Burying An Ex, Or Why I Hate Drugs

I nearly died for anorexia twenty years ago. It was stupid but maddeningly complex, and I couldn’t get out. I went to the hospital. I left the hospital. I went to college. I relapsed. I relapsed again. I spent a summer in hell, living with my parents, floating through rooms, speaking to no one. I let the phone ring. Message boards were pretty much my only contact with humanity, if you can call them that.

And then one night I went to a party. I spoke with this charming, funny guy I’d gone to school with earlier. I was sick as hell, but he treated me like I was human. We started flirting and fantasizing about getting married and having kids. We were basically kids. We became boyfriend and girlfriend. He stood by me when I was a pile of immobilized insecurity crying in the bed, terrified about my body and my future. He told me he loved me. I wanted to impress him so badly I ate a real dinner one night on a date, above the screaming voices that had kept me locked in deadly patterns for months.

He died in his twenties. He used drugs, kind of big time. Drugs were never my thing, but I looked away from his unhealthy behaviors and he looked away from mine. I got healthy. I married. I divorced. I found new love. We lost touch.

He died when I was 28 and felt like I was getting my shit figured out. He died when I was on a trip to D.C. and the mentor I idolized asked me to run on her ticket for the next NOW executive officer elections — basically the apotheosis of my dreams at that stage of my North Minneapolis, volunteer-feminist life. I came home with my suitcase on this incredible high and learned this man with the flowered sunglasses and spring in his step was dead. I sat outside and stared at a crack in the sidewalk.

I felt a sorrow I’d never known before. I saw him in dreams. I stayed in bed. I cried. I cried so hard it felt like someone had jammed a cantaloupe in my throat. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. I didn’t know how to grieve an ex-boyfriend in front of a boyfriend, so I shut the door and turned out the lights. Was I an enabler? What would saving him have looked like? I don’t believe you can save people; I learned quite directly that people who tried to “save” me from anorexia failed and our friendship ended. I thought and still think people who are struggling need love and not direction, but it was hard not to second-guess myself.

I attended his funeral by myself, sitting in the back. It’s been almost 10 years, but I still remember what I wore and that I thought I looked hot. It seemed like the least I could do for him. I walked by his casket and saw his embalmed body. I hated, I hated, I fucking hated drugs in that moment. I still hate drugs. I hate them with my whole being. I don’t know if drugs killed him and it’s not really my business. But I know he struggled, and I know I hate drugs.

It is possible to hate things that cause people to suffer, and to not judge people. I hate drugs and still want to decriminalize them; I think locking people up for drugs is a tool for oppressing people of color and preventing people from accessing the care they need. I’m writing about this because I don’t want stigma for anything.

I’m getting old. Thank God I’m getting old. It’s a privilege to get old.

Root Your Activism In Your Moral Clarity

I’ve been at social justice work since I was a kid. It didn’t necessarily start with my parents — though they discussed public affairs with me as if I were an adult, they were hardly activists or political people. I just liked to read newspapers and books about politics, and had a strongly felt sense of right and wrong.

My activism started out as general liberal/progressive-type stuff. I started phonebanking in middle school for what could have become Minnesota’s first woman senator, and by the time I hit high school I was dodging the police officer assigned to the outside of the school to catch skipping students (I was out campaigning for Senator Paul Wellstone).

It wasn’t until late high school and early college that my general leftist activism channeled into explicitly feminist activism. I developed anorexia and nearly died, fighting tooth and nail for my life. When I got on the other side of that, I vowed to do whatever I could to help prevent other women and girls from having to go through what I did — or at least, to make it easier for them to get out. I saw my eating disorder as a manifestation of a society that demands women and girls take up less space.

I took a wider view and went into general feminist activism. Women and girls are consistently pressured to take up less space in public life, to have bodies held to impossible standards and open to the public approval and judgement of others, subjected to violence and control, paid less, respected less. The areas where women are most praised for stepping up — presenting ourselves in sexualized ways, for the pleasure of others rather than ourselves; or taking notes at the meeting or having a really clean house —  do not refute my view of less space because they, too, support rigid gender roles that help no one, woman, man, or gender non-conforming. I should note, here, that my commitment to feminism has also kept me on track and in some ways, helped to save my life on an ongoing basis. Having the views I do now makes it pretty hard to go back to hurting my body the way I once did.

Over time, I have specialized more and more in reproductive health, rights, and justice issues, and I see strong links between cultural control over women’s bodies in the form of impossible standards of physical beauty; legal control over women’s bodies in the form of sexual repression and the shame and stigma that supports it; and medical control over women’s bodies in the form of forced C-sections, “religious freedom” with the effect of denying women access to health care in health care settings, denial of accurate medical information for fear we might choose to have abortions, and the like.

Reproductive activism can be a hard field to be involved in — our side loses a lot, the opposition is unhinged more often than not, and terrorism and violence is part of the pro-life movement’s playbook. But frankly, all activism is hard. That’s why I shared my story. The reason why I do my work is rooted in my moral clarity: I’m doing this work because I survived, and I feel a sense of purpose in advancing women and girls. I’m doing this work because if I could stand up to my eating disorder, I can certainly stand up to anti-abortion, sexist, racist, homophobic bullies who are trying to intimidate activists and ordinary people out of the discussion.

If you’re an activist, I encourage you to think about your story. Why do you do the work you do? This is the moral clarity you bring to your work. It will feed you when days and nights are long, and help you avoid burnout (though you also need to take care of your own life or you will burn out — for more on that, see my old post Time Management: Activism Without Losing Your Mind).

Your story and your moral clarity are not a set of political views. They are not an emulation of people you admire or a repudiation of people you can’t stand. They are not about what you think other people should do to move closer to justice in the set of issues you advocate. They are not even your theory of change, or how you think the work should be done.

Your story and your moral clarity are why you, uniquely you, feel motivated to do the work you do. I encourage you to take some time to think about yours, and remember to come back there every so often. This will nourish your work for the long haul. At least it has for me, for my entire adult life.

If you’ve read this far you must be an activist; so long as you’re fighting the good fight, thank you.

Surrendering To Solitude

Parenthood broke me. Not parenthood itself — I think I adjusted pretty well. During the course of pregnancy I felt mainly radiant, with the exception of the last week before birth, which was hell. Mercifully I dodged the postpartum depression thing. With the exception of one hard cry the day my husband went back to work, I was A-OK. I rocked and lightly bounced the baby to sleep. I shushed. I sang. I got up in the middle of the night and took care. Now I mimic too many of these behaviors for my naughty pug mix, but that’s another story. What parenthood broke for me was a need to get out of the house or to see other people.

Parenthood has turned me into a homebody. After a few months of craving getting out of the house at the beginning of my daughter’s life, I have fully surrendered to the solitude of responsibility. It is no Walden out here. There are endless loads of dishes to put away, and laundry to wash and fold. My daughter could yell for me at any moment to come fix her sock or help her clean up after a trip to the bathroom. But I no longer try to be alone as a performance or production, as when I used to take myself out to Sunday brunch solo in my early twenties — a bad-ass and satisfying routine, to be sure. These days I don’t know if it’s that I have too many responsibilities on my plate or am just plain lazy, but in either case, when I find myself with a rare spot of free time I do not leave the house. I stay home and do more chores. Or I sit.

It is amazing to sit.