MELISSA RIDLEY ELMES
Dark and Twisty with a Side of Optimism
In the mid-nineties, Pringles potato chips were A Thing. The clever commercials used to make a big to-do about how you couldn’t let them alone, with the marketing line: “no one can eat just one.” Well, my flaws are like Pringles: they come in volume, the kernel of real in them is well overshadowed by artificial enhancement, and once I get started dwelling on one of them, I can’t stop obsessing about all of them. Selecting just one to write about is like eating one Pringle out of the can—a seeming effort in futility—and yet, writing about all of them would yield a hefty tome no one, including me, would ever want to read. So, then. Allow me to share with you one flaw. One, delicious flaw.
A moi. L’Histoire d’une de mes folies.
I don’t recall the first time a minor issue—or better yet, a non-existent issue entirely fabricated in my own head—became The End of the World. Was I two, and naptime laced with the terror that I might never wake up and be forced to live in a nightmare forever? Was I ten, cowering on a softball field praying a ball wouldn’t hit me in the face and break my glasses into my eyes and render me permanently blind? (actually, although I have no recollection of it, that probably was one of my earlier episodes….) Maybe I was fifteen, so terrified that kissing a boy would send my hormones reeling out of control, result in me, pregnant, out on the streets disowned and forgotten, that I didn’t even talk to the creatures lest I utterly wreck my future with a casual “hi”; or sixteen, refusing to take even a Tylenol in fear I might develop a fully-blown drug habit and become a member of the twenty seven club.
Oh Melissa, my mother would say, Lighten up. Don’t make everything such a big deal. It’s not the end of the world.
[Never mind that from her perspective it would have been the end of the world if I’d wound up blind, or pregnant, or on drugs.]
Anyway, there it is: I catastrophize. And honestly, it’s a super power. If you give me a minor issue, an annoyance, a word edgewise, a hypothetical situation, I will hand you back apocalyptic results in about five seconds, flat. For instance, let’s imagine I’m an MFA student with a big assignment due in class like, say, writing this essay. I would spend the entirety of its composition worrying that the Cloud would fail, I’d lose all progress, and I wouldn’t be able to recall a single word I’d already written, resulting in a failing grade—and also, my computer at home, and my computer at work, and the computers of everyone I know, would suddenly cease to work and I would not be able to complete this assignment at all, leading to my flunking out of the MFA program, and having my PhD revoked because if I couldn’t hack an MFA, I wouldn’t deserve the PhD I already earned fair-and-square, and then since my PhD would then be revoked, I’d lose my job and just for good measure, probably they would make me pay back three years’ worth of salary and benefits, thus assuring that I did, in fact, ruin my life, just like I always worried I would.
There. See how easy that was? And it happens in a flash, a matter of seconds. I’m not even aware it’s happening most of the time—I just know suddenly, the world is ending.
Maybe you are still not convinced. You just have a good imagination, you are perhaps thinking, you’re a writer after all, you need to be able to make things up. And that’s true. I do rely on this ability I have to create chaos out of thin air to develop my writing. But it’s more than that. There is a difference between making up catastrophic scenarios for my works-in-progress and being certain that the fact that my husband is twenty minutes later than he said he was going to be means either he is cheating on me, has been in a terrible car crash, has had a heart attack and is dead at his desk at work, or does not want to come home and admit he’s lost his job, and we are destitute, and my life is ruined just like I always worried it would be (because, I mean, I lost my job just a paragraph or so ago, remember?)
There is a difference between the stress and anxiety I put my characters through in service of a storyline and the absolute conviction I hold that when my daughter fails to meet me immediately at the door of her school after choir practice it is because there was an emergency and no one contacted me to let me know, so now not only is my child either seriously wounded or dead but also, I am a negligent mother whose phone number is not on record with the school, and they will take my other child away from me, and then my husband will divorce me, and my family will disown me because I am unfit for literally any role I am supposed to be playing in this lifetime, and my life is ruined just like I always worried it would be.
In case it isn’t self-evident, mine goes well beyond the usual levels of anxiety and uncertainty with which we humans typically live.
In short, I am dark and twisty. If you know anything about prime-time medical dramas, I am Meredith Grey levels of dark and twisty. More than one of my friends have suggested that Shonda Rhimes modeled her spectacularly flawed character on me, and frankly, I can’t rule it out. At least once a season, for sixteen seasons running, my husband [whose motto is, was, and always will be “it’s not a problem until it is”] has rolled his eyes at something she says or does and looked pointedly at me. Yeah, I know. She’s my avatar. Of course, his response is: Did you see how ridiculous that sounded? That’s exactly how you sound when you get like that.
But is it really that ridiculous? I mean, really? They’re not all unfounded fears.
What about that time I was worried that getting bunk beds was a bad idea because our younger daughter was only two at the time, and she might climb up to the top bunk and then fall and break her neck and die, and then my elder child would live with survivor’s guilt for the rest of their life and probably do drugs to escape the pain and wind up in jail, and also, my husband and I would divorce because we could not manage so much grief, and he said it’s okay, she will have the bottom bunk and we will tell her not to climb up them but she did climb to the top bunk anyway and fell and broke her arm?
What about the time I was terrified that one of us was going to get sick and die and then the other one would be left to solo-parent and would not be able to handle it on their own, and the kids would grow up as wild children, and one of them or both of them would end up pregnant and on drugs and in jail and maybe dead by age twenty seven, and then I found a lump in my breast and I said I have cancer and he said you always think it is going to be bad, it’s not cancer, don’t worry but I went to the doctor and it totally was cancer and if I had not been so vigilant and freaked out and insisted on going immediately to the doctor, I would have ended up dead?
Or, how about my near-constant fears once we had children that I would be in a horrific car crash and wind up paralyzed or dead or at the very least permanently incapacitated and unable to take care of our family because I did not get my tires changed at exactly thirty thousand miles and he was all, you’re not going to be in a car crash and the tires can wait until next month but then it rained and I hydroplaned and knocked into the car in front of me and totaled the car?
I’m just saying, maybe the whole scenario doesn’t play out, but generally my fears are pretty well grounded in reality. A kernel of reality, which my brain artificially enhances with as much terrible as it can, creating an explosion of apocalyptic flavor [I told you: psychological Pringles.]
It’s hard to live like this. It’s exhausting to constantly be certain that impending doom is on the immediate horizon. It’s also more or less unavoidable. I’ve been to therapists; they can’t do much with me. I’ve tried self-care—getting more sleep, eating healthfully, working out, K-beauty face masks. I’ve tried meditation. I have tried, desperately, for my entire adult life, to get to a point where I don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. But you know what?
That’s what I wound up saying to myself, not so very long ago following yet another round of “from zero to shitstorm in five seconds” over some inconsequential thing. Just fuck it all to hell. This is just the way I’m wired. I know it, my husband knows it, my children know it, my family and friends know it. I am dark and twisty with a side of optimism. That’s just who I am.
And it’s not all terrible. I mean, it is a distinct advantage for me as a fiction writer. I’m hardly ever caught off guard when something does go wrong, since I am already certain by default that it will. And sometimes, when it doesn’t, it’s a pleasant surprise that can buoy my spirits for days. It keeps people who don’t have the patience or desire to really get to know me from bothering, which is a nice little ancillary benefit that ensures I’m only engaging my time and energy with people who genuinely want me around. And ultimately, let’s be honest—I might be a tad extra, as they say, in this penchant for catastrophizing, but at least I am never bored or boring.