On the Women Who Pushed Me — As a Writer and in Wheelchairs

Hold onto your butts — this is gonna get sentimental.
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Louise Hung
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Hold onto your butts — this is gonna get sentimental.

Two women are responsible for changing my life: Joy Nash and Emily McCombs

One of those women I've often described as having the "road map" of my heart, the other I've never actually met in real life but was the first person who ever took a chance on my words. 

Where I'm writing from RIGHT NOW: a hotel room in Hong Kong at 2am. 

Where I'm writing from RIGHT NOW: a hotel room in Hong Kong at 2am. 

It was 2012 and I'd been living in Honolulu for a year. After leaving an enviable job in Los Angeles, I was working in a pet supply store while my husband worked on his Ph.D. at the University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa. 

The pet supply store was not a bad thing, in fact it was a very good thing. It taught me to find joy and pride in work that lots of people looked their nose down at. During the hours at the store, my turbulent mind found some peace, and I was afforded some much needed time to heal from being very sick. 

I've previously talked about how sick I was, but it's only recently hit me how frightening those months of being unable to walk and properly talk were for my friends and family. 

While in Arizona with Joy recently, I pulled out a long, flowing, tropical print dress I'd bought at a thrift store with her when I was wheelchair-bound. Tears welled up in her eyes as she told me how she'd never forget that dress. 

"You yelled out from the dressing room – from your wheelchair – 'This will be perfect for Hawai‘i!' and I just started to cry, right there in the store. I was so afraid that you wouldn't make it that long, that you wouldn't make it to Hawai‘i. I know that sounds ridiculous, but you were so sick! I was so scared."

In the years since the worst of my illness, more and more people have come forward with stories like that. I was shaken to my core when my mom said to me, "I felt like I was watching the life drain out of you."

Obviously I made it to Hawai‘i and beyond, but when I look at the arc of my life so far, I really do see it as divided into before I got sick, and after. 

No, I didn't escape to paradise and everything was all butler dolphins and yoga. That first year in Hawai‘i I hated myself, hated being alone in my own company, more than I'd ever hated anything. 

While I was happy to not be working in education anymore, a field that will always be dear to me but was just the wrongest of wrong fits for my all-consuming anxiety, and working for the betterment of animals was and is something I believe is a calling in my life (the pet store donates all its net profits to animal charities, I now manage their social media and some marketing), I was going out of my skin not using all of my brain everyday. 

I'd gone to university to be a theater artist, I'd gone to grad school to be a director, I'd been in the arts world of Los Angeles for years, my job in arts education and outreach had a clear, meaningful trajectory. And now my greatest task was memorizing grain free dog food selling points, and counting bully sticks (bull penises). 

There is no shame in such work, but it did not feed all of me. My mind was reeling from lack of creativity. Though turning my back on the education world in order to preserve my rather precarious mental and physical health was a calculated choice, it sent me tumbling into the darkest time of my life. 

I felt aimless, purposeless, and intensely guilty. I felt like I'd been given another chance at life, and I was squandering it. Fear that I had no real value in society, nothing to contribute, dictated my every move. Nothing I did was good enough, my perfectionism soared to a place that no person could ever live up to. 

I became obsessed with organizing and reorganizing the pet store stock room, and every night I'd binge watch House until 3am, sometimes sobbing over the fact that THE FAKE DOCTORS WERE MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN PEOPLE'S LIVES, AND I NEVER WOULD AGAIN. 

I actually remember thinking, on more than one occasion, "Dr. House would be disgusted by me."

During this time, it was also a habit of mine to read everything on xoJane, everyday. Joy had introduced me to the site right before I left Los Angeles. And since one of my writing idols, Lesley Kinzel, wrote there, I made it my business to gobble up the whole site. 

Once one of the contributors responded to a comment of mine mentioning, "the Great Kitten in the Sky," and I felt SO COOL. 

Joy started to push me to submit a story. "You could totally do it!" she said. "You have the Tom Hanks story! Nobody has that!"

I hemmed and hawed for weeks before finally sending in a query email. I attached some posts I'd written on Joy's blog and an essay from an "independent travel-zine" AKA a photocopied and stapled booklet that Joy and I had sent to people who donated to a show we'd produced. 

I had NO IDEA what I was doing. I still can't believe that Depressed Louise had the guts to write an email that started with:

"Hello Pitches at xoJane!

My name is Louise. I think I could write for you!"

As soon as I hit send on that email, I decided to forget about it. I probably wouldn't hear back from them anyway. But the next day I got this from Emily:

"Hey Louise. I love your writing! Would be happy to hear pitches."

Three sentences that would change my life. 

I immediately sent Emily three sorta-OK pitches (after Googling online "how to pitch to a magazine"). As an afterthought I wrote her another email saying, "I didn't send this, but there's this photo..." and a blurb about how terrible I am at being in photos. 

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She said "Yes!" and suddenly I had my first assignment. 

I wrote "I Take Shockingly Horrible Photos" while sitting in a Starbucks on Kapahulu Avenue in Honolulu, just down the street from the pet store. That Starbucks is where I wrote most of my posts in my first few months at xoJane. I often encountered my dog-customers while typing on the patio. 

I was giddy while I wrote that first post. Not only could I not believe that xo-freakin'-Jane wanted my words, but for the first time in a long, long time I felt powerful, confident, clear-headed. When I signed my freelance agreement, and emailed it off to Olivia, I texted Joy and said, "I CAN'T BELIEVE I JUST WROTE SOMETHING FOR THE SAME PLACE THAT LESLEY KINZEL WRITES AT!!!"

The piece went up and it went over well. Really well. I couldn't believe that so many people liked not just my pictures but my WORDS. 

OK fine, the photos are the best part. Here you go, one more time for good measure, I present to you, my driver's license photo: 

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The same day my post was published, I got this email from Emily:

"Hey Louise:

I LOVE your piece that's up today -- I'd love to have you contribute
regularly. Not sure what your availability is."

And then I died. 

After I came back from the dead, I wrote her back saying, "YES YES YES I AM AVAILABLE NOW AND FOREVER, AND NOW THAT I'M BACK FROM THE DEAD I'M TOTALLY WILLING TO PUT IN A GOOD WORD WITH THE GREAT KITTEN IN THE SKY FOR YOU. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU."

At least that was the subtext. 

Suddenly I had something to look forward to. I'd long been so envious of the xoJane writers who got to write about their lives and food and clothes and politics and gross things – NOW I GOT TO BE ONE OF THEM. I was so proud of myself. 

I'm sure Emily is sick of hearing me say this, but she changed my life. xoJane changed my life.

xoJane taught me how to be a writer. 

xoJane taught me how to handle myself as a woman on the Internet. 

xoJane brought me into focus. 

As of December 7th of this year, I've been a writer for xoJane for four years. In those four years I've gone from a green, anxious, wannabe-writer, to a professional writer who can say with confidence, "I am talented. I am good at my job."

And though I've gone on to write at other places, on other websites, I've always considered xoJane my home, and believe it or not, my safe place. It's because of xoJane that I got to know Lesley, and drink iced tea with her in Boston, and laugh the best laughs with her (Lesley has the most delightful, soul-brightening laugh). 

It's because of xoJane that I got to know s.e. and find a kindred spirit in all things animal related. When my beloved cat Brandy got sick this past year, it was s.e. who held my hand from thousands of miles away, offered me relentless kindness and support, and never made me explain my sadness. 

It's because of xoJane that I met my friend Amy in Japan and my friend Dannie in Hong Kong. When I was starring wide-eyed and agog at the new cities I'd moved to, two commenters reached out to me and asked, "Do you need a friend?"

It's because of xoJane that I met Joon66, the antidote to negativity on the Internet. 

I wish I had the space to thank each and every one of you lovely, strange, and generous commenters who have gifted me little doses of confidence (and even accidental writing lessons through your criticism!) over the years. I am sometimes staggered by the idea that MY WORDS MAKE IT INTO YOUR HEAD. 

So that means we kind of share a brain. Lucky you. 

I suppose what this whole sappy, sentimental post is getting at, is that my life is better because xoJane is in it. I hope that someday it continues to be. 

I'm not really sure how to wrap this up so since I was raised to be uber polite, I'll say thank you. Thank you readers, thank you fellow writers, and thank you Marci and Dan for putting up with my neurotic emails. 

Thank you Jane for letting me be a part of your world. 

And thank you Joy and Emily for pushing me in wheelchairs, as a writer, and as a human. 

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