you poured one more highball then I had to go before my heart overflowed — on depression and making things

I went to XOXOfest again this year. Like last year, I didn’t go to the conference portion, just the festival part, but I still have some things to say about it. All the other pieces you’ll read about XOXO will mostly be about the conference talks, and you’re probably wondering, how can she write anything about a conference she didn’t attend?

Because that conference/festival is stacked full of smart people doing wonderful creative things for a living that they love, and I talked with a lot of them.

I talked with them while wearing clothing and accessories I made for myself, clothing and accessories I’ve spent years learning how to make. At this point I’m good enough at sewing that I never make anything from a sewing pattern I haven’t self-drafted or altered to fit me. I can look at a sewing pattern and see exactly where it won’t do what I want, or exactly where it won’t fit properly on my body, and if I can’t find the right sewing pattern to buy I will just make one myself. And of course I’ve been making jewelry professionally and personally for ten years.

Someone told me that in her XOXO talk this year, Erin McKean said that it’s really important for her to do something creative that she never has to show anyone. Most XOXO attendees know McKean from Wordnik, but I know her from her sewing blog, A Dress A Day, which I’ve been reading almost since its inception. She was, of course, referring to her sewing as the creative thing she doesn’t have to show anyone. She can throw out a dress muslin that doesn’t work, or she can take apart a piece she doesn’t like and correct her mistakes, or make it into something else entirely.

This is part of what sewing and jewelry-making represent for me as well. My fabric scraps bin is full of clothing parts that weren’t successful, my bulletin board is tangled with jewelry prototypes I’m not satisfied with, and I even have a little drawer labeled “failed experiments.” I didn’t start doing any crafts at all until 2004, but now I don’t know how I ever lived without them as part of my identity.

peoplegettinghi“Why haven’t you finished that book you were writing about your road trip?” a friend asked me at XOXOfest. We were sitting on the patio at another friend’s AirB&B, and I had just come down from climbing a huge ladder in the yard because I could (more on that later).

“Do you really want to know? I have a serious answer,” I said.


“Because living with depression and anxiety means that I can’t be a person who examines my life in that kind of detail. That road trip was a very emotional time for me, and it’s hard for me to function if I look at it too closely.”

You want to know how I function? I keep the TV on in the background. I make things out of fabric and metal. I read crafting blogs and good novels (but not too good or they’ll make me sad) and overly-deep online think pieces about TV. I avoid certain types of music. While I make things I keep episodes of “Bob’s Burgers” or “The X-Files” on a loop.

I exercise. Hard.

I sleep a lot.

I stay in the shallow end.

This routine is what makes me okay. This routine forms the covering on my nerves that keeps them from getting too raw.

At XOXOFest John Roderick and Sean Nelson did a show where they played a lot of their old Long Winters material. The Long Winters is/was one of my favorite bands, and I’ve always been disappointed that they haven’t put out an album in so long. I arrived at the show 20 minutes early to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

They opened with Carparts, and I cried. It wasn’t a balls-out sobbing, ugly kind of crying, but it was there. I hadn’t listened to that song in years, because it makes me think of one day of my road trip, of driving alone through falling snow from Rapid City to Mount Rushmore the day before Easter, and thinking about someone specific. Roderick and Nelson do such beautiful harmonies, and that plus seeing live music for the first time in forever plus being smacked in the face with that memory, and I was a goner.

They closed with a cover of “The Only Living Boy In New York,” and I cried again. Then I cried the day after I got home from XOXO. Then I cried again yesterday. My sleeping and exercise and carefully crafted non-thinking were not in place in Portland, and my nerves went raw.

I don’t really make things to show other people anymore, at least not on the internet. I make things to sell people, and I make gifts, and “hey, check out this dress I’m wearing! I made it!” is technically showing other people, I guess, but that’s not what I mean.

What I mean is that I used to make things for people to read, but I don’t know how to keep doing that without destroying myself.

Like I said, at XOXOfest I was surrounded by people who make things for other people, and it made me wish I still did. It made me miss that feeling of having said something out loud that I think is true, and hoping that someone else will think it’s true too.

I’ve said before that I feel like not writing in public is like lying to myself in some way, and I still think that’s true too.

Yesterday someone I don’t know said something on Twitter like, I don’t know why @bluishorange isn’t crushing it in a master’s creative writing program right now (I am paraphrasing because it was a nice thing to say and I don’t want anyone to go looking for the specific Tweet; if you find it please don’t say anything to them). My Twitter account is private, so I never get mentioned by people I don’t know. I had Twitter open in a tab, so the @bluishorange mention popped up right there in the window, and seeing it felt like my heart had dropped out of my body.

Why aren’t I out there crushing it in a master’s creative writing program right now? Why aren’t I making stuff for other people to see like my friends at XOXO?

I have had other people say things to me similar to that tweet. The best one was, “You don’t have any reason to have as much self-doubt as you do.” The second-worst one was, “Man, when I first read your blog I thought you were going to be a super famous writer.” The worst one of all was when someone came up to me in a coffeehouse in Austin and said, “Hey, didn’t you used to be bluishorange?”

I’ll admit that some of my sadness with regards to not crushing it in a master’s creative writing program or being a super famous writer or being bluishorange anymore has to do with missed opportunity. This site used to be awfully popular, and it isn’t anymore. The landscape of the web has changed, and so have I, and most of that isn’t my fault. But I don’t always remember that. What if staying in the shallow end means I’ve missed my chance to say things to a larger audience?

I’m told that a lot of the XOXO conference talks were about making things through bouts of depression, anxiety and uncertainty. I suppose maybe watching those talks online will help me some, but mostly I just want to ask those people, “Yeah, but how do you DO that?”

I’ve been wondering how I can combine my crafting skills with my desire to make things for other people and have those things say something I think is true, but I don’t know if that idea exists.

Over the past several months I’ve been taking trapeze lessons and doing circuit training, and I’m fitter and stronger than I’ve ever been in my life. I climbed the ladder in that yard because it was fun, and also because I knew it was something I would do that nobody else would. If I can’t be a strong person who writes, at least I can be a strong person who climbs things and does flips.

owning it: snark, sincerity and panic at XOXOFest

xoxofest opening

xoxofest opening

On Friday, after the opening remarks at XOXO festival, I decided it was time for a nap. I’d been walking and talking and drinking and socializing in Portland for two days already; I was exhausted, things had stopped making sense, and I knew it would only get worse if I didn’t try to relax. So I went back to my room at the AirB&B, got in bed, and stared at the insides of my eyelids for two and a half hours. I couldn’t fall asleep. My heart and my thoughts were scrambling to see which could go at a faster pace.

But there was no point in lying there awake when I was on a trip, right? I got up, grabbed my things, and got on a bus to meet some friends. I texted a few people to see if they were still where I thought they’d be, but I didn’t hear back. Where were they? Would they be there when I arrived? Had they forgotten about me? Did my phone really even work? Not knowing what else to do, I got off the bus downtown and walked towards my transfer stop.

And then I started crying. At first it was just a little lump in my throat, then some tears in my eyes, and then I was holding back sobs. I could feel my heartbeat throughout my entire body. I couldn’t calm down. I was all alone in an unfamiliar city, and I was a mess. I thought about calling a cab, but then I’d have to talk to the driver. I thought about walking all the way back to my room, but then I’d have to talk to the lady who owned the house. I was so embarrassed. Another woman at the stop noticed me and looked like she might say something, but I turned away. The bus came, and again, not knowing what else to do, I got on it.

When I got off at my second stop, I was in a neighborhood I’d never seen before. I couldn’t find my friends, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to, because by now I could barely breathe. I sat down on a bench and looked at my phone, but I still hadn’t heard from anyone. I was all alone in an unfamiliar city and nobody knew where I was, but it didn’t matter because nobody cared. I sobbed.

I could’ve sat on that bench forever. I was too frightened to get up, and I wouldn’t have known what to do once I got up anyway. Should I take the bus back? Walk back? Keep trying to find people? No matter what I did, everyone would see that I’d been crying, and that wouldn’t work. Why could all my friends handle these things and I couldn’t? Why had I even bothered to come?

I started thinking about maybe just going straight to the airport and taking a standby flight back to Austin, when I realized that there was someone in town who had seen me cry before, and he had a car with him. I texted Ryan.

Alison: Did Jenny take your rental car?
Ryan: It’s down here with us by Ground Kontrol [bar/arcade where there was a party] – I think she’ll be taking it soon. What’s up?
Alison: I came to meet some friends but I can’t find them and I’m pretty far away and they aren’t texting me back and I seem to be having a panic attack.
Ryan: hmm Huff was heading that way. Where are you exactly?
Alison: Hoyt and 21st. I texted him but he didn’t respond.
Ryan: Take a cab to Ground Kontrol, I’ll meet you there.
Alison: Ok getting cash.
Alison: Can you come out when I get there
Ryan: already out.

It helped to have someone tell me what to do, someone who was expecting me. I got up from the bench and looked around for an ATM, but first I found a Trader Joe’s, the sight of which I found unreasonably comforting. At Trader Joe’s I bought some trail mix and got cash back. The cashier said, “How’s your day going so far?” Great, I said.

I called a cab, and when I got in and gave the address, the driver said, “How’s your day going so far?” Great, I said. We got to Ground Kontrol where Ryan was waiting outside. I paid, got out of the cab, and immediately started crying again, in that sort of floodgates-opened way that happens when someone sympathizes. Why does nobody care, why can everyone handle things that I can’t, what’s wrong with me, that sort of thing, all came rushing out.

“I know that all of these trains of thought are a result of mental illness, but that doesn’t make them go away,” I said to Ryan, “and I don’t know how to make them go away! Do I not already take enough medication? What’s it going to take to make me normal?” We started walking down the street, where of course we ran into somebody we knew.

“Hey, what are you guys doing?” Sandy said.

“We’re going this way!” I choked out. I pointed in a random direction and started walking ahead a little, hoping Sandy couldn’t see me crying behind my sunglasses.

But it didn’t matter if he could see the tears, because my distress was pretty obvious. When he and Ryan caught up to me, Sandy said, “Are you okay?”

“Not even remotely,” I said. Sandy gave me a little pat on the back, and he and Ryan kept talking as we walked. I walked along in silence for a bit, and then joined in the conversation once or twice. When Sandy broke off to go do something else, I had calmed down enough to realize that being around other people and listening to them talk about other things was helping to pull me out of my own head.

frowny face day

i wear my sunglasses at night

So Ryan and I met some friends for dinner, where luckily we were seated at the bar so I could sit on the end and hide my puffy eyes behind sunglasses and not participate in conversation too much. I felt a little better, so I went along to a party at an advertising agency, where people actually complimented me on the sunglasses I was still wearing even though it was night. I drank a beet juice cocktail and talked to a few people and laughed and it was good.

And then I had a few realizations and made some decisions.

1. It’s time to own it.

I spent an inordinate amount of time and energy during my panic attack trying to make sure nobody knew it was happening. I was afraid to take cabs or go back to the house or call anyone because I didn’t want people to see me like that. I thought about texting around to see if anyone had a Xanax I could take, but I didn’t because then people would know I needed it. When Ryan and I ran into Sandy, I was mortified despite the fact that Sandy is a perfectly wonderful person who no doubt has friends or loved ones who have had panic attacks.

But what’s the point of doing all that pretending? I write about depression and anxiety here, so most people know I deal with it. Why do I care so much if they know exactly when I deal with it? I used a lot of emotional resources I didn’t have in trying to pretend, when I should have just been like, “Hey, guys, I’m having a panic attack. Can someone either come get me or tell me where to meet them for maybe a walk or a decaf coffee or something?” If anyone thought poorly of me, they could just fuck right off.

When I say it’s time to own it, I don’t mean that it’s time to make everyone stop what they’re doing and focus all their energy on me. It’s not an attention thing. I just mean that it shouldn’t be a big deal to say, hey, I’m not doing that great. Let’s keep walking, talk amongst yourselves, and I will calm down shortly. And maybe from now on it won’t be a big deal.

2. It’s time to get real.

The subtext of all the negative thoughts I had when freaking out was lost on me at the time, but given a day, I was able to sort it out.

Has everyone forgotten about me?
Why does nobody respond?
Why does nobody care about me?

All of those thoughts have their roots in a sort of self-absorption that, while I can’t control it when I’m panicking, isn’t an ideal way to be otherwise. I’m the protagonist of my own life, but I’m not the protagonist of the world, and other people have their own problems that have nothing to do with me. I found out later that of the people I hadn’t been able to find during my panic attack, one was searching for his lost luggage, one was wandering around town with a dead phone, and the third had gone for a much-needed nap, which I didn’t know because I was texting her old phone number. Nobody was thinking, “Fuck Alison.” They were all just living their lives.

And anyway, I shouldn’t frame everything that happens to me in terms of what other people can do for me. I should think about what I can do for them. At the very least, I should tell people I appreciate them.

a shop door, favorited

a shop door, favorited

So I spent Saturday handing out some word favorites. When someone did something nice, I said so. When someone told a story from their life to help me feel better about a story I told, I let them know it helped. Most people got off easy, with a “Hey, it was very observant and helpful of you to notice that problem and fix it,” or a “Thanks for making me feel less lame about XYZ,” or a “I love having you and Cinnamon as conference roommates!”

A few people got a speech. The speech always ended with me telling the person how much I value them, but it still took a pretty long speech to get there. I talked Warren’s ear off about how our brains try to trick us into insecurities and about how people need to be more sincere. Rusty’s speech was in the form of an outline that was like

  1. blah
  2. blah
    1. blah
    2. blah
    3. blah
      1. blah
      2. blah blah blah blah blah blah blah

or something. Oh, and during most of these speeches, I cried a little. But that was okay, because I’M OWNING IT.

(It’s not lost on me that giving people a giant speech about my problems in order to tell them I think they’re neat is nothing if not self-absorbed. Baby steps, though.)

3. If I’m not familiar with your genuineness, I don’t care about your snark.

xoxofest at yu contemporary

xoxofest at yu contemporary

I spent Sunday in a sort of relaxed stupor. Mostly I sat at a table on the first floor of the building where XOXO was being held, puttering around on my phone (I have a smartphone now! I’ll be back to defend myself later), writing, or talking to people whenever they came by. Ryan sat with me for awhile, and we picked up a conversation we’d started a few months ago about Twitter comedy. I’d told Ryan that I didn’t like so-called Twitter Comedy, that thing where people just tweet a bunch of jokes that are So! Carefully! Crafted! and sometimes funny, but don’t ultimately mean anything to me. He’d asked me to be more specific, but I couldn’t at the time.

That day, Ariel had tweeted a link to this article, which sort of boiled it down for me. Twitter Comedy feels like it’s all coming from one general viewpoint, one I agree with but get tired of hearing about. Ryan said that maybe my problem is that I don’t really do a lot of that boring stuff mentioned in the article. I spend my time writing, reading, or making tangible objects while watching old TV shows. He’s right that I don’t do all the same things as Scott Simpson’s Boring People, but I do recognize myself as one of them to an extent. I’m an atheist with fancy jeans who likes steel-cut oats and Mexican Coke, and I definitely do not stop talking.

Then we got into a discussion about snark. I said that Twitter Comedy reminds me of that thing people do where they make fun of things because it’s easier than saying what they really think. A whole lot of that goes on at web-related conventions, both SXSW and XOXO, and I’ve always had a hard time with it. Part of the reason, I think, is that snark belies the fact that the snarker (and the snarkee for that matter) is a real person with feelings. We’re all real people with feelings, but if someone’s only made of jokes as far as I can tell, I have no evidence of Real Person or Feelings and therefore have a hard time remembering that those things are there. When I’m surrounded by a lot of snark, I end up feeling like I’m the only person whose feelings get away from them sometimes. I’m the only person who deals with depression, or panic attacks, or sitting down on a bench and being scared to stand up. Everyone else is fine and wonderful and perfect and has no problems.

But, Ryan said, you follow a lot of people on Twitter who make snarky jokes. What makes them different? And that was when I blurted out the thing that boiled it all down for me: “If I don’t know your genuineness, I don’t give a shit about your snark.” And that’s really it. To enjoy your jokes about how everything sucks, I need proof that you do not actually think everything sucks. Or, if you do think everything sucks, I need proof that you have a personal reason for thinking everything sucks. I have a lot of jokey Twitter friends that I might unfollow if I didn’t know them otherwise.

Obviously this is just my personal take on snark. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who don’t need proof that people are real like I do. I’m a very fragile and sensitive person (OWNING IT), but I know not everyone is like me. And I also know that snark is something people use deliberately to avoid the emotional peril of being a real person with feelings. If that’s what you’re doing, I understand, because I’ve done it too.

4. It’s time to get out of my own head.

Because the thing is, people don’t just offer up genuineness apropos of nothing. They offer it up as part of an exchange of ideas, or an exchange of vulnerability, or similar. I can get as angry as I want at people being snarky instead of genuine, but how do I fix it?

I fix it by asking people about themselves. Where are you from? Have you been to Portland before? Do you like the festival so far? What have you liked most? It’d be hard for someone to answer those types of questions in a non-genuine way, and hearing those answers will help me see people as real, will help me get out of my own head, will help me stop thinking constantly about what other people can do for me.

So, if I met you in Portland but didn’t ask you anything about yourself, I’m sorry. I should have, because you are interesting and cool! But sometimes I live in the back of my head instead of in the front.

(I know that a lot of the talks at XOXO addressed vulnerability, and I wish I had seen them, but I only had a festival pass. I look forward to watching them online and finding out that other people said all this stuff before, and better than I did, and recently!)

(I don’t always love to get comments on my posts about health, mental or otherwise, but in this case I welcome them. In fact I might feel weird if nobody says anything. SAY STUFF, PLEASE.)