CONFESSION OF AN UNSCHOOLED ARTISTS' KID

 
 

By Rose Beerhorst

To kick off 2017, I took some time to reflect on my past, taking stock of where I’ve been and where I’m going. This intentional check-in felt harder than in years past. It’s not that I feel stagnant, but things I once took for granted now don’t seem so certain.

This didn't happen all at once, but in the past two years. 2015 began with my dad’s first manic episode — which lasted three months. The effects of his diagnosis rippled through our family structure in many ways. For me, it marked the first time I saw my dad not only as human but also deeply flawed.

For most, seeing your parents as people is a rite of passage and a necessary step towards adulthood. In my experience, it was particularly scary because they had taken extreme risks with my education. I grew up the oldest of six kids. Our parents unschooled all of us. In other words, we neither attended a traditional school, nor worked within a structured homeschool curriculum.

 

“It marked the first time I saw my dad not only as human but also deeply flawed.”

 

Since both of my parents worked from home as artists, our family cultivated a “lifestyle brand” that constantly invited observers. We opened our Grand Rapids, Michigan, home tri-annually for “Beerhorst Family Art Shows.” Our parents encouraged every member of the family to create work and participate. Attendees ranged from young parents curious about unschooling to serious art collectors, family friends and brave strangers who saw the “Art Sale” sign and pulled over.

I was a poster child of an intentional, creative, free upbringing, and accordingly received regular interviews by local media and, at one point, Etsy. I sometimes was even paid to speak! I profited from the family business, and I knew the idealistic lifestyle I was selling. Of course, I wanted (and needed) to believe the hype.

At 17, I was interviewed by the local paper. The saccharinely written article, "Young friends follow artistic path in life," is a perfect snapshot of the extent of my indoctrination on the verge of adulthood. Reading the feature eight years later, during my New Year’s check-in, elicited a range of emotions — from laughter to sadness — and a lot of eye rolls.

At 17, I was sure I would make my living through my art just like my parents because that was all I knew. Attending college didn’t seem like an option due to my fear of submitting to standardized testing and lack of financial resources.

 

“I profited from the family business, and I knew the idealistic lifestyle I was selling.”

 

I’m now 25. I live in Philadelphia. I’m no longer the “special unschooled artists’ kid,” but just another “creative” 20-something trying to exist on $9 an hour. Last year, when I moved to Philadelphia, I didn’t have a very clear idea of why I wanted to leave my childhood hometown, Grand Rapids, but I knew I needed a change. Making this move definitely wasn’t easier than carrying on with life in Grand Rapids, but now that I’m here, I see that I have gained independence — though this independence has come with a jarring loss of identity.

I am proud of the prolific textile work I do and have loved doing since I was young. This last year in Philly, I have struggled to make it my sole source of income. I have dipped in and out of extreme poverty. I have worked a handful of entry-level food service jobs, which have been a huge learning experience full of amazing people. It is also hard, physically taxing work without much opportunity for upward mobility.

So after a year of working in the food service industry, I am reevaluating. I am pursuing adult education to get my GED. I just passed my first GED test in Social Science and have three more to go. I would like to go to college, but I am unsure if I could afford it. My goal right now is to move towards a more financially stable future.

I want a career that permits me to continue making art — and a life that doesn’t depend on its marketability.


Rose Beerhorst is a 25-year-old textile artist, writer and barista living in West Philadelphia. Find her work through her Etsy shop, Brave Hand Textiles.

A version of this story originally appeared on Rose’s blog.

THE $10,000 LESSON

 
 

By Anum Yoon

People who have known me for a long time think it’s hilarious that I run a successful personal finance blog. It’s not even funny how many people don’t take my claims seriously until they actually visit my site. I guess I have no one to blame but myself to warrant that kind of reaction since I used to be notoriously bad at managing money. In fact, as a freshman in college, I ended up blowing through the $10,000 my parents gave me, which was meant to last me the entire year, within a mere few weeks.

I grew up in Hong Kong, one of Asia’s largest financial hubs, and lived there until I was done with middle school. My interests at the time obviously had nothing to do with personal finance or even budgeting of any kind. I just squandered my allowance on hanging out with my friends at the mall, eating junk food and collecting furry animal keychains.

When I was 14, I was shipped off to a boarding school located in the foothills of the Himalayas. My parents thought it would be a good idea for me to get away from the hectic city life of Hong Kong where there were endless distractions that kept me from studying.

My new school (and new home) was one of the oldest residential schools in Asia, and my parents really respected the history and culture it represented. The school, surrounded by breathtaking scenery, is located in the serene hill station of Mussoorie in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand. As a city brat, I didn’t appreciate the clean air and beauty as much as I should have — I was more upset that I was stuck in the middle of nowhere.

That’s the first time I was faced with the task of serious budgeting. Our school had a strict policy on pocket money, and each individual student was only allotted Rs.1000 every month — which was roughly $15 at the time.

True, I lived in the mountains, so I guess you could say the cost of living was noticeably cheap. But do you know how expensive a Twix bar is for someone on that kind of budget? Or even a bottle of Coke? We had a Domino’s Pizza in the village town nearby our school (I know, the globalization of the fast food industry is very real), and just eating there once would easily drain 75 percent of my monthly budget. But I digress. I soon got used to the tiny budget because A. I couldn’t do anything about it, and B. You can’t complain when everyone else is getting the same amount.

So thanks to the strict enforcement of this budget rule, I got through high school living small.

 

“As a freshman in college, I ended up blowing through the $10,000 my parents gave me, which was meant to last me the entire year, within a mere few weeks.”

 

When it was time to start my college applications, I didn’t even need to think about which country to pick — I immediately started looking at schools throughout the U.S. I think it was a natural choice for me since I had spent all my school years in institutions that followed an American curriculum, with mostly American teachers.

When I made my decision to attend Penn State for college, personal finance and budgeting were the last things on my mind.

Once in college, I was faced with the problem of having too much freedom over my money. I soon learned the hard way that I needed to seriously learn how to save and budget. I’m not going to go into details, but the money I spent (remember the $10,000 I mentioned earlier?) did not include my tuition or room and board. I can’t even tell you what exactly I spent it on because I honestly can’t remember.

Talk about taking #TreatYoSelf to heart.

That money was supposed to last me for the entire year, and I had spent it in less than two months. I felt so irresponsible and ashamed that I couldn’t even bring myself to tell my parents I had no money left. For international students, it’s illegal to work outside of campus, so my only option was to turn to on-campus employment. Unfortunately, by then our school had a limited number of on-campus jobs available because a lot of them get filled up during the first weeks of each semester.

I think I was more disappointed in myself than anything. I vowed that I would never be reckless with money again and learned to say no to things that would lead me to spending unnecessarily. I was lucky that I had enough meal points to last me through the semester, otherwise I probably would have had to beg or borrow from my friends to eat. The following semester, I found work at an on-campus tutoring center, and I learned to enjoy side hustles.

Now that I’m out of college, I can proudly say that I graduated 100 percent debt free — no student loans, no credit card bills, nothing. I still love being busy and working side hustles to increase my income, so I take on a lot of gigs whenever I have more time. Right now I’m having fun facilitating adult English conversation classes in Seoul, South Korea.

 

“People think being aware of their finances will add stress to their lives, but really, it’s the fear and uncertainty that adds the stress.”

 

Most of my friends and acquaintances come to me for personal finance advice now, and some of my newer friends would be mind-blown if they found out about my old spending habits. I’m now THAT person who will rant about how being able to afford a car loan doesn’t mean you can afford the car (if you can’t pay for it up front in cash, it means you can’t actually afford it). I regularly nag at my friends who believe that serious saving is for “older, more mature adults.”

And then there are the actual “older, more mature adults” in my life who are still reckless with their money in order to “keep up with the Joneses.” This is why I believe personal finance classes should be included in school curriculums. People need to realize from early on that it’s not lame to spend within your means. And that it’s important to have knowledge about personal finance to not only build and plan your wealth — but to also avoid the debt trap.

Financial literacy helps you make informed decisions in your life — it’s not only relevant when you’re paying bills. Financial literacy means you are more responsible with your money on a day-to-day basis. It means you opt for the best value for your hard-earned money.

I know people who say things like, “I’m afraid to look at my bank account balance,” or, “I don’t want to know what my debt balance is right now.” People think being aware of their finances will add stress to their lives, but really, it’s the fear and uncertainty that adds the stress.

It’s so much more liberating to know your financial state because that means you can plan for it. You can manage your debt before it manages you. You can start building your savings if you don’t have any.

I think people also tend to associate budgeting with being a cheapskate. Sure, you can opt to save more by spending less, but you can also save more by making more. I didn’t want to compromise my standard of living by ramping up my savings, so instead I chose to work more.

There are so many ways to go about managing your money, and so many tools out there to help you achieve full financial awareness.

Why be uncertain about your financial affairs when it’s something you can manage?


Anum Yoon is a writer-journalist currently based in Seoul, South Korea, but she switches back and forth between Hong Kong and Philadelphia as well. She runs Current on Currency, a millennial money blog for people who want to be better with their finances.

LOVE UNFILTERED

 
 

By Ayana Lage

I remember the disbelief on my best friend’s face when I told her I wanted to marry my boyfriend — and wanted to marry him SOON.

I was only 20 years old. She thought I’d lost my mind. “He’s your first real boyfriend,” she told me. “Are you sure about this?”

It was a good question. To be honest, I wasn’t sure. I’d always dreamt of love at first sight — meeting my soulmate in a romantic coffee shop, maybe. Instead, I met my now-husband when I was 15 years old and thought he was a bit nerdy. Little did I know.

Vagner Lage was one of the first people who knew about my crippling panic attacks. I remember messaging him on AOL Instant Messenger a few months after we became friends and telling him I sometimes felt confused about everything. That was the word I used, as I’d never had a professional diagnosis and “anxious” seemed a bit too real.

He listened. He told me to try to be brave. He asked if I’d tried reading my Bible. The advice wasn’t super helpful. What I needed more than a pep talk was medication and therapy, but he  paid attention and tried to help. I didn’t know teenage boys could be so caring, and I realized I was starting to fall for him.

☐ ☐ ☐

2013 was a good year until it wasn’t. We'd been dating for two years.

By November, I was calling Vagner every night in a frenzy. The crippling panic attacks returned with a vengeance, and I quickly reached a point where I could not function normally.

 

“I met my now-husband when I was 15 years old and thought he was a bit nerdy. Little did I know.”

 

I won’t bore you with the details, but I ended up in the psych ward to get my life back together. Vagner visited every day. He held me as I cried and tried to convince me to eat, to listen to the doctors, to want to be better. I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life as his partner.

But as a 20-year-old college student, I didn’t know how we’d make that a reality. We were both in school, both dependent on our parents, both unsure what we would do for a living.

All I knew was that I needed him.

☐ ☐ ☐

Our wedding day last January was a dream. We had 160 of our favorite people at an art museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. Most of our Napa Valley honeymoon was spent lazily daydreaming and drinking overpriced wine.

But not every moment of our marriage has been that way, despite the moments my Instagrams show.

Even when we were dating, I calmly let him know that he could do better than me. (This is coming from a girl who was 9 years old when I told my diary that no boy would ever marry me because I was so ugly. My shockingly low self-esteem scared a lot of people off. I only had one boyfriend before Vagner).

 

“Even when we were dating, I calmly let him know that he could do better than me.”

 

A few months before our wedding, I told him I was afraid he’d meet someone else. A year into marriage, I am still immobilized by insecurity. What if, what if, what if? What if he falls in love with someone prettier, someone funnier, someone more talented? What if he gets tired of all my problems?

And a thought almost as terrifying as the rest: What if he has to help me process my anxiety for the rest of his life?

Three months after the wedding, we got in an accident and totaled my car. We walked away without serious injuries but were left with a fair amount of debt from hospital bills. I started going to physical therapy to deal with back pain caused by the accident. We bought a new car; a month later, we found out its transmission was a goner.

Really, our first year of marriage was a comedy of errors in many ways. I sometimes wondered if we’d made a mistake in getting married so young. I cannot count how many times I wept, overwhelmed by how many things were going wrong.

But ultimately it was fun, because it’s impossible to be around the person you love and not have fun.

When I announced our engagement, I received scorn from friends and colleagues alike. One older coworker wished me luck on my “starter marriage.” Family members asked me to please consider waiting until I was in my late 20s or early 30s to settle down.

Getting married before you can rent a car seems wild. I get it. I don’t begrudge anyone who chooses differently — just extend the same courtesy to those of us who’ve decided to settle down early.


Ayana Lage works as a public relations specialist in sunny Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She's a journalism school graduate and has a soft spot for print media. When she's not writing, you may find her eating sushi, binge-watching “Criminal Minds” or spending time at church with her husband.

THERE IS A SEASON

 
 

By Megan Krueger

I was lying on my couch surrounded by an intimidating number of cardboard moving boxes and bins. Inside was everything from our old apartment: our clothes, our dishes, our pictures, our books. Being in this room, on this couch, was a step up from watching “Friends” on a slowly deflating air mattress in the bedroom, I figured.

My husband, leaving for work, kissed my forehead and told me, “Make today a good day.” He had been saying that a lot lately. He could tell I hadn’t been having good days. He swung his backpack over his shoulder and then walked out of the apartment door. He was off to his new job. I was facing another day of watching Netflix and willing myself to apply for another job or unpack one of the stupid boxes.

But I didn’t get up. I didn’t feel like it. It had been about two weeks since we moved from metro Detroit to New York City, and I was feeling about the lowest I ever had. Shrouded in the Harry Potter blanket I’ve had since high school, I busted out in a loud, ugly cry.

I texted my mom: “Mom, I’m so bored. These job applications aren’t going anywhere. I don’t even have the motivation to do anything around the apartment but everything is still packed in boxes. I don’t have anyone to talk to all day and I just watch TV. Then I order stuff online because it feels good temporarily and I don’t even have the money. I need a job.”

This was my February in a nutshell (plus another $600 and a Kate Spade purse later).

☐ ☐ ☐

For nearly five years, my day-to-day was pretty much the same. I was living in metro Detroit, just 35 minutes from where I grew up, working in the same role at the same company with many of the same people. It was my first job out of college, and I liked the security of it.

That’s not to say I didn’t love aspects of the work, change as a person or learn a lot over those five years. I grew as a professional, I made new friends, I moved out of my mom’s house, I got married. But there weren’t a lot of curveballs, and I liked it that way — or so I thought at the time. Predictability and normalcy were synonymous in my head with a whole lot less anxiety.

 

“My husband, leaving for work, kissed my forehead and told me, Make today a good day.’ He had been saying that a lot lately.”

 

It was in 2016 that I finally felt the itch to try something new. That said, it still took me months just to sign up for Glassdoor job alerts. Dude, I applied for ONE job I thought I’d like. Nothing jumped out to this gal who picked a career at 18 but wasn’t sure if she wanted to do that anymore. It was easier to stay where I was than to sort through that can of worms.

Then in October 2016, my husband approached me with news. He knew his job was ending in several months, and he had been struggling to find work locally. He finally got that coveted job offer!

The big twist? The job was in New York City — and we’d have to be there by February 2017.

Surprisingly, it felt right. The Universe took my “I’m ready to branch out” and handed me back an opportunity for a new adventure. Why were we hanging around Detroit, anyway? We were both in the same boat and feeling as bored as ever. We didn’t have a house of our own, and we had no plans for kids anytime soon.

We had to jump.

☐ ☐ ☐

So we did. I sold the 2011 Ford Fiesta I bought in college, a symbol of my first foray into adulthood. I left a job I had long outgrown but was too afraid to admit that to myself. We packed up, rented a car and drove to the Big Apple.

This path is not unlike the one most young adults take at some point. New York City has practically been the fresh-start capital of the world for centuries. Yet now that I’m in it, it feels monumental.

I won’t lie, this has been scary. It really, really sucks some days. I’ve cried. I’ve moped. I finished “Friends.” I spent my 26th birthday in the East Village feeling so homesick I didn’t even enjoy my Nutella pie (!!!). If I imagine myself boarding a Detroit-bound plane right this second, there’s a tenseness in my stomach that releases.

Yet when I look back on the monotony of the life I was living just a few months ago, I know I wouldn’t want it back. As hard as it has been to adjust to a new home, I moved to have an adventure with my little family (three cats included). I moved to see where my career might go and to see who I can be.

Simply put, I moved to live my damn life.

 

“I spent my 26th birthday in the East Village feeling so homesick I didn’t even enjoy my Nutella pie.”

 

This story doesn’t have an ending. It’s ongoing. I don’t have a job yet, and I don’t feel like I have found my place. Shit if I know what I’m going to end up doing next week, next month or next year.

What I do have is a husband who loves and supports me and tells me to hang in there. He reminds me that I’m resilient.

I have family and friends back home rooting for me — and consoling me.

I have a new friend who moved from Michigan to Brooklyn around the same time we did. She’s the girlfriend of a college buddy of mine, who also got a job in the city. Now we’re both navigating the job search and venting about it over coffee.

And I have my new favorite routine: morning walks through upper Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park, listening to the podcast “Millennial,” coincidentally narrated by another 20-something named Megan trying to find her way.

Sometimes on my strolls, songs pop into my head. The other day it was “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by The Byrds. The lyrics reminded me to acknowledge that the harder days are inevitable, but to remember better ones are coming.

“To everything
Turn, turn, turn
There is a season
Turn, turn, turn”

As the days get progressively brighter, warmer, happier and less bleak, I guess I do, too.


Megan Krueger is an award-winning journalist and metro Detroit expat living in New York City with her husband and three cats. She finally unpacked (most) of the boxes.

You can read her husband Robert’s essay, “Fearlessness: The Great Facade” in Issue 5.

RESILIENCE IS BETTER

 
 

By Addison Durham

During a Christmas party this past holiday season, I dreadfully awaited the small talk that would surely find me, no matter how desperately I tried to avoid it. I’d answer the same questions I’d been asked countless times since being home in Clemson, South Carolina. While I was more than tired of hearing my own answers, it appeared no one was tired of asking the questions.

Shortly after the party began, one of my parents’ friends — we’ll call him “Ted” — approached me.

“Addison, how are you? What are you up to these days?” Ted asked.

I responded with the answer and convincing smile I’d used many times before: “I’m good! I’m taking a year off and working a couple of part-time jobs.”

“Yeah,” he said, “but what are you doing?”

I’m quite sure I gave him a look, cocked my head to the side, squinted my eyes, probably, and gazed upon this very successful, very smart man — someone who wears cufflinks with his spiffy, tailored suits, boasts a doctoral degree and works as a university dean — with a partially masked disdain that I hoped he saw through. Surely he didn’t mean this comment in the derogatory way in which it came across. Surely he really was interested in how I was and in what, more specifically, I was doing post-graduation. But his tone reflected the notion that my answer, the one I felt comfortable giving to him — an acquaintance — wasn’t good enough or impressive to him in the very least.

 

“While I was more than tired of hearing my own answers, it appeared no one was tired of asking the questions.”

 

I did fill him in on the specifics: I nanny part-time and I work as a production assistant for a custom stationer part-time. (I studied English in college, and although I’m still not sure how I want to use my degree, I don’t think spending a good chunk of my time with children under the age of five is really the route I want to go long-term.) I told him that college was great, that it wore me down and that I just wanted — and needed — a bit of a break.

I love the holiday season not only because of what it represents for my faith but also because I get to go home-home, to my childhood home. It’s a magical place where the fridge is a bursting cornucopia of food I didn’t have to pay for and where I get to appreciate firsthand that my mom is a better cook than I will ever be.

But the holidays also look like these conversations, with extended family and my parents’ friends, about who I am and how I am and what I’m doing post-graduation. When such conversations first occurred, I crafted my answers to questions in a way that made me sound happy but not settled, and convincingly so. I’d say things like, “My part-time jobs are great for right now, but I’m looking for something more long-term.” Which is true. But after this conversation with Ted, I realized that neither my future career nor my happiness was contingent upon his response to my answer. In fact, they had nothing at all to do with him.

I believe this: Our answers to questions about who we are and how we are and what we’re doing should never be contrived to make someone else feel good about or comfortable with our realities.

I think I finally realized this when Ted said, “Yeah, but what are you doing?” I wasn’t going to tell him that, by the end of my four years in college, I was 20 pounds lighter than when I started. I wasn’t going to tell him that my hair had thinned significantly, that I couldn’t sleep through the night or that all any doctor could pinpoint as the cause of my ailments was extreme stress. I didn’t tell him any of this, not because it might have made me look vulnerable or because I wanted to hide it. I didn’t tell him simply because I didn’t need to.

 

“Our answers to questions about who we are and how we are and what we’re doing should never be contrived to make someone else feel good about or comfortable with our realities.”

 

I don’t owe the world a defense merely because I don’t always meet its expectations. When people ask now, I can say, “College was rough. I needed a break, and I’m not sure what I want to do,” and leave it at that. No apologies, no excuses; just the truth.

Sometimes the world is a discouraging place where dreams go to die, but only because we let them. We know our individual selves better than any one other human being, and being your own advocate means capitalizing on this. We know, to some degree, what we want, what we like, what makes us tick. Even though I don’t know exactly what I want, I think I know the essence of it, and those are things I can identify. Those are things I can seek, whether in my work, personal or spiritual life. Lean into those who support and encourage you and support and encourage them back. Lean into your passions and your talents, into what and whom you believe. Being your own advocate means building strength and resilience from these sources of truth and using them to propel yourself forward.

It’s hard to work towards what you want when you don’t explicitly know what that is, and because seeking it takes time and effort. I’m not short on either, but at the end of the day, I’m short on energy. My days are packed firmly with the work I do for other people. But these are things I have to do, because I have to pay rent, and I have to eat. I’m not great at taking time for myself to seek what I want by exploring my creativity, but I’m exceptionally good at approaching my less than fulfilling to-do list and calling it “me time.” Being my own advocate means realizing that this probably needs to change, and that I get to decide how.

My mom often reminds me of poet and theologian Rumi’s quote, “What you seek is seeking you.” I typically respond with an eye roll and say, “I know,” because, true as it is, the sentiment doesn’t always seem applicable. If what I seek is seeking me, where the hell is it? Can’t it make its way to me a little more quickly? Can’t I find that job sooner, write that story faster?

Maybe. But maybe it’s within the seeking itself that we find and learn the most. Maybe it’s within the seeking that resilience is bred.


A recent college graduate, Addison Durham works and lives in Nashville, Tennessee. In addition to her part-time jobs, she writes a monthly column for The Good Trade and does wedding calligraphy.

COLD REALIZATIONS

 
 

By Josh Leetch

It all began on Halloween night, October 31, 2014. Normal day, same routine, usual setting. School had let out for the day, and I was enjoying my afternoon, when I decided to go get some pizza with my mother. We headed out, the brisk afternoon smacking my face with unexpected cold on my way out the door, but still we continued on our way.

Then suddenly, something changed.

I looked at my hand. I couldn’t focus on it. I moved it, and there was a visual echo of the hand that followed my actual hand itself.

This can’t be good, I thought. I decided I probably just needed sleep. After we got home, I told my mom about it and then went straight to bed, hoping I just had a really bad cold.

The bed was cold, but in a strange way. As soon as I was lying down, a headache abruptly kicked in. Dizziness followed the headache, making just lying in my bed feel like I was on a bull ride from hell. The vomiting started next, followed by rapid changes in how warm or cold I was feeling. It felt like the inside of my skull was being stabbed by a frozen knife while I was simultaneously getting whacked in the stomach by a truck. It was one of the worst nights of my life.

Having no idea what this problem was, I was very worried. I continued to feel sick during the weekend, feeling only a bit better on Sunday. The next day, Monday, I got to skip school in order to go to the doctor, which provided a much-needed distraction. Besides a headache, my symptoms had all but gone away.

I soon found myself in a clinic with comfortable, soft, bland-colored chairs. They called me into the MRI room, and I mentally prepared myself to enter its metal coffin. The constant thrum from the machine didn’t help my still-present headache, which soon became a minor migraine.

I quickly tried to push away the claustrophobic panic deep inside myself, as I knew the scan would be done faster if I could just lie still. As soon as I was freed from what surely equates to a medieval torture device, I greeted my mom and rushed with her out the door.

 

“It felt like the inside of my skull was being stabbed by a frozen knife while I was simultaneously getting whacked in the stomach by a truck.”

 

“That took a lot longer than I thought it would,” my mom said.

I suppose the length of time I had been in the MRI scanner was unusual, but I brushed the thought aside —  I was starting to get hungry. Thankfully, about 10 minutes later I was enjoying Smashburger, letting the delicious aroma of the popping oil from the hamburger help me banish my troubles.

I took a bite, but my bliss was interrupted by my mother’s blaring phone. She picked up, said, “Yes. He’s here,” and handed me the phone.

Because I had just turned 18, the doctor wouldn’t talk to my mom, so it all fell on me when I answered.

“Is this Josh Leetch?” the doctor asked.

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry to inform you, but we have reason to believe that you have multiple sclerosis, due to unusual spots on the brain.”

I didn’t hear anything after that. You ever listen to the song “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd? The one about how the main character decides to stop caring and basically falls back into his own mind? Yeah, that was me.

I knew I was crying, but still I was telling myself nothing was wrong — it couldn't be! The reality of the doctor’s words had not yet sunk in.

My next step was to get a lumbar puncture, a procedure that requires doctors to insert a needle between two vertebrae in order to obtain spinal fluid. This would either confirm or disprove the diagnosis. After the procedure, I was required not to move for 24 hours, because of the risk of re-opening a hole in my spine. The procedure itself thankfully was not as bad as I have heard, but it did just happen to take place during finals for my senior year of high school. So yeah, still rough. Let’s just say I could have done better on those exams.

Even before the lumbar puncture, I knew the diagnosis was true; all the signs and symptoms of MS fit what I was experiencing. Throughout the whole diagnosis experience, I meandered along, trying to ignore anything that would set me off because I could not take much more stress.

 

“I knew I was crying, but still I was telling myself nothing was wrong.”

 

Hands down, it was the scariest time of my life, and looking back on it, it hasn’t gotten much easier. My diagnosis changed my life in more ways than I will ever realize, and it changed my family members’ lives, too.

My family has supported me through this journey, but they can only do so much. When my body decides to stop working, the only thing they can do is help me with external things such as opening doors or walking correctly. I’ve come to realize they cannot help me with my internal physical issues.

They try not to worry about my disease (same as me), but whenever I have a doctor’s appointment and my mother comes along with me, I can see the pain in her eyes. For me, seeing this pain is much worse than having the disease — no one wants to see their mother worry about them when they can't do anything to stop her from worrying.

So I’ve decided that first, I need to believe things will be alright for me in the end, no matter what happens, before I can start to help my mother and the rest of family understand what I'm going through and how to deal with it.

Today, two years later, I’ve decided that my health issues cannot control who I am. I've decided that if I live my life according to what the doctors tell me, then I will not truly live. For example, if I focus on the idea that I may not be able to walk someday in the future, it’ll get me nothing except worry. Now, whenever I get tired of standing, I tell myself that being able to stand at all is a gift, and that I cannot worry about what this fatigue might indicate.

I live to create stories I may one day tell my children, in hopes that they will understand this idea that life is precious and will live fully and courageously, like I do.

Hearing the phrase “life is short” means much more to me than it did before the diagnosis. Those words put into perspective that life needs to be lived to the fullest now. You may not be alive tomorrow. Live for now. Today!

If you see life for how truly short it is, then maybe you’ll enjoy the small things, maybe you’ll show your family more love, AND maybe the next time you see someone you’ve secretly been in love with for years, you will finally talk to them. Tell them what you're feeling, right now.

That's how I found my current girlfriend. I was too nervous to talk to her throughout high school but promptly decided after the diagnosis to take a chance and strike up a conversation. We officially met at a graduation party, I finally talked to her, and the rest is history. I realized I didn't want to live with any regrets. And that's the message that I try to pass on to people, including my family.

Even though life can make me sad from time to time, life is too short to continually worry. I take it day by day.

Now I don’t feel that same cold feeling that pierced every fiber of my being during those first few rough months. I am finally warm, safe and ready to take on the world.


Josh Leetch is working full time, still seeing the same girl and sharing his hope with to others, all while working towards his goal of becoming a writer.

A version of Josh’s story originally appeared on author and speaker Dan Maurer’s Transformation is Real, a site for contributors to share their own stories of transformation.

CRAFTING A CALL FOR HELP

 
 

By Jennifer Booton

It started a week before my mom died.

I remember sitting in the hospital staring at her, the methodic beeping of the heart-rate monitor fading into the background as I zeroed in on her soft, tan skin and dark Italian features. Her black hair was speckled with grey, and while it had been pin-straight my entire life, it now sat on her head in a bunch of tightly wound curls, the result of years’ worth of cancer-fighting chemicals.

I had always thought I was being brave by keeping things to myself. I had never been one to discuss my personal strife with others and had put great effort into keeping the dysfunctional parts of my life locked behind a happy facade so as to not upset anyone else with war stories of my parents’ divorce, my father’s alcoholism and my mother’s disease.

But as I sat there that day waiting — awaiting direction from doctors, awaiting last rites from the priest, awaiting the stream of loved ones who would come to say their goodbyes, awaiting the death of my second parent when I was just 25 years old — I began to realize I wasn’t being brave by keeping everything inside, but using silence as a crutch to disguise my fear. I was terrified to voice what was happening, as though putting it into words somehow meant admitting the nightmare was real.

 

“I had never been one to discuss my personal strife with others and had put great effort into keeping the dysfunctional parts of my life locked behind a happy facade.”

 

I was devastated, grief-stricken and scared yet desperately in need of support and connection. So I did the bravest thing I could think of and began crafting a call for help, using a site that was the most familiar and personal forum for me at the time. It was a measly 100-word Facebook post. But admitting my mom was going to die in such a public way was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Not only did it mean that I was accepting the reality of the situation, but it also meant that I would put myself out there in an extremely vulnerable way, in hopes others would understand that I needed help to get through it.

I wrote: “Mom's the best fighter I know but after three years battling breast then brain cancer, this time she's not going to make it. Thanks for all the support over the years from everyone — I know she appreciated it and I think all the love helped her to hold on for as long as she did. Doug and I are staying strong and taking solace in the fact that even as she slips deeper into sleep, she's smiling at grandma's jokes and giggling at my clumsiness. She knows we're all around her and that's all she could ask.”

I held my breath when I hit publish, unsure how the world would react to something so sad and raw on what was, among my friends, typically a happy platform. As it turns out, many of them were receptive to that kind of thing. Support began immediately pouring in from close friends and acquaintances. By the end of the day, roughly 200 people liked the post, 70 people left encouraging comments and dozens more reached out to me directly. It may sound superficial, but it was a beacon at a time when I felt like I was losing everything.

I now try to pay it forward by regularly sharing my struggles via social media posts, along with inspiring tidbits about life. Some of those posts are happy, while others are sad. For example, last week I helped an elderly woman shovel snow from her stoop. Afterward, we talked about her life, and she lit up as she reminisced about her past. We took a few photos together, and I shared them along with her story on Facebook. Some of the less-cheery posts come when I’m feeling vulnerable or upset. I often feel alone on Valentine’s Day, for example, so this year I posted a collage of photos from skydiving, my hobby, and wrote a story about why it’s so important to pursue your passions.

 

“I held my breath when I hit publish, unsure how the world would react to something so sad and raw on what was, among my friends, typically a happy platform.”

 

I still post about my mom and dad as well. Sometimes I’ll share something simple about them, such as a photo with a caption about how I miss them. Other times I offer a story or memory, such as how my mom was always thinking about other people and would often surprise those close to her with tiny, thoughtful gifts.  

My hope is to let others know they aren’t alone in their struggles — to serve as that beacon as they navigate their own dark moments.

Over the past three-and-a-half years, several people have reached out to me after reading one of my candid posts, seeking connection with someone who might be able to understand what they're going through. I can only hope I’ve been able to help them half as much as the outpouring of support I received that day in the hospital helped me.

Author Brené Brown once gave a TED Talk about vulnerability. She said: “Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

My saddest, most deeply emotional experiences have shaped me into the person I am today. I’m more empathetic and passionate. I live more fully and fearlessly.

In finally exploring — and sharing — my darkness, I have found light.


Jen Booton is a writer and reporter based in New York City, though she currently lives across the river in Hoboken, New Jersey. She loves to travel and recently picked up skydiving as a hobby.

RESILIENCE, RECOVERY AND HOSPITAL POEMS

 
 

By Brenna Gautam

“I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”
— “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley

I repeat the lines to myself often. I repeat them before taking a test or walking into an interview, and on mornings when I still wake up with panic clogging my lungs and childhood nightmares fresh in my mind, I summon the words for strength.

I’ve heard that William Ernest Henley wrote “Invictus” as a reflection on his inner resilience following the loss of a foot to tubercular infection — a disease that later killed him — and I imagine him lying in a hospital bed with a grizzled beard and one leg that ends abruptly at the ankle, silently composing stanzas in his head that call to mind images of battle-weary soldiers stumbling towards tattered flags on the horizon, all while painfully, exquisitely aware that he might never stumble — or walk, or dance, or run — towards anything again. He lost a foot, and at that point, he must have been struggling not to lose his hope. So he composed a battle cry for himself and put on a brave face for the nurses.

(He seems like an exceptionally brave poet. His daughter died when she was 11 years old, and his tuberculosis-ridden hands helped bury her. Unconquerable soul indeed!)

Before learning about poor Mr. Henley’s foot, I used to imagine that the author of “Invictus” suffered from intense clinical depression. The night, the black pit, the wrath and tears…I used to imagine the landscape of his mind was a mirror to my own, that we both felt lost in an abyss and clung to written words like life rafts.

 

“On mornings when I still wake up with panic clogging my lungs and childhood nightmares fresh in my mind, I summon the words for strength.”

 

Some background information: Most days, I deal with depression and anxiety. A sense of heightened fear and despair that won’t dispel. Occasionally, I experience horrific, clammy panic attacks or flashbacks to long-since-past abuses. About once every other month, I perform mental acrobatics and elaborate breathing exercises to dispel suicidal ideations from my mind.

This is an improvement from college, when I used to keep updated suicide notes stuffed in various jean pockets, used to walk to my campus and conjure up 100 different death sentences in a flash of racing thoughts: I would see a stoplight and imagine hanging from it, exert self-restraint and walk past the light, pass a speeding Toyota, imagine throwing myself beneath its belly — Would I be torn in half by rubber tires? Or crushed under the weight of its heavy metal frame? My dad was an automotive engineer, and during my parents' divorce, working with cars gave his life some meaning — now, perversely, I would imagine dying under a hot car engine, force myself to walk forward, past a construction site, where I could fling myself from the top of a crane, and then past a hardware store, where I could buy poisons and chainsaws with my credit card, and then past a small cluster of fellow pedestrians — Could it be a gang, willing to knife me in the gut for my wallet? — and on and on until I reached campus, and by then I felt I might die from exhaustion and couldn’t remember why I walked there in the first place.

I used to wonder, How can someone be the master of their soul when they can’t even control their own thoughts?

Now, I struggle more with depression and anxiety than with suicidal ideations (thankfully, because I spend less time obsessively researching methods to off myself and more time researching school assignments). There are many factors implicit in this improvement, but one secret tool that has helped keep me afloat has been literature. Reading it, writing it.

I wrote a book last year that had nothing to do with mental health, but somehow these same themes kept bleeding into my chapters, and it felt like catharsis. I’ve collected poem anthologies and draw strength from their syllables. When I feel most broken, I’ve learned to quickly type out descriptions of every dark thought to use as material for some future writing project: turning sadness into creative ammunition, turning to words instead of alcohol, pills or any form of self-harm.

 

“This is an improvement from college, when I used to keep updated suicide notes stuffed in various jean pockets, used to walk to my campus and conjure up 100 different death sentences in a flash of racing thoughts.”

 

One day, after a weeks-long bout of nearly crippling depression, I was maybe too carried away with my literature/therapy and let a tattoo artist ink a line from my favorite novel, “The Brothers Karamazov,” onto my forearm. Over the humming needle, he told me that tattoos can be a way of visually expressing emotions that are otherwise invisible, like grief.

I like that idea: words making invisible pain visible, to share with others.

The seventh and eighth lines of “Invictus” read:
“In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.”

All my respect to Henley for evidently not wincing or crying during his amputation (especially considering 19th century anesthetics), but I think there is a time for crying aloud and for sharing pain. After all, if he hadn’t shared his medical struggle through poetry, I wouldn’t have found solace in his words.

I go back and forth with the question of whether my mental battles are useful — or even appropriate — to write down and share with others. (Sometimes I shamelessly lie about my depressed state to the people closest to me; other times, in bouts of strength and transparency, I post detailed public Facebook statuses about past traumas). But the ultimate purpose of this website is to share vulnerability, and I think that is worthwhile.

There have been many embarrassing Google searches in my past, queries like “Is it normal to suddenly feel like you can’t breathe and can’t stop your hands from shaking when you hear raised voices arguing???” typed into the search bar in a desperate attempt to gather information about what this condition feels like. To understand what I am going through, to comfort myself in the knowledge that there are others out there like me, to learn from others’ coping mechanisms, to rejoice in their survival stories. I hope that in writing words like these, I’m emulating Henley and might help readers recognize their own resilience too.


Brenna Gautam is a law student/activist/national security nerd living in Washington, D.C.

NEWS LETTER

 

From the Editors:

 
 

Hi Cropped readers!

We’re back with a fantastic March issue.

The writers covered some important topics, many of them we haven’t yet discussed on Cropped. Look out for stories from: Josh about living well with a chronic illness, Brenna on how literature and poetry help her through some dark moments and from Rose about her experience being “unschooled” growing up.

We also want you to know we’re on a new schedule.

In order to be sure we give you the best stories possible, we’ve decided to publish once every two months. We’ll still stay in touch on social in between (most frequently on Instagram — find us at @WeAreCropped if you don’t follow yet).

We’re also soon launching our newsletter (finally, we know), which will not only deliver Cropped stories to your inbox, but some additional fun stuff as well that we’re excited about. Subscribe here and look for the first one in the next few weeks.

We can’t wait to show you what we have in store.

Lots of love and happy spring,
Marina and Maria


ON OUR MINDS

Maria

When I was in college, there was a “cool professor” known by one name only: Renee. I never had her for class (despite the fact that she taught psychology, and I took a lot of psych classes), but I frequently heard my classmates raving about her. About a year ago I got to meet Renee Engeln by phone because she was working on a new book about perceptions of beauty, and particularly how they affect women, for a book she was writing. She and I talked about social media and how wanting to look beautiful (or at least acceptable, whatever that means) in photos can sometimes lead to insecurity and unhappiness. She has now published the book! It’s called “Beauty Sick,” and I will be buying it for myself and many other women in my life. If you want to see where Cropped is featured, flip to Chapter 8!

Anyone else a fan of “Black Mirror?” I started watching a few episodes this month and am so into it. The first episode of Season 3 is so Cropped.

Marina

"Life will always be hard and life will also always be beautiful." I can’t tell you how many times I’ve returned to this quote since watching and then immediately rewatching this conversation with Cheryl Strayed a few weeks ago. It is a statement that’s both achingly and comfortingly true. Cheryl is one of my favorite authors who time and time again blows me away with her wisdom.

Books and magazines and zines are my jam — #longliveprint (bet you could guess I’m a magazine designer). So this recent article about why zines prevail in our internet age was right up my alley: “Producing zines can offer an unexpected respite from the scrutiny on the internet, which can be as oppressive as it is liberating.” Now that we’ve published 12 whole issues, I’ve found it fascinating to look back and see where there’s overlap in the topics covered by our contributors, to see what resonates. Maria and I have long dreamed about Cropped’s print possibilities: Maybe zines by theme — finding friends in new cities, living abroad, grieving the loss of parents — are a place to start? (But first, that newsletter!)