According to Facebook, on May 31st, 2007, at 2:09 am, I was “full-up with excitement.” I don’t know what about, but I’m guessing it had something to do with being 19 and living alone in San Francisco. My first little pocket of independence smelled like dirty pigeons and public urination, but after a week the bodega clerk knew what flavor of Ben and Jerry’s I liked best and the well-heeled men working the corner’s night shift walked me home in the wee hours. It was enough to hold me for ten months, after which I left for New York City on a restless whim.
In New York, I ran a restaurant. I brunched. I sample sale’d. I weathered cycles of emotional highs and lows, spending money I didn’t have and lashing out when I felt myself sinking into the dark yawn of devastation that always followed. I had a lot of sex, and eventually got pregnant, and then got pregnant again. The words ‘depression’ and ‘mania’ hadn’t become a part of my vocabulary yet.
I can tell you what I wasn’t ‘full-up’ about ten years ago: my mental health. The direction of my life. Actually becoming a writer instead of just telling people I was one. The New Year’s Eve I’d spend in a psychiatric ward, laceless shoes gaping at my ankles, a carefully smuggled Three Musketeers bar melting in my fist. The isolation and desperation that permeated most of my children’s toddler years. The rage when I understood that I’ll be living with a brain on fire for the rest of my life. The work it took to get over it and just live.
In my late teens and early twenties, Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt” was the theme of my existence. There wasn’t a single song more in tune with how I felt day-to-day, and that conviction continued through my tumultuous early twenties. Then, somewhere in the mix of motherhood and healing, I lost it. Trent Reznor’s ghost-ish, moaning, radio-static vocals didn’t pluck my center chord anymore.
Driving along woodsy back roads with a friend this afternoon, Johnny Cash’s cover came through the speakers, and my friend commented that Cash is great, but the NIN version is the gold star. It’s just such a beautiful song, you know?
I arrived home and washed my children, scrubbed their faces and scalps, filled their bellies with turkey chili, and hastily swept them off to bed. When the house quieted I stood in the kitchen stretching and bending, touching my hands to the cool floor, wrapping my fingers around my ankles, tipping forward to let my hair drape itself in loose coils across the laminate. I hung, hinged at the hips, and the music was soulful, but it wasn’t my ballad anymore.
Stepping out of the shower afterward, I stared at my reflection. It felt good to see myself under nothing but a gloss of slowly evaporating water. It felt good to run my hands over myself, to have a self to hold in my hands. This self that writes through fear, and graduates from MFA programs, and throws herself into raising her two children well, and says ‘bipolar’ the same way she says ‘brunette,’ the same way she says ‘size 22.’
Ten years on, I live in the home I ran away from a decade ago. I hug myself at the end of the day. I look myself in the eye. What was once a badge of pain is now the music that I dance to in the kitchen after midnight. It’s a fucking beautiful song.
Elizabeth Austin is a poet, photographer, and visual artist. She is currently a graduate student in Creative Writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in the Schuylkill Valley Journal, See Spot Run, Foliate Oak, and Driftwood Press, and has been featured in a collaborative exhibit with photographer Sarah Jane Sanders at the Norton Center for the Arts. She currently lives in Newtown, Pennsylvania with her two children. Follow her adventures on Instagram: @elizabethbeingqueen.
Elizabeth wants you to check out A Love for Life, an organization celebrating life and friendship and adventure, dedicated to raising funds for pancreatic cancer research. A partner of the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, 100% of the money raised goes to funding cutting edge research in Philadelphia. Visit aloveforlife.us