Messy, Beautiful Lives

Jenny Drai
May 25, 2016 · 8 min read


I don’t know where to begin. I was writing my Drunken Boat column for June, something about how I don’t find everything about disability disabling, when I hung out on Facebook for two seconds during a much-needed social media break and learned about the existence of someone named Amanda Lauren. She had written an article for XO Jane about how her friend’s death was a blessing because her life was a tragedy, and according to Lauren, not worth living. This friend, in Lauren’s estimation, had failed to adult well enough. (That’s my take on her stance, at any rate.) This friend, according to Lauren, had schizoaffective disorder. I don’t know where to go from there. I have schizoaffective disorder. Or at least that’s what I’m diagnosed with, although sometimes I struggle with that. I ask myself: Does this accurately describe you? I’m not always sure. But I’ll tell you this much. The first time I read about schizoaffective disorder on Wikipedia, I cried. I felt met.


Or I could begin here. May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Amanda Lauren’s essay, published as an “Unpopular Opinion” by XO Jane, appeared on Thursday, May 19, 2016. May. Do you see where I’m going with this? Apparently we cannot even have this one month. I remained blissfully unaware of all of this until Saturday, May 21. I’d been going down social media rabbit holes in an obsessive way. Because I haven’t been sleeping well, and that can be a sign of danger, I thought: Why not take all social media apps off your phone? Create some blank space in your head. Which is what I did. But on Saturday, I sat down at my desktop and checked in. Hmmm.


Or, I could say I was heartened by all the responses to the essay. If you’ve read it, you may have noticed the outright, unchecked narcissism of its author. That was immediately apparent to me. Mostly the article reminded me that my life has been messy for chunks of time, for weeks, months, maybe even periods of several years. I wondered if any judgmental types in my circle of acquaintances ever felt the same way about me. Had anyone looked at me and thought: That woman’s life is a walking, living, breathing tragedy. Maybe it would be better if she died. That would be a blessing. (Basically what Amanda Lauren said in her essay.) More importantly, I thought about all the times I had thought the same, not just thought, but heartily believed I’d be better off dead. I thought about the people in my life who saved me from myself when I was suicidal, even though my state of being may have complicated their own lives. (If you’re one of those people, and you’re reading this, thank you. I think about you a lot. I’m grateful.) I also thought about how there are so many great things about my life, and there always have been, and I hope great things will happen in the future. But the losses of perspective that often accompany episodes of mental illness obscure the good, the great, even the pleasures of the average.


It takes me a while to respond to things. I’m not a fast thinker. So maybe I’m a little late to the Amanda Lauren party. I was going to write ‘outrage party’ but I realized I’m not angry, not even sad about her dumb, thoughtless (and, I dare say, horrendously written) opinion piece. Also, outrage is often used disparagingly, and here, I think, it’s pretty justified. But no. Since I read about the controversy, I have mostly been cataloguing experiences I’ve had that have made my sometimes messy, sometimes incredibly sad life worth living. What’s important to note (again) is that these things are always true, even if I go through periods of time when I can’t recognize these things as important or true, when I can’t see the other end of despair. Again, I’m talking about that loss of perspective. It takes time, energy, care, and love to regain perspective.


Here are a number of experiences I’ve had that I’m listing here with brief commentary. Each and every thing on this list is something I’ve enjoyed experiencing and, I would say, has enriched my life. I’m listing them in no particular order, and the list is probably very incomplete. These are just some things that immediately spring to mind.

· Sex — By which of course I mean consensual sex. Enough said?

· Falling in love — Whomever I happen to be in love with at the time always feels like the love of my life.

· Staying in love — My marriage isn’t perfect, but my husband is my favorite person on the planet. He’s my best friend.

· The thrill of victory — I used to swim competitively. Once, at the Masters level, I was anchoring a relay, the 200 medley. We were behind as the person before me finished her leg. I exploded off the block, barreled down the lane, took two breaths (once at the 5-yard mark before the flip turn and once at the 5-yard mark after), and came from behind to win the relay by over a body length. I think about the crowd roaring after the finish whenever I am in need of an energy boost during a workout.

· Becoming an author — The thing I most wanted for my life from about age 5 and on has come true. When I don’t write for a while, I feel awful. It’s nice that my writing has been deemed good/important enough by others to be published. This makes me happy.

· Being a reader — I love to read so much that I’ve often thought if I were ever diagnosed with a terminal illness I might give up on writing altogether and spend the time left to me reading as much as I was able. Also, if I go for too long without reading, I feel unwell.

· Friendship — No small thing. At all.

· Being an aunt — I’ve never wanted kids of my own, but I like kids, so being an aunt is just about perfect. I’ve truly enjoyed getting to watch little humans develop their distinct personalities. It’s also overwhelmingly wonderful to be loved by a child. An example: I was staying with my brother, who has four kids. The five-year-old asked if I would come up to his bedroom and say goodnight to him. I said, “Sure, I’ll be up soon,” (meaning OF COURSE, YOU ADORABLE CREATURE, OF COURSE!) Later, as we were lying on his bed in the dark listening to Bob Dylan play softly in the background, he told me tiny things about his life and my heart melted. After I kissed him goodnight and was getting ready to leave his room, he jumped up from the bed and called after me, “I love you! I love you! I love you! I love you!” That was golden, I tell you. Pure gold.

· Photography — I’m maybe not the best photographer, but I love taking pictures. I recently completed a class at the local adult education center, and now I even know how to confidently operate the manual settings on my camera.

· The smell of the ocean — You either love this or you don’t, I guess, but I love it. I used to live close enough to the ocean, in Oxnard, California, that I could occasionally hear sea lions barking in the harbor while I was standing in my back yard. That was years ago, but on a recent trip to Venice, we took the Vaporetto from the airport and I could smell the sea. I had forgotten how much I love that salty, muggy odor.

· Getting to travel and look at old things — My husband’s job has taken us to a lot of places, most recently Bonn, Germany. Living in Europe has allowed us to see a lot of places we otherwise never could have. For example, I got to visit Notre Dame de Reims, the cathedral where Joan of Arc once led Charles VII to his coronation.

· Speaking a foreign language fluently and faking my way through others — Language acquisition sets my mind on fire, in the right way. From fluency in German, to understanding some of the Russian while watching The Americans on Netflix, to working through Dutch comic books, to my occasional forays into translating Anglo-Saxon poetry, to being able to read an Italian or French menu, my foreign language skills make me feel confident and able. I also think languages are fun.

· Having a pet — My cat is the bomb. An eleven-year-old Snowshoe, he’s loyal and adorable. Over the years, he’s served as everything from cuddle bunny to depression nurse. He has enriched my life.


That’s a good list I think, though incomplete. Again, I cannot stress enough that despite the great things on that list, my life has seemed to me, at one point or another, not worth living. And my life has no doubt, from time to time, appeared pathetic, wretched, and sad from the outside looking in. Yet, there’s so much great stuff on that list. This is an incongruity that Amanda Lauren thoroughly failed to grasp when she wrote her ill-advised opinion piece. Again, it’s all about perspective.


I haven’t included any links to the Amanda Lauren post, even to cached posts that won’t give XO Jane their longed-for clicks. I’ve done this because I think the article could be pretty triggering to someone in a bad place.


Wishing you strength and well-being during the rest of Mental Health Awareness Month and beyond.


Sometimes I look in the mirror and tell my messy, imperfect, glorious, confounding self: You are made of stardust.


Features Supplement to the Online Journal of Literature and Art

Jenny Drai

Written by

Jenny Drai is the author of three collections of poetry, two poetry chapbooks, and a novella. She lives in Dortmund, Germany, and works as an English teacher.



Features Supplement to the Online Journal of Literature and Art