I attended my first writing conference last weekend. It was exhilarating and exhausting. It was scary (I have a serious shy person problem) and fun. Mostly, it was exciting. I stepped out of my comfort zone. I met new people. I read my work out loud. I talked to people who I want to be when I grow up, and I didn’t say anything stupid (mostly). I learned a ton, and I even slept on a bunk bed in a dorm!
By the time Sunday morning arrived, I was beyond tired, but I was inspired and anxious to get home and do ALL the things I learned to reach my goals big and small. Everything was awesome. And then I saw the news ticker at the bottom of the television screen in the cafeteria at breakfast.
20 PEOPLE DEAD IN MASS SHOOTING AT NIGHTCLUB IN ORLANDO
I finished my breakfast, attended the last session and closing ceremony, and loaded up my car for the long drive home. At check-out, where I handed over the keys to my dorm room, I saw the news ticker at the bottom of the television screen in the office of residential services.
50 PEOPLE DEAD IN MASS SHOOTING AT NIGHTCLUB IN ORLANDO
I got in my car, turned on one of the news channels on the satellite radio, and listened to the horror unfold for the next four hours while I made my way home. Just like after 9/11 and Aurora and Sandy Hook (and so on), I had to take it in. I had to feel the sadness and pain and fear and anger. I had to absorb it and let it race through my veins because why were those people experiencing unimaginable terror, shock, and loss and not me? Why was I having the time of my life at a writing conference? Why was I alive? Why were my children safe?
I fed the beast.
Halfway home, I stopped for coffee at a highway rest area. I was afraid to go inside. Eventually I did, but not without wondering the whole time if I were safer near the front entrance or toward the back of the building. I thought about how when I go to see a movie with my kids, we’re not only told to silence our cell phones, but also to be on the lookout for “suspicious characters” and to know where the nearest exits are. When did this become normal? When I returned to my car, I turned the news back on.
I fed the beast, and the universe took note.
On Monday, the strap on my favorite pair of shoes broke on my walk to get the kids at school. That evening, I noticed a mark on my face under my right eye that had changed from a red spot to a pimple-like bump just like the one that turned out to be a basal cell carcinoma a few years ago. I made an appointment to see my dermatologist on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, we lost Internet access at the house all day. Ugh. That afternoon, a police officer at school pick-up gestured aggressively at me because he didn’t like the way I brought my car to a stop at the crosswalk.
By Wednesday morning, I was convinced that if the sun was shining, the earth was burning. My shoe broke because I shop too much and spend too much money. The Internet went down to distract me from doing my work because I didn’t deserve the indulgence of being a writer. The police officer singled me out because I was a bad, irresponsible mother. And obviously I had skin cancer. On my face. Again.
I was sweating the small stuff. All of it. Meanwhile, 49 innocent people were dead and another 53 were injured. All of their lives – and their family and friends’ lives – were forever changed. Forever broken.
I watched, I read, I listened. I fed the beast.
On my drive to the dermatologist, I listened to a news update about a two-year-old boy who was snatched from his father’s arms by an alligator and presumed dead at Disney World. And about an up-and-coming pop star from “The Voice” who was shot dead by a deranged fan. And about the wife of the nightclub shooter who knew of his of murderous plans but didn’t speak up.
I imagined the stitches, the bandages, and the scar I would have after another Mohs surgery on my face because I didn’t take good enough care of my skin.
I fed the beast.
After an anxious wait, the dermatologist walked into the examination room, looked at my face closely with special light, and said, “You have a pimple.”
You. have. a. pimple.
These four words ended my feast.
I didn’t have skin cancer. I didn’t shop too much (for the most part). I didn’t not deserve to be a writer. I wasn’t a bad or irresponsible mother. I convinced myself that taking on others people’s pain would alleviate their grief (and my guilt), but instead of creating light, I let darkness spread. I spiraled into an abyss of negativity. I had a bad week, but I was alive. My kids were safe.
I feasted on tragedy, and I made myself sick.
Interestingly, the last session of my writing conference was about self-care. It was about taking good physical and emotional care of ourselves – preventing pain, developing healthy sleep habits, taking breaks, communicating well, acknowledging Imposter Syndrome, and trusting that we’re good enough – in the midst of stress, chaos, work, and life in general.
I have not taken very good care of myself this week.
I’m still going to watch the news. I’m still going to feel helpless and heartbroken for the lives lost and ruined. I’m still going to imagine the unimaginable, and I’m still going to wonder why? Why? But I’m going to try to stop eating when I’m full. I’m going to remember that punishing myself won’t set anyone free and that tragedy will sadly always be there when I come back to the table.