Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

image by Rob Wanenchak
image by Rob Wanenchak

People love you. You need them. You can’t live without them. They help you. But in the end the only person who can make you well is you. – I’ll Be Yours For a Song

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, but what kicked me into it now was two things. The death of David Bowie turned out to be a big one, and it was primarily sparked by what people were saying regarding what he personally meant to them: That he stood for the idea that it was okay to be weird and awkward and vulnerable, that outcasts have worth and value. That if you love what you do, you shouldn’t be ashamed of it. And so many of my friends – and acquaintances/colleagues/whatever – are creative people and also people who have felt weird and ill-fitting for most of their lives.

Though I think a huge majority of people feel that way. I think some people are just better at faking that they don’t.

And the other thing was this post by Chuck Wendig on self-care for writers, specifically the part regarding shame.

I want to write about shame more some other time, because it’s something that I’ve been struggling with on a number of levels, and it’s been enormously difficult. But what I’ve especially been wanting to talk about is vulnerability, and being open, and not pretending to be okay.

Which I think too many of us feel like we have to do.

A while ago, I made a promise to myself to start writing ugly. To keep my prose beautiful – it’s really important to me to have beautiful prose – but to confront the gross, angry, shameful things in me, to take my mental illness and my emotional problems and bring them out in my work. I decided to make that promise because I felt like I was finally ready, and I felt like in order to write truly good stuff I had to go to the things that were hardest to write about and drag them into the light, because pain is where a lot of the most fundamental parts of your identity can be found.

I don’t believe that happiness shapes us nearly as intensely as pain does. I don’t like that, but I do believe it’s true.

So I tried to do that. The results were things like “Singing With All My Skin and Bone” and “Dispatches from a Hole in the World” (two things I’m immensely proud of) and repeated attempts to write a different kind of book than I’ve written so far (so far unsuccessful but I think I’m getting closer). If you read/have read these, you’ll notice that they’re angry stories, and they’re sad and they’re scared. Almost all of what I’m writing at the moment is angry and sad and scared, and agonizingly personal, because that’s a lot of how I’ve been feeling for a while now. But of course I’ve also been feeling like that’s not something we’re supposed to reveal publicly. That being open about how we’re not okay a lot of the time – even some of the time – isn’t acceptable. That it’s something to be ashamed of.

I wanted to fight that. I’ve come to think of this process as “aggressive vulnerability”, not entirely in the sense of aggression toward other people, but also aggression toward myself. Because it really hurts. It’s incredibly difficult. It’s terrifying. It makes me feel awful. I do it not because I think it’ll fix me but because I sincerely believe that bottling it up and pretending to be okay will make me feel even worse.

I also do hope that it might help in the long run. When I teach qualitative methods in my Intro to Sociology course, I show Brené Brown’s TED Talk on shame and vulnerability. She’s done extensive research on both of those things, and one of her primary – and in her opinion most important – findings is that people who aren’t shackled by shame, who are able to connect with others, who develop a sense of personal worthiness, are people who can be vulnerable. Who don’t pretend to be okay. That these people are ultimately people who can feel love in a sense that can be so hard for others.

I really want that. I’ve spent most of my life wrestling with profound feelings of unworthiness. I don’t know what it feels like to be okay. I never have been. So I’ve been trying to be vulnerable, and I’ve been trying to be vulnerable in a professional setting – especially when it comes to writing and being an author – which is where we’re least encouraged to be that way. Where we have to be okay.

I think our idea of “professionalism” is toxic. I think it’s harmful. I think it’s bad for us. I think it encourages the maintenance of a culture of coldness and disconnection in a place where most of us spend most of our time, and I think it makes us feel alone. Which makes us feel unworthy, because how the fuck are you supposed to feel like a worthy person when you don’t feel like anyone views you as worth connecting with? When true connection itself is devalued?

I’m not saying we should all be raw and bleeding and confessional in public. I’m not saying we should all go around constantly hugging and sobbing on each other’s shirts, or that no one should have to do their jobs even if they feel like shit on a particular day. But I don’t like this state of affairs and I think it needs to stop.

I don’t want anyone to feel alone. I don’t want to feel alone. We’re not alone. None of us are. We’re all walking around as broken people surrounded by other broken people, and the worst thing for a broken person is to feel like they’re the only one who’s broken and they need to hide their brokenness at all costs or they’ll be even more alone than they already are.

But I’ve spent this last year feeling unbelievably alone.

It’s been a really bad year for me in a lot of ways. Which is frustrating, because at least on paper my writing career looks pretty good. I signed a three-book deal with an excellent small LGBTQ publisher and all three books are done and in the final editing stages, I had more stories come out in pro markets than I ever have before. I hooked up with another fantastic small publisher to put together my first short fiction collection, which is almost done and which will come out this summer (I’m really excited). I made and strengthened some important professional connections, and even better, I made some cool new friends.

But it’s been awful.

I lost my departmental funding. For a year I was unemployed and without any income except for tiny royalty checks and a couple of freelance editing gigs (I’m now teaching again, which pays very little but it’s enough for the present). I was facing the prospect of being essentially unemployable because of what my resume looks like (turns out very few people are interested in hiring me to socially theorize, which I don’t think I’m all that good at anyway). I’ve had to face the possibility that the last seven years I’ve spent in graduate school – which deeply damaged me mentally and emotionally – weren’t ultimately worth very much. I’m not where I want to be in terms of my writing career: I still have no agent and I’m not publishing with the places I really hoped to be and believed I was on the cusp of. I got no award nominations. I didn’t make it into the number of Best-Ofs that I have in the past. I was so embedded in editing and so deeply unhappy that I essentially stopped producing original work (guess what I did write a lot of? Fanfiction. I need to talk about that and why I feel ashamed of it and why I really do not fucking want to be or think I should be because it helped me fall in love with writing again and because a huge amount of that fanfiction is legitimately – in my opinion – the best work I have ever done, which will never be broadly recognized and for which I will never be paid).

Yeah, I know, cry harder. Boo hoo, a three-book deal. But look: Do you have any fucking idea how difficult that paragraph was to write? Do you have any fucking idea how tempting it is to delete it and pretend I never wrote it at all? I look at that and what I sincerely believe is that now I’m That Person and at cons everyone will be talking behind my back and I’ve just killed my career. By being honest. About how I’m not okay, and about what has been bringing me joy, because it’s the wrong kind of thing to be finding joy in. And about how I’m lonely and disconnected and I’m really sick of feeling that way.

And here’s a thing: I’ve been talking to a few other writers about this. Not in detail about a lot of that shit up there, but some. And what I’ve been hearing is exactly what I said and suspected: We’re all feeling like that to some degree. Or at least the vast majority of us are. And that vast majority are feeling exactly like I do: That we have to hide this at all costs. That no one can know or we’ll be That Person. Sure, we can let a few things slip, but the real ugliness and pain must remain completely secret Or Else.

Guys, I just can’t do that. I can’t. I’m not strong enough. I don’t want to be.

I think not doing that is actually much harder anyway.

The terrible thing about writing especially is that by nature it’s so solitary. By nature we’re put in a position where we’re incredibly exposed all the time – we work very hard to put deep parts of ourselves out there to be examined and dissected and rejected and ripped apart, and even if the response is hugely positive it is still just so goddamn scary and painful so much of the time – but we’re also put in a place where I think so many of us feel like we have to stay in that little creative bubble and pretend that none of the dissection and rejection and ripping hurts a huge amount. Or that other things hurt. And are awful. And we’re lonely, and at the end of the day we don’t feel like we’re worth very much.

I don’t know how to fix this. I don’t really think it can be fixed. I think this is probably just what we’re stuck with, and it’s pretty much always going to suck. I tend to regard that far more as realism than pessimism, but there you go.

But I wanted to talk about it. Because like I said, I can’t do this anymore. And I would rather be open about that than grit my teeth and pretend to be at least mostly okay.

I’m not okay. At all. I think you probably aren’t okay either, and hey: I know that feel, bro.

So there’s that.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”

87 thoughts on “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

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  1. Oh, Sunny — I have been feeling so much like this this year as well. In some ways (career, mostly) 2015 was the best I’ve had in a long time. But it was still a massively rollercoastery year. On a personal scale, hoo doggies. Is “incendiary” a word that can be applied to life?

    I’ve been so stressed this year that I’ve lost hair. I’ve been constantly anxious and fatigued. I’ve retreated so much into my cave, wanting to see almost no one but feeling desperately lonely. I’ve been stuck in a loop of “you should be GRATEFUL” while feeling like my body is underlined with “but I can’t REACH” when I’m looking at the goals I’ve had for ages.

    I hear you on this, on so many levels. Of trying to break in, to break through, to break down and from rubble rebuild. 2016 has started with a glimmer of terrifying hope in some ways. In others I can’t help but eye it with total trepidation.

    I know I’m kind of far away, but if you ever want to meet up and compare war stories or scars or just eat a lot of curry and naan, you know where to find me.

  2. Thanks for the thought provoking read. I’m glad I stumbled across this post because it was definitely timely for me.

    I think you’re right that so many people feel exactly like you are feeling. I know I am.

    The most frightening thing for me is knowing that I can’t do it alone. Breaking free of the lonely, not-okay part of me requires connecting with other people. But because I’m feeling like crap, those connections aren’t easy. The worst is when I can’t even fake being okay, and say or do things that I wouldn’t if I was feeling more ‘in control’, and I’m left with even more self-doubt, more shame, and more fear than when I started.

    This is such a difficult discussion, but sometimes it helps to know that you’re not alone. Sometimes it helps to be reminded that empathy is so important, and that people are struggling. They’re hiding how alone they feel. They’re hiding the hurt parts of themselves, and wishing that they didn’t have to.

  3. to speak eloquently and honestly is always a beautiful thing. We are all broken people but to share the broken pieces makes us something special. Keep it up!

  4. We are all broken people, with shards that are meaningless unless you can see the huge picture.
    I have been suffering from depression for 13 months now, and the worst thing is that once I’m completely alone, then it takes full control.
    Recently, I appeared on a TV commercial, having a conversation. But the worst part is that I feel like I took this part away from my friend, who had been dying to appear on it. My life’s problems don’t end there, since I have this friend who is with me when she needs to be, but vanishes when she’s with her other friends.
    For everyone who has been mistreated, you are extraordinary people among ordinary people. All these lies control you now, becoming a part of you. You will be that person at one point in your life, no matter how perfect your life is. I was the person, and will be it again.

  5. Wow. That’s a lot of shit all at once sunshine. I’m sorry. I’m glad that you are at least in a place right now to keep a roof over your head, that’s a really good thing. I hope you can get to the point where you really understand that you are so entirely not alone., and you are right, to hide it all the time only separates everyone and makes them feel more alone. Also, as far as the book deals, sure, it’s three book deals, that’s neat, but just because there is good, doesn’t mean that there isn’t bad intertwined. It’s okay to be concerned about only having three, it’s okay for that to hurt, it’s okay for that to feel bad. Please, do not measure your hardships against others or you are going to drown yourself in the “I shouldn’t feel bad” sea, and that sea is one hell of a rough and vicious set of waters.
    I really hope that you continue laying it out, and personally, for me, it has always helped. Being like, here’s the bullshit in my life IS NOT just bitching. There’s a huge difference. It is totally okay to get the nasty shit out, and dare I say, it’s a necessity. Your writing is lovely and you’ve earned yourself another subscriber for sure. I look forward to reading more of your blog.
    I hope you have a beautiful day sunshine, and keep rocking the strength you’re pulling to lay it bare like that, I’m proud of you. I don’t know you, but I’m proud of you, for real.

    I don’t want to be a look at me whore, but I would invite you to my blog, because the whole point of it is to be raw with everything. It’s a no holds bar with darkness and light, perhaps you will get some inspiration

  6. Hey
    I’m not sure how or why this post appeared in my dash, but I just read the first story you linked to- singing with all my skin and bone- and it made me cry, like properly cry. That is just it, isn’t it?
    I mean that’s exactlh what it is. Thank you for writing it.

  7. Ugly writing is difficult, but it’s what I do because I’m a lonely person, and I want to reach out to other lonely people, because you’re right, we are none of us alone. Ever. But we feel that way. What makes confessional writing so difficult is that sometimes you have to relive very painful things to get it out of you, and you won’t feel any better, but to me, that’s not the point. For me, the point is to use my unique abilities to give a voice to those, who for whatever reason, don’t have one.

  8. Oh my goodness that was a beautiful post. One I think many, including myself, can relate to. I felt connected in a way that I haven’t in a long time, thank you for that. This is the first post I’ve read by you but I can’t wait to read more.

  9. Those messy, uncomfortable truths that are too often hidden in shame are so often the fragments that allow us to connect, meaningfully, with others. Beautiful.

  10. During the first paragraph, already: 😶
    Then the sixth paragraph, first line: ☹️
    And four lines later: 😪

    This issue really is the type people rarely confess. I myself like writing about psychologically deep, painful things like this too, though.

  11. We are stuck with reality, but through it beauty can emerge. Thank you very much for your post, I thoroughly enjoyed the writing style! It makes me question whether there’s any emotion which has had a more significant role in sculpting who I am today… like regret? Ha… funny how something so destructive is the foundation of construction.

  12. “People love you”. The most beautiful line . Thank you so much for such a heart touching episode.

  13. You wrote: “I don’t want anyone to feel alone. I don’t want to feel alone. We’re not alone. None of us are. We’re all walking around as broken people surrounded by other broken people, and the worst thing for a broken person is to feel like they’re the only one who’s broken and they need to hide their brokenness at all costs or they’ll be even more alone than they already are.”

    Your broken beauty heals me.

    “The food of them that haste to meet Thee is the fragments of their broken hearts.” – Baha’u’llah

  14. This is such a courageous piece of writing! It is also empowering in some weird twisted way, to read that it’s okay to not be okay all the time. Thank you for writing this.

  15. You speak to what most of us feel at least some of the time: pain, fear, isolation, worthlessness, shame. Putting it out there makes it real and helps release it so you’re no longer holding it in.

  16. I think this is the whole point of the exercise. When we can be vulnerable and talk about what is truly going on for us, others DO feel connected to us. Every one of us has feelings of unworthiness (or worthlessness), unlovable-ness… the whole gamut. I think you are a courageous and wise soul to begin a conversation like this; please let’s continue the conversation. I feel connection with you, and I don’t see one post here that disagrees. I notice as I say this, that I feel relief in my belly. Does anyone else notice this? Much love to all of you.

  17. Reading this beautiful post made me think a lot about my year. I’ve had my own ups and downs… an amazing amount of ups recently: I’m where I always wanted to be in life, I’m doing all the things that I love. I feel happy, but at the same time I don’t. I’m haunted by everything that’s gone wrong, haunted by broken people, haunted by mental illness. I think it’s very important to allow yourself to feel vulnerable and find people who allow you to feel vulnerable around them. I was in the stage you called “aggressive vulnerability” for about six months. Right now, I’m experiencing what I might call “existential vulnerability”. I’ve been forced to accept the reality of… reality and it put a damper on my anger. In most ways, it was easier to be angry and half in denial. Most of the time, I miss the aggression I was able to dish out, but I also realize how tiring it became to be angry all the time. I feel like I was holding up a wall to defend myself and I just had no reason to hold that burden anymore. So yes, I’m more vulnerable now than I was even then, but I’m also stronger. That’s why it’s that much more important, as you continue to heal, to continue to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Express your true feelings to yourself and to others. Never push anything to the side.

  18. I think if you write and you feel so strongly about what you write, you are at that deep place where the important ideas are born. Thanks for sharing!

  19. Wow. Your words are thought provoking and honest. This was the first post I’ve read of yours and I promise I’ll be reading more!

  20. This story brings me back to the same place, feeling I have had in the past. When I have felt like this, I try to figure out what it is about others I connect with or like/love about them. What makes them someone I want to connect with. By doing that, I feel like it helps me to define myself. Strengthens my identity, determine how I want others to connect with me.

  21. Beautifully written and brutally honest. “I don’t believe that happiness shapes us nearly as intensely as pain does. I don’t like that, but I do believe it’s true.” Incredibly quotable insight. The struggle is what makes us. Press on;)

  22. This speaks a lot to what and how I feel, what a lot of people feel, I love this. I think you wrote an excellent piece here.

  23. I too know this feeling and it took me hitting my lowest low last year to really realize that it’s ok to talk about the things that make you vulnerable. I just started my own blog to do just that. Talk and admit to the world that I am not perfect and I am broken like many others are too.

  24. YOU ARE NOT ALONE! Pretty much everything that you have written here hits home with me. But, at least you are writing. I write my own blogs, which I love to do, but it has been a while since I’ve actually looked deep inside in myself and wrote from the heart. I’m almost too scared what will come out.

  25. Yes it’s so difficult to even acknowledge our weakest side let alone express it. Your post is so inspirational that it commands being honest as the way of life.

  26. I liked that. I feel you have laid the first coat of paint now you can build given the support for real writing as seen by the comments above. Turn the volume up to 11 !

  27. Reblogged this on THE INTRINSIC SANCTUM and commented:
    An unfiltered account of one’s feelings in insecurity and tough times. And how sometimes we don’t have to feel ashamed in being vulnerable

  28. Reblogged this on grace2fight and commented:
    Pain can be beautiful if given the opportunity to come out of it and see how it molded you into something else. It’s ok to not be ok. I can accept that today

  29. a post that everyone should read. this is the first post on your blog that I’ve read and i’ll definitely be coming back for more!

  30. I can relate to this as a human being..Life has a fare share of it’s rough patches. The fact that I can enslave myself to a bad habit is so sick and sad, but thanks to a few messiahs left.

  31. Thank you for sharing this. I also believe that it’s damaging to bottle up feelings and that it’s beneficial to other people as well when we talk about these sort of things. I hope you figure out a way to feel better soon!

  32. Loss and despair almost killed me last year. In the past year (OK, 18 months), I’ve lost a woman who was my “other mother” to cancer, and come close to losing my house, my daughter (weird, freaky blood sugar crash) and husband (twice). The losses and near-misses (almost is my favorite woed) left me feeling like a failure. Despair left me feeling worthless and afraid, and opened the door to Self-Hatred and Fear. For a while, I couldn’t write at all. When I posted about fear and loss, I lost the few “followers” I had struggled to find. The EIC (evil inner critic) cackled with joy and invited Self-Hatred to the pity party.

    The good news is that I recognized that the EIC is a liar. I know that depression runs in my family of blood and of heart (writers and other artists) and I am fighting back, with the only weapons I can find – Love, Faith, Hope and Tequila. Tequila makes me invincible (or invisible. I forget which).

  33. Loss and despair almost killed me last year. In the past year (OK, 18 months), I’ve lost a woman who was my “other mother” to cancer, and come close to losing my house, my daughter (weird, freaky blood sugar crash) and husband (twice). The losses and near-misses (almost is my favorite word) left me feeling like a failure. Despair left me feeling worthless and afraid, and opened the door to Self-Hatred and Fear. For a while, I couldn’t write at all. When I posted about fear and loss, I lost the few “followers” I had struggled to find. The EIC (evil inner critic) cackled with joy and invited Self-Hatred to the pity party.

    The good news is that I recognized that the EIC is a liar. I know that depression runs in my family of blood and of heart (writers and other artists) and I am fighting back, with the only weapons I can find – Love, Faith, Hope and Tequila. Tequila makes me invincible (or invisible. I forget which).

  34. … 2015 had been an year full of… full of things that I would never wanna experience ever again… disappointments, distress, betrayals. But then all of those events… they inspired me. To write.
    And now when I look back… Things don’t seem that gross anymore. It’s just how well we receive the truth and then our will to move forward. I tried writing ugly. Things that happened….turns out that an honest heart always writes beautiful.
    Thanks you. For moving on. For being strong.

  35. I am happy to have received pains, ugliness, failed chances, bad luck, suffering and mental torture in my life. They make me stronger and grow. Time is a good healer, but never a panacea or curer. But a good healer.

  36. Your blog is nothing but inspiration. I started off my blog strictly based off the feeling of loneliness so I definitely identify with this stage in your writing. Your testimony is precious and only specific to YOU. Noone can tell your story better than YOU.

  37. This may not be what you want to here, exactly, but reading your post, I was reminded of this article:, or “In Defence of Being Average.” I think so many of us go through life feeling dissatisfied and unhappy because of our situation, of not achieving the things we want to, and as a result, feeling unworthy (and I don’t just mean career success). Yet Manson points out that the vast majority of humans are, well, average, and that is okay. Once we accept that we are mostly mediocre, it takes the pressure of having to achieve [insert your special goal] off your back.

    Take care, dear, it was great reading your post.

  38. Pretending is sometimes necessary. Because when you pretend that things are going to be fine in the face everything going to shit, then and only then you can move forwards to improve it.

  39. wow. this is beautiful. I have just started blogging about my experience with a brain tumor. I am trying to be as open and vulnerable as possible! it is helping me heal emotionally. check out my blog, I could use some tips or tricks from you as you are an amazing writer!

  40. Loved this – especially point 4 about how often we do 2 out of 3 dimensions. Thanks for the reminder about Nurturing the soul thru creativity and also point 5, being ourselves

  41. Putting it out there not only helps you heal and be complete, but helps others; the ones who matter! The people who use it against you are helped too, they are just too scared and ashamed to admit it. I truly admire your honesty and thank you for this enlightening post! I know these will be words I speak to my daughter one day too since, I believe, she too is destined to write.

  42. I grew up hearing, “A coward dies a thousand deaths”. Confronting what you perceive to be your weaknesses in an open way is a step toward embracing even the aspects of yourself you’re least comfortable with. It is something i’ve been struggling with from time to time, but I comfort myself in thinking that if I am not banging rocks together, I will never get a spark. Soldier on, and face those things you don’t love about yourself, ultimately that’s how we grow.

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