Mental Health: Finding the Glow

First and foremost I’d like to thank all the moms who reached out to me to share their rich knowledge, encouragement, and valuable perspectives after my Mental Illness and Motherhood post. I read everything and am so grateful for you.

Equally important is my thank you to Betty Tyson, the first reader to support my Patreon. When I saw her generous contribution, I teared up. It means so much to me to know you believe in my writing and what I’m doing here on Bummed Out Baker. A huge, warm, heartfelt thank you to Betty.

Without further ado, Finding the Glow!


Elizabeth and I went to Kath’s house after school on Friday because it was our turn to stuff spirit sticks for the football game. I’d never spent time with Elizabeth outside of cheerleading practice and football games, but I soon realized I was in special company as my eyes danced between her and Kath during their easy rapport.

We stationed our spirit stick assembly on carpet that had been crop-circled by a vacuum, gentle waves of fiber mashed down this way and that, and dumped out paper grocery bags to surround ourselves with empty toilet paper rolls, tissue paper, curling ribbon, and bags of assorted candy.

  1. Wrap tissue paper around toilet paper roll.
  2. Tie off at one end, fill roll with candy.
  3. Tie off other end.
  4. Curl ribbons on each end.
  5. Repeat.

The whole scene was coated in the waning sunlight of an autumn afternoon shining through the living room window, feeling like a warm bath you lower yourself into, unable to imagine a moment you’d want to get out. I soon realized that this comforting glow was more than the the sun. It was Elizabeth.

I felt privileged to be there, as if Elizabeth’s particular presence was the very ignition to the room’s soothing warmth. I realized that, without Elizabeth’s aura, Kath’s two-story living room would be another cookie cutter, carpeted pocket of suburbia. Indistinguishable, nothing would differentiate three 5th grade girls in one house from another. Except Elizabeth.

She was petite, blonde, and beautiful. Of course. In terms of girl friendships, to me Elizabeth was caviar. Elizabeth was haute couture. Elizabeth was the type of person who never had to exert herself very much, because someone else would be honored to swoop in as her mouthpiece, ultimately preserving Elizabeth. This person would say everything Elizabeth was too prim or “nice” to. I’d later find out that when I did manage to corner Elizabeth to hold her accountable for her sins, she’d turn red in the face and cry, somehow making me walk away feeling as if I were the one to blame to begin with. Then, she’d ice you out.

But, I didn’t know all of that back then.

When Elizabeth followed Kath into the kitchen, I noticed her head-to-toe Limited Too clothes. I didn’t know someone could wear such expensive clothes for casual activities, and with such indifference. For me, Limited Too was where I got to shop for my birthday, or perhaps for one, bank-breaking outfit for the first day of school. If I got second-hand Limited Too, it was a win. When Elizabeth disappeared around the corner, the light in the room greyed, the safe heat no longer surrounding me. I sunk into silent monotony and worked alone in the gloomy room. After I finished a few spirit sticks, I pushed myself up to stand and wandered into the kitchen to find the light. Elizabeth’s back was to me, hands resting on the kitchen island. (A kitchen so big it needed an island!?) Kath’s eyes widened, signaling to Elizabeth that I was in the room. Elizabeth spun around.

“Hey,” they said, staggered.

“What are y’all doing? Are you looking for something to eat?” I asked, doubting my own question. We’d been picking at spirit stick candy since we started working.

“Well, uh, yeah,” Elizabeth stammered.

“We were talking about ordering a pizza,” Kath swooped in. “Is pepperoni okay?”

“Sure,” I offered, unaware that we were to eat dinner together. I guess my mom had confirmed dinner plans with Kath’s mom when I got dropped off, but was unsure. I feel like she would have told me.

“Okay, great!” Kath answered. The sophistication of her response surprised me. I was not used to being hosted by a fellow fifth grader. Kath was one of thirteen children and the second oldest, so I suppose her mature demeanor could be chalked up to that general responsibility.

A beat of silence passed.

“Should we keep going?” I asked, motioning toward the living room, my eyes begging for the light to follow me. Kath grabbed the wireless phone off the receiver as we reclaimed our posts on the living room floor. I picked up my half stuffed spirit stick and reached into to the candy bag. When I looked up Elizabeth was fondling an empty roll while staring at Kath. Kath studied the phone in her hand before jumping back up.

“Wait,” she requested, and pressed the Talk button, a loud beep, as she walked away, this time to a darkened hallway. Elizabeth put down her empty roll, no progress made, and followed Kath. I looked down at the roll, feeling sad for it that it had once been held in Elizabeth’s hands, and was now just forgotten on the living room floor. For a moment, I’d been jealous of it. Certainly no one would ever feel sad for or jealous of anything my hands had touched.

Again, I continued to work, chilled by the sudden departure of warmth, of Elizabeth. Even the way she moved was with unknowable grace, a fluidity of motion so unpresumptuous, inimitable, perfect. Where she was, I wanted to be. I was the last to leave the spirit stick post, again, and followed behind her with enough distance to not to look desperate, but close enough to never lose sight of the edge of her light as it moved away from me, down a hall, around a corner. I approached the pair again, Kath still fiddling with the phone, poking the rubber tip of the antennae into her cheek as her eyes dashed around.

“I just need to use the bathroom,” I lied.

Now looking at Elizabeth, Kath absent-mindedly motioned toward a door on the hall. I stepped past them and closed the door behind me with a ginger touch, wary to bring unwanted attention to myself, to be seen as unrefined or annoying. In that moment, that was the worst thing that could happen to me.

I looked around and wondered what it’s like to have a bathroom just for guests. Having tasseled hand towels and foaming Warm Vanilla Sugar soap from Bath & Body Works was the ultimately luxury.

I heard them giggle.

I felt like a deflated balloon, gassed and completely void of anything that might make me special. I flushed the toilet without use but did take advantage of the fancy soap. When I came back out, Kath and Elizabeth’s hushed conversation ceased again.

“What’re y’all doing?” I ventured. “Seriously. You’re acting weird.” I stared at them, demanding a real answer.

Silence.

Kath and Elizabeth locked eyes, then Elizabeth looked at the floor while Kath looked over to me.

“Elizabeth isn’t sure about the pizza toppings and was embarrassed to talk about it,” Kath said.

“Why can’t you talk about pizza toppings in front of me?” My brows pushed together in confusion, face starting to warm.

“I don’t know, I just… didn’t want to,” Elizabeth said, now pressing her hands on either side of a door frame. “It’s embarrassing.”

“Why?” I said, face now fully hot.

“I don’t know, some things are just private!”

I turned around and went back into the bathroom, locking the door behind me so they wouldn’t see the tears threatening to spill down my face. I sat down on the toilet seat and began to cry.

“Bailey?” Kath asked through the door.

“Why are you being so weird?” I demanded, my crying no longer secret due to the strain in my voice. “Please, just leave me alone.”

Another beat of silence.

“Bailey… I’m sorry. I was calling my mom to see if I could spend the night at Elizabeth’s, and… we didn’t want you to feel left out.”

My crying turned into quiet sobs. “Will you please call my mom to come get me?” I croaked through the door.

The handle jostled, then I heard muffled voices walking away from the door. I continued crying, waiting for my mom’s arrival to be announced.

“Bailey?” Kath had returned. She tried the handle again. “You can spend the night, too. Elizabeth just talked to her mom.” Some kind of consensus had been made on the other side of the door, apparently.

I couldn’t believe my ears. I was being invited to spend the night at Elizabeth’s house. I’d never been there, but had heard stories. She had every valuable Holiday Barbie and Madame Alexander doll, every trendy toy and article of clothing, everything. My bruised feelings healed up in seconds.

The bathroom door unlocked and opened with a click. “Really?” I asked, wiping my face with my sleeve.

After confirming with my mom, Elizabeth’s mom came and picked us up in her big white Land Rover. It was the kind with sideways seats that folded down in the back, the kind that eleven year-olds think are the coolest. When I thought about being dropped off in my mom’s old Mazda 626, my cheeks flushed.

Elizabeth’s mom was relaxed and malleable.

“Okay, girls, what do you want for dinner?”

Elizabeth piped in with the name of an Italian place I’d never heard of. When we got there, I understood why. It was a tablecloth, cloth napkin kind of joint, the type of place that I’d only be in for big holidays with extended family, never for a random Friday night with friends. I didn’t care about the food or the Blockbuster visit (She’s All That) later, though. I was just thrilled to be included, thrilled to observe Elizabeth in her natural habitat all night. What made her special? Whatever it was, I wanted to mimic it pronto.

Later Kath changed schools but, after that pity invite, Elizabeth and I got close, and we began alternating sleepovers between our houses. I was able to draw her in with my wild sense of humor, my irreverence making her laugh and laugh. We’d run around her house doing things like eating pigs in a blanket her mom made us, celebrating New Year’s Eve at midnight, swimming in her pool to the tune of N*SYNC’s “No Strings Attached,” sleeping in a guest bedroom (foreign concept) just because, watching movies I didn’t care about like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang because she “couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it,” hanging out in her parents’ steam room because we thought it was spooky and fun, gluing rhinestones next to our eyes to add sparkle, and brainstorming our screen names. It was euphoric, to be embraced back by the very person I thought was so awesome. When we were thirteen, we dressed up as Christina Aguilera and Britney for Halloween. While her Christina get up was distinct and her outfit just a drop in the bucket financially, my Britney just looked vaguely slutty and I’d sunk all of my birthday money into this one ridiculous outfit. I didn’t mind, though, because I was with Elizabeth, and at least I wasn’t the girl who’d tacked herself onto us as a completely unidentifiable Mandy Moore. At least I was still Elizabeth’s person. Whatever she did, said, or wore was inherently cool and, somehow, she felt I was the best, too.

Until I wasn’t.

The ending of our friendship was swift. The “hottest” boy at our new junior high school passed her a note expressing his interest in her. Obviously, I was thrilled by proxy! I begged her to let me read the note, this pinnacle of social success, to which she repeatedly declined. Finally, she said, “It’s none of your business!” At that age, that was like taking a bullet. I was crushed.

Our weekly slumber parties evaporated as she surrounded herself with a new group of girls, a “level up,” of sorts. Because I wasn’t soft-spoken, wearing thong underwear, and muting my personality to attract the “hottest” boys, I was no longer of use. Our old M.O., cracking each other up, disappeared overnight in lieu of how to make yourself more alluring to boys. In elementary school my outlandish sense of humor was embraced by the boys we were eager to impress, but in junior high they suddenly found it threatening, something I didn’t realize until many years later. My social stock had plummeted, and I was both gutted and perplexed by this sudden change.

I dragged Elizabeth to the school counselor, crying, to tell her how hurt I was and, again, I got a pity invite that night to get ready and attend a party with her and her new friends, the other popular girls. Lining eyes with white eyeliner, dabbing loose glitter onto their lids, and touching up their sausage curls, Elizabeth’s new friends eyed me suspiciously as I maneuvered around her bedroom and bathroom with ease, a place I’d come to know so well. I wore hideous brown and cream ombre pants and didn’t have any brown shoes to wear with it except for some ugly clogs. Despite my hair and make up already being “done,” I tried to fit in in Elizabeth’s bathroom by tossing around my shoulder-length dishwater hair that was cut as if a visually impaired person tried to give me The Rachel. Or like I got wonky layers from the Suck Cut in Wayne’s World.

This time around, though, our relationship didn’t flourish post-pity invite. Instead, that was the last time Elizabeth and I hung out. Through high school, our interactions were reduced to silent waves and closed lip smiles in the bathroom. When the glow departed with Elizabeth, there was no residue to be found around me. I sunk into a deep depression, glow-less. Mental illness began to build me into a fat cocoon of perceived inadequacy. People weren’t attracted to me, but quite the opposite. I was a loser hanger-on. Barnacle Bailey :(

Clueless, childhood friends of mine still tease me for being so upset about my unceremonious friend breakup with Elizabeth, but at 31 this is still hard for me to write. Failing friendships are a part of life, especially as you move through childhood, teen years, college age, but in the moment you don’t know that. In the moment I felt I was fully formed, that this was my final form: inadequate, dull, unremarkable. I thought these lies about myself for so long that eventually I believed them.

Keith and Stace were always affirming but, I suppose like most people, I thought parents just told their kids nice things because they’re supposed to tell their kids nice things. Of course parents think their kid is the coolest and smartest in town, so I didn’t believe them.

I just didn’t have it, the x-factor that draws people in that glow-y people have. It took me years to reverse this thinking and build my self-esteem. As I got older, romantic relations that went south fueled my negative self-talk. I’m weird, a bummer, and undesirable. Of course no one wants to be with me.

In college, after an especially gnarly breakup, my dad sat with me in the middle of the night at the kitchen table as I sobbed. The things he said to me then were unfathomable at the time. Some day, I was going to find the right partner for me and, as much as it hurts in the moment, it’ll pass. I wasn’t able to capacitate such a concept.

It took me years to realize that, while I can’t control the way other people treat me and make me feel, I could control how I treat others and make others feel. While my parents weren’t able to take 11-year-olds to blasé expensive dinners and stay up to date with the desirable clothing du jour, in hindsight I think the things they gave me were better. My mom always told me to treat anyone I’m talking to like the most important person in the room, to not let my eyes wander as if there’s anything or anyone more compelling. She told me to never cancel plans I’d committed to because a “better offer” came around. She taught me the importance of a hand written thank you note. Over and over and over again, my dad taught me the importance of a generosity of patience, grace, and, well, the value of just sitting with someone who’s hurting.

Getting hurt has ultimately shaped me. While for most of my life I’ve felt I have no personal glow, I realized I could give glow to others by simply employing the adage of treating them the way I wish I were treated. I use my body language to include people, turning outward to allow someone newly approached to join in on a conversation. I fill people in on what is being discussed so that they may join. I ask for opinions, and make sure people know I value what they have to say. Shifting the focus toward others (and therefore away from how much I loathed myself) proved a constructive distraction. What I didn’t know was happening behind the scenes was my own healing. Giving “the glow” to others was an unwitting navigational beacon in my life that led me to writing, Rick, and finally finding and basking in a glow of my own.

I don’t mean to be self-congratulatory. I fuck up constantly, but I sincerely do my best. Unfortunately, my mannerisms have been hard won. At least I now know that I’m worth being around, I can help spread that glow-y warmth to others, that I can use my writing to connect.

If you don’t like yourself, or your self-perception is warped (by mental illness or not), I encourage you to undertake a “fake it til you make it” method of glowing. If you feel you don’t have “it,” bestow the gift you wish you had to someone else. I think you’ll find you’ll soon be attracting people who want to glow back at you until, someday, you realize you’ve got something special to offer, too. Even on your darkest days when it’s most challenging to believe, know you are worthwhile, you are compelling, you have a wealth of warmth to offer. Shine on others the way you wish someone would or would have shined on you. “Be who you needed when you were younger.”

Loan the glow, and glow on.

More on Bummed Out Baker:
Mental Health: The Stockpile of Gratitude
Mental Health: Depression Lies to You
Mental Health: When it Comes to Someone’s Well-Being, Ask, Don’t Assume

Wednesday posts cover something that’s top of mind for me that week and are written in a short period of time. This means that editing is not strong. While it’s not my best work, it is my best, unfiltered thought.


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