Essays, Journal

Bree Jonson and the outrageous pursuit of hope

Photo by Mark Nicdao

Sometimes I’m afraid that the sound of her laugh is beginning to fade from my memory as early as now, which is absurd because it was such a distinct, goofy laugh, and it came out of her mouth so often when we were together.

That’s one of the things that frustrates me most about the conversation surrounding my friend Bree — that so much of what heartbreakingly little noise there has been is coming from people who never had the privilege of knowing her, instead of the ones who loved her and actually knew her. That some of the loudest voices hazarding guesses at their version of her story have the audacity to make such damaging assumptions and insinuations about her character when she can no longer defend herself.

That the people whose responsibility it is to find the truth could so casually toss out words like suicide, justified by phrases like psychosocial disorder, or she was afraid he was going to leave her for Europe/another woman/flimsy excuse of the day, as if Bree didn’t have her condition fully managed through therapy and medication, as if Bree wasn’t a consummate survivor and so proud of the fact, as if Bree wasn’t one of the most fiercely independent and self-sufficient people I knew, as if Bree didn’t have so many plans that were about to come into fruition, as if Bree would ever do such a thing in the presence of her cat Atlas (let alone from a showerhead with either his chain or one of the scraps of sheer fabric she purported to call a bra, whatever the story is today), as if Bree wouldn’t first turn to the huge support system around her, as if Bree would give up her dreams over something as paltry as the affections of some guy she’d only been dating for two months and change — and what beautiful dreams they were, all within reach of her incredible talent and drive.

As if Bree weren’t excited about everything she had to live for.

Sometimes I look at my phone and still think that maybe she’s just about to text me. I don’t know why I still hope. But I do. “Hey babe!”

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Hello, again

I’d very much like to break out of the terrible habit of only writing here once a year (if at all). But the problem is that I never quite know how to do that these days. “Write anything,” one of my university writing professors told me recently. “Travelogues, flash fiction, a short story.” He even offered to edit my work — a great kindness and an even greater honour from a celebrated writer I have always loved and respected.

But my most important journeys have always been inward; my greatest stories so deeply personal that to put them to words in their rawest form would be ill advised. I’m afraid now, to take people to those places with me. I’m afraid that some will turn it into ammunition, because others have before. The most important stories I have to tell still live within me. I don’t know if I will ever allow myself to tell them. I’m a dreadful liar; I don’t have the imagination for fiction. I come from a family of journalists; my trade has always been truth.

When I was young and naïve, I poured all my truth out into the void. Every joy, every hurt, every emotion in between. No filter. There are still people who message me to tell me that they’ve been with me since then. For years, over a decade, perhaps more. “I’ve been following you since Ashtray Girl.” “I’ve been following you since you were on Tumblr.” “I was in high school when I started reading your writing; I’m working now and I still read your writing.” “I grew up reading you. You always seemed to put my feelings into words.” Vulnerability, I think, has always been my hallmark. And maybe that’s why those who read me in their youth and remained have been with me for so long — because they were vulnerable, too, and like me, they’ve stayed that way. We grew up together and we’re still here, fragile and finding our way.

But we no longer live in a world that makes it safe to be too vulnerable, too trusting, too open-hearted. We become a little too easy to break. “You have to temper your desire to believe in the goodness of mankind with a little caution, a sense of self-preservation,” my psychiatrist told me a few weeks ago, when I spent an hour with him processing the heartbreak, fallout, and psychological aftermath of what I felt was the end of a friendship. You have to look out for yourself was the message that came through. With the people you know, yes, but with virtual strangers, especially.

It’s something I’m still not very good at. But I think I’m learning it a little better. Age forces it upon you. Eventually you come to understand that people are capable of great kindness, and equally great unkindness. Even you. Even me.

We all want to be understood. It’s a basic need of humanity. But not everyone will understand us, no matter how hard we try. And that is okay. Some people will refuse to understand us so vehemently so as to hate us — or, not us, but who they believe us to be (which is almost never who we are) — and that is something we must learn to live with. (We are not the fictionalised versions of ourselves that live rent-free in their heads.)

What is it we are looking for, then, when we allow people glimpses into our inner worlds? I have been doing this for 20 years now. In the beginning, words were the space I carved out for myself when I felt I had none. Words are still where I go to feel safe. And at its heart, mine has always been a desire to be understood for who I am, not how I appear on the surface. That’s just a shiny facet. There is so much more.

It’s because I want you to know me. It’s because I want to know me, too.

My psychiatrist told me to start small. He’s always believed that writing is an intrinsic part of who I am; something inextricable, despite my many attempts to extricate myself from it. He once told me that he thought it was my calling, that when I give of myself through the written word, I give something to others. (I don’t know about that; I just really like to string words together and I’m halfway decent at it.) And so, every time I speak with him, he asks me if I’ve been writing. Sometimes I wonder if he uses it as a gauge of sorts, as yet another way of assessing the state of my mental health. When I spoke with him last, I told him I hadn’t written anything worth reading since before the pandemic, in early 2020. I didn’t know how.

I didn’t know how to write in a world that was so devastated so quickly and so unexpectedly. I didn’t know if I had the right to. I didn’t think I had any business exorcising my depression and anxiety through writing when in the grand scheme of things, I was so lucky to be so comfortable. Halfway through 2020, I fell in love. And yet I felt so guilty for being so happy. I didn’t feel like it was appropriate to wax poetic about my joy when everything around me was so desolate.

My editor asked me to start writing for my column again last year and I said no. “I have nothing of value to say on such a national platform at a time like this. Give the space to someone who will make more of it than I can.” I wouldn’t write for the newspaper. And I felt good about that decision. But I also couldn’t seem to write for me, and I never felt right about that.

I would like to work through that, though. He said to start small, so perhaps I will.

Hello, again.

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It’s all in the cards

Published on 22 December 2019 in the Philippine STAR.

How well do you really know your friends and your loved ones? How in touch are you with yourself and your own feelings?

We live in strange times — never have the stories of our lives been more readily available for the perusal of others, friends and strangers alike. But at the same time, never have we been more isolated. Yes, social media allows us to share our lives with so many people, but mostly only on a surface level. What we put on the Internet is, to some extent, still just a performance. So rarely will you happen across real depth and true vulnerability. (It’s there, it’s just hard to find.) And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing — it’s wise, to be smart about what you allow the Internet to know about you. But sometimes, our real friends are relegated into the same categories. When social media becomes our primary form of communication, a lot of intimacy gets lost along the way.

Does the Internet make you feel lonely, too? Of the hundreds — or thousands — of people you follow on Instagram, how many do you feel you really know, and really know you in return? There is a yearning for deeper connections that is more common than any of us imagine. I know I feel it.

I consider myself fortunate, in that my friend group isn’t afraid of a ‘deep chat.’ In fact, we seek them out. We’re the kind of people who, at a party, will find a quiet corner in which to sit together and ask each other the kinds of questions you don’t really get asked very often in more casual conversation. “How are you, really?” “What has been your biggest regret in life?” “Are you who, or where, you thought you were going to be by now?” (This is exactly what we did at a pool party the other week. It was, perhaps, a little antisocial to break away from the main party to find some lounge chairs and talk to each other, but I think what we ended up doing was ultimately of more value than some forced superficial niceties over gin-based cocktails. We got to know each other better.)

It’s why we’ve all been so excited for a number of items that I ordered online recently — decks of cards, of all things. The mechanics of each are different, but their purpose is the same: to encourage openness, facilitate deeper conversations, and foster intimacy by gamifying it. One of my resolutions for the coming New Year is to make better connections and to build real relationships with the people in my life that go beyond a casual hello at the club. I said I didn’t want to play any more games with people in 2020, but for these games, I’ll make an exception.

We’re Not Really Strangers

I discovered the Instagram account @werenotreallystrangers through a few other friends who followed it. It’s been a favourite ever since, mostly because its posts say many things I feel I need to hear, or need to think more deeply about. Vulnerable statements that anyone who’s ever lived a little can relate to. In the course of following the account, I learned that its creator also produced a card game meant to encourage meaningful connections and ‘deepen your existing relationships and create new ones.’

We’re Not Really Strangers is optimised to be played by two individuals, but can be played by up to six. The card game has three levels. You draw a card, the other person answers. You can opt to answer the same question yourself in turn. There are clear ‘Dig Deeper’ cards that every player can use once per round to ‘encourage transparency if you feel your partner is holding back.’ Sounds simple enough. The depth is what you bring to it.

Level 1, Perception, which, with questions like “What was your first impression of me?” and “Do I look kind? Explain” is all about exploring initial impressions and challenging the assumptions we make about others, and others make about us in turn.

Level 2, Connection, goes deeper, and asks questions that help you get to know each other better, and explore your own emotions in the process. “Have you ever told someone ‘I love you’ but didn’t mean it? If so, why?” “What is a dream you’ve let go of?”

Level 3, Reflection, is about looking back on the previous two levels and the new connection you’ve hopefully made. It’s meant to explore any new understanding of each other that you and your partner might now have after allowing yourselves to be open and vulnerable with each other. “Do you believe everyone has a calling? If so, do you think I’ve found mine?” “Why do you think we met?”

And the final card involves a bit of writing — each player writes a brief note to the other, that can’t be opened until they have parted ways.

The game isn’t always in stock (it’s currently available for pre-order), and shipping to the Philippines is quite expensive, but if you can manage to ship it to a friend in the US or have it shipped home through services like MyShoppingBox, it’s well worth having on your coffee table for the next time you have friends over.


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