On Amy Winehouse, Cheryl Strayed, and finding yourself

Niki began her studies in English with a creative nonfiction focus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She continued on to earn a Master’s degree in American literature at the University of Nebraska before completing the MA in creative writing at University College Dublin. Currently at the University of Edinburgh, Niki is in the second year of her PhD, focusing on humorous, first-person journalism from Mark Twain to Stephen Colbert. Broadly speaking, she aims to highlight the continued relevance of truthiness and post-truth in literary journalism.

“I broke a bottle, and I cut my arm. And then she grabbed the bottle off me and she nicked her arm, and she said, ‘I’ll do anything you do.’”

In a raspy monotone, Blake Fielder-Civil recalls the result of a drug binge with former wife, Amy Winehouse, in Asif Kapadia’s 2015 Academy Award-winning documentary Amy. Along with portraying her friendships and family history, the film includes details of her relationship with Fielder-Civil from its beginning to her death in 2011. Kapadia stresses how Winehouse’s death at 27 cut short a promising career. He highlights all of Winehouse’s achievements—her hit songs, her Grammy Awards, her duet with her idol, Tony Bennett. But Kapadia also points to the many factors that contributed to her death from alcohol poisoning—her strained relationship with her father, her drug and alcohol addictions combined with bulimia, and her toxic relationship with Fielder-Civil, fellow addict and enabler.

Fielder-Civil’s recollection stuck with me after viewing the film many times. In the past year, I watched either the film or its trailer whenever I fell into a depressed rut.  2016 was not kind to many people for many reasons, and I was no exception. Repeatedly, panic attacks left me breathless and dizzy. Irrational thoughts invaded and intensified, until I fully believed my peers hated me. My prevailing thought metastasized into a mantra: “I don’t mean anything to anyone.”

My tendencies grew increasingly unsustainable. I needed to confront how I lived and died with everyone’s approval. I could no longer continue adopting others’ harmful worldviews, completely abandoning my own. When Fielder-Civil relayed all the instances Winehouse harmed herself to mirror him, he spoke to an inclination I knew well—and despised.

If I wasn’t watching Amy repeatedly, I immersed myself in another story about a woman struggling with her own baggage, both internal and external. Again, I watched either the trailer or the film on tough days before eventually reading her memoir. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed details her 1,100-mile hike along the California coast in 1995, four years after her mother died suddenly of lung cancer. A heroin addiction and multiple infidelities followed her mother’s death and led to her divorce. Strayed chose a new last name and embodied it to the fullest, setting off to hike the Pacific Crest Trail—alone. A 26-year-old woman with only a monstrous backpack of supplies, Strayed finished the hike in three months and went on to write the bestselling memoir that became the first selection of Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 and the source for the Academy Award-nominated film.

I admired Strayed’s unrelenting determination to hike through all kinds of terrain and weather conditions, but I admired most how she chose to walk the trail alone. I especially felt an affinity for her story when I set off to start a PhD in Edinburgh, 4,500 miles from home. Obviously I did not walk those miles. But I did carry a different kind of weight in my unrealistic expectations. A new place full of strangers would allow for a new start and the opportunity to leave behind painful memories. Past wounds would be mere anecdotes in my new beginning.

It didn’t take long for it to unravel. My self-worth was still something I disregarded, my self-loathing increasing with every toxic choice. Talking with my sister, she described her dreams about me chasing rattlesnakes.

I created a terribly reductive dichotomy in my head. I could either be an Amy or a Cheryl. I could let toxic relationships destroy me or let their end mark the beginning of a transformation. I could disappear or come back stronger.

I saw myself as Amy for a while, defeated so thoroughly, and then I saw myself as Cheryl, surging ahead and brimming with determination. Before long, I was back to harming myself, and I continued dramatically veering between the two opposites.

My day-to-day remained turbulent until I told a friend about the inspiration I drew from listening to a TED Talk by Cheryl Strayed. My friend responded, “But you know, you also have your own narrative to construct. Don’t feel like you have to follow someone else’s.” It dawned on me where I had really been going wrong. I was still adopting someone else’s story. Rather than facing the root of the problem, I just sought new narratives to distract me. I was neither Amy nor Cheryl; their stories belonged to them. I write my own story. And that could no longer be a source of shame or a truth to avoid, but a gift to embrace.

By the end of 2016, I was tired of crying. I didn’t want to send friends alarming messages about self-harm anymore. I didn’t want the only part of myself I faced daily to be the ugliest. I wanted to start 2017 with love, truly and fully free.

The one thing I hang onto from my experience of pretending to be on someone else’s journey is a phrase from Wild: trail magic. Defined as the unexpected surprises that hikers on the PCT came across, I keep my eyes open for trail magic. Every day has some—the simple pleasure of sun-soaked streets or the friendliness of a stranger at the grocery store, as trite as it sounds. Going from having no hope in my reach to finding it in life’s minutiae, I’m training myself to see as much trail magic as I can, no longer burdened by damning narratives or ones belonging to others, writing my own instead.

The end of 2016 brought me the biggest gift of trail magic. My niece, Olivia, visited my hometown in Nebraska from California, and she quickly confirmed the value of seeing my story as my own.

At four-and-a-half, Olivia knows nothing of what I’ve done or what has been done to me, the retreats in my mind to my most painful experiences, the visions of different choices. I wouldn’t explain why I responded to the 2016 presidential election with such deep sorrow and rage, horrified that voters would dismiss an audiotape encouraging sexual assault. I wouldn’t tell her of all the times friends held me as I cried.

Instead, I would hold her close as she told me repeatedly that she had missed me, that she loved me, that she enjoyed playing dress-up or make-believe with me. With each choice I made to invent new games or make Minnie Mouse-face pancakes, my light glowed brighter, and I finally, finally, saw how I was worth more than I ever allowed myself to imagine.

Olivia helped me see I could begin 2017 as a dangerous woman, one who had the courage to choose a soft heart despite painful experiences. I made the conscious decision to view all of it as a gift, to allow a child to help fill in the wounds left by cynical people, to be resilient and renewed. I left Amy Winehouse’s and Cheryl Strayed’s stories as a reminder of where I had once been, and I stopped counting all the hours I wasted on dead-end relationships, fictional or real. As a newly dangerous woman, I chose holding fast to my hope for all the hours ahead.