Ranée

Underneath It All

* Last updated April 28, 2022

I have sensitive skin. Always have. It’s been prone to redness, dryness, itching, rashes, eczema, even wrinkling. Products that were labeled “hypoallergenic” or marketed toward “sensitive skin” didn’t seem to help (newsflash: those are just labels that get slapped on products; they’re essentially meaningless as what is a sensitivity for one person may not be for another). I’ve done tons of research on skin care products and their ingredients—the benefits, cons, hype, and total b.s.—and tried tons of them too. I don’t even want to guess at the amount of money I’ve wasted in this quest to just stop the skin problems. It’s taken years to finally solve the mystery and most of the detective work was done by me. What I’ve learned from this journey is that, underneath it all, it really does matter what you put on your skin (not to mention into your body in general).

Several years ago, I had a very bad reaction after eating dinner at a Mexican restaurant where I’d consumed way more guacamole than usual. My entire body swelled up and broke out in hives. Still, because I’d had guacamole before, I didn’t realize right away that avocado might be the culprit. It wasn’t until I had a less severe reaction twice in a row after eating my own guacamole that I figured avocado could be the cause. After that, I omitted everything containing avocado and avocado oil, including some hair products that contained it. My scalp eczema cleared up some but my problems persisted.

As has seemed to be the theme with most of my health issues, I had to be my own advocate in order to break the endless cycle of useless “treatments” that weren’t actually addressing the real cause or solving my problems. I found that dermatologists and other doctors weren’t really interested in figuring out the underlying causes of my skin problems; they just gave me various creams or ointments to treat the symptoms (some of which only exacerbated the problem). Unfortunately, I’ve found this to be a common theme among medical professionals. If I wanted to know once and for all what I was allergic to so that I could finally, actually treat my allergies or, at the very least, avoid the things causing them, then I was going to have to take matters into my own hands. So, this past year, I asked my primary care doctor to recommend an allergist so that I could get tested.

I had a prick test for environmental allergens that was enlightening (I’m primarily allergic to indoor allergies like dust mites and molds but also have minor allergies to a host of other outdoor trees and plants). The patch test for contact allergies was what I was most interested in, though, given that contact allergies were the cause of all of my skin problems. The results were a surprise as they didn’t turn up anything that had been a suspected cause (no fragrances or oils). I was already aware of my nickel allergy since every time I wore jewelry that wasn’t sterling silver or pure gold, I ended up with a really bad rash (my ears used to get really itchy, red, and swollen from certain earrings).

It did, however, show a common cleansing agent as one of the things I was sensitive to. That ingredient was decyl glucoside, which just happened to be in all of our soaps, my body wash, and my facial cleanser. Incidentally, decyl glucoside is a known allergen (quite a common one), yet it’s used in a tremendous number of personal care products marketed toward “sensitive” skin as well as products that are supposedly “hypoallergenic” (again, those labels are basically meaningless and the use of those terms isn’t regulated). I eliminated products that contained this ingredient from my routine, but my skin problems still persisted, so I played detective again and researched the ingredients in that specific cleanser. What I discovered is that decyl glucoside and similar related ingredients are made from coconut, which led me to wonder if coconut might be the real underlying problem. I did a little experiment; I began to remove items from my personal care regimen that I knew contained coconut to see if my skin improved. Lo and behold, it did. I mentioned this to my allergist and asked if I could be tested for a coconut allergy. They had a prick test for coconut and when I took it, we saw an allergic reaction almost immediately. The doctor marveled at how I’d come to suspect that coconut was the culprit, but I didn’t see anything awe-inspiring about my sleuthing. There was a mystery to be solved and I was determined to solve it. Period.

Once we identified the coconut contact allergy, then I began the arduous task of removing everything I was putting on my body that contained coconut, coconut oil, or ingredients that were derived from coconut. Well, guess what—that’s almost everything that goes into personal care products. Practically all cleansing agents/surfactants in soaps, shampoos, body washes, and even toothpastes come from coconut. A large portion of ingredients in lotions, creams, and serums do as well. An ingredient doesn’t have to literally have “coconut” or “coconut oil,” or even “coco” in the name to originate with coconut; things like vegetable glycerin, glycerides, and stearic acid are made from coconuts.

I’ve been going through a process of trial and error to find coconut-free products that work for me. Switching to olive oil hand soap has made a huge difference for me (no more chapped hands or itchy, red, flaky skin under my rings!). So far, I have found only one toothpaste that doesn’t have a coconut-derived cleanser or coconut oil in it (Weleda ratahnia); unfortunately, it also doesn’t have fluoride, so I’ve been using ACT mouthwash as well. I’ve listed below the products that are now in my regimen in case others like me have this rare allergy and are also seeking relief.

Homemade body butter and sea salt spray

I’ve been making a couple of homemade products for myself as they’re pretty easy to create, help me to save a little money, and I haven’t been able to find anything that I like better. I used to make my own flax seed hair gel, but it required refrigeration, meaning it wasn’t portable, and a batch only lasted about a week, which seemed such a waste since I’d barely get halfway through a bottle/jar in that time. I recently switched over to making my own sea salt spray for my hair and have been making my own body butter ever since I suspected the coconut allergy. Recipes for both of those products are below.

Sea Salt Spray for Hair

Makes 8 oz.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup water
  • 2 Tbsp sea salt
  • 2 Tbsp organic aloe vera gel
  • 1 tsp almond oil (you can use whatever oil you like or any combination you choose: sunflower, castor, marula, argan, etc. based on your own preferences, hair types, and allergies)
  • Optional: 20 drops of essential oil for fragrance

Directions:

  1. Boil the water in a pot on the stove
  2. Once boiling, remove from heat
  3. Add the salt, stirring until dissolved
  4. Allow to cool, then add the aloe and oil(s)
  5. Pour into a spray bottle

For best results, shake your bottle of sea salt spray well before applying, so as to mix up the ingredients and avoid getting oily patches in your hair.

Body Butter

Makes 16 oz.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup beeswax
  • 1/2 cup cocoa butter
  • 1/2 cup sunflower oil
  • 1/2 cup almond oil
  • 2 tsp arrowroot powder
  • Optional: essential oil/fragrance oil

Directions:

  1. Combine the beeswax and cocoa butter in a large bowl
  2. Melt them on the stove using a double boiler or in the microwave
  3. Remove from heat and whisk in your other ingredients
  4. Allow mixture to cool and then refrigerate for at least 1-2 hours
  5. Remove from fridge and whip the mixture using a hand mixer until it becomes creamy (it will look similar to whipped cream)
  6. Spoon into an airtight container and avoid adding water

Note that coconut is not a tree nut, despite being grouped with tree nuts in terms of allergens, and I do not have any known allergies to tree nuts, hence the inclusion of them in my body butter. However, if you do have allergies to tree nuts, then please do not make this recipe. Instead, substitute other ingredients that will work for you and your specific skin needs. If you’re not a fan of cocoa butter, the smell does dissipate once applied, but you can easily disguise it by adding fragrance or substituting a different ingredient. The body butter should be stored in a cool, dry place away from heat or it will melt (this happened to me on a trip over the summer).

In addition to the two products that I make for myself, there are also several products that I buy because, frankly, I don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to make them myself. That list follows and I will continue to update it as I find my “Holy Grail” products.

OOlivia has become one of my favorite indie shops because they have a convenient “coconut-free” option. Gabriel Cosmetics also offers an extensive ingredient list on their site including a catalog of all coconut-free products.

LIST OF PERSONAL CARE PRODUCTS

  • HAIR. Aside from my sea salt spray, I’ve been using True Love Soap Company’s shampoo and conditioner bars which are made for people with coconut allergies. Jayne’s honey, calendula, & meadowfoam shampoo bar and honey & silk conditioner bar are a match made in heaven for my curly hair. Her products and my sea salt spray are the only three things I put in my hair.
  • FACE. I’m currently using Gabriel Cosmetics hydrating cleanser and Desert Essence moringa, jojoba, and rose hip oil (unfortunately, I still seem to have some texture issues and occasional dryness or breakouts but this is the best I can find for now). The best lip balm I could find is Badger cocoa butter lip balm. I also really like their sunscreen, which doesn’t leave a white cast on skin and moisturizes without feeling too sticky or mask-like. Once a week, I use Oolivia’s matcha facial polish.
  • BODY. I have been cleansing with Clean Kids Naturally watermelon bubble bath from Gabriel Cosmetics. It’s coconut-free and works fabulously as a body wash. For SPF/sun protection, I’ve tried a Kiss My Face coconut-free sunscreen, but I wish Badger made theirs in a larger size because it’s much more moisturizing and doesn’t have a weird smell. My absolute favorite body product apart from my homemade body butter is now OOliva’s coconut-oil-free deodorant. It is hands-down the best! It’s unscented but keeps BO at bay even through interval workouts and the lack of fragrance means it doesn’t interfere with the perfume that I wear.

You’ll note that all of the products listed here are organic and/or cruelty-free, and many are made by small business owners because, yes, that matters to me almost as much as what I put onto and into my body. I am SO glad that I did my research and advocated for myself and my health, but most importantly, I’m delighted to be getting closer to living in happy skin because of it!

Ranée

Here Comes the Sun

Here comes the sun
And I say it's all right
— George Harrison

Today is the first day of spring where I live. Phoenix that I am, I cannot help loving the symbolism of renewal and rebirth inherent in spring. This morning, however, I was feeling decidedly un-rejuvenated. I was thinking about the story I’m currently writing and how my guides have been signaling to me for months now that I should be writing about empathy and love, but I was saying, “That’s boring; I don’t want to write that shit and nobody wants to read that either.” Well clearly I’m full of shit because last week in a freewriting session, I ended up writing several pages all about one character’s love for another and it moved me to tears. I thought that this piece was backstory, but my guides told me outright in yesterday’s meditation to “write love” and I realized that what I’d come up with is actually the very heart of my story. Despite this, today when I was thinking again about this character, I was annoyed with myself for giving him a huge piece of myself, namely empathy and his capacity to feel things so intensely and to love so strongly.

When I sat down to meditate this afternoon, I felt Isis’s presence (a warmth that envelops me like being wrapped lovingly in an invisible blanket) and the message that I came away with in this session was essentially that what I have always deemed to be a curse—my intense empathy, the ability to feel others’ emotions—could actually be my greatest strength if I learn how to manage it and use it to help others instead of running from it or trying to shut it off. I will certainly need to develop a stronger “emotional armor,” so to speak, to protect myself from that onslaught of emotional energy and to be ever cognizant that others’ emotions are not mine even though I feel them as if they are.

How fitting that this realization comes today with the onset of spring. This is the next phase of my spiritual journey, I think—to embrace that empathy in myself and in my writing as well. No more hiding in the shadows; I have to let my true self shine. It’s a scary thought, I admit, but I have to trust that my guides will help me through it.

Ranée

The Rising

Yesterday, I spent some time revamping my yoga routines and associated playlists. In a previous post, I wrote about how I was inspired by Anodea Judith’s Chakra Yoga to create custom routines focused on each of the seven major chakras based on her suggested sequences. I expanded my routines by adding Judith’s kundalini chakra breathing exercises to the beginning of each one and increasing the times holding poses so that each one is now roughly 40 minutes. This morning was the first that I practiced one of the revised routines (anahata, heart chakra) and I was pleased with the result. It feels more wholistic to me—an exercise for mind, body, and spirit—which is exactly what I was going for. If you’re curious about the routines themselves, I highly recommend investing in Judith’s book as well as the precursor, Wheels of Life, a guide to the chakra system in general. My custom playlists for each chakra are listed below in case anyone is curious about those. The idea to create them came to me when I wrote that the yoga instructor character in my book played pop music during her classes instead of “traditional” yoga/meditation music. So, essentially, her classes are based off of Chakra Yoga and the music she plays during those are these playlists that I made.

Muladhara, Root Chakra: The Ground Beneath Her Feet

  1. “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” by U2
  2. “Stand” by R.E.M.
  3. “Dig Down” (Acoustic Gospel Version) by Muse
  4. “And She Was” by Talking Heads
  5. “I’m a Mother” by the Pretenders
  6. “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones
  7. “Body Electric” by Lana Del Rey
  8. “Shelter From the Storm” by Bob Dylan
  9. “A Letter to Fear” by Fantastic Negrito
  10. “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King

Svadhistahana, Sacral Chakra: Hooked On a Feeling

  1. “Hooked On a Feeling” by Blue Swede
  2. “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone
  3. “I’ve Got a Feeling” by the Beatles
  4. “Turn Me On” by Norah Jones
  5. “Undisclosed Desires” by Muse
  6. “Desire” by U2
  7. “Because the Night” by Patti Smith Group
  8. “Night in My Veins” by the Pretenders
  9. “Faith” by George Michael
  10. “Burning Desire” by Lana Del Rey
  11. “Sweet Emotion” by Aerosmith
  12. “Crimson and Clover” by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts

Manipura, Solar Plexus Chakra: Light My Fire

  1. “Light My Fire” by the Doors
  2. “Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake
  3. “Beast of Burden” by the Rolling Stones
  4. “Into the Fire” by Sarah McLachlan
  5. “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen
  6. “Army of Me” by Björk
  7. “Mirror Master” by Young the Giant
  8. “(You Will) Set the World On Fire” by David Bowie
  9. “Uprising” by Muse

Anahata, Heart Chakra: Open Your Heart

  1. “Open Your Heart” by Madonna
  2. “What Is Life” by George Harrison
  3. “Between Two Lungs” by Florence + the Machine
  4. “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” by Elvis Costello & the Attractions
  5. “Tenderness” by General Public
  6. “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher & Higher” by Jackie Wilson
  7. “Breathe (In the Air)” by Pink Floyd
  8. “True Colors” by Cyndi Lauper
  9. “Somebody to Love” by Queen
  10. “Love Is What You Need” by the Clarks

Visuddha, Throat Chakra: Good Vibrations

  1. “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys
  2. “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” by Cat Stevens
  3. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” by R.E.M.
  4. “High Fidelity” by Elvis Costello & the Attractions
  5. “Silence Is Golden” by Garbage
  6. “Cosmic Dancer” by T. Rex
  7. “Silent All These Years” by Tori Amos
  8. “Stop Whispering” by Radiohead
  9. “Drawn to the Rhythm” by Sarah McLachlan
  10. “Enjoy the Silence” by Depeche Mode

Ajña, Third-Eye Chakra: Beginning to See the Light

  1. “Beginning to See the Light” by the Velvet Underground
  2. “Digital Witness” by St. Vincent
  3. “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash
  4. “Cosmic Love” by Florence + the Machine
  5. “Disillusioned” by A Perfect Circle
  6. “Light My Way” by Audioslave
  7. “Let It Be” by the Beatles
  8. “So Tonight That I Might See” by Mazzy Star

Sahasrara, Crown Chakra: Higher Love

  1. “Higher Love” by Steve Winwood
  2. “Kyrie” by Mister Mister
  3. “Like a Prayer” by Madonna
  4. “Say Hello 2 Heaven” by Temple of the Dog
  5. “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison
  6. “One” by U2
  7. “Higher” by Creed
Ranée

The Ground Beneath Her Feet

Grounding is all about connecting with nature and the outdoors, which is root chakra, or muladhara, territory. Much of the work that I do involves using a computer and I tend to sit at my desk indoors while I work, so I try to spend at least some time every day outside. Sometimes, I’ll take my laptop with me and do some work outside or sit in the grass with my notebook and pen, writing, but generally, when I’m outside in nature, I want to enjoy it without distraction.

One of my favorite places to venture

One of my favorite ways to get in touch with nature or “get grounded” is to go for a walk. I live quite close to a nature preserve and park and that’s my absolute favorite place to go for walks. I also live in a relatively quiet neighborhood that doesn’t get a lot of traffic, so tend to go for daily walks by myself, with my dog, or with my family.

Most days when it’s warm weather and not raining, I’ll just step outside and stroll through the grass in my bare feet. I hate shoes and don’t even wear socks unless it’s super cold, but walking barefoot is more than that for me. I find the feel of the grass beneath my feet comforting; it’s a reminder that I’m always supported. You can’t accomplish much without first having a strong foundation. The ground beneath my feet is a tangible, literal reminder that I have one.

Apart from walking, I’ve also come to enjoy gardening, something I never really thought I’d be into. It was and still is one of my mom’s hobbies. And now I can sort of see what she loves about it—planting flowers, trees, vegetables, and herbs in the earth, cultivating life. I’ve come to love watching my plants grow and I hate seeing them dwindle. And, yes, I talk to them. I’ve even named some of them.

Whenever it’s raining or snowing or temperatures rise to sweltering (above 85 degrees tends to get intolerable for me) and I can’t go outside, I have to find alternatives. I’ve brought nature indoors by getting some indoor plants (a couple of succulents and Artemis, my aloe plant, who is thriving).

Root chakra isn’t just about getting in touch with nature, though, as I’m learning. It’s also about being at home in your body, nourishing it, caring for it, paying attention to its cues (eating when hungry, resting when tired, examining aches and pains). Now that I know this, it makes sense to feel invigorated after physical activity and to feel satisfied after eating a wholesome meal. The things that you put into (and, for that matter, onto) your body really do make a difference. I didn’t really start taking care of my body until a few years ago. I didn’t eat well, didn’t exercise, and ended up feeling really bad. I noticed such a difference when I began working out, eating healthier, and finally stopped hating my body. I felt like a new person! I have to say that I was only able to tap into higher spiritual levels and wake up the upper chakras after I got grounded. To me, that makes perfect sense. You can’t build on a shaky foundation.

A part of muladhara that I still wrestle with from time to time is fear and feelings of security. I experience some anxiety and worry at times over things like money and job security, though it’s nothing like what I previously went through. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that whenever I’m out among nature, with my feet on the ground, I don’t feel that stress. I guess in that way, grounding helps me to clear my mind, regain focus and clarity. And it brings me solace. As I reflect on that now, I realize that Mother Gaia has always brought me that sense of comfort. She was there when I was a little girl running around barefoot in the yard and she was there when as a teenager I’d lay out in the grass at night gazing up at the stars. I lost that sense of joy and peace for a while when school, work, and other obligations kept me more indoors than out, and I drifted for a long time. She was there all that time, though, waiting for me to finally get my feet on the ground once more, and she welcomed me back into her nurturing arms.

Ranée

Name

Birth names, given names, first names, middle names, last names, surnames, nicknames, pet names, found names, dead names, pen names, code names. How many names do we have over the course of our lifetimes? I’ve thought a lot about this, not just with regard to my writing and my career in terms of which of my names to publish under but also with reference to my personal life. I’ve had internal debates with myself over what my true name is, why that’s so, and why and just how much it matters to me, so needless to say, I don’t subscribe to that notion that one’s name or what one chooses to call oneself holds no meaning. Quite the opposite.

I have been called many names, but there’s a short list of ones that I’ll answer to these days. I was born with the name Jamie Ranee Kunkle. That’s one on the list considering that a lot of people knew me by that name. I also published an interview with mystery writer Jan Burke (Clues: A Journal of Detection, Volume 25, no. 4) under my former name. My current legal name is Jamie Ranee Aughenbaugh (not Mrs. Scott Aughenbaugh) and that one’s also on the list of names I associate with myself since it appears on all legal documents. I also publish this site under the name Jamie Aughenbaugh, it’s the one that appears on my business cards, and it’s the name in which my LLC is registered. All posts on the blog portion of this site are attributed to Jamie Ranée, my WordPress ID, and that’s another name on the acceptable list. Given that my first name is only two syllables, you’d think that I wouldn’t have a nickname, but a few people have still tried to shorten Jamie to something else. The only nickname that I’m OK with is J.R., but my dad’s the only one who calls me that; that’s also the reason why I like it.

Of all of my names, my middle name, Ranée, is the one that I now know will always be with me. It comes from the French word rené (masculine form) or renée (feminine form), the English equivalent of which is “reborn” or “born again.” The name and its meaning are inextricably linked with my totem, the phoenix, a mythical bird of fire that dies, consumed by flame, only to be born again from its own ashes. During a meditation session, I heard the name in my mind and saw a very powerful vision of myself and the creature. Ever since, both bird and name have signified hope, faith, courage, perseverance, and strength to me. They are a reminder of my own metaphorical rebirth and I know now that whatever befalls me, I will always come back.

She rises from the ashes, her soul aflame
Ranée

Welcome to My Nightmare

We sweat and laugh and scream here
'Cause life is just a dream here
— Alice Cooper 

When I was a kid, I was terrified of clowns. And when I say terrified, I’m not exaggerating. Whenever I saw a clown, my heart would start beating rapidly, I’d feel my throat constrict and my body start to sweat in a panic, and I wanted to either scream or run away. I remember being so frightened of them that I felt safe marching in parades as a majorette because if I was in the parade, then the clowns who were also in the parade couldn’t approach me to try to talk to me or give me candy.

If there’s one incident from my childhood that illustrates just how frightened I was of clowns, it’s the time that my dad’s cousin-in-law, Bob, came to our house wearing clown makeup. The instant I saw him at our back door, I screamed in terror, raced back the hall to my room, crawled under my bed, and hid there. I scared the shit out of my little brother so badly that he ran with me to my room and crawled under the bed too. Bob, still in clown makeup, came back to my room, knelt down on the floor, peered under the bed and tried to tell two screaming, frightened children who he was and get us to come out, but all I saw was a creepy clown reaching under the bed to try to grab me. It was my worst nightmare come to life. I didn’t stop screaming or come out of hiding until that man had washed all the makeup off his face and it took me a long while to calm down after that scare.

I’m no longer scared of clowns and haven’t been for some time, but I still find them creepy; the same goes for ventriloquist dummies and puppets and, to a lesser extent, mannequins and even some dolls. The episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer titled “The Puppet Show,” gave me the wiggins (to use the Scooby Gang’s lingo) and to this day, I have refused to read or watch Stephen King’s It because I was afraid that it would resurrect my childhood fear and give me horrible nightmares.

Over the years, I’ve pondered just what it was about clowns, dummies, and the like that scared me so much as a kid and I think it was the fact that they’re a grotesque mockery of the human. Dummies, puppets, mannequins, and dolls are meant to resemble humans but they’re not. Clowns, although they’re actual people, wear exaggerated face makeup that makes their features look unnaturally large and phony. To my child self, these things weren’t interesting or cute or amusing but downright monstrous.

Recently, I had a dream about conquering my childhood fear of clowns. I facetiously said to myself, “Well, I guess it’s time for me to finally read It,” but that dream actually meant something quite different and a great deal more to me. I despise lying and deception, dislike phony people, and get particularly disgusted with those who deliberately try to fool, deceive, or manipulate others (really, who are they trying to kid?). To the adult me, clowns, dummies, puppets, and such are a metaphor for the masks that people wear and the very nature of reality, the phoniness and lies that pervade society. It’s a sick sort of reminder that the face that others choose to show to you often isn’t real, that we can’t trust how things might appear on the surface. The message is clear: I need to see the puppet show for what it is—don’t watch the little figure performing who’s trying to distract me, but keep my eye fixed on the one behind the scenes pulling the strings (the true self). I must look closer, deeper, to truly see. If I do, then the truth can never be hidden.

There is another part to this, though. I think my subconscious is also telling me that I need to start outright letting people know that they’re not fooling me. I don’t mean just calling people on their bullshit (the ones who are pretending for meanness sake), but those who show a different face to the world because they’re hurting or afraid or in pain, those for whom the mask is a form of self-protection. Telling people that I see who they really are, that I care, and letting them know that they don’t have to pretend with me or hide from me is even more important.

On Writing, Ranée

Cosmic Dancer

I danced myself right out the womb
Is it strange to dance so soon?
— Marc Bolan

Ever since I can remember, there was music in my life—Mom singing me nursery rhyme songs or dancing around the house to one of her favorite tunes, Dad making up silly (sometimes dirty) little ditties or playing his records, the Pittsburgh Oldies station, 3WS, playing every time we went somewhere in the car. That exceptional early exposure to and shared passion for music left an indelible impact on me. I grew to love music just as much as I loved stories and, just like stories, music has ever been my muse, my outlet, and my savior.

You know that scene in Guardians of the Galaxy where Starlord presses play on his Walkman and dances and lip syncs to “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone? Yeah, that’s me. When I was a kid, I used to dress up, pop a cassette tape into my purple boombox, grab a brush to serve as my makeshift microphone, and lip sync to Jem and the Holograms songs. As a teenager, I performed in choral groups and a musical, knew all the words to pop songs on the radio (even the ones I couldn’t stand and, yes, I always sang along), and made dozens of mix tapes and CDs. Even now, I have songs that resonate with me so much that I consider them theme songs, everything that I write has its own soundtrack, I have something of an obsession with vinyl records, and I have loads of playlists on my phone for everything from workouts to my quasi-pyromania. It was music that brought my husband and I together. I met him at a bar in Kent, Ohio the summer after I completed my master’s degree. He drove me back to my car and we sang along with the radio and in that moment, I felt more comfortable with him than I had with anyone I’d met in the entire two years I’d spent in my program. This is all to say that I truly think my musically obsessed nerdom might be at the Rob Fleming level.

At one point in High Fidelity, a depressed Rob wonders “Which came first, the music or the misery?” It’s a chicken and egg question really and I totally get what Hornby (through Rob) was saying about the power of music. It affects my emotions like nothing else, amplifying or altering my mood far more than any drug ever has. That power was never more evident to me than when I began to heal.

I became depressed back in high school and it stayed with me for decades, festering. Music, like writing, became my solace; it helped me to both embrace my bad feelings (acknowledge them) and escape them. I would write about what I felt, what I experienced, because I didn’t believe that I could or should talk about it. It was a lot of very dark, moody, material, reminiscent of E. A. Poe’s gory, weird tales of horror. I would also write what I wished that I felt, what I hoped that my life might be like, creating characters who talked with each other about what they were feeling, tried to help one another heal, and showed each other love. At some point, the music, like my writing, began to fade. If depression hadn’t made me such an utter zombie, I would’ve seen that as a clear sign that things had gone way too far.

Then one day, I walked into this little record store at the mall where my husband had shopped a few times before, intending only to buy him a record or two as a birthday gift, but as I strolled around the store, browsing the racks, something strange happened. I saw albums and artists that I’d grown up listening to and it began to rekindle my lost love. I hadn’t owned or even really listened to a record since I was a kid, but when my fingers flipped through the “R”s in the Rock/Pop section and found that rather worn copy of Lou Reed’s Transformer, I felt compelled to buy it because it was mine, it belonged to me. When I brought that record home, put it on the turntable, pressed play, and heard the opening guitar riff of “Vicious” issue from the speakers, I was transformed. From that moment on, music, followed closely by writing, re-entered my life again in earnest, turning up the volume on my emotional and psychological healing. It was no accident that I found that record that day. Music and writing are a vital part of my self, my soul; without them, I withered and when I found them again, I began to bloom. They were my voice when I had none and they helped me to finally find my own.

Ranée

Silent All These Years

I got something to say but nothing comes
Yes, I know what you think of me, you never shut up
— Tori Amos, "Silent All These Years"

I spent most of my life embodying the above lyrics. I listened to everyone else talk. And talk. And talk. They seemed to never shut up, never pause to actually listen once in a while, and if I tried to speak or by some miracle managed to get a word in, it merely became a springboard for the talkers to start in again. I had things to say too. I wanted to be heard. But I couldn’t find my voice. I was like the Little Mermaid, sacrificing her voice to Ursula to be complacent.

Apart from the very bad, unhealthy habit of buying myself things I couldn’t afford, didn’t need, and in most cases, didn’t even want, I didn’t really do things for myself, took little action, and instead just let things happen to me even well into adulthood. As a result, I did a lot of things that I didn’t really want to but felt as if I had to. Those of us who do that seem to have this warped idea that we’re somehow being noble or caring or that it’s good to be so goddamn self-sacrificing because we’re supposed to care more about others than ourselves. Why do we crucify ourselves like that? We can care about others without being martyrs for crying out loud and it’s not selfish to give a shit about yourself, speak your mind, and say “no” to other people (you can do it politely). I think many of us who act this way have been bullied in the past and we’ve gotten used to just giving in to everyone else and forgetting about ourselves. We even find it difficult to figure out who we really are because we haven’t taken the time. Of course other people love you when you’re a martyr—why wouldn’t they? You do everything for them, nothing for yourself, make them look stellar, and you fade into the background like the shadow you’ve become. But, chances are, those people don’t respect you. Someone who respected you wouldn’t treat you like that in the first place and, moreover, they’d want to see you shine, not burn out and fade away. This line came to me in meditation: When you put yourself last, you don’t play the hero but rather the fool and ultimately you just end up resenting all the people you’re trying so hard to please (for more of my thoughts on this see Beginning to See the Light). I think it’s incredibly apt.

It’s still difficult for me to say no to people, to speak my mind and not let things fester. It feels strange. Taking action of my own volition instead of waiting for someone else to do something also feels foreign, but it’ll get easier. The important thing that I now remind myself of is that I have a voice and I need to use it. People will listen. And I can say no to people and things without feeling bad about doing it. Offering an explanation of my feelings helps, but so does knowing that the person I’m saying no to respects me enough to accept my response. If they don’t, then that speaks volumes about the nature of our relationship and is a cue to me that it’s one that perhaps I should rethink.

Blue is the color associated with the fifth chakra, the throat chakra. It’s the color of the candle a dear friend made for me to assist me with healing in this respect. Over the past several weeks, it’s cracked to the point where just moments ago, hot wax started spilling out through a hole and all over the desk. If that isn’t symbolic, I don’t know what is. Clearly, I have found my voice! As Tori sang, “it’s been here . . . silent all these years,” but not anymore.

Ranée

Silence Is Golden

I didn’t want to die; I just wanted to disappear.  I remember staring out of my bedroom window, looking down at the snow and imagining myself falling into it, sinking deep beneath the vast whiteness, until I was completely covered over, frozen and blissfully numb.  I wanted to feel nothing because every emotion that I did feel was just too intense to bear. 

That desire to turn off my emotions stayed with me for most of my adult life—for nearly twenty years.  I took all the pain of fake friends (the “cornflake girls” or “mean girls”) and bad, meaningless relationships, including a sexual assault that I blamed myself for, and shoved it down as far as I could.  I became the very thing that I hated—a liar.  I hid my true self behind a mask every day because I was desperate to conceal the turmoil inside me.  I spent an excessive amount of money and time on expensive clothes I couldn’t afford and on perfecting my outward appearance because I was determined that no one would see what was really going on with me.  That’s what we’re supposed to do, right?  If you feel bad, you’re supposed to just suck it up and get over it.  When someone asks how you’re doing, you’re supposed to say “OK” or “good” or some other positive word regardless of whether you’re genuinely feeling that way.  I put up walls to protect myself, to stop anyone hurting me again, to keep people from seeing through the carefully crafted facade, and to keep myself from feeling for them because the last thing I wanted was to feel someone else’s pain on top of my own.  

Despite my efforts, I could never completely turn off my emotions, even when I tried to drown them in alcohol.  All of the negative thoughts and feelings that I kept locked up inevitably escaped, often in the form of anger or tears. 

Depression is a secret, silent predator because it strikes from within.  It eats you alive.  Depression coupled with anxiety is absolutely paralyzing, like screaming in silence.  The longer conditions like these are left untreated, the worse they get.  You become stuck in quicksand and you can’t even move or try to pull yourself out because you just sink deeper and faster.  It took having panic attacks at work to scare me into finally talking to my doctor and then a therapist and a psychiatrist about what I was going through.  

That was five years ago. I’m still seeing a psychiatrist and have been through a series of reiki healing sessions, but am proud to say that thanks to other changes that I’ve been able to make in my life, including a complete rehaul of my diet and beginning an exercise regimen, my medication dosage has been stepped down to the lowest level. Allow me to pause here to say that taking medication to ameliorate symptoms of a mental health condition is not a bad thing. In my case, my doctor, my therapist, and my psychiatrist all agreed that my specific depression and anxiety were situational, that in order to really battle them, I had to be able to change my lifestyle. I couldn’t have done that without the immensely helpful boost that medication gave me. But not all mental health conditions are the same; causes as well as treatments are unique to the individual, so needing medication or higher doses of it should not be seen as a sign of weakness or a lack of progress. What I’ve learned in my recovery process is that there are two things that are vital for all of us to have good mental health: self-care and a supportive environment.

Self-care means taking care of yourself on all levels—nourishing your mind, body, and soul. I didn’t really start doing that until a year and a half ago. When I did, it kicked my healing into overdrive. Things that have helped me are eating healthier, exercising daily, meditating, spending time in nature, finding a good work-life balance, and making time for things that I enjoy doing like writing. For me, maintaining that creative outlet is essential.

Apart from taking care of yourself, you also have to surround yourself with genuinely supportive people who have your best interests in mind, ones who aren’t deaf and blind to your pain or contribute to it, but recognize when something is off and encourage you to talk openly about whatever you are feeling.  They will do seemingly little but incredibly meaningful things like say, “Hey, I’ve noticed that you seem down/stressed?  Tell me what’s going on” or “How can I help?”  For a long time, I lacked those sorts of relationships or kept myself from having them out of fear of incurring further pain.  Now that I do have them, I foster and cherish them.

There is one other thing that I believe is essential to coping with and changing the perception of mental health conditions and that is to talk openly about them and encourage others to do the same. There is still such a tremendous stigma attached to mental health conditions, but we can collectively change that. If those of us who have experienced these issues share our stories, first with each other and then with the world at large, then we can tear up the labels that ignorant, insensitive souls want to assign us. There will be no more screaming in silence but a chorus of voices too loud and beautiful to ignore.