Scream #0: I'm a fucking mess and I'm going to process it publicly like the emo art kid I am :')
Updated: Apr 18
There’s a photograph that I swiped from my Granny’s house a few summers back. I’m 5, standing placid but unsmiling in all pink staring right at the camera; my bangs and long hair are towheaded in prepubescent gold. The frame is thick. Painted a signature navy that my Granny loves. I have it sitting on my dresser in front of the mirror that I get ready in, and a vase of flowers that I keep fresh. A quarantine indulgence.
I remember the day it was taken. My grandparents, who live on a piece of land in unincorporated Boulder County where I grew up, had agreed to take the chicks that had been hatched in my kindergarten class. In the other photos from that day my expression is elated. My little body seemingly unable to handle the adrenaline of something as incredible as chicks--but in this photo that I have framed in my bedroom I’m still, looking far older than I was when it was taken. There’s a grounded weight in my eyes. It’s one of the few pictures of myself before the age of 19 in which I recognize a look that I still carry. A small miracle when, for a few years not so long ago, it would have been nearly impossible to know that this little girl was the root of a woman at risk of total evaporation.
My father suddenly died in a ski accident on December 19th, 2016. I was told over the phone, standing outside of the locker room at a ski resort in a wet bathing suit. The rhythm of the days, weeks, months, and even years that followed are mostly lost to me. I returned to school and attempted to act normal. Denial may rival love in its power over the human experience, and I plastered on a smile in an attempt to silence the condolences of my concerned peers that merely confirmed that the worst had happened. The bulimia that had been brewing before my father’s death savagely reared its head with the depression, anxiety, and dissociation that plagued my everyday. Within 13 months, I was sexually assaulted twice by peers I would have to see on a near daily basis. Like so many survivors, the thought of reporting never crossed my mind. I hadn’t heard one story of a person going through the DePaul University system with a fine, let alone favorable, outcome for the survivor. The trauma compounded, expressing itself in yo-yos of 20-30 pounds as I binged and purged between classes that I maintained my straight A’s in. I cut and dyed my hair on a near endless loop, tattooed the flesh I couldn’t control, and bought shift dresses to camouflage the disorder that was savagely carnivorous, feeding on my mental and physical health.
A rare moment of peace captured by a friend- Summer 2017
The years turned over. I went to a lot of therapy and graduated from college. I (naively) thought that the year following my graduation would provide enough distance from an era of acute pain to inspire a regeneration of identity, but no matter what I did to move forward, walking the same well worn sidewalks, and driving the overly tread routes of Chicago engaged a constriction in my chest that I could no longer ignore. It hummed beneath everything that I did. Going to drink at innocuous bars in Logan Square, or waiting on L boarding platforms would trigger overwhelming montages of what had been. It didn’t matter if they were happy, sad, or anywhere in between. The playback was an exhausting, complex melancholia, as gels of a million former moments became layered until there was no light left for my present self.
In February of 2020 I visited my now roommate Olive in Portland. A close friend from my program, she was the only person I knew who had moved away for a job immediately after we graduated. What I discovered 1,700 miles away were streets comfortingly reminiscent of my childhood in Colorado, but completely void of my past. This is what was possible if I moved forward. Primed for a fresh start, I filled all four corners of my lungs with the deepest breath I had taken since my father had died, and decided to move.
Timberline Hotel during the Portland visit, February-2020
When I moved to Portland from Chicago last July I didn’t think I was running away from anything. I had convinced myself -- as you do when something needs to get done-- that the only reason I was leaving was connected to the necessity to bloom beyond the branches of my college years.
When friends would ask why I was moving I would reply “I just need a change of pace.” The answer should have been “I need to escape.”
I wasn’t sure that this was the right decision until I was 1,000 miles west. I was driving alone in my Prius, trailing my mom and her boyfriend Scott in the U-Haul. In our own time, we were making it up a road in Yellowstone National Park. The air smelled sweet, like wet brush and coniferous trees, and in the golden hour of early evening we were on the shadowed side of a mountain, the sun setting just beyond what we could see. I had made it to the end of a playlist for the road trip and the song “I Know the End” by Phoebe Bridgers took its cue, beginning with acoustic fingerpicking that haunts the wails of the keyboard. This mellifluously blended with the birds chirping and the gravel beneath my tires that opened a well in the back of my throat. The lyrics landed with a thud.
But you had to go
I know, I know, I know
Like a wave that crashed and melted on the shore
Not even the burnouts are out here anymore
And you had to go
I know, I know, I know
Then the violins hearkened a change in tempo. The cymbals came in and our cars picked up speed as we toppled over the peak of the mountain road. The breeze now tunneled as quickly as the peripheral swirl of green and blue, whipping my hair in the sun blast of an unobstructed waning sky.
Either way, we're not alone
I'll find a new place to be from
A haunted house with a picket fence
To float around and ghost my friends
No, I'm not afraid to disappear
The billboard said, "The end is near"
I turned around, there was nothing there
Yeah, I guess the end is here
The chorus screamed as we crossed the Idaho state line and I joined in. A scream for it all. Chicago was the diorama of my trauma regardless of the love I experienced there. I was in fact, not afraid to disappear, because I already had and was beginning the process of pulling myself back to Earth. The moment was the perfection of a song colliding with my own life, validating my instinct to go.
Yellowstone National Park
Canopy: Welcome to Woman of Extremes
In July I will have been here a year. I have watched the leaves on the magnolia tree outside of my window turn brown, fall, bud, and bloom. In this I have begun to acknowledge the pain that I have survived, allowing myself to fully honor my grief for the first time as the petals fall and are replaced by the spread of summer foliage.
Since I graduated from college two years ago I have been grappling with what I should pursue. I paint, I illustrate, I write, I sew, I dabble in guitar, and now mandolin (an impulsive late night Etsy purchase), as I work impermanent but fulfilling jobs as a nanny and as a float facilitator at a sensory deprivation tank center (I know how deeply you just rolled your eyes--I’m a Portlandia sketch). I can’t remember wanting to be anything other than an artist. My mom gave me the world through music, TV, and film. Growing up our house was never quiet. A bastion of playlists curated by my mom remains as integral to the foundation of our family home as the concrete beneath our feet. Coldplay’s first album Parachutes was my brother’s dedicated lullabye (I haven’t heard any Coldplay beyond Mylo Xyloto). She played Sufjan Stevens, The BareNaked Ladies, Sting, and Nora Jones for Christmas. Ben Folds, Corinne Bailey Ray, The Decemberists, Vampire Weekend, Michael Jackson, Beck, and Prince, during the Summer. My first Red Rocks show was in 7th grade, and from that point on my parents would take me to concerts several times a year. We inhaled tv series, films, traveling broadway shows, and art exhibits at the Denver Art Museum as a family. My mom, the master puppeteer of our cultural calendar year after year, indulging the interests of each family member.
At 8, Project Runway made me want to be a fashion designer. I began making my own playlists for friends at 9. At 11, Mad Men catapulted me into costume design. Almost Famous, Juno, When Harry Met Sally, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Lady Bird, made me want to write. I dressed and had Stevie Nicks’ haircut all of High School. I ultimately decided to go to school in Chicago because I was obsessed with the band Wilco (I very nearly went to CalArts because Stevie Nicks is from California, and Pace in NYC because of the TV show Felicity). They encouraged it all.
Senior photo, Summer-2014
My parents held an unprecedented amount of trust in the positive effects this content would have on me, and the benefits of having others’ art encircle my life from a young age. I am a person that makes sweeping statements about my future, and then quickly makes addendums because another swath of inspiration has entered my vision. I accept these turns of events with weighted reverence despite their frequency and the dizzying effect it can have.
The photo that sits on my dresser reflects this character. The heart that hasn’t changed despite everything that has happened. I can be buzzing around one moment, and captured still in the next. I appreciate the fact that I am able to hold this extraordinary sorrow of the many good-byes I wanted but was denied, and the joy that still lives in the life I am building of these ashes. It’s what my friend Madeleine put so well:
“Kiera Pitts, you are a woman of extremes!”
Having finally attained some distance in both time and place, the hindsight is illuminating. My mom planted the seed and instilled the survival tactic that would preserve this character that I have begun to understand as precious: when you don’t have the words, somebody else will, and if not words, a melody, a brush stroke, a piece of clothing, or a joke. Inspiration to persevere. To change. To forgive.
In those first few months after my father died, when I would be hit with the truth of my present, I would run. From my apartment in Wrigleyville, it was an 8-10 minute sprint down Irving Park road, a right at the lakefront trail, and a push across the baseball fields in front of the golf course clock tower; its hands that pointed to the late hour of my sprints would pull me toward the waves of a wintered Lake Michigan: icy, choppy, far from serene most evenings. I would start sobbing on the run there, or the moment I saw the water, my skin becoming as cold as the way I felt living without my dad. I would blast Car Seat Headrest, Mitski, and Radiohead. Music was the only thing loud enough to mute the mantra “you are not ok” that pulsed through my body in such seismic waves I could barely feel my own heart beat.
But I knew I wasn’t alone.
There is universality in the specifics of every human experience, and it is amazing that as a species we can translate this for the world. Life and death. Love and loss. Fully displayed in an endless array of cathartic artistic expression that unifies its audience in empathy; a parachute of reflective understanding that saves lives.
I am honoring this by launching the Woman of Extremes Scream, a weekly personal reflection on the arts that fill my life and inform the questions that I’m attempting to answer in the midst of the revolution(s) our country is reckoning with. A scream into the void, perhaps your personal void: the email inbox. These essays will be supplemented by playlists, reading lists, movie lists, collages, paintings, illustrations, and other miscellaneous pursuits of my own. I have plans--big ones-- that are morphing in my mind as I write, but for now I’ll be committing to this practice, which will be available on Sundays through Substack and my website--both linked below.
With that, I’ll leave you with one of the last texts my dad sent me, perfectly deployed at another moment of quarter life crisis five years ago: “Enjoy the moments. The future will take care of itself until you get there. Love you.”
Selfie taken this Spring