Talk, Listen, Respond, Repeat

It’s been a tough week. Two high-profile suicides in the span of a few days that have wrecked a lot of hearts around the world, including my own. I couldn’t let this week go by without using this platform as a means to spread awareness about mental health. So if you are one of those, the ones who wear a cloak of invisibility when confronted with the harsh reality of addiction, anxiety, depression, or other forms of mental illness, please stay, but leave the cloak at the door. Shit’s about to get real.

On Tuesday we lost one of the most recognizable names in fashion, Kate Spade. Every girl growing up where I lived had a Kate Spade backpack purse, a Kate Spade wallet, a Kate Spade everything. To me she symbolized bright color, bold femininity, and loud confidence. At the ripe age of 13, a Kate Spade purse made me feel like a woman. What I never knew was that this same woman who burst onto the fashion scene with Scotch-taped paper designs and turned them into a booming handbag brand also battled anxiety and depression. Her family knew about it, she talked to some friends about it, but it was not enough. On Tuesday it cost her her life.

Today we lost one of the brightest minds in the culinary and cultural world, Anthony Bourdain. He is known for traveling all over the world, mingling with presidents and street vendors, using a plate of food to pull a treasure trove of stories from deep inside strangers who quickly turned into friends. He was quoted once saying,

“If you sit down with people and just say, ‘Hey, what makes you happy? What do you like to eat?’ They’ll tell you extraordinary things.”

For years we were able to reap the benefits of those beautiful conversations made possible by a man who allowed food to do what it does best: bring people together.

My favorite description of him came from CNN’s Chief International Correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, on Twitter today, when she described Bourdain as “deeply, deeply human.” What an authentically moving testimony of an authentically lived life.

But his life was not all culinary dreams and cultural pursuits. He battled an addiction to cocaine and heroin, and though he managed to outrun his habits for a while, it was not enough. Today it cost him his life.

While Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain are exceptional losses, they are not an anomaly. According to an article released by NPR yesterday, “Suicide rates have increased in nearly every state over the past two decades, and half of all states have seen rates increase by more than 30%.” This is reality. The numbers don’t lie.

I reached out to three people in my life who have battled one or more of the big three, and I asked them to share a little bit about what it looks like, what it feels like, to suffer from a mental health issue. I can’t express enough my admiration for their immediate willingness, humble bravery, and complete transparency. They will remain anonymous below, not by fear of being known, but for the purpose of providing a glimpse into mental health with no strings attached, no background information, just the facts.

Addiction:

“Addiction wasn’t part of my life plan. I grew up in a happy home with two wonderful parents and was on the path to success until my freshman year of college, when I discovered Adderall. Over the course of four years, I lost most of my friends, found myself in a severely unhealthy relationship, and lost 45 pounds. I abused prescription after prescription. My dependence morphed itself into an addiction to not only Adderall but also Xanax and alcohol. I was no longer the goofy, sweet, loving person who people knew me to be. I was a shell of myself: isolated, violent, numb. I saw demons. I didn’t care about my future, only where my next fix was coming from. After college I tried many, many times to break free of my habits. Although I made slight progress, most of my efforts were to no avail. I ended up overdosing four different times. Although suicide wasn’t my goal, I genuinely couldn’t keep myself from taking all those pills. I had zero control.

My last overdose consisted of me taking 60 Xanax and washing it down with alcohol. I knew I was lucky to come out alive. I knew I needed a change or I would die. So, for the first time, I became willing. I became willing to go to an AA meeting every day for my first 90 days of sobriety. I became willing to get a sponsor and actually listen to what she told me to do. I became willing to give my life over to my God. And I haven’t looked back since. God LITERALLY has taken away my desire to drink and do drugs. Like, ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! That is NOTHING short of a miracle. I continue to go to meetings three times a week. I have been clean and sober coming up on a year in August.

There is hope. There is a way out. You just have to be willing to find it.”

Anxiety:

“Sometimes it feels like you’re dying, like your organs are actually failing. Other times it feels like you’re trapped—it’s as if you get claustrophobic in your own body. It’s not rational; it’s terrifying. And when you finally come out of it, you feel like you’ve run a marathon, but you’re confused as to how you made it to the finish line.”

Depression:

“I would never use the term sadness to describe depression. Depression is not sad. Depression is black, empty. It’s a deep, dark hole with no way out. It can make you feel like the smallest person in the world, underserving of every ounce of your life, whether it’s in regard to your marriage, career, happiness, or even your own right to these dark emotions. You feel inadequate, incapable of even the smallest tasks like cleaning your house or making a phone call. It makes you doubt your self-worth; it makes you self-destruct. It breeds isolation. It’s quicksand.

I’ve learned we each only have so much resilience in ourselves. We can’t be the hero of every single chapter in the book of our lives. Part of succeeding is being vulnerable, accepting that you are flawed, that you are imperfect, that you are a human being with weaknesses, and that sometimes you need help. It can become a habit to put on a suit of armor every time you walk into the office, the house, the party, etc., but when you are open and honest with others, when you talk and when you listen, it allows everyone to be open and honest, it allows everyone to be human, and we all become stronger because of that.”

The stigma around mental health silences those seeking treatment and dismisses the authority they should have to ask for help in fighting their own inner battles. By ignoring the existence of mental illnesses, we eliminate any possibility of treating them.

We can do better; we must do better. It is a choice of empathy, compassion, patience, understanding, support, love, and kindness. We all could use more of that.

If you are battling addiction, anxiety, depression, or any form of mental illness, you are not alone.

There is a way out. There are hands to hold. There are ears to listen. There is love to be felt. There is life for you yet. Please, choose it.

If you or a loved one is suffering from suicidal thoughts or actions, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8355).

Land of The Free, Because of The Brave

I traveled to Highlands, North Carolina, last weekend for my cousin’s wedding. Her fiancé is a former Marine, so there was an essence of military pageantry to their wedding weekend that only added to the romance of getting married up in the mountains, soft rain falling miraculously in between parties and pictures.

When we arrived at the Rehearsal Dinner on Friday night, there was an unexpected guest at a reserved table toward the entrance of the room. The table was small with a single chair accompanied by a single place setting, a single rose, a single yellow candle, a Bible, and a small frame listing the names of all the groom’s brothers in arms who had gone before him defending the country we call home. It was a night that would have been emotional already, but now it had a level of surreal sacredness attached to it. These were the names of men who should have been there—would have been there—had they not received a higher calling, had they not been asked to give the ultimate sacrifice and risen when their name was called, had they not stepped out of the precious life they were given to give others theirs in exchange.

In the past few weeks, I’ve thought about that chair a lot, the people it represents, the families it made incomplete, the children it made parentless, the spouses it made single, the siblings it made one of three instead of one of four, the friendships, the dreams, the fears, everything a person is identified by. The ripple effect is overwhelming when you consider just how many people are affected by an empty chair. It’s hard to stomach the loss.

This weekend was my husband and I’s first weekend home in a long time. We celebrated this rarity by sleeping in, using restaurant gift cards we’ve built up over holidays and birthdays, went house hunting, checked out a bagel shop we’d been meaning to but never had, ran errands, watched all the sports (him), read all the books (me), slept in more, had beignets for dessert and again for breakfast, went to the grocery store, and argued over the menu for Memorial Day dinner (ribs vs barbecue shrimp—like true Americans, we chose both). As simple as it sounds, it was pure bliss.

When I woke up this morning, my mind immediately went back to that empty chair. The lost life that that empty chair represents, and the lives of countless others, allows me the freedom to make the simplest choices: sleeping in or getting up early (never), eating in or eating out (google New Orleans), hockey or basketball (not a fan of the goal buzzer on the ice, or the ice in general), ribs or barbecue shrimp (why choose when you can have both?). But because of that empty chair, these simple choices become sacred, they become invaluable, because a man or a woman put on a uniform and decided that these little freedoms, these little choices, this little of life of mine is worth defending, worth fighting for, and ultimately, worth dying for.

Tonight we ate our Memorial Day meal of compromise, and we set an extra place and pulled up an empty chair, just as we learned to do a few weeks ago at my cousin’s wedding, and we thanked God for the life of the man or woman in the empty chair. While today may be a day off of work, the start to a short week, and an excuse for ribs, beer, and red, white, and blues, it is so much more than that. It is a day to remember those who gave us the freedom to celebrate all of those simple joys, to honor those who gave up their one life so that we might have ours.

Because of an empty chair, we can sit down today or tonight with our family and friends, eating and drinking and breathing and choosing and loving and living—freely, at the ultimate cost.

Around this country, in so many homes, at so many tables, there is an empty chair. Today we are given an opportunity, and a responsibility, to remember why.

Thank you will never be enough.

Free Your Feed From The Happy Snatchers

You are the company you keep.

We all heard this, or something like it, screamed by our moms or dads when we ran out the door on a Friday night in high school, a few last words of wisdom to remind us that whoever we chose to spend our time with was who we would become.

Today (Thank God Instagram was not around when I was in high school) this same mantra can be applied to social media. Just as you are the company you keep in your personal life, you are also the people you surround yourself with on social media. If you spend your time scrolling through a sea of negativity,  your brain replicates that and becomes a place of negativity.

Virginia Beard, who recently appeared on Side Hustle, gave some great advice when describing her approach to social media and how you should essentially protect yourself online from those people whose accounts steal your happiness and sap your spirit:

“Unfollow people on social media who make you feel like you aren’t doing enough or aren’t cool enough or aren’t fill-in-the-blank enough. You’re awesome and your work matters, so don’t let Instagram make you think differently about your work.”

I looked through my own social media feed to see who I rely on to provide a much-needed defense against the intrusion of what I call “happy snatchers,” the people or things online that just don’t make me feel better about myself.

Here are eleven accounts whose online presence I seek out daily for affirmation, beauty, joy, inspiration, knowledge, and a healthy dose of inappropriate humor (which sometimes is needed above all else).

  1. Humans of New York– By now you have most likely heard of and follow this Instagram account, but I’m not sure there is a better representation of real life than through the lens of this guy’s camera. His posts force you to look up and look into the eyes of the strangers whose lives are swirling around you, providing a unique opportunity to share in the joy, pain, sorrow, happiness, uncertainty, grief, and hope that is the human experience.
  2. Ashley Longshore– An artist in New Orleans who is here to break the mold, Ashley Longshore may offend some with her crude humor and outrageous videos but to me she showcases so much pure authenticity that you can’t help but love her. Her art is as wild, bold, bright, and fabulous as she is, and we both happen to be born-and-bred Alabama girls with an Ole Miss past (I loved it; she hated it) and a New Orleans present, so I like to think we are cut from the same-ish cloth.
  3. Bourgeois Bohemianism– No idea when, where, or how I got addicted to this Tumblr account, but the owner dishes out the most beautiful images, words, songs, and art that always seem to hold hands with my heart. Going to her page is like visiting an old friend who just gets me. The layout of her page inspired the layout for Side Hustle, so in more ways than one she has been my muse.
  4. When to Jump– This book inspired a lot of the momentum and spirit behind Side Hustle (do me a solid and buy it at your local bookstore instead of Amazon), and their Instagram account is a great reminder of all of the incredible stories that flow from people who took a risk to jump from solid stability to shaky uncertainty all in the name of passion.
  5. The Player’s Tribune– As a former athlete and sports aficionado, this platform speaks to my sixteen-year-old, professional athlete-aspiring (haha V, you funny and too short) self and provides a unique glimpse into the hearts and minds of these incredibly talented people and tells their stories the way they should be told: by the athletes themselves. On a scale of 1 to Kleenex box, tissues are required. Click here for the one I have not been able to get out of my mind lately, which makes sense if you read my last post.
  6. Stone Fox Bride– Another Instagram account that mysteriously became part of my life a few years ago, the Stone Fox Bride is what contemporary wedding dreams are made of. I stand in awe of founder and creative director, Molly Rosenguy, who will literally grab your soul from your chest and make it come alive with the raw emotion that drives this platform way above average bridal material to must-read advice on life.
  7. The Fat Jewish– One of the original low-brow humor accounts I was introduced to on Instagram, the Fat Jewish is still one of my favorites for a cheap laugh. If we’re friends, I have probably tagged you in these posts on Instagram hundreds of times, and I am still ROTFL about it. Here is my favorite one to date.
  8. The Skimm– I do not like the news, never have and most likely never will. But the Skimm has changed the news for me. They make it relatable, they make it funny, they make it understandable, and most impressively, they make it feminine. I can’t decide if I consider the ladies behind the Skimm to be my good friends or my idols, and I think that’s a good thing.
  9. Southern Living– I feel like this is a little (okay, a lot) cliche for a girl from the South, but the photos and stories they share are of so many places that are close to my heart. The rush of happy memories when I see Charleston, South Carolina, Fairhope, Alabama, or Oxford, Mississippi is like riding an endorphin wave.
  10. Poets & Writers– I’ve had this magazine delivered in the mail for years—it’s always one of the first things I remember to take care of when I change addresses. Their Instagram account highlights certain passages from the magazine that are especially moving, but the best part is the recordings of authors reading excerpts from their books. There is something so surreal about hearing an author read their own words aloud—the intonation, the rhythm, the pace, all as they were intended to be by the person who created them.
  11. Mommas Gone City– I started following this account when owner Jessica Shyba’s son developed an impossibly cute napping routine with their family rescue dog. Since then she has had two more baby girls, and Theo the rescue dog has continued to be the real-life Nanna from Peter Pan that we all loved and adored. I also could not respect this woman more for the way she is raising her five children to love, respect, and fight for their fellow human beings. Well done, momma.

While these are just a few of the accounts I admire, I also draw endless inspiration from those featured on this site as well. I hope Side Hustle will always remain a constant source of inspiration, encouragement, and community for those who come across it, as well as a reliable window for those seeking a little sunshine on the Internet. And if it fails at either, I hope we can work together to change that.

The next time you pick up your phone or your computer to hop into the world of social media, choose to surround yourself with positivity, joy, humor, beauty, and support. Ditch the judgement, ego, greed, jealousy, and silly comparisons. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Now Starring: (The Real) You

I posted myself on Side Hustle’s Instagram account yesterday. I felt just about how you would imagine: awkward, slightly embarrassed, skeptical, full of myself. Basically hands over face monkey if you speak in emojis. Which I do, entirely too often.

Self-promotion is awkward. It feels phony and a little self-obsessed and sometimes just plain wrong. I still feel the redness creep up my face when I tell someone I want to be a writer. But I created Side Hustle with the intention of providing a platform to promote the real passions of others and encourage all women to do the same—how can I do that if I refrain from promoting my own?

Growing up the youngest with two older brothers and the seventeenth of eighteen grandchildren, just on my mom’s side, I’ve always naturally been a people pleaser. I wanted my brothers and cousins to think I was cool, to think I was relevant, to want me around despite our age gaps. This resulted in a lot of time spent in sports and a lot of stifled emotions. Vulnerability did not seem like something that would be considered an attractive quality. So instead I went for laid back, easygoing, tough-skinned, athletic, nice, avoiding controversy like the plague—all things that for the most part (I hope) I am, but it’s not the whole me. It’s the showwoman version of me, and I’m good at it.

Toward the end of my stint in Charleston, I started to develop a fear of flying. I was traveling so much (the decade of weddings—twenty-seven dresses is amateur hour), and the combination of hangovers, exhaustion, and separation anxiety from friends and family back home became too much for me. I started getting migraines that took over my whole body. I took myself (sometimes with friends, thank you Charleston crew) to the ER a few times with chest pains, and I even flew home to Mobile to run a gamut of tests including an MRI and a CT-scan. Serious stuff. Turns out I just had anxiety and zero means of vocalizing it. I’m a bottler by nature, so what goes on internally stays there, temporarily.

I got married this past December: 7 bridesmaids, 5 groomsmen, 24 honorary bridesmaids, 13 ushers, 8 flower girls, 2 ringbearers, hundreds of guests, and one real snow in coastal Alabama for the first time in years. As you can imagine, there was a lot going on.

As the hours crept closer to 6 PM, when we would exchange our vows during a full Catholic wedding ceremony in a church that seats 325 people, I slowly entered the anxiety factory in my mind and started bottling every emotion I was feeling on the biggest day of my life. For some, in particular my family members, this came as no surprise. Anxiety runs in our family. We’ve even given it a name, Crow Anxiety, and it is very real. But for others who don’t know this about me, it came as a shock.

An hour before our ceremony, I had a full-blown panic attack. I had to take my wedding dress off three times before multiple encores of “Meet Virginia” sung by my cousins was finally answered with laughter from my end of the bathroom door. After that the indomitable Jason, who was responsible for my hair and makeup, put me in my dress for the final time and told me I would walk down the aisle in front of all those people because I had no other choice, because if I looked at the beautiful reception set up outside I would be reminded that my parents had sacrificed a lot to give me this day, and because there was a man waiting for me at the end of the aisle who I loved and who loved me, but who Jason would happily marry if I would not. (Spoiler alert: I did walk down the aisle, and Jason did not.)

The point of this trip down memory lane (who doesn’t love reminiscing on their wedding day?) is to remind you that while the applause may be loud for the showwoman, I promise you she doesn’t hear it. The truth is I am an incredibly sensitive and emotional female. I cry during peanut butter commercials, I get my feelings hurt by the slightest change in tone (sorry, Spence), I would rather be reading or writing than playing any sport, and I carry a great deal of fear within me. But I’m learning that all of these things that make me vulnerable or different don’t have to be weaknesses; they don’t have to be sore wounds I hide from everyone else.

My true self doesn’t have to become the disappearing act so that the show is better for everyone else.

Your weaknesses, your fears, the dark, hidden corners of your heart, when shared, can become the strengths on which someone else stands. They may be the parts of you that someone else really needs in order to have the courage to be their true selves.

Before launching Side Hustle, I spent a lot of time observing so many others who I admire, who broadcast not just the pretty edges of their lives, but the tough stuff, the center, where real life is lived.  And I think that’s why they’re the ones who are succeeding.

Pull the curtain on the showwoman. Give her one last round of applause and send her home. Step out on the stage yourself. It’s time.

National Earth Day

Currently Side Hustle is home to the passions of 42 women hailing from 2 countries, 12 states, 21 cities, and most importantly one planet: Earth. We are artists, musicians, photographers, writers, designers, performers, and everything in between, but we all share the same address of the same planet we call home. And that home needs our help. 

Today is National Earth Day, a day dedicated to the hardest working, most forgiving Mother we will ever know. She creates and provides and sustains and enriches, all while asking for nothing in return. For centuries we have abused, polluted, destroyed, and reaped the benefits of Her hard labor, without protecting Her in return. And if we are not careful now, this beautiful place we call home will cease to exist as we know it. 

It’s time to roll up our sleeves, get our hands dirty (or our wallets open if donating is more your thing), and fight for the beauty that surrounds us. Currently there are over 1300 species in the US alone that are nearing extinction due to the destructive actions (and equally destructive inaction) of our human species and the havoc we have wreaked on the Earth. 

Below is a list of the states we represent on Side Hustle and the human threats endangered species face in those states (all information provided by Defenders of Wildlife):

Alabama: Due to oil drilling, oil spills, and harmful fishing practices, dolphins are now on the dndangered Species list. How you can help: adopt a dolphin.

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California: The California Condor, whose biggest enemies are not predators but pollution, illegal hunting, habitat loss due to human development, and lead poisoning found in lead ammunition, is currently on the endangered list. Click here to see how you can help.

Georgia: The North Atlantic Right Whale is one of the most endangered whales on Earth due to climate change, net and fishing line entanglement, “acoustic smog”, and ship strikes. Click here to see how you can help.

Louisiana: The Louisiana Black Bear has been listed as a threatened species due to habitat destruction that results in greater conflicts with humans and needless killings. Who doesn’t want to adopt a black bear?

Mississippi: Habitat loss and road mortality are two of the biggest threats to the Gopher Tortoise, a species that can been found in the state of Mississippi. Here’s what you can do to help.

North Carolina: There are now less than 50 Red Wolves living in the wild in North Carolina due to “nonlethal removals” of Red Wolves from the lands they call home. You can help save them by adopting a red wolf.

South Carolina: Oil spills, habitat loss due to human development, artificial light on coastal shores, and entanglement in marine debris (those plastic bags you see at the grocery store—ditch them) contribute to the harsh reality that only 1 in 1,000 sea turtles make it to adulthood. Click here to see how you can help.

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Tennessee: While it is the official state animal of Florida, the Florida panther can also be found in parts of Tennessee, and it is one of the most endangered mammals on Earth. Here’s how you can help change that.

Texas: Southeast Texas is home to the 30 remaining ocelots in the US, a species endangered by habitat loss, the fur market, and the pet trade. Fortunately you can help change that.

Virginia: Human beings pose the single greatest threat to 9 endangered species of bats, some of which can be found in Virginia. Do your part for natural pest control and adopt a bat to ensure greater survival of these endangered species.

Washington, DC: Habitat loss and destruction is contributing to the endangerment of everyone’s favorite garden bird: the hummingbird. Help change the statistics by clicking here.

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Wyoming: Due to poor eyesight, the sage-grouse bird frequently suffers fatal collisions with manmade obstructions, such as barbed wire fences and wind turbines. Support the survival of this species by donating to an organization that defends them.

If we were all as passionate about the Earth as we are about our own Side Hustles, we might get to keep Her for longer. The time to care is now. We can afford nothing less. It’s that simple.