The other day as I forced myself to use the elliptical at the gym, I watched the news. I don't often watch the news. I gave it up after I started to get a little neurotic after 9/11. I keep up to date through online sources where I can filter my experience a little. There's something so doom and gloom about the if-it-bleeds-it-leads journalism of televised news, and the other day was no exception. I lost track of the number of stories about people shooting their wives or children, setting fire to their homes, engaging in standoffs with the police. And then I came home and my husband told me about the man in Rome who shot himself in front of tourists after yelling out the terrible things that happened to him because of the financial crisis in Europe.
All the stories shared something in common: despair. Rampant, oppressive, paralyzing despair. It's every where these days - the lingering effect of an economic collapse and the product of an uncertain future.
I know all about despair. I know how some nights you don't sleep until your body physically shuts down from exhaustion, because you are stuck in a cycle of self-recrimination. How you lie awake and try to pinpoint where it all went wrong, curse yourself for your mistakes and foolish choices, and wonder how you will ever crawl out of the hole you're caught in. I know what it's like to wonder if your children would be better off with other parents. To wonder if you will ever give them anything more than the love you can muster up when you are caught in the clutches of hopelessness. I know what it's like to wonder if you would be better off dead - to wish you were, believing it really is the only way out for yourself and your loved ones.
Two years ago I quietly asked my husband to apply for food stamps, because we just couldn't feed our children anymore on our own. It was one of the low points, and it sent me spiraling into despair. I retreated into myself. I stopped meeting the eyes of the cashier at the grocery store, because they knew what that card was, and because I felt inferior to everyone. A little over a year ago my husband and I sat in front of a judge, declaring bankruptcy, after unsuccessfully trying to climb out of the crippling consumer debt that had tripled while he was unemployed. I was so embarrassed that I couldn't even tell my dear friend why I needed her to watch the kids that day. I couldn't tell her that we couldn't make all our bills, even though she knew we were living on an hourly wage of $12.
One year ago I tearfully explained to a debt collector that no, not even McDonald's was hiring when she suggested I suck up my pride and get to work. And even though I knew I was applying for jobs and sewing baby items in a desperate attempt to make ends meet, her admonishment stung. Mostly because, as many of you know, even if I landed a job, I was unlikely to be able to pay for childcare, and because there was the bitter edge of truth in her accusation. Part of me could not accept that I, as a college graduate with advanced degrees, could be in this situation.
A year ago I decided to adopt a different spelling of my name in case I got published, because then my past sins wouldn't follow me and condemn me to more failure.
But this story as a happy ending, as good stories are wont to do.
Not long after we applied for food stamps, I got a call from my mother-in-law that changed my life. Not in an exaggerated, immediate way. It changed my life in ripples so small and insignificant that I didn't realize I was being carried away until it was much too late to chicken out or to punish myself. She thought I should write a book, which was something I always talked about doing, but had not. I thought she was crazy. I had a new baby. A beautiful girl that brought me so much joy, but left my heart aching, because I'd brought her into a life of poverty. And a three year-old. I did not have time to write a book. I was doing other things. I like to say the reason her demand worked was because she knew I'd have to prove I could do it, but honestly I think it played into my cycle of self-recrimination. I already believed myself worthless and now a call from my mother-in-law proved she thought I was, too. I know that's not what she meant, but despair is a funny thing. It warps everything like a funhouse mirror.
I would never own a home.
I would never pay off the student loans. I couldn't even hope to make a payment.
I would never have a car that had air conditioning or door handles.
I would never show my face at a reunion.
I would never call up an old friend.
I would never send my children to college.
I would never be certain if there would be a meal on the table.
But I thought perhaps she had a point, and since everyone told me I'd never make a living as a writer, I felt I had nothing to lose.
So I started to write a book, and, at the risk of sounding cliché, it saved me. A lot of people think of me as a whirlwind success, but getting past myself and allowing myself to write was one of the longest and hardest experiences of my life. When you are caught in despair, you are caught in the attitude that you deserve nothing. Writing was entirely selfish, and I struggled for many months before I took up the challenge to write daily in November. But a funny thing happened when I started to write, I got outside of myself. I went other places, even if only in my mind. That selfish thing reminded me that it was okay to need and want things. Very slowly, a sense of worth bloomed, blossoming at long last into confidence. The only proof of which was in a tiny, little things - chatting with the cashier at the store, making a friend, pitching my book. By the time I sat at that bankruptcy meeting, I was thinking of a fledgling manuscript I was editing and wishing I had brought it to work on.
I pinned my hopes on writing. Not just financial hopes, but the hope that I could still become the person I dreamed of being. There's a saying "it's never too late to become what you might have been." And, dear readers, it isn't.
If you are reading this, then you probably know that all those hopes culminated into something that changed my life. An agent. A book deal. A career. But really it's more than that. I sleep at night. I still fuss over money and bills and budgeting, but I no longer wonder what I can sell to put food in my children's mouths. I'm no longer ashamed to run into an old friend or visit my alma mater. I meet people's eyes again. I smile more.
Now that the cycle of despair is broken, I can see how much it paralyzed me with what-if's and should-have's and might-have-been's, abating only long enough to allow me to punish myself emotionally and psychologically. Now I look at my pen name and laugh a little at myself for being embarrassed and scared, but cherish it for reminding me who I am. I finally understand that yesterday is gone and all I can do is live in the present and spend each day moving forward. I still have moments of panic and fear, but I'm far enough away from despair that I can take stock of my life and see my reality.
Right now I'm watching someone else I like very much go through something similar, and other people I like very much have come out of the woodwork to lend more than well wishes - many of them have admitted they are facing similar issues. I want to hug them all, and I want to whisper in their ears as they sleep so that it might stick in their unconscious: Keep moving forward. It will get better. Hope. Hope. Hope.
Sadly, that's not possible, and it's even a little creepy.
Mostly I want to send them hope, that tiny fledgling bird that asks so much help from you with no guarantee that something won't break the fragile creature mid-flight. I want to give them that thing that makes them come alive - that allows them to keep believing, but I cannot. I can only offer an "I understand, and I'm here," but know this, those of you facing despair, you can do this and it will be spectacular.
And in the meantime, trust the words of Emily Dickinson:
"Hope" is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—
I've heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.
* As much as I love this poem, I disagree with it a bit. Hope does ask a lot of you, so much that it's easier to despair. But hope will always be the smarter investment.