I was standing on the sidewalk outside my apartment building, impatiently waiting for my dog to go pee. Just under four months old and maybe seven pounds, Benny was scared of the outdoors. At nine p.m., the neighborhood was dark and filled with terrors—like windblown McDonald’s wrappers and planes flying overhead. Getting Benny from the apartment to this stretch of grass was a task in itself. He had to be carried down each set of stairs (even the two steps at the front of our complex. Anyone who dared walk within plain sight had to be stared at until they passed us. We had to stop and sniff every blade of grass or crack in the sidewalk to figure out who and what had been here before us.

A man in his late-20s or early-30s walked by where we stood and got into a black ’90s Expedition, parked along the street. I’d driven a car just like that during my senior year of high school and the start of college—after my Explorer (the smaller version of that car) broke down on me too many times. Since Benny wouldn’t take two steps without stopping, we remained in the same general vicinity as the man sat in his car, playing with his cell phone.

“Hey,” the man said through his rolled-down passenger window. Though I assumed he was talking on the phone, I looked up out of sheer curiosity.

“Hey,” he said again. “I have a favor to ask. If I give you ten or twenty dollars, will you save my spot while I run to the store real quick?”

“Um…”

“I’ll be back in like ten minutes. I can give you cash right now.”

“Um, I’m not going to be out here for that long.” It was the only response I could come up with.

“I’m just going to the store and coming right back.”

“Sorry… no. I can’t.”

“Okay,” he said. And then, under his breath as I pulled Benny back toward the front gate, “bitch.”

The thing is, the name calling wasn’t the worst part of that interaction. I’ve been called a bitch before. I can shrug it off, laugh it off, ignore it—and move on with my day. It was that this guy actually thought it was an acceptable request to ask a complete stranger to guard a parking spot for him. In the dark. In a neighborhood just blocks away from Inglewood. As a small woman. With a tiny puppy too scared to pee outside. Was I supposed to just stand there, saving enough space for a large vehicle, for an indefinite amount of time? Defending the spot against other cars who’d be excited to find an empty space on this crowded street? And then, when I politely refused this unreasonable request, he had the nerve to call me a bitch?

Nothing happened here—the guy called me a name. The end. However, it was the expectation and muted hostility behind his words that got to me. The fact that this man thought I owed him a favor. I don’t know where he got this sense of entitlement from. Why would paying me offset the possibly dangerous and uncomfortable task he was asking me to do? When you park on a public street and leave, you don’t retain any claim over that spot. Upon your return, you should have to drive around—in circles or up and down nearby streets—until you find a new one. I’ve had to do it many times. It sucks, but it’s just a part of living in LA.

 

In the midst of the #MeToo movement, I’m so grateful that I’ve never been sexually assaulted or been in a position of real danger purely because I’m a woman. But—similar to this Expedition-driving man incident—I can rattle off hundreds times where a man has expected something of me or made me feel uncomfortable just for being a female.

Not even thirteen years old, and grown men would whistle and holler and honk their horns at me as they drove by slowly. I didn’t even realize how disturbing this was at the time. I was a child, but men two or three times my age saw me as as an object of desire.

After I’d been at my first job for a few months  (I was 16 or 17), I found out a coworker had called “dibs” on me, forbidding another coworker from making a move on me. While I may have been slightly flattered, these guys were more than ten years my senior and arguing over who was allowed to entertain the idea of pursuing me. For a while, I dressed up as the restaurant’s mascot—a giant bird—twice a week for extra pay. The outfit was made up of a pair of yellow leggings; a fat, red body; a giant head with limited visibility through the mouth; and a pair of clown shoes. One night, a man groped my leg and whispered, “I know you’re a girl bird.” A quarter-inch of fabric separated his hand from my thigh, and I couldn’t even say anything. It was against bird-code to talk (just like at Disneyland).  

On my 18th birthday, I went to a club for the first time with a group of girlfriends, wearing a strapless, zebra-print dress that was easily the most scandalous outfit I’d owned at that point in my life. Two songs in, and a man danced up behind me and tried to slide his hand up my dress.

As an adult, I’ve encountered more and more men who act as if I exist just for their entertainment. Until my current position, I’ve been told to smile more at every single job I’ve worked. I’m balancing a tray of hot food on my shoulder, concentrating on not dropping it or running into someone—why am I not smiling? It’s 7 a.m., there’s a line wrapped around the store, and we’ve just run out of soy milk—why don’t I look happy? I’m carrying my third cup of coffee to my desk to churn out 1,500 words on plumbing in the next hour—why don’t I look excited to be here?

I’m not going to apologize for not having a permanent smile on my face. Telling me I look so much better when I smile is not going to force the corners of my lips upward. Asking why I look mad or scared or tired won’t change the position my face naturally falls into. I refuse to change who I am solely because someone else thinks I should.

My fellow ladies—please don’t ever feel that you have to say yes to something that makes you uncomfortable, that you have to smile just because someone tells you to cheer up, or that you aren’t worth what you know you are (and it’s a lot; you are amazing, in case someone hasn’t told you that today).

Here’s everything I’ve tried over the past few years to manage my anxiety and panic attacks:

  • Breathing exercises.
  • Yoga.
  • Praying.
  • Meditation.
  • Running.
  • Marijuana/CBD.
  • Xanax.
  • Antidepressants.
  • Diet changes.
  • No alcohol.
  • Sleep.
  • Fidget cubes.
  • Thyroid tests.
  • A new job.
  • New roommates.
  • Red wine.
  • Magnesium.
  • Stress gummies.
  • Writing.
  • Coloring.
  • Mental health days.
  • Tea instead of coffee.
  • Aromatherapy.
  • Deep tissue massages.
  • Long talks with friends and family.

Some things have worked—temporarily, at least.
Some haven’t worked at all.
Some have made things worse.

But none has been quite as effective as the 12-pound ball of energy curled up next to me right now.

His name is Benny, and he’s a mini poodle/miniature pinscher mix. I adopted him in November 2017, and he’s since made my life exponentially better. Though he’s an expensive little booger (carpet cleaning supplies, vet bills, toys, treats, and new sheets add up), he adds so much more to my days than he takes away.

I’d been talking about getting a dog for years, but I couldn’t make it work for one reason or another. I worked too much, my apartment wasn’t dog-friendly, my commute was too long, I wasn’t financially ready, etc. A product of an irresponsible breeding situation, Benny was worth the wait. More than a pet, more than an exercise partner, more than a cuddle buddy—Benny is family. Yes, it’s cliché, but hear me out.

To avoid a hassle with my apartment complex and to make travel to see my family on the East Coast easier, I asked my doctor to write me a letter, essentially prescribing me an “emotional support animal.” I didn’t have to make up a mental health issue—as she had already been treating me for anxiety for over a year—but I still felt like I was cheating the system. It’s a term that doesn’t mean much; your animal doesn’t have to be trained or certified in order to be called an emotional support animal.

This squirrel-chasing, leaf-eating, sock-stealing little weirdo demonstrates unconditional love every day. It doesn’t matter if I’ve been in the shower for 10 minutes or on vacation for a week, he’s always overjoyed to see me. When he curls up against me at bedtime or sneaks a wet kiss when I’m not looking, the tightness in my chest loosens up. My thoughts slow down. The muscles in my face relax.

The other day, I counted how many pills were left in my bottle of Xanax—an as-needed prescription drug for when my anxiety attacks are too much to handle. There were 12 left. It was filled at the beginning of November—just a couple weeks before I got Benny—with 25 pills. To put things in perspective: I used to have to take one at least once a week. Since Benny came into my life, I’m down to one every other week. It may not seem like much, but, to me, it’s a significant improvement to my well-being.

So, here’s to you, Benny Boo. 💛

I’ve always considered myself to be a fiction writer.

I lived in my imagination as a kid (and yet, I was pragmatic to a fault at times; just ask my dad). Long before I’d experienced any real pain or suffering in life, I wrote “chapter books” about The Underground Railroad or young girls forced into foster care after their dad killed their mother. I made up worlds and situations and people and put myself in the minds of my narrators.

When I decided to pursue a second major in creative writing in college, I refused to take any nonfiction or poetry classes—because I was a fiction writer, and that was all I wanted to be. Though we were required to take two courses outside of our genre, I found a loophole by taking a class on screenwriting through the film department and a class that focused solely on writing single scenes of stories.

I never planned on writing about true events or real people, so I didn’t think it was worth developing that skillset. The truth—though I don’t think I realized it at the time—was that I didn’t want to have to write about my feelings.

You can tell a story as it happened and call it nonfiction, but no one wants to read a straight retelling of events (unless they’re reading the news or a history book or an article on WebMD).

No, readers want to feel the emotions you felt while that event was happening. To hear your thoughts and try to understand the motives behind your actions. And to do all of this effectively, you have to be willing to be vulnerable.

In college, I wasn’t willing to be vulnerable. I wasn’t willing to have my feelings dissected in front of a class of people who were way more confident in who they were than I was.

Now, this is a realization I’m having four years after graduating, so I can’t kick myself for taking the easy way out and passing up a chance to work on a valuable skillset. What I can do is be vulnerable in my writing moving forward.

In the past couple of weeks, I read two essay collections by female authors close in age to me: One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul and I’ll Tell You in Person by Chloe Caldwell. Today, I ordered four new books on Amazon—all of which are nonfiction (memoirs and personal essay collections, to be exact). I’m currently staring at a soon-to-be-read nonfiction book on my nightstand: On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety by Andrea Petersen.

These are certainly not the first nonfiction books I’ve read/plan to read. But this burning desire to read about real struggles, real feelings, real wins, and real lives is somewhat new. I’m inspired by writers who unabashedly tell their stories, and I’m hoping that by continuing to read their stories, I’ll be able to follow in their footsteps.

I promise you: I’m still a fiction writer. I’ll still continue to write stories of made-up trauma and drama. However, I won’t put myself in a box anymore. As I’ve said in previous posts, I’m working on a short story collection (among a couple other projects). And what started off as a mostly fictional compilation is slowly turning into something more real, more vulnerable, more uncensored. Interpret that however you want. Just stay tuned for for what’s to come.

My sister and I went to the midnight premiere of Magic Mike—a movie about male strippers. And let’s be honest: we didn’t go for the plot. I enjoyed seeing practically naked men shake what God (and some hard work at the gym, dieting, a spray tan, and maybe some steroids) gave them on a giant screen for two hours as much as the next girl. But I wasn’t rushing home to take a cold shower or wake my boyfriend up for some three a.m. sex. Channing Tatum’s six-pack wasn’t even on my mind on the drive home.

Five minutes into the drive, my sister had passed out in the seat next to me. I turned the radio down and stared at the empty road ahead of me.

The golden arches of the McDonald’s sign shone even brighter than normal with no one around. Three a.m. seemed so foreign to me. It was an hour typically reserved for sleep or drunken karaoke in the back of a cab. Not for driving my sleeping, sixteen-year-old sister as drool slides down her chin onto her high school sweatshirt.

I pulled up to a red light and watched the car in the lane next to me blaze on through the intersection without slowing down. I remember thinking, what if I had been driving through an intersection and a car ran a red light and crashed into me? What if it happened tonight? Some drunk idiot could come barreling through a red light and—boom—my sister’s dead. And I would be sitting here, airbag pressing against my seat—unable to move. Would I be in shock? Unconscious? Perfectly fine, except for a few scratches? Would the other driver be fine? Would he (or maybe it’s a she) be dead, too? What if the driver just fled the scene and didn’t even check on us? Would there be witnesses? Probably not at three o’clock in the morning. Could I live with the guilt of driving the car in which my sister died? Would my parents blame me? She was their “baby”—the favorite. She could do no wrong. They’d wish I had died in her place.

But what if I had? The car could come from the left, T-bone-ing me from the driver’s side. What if we didn’t make it home tonight because I was dead? What would my sister do? How would my mom react? Who would come to my funeral? I wonder if I’d make a pretty corpse—or if the damage would be so bad that it’d have to be a closed casket event? Who would be the most devastated? How would everyone find out the news?

And so I drove straight through every red light on my way home. I wanted that possibility. To be the tragic girl with a bright future who was taken too soon. To have a memorial created in my honor. A “rest in peace” Facebook page where all my friends and family and those who had heard my story could post sappy notes and anecdotes about times they would miss. For a while, I’d be featured in so many profile pictures. Popular, even in death.

But nothing happened. Most of the red lights turned to green as I was approaching. And the ones that did stay red—no one was there to come crashing into me. I pulled into my parking spot, turned off the engine and lights, and sat there, staring at the perfectly calm face in the seat next to me. She would have never seen it coming.

Last week, I posted a blog about my struggle with anxiety. I wrote it in an effort to put my feelings into words, but I’m not entirely sure why I felt compelled to share it.

Reasoning aside, I didn’t expect the response I’ve gotten so far. The comments and messages of support and well wishes are great; I appreciate all of the love from all of you. But what has hit me the most has been the comments and private messages—some from people I haven’t seen or talked to in years. Messages thanking me for sharing my experience. For helping them understand something they couldn’t quite describe. For helping them feel a little more “normal.”

Last year, I got my first tattoo. It’s a quote in a pretty script font on my forearm. But it’s not just any quote; it’s my favorite eight sequential words. In the last Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, there’s a scene where Harry is talking to Dumbledore in some sort of in-between realm. In this scene, Dumbledore tells Harry, “Words, in my not-so-humble opinion, are our most inexhaustible source of magic—capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.”

While my tattoo is a shortened version of the quote (“words are our most inexhaustible source of magic”), the sentiment is still the same. Words are magic. Even in a world without wizards and magic wands, words are more powerful than any of us realize.

This quote, my tattoo, the response to my blog post—these all remind me why I write. Words are powerful. Especially when written down (or otherwise transcribed) and shared with others.

I have plans to finish a couple of manuscripts and get them published. In the meantime, I guess I’m just trying to get my words out there in the world. I’m never going to stop writing and sharing my words because words are magic.

I’m going to keep writing to organize my thoughts. To make an effort to understand events and people around me. To express my feelings. To understand what my feelings even are. To remember. To move on. To explain. To entertain. To persuade. To help bring light to negativity. To simplify. To fill a void. To create something good. To escape reality.

Because writing just makes sense.

Anxiety and panic attacks are supposed to be obvious. You’re supposed to be hyperventilating, crying, unable to function.

And sure, I’ve been there on some justifiable occasions—in the weeks following a bad car accident, after having my heart broken for the first time, in the car on the way to the emergency room when I was twelve with a severe case of bronchitis, while taking a look at the amount of blood coming out of me when donating to the Red Cross (and again a few years later, thinking I could handle it this time), a few minutes into getting my first tattoo, before the artist had even started on my third tattoo.

On these occasions, I’ve cried more tears than I care to admit (and for someone with a weird complex about showing emotions in front of people, that’s a major feat), lost all the color in my face, gotten tunnel vision, felt ice cold while sweat was dripping down my cheeks, been on the verge of passing out but caught myself just before losing consciousness.

But what they don’t tell you is that anxiety, more often than not, is subtle. It can creep up on you out of nowhere. You’re lying in bed, marathoning New Girl on Netflix, minding your own damn business, and then it happens. There’s a weird tightness in your chest, and you feel it start to creep up the right side of your neck. You can breathe just fine. You check your pulse, but your heart seems to be beating at its normal, steady rhythm. Your left ear is throbbing, warm to the touch, and red (as you’d later find out when pulling out your phone to FaceTime your mom because you don’t know what else to do). You take your knuckles and start massaging harder and harder along your chest and neck—as if you can somehow force the feeling out of there—but all it does is bruise the skin (which you’ll discover the next morning when getting ready for work). You’re having an anxiety attack; you just don’t know it yet.

And once you do figure it out (after multiple conversations with your doctor and blood tests to confirm that nothing is physically wrong with you—though, you’re still not convinced), you just can’t settle for something so…simple. Cancer, a thyroid issue, a yet-to-be-discovered disease that will surely be named after you. All of these make so much more sense. They have causes. They’re understood (at least to some extent; you can physically see a tumor, after all). They might even be curable.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is a nice slap in the face. You just get the satisfaction of knowing that your brain could be messing with you at any given moment. Why should you get to be happy and enjoy your birthday vacation in Hawaii with your best friend (a trip that cost you next to nothing and let you escape a North Carolina blizzard) when you could be sitting on the bed of your Airbnb at nine p.m. trying to explain to your frustrated friend a feeling you won’t even begin to understand for a few more years? And all the while, the feeling just keeps building, as you know you’re ruining the night—not just for yourself, but for your best friend as well.

And I know none of this makes me a weirdo. Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting close to 20 percent of the adult population. But it can still be extremely isolating—leaving me feeling like the weirdest person around during certain social situations. Even around my family, among my closest friends, or in a safe setting like church small group, it happens. I have a million things to say, so much I want to contribute to the conversation, but I freeze up instead. I find myself clasping my fingers around the bottom of my neck, with my palm pressed against my chest, silently observing the conversations happening around me. Or I’ll aggressively pick at the polish on my fingernails, collecting the chipped pieces on my thigh. All the while, I wait for the feeling to pass, but it only gets worse, as I know my silence is making others uncomfortable.

I tried talking about my feelings with my parents and a couple trusted friends. Gave yoga and meditation a chance. Contemplated going to see a therapist before realizing how much a visit to one actually costs. Went for runs along the beach whenever I had the chance. Prayed and prayed. Journaled my frustrations.

Eventually, I came to the decision to try medication. My doctor prescribed Zoloft (an antidepressant) to take every day, along with an antihistamine that has been approved to treat anxiety attacks.

For the first week, the medication made things even worse. I was nauseated and experiencing constant anxiety—to the point where I couldn’t even focus on my work or during a conversation. And when I did decide to take the antihistamine after work one night, not only did it not work, but it gave me an allergic reaction. Yes, an allergy to an allergy medication. Oh, the irony. The back of my throat started itching, and my heart let out a few irregular beats as I lay in bed, preparing for the worst. It didn’t last long, but it scared me enough to call my doctor, who then switched my prescription to Xanax, to take as needed.

It’s been about six months since I started taking these medications, and it hasn’t exactly been fun. I’m now taking double the dose of each, which does help—on most days. But I just keep waiting for all of this to stop. As if one day I’ll wake up and be cured of my uncontrollable worry.

I moved into a better living situation, found a job that was a way better fit for my skill set and interests, got more involved with my church,  and even worked up the courage to reveal to a friend that I had feelings for him. I fixed everything I felt was out of control in my life, but the anxiety still persists.

There’s no end to this story—as it’s an ongoing struggle. So I’ll just leave it at that.