“You Don’t Want to Know”

Someone asked me today why I’m so behind and what is going on in my life that I’m failing so much, but they weren’t genuinely looking for the truth. That’s okay; I’m not close with this person, they aren’t really a friend so much as an acquaintance. The slightly biting, sarcastic edge to their tone also made it clear that a deep answer wasn’t necessary. But I don’t lie easily, and there’s only a deep answer here. So I answered as truthfully as I could that they didn’t want to know. Because how can you tell an acquaintance that you’re ill, that you’re struggling, that you can’t afford the treatment that you need, and it’s affecting every aspect of your life. You don’t. You blog about it instead, then leave it on the internet where it is incredibly google-able and open.

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Me, probably…

Because here’s the thing: I’m ill. I have severe anxiety, moderate depression and post-traumatic stress. I know this, and although I have years of therapy that have gotten me through the worst of my panic attacks and my inability deal with physical contact and social interactions, it’s not like the symptoms ever go away. Self-talk doesn’t solve everything, and while it can delay or prevent an anxiety attack sometimes, other times I’m standing outside my classroom door surrounded by the pulsing throng of students moving from one classroom to the next and my vision goes blurry and my breath becomes shallow and I still have to go in there and teach. I still have to go in there and pretend to be an expert when my mind is telling me all the while that you barely even speak Portuguese how dare you pretend how dare you have the audacity to want to study this literature how dare you think you deserve to be in grad school at all when you’re clearly not stable enough for it, when the only reason you survived your MFA was because it was low-residency and you could spend a solid month without leaving your house if you had to. How dare you pretend to be a scholarly person when you’re so clearly less than and unprepared. One day I may wake up and learn that the department has finally seen the light, and they will unceremoniously kick me to the curb and give the fellowships to people who deserve them more. I wouldn’t blame them at all.

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Yuri is nervous because he has an untreated anxiety disorder, duh.

I’m working on an essay right now called “I Left My Therapist in Pennsylvania,” and I promised myself that I would pursue proper publication this time instead of just ranting on my blog. I’m still working on it, but here’s the highlight: I worked with the same therapist for years in Huntingdon, I miss her terribly, and I still need therapy despite all the work we did. I’m not in a place where I can afford long-term counseling financially, and while there is a student counseling center at UMass Dartmouth, their website specifically says they are there for short-term needs. I’ve also had very mixed experiences with student counseling centers, and am naturally wary of them. The last thing I need is for the act of seeking treatment to make me worse.

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Me, all the time. I even have the same phone case.

It’s crushing and humbling to admit that I am not doing well on my own, but let’s be clear here: I’m not doing well on my own. I have spent days upon days too depressed to move, or too anxious to breathe, and I constantly feel as if my lungs are in a box at the bottom of the ocean. I can’t focus on anything for longer than about ten minutes at a time. I oversleep, I undersleep, I completely forget to eat meals. I wake up in the middle of the night with my heart beating in my temples, or I step out of class and check my pulse and count it at 140-170 bpm. I shiver. I forget. I get distracted. It’s not like I’m completely alone here in New Bedford; I have a roommate and classmates and students. But with maybe one exception, I don’t have anyone in my immediate vicinity with whom I am comfortable enough to genuinely talk about what’s going on in my life. I try. I’ve always been an open book whenever I can. I like to imagine that maybe my frankness about my mental illness and history of sexual violence could be helpful (dare I say inspiring) to someone else who might not be at a place where they’re able to talk about it yet. That’s why I put it all on my blog, where it’s easily viewed by anyone. So I do talk about my problems with a few different people here, but I never feel comfortable. It’s like I’m wearing a skin that’s not my own, but looks like me, and it’s made of a material that itches at the mind.

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Me, lying awake until four in the morning and then still waking up for no reason at seven.

I hate that my mental illness is officially getting out of control, that I need help but can’t afford it, that I feel so alone when my key contact people live in DC and PA. But more than anything, I hate that my mental illness impacts my academic life. I love academia, love taking classes and writing papers and learning new things. I love challenges and puzzles and critical theory. I love reading novels and watching films and then dissecting them with a critical lens. And while I don’t love teaching, I do appreciate the fact that I am in a position to maybe intrigue someone younger than me in an academic way and share with them what I know. I love academics and I love studying, and my illness makes these things that I love become miserable and detestable and nearly impossible to do.

Why am I so behind in life, so overwhelmed and so stressed and failing at my job, my classes, everything? While there are some external factors (a friend’s suicide attempt last year, a friend’s abusive boyfriend, the recent death of a loved relative), the main truth is that I am ill, and I can’t afford treatment. But that’s not something you want to know.

Dona Flor, her two husbands, and PTSD

In my beautiful Brazilian film adaptations class, we’re currently working on Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos, a 1966 novel by Jorge Amado and its 1976 film adaptation directed by Bruno Barreto. And I have been having a miserable time with it, even though the writing in the book is good and the movie is incredibly well-done.

I know that the violence against women is my huge hangup regarding Dona Flor. I didn’t read very far into the novel before we watched the film, but far enough to know that Vadinho, when alive, was an abusive shitbag of a husband to Flor. He stole her money, gambled away their savings and his own clothes, beat her, everything. Despite all that, he’s portrayed as being her one true love, and after he dies, she’s trapped in such a longing for him that eventually his spirit is forced from the grave and into her life once again. Every time I read anything about Vadinho, I just get sick to my stomach and can’t go on. In part, it’s me reliving my own experiences being with an abusive boyfriend several years ago, but it’s also got to do with one of my best friends who is in a relationship like Flor and Vadinho right now. Things between them are so volatile sometimes that I genuinely fear for her life, and the way Vadinho treats Flor is almost identical to the way my friend’s partner treats her. In this case, I can’t get past the abuse.

Watching the movie made it even harder. There’s this scene where Vadinho is after money from Flor, and she refuses him and refuses him, so he goes after a vase, and she grabs it, runs, tries to avoid him. He chases her and throws her and hits her, and eventually smashes the vase on the ground. Watching that scene play out was like a horror show. The fear, the panic, the danger. The longer Flor stayed with him, the greater her risk. It was a blessing in her life that he died during Carnaval.

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Coming back as Flor’s personal poltergeist, Vadinho gets even worse, in my opinion. Now that he’s no longer living and can only be seen by Flor, he focuses all of his attention on trying to get her to sleep with him. And while it’s true that her sexual relationship with her second husband Teodoro is obviously lackluster, one of the first things Flor tells the undead Vadinho is that she won’t cheat on Teodoro, not even with her deadbeat dead first husband. What follows is Vadinho employing manipulative tactics like gaslighting and peer pressure over an extended period of time to wear Flor down. He constantly presses her boundaries to the point of sexual harassment, grabbing at her body when she’s explicitly told him not to, wandering around naked in front of her, watching (and mocking) while she has sex with Teodoro. All so that he can get her to the point where she would willingly have sex with him again.

And she does. Not surprised at all, to be honest, but so disheartened. I’m also taking a class this semester called Mononormativity in Portuguese, and it’s been great to develop more insight into monogamous relationships, polyamory, affairs, and their place within the scope of a human society. Dona Flor is a novel that would fit right in within the syllabus of that class; it was even brought up last Wednesday. I feel like most people who have a problem with Flor keeping Vadinho’s spirit around do so because of the whole “love-triangle” “cheating/affair” angle, but not me. I have a problem with it because Vadinho is abusive, and the fact that Flor can’t let go of that abuse in her current and healthy relationship is far too real.

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It was that way for me, at least.

I haven’t dated much, but the first guy I dated after my abusive ex meant the world to me. It was the kind of relationship where you feel like the other person hung the stars in the sky, that time was irrelevant, that the universe existed solely for the purpose of bringing two souls together. Usually. Our relationship, especially in the stages where we were starting to become more intimate, was constantly marred by my baggage from not just the abusive ex but also the whole abduction thing that happened when I was 17. Some days would be fine. Other days, my decent ex would kiss me or touch me, and I would have flashbacks that led to panic attacks. Half the time, I bit the panic back and kept going, partially to prove I was beyond the fear and partially out of fear that if I didn’t, I would be left. I did plenty of things I didn’t actually want to do with my decent ex, without him ever knowing that I wasn’t feeling it, because of the baggage I carried from my abusive ex. (I’m certain my decent ex would feel like shit if he knew this, but we haven’t talked in years, so he probably won’t find out).

We see Flor react in a similar way before Vadinho comes back as a spirit, when Teodoro finds one of the places where she’d been hiding money. Flor reacts with panic and shame, and Teodoro comforts her (albeit a little patronizingly) and encourages her to open a separate bank account so that she doesn’t feel the need to squirrel her cash away in the sewing machine.

Teodoro gently begins to undo the damage done by Vadinho, but no person should bear that responsibility alone. If this story were set in a more contemporary setting, I would be hoping to see Flor seeking some kind of professional help to regain control of her life post-Vadinho, but the story is set in like the 40s, so oh well. (This, by the way, is rich coming from the girl who’s been out of therapy for less than a year and already almost as bad as before she started and still reluctant to go back, yeah).

To put it simply, there is no true liberation for Flor, and this is all too true of real women (and men) in in real circumstances with dangerous partners. Part of me wonders, can we really expect a man writing in the 1960s to seek liberation for Flor? But perhaps it’s even more important that instead Amado just tells it like it is, magical elements be damned. Flor will always carry Vadinho with her, just like I will always carry my abusive ex. When we see it laid out in another person, real or fictional, it can help us identify dangerous situations of our own before it gets worse. Could Flor’s curse to carry Vadinho become a real person’s liberation? That is the best we could hope for. That is the best I can hope for.

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I want to like this novel, I really do. Amado’s prose is so strong, his characters so developed, his world so well-crafted. But for me, I just find the whole story really fucking triggering.

 

If you are in an abusive relationship, you should know that you do not deserve to be treated that way, whether you’re a woman, a man, nonbinary, anywhere in between. Men can be victims of domestic violence as well, and women can be perpetrators. Your gender has nothing to do with your right to a safe, happy and loving relationship. If you are in an abusive relationship, there are places you can go, people you can call, who can help. You can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline in the US. In my hometown, you can get in touch with Huntingdon House, or in the central PA region you can contact The Abuse Network. In the Southeast Coast region, you can get in touch with The Women’s Center, which has offices in New Bedford and Fall River, or SFS Family Centers. Please remember that you are strong and you are brave, and you deserve so much better, so much more.

Literature Into Film, A Live Reaction

So, as some of you may know, I am a major film buff. I have been casually studying cinematography since middle school and have visited a couple film museums. I am taking a class for my PhD program right now where we’re studying film adaptations of Brazilian novels, which is already set to be one of the highlights of this semester. For this week, we’re talking about some basic film theory in class and the process of adapting (or “translating”) works of literature into film. As such, we were assigned to read Linda Costanzo Cahir’s book Literature into Film: Theory and Practical Approaches (2006). What follows is a live stream of my reactions to the book as I was reading it.

Is this book outdated due to the increase in digital technology since its release?

This book’s exacting detail into the physical process of making a film is delectable.

Parallels between film editing and literary editing; have not thought of this before.

I love this book. 10/10 would recommend.

Continuity editing vs. montage editing. Montage like stream of consciousness.

Omg I just said that and then there were tables

Took until 18% of the way through the book to mention Citizen Kane

I know a lot of this film terminology already

I want to go to another film museum

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE NOW I WILL HAVE NIGHTMARES

“Literature is the least expensive art form” no shit, she says and cries into her ramen.

Auto and Film industry same goal? New thoughts and vantages. I like.

hehehehe Duck Soup

I’m glad I’ve been casually studying film since middle school.

I would like to see a film version of O Verdadeiro Ator

MBFGW is a fabulous film and deserves all of its accolades

So glad I sat in all of Capouya’s lectures on film translation/adaptation

Auteur theory, Roland Barthes, the death of the author —  nothing new there

Was literally just talking about the death of the author with Kari

SIGNIFIEDS AND SIGNIFIERS I LOVE CRITICAL THEORY

Remember that time I wrote dating advice for different philosophies/critical theories in undergrad? I do.

Derrida is bae.

“The best boy is the primary assistant to the gaffer” Um, no sir, pretty sure Best Boy is Yuuri Katsuki. #ViktuuriTrash

My first research project on cinematography was in seventh grade in Kathy Rotruck’s class.

Fun fact, Jean Hagan was actually a decently talented singer. She coulda dubbed herself in the singing too. Lol Singing in the Rain is so freaking meta

The book is bringing up “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to talk about how closely the song is paired with the images in the film. I think that “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is like that as well, when you see Meet Me in St. Louis. I grew up with that song, but after seeing that film, I will never be able to separate it from the image of that little girl destroying those snowmen.

I’ve never seen Apocalypse Now.

Film is a visual medium, yes, and that is where it derives its power. But I wonder, what about audio captions for the blind? What is that experience like?

Hmm. Think of the novel and the film as a diptych. I like

OH OH OH MASTERPIECE THEATER GETS A SHOUTOUT

Rebecca!! I was waiting for that adaptation to be referenced in this book.

hehehe A Room with a View. Omg my mother. Will never forget.

And here’s some text on The Manchurian Candidate. Been expecting that, too.

I love this book it’s fabulous. My fangirling helps in academia once again.

Finally some more in-depth talk on Kurosawa. Did not know he did The Death of Ivan Ilych as Ikiru. ADDED TO THE LIST

Oooh a table of all of Kubrick’s films.

I like Winona Ryder, but I’ve never seen The Age of Innocence

Table 10 is called Novel-based Women’s Films of the 1930s and 1940s, and I just found my new watch list.

Ooh a Michael Ondaatje novel. The English Patient. Added to the list.

I mean, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid was marvelous, after all.

Oh, it’s got themes of post-colonialism. SOLD

Bringing up how novelizations of films are usually pretty sucky. Good point. People complain a lot about movies not being as good as the book, but have you ever tried to read a novelization? Ugh.

CHAPTER FIVE PLAYS INTO FILM I WANT THE BEGGAR’S OPERA IS THERE ONE PLEASE PLEASE

Reminded of the time I wrote three papers on Hamlet in college because I was emo and depressed and Ophelia spoke to my soul.

Ophelia still speaks to my soul.

The David Tennant/Patrick Stewart Hamlet is perfection.

Choosing to talk about Lady Windermere’s Fan is interesting. It’s not as well known.

BUT if they’re talking about a silent film adaptation, they’ve got to know what they’re talking about

SHAKESPEARE

I also feel like Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing deserves a serious shoutout here, while we’re on the subject of Shakespeare.

The Taming of the Shrew. Kiss Me, Kate. Ten Things I Hate About You. Love them all.

IS MAN NO MORE THAN THIS??????

Hedwig and the Angry Inch has a mention. Actually some real paragraphs to it.

STOP EVERYTHING I JUST CONNECTED THAT JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL WROTE HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, WHICH I’VE ONLY EVER LISTENED TO THE SOUNDTRACK OF, AND HE IS ALSO THE PERSON THAT VIKTOR NIKIFOROV IS VISUALLY BASED ON WHAT IS MY LIFE I AM #ViktuuriTrash ALL THE TIME

KUBO-SENSEI NEVER FAILS TO SURPRISE ME

Chicagooooo

Short Stories into Film. Chapter six. Glad I won’t have to read about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which I have yet to see but cannot expect to be decent.

Of course we start with Poe.

If I didn’t have an MFA and if I hadn’t spent years studying short fiction, this would probably make a lot less sense.

I can’t do that visual from The Pit and the Pendulum. Stop, please. No.

How tf do you get an 86 minute film out of “The Raven”??? Like, the short stories I can see, but “The Raven”????

Poe and Hitchcock in the same chapter, be still my heart

The Birds is a terrible film.

“The Birds” is a terrible short story.

Rebecca is good though.

NOTORIOUS IS MENTIONED HEAVY BREATHING COMMENCES NOW INGRID AND CARY AND BRAZIL I LOVE YOU

Hmm, some Berthold Brecht. Goodbye, fourth wall.

Rear Window is perfection, ngl

Why is Daphne du Maurier so good at being so creepy? I love it.

I’ve never read Dubliners…

I’ve only seen The Maltese Falcon once…

AKUTAGAWA!!!! (#learnedabouthimthroughanime #bungostraydogs #noshame #thecharacterssuperpowerisrashomon)

ARTHUR C. CLARKE I CAN DIE HAPPY

Am I power reading? Maybe. Do I know most of this information already? Yes.

I write film reviews on my blog sometimes. I could probably skip this chapter.

I don’t like writing screenplay though. I’ve tried, it’s not my jam

Ooh, a picture of a young ScarJo

Basically, yes. I am skimming this chapter and it is literally all about how to write a critique/review of a film. Which I have been doing for years for fun.

I guess I am a little more likely to review music or literature…

Currently I’m most likely to review anime, though…

And that’s it. I hit the appendix. Kindle bumped me out of the book.

  1. Finally found it. This book came out in 2006. NO WONDER

Bring Harps and Lutes, Kazoos, Trombones and Flutes

Or just your pots and pans, because this is a celebration! These past few days, Over the Garden Wall turned two years old! Happy birthday to one of the greatest shows to come out of the American animation industry in the past decade!!!

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Originally airing over the course of five days starting on November 3, 2014, Over the Garden Wall is a Cartoon Network miniseries following the lives of Wirt, Greg, and their frog as they journey through the Unknown. Along the way, they meet a woodsman with a lantern, a lovesick schoolteacher, a kleptomaniac horse, frog police, Auntie Whispers, and the Old North Wind. The two lost kids push their way through the woods, guided by bluebird Beatrice, hoping to find their way back home. Along the way, they’re pursued by the Beast, a Wendigo-esque creature that lurks in the trees waiting for them to lose hope so that he can consume their souls (albeit in a roundabout kind of way). This series is an Emmy award-winning modern masterpiece, and so much has been written about it and explored already, particularly on YouTube. Channel Frederator’s Cartoon Conspiracy series has tackled Over the Garden Wall three times, and they’ve also dedicated a 107 facts video to the show. (Spoilers, btw)

A couple days ago, I rewatched Over the Garden Wall in its entirety, which was a delight, but also got me thinking about what it is that makes this show so fabulous. I love animation, but I don’t actually go back and rewatch many things. But Over the Garden Wall is one of the few series that I could watch over and over again and never get bored. In fact, when the last episode ended, I almost immediately started the first again and had to remind myself that that was kind of crazy. Every time I watch this show, I become completely absorbed in it. And while I definitely wouldn’t want to make it any longer, I never want it to end.

A large part of what makes Over the Garden Wall so successful as a story is its terror. I say terror, not horror, because the majority of the scary situations are frightening because of their existential roots. The Beast isn’t out to eat the brothers’ flesh, but more complexly he watches and waits for them to lose heart so that he can claim their souls and turn them into edelwood trees. This creates a looking-over-your-shoulder kind of tension for Wirt, which leads him to lose hope all the more quickly. Turning into a tree is a horror, but the real fear is rooted in the terror of losing your soul to despair. Similarly, what is menacing about Adelaide isn’t so much her desire to turn Wirt and Greg into child servants as it is her declaration that she will stuff their heads with cotton so that they will obey her. She will destroy their minds. And again, with the demon possessing Lorna, it is horrifying that the demon eats people and leaves only their bones, but it is even more terrifying that such a demon possesses an obviously kind and gentle girl like Lorna.

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Choosing to value existential terror over the more physical horror elevates the fear moments from cheap jump scares to the deep questions of metaphysical dread that are always creeping at the edges of human consciousness. These moments are scary for children, yes, but they are also scary for adults. In this way, Over the Garden Wall shows a great amount of respect to the emotional intelligence and comprehension of its viewers, regardless of age.

It also keeps itself tied into the older traditions of children’s fairy tales. In several of the Brothers Grimm original fairy tales, a beautiful woman marries a king or a lord, and is given a specific command, like “Do not open this door and go into this room.” When she does, she encounters a room of blood (or something equally horrifying) and discovers the wickedness of the man. She may or may not be able to defeat him. However, if she had followed the rule, she would have been safe. Fairy land and magic have rules, those rules are arbitrary, and breaking them can result in chaos and peril (a theme well-explored in George MacDonald’s Phantastes). We see this time and again throughout Over the Garden Wall.

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Fairy tales have been famously sanitized in the late 20th century, so much so that if a child were to read the originating tale of any 90s Disney Princess film, they would not necessarily recognize what they were reading. Apart from removing a lot of death and body horror from these fairy tales, some of the sanitization comes in removing simple wickedness from the villains’ motivations (this is why Doctor Facilier is so much scarier than any other modern Disney villain; he has no reason and receives no benefit from messing with Naveen). Over the Garden Wall does not remove the wicked. True, the Beast must keep the lantern lit because that is where his soul resides, but he has no reason and gains no real benefit from tormenting the Woodsman. He does so to be wicked. Adelaide wants to kidnap children to be wicked. The demon eats people because it is wicked. The rules of the Unknown include real evil, real terror, real fear as consequences.

Over the Garden Wall manages to achieve its tone by  steeping itself in the traditions of fairyland terror while balancing them throughout with sugar cubes of humor. Just as memorable as Auntie Whispers ringing the bell is Miss Langtree singing her lament over Jimmy Brown. The Beast is an omnipresent threat, but the banter between Wirt and Beatrice is just as constant. And Greg, well, Greg is the eight-year-old we all wish we were, immune to a sense of danger and impervious to fear. He’s the best and most frustrating kind of Cloud Cukoolander, which might be why his dreamland travels take him to Cloud City. Ultimately, it’s Greg’s self-sacrifice that snap Wirt out of his stupor and get them both home, in true Cukoolander fashion.

On this most recent viewing of Over the Garden Wall, these are the artistic strokes that most left an impression on me as a repeat viewer and devout fan. As a fairy tale, as a folk tale, as a Halloween story, Over the Garden Wall works because it’s fear comes from a place of wickedness and internal terror. As a series, it works because it uses that fear softly, creeping around the edges of the mind, while simultaneously sweetening life like potatoes and molasses.

 

If you are now dying to watch Over the Garden Wall, it is available on Hulu.

I Am the Negative People

As a denizen of the internet, I tend to pick up on the trendy trends of typing hands millions of miles away around the interwebs. So do you. It’s normal. I’d be shocked if a kid from PA didn’t know whether they lived in Steeler country or Eagle country, even if said kid approached football with the complete blase attitude of someone who is too tired to deal with it. It’s culture. And since we live online (at least, I do), it’d be weird to not notice the trends of internet culture. Anyway, I say all of this as a preface to complaining about an internet thing, namely an internet self-help thing that has bothered me for like two years. And I’ve reached the last straw.

I’m tired of the internet telling me to cut out negative people from my life as if it is a magic cure-all to my social ills.

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If by peaceful, we mean devoid of deep emotional questions and problems, which are what distinguish humanity from other living things on earth.

I was reading a HuffPo article this morning on loneliness and ways to overcome it. The article poses loneliness not as the result of being alone but more as a compounding of mild depression and anxiety without ever actually saying that it is compounded mild depression and anxiety. Because the author uses the catchall term loneliness to describe actual mental health conditions with real names, he gets away with a condescending tone that might cause actual damage to people actually struggling. In one paragraph, he says that loneliness may have chronic routes in childhood abandonment or abuse and that therapy can help, but then he comes back around shortly to say that:

Life is too short to waste on suffering from core loneliness. Please heed to my suggestion: Open up, take a chance and access the hidden part of you that deserves true and loving companions. Heal your childhood wounds. Learn to love yourself and eliminate loneliness from your life!

This frustrates me to no end. If someone has diagnosable depression and/or anxiety, which is what he is noticeably really talking about throughout this entire article, they aren’t wasting time or life on suffering that can just be healed up if they talk about their feelings once. These are medical conditions that can require lifelong care and treatment from professionals, including talk therapy and medication. Learning to love yourself will not cure depression. I absolutely adore myself. I think I’m the bee’s knees. Yet I still suffer from social anxiety and occasional bouts of crippling depression. And these conditions make it difficult for me to function as a totality, not just in getting to know people. When I am depressed, I have to try to do things like shower and brush my teeth. That isn’t loneliness.

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Ignores the fact that cloud cover makes it easier to see.

But what it is, is negative. When you are struggling with a mental illness like depression or anxiety, everything is cast in grayscale and shadows. The dark and difficult questions of life are constantly bubbling to the surface of your conscience, whether you want them to or not. One of the symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which most people make fun of as a need to keep things orderly, is obsessively dwelling on graphic and horrific things like rape and death, imagining either yourself or loved ones in those scenarios, and being unable to think about anything else. It’s not like you want to spend three hours obsessively thinking about all of the ways your mother could die tomorrow; it just happens that way. And when that is what is on your mind, it can be difficult to maintain a facade of happiness around your more mentally-stable friends and family.

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I’d rather be hiding from zombies, but whatevs

So what does the author of this HuffPo article suggest to cure your loneliness (aka mental illness)? He’s got a list of eleven steps, hooray! The bottom of the list is even a suggestion to consider therapy. But way before that, making it into the top five at number four, he says:

Weed out the toxic relationships and create space in your life for relationships that fuel your spirit. You can’t grow lovely succulent vegetables with a large patchwork of weeds.

Because people are plants. Yeah, that makes sense.

Early in the article, he also said:

Paradoxically, lonely people believe they are essentially unworthy of healthy and mutually respectful relationships with loving, affirming and mutually giving individuals. They imagine that if they were to tell someone they are lonely, it would scare them away. Therefore, they are attracted to people who, like themselves, are similarly lonely, needy and insecure. As a result, the self-fulfilling prophecy is actualized. This sad but dysfunctional dynamic is the thesis of my book, The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us.

You guys, he wrote a book on this topic. He wrote a book on this topic. He is obviously a genius master when it comes to the art of understanding people.

EXCEPT, here is the problem with telling people to get rid of the “negative people” and “toxic relationships”, as this and so many other self-help posts on the internet want you to do. Are you ready for it? YOU ARE THE NEGATIVE PERSON!

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Too late, suckas

If everybody cut out the negative people from their lives, then everybody suffering from a mental illness would automatically be out in the cold. I have been accused of being a negative person in the past, and I have been dropped as a friend for this reason. I can guarantee that this is not how people should be treating their friends with mental health problems. If you are genuinely lonely, genuinely depressed, and you think that cutting the negative people from your life will solve your problems, you are wrong.

Also, I would like to draw a strong distinction here between “negative people” and “toxic relationships,” because this article and most others like it use the terms interchangeably, and they are not. “Negative people” is a (hilariously offensive) short hand for people whose negativity can be exhausting and incomprehensible for people who have never struggled with those things, and these people are more than likely to be dealing with a mental illness. Toxic relationships are ones that actually harm you. By equating the two, this author and others like him are saying that being mentally ill in the presence of your mentally healthy friends is tantamount to being a violent, abusive person. Toxic relationships are ones of abuse and power dynamics, and while I’m not saying that mentally ill people are immune from being the abuser in a toxic relationship, I am saying that they are not the same thing. Of course people should break free of their abusive relationships. I have been in abusive relationships, and you should definitely kick those people to the curb if you can.

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Because my friend who is constantly complaining about her abusive boyfriend and is too scared of his actions to break it off is as bad as her abusive boyfriend, right? 

I guess what it comes down to is this: Loneliness can be a symptom of depression and other mental illnesses, which can be treated medically by licensed psychologists and psychiatrists, and if you are struggling with that, this is what you should pursue. But you should never, ever cut someone out of your life because they too are struggling. Before you know it, you’ll be the most negative person in your group, and you’ll be the next to go.

Because there’s no such thing as a negative person. There are only people who are struggling and need compassion and love.

About that half a year…

So I’ve been trying to get back into the swing of things with my blog, slowly but surely posting again, both life content and stuff that could vaguely be considered literary analysis/criticism, and I’ve mentioned before that I took an unintentional hiatus from my blog. I also said that I’d post something about this hiatus, so here goes.

Basically, to sum it up, I had a very deep post-MFA depression.

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I graduated in June 2015!

I don’t know if I’m a resilient person or not. For the longest time growing up, I was a genki girl; nothing fazed me, I could strike up a conversation with anyone, I could become friends with them in a matter of minutes afterward, I was always full of energy. That changed, and I feel like I’ve always been trying to get back to that genki state ever since, but it just never seems to happen. Instead, the opposite seems to be true.

A couple friends from my MFA, who finished a term or two before me, and I were all chatting one night toward the end of my final residency about life post-MFA. One of thos three guys said something that night that stuck out to me then almost like a premonition. He said that what they wouldn’t tell us was that we might get depressed, very depressed, afterward. That it might take a lot of time to restructure your writing life and social life and everything. I think I was already getting the post-MFA depression hanging around Tampa, no workshops to go to, no one to tell me how much they loved or hated my fiction. After the MFA ended, I applied for a couple of jobs teaching English composition, got a couple of interviews, and got a couple of “thanks but no thanks” follow up emails. I dedicated myself to PhD applications for a while, then I traveled. I went to Hawaii, I went to Argentina, I went to Indiana.

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Some Hawaii for you.

The first six months after my MFA were so occupied with the applications and the travel that I didn’t have any time to slow down. I started a dozen different short stories, only about half of which made it to longer than two paragraphs, none of which reached completion. I wrote five poems related to faith, read a couple of them in my church. When I was in town, I co-taught a junior high Sunday school class that had two students. When I wasn’t in town, I was seeing black sand beaches and sea turtles, my best friend’s wedding, my sister’s cat in a sweater. Up through the holidays, I was going too non-stop to let anything settle.

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Best wedding, guys. Ever.

It was only after all of the travel was done and I was waiting to hear back about PhD programs that I started to sink. I couldn’t find a job, not even at the grocery store. I walked through downtown Huntingdon one day and stopped in at ten places to see if they needed help. None did. The weather was cold, but never quite the deep freeze that it should have been. I fostered a dog for three weeks who had been abused before giving him to his loving new mom. I stayed home, I watched anime, I read books. I made cosplay after cosplay. I got rejected from three programs within a few days of each other in February.

I baked loaves of beer bread and pans of brownies. I got into high quality hot chocolate, made some every day. I stopped reading books. I stopped writing. I stopped watching anime and stayed in bed for hours, always only about three quarters awake but never quite committed to being asleep. I had stories in my head, and I thought through them, but never put them to paper.

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Leslie Odom Jr. AND Daveed Diggs! Plus Javier, who was also my Usnavi.

My job at the IU, which usually starts up at the end of March/early April, didn’t truly start back up until the middle of May, so I was left for an extra two months without work. During these two months, a couple of big things happened. I took a bus by myself for the first time since I was abducted at a bus station. I became one of the lucky few to see Hamilton on Broadway. I got accepted into the PhD at UMass Dartmouth. I went to Zenkaikon and met Dante Basco. Things seemed like they were going up, and they were. I was getting out of my house with friends. I was doing exciting things. Then, of course, on our way home from Zenkaikon, my friend Sam and I were run off the highway by an 18-wheeler in the rain. We rolled three times and landed upside down in the median, alive and without serious injury, but shaken up in our own ways. Back to the bedroom for Maggie.

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I couldn’t find about half of the things for my nice Korra, so I made do with what I could. 

Once the work finally started, a job that usually employs about four people was down to just me, and I did the work of four people by myself for most of the family survey project this year. I was able to bury myself in the family survey work, but as is the case every year, the family survey is a soul-sucking project. And it definitely sucked my soul dry again. I was accepted into the program, waiting to hear about funding. Waiting to hear about funding. Waiting all summer long to hear about funding. I didn’t have a fellowship guaranteed until about three weeks before the start of the semester, so I spent most of the summer convinced that it would fall through, trying to figure out what else I could be doing with my life. To borrow a phrase from Spanish, I’d spent most of the year al pedo, doing nothing and going nowhere. Weeks when the workload at the family survey was lower, I was practically a NEET.

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The big envelope got there about a week after the email.

I didn’t realize until the end of July that I was depressed, because when I’ve struggled with depression in the past, it’s not manifested in this way (at least, not in a long time). This depression is an empty ringing in the back of my stomach, a hollowed-out, cavernous space beneath my ribs. To be honest, it’s still sticking to me like tar. I’m plenty used to anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares, flashbacks, anything that falls within the myriad of symptoms of PTSD, but this type of depression isn’t usually a part of my symptoms.

The starkness inside, the vagueness at the outer edges, I haven’t felt like this since my senior year of high school. It took me until three years after my senior year of high school to realize how depressed I had been that year. That was the year I stopped eating lunch because going to the cafeteria was overwhelming and I didn’t have the motivation/energy to pack a lunch each day. That was the year I skipped as many classes as I could every single day to hang out in the computer lab, in the back corner, to take sporkle quizzes and play tetris online. That was the year I learned how to act normal despite internal chaos, and (to my credit?) very few people even noticed I was unwell. I didn’t even notice it. I just thought I was lonely.

One day toward the end of July, it dawned on me that I was depressed. I’d been playing Pokemon Go hardcore and felt better than I had in months, but unless Pokemon was involved, it was almost impossible to get up the nerve to do things out of my house or with other people. Realizing I was depressed didn’t actually change anything but the recognition. Recognizing you’re depressed opens up the option of getting help. If you are depressed, get help.

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The very first time I took over a gym, July 12, 2016. Before Lady Vay even had her nickname.

When I recognized myself, I decided that one thing I needed to do was start blogging again. I hadn’t ever intended to stop, I hadn’t intended to start an album review series only to drop it a couple of posts in. I hadn’t intended for my blog to become a dormant site, only picking up views from the randomly large number of people who really seem to care about Ruth (seriously, I don’t understand why this post gets new comments still. It’s three years old). I want to maintain this space. I want to maintain myself, even while depressed, even while anxious, even while pulling off the greatest act of normalcy this side of my seventeenth birthday at my new university.

So if you wondered why I stopped blogging, or if you didn’t even notice until I brought it up, there you have it. Mental health. Obvs.

You’re an orphan? Of course!

“You’re an orphan? Of course! I’m an orphan. God, I wish there was a war, then we could prove that we’re worth more than anyone bargained for.” — Hamilton, An American Musical

One of my favorite moments in the movie Moonrise Kingdom (2012) happens after Sam and Suzy have pitched their tent in their cove, and they are talking about their futures and their lives. Here’s the scene below:

I love this scene because it hits on something so prevalent in fiction, especially fiction aimed at children and teens, that I noticed a lot as a young reader myself. Many main characters in books written for that age range, especially in fantasy and science fiction, are orphans.

Disney is probably most notorious for killing its protagonists’ parents, and the Disney wiki even has a page dedicated to listing orphans. There are loads of articles available online speculating the reason for this, but most significant is the 2014 interview with Don Hahn in Glamour Magazine. Apart from speculating on the death of Walt Disney’s mother, Hahn says:

One reason is practical because the movies are 80 or 90 minutes long, and Disney films are about growing up. They’re about that day in your life when you have to accept responsibility. Simba ran away from home but had to come back. In shorthand, it’s much quicker to have characters grow up when you bump off their parents. Bambi’s mother gets killed, so he has to grow up. Belle only has a father, but he gets lost, so she has to step into that position. It’s a story shorthand.

Hahn goes on to speculate that Walt Disney avoided maternal figures after the death of his own mother, for which he blamed himself, which is a touching story but doesn’t really pan out as an explanation. Parentless children are a massively recurring motif in all media geared toward children and teens, not just Disney films.

What gets me about that Moonrise Kingdom scene isn’t just how blunt Suzy is in talking about wishing she was an orphan because her favorite characters are, it’s also Sam’s shocked face and equally blunt, “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” So often in children’s and YA fiction, I feel like authors write orphans and just don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s just story shorthand to help this young character become incredibly wise beyond her years as quickly as possible, or it’s just a Tragic Backstory to get instant sympathy from the reader.

What bugs me about the trope the most, though, is the failure to then show the more complicated aspects of life without parents, or life lived in an extended family member’s or stranger’s home. Speculative fiction is most guilty of this, especially epic fantasy and dystopian science fiction. Parents of main characters in these universes may even be seen as a burden and gotten rid of, despite being loving and supportive. Remember when Hermione uses Obliviate to erase herself from her parents’ memory, effectively turning herself into an orphan?

As someone who grew up in a home with both of her biological parents, I’m not sure I should be the one to comment on this. But adoption has played a significant role in my family’s composition (my one sister is biologically my half sister and was adopted by our father as a baby; three of my cousins were all adopted as children) and one of my deepest desires is to get involved with foster care and work with teens that have been screwed over by the system. And even if it was by choice to study abroad, I spent a year of my teens living in strangers’ houses and being subjected to verbal and emotional abuse by one of my host families. The older I get, the more pressing the desire to be a foster parent is for me–and the more I pay attention to the overwhelming and contrived representation of orphans and parents in fiction.

Anime, especially shonen action/adventure, but also mahou shojo and everything in between, tends to be the a huge culprit of orphanhood in the name of fast character development, and I watch a lot of anime, so I notice it a lot. Sometimes the parents are dead, sometimes the parents skip out, sometimes it’s a mix of both. The big problems of “who changed that baby’s diapers?” or “how is this child getting money to buy food to eat?” or “who signs this child’s parental permission forms?” or “where the hell are Child Protective Services????” rarely, if ever, get addressed. Our main characters move into temples to replace local gods or start working as butler/bodyguards or join elite crime fighting organizations or go through a life of exclusion with only the hope of becoming Hokage at the end of the verbal/emotional/physical abuse tunnel.

The most typical case I can think of of mishandled fictional orphanhood is that of Sailor Jupiter. Sailor Jupiter, aka Makoto Kino, is the fourth Sailor Scout to join the senshi lineup. She’s tall, got curly hair, loves to bake and arrange flowers, is massively strong and is probably forever in love with her senpai. Jupes is also a fourteen-year-old who lives completely alone because her parents died in a plane crash when she was two. We learn details about Jupes’s parents’ death in “The Melancholy of Mako-chan,” a chapter in Sailor Moon Short Stories 1, but the details are just there to dress up a general feeling of malaise. She’s lonely, and it’s clear that she’s lonely because she’s a child living alone with no family, but instead of actually delivering some emotional depth or growth, Jupes is given a fear of airplanes, lots of tea and a fancy couch. And unlike a series like Naruto, which is set in a completely fictional universe, Sailor Moon is set in 1990s Japan. Where are Makoto’s guardians?? Why has she been left to live alone her whole life? And she has been, because when her parents’ death is briefly brought up in the main storyline, she says she’s been alone for a long time.

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These panels have been flipped and read left to right, as in English.

I love Sailor Jupiter, she’s my favorite of the Inner Senshi, she was my second ever cosplay. But I’ve always felt that her backstory was unrealistic and irresponsible. She can be a orphan whose parents died in a plane crash, but give her legal guardians. Japan doesn’t have the greatest track record for foster care programs or adoption, and in fact has a general problem with it despite its comprehensive laws and guidelines, but there are systems in place. Even if the systems failed Makoto Kino, let the systems fail.

The fact that so many characters in anime, and in media in general, are orphaned in worlds in which there are no systems in place has begun to really bother me. I find myself asking time and again, “Where are the adults? Where is CPS?” I know these systems are flawed, but maybe let’s write those flaws instead of ignoring them altogether. Instead of using orphanhood as a story shortcut to create mature characters, let’s actually explore what this might mean for our characters.

I can think of two stories off the bat that do just this, and do it perfectly. The first is Disney’s fabulously perfect 2002 film Lilo & Stitch and the second is Yuki Midorikawa’s hauntingly beautiful manga and its anime adaptation, Natsume Yuujinchou. In the first, Nani is trying to make ends meet as her kid sister’s legal guardian while social services is breathing down her neck. In the second, titular character Takashi Natsume has been shuffled from relative to relative to institution to relative all to keep up appearances after his parents die, and the emotional scars this has left on him are dealt with delicately and thoroughly. In both of these examples, orphanhood isn’t used to quickly age up the characters, nor is it used as tragic backstory to garner sympathy from the reader. Their lives, the interference of the State and of relatives, and the emotional maturity of the characters are all at an appropriately explored and realistic level.

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Ohana means family. Now go cry.

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Touko and Shigeru literally had no idea how bad this kid needed rescuing from a failed system, but they did it anyway. My life goal is to be Touko for someone.

And just in case you’re unfamiliar with these stories, neither one is anywhere near realistic fiction in terms of genre. Lilo & Stitch is a science fiction comedy about an alien genetic experiment gone wrong and Natsume Yuujinchou is about a boy with spiritual magic powers who inherits a book that allows him to command a legion of yokai. These are speculative fiction stories, which are so often guilty of orphanhood as fast character development. Yet these stories take the time to do right by their characters and their worlds, even while presenting us with parentless children.

In fiction writing, we talk about killing our darlings, and this trope is definitely our darling when dealing with stories for kids and teens. Don’t kill the parents for a quick characterization fix; kill this trope.

 

 

**I do know there’s an entire subgenre of tough reads in American YA that often deals with these issues more closely, but they aren’t anywhere near as popular and I’m mostly talking toward SF, so don’t chew me out later please.**