This week you hear from Ashley Brittner. I met Ashley through her fiancé Mel Wells who works at Literary Arts, the organization that administers the Oregon Book Award. I invited them to a reading one of my friends was hosting and realized I LOVED them both (actually, the whole room of 50-, 60-, and 70-something queers realized we loved these, um, kids). They’re both grounded and funny and so who they are, and they’re well-read and obsessed with understanding gay history.
Turns out, they’re both writers, too. And Ashley runs “Get Nervous,” a reading and performance series centered on the nagging, swirling, frazzled feeling you get when you have to do a thing. In short: anxiety. The series has attracted a wide range of Portland artists talking about anxiety, death, breakups, OCD, and all the delightful quirks that make us human. Ashley started the series because she herself suffers from anxiety and PTSD—and she’s open and up-front about it in a world that would rather we hide away anything that isn’t TV perfect, which makes me love her even more.
So grab a cup and sit back and read about the root of Ashley’s anxiety and PTSD and how she still navigates beautifully in the world.
The Authenticity Experiment, the bartering edition. As I ran up the driveway of the house I grew up in, to grab a blanket for Dad, who lay dying in the snow, I just knew it was going to be okay. I knew I would figure it out. I hadn’t ever not. He just fell. It was going to be okay.
Fight or flight happens in a split second. The rush of, “What do I do?” illuminates each one of your nerve endings like a lightning bolt, or those old cartoons of characters being electrocuted, and you can see their nervous system like a highway.
I fought. Covered him with a blanket. Held his hand. Waited in the back of the van to the ER with anticipation for when I could tell him he was an asshole for falling in the snow. “He just knocked himself out,” I told myself. “It’ll be okay.”
There is a small lake in Montana where we spent Summers camping when I was a kid. I stood at the edge of it, three beers in, sobbing with my fiancée, my brother, my niece, my nephew, extended family, and my Mom, who held the box full of Dad’s ashes and said it was time to put him to rest. After almost nine years, my brother, Mom, and I had not been back in Montana at the same time, which is when we kept telling each other we would finally spread his ashes.
I have not done a great job at getting over it, my father’s death. I have not yet come down from the lightning strike that lit up my nervous system. The adrenaline rush that comes with fight or flight. I have serious anxiety. I have PTSD. I might have some issues with control.
Because it did not turn out okay, as it always had before. I decided I had something to do with it. And because I had something to do with it, the most logical solution to preventing something like it from happening again was to take action. So now I barter with the universe to prevent bad things from happening.
If I put my shoes on in a certain order, I will stop something bad from happening. If I write something a certain way. If I avoid that thing on the sidewalk. For years, I was convinced I had an incurable disease that I would pass on to anyone I touched. This included my baby nephew, who I held with my wrists, not my hands, when he was born four years after Dad died.
“I’ve got this curse in my hands,” Carrie Brownstein says on Sleater-Kinney’s album, Sympathy. “All I touch fades to black, turns to dust, turns to sand.”
Clearly not doing the exact right thing had ruined everything. I now had to do everything just so, so that nothing changed.
Bartering is one of the steps of grief. It is the stage where you will give anything to bring back the person who died. It is unreasonable and stubborn, audacious enough to assume you have anything to do with what the universe has planned. OCD is bartering gone wild. It assumes that not only do you know what is going to happen, you are omnipotent, able to see it coming, and halt it in its tracks.
Then intellectualism kicks in. When I realize I have no control. When the rituals get too ridiculous, and I am suddenly nine years in to blaming myself for something I could not change. I am not always good at stopping myself from thinking I am able to stop bad things from happening. I will always tell people that I love them. To drive safe, bike safe, be safe.
My brother and I tell my niece and nephew stories of our Dad, so they know their Grandpa Jerry.
On the banks of the lake, I tossed a fistful of Dad’s ashes and worried that my niece and nephew would see me crying and not know what to do. They came over, reached into the bag of Dad’s
ashes, and scattered some with us
My nephew asked, “Are you crying because you miss Grandpa Jerry?”
“Yeah buddy,” I said, choking.
“It’s okay, we’ll see him again,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked. His little four-year-old brain worked quickly.
“We’ll just get a lot of balloons, and fly up, and see him,” he said.
I laughed. And cried. And hugged my sensitive little nephew.
I didn’t see that one coming.
Ashley Brittner is a local writer, painter, and cackler. She organizes and hosts Get Nervous, a reading and performance series about anxiety and depression. Her work centers on those themes as well as feminism, gender, being queer, and worrying about feminism, gender, and being queer. Her work has been featured in Bitch Magazine, OutWords, and on various independent radio stations. She has read at Grief Rites and Salon Skid Row. Everything she does has been influenced by Stevie, Corin, and Pat. Give her a shout (or a whisper) at getnervouspdx.com.
I’m finishing the final edits on the manuscript of The Authenticity Experiment and it’s hard to write and edit simultaneously. So, for the next two months you’re going to hear from a variety of amazing writers. You’re gonna love their writing. Dark and light, both/and from voices you should know and will soon want to be following.
If you miss my voice too much, you can always buy yourself a copy of Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear. And those of you in Portland, I’m reading at two Lit Crawl events on November 4th, including Ashley’s Get Nervous at 6pm at Tugboat Brewing and Grief Rites (natch) at Literary Arts at 7pm–and then at Wordstock the next day. In fact, I’m reading in a whole bunch of places, including Corvallis and Eugene this weekend. Check the my Facebook page for more info and while you’re there, like the page, will you? Until then, be well.