A stranger stopped me in a grocery store parking lot the other day in the midst of a snow storm. "I recognize you from that picture they ran in the newspaper,” she said. “I liked what you had to say in the article, so I went right out and bought The Resurrection of Tess Blessing. I just finished it this morning."
Authors are supposed to, but I don’t really it like when this sort of thing happens. These impromptu meetings…anything could happen. And has. I tried to get a feel for her, but the snow coming down in blankets was interfering with my reader radar. People nowadays, seems like they’ll say just about anything and I am not good with either adoration or criticism. But I had to say something. I live in a small town in
If I ran away, that would get around.
I flipped the hood of my Arctic parka up, steeled myself, and said, "How nice. I … um …did you enjoy it?"
She averted her eyes and shivered. "Well, I don't know if enjoy is the right word. I . . . I . . . ." and then she stumbled on a bit more, which is never a good sign. I'd learned long ago that when I sense ambivalence from a reader the best response is to grin, express gratitude that she took the time to read the book, and be on my not-so-merry-any-longer way. This is exactly what I was attempting to do, when this woman cut me off at the pass. She pushed her cart in front of mine and said, "Why did you write it?"
A thorough response would be long and complicated. But since it was cold enough that I didn't have to worry about my peas and fish sticks thawing out in my cart, and she cared enough to ask, I figured, fuck it, because sometimes my fear can turn into anger in a snap. She’d shelled out good money for the book, I told myself. Quit being such a wimp. Yes, I decided, she deserved an answer, albeit an abbreviated version since frost bite is a bitch.
"I wrote the story because I would very much love it if we could all speak more authentically about what we're dealing with instead of feeling the need to "present" ourselves to one another the way Tess Blessing did most of her life. Like we're all competing in some sort of who can be happier, who can be richer, who can parent better, who can be more successful, better-looking, who can be the most normal big fat lie. If we're struggling, be it with breast cancer, eating disorders, parenting, our marriages, and especially mental illness . . . it'd be a relief to come clean."
I was prepared for her to give me a jittery smile and bustle away because I, who have spent most of my life monitoring myself for signs of whacky behavior, was well aware that I’d escalated into ranting in a grocery store parking lot in the midst of a building snow storm and I really couldn't blame her under those conditions.
But the grocery cart wielding middle-aged woman surprised me. She did not purse her lips or flee in terror the way I'd anticipated, which was all the encouragement I needed. "Did you know that one in three of us struggle with panic attacks, depression, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addictions, and other forms of mental illness sometime in our lives? Tess Blessing is a woman dealing with almost unbearable pain that she's kept hidden for most of her life for fear that if she was found out she wouldn't be loved. That she'd be ridiculed or shunned or— " That’s when it occurred to me that when she'd asked me why I'd written the book I'd completely misread the situation. Maybe she, like almost every human who can type, had written a book and wanted to know the name of my agent. That happens all the time.
I knew I should back-pedal, whip out some well-practiced socially correct response, but when I'd paused to catch my breath, snow flakes had landed on my tongue and gave me kid courage. "I think it’d be kinda great if everyone with problems would feel comfortable enough to quit hiding them. If we did, who knows, we might be able to turn mental illness into—" I took my hands off my cart and made air quotes, which, when you are wearing thick wool mittens, makes you look like you've broken into an impromptu puppet show—"the new gay!"
same sex love is somewhat more acceptable now, if you live north of the Mason-Dixon line anyway, but mental illness is still
very, very Snake Pit scary to most people, so I was pretty sure that would be
the end of the conversation because it so often was when I brought up these
kinds of taboo topics. But—and this is one of those times that I really love,
and why I probably didn't jump off a bridge when I was in my twenties,
thirties, and forties, when my symptoms were at their peak—people can be
surprisingly graceful when you least expect it. They can rescue you sometimes.
I wasn't at all prepared for this woman to answer my question, "The new
gay! Yes...yes...yes!" and reach over and give me a bear hug and thaw my
frozen left ear when she whispered into it with her warm breath, "I . . . I
. . . loved your book. It felt so good not to feel alone." And then I
started to well up and she did too and our tears turned into little icicles.
She told me her name was Shirley and we exchanged numbers and promised that
next week we would have tea together someplace that wasn’t a parking lot and
tell each other all about it.
And on the drive home, as I tried to navigate the icy roads, I vowed that I would stop just jawing about being brave, I'd put my mouth where my money was. I'd have words with the pharmacist at Walgreen's tomorrow. I wouldn't back down from the pill counter who has smirked at me every damn time when I had to explain to him, "Yeah, the prescription is correct. I need to have antibiotics in liquid form because I can't swallow pills." And when he elbows one of his co-workers the way he always does before he sing-songs, "Would you like me to add bubble gum flavoring to that?" I will not feel ashamed or laugh along with him. I will tell him, "That'd be great. And when you're done doing that, I'd like you to call your manager over so we can discuss a lawsuit. You're familiar with the American Disabilities Act, right?"
Maybe I'll even call him an asshole on account of my love for swearing and he is. Whatever I decide to come up with, I'm hoping it will feel freeing because if I, and the other millions of people who deal with variations of this belittling bullshit day in and day out on top of our out-of-whack psyches, don't stand up for ourselves, we're gonna end up staying stuck in the same suffocating closet gay folk huddled in for far too many years.
Time to come out.