23 Things I Learned Before Turning 23

  1. Enjoy the things you like loudly, proudly, and unapologetically. 

    Yes, for my college graduation gift, my mom took me to a Taylor Swift concert, and yes, I cried. I don’t care if this isn’t “cool.” I had an incredible time, and so did my mom. 


  2. Don’t buy underwear with someone in mind. 


  3. You can’t go wrong with splurging on a nice lipstick or blush.
    
Blush is crucial to looking like a real human being after applying liquid foundation. It replaces bronzer entirely, especially if you are as dedicated to the 80s aesthetic as I am. The product itself lasts a weirdly long time because how much blush can a singular human being go through if they’re not Boy George? In addition, I recently purchased a $30 Marc Jacobs lipstick after savoring a Sephora free sample of it for a full year. It doesn’t dry my lips out. It was worth every penny. 


  4. Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. 

    Dating is weird. Millennials have a hard time with the “exclusivity” thing (Clarification: I don’t, but apparently that’s weird to the people I date) and that creates a bizarre dynamic in which you are required to put your metaphoric eggs in more than one basket or else you’ll end up with a disappointing omelette. Unless you’re cool with getting your feelings hurt, take your time and keep your options open until intentions have been honestly communicated. This isn’t cynicism; this is practicality. 


  5. Invest in a good pair of leather (or vegan leather) boots.
    It may cost you a good $300-$400 now, but you’ll never have to do it again. 


  6. Personalizing your space is crucial in enjoying yourself in that space.
    
Your headspace is inherently connected to your physical space. Cultivating a beautiful area in your home, in your cube, and even in your car makes life a little more comfortable. 


  7. Life is hard; stop beating yourself up. 

    On @manicpixiememequeen, a lot of my followers reach out to me asking about how to forgive themselves and moving on from the past. Life can be so trying, and you’re inevitably going to have some mistakes and rough times. Personally, I’ve never let a single thing go in my entire life, but I’d be a lot healthier if I did.

  8. What you initially may consider “mistakes” are probably crucial parts of your life-path.
    
In late May of 2018, I moved to New Jersey without a job or a plan. Feeling defeated and demoralized, I moved back to California in early October 2018. Were those four months a loss to me? No. They taught me infinite lessons I would never have learned if I had stayed in California. See “Dreams Deferred.” 


  9. Make your bed daily, and please, for the love of God, floss. 


  10. Keep your friends close and your enemies blocked.
    
Block your enemies/exes/ex-friends! Banish that negativity! In the world of social media, it’s so easy to stalk your ex-lovers or ex-friends, and it’s so tempting to do so! However, knowing what those shitty people are up to does nothing for you but create anger and anxiety. Even though it’s hard to block those people and even easier to stalk them, please try to block them. Honestly, they could give you the evil eye. Compromise: muting their profile. (Which, in fact, I do frequently. Unfollowing is another option but for some reason just feels petty. Either continue to follow and mute, or block entirely. I’m not an unfollow kind of person). 


  11. Find a signature haircut and a signature nail color and rock it.
    
For me, it’s a Stevie Nicks-esque long shag cut with curtain bangs and an obnoxious yellow nail polish. At least no one else can say it’s theirs. 


  12. Sometimes, things change that you never think will change. 

    Since my birth, I had a bizarre and inexplicable fear of dogs. All dogs. Even an adorable golden retriever puppy or something as small as a teacup Yorkshire terrier. I would immediately break out in a panic attack. I couldn’t go to friends’ houses if they had a dog or even go to public parks. Sophomore year of high school, I quit my soccer team because seeing dogs in distant fields was unbearable with my phobia. In 2016, I went on Zoloft for generalized anxiety, and it did not work. However, when I stopped taking Zoloft, I somehow did not have a dog phobia. Recently, a coworker brought his dog into the office and I was 100% fine; I looked back on my dog-phobic past, realizing that you never quite can predict what is possible, what will change, and why, but things do change, and sometimes that’s pretty rad. 


  13. Crying is cool.

    …pretending that you don’t have feelings is not! Our experiences are amazing because we feel horrible things and happy things, sometimes all at once. If we didn’t cry, there would be no recognition of the pain or the wonder of life. Owning when you are feeling shitty through a good old-fashioned Kim Kardashian ugly cry feels good, and so does owning a good ass happy cry. So, crying rocks. 


  14. When you’re intimidated by someone, just remember that they have had diarrhea before. 


  15. It’s okay to ask for help.
    You’re really not supposed to do it on your own. You’re a human, not some sort of weird lone wolf or Eric Carmen. During my most difficult time with anorexia, I told my mom and dad that I needed help, and they helped me find treatment (actually, many different treatment centers—massive shoutout to my thorough and incredible parents). Even though a lot of those options were not a fit, they eventually led me to a program that did not cure me, but did save my life, and for that, I’m eternally grateful. 


  16. You never know the full story.
    Your friends, siblings, parents, grandparents, coworkers—literally everyone—will never have time to fully give you their life-story. There are always stories and facts left out, sometimes incredibly crucial ones that give context for actions and behaviors. Take everything with a grain of salt, and give everyone an ounce of empathy, even if you think they don’t fully deserve it. 


  17. Seriously, drink more water. 


  18. I am privileged, and I have a responsibility to recognize it and use it for good.
    
As a white, middle/upper class, cis-gendered female, I have a responsibility to use my voice for my brothers, sisters, and siblings who face discrimination and systematic oppression. You’ll see me at the women’s march, transgender rights protests, LGBTQ+ pride, Black Lives Matter protests, and promoting universal comprehensive healthcare reform that includes mental healthcare. Not recognizing and using my privilege for good would just be an irresponsible abuse of it.


  19. You can love the Top 40 hits while jamming to a weird mix of grunge, indie, classic rock, country, jazz, and rap.
    My dad taught me this lesson early in life—his playlists are neurotic and amazing. They jump from Jim Croce to Milli Vanilli to U2 to Johnny Cash to Rihanna to Paul McCartney. My playlists are similar, ranging from Fleetwood Mac to Hole to Dolly Parton to Post Malone to Led Zeppelin to Lady Gaga to specifically “Stir Fry” by Migos, and I carry no shame about it. Life offers us so much variety; the things you enjoy shouldn’t be mutually exclusive or shameful. Guilty pleasures are a myth. See #1. 


  20. Staying in a hotel room entirely by yourself is liberating.

  21. Knowing lesser-known varietals of wine is beneficial to both the wallet and the palette.
    See: Lambrusco, Falanghina, Suave, Garganega. In addition, you can get a decent Chianti or Pinot Grigio at Trader Joe’s for under $10. The quality of a wine isn’t always about a price point.

  22. Bringing homemade bread to a potluck or dinner party will impress any person there.

    You may even make a friend or a significant other. Personally, I make these herbed rolls, which are easy AF to make and a crowd favorite. (This is not sponsored; I genuinely just love these rolls).

  23. Don’t compromise yourself for anyone.
    
I’ve been in too many relationships in which I compromised myself and my goals for another person. In one particular relationship, I adjusted my entire life-plan (at the time, it was to be in publishing in NYC—note: life-plans can change) in order to stay with him. I decided that I wouldn’t do the things that I had dreamt of doing for years, and all of my loved ones looked on saying, “Cori, is that you?” and I was like, “Well, yes, but I’m not entirely sure—I just need to stay with said person!” When we broke up, I realized my dreams had the ability to be resurrected, and I moved to the East Coast to pursue them. As Janis Joplin said, “Don’t compromise yourself. You’re all you’ve got.” All relationships are difficult, so compromise healthily, but you genuinely are all you have to count on, so never compromise yourself or your values.

This listicle was inspired by Taylor Swift’s article in Elle’s Magazine, “30 Things I Learned Before Turning 30.”

I turn 23 on June 4!

In Memory of Keith Hartwig

January 8, 2018, 8:55am: “Oh no! I hope this is the right phone number. I think it is you, Co. Anyway, listen, I wanted to see how you’re doing, and yeah…life is fun, ain’t it, at times? But you are too talented, you have so much going for you, and c’mon. You gotta kick ass. You, out of anyone, could kick ass. That’d be you. You’re a smart, talented, pretty lady. Anyway, I just want to tell you that I love you, and you’re always my biggest fan. I think you’re just so gifted, and I’m not just saying this, you have so much talent, you do, and um—I might have a little more. I’m Keith. *laughs* It don’t get better than that. Anyway, I love you, kid, and I’ll talk to you soon, and I just hope you’re doing well. And I love the fact that you’re, you know, doing what you gotta to do and all that. Alright? I love you, kid, hang in there, be tough, be strong—well, that’s what they told me too, but I’m there, and I ain’t being strong. So you gotta hang in there with me, kid, alright? I love you to death, Co. Hang in there. Love you. Bye.”

—Keith’s voicemail to me, the first of three.

***

Content warning: anorexia, suicide.

I am six years old. I don’t need glasses yet. It’s Thanksgiving. I still like holidays, not because they are vacations but because of the natural novelty of them. I sit on my twin bed and wait for my family to arrive, peering out of my window that looks down on the street. Earlier than called for, I see my uncle’s pickup truck roll by and park by the mailbox. I run outside barefoot.

“Hey, kid!” my uncle Keith says with a toothy grin. He has a styrofoam cup of coffee in one hand and greets me with the other. He has Timberland boots on (before they were considered fashionable) and cargo pants. He is the coolest person in the world. He lights a Marlboro and tells me to sit on the small retaining wall off of the side of the porch to shield me from the smoke. He tells me funny stories about nothing. Every time he goes out to smoke, I follow him. He tells me that I don’t have to follow him out. I tell him that I want to follow him out. He lets me.

I am fourteen years old. I have short hair, braces, glasses, and a horrendous level of insecurity corresponding to my awkward adolescence. Dad tells me Uncle Keith is coming to live with us for a while. I do not know why this is, but I do not ask questions. He sleeps in the loft upstairs. I like having him around.

“What did you do today?” my mom asks me and my younger brother at dinner.

“Not much. I just did some homework, then I wrote a song,” I reply.

“You wrote a song?!” Keith says. “Can we hear it?”

My insecurity flashes across my entire being, but somehow I end up bringing out my guitar and singing a tune called “Breathless” in the living room to my family. Keith cries. It is then that I realize that I can actually sing, after years of people telling me that I was tone-deaf.

Keith goes back to live in New Jersey on June 3, the day before my fifteenth birthday. It isn’t a memorable birthday at all.

I am twenty years old. It is a Tuesday that happens to be Valentine’s Day. It is my brother’s birthday. Two days pass. During a lecture, I receive a text, “I’m so sorry about your uncle” without knowing which uncle or what happened, but I know it is Keith and I know it is self-inflicted, now aware that the reason that he lived with us when I was fourteen was because of a suicide attempt. I am old enough to know that history repeats itself. I exit the classroom and go home. Keith is in the hospital. I cannot process this loss until he comes home to us in May. He is on crutches and has a scar across the top of his head like headphones. I give him my room at my parents’ house. I spend more time at my apartment near the university. He still wears Timberlands. He is still cool as hell. We sit outside in the backyard. We watch the birds and the sky’s gradient fade into different versions of itself. I tell him about school, friends, music, dates.

“Do you love him?” Keith asks me after I’ve told him about a date with someone I have been seeing for a while.

“I think so.”

Keith smiles. He has a preoccupation with love. He especially likes the songs I write during this time.

I am twenty-one years old. After six months and their challenges, fights, and outbursts, my parents and Keith have decided that it is time for him to move back to New Jersey. My dad says goodbye at the airport. It is Thanksgiving, but I do not run outside barefoot. We are a family of four again, but almost three. I do not eat Thanksgiving dinner beyond vegetables. By the beginning of January, I begin an outpatient treatment program at a hospital in Berkeley. Keith calls me the morning of orientation and leaves a voicemail to tell me that he is happy that I am going. I do not return the call. He calls again on January 10, twice. By then, I have already quit the program. I don’t return those calls either.

Three weeks later, I am Keith’s profile picture on Facebook. In that moment, I know. The photo is a close crop of me at a healthy weight, posted while I am going through intervention-esque treatment for anorexia. He captions it, “My gorgeous niece Cori Hartwig!” I comment and tell him that I love him. He replies, “You’re The Best Co! I Love You! Hope Everything’s going Great over there!” This is our last exchange.

Consumed with my own disappearance, I forget that other people have the ability to disappear as well. By the time I overcome my state of being snow-blind from the flurry of doctors and hospitals and skin and bones, he is lost to me.

I am twenty-one years old. History repeats itself. It is immortalized in police reports, filled and unused prescriptions, receipt paper, license plate numbers, anonymous news headlines, security footage in retail stores. We piece together timelines and stories. There is no note.

Hang in there, be tough, be strong—well, that’s what they told me too, but I’m there, and I ain’t being strong.

There is no note, but there are voicemails and calls left unreturned.

I am twenty-two years old. There is a spider on my wall. I watch it crawl like I watch the memories from the Pennsylvania split-level, from downtown Pleasanton at the coffeehouse (now closed), from our walk to the middle school, from the backyard, from the Pacifica shore, from the boat on Lake Del Valle two birthdays ago. I watch it crawl. It is two in the morning and my eyes grow heavy with sleep, my vision cloudy like cigarette smoke on the porch. I wish there was an easy way to tie everything up, to package it gracefully, to set it aside, and to indulge in these memories without feeling the grit and friction of grief against my consciousness. I wish there was an easy way to know that a soul is okay, an easy way to show a spirit a new song you’ve written, an easy way to share one last conversation, an easy way to return one last phone call, an easy way to turn back time and take away their pain before it could cause collateral suffering to those in their wake, an easy way to bring their presence back to you—even for a split second. Until then, I pray. I pray, I pray, I pray, and I remember.

keithsquirrel.JPG

Rest in peace Keith Hartwig

07/02/1968—02/28/2018

Redefining Recovery

Content warning: eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, EDNOS).

Last Valentine’s Day, I sat alone in the waiting room of the eating disorder wing in UCSF’s children’s hospital—crying mid-morning on a Wednesday. It was about three weeks since my anorexia-induced heart scare. The sense of my own inescapable mortality hovered like fruit flies over browning bananas forgotten on a kitchen counter.

“Cori?” a nurse called me back down a fluorescent white corridor. I followed her into a sterile room decorated for someone at least a decade to a decade and a half younger than me—Curious George stickers on the walls. The nurse instructed for me to take off my shoes and leave them with my bag in the room while we went into the hall to measure my height for the third week in a row as if they expected it to change. She noted it onto a clipboard and motioned for me to come into another horribly lit room.

I took off my clothes (down to my bare ass) behind a curtain, as she instructed, and put on the hospital gown. Knowing the routine, I stepped backwards onto the scale and the nurse scribbled down my weight without informing me of my progress towards weight restoration. I redressed and made my way back to the room with my belongings.

“The doctor will be right with you,” the nurse said, after taking further vitals. She shut the door.

I laid on the lined table, thin paper crinkling beneath my still thinning hair—the long, lean light bulbs stinging my eyes. My skin still didn’t feel like mine. My clothes were beginning to fit differently. Under the instruction of professionals, my parents removed the scale from my apartment. All of my control was surrendered to further my life.

Curious George, that sick, happy creature, mocked me with balloons and joy and livelihood as I laid on the table, seemingly ready for dissection. Over the past few weeks, I had been struggling with the aggressive recovery meal-plan that forced me to eat essentially six meals a day (three regularly portioned meals, three Cheesecake Factory portioned meals) even though I had been starving myself for the past five months. My psychotherapist and I asked the doctors to adjust the meal-plan so I would gain approximately half a pound to a pound a week (instead of UCSF’s intended one to two pounds a week) because of the psychological implications of my body dysmorphia. The doctors did not listen, despite my requests backed by another mental healthcare professional. Over the course of my pseudo-recovery, I gained on average four pounds a week without any adjustment in my meal-plan, and I even received criticism from a doctor telling me that the rate in which my recovery was happening was “not fast enough” and that I “really needed to adhere to the meal-plan as directed.” This encouraged behaviors that led to me developing bulimia, which I had never struggled with before my weight restoration. Every night I curled up to a heating pad over a bloated belly, struggling with a compulsion to rid my body of the pain of its own nourishment. A lump in my throat. Crying into a damp pillow. Food up to the vocal cords. And there those sick stickers were, plastered on the walls with their monkeyish pleasantry despite the fact that I had been crying the night before, and the night before that, and the night before that, and even in the waiting room fifteen minutes prior. How dare they remind me of living when I had been in the process of dying!

Later, I asked my therapist what recovery looked like. She spoke of intuitive eating, body acceptance, self-love, eating without guilt, yada yada yada. I knew that.

“I’m sick, but I’m not an idiot,” I wanted to say. I didn’t.

Beyond weight restoration, I had no concept of what recovery looked like in reality, but I knew that this was not it. With the newfound bulimia (which felt like anorexia’s long-lost uglier sister), I knew that on the surface I looked healthier, but I was actually unhealthier, or maybe equally just as unhealthy. Every time I skipped a meal or purged or had a low-calorie food and passed it off as the regular calorie version I plunged into a senseless pit of guilt that overwhelmed every ounce of my being. I wanted to be better in the depths of my soul, but I did not know how, and I was tallying every mistake I made like a prisoner counting the days on the wall of his cell.

It was then that I realized that everyone around me had it completely wrong.

It was not about my weight, the numbers that corresponded to my body or medications, it was not about charts, putting labels to moods and feelings—it wasn’t about any of that at all.

In the urgency of treatment, everyone had forgotten that I was a human. Instead, anorexic had been scribed on my forehead, and I had been treated with the most prescribed, unpersonalized care that fit that brand of illness. They had sent me off with a healthier number but not a healthier mindset and pushed me off assuming I’d go floating away into the sunset like the end of Grease, when in reality, I felt like they had tied me down to a coal mining cart, pushed me down a darkened railway, and called the depths “recovery.”

With the distance between the present me and the me crying in the waiting room of the hospital, I’ve found that the failures of my so-called recovery are not on me as much as they are on the “perfect recovery” narrative. As much as I would love intuitive eating, self-love, eating without guilt, and body acceptance, I have been struggling with these issues since I was six years old—compulsively riding my bike around the block trying to burn off the one-hundred calories of the Oreo Thins or Cheez-Its in my lunchbox at school, packaged in conveniently marketed “100-Calorie-Packs.” How do you unlearn behaviors that grew with you like an identical twin?

Currently, our recovery narrative sets us up for failure. Instead of openly discussing relapses, comorbidity, concurrent treatment options, alternative treatment options, we focus on why we are not adhering to the linear, upward, positive recovery path. The narrative intoxicates us, creating imaginary sharp lines between wins and losses, and magnifying every blip in the process to leave us discouraged and ultimately more prone to give up completely.

The mental health professionals I have worked with have been trained to insist that full, long-term recovery is so possible and so accessible that my natural ups-and-downs in the process feel like personal failures. If they insist that it is so possible, then why can’t I achieve it?

Mental illnesses are chronic illnesses. Inherently, you do not recover from a chronic illness. If you told someone with diabetes or Hashimoto’s disease or epilepsy to do one phase of treatment and then recover fully, you’d be seen as a complete ignoramus. So why aren’t our mental healthcare professionals treating mental illnesses as chronic illnesses that need continual monitoring, management, and attention?

A year later, I am still struggling with eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and other mental illnesses. While I am grateful for the treatment that saved my life, I recognize its shortcomings in its perpetuation of the perfect recovery narrative that is completely incompatible with any chronic illness narrative. At a professional level, we have to make changes in treating mental illnesses by not portraying mental illness recovery, but by portraying sustainable mental health management. Management is not linear, clean, or perfect, but a process that you must go through with honesty, vulnerability, and strength, and professionals must respect patients’ humanity and dignity beyond the pathology of diagnoses. Without an empathetic, personalized, and realistic model, we continue to set ourselves up for so-called failure, when in reality, we need to be set up to forgive ourselves and better ourselves for an overall healthier future.