Shrinking

It always seemed fitting to me that, in order to follow the white rabbit, Alice had to shrink—that she was denied access to another, ostensibly better world until she made herself smaller. The scene itself comes early in the movie, after her tumble down the rabbit hole, when she finds herself stuck in an antechamber facing a locked door. The door tells her she won’t fit: “You’re impassable.” “Impossible?” “Impassable. Nothing is impossible.” So she takes a few sips from a bottle: drink me. In a series of pops—at least, that’s how Disney imagined it in 1951—she shrinks to the size of a mouse—and stops just shy of disappearing completely. (In the words of the sentient door knob, “you almost went out like a light!”) There’s some back-and-forth business with the key, which she’s left on the now-humongous table, but eventually, a miniature Alice walks through the door into Wonderland.

To me, this made sense. After almost two decades of ballet school, in my mind smallness equalled access: the tinier the ballerina, the more likely she was to get the role. Not only was she easier to throw around onstage, a male dancer’s hands circling effortlessly around her pinprick waist, but her slim body was almost always deemed more pleasurable to watch, a tender green stalk undulating in the breeze. I have always been small, always stood out for my smallness. At summer camp I was picked to star in Thumbelina, and I played the titular role with a shy sort of pleasure as the other characters fought over me, each wanting some claim to my beauty and goodness as telegraphed by my diminutive size. (“For you’re no bigger than my thumb,” went the chorus. “Sweet Thumbelina, you’re the one.”) My takeaway: small things are adorable, beautiful, covetable. If you are small enough, everyone will want you.

So I made myself small. I developed an obsession with tiny things—figurines, dioramas, those miniature food videos on BuzzFeed. My cat has never grown past kitten size, and I’m unduly proud of her for it. “Tiny waist!” a former partner exclaimed on one of those sweet early dates, wrapping their (equally small) hands around my middle, accentuated that night by a tight plaid catsuit. I laughed and pretended to be embarrassed, but really I was pleased they’d noticed because it must mean they found me desirable—it must mean they wanted to keep me. I shrunk myself in other ways, too. Where most people have a mental membrane that helps them sort through criticism, absorbing what’s valid and repelling what isn’t, I installed a conveyor belt. I took in everything. I shrunk. The more I cared the worse it became, this subjugating of myself to center the needs of someone else—someone I was sure wouldn’t object to me if I became so small they all but forgot I was there.

Last week, curled in a ball on my therapist’s couch, I disclosed a different kind of shrinking. I couldn’t eat, I told her. According to the bathroom scale, I’d lost 5 pounds in 6 days—alarming for any body, particularly one on the smaller side. And for once, it wasn’t deliberate. Food repulsed me. I’d put down my fork after a bite or two, too nauseated to continue. Breakfasts consisted of a single apple. I put off lunch until 3 p.m. Dinner was several bites of cottage cheese, shoveled into my mouth as I fought my own body to keep it functioning. I’d never felt more exhausted, unfocused, adrift. I asked her, in essence, what the fuck was happening to me, and she explained that loss of appetite is a byproduct of grief: “This is what heartbreak feels like.”

In a way, this was validating: confirmation that my sadness was taking a physical toll. “I’m so devastated I’ve lost 5 pounds,” was an easy way to explain myself to people who asked—to give them some idea of the feeling that stuck to my bones, making it difficult to move. On the other hand, it felt like a betrayal: my heart directing my body to make itself small—so small it might disappear—even as my rational mind objected. After all, if you’re aiming to vanish, starving yourself is one of the least-efficient ways to do it. Over the next week I made a concerted effort to return from the brink, bribing my stubborn body with dark chocolate Kit-Kats (for the record, infinitely better than milk chocolate) and macaroni and cheese; rare hamburgers and silky pieces of salmon. Certainly I still wanted to shrink—it was just that I knew I shouldn’t.

Shrinking

Packing

No one told me my parents’ divorce would make me an excellent packer. That detail was absent from the Reddit threads and Tumblr blogs I visited in search of answers, as it was from the literature splayed on the table in the office of the psychotherapist my father brought me and my sister to see. But it was true: in spending every other weekend at Dad’s, I developed a mental checklist that cemented itself in my mind, and hasn’t budged since. The handful of times I forgot a crucial item, forcing Dad to drive all the way back to Mom’s to recover said history book or ballet shoe, ensured I never did so again.

As I grew older, I learned to derive pleasure from packing very little. There’s something empowering in the notion of traveling light—something reassuring in reminding yourself that the things needed to sustain you are few, that you are efficient, that at any moment you can pick up and leave and want for (almost) nothing. I am proud of myself when I pack light for a trip, not only because it saves me the pain of asking someone else to lift my carry-on into the overhead compartment, but because it means I have streamlined my life into a shape I can handle alone. I feel the same way when I pack a tote or backpack for a day running errands in the city, and remember a snack, my water bottle, a phone charger, an extra battery, a flannel to throw on if (okay, when) I get cold. The trick is never to over-pack, but to have handy anything and everything you might need. To be the best prepared of anyone around you. In this way, you beat the game.

Of course, there’s also something soothing in the process of packing itself: the folding, the rolling, the fitting of items together just so, like a real-world game of Tetris. At this point, my hands do the work automatically—again, a product of so many weekends away. There’s a satisfaction inherent in running through my mental checklist and finding it complete. Even better, over the years I’ve acquired packing accoutrements—suitcases, pouches, laptop sleeves, shoe bags—that are uniformly black and rectangular. They’re arrayed on my bed even now, ready to be zipped and flown to Florida. And I can’t deny that the sight of them pleases something primordial in my core.

In a way, this fondness for packing is an offshoot of my penchant for doing that keeps me functional even when my mind is spinning out. I’ve cried every day this week, overwhelmed by a deep-rooted fear that I am unlovable and unknowable, and each time my hands begin to move of their own accord, washing dishes, doling lentil soup into a Tupperware for lunch, packing or unpacking or re-packing my work or gym bag. The rhythm of these actions propels me forward, casting an aura of functionality around my body while my brain implodes and spirals ever deeper into worst-case scenarios. But when I finally break the surface of reality again, there are the clean dishes, there is the ready lunch, the packed bag, the suitcase filled with everything I’ll need for a few days away. A big part of growing up, I think, is learning to save yourself.

There are times when I crave the opposite: someone to still my hands, pull me close, tell me they know me, they love me, and everything will be fine—that it’s okay to rest for a moment. Another part of growing up is learning to be vulnerable in ways you thought you’d stamped out of yourself: shucking off a self-preservationist instinct in favor of trust. Believing a good thing can last. Relinquishing some control. Packing a little heavier, every now and then.

Packing

Brett

I sucked in a breath, picked up the clunky plastic handset, and dialed. “Hello?” said a faint voice on the other end of the line. I’d known I would freeze up, so I had typed out a script. “Hi, Mr. Ricaña. My name is Claire Landsbaum, and I’m a reporter for the Columbia Missourian. I’m calling because every year the Missourian commemorates M.U. students who have died, and I’m writing a short tribute about your daughter. I know this must be hard for you, but I wanted to give you a chance to tell me a little bit about her.” Clifton Ricaña Sr. listened in silence. Then, through tears, he told me about Christine, who had died in October at 22. “I know she’s doing well,” he told me, as though they’d spoken just yesterday. I repeated the process for three other students, calling friends, relatives, people who’d known them. For months afterward, I thought of the four of them as I walked through campus, their untimely deaths a niggling guilt in the back of my brain.

What saved me from going completely insane were my professors. By nature, much of journalism is a close-up examination of trauma, and these women had fielded their fair share. They talked me through writing the obituaries: what to say, how to say it, what to do. And afterward, they talked me off a ledge of self-destructive remorse. The same was true for students who covered shootings, fires, and floods: tragedy, in the abstract sense, was well-trodden in our seminars, where we learned about things like war-zone reporting and political arrest. I left my undergraduate program with an idea of what covering the conflict in Syria might entail. But I was in no way prepared for Brett Kavanaugh.

The irony, of course, is that even as sexual harassment and assault was glossed over in classrooms, it ran rampant on campus. College is where my #MeToo story unfolded, not once, but several times over. Even before I had finished reading Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s Washington Post interview, I believed her—her story was both too simple and too familiar not to be true. I’d been to the party; been locked in the upstairs bedroom, even; been pawed at, my protestations ignored, my friends calling my name a floor below. Even before I watched her testify along with most of the country, Ford’s story brought back a sickening wave of memories, like rising bile. “It’s a very difficult time,” Dr. Christine Nicholson, a clinical psychologist, recently told The New York Times. “I’m having people call me after hours when they’re just feeling meltdowns and a sense of hopelessness.”

That was all true: the private crying jags in the bathroom, and the cloying sense not that no one believed, but that no one cared. And worse, the sense that I was professionally obligated to hold it together—to serve as an example for the small team of women writers I work with every day. In a way, we had signed up for this: we’d known about the floods, the fires, and the shootings going in, and had decided that this was what we wanted, anyway. But in other ways, we hadn’t. Who could have predicted that we would come of age in an era that dredged up our long-buried traumas and shoved them into the light? That we’d become both chroniclers of the story, and part of it ourselves? We couldn’t have known. But perhaps we could have been better prepared.

Brett

If you must cry in public

Here’s how I know I’m about to cry in public: I touch my bottom lip with my right index finger. It’s an automatic motion, and I’ve noticed that it only happens when my body is about to teeter over the line between fighting the tears and letting them flow, the last futile gesture of resistance. Shh, my finger tells my mouth. Shh, it’s all right – don’t cry. My mouth ignores it.

Here are all the places I’ve cried this week: the obvious ones like on the train, in my cubicle, in my bed on a particularly gray morning; the less obvious ones like on West 16th Street on the way to meet a friend at a bar, in the doorway of an 8th-Avenue apartment complex after running out of that bar when she – there’s always a she, italics – showed up there. In my first-ever cycling class on the stationary bike. At an acoustic show. On the bus to D.C. In Strand. In the hokey movie theater where tourists watch a 15-minute film on the foundation of the U.S. Congress. At the Lincoln Memorial.

On 8th Avenue in particular I drew stares, strangers looking back in confusion at the sound of a muffled sob in the darkness. They searched for the source and focused on me, my forehead pressed into the building like it might soak me up. One of them walked over.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

No, I was not. Yes, I would be, eventually. See? I was still together enough to be rational. The foresight reassured her.

“By the way,” she said before retreating, gesturing to my cheek, “You have an eyelash.” Dear reader, I let her retreat before I lost it again.

Here’s what crying is like to me: sneezing. I can feel it build, and I know once it’s done I’ll feel lighter. Still, I put it off with Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” and my mind-numbing Twitter feed and by calling my mom to talk en route. But no matter how much you squint at the sun (does that make you sneeze or stave it off? I forget), it happens, eventually.

Here’s what I have to fix it: wadded coffee-shop napkins, Visine, friends, time.

If you must cry in public