In brief: This post is a glimpse into the background and through-lines that inform and guide my life and my storytelling. I hope you have someone like this in your life to keep you honest and sane and that they know the role they play.
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If you’ve ever enjoyed something I wrote, you know my cousin.
We grew up together in an era before email or cordless phones, writing long-form letters sealed using super elaborate tape jobs and paper folding methods impervious to nosy parents. We knew where the secret pen marks and codes were hidden; we included false information to suss out any prying eyes.
These were not newsletters or the precursor to the listcycle. We were storytellers from the moment we began trading thoughts and anecdotes. By letter number two, we were using call-backs and weaving the most entertaining, vivid imagery into every account we recorded. Yes, I do mean most entertaining for we were grandiose in our delivery and deliberate in our details.
Our dads’ side of the family was prone to quirky humor and the three-brothers that tethered us together put a high value on storytelling. As the youngest and second youngest in the family, my cousin and I were constantly observing and mimicking the vocal techniques and narrative arcs they used — watching for the spots where they effortlessly paused for listeners to laugh. When we wrote, we included stage direction-like notes to denote those pauses, facial expressions, guttural utterances, and sound effects.
We had designed vocal emoticons and phrases shorter and more descriptive than a gif. By the time we were eight we had developed our own spin-off of the family style, forming a unique voice together as we wove tails about living at home, going to school, and what we thought about life. The flow and drive of our letters has matured, but remained unchained and she is still my favorite person to sit and listen to or read. I often know what her next sentence or phrase will be and I can count on her to react perfectly every time during the pauses in a furiously typed messenger conversation.
I can hear her voice when she types; it’s practically audible. If she has told a story or we’ve told it together (as happens most often with us typically typing simultaneously), I am at least 50% more likely to remember the details weeks and months later. I only need three or four words from her for the rest of the story to flash through my brain precisely as she told it before. It’s always been that way.
She is how I learned to think through important details, describe emotion, commit important interactions to memory, and have long, thoughtful discussions across ZIP Codes and, later, time zones.
Even now, when I’m trying to make a hard decision or reframe a story more effectively, it’s her voice I hear in my head. She has always been the narrator, my inner monologue. I’m never worried she’ll misunderstand me, lie to me, or shield me from the truth because of some misguided “for your own good” notion. She knows me and remembers my history as I remember hers; her insight and analysis of my life and life in general regularly leaves me in awe.
When we were growing up, we were both positive we’d be damaged for life. We alternated between pride for our “weirdness,” pitying anyone who saw the world in typical fashion, and deep sorrow for how early we had shed our disillusionment. We became each other’s fact checkers and memory keepers.
Today, I say with certainty that I would neither be who I am nor where I am without her. There have been times I wondered if I would be here at all. When no one else believed me, when my mom’s version of events was the one taken as gospel, when I closed my eyes for the comfort of darkness and hoped the world would match the inside of my lids when I reopened them — in all of those moments, she was there. Even if I felt alone, I knew — I KNEW — that I wasn’t.
I have never had to explain to her why something is important to me or justify my beliefs and values — even when the chasm of religion should have kept us apart. (It helped that my high school church was amazing; despite not believing, she even came on TWO Spring Break trips with us.) We have drifted apart and back together over the years; more like sisters than cousins, I never expected any distance to be permanent.
So what makes this a #GetWell2015 piece and not a long-ass email to my favorite family member? My therapist.
Doc noticed pretty early (I’ve only been seeing her since December, so five months as of right now) that I didn’t just mention my cousin a lot; I talked about her in a specific way. When I tell a story about my life right now in all its challenges, ups, downs, tough to discern nuances — her take is almost always included.
Doc: “You two are really close, aren’t you?”
me: “Yeah, for our whole lives pretty much. We basically never say hello or goodbye to each other; we just drop in and out of an ongoing conversation.”
Doc: “What does she mean to you?”
Doc: “She seems to play almost a therapeutic role, but it’s more than that. I’m sure you’ve thought about it.”
me: “Huh. I don’t think I have thought about it; that’s not like me…”
We tracked back to the story I was telling and a small part of my brain was left behind to mull that over.
me: “She’s my narrator.”
Doc: “Who is? Oh! How do you mean?”
me: “Well, if I’m telling an old story or trying to make a decision about something, I usually hear her voice like you’d hear a specific voice read an audio book. I know her really well, so it’s not just the sound, but the syntax and reactions to what I’m weighing that flow super effortlessly.”
She does that. Doc is a delightful, insightful woman who seems to think I am also both of those things. Every time she tells me how healthy the lens through which I see a situation is, my not capable —> barely capable —> newly capable, but exhausted brain tries to laugh it off. As we were discussing my cousin, though, I realized she was probably right. I have always been empathetic and thoughtful and able to see stories and situations from multiple perspectives. That’s one reason it’s really hard to piss me off; I’m probably listening to your words, but hearing what’s actually going on with you. I may not stick around for the abuse or bullshit, but it’s rare that I’m angry because I don’t get mad at things people aren’t aware of or can’t control.
I was able to do that as a pre-teen. Which explains a little of the alienation through middle and high school. I’ve learned as an adult that basically nobody likes to be told how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking; there are rare exceptions, though, and my cousin is one of them. As am I. But, I wouldn’t recommend you trying to pull that off.
Doc: “It sounds like you were early and ongoing therapy for each other. She might be the reason you’re so healthy.”
me (zero hesitation): “Oh, absolutely. She’s how I learned to process information with emotional weight attached, digest complicated situations I couldn’t control, learn when things weren’t my fault, and decide when to step back out of unhealthy situations either literally or figuratively.”
As I thought about it more, I realized my cousin isn’t just the person I learned my craft with; she’s my voice over, my internal monologue at times, and the person whom I most want to enjoy my writing. She is the only critic I seek to impress and, as far as I’m concerned, the entirety of my comment section.
It’s the same when I have to make a decision. Which explains why Doc hears her name so much; I’m currently pulling myself up to scratch to rebuild my life. That kind of flux means a lot micro decisions as part of a larger plan and it’s all happening as I have real healthcare access for the first time. I’m making a lot of discoveries and reevaluating moments of my past so I can heal and get well.
With all the inner monologue I’ve got going on, it’s no wonder every story has at least one insight from her:
“When I told my cousin about this, she added…”
“Heh, you know…my cousin thinks that’s because….”
“My cousin and I were talking and I/she realized….”
And pretty routinely:
“We think….” or “We both think…”
She is the only person I know will never take something the wrong way. This isn’t because we have blinders on or heap the magic pixie dust known as “benefit of the doubt” into the air perpetually. We just organize our thoughts and delivery so similarly that we simply don’t have out of context moments where disagreement is inevitable. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t know what she meant unless I simply hadn’t heard of a thing she referenced.
There were years where I thought I might lose her. The panic I felt I’m sure caused me to be less supportive than I would be now, but I was a kid and I worried my lifeline would be pulled up onto the ship with me still sitting in the the life raft. I don’t really swim, so that image was extremely terrifying.
Those moments felt like more than maybe losing my friend, sister, cousin, confident; I could feel cracks in my Self just at the thought of losing her. I carried so much of her with me, that I assumed without even really having formed this thought consciously that were she to be gone, pieces of me would split off and abscond before I could gather and patch them back together.
I love her in a way that is almost like loving myself. For much of my life, it was easier to love her than to see my own value and knowing how much we shared and built together meant I had value even when I couldn’t feel it. I believe her word without question so when she says I matter it must be true.
I know not everyone has someone like her; I don’t know how other people function without sharing some amount of internal thought and space like this. It’s just how I was created — I am more whole and more capable and more creative and more thoughtful and more everything that I am because I carry her with me.
I’ve told her pieces of this here and there. But, I need her to know just how much of what I do and how I talk and who I am is because of what we built together:
You’ve always been my narrator; thank you for being a compassionate, diligent caretaker. I know you would never ask me to, but I will repay you some day for everything you’ve contributed to my life. I wouldn’t be here — physically, right here, typing, alive — without you. Thank you for making the quote that accompanies this post untrue for me; that one thing sets me apart and has allowed me the perspective to understand and empathize while remaining true to myself. If I manage to make a real impact on this world, that effort and success will be yours as much as mine.
Note: If you have something you want to rant about, let people know, vent over, or add to the #GetWell2015 project and discussion, just email me: KatieSpeakMail@gmail.com. I won’t be able to cover everything that’s important because I’m writing from a personal perspective and I haven’t been through everything there is to go through. Pitch me or send me what you’ve got — it can be short or medium-lengthed and I probably am not going to ask for edits. I’d like to include some other voices because poverty, wellness, and stigma affect a massive range of people and experiences.
This post is an entry in my year-long project documenting all the messiness and inconvenience and stigma of trying to get well in our culture. You can subscribe, follow, and join in the journey at #GetWell2015 here and on Twitter.