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The night before I left I lay awake and regretted the decision to book the flight.

I had barely scraped together care for my dog and my cat. I still had no steady income. My car was broken down in Portland in my parents’ driveway, full of the detritus of a summer spent ferrying from an island trailer to a city. And frankly, I didn’t feel well. I curled my legs up to my torso and touched my belly. My period had started the day before, after a three day camping trip on the Oregon coast. All my clothes still smelled of moss and sweat and smoke. I was bloated. My uterus was doing that ancient dance that I assume involves knives and lots of kicking.

Also why did I choose to go?

My friend Ben, one of those awful people who manages to be good at whatever he chooses to do, and his wife, my best friend Rachel, casually announced that they were going to northern Idaho for Ben’s second 100 mile race. I was loitering in their new house under the guise of “helping unpack” and perked up. It was going to be at a hot springs, they said, and there would be no running water or electricity. Just a pack of dirty runners and their crew, running through the night.

“Flights to Boise aren’t that expensive” I said, completely forgetting to comment on his indelible strength and ambition. And my title as Most Supportive Friend was secured. I booked the flight. I needed a vacation. And vacations for me have always been wherever people I love want to be. No cell phone service is a bonus.

But I was in no condition to go. The summer has been a difficult one, isolated on an island and redefining a life I no longer am quite sure I want. It’s been one of watching friendships fade, and some flare out, of wandering the veins of trails behind my Airstream past abandoned cabins and feeling nothing as deer flit through the trees like ghosts. Walking until my feet forget how and collapsing into bed. It’s been one of anger and sadness and bursts and exhaustion. Of no money and no direction. Of diving deep and finding no solace in the dark. Of being just super annoyed with people who offer the equivalent of inspirational posters as advice. Of pretty regular therapy.

I was a miser. And the night before I left for this race, the second 100 mile race I’ve attended as support, I did not want to go. I did not want to be around athletic go-getters with bodies cut from stone when my body was more the consistency of a warm marshmallow. But I know myself. And I knew I was going to go no matter what. I knew I would show up. The only thing I know how to do is show up, marshmallow uterus and bad attitude and all.

After a two hour flight delay and almost getting left at the Boise airport I threw my backpack into the trunk of a very cool gray minivan and we started driving. Idaho was going to be cold, and all my winter clothes were in my storage unit since I had moved into an Airstream for the summer. I pulled the hood of my Sub Pop hoodie over my ears and stared out the window as the bars on my phone dropped like the temperature. Rachel and Ben and our friends Brian and Sarah chatted in the front two rows. I leaned farther back. They were all runners. They belonged here.

The Burgdorf Hot Springs appeared like an apparition. Half falling down cabins and half standing ones, with steam rising out of the cordoned off hot springs in a perpetually mystic haze. The Payette National Forest surrounding the grounds looked skeletal and blue in the fading light. It was beautiful. I unclenched.

The problem with being around very athletic people is that it makes you remember that you once were, sort of. The other problem is that they think everyone can be that way, and are unbearably supportive. Mountain athletes have always been my favorite, with their beards and their dirty scraped up legs and their endless keggers. When I moved away from Boulder I never thought I’d meet more people whose idea of a party was throwing on a camelback and running to house parties or building a fire in a snow pit and switching Patagonia puffies until the tallest guy is wearing your smallest friend’s purple jacket in 20 degree weather and rolling around in the snow.

When I started hanging out with ultra runners it felt a little bit like coming home. They liked hearing about my backpacking years, when I was the slowest one in the pack. They liked to talk about the feeling of waking up at 3 AM to summit a 14er, the stars spread out thick like seeded jam, so bright that you can almost walk without a headlamp.

They usually do not like to talk about how Stephen Malkmus basically made a solo record with Terror Twilight.

I have always liked being the in-between friend. The one who “gets it” but isn’t a part of it. I like supporting people doing ambitious and bonkers shit because that’s the best way to live. I lived in relative safety. For most of my 20s, after I moved to Seattle, I’ve kept day jobs, I’ve been in long term relationships, I’ve gotten a dog, I’ve kept it cool.

But at Burgdorf, as the temperature dropped to the mid 20s and everyone was going to sleep at 10 PM so Ben and our other friend Gretchen could get sleep before their race, I was suddenly awake.

Why did I feel more at home here than in my city? Why, when I talked to my new friend Brian about his past races and the curved spines of mountains, did I feel more excited than when I talked about the new LCD Soundsystem? (It’s really good. I’ve never been a fan before, but James Murphy has finally stopped being like “you know what’s cool? NOT being cool” like ok guy, we get it, you’re so different.)

Another runner I know who lives in my semi-home state of Montana joined me for a beer as the night got colder.

The stars came out and I was cold, but I didn’t want to go inside. I stared up with our headlamps off and counted the white knuckled fingers holding onto this idea of who I am. How I’ve tried so hard for so long to make myself make sense. To make myself palatable.

And then they ran. Gretchen and Ben ran for over 24 hours through freezing temperatures. We crewed Ben, hurrying up to get to an aid station and then waiting for hours. Sleeping in the grass, making too much coffee. Dancing to forgotten songs, talking about forgotten feelings. We ate too many turkey sandwiches. I talked to one of the most bad ass ultra runners and didn’t know who she was. She was really nice.

As we gathered the next morning at the finish line and I built an actual trashcan fire to keep us warm I realized it’s not that I am an in-between person. I’m an everything person who has never let herself truly be a part of anything. Because I cared more about making sense than I did about doing what makes sense to me. Which is getting dirty above tree line and going to a show and throwing elbows in a pit (maybe not as much anymore). I like Patagonia jackets and pretty dresses. Who gives a fuck? The sun was coming up and I realized I didn’t have to make sense. No one did. No one was asking me to, either. Certainly not these weirdos who felt more like home than any crappy apartment I’ve rented. Then I watched people I love accomplish the impossible next to other people I love. And I felt good. I had almost forgotten how.

Life doesn’t make sense. If we aren’t willing to not know, then I don’t know if we ever get anywhere. Sometimes people who we thought we’d know forever hurt us the worst and we have to let them go. Sometimes people who don’t seem to match up make the most sense and we have to let them in. Sometimes it’s good to look in the mirror and give that person permission to do whatever makes them happy – whether it’s going to the middle of the forest and remembering what it’s like to be a kid scampering up hills or sitting out in the freezing cold staring hard at the stars, willing them to spell out what’s next.

I don’t know what’s next. I do know I’ll keep walking, and maybe running, until I can’t do it anymore.

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I have lived on Capitol Hill for six months and it has begun to reject me like a bad transplant.

I love the Hill, I do. I love being around the corner from great restaurants. I love that so many friends are either within walking distance or more than willing to search 45 minutes for parking to come to the center of the city and be close to me.

I love my little apartment that I worked so hard to make into a compact, perfect home. I love the way the morning light filters through my north-facing windows in a warm gray wash.

But Capitol Hill knows me now, and it knows I’m no center-of-the-action person. And as much as we may love each other in our best moments, we wear on each other the rest of the time. After six months of sirens and litter and being surrounded by buildings as far as the eye can see and maybe a couple traumatic moments that wouldn’t even shake a true city person, I’m running away.

SEE YOU NEVER.

Just kidding.

I actually wanted to tell you this news because I think it’s an example of why I do love being in a city, and why I’ve stayed in Seattle for the better part of a decade.

I posted on my Facebook that I needed legal advice to break my lease (something I’ve never done before). I made a joke about wanting a pet friendly remote cabin to cure my newfound jumpiness. I expected maybe a couple friends to comment with some numbers, and then I would follow through and have to figure out the rest myself. I figured I’d end up quickly finding a quiet studio apartment in north Seattle near Ballard or Fremont where I could hide behind big trees and breathe in salt air  and still go out at night like the weird city/country amalgam that I am.

I was prepared to do this on my own.

Instead I got floods, floods of responses. I got emails, texts, comments. I was referred to people’s parents, to their acquaintances. I had friends say they’d help me pay to break the lease if I couldn’t afford it. I was inundated from every corner of this city (and a few corners in New York and LA, what’s up guys) with help and support and I was overwhelmed and the gratitude had reached Peak Eye Welling.

Within days I had a plan in place. I had just started to peruse Craigslist for a sweet little top floor studio in a dog friendly building, when I got a Facebook message from a friend I hadn’t seen in years.

“Hey! Let us know if you seriously need a place on Vashon – we are getting ready to start an Airbnb on our property with some friends – an airstream RV. It’s like 300 square feet. Still working on the shower, but we could definitely do a monthly rental for you for a bit instead. It’s got a rad view of the water and is tucked away in the woods. Good luck!”

And then she sent me photos. When they popped up on my screen, a tiny latch was jimmied and my heart swung open in a breeze. I wanted to be there. Like right now. 

For a second I was like “this is going to be my Walden! I’m going to write the next” and then I punched my own self, so you don’t need to come over and do it for me.

I told her yes, please, please, yes. Then we talked more, and she cleared it with the other family on the property. I figured out that I could do a leisurely ferry commute to work every morning no problem for the rest of the summer until I figured out a more permanent situation. Jones would have a whole waterfront to roll in.

So that’s what I’m doing. I’m throwing my stuff in my storage unit and moving to Vashon for the summer starting in June. I’ll be back in Seattle proper in the fall. 

But this reminded me of something I always and forever forget.

You can ask for help.

You aren’t alone.

People are kind of bonkers good sometimes. 

(People can be real wangdoodles, too, and I think it’s important to remember that so I don’t get too carried away here, but wangdoodles aren’t central to this particular story.)

And people who you may think don’t even know your name will come shooting out of the woodwork like fucking Caspar the Friendly Ghost and offer you help in showy displays of absolutely bananas altruism.

Did you know in one week I will have been here for 6 years?

I’ve never been more grateful for the people here, and for the water and the sky and the coffee I spill on myself and for all the goodness even when the world feels like it’s burning.

Now leave me alone, I don’t want to talk to anyone for a few months.

(Just kidding. If you don’t visit me I’ll cry.)

Writing is my job.

And the longer it has been my job, the less I write for myself.

The less I write for the sun setting, for the fingers of pink reaching across the gray sky. The less I write for the knot of sadness at the end of long travel, the crashing down from all the going and going and then the huge stillness of being.

The less I write about things I remember. Like sun baked streets and buying Bruce Springsteen’s Born In the USA on cassette and clipping my Walkman to my jean shorts and singing “Glory Days” in the California sun, unaware that I was singing about the very days that my wiry body was hurtling through.

I write less to unravel the knots I’ve tied.

I write less that is unedited, that hasn’t been picked over and over and over and over until it shines.

I can’t remember the last time I wrote a love letter. To anyone. To anything. A love letter to that moment when a plane starts descending over Seattle and the clouds unfold like a Broadway show, the San Juans rolling into view like a chain of green marbles on blue glass.

That feeling of home that settles on my chest like a cat. That feeling hasn’t been put to words much in the past few years.

It is achy to write this, like stretching a dormant, atrophied muscle.

I write all the time. From 9-5, and then from 6-10. The clock turns and I am mining for words and more words and even more words, until I am spent and feel grateful that somehow the well refills.

But it is not often that I dip in that well just for me.

So to get back in the practice, here is one story that I have referenced before in one music column. I told it over dinner to a writer friend in LA and he blinked and said, “write that down.”

So I am.

I was 20, and it was the night before Easter. I was smack dab in the middle of my eating disorder, my body beginning to feel much older than its years, my bones sticking out of me as though they had decided to try to jump ship before the whole thing up and sank.

I was back home in Colorado for the school break, sleeping curled around a thousand pillows in my childhood bed, politely refusing the cheesecake my mom had made for me. You might think that a mother noticing her daughter’s weight loss and responding with a cheesecake is passive-aggressive, but you don’t know Debbie. That shit was straight up aggressive. Cheesecake was paired with narrowed eyes and declarations like “A LUNA BAR IS NOT A MEAL KATHLEEN. EAT A PIECE OF CHEESECAKE.”

I did not eat the cheesecake.

My family was not, and really has never been, religious, but Mom and Dad had raised me Catholic out of some lingering sense of duty to my dad’s heritage, and it had stuck. I was a theology major at a Catholic college, and I loved it. I loved the rules and the incense and all the books. I loved the ritual and the mystery and the saints with their gory stories. I particularly loved the saints who ruined their own beauty with ash and fire, like St. Cecilia or St. Brigid.

So when I asked if we could go to the sunrise mass at our local parish, my parents gamely agreed. It would be at 5 in the morning and they promptly went to bed at 9.

I sat holding my feet on the living room couch as the night dropped its navy curtain, and felt the old restless energy rise up.

I would not be sleeping.

So I decided to run. Not even wanting to find my own jacket, I fished a ski jacket circa 1985 from the hall closet that I wore snowboarding the week prior as a joke, and I hopped in my mom’s SUV, much more capable of handling the snow than my little Chevy Malibu. I drove to the 24 hour gym that my parents owned and that I helped manage during the summer.

And I ran.

I ran from about midnight to 3:30 AM, with the Food Network on above me, Ina Garten sweetly preparing food for Jeffrey that made me want to cry. I don’t know if it was the food, or how connected Ina seemed to the food, all I know is that woman could make me cry when she explained a quiche.

When I was spent, I stopped the treadmill and got off. The gym was eerily quiet, Ina’s voice not filling the empty space. My legs were splotched bright red and I looked in the big, wall-sized mirrors and didn’t recognize the spindly girl alone in the middle of the fluorescent room.

The streets were as empty as the gym, and I turned on Ben Folds Songs For Silverman as I headed home to shower. There’s a particular quiet that comes over streets in the elastic time between day and night – when it’s not quite morning and no longer evening. It’s a held breath, a silence that feels all-consuming and entirely personal.

The red light was taking forever. I was singing quietly to “Time”, staring up at the obstinate light. No one else was around! No one else was here!

In time I will fade away

In time I won’t hear what you’re saying

In time

But time takes time you know

Ben Folds was always a little goofy, but as I sang with him, trying not to add commentary like “OOOOH TIME TAKES TIME, BEN, THAT’S DEEP”, I felt something shift in me.

I was in trouble. And suddenly I knew it. This wasn’t normal, what I was doing. The starvation and the fear and the control. This wasn’t ok, and maybe I wasn’t ok. 

That’s when I saw the headlights.

A tiny flash in the corner of my eye as I crossed the deserted intersection. I didn’t have time to turn completely before the pick up truck slammed into my rear passenger door, jettisoning me across the ice to spin and spin and spin, my screaming drowning out Folds’ insistence that sometimes time, you know…takes time.

I came to a stop facing the opposite direction and, as the hood of the car started smoking, bolted out from it and crouched by a light pole on the frozen ground, wearing Adidas running shorts and that ridiculous 80s jacket.

I cried. And cried and cried until the paramedics came and called my parents and took me to the hospital where they told me I would be just fine and that also my jacket was awesome.

They told me that the driver was clearly drunk. He had tried to speed off and instead veered onto a curb, where he stumbled out stinking like whiskey. They told me the car was totaled, and that if I had been in my own car I would have surely been badly injured, if not killed.

My knees were bruised from the steering wheel, and I stared at the purple blossoms as they mottled like strange flowers.

I felt outside of my body, and I floated above myself watching for what I would do next. I went home, church already over, curled up in the middle of a thousand pillows.

And as the day rose around me, shedding light on all the purple and black sprouting on my body, I took off all my clothes so my bruises were exposed to the sun and I went to sleep for a very long time.

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Stevie.

She wasn’t a person. When I carried her home from the Humane Society, with her little nose running from a cold she had been fighting, only 10 weeks old and burrowed under my chin, I joked with my friend that a cat was all I could handle. I wasn’t cut out to parent anything other than a cat, and as I talked about how she was the easier choice for my selfish life, she slept on my shoulder, dripping cat boogers onto me, not understanding my language.

She wasn’t a person when she would pad up to me while I was impossibly sad, her huge green eyes searching my face and mine seeing hers, full of thoughts neither of us would ever know.  She would bump her cheek against mine, and let her soft black and white cheek rest against my wet one, never asking or guessing why I was leaking all over her fur that she worked so hard to maintain.

She wasn’t a person, and I know. A person would have protested against their best friend bringing in an obnoxious piece of chaos to the family. They would have thrown up their hands and been like “fuck this piece of shit puppy, why won’t it leave me alone.” They would have walked away, or had a reasonable conversation with me about it. She sat stoically the first time Jones went up to her and poked his nose into her face. They started to play cautiously, and before long they were sitting on the back of the couch together while I was on the porch, keeping an eye on me to make sure I didn’t bring any more new elements into their lives.

Then, because she was not a person, she expressed her displeasure about the new puppy biting her tail by squatting on the bed and peeing on the white duvet as I stared in disbelief. As though she knew it wasn’t his fault – he was just a stupid dog. It was fucking brilliant revenge. I admired her. She knew it. After a couple weeks of that, I had to throw out the duvet. She stuck her cheek next to mine and purred. I kept the bedroom door closed. I would have talked to a person about it. As it was, I had to accept what she was at face value, and keep going. As someone who likes to talk about their feelings a lot to move forward, it was excellent practice at independent problem solving.

She wasn’t a person, because she was wild. She would slip out the back door of the new apartment, drawn out by the smells and the sounds and primal pull. For hours she would sneak into worlds I’ll never know, and when I called her name, would bound back to me and into my arms, her fur woven with sticks and dirt that would miraculously disappear and show up in the dog’s mouth.

A person would have sought couple’s counseling for us. They would have explained they needed personal space, and me constantly picking them up and cradling them and burying my head into their stomach was not helping them flourish. That my endless need for affection was suffocating. They would not have stretched out patiently, gotten bored of it, walked away, and come back moments later because I had my hand outstretched and calling, “Stevie, Stevie, come back.”

No person I know could have coped with me while it was just the two of us in 450 square feet, dishes piling up, my life in constant transition. Me coming home late, or leaving for a whole day. Sometimes not leaving the house or doing any work – sitting and staring and then cleaning obsessively and then watching Netflix until 3 AM. They would have left, and rightfully so. They would not have greeted me at the door, pushing against my legs, staking a claim on my lap for hours to make sure I wasn’t going anywhere.

When I decided to get her, two beers in at the Mt. Si Tavern one weekday afternoon, I wondered how I would choose from all the little faces looking out at me from their cages. When I had to choose between the beautiful and standoffish gray kittens, and her, all sniffling and snuggly, I saw her with me for a very long time. She looked back at me and knew only the moment in front of her, and slept under my chin as the mountain that took me to her receded from view.

She was not a person. If she was, whoever hit her late on Friday night after she had snuck out would have stopped. There would have been an investigation, court dates, retribution. There would have been a funeral, endless casseroles, a will. I would have been able to take a week in the mountains, screaming and crying and being numb. She would not have been in double wrapped in a plastic bag and a paper bag from QFC as I carried her body, so much heavier than it used to be, to the vet. There would not have been just one sheet of paper to sign her life away on, no chihuahua jumping at my ankles in green fluorescent light as I chose what kind of urn I wanted her back in. 

If she was a person she could have left me something. Words. Or a keepsake. She left without words, or forethought, and she left me with only the impractical, life altering love of a creature I never understood, who never much wanted to be understood either. 

I had to wait for the vet assistant to take her from me. I sat on a hard bench, the bags holding her in my lap, and I held her up to my chest and under my chin, feeling her softness under the hard paper like a memory I was holding in my hands.

In the days that have followed, people have shown up for me with flowers and food and kindness and love. And I love them. I take their kindness and hold it inside of me, and it rests just next to a hole that can’t be filled. A blown out and smoking corner that is raw and damaged and untouchable, at least for a person.

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Kathleen074

Photo and “5” on my back my Kristen Marie Parker. To celebrate 5 years in recovery.

This is a transcript of a talk I gave at an Eating Recovery Center Alumni gathering. If you or anyone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please look them up. They’re incredible.

Before I tell my story, or dive too deep into anything, I want to remind you what I remind myself of every day; it’s OK to quit. I’m going to show you why, but it comes down to one real truth:

Most things in the world are worth quitting. I’ll list a few:

  • Drugs
  • Toxic relationships
  • Thinking Dane Cook is funny
  • Hair gel
  • Taking people seriously who walk around with Bluetooth headsets
  • Glee. After Season 1 it just wasn’t worth it. Walk away.
  • Tearing other people down
  • Being ashamed of who you’ve been

To that end, I want to tell you who I was before my eating disorder had a say in my life. That little Kathleen was a special lady, and is much closer to who I am now than who I was in my eating disorder. When I was younger, I was never an athlete. I spent most of my time writing Lord of the Rings fanfiction and not going on dates. One time I got to make out with a guy on the swim team, and I think I said out loud “Your abs are like Superman’s abs.”

So body image was not on my mind.

In my disorder I got tons of compliments. People thought I was going to be president. I was offered modeling contracts, and men fell at my feet in wonder.

LIES. I was still an awkward nerd. But I killed all the hard stuff about me – the stuff I didn’t think anyone would like. I softened my edges. I limited my scope. I became easier. I tried to make the weird nerd in me disappear. And for the most part, I succeeded in doing that.

Which is why I want you to quit.

I want to share my story with you, but what I need you to understand is that I am a quitter. Most of us are told not to be quitters. The American Dream is built on that idea – never give up, never surrender. Actually, that was Galaxy Quest. Which is still the best summary of the American dream I’ve heard.

But the idea that we can never quit is to say that we can never make mistakes. That we can never double back, blame our mistakes on some cosmic Siri in the sky (NO, SIRI, I MEANT “TAKE ME TO HAPPINESS” NOT “MAKE ME DROP OF OUT OF COLLEGE.”) But you can.

I’ve quit school, I’ve quit relationships that didn’t feel right for reasons that I couldn’t process at the time, I’ve quit jobs that left me exhausted and unhappy, and I’ve quit my eating disorder.

We all know the genetic component behind eating disorders, and I had a big one.

I lost my Aunt Wendy to an eating disorder when she was only in her 40’s. When I was a little girl and would stay with her in St. Louis, I noticed her refrigerator was always empty, she never went out with friends, and I heard the whispers of my aunts and uncles that Wendy’s dialysis wouldn’t “work forever.”

When Wendy died, I was 17, and I saw my mom cry for the first time. I was just a teenager, and my strong mother who believed in dessert first and friends first and life first, cried on my shoulder. After Wendy died, I learned more about Aunt Wendy’s sad heart than I ever did when she was alive. Wendy loved her family, but she couldn’t reach out. It was like someone trying to hug you from behind a glass wall. I could never touch Wendy, and she couldn’t touch me. I would never have believed I would be looking at people from behind that warped barrier in a few years.

My eating disorder started when I was 19. I was not the normal profile for an anorexic. I am an insane people pleaser, for sure. I’m a dictator’s dream. Give me a smile, and I’m like “Hell yeah, who do we hate? I hate them, too. Let’s invade their country. Who wants to come to my birthday?”

But I’m a reckless person. I have always had what my boyfriend lovingly calls “squirrel brain.” I couldn’t quite stick with anything. I was also deeply criticized by my family for being unable to follow through on anything. My parents worried out loud whether I’d ever get my act together. The people pleaser in me wanted to. The rest of me was too distracted by episodes of Lost and writing short stories about the guy I liked asking me to homecoming.

I just couldn’t seem to focus. I have an older brother who knew he wanted to be an engineer at age five, and I am not shitting you – he became one. I jumped between Model UN and theatre and soccer and choir and newspaper and was never that good at any of them. I was told I lacked commitment.

That sank under my skin. I wanted to follow through. I was told that if I couldn’t find something that I would see to the end, I would never be OK.

During my freshman year of college, I found something to finish, and I found it right as life started to unravel. My life unraveled in such normal ways, that felt so specific to me, as personal pain often does.

My dad cheated on my mom, and we found out on Christmas Eve. That was the second time I saw my mom cry. I realized that the theology degree I was pursuing in the deep cold of Montana was a lie, and I no longer believed in God. It was my first real break up. My beloved Grandma Tarrant died, the woman who taught me to tie my shoes and tell time and who told me I didn’t need one thing to be special, that I was special just for being alive. She forgot everyone at the end except for me, and when she died, I felt like the last person in my family who saw who I really was died, too.

I started running, and eating less. First to lose the freshman 15, and then to lose myself.

My genetics kicked in, my depression revved up, and two years later I was laying in my boyfriend’s apartment while he was out of town, listening to my heart beat slower and slower, wondering calmly what it would be like to die at 21.

I didn’t want to live. Most of all, I didn’t want to let go of this thing. This thing that finally made me special. I finally was told how responsible I was, how wonderful it was to see me so focused. That little voice in my head told me I had finally figured out that no one really missed the real me. That this whittled, quiet version of myself was finally what people wanted.

I don’t want to go into the specifics, for one big reason; you can’t compare your story to mine. I was actually lucky. While I laid in that empty apartment in Boulder, Colorado, deeply believing if I died it would be OK because I had followed through on something, and wanting to die, just to finally have a quiet mind and some rest, I remembered what it was like to see my Aunt Wendy when I was a kid.

She was so boring. She didn’t play. She wasn’t living. I realized I was giving up on life, and worse, I was a huge huge boring bummer now.

And when Wendy died, all I remember thinking while I watched my grandmother bury her daughter, was that Wendy finally got to rest. She always seemed so tired.

I didn’t want to follow through on dying as a whisper of a person. As a one dimensional ghost. I would rather go out on fire over a cliff than meekly apologizing to the world for walking on it. I just didn’t know how. I checked into the ERC, with the support of my parents, and my then-boyfriend, and after three months I started to feel all those gross, dynamic feelings again.

Here’s the hard part.

Things did not get better. I had dropped out of school, and suddenly realized I didn’t want to go back. My boyfriend and I broke up because I had become a new and different person with all this energy, and we realized amicably that we had literally nothing in common other than that we loved each other. My parents’ marriage was definitely not great. I couldn’t make any money. It’s really strange how a person with half a theology degree can’t get a job.

I took a couple jobs, and started doing the only other thing I had ever been good at; writing. I got a job at the Denver Post, reviewing shows and albums. I did not make money doing that for a long time. But I was thrown into a group of people who had no idea I was a little scared of cream cheese. They just assumed I was regular about food. It was amazing. I felt like I was peeking into a former life. These people just drank beer and had fun. They had no anxiety about it. They had anxiety about a lot of other things, and big, loud feelings. And I liked them, and they liked me. I made out with a lot of boys, which I can not recommend highly enough. As long as you want to, that is. And no drummers or lead singers.

Eating did not get easier for a long time, I want to say that up front. I still had, and have, days where I sit and stare at myself in the mirror and wonder if life would be better if I went back to the one thing I was good at. But whenever I talked about it to my new friends who ate cheeseburgers regularly, they mostly wanted to talk about other things about me. They just didn’t find my eating disorder that interesting. They thought it was much better when I argued that the Decemberists were awful.

After a year, I moved across the country to Seattle because I wanted to start over. This is something else I just can’t recommend more. Find a place where you feel drawn to, and make a life there. Go there with nothing, have a support system at home if you can, and then watch and see. You’re all resourceful, clever people, I know that without meeting any of you. You go and see how you can make a home somewhere else.

And here, I found my home. It is a messy, patchwork home. It’s full of heartbreak, and mistakes. It’s where I learned how to trust myself enough to go back to school again, realize that nope, I still don’t want a theology degree, and quit again. It’s where I found my chosen family – the ones who when I told them about my eating disorder, wanted to figure out what else there was under there. No one in the past five years has found this story all that fascinating. And if they have, it’s because it told a bigger story – the story of how I pieced myself together.

Since I’ve left treatment and been in recovery, I’ve been hurt, and I’ve hurt people. I have spent weekends alone crying because I couldn’t imagine anyone loving me with all this mess inside. The mess that I unleashed through treatment. The mess that my eating disorder had helped me shove down and shut up.

And then a few months ago, I looked up and it was five years later. Five years since I had left the ERC. Five years since I had quit. And I’d quit so many things since then. And every time I threw in the towel and quit something, I felt like I was falling apart or falling farther from the person people wanted me to be.

But I wasn’t falling apart these past five years. I was piecing myself back together. I still don’t have one special thing I could do, nothing that separates me from the masses. And down here with all the other messy humans eating and pooping and crying and kissing, I have found little bits of myself in the mud. I made mistakes, so many of them. I’ll make a lot more. But so will you. And whittling them down doesn’t make them disappear – it just makes you disappear.

I kept writing. Through all the shit, I kept writing. Now I make money doing that. Not a lot, so don’t get too excited. But even that doesn’t define me.

Because you have to be more. You have to be more than one thing. You only have one life, that’s true. But to only be one thing is to give up on the beautiful insanity that is being alive.

You can’t define yourself by an eating disorder, and ever enjoy driving through the mountains with your friends, eating Swedish Fish and singing Tom Petty in a key heretofore not heard on Earth. Eating disorders don’t allow for loud, fun singing.

You can’t define yourself by an eating disorder, and have room to fall in love with someone. You can’t look at someone’s face in the morning and fully feel your heart expand with gratitude and hopeless happiness when you’re only an eating disorder.

You can’t define yourself by an eating disorder, and find something that makes you come alive. I didn’t write for the years that I was in my own disorder. When I did, I didn’t recognize the voice coming out of me. There is no room for your voice when it’s only an eating disorder doing the talking.

Eating disorders do not love. They do not play. They do not listen with their whole bodies to people. They do not work hard at a career that breaks open the world into a thousand possibilities. They do not have any fun at all. They are super bummers at parties.

They limit you, and you are limitless. You don’t know it yet, and maybe I don’t even know it yet, but you are limitless. Your body is meant to help you play and run around, not trap you.

I’ve quit so many things, but so far I haven’t quit myself. And I’m easy to quit. I’m reckless, prone to crying at dog food commercials, hesitant to say no to people, often selfish. I don’t shower regularly enough, I consider cheese a complete meal, and I haven’t cleaned out my car in…ever. I stuck with me. Me. My stupid, beautiful self. I’ve loved me wholly and imperfectly for 5 years, and somehow other people have followed suit.

From loving myself with stuttering and shaking confidence, I’ve noticed that I love other people much better. I am slowly relying less on their approval, which means they are finally friends, and not wardens of my self-esteem.

In my eating disorder, there wasn’t room for me. I was a vessel for a misguided voyage to an imaginary perfection. I’m deeply imperfect. I always have been, and I’m willing to put down money that I always will be. But I am more than I ever have been, and if you gave me a choice between being scared of making a mess, and making a huge one, I’ll always choose the messier path. Be a quitter. Just this once, quit. Keep quitting, until one day, and I do promise this, you’ll find yourself in a life that actually makes you want to stay.

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My mom got into an accident this weekend. She was driving a moped with her friend Patti in Phoenix, took a turn too fast, and flew into a gravel median strip. After two surgeries, she is breathing on her own, and for the first time in 5 days, I was able to hear her voice this morning. When my dad held the phone up to her ear, and I heard her familiar voice, so much softer and slower than it normally is, I started to cry. I told her I was coming home to see her and I could hear her smile and she said she loved me. The only words she could get out were those words.

“I love you.”

“I love you, Mom.”

I’m not used to a whispering mom. 

It’s a tale as old as time – when I was a teenager, my mom and I fought unstoppably. Over anything, really. My room wasn’t clean, my grades weren’t good, I may or may not have doctored a grade report in the seventh grade so she wouldn’t see that I was getting a C in Spanish.

I was a sensitive kid, and my mom is a force to be reckoned with. She would not bend to my will, my whining, my pleading, my doe-eyed negotiations. It took me years of piecing together my mom’s stories to figure out how she learned to take no shit from anyone.

My favorite Debbie story is the one where she dropped out of school for a quarter in 1969 and drove out to Colorado from Iowa with some guys. She spent the winter in Breckenridge, knitting sweaters (two of which I still have), learning to ski (or at least sliding on her butt down the mountain), seeing people do drugs on the streets of Boulder, and digging into the weird mountain culture of the 1960’s West. She said she did mescaline once in a cabin and all the knots in the logs turned into spiders, so she never did it again. Fair. Spiders are terrifying. 

That’s who Mom is – she’s the type of woman who will trample off for a while, have fun, and never lose herself. She is the best example of wild and responsible I’ve ever known. For instance, she went into labor with me while she was in a meeting.

She was taking meetings while 9 months pregnant.

Along that vein – my dad tried to convince my mom to have a kid for years, and she stubbornly said no. She had my brother, and she didn’t want another kid. So my dad gave up. As soon as he stopped pestering her, she decided she wanted one. And so they had me. I am the child of contrarianism. 

 

She kept her job until her teenage daughter got too sad and too ADD in middle school to function, and then figured out how to work from home so she could be there when I got back from class. She told me once that she could never be a stay-at-home mom, not because she didn’t think it was a great option, but because she would get so restless she would end up going crazy and do I want a crazy mom? I said I already had one. She agreed. 

She taught me that women need to support one another, that feminism was getting rid of the myth of the “other woman” and that women need to stop tearing each other down. She pushed me to make good women friends. She still goes on a yearly trip with her college girlfriends, a couple of whom I grew up calling “aunt” without realizing they were not at all biologically bound to me. But they were bound to my mom, and that was enough to be called family. 

Mom and I worked out our differences in college, when I realized that she is the glue holding our family together. She married a sensitive man, had a sensitive daughter, and as the oldest of five kids, she was used to keeping people looking ahead, occasionally prodding our feet when we were too navel-gazing to move them. 

When I developed my eating disorder, which had claimed Mom’s youngest sister Wendy just a few years prior, the strong woman in front of me did something I didn’t know was possible. She both softened and grew fiercer, she both protected me and pushed me back into the world when I was better. She prodded my feet, made me look up to see that she was there, that everything would be ok, and that I could make it ok. That I didn’t need rescuing. That no one could rescue me, but people could help blow up the life raft. 

Since then, we’ve spoken almost every day. My mom knows everything about me. Everything. The most tawdry details, the worst thoughts that pass through my head. She is my diary, she is my best friend. We comfort each other, commiserate, trade recipes, trade stories. She mercilessly points out my unhealthy patterns, and then reminds me just as forcefully of my goodness. All my friends know about my mom. I’ll finish a story about her, and friends will affectionately sigh, “Debbie Tarrant.” 

Once I took her to a friend’s show, and she spent the whole set making some of the funniest comments about them and the music that I’ve ever heard (ie: “Did they all plan to wear that much plaid?”), so I wrote them all down and gave them to my friends, who were tickled.

She is goofy, she is wise, she can’t sing on-key, she taught me to make silly faces, she throws herself into new creative endeavors and succeeds, she is patient, and she is so so impatient. She starts making cookies for the holidays weeks in advance until the freezer looks like Otis Spunkmeyer’s wet dream. She is the voice in my head, and the nudging at my back. 

She is going to be ok.

I just wanted to write this all down because no one’s ever written an Ode to Debbie Tarrant before, and while she has no voice, I think it’s my job to let the world know what it sounds like when it’s ringing. I didn’t even know how much I would miss it until it went away. But when we were on the phone this morning, and I was crying quietly, selfishly wanting her to just be ok so I wouldn’t feel like my world was crumbling, she just sighed in a sleepy way and her smiling, strong, nudging voice called out from a hospital bed in Phoenix;

“I love you.”

I love you, Mom.

 

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I moved around as a kid. I was born in Chicago, in that mid western climate of extreme heat and biting chill. When I was seven, we moved to Redondo Beach, California, where I was permitted to thaw out for a while until we packed up and headed to Colorado right before I turned 11. And there I stayed, growing too big for the desert shrubs in the landscaped lawns of the sprawling suburbs, perfectly positioned under the famously purple and majestic Rocky  Mountains.

But something was implanted in me during those early years of shifting around. While my bones were growing, they were learning to be restless. I fled Colorado after high school for the sparser version of it – Montana. After three years of avoiding hunting the whitetail deer that cheekily wandered the campus of my college, I dropped out and moved back to Colorado. I wedged myself deeper in the mountains, closer to the pine trees that made me feel less a sore thumb. I spent three years in Boulder, outfitted in fabric that wicked moisture away, buzzing under the desert sun, trying to figure out why this place still didn’t feel like home. It was where I grew up, really. Where I had my first crush (Brendan Perry), my first taste of alcohol (vodka out of a Nalgene in the northern Rockies), my first boyfriend (oh, Timmy), and so many other firsts. It’s where I tromped around with a dirty backpack strapped around me, scrambling up the rough peaks of the 14ers that litter the state like raised hands, pushing the enormous sky to its limit.

I decided that I was just a restless heart, and would always move. That I would never have the hometown pride that so many of my friends do. So I moved somewhere completely random – Seattle. I supposed that 23 was a good age to go somewhere, to start crashing through the world, touching all the hidden corners of the country, grazing my fingers on places as they zoomed past my window.

It’s been almost 3 years since my hands first touched the green and blue watercolor center of the Pacific Northwest, and to cap off this year I decided to take some time with it on my own. I had decided to spend Christmas in Seattle, since my parents were in southern Missouri and I couldn’t get down there. Ty went home to his family in Montana, and I figured I would see how it felt to spend the holidays in this place that I was tentatively poking my roots into. I rented a cabin on Hood Canal, where I am writing this now as the sun is slowly slipping away through the gray shroud hanging over Guillemot Cove, quietly excusing herself for the evening.

I had to drive to the store today to get some oysters for dinner. And while I was driving, the coast slid in next to me. The roots of  the cloud-scraping pines dug their heels into fading land that arched and sighed into the heather gray water. The land across the canal hardly looked solid at all – an ancient and shifting specter behind fog that reflected a thousand shades of gray and blue. And then all of a sudden, the tide rose in me and I started to cry. I had to pull over, and nose my car up to a log that separated the land from the sea. I sat on it, my boots crushing some abandoned oyster shells, pulled my knees up to my salt-washed face, and realized with certainty I’ve never felt before, that I was home.

I felt my foggy heart crack open as the horizon did, and tears kept falling. I’m home, really home. I’ve never been a desert flower, all dry and breezy, delicate and planning ahead for the drought, kissing the dusty ground to hide from the wind. I don’t stretch up to the sun, or regenerate quickly like the grass on the plains.

My heart is a coastal one. It is layered permanently with the accumulation of seasons, taking shape from persistent and slow growing things. It is a stormy sky, constant rain, shifting edges. Joy in the sun could not happen without the gray and the mist. It is close to the soil, growing all year round, letting the heavy sky sink in through the skin, into my blood, into my settling bones.

My heart is home. I know now that I won’t leave, that I wouldn’t want to. It took me 3 years here to see it, and almost 26 to find it at all. There is magic here, magic that I never knew was waiting to welcome me, to draw me in, to change my coastline,  shape me and keep me. I have looked down on my quiet retreat in my wooded cabin, and seen that I’ve already been shaped, quietly and patiently, just like home always does.

Happy New Year.