Had you asked me a few years ago if I’d categorize myself as an overly anxious person in need of mental health therapy, I would have said no. Sure, life’s twists and turns tripped me up and tackled me at times, but I didn’t truly believe the state of my own mental health needed to be addressed. “I have it handled,” I would have said. Then, in March 2021, during an interview regarding my debut novel, Rewrite the Stars, a podcast host commented about one of my point-of-view characters.
“Near the end of the book,” he said, “Sadie makes an admission, and it’s something I’d been thinking throughout most of the story . . . She doesn’t exactly say it in these words, but . . . she basically says, ‘I’m all messed up. I’m totally messed up.’ And I thought, she really is. She really is a mess.”
Though blunt, the podcast host spoke the truth. Sadie has a full-time job, three young children, a strained relationship with her mother, a desire to be helpful to her friends and colleagues, and an almost ex-husband who still lives with her, and she’s now experiencing a crisis of the heart. She’s complicated and complex, self-aware but still in construction, much like people in my circle. “She has a lot going on,” I said to the podcast host. “She admits she doesn’t know how to handle it all or where to go from there. I feel like she’s true to life, and I’m hoping that people will think, well, okay, she’s on her way to becoming a little bit less of a mess.” I also casually tossed out the idea that in COVID times, everyone seemed to be messier than before.
It wasn’t until seven months after that podcast aired and at a time when I wasn’t consciously thinking about the conversation that the comment had apparently steeped long enough in my subconscious. All my characters have slips and slivers of me, and while I’m not entirely Sadie, and she’s not entirely me, we’re similar. As I stood in front of the kitchen window, sun glinting off the clean glassware in the dish drainer, my heart rate picked up, and realization dawned: If Sadie’s a mess, does that mean I’m a mess too?
Ever since I can remember, I’ve picked at the skin on my fingers. In the dry season, October through March in these parts, that picking worsens, and even the tiniest of innocent cracks can fall prey to my nails if it has an edge. Picking also increases when stress increases—during high school and college, right before exams, my fingers routinely bled almost to the first knuckle—and sometimes, friends use the number of bandages on my fingers as a gauge for my mental state: One bandage, she’s okay. Two bandages, proceed with caution. Three bandages, send help.
In recent years, the picking took root in other places too. When truly immersed in a perceived crisis state, I scratch at a to-be-determined spot on my head. In 2015, a patch above my left ear snared me, and I didn’t stop messing with it until smooth, bare skin appeared. Twenty-eight months ago, the skin along my back hairline beckoned. As of today, the spot is still there, only a few shortened hairs clinging to their follicles; move one inch in the anterior-inferior direction, and you’ll find a crusty pink oval. Every evening, my fingers lift the scarred top layer off that area, and by morning, I can begin the process again.
And don’t get me started on the grinding of teeth, which had stopped in concert with inauguration day 2020 but has entered the picture once again. Or the buzz under my skin when parts of me get too warm, which happens easily these days thanks to the oh-so-delightful “change of life” hovering on the horizon. Or my lack of desire to be intimate, which is exacerbated by the aforementioned inability to tolerate areas of concentrated heat.
I also make lists. And I don’t just mean a single list. One day can sometimes require several lists. One day. The next day, several more lists appear. Those lists maintain order in my external world. Until they don’t. If the list has too much on it—which can happen when you’re a full-time parent, part-time editor, and part-time teacher who has trouble saying no to anything—panic sets in, and a barrage of indiscriminate pulses courses through me, convincing my rational side that management (of my responsibilities, my anxiety, my life in general) is not an option. In times like that, I get up from my desk and walk circles in my study. Adding to my step count seems to soothe my soul.
In college, my mom tried to help. She drove forty-five minutes to Ann Arbor, picked me up on the curb of my dorm, and took me downtown. Cigarette in hand, she sat in the parking lot while I went into the small, stuffy office with beige walls where the therapist, meek and nondescript, stared at me. “Are you going to speak?” the therapist said. “I don’t want to be here, so no,” I replied. When I still had nothing to say three sessions later, my mom acquiesced to calling it quits. “I’ll be okay,” I said. “I’ll work real hard on helping myself.”
And I did. I ran, instituting a recharging run of ten miles on Saturdays and at least three shorter runs during the week. Healthier eating habits became the norm, and I learned breathing techniques that calmed the daily turbulence. When I met my husband, a man whose picture should be printed next to “even-keeled” in the dictionary, hope suffused me: Would his ability to stay unfazed rub off on me? (The answer? Yes, but only to some extent.)
But in the last two-and-a-half years, things have vastly changed for me. I walked away from a college teaching job to focus on editing and writing, which involves a less stable source of income and far fewer guarantees. My parents moved into a facility a half mile away—mom in the memory care side and dad in the assisted living side—so I could serve as point person. Tracking their health, their appointments, their finances, their happiness—it’s a load I didn’t anticipate or completely understand. Add to that the loss of my mother—she’s still with us physically but lives with late-stage Alzheimer’s—and COVID’s restrictions and isolation, and I’m feeling it now. Feeling it hard, feeling it everywhere.
Oh, and did I mention my oldest children, identical twins, left for college last fall? Or that my youngest was diagnosed with mono last December, which led to the discovery of a biliary abnormality we’re still working to understand today?
Good mental health is a serious issue. It’s an issue I wrote about in Rewrite the Stars and addressed in the author’s note, where I suggested readers speak up for themselves and others do their best to find help for their loved ones. And if someone—anyone, even a stranger—had approached me with concerns about themselves, I’d have encouraged them to take those concerns seriously. Knowing me, I’d have reached out to mental health professionals myself, set up appointments, and driven them to the office, only to wait for them (sans cigarette) like my mother did for me.
And yet . . .
What was it about that clean, reflective glassware to open my mind? I don’t know but open my mind, it did. Clarity descended—all the tricks to manage my mental health were no longer working. I wasn’t close to handling my anxiety, neuroses, or emotional stressors, and if I couldn’t be healthy and happy, then how could I help make anyone else healthy and happy? Just like the characters I’d written about, I needed to rewrite the stars.
As I was writing this essay, I stumbled across an unattributed quote. It said, “Some days she is a warrior. Some days she’s a broken mess. Most days, she’s a bit of both. But every day she’s there. Standing. Fighting. Trying.”
My next appointment with the therapist is Thursday.