¡Viva la Revolución!

TW: suicide, depression, white fragility, slut shaming, domestic abuse… it’s not a light read.

I do not expect to ever top my 4th of July of 2018.

I didn’t even realize until the following night when I returned to the States, (the fact that it happened innocently, unintentionally, made it all the more persuasive) but I spent that American Independence Day at Museo de la Revolución (Museum of the Revolution) in Havana, Cuba.

Ellen stands in a doorway to a Juliet balcony on an upper level of the Museo de la Revolución. She's wearing a white summer dress with blue details and tan sandals. Her hair is pinned up, and she has on dangly earrings. Her multiple tattoos are visible and she stands with her arms on the railing behind her; she's not smiling but she looks happy.
July 4, 2018 – Museo de la Revolución

I was visiting with three other women, two of whom (Rachel and Molly) I’d known for over a decade and a third, Lauren, whom those two met in a Facebook ‘women who travel’ group. I had reached out to Rachel [names have been changed] towards the end of May. She lived in Seattle, I in San Diego, and we’d met eons ago when my little brother was in the Army and stationed in Tacoma. They met on mySpace, to give you an idea of how long ago that was. Over the years we’d traveled to the other’s city and stayed together countless times. She was one of the few people with whom I thought I would enjoy traveling internationally, and we’d discussed going to the UK or something like that.

When I reached out to her in May, I didn’t care where we went.

I was barely keeping my head above water during the deepest, darkest depression I’d ever experienced (and I’d experienced it, to varying degrees, since well before puberty). I was getting to the point where I was scared, and needed help, but also didn’t want to scare those around me. So I casually asked Rachel if she could swing a trip… soon.

“Molly and I are going to Cuba in July. Want to join us?”

As obvious a ‘YES!’ as that was, it was still a dilemma. Consider yourself extremely fortunate if you don’t know firsthand how difficult it is to do anything while depressed — especially anything fun or new.

It was while giving a haircut weeks later, still sputtering weak excuses about humidity and uncertainty about drinking water, that I heard the words of encouragement I needed, from a client who traveled near-constantly for work to the likes of India and China. “Just go,” he said. And I did.

The taxi ride from the airport to our casa particular in Havana Vieja was worth the entire trip.

I could not have curated a better change of scenery, which was what I specifically felt I needed. I was 36 years old, had lived all those years in San Diego county, the past 9 in the same ~200 square foot studio apartment, the past 7 working at the same salon… I felt desperately, hopelessly (not quite!) stuck.

And so it is that I came to find myself at Museo de la Revolución on July 4, 2018. I saw my country and its history not from the perspective of an American, as told by Americans, but from that of Cuba. All the atrocities of which I’d heard those big, bad, communist countries accused… “we” did that. “We,” America, was the big baddie. In a US-sanctioned program (Operación Pedro Pan/ Operation Peter Pan), over 14.000 Cuban children were taken [their parents supposedly “agreed” but if that’s true did so under duress and with false information] from Cuba and sent to the US to be adopted or matched with American relatives under the guise of “saving them” (1960-62). In 1971 the CIA intentionally introduced swine flu to the island, which resulted in the forced killing of half a million Cuban pigs. There’s way too much more, but that’ll set the mood.

Radical acceptance is what has, in large part, allowed me to deal with my own depression, and it’s what’s helping me deal with my country’s past and especially present in the midst of both a revolution and a pandemic. It’s a concept popularized in the West by Marsha Linehan, who herself was diagnosed with and has struggled with mental illness, via dialectical behavioral therapy . To quote her, “Radical acceptance doesn’t mean you don’t try to change things, because you only have to radically accept the moment you’re in, and the past. But you can try to change the next moment.”

I used to loathe, with a seething passion, the phrase “it is what it is.” Not only did I find it obnoxiously, obviously redundant (my canned response is still a sarcastic “isn’t it, though”) but it pissed me off… because I didn’t want to accept what was. I fought, without realizing it, against so much that was beyond my control, thereby depleting my energy into that which I could affect.

I am not celebrating this 4th of July in the manner intended. I am celebrating it through the lens of radical acceptance.

I see nothing to “celebrate” while the cops who murdered Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain are still gainfully employed. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of racial injustice and inequality.

I do, however, see a reason to write this, and to keep fighting.

For a country who loves its fierce individualism, we sure do undervalue our power when it comes to affecting real change. I have been seeing two — quite admittedly ridiculously dialectical and exaggerated-for-effect — tropes play out in the wake of the COVID19 pandemic. Exhibit A: I’m an American! I have rights! You can’t make me wear a mask! I demand a haircut! I haven’t personally died, so obviously this whole thing is a hoax and I should be free to lob my bean bag towards any corn hole I want. Exhibit B: Can the police stop blatantly murdering Black Americans, at least on camera? And if there’s anyone still listening who hasn’t succumbed to exhaustion, Black trans women (you know, like she who started the whole Pride thing) especially could use our support?? Also the most Native of Americans who are those most likely to die from COVID19???

sigh.

Yesterday I reached out to Lauren (she was the third I didn’t meet until 6am as we gathered to board a plane in North Carolina bound for Cuba). I’d been holding a grudge. For two years. That day in the Museo, Lauren informed me, in what I believe were her first words to me that day, that my “dress [was] completely see through.” She added, to considerable effect: “Maybe that’s why you’re so popular.”

I was popular in Cuba. Rachel commented once while we were walking through Havana Vieja, where we stayed, “Now I know what it’s like to travel with a celebrity” because apparently people were turning and staring (I say ‘apparently’ because in 20 years of being almost 6′ tall, conventionally attractive [I’m still not at all comfortable typing or even thinking that], and increasingly illustrated I have adopted extremely thick blinders to cope with the inherent attention).

And my dress was see through. Not enough to warrant that slut-shame-y comment, but enough that, if you looked closely (I know because I did that morning, debated, and decided if someone cared enough to be upset that I was wearing light-blue-polka-dot-chonies under my white dress in 1000% humidity, they could suck it) yes, it was. I could’ve laughed it off, said “yeah, and what of it, ya big jerk?” and gone about my life. As it is, I unfollowed Lauren not long after our trip and took it as a personal attack on my first gasp of air after my long, deep depression dive — a veritable “fuck you, stay down, and don’t come back up, ya whore.”

When I told Lauren how sorry I was for being so consumed by my own depression to consider what she was going through — in the interest of privacy I will not divulge, save to say her battle was physical as well as emotional [and please do not commend me for any sort of moral aptitude without bearing well in mind the two years, leading up to the just the other day, which I spent filled with resentment] — one of the wonderful things she told me was, “I was jealous of your confidence.”

Oh, the bloody-sweet irony. What she saw as an abundance of self-assuredness was me, to me, trying my darnedest to find a buoy while barely treading water. I guess you never really can truly know what’s happening below the surface: of an individual, or a country.

For me to declare “I LOVE AMERICA.” would be akin to me saying “I loved my family growing up.” There’s the kind of “love” where you cover your bruises and demur any questions with slightly defensive explanations. And there’s the kind of love where you’ve had enough, way more than enough, and you say –as loudly and disruptively as needed — “HEY! I LOVE YOU! AND MORE IMPORTANTLY, I LOVE ME! AND WE ARE BETTER THAN THIS CRAP!”

And that’s how I feel about my country on this, its “Independence Day.”


Bathroom Prayers and Tractor Rides

This started out as an Instagram post. In commemoration of Mental Health Awareness Month I shared some of the favorite things I’ve learned along my journey to better understand myself and the universe. I believe in talking about mental health because it saves lives. I quickly realized I had more than a post, and it was ready to come out. For context, my husband and I are preparing to move to the woods and recently purchased an old tractor, which we drove around our soon-to-be neighborhood last weekend. TW: suicidal ideation

As I was bouncing along in the bucket of the tractor at the yurt last weekend, I was overcome with gratitude and appreciation. Yes, it was a glorious day in the woods, I had a happy doggy in my lap, and my husband was driving our new-to-us tractor — what wasn’t to love? But it was more than that.

Two years ago, in the spring of 2018, I was the lowest I’d ever felt, for the longest amount of time. The scariest part was I was trying so hard. I was sober – like, really sober: kava tea from the health store was the hardest thing I ingested for 90 days. I had an unlimited membership to my local yoga studio and went to a class at least once a day. I started jogging, getting up at 6am because I couldn’t sleep anyway. I started going to SMART meetings (like AA but for people too stubborn for a higher power and who can’t not crosstalk) multiple times a week. I found a facilitator I liked, especially his guided meditation meetings. I meditated, when it didn’t seem to just give the nastiness in my head a clearer backdrop. I continued talk therapy through Kaiser, increasingly frustrated when I left my appointments feeling worse than when I went in and knowing I wasn’t being honest, with my therapist or myself. I started medication. I felt worse. I stopped it. I started a different medication. I didn’t feel better, but at least I didn’t feel worse. I cut out processed sugar and loaded my diet with foods to combat inflammation and depression: leafy greens, salmon, dark chocolate, berries. I’d collected a lot of tools to fight the funk over the years, and I used them all.

I worked as a hairstylist, which meant my clients expected and deserved to be the focus of our time together. Some days I was able to compartmentalize and work was a welcome relief from myself. But more often it was agony. I felt like a big sucking black pit of despair that would pull in anyone who got too close. My manager told me my coworkers were worried and avoiding me, confirming my fear that it was as obvious as it felt. My coworkers got the brunt of it; I gave every scrap of emotional energy I had to my clients, while behind the scenes I was raw and sullen. One exceptionally hard day I asked a trusted coworker for a hug, blinking back tears. After he embraced me he told me I could have one whenever I needed – even if he was with a client (I would never, but the offer was enough). I was open with my manager, and she gave me all the support she could. There were weeks I only came in for the few clients I already had on the books and took the rest off.

For months my life was work, yoga, meditation, walks, therapy, meetings. I had Movie Pass and would escape to the cinema 3 or 4 times a week. I over-scheduled myself days in a row; maybe if I was busy enough I wouldn’t have time to feel. I withdrew from my friends except a few (including my mom) with whom I felt comfortable sharing how bad I felt, since that seemed to be all I could talk about.

At its worst, my inner dialogue was a loop of my favorite insecurities, but like if a really nasty internet troll was yelling them through a megaphone. What was the point? I just kept repeating the same tired mistakes. I was either stupid or a glutton for punishment. I was so boring and narcissistic I had nothing better to do than wallow in self pity. I was a miserable waste of space and it would be better for everyone if I just called it. Quit dicking around and kidding myself that I was ever going to change, and snuff it. I was going to die alone in my cave anyway, eventually; might as well get it over with. The voice wasn’t dramatic, emotional, or overwrought. It was quite matter of fact. And it was persistent. And it was LOUD.

I stopped riding my motorcycle because I was afraid I’d be too distracted or give in while I was riding, do something stupid and permanent.

Sometimes the voice would start while I was getting ready for work, putting on makeup and watching myself in the mirror. Sometimes it played while I trimmed someone’s bangs or folded foils in a highlight. The absolute worst was when it happened during yoga. While in class, while in a pose, my head screamed at me to get up from my mat and run into traffic. If that didn’t kill me at least it would get me a break from myself – someone else could take care of me in a hospital, because I obviously couldn’t do it. This happened more than a few times. And that brought the disquieting realization that if I wanted to kill myself during yoga, I was fucked.

So why didn’t I listen? I knew that voice was not me. Even though it was the loudest and nastiest it had ever been, I recognized it. I’d been hearing it off and on since before I started having a period. I knew, logically, that my objective life was no different than it had been the year before, when I was feeling pretty good (except the cat I’d lived with for almost 22 years died at the beginning of the year – I majorly underestimated the effect this had). I knew I had people who loved me. I knew I was depressed, because I had been depressed before. I knew… it took a lot of searching and remembering… but I knew I hadn’t always felt this way.

I specifically remember one evening when the loop was really bad, and I was tired. I was tired of this round of depression, but more so I was tired of my mental health issues as a whole. I knew once I was done with this extreme bout I wouldn’t be “done” with it. It would only be a matter of time before there’d be something else, except next time maybe it would show up more like anxiety, or a drug I’d start to use too much, or I’d catch myself leaving passive aggressive notes on my neighbors’ cars. I just wanted to be normal. I just wanted to be happy.

It felt like a prayer, this plea for peace. I don’t know to whom. But a softness came over me, and with it understanding. This was me. It’s a package deal, and with my package comes this. I wouldn’t be the same without it, and it’s made me who I am. My struggles have taught me so much about empathy and made me a better human. I’ve been able to help others who are struggling.

On that night, in my bathroom, I made a promise to my future self that I would give her a chance. I knew, down to my toes, that this would pass. It would get better. I’d feel better. And I asked my future self to not forget me, and to try to send some love back to myself.

As I was bouncing down the road on my and my husband’s new-to-us tractor, I did just that.

May 24, 2020 Belfair, Washington