By Lisa S.

Today I have been sober for one year. 365 days.


While I am extremely proud that I have not had one single drop of alcohol for the past year, using the word “sober” still makes me feel uncomfortable. I am, after all, sober. But sober  —  the word itself conjures up a bad taste in my mouth: the deep, dark nasty feelings of shame and guilt associated with being an alcoholic.

But, I am, after all, an alcoholic. Aren’t I?

Not the drunk-at-noon, can’t-keep-a-job (although my parents might argue with me here!), I-need-my-next-drink-NOW sort of alcoholic. But maybe the more dangerous type. The one drink turns quickly into three turns quickly into one bottle turns quickly into I can’t remember… and regret and anger and I’m too old for this shit, again and again and again. Waking up morning after morning with regret after regret — telling myself this wouldn’t happen again, and of course, living through the shame, depression and frustration at myself when it did.

And how many of us can relate to this type of alcoholic? The type that’s too easy to shrug off as a bad night (or hell, a good night even) because all my friends are doing it, or it’s not really binge drinking, or you’re only young once, or I’ve had a long week, or it’s the holidays.


“Sometimes not drinking does strange things to friendships. ”


After finally getting up the resolve to DO something about my problem (much easier to use an innocuous word like “problem”), I challenged myself to one year without alcohol. Anything less than a year, I figured, and I’d find a way to cheat or not hold myself to it. Anything more, I figured, was admitting to something much more than I was willing, while I was sipping red wine on a cross-country flight last January, not ever really believing I’d make it a year.

But I did.

I stayed out of bars, and I stayed in my room, alone. I beat myself up a lot, and judged myself, and in the beginning, judged others. And then, after a lot of work and patience and digging and hurting and searching, I slowly stopped. I’ll admit, it took awhile.

Sometimes not drinking does strange things to friendships. To friends who do drink and don’t want to tempt you, or don’t know what else to invite you to do if they’re going out, or who figure you’re judging them if they’re drinking.

So, eventually, I went into a (few) bars. I left my room. I sat with friends as they had a glass of wine, or two or five. And I realized, I didn’t care what they did. It just mattered what I did. Or rather, what I didn’t do.


“I’ve looked at the deepest, ugliest parts of myself and realized I was OK with what I saw in those dark corners.”


And in the end, sitting here, drinking what seems like endless cups of coffee and sparkling water in this dry fucking year, I realize I’ve done a lot. I’ve travelled the world, bared my soul to people I hardly know (that’s what I’m doing, you realize, every time you ask why I’m not drinking and I honestly tell you), made new friends and made huge life changes. I’ve looked at the deepest, ugliest parts of myself and realized I was OK with what I saw in those dark corners because I know I can accept or change anything.

All without alcohol.

So, please, raise your glass of champagne (please have champagne or a gin and tonic for me — it’s been so long, and bubbles or Hendricks would really hit the spot right now) and join me in toasting my incredible year without alcohol.

Today not only marks the anniversary of the last time I drank, but also marks the first day of the rest of my life, where each day I make the conscious decision whether or not to imbibe.

So, cheers.

(And make mine a sparkling water, for now.)

Lisa S. leads a full-time existence: working in communications, being a slave to her FitBit and enjoying time with her family, friends and dog. After a few glasses of wine post sober year achievement, she’s back on the wagon and living without alcohol.



By Austin James

Jamming to Lauryn Hill on repeat with my mom is one of my earliest memories. The love of music I share with my mother is deep, so when I saw Ms. Hill on the lineup for Afropunk 2015 with Lion Babe, SZA, and other artists I knew, I had no choice but to go. I listened to all of the performers on Spotify and was in awe of the diverse Black music landscape. Not just rap, hip-hop and R&B, but also rock and alternative and metal. At 24, I was still learning that my culture is multidimensional. How is that?

I walked into the concert and saw a huge banner framing the main stage that read: “No Sexism. No Racism. No Ableism. No Homophobia. No Fatphobia. No Transphobia. No Hatefulness.” In the most important location, a warning stood for everyone that the small-minded, hateful bigotry I experience regularly had no place here. 

My outfit for day two of the festival was more me than the first. The $3 shirt from H&M covered in melting popsicles that I cut into a tank top, with shorts that someone left in my apartment after a college party. The bandana and the gold chain. The Timbs. It was me in the most basic way: Black and gay. 

I had discovered my own Eden: I was just myself, exposed, with no sin implied. And I was safe.

They have booths at Afropunk for artists and vendors to sell their goods. I remember peeking into a booth with African prints that I wanted to take a closer look at, but feeling like I couldn’t actually go in. I am not African, have never met African relatives — would wearing these beautiful prints count as cultural appropriation? I just wanted to embrace the beauty of a cultural identity stolen from me long before I knew what it was, or even that it could be mine. As I awkwardly leaned into the entrance to see if anyone was there, an African woman walked up and, with a smile on her face, said, “You’re welcome inside!” 


“I had discovered my own Eden: I was just myself, exposed, with no sin implied. And I was safe.”


Black, gay and booty-short-wearing me was welcome. I wanted to cry, but I managed to get out a “thank you.” I couldn’t control myself long enough to actually look at anything, so I walked back to the base my friends and I had set up, wiping away the tears that made it past my pride. That’s when I asked my friends to take this picture of me. A picture of the me I didn’t know I was keeping from myself for so long. The me that was still welcome!

☐ ☐ ☐

It wasn’t until I graduated from college and began working full-time with young students of color that I realized how much I wish my own upbringing had been different. Eighteen years of small-town Maryland, pick-up trucks and confederate flags whitewashed my Black Magic until it was nearly gone. 

When I was accepted to all 13 of the colleges I applied to (including Cornell, Columbia, Northwestern and the University of Chicago), a friend’s mom said, to my face, that it only happened because I was Black. 

My childhood was full of disheartening messages around Blackness and Black culture. Among other sad efforts to literally and metaphorically survive, I rarely listened to hip-hop or rap, knew none of the newest dances and never used the slang.

As if that weren’t enough, I also had a blossoming appreciation for my same sex. Now imagine trying to discover who you are when the loudest voices tell you you’re nothing.

Getting into theater in high school was the first real step into self-actualization. Not only did I find my best friends, I was good at it. I had something that I felt proud of. 

(Little did I know at the time my love of theater would go bad in college when I was told by esteemed faculty that I would spend my life on tour playing “traditionally Black roles” — a cage I knew I could not live in.)


“I see with my own eyes that what I was made to believe as the norm for Black people is not. I see young Black kids who don’t struggle to fit in the way I had to because the adults around tell them they’re smart and beautiful and talented. They can listen to hip-hop and study chemistry.”


Then, my discomforting experiences with race in college combined with the numerous unjust murders of young Black men gave me a rude awakening. Growing up, I lived in a white world that kept me unaware of the systematic cruelties plaguing my community. I was unaware of the cruelties happening to me. I was laughing at my own expense. 

Now, I have a job managing operations at a new high school in the city where I see children of color flourish and love themselves. I see with my own eyes that what I was made to believe as the norm for Black people is not. I see young Black kids who don’t struggle to fit in the way I had to because the adults around tell them they’re smart and beautiful and talented. They can listen to hip-hop and study chemistry. They can speak in colloquialisms and write eloquent essays on feminism. I was never the exception because I was smart — we are Black AND smart.

My students’ Blackness is to be embraced. They help me embrace my Blackness. It took 24 years, but I can now say that I’m happy to just be me. I’ve started to regularly witness what should always be referred to as “Black Magic.” I can take no credit for the phrase, nor can I provide a legitimate definition, but to me it’s the infinite ability Black people have to keep shining in our own ways, despite the roadblocks laid before us at nearly every turn. After 18 years of genuinely believing I had no magic, and six more years of a struggle to find it, turn it on, and keep it on, I can no longer let my beautiful Black Gay Magic shine in secret. The disappearing act is over.

Austin James is terrified to write this post and have his emotional thoughts about his racial awakening misconstrued. A 2013 communication studies graduate, Austin now resides in New York City working as the Business Operations Manager for a growing charter school. In his spare time, he is usually performing with his a cappella group Backtrack Vocals, visiting his family in Maryland or watching Broad City. He is single, so if this article really spoke to you, let us connect you!



By Natalie C. Houchins

We put our dog down two months ago. Just 24 hours before, Sarah, a vet who did in-home euthanasia, came over to examine him and make sure we were doing the right thing. She sat with us on the floor of our hallway, our beloved pup breathing heavily on his pallet, sometimes raising his ravaged face to see who was there. She told us gently that there wasn’t much time left no matter what course of action we took and described how the euthanasia process worked. We paid her and made an appointment for the next day at noon.

He slept there in the hallway that night to stay warm. I went out with friends and came home late, stumbling over him, not used to having his bulk in my way as most nights he stayed on the back porch. I looked down at him for a few moments. He slept soundly. I had never known that he slept through the night, as I did. I had always imagined him awake while we were asleep, standing sentinel, despite how useless he would have been against an intruder. Perhaps it was the rapidly spreading cancer that caused him to sleep so deeply. Either way, it struck me that we must have been dreaming at the same time all these years. He had no idea his death was scheduled for the next day.


“My dad cleaned his eyes, even though it didn’t matter if his eyes were dirty, or if he was in the sun, or if he even felt my fingers running through his fur.”


We carried him into the sunlight in preparation for his departure. He loved nothing more than to roll around on his back in the grass on a blazing summer day, and it felt right that he should die in his favorite spot outside. Sarah arrived on time, and we gathered around him silently. Tears streamed down my face, as they had for the past two days. I looked down at my precious dog, onto whom I had bestowed a part of myself, possibly the best part. He still didn’t know he was about to die. I rubbed his ears. My dad cleaned his eyes, even though it didn’t matter if his eyes were dirty, or if he was in the sun, or if he even felt my fingers running through his fur. Sarah injected the sedative, and we watched as his breathing slowed. His muscles relaxed. She tried to look for a vein in his back leg and failed. He still did not know. She eventually found one on his front leg and with much deliberation and care, injected the light pink liquid into the catheter. His great barreled chest slowly stopped heaving, and he lay still, as if he were only sleeping. She listened to his heart and proclaimed softly that he had gone.

☐ ☐ ☐

I have always been able to look forward to the next thing. The next weekend, the next winter or summer break, the next birthday, the next opening or closing to a play, another report card. The events in my life were housed in a neat container. The projects, the parties. They lived there.

The event of college graduation — that shining exuberant pinnacle after which I imagined a column of light would take me into the sky towards not an earthly destination, but toward some sense of meaning — loomed through even the darkest clouds.

The hope graduation represented carried me through depression and self-harm and shitty breakups and hangovers which felt like the end of the world. No matter what I was going through at the time, I was simultaneously building another house in which to contain my life. Every paper and performance and in-class presentation was another cinder block. After graduation, I would simply open the door to my mansion and live like a queen.


“The hope graduation represented carried me through depression and self-harm and shitty breakups and hangovers which felt like the end of the world. ”


But I never found it. As I languished in my apartment, in my ex-boyfriend’s apartment, in my own loud and beautiful brain, I couldn’t ever find the house I’d broken my back to create. What greeted me after I carried the flag into the stadium and sat in my robe full of self-importance and mostly sweat was the quiet hum of electrical appliances and the ghostly rattling of radiators throughout Chicago. The clink of ceramic mugs in the coffee shops I sat in. My own reflection.

There are still “next things” to look forward to. A house party with my close friends, the holidays, the trip I’m taking myself on, the future of the screenplay I’m proud of, the farcical weight loss goal I keep failing to achieve and wonder if I even should, the fact that an intelligent, handsome young man is coming over later to spend some time with me. However, no matter how many "next things" there are, the ultimate and only inevitable "next thing" is death.

Now among the patches of grass and the old jungle gym, I only see the small pile of rocks we gathered to mark where my dog is buried. I realize now I have tried to run away from that truth. My dog is dead. He was just a dog. He’s in the ground.

That incandescent column of light never came on June 20, 2014, and it still won’t arrive when I’ve moved to another city, or when I’ve seen the Northern Lights, or when I get my first big paycheck, or have a child. I can't afford to live, as I did for the 16 years I was in school, suspended in between life events, holding on to the hope that the next one would save me. Nothing will save you, except the meaning you find within yourself. The search for this meaning is more important and rewarding than any job, internship, Snapchat story or relationship you will ever have.

Happy graduation, dear ones.


Natalie C. Houchins is a recent(ish) Chicago-area college graduate. She now lives in her hometown of Austin, Texas, and is pursuing a career in acting and screenwriting.



By Sean T.

This might be a rule: If someone buys a kayak and has never communicated any previous interest in water sports, they are going through an existential crisis. It’s textbook escapist behavior: I want a boat, a one-person boat, so I can paddle out to the middle of a lake by myself and sit there, bobbing up and down until it gets dark out.

My photo communicates that I’m just an outdoorsy guy that is now going to go out on all these cool adventures because I’ve got casual living all figured out and authentically enjoy solo paddling. This was a part of my stoic façade. I was actually spending most of my time in my room with no energy or motivation to leave my bed. I must have watched a thousand hours of Netflix between January and June of 2014.

I was 22 years old and about a year into my master’s program, and it was obvious that I was not going to graduate. I had lost a good chunk of self-esteem in the process. The staff running my lab, I later found out, was unusually blunt when it came to criticism. They did not let you fail without feeling like a failure.

The purpose of my position was to demonstrate critical thinking and scientific expertise (basically, seem like a smart person), but everyone thought I was undeniably incompetent. I felt like dead weight. My lab meeting presentations were a disaster, my experimental designs were poked to death with holes, and I felt like I was drowning in a pool of insignificant data.

I was experiencing a positive feedback loop of stress: My work was harshly criticized, it stressed me out, it made my next attempt worse, and so on. How did I even bring myself to keep going in? Stoned, mostly. Some days were good, some days I cried at my desk in front of everyone.


“My photo communicates that I’m just an outdoorsy guy that is now going to go out on all these cool adventures because I’ve got casual living all figured out and authentically enjoy solo paddling. This was a part of my stoic façade.”


So, here I am, going through the imposter crisis that many graduate students face. “Everybody wants to be the person they are already pretending to be,” I repeat again and again to reassure myself.

I’m so down, asking myself every day if this is worth it. Do I switch labs? Am I actually an idiot? Maybe I’m not as motivated as I thought, and that’s why I can’t translate passion into the effort my lab wants to see?

In the midst of all this, I started seeing this girl. I had moved to Michigan for grad school and didn’t feel like I had any close friends, and I had just ended a three-year relationship a few months before. This was the only person, I felt, who actively wanted to see me outside of work, and, of course, I got way too attached. She became my world the first day I met her.

When you are that into someone, you don’t really realize how truly not “cool” you are playing it. I was definitely trying to recreate the relationship I had just lost. In all honesty, she had the biggest ego I’d ever experienced — she still referred to herself by nicknames she had in high school — but I didn’t really care as long as I had someone to go get dinner with. Eventually she didn’t want to see me anymore, I got sadder, said mean things to her and lay in my bed some more to work on the fifth season of “The Office.”

I was hurt particularly badly because I desperately needed to have this one positive thing, this relationship, in my life during that time. I had stressed my brain into a raisin, and I was scared that I had become irreversibly unsociable. I was petrified that all these bad things that were happening were because I just had no idea how I was coming across. I felt like I had lost all perspective.


“I got way too attached. She became my world the first day I met her.”


My mom and brother, Jim, definitely helped me out of this slump of failure and loneliness. I would call them every other day and complain about everything. My mom knew the names of everyone in my lab who I thought were jerks. She would follow up about things they had said to me that I had forgotten I told her. My brother even flew out to hang out with me for a week during a particularly low time. He knew I couldn’t take off from work, so he would sit around every day until I left the lab at 4 or 5 p.m. I can’t convey enough my appreciation of how supportive they were.

I did eventually quit. I decided to apply for jobs, work for a while instead of continuing grad school, and focus on myself. In the end I knew I had to make a significant change for my happiness. The day I walked into my professor’s office to tell him I was done was one of the best days I remembered having in a very long time. It was like I was being given a second chance at life and I could be anyone I wanted to be. I was in control of my circumstances again.

For a long time I tossed around the idea of quitting, but I thought that I could battle through and laugh about these experiences after I graduated. I came close to quitting a few times, but the weekend before I decided to leave was the final straw. I was at a conference presenting a poster when I received an email from my professor saying that my final draft of that poster, that I had already printed, was “not acceptable.” I remember reading the email in my hotel bed, and I think I said, “Oh, go fuck yourself,” out loud. I’d had enough. These people don’t respect me and I don’t respect them; I don’t want to spend another day in that lab.

This whole experience was one of the worst and definitively “20-something” life trials I’ve endured, but it empirically taught me to never settle for anything less than what makes me happy.

I ended up selling the kayak for gas money to move out of Michigan. I only used it twice.

Sean T. is a plant scientist in Madison, Wisconsin.



By Alanna Autler

In June of 2012, the postgrad winds scattered my beautiful, brilliant friends to the throbbing metropolises of America — places with public transit and restaurants that only sell salad, supposed paradises where yoga studios beckon from every other concrete corner.

I remember (with a pang of jealousy) hearing the early trials of many of my peers — lost in a grand prix of happy hours and dating apps and the idea that one must shine in an infinite sea of over-achievers.

But let the record show — that is not my story.  Mine, rather, starts in a holler.

Maybe you don’t know what a holler is. Don’t worry; four years ago, I certainly did not either. A person once told me that a holler is an Appalachian derivation of “hollow” — land between two mountains where people generally live.

That, or the word could also mean the easiest way to communicate from one side of the hollow to another: to holler. That makes far more sense, in my opinion.

But this was just one of the many things I learned upon arriving in my new home.

A week after graduation, I moved to Dunbar, West Virginia — a dusty town eight miles west of the state capital — to work at a TV station. My apartment sat off a curvy road, etched in the mountains.

It became very clear very quickly that I was not in my college town anymore.


“At first, I was too engrossed in my new job, eating epic biscuits and/or taking in the natural beauty to dwell on anything beyond the next five minutes. But the loneliness eventually encroached.”


The only word I can find to describe that apartment complex is haphazard. Peeling wallpaper covered some parts, but not all. The stairway reeked of cabbage. Someone broke into my unit within six months and stole my shit.

The apartment was adjacent to our very own holler, which became my retreat every day before dawn. At that time, the town had no real gyms. (Say it with me: “First. World. Problems.”) So for exercise, I sprinted up and down that holler, passing the same houses three, four, five times as the world awoke, all the while blasting Top 40 hits that had played at sorority formals just weeks earlier. White noise in my otherwise silent life.

I answered to no one. Six months earlier, I had ended a very serious, long relationship. Without this attachment, I immersed myself in a place where I knew no one and no one knew me. It was liberating.

At first, I was too engrossed in my new job, eating epic biscuits and/or taking in the natural beauty to dwell on anything beyond the next five minutes. But the loneliness eventually encroached.

She seeped into my life ever so slowly. In that great, wide wilderness, she waded through every nameless tributary and zeroed in on the faraway fortress I had created to reinvent myself.

Loneliness will always find you. And when she does, you cannot hide.

When I say I had no friends for several months, that is not an exaggeration. It’s not like my childhood friend’s cousin happened to live off the next subway stop, and I just decided we didn’t click. I literally had no friends in my town. So my early triumphs and failures were digested in the same fashion: I went home, sat on my couch and ate salad out of a bag.

A fog descended. I carried her constantly. Through the mountains — always through the mountains — as I steered a ratchet PT Cruiser that served as a news car and stunk of spoiled milk (someone had actually left milk in it). She joined me in the empty Kroger I frequented at 1 a.m. because I worked the night shift, and even in the mall, which seemed trapped in some strange time capsule (When was the last time you shopped at Deb?).


“That freedom I once held so dear became a captor.”


I was alone, and the silence was searing. As a one-man-band reporter, I shot, edited and wrote all my stories, driving myself to faraway towns every day. There was no ironic juxtaposition of feeling singular among the teeming masses. In my case, I was feeling lonely because there was often no one around. Many stories brought me to vacuous coalfields, gutted by layoffs. On really, really bad days, I'd assume the fetal position at the foot of my bed and cry so loudly I sounded like a dying animal.

That freedom I once held so dear became a captor. I felt like if I flung myself off a mountain, no one would see nor notice. (Edit: My managers would have noticed upon missing deadline.)

“You chose this,” I told my reflections in various gas station bathroom mirrors.

In this picture, I am shooting my first real enterprise story. It was my first time in Mingo County — a beautiful place riddled with corruption — which would become the bedrock of my time in West Virginia. I parked the car on the side of King Coal Highway and stepped out. It was October and the air was still humid. I set my camera on a self-timer and stood near the crevice between the pavement and the earth. This — I thought — this is what I’ll look at when I’m older and wiser and saner.

Little did I know, I had already embarked on the greatest adventure of my life. And I needed to go it alone.

I'm not sure I was a good person when I arrived. Without distractions, I had a lot of room to think. To sit with my mistakes or my guilt, whatever seized me that day. To replay things I had uttered to friends or loved ones carelessly. To navigate the type of woman I was becoming.

And when I was done thinking — once again reassured of my place within this world — I had no choice but to think some more.

My only companion was Loneliness, and she saved me.

I guess what I’m trying to say is wherever we are — a coastal metropolis or an Appalachian valley — we get lonely. And when we do, it helps to understand why.

It was in loneliness that I forced myself to contemplate my character, to write furiously, to go on dates, to find friends. Eventually it worked. It’s that simple. We are the only people who can fill our own voids.

Today I live elsewhere, adorned with a slew of adjectives: happy, fulfilled, challenged. I moved to another city — this one a little bigger. But every now and then, I still catch myself looking for those hollers.

I wonder if they're looking for me, too.

Alanna Autler works as a reporter in Nashville, Tennessee, where she continues to eat biscuits.



From the Editors:


This month, you may notice a few deviations on Cropped.

As a Cropped reader, you know how strongly we feel about being honest in every story we publish — the very point is that Cropped writers are vulnerable and resist the temptation to hold back information that might be unflattering.

For this issue, we had a few questions from writers who wanted to hold one piece of information back: their last names.

Lisa, the writer of an essay on a struggle to remain sober, worried about how future employers might feel about her journey. And Sean, who wrote about the emotional strain of grad school, had similar concerns.

We wanted to include their beautiful words, so we agreed going with the first initial of their last name was a good compromise. We hope that you, as readers, feel the same.

Second, we also expanded our age category a bit in this issue. Lisa is in her early 30’s, whereas all of our essays so far have been from adults in our early 20’s.

Although Cropped is billed as a site “for 20-somethings, by 20-somethings,” we don’t want to feel restricted — and discount valuable stories — by making this a hard and fast rule. Often our challenges aren’t all that different, whether we’re 19, 26 or 31. Just like high school or college graduation didn’t magically bring us the answers to life’s many mysteries, neither does a 30th birthday.

Lisa’s essay on the “one drink turns quickly into three turns quickly into one bottle” alcoholic describes the journey of a person many of us know — and one plenty of us are going through ourselves. It’s a story that belongs on Cropped. And as other compelling stories from 30-somethings or high school seniors or folks without social media accounts are sent to our inbox, we might just publish those too.

Cropped is not static. It will continue to evolve, with you, our community of readers and contributors, guiding the way.

Maria and Marina