Caits Meissner is an award-winning poet, artist, and educator dedicated to the transformative power of creation. Meissner’s poetry has been featured in Drunken Boat, The Literary Review, and The Offing, among many others, and she has been awarded first place prizes from the Pan-African Literary Forum, the Ja-Nai Foundation, and City College's Jerome Lowell DeJur Prize in Creative Writing. Her multidisciplinary poetry book, Let It Die Hungry, will be released in October 2016 on The Operating System, and she is currently writing with Re(Emergent) Theatre, an ensemble in collaboration with people recently released from prison. She teaches as Writer-in-Residence at Bronx Academy of Letters, and faculty at City College and The New School. Meissner’s courage, like her art, is both nuanced and full of love. In this interview, she shares her experiences with belonging, identity, healing—and what it means to grapple with grey.
It’s hard sometimes to know the chicken or the egg in these scenarios. Was there a trigger that began a certain pattern of thinking? Was it the chemicals in my brain? Was it always in there, and something brought it out?
I was definitely making art from the time I was a very young child, two years old. My mother kept my first drawing, a portrait of her with big curls—that 80’s perm. There was something about the internal world of creation that really spoke to me, and I think it blossomed, really, as a survival tactic.
There’s a story I think back to a lot when I consider the roots of my anxiety. I was five years old at the babysitter’s, and I was heavily ostracized by the other kids. It almost feels funny to say it as an adult—that this common incident created such a strong impression. I had no friends, essentially. I was told, “Go away” repeatedly, and spent a lot of time watching Nickelodeon in the house, by myself, crying. I got out of that scenario by asking my parents to remove me after my year in Kindergarten. But that’s a strong, vivid memory for me: this time period, what it meant to feel such extreme disconnection at such a young age.
Sometimes I think the little Caits in me is the one having the anxiety, and I have to remind myself, “Little Caits, it’s different now. You’re not in that scenario. It’s OK.” But there’s a strong, almost primal need to belong that I link back to this developmental time in my life.
It continued on for a long time. Art for me became a world I could enter. There was immediate acceptance. I was creating it. Books provided friends. Musicians, my own writing and drawing. I got to really invent.
Luckily, I also had very supportive parents, and my cousin, who’s my best friend. He was my co-creator in life. My sister. My father’s my mentor. There was a statement he said to me in high school I never forgot. It was very powerful, because I never thought of children as having labels attached to feelings. What he said was, “When you were six, you were very depressed. And you can see it in photographs.” I remember that loneliness, and feeling separate. To think about a six-year-old being depressed is a heavy label, but I think it can be true. I think the roots of these illnesses do start very, very young—younger than we even imagine, maybe.
One of the clearest memories of the entire year of Kindergarten was when I got to be part of the bully gang, for one single day. It was terrifying. I don’t know how it happened. I remember the kids involved, everything. All of a sudden, for this day, I was part of the crew who, for some reason I can’t remember, turned on this other girl who was usually part of their clique. I remember my actions so clearly. We threw moss in her hair. I remember laughing, and feeling simultaneously, “This is horrible. Who am I?”—and so deeply satisfied with being part of the community.
Talk about a metaphor for how human beings navigate our world. The roots of so many social issues are connected to this idea of belonging. My anxiety, of course, throughout the rest of my life, is connected to belonging.
I think this was the rhythm of my whole young life: going deep into creation. I identified as an artist. That was what I wanted to be. I had the language for it, thanks to my parents who cultivated it.
In a way, I think that young experience, having art as a world I could enter, create, really served me in becoming an interested and interesting human being. It became a strength at some point. In middle school, I toed the line and semi-entered the popular crowd as a peripheral character. There was something in that experience that felt relieving, but also, ultimately pretty empty, bending myself to fit in. What I’d been engaging on my own with the support of my family had much more depth than the pop culture representation we were mirroring. There was a conflict internally for me with that.
Somehow I grew some confidence, likely because of my family’s support and my relationship with my cousin. I tried on different identities, trying to figure out where I fit. I think I’ve come out as an amalgamation of all of them. First, I was the hippie. Then I was really hooked into my identity as a gay person. I still identify as queer, but I married a man, so at the end of the day, capital-G “Gay” was not my identity for the rest of my life. There was punk rock, then folk music—and in all of this trying out, I was setting myself apart from the rest of my peer group.
I was doing it very much on my own. All that experimentation, setting apart, I think it was a subconscious method to claim that differentness in a way that was empowered. Instead of not belonging because I’m ostracized, I’m choosing not to belong. Choosing not to join to something I’m not really sure is the right fit for me, or that I agree with the ethics of, to not re-engage this early experience of, “I’m fitting in by being the villain.” I wanted power to look like the purple mohawk, the shaved head. I really, not only in my art, but in my appearance, took on difference.
What’s really interesting, too, is that somehow that worked in my favor. The more comfortable I became in these experimentations of who I was in the world, the more accepted I became. I joke (but it was true) that all the popular girls came to me with questions about the gynecologist, because I seemed like this lesbian pink-haired guru of the OB/GYN world. Somehow my difference wasn’t scary. I was still able to have connections across a wide variety of people and groups.
Simultaneously, I was maintaining this inner world. This survival tactic I’d created as a child was now an integral part of my existence. I was really good at spending time alone, in a way I envy as an adult.
Channeling the Depression
Zines. That was my thing. Twelve issues of drawings and writings that I would trade on the burgeoning Internet. I had a P.O. Box. People would subscribe by sending me stamps: three per issue to mail. I spent hours with the door closed. I made tapes of my music. I’d set myself up to really hold space for myself.
When I look back at that, I wonder what changed. As a 32-year-old, I’m like, “Man, my 15-year-old self really had something right, really knew something I’ve forgotten.” But I might be romanticizing and forgetting moments that are really difficult, which there were.
Reading back on my writings, I’m pretty clear I was able to channel depression in a way I’m not anymore. I think I bought into that stereotype—and stereotypes often have roots in some truths, as we know—of the tortured artist. In a way, depression was not unwelcome at that phase. I wasn’t having to get up and go to a job, aside from shifts as a cashier at the grocery store a few hours a week. I excelled in school for the most part. I didn’t have to put food on my own table.
I had a different relationship to feeling sad, or feeling apart, feeling down. There was an exotic quality to it almost, and I could channel it. I was looking at role models who’d done that and made something astounding. I was obsessed with Ani DiFranco when I was a teenager, oh my God. I don’t know if Ani DiFranco struggled with depression, but she was very outspoken about her bisexuality, her range of emotions, injustices she witnessed. She was really pushing against the grain of what it meant to be a woman. There was a lot of strength in that for me.
I used to joke that I couldn’t get through dinner without talking about Ani DiFranco. My poor parents were so bored of the conversation, but I think it shows the role artists can play in the life of a teenager. They become larger than life. As an adult, I don’t get obsessions that way anymore. I might admire somebody deeply, but that kind of desperation is different, special. There was a refuge.
"What Coolness Meant"
In college, my identity was really hooked to hip-hop and graffiti. I went to Pratt for graphic design. I remember hopping around crowds and fitting myself in with the graffiti guys. But they had no respect or interest, really, in being friends with a girl that wasn’t a love interest. I ended up being really on the outskirts a lot.
I interned at a magazine I really liked in high school, but I remember feeling there were a lot of stakes attached to being cool and what coolness meant, and how you had to be, a lot of posturing. I was never really good at posturing. I was always a little dorky, and a little too sincere, and a little too interested in the earnestness of creation.
But there was a whole other side of me hanging onto that young Caits, like, “I just want everyone to think I’m cool. When do I get to be cool? When does that happen?” In the meantime, of course, there were people in my life that thought I was cool, but somehow they didn’t count, you know? I needed those people who didn’t think I was cool. That’s what I was looking at, always.
College was also the first time I really did something about depression and anxiety. I went on medication. But I was pretty bad at that point in terms of tracking what worked for me and what didn’t. I don’t even remember how I got on it. It was probably through a primary care physician. It was Lexapro, and I didn’t take it very consistently. I wasn’t being responsible for my mental health. I wanted a quick fix. It was very briefly lived.
Mental Health & the Slam Poetry Scene
In senior year, I returned to poetry again. I discovered and stumbled excitedly into the spoken word community. This is a really, really big part of my story with anxiety, because that community simultaneously really broke open my life path—and also made me want to hide from the world.
All of a sudden, I felt, “Maybe this is my tribe. This is where I belong. This is my community of people.” I wouldn’t say I was very confident. Spoken word was full of people who at least appeared very confident. That was part of the art form. I was embraced, luckily, by a few people I really respected and admired. I think a lot of these folks have grown up and changed; I know they have, because I still know them, and they’re fantastic and wonderful, and most of us have even talked about this time period as both enriching and seriously challenging. But I was 20, 21, very tender, hanging out with a lot of older people—and the community at that juncture was rife with drama.
There were a couple reasons for the drama, I think. One is there was still this idea floating around about this tortured artist mentality—an edginess that created good art. Even if it was unspoken, I think there was an undercurrent of this unhealthy behavior in service of the art. We’d all drink together. There was irresponsible sex happening. All of this “wild, for the memoir” behavior, but it wasn’t very supportive of a healthy lifestyle, emotional health as well. Of course, this wasn't everyone, maybe wasn’t most, but the energy was vibrating around. There was a lot of real support, too, that gets buried in my memory beneath what overwhelmed me.
With spoken word, especially slam—there can be the unspoken idea that poetry is therapy. I facilitate rehabilitative writing practices, so I actually agree with that sentiment very deeply. But in an uncontrolled space like a slam, where we’re not therapists, nobody has studied how to do this, nobody even has a true language for it, this “therapy” can get really contorted. You’re assigning a score to how much rawness and pain is delivered onto a stage.
We’d sometimes see false crying. We’d sometimes see mimicking of pain. We’d see a lot of very real pain that—OK, now you go on stage and get a seven? My painful experience is worth a seven? It can be an emotional landmine. People talked behind each other’s backs. There is something an artistic community can provide that can be therapeutic, but add a layer of competition onto it and out comes jealousy, envy. It can become twisted. Really good people acting out in problematic ways and encouraging bad habits—it becomes cyclical.
I slammed maybe four times in my entire life and pretty quickly, though I hung around the community still, decided, “This is not for me. It stresses me out.” I would get physical reactions, headaches, but I still would go watch them—the work was phenomenal. There were amazing people creating amazing work, poets I love to this day.
Ultimately, that environment became very damaging for me. In a way, very enlightening, but in another way, very damaging. I lost some friendships, or actively stepped away. That was extremely painful, because they were people I love, and connected to. I owed a lot of my personal development to them. But there was also relief. Of course, now I am able to enter those spaces and relationships with a much different lens of appreciation.
But at the time there was that feeling, again, of, “I don’t have anywhere I fit.” I felt it pretty profoundly at that point, in my early 20’s. Here’s somewhere I thought I felt comfortable to be a part of, to stay a part of. And even when I decided it was a community I didn't feel comfortable being a part of in that era, at the same time, I desperately wanted them to like me. I wanted them to think I’m a good writer. I wanted them to think I’m cool. This is something I struggle with to this day. It’s a little embarrassing to admit, as human as it is.
The Taste of an Audience
When slam began, the format and formula was created to engage the public in caring about poetry by putting it in the container of a dynamic, exciting show. By the time I entered the scene, the most moving pieces were often about tremendously traumatic life experiences. Everything from rape, suicide, incest, drug use, violence. Witnessing these poems can indeed be very powerful and empowering, but on the flip side—how do you judge that on a scale of one to ten? Writing and claiming and reclaiming our narratives is a very powerful act. But what does it mean to think, “Now I’m going to write my story in a way that’s going to get a ten?” It forces the writer to think about their own life narrative in a way that’s disembodied, distanced. You’re strategizing. In many cases, I can see this demarcates a learning, a lived learning and real personal agency. But I also see it as potentially dangerous, depending on the individual and their stage in the healing journey. It's a fine line.
Back then I was writing for the first time really strategically, too. I knew what the tropes were. I wasn’t necessarily doing it successfully, but I knew how to identify the tactics. I was writing towards an audience. How authentic can that ever be? Of course, once you get a taste of an audience, you never can fully detach. Now you’re thinking, “Oh, there are people out there.” Now you know. But that level of crafting my work towards an audience, what I thought an audience would want in a particular scene—made pretty terrible work.
That was a rough time period. It was a growth-full experience, a learning experience. Like a writing prompt that stretches your imagination, there was something in trying that out, and it pushed my writing in ways it probably wouldn’t have otherwise. There’s a lot of value in that journey of experimentation. But at the same time, how fulfilling was it? How fulfilled was I at the time, in the art I was making?
For me, it seemed to be always towards an empty cause, this accolade and award culture—which I still am plugged into. A little more balanced now, hopefully—but like Pavlov’s dogs, the bell rings. The treat. The audience gives me a certain response. I get a certain amount of likes. These rewards I get for doing things the “right way.” It’s a very backwards system, and I think it really is directly connected to that desire to belong. We know great art, world-changing art, often comes out of a place that has nothing to do with the norm of what’s being created. It challenges. It defies.
Creating Space & Community
My first job out of college was as a development associate and designer at an organization that supported young women on the lower east side. But quickly, my role shifted. This is a story I’m very proud of, actually.
At the time, they were just a storefront in the lower east side. At the front of the building, the ED wanted to start an earned-income initiative, a small café. They had a bakeshop down the road, but it was off the beaten path and nobody was ever coming in. We would make five bucks a day, if lucky.
I was asked once, “How does your struggle with anxiety and depression serve you? Is there any way it has?” And yes, there are ways. I look at how it forced me into this creation of my own world. I developed an entrepreneurial spirit, where making and creating actually carved out real space in the real world. I never really found where I fit naturally, but I sure would make space for myself.
I started an all-women’s performance series on Saturdays, free to the community. For the show, they'd buy a cup of coffee and a cupcake. Some days three people were there, and some days 50 were packed into the front. After a year, we got a significant grant from the Department of Cultural Affairs. We were all of a sudden able to pay performers. Sure, it was only $150 for the hour, but most of us weren't used to getting paid at all. We’d have a closed workshop with each artist and podcast. We did a lot of creative advertising, and I got to have fun with my skills in graphic design. All the skills I developed in survival—around belonging, to make myself feel better, to find a place—look what it ended up creating. And it created who I am in the world, in positive ways, as well.
Teaching, Part 1: "The Power of What Art Can Do"
I ended up going into teaching. I’ve taught in a variety of spaces: public school, college, needle exchange, prison, jail. I’ve always had an interest in it. Despite my struggling with connection, it turns out I am good with people, and working with people has always been very central to my sense of fulfillment. You’re a cultivator, as a teacher. It is a creative act, absolutely. There are times when, actually, I am much more fulfilled by what I am doing with my students than I am in my own work.
Teaching in New York City public schools can be tough. Especially in the beginning, there is a steep learning curve, and while there were some really high moments, it could also be pretty intense. You get tested. Talk about issues of class, race, gender. All of that gets incredibly pronounced when you step in front of the classroom—which I knew to expect intellectually, but how prepared can you be, until you go through it? You get to see up close, from an adult perspective, how broken, segregated, and unequal our schools are.
I began teaching basic art classes, photography, poetry. Mostly with students who did not care about art, so that was a whole other game, to get them on board. Oh, there were days I went home crying. There were days I nearly cursed at students and thought, “I’m going to get fired.” There were days when kids would throw chairs. But there was enough real connection with enough students to keep me coming back. I would tell myself, “I know I’m going to be able to do this better if I stick with it.”
There was a class I grew into that, for three years, was my heart and soul. Students wrote a 10-page paper on a social issue in their humanities class. They’d come to me for the second semester and be tasked with creating an art project, in any medium, that addressed, represented, or opened up the social issue, and also created a call to action.
It culminated in a big exhibition. The public came. People actually came! Students, now artists, stood by their work and could talk about their motivation, their expression, and their hopes. Their artist statements hung on the wall beside their work, and they invited the audience to get involved, to put their hands on the issue they were addressing directly.
That was a class that changed lives. I saw the power of what art could do, and what facilitating a process can do— for myself, for others—for connection, self-esteem, personal and collective agency. I never cared about making everybody an artist by identity. We don’t need a million artists in the world. We need a lot of different kinds of people.
I think about art not only as self-expression, which is very valid, but also as a tool. What it means to help people open up to their own innate creativity, what that brings to the table for their other contributions to the world: how to think about solving problems, how it stretches our brains, how to create empathy and compassion, how it can be a tool for rehabilitation or facing our own stories of trauma. That was a real turning point for me, to deeply know that I can't just be an artist who makes in private. I have to be in connection with other people, and be alongside them in process. It’s very exciting.
Teaching, Part 2: Trauma & Pain-Body
When you’re working in, for example, the poorest congressional district in the U.S., when you’re working in prison, working with active intravenous drug users, you’re working in spaces of intense underlying and overt trauma. The trauma people bring to the table can be immense.
Every human being experiences trauma, but the trauma of deep poverty, of incarceration, the trauma of long-term drug use—they all have their specific weights. And they’re not my weights. They’re not experiences I’m living directly into. But you touch them by even being in those environments, interacting with what people are bringing to you—and often, if you are considered a safe space to people, you get a lot of the full, uncensored story. It’s very moving, and can be very transformative for both parties—but it creates a certain pain-body in the listener, in the witness, that didn’t live there before.
We’re in connection with other humans, because we can't not be. Our energies come to each other. We care about people. We worry about them, and there are boundaries to our roles, and sometimes it feels unnatural to draw a line, and sometimes it feels like if it wasn’t here, then what would I do? I would soak up this scenario until I just faded away.
That’s something I’m much more conscious of now. How do I hold space for stories of very intense—very intense—trauma, without internalizing it? It can feel selfish and counterintuitive, that boundary, but you have to. You absolutely have to. And I don’t think anybody telling you their story is secretly hoping, “I really wish you would absorb this like a sponge and now become depressed yourself.” That’s not the charge. I have more of an awareness of that now.
“You don’t love yourself, so you cannot accept my love.”
When I was working on the lower east side, I had a relationship with a wonderful human being, a wonderful, wonderful person. And I was a terrible person at that point in my life. That’s harsh, but I was not a good version of myself. I presented to the outside that I was, but internally, I was very depressed—and I would take it out at home.
I was, what, 22? Just learning how to be an adult, but I look back on that time with a lot of shame and regret. I’ve forgiven myself now, but it took a very long time. For years, I would be really judgmental of myself. Before that, for a long time, I was extremely angry at the person I was with for abandoning me—when really, I abandoned them. I didn’t have a healthy way to express my depression. I wasn’t even aware I was depressed, but looking back, it’s so clear. My codependency, clinginess, what I needed for my self-worth.
My self-esteem had been eroded by certain experiences with dating and friendships and work. I was very fearful. I was down on myself. I was a little bit more raw than I'd admit to, and that was a ripe space for depression to come in like, “Ha, I’m going to breed here.” Now you have this partner who is this unbelievable human, who holds so much space for you, and, hand in hand with depression, you're just going to walk all over that.
There was a weird power and false sense of safety that came from being a controlling person in that relationship. I was insanely jealous, in a way that, looking back, makes me nauseous. Insanely jealous—of nothing, really. It was mostly invented. I had horrible anxiety when alone at night. I could go out with my friends, but if I was alone at night, my mind would spin about what would be happening out there. These were the ways it crept in.
When I’m feeling really good about myself and confident, I’m not looking outside at other people in comparison. In high school, I was lonely and felt disconnected, but also felt that I had offerings. Something shifted later on, in my early twenties. I just didn’t feel in my own skin. I didn’t feel I deserved the love I was getting and was sure I had to manipulate it to stay.
Meanwhile, the outside world perceived me as a different person. I would bring my best self, my highest self, there. Part of it was authentic, but it was also a bit of an act.
The breakup was my lowest point. I was very cruel in my communication, very back-and-forth. “I love you, I hate you. I love you, I hate you.” He was extremely kind, consistently, and reminded me, “You’re really the one who broke up with me a long time ago.” I knew that was true. I had pushed him away, but I was so stuck in the victim mode, so keen on projecting and blaming. I just wasn’t ready. I was not ready to accept my own responsibility. The dialogue from my partner at the time was, “You don’t love yourself, so you cannot accept my love.” That’s a very painful thing to hear. I would say, “That’s not true.” Of course it was true, on a lot of levels.
Looking back, I’m like, “Oh my God, yeah.” Who the hell would’ve stayed with me? The pain felt so unmanageable and so deep, I thought there was no way I could’ve created that for myself. No way. No way would I have ever been that cruel to myself—but of course, the root of it really had been me. How could I be the cause of my own suffering?
To Exist Through Sadness
I had, luckily, at that point built enough really deep, true friendships to have some pretty serious support around me, so I was not alone in the world. And art remained a lifeline. I’ve never been in a space severe enough where I can’t function through it. I’ve always been a functional person through my depression and anxiety—enough. I get things done. I don’t stop doing them, but it’s like doing it with 50 weights attached. There is some internal resource that says, “No, you’re going to put one foot in front of the other still, and you’re actually still going to do some pretty great things. You just might cry all day while you do it for a while.”
A perspective that really helped after that particular break up was, “I know I won’t feel this way forever.” I’d gone through a breakup with my girlfriend when I was 15. I was so in love, and so heartbroken when she went to college and broke up with me. I was young, but it was a massive deal at the time. Teenagers feel things deeply, too. That loss was really a defining one.
When I would think back to being 15 from the standpoint of 23, 24, I’d think, “Oh, this feels like I’m watching a movie of somebody else’s life now. That’s how one day I’m going to feel about where I am now.” Having that awareness of perspective was critical, even if I couldn’t feel it, just logically telling myself, and finding evidence for, “This is how time works. You will not feel this way forever, you will not feel this way forever.”
I read a lot of accounts of breakups after the big split, because it helped me to see, “It’s not just me.” Sadness is actually a profound human connector. It’s kind of the ultimate human connection—like, “Welcome to the world of being a human being. If you’ve never experienced heartbreak or loss, you’re missing a part of the human experience. And don't worry, it's coming.” These are the perspectives I was engaging. They were mantras I could return to as reminders.
That summer, I won an opportunity through the Pan-African Literary Forum to go on full scholarship to Ghana to study with my favorite poet. There’s a story I like to tell, about this magical moment. Was I inventing the connection? Was it some higher force? Who knows? Who cares? But I’d written this poem, "Questions for Yusef," about my favorite poet at the time, and still one of my favorites, Yusef Komunyakaa—calling for the experience of darkness and heaviness in order to write like him.
My boyfriend left me, I'm a wreck. I get a fellowship to study with Yusef Komunyakaa. I go to Ghana. I am still tremendously sad, but now also in a completely new environment. I’m waking up to different cultural ideas and art. I’m seeing a level of poverty, viscerally, I’d never seen before. I was encountering my whiteness in a new and confronting way. I was meeting people from around the world, incredible human beings, developing these deep, spirited connections. There was just so much texture at that time. Being alive was a privilege. I came back from that and went to San Francisco on tour for a month. Met some people who also changed my life. I was fully embraced in that city in an astonishing way, just met with immense love. It was a real magical season. But I was still sad.
That’s when I learned that you can exist through sadness. Sadness is not a siloed emotion. Sadness and depression and anxiety can coexist with tremendous beauty and learning and growth, and even magic.
I didn’t go on medication again for years. I asked my mother, “Why are so many people medicated? There’s something about this that’s so wrong.” And she said, “Well, have you looked at our world?”
We can’t even escape how messed up our world is. It’s bombarding us from all angles these days. In the past, things were terrible. Humans have had a pretty rough history, but you didn’t necessarily know if you didn’t look at the paper that day. It wasn’t constantly accessible. You look at the world, and humanity’s so broken. How do I even wake up to this? How do I even know how to enter this conversation of being a human being?
That was a pretty profound statement to me. And then she would say, “It’s OK, if you need them.” She normalized medication for me. That framework of the world being broken, and when you’re a very sensitive person, which we have now learned I am—it’s OK to need a little help.
I still had a lot of reservations, because I do believe that the Western world is over-medicated. And my social justice circle, and the holistic health circle I was connected to—it was frowned upon. There was such a stigma attached. There was the fear that I would be dulled out and not creating art. All of these things we know come with the conversation of medication and art were very, very pronounced in my life and in the viewpoints of the community around me—and still are. I’ve had some tough conversations with people where I’ve been upset by their insistence on certain "truths" about meds, that are painful for me to hear.
In the face of feeling invalidated by my choice to use medication, I made a decision to work hard not to judge what keeps people alive. That is the philosophy of harm reduction and needle exchanges: a non-judgmental approach of support. Drug users are witnessed as adults with free will, and we must understand that the same reason we are all taking drugs—illegal, over-the-counter, or prescription—is to manage pain. Then come questions of access, lifestyle, community. Of course, I wrestle with this in part of how hard drugs can seriously warp a mind and destroy the body, how it can break important relationships. Maybe these are the questions and fears my friends bring to medication. But the messaging resonates: you have your body, I have mine, and I'm making the best choices I can for myself in this moment. You don't have to want that for yourself. You can still criticize the institution and methods, but please don't make it personal. I wanted to tell people—how dare you decide what keeps me alive?
Not only did I feel anxiety and depression at the time I was reconsidering meds, I would have suicidal ideation. I was pretty clear I wasn’t going to go jump off a bridge. I would think too much about how that would affect other people. Thankfully, I had a lot of people who loved me that I loved. But I was like, why am I thinking about this all the time? Where is it coming from, that relief connected to, what if I didn’t wake up tomorrow? There was a cycle of self-judgment that would come with it and compound the already difficult feelings.
I went on Celexa. It must’ve been six years ago. I don’t remember what prompted it, but I do remember one of my good friends was on it who was in a really tremendously hard time. I saw how they really helped her. I saw her life transform. She didn’t stay on them forever, but was able to balance out and manage life, day to day. I thought, “That might be smart for me.”
I was on those meds for a long time. They really helped me. They helped me even out. They did other things I wasn’t so happy about. And it's no secret that they’re pretty well-known for diminishing libido, ability to have an orgasm. These things are a real bummer, especially when you’re in your experimental 20’s. I gained weight. I didn’t feel like myself. My clothes didn’t fit. I was like, “Hmm, this isn’t what my body does. What’s going on?”
But what it did was alleviate that sinking feeling. The truth had become that, when I’m depressed, I don’t make art anymore. I don’t know how to channel it like when I was younger. When I get depressed now, I’m a log. I watch shitty TV. Sometimes I’ll read a novel, if it doesn’t require a lot of thinking. I get really dulled out. I’ll manage through my day, but anything extra, I didn’t have any motivation. And as an artist, most times when you’re creating, it’s extra time and investment on top of what you’re doing day to day for money and survival. Depression just kills my motivation.
The meds evened me out enough that I could create again. I’ve discovered when I’m healthiest, when I’m physically healthy and mentally healthy—I make my best art. I have my best ideas. My mind is clear. I’m excited again. I’m hooked. 180-degree opposite of the “crazy artist” theory, that “You have to be on this end of madness to be a great creator.” Well, I feel like I have to be on this end of sanity to be a great creator, which is a big switch in my life. I’m clear about that now.
The meds helped me, and then it came a point where they weren’t helping anymore.
“Designed to Help Women Transform, Uplift, & Heal”
When I was looking to leave a fulltime position and move back into a more self-directed life, I hired a coach who was very insightful. She helped me see a lot of my strengths—that women often feel comfortable with me, I provide a safe space, I know how to develop processes to support people through unpacking their life stories, their traumas, their joys. There was a perception that I am bold and outspoken, though I of course always feel like I could do it in a much bigger capacity. She helped me see these strengths and qualities I’d developed over the years, what people were writing to me online, what strangers were saying.
And she offered, “What about an online course for women?” It sounded like the perfect blend, and for a long time it was. It was designed to “help women transform, uplift, and heal,” or something like this, “into their boldest selves”—was the tagline.
I was always uncomfortable with the marketing aspect, the way these things have to be marketed, the kind of branding popular for online work. It is very centered around the creator, you as an aspirational figure, not just inspirational. These catchy taglines, this formula of copy to sell an experience. “We do all these things, and you’ll come out this way.” None of that I really believed in fully. But I was trying it.
The truth is, anybody who says you can change your life in 30 days that dramatically—you should probably question them. But I was saying just that. What was actually in the course, the content, I felt very good about. It actually dealt with a lot more grey area than a marketing template can capture. It was not about “churning out” bold women, but accessing the true self, engaging the self through the full spectrum of one's humanity. It was about uncovering and embracing, about the community of women. It was definitely about healing. It was about risk taking.
These uncomfortable promotional marketing tactics—they worked. I couldn’t deny that. But while people have publicists to frame who they are in the world, I was framing myself. It was really bizarre, a surreal process. I hated it.
We went through all these different iterations to try to protect and grow the experience of the course. We learned that most people felt it was a very transformative experience—a great many, in fact, did say it was life-changing. That was very helpful for me, very affirming. I would change the curriculum every time to make it better, responsive. Feedback would come, and I would welcome it. I really wanted to take it in.
I brought on a teaching assistant, who is amazing. Dear friend of mine now. I really trust her and love her. She shouldered a lot of the burden, too, of what happens when you open up trauma for people, and they’re talking about it in an online space, and what happens when different identities are colliding: a Midwestern mom of two, white woman, with a Latina transgender woman; a woman in Tanzania having difficulty understanding a non-binary queer orientation because of cultural differences and nuances—I mean, there were some really interesting and difficult conversations that were steeped in identity.
Part of that is healthy for our internal and world community, but part of that is also tremendously difficult when you join a course to heal and are faced with teaching others about your identity. It can be healing, in its own way, or it can be exhausting. Of course, this was going to come up when you’re advertising to more than half the world. “This is for women.” Well, that’s a lot of different kinds of people you're bringing into the room.
So I knew I had something that was powerful, but also, I knew that underneath it, I’m a very fragile person. And it’s not criticism that I can’t handle, because I can handle critique. It was the projections that started to become really difficult.
Treacherous, Beautiful, Supportive, Intense
Here are the first couple rounds. Great, great, great. So exciting. Difficult things are coming up. Okay, let’s not call this a safe space. Let’s call it a brave space, because actually, there are a lot of triggers in this content. That’s the whole point. We’re triggering things to blow open. So, brave space.
We created a covenant of our ideas about what a brave space looked like, and then asked people to contribute their own. We asked people how they identified, which identities were very important to them to be surrounded by, and we would match people we thought would really be able to support each other based on this information. There was a lot of work that went into creating a space where all participants could thrive—and of course, it didn’t always work anyway, because life is life.
People would come up against a trigger, whether somebody said something that was really upsetting, or somebody reflected something that was upsetting to them, or whether it’s something I said that was upsetting. People come with so many different tender points, and when you’re in a space of ripping those areas open to examine them and rearrange them, hurt can arise in any number of ways. It’s a treacherous environment, in a way. It’s beautiful and supportive, but also has its limits and can be really intense.
Then you’re online. What happens in communication when it’s written versus spoken, when you’re not sitting across a cup of coffee and looking somebody in the eye, how tone can be read? That became another layer to navigate. It was not a course we could just set up and press a button. We had to be hands-on fully because there would be emotional emergencies. There were things we had to respond to and address. We had to be really present. It was always a negotiation, because often scenarios would arrive that would have been best handled in a therapy environment. Sometimes it felt irresponsible to be on an online platform with such deep work. And it was, quite frankly, exhausting at times.
There was a lot of energy, too, around the price, which was, I think, between $250-500 at different points. It took a tremendous amount of legwork to make this run smoothly that people didn’t realize. And I was paying people. They thought, “Here’s a formula, and you’re just running it. How could you ask that much money?” There was this idea that I was getting rich off it, which was very laughable to me, because I was struggling financially.
All these layers were difficult to manage on their own. Throw them on a pot together and stir, and then add in that I have an anxiety disorder—and it was explosive. It was great, great, great—and then there came a point.
Rawness & Tender Spaces
I don’t know if the height of my anxiety was triggered solely by this experience. I might’ve already been susceptible. Something else might’ve happened. I might’ve just been in a state of rawness. All I know is that in the eighth and final round, there was a participant on full scholarship really struggling with the course—with me. I wasn’t a fit for her. And because she was in a tender space, she didn’t want to, or couldn’t, communicate or engage in dialogue with me directly, which would have dispelled probably a lot of the pathology she’d created about me—and also, might have helped her to feel heard. Part of what she was saying felt very informative. There were absolutely places I could learn and be illuminated. I was like, “Great. Thank you. I’m actually going to take that advice into account. I'm going to put that into action.”
On the other end, there were things that were very painful. Projections around race, class, gender, all these identities, already really tricky to navigate and sore points for many of us—and some particular and pointed sore points for me, picking at insecurities I hold around the framing of my existence outside the knowledge of my lived experiences, sexuality, my marriage, the contents of my bank account. These are areas I often want to "get right," even when there is no such thing as getting it right.
Her conjectures were about me being this kind of person, what this or that must mean about me, what she had gathered from this hint or clue. Most of what she'd imagined was just factually very far off the mark of reality. It was a bit of a mystery to me why she remained in the course when there was no financial investment, but I also recognized that in her pain there was also a kind of relief in finding a villain, and there was a kind of unconscious or unnamed satisfaction in finding evidence to prove herself right. I understand being in that space because I've done it and do it. I think most of us do if we are honest.
I wanted to listen and learn, and I also could see she was hurting from these projections. These inventions were causing her a lot of real pain. Perhaps the truth, delivered openly and with gentle intention, could have been healing for us both. But there was the closed door. It left me spinning, about how I was the cause of somebody’s deep suffering, even though I logically was aware she brought a lot of her own past and lived pain to the experience and the full burden wasn't mine to own.
This is an example where I can really illustrate the experience of anxiety. One side of my brain was going, “This is a hurting person. This is a hurting person who came here for solace. Parts of my identity aren’t congruous with her healing right now, just in general. I’ve made some missteps that can be corrected, true. I can commit to correcting them. She’s making a lot of very specific assumptions about me I know very clearly, logistically, and spiritually, are not true. And it's OK if I don't resonate for her. It's OK to not be liked.”
But the other side of my brain is going, “But what if she’s right? But what if she’s right? But what if she’s right? You’re a horrible person. You don’t deserve anything good. You shouldn’t be running anything. How dare you?” Sometimes it gets so ballooned it becomes a form of self cruelty. “You shouldn’t even be reading a book, or going out to dinner, or enjoy making love right now, because how dare you deserve to feel something good, when you’ve caused the suffering of this person?”
It’s called catastrophic thinking, right? You go from zero to 100. It affected me to the point that I rattled up a bout of depression. I would get very anxious around my own work—my own work, that had changed many people’s lives by their own assertions. In a way, it was tragic to have one voice of hundreds become so loud I closed off the experience from being engaged by others who might have really benefited. Leaders grapple with projections constantly, but I was drained. I didn’t really have systems to hold myself through a lot of this work we were doing. I was also teaching in public school. I was also teaching in prison. That work felt much safer, because of the in-person component. If a conflict arose, we could address it in the moment. If it happens online, you don’t see it for 10 hours. Something else could’ve spun out. There's no through line, no one-to-one relationship built. It's too late.
I wasn’t honest with everyone about closing the course. I told my dear friends, of course. I would tell acquaintances too, if we had a conversation. But to the outside world? Absolutely not. I was putting the course on hold because I was pursuing my own art, doing other things.
I had created myself in this role as this kind of “guru” figure, even though I was really uncomfortable with that word. I re-branded so the focus was off of me and on the community aspect, which was strong and vibrant. And of course, in interviews I did, in the actual course, in the dialogue, it was, “I am not sitting high up on the mountain with answers. I am a human, deeply in the process. I have some questions that happen to shake up some explorations that might be helpful, and I know how to create a semi-safe space to explore that.”
The truth is, so much of what we created was downright magical. Our anthologies were extremely brave and bold, the writing moving and vulnerable. Our reading series always left me on a high at the end of the night. But I had come up against my own wall. I knew I couldn't keep going.
I didn’t feel I could talk about how depressed and anxious I was. I’d put myself out here as some expert of boldness—even though I truly believe that when you own all of your life stories, and the full spectrum of your messy humanity, that’s what boldness is. It’s about being honest and awake and aware. In order to feel OK, I needed to just close the shutters and create my own space, and “do me,” to simplify the term. I didn’t want to have to explain, because it felt too vulnerable and revealing, which is exactly what I teach.
Of course, we know people who are therapists, who are oriented towards serving or helping people, facilitators, community cultural workers—many people come into these roles who struggle themselves. Most humans struggle on some level, right? Often, we’re attracted to contribute to areas we also see ourselves in.
But even though we know, it’s still a little hush-hush. Don’t talk about it, though, don’t talk about it. Or if you’re going to talk about it, you better have a support system around you, because in a moment of disrupt, anxiety, depression, a flare of mental illness, you are not able to hold yourself the same way you would normally.
To come clean at that moment, a moment of catastrophic thinking where you’re like, “Now my career’s going to be over. People are going to hate me. I’m such an imposter!”—your brain is not able to see the beauty of that authenticity and transparency, what a gift that sharing could be to many people. You admire me on some level, you like what I’m doing on some level, you decided to study with me? Well, I’m a person, too, who struggles with this. That can be very affirming and open a lot of space and permission, but when you’re in a moment of your own flare, you don’t have access to that perspective.
"Inside, I was dying."
I was starting to think, “OK, online space is not working for me.” Then this happens, with the online course, that kind of crushed me. I went to Malaysia on a state-sponsored tour right before, and on my way home, the Mike Brown case was erupting.
The verdict came out. It was crushing. I was sitting in an airport in Japan on layover, reading Facebook and all the commentary, most of which I agreed with because I share a mindset with most people in my life, luckily. But I felt so disconnected, with all these tremendous emotions. What can I, do I, feel? What should I feel? Thirty hours of no sleep, I was very sick with a chest infection. And my mind was flooded with the opinions and hurts and declarations of other people. Where I would normally link up with community or have dialogue of friends, I was just processing in kind of a whirlwind, a tunnel. None of this is meant to be an excuse, but rather to offer a context.
I posted something online. What I was attempting to do was call out my own identity in relationship to my feelings about the case, framed in the lens of my interracial, intercultural marriage—I'm not excused from the work of unpacking internalized and institutional racism. I'm not off the hook, so to speak. But my choice of phrasing did the opposite, it turned the lens defensively and self-righteously on myself. It ended up creating disconnection in a friendship I held very dear at the time. Even after she said, "Oh Caits, I trust you understand why that felt off, and I trust you will integrate this lesson into your life and work," it was very hard for me to forgive myself.
And that was another thread that pushed me over the edge. It was also when I realized social media was not working for me. Why did I write that post on my Facebook wall? Twitter? What did I think I could accomplish in 140 characters? I felt an internal pressure to prove I cared, that I was on the right side of the issue, that I had the right dialogue—and that was a very selfish motivation. My feelings were real. My need to share, that impulse to prove, was not real. I later wrote about this in a newsletter, and it helped me to clarify and unpack that difficult moment, and hopefully, help others connect to their own motivations. The way I described it was living with the door of my brain wide open, even when no one was knocking. The noise of social media was messing with my ability to process with clarity and intention.
All these things culminated at the same time. I came home and my stomach was like, on the ground, on the floor. I was just walking with a dark cloud. Could not get out of it. I ended up breaking down at the holidays. My father and I had a minor conflict, and I just broke down. And my husband came out of the room and found me sobbing with Dad. He was like, “Oh my God. I didn’t know.” I’d been holding it together, you know? But inside, I was dying.
That’s when I took some, what felt to me, extreme measures and started to change my life. This was two years ago. I started to realize what I actually need to support myself. I’ve changed meds. I went on Wellbutrin. I felt a big difference on that. I started slowly exercising, which turns out to be, for me, the key to everything with managing my mental health.
I got off social media completely for four or five months. Completely. Deleted accounts. I combined my personal Facebook page with my public one, and then deactivated that. So even if I was to reactivate, which I eventually did, there are no feeds to see. I paused my Instagram. I deleted Twitter. I invested in my classrooms in real time.
I could not have imagined the mental freedom it gave me. I think that was an enormous part of my healing, closing down the voices of other people, even people I loved, in that particular format. I knew what had driven me to create the post that came out sideways and icky—was something that many people feel when they’re posting. It was an energy and pressure that just felt out of control, and not helpful at all, to me.
It was an enlightening time. It’s not to say my depression and anxiety went away, but for about a year, I felt very good. I started going to therapy. I was exercising. On new meds. Off social media. I listened to podcasts, which felt very intimate. I read more. I came back to myself in a very profound way. I hadn’t felt, in a long time, that grounded.
I have to talk about how I was recently diagnosed with celiac disease. I deeply believe it has had an enormous impact on my anxiety and depression. For years I've had vague autoimmune issues labeled by doctors who didn't know the cause—IBS, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome. For years—and I mean 15, 16, 17 years—I have struggled with widespread body pain, a crazy tummy, persistent psoriasis, a feeling of mental fog that some days felt impossible to push through. I honestly feel I can count on my hands the number of days in the last number of years I felt "good." I got used to, well, plainly, feeling sick constantly, no matter my sleep, healthy eating, low stress, acupuncture, chiropractors, hypnotherapists, massage, yoga, I tried it all. I even tried gluten-free! But at the time I didn't know you can't cross contaminate. You can't put the gluten free toast in the same toaster as regular bread. I never stuck with it long enough to have results, and likely, a deficiency caused by the illness needed to be corrected beyond diet—bottom line, I felt I had no control.
This summer, my health deteriorated worse than ever—my limbs went numb, I was having serious cognitive issues. It was hard to walk some days from pain or weakness, I was in pain all over, my speech was sometimes slurred, and I lost track of what I was saying often. Constantly elevated heart rate, waves of panic. My exhaustion was so profound, I could go to sleep at any point in the day after 8-9 hours of sleep. I was working from home and had the summer off from teaching, amazingly. But still some days I had to sob out of frustration and fear of how I would handle a return to the work I love with this malfunctioning, unruly body.
Thankfully, my doctor is amazing and thought to test my vitamin levels, which revealed a significant b12 deficiency that caused all of the symptoms I was having—each and every one classic to the deficiency. Further investigation unveiled celiac—an autoimmune reaction to gluten that was destroying my intestine and preventing vitamins from being absorbed. Essentially, I have been poisoning myself for years.
Guess what else is connected to celiac and B12 deficiency? Anxiety! I don't think this is the full cause of my lifelong issues, but I do think it is a major contribution. Consider the connection between the gut, the second brain, and emotions. Consider that a physical illness is interrupting brain functions and the effects of that illness are weighing on the psyche. The restrictions of chronic illness. Consider that a strict change in diet can alleviate 17 years of suffering? I don't trust yet that this could be so simple, but I am amazed at the difference after a few weeks off gluten and a few B12 shots to my arm muscle.
Of course, diet really isn't going to heal everyone's illnesses, mental or physical, because all of us have different roots and reasons and chemistry. But I do believe now that it is always worth investigating and demanding tests that might reveal information that could change your life. Even my gastroenterologists over the years just slapped the label “IBS” on without testing for a food allergy! It feels so irresponsible. You really have to learn to advocate for your own health in this system.
Even with this knowledge, I don't know if it is the sole reason for my mental health issues. I won't know for probably a long time. And the fact remains that I didn't know for many, many years. The fact is, I've battled with my emotional landscape regardless of the cause. I want to be clear that this discovery did not make me become anti-medication. Meds helped me when I felt desperate, overwhelmed, ill and fractured. Meds helped me—and help many—live life.
I didn’t have reservations, because my parents and aunts and uncles are all therapists, social workers, or in fields of similar contribution. I’m in therapy now, proudly. For me, it’s always been a healthy choice. It’s a viable option. There can be a huge stigma around going to therapy. I’m very aware that that exists, especially in particular communities, in communities that lack resources.
I find it to be a very helpful space. The experience of talking to somebody whose job it is to listen to you—and they’re judging you like any human, on some level, but who cares? They’re not your friend, your colleague. You’re not going to go see them in another context. It’s a space where they’re bound by law to keep confidentiality. You can be as truthful and wrong and messy as you want, because there’s nothing attached to that relationship to worry about. You can stumble your way openly towards truth and admit parts of your thinking that you wouldn't want the world to see in process. It’s a very freeing container.
A good therapist is able to reflect, hear things in what you’re saying, pull things back, shift the perspective—and they have no agenda but to help you navigate your own existence. Skeptics say, “Their agenda is to keep you in therapy.” Well, hopefully you get a good therapist who’s not corrupt, and I like to think there are very few of those. But the agenda of other listeners, even people who love you, your friends, family, your partners—there are agendas that come with relationships. I’m not even naming that as a bad thing. It’s just a reality of our psyche.
Come Back, Come Back
At some point this year I stopped exercising. I got busy, and I just fell off, and it wasn’t a priority. Then things in my life happened that were very stressful. I recently came out of a two-month stretch where I felt like I was in a low-grade panic attack pretty much every second of the day. My body hurt like hell, because when you’re anxious, it’s a very physical experience. Your muscles tense, your heart races, your stomach turns. I noticed, too, a perspective I gained recently—my anxiety and depression can make me feel and act in a narcissistic way. Then I can get self-conscious of that. It’s a downward spiral.
One of my tactics when I’m having a panic attack is calling a friend. I have some friends who experience anxiety and really understand it. Luckily, they recognize what’s happening and know what they want to hear, so they know what to say to me. It helps me calm down. I really felt, this round, the depth of, “What does it mean to keep calling people?” What does it mean to need someone to help talk you down from the ledge? And it’s a ledge that’s invented, because anxiety is often making up or exaggerating a danger that’s not actually there.
I now have an awareness of, “What do I need to implement? What can I not be lazy about anymore?” I cannot not exercise. I hate exercise. It’s so boring to me. I would so much rather do anything else. But it is really medicine for me. I need to make sure I’m sleeping enough. I got a book about anxiety. When I’m having a panic attack, I can read about what my brain is doing, and it doesn’t necessarily take it away, but I’m like, “OK. I’m not just using my own logic. Here’s somebody writing about my disorder, and it’s OK, and this is what’s happening.” There are affirmations I do. Anything that’s ritualizing can help.
All of these experiences culminated in a realization that anxiety, mental health—it all lives in the brain, but it’s connected to the body. I had lived my life in my head, primarily. As a writer, as an artist, I feel comfortable in my head. It’s also where I’m terrorized. Anything that pulls me out of my head and into the body helps my mind integrate experiences in my life, helps my brain channel energy.
It’s so normal, but also so magical and wild, to have that realization. To really profoundly say, “This is how I heal myself, and why would I let anything get in the way of that?” But of course I do, all the time, and have to come back to the routine—come back, come back, come back.
"Who are these people?"
The group I wish to belong to—it doesn’t even exist, is the funny part. The group is amorphous. They’re out in the ether. Who are they? I don’t know. They’re just invented human beings. Maybe I just saw one person’s post, that particular person in that particular moment. But really, it’s nobody. It’s myself.
It’s the voice in my head that says, “You have to do something, or else this or that,” whether it’s posting on social media, or clarifying myself to the point of oblivion, where I can’t just trust what I say and let it sit in the world. I’m so afraid someone’s going to misinterpret it, and guess what? People do misinterpret things, and that’s part of existence. That’s part of putting yourself out there. I think the anxiety pulls me into a kind of non-reality. Everyone else will be squinting at me, like, “What? Why are you going there with that?” But I’m like, “But it’s possible. But it’s possible, and what if it happens?”
The truth is I’m very accepted by a number of people, who I’m very lucky to have friendships and love and family with. I have a community. It’s very obvious, when I look at the facts. Sometimes I’ll do an exercise in my journal when I have anxiety which is, “What happened today?” No judgmental language, good, bad. It’s just, “This person e-mailed. This is the conversation I had. I went to this doctor’s appointment. I ate avocado. I taught a class. Then I went here.” When I lay out my life in very unbiased terms, just what is—I have a great life.
The anxiety is often coming from five-year-old me, from a very deep place inside that is no longer relevant. My brain says, “This is what I’m trying to protect you from,” but there’s no danger currently. I’m sure there are plenty of people rejecting me, or who think I’m annoying, or don’t like the way I present to the world. I mean, of course there are, because there are plenty of people I feel that way about. But that’s just human. The anxiety starts to attach itself inappropriately to things and people. It’s a very strange phenomenon. And it’s embarrassing to admit, quite frankly. To be on record and say, “I’m afraid that people don’t like me.” That’s my anxiety. It’s very embarrassing.
We do all need to belong. There’s really no way to shut that desire completely, and it would not be helpful—because then what are you going to be, a lone ranger in the world? Then who are you serving, and what’s that about? It’s not the desire to belong that’s the bad thing. It’s when it becomes debilitating to your life, your needs, these invented stories that our brains cook up, how hooked we get by the act of belonging. Like anything else, it needs to be balanced. That’s what I’m striving towards now.
Branding, Audience, & Social Media
I’ve got to be honest—I would like to see the Internet become less central in people’s lives. It’s central in mine too right now, so I’m a bit of hypocrite in this, but I think social media wreaks havoc on people’s psyches, especially if you have a predisposition to mental illness or some disrupt. I would like to see a movement back towards physical connection. I don’t think that would solve every problem. I don’t think every problem is solvable. Humans are a very complex species—not that we shouldn’t strive, still.
But there’s something to me about this hub where we’re constantly appealing to an audience. We are constantly seeing people’s best lives, most curated selves. Not to say you necessarily want to see someone’s breakdown on social media, because that’s not quite the space either. On either end of the coin, it’s difficult for the social media space to hold anything that has a depth of emotion—especially in abbreviated form.
I think artists spend a lot of time in this day and age, because it’s accessible, thinking about branding, about audience, about social media—and that is a turn away from the self. I think that’s where our arts and culture get watered down, where we start to take on the methods of pop culture, things we don’t like, but all of a sudden we’re doing the same work for ourselves.
There are positives, too. There’s self-ownership—yes, yes. There is making room for a diversity of voices, and that act bleeds into the mainstream. There is a lot to be said about what the Internet does for the independent artist, I know because I benefit from it.
But I’d like to see more balance. How do we get out of the documentation of everyday life to the max and extreme? Here are my friends, here’s who I hang out with, this and that. It’s almost like now, to be an artist is to show your life as art, but not in a way that’s all that enlightening or has a lot of depth to it—versus my attention and energy being less about being seen and accepted or belonging, and more, “What truths am I trying to uncover in my art?” What questions am I asking? What scares me in this world, and how do I figure out my relationship to it, how I contribute to it, and how I can pull away from it? How I might start to grapple with reflecting a different world, different possibilities?
Not to say we should completely eradicate social media, but understand the magnitude to which these tools psychologically hook us. They’re built to. We are built for reward. How does that disrupt our process?
Everybody wants to be the one with the answer, or at least not the one causing harm. Social media gives everyone a voice. In many ways, I am drawn to that democratization of voices. But I can't shake the feeling that even if we’re framing it in self-awareness, there’s still an impulse underneath of, “I have to attempt some kind of answer to this situation,” when, bottom line, we all feel so helpless—and that’s where the pain stems from. I used to get so frustrated with people's social media soap boxes. It felt like a form of engagement that was a little... cheap. Now I try to approach it with compassion.
On Prison Work: An Unbelievable Human Triumph
I think we need to see human beings as human beings, just like you and I, who for whatever myriad of circumstances or reasons, often linked to generational trauma, institutional racism, poverty, cycles of abuse—did something they deeply regret. We have trouble as a humanity connecting to things different from us, and the concept of the incarcerated gets exaggerated in the media and society. Some people have done very scary things. This is true. I'm not denying that.
But what I would want people to see is—where do I even start? Let me phrase it this way. You’re in a prison. It’s locked down. Just the experience of walking through that space has a certain intensity. From this vantage point, you develop a different feeling of what it means to be free in the world, the weight of that privilege. There are so many layers of what you can come up against in yourself, your own stereotypes, your own what if’s.
Especially as a person with anxiety, in my catastrophic thinking, the recurring theme is, “You’re not a good person, you’re not a good person, because you made this probably very tiny mistake.”
I want to be careful in my framing. My intention is not to glorify the struggle of others, or to benefit off of someone's pain, but I do think it's safe to assume that most of what we engage by choice has a measure of self-interest, a motivation beyond pure service. These motives become entangled and ambition might live alongside an impulse as simple as a sense of purpose, or feeling good about contribution—there's that belonging, again. None of this is wrong, the exchange is what keeps us connected, connection is what lifts us into meaning, the process doubles back on itself. In this way, I think a healthy community is a circle. But I also think it can be helpful to name that thing we “get,” that we benefit from, in the process of self reflection and grounding in ethics.
Part of my selfish gain from this work is in a kind of modeling I receive, that I am taught by. What’s been most profound for me personally, is—I witness people who have made mistakes that, if we’re going to do a scale, are often on the opposite end of mistakes I’ve made. And they’re going through an active process of self-forgiveness, self-compassion, and personal ownership in order to be a contribution to the world or the community they’re now part of.
That, to me, is an unbelievable human triumph. To exist in a space that reminds you every day that you are a bad person. That’s why you live here in a cage. You are a bad person, because you did this horrible thing. Your friends and family may have abandoned you, or are overwhelmingly angry. There’s the system reminding you, the environment reminding you, and then, of course, your own brain reminding you. “Oh my God, I did that horrible thing.” The relentless facing of self, the self-punishment, the extremity of living this way. Even people who are innocent or wrongfully incarcerated do, at bottom line, experience this environment and narrative of overbearing guilt and punishment.
How can I walk into a space like that and say I admire people’s process towards redemption, self-forgiveness, changing their life, becoming a deep contribution—and then not forgive myself for minor transgressions?
Whenever you’re in a space where the traumas are very present on the surface, where you can’t help but feel them when you walk through, there can be a shifting of the human spirit in a dramatic way. The recidivism rates are ridiculous. Not everyone is getting quality therapy. Caseloads are unmanageable. The environment is inhumane. The daily, almost momentary, dehumanization. If you begin to think of yourself as nonhuman, unworthy of humanity, and other people don’t see you as fully human, how do you transform? But then there are people who, even though they don’t have the resources available, are able to find the resources. They create the resources. And that is tremendously inspiring.
I think it serves as a model—for what’s possible. Those examples show us that it’s possible. And if it’s possible in that environment, then there’s got to be a different way in the larger human arena that allows even more people access to that transformation.
Restorative justice speaks to me because it models this process and places focus on responsibility, rehabilitation, and healing over punishment. It centralizes the victim's healing (whereas our current system cuts the victim out in the process of trial and sentencing) and invites the perpetrator into a process of reconciliation with the victim and community. That is a very basic definition, obviously, but it is powerful work. In many ways, much, much harder work.
But also, what I would want people to see is that we talk shit, we laugh, we cry—a lot. We offer support. We can be snappy. We can have revelatory moments. We can be goofy as hell. Really, it’s just like hanging out with any random group of folks—just in a heightened setting that intensifies the sense of presence and presentness. The jumpsuit they’re wearing? Pretty soon you stop seeing it.
Goals for a Future Self
First and foremost, I would really love to develop a serious discipline and commitment and ritual around taking good care of my physical health, which takes care of my mental health—having part of life be uncompromisable. I want to get to the point where it’s not even a question, because I know that’s my medicine.
In terms of belonging and art, sure, I would love to get to the point where I’m unshakably clear and confident, and comforted by the community I have developed. That’s my real foundation, and the acquaintances I know? There’s not even time for them all to be my true friends! I want to get real cozy and cool with the idea of the acquaintance. Nobody owes me anything, and I don’t really owe anybody else anything either. We come together when there is mutual benefit and overlap, a sharing, an exchange. That’s beautiful, but it doesn’t have to be every day.
Then what that would do for my art? It would allow me to stretch into more dangerous territory, with less fear. Right now, I’ll be working on a series, and the voices in my head are like, “Who are you to do that? Who are you to say that? What if somebody perceives you this way?” I’ll always strive to be responsible and ethical in the way I tell stories and engage art, having people around to check me. “Is there a way this can be misinterpreted? Can you give me that feedback? OK, that’s not how I want it to be interpreted, so what’s another way to share that?”
But sometimes after that step, I want to close the door and stop. I actually want to make work that feels scary in a different way. I want to make work that is going to push up against people’s ideas of the world and humans, and humanity. I want to make people uncomfortable. But if I’m super uncomfortable in my own creating, how am I going to manage that?
To Complicate the Human Experience
At 15 years old, I think what made me proud was work that felt like it belonged in the same world as the artists I loved. Not to say that I was making art exactly like Ani DiFranco songs, but that if you put the two in the same camp, they would live harmoniously. Also, I wanted to express my difference in a way that was bold and unapologetic, but could be heard by the world—the world of my parents, my friends, and my grandmother even. I don’t know if I could’ve articulated all that back then, but I think that was what I was looking for.
Art I felt proud of was art that felt really good making, you know? Time would stop. I'd go into my portal, and then I had this whole zine at the end of it. I don’t remember it ever feeling like a challenge to motivate myself to get this thing done, which is how I feel often now. I was making for the sake of making, and then organically, something would rise out of the making process. That’s very hard for me to do. I operate from the framework of "projects" now.
Recently, I took myself to a retreat for my birthday after a very panicky month to reground myself. The woman who runs it is this really permissive, wonderfully free spirit. She says, “Let’s pick up these guitars and play for fun. We’re in the middle of the woods. This is what we do for fun.” She has a beautiful voice. I had so much resistance internally. She could feel it. She said, “Caits, we’re just messing around. This is not for anything. We’re just having fun.”
The feeling of freedom I accessed when I really released the need for it to be good? I felt I sang better than I had ever in my life. It really woke me up to, “Oh my God, I don’t do that anymore.” There’s nothing I create without it having a purpose, or a landing, or some endpoint. It’s for my book, it’s for this, that, what I could do with this—instead of just the joy, right?
Then in college, when I was writing poems, what would have made me proud—was if other people liked it. If I achieved some sort of mimicry of people I admired.
As an adult, all of those things are present. All these needs and desires are still with me. There’s the good part, when I can hook in and get lost in creation. There’s still, “Do other people like it? Will it get published? Is someone going to like when they read it? Oh my God, that quote I just got from one of my favorite poets—do you think she really means it? Because I don’t think she really means it, because it’s just too nice.” That is all there, too.
But the driving force for me in a successful piece of work? If I am able to access my own vulnerability, transcend into the time-stopping space of creation, pick at a certain truth in a way that cracks open some questioning. I think a lot about the idea of complicating the human experience.
If I can make work that complicates an idea about humanity, that’s the big goal. Mainly, that comes out of my work in prison, which has become the most important to me: what that space informs me of, and how it’s changed my dialogue. Even issues I used to be very radicalized around—I don’t know. I have a lot of questions I didn’t used to have.
What does it mean to exist in the questions? This is the phrase I’ve taken on: complicating what we name as good and bad, a way to exist in that grey, name the grey area in ourselves. Maybe out of that muddying up of the polar opposites, we begin to get somewhere closer to what the answers are—or better ways to live in the world. Maybe we begin to see that we're living closer to each other's truths than we think.
I think the lens has widened, to a much broader landscape. And when I’m really in my most sane, clear mind, that goal is the highest goal.
Interview by Caitlin Shih
Caitlin Shih is just another millennial with a B.A. in English and a deep-seated interest in the human experience. She lives on Long Island, New York, and currently struggles with spending too much time out of her home and not enough time with her cat.