Dedication: To my grandparents, Ben Shepherd and his mother Gay, and also Matt Cameron, Kim Thayil, and of course Chris Cornell, my first tried and true fan.
This is pretty long but this all needs to be said: I’m a black sheep. And I really mean that, too. I’m a black sheep.
I was born in April 1993 in Ventura, California, not too far from the ocean. Ever since then, I’ve always had a deep, unconditional love of the ocean and pretty much anything associated with water. That might seem surprising, contradictory even, when you see me say my one true home is northern Nevada. My first memories originate there. I have so many memories of walking home from school with my older brother who’s eight years older than me (i.e., he was preparing to go to college when I was still in elementary school) or my dad, playing outside on my Razor scooter or in the dirt, and watching cartoons, movies, Saturday Night Live, and Monty Python on a regular basis.
Do you ever hear a song or a name or see something totally innocuous and it triggers a memory in you? Every time I hear anything off Led Zeppelin IV or Dark Side of the Moon, I always think back to being an elementary school girl on the swing set and staring off to the sparse vegetation on the hills north of Carson City and just being engrossed in thought. Every time I hear the names Darrell Hammond, Rachel Dratch, Kevin Nealon, David Spade, John Cleese, Craig McCracken, and Lauren Faust, I fall back into this little blissful cloud. I see the number “1998” and I think of being a kindergartener drawing on the sidewalk with chalk or being in show choir. I actually remember the whole Y2K hysteria! I recently saw a photo of one of those stickers proclaiming “remember to turn off your computer on December 31, 1999” and just thought “wow, I actually remember seeing those in places like Best Buy and (heh) Circuit City.” I’ve always felt this innate curiosity to explore: I would always think about what’s “out there” past the neighboring houses, beyond the hills, beyond Carson County. I always wanted to go on road trips and read books, expand my horizons really. I met the members of Tool and also Tony Stewart when I was in kindergarten, too. It was around that time I dreamed about being a published author like J.K Rowling or C.S Lewis or Lemony Snicket and I had all the food I could ever ask for while living in a cute little house on the coast, either by myself or with a cute husband.
Of course, it wasn’t all rosy. I had my best friend in elementary school and she and I loved each other like sisters, but I often seeked out solitude. I just always felt comfortable by myself and it’s landed me in trouble a few times. My mom was hard working, sometimes she’d stretch herself thin and it never sat well with me (it still doesn’t). My dad was an alcoholic and an addict: there were days he’d be on it and walk me right to school since we only lived a few blocks away, but there were days he’d be a total bump on the log. I remember my parents’ fights would often get so loud: not necessarily violent, just a lot of yelling. It scared my brother and me so much that we’d hide out in the other room for sometimes hours: we’d hang out in his room with his little TV and I would watch him play video games on his Play Station or we’d watch cartoons or Comedy Central; even at a young age, I would watch things that were supposedly “mature” or more grown up than something for an elementary school student, so as a young adult, I’m simply just not comfortable with these “moral guardians” who think kids should only watch kid’s stuff and leave the adult stuff for adults.
I’ve always felt like I didn’t fit in the family, either. The first thing that should tip you off is our eye color: my dad’s eyes are hazel, my mom’s are green, my brother’s are blue, and mine are brown. Where my parents seemed pretty fixated on getting my brother through high school and into college, I just learned to keep to myself, burying my nose into the Harry Potter books and books about all a manner of earth science or playing outside. I always loved hanging out with my grandparents, though: I was my grandpa’s granddaughter. When we went to go visit them in Simi Valley and later in a little town east of the Central Valley called Tehachapi, I always loved sitting at the dining room table with grandpa (my dad’s dad) and since he had his doctorate in nuclear science, he would often tell me random facts about breeder reactors or Chernobyl, and when you’re a young child like that, you’re a sponge so I just took it in as gospel. And my grandma (my mom’s mom) was basically an older version of me, now that I think about it: feisty, snarky, and curious about literally everything.
I developed a deep love of music at age 11 after hearing Soundgarden: I heard Fell on Black Days the first time and thought “who ARE these guys? I LOVE this band!” I wanted a music palette of my own since everything I listened to up to that point consisted of 70s rock, adult alternative from the early 2000s, and Dave Matthews: they seemed perfect because they sounded so different from everything and everyone else. I also found love in open wheel racing, particularly Formula 1 about that time, too. It wouldn’t be another two years later when I found my own little cornucopia of rock n’ roll and at good timing no less.
I was in middle school then: I hated how everyone was just so shitty to each other. We’re friends today, we’re not talking to each other two days later, and we’re back to being besties the next week. It always felt like I could do nothing right either: I dressed in black and I was labelled an emo. I wore a beanie and I was a punk. I spoke my mind and I got stared at. I answered a question in class or even turned something in and I was called a teacher’s pet and a wannabe. I didn’t want to talk about it to my parents or anyone because I didn’t think they’d understand or they’d brush it off as nothing more than middle school drama. My skin broke out and I was gaining weight like crazy.
I was even more confused and isolated in seventh grade. Talk about not being able to do anything right: if I even so much as opened my mouth to sneeze, I got a dirty look. I was overweight and I felt gross and ashamed of my body. I would often go for a whole day without eating to try to lose weight. It finally came to a point I deliberately put a sharp edge to my fingers—not my wrists, my fingers. I quit doing that after just a few days because I hate feeling physical pain. Not a day would go by when someone would rudely ask me when’s the last time I took a shower or mistake me for a boy.
My grandpa died in 2006 (right in the heart of seventh grade, too) from brain cancer: if you ask me, the treatment is what killed him because he was exposed to low doses of radioactive material for thirty years working in a nuclear power plant. After his death, my dad’s side of the family, simply put, went crazy: there was so much fighting between my parents and my dad’s brothers. Around that time, I really got into music, discovering bands like Green Day, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Nine Inch Nails, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Audioslave, Black Sabbath, Korn, Tool (again!), Faith No More, Metallica, Silverchair, and so many others; I also developed a great respect for the music of the 1960s and country western, motown, and R&B, too (might as well: rock n’ roll is descended from those three genres). I found a love of drawing then, too: I would draw a little cartoonish expy of myself, pulling influence from manga and dark art, wishing for something somewhere to make me more of a girl and to exorcize these hateful neurotic bitches around me from my life.
About a year later, my cousin died a slow, very progressive death of fatal injuries from a horrible car accident and it was from there that my trust for everyone on that side of the family began to slip. My grandmother developed dementia that year: I don’t really have a lot of kind words to say about her because she’s always been trying to convert me to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, even after I refused going to meetings and repeatedly saying no, and she’s never had anything decent to eat, or anything to eat really, after my grandpa’s death, and she’s always been a bit rude to my mom, too.
In high school, I thought I had found my calling by deciding to go into engineering. I wasn’t the kind of kid who went to parties or wanted to kiss boys or anything like that: I just wanted to go to my classes and learn things and then return home to be with my parents or with my thoughts and my music and my drawing, which I made into a hobby. I found out I have a knack for languages, too: I took French class all four years and I picked it up within seconds of the first day of class in my freshman year.
The bullying still continued throughout high school, except it was more about petty shit that people just wouldn’t let go, like going one day smelling like last night’s dinner or an off hand comment that just slipped out. Some time in the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I decided that it’d be time to show these shallow pricks what for and decided grooming myself better: I wore more blouses and started experimenting with new soft, powdery scents and color palettes like sexy jewel tones and earth tones (my brother got married to a rather girly girl, too, so that especially helped). My senior year was bittersweet: senior year is always bittersweet, but mine was a double dose of that. I took four AP classes that year, I continued my streak of being on honor roll five years in a row, I found myself wanting to become more cultured as well as knowledgeable, and I decided to go to school in Oregon—I just wanted to get out of Tehachapi, anywhere else was fine just so long as I get the hell out of there. But my parents divorced after nearly thirty years together two months before my graduation, my dad and I lost our house, and I was all alone in that last month, all alone when I needed good support for my AP exams, finals, and graduation. My only friend at the time was my copy of Soundgarden’s album Superunknown (and decidedly my favorite album ever, too). I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to talk about it to anyone. I couldn’t even tell it to a counselor. I would always get hushed or side eyed for things like that.
I went to Oregon by myself by train because I didn’t drive and decided not to get my license because I was going out of state anyways; although my aunt who lived in Sacramento, just a few hours down the road, helped me move into my dorm and my mom was going to be there in town attending the same school as me. I decided to patch it up with her because I don’t like bearing grudges. That first semester was so fun: I decided to just socialize with everyone and have fun. My roommate over Christmas, though: moreover, I never found out why, so for the last semester I had the room to myself. It was nice at first but by my 19th birthday, I was feeling lonely. I rediscovered my love of drawing by making little cartoons of the four guys from Soundgarden. I moved off campus with my mom about four blocks from school and that whole summer I just spent making art and trying to revamp the primitive style I had played with in middle school, playing around with black and blue ink and graphite. That fall I fell seriously depressed: I was stressed out by class and I just wanted to make art. I noticed some other emotions that I hadn’t dealt with before: like I found myself getting angry about something that happened to me in 2009 or replaying a fight between my dad and his brother over and over again. I found I had dysthymia, or persistent depression, that October; I tried to take my own life three times that winter. I didn’t want to have to face those emotions head on because I knew they were just cold and ugly like my body. I didn’t care: I just wanted out from the suffering of being full of dark, strange thoughts and trapped in a stark, stale environment that only cares about your success and not necessarily about how you feel or who you are as a person (I’ve never liked our education system, I’ll say that much).
I finally broke through to my mom that I wanted to be in the arts so the week before Spring Break 2013, we drove down to the little community college there in town to enroll me into the general arts program with the goal of going to a real art school somewhere some day. I continued to struggle with emotions and mental illness for a whole year: I wrote to my hero Ben Shepherd (Soundgarden’s bassist) in March 2014 and then again for his birthday that September, telling him some of my story and his influence on me and my art and how much I want to thank him for everything really. On a side note, I’ve seen Soundgarden a total of four times!
My mom and I moved back to Tehachapi, to an older house on a hill at just under 7000 feet, in 2015 after our graduations: neither of us wanted to leave Oregon because we love the Northwest so much (it’s another 600 miles away from Ben Shepherd, too). I saw and met Chris Cornell in Santa Barbara that September: I got to shake his hand, get an inch from his face, and give him a painting; he was a fan of my cartoons, too, and when I thought for sure no one would see or care about them, either. All the while, my dad had gotten sober: even though I’m proud of him, I can’t help but feel he’s a different person now. He always keeps telling me to do this, not that; go for this job, not that one; socialize with these people because I said so not because I think it’s a match made in heaven. I finally told him to back off and he took it completely the wrong way: now the whole family thinks I’m mental and I’m going to hurt someone or myself (when I can’t even so much as kill an insect) so take me to the psych ward already.
I’ve always been really confused about what it means to be a woman, in particular a feminine woman. My mom did, I would say an okay job of being a female role model, although she, like me, is the only girl in her family, and her mother (my grandma) was, too: I have my brother and all my cousins are boys. My mom’s a tomboy and therefore I am, too. I’ve probably owned all of ten dresses in my life. I’m one of those girls who looks overmade when it comes to make up so I don’t even bother. I do like flaunting my chest and my hips, and I’ve always had a deep love for the human belly, too: I’ve always been fascinated by weird taboos like that, something that no one really talks about and when they do it’s not in a good light. But I’m definitely riding on the fine line between femininity and androgyny, and I have been since I was 16, something I get a lot of flak for, and I really want to understand why that is, too.
Don’t let my baby face fool you: I’ve always had this deep dark creature inside me, like a big black scorpion with her stinger aimed high, waiting to inject her lethal injection into the next bully who gaslights her or gets up all in her face. I’m very much a still waters run deep person. I’m naturally a recluse: if ever I’m not, I start to question the people I’m with and if they’re even worth it. It’s at the point now I don’t look at people and think “oh, they might be interesting to speak to or befriend.” So, just by nature, I seek solitude. I’ve been hurt so many times that it’s in my essence to choose to be alone. There are times I get militant about that, like “don’t you dare tell me to go out and socialize!” or (one that comes up a lot) “don’t you dare tell me how to feel!”
A recurring fantasy for me is driving up the Highway 101 (Pacific Coast Highway) from Ventura going all the way up to Seattle: just me and the ocean, and occasionally pitching a tent on the sand. The ocean and any body of water is where my soul is at peace, it really is. I’ve always loved taking a shower and feeling water cascade onto my head and the really soft parts of my body like my belly, or walking in the rain or a fine mist, or just being in a bath tub and laying on my back, and my upper body floats whereas my legs sink down. I’ll get thoughts every now and then, wondering what it’d be like if I was a mermaid. One of my favorite things ever is going to sleep with a full tummy and hearing the rain on the roof. I’ve always been fascinated by thunderstorms, too, especially the nocturnal ones. It’s all just me, too, I’m not with anyone else. It sounds really odd once you consider I’m into team sports like softball and field hockey. It sounds even more odd when you find out I’m actually not a very good swimmer. It sound even more odd when you find out one of my wishes in life is to connect with another person, and they’re with me for a long time, too, not just for a brief time like my best friend in elementary school, my grandpa, or Chris Cornell.
It’s not that I don’t like people: I love people, especially men. It’s just I don’t like how they usually treat me and each other. It’s like there’s I can do nothing right, or adult, or competent, or whatever. I don’t like how I’m always taking the back seat, whether it’s conscious or not for the other person, and they wonder why I’m often pushed to my breaking point and they never see me again.
I’m fighting a massive uphill battle to love myself and to heal the wounds on my spirit since February 2016 when I wrote to Ben Shepherd a third time calling him handsome and sweet and wholeheartedly telling him I loved his mom: I get so much flak for liking him too, because he’s old enough to be my dad but I love him anyways. Since about 2013, I’ve been looking for female role models who are dark haired and kind of exotic looking (Rihanna, Salma Hayek, Sandra Bullock, Jane Russell, Elizabeth Taylor, Bettie Page, Ann Wilson, Amy Lee, Bjork). I still get side eyed for looking the way I do and the way I dress. I get a lot of judgmental looks now more than ever because I gained a ton of weight since 2014: my face is a lot rounder and overall I’m a lot fuller than when I was 14 and skinny. In all honesty, I think there’s something really sweet about having some extra softness. I often feel like people patronize me, too, because I’m in the arts and I’m full of love when the arts are arguably the most human path ever, and I’m a hell of a lot smarter than I look, and love is one thing that will save us all. I think no matter where I go someone will impose stupid restrictions onto me and expect too much or something that isn’t like me, but I’m still reluctant to call myself amazing. It’s just difficult after 24 years of being repeatedly told, explicitly or not, that I’m not good enough and God forbid I ever own up to being a woman.
Simply put, it’s at the point now I can’t keep eating cake with the black wool pulled over my body anymore and I have to tell the world the whole story of nirvhannah the black sheep.