Life Outside the Lines

The term “comfort zone” is funny to me.

I don’t know about you, but I was never really all that comfortable inside of mine. It was this space in my mind that I created to lounge around eating chocolate chips and making excuses for every part of my life that had fallen apart because I had been diagnosed with a mental illness. It was a lot like sitting down in the middle of a concrete sidewalk, painting a circle around myself and deciding that this tiny spot was an adequate area in which to spend the rest of my life.

But life didn’t stop because I had laid claim to this part of the sidewalk. People walked by in an endless stream of conversation and laughter, beckoning me to join them.

“Hey Karlee, we’re going to a concert. They’ve got this really great opening act and you look kinda lonely.”

Because I still desperately craved friendship and human interaction, I would say

“Nah, man. Crowds are hell on Earth, nosebleed seats are the worst, and does live music ever sound as good anymore? You guys should come and hang out with me in here. I’ve got chocolate chips and I won’t charge you $8 for a beer.”

Nobody ever wanted to come and hang out in my painted circle in the middle of the sidewalk, and though I would find myself angry, calling them stupid assholes under my breath, I knew why. I knew why because I actually really liked live music and $8 beer and contagious energy, but I feared all of these things at the same time, and besides, I couldn’t just leave my comfort zone. Soon enough, people watching felt like a tedious exercise. They stopped approaching my circle. Where it used to feel like an eternal cluster of people walking toward me, I could only see them walking away.

“Where are you going? Come back. Come back and tell me about all of the parts of your day that went awry so that I can feel better about being trapped inside of this circle. Don’t just walk past while I catch fragments of conversations about things you enjoy. Why are you doing this to me?”

A comfort zone is supposed to be this sanctuary that shields us from the danger of the world outside. Some might argue that it does, but I would remind them that it doesn’t shield us from the danger that builds and boils inside, which is perhaps the most destructive and the most widely experienced danger there is. It wasn’t until someone I love very much sat down in the circle across from me with a somber expression on their face and held a mirror directly in front of me that I realized this. “What are you doing? Did you come in here just to upset me? What the fuck am I supposed to do with this? Get out of my circle.”

I was so angry. I screamed and I cried and I yelled, hoping to remind them that I needed the circle, that showing me how aged and sad and blank I looked only made it worse for me since there was no way out. They didn’t even react. I sat alone in my circle, staring into the mirror. I examined the bags under my eyes and the way they seemed permanently swollen from weeks without any real sleep. How could I be so exhausted, so drained if I were truly as comfortable as I believed? It occurred to me that I hadn’t even tried to escaped the confines of the painted line that surrounded me. I began to wonder whether the circle was keeping the pain out or if it was really just keeping me in.

I thought about this for weeks until I decided that I didn’t want that to be my life anymore. I told myself that if I tried, and if it didn’t work out, at least I could say with certainty that my comfort zone was where I belonged. I took my first step outside of the circle on a September day last year when my friends said “There’s this kickboxing thing going on at the elementary school. You wanna go?” For the first time in what felt like forever, I said yes. And that’s when I met Alycia.

The class started at 8. I showed up at 7:15, determined not to walk in late so that people wouldn’t look at me or take note of my presence. The parking lot was full, but the doors were locked, and it was cold. There were these two little boys standing in the foyer staring at me through the window with their mouths open, as if I were a giant pickle wearing a toque. My brain was all “Fucking shit fuck, Karlee. These kids think you’re so weird that they don’t even want to open the door for you. Go home and watch documentaries about people who do things like this.” I waited it out another 5 seconds and sure enough they opened the door. I was reminded that kids are just funny little beings who can’t seem to help hanging out with their mouths wide open.

When I walked in to find her I was the first one there. Under any normal circumstance I would have felt overwhelmed, but when she looked up I saw that she looked just as nervous as I did. She fumbled around, handed me a form and introduced herself. She asked me my name and I told her a little about my situation. My hands started to sweat when I told her “Sometimes I might have trouble understanding you. I hear voices.” She was the first person who didn’t look at me like a science project after the words fell out. She just smiled and said “That’s okay. We’ll make it work.” As the rest of the ladies poured in, she took us through the class and didn’t hover over me once, except to say a quick “nice work.” I couldn’t remember the last time I felt like I was the same as everyone else. I went home and cried.

Wednesdays became magic for me. I didn’t want to admit it to anyone, but I waited all week to go to class and do something that people outside of my tiny circle did. I began to allow myself to dream of doing more. One evening Alycia told us that the company hosting the classes was pulling the kickboxing program out of our town, and my heart broke. I had become so attached to her and the people who took the class with me, even if I didn’t talk much. There was two whole seconds where I feared that I would be stuck inside of my circle of doom before she said “I can’t give up on my Sexsmith girls, though, so I’m going to teach it on my own.” I will never forget that moment, because it did something very specific for me. It reminded me that the margin of risk can be less important than the possible reward. It reminded me that the reward is not always in paper form. Sometimes the reward comes in the form of a smile or a hand to hold or a “thank you.”

Alycia teamed up with Frances, an equally radiant soul and together they opened Pure Fitness, which quickly became my happy place, my escape. It was the one place besides my own home that I could feel free and secure. When I would have episodes, they would both smile and tell me how proud of me they were for coming, for fighting through the voices, for coming back again. They would tell me that I could leave if it got too much, but that they wanted me to stay, and that it was okay not to have my shit together all the time. Alycia came over to me once, standing in front of the bag confused. She said “You tell those voices that I have you and that you’re just fine. You tell them that you’re kicking ass.” At the end they would meet me with hugs and I would leave every time feeling like someone more self-assured than the person who walked in. I forgot about the noise and the pressure and I felt a true appreciation for all that I could do when I allowed myself to feel as if I deserved it.

I don’t know why I felt that I didn’t deserve it. I don’t know why any of us do. All that I am sure of is that it is a lie. Maybe it’s a lie that we invent in moments of confusion and sadness, and maybe it’s a lie that is whispered to us enough to recognize it as a familiar and comfortable pattern. Maybe it is then that we paint our circles, telling ourselves that if we don’t dare to desire anything beyond that which we are certain we are capable of, we won’t be disappointed. I wish that I had the words to tell them what it means to me to know them, how much I didn’t know I needed them. I wish I could tell them that heroes don’t always wear capes or armour. Sometimes they wear 3 year olds on their backs and smiles of encouragement on their lips. Sometimes they are single moms who give up the remainder of their free time to make other people feel great about themselves. Plus, it makes all the difference to be trained by people who will enjoy a well deserved slice of pizza and beer with you when the week is through.

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 I lost 50 lbs, but that isn’t what I want you to take from this. What I earned from the hours I spent working on my physical strength and battling my ego was far more magnificent than that. What I earned was a dream come to life. Yesterday I accomplished the goal that I quietly allowed myself to envision when I took the first steps out of my circle. Yesterday I battled my head and my heart as I ran 11 miles, conquering my fear of heights, crowds, darkness and greatness, often all at once. Yesterday I sobbed as I crossed a finish line that was so much bigger than the event itself. I finished the race against my brain. I can’t tell you what a miracle it was to wake up today and know that I am an undeniably strong, committed, worthy person. To say with absolute certainty that I am capable of whatever ridiculous, crazy, unfathomable idea graces my thoughts. To believe that I am a credible source when I sit here and type that you are capable of all of these things, that you too are a worthy individual.

I know that this is incredibly long-winded, but I wanted to be able to write it from start to finish to tell any of you who are stuck inside of the painted circles that your past or circumstance has left you with that there is a way out. Whenever you’re ready, dare to reach out and run your finger along the line, noticing how little depth it has, how little control it has, until you feel comfortable enough to move beyond it. Tell your story. Talk about your circle. I don’t know anybody who wants to hear a tale about someone who adapted to everything with ease, so give them your rawness and your jagged edges, show them the undeniable will that it takes for you to make it through a single day. Not everyone will like it, but there will be more than enough that love it, that love you, so much so that you may find your edges have smoothed being surrounded by people who give a shit what happens to you.

Today when I look in the mirror I see someone who is young, curious, beautiful, and best of all, happy. I see someone who sleeps through the nightmares her brain plays for her. I see someone who a painted circle is just no match for.

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My July Birthday

I turned 23 yesterday.

I used to think that birthdays were nothing more than an excuse to wear a hat and ingest an alarming amount of chocolate cake. It didn’t take long before I traded the hat for low-rise jeans and the cake for a bottle of Pineapple Malibu. Slowly but surely, they became another painful reminder that I was alive.

That sounds dramatic. Maybe it was.

I see those Tumblr pictures and I have to laugh. They feature the bottom halves of girls with thigh gaps and short shorts and captions that say things like “Summer Love,” as if summer isn’t fun and love is out of reach without those two elements. I have to laugh because I had the thigh gap and the short shorts and summer still seemed like an endless stretch of eternity that I would rather have slept away.

My July birthday was something I loathed, yet waited around for every year in a desperate sort of anticipation. I kept waiting to wake up more at peace, more mature, more fun. I kept waiting to “grow out of it.” I imagined opening the door for the people who arrived at my party and feeling safe in their presence, like nothing would change and we could always contort our mouths into pained smiles and pull the strings in our backs to release an enthusiastic “Let’s be friends forever!”

I waited for these things, and yet, I woke up with the same knots and insecurities that I had fallen to sleep with the night before. I woke up with the same fears that had always kept me from having fun, the ones that reminded me that I was different and strange and everyone knew it. When the people floated through the doorway and wished me a happy birthday, their smiles of admiration looked more like contempt, and I always found myself searching their palms and their eyes for the instrument or the secret that they might use to damage me further.

This is not anyone’s fault.

My July birthday was a mirror to the way I felt about myself. My July birthday was a reflection of the expectations I had and the standards I set, and the sick way I sat around feeling like I was the only one who had the right to sadness and humiliation. My July birthday was a reminder of the truths I couldn’t face, and the way they made me a liar.

I celebrated 23 years on Earth at the bedside of a dear friend. I celebrated 23 years watching her breathe peacefully inside a deep slumber, grateful that she was breathing at all. I celebrated 23 years by reflecting on the 7 and a half I’ve been lucky enough to know her.

Her fingers twitched in mine, and I knew for certain that this must be the most valuable gift I’ve ever held. They were warm and full of life, full of strength and, though they remained still, they clung to life with a vicious tenacity that one can only find in the hands of someone who has beaten (no, smashed) the odds. As she does this, I know what my July birthday means (and has always meant.)

My July birthday is another mark on a tally on a score sheet of a mind game, a brain teaser more puzzling than any riddle. My July birthday is the candle that remains lit after all the others have been blown out. My July birthday is the gift that I do not deserve, but am given anyway.

My July birthday is a mirror to the way I feel about myself, and my July birthday felt pretty fucking great this year.

 

*Insert Tom Petty Lyrics Here*

It’s midnight. It’s a new day. It’s a very important day.

I’ve thought a lot about how to introduce the people I love to all of you. I’ve tried numerous times, but it’s difficult to write about people that I love because words don’t always seem adequate. I find myself pouring over the post, knowing that what I see on the screen is not what I truly want to say. It does not reflect how I feel. It all feels so commonplace, and I just can’t have that.

Today is Red’s birthday. It’s ridiculous that you haven’t met her yet, since she consumes a great deal of my time, and a great deal of my heart. She is both the weirdest and the wisest person I’ve ever met, a truly old soul pressed against the spirit of a 7 year old. She has the discipline and emotional foundation of someone much older than herself, and yet she is still the only 20 year old girl I know who meanders along the edge of a riverbank and squeals when she finds a unique stone. Image

I call her Red because she’s a ginger, obviously. But she answers to many names, like a gypsy or a credit card thief. It is impressive to watch her balance this in conversation since I have only one name and still cannot tell that someone is addressing me a good percentage of the time. You know how people tell you that they have a “person?” Well, I do, and she is mine. I don’t know if it’s ever happened to you, but if it has, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It goes like this: One day you meet a person so similar to yourself that it is equal parts delightful and frightening. You could be standing in line, or waiting for the bus, or seated next to them in your workplace. No matter the circumstance under which it happens, the result is the same; They say something, and it resonates so well that you are almost positive that you’ve mulled over that exact thought verbatim. The next thing you know, you’re eating chicken nuggets and crying over some weird movie that nobody else seems to like.

It’s a strange feeling to know someone before you do. I mean, the details are usually what make the difference. In her case, though, they didn’t matter, because I already knew what she thought and how she felt about them. For once, there was no awkward “I’m sorry to hear that,” every time something that would normally be uncomfortable reared its ugly head in conversation. This was a girl who needed no charity, no pity and no smoke blown up her ass. It was clear that she had that shit handled and had no desire for cheap conversation. I got the feeling that she was an all-or-nothing kind of person. I liked that.

Now, while we’re similar, we are vastly different from one another. It’s some very complex shit. She feels a deep connection to nature and the abundant lifestyle that it provides us. In other words, she’s a damn hippie. She loves hemp and gets visibly agitated when somebody litters in her presence. She bleeds compassion and peace and kindness.(Unless of course you fuck with someone she cares about, in which case “zen” is not the word I would use to describe her.) She finds solace in the beauty that surrounds her, and that’s a neat balance, because I am a “realist” who tends to be disturbed by the world that I see before me. Even if what she’s saying sounds like total horseshit, it’s the kind of horseshit that makes me smile, because she truly believes it. And I believe in people who believe, because, well, they’re the ones who make the impossible happen.

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She’s also completely nuts. I know this because she hangs out with me and is never alarmed by anything that comes out of my mouth. I might say something like “If you could be half-woman-half-anything, what animal would you choose for your bottom half?” and without missing a beat, she might say something like “A dolphin. In a forest setting.”  I would ask her “Why?” And she would say “Because that would be fucking interesting.” These questions do not seem like mindless, childish banter to her. She might laugh, but she always takes them seriously and answers accordingly. She then returns her own, which often leave me doubled over in laughter.

Somewhere along the line, in the cracks between our ridiculous questions and the fake conversations we’d make up and play out for fun, we discovered that the two of us were very lucky indeed, because we were acutely aware of the fact that there was a firm hand holding us both in place, and that hand belonged to the other. Sometimes on Thursdays when she’d come by, my mind would be blank, my bones would be aching, and my heart would be tired. She knew that I didn’t want to talk about it. Instead, she’d distract me with light and funny conversation, all tied up with a Brooklyn accent for the duration of her stay. On the Thursdays when she’d come by and my mind would be brimming with information and my attitude larger than Goliath, she’d ask me about the Thursday before, because she seemed to understand that I was capable of taking it on.

She is my best friend in the world. She is the Simon to my Garfunkle. She is the phantom limb that I had no idea was missing, since all of my limbs are still very much intact. She’s the voice I hear in the morning before I decide that going to the gym would be a good idea. (“Don’t be such a little bitch, weasel.”) When my shoulders feel heavy, she takes the load and carries it beside me until I am rested, then gently sets it back down because she knows that it is a weight that I must face. And when I face that weight, she is the ear that hears what I feel, sorts through those feelings in her brain, and then she becomes the mouth that says what I need to hear.

She is an artist, and I am not. Where she finds peace in her watercolours, I find comfort here, talking to all of you. She says that this IS art, and so I figured I’d give her a piece, like she’s done so many times for me:

Happy 20th birthday, Red- here’s to fucking up like an adult. A real one, you know, not a kid stuck under the scrutiny that is the teenage lens. Here’s to a new adventure; to a new chapter that your inner 7 year old would appreciate, and to a new set of challenges that your old soul will be an asset in guiding you through. When it gets tough (and we know it will,) remember that my dog is really, really afraid of the furnace. (This is a stupid thing to remember, why are we remembering this?) Remember this because despite her fear, she crosses the big, ugly, noisy furnace since she knows that someone she trusts is waiting for her on the other side. That’s where I’ll always be.

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The Glue

I feel strange.

I used to think I was the strangest person I’d ever met, until I visited Orlando and turned on the local news. There’s a lot of fucking lunatics in Florida, eh? Anyway, it isn’t long after I’ve met someone that I start feeling this powerful urge to walk right along the lines of social boundaries, always teetering as far over the edge as I can get away with. And I’m not a psychopath, okay? It’s my way of weeding out the weaker beings. I am genuinely pleased when I meet someone who loves the game as much as I.

Oh, if I could offer you one piece of advice about life, it’s to stop hanging out with squares who don’t appreciate you while you’re still young enough to laugh at yourself. I would guess that all of us know somebody like that- the person you’re only friends with because you’ve known each other for an eon?  That friend holds us back, man. We’re always evolving, and maybe one day we begin to notice that they are not “becoming” alongside us. There’s a certain comfort and fierce loyalty when it comes to an old friend, though, isn’t there? You just kind of wander around together, because it’s better than wandering around alone. And that’s bullshit, too. We have some of our most brilliant thoughts when we’re alone, don’t we? We lay there lost in our minds, and we are free from scrutiny. We’re honest.

I don’t know about you, but I always felt like I was busting out of my skin in junior high. I was all like “Who am I?” and “Why don’t I have any boobs?” I am saddened at the thought of how much time I spent going through my closet of personalities and putting on the one that seemed the most appropriate for the occasion. They say the clothes make the man, right? I absolutely disagree. No amount of fancy evening wear could hide the holes in my soul. It didn’t hide the awkward, uncertain way that I walked or the hesitance in my voice. I may have fooled some, but I was never convinced myself. I wish I could tell all of the 12 year old girls out there how to navigate their way through the total fucking mess that is high school, but I can’t, because I sucked shit at it. I guess what I CAN do is tell them that it gets better. The real world is tough, but the mirror in the girls’ locker room is tougher, if you ask me.

There is a feeling unlike any other when you finally meet one of your own. It’s this giant rush of relief. Once you’ve felt it, you realize that life before was actually just this throbbing wound that you grew to accept, and they came along with this giant scalpel and cut you open to remove the cancer beneath the surface. I firmly believe that this is all that it takes to light a fire because if there is one, there may be others. And you grow, and you grow, and you grow. And maybe you like yourself a little more because, well, they do.

Yeah, it’s awesome. Go on and get you some! It’s easier than ever to connect with the people that think you’re fucking awesome. Put yourself out there. Confide in someone. Allow them to confide in you. Have farting contests. Bond over pocket pens. Braid each other’s pubes. Whatever. It’s the best thing in life.

           DERP

Also, don’t take yourself too seriously. People are not as interested in you as you fucking think they are.