I make things up to be dramatic

Here I am, waiting to go in for a pulmonary function test to find out what is wrong with me, IF ANYTHING. I have spent the last several weeks, including seven hours in the emergency room, getting lots and lots of tests — EKGs, x-rays, a CAT scan, and countless blood tests of various kinds — and they have ruled out a major problem with my heart, which is great. I would hate for there to be something wrong with my heart.

I would hate it so much that now I think it’s possible I scared myself into having chest pains and breathing problems, symptoms which led me to believe there’s something wrong with my heart, and/or lungs. Maybe! Or probably not. No, I definitely am having trouble breathing, especially at night. Or some nights. And chest pains, and palpitations. Even the doctor noticed it. Maybe? 

Last time I talked to my therapist, I said that I’m always afraid people are going to think I’m just making things up, or exaggerating them to be dramatic, or to get attention. And I’m always afraid that they’re right, that I’m actually doing that. I’ve always been afraid I’m like this.

She asked who told me I’m like this, my parents?
Well, yes.
She asked if, in fact, I did used to make things up to get attention.
Well, no. I was definitely a dramatic, emotional kid, and I cried all the time, and I had weird problems that I couldn’t explain well, but I can’t think of a single time I was actually making anything up. If anything, I kept things to myself, and just silently cried because I didn’t know what to say. 

Since that conversation, every time I get the nagging anxiety that I’m just being a drama queen, and I’m wasting everyone’s time, and they could be spending their precious energy and resources saving people who really are sick, I ask myself, “Do I make things up?”

Well, yes.

That’s what I do for a living. I make things up to be dramatic. I exaggerate on purpose, to get attention. That’s what writing is. Yes, even non-fiction essays, which is mostly what I write. 

I don’t tell lies. I don’t say anything I think is untrue. But when someone asks that dreaded question about what my creative process looks like, I have to admit that it looks like making things up to be dramatic. It looks like looking around for anything that might be a tiny little ember, and cupping it carefully in my hands and deliberately blowing on it until it’s hot, and then showing everyone how hot it is. Or squinting at every smooth rock I find to see if any of them are the least bit egg-shaped, and then brooding on them as devotedly as I can, hoping something might hatch out. Or searching around in the dead dust until I find a speck that looks like it might be organic, and warming it and watering it, and breathing on it, just in case it’s a seed that’s ready to grow; and if it does grow, you are going to hear about it! If no one ever told you the facts of life, this is how 800 words get born. 

But it’s one thing to find and coax into life an idea that you know is already real and true and big and important, something you will have the luxury of returning to again and again over the course of your life. You can write about motherhood or work or education or food, and be perfectly aware that you’re writing what seems truly true at the time, but you’re probably going to shift and change your understanding of it as your life shifts and changes. Only weirdos hold it against you if you change your mind; most people understand it’s normal to grow through different points of view. 

But it’s somewhat different when you’re writing about your own life, which is something I do a lot. Hannah Gadsby (who I know is controversial, but just set that aside for a second!) said something on NPR that I’ve never heard anyone admit before.

The interviewer asked, “[D]does writing and performing stories about your life help you to make sense of them?” and Gadsby said:

“Oh, absolutely … but, you know, there’s a danger to it as well because as you tell it and share it, that works as kind of a seal to how you remember something that happened. So that’s why I’m incredibly careful about what I put on stage and how I talk about things, because it will eventually become the way you think and feel about things. And you can play with fire a little bit there.”

This is horribly true.

The other day my daughter told me she calms herself down when she’s upset by going into the woods and talking to herself. I told her this was good and healthy; that there is great power in naming things, and putting what you’re feeling into words, because then they are more yours in some way; they are contained, at least for a time. 

But any power, even the power of describing your own life, can be misused. We’ve all seen people taking a popular narrative, complete with its own set of powerful, trendy words, and retrofitting their own past into it and applying emotional pressure to their memories until they fit into this story, whether that’s what really happened or not. People persuade themselves that some lost partner was a blameless, precious, irreplaceable angel; or they persuade themselves that their estranged parents were thoroughly toxic and malevolent monsters. When in fact the truth was (as truth is) perhaps more complex, less of a tidy narrative.

Memory is strange. It’s more malleable than it feels like it ought to be; and at the same time, words do set a seal on it, especially once you share those words with other people. We speak carelessly about the power of words, but maybe not enough about the great power of words to call into life things that simply aren’t true. It’s as if human words, in their fallenness, carry a dormant virus in them, and sometimes, carried on human breath, they enter into our minds and bind and reproduce with our living pasts and begin forming . . . I don’t know, zombie pasts. Things that resemble our lives, but are lumbering along animated by something other than order and truth. I know this can happen. I have seen it happen. 

Fear of misrepresenting and retroactively malforming my own life even to myself has made it hard to pray, sometimes. I get into a state where I feel that I can’t trust anything I think, and I can’t bring myself to put anything into words. I also know this isn’t really a desire for truth or objectivity so much as a trap of anxiety, though. What to do?

The other day I was in my garden and felt so glad, so simply and plainly happy to be in the sun, smelling the sweet weeds, hearing the wrens and robins, and tending my little cucumber and squash seedlings, and I wanted to pray and praise God, but I couldn’t find the words. I felt myself headed into a snarl. What do I say? How do I make this right? How do I do it so it’s about the thing and not about me being clever enough to express the thing cleverly? 

And I says to myself, I says, En arche en ho logos. I remembered a sentimental little story I heard once of a kid stuck in a tree during a storm, and he’s so scared, he can’t remember his prayers. All he can remember is the alphabet song, so he sings that, and he figures God will take the letters and make them into something good. So that’s what I did.

(That’s what I do for a living.)

I will not be telling my doctor that I sometimes go out into the garden and sing the alphabet song. I hate to think what that might be recorded as a symptom of. But I’m telling you, in case you get into little binds like me: Keep it simple. Jesus is the word. His breath is pure. Give him the nod, and he sorts everything out, and he keeps the zombies away, and makes the cucumbers to grow, and the robins to sing. Next time, won’t you sing with me? 

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18 thoughts on “I make things up to be dramatic”

  1. Great post. Praying that you get some answers soon regarding your health issues. (I sure with there was a way to fix email subscription issue. I forget to check the blog manually, and I probably miss a lot of good posts.)

    1. I know, I’ms sorry about that. You could maybe subscribe to LinkTree and that would give you an update when I publish stuff, I think!


      Thank you so much for the prayers. I have found a different doctor, actually a nurse practitioner, who I think will be able to work with me better.

  2. Two quick Hannah Gadsby comments:

    1) I miss her YouTube channel, which featured hilarious and educational art history. There’s maybe 5 total videos still up if you search for it under “The Renaissance Woman”
    2) Probably my favorite Hannah Gadsby moment from (I think) her second special is when she says, “You want a lecture?!” (points to art history powerpoint slides) “THIS is a lecture!” And then proceeds to digress into art history for ~5 minutes or so.

  3. Thank you for this. I love your metaphors here – ember, stone, speck – simple and gorgeous. The whole piece felt lush with the real life of a writer and daughter of God. I’m praying for healing for you.

  4. So that explains your “Sinner’s Guide to NFP” then? Confusing AF to read, not to mention largely unhelpful. As a Mohawk Catholic woman and proud spiritual descendant of St Kateri Tekakwitha, I’ll never understand nor accept a white bougie “christian” mentality. Like, you folks measure a woman’s beauty and femininity by makeup, “sexy” underwear (yikes), painting nails, also you guys legit think recreating 1950s nuclear family will bring traditional family values back (double yikes), and believe regular spanking is makes good kids (triple yikes). I won’t even mention vile shit your country’s military and government have done, especially in the early 2000s, harm done to struggling same-sex attracted people, racism, consumerism etc. etc. etc. White middle class Catholicism of the West, its very idea of so-called “tradition” is just laughable! It has no legs to stand on when it comes to interpreting the Church teaching.

    1. …so I’m guessing you’re new here.

      I gently encourage you to go back to past posts and poke around. I’m one of the conservative leaning folk you’re probably thinking of here, Simcha is NOT (I don’t agree with Simcha on everything, but I admire and value her perspective, which is why I check in here). Yes, she’s Catholic. She’s also a misfit who’s been cast out and hurt by that “bougie “Christian ” mentality”. I don’t know who you saw recommend her book that set you off, but I can’t help but think that you haven’t read it yourself.

      It seems like you’ve been hurt by people in the Church. I’m sorry. But don’t hurl insults around without actually seeing if they fit, please.

      1. Read your earlier comment more closely and saw that you’d read the book.

        Again, I gently encourage you to read past posts here. Christopher West’s writing on Theology of the Body (“Theology of the Body for Beginners” is a pretty easy read, and will give you some background on the theology Simcha draws from in that book) would be helpful, and some of Dr. Greg Popcak’s stuff might be helpful as well.

        Neither author says anything about beauty based on what kind of clothes or makeup a woman wears, recreating the 1950s, spanking kids (I take that back, Greg Popcak does….he’s VERY firmly against it) or…uh… stereotypical conservative politics (which is not the same subject as Catholic teaching on sex and the family, though some people think it is).

    2. I’m sorry you’ve been hurt, but man if there was ever anyone to throw your feelings at, it isn’t Simcha. Very little of what you are upset about describes Simcha or her mentality.

      FWIW, I really loved the Sinner’s Guide to NFP. One of the more frank books on the subject out there.

      I know hurt people hurt people, but this is really not nice.

  5. I came for the recipes (oops a day early) and what a treat this read was! Dessert, a day early?! Well said.
    I think many women will be able to sympathize with the over analyzing and thinking. My daughter had about three years of chronic illness in and out of hospital and despite symptoms being the exact same every single bout, I’d still hem and haw and wonder when it was time to head to the ER. Everytime. What if they didn’t believe me?! What if they sent us home, calling me a bad mother for “falling” for it.
    On another note, my therapist once had me rewrite a memory that bothered me deeply. I found it so strange at the time. But it’s been twenty years and when that same memory comes to mind, it’s never the original, it’s the updated version we worked on together. Malleable, indeed.

    Thanks for this post, so much to mull over! Continued prayers for you and your kids

  6. Oh, I can relate to this beautifully written piece as well! I think there is a scripture verse somewhere that talks about the Spirit interceding for us with groans too deep for words. Sometimes when I find myself overanalyzing my own thoughts and feelings and not knowing what to pray, I rely on the Spirit praying for me, and God knowing exactly what I want to say. I don’t think anyone really has a true understanding of himself, and we only really have our vulnerable selves in the present moment with God.

    I also can relate to feeling like I’m exaggerating with the body stuff, especially getting used to my body postpartum after 4 kids. I was convinced I was having heart issues (turns out it was reflux) and then recently I thought I was having gall bladder issues. I had to tell my doctor it was constipation all along, lol. Prayers that you figure it out soon, and that everything is ok!

  7. Oh, me too! I get stuck, occasionally, in trying to pray and then wondering if “…it’s about the thing and not about me being clever enough to express the thing cleverly.”

    How true and beautiful that if I just give Him permission, He *will* sort everything — all my misapprehensions and misperceptions and concerns and desires and cleverness and lack of cleverness, etc — out, hear my heart, and keep being in this relationship with me.
    Thanks for reminding me that I don’t have to be complex or clever; that I don’t even have to know what the heck is going on…
    that I just have to call for help and He will come to save me.

  8. I echo others in praying for you. But I also wish to tell you this is achingly, shockingly beautiful.

  9. You’re not being dramatic. Women undersell our experiences with chest pain and shortness of breath all the time.

    Says the woman who worked and pushed through her ER shift with asthma self treating aggressively until my lungs locked down and I failed the kitchen sink of interventions until I ended up on a bipap for rescue and got admitted to my own hospital on the stepdown unit.

    Prayers for answers, listening physicians, healing and coping. <3

  10. I will pray for you. I know you’re not looking gor health advice but I can’t help myself. I guess your bloodwork would’ve shown anemia? When I was anemic I was short of breath when I lay down and I believe heart palpitations sometimes accompany the diagnosis. Another possibility: Our babysitter’s mother developed chest pains and heart palpitations and my recollection is that after many tests it was determined to be menopause related. This is going back 15 years at least so the details are hazy.

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