Friday, October 23, 2015

My Maddicts Party Recap: On Finding My Feather, Embracing My Otherness and Discovering the Confidence to Fly

A few nights ago, I was watching some videos on, which I do once in a while—I especially love Eckhart Tolle's—and I came across this very inspiring clip of Janet Mock:

Yes, I know, it's corny to watch Oprah videos. But I dare you to watch that and not be moved to tears.

In her speech to Oprah's audience at UCLA, and with a very careful, poised, studied delivery, Mock tells her story about growing up transgender. This speech is inspiring to me in so many ways, but I think the part that touches me the most is her description of her move to New York and her work as an editor at People magazine. Or rather, her climb to becoming a magazine editor. She talks about how despite her shiny and strong exterior, as this successful person she had set out to be, she was secretly suffering. Because as someone whose job it is to supposedly be a truth-teller, her whole persona was a lie. When she moved to New York, Mock chose to keep her transgender status concealed. She enjoyed the freedom that secret provided and the anonymity she felt as just another woman in such a big city.

Ultimately, Mock expresses in this video how important it is to tell your story, to have the courage to be your most authentic self. "Embrace the otherness," she says. Because it is the otherness that makes you who you are. Mock has since gone on to write a New York Times best-selling memoir called Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More.

I've also been a bit infatuated with the Disney movie Dumbo lately. Maybe this is because since my bridal shower, I've been noticing elephants appearing around me in odd places—on my cousin's tote bag at the shower, on the curtains in the room where we played "Head's Up" (the game from Ellen—have you played this? It's so much fun!), on a scarf my aunt wanted to buy in Anthropologie the next day, on videos that kept popping up on Facebook, on a necklace a new girl in the elevator at work was wearing. Like many people, I recently watched the Walt Disney biography on PBS, so maybe that implanted the movie in my mind.

Dumbo is someone Janet Mock would consider to be "other." He is different. But, as Timothy S. Mouse tells him after the two find themselves inexplicably high up in a tree after an accidentally drunken night of hallucinating pink elephants, "the very things that held you down are gonna carry you up and up and up."

When my father died in a car accident in 2003, part of me looked at what had happened and got very angry, because in a way, this was one more event in my life that was making me "other." And, like Janet Mock, I had escaped to New York City from a life I no longer wanted.

I'd been lucky enough to earn an internship at a magazine in New York. I knew the going would be tough. This was an opportunity I took after sending out hundreds of résumés to various news outlets, and mostly getting no responses whatsoever. Looking back, I probably should have tried harder to get something in my hometown, just to start. But my eyes were bigger than my stomach. I wanted excitement, I wanted to see the world. So I chose the $10 per day internship.

(A disclaimer: When I was at home in Delaware, looking for jobs, I was fortunate enough to have parents who allowed me to live with them for free, despite being just out of college. They also paid for my college education in its entirety. Especially as I get older, I am very well aware of how blessed my circumstances as a child were, and grateful for how hard my mother and stepdad had to work to make that happen. That being said, both of them were very nervous about my moving to New York with only $1,000 to my name and a $10 per day internship.)

I was fearless then. My gut was telling me, You must do this. So I listened. But I was also only 25 and very inexperienced in the world.

Like Dumbo, I quickly found a guide. My now-fiancé was a part-time writer and editor in Seattle, and a full-time IT guy. He also wanted something more exciting in his life.

And thank God I found him when I did. I had just gone through an incredibly difficult, life-changing year.

I'll put it this way: When I made the decision to move to New York, my ex-boyfriend, who I was still friends with at the time, said to me, "I'm glad you're doing this. New York is the perfect place for people like you."

What he was alluding to was the fact that a week after my college graduation, I'd had to spend six days in withdrawal from nine medications in a hospital. This was because I'd agreed to see a therapist in my last year of college who decided that my clinical depression required a complicated "cocktail."

I chalk this up now to the trendiness of prescribing lots and lots of prescription drugs to patients who probably mostly needed talk therapy—this was just beginning back in 2002. But as I was only 24, I listened to everything he told me. When he told me I needed to consider my limitations in life, I listened. When he told me I was a "failure at life," because I refused to take a prescribed Ambien at night sometimes, I listened.

He eventually told me he could no longer treat me because I was "not compliant." The irony of this is laughable. My life was falling apart because I was so compliant.

When I saw a new doctor a few weeks later, she was horrified by how many medicines I was on. I'm not even going to go into the various side effects these drugs incurred, but I'll just say that I was a bit of a walking zombie, had gained about 20 pounds very rapidly, had panic attacks that often required ER visits and was a shell of my former self. But after those six days in the hospital, getting off all those drugs, the doctors there simply said, "All you have is severe anxiety, you don't need to be here." And I went home.

(Another disclaimer: Depression was something I first showed symptoms of when I was 16 years old, and by the hospital visit, it was something my parents and brother and I had struggled to find the right treatment for. I'd seen seven different doctors over the years by the time I ended up with the prescription-happy one. It's fair to say that my mother saved my life by getting me treatment when I was a very depressed teenager, and that as a mother, she went through more anguish than I did dealing with this...because mothers always do. And I have an especially generous one.)

My new doctor, the one who'd sent me to the hospital to withdraw, said I'd survived it due to my own inner strength, that I should be proud of myself, and that she wasn't worried about me in the least because I had a good head on my shoulders.

She signed me up for talk therapy, but after a few visits I decided it wasn't for me. I had become fairly disenchanted with counseling.

When I left the hospital, I was a very different version of myself. It was the first experience I'd ever had that I sensed not one person in my everyday life had experienced—and when you're 25, this idea that nobody has ever gone through what you've gone through is heightened, of course. Because you are largely basing this on what your peers tell you.

I realized I had two options in front of me: I could decide that I was a freak because of the stigma I felt, or I could choose to use it to my advantage. I picked the latter.

The worst had already happened to me, I thought. Nothing else could possibly be as scary and awful as that hospital had been.

And so like Janet Mock, I hid what had happened. I spent the next year of my life avoiding men from Delaware, who I assumed might have heard about me through the grapevine (though that probably wasn't anywhere close to the truth...then again, Delaware is a small place), and dating guys from various places (this is when Internet dating started getting big). One was from Syracuse, New York. One was a Mormon in Utah. One was a music writer in Philly who didn't own a phone in his house and smoked pot all day—that one did not end well.

And then one was a young guy in Seattle, who'd also gone out into the world seeking Timothy S. Mouse. His name was Steven.

When I finally reached the right moment to tell Steven about my hospital experience, I braced myself for rejection. A week or so after I'd left the hospital, my boyfriend at the time had sat across from me in the food court of a shopping mall and said he had to break up with me because his parents were concerned. He said his parents had been flipping through his high school yearbook, looking for other eligible girls for him to date. This was odd, I thought, because his mother had told him once that if she could have chosen a girlfriend for him, it would have been me. "What changed?" I asked him. "I thought your parents liked me?" "Well," he reminded me. "You were just in a hospital."

This wasn't a huge blow romantically speaking...he wasn't a man I loved, just a guy I had fun with. But it was certainly a betrayal, and it only echoed what they'd told me when I was in the day we were all sitting in group therapy, and one of the patients asked a counselor, "What do I tell people when I leave here?" And the counselor replied, "I'd highly advise never telling anyone that you had to spend any time in this place." The emphasis was on that patient's ability to find a job. But as the youngest member of this therapy group, I heard that message differently.

So when the moment came, and I told Steven what I had experienced—and many young men had failed this test in that year, the year I became the United Nations of online dating—he responded with one sentence: "I think you are an amazing woman."

Four years later, my brother introduced me to a TV show called Lost. By this time, I was living in Baltimore and frustrated about not having found full-time work in magazines—after all, I'd been trying for four years, which felt like a lifetime to a 20-something. I started binge-watching Lost during the week of Thanksgiving 2007—this was just as binge-watching was becoming a thing.

By the show's next season, I was all caught up. I'd had a lot of time on my hands to do this, because four months after I finally got that long-coveted magazine job, albeit at a very small trade magazine in the middle-of-nowhere, New Jersey, my company had had to lay off several employees for financial reasons. I was one of them.

This was in the middle of the recession, the perfect time to be job-hunting, especially in journalism (that's sarcasm). At the time, multiple magazines and newspapers were closing shop. People talked every day about how the Internet would eventually replace print journalism.

After many freelance copyediting jobs that year, I eventually landed at a celebrity news magazine. And because they covered entertainment, I got a shot at writing about what had become my TV obsession.

Three years later, I was working at Good Housekeeping, and tried to reprise my Lost effort with a show called Mad Men.

When I wrote about Lost, my goal was to emulate Jeff Jensen from Entertainment Weekly. I loved that he was able to find the literary references on the show and expand on them...that he could find things the writers were trying to communicate that viewers might not pick up on right away, but which could enhance viewers' experience if they read about them. This was the beginning of smart TV—Jensen was a pioneer.

With Mad Men, a GH Web editor and I came up with this concept of checking our magazine archives and seeing if I could find photos of outfits and hairdos identical to the ones that appeared on the show. Good Housekeeping is 130 years old. We felt this could be a corner of the TV recapping "market" that nobody had grasped. And while Mad Men was not a fantasy show, and not literary in the way Lost had been, writing about fashion and pop culture was something that really interested me. It was also very intimidating, though, because Mad Men wasn't a show that involved solving a puzzle, like Lost was. It was based on real-life events. And I was no history buff.

In the spring of 2014, I started writing my Mad Men recaps, and much like this particular blog post, they were lengthy and involved and complicated. I'd had the same issue with my Lost recaps—I wasn't really doing this intentionally, but in the back of my head, I was emulating Jeff Jensen. And Jensen isn't exactly known for his brevity.

I soon learned that what I was doing was too much for the GH website. And not only that, but when the recaps were trimmed to a more appropriate size, they still weren't popular enough with readers for the Web team to justify continuing posting them.

I was really dismayed by this. But ever my Timothy S. Mouse, Steven set me straight. "You have to keep writing these," he told me. "Even if it's only on your blog."

This idea made me concerned. After all, I'd only reached 800 to 1,000 readers a week with my Lost recaps because they were posted on the OK! website. Granted, OK! readers didn't always have the desire to sit there and get through 2,000 words, and God bless those Web editors who still let me keep posting them. But at least I had a podium. And when the recaps were on the GH website, I had a chance of reaching a million readers.

Downtrodden but determined, and very worried I would appear to be some super fangirl sitting in her basement, I continued with the recaps, here on—a blog I'd started back when I had to pretend to be a women's magazine editor, because I hadn't become one and who knew if I ever would.

Promoting my recaps was difficult. I knew I was annoying people on Facebook, posting my statuses every week, asking everyone to please check out my work. The GH Web editors graciously allowed me to keep using the Good Housekeeping title in my recap names, so at least that gave it some feeling of validity. And then one day I had a brilliant idea. Why not post links to these recaps on AMC's Mad Men forum? That's where the true fans were, after all. They called themselves "Maddicts."

And then slowly but surely, my writing developed a following, for the first time in my life.

I met people in the Mad Men forum who truly liked what I had to say. Yes, I'd always gotten kudos for my writing, from teachers, family, friends, etc. From my college journalism professors, from employers. From Steven. From literary journal editors. But this was the first time I had real, live readers who didn't know me from Adam. And I had barely anything backing up my abilities—I mean, let's be real here, this is a pretty rudimentary-looking blog. And my bio on the right screams "I am stuck in 2007."

But they were steadfast, and every week after I wrote a recap, whether it got 200 clicks (mostly from or 1,500, I knew I could rely on that AMC Mad Men forum for a real assessment of its worth.

This was significant to me for so many reasons.

By being willing to sit there and toil for days, researching the 1960s and 1970s (and eventually I went back and researched every decade of the century—I found every documentary I could on American pop culture, just so I could make sure I was getting my facts right), I finally embraced my inner "otherness."

I'd always been a person who was happy sitting for hours working on something that interested me. I had an ability to become interested and immersed in minutiae that many people I knew didn't have. I didn't know why I was this way. If often got me into trouble. When I was in high school, besides being diagnosed with depression, I was also diagnosed with ADHD-inattentive type. I received extra time on innate attention to details and perfectionism was often more of a hindrance than an asset. It takes me much longer than most normal people to do most things, and that includes leaving the house, especially if it involves packing a suitcase at the end of a long work day. It is probably what causes the most grief about me to anyone I am close to, and I have experienced a lot of loss and shame in my life because of it. My brother has joked in the past that I have a Type F personality because of my slowness. Yes, I benefitted a great deal in school from what I now realize is a slightly photographic memory, though this might be because my attentional style forces me to take in a lot more when I look at something.

But mostly there has always been a part of me that knew I was a bit odd, a bit different.

A bit "other."

And yet when my writing about Mad Men brought in loyal readers, I realized there were people who were benefitting from my otherness. They threw a party on a hotel rooftop in Times Square and asked me to come. And when I got to the party, I felt like a guest of honor. They had questions for me about my writing and how I came up with some of the things I wrote about. It was the closest I'd ever come to being treated like a celebrity.

Steven came with me to this party, and was both proud and bewildered.

WasThere was there, and she regaled us with all her amazing tales from the real 1960s, such as the time she met Joe DiMaggio and kissed him on the cheek. Tipsi was the life of the party, and kept telling me she expected to see great things from me someday. Eva stayed late talking films with Steven and me. One lovely Maddict, who has since changed her code name in the Facebook forum (please forgive me, Maddicts, but these names have changed so many times—was it you, Lavender?), even offered to let me stay at her house for a week just to write! Liz Geier and I talked about her job in the fashion industry, making incredible costumes for Broadway shows. And CleoClio, who I'd suspected in the forum was a man for some odd reason, told us all about his days working in advertising. It was really a wonderful night, and could have only been made better if Jon Hamm in the flesh had shown up to join us.

And so now, many months later, I am finally sitting down to recap this party and talk about these wonderful people who took a liking to things that came out of my head and ended up on this blog. And I can't help but realize that though I already had a Timothy S. Mouse in Steven, whom I met in 2003, it wasn't until I met the Maddicts that I found my elusive feather.

And it was because of finding that feather that I was able to set out and try to publish my writing in other places. I took an opportunity to write about True Detective for This was a mixed blessing, since so many people disliked the show, but I still got so much out of it as a writer.

True Detective—a show about people who actively
refuse to look at who they really are.

And most importantly, I decided to come clean about my otherness, and write about the things that mattered to me most.

Around the same time I'd started my Mad Men recaps, my brother's ex-girlfriend introduced me to running. Though I'd participated in sports in high school, I'd never really considered myself an athlete. But most of my coworkers at Good Housekeeping seemed more interested in working out than hanging out in bars (this was not the case at my previous job), so I took on running full-force. First I competed in 5Ks. Then I decided to run a half marathon. And then I entered into the New York Marathon on a lark, and got in.

Also around the same time I'd started my Mad Men recaps, I met a man named Joel Feldman, who'd started an organization called End Distracted Driving. Joel lost his daughter, Casey, in a distracted driving accident when she was 21 years old. She had been walking to her summer job in Ocean City, NJ, and was studying in New York at the time to become a journalist. I found Joel through my job at Good Housekeeping, when we published an article about EndDD. I have to wonder, if I hadn't followed the path that led me to that job, would I ever have even known Joel or his organization existed?

With Joel's encouragement, I spoke in a high school that year to a gymnasium full of students about my father and how we had lost him. It was terrifying and liberating at the same time. This thing in my life I'd kept hidden for so many years, much like my hospital stay, was finally out in the open. And anyone and their mother could say anything they wanted to about it.

The truth was, I'd written several essays about what had happened that summer in 2003 and about my relationship with my dad in general over the years. But most of them had gone unfinished and unpublished because of this fear I had of being seen as different. Or because I was concerned that my writing was not up to par enough to publish them.

I'm only realizing today that whether or not I was publishing these stories about my dad—one of which has now appeared on the Runner's World website, while another is coming out in December's Good Housekeeping—by writing those TV recaps, I was already describing his otherness. And my own.

On Lost, many of the main characters have to review their lives and come to terms with who they are, how their weaknesses can often be their strengths. They have to learn how to forgive in order to move on, and oftentimes the person they are forgiving is themselves. They have to find their true purpose and calling—often they realize this has to do with helping other people, and not just staying hermitic and obsessing over their own flaws (think of Jack and his drinking problems and his reluctance to be a leader). It is when they are able to "let it go," as Jack's father says, that they truly move on.

And then on Mad Men, Don Draper is a character somewhat similar to Jack. Don's appeal as an antihero came about because so many of us wanted to understand who our fathers really were, and why they were the way they were. We wanted to be able to see our parents as real, live human beings, who are capable of making mistakes, just like we are. Matt Weiner gave the TV-viewing audience a great gift in this show, the gift of "moving forward," as Don often says, but doing so with grace and humility—the lesson Don learns at the end of the series. To let go of vices that ultimately constitute a false self—Don Draper is the ultimate false persona, after all—and to embrace the parts of you that make you unique, as people learned to do more of in the 1970s.

I've recently told my younger brother, who is also my best friend, that he is my "feather" when it comes to running. That I need him to be present when I run the marathon, because I don't know if I can fly without him. Going through this process, training to run this many miles in honor of my dad and all the other families who've lost someone so senselessly, and also getting to publish some of my essays about my dad, has given me a scary feeling of empowerment—that I can take what was a very difficult time in my life, some of which I've described here, and use it to benefit others.

But today I'm realizing that maybe I've had the ability to fly all along. And in addition to my father, my parents, my brother, my stepbrothers, my aunts, uncles and cousins, my friends, Steven and Joel Feldman, I have a very special group of people to thank for that: the Maddicts.

Thank you, you lovely people, for allowing me to accept my otherness. Thank you for helping me to let go of my fears of judgment, to be OK with who I am and what I have to offer and realize that being passionate about a fictional story isn't nerdy—it's actually really cool.

At the end of this party, WasThere/Audrey sang to me, "Tell Laura I Love Her."
This is coincidentally the same song my father always sang when I was a young girl.


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