This is definitely not MY brain. Same color, though.

In high school, doctors thought I might have brain cancer. I sat with my dad in an exam room, waiting to see the MRI results. I turned to him, straight-faced, and said, “Well, now I have proof that I have a brain. Do you?”

There it was. That wry, sudden humor.

My dad laughed a little, and I teased him about how the only “real” proof of anything is seeing it. Therefore, I was the only one who for sure had a brain. Really, I had such proof several times over: I’d been through dozens of MRI’s before in my life, since third grade. For all kinds of reasons. Doctors and death-sentences were normal experiences for me. I was not happy about it, not at all, but I could sometimes be hilarious.

I never figured I was funny or witty until college, when I learned that I was – in my own peculiar way – extremely good at it. All the skills ingrained in me from doctors and death had this bright and sudden new use. All my careful, detailed observations of the people around me, a skill learned in the desperate attempt to understand what might please the doctor or soothe my worried parents. The little flickers of emotions on people’s faces. The twitches in their body language. Things like that were, abruptly, funny. Or rather, could be made funny.

Humor is in details. It’s got to be specific, and my affection and terror at the world drenches me in details. I, suffering an anxiety disorder, can be entirely overwhelmed by particulars – so much so that I’ll forget the ones I need.

Humor helps. For example, during my fake little teaching session in front of students during my job interview, I made them laugh. I explained baptism by first explaining the importance of symbols, and to do so I asked them about my shiny shoes. Why the hell would I wear shiny shoes today? Because today was important to me, and the students were important to me. The outfit – esp. the shoes, obviously – was a symbol.

Thank God for those fucking shoes. I should credit them with my job. Wherever the hell they are in my apartment. That’s a detail I don’t know.

Shoes I wear all the time go right by my door. I get home exhausted and shattered, having held myself together all day. Shoes get dropped right at the door. Fuck them. Other shoes: I’d say my closet, but probably under my desk.

What? I’m too busy to care. Too preoccupied with working for my own sanity and the Academy (and these are not at all the same).

I always have a medal of St. Benedict in my pocket. He and his raven have snatched me from the poison of self-inflicted death. I am serious. I am so serious about that. So I carry Saint Benedict with me, and I imagine he protects me, and I hardly know if I mean the medal or the saint. I don’t care to clarify. It’s a confusion I find too Catholic to let go, and definitely too hilarious. All while it is so very, very serious. What Benedict has done, what I have done, and the hours and hours spent struggling to be alive.

What hours, O what black hoürs we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

G.M. Hopkins

My heart aches, and many times I don’t know if it’s because I’m overwhelmed by hurt or affection. I laugh over it. That terrible unknowing. Whether I trust the person in front of me or just wish I did because I don’t. Whether I am able to be near anything or only able to sit just there an infinity away. And I laugh. The closeness I feel may vanish in a moment, and with laughter I hold on and let go.

I have wondered, sometimes. Is my humor a mechanism to shut out or to welcome? I think both. Even both at once.

I worry, sometimes. Will my (has my) humor lost me some opportunity as a scholar? We are all so damn serious, so very grave. And I will smile. I will be thoroughly endeared and fucking smile about it. Hell, I’m a woman. We’re expected to smile and to be stupid. So why am I smiling? Because for so long I couldn’t, and many days I still can’t. And if I’m betraying the (serious men of the) Academy or my (serious) gender, well: fuck, I lose no matter what, and that’s hilarious.

And I’m told that I’m terrifyingly intelligent sometimes. That’s hilarious. I’m this tiny, scrawny creature. A hundred pounds on a good day. I’d never hurt anyone if I could help it, and I’d definitely never frighten them. I know too well what it’s like. And still I do hurt and frighten. I don’t know if I laugh because I don’t understand or because it hurts to know.

Even the great contradiction of my existence: the scholarly life of the mind and a broken mind. I love the way it upsets expectations. It is my favorite humor: anarchically overthrowing the ordinary. And yet along with it there is this: incredible pain. Long, long years of profound suffering that promise many more. You don’t just get better. People don’t. We don’t do that. I hate to tell you that. It’s not funny, and I’m not smiling.

I will sometimes describe it humorously: I am a toddler, or a stumbling baby fawn. Shakily learning to stand and walk. Smile at it, smile at the image. And try not to think of the years and years, the weary strain.

Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

I wish I could say it, whether I laugh or lose. When I walk in a door, or command a classroom, or speak in front of scholars. Just a moment to pause. Perhaps to smile. To say: You, any of you who see me, you cannot really know how very many seas I have crossed to be with you today.


A professor in therapy.

Eingang zum Palais de Roure

Sometimes I love the contradiction of my being: capable yet broken. Other times it’s just painful. I know, for example, that travel saps more strength from me than it does others. That’s part of what it means to have an anxiety disorder. At least for now. But that will take time if it ever arrives. Recovery and coping look different on everyone.

I know for a fact that, as able as my mind is, I cannot do all the things I am able to do. This is when I am most frustrated with myself. I can see what I could do – I could translate that, or respond to this article, or whatever – but I cannot. My body is too exhausted after a long day on full alert, or a flashback rattled my heart loose in its cage. I only have so much of myself to give, and much of me is already given to learning to cope with being myself. Whatever myth taught me that I can do anything as long as my mind is willing is a complete lie. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, and the spirit is too.

Sometimes I rage in frustration. I don’t handle anger well. I’m much too conditioned to direct it at myself. So even being angry as I mourn all that I cannot do – even that is very hard.

That’s a whole set of reasons I’m in therapy. I don’t “believe” in therapy because I think that belief only has one proper object: God. But I do think that therapy is helpful and effective, and I think that it is so for academics especially. We’re already stuck in our heads. May as well invite someone in there to help understand what it means to be where we are. We all know that just being somewhere doesn’t mean understanding that place.

Hell, being highly intellectualized means that we’re extremely unlikely to be aware of other very important things: feelings, tired bodies, people.

I’d be in therapy even if I weren’t an academic with a fucked up childhood and adolescence and a fun history of mental illness. I could be a completely normal academic – whatever that is – and I’d still want someone to help me think about what it means to be thinking all the time, how to grapple with my inherent remove from popular society, ways to manage the stress of the job. The benefit of slashing my own throat just means I actually got myself to therapy and have a visceral awareness of my need for it. Therapy doesn’t actually require a bloody story to go and need it.

We don’t wait until we have a heart attack to exercise. Hopefully.

My hope for my own therapy is that it helps me do the things I want to do – including wanting anything at all – and successfully mourn the things that will never arrive to me. I can’t undo abuse. It has taken me a long time to be okay with that, and it’s still hard. I’ll probably never be able to work myself like some scholars do, especially if my workload remains what it is, and I’m not okay with that yet. I know I could be. I could really be okay knowing that I have more stressors than others, more because they affect me more. Okay knowing that will always be a part of me. I’m not yet.

My friend says there’s probably some benefit to the negatives of anxiety. I scowled at her and wondered what the hell that might be. She pointed out that I notice more, and more quickly. I scowled at her, still displeased. I’m not there yet. Someone else go notice things. I’m so tired of watching body language like a hawk.

I’ll just blissfully not know you’re upset.

Therapy lays to bare exactly those kinds of dynamics. Those internal conflicts. In good therapy, I get to determine my own goals. If I have a particular perspective on a problem, okay. A therapist will respect that. A good one will, anyway. My current therapist is very respectful of and open to my religious sensibilities, to the ways Catholicism directs my life. I once had a therapist ask my what “my God” would think of something I’d done. I crossed my arms and glared at her. I didn’t appreciate what I interpreted as a game of pretend. Religious people can be touchy about God. I didn’t have to go to her again, and I didn’t.

Some therapists are awful, and that’s important to know because therapy can make us so vulnerable. Many therapists are really, really good. They’re there for you when you are so very vulnerable. There for you when even the other people in your life aren’t there, or don’t know how to be there, or can’t be.

It’s not at all like confession. As a Catholic, I’ve been asked that a lot. Confession is for the things I know I did wrong, for healing breaks in my relationship to Christ and the Church, for grace to help me heal. The sacrament is medicine applied directly to specific wounds. Therapy is about working through the patterns of feelings that surround the sacrament, that keep me from it or lead me to rely on it in ways it’s never been intended for. We could say that therapy addresses the rush and flow of emotions that accompany me everywhere, including to the sacraments. It’s not about feeling God. It’s about being whole enough to offer myself to God. Baptism and confession address this in fundamental ways. So does therapy. We don’t have to pretend they do the same work.

For example, I never believe absolution when I hear it. Never. I think, “Nope. God hates me. Fact.” Regardless of what the sacrament objectively offers – ex opere operato – I have to do the careful work of learning how to subjectively partake in the offering – ex opere operantis. For the saints, this has always meant confidence that seeking God has a way of untying our inward knots. I agree. Therapy is a profound and helpful way to seek God, to try and open up enough to let Him untie me.

Christians also sometimes worry that therapy supplants religion or spirituality. It can, and it has. As with every instrument, however, it doesn’t have to be that way. A hammer can kill someone, but I don’t have to use it that way. I truly appreciate my therapist for being willing to acknowledge a presence greater than either of us can describe, a presence in the room. It is important to me, and important that he is willing to grant it.

He’s not Christian. I love that he isn’t. He has no particular expectations for what a Christian or Catholic “looks” like. That can be confusing for us sometimes, but mostly it’s a relief. Many of my knots center upon failing to look like a “good” Catholic, after all. Other people want a therapist who shares their faith. That’s fine too.

Also, he’s a man. I don’t trust women, not particularly. So that’s fine by me. Others want someone of the same gender. Whatever is comfortable. And it should be about what is comfortable at a basic level. That room won’t always be comfortable, not at all, so elemental forms of trust need to be in place. If that means talking to a man who gets what it’s like, by all means.

Something hard for me is talking about work, and since work is theology, talking about God has the risk of becoming a chance for me to conceal my actual feelings by talking theory. That is my favorite way to not really talk to people wherever I am. “We’ll talk Catholic and I’ll be safe in this corner right here.” So I’ve learned to use simple, simple words. Words a child might use. Other people need to be given a way of talking about that stuff at all.

What I’m indicating is this: because therapy is interpersonal, it is very flexible. This can lead to bad practice, but also to good practice.

I don’t know that everyone should go to therapy. I think it’s good for people, but I’m uncomfortable offering a universal dictum. Unless that dictum has to do with who God is. That one is actually far simpler than diagnosing what ails human beings. The good is more knowable than evil (which is unknowable in itself).

So, yes, it’s incredibly frustrating and difficult to have the difficulties that I do. Still, I don’t think that the extremes in my particular life make therapy utterly strange. Sure, I need it “more” than others. That doesn’t mean only people like me need it. Everyone needs to do the work of learning how to be open to the world. It’s not about you understanding yourself so much as it’s about you understanding how to offer yourself to the world in healthy ways. In ways that God wants. Because every offering to God is meant to give life rather than take it.

How much more wonderful that is after braving the depths of the self.

A word on triggers.


Not my hands and arms. I wanted the image to be striking, and this is definitely.

I have triggers. Real and serious experiences of situations and things that send me backward into something terrible. Triggers aren’t funny to me. They’re not inconsequential fictions of modern psychology that conceal a refusal to confront the difficulty of life. They’re very, very real.

Just last week, I walked into my new office – I had moved down the hall – and our secretary had arranged some chairs and a coffee table in the corner of the room for students. Simple enough. I knew this already as I walked through my door. Then I saw the chairs and stopped dead. Fear, intense fear, slithered up my spine. My heart pounded in my ears. The white walls, the floral patterned cushions, the coffee table: they looked just like a doctor’s waiting room. I’ve been in those hundreds and hundreds of times. I hate doctors; I hate waiting rooms. More importantly, I hate what the image of those chairs and that blank wall reminded me of: painful, miserable abuse. Or rather, waiting for it and knowing it was coming.

Triggered. The chairs triggered me. For God’s sake.

I didn’t have a flashback. (I’ve had those.) Nothing in particular came to mind. I knew where and when I was. But I was on full alert, adrenaline racing through my bloodstream as the mess of feelings I once had in those situations surfaced and played through me again. Physically, emotionally, it was like waiting in that quiet room when I was small.

“These are chairs,” I thought, angry and jumpy. “Just chairs.” So I sat at my desk to see if I could endure them, even tried to make fun of them in a picture, wanted to find some way to live with them. They’re just chairs, after all. But they were right across from my desk, haunting my line of sight. I felt sick, scared. I got up and moved them around. Nothing helped. Finally, I gave up dragged the two chairs into the hallway. Took them out and just left them there. I walked back into my office and nervously took a look at the coffee table. Without the chairs, it didn’t bother me. I sat down at my desk and felt as if a sliver of iron had been pulled out of my chest. I could breathe again.

It took me a long time to calm down.

Our poor secretary was so confused. I didn’t explain much, didn’t know how to explain. Professors are strange and fussy anyway, so I tried to think of it like that. Another random quirk in the ivory tower.

I felt angry and helpless, you know. They’re just chairs. It’s just a wall. A stupid coffee table. But they aren’t just that to anyone, let alone me: they mean what they resemble in our minds. In my case, the similarity is wired up to ugly experiences and painful feelings.

It sucks.

I’m by no means a psychologist, but I have been taught a few things about myself. I’ll try to explain.

Triggers come from something hardwired into our brains. A common analogy is baseball: if you get hit by a pitch, you might flinch at the ball the next time you’re up to bat. Your brain remembers the danger and hurt from last time, instantly recognizes the shape of it, responds using reflexes meant to protect you.

Our brains love patterns. Sometimes I think of the brain, especially the parts always sort of “on” in the background, as this complex and active copyist constantly trying to organize itself. Our brains want to create patterns so that we can recognize similar things more quickly. This can be hurtful (stereotypes, racism, rigid categories, etc.), but mostly it’s helpful (interacting with people, reacting to danger, etc.). So the thing with the baseball is a “copy” in your head of the thing that hurt you. If something like the copy comes up again, you and your brain react accordingly. You flinch. If the copy stops working, your brain drops it. (You’re not afraid of the ball after a while.) If it keeps working, the copy is reinforced. (You swear off baseball.)

We do this with food: if people get sick with food poisoning, sometimes they can never make themselves eat that food again. It just looks disgusting, horrible. Your brain says: I’ve been here before, and no way am I returning. The food is gross now. Which is great, actually, because being poisoned is not in your best interest.

Trauma and triggers are formed out of this instinctual neurological process. Sometimes – not all the time, or perhaps not even most of the time, I’m not sure of the numbers – something bad happens to your brain when something bad happens to you. Sometimes when something really bad happens, the brain doesn’t know what to do with it. One of the DSM-V manual’s requirements for trauma is that the person has to experience a fundamental threat to their safety, especially to their identity or the identity of someone they love. Sometimes people don’t have strong social networks or good environments that help them cope, and the likelihood of our brains being hurt increases. Those sorts of conditions make an experience “too much” to be interpreted.

Interesting how important it is for someone to be cared for even long before they’re ever hurt.

Once a therapist of mine explained trauma as a moment the brain hasn’t make sense of, and reminders of that moment gets the brain repeating through the memory again and again, trying and failing to making meaning of it. And I hate this analogy, but: it’s sort of like a computer that keeps restarting, can’t finish running through the code, and it keeps starting over and trying again and again. As long as the code is the same, it won’t work. It continually not-works.

Lots of people go to war, are sexually assaulted, injured, and so on and do not develop PTSD. The people who do lack one or several of the conditions that would’ve helped them interpret and integrate the experience. In fact, the experience can be objectively less violent – if we want to go there – and still leave a person traumatized if they lack support, affection, and safety.

I have many, many traumatic experiences. These are from when I was very young and stretch sporadically in intensity until young adulthood. Most of the experiences revolve around doctors, coercion, submission, sexual violence. Things like that.

So then.

To be reminded of the pattern awakens the response. These are triggers. They’re somewhat specific, but they’re also an especially heightened version of instincts we all have. Triggers are complex, vary in intensity, and encompass a whole range of possible similitudes.

I couldn’t have predicted the chair thing. (Yeah, I’m pretty miffed over the chair incident.) I see chairs all the time. It still happened, caught me sideways and unprepared. I hate when I can’t predict it. I know, for example, that this specific beep claws my ears to pieces and makes me profoundly agitated. (They remind me of monitors and such.) Since our campus is perpetually under construction/repair with those freaking machines that beep so no one runs into them, I bring headphones. Listen to music. Try to avoid the sound.

Today beeping gnawed on me as i tried to help a student with a schedule. I struggled to focus, felt very distracted, worked to maintain a soothing voice. Had I no filter or control, I’d have reacted to everything with the agitation I felt.

It’s complicated. I can’t control the universe, so I can’t control all triggers. I don’t attend the student information session on assault and dating violence because that’s an easy one to predict.

The thing with the chairs wasn’t so much about chairs as it was the whole gathered visual experience, the Gestalt (form) of the corner of the room is what caught my heart by a metal hook. Sometimes the emotional situation will remind me profoundly of an experience. If I think you’re trying to force me to do something I think would hurt me – even if you’re not and I’m just seeing a false copy – I instantly become angry and afraid. I won’t show you that I’m scared. I learned not to do that, and I definitely don’t want you to see another “weakness.” I’ll survive the situation, probably by agreeing to whatever so you go away, and then freak the hell out. Cry, or rage, or what have you. The feelings are intense, very difficult to understand and soothe. Mostly I feel like I’m drowning and it won’t be over ’til the flooding stops.

I knew I wasn’t in a doctor’s office. Sure seemed like one. Sure kept looking like one. Just knowing isn’t enough. The pattern is still there. I’m slowly learning how to find new patterns, and deal with my feelings when something does happen.

Triggers are real and they are serious, and I have offered a relatively mild one in this space. No, I don’t like that people use the word “trigger” all the damn time for tiny things and “trigger warning” for everything. I also think they’re trying to describe something real. “Trigger” is the best word they know, and really it’s not at all the best. Maybe they want a single word for “this might hurt.” (As if life could always have such signs.) Still, I do want to be allowed to use the word “trigger” and I want it to be considered perfectly legitimate. I want to be able to say that I hate those chairs that were in my office, the chairs that reminded me of waiting rooms, and that my responding fear and anger were real. No, it wasn’t really a waiting room, but the reminder is as real as my bones. It’s my damn brain, and I was reminded. That’s real. The reminder is real. I don’t want to be called afraid of chairs or weak or something. How is it weak to be afraid of a thing so horrible it never quite goes away?

Back off. Given all that, I’m brave to wander around the world at all.

So then, it’s true: right now the words “trauma,” “trigger,” even “abuse” are prevalent, and there is an understandable reaction against this usage. Either way, I have written this because I’m concerned that the debate itself encourages us to lose sight of a few things that are very, very real.


The Triune God and the Theologian With a Broken Head

Franz Stuck, “Pieta”

It was hard to re-read my dissertation-turned-book. Not simply because I really don’t like listening to myself – it’s like hearing your own voice in a recording, familiar yet strange. It’s just… I tried to kill myself four months after the defense. And I remember the span of thoughts and emotions that carried me there. That I carried. It’s true that I was already cracked in the head before the book. Still, the book reminds me of the time I snapped apart like so much brittle glass.

After. After, my mom asked me how someone religious like me could do it. All I said was, “Please don’t.”

I don’t know how. All I know is that there’s a place in our hearts where there is neither God nor not-God. I don’t mean metaphysically. Of course God is there.  But it is a place of non-relation, a sort of severing even from the self. It doesn’t matter where anyone is or isn’t. That person is hurting in a very lonely way, and it is not a path one can accompany.

It’s not your fault if someone tries – or succeeds – you know. Suicide. Please don’t ever think that.

The book has very little to say about suicide. If anything, it traces Hans Urs von Balthasar’s careful refutation of the suicide of thought in modern theology, philosophy, and the arts. As I read it, I wondered if the past me would “convert” me. That is, draw me closer to God.

It has not been very easy, being close to God. After.

Other things are. These days, I have significantly more facility describing what mental illness is like. Helpless and unearned and a harrowing responsibility, mostly. Is what it’s like. Surrounded by all kinds of cultural ignorance. I thought everyone had violent nightmares every night – or at least a lot of them. Surely no one ever feels safe. Everyone hates themselves at least a little. Surely. I didn’t understand the signs.

So I really didn’t know that I was sick. And, I’m sorry, but graduate school isn’t a place that makes such things obvious. I have never again seen so much goddamn anxiety and maladaptive coping mechanisms all clustered in one place. I love you guys, classmates, but holy shit. Did you see us? Our professors didn’t know the signs or weren’t paying attention. Or maybe that’s not their job. Either way. It wasn’t healthy.

Once in grad school, while my grandmother was dying of cancer and my brother was in incredible distress, two friends pulled me aside into one of the chapels and had an intervention. They told me that I needed help and didn’t believe in the resurrection. I wish they hadn’t brought faith into it. I wish they’d known that college counseling services are easy to reach. I wish they’d been compassionate about how hard my family life was at the time. And I kind of wish it wasn’t them. I wasn’t close to them.

I was already heavily traumatized. I needed some real help and had no idea that I did. I needed help in high school. I needed help in kindergarten, for God’s sake. So I’m not saying they were wrong. Not exactly. It’s just that the whole thing was wrong. The time and the place and the people.

The resurrection thing – in a church – well, that was a bit much.

Mental illness shouldn’t be a condemnation. It isn’t a question of faith. God gives that anyway.

I don’t think I’ve ever not believed in God. There was a time in high school that I was an atheist and I kept it secret from everyone. I was the saddest little atheist, because even if there were no God, it seemed clear enough we needed one. Which is still a kind of faith, albeit stripped of most of its gnosis (knowledge). Even when I taped that note to my mirror and held a knife to my throat, I didn’t think there was nothing. I just didn’t care, or had drawn so near to an iron-jawed simulacra of nothing that I knew little else.

Nichtigkeit. The Nothing, the Not. Heidegger’s word, which von Balthasar distrusted. I wrote about that.

I wonder many times, when I reach hesitantly toward prayer, whether I still participate in that strange Nichtigkeit that held me with its sharp edges. I have the scars that ask the question if I won’t. And the answer is that I don’t know. I can laugh now, I have a job, I care about others. Heavy doses of medication slow me down enough that I can open my eyes. It’s a physical condition, the illness. Neurochemical distortions and depletions. That doesn’t make it un-spiritual. Our bodies simply don’t do that. Become un-spiritual. I’d have to die to do it.

I wrote about von Balthasar’s love for the physical, the specific, the concrete. The flesh. I wrote about that too.

If you’ve been hit in the head by a tire iron, you might lose some sight. That injury will henceforth affect what you can see, and you’ll have to learn your way around and through it. Well: mental illness isn’t any different. I don’t know that Jesus wants to save me from mental illness any more than He does you the tire iron. Which is to say: suffering just doesn’t seem to work like that.

I do think God did not let me die. So did I. So did others. Not let me die.

God always seems to insist on collusion.

There is a difference between art and the artist. This was, during the book, an obsession of mine. Total bastards can create beautiful, profound art. Their art ends up better than they are. I wonder now if this is so with me and my book. Its perspective – von Balthasar’s perspective – is much broader than the well I sat by. Not that I had nothing to do with it. Only that I don’t determine the meaning of everything I create. Only the one Creator does that.

There are ways that God is there in the gap, between art and artist, the measure of the distinction between esse and ens, colluding even with what we lack.

Von Balthasar was determined to show us this, in his way. He is famous for his controversial theology of Holy Saturday. Christ plunges into the uttermost depths of loss, embracing even the threat of nonbeing. In terrible silence, von Balthasar says, the Son descended. And so does the Church, following along in her liturgy: the great silence of empty sanctuaries during the Triduum. Yet all is in the light of the resurrection: God knows how to make something of wounds.

Still, I sometimes fret over whether von Balthasar went and cleaved apart the Trinity.

But there is another part of me that knows that place, that hell. Very well. And God is there, even if all I can manage for worship is silence.

Von Balthasar would say that God doesn’t leave us the last word. Just His.

Paradoxes and Double-Vision. (There is more than one reality in a single life.)

“The Drowned Cathedral,” M.C. Escher

By the time I was twenty-eight, I had defended my dissertation, earned my doctorate, and agreed to a tenure-track faculty position across the country from where I grew up. I am very, very proud of these facts. They mean that I did something quite hard at a younger age than most. They mean that I am very, very good at what I do. These are facts that even at my darkest I’ll be able to call up and hold onto as real. I have also suffered immensely under the cross of mental illness. My life has threatened to splinter apart from it. This is also real, also true, and I don’t care who knows this about me. My colleagues have been nothing but supportive, for which I am both lucky and blessed, and if I know one thing about suffering, it is this: keeping it a secret makes it worse.

My mind is good and my mind is wounded. I can be both. One does not invalidate the other. There is a part of me that loves the apparent contradiction of a trustworthy and untrustworthy mind. Take that, Gnosticism and René Descartes.

There is more than one truth of mine that gathers in a complexity like this.

One of the symptoms of depression and anxiety is a kind of hyper-attention to a single truth. The truth of knowing that a thing can be hurtful or unstable, or that life is profoundly sad. We all know things like this. The one who suffers knows only this. It’s not that people with mental illness believe lies, though some do. It is much more that someone is unable to receive any other truth.

There is no “bright side.” There is no “safety.” Not for the person whose world has narrowed to darkness or danger. And they (we) cannot be argued out of it. What others say has very little purchase. Because the person who does knows nothing but danger does not think that safety exists at all. They’re not living in an alternate reality; they’re living in a single aspect of the truth. The world is very unsafe. Especially in a panic, the one truth is literally all they can think of.

I remember being able to think of nothing else but my own death. I remember this terrible repetition, this single fixation. And it made sense. It felt entirely logical, appeared intellectually and emotionally coherent. I was abused, and I never said anything, and no one knew. That is terribly sad. That is a harsh reality that makes living hard. It was easier, in a way, to think of death. It meant I could concentrate on my loss instead of a life lived through loss.The mind tries to preserve itself.

The more I focus on how to live these days, the more challenging it becomes to come to terms with my losses. It is a kind of mourning. A grief over what gave out and gave in. All those many things.

I love my parents. I have never once doubted that they love me. They said so, and they tried to show me so. And still they didn’t notice this dark secret. They struggled to assist a terribly shy and emotional child. They didn’t know about mental illness. Even so, it means everything to me that they were at my dissertation defense, that they saw me do what I am very good at doing. They wanted to be there. My sister was there too. Because they love me. They still dragged me to hospitals, struggled to notice year after year of trauma. They watched much of it. It hurts. Their care and my horror can both be true even if none of us understand.

My mother sometimes held me. Eventually I didn’t want hugs at all.

It’s not like I never assisted in my collapse. I have always have a hard time receiving affection, and being nudged to go hug and kiss my relatives felt like torture. Encouraging me to go do the thing I hated made me more afraid of it. I found what praise I received intolerable. It’s an unfortunate mix: parents who were not quite aware of certain hurts, and my own inability to feel comforted. Each assists the pain of the other. Even recently, my dad said he’s proud of every little thing his children do. I grumbled at the phone and felt the weight of two truths: that he is and always has been proud, and that he never expressed it in a way I understood. In a further prism, he didn’t know that I didn’t understand and I never said so.

Could my mother predict how alienated I felt from her, from women, when she wanted me in a dress so badly? No. Why was it so very important to her? Why did I intuit from this that I’d never be pretty? I don’t freaking know.

And I love them. So fucking much. My mother helped school me into the talented learner that I am. She was almost always at my side. Or there was being able to talk religion with my dad. The times he assured me it’s okay to ask questions about faith. And my mother’s simple faith, so much wiser. The closeness we once had. I never felt close to either, though I know they felt close to me. I complicate the good things.

I care that they baptized me when I was born and dying. I care that they cared about that. What better gift to give a child but faith, even if only briefly? I lived, but no one forgot. The twelve weeks I wasn’t in the womb, the two-pound weight. The incredible survival. The uncertainty over what kind of life that would leave me.

My siblings helped me. Especially my sister. When I became very, very sick. She was there (except when she wasn’t, some part of me hisses), and she has carried me down staircases. Still I withdrew from everyone, including her, even in high school. I loved them and I love them and didn’t – and don’t – know how to love them. Not at all.

Yet I can be incredible at supporting others, listening. I can be very, very soft. Very nurturing and attentive to life. And I can vanish too. I tried to kill myself, after all.

I have known God, I have lost God. I don’t really understand my relationship with God right now. I have asked why we suffer, and refused to ask at all. I flourished in school and was still very lonely. I taught myself nearly half of high school, which is cool to say but was the worst. I have never trusted anyone with my body, and the one man I did repeated all the old hurts. Which is sad. There are memories I can’t stand. There are those I can’t live without. I didn’t really understand that I was smart until much later, and I never figured a kid as shy as me could grow up to be a great speaker.

Weirdly, I didn’t know I was funny. Dammit. I could’ve killed it in school.

On and on and on. My childhood was good; my childhood was awful. My family was wonderful; my family failed a lot. (They have always been good people.) It seems to me to be very difficult to hold these things together, and that each truth lives in me and I live in them – or I’m learning. I’m not sure I can be expected to put the fragments together. I’m not the one who holds the whole of me. That I know.

I am aware that I focus on the dark things as I struggle to trace the cracks in my heart. All are true and all are not everything.

I trust that there is time for mourning, always time. And time to live on.

Beauty, Writing. Illusioning and Disillusioning

“Untitled,” Zdislav Beksinski

Once I burned every story I had ever written. Literally. Then deleted the files. Or, I suppose I should begin in another place: I used to write stories. Then I burned them all. The act was at least partially inspired by G.M. Hopkins, who had burned his early poems on entering the Jesuit novitiate, and that was probably the only thing I liked about Hopkins at the time. What Hopkins and I shared – and I was much angrier about it than he – was a keen sense of beauty’s power to deceive. I had become aware, painfully aware, that my stories had become crutches, escapes – illusions. So I burned them away.

I also really enjoyed burning things and I was twenty-one or something, so I don’t put that past me as additional motivation. I wouldn’t even put that past me now.

Not a single copy of any of my stories exists. I think. Maybe a cousin has a copy of one, I don’t know. I like to think in epic terms, so I imagine that they’re all entirely lost and this delights me simply because it’s severe. Though I hated, hated the arts and literature – and took none of them seriously – I had a fondness for writing. As a very sickly adolescent, I had but few things to keep me occupied: reading, make-up homework, video games, writing. I retreated often to my intellect, which was the safest place I knew how to be. Writing became a way to play for once, to simply see what I could do, and it became a way to work through emotions that felt largely unavailable to me. Which was any emotion. At all. I had a strong affection for Spock.

The irony is that my career today is built on my knowledge of and sensitivity to the arts, especially poetry. The truth is that I love poetry, literature, the arts. But I didn’t know that. I was young and an idiot and really hurting.

I hated beauty because I perceived its strong relation to feeling. To desire, to willing. The Ancient Greeks and Medievals thought that beauty was simply an aspect of what they called the Good, which was the “highest” goodness, or goodness “itself.” For them, the Good was especially associated with the will. In other words, we want good things. Want and will match together. Beauty was woven with wanting. I knew something of this, though I knew nothing of philosophy. Feeling and desiring flared unstable and horrific in my young mind, twisted all together on tenterhooks. I could not bear to want or to feel. My secret life of trauma and abuse – I told no one, after all – left me wracked by profound distrust and confusion over nearly any feeling at all, especially desire. Especially that.

Once I failed a moral theology test because I couldn’t make myself read any of the questions on sex. I circled whatever. I literally couldn’t read the words. I never failed anything in theology. I have a fucking doctorate in theology. It’s funny. Kind of.

So by the time I reached college, there was a way in which storytelling – especially writing – remained with me as this single, unanticipated avenue to yearn and to feel. And that I did. I wasn’t all that great at it, the feeling or the writing, but I worked hard at both – and only together.

One central character was a young woman with four vicious scars across half her face. She herself was vicious, angry and half-feral. Dangerous with knives. Always taciturn, never cautious, never soft. She was an unsubtle figure of my own inexplicable feelings, the ones so haunted by violence and that singular rage that comes from violence. May no one ever have to know it. That peculiar, suffocating self-hating fire.

It would have fit nicely with one of those young adult series about horrible worlds that are so popular these days, the ones starring young women who are heroic and beautiful. Only my creation was much, much more brutal and physically marred. She grew up among demons. (So had I.) And it could’ve fit for a movie so long as I was never in charge of it. All of my stories ended with everyone dying.

I can see it so clearly, looking back. The young mind struggling so hard to understand violence.

I wasn’t that great at writing stories. My temperament left me far too impatient for a story arc, and I hated dialogue with absurd passion (so no one freaking talked). For reasons entirely lost on me, I had a strange talent for writing romances (and battles). More than one friend told me so. I’d blush and write more battles. (Desire was not okay. It wasn’t. Not when it hurt so much. When others made it hurt.) I much preferred building to some kind of harrowing image played out in intense engagement with my reader. My imaginary reader. The one I was trying so very hard to convince something was wrong, very wrong. Imaginary, since I didn’t think I lived in a world that could be convinced by anything I said.

Why would I let myself feel, really feel, in a world like that?

Still, I became aware of just how imaginary the infinite display of personalities, places, and scenes could be. They increasingly drew me away from the world, the real one, and I felt breathlessly afraid of the feelings I could not escape – and felt suffocated by a weakness for illusion that seemed especially serious in me. It’s not real, you know. The stories. They’re not real like that. They’re just stories. And no one turns out okay, and isn’t so wrong to think that anyway? I shouldn’t even symbolize it.

A lot of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon folktales involve fairies, often women, and many of them reside around water. (Thus King Arthur’s “Lady of the Lake.”) They weren’t always nice, either. These fairies. This definitely isn’t Disney, though there might be singing. These creatures were rather dangerous. Like those sirens that had Odysseus going mad, the fairies would lure men away with their beauty and lead them to their death. It’s a fairytale-truth about something we all know: beauty tells the best lies. Why else are perfect people in advertisements telling me to buy things I don’t need?

Beauty unhinged of truth isn’t good anymore.

So I burned all my lies and with them the truths I otherwise desperately hid. I gave up on the last bit of art in me. Still, I fiddled with words. Couldn’t seem to help it. I met a friend who saw in me a certain talent, and he carefully tricked me into reading poems. At first only the very Catholic ones. The Catholic poems about Catholic things. Anything Catholic meant I’d read it for sure. Then my friend offered me Catholic poets who stretched up and away from explicitly religious topics. Then non-Catholics, atheists, anyone. By then he had worn me away into the sincerity of my love for real beauty. I started learning foreign languages and he started handing me poems in those languages. God, I loved beauty. And yearned for it.

Like some immense experiment, I absorbed everything I read. I mean the technique of it, often quite unconscious. In stories I had started to mess with the rhythms of words, and now I accidentally wrote in meter with no story at all. I made games of collapsing images together. Playing. Imitating clever little things on purpose, and many others with no awareness at all. So eventually I began writing poetry. And, to be honest, I was far better at it than I ever had been at anything else with words.

And Hopkins is the best.

My mentors in graduate school knew. I’d reference poems in class – if I spoke at all. They knew I had a certain talent, and that I tried at poetry, though I wouldn’t show anyone my poems save my friend. Maybe two other souls. With immense fear and conviction, I protected my small corner of art. Of feelings and desire. I didn’t want poetry taken from me, as if that old fire sought to consume my work again. Besides, I didn’t want to be considered strange or insane. I could do theology, dammit, and I was very logical and compelling. I wasn’t a sentimental idiot. I just wrote poems sometimes, is all, and fuck you for asking.

I loved Hans Urs von Balthasar endlessly. That unusual and brilliant theologian of beauty. I was such a hopeless contradiction, stubbornly against even a hug but enamored of theological aesthetics. What can I say? Scars do strange things to people.

My mentors eventually wanted me to combine the poetry and the theology, since Balthasar did something like this and since my double talent allowed me to understand it. I fought them the whole way. Partly I’m just crazy stubborn. Partly I resisted out of extreme (and misplaced) anxiety over whether doing this would make me “weird” to other scholars. D. Stephen Long said, “You know, it’s good to be different.” And finally, out of a very real awareness that this effort, this theological poetic, would force me to unite intellect and will – knowing and desiring – and these two I had fought very hard not to unite for most of my life. I knew, keenly, that this union would hurt.

It was agony. The words emerged elegant and calm, but the struggle to unite what even the Academy refuses to unite (intellect and emotion) left me ragged. I was fiercely determined to be clear, logical. Almost cold. Carefully, deliberately, cooly – I tried. And then I’d break in with yearning, bittersweet pain, beautiful hope. It was a kind of cunning, the writing. Ever so clear and aching. My every power bent to keep them – clarity, aching – close.

And through it I reached those things in me that hurt the most. The terrible, breathless losses. Everything true and real in me broke open and broke apart. That’s what it felt like, anyway. Honestly, I was also exhausted by far too many years of silence. Trauma doesn’t exactly go away. It hides right in your skin, lights up nerves. Still, I’m not sure I’d have really seen that in myself so vividly if I hadn’t been encouraged to draw together the two things I loved. Beauty and truth.

It cost not less than everything.

And finally, finally I could learn to stop lying. It has been a long road since, but good.

On the Scowl of Katniss Everdeen


Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen (Mockingjay Part 2)

Katniss Everdeen. She’s emotionally daft, which might be my favorite detail in the narrative. The kid – and she is so young – honestly doesn’t know what to do with her feelings or the feelings of others. She can track tiny animals through the woods while hunting, but she gets thoroughly befuddled by people feeling stuff. She has basically no clue when she’s feeling a feeling, which leaves her annoyed with all these other people and their messy feelings. Many a young character has brooded Hamlet-like in the middle of beautiful landscapes. Katniss would push Hamlet out of the way to try and kill a bunny with an arrow.

Why is Katniss a terrible student of emotions? There’s simply no time for it in her world. No time at all. Katniss is painfully aware that she walks the knife-edge of survival. Who has time to pause and feel, to read the softness in others’ eyes? All is hard edges underneath.

When pressed to decide which boy she loves or whatever, Katniss’s response is to scowl and feel embarrassed. Hell, when Peeta announces to the nation that he loves her, she reacts by shoving him into a plant. She doesn’t even articulate herself. Can’t say why she’s irritated. Can’t search the source of her own bafflement. If she had the self-awareness to apprehend and describe her feelings, an awareness that she absolutely does not have, she’d say, “I’m sorry, I was so busy fighting starvation for most of my life that I haven’t really thought about all that.”

As it is, she scowls at people and gets kinda rude and assumes they want to manipulate her. Which they do.

Katniss is accustomed to a world that does not bow to her wishes or even her basic needs. That’s the thing in dystopian worlds: the world has nothing left to give. It is neither lush nor welcoming. Katniss is habituated to a universe in which she has to fight to survive, fight to help her sister survive. She does not effortlessly dominate her surroundings or even expect that she will. In this world, tiny success is arrived at with great cost. She doesn’t have the spare energy for smiles. She wants her sister to have them. Her sister, who gets blown up. (Sorry about all that sacrifice, kid.)

The heroics of Katniss Everdeen, in other words, are startling in their realism. It is quite clear, after all, that we are not in control of most of our own lives. We aren’t. It can seem that way, yes, absolutely. I am fully able to make a whole lot of fun little decisions about the various details of the day. But that has a way of concealing just how elusive most of my freedom is, and it conflates deciding something with freely willing something. “Not every act is free,” says Bernard Lonergan. It may seem obvious, what he says, but the phrase closes a long reflection over whether we’re free at all. Because, mostly, we are not.

I’d scowl at that. I’d scowl the hell out of that. I do scowl at that.

It is notable that Katniss is a young woman. In a strange way – whether or not the author intended this – Katniss Everdeen struggles under the weight of grim vulnerability rather than overcoming obstacles with some titanic inner strength. Whether this kind of shuddering danger – also supremely real in all of us in this world – would be acceptable in a man is an open question. What would we think as an audience? Could we tolerate a young man shivering in a dark closet, terrified of the ghosts in his head? Maybe. In a woman, we consent to the image all too easily. I cannot help but think of that.

Katniss is made a national celebrity and the symbol of an entire rebellion. (No pressure, you emotionally stunted, already-traumatized teenager, you.) She accepts the role of “Mockingjay” to encourage the rebels, to try to do something good, and, mostly, to rescue the boy she’s survived horrible things with. She’s dragged this way and that at the behest of higher powers with unspoken plans. The boy is left to suffer, and when he returns he is not himself. Very, very not.

Sometimes good intentions don’t matter.

Katniss, as a symbol, is negotiated like a symbol. Those with power seek to exert their wills through her. Or they straight-up try to execute her. Either way, becoming a symbol diminishes Katniss’s self-possession in part because it externalizes her identity, which makes her negotiable. An object on a chessboard to be assessed and moved.

This is what being made into a symbol does to a human being. At least in the sense of the word as I use it now. Sometimes we say “stereotype” to mean something like it: the person serves a principle or presumption rather than as a self. It is more than mere stereotyping, this negotiating of someone else’s identity through symbols. It is a willing over someone else, a willing in someone else, despite and without that someone else. But first they can’t be someone else. Not if this is going to work. They’ve got to be emptied out into some image or symbol first. Then they are robbed of themselves.

Katniss is robbed of herself in more than one way. Each is a haunting thematic gesture toward the ways we might be killed with symbols: violence (you are not a person but a thing), expectations (you are what I want you to be), love (your desire is mine and not your own). Expectations and love – I will leave violence aside – can be wonderful and good. But they can be flattened into a knife that threatens another into acquiescence. Pressed down into a flat image, a narrowed understanding, a stiff notion.

To do something like that is profoundly different than, say, seeing the significance of a person who shares our humanity or seeing a human being as a sacramental image of God. Those latter kinds of symbols do not view another human being as a vessel for someone else’s power, and they do not understand symbols as separated from the thing symbolized. In other words: if someone is dignified because they are an image of God, that dignity is theirs and it is nonnegotiable. Katniss is important because she’s Katniss.

But these are things that her world, and ours, struggle to grasp. Refuse to grasp.

It does not end well for Katniss Everdeen. At the age of eighteen, she’s been exiled to her home district and declared insane. She’s got burn scars all over her body, severe PTSD, and the sister she gave everything for is dead. Most of her friends are dead, and almost everyone from her hometown is dead. Katniss Everdeen is a broken wreck. And that’s exactly why we should pay attention to her.

No giant success offers her back to herself. No triumph. No inner enlightenment, or outward praise, or miraculous event. Somewhere in the quiet of her exile with that boy who is not himself, she grows. With him. The most interesting part of the story is left a mystery. Somehow that small space of existence lets her find the someone that she is. Someone who can feel and choose and rest. Someone who can be with someone else.

In a dystopian world rather unreal, Katniss Everdeen is strangely – powerfully – realistic.