I write this five days away from my birthday. It's a birthday I'm very happy to celebrate and I'm elated about not having any plans but to cancel all my meetings, eat chocolate chip pancakes, and spend the day at a Korean bath house. I'll likely devote the day after to rollerskating for as long as my legs can stand it.
This is how my life has looked recently—finding as much pleasure I can in the interstitial moments of life. Gilding the lily of my precious time.
Whether it was my being born an only child, or the I of my INFP my personality asserting itself, I have been blessed with an abundance of alone time. So much so that I have to come up with ways to spend it so that I'm not isolating myself. Perhaps, in that space, I can hear myself think and I can clearly see where the world ends and I began. Or, maybe it's a relic of the childhood wound from when I was bullied by peers and over looked by indifferent public school teachers. I was then, in the words of nearly everyone, too sensitive. Through this lens, my childhood maladies make the most sense, my little white blood cells only wanted to protect my little sensitive self—a precarious immune state that literally required I be alone.
Now, as an adult, I realize it is my responsibility to care for myself. To eat healthy, spread love over my woundings, remind myself that it's not personal, spend time in the sun, etc. But, when I was younger, sensitive was an insult. And when my family put me in therapy, I thought they were saying something was wrong with me—like in those surreal moments where I got in trouble for reacting to the bully. I see now that they were telling me, in the best way they could, that it's OK to not be OK all the time. In one session, I remember the therapist looking at me, smiling wide, and telling me that I just had a low tolerance for bullshit.
Years later, as my family prepped me for college, my mother, who is sensitive but wears the armor of the world a little better, handed me an article about what people wish they would have done in college. There was one entry she singled out for me. In it a woman who attended MSU in the 60s wrote with deep regret of her friend calling her one night and leaving a voicemail asking to study together. The woman was busy, didn't feel like it, didn't caller her back, and figured she'd see her friend later. But the next day her friend was found dead after committing suicide. The woman wrote that she wished she would have picked up the phone. We spent the evening in discussion over what asking for help looks like and whether that woman could have saved her friend.
After years of my own self-work, I know that I can only save myself. However, I look deeply into the faces of my own friends and wonder if there are any signs they might be communicating. But I have found that even friends put up walls, wear masks, say they are alright when they are not.
When I left NYC, people had one question: Was it a break up or a breakdown? Oh, the disappointment when I said it was neither. Is that what a breakdown was supposed look like? Would that have been a recognizable cry for help?
I'm writing this because I'm reeling at the news of the death of a classmate. News reports are suggesting suicide. In hindsight—over texts, group chats, Tweets, and Facebook posts—we are trying to understand. I didn't know her well, but her existence impacted me. She reflected things to me I wanted to see in myself. We followed each other on social and I followed her career though the pieces she published. She made it all look easy.
In class I tell my students that they don't yet know how their lives will touch people, that a glance or even a brief exchange could ignite something in someone. I remind them that this is them changing the world as much as any accomplishment. With our desks in a circle, we steal moments to talk about mental health. And then we talk about the best songs to dance to. It's important to me to let them know that there is no perfection and things don't have to be "heavy" for them to be important enough for our attention.
Sensitive children grow up to be empathic adults. In learning to put that same empathetic attention on myself, I've had to learn to identify my own cries for help and take action, unplug from anything that might have me question my self-worth, and abandon any sense of embarrassment around what I need. What's more, is I finally understand that that therapist was right—in my sensitivity I couldn't tolerate anything that didn't feel authentic. Sensitivity is an alarm system.
Humans are sensitive. We are fragile and we forget it.
When I forget, when I spiral, when I ignore or am ignored, I remember that I can do whatever I want with the time I have. I remember my father bringing home doughnuts and holding my hand. I remember my mom running to me in a panic to say she spotted Jack White inside the Garden Bowl as a ruse to get me to my own surprise sweet sixteen. I remember my aunts and uncles, and how at the end of nearly every gathering, the stories come out and no one is safe from being reminded of where they come from—everyone is in laughter and someone asks, "Remember when Rene had Cambrey?" They scream and my birth story starts. I remember black and white photos of my father drinking Champagne in the 60s. And I think of my great grandmother learning the waltz and the ghost that haunts the family home that only visitors can seem to sense. I remember that I am all of them and that we were all born perfect.