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.


Modern love walks on by

From the moment we became real friends (there is always a threshold over which you cross into something true — you will know exactly when it happens), I waited for her to meet the love of her life.

We got to know each other by chance, introduced by a mutual friend even though we should, by all means, have already known each other beforehand since we inhabited the same circles. In Manila, those circles are often too small and extremely concentric. In the Manila I live in, all the girls like us know each other. But we met at the right time, at the perfect point in both our lives for our friendship to become so much more than the surface-level acquaintanceship we were accustomed to.

It’s a rare thing, to meet someone almost exactly like you. I have always felt lonely in Manila. I have always been a little strange, a little out of the ordinary. I always tried to find myself in other places because I didn’t feel free enough to know myself here. My lived experience always felt so singular — no one in my life really understood it in its fullness before her, although others certainly tried. (And I loved them for trying.) I didn’t know anyone else who lived it, too.

She knew me immediately. She is one of the kindest, most generous, most loving, and most loyal people I’m fortunate to know. We were both recovering from bad romances. And she was the person who told me I needed a list.

“Babe,” she said, “you need to know what you want in a partner. I know exactly what I want. I’m unwilling to compromise on those points. I’m not going to take anyone seriously until they tick all those boxes.”

I was there when she finally met the man who ticked all those boxes: a kind man, purpose-driven, as loving and ambitious and hardworking as the father she adored. Someone whose hopes and dreams extended beyond himself, who wanted to serve his country and his people, but still had more than enough room for her and her own dreams. An equal who treated her like a queen. None of us knew then, least of all her; it was an ordinary night out on the town. No one expected it.

Who ever expects to go to a club and meet the love of their life?

I never felt worthy of a list — a symptom of my condition, probably. A popular young adult novel says that we accept the love we think we deserve. The misfiring synapses in my brain always told me I didn’t deserve any, that I was lucky to get whatever paltry shadow of love came my way. I am still working today to correct that. I think I’m getting better at it.

But in 2017, because she told me to, I started a list. It is in my phone, tucked away in my Notes with things like my passport details, bank information, quotes I have loved, and movies people have told me I need to see. I always felt a bit embarrassed about it (I don’t know why — perhaps because we’re conditioned in this day and age to shunt vulnerability aside), but after every heartbreak, I added to it little by little. I suppose I had to learn through experience — trial and excruciating error — what I really wanted from a long-term partner by living through what I didn’t want in a partner.

It’s a hard way to learn. I don’t recommend it.

But I do recommend learning. I recommend that you learn this particular lesson as early as you can.

In August, I returned to Manila from my annual summer trip to Berlin to the realisation that I’d developed feelings I never wanted to have for my Two-Year Stand; feelings I knew that he was absolutely incapable of ever reciprocating. I missed him while I was away, and I fucking hated that I did. It felt like weakness. It felt like defeat. I felt like I’d lost, because in the game of not-quite-love, the first one to catch feelings is always the loser, and I had done that which I never thought I would do: I fucking lost.

I hate losing. I never fucking lose.

But also, I returned home to the realisation that I could no longer delude myself into believing that whatever it was we were doing would ever be enough for me. I could no longer tell myself that it wasn’t a waste of my time, a waste of my heart. And I could no longer pretend that I didn’t want more — with someone else who might actually be capable of giving back as much as I myself kept giving.

“It’s no one’s fault,” I told him then, as I was ending it, “that we want different things. I want the things that I want, you want the things that you want, and those things are no longer compatible. It is what it is. But for as long as I stay in this, I’m not ever going to make space for the things that I do want, that I know I deserve, that you won’t — can’t — give me.”

I wanted to stay friends. After two years, and despite our best efforts, our lives and our friendships had become a little too intertwined to unravel and separate. It was a tall order, but I wanted to try.

In September, she told me about something he was trying to keep from me that devastated me inside. It was a feeling I’m sad to admit I was used to — he’d completely disregarded my feelings before. But that was a time when any disrespect towards me was just a hit on my pride, because I had no real feelings for him. It had become much more than that, now that I — despite myself — did. It wasn’t just my ego any longer. It was a real hurt.

“I need you to remember,” said the girl with the list, because she could read me like a book, “that you told me the day after you met him that you didn’t think you would ever introduce him to your parents. I need you to remember that you already knew two years ago that he absolutely wasn’t the one for you. This is just more proof.”

Later that night, when I went home, I thought of him and of every other man — boy, child — who had broken my heart in one way or another, and I added to my list. Because I finally understood that I deserved to have a list, too.

I needed one, so that I would never allow anyone to make me feel like that again.

Small, unlovable, insufficient, replaceable, unworthy. Even I knew, in spite of all my self-loathing, that I was none of those things.

How dare a man have the audacity to make me feel that way?

How dare I permit one to?

In October, on a Girls’ Night In, I read my list out loud for the first time.

And now I am writing it out here, because we should never be afraid to ask for the things we want, because we should never be afraid to establish healthy boundaries to protect ourselves, because we should never be afraid to say, this is what I deserve. Because we should never settle for less than that, and if a list helps to remind us of our worth, then it’s good to have one.

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