September 17, 2012

A Conversation With Annie

      When I approached Annie about this interview, I sensed a lot of hesitation in her voice. She nervously chose the coffee shop that we were to meet in, and gave herself a comfortable week of preparation time. It wasn't until I saw her walk in and step up to the counter to order her drink that I really caught a full glimpse of her anxiety.
       It wasn't the kind of place I would have guessed she'd pick. The art was contemporary, the walls were brick, and the lighting was dark and dramatic. She arrived in clothing that betrayed her usual relaxed style. Her Chuck Taylors had been traded in for knee high boots with a three inch heel. Her hair was curled and set in a side pony-tail. In place of her usual hoodie, she wore a thick scarf draped around her sweater-clad shoulders.

      It seemed as though she desperately wanted to seem more collected than she really was.

      We sat at a table tucked quietly into the back of the cafe. I sipped at my house coffee, and she sat down with a chai tea latte. She eyed my notebook, fiddled with the cardboard sleeve on her cup, and looked around the place with an understated franticness. I decided to jump right in.

      "How are things going?"
      She looked a little relieved, set down her cup, and answered, "They're all right."
      "I wanted to ask you a few questions about the book... about Unvoiced." I said, ignoring the slight pause that planted itself at the end of her answer. She nodded silently, taking a drink of her latte. "How would you describe your years in Clearfield?"
      She thought for a minute. "Quaint." She said at length. "Sometimes, it felt like the only thing that wasn't perfect there was me and what was going on inside of me." She slid the cup's sleeve down and back up again, "I know now that isn't true. But I didn't know it then."
      "What was your reaction to those feelings?" I continued the interview.
      "I guess I let them treat me like the enemy. They waged war on me, and I didn't do a whole lot to stop them. I didn't know how to fight a lie with truth."
       "What truth?"
       Her gray eyes peered past me, as though searching for just the right thing to say. "That nothing is perfect. That I should have been fighting the lies, and not myself."
        My next question snapped her gaze back to me. "Tell me about the self-harm." She locked eyes with me and gave such a slight nod, it was almost unnoticeable.
         "It was..." She paused for a few seconds, grasping for the right term, "It was a slippery slope." She self-consciously traced the deep scars on the palms of her hands-- the same scars that had been there for nearly 14 years now. "It started with scratching my arms until I felt the stinging more than the thing that had driven me to hurt myself. Eventually, I wasn't relieved until I had drawn blood, and with the blood came a sick feeling that would last for days."
          I nodded, knowing exactly what she was talking about. "What pulled you out?"
          She smiled then. It was the first smile I had seen in the span of our meeting. "I guess you'd have to read the book to know the whole story." She wrapped her hands around her cup, absorbing its warmth. Her dark nails glistened from the track lighting above us. "But really, I think it was a combination of things. Someone finally reaching through my wounds to hold onto me, hearing a call to be more than my pain said I had to be, I felt like my pain was finally given a voice, and someone was there to listen. You had it right. I was literally 'pulled out' of it. Someone thought I was worth fighting for."
          I smiled, too. "What would you say your biggest obstacle in overcoming self-harm was?"
          "Internalizing." She said quickly. "I never wanted to get outside of my own head. It turns out that confession and repentance are the only road to healing. You've gotta let it out, otherwise it holds you captive, when it should be held captive by you."
           "So would you consider yourself a recovered self-injurer?"
           "I don't think it's as easy as that." She said. The quiet of the shop was momentarily interrupted by a sudden flow of teenagers, bustling to the counter and shuffling out in a cloud of sweet smelling coffee steam. Turning back to me, she continued, "Saying the word 'recovered self-injurer' makes it sound too much like a medical definition to me. What I experienced was not a medical thing, really. It was so internal. It was so emotional and spiritual... maybe mental, but hardly medical. Does anyone 'recover' from things like that? I don't think I'm recovered. I don't think I'm even recovering, and I know I'm not defined by it. I'm pretty sure I'm just healing. I'm just a girl who was damaged, and who is being healed."
          "So you don't think there's a cure?"
          "Oh, I know there's a cure. It's nail-scarred and reaching out, but I don't think there's a moment of arrival. I don't think that there is a definitive 'I'm good now' moment, at least not in this life."
           "So how do you know you're healing?"
           She smiled again, this time with a soft laugh that seemed to say. I love answering this one. "Even though there's no 'I'm good now' moment in this life, I know one thing... I know that this life is made up of other moments. Healing is when you turn a corner and the majority of your moments are no longer made up of the, 'Where am I going?', 'How did I get here', or 'How do I protect myself?' moments, but they're made up of the recurring moment that whispers, 'My pain doesn't have to define me, because I already know who I am.'"
           It was then that my phone rang, and she got a text reminding her to pick up a few things from the grocery store on her way home. It was short lived, but as I finished my coffee, I was left with the assurance that the novel was not written in vain. What more could a book hope to convey, than the final statement Annie had made?

"My pain doesn't have to define me, because I already know who I am."

[This is a fictional account of a conversation with Annie Larson, the main character from my upcoming novel, Unvoiced. Look for it in early 2013! The photo is a free stock image.]

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