I had seen a therapist twice before: the first was at 12, when I was experiencing crippling migraines. After seeing a physician, it was determined there was no physical cause to my pain, so my mom drove me to Albuquerque from our small town to see a counselor (I regularly saw my middle school counselor because of frequent bullying, but now that my body had begun to show the effects, it was time to call in the A-Team). The verdict was that I was a pretty sad, stressed out little kid (thanks squad of girls who’ve made it difficult for me to form relationships with women!). He recommended a strategy to deal with my migraines that involved imagining the headaches as a physical presence to battle–I did, sending out tiny, white bean cowboys on floating space horses to blast the gray, pulsing, fanged menace. It worked, and while I wouldn’t develop mechanisms to handle the bullying for years (spoiler alert–it was humor and overeating), the migraines dissipated.
The second time I saw a therapist was in college and it was about some other stuff, largely related to issues of abandonment resulting from assorted sources including the decade of bullying (seriously–y’all fucked me up, Belen). The woman was a doctoral student who was kind and warm and liked me as a person, and though we met only for about three months, working with her became a source of tremendous solace and important realizations.
That was in 1997, and it wouldn’t be until 2013 that I reached out again. To be clear–that is not because I was doing super well. It’s because for most of that time, I didn’t have health insurance. It’s a good thing I’m the only one whose need for mental health assistance was thwarted by lack of resources, huh? Wouldn’t it be terrible if people were prevented from accessing needed care because of a lack of, or having crappy, health insurance? Shudder.
I was able to make an appointment this last time through an employee assistance program at my work that makes a handful of sessions available through a contracted organization and was set up with a woman on a hot summer morning. I should have known upon entering her office, though, that this was not going to work: the diploma from Liberty University (aka The Jerry Falwell School of Reading the Bible in Ways That Render Intolerance Righteous); the penholder emblazoned with “Focus on the Family” (a similarly evangelical organization that uses the term “family” to mean “a man and a woman who follows that man and hot dinners with plenty of red meat, hold the critical thinking, thank you”; and lastly the Navy memorabilia blanketing the small room. Now, don’t think that just because I’m an atheist peacenik that I, in turn, am intolerant of those who live their lives differently just because I was super sarcastic about those choices several lines earlier. I was raised in a Southern Baptist church, and I come from a long line of military folk, not to mention all the students I’ve had and really liked despite our significant philosophical differences. I’ve been privileged to get to know and care for many different kinds of people in my life, but that’s not the same as opening your brain and asking them to peek around inside.
As we talked, my anxiety attacks came up as the focus, and I described the sensation of physical panic any time I even thought about sending work out. At that point, I’d been writing again for about seven months or so, invited into a writers group of fellow moms by the wife of a colleague (both of whom became friends). The experience had been largely positive, and I found myself pushing my work in ways I had never done before: getting weirder, showing greater control. The years of reading and teaching (but not writing) poetry seemed to have serve as some kind of poetic Crock-Pot. (Hey Erin–if you’re a poet, why are you so terrible with metaphors, you ask? I don’t disagree.) For the first time ever, I was producing work that, if not exactly what I wanted to do, was close. It was exciting, and it prompted my writers group friends to suggest I send out my work, to which I responded by crying and hiding in the bathroom. Just the idea of doing that caused an intense physical reaction of pure panic, unlike any other kind of anxiety I’d experienced (and I am a bit of a connoisseur of the varying flavors of freaking out). This reaction made me feel ashamed, like a failure–if this was what I wanted to do, and I couldn’t even bring myself to fully pursue it, what kind of failed life does that speak to? This ensured that I spent a good deal of time in a spiral of anxiety and despondency, thus, the outsourcing of my mental wellness.
The nice woman responded to all of this by asking why it was I wanted my work to be seen. Wasn’t it enough to write, to keep a journal, perhaps emblazoned with interspecies baby pairs frolicking in a meadow? When I responded that I wanted to be a part of a larger conversation, to listen and be listened to, she recommended starting a blog for my poems. I explained how poetry publishing worked, journals, etc., and how a blog would reach those I already knew but would fail to connect with new readers in the kind of way I hoped to someday accomplish. She smiled and wrote something down and played with her bowl haircut. It was a very bad first date.
And while this nice lady did not get, and therefore could not help me through, my dilemma in any way, some of her questions led to me to ask other questions of myself. What did I want my poetry to do, and why was I so certain that the next step had to be sending work out if I was, in fact, so petrified of that notion? Why did I think that poetry, after 15 years of flirting with and hiding from it, was the thing I had to do? Who did I think I was, and why did it matter if anyone else knew?
You’ll be happy to know that I have answered all of these, and in fact all possible, existential questions about my life and have become very wise and grounded so I don’t even know why I’m talking about this.
Sorry–misspelled that. Meant to say that I’m still working through those and other questions on a daily basis. Damn autocorrect.
Three years after the bad therapist date, I’m now a published poet with a nice list of acceptances and a roster of rejections that can be seen from the moon. (Google Earth has a spectacular view of them.) And while I don’t write about the rejection experience in specific detail, which is perhaps part of my WASP-side where we do not speak of such things, I feel like it relates to where I’m going with all of this. Nearly all of my rejections as of late (of individual poems, residencies, and my book manuscript) have been close. Finalist, semi-finalist, personal note about trying again soon. Ostensibly, that’s great, but it’s a bit like being told you were really seriously considered as a prom date but ultimately he’s gonna go with your friend, but if she and then two others get sick, he’ll call you. On a pure ego level, it is rough, but I’ve also been struggling with how to stay committed to this when I feel so stuck in almost. Why write if no one sees it? Why shit in the woods if the Pope’s not there?
So (and here is the where of the what we’ve been driving toward), in order to help me focus on writing not just as a nice hobby for my journal, and to encourage me to write through the rejection, I’ve signed up to be a part of Tupelo Press’ 30/30 fundraising project. Each month, Tupelo asks a small group of poets to write one poem a day for thirty days in order to raise money for this independent poetry press. I have committed to raise $500 in June, during which I will write and post on Tupelo’s site a new poem every day. Let me emphasize part of that insanity: I will write a new poem every day.
Every day. Every day? Every. Day.
I will also blog about the process, though that won’t be every day because I will also be teaching and traveling and beginning a new reading series in June (every day? Every day!). But I do invite you, if you’ve made it this far, to check out my progress here and at Tupelo’s site, and if you’re able, consider contributing to the cause–the cause being my public humiliation.
I have a pretty strong feeling that this is going to be a real shitshow, a circus of new and exotic failure, but here’s the thing: I’m going to do it anyway. That’s not something I could have said even two years ago and so seems like a kind of success, Crock-Pot metaphors and all.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll come to gawk in June.