“The crack’s in me,” I said heroically. – F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”.
I drew a picture of myself once as a blue alien figure, without form or face, looking out of a window. From the chest, a rod ran up through the page and down through the ground, piercing the figure in two. I think it was meant to be a representation of how alienated I felt all of the time, of the pain in my chest, but while drawing I was only chasing a feeling.
Since I was ten, I’ve been in pain a lot of the time; that place in the centre of my chest felt in constant spasm, like I’d been punched there. I told myself that it didn’t matter as long as I could do things. Maybe I just wasn’t destined to be happy, or loved.
I write in little fragments, and in bursts I rearrange. This process is messy and leads to feelings of hopelessness; as the messiness increases, the fragments build up. The world is incredibly disorganized, which makes me nervous. The closest to being done feels the furthest away. I become frustrated, I want to give up on it, and wish I never started.
But then the pieces come together.
My pelvis was shattered into pieces earlier this year, after being struck by a car, and I’m still dealing with the fallout and its effect on my writing, my energy, and how I engage with the world. But two years ago, I would have seen things differently. Maybe, wouldn’t have had the same fight. When I was hit by a car crossing the street and toppled to the ground, I was sure I would die, and I was entirely sure the prospect was terrifying.
Two years before, I’d ceased to fear death. I saw this as moving into the next stage of who I was, spiritually. I’d been horrified as a child, but now thought death could be something I could acknowledge and accept without being afraid. Instead, I was afraid of other things more: being unwanted, living a life of futility — these things made it so that death seemed a welcome end. Looking back on it now, I don’t think this was reaching a new level of acceptance; it was reaching a new level of pain and fear of day-to-day life.
After I released Pauls, I fully bottomed out. It’s true that I was going through a lot at the time: I had to move apartments, I was in an on/off relationship, I was teaching at two institutions and three campuses while trying to balance book promos. I was disappointed in myself for not having done more — more editing, more publicity. Disappointed that I was tired every night, that I could barely do what I’d committed to despite feeling like I should be doing more. The word ‘more’ chased me: Why couldn’t I be content with my relationships, with my writing, with working? Why was it such a struggle to make enough to live and to have enough time to do the things I felt compelled to do? I could see the way the rest of my life would go — every day was winter, the streets lined with slush. I couldn’t breathe. I was afraid of people, afraid of myself. The pain in my chest made me cry, leak tears, on the way to teaching in the mornings.
I wanted to live so much. I wanted to not not want to live.
In that moment of identifying this primary need of mine — to want to not want to give up, to want to keep going, to want to keep pushing — my whole life pivoted. I was to build the life I wanted. It would be my own responsibility, and I could become a person I would love.
For the first time in my life, I stopped writing. I still wrote a line here or there; sometimes, a story. But I began to do other things. I took a mindfulness course. I began to take a dance class with a friend, which opened me up to different ways of having friendships and doing things I wouldn’t necessarily be good at. It seemed important for me to fail in a safe environment, where success wasn’t expected. It was alright to just build something one step at a time, and sometimes have set backs and the need to adjust and work a little harder, or just accept the failure and keep living.
I began to be more active. I rock-climbed. I began to meditate. Sometimes I even went for a twenty-minute run (walking half the time). I began to see a CBT psychologist. We tracked my moods, my thoughts, my behaviours. I started new books, new stories. I had hope and planned things. It took me a year and half to feel good again and even then, there were moments. I was aware that this was a process of recovery for me — I was rebuilding my soul one piece at a time.
It may seem like all of this is disconnected from what happened to my pelvis, and that my pelvis is disconnected from writing, but everything is connected.
In your most hopeful days, you think of yourself going back to yourself at your best. Any days you experience ordinary aches and pains are edited out; nothing was ever difficult or painful. But recovery isn’t like that — who you are is changed forever. When I explain this to my friends, speaking about my accident because it’s easier to talk about than what I went through with my mental health, they say, “Well, not forever.” I’ve always been prone to exaggeration. I don’t say anything in reply. How can you?
My recovery process with my pelvis has been a similar thing — a new way of learning who I am. A new parade of firsts: first time walking with a walker, first time going to the bathroom instead of pissing via catheter, first time getting out of bed independently.
Seven months since the accident, my concentration is still limited, and I write in chunks when I can. Everything takes longer. Once I got home from the hospital in March, I began to get back to writing by trying to write 250 words a day. While I was writing those short paragraphs, they felt like nothing and then left me exhausted, wanting more again. But piece by piece, things add up. And sometimes there’s failure, throwing things away, but other times, if you look back two weeks, a month, instead of a day, progress.
When I chase a feeling now in my art, rather than an almost-human figure with a pole running through me, I draw myself as several lines that twist, break off and intersect forming a web. Inside the lines, blobs form. Sometimes when I draw them, they look like cells, other times like something more static, less visceral.
I want to feel that the way I am able to approach recovery, and being in pieces, now, is different, more forgiving. That maybe struggling with the pain in my chest since I was ten allowed me to develop the skills to confront the pain I feel and difficulties that have come with the injury head-on. That rather than alienating me, maybe this process can connect me to others, so that I become one of those cell-like blobs in a web connected to other cell-like blobs through challenges and pain, trying to create something beautiful in the process.
Jess Taylor is a Toronto based writer and poet. Her second collection, Just Pervs, will be released by Book*hug in Canada in Fall 2019. Recently, a short story from that collection, “Two Sex Addicts Fall in Love,” was long-listed for The Journey Prize and included in The Journey Prize Anthology 30. The title story from her first collection, Pauls (Book*hug, 2015), “Paul,” received the 2013 Gold Fiction National Magazine Award. Jess believes that collaboration and helping other writers is an important part of her writing practice and continues to organize events in the community. She is currently working on a novel, Play, and a continuation of her life poem, Never Stop.