Monthly Archives: November 2015

Validate meeeeeeee…

My cousin Tegan recently graduated from Michigan State with a degree in art and a minor in Mandarin. Because what normal English-speaking teen contemplating a minor in a foreign language doesn’t go for an ancient, tonal, character-based language over say, oh I don’t know, Spanish? Tegan, that’s who. Also, she’s an absolute self-taught wiz of a computer programmer. No bigs.

Clearly, Tegan chose a path. A weird path. And she absolutely excelled. That’s awesome.

Yesterday, though, I thought back to my (non-)role in some of those moments where she was deciding on a path and had to laugh a bit at myself as I thought about the concept of validation. You see, back when Tegan was maybe a junior in high school, she was basically good at everything and trying to figure out where to go with that — both school- and major-wise. Naturally, my dream for her was a four year tenure at Michigan Tech for a chemistry degree. Because of course that’s what a bright young woman should want to do. See how well it worked out for me?

Obviously, I had zero effect on Tegan’s choice (unless she was actually leaning toward a chemistry degree at Michigan Tech and my life somehow turned her off, but I choose not to entertain that possibility with any real seriousness), but I sure as heck could have been a lot more supportive and/or helpful. I could have said, “It’s a tough choice, dear Tegan, maybe we should talk about what lights you up… so what do you love? What beautiful things do you imagine for your future? Where do you feel at home? Do you want me to share with you how I made my choices?”


All of this came flooding back over lunch on Friday. I had traveled two hours north to Minocqua for a day long meeting and spent the brief lunch break chatting with Mike, a local pain psychologist. He said something about all psych folks being “fruit cakes” and I said that’s why I loved my psychologist so much — because he validates my crazy (good news: my grief process and dealing with depression appear to be normal as of Wednesday, also my injection of humor to serious situations is a good thing, sweet validation). Then… I’m not sure how we got on the topic, exactly, but Mike’s high school aged son is interested in a career in scientific writing (he sounds to be a grade-A introvert and super into learning, definitely a good candidate) and when I recommended a more scientific route (as opposed to a more English/writing-based approach), Mike mentioned that that was his son’s goal after having seen the husband of one of the local pediatricians perform some chemistry demonstrations at his high school.

Those chem demos? Performed by none other than my sophomore year p-chem lab partner from good old Michigan Tech, John (because small world). Ah ha! And I instantly started pushing — oh he’s just got to go to Michigan Tech for a chemistry degree, both John and I did, obviously the best of decisions. See!! Seeee!! Seeeeeeee?!?!

Validate meeeeeeee!!!


And in that record-scratching-to-a-stop-moment, probably because I had just admitted to requiring validation from my psychologist only minutes before, I recognized what I was doing. Did it stop me? No, I don’t think so. But it at least made me think about it. And how much I hated this very thing and yet, I saw it everywhere and all the time and I was guilty of it constantly.

I first recognized that need for validation when I was finishing up in grad school. I knew, like deep down in my weary bones knew, that I did not want to go into academia. I didn’t want to come up with the ideas or write the grants (ha) or run my own lab or be responsible for other people’s careers in a competitive, fund-limited field. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life studying one small thing. I wanted something different, something that used my talents and passions in a different way, but it was hard to even see any other options. Honestly, I’m just ridiculously lucky that I stumbled into scientific writing. I barely even registered it as a choice before coming across the job that I ultimately got. And when I did get it, people were pretty pissy with me — for opting out of academia, for going in not just a different direction, but the wrong direction.

I was mad about that for a long time. I wanted my professors to be proud of me, but as I walked away, I felt like everyone behind me was shaking their heads in disappointment instead. Then again, how could any of them know anything other than academia, the path they chose? And given that that was the case, how could I honestly expect them to encourage me otherwise? Who doesn’t like to be validated??? Who among us doesn’t honestly feel like they need it, especially when the choice they’ve made was a hard one? And no doubt, academia is amongst the hardest.


After the meeting in Minocqua ended, I got back in my car and drove south past home and all the way to Milwaukee for the annual Call To Action meeting. I made it just in time to hear Zach Wahls speak; you probably remember Zach as the eloquent young man who, raised by gay parents, went viral on YouTube after testifying in favor of marriage equality in front of the Iowa legislature a few years ago. That young man is now a few years older and a polished and professional advocate for equality and social justice. It was an amazing talk; many would disagree on principle. Similarly, this morning, I heard one of the most brilliant and prolific theologians of our time, Sister Joan Chittister, speak about the importance of the public intellectual for the evolution of social and institutional change; again, many would and do disagree.

And, in bringing these beautiful talks back to that idea of validation that I’ve been turning over in my mind, I’m left wondering: how much of this religious strife does validation account for? How much of that worry about the eternal salvation of that-guy-over-there-doing-the-wrong-thing’s soul is really a worry about the validation of our own???? I mean, if that guy is somehow doing the right thing, what does it say about my personal prejudices?

I don’t know the answer. Maybe it’s not at all. But it seems related. Like maybe most of our arguments against equality, change, growth, evolution might actually be about fear — about lack of validation for the status quo, for the habits, patterns, and beliefs we hold dear. Maybe instead, we should all consider saying what I should have said to Tegan all those years ago — you do you, whatever lights you up.


PS: I met Joan Chittister today. In person. So, yeah, that lights me up. No Mandarin necessary.

Meeting Sister Joan

As pointless as an inside out raccoon.

Once upon a time, some medieval a-hole invented the oubliette: a dungeon modeled after the mythical bottomless pit. The only entrance, a trap door in the ceiling, was so far overhead that the person banished to the depths went mad with hopelessness, knowing they were left in the dark to be forgotten. (Or something like that.)

Clearly, the aforementioned medieval a-hole was familiar with the concept of depression. And weaponized it. Genius. Mad genius.

Today, I greet you from the depths of the oubliette, depression having settled in like an old friend I never really wanted to meet in the first place. But here he is and the associated fog will likely cover the faint glint of light from the mouth of the pit for a while. It’s my job (with the help of medication) to work really, really hard to remember that it’s not actually hopeless and I do actually matter. But first, how did I get here?


Are you familiar with Jenny Lawson? Alias: The Bloggess? Author of Let’s Pretend this Never Happened and, more recently, Furiously Happy: A Funny Book about Horrible Things? I kind of adore her — her irreverence and frankness about mental illness is a thing of beauty and I think she’s done a lot, lot, lot of good for a lot, lot, lot of people who might otherwise feel very alone. Her point: we’re all broken, some of us more than others, and for those of us in whom that means mental illness, it is a legitimate disease worthy of medical treatment. And that is all. That and a silver ribbon to be worn with pride — I am surviving. No shame.

Anyway, I’m reading Furiously Happy right now and the star of the show is Rory the furiously happy raccoon (see book cover):


Rory is a taxidermied raccoon. Taxidermied to a state of permanent, furious, happiness.

I kind of dig Rory and all his maniacal excitement. And I fully understood what it meant to be a taxidermied raccoon — once upon a time he was alive, he died, his skin was removed, he was stuffed, posed, preserved, the end.

But then last weekend, this horror show took place in my backyard (not a fan of gruesomeness? scroll by real quick):

inside out raccoon

Not actually my backyard, of course, but the backyard that butts up to the edge of mine. So close enough. That’s a raccoon. Hanging from an apple tree. Having its skin removed.

An inside out raccoon.


I was disturbed on Saturday, but when it happened again on Monday morning (happened again on Monday morning because #Wisconsin), less so. I mean, that’s how you make a taxidermied raccoon, right? Even a furiously happy one was once upon a time dangling from something having its skin removed.

The premise behind the idea of being Furiously Happy, a la Jenny Lawson, is that when you suffer from severe bouts of depression, it steals the joy right out of your life. So in those moments when you can be happy — you should be furiously so. Embracing life and adventure and goodness and joy to the fullest in those moments when it is in your power to be in that place, when the fog isn’t hanging over you, when all the exclamation points haven’t mysteriously vanished from your life. Or, as is apropos here, when you’re not busy being turned inside out, be like Rory.

I liked that analogy for depression — an inside out raccoon with the potential to be happy again, given a little help from a skilled taxidermist with a good sense of humor.

But then again, once the inside out raccoon suit was off the bare raccoon body, my neighbor took the pelt (is it a pelt? is that what we call the removed skin/fur???) inside the house and left the (now naked) raccoon body hanging from that tree. It swayed there for a long time and I couldn’t look away. What do you do with a dead, naked raccoon, I thought? I mean, people don’t eat raccoon, do they? That naked raccoon isn’t going to get furiously happy — just his little suit. So… what’s his point?

My neighbor came back outside with a bucket, untied the raccoon, dropped him inside, and carried him away to who knows where. To nowhere, probably.

And I realized that I felt past the point of the little raccoon suit with the potential to be happy again. I felt a lot more like the dead, naked, slightly swaying, completely pointless raccoon left hanging on the branch. It was just grief at first. I was so sad, and with good reason, but I had moved past that point. Somewhere in my grief and brokenness, I had convinced myself that that’s all there was. That I was pointless.

I had let myself slip back into the oubliette.


The thoughts that came and went (and still sometimes come and go) are scary. I wished to not be loved — because then it would be easier to disappear, no heartache left behind. I wished for tragedy of the variety that was unquestionably not my fault yet would somehow lead me to oblivion. For an end because why was I bothering anyway. I did not matter and that the people who for some reason thought that I did would be better off without me… when they realized that there were prettier wives that were good at keeping their families healthy, children with the ability to produce grandchildren, sisters that don’t harbor ugly jealousy, writers with more talent and less baggage, friends with the ability to smile, nieces without drama, etc. I want to be all those things to all those people. I have been none of them. I had no point.

I don’t want to lie to you. I’m still there to some extent. It’s a bad neighborhood of the mind, as my aunt would say, and I wander there frequently these days. But I do have some good days too. Thanks to the people that love me, goodness knows why, and the mental health care I have sought — needed to seek. But maybe most of all this time because someone else heard what I said and shared their own story with me and I thought for a second, hey, we just connected. And maybe connection is enough of a point. Enough of a reason. Something that matters.

And connection does keep happening, when I really stop and think about it. It has for a while and it has very frequently recently. In ways that I didn’t really expect. Not just those who have experienced the loss of a pregnancy or a child, but those who have been to broken places for other reasons too. People who look so shiny and bright on the outside that there’s just no possible way for that to not be the whole story, except of course there’s more. And they said to me, “hey… me too, because this thing…” And dang. That’s powerful stuff.

On the surface, it seems a little bit like misery-loves-company, but it’s not. It’s a lot more like hey-let-me-lend-you-my-strength. Let’s-walk-together-for-a-sec. I’m-going-to-hug-you-gently-with-my-words. I’m-going-to-show-you-something-tragic-yet-beautiful-and-remind-you-that-it-is-possible-to-be-furiously-happy-again.

For those moments, for those people, and for the people that love me… that I love back… I’m going to hang on. I’m going to remember that even an inside out raccoon isn’t really pointless. That the bottom of the oubliette is temporary and that somewhere above me, no matter how far away it seems, there is light.