At first you’re happy just to have a name for it,
because you’ve spent so long believing you’re crazy
that it’s a miracle for you to be even a little right,

and then you get your first medicine,
a tiny bottle that costs ten
or seventy or three hundred dollars,
and you look down at it and think
Is this it, is this the way out,
and it might be, it could have been for someone else,
but there comes a day when it doesn’t work, and it doesn’t work and it doesn’t work,
and you have to go back and start all over
and even though the doctor tells you it’s not your fault
something deep down inside believes it is.

Sylvia used wet cloths
but the barriers you choose are only limited by your creativity.
This is how you protect yourself: by protecting others from yourself,
and that works fine. For a while. You can tape up your arms,
sneak to the counselor’s after work,
hide pills under your tongue,
start a secret blog,
cover petechiae with makeup (the cheap stuff from the drugstore works just fine).
You might try to tell someone, once, but then you get
You know that’s not true, all you need to do is smile,
and that is the end of that. Let the world keep turning; you’re on the moon.

One day it will happen.
Your boyfriend will find your medicine,
your mother will find your journal,
or maybe it’ll be something as simple as the girl next to you in class
talking about how Big Pharma is trying to control our minds
by dosing everyone with Prozac.

You will have to stand up.

You will have to start talking.

And all of the words that you had been hiding inside your bones
and shoving back under your bed
are going to come out.

You are going to tell them that you are a fighter.
That you have already fought harder than you ever believed
you were capable of doing. You are going to tell them
that you are bestowed with certain unalienable rights:
the right to correct neurochemistry,
the right to eight hours of sleep,
the right to look in the mirror and maybe
just for a second
like what you see.

You are going to look them straight in the eye
and tell them that one day your children will ask you
about depression, or about bipolar disorder,
or about cyclothymia,
and you will be ready,
and you will tell them the truth,
to not be afraid of who they are,
to take the help they need and keep fighting
as long and as hard as possible.

You will walk away from that person
and out of that room
and into the sunlight,
and you are going to keep walking,
and you are going to keep living,
and you will never ever look back.

That is the first step.

April 29

I’m probably not the best person to ask about what cheese to pair with what wine, but I sure do know a lot about the art of existing.  Like certain types of bacteria, I can grow almost anywhere.  Yesterday my friend told me that I need to work on my alcohol tolerance.  I wanted to tell her that no, I’m fine with my tolerance level the way it is.  I don’t need more wine or more vodka mixed with my orange juice.  The medicine takes care of that already.  If I drank more than enough I’d probably end up passed out in some stranger’s bed, my eyeliner all over their newly washed pillow shams, and that’s one place I don’t want to be.  On a subcellular level the balance is precarious.  My biochemistry is slightly different from everyone else’s, and that is what makes me myself, despite all evidence to the contrary.

 I am not much different from any other person you could stop on the street.  I have a minor caffeine problem.  I like people but not too much.  I probably sleep too little.  One weird thing about me is that my little fingers have four creases on them instead of three.  I did not notice that until my friend tried to read my palm and gasped in surprise.  Look at her fingers, she told everyone.  And it is true.  My fingers are long and too thin.  In a different life I was a pianist.  In another life I was a surgeon, quickly sewing up long, straight incisions.  I cannot sew in straight lines these days; my fingers are not steady enough.  I like sewing though even though I never sew straight lines.  I like pushing the needle in and out of layers of fabric, and I especially like the silence that the needle seems to bring with it.  When I am sewing nothing else matters.  It’s the same with writing or with walking.  Anything where I can successfully escape my regular orbit around whatever planet this is now.

Locations change, the ocean changes, the texture of the sand changes, but one thing that never changes is the way I see things.  The color of your eyes in the morning is the color of firewood in a northern forest.  The sunrise is paint dissolving in water.  This morning, the ocean is the color of fine imported tea.  

Automatic Writing: April 27, 2014

I had a dream last night that my feet suddenly blossomed with color.  Streaks of paint running along the bones, under my flat arches, ribboning up my ankles.  That is what words do.  They pull color to the surface.  Sometimes it’s hard to remember that color exists at all.  I’ve woken up to too many windy gray mornings and fallen asleep in too many pure black nights.  Color doesn’t always stay, but when it appears I dig my toes in and hold on good.  If you look close enough at the sand, mica glints back at you.  If you look close enough at paper, words always appear.  Today, my shoes are filled with light.


               I don’t know what it’s like to look at someone and see only goodness.  I do not know what it’s like to stand in front of a group and be afraid.  I do not know what it’s like to stand in front of someone and not be afraid.  I am always afraid.  It’s a survival tactic, to always be on the move, to always be ready to change directions, to zigzag across the next minefield.  It is also a survival tactic to be able to control my emotions, which I can do rarely and never for very long.  I have learned after great struggle and a lot of time to turn my sadness into anger and my happiness into motivation.  I have learned to hold my sadness inside my throat like a treasure I have won with great sacrifice.  I have learned not to cry but instead to dig my fingernails into my skin until I draw blood.  I have learned to bite my tongue when people say Stop, to turn words into bruises, to turn bruises into secrets.

               I have not yet learned to fall in love, at least not properly.  That’s silly because I’m 21 and logic says I should have fallen in love at least once by now.  I tend to fall in love with little, transient things, like the jasmine on the fence outside the dumpster, or the fluorescent light at the end of the hallway at three in the morning.  I fall in love with myself when I wake up after a long night of fighting darkness.  I fall in love with myself when I eat a balanced meal.  I do not fall in love with myself when I sense jealousy or when I focus too long on a reflective surface.  I do not fall in love with mirrors at all.

               I like the way that I wake up on Saturday mornings, my arms crossed in front of my face, knees tucked up to my stomach.  When I am asleep I am still protecting myself, but not from anything I can name, and I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.  I am always alone when I wake up on Saturday mornings.  Let me tell you a story, a smaller version of what I’ve been telling you from then until now: when I was five years old my parents got me a cat with blue fur and small, pointed ears.  She had a round face and green eyes and would politely wake me up when my alarm went off and I didn’t get up.  The last time I woke up in my parents’ house I was seventeen and my cat was twelve and I was not sleeping in my own bed, but in the guest bedroom.  Somehow my cat had found me there.  Somehow she was sitting on my chest, facing me, her paws tucked under her body and below my collarbone.  I can still feel her warmth when I wake up too early.

               Sometimes when I am in class or at a party I feel time slipping away from under my feet, like I am standing still and everyone and everything else is moving more and more quickly into the past.  I want to grab the closest person – the guy playing computer games in front of me, my sometimes-friend who hasn’t yet seen me at the party – and tell them Don’t leave meDon’t you dare go into the past too. I can see two versions of everything.  I can see the colored version and the black-and-white version that will stay in my memory until it is pushed aside for the skeletal structure of cholesterol or the properties of vancomycin.  People’s voices stretch and warp into echoes and I stand still, but I am not scared, because I know where I am going. 

I once wrote to a friend studying abroad that I was very good at waiting, but I did not know what I was waiting for.  All I know is that I am still waiting, I wrote.  By the time this letter gets to you it will be a week from today but these words will be no older than the day I am writing them, which is right now.  I never sent the letter; I didn’t need to.  I folded it up and put it in a box in my closet, and I suppose someday my children will find it, either that or a disinterested janitor in some forgotten building that was once an apartment or a dorm.  Someday my children will ask me why I have a scrap of blue-gray fur folded up in a silk pouch.  My children will ask me many things but there are only so many things I can tell them.  Maybe I will have learned how to love people by then (there are two different types of love, writes my psychology professor, and you probably know at least one) or maybe I will still know only a list of macromolecules and their different names, but I will still have boxes, and I will still have my dreams, and I will still sleep with my arms crossed and my knees tucked, whether or not I am alone, and whether or not it is the morning.

What Students Really Need to Hear

It’s 4 a.m.  I’ve struggled for the last hour to go to sleep.  But, I can’t.  Yet again, I am tossing and turning, unable to shut down my brain.  Why?  Because I am stressed about my students.  Really stressed.  I’m so stressed that I can only think to write down what I really want to say — the real truth I’ve been needing to say — and vow to myself that I will let my students hear what I really think tomorrow.

This is what students really need to hear:

First, you need to know right now that I care about you. In fact, I care about you more than you may care about yourself.  And I care not just about your grades or your test scores, but about you as a person. And, because I care, I need to be honest with you. Do I have permission to be…

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Updates: On Moving Forward

I’m retaking ENGL 404, the advanced poetry workshop, this year.  I felt like, due to conditions beyond my control, I didn’t get as much out of it as I could have, so when I learned that I could get credit from repeating it (it is a terminal course in creative writing, after all) I jumped at the chance like a lizard at a cricket.  

(Sorry, that was the first thing that came to mind.)

I feel like this spring is a do-over of last spring, complete with all the requisite opportunities and challenges.  This time around, I’m stronger, but I’m still not invincible, and just like last time, this week several things hit me, one after the other.

This time, they weren’t all bad.  I accepted a job offer with Rice that starts this month, reasoning that, living as close to the poverty line as I am, turning down any opportunity to earn money would be foolish.  The job pays really well and lets me stay on campus this summer, in the heart of the city I love.  But now I have to figure out where to fit five to twenty hours of work per week around my seventeen credit hours.

Additionally, the next three weekends will be crammed, both Saturday and Sunday, with events, all of which are fun, but the sheer number of which is overwhelming.

Then there’s my lab, which only counts for one credit hour but oddly requires at least eight hours of work per week.

I was excitedly telling my friend about my job this morning and his response was a lukewarm “Oh …” which made me realize that all of these things I’m successfully (so far) balancing really don’t seem like much to other people.  Since I am a junior in college, my friends, professors, classmates, and even total strangers are constantly asking me, “What are you planning on doing after you graduate?”  I want to grab them and respond, “Isn’t what I’m doing right now enough?”

Exactly one year ago, this uncertainty would have terrified me.  One year ago, I was taking twelve credit hours and not working at all and the responsibility was still too much.  

But this year, I’ve learned to trust myself more, to believe in the capabilities I do not consciously know I have.  I might still not know what I want to do after I graduate – or more precisely, what I do want to do (find a good job, a house, adopt a cat, and be healthy) still might not be enough for Rice – but I’m no longer insecure about that.


ENGL 404 requires a cohesive portfolio based around a central topic.  This year, I chose my topic to be mood disorders and the process of recovery.  Too personal?  Yeah, probably.  I haven’t yet started crying while reading my poetry in class, but I’ve come close.

One of the primary goals of this project is to dig through layers and layers of trauma and repression, and to do that I have to rely fairly heavily on automatic writing, which is where you just sit down with a pen and paper (or a computer) and write whatever words would like to come out.  I submitted my first automatic writing piece about recovery, without editing it at all, to Rice’s literary magazine last fall, “because why not, right?” and it was accepted.  (You can read it in the new edition, coming out this month.)  That made me think there might be better things buried in my subconscious than I realized.

But I also realize that “recovery” from a mood disorder, or any sort of chronic illness, is a precarious thing.  A friend of mine recently passed away from complications related to her mood disorder, and I know too many people who have similar health problems but are afraid to look for help.

I couldn’t have predicted my friend’s death when I began this project, but I now have a new motivation to complete it and complete it well.  Sometimes I forget what I’m fighting against, and the people who laugh at me for getting excited over little things like obtaining my first job or scoring average on a midterm have no idea what I’m fighting against or how much I’ve already fought.

And that’s okay.  Because know.  Recovery doesn’t mean winning.  It means fighting with different weapons against changing enemies.  

To everyone fighting something, no matter how overwhelming the odds, keep going.  You have my support, for what it’s worth.  And my poetry.

Red in Tooth and Claw

They say guns are dangerous but
in all my years I haven’t found anything
more dangerous than teeth and
nails, powered by muscles,
every square inch of those pure
white teeth a driving stopper,
three hundred pounds
of force behind it.

Nails, too.

Really nothing more than
claws we’re too civilized to call their true names.
My nails are narrow and flat, spotted
with purple nail polish, chewed off
by fear and chemicals, but I know a girl
with fingernails so long and sharp she
really could scratch your eyes out,
she’ll scratch your eyes out, kid. She’s a maneater.

She paints them a deep, sparkling red,
the red I imagined my liver to be before
I knew the truth of it. There’s nothing magical
buried deep in the human body.
No soul, no divine inspiration, just
a lot of mess. Order, severe and certain,
on a molecular level, but you’d never know it
by just looking. That old myth is wrong;
you don’t lose weight from your soul
departing after you die. If your soul does
go anywhere it doesn’t have any
baggage with it. It takes up exactly
as much space as it wants to
and nothing more.

Imagine this: stored in your bones are the trace
imprints of every single thing you’ve ever
done, right and wrong. Every memory
you thought your brain had lost. Every night
spent drinking, every morning spent dozing
over a bowl of milk and dissociated grains.

And if you ever think someone has forgotten
you, you shouldn’t worry because you’re
in their bones, too.

People were meant to remember, not to forget
and that includes you. You are
the body, the soul, and the Holy
Spirit, and as much as you want to leave,
to catch an airplane to Korea or
the Congo and never look back,
you can’t leave. I learned this from a
college interviewer who said he had spent
twenty years in south Texas but finally
moved back to the desert.

So don’t worry,
he told my dad, they always come back.

I haven’t yet come back to the desert but
that doesn’t mean I ever left. At this point
I am half mold half dust, half East Coast
and half West. But I am still as sparkling
and red as the day I was born,
my fingernails still clean, my teeth –
all twenty-eight of them, or twenty-seven
if you don’t count the one that’s chipped –
still my own. Take care of your teeth, my
dentist said, you might need them to chew
out of a trap one day.

But I wasn’t meant to chew; I was meant to bite.