Tag Archives: therapy

I do not write happy stories.

9 Apr

People want happy stories. Good characters. Sweet endings. Family-friendly. At least, that’s what a lot of magazine submission guidelines seem to be saying.

But I do not write happy stories. I swear, I try. Took me five goddamn years to write a YA novel with a happy ending and after another five years I’m still not finished editing it yet. Happy stories are not the ones that come to me most naturally or most frequently. They are not what my brain generates. They are not what my brain understands. They are not what my brain has had to work with.

Happy stories, sure, they can be nice to read. Like a delightful little square of baklava. But too many of those delightful little squares, and odds are you’re going to be left with sticky, nut-grimy fingers and an urge to go puke up at least half of the sickly sweetness now residing in your stomach into the nearest toilet bowl. Or onto the nearest politician. Either would be acceptable, probably.

I mean, too many sad stories, or difficult stories or unsettling stories or generally unhappy narratives, and you’re also probably going to be left in a huddles mess o’ blankets on your living room couch crooning yourself into a tear-slopped sleep with that bottle of whiskey you’re clutching as your only friend. Not exactly a more preferable kind of overdose.

But at least… at least those tears your crying are real. The elation you feel from a happy story may be a vicarious kind of wish-fulfillment but the pain you’re left dealing with from a grungier tale is a memory, the recollected aching from some time before when your story veered a little too closely to something a character got herself into. Probably why the sadness lasts so much longer; it’s no mere slap-on-the-surface temporary veneer. No, it’s an upwelling of past shame or doubt or anger or disappointment. The kind of sadness that leaves you as said whiskey-breathed mess has roots.

Maybe it’s just because of my own negative-lens tendencies the depression fairy apparently decided to, uh, gift me with at birth, but I know that I, at least, remember pain more than I remember pleasure. In my life-flashes-before-your-eyes-’cause-you-done-fucked-up-and-somehow-now-you’re-drowning reel, the moments of hurt, of regret, of loss would be the first ones to play out again before me. They are, unfortunately, what my brain, my memory centers, my inner interpretation mechanisms snap to first. Over time (read: SO MUCH THERAPY OH MY GOD), I’ve been able to re-groove my brain a bit (hoorah neural plasticity!) and convince my brain that it really is okay to go the positive route every now and then, really, there’s probably not even that much of a traffic jam,  but still… inner GPS forgets about those routes a fair amount.

I’m tempted to write that to me, happiness just doesn’t feel natural. But I know, really, that’s not true. Happiness is totally a natural thing to experience. It’s more appropriate to write that for me, happiness hasn’t felt usual. I grew up in a household of parents who had been fighting since before I was even born. I wasn’t exactly the cool kid in my class for much of high school (but then come high school people realized I was smart and that they needed me and then I ruled the world! AHAHAHAHAHAHA!). I’ve been battling mental health shit since god knows when. Yes, there has been a lot of happiness in my life, but it’s not exactly been the baseline or background. Happiness has been an exception.

But honestly, I don’t think it’s just my own experience that’s made writing happy stories so difficult for me. Ever since, well, ever, I’ve been an emotional go-to for other people. I may not have been the cool kid, but I wasn’t ever that kid – but I did usually end up getting picked out as OMG BFF! by that kid. Then come middle school, when puberty hit and we were all just leveled to a singular playing field of awkwardness, the girls who became my closest friends were also the ones who, like me, had some inner demons that started clawing a bit more actively at our vulnerable brains. And our vulnerable hormones. The rest of pre-college schooling for me was a slew of late night phone calls, desperate pleas to hang on just a little while longer, letters sent every day to some treatment center other, constant scans of wrists and arms and rib cages and stomach circumferences and little pricks in the back of our minds any time one of us wore long sleeves or baggy clothing. Chat sessions into three and five am, glowing laptop screens hidden behind closed doors and under the covers.

Yes, there was a strain of hope. Maybe, just maybe, if I can get through this, you can too… We were all one giant mess of hands and arms clinging to each other and brace the entire structure of our lives. Support went in all directions. Hurt went in all directions. Despair abounded. Hope was a parched substance. It did not rain; it sludged through the ravaged sewers of our tenacity, tainted and unsafe even by the time it got there in the first place. But when you’re dying of thirst, you stop being so picky about these kind of things. Even dirty water will keep you going. For a little while. It might kill you a little while later. But I don’t think any of us would have minded that for ourselves.

We would have wailed over it, though, for each other.

The real-life stories that I have known have not been ones that work out. They have been ones of struggle. Constant struggle. You think you’ve gotten over one thing, and then something new crops up. Your once-savior becomes your new slave master. Relief only lasts so long. Every so often you may find yourself on your feet again, running, and you run as far and as hard and as long as you can, but then some invisible un-reason reaches its ugly snag and you don’t even see and suddenly you’re on the ground, scraped knees and bleeding elbows and your legs are so tired they don’t want to work anymore and your arms are wondering what the use even is anymore to try to pull yourself up one more time if you’re only going to end up down here covered in the dirt of a failed attempt again anyway…

And yet somehow we keep going. Knowing we have likely only doomed ourselves to repeat the process. But the way out is no more glorious than the struggle. So you might as well finish the race. Might as well find out if it was ever going to get you anywhere anyway.

You understand if your fellow runners decide they can take no more of the dizzying, soul-quenching exhaustion. You understand the decision to finally cease running, cease panting, feel only one more final sharp stab at the weary lungs you have forced to keep filling you with breath before saying that no, no more, I will stop here.

It’s a tragedy, yes. But it’s less of a tragedy than most people seem to realize. The loss of uncertain future happiness ways a little less to you than the end to present, undeniable pain.

So far, only one of us has dropped out of the race.

This impossible, endless race. There is some pride in my fellow runners, every time I look around and see them still there, straggling through this thing with me.

We will arrive at the finish line cut and scarred by thorns and brambles that held no roses. Our souls will be impossibly bruised. We might not have the strength to hold even our heads high. But we will have made it. We will have finished.

That is not a happy ending. That is not the kind of story I write.

But it is a story. With a horridly natural, un-fairy tale ending.

And that is something.

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The Electric Toaster Support Group

18 Nov

In which I completely ignore all the homework I’m behind on, and write a good ol’ fashioned short story dedicated to Miss Katherine Fritz of the fantastic “I Am Begging My Mother Not To Read This Blog,” who came up with this title.

“It just… pops out at me! Every time! I can never expect it!” Sadie dropped her head into her hands, stifling a sob. Around her, the group nodded knowingly. One member reached out and patted Sadie on the back. She looked up, and there were tears streaming down her cheeks. “I never know when it’s going to happen! I look for patterns, try to anticipate the time, but it’s never the same. I can’t handle all this anxiety, every single day!”

“I burned myself yesterday,” another group member mumbled. He’d pulled his hood up over his head and had his hands stuffed deep into his sweatshirt pockets. Now, he pulled them out to let the group oggle his bandages.

From a chair far away in the circle, a small, flighty voice peeped up. “Why’d you do it, Howard?”

Howard shrugged. “Didn’t really mean to. I just… needed to know when it would be over. I had to get that control back.”

“Well,” a woman’s deep, husky voice slid into the conversation, “Mary and I, we’ve started bringing… implements, if you know what I mean, into our daily routine. Makes it easier to, uh, get things out, without having to worry about putting yourself in too much danger. More structure, more distance.”

The group was silent for a while.

“I don’t know,” the flighty voice again, now a little less tepid, “seems like you’re just trying to ignore the problem, by removing yourself from it. Doesn’t require any physical action on your part. Almost like you’re putting up a wall.”

There was whispering and head nodding and murmuring and head shaking at that. The group leader looked up from her clipboard, finally noticing the din that warned her group might break out of control.

“Celia,” she cut in, “that was some very good insight – if it had been about your experience. Let’s all focus on talking about our own feelings, and not telling other people out theirs, okay?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Celia piped timidly. She grasped the edges of her chair with both hands and slid herself as far back as she could go.

The husky-voiced woman stared at her. “You haven’t even been able to do it at all, have you?” she asked. “At least, not recently. Look at you, all pale and trembling. When was the last time you were actually able to go all the way through, satisfy yourself?”

Celia burst out into tears. “All right!” she wailed. “I admit it! It’s been a year! I just… I couldn’t take it, the waiting and the uncertainty. And sometimes it comes out too hot and then I get all grossed out. I tried adding oils and all that stuff, but nothing helped! By the end, I was so nervous, I just fell apart!”

More sounds came out of Celia’s mouth, but they’d devolved into noises that were more animal than human. The group sat silently on their folding chairs, most of them looking at their hands or feet, some of them displaying a nervous tick or two that only got worse with the increasing tension. But the husky-voiced woman, she got out of her chair, completely ignoring the disapproving look the group leader shot her, and crossed the room to kneel by Celia. She wrapped her arms around the smaller woman.

“Hey honey, it’s going to be okay. I know it’s hard. Why, before Mary and I started our new approach, I could barely take all the build up too. It just takes practice, and finding what works for you. Electric toasters, they don’t have to be so scary.”

Celia sniffled and dragged a mealy tissue from her coat pocket. She blew her nose loudly. “But it’s so hard!” she cried. “You never know when your toast is going to be done, not really! And then it just shoots out, sometimes even lands on the floor if you haven’t calibrated the springs right! And Howard’s right, sometimes, it’s too much! I used to burn myself so often, trying to pull the toast out before it was really done. And even if I managed to get through the toasting alright, the toaster was always there, on the counter, staring at me. And I knew the toast came from it. Butter, olive oil – nothing made it friendlier!” She collapsed back over her knees. “I just don’t know what to do!”

The husky-voiced woman was silent.

The group leader checked her watch. “Well, that’s all for now. I think we’ve had a very productive session today.” The room stirred with the sound of feet shuffling and chair legs scraping against the floor as people started preparing to leave, even as Celia still sobbed under the ministrations of the husky-voiced woman. The group leader seemed unconcerned. “Please remember,” she continued, checking something off on her clipboard, “everything we discuss in the electric toaster support group is confidential. This is a safe, private place for people to move beyond their fears and learn to enjoy toast again. Good luck with breakfast, everyone. I’ll see you all next week.”