Mary Akers: Your essay (Saint Jerry Wants a Medium Pizza with Half Pepperoni) really spoke to me, Sonya. Particularly the beginning, where you say that when you heard the list of what qualifies as abuse, you realized that you knew it already, but only for others, not for yourself. I’ve been there, and it’s a shocking moment when we realize that what we’ve been putting up with ourselves, we would call something very different if we saw someone else being subjected to it. Could you speak a little bit about that moment of realization and the perspective that it gave you?
Sonya Huber: I appreciate you saying that you’ve been there. I found it so difficult to get my bearings, and I had many moments in which I made notes to myself, trying to collect enough internal evidence to add up to clarity. It was like a version of the movie Memento, where the main character loses both his memory and sense of chronology and covers himself with tattoos and notes to retrace his own steps. I was just cleaning out some files today and found yet more notes and a pamphlet about domestic violence from a time before I thought I had concerns. I was trying to persuade myself that what I was experiencing was real. There were several small moments that each connected to the next realization; one powerful insight wasn’t enough. I had to fight every day to get back to the reality in which my opinion mattered. I made a numbered list with black marker of things I needed to do to take care of myself, and I hung it on my fridge. One of them was “Don’t keep secrets.” I had it hanging up for about a year.
I have always taken pride in my resilience. For me, that led to a sort of pride in being “tough” or “strong.” I told myself that I could handle anything, that the measure of my freedom was how much I could take without blinking. I thought that was peace. I thought that I could withdraw deep into myself like a snail or a hermit crab, and that at some point in the future, I could just come back out. But humans are not mollusks; I’ve seen the limits of my resilience. I know that there are many things I can’t handle. It took a long time to admit that, but it also led me to understand that I shouldn’t have to handle those things and that I should run from them. Certain experiences are truly dangerous, and they have lasting negative effects. Being exposed to cruelty changes a person. I guess I should have picked that up somewhere along the way, but at least I know it now.
MA: When you and I were working together on revising your piece early on, you said something like, “Well, that idea sort of took over the piece.” (It was the idea of tying into the Pizza Hut specials.) Clearly, revisions can take our work into unexpected areas. Do you find that exciting? Or burdensome?
SH: I love it. That’s the whole of writing, to me—that’s my experience every day when I sit down at the computer. I always start out with a clear idea of what I want to happen, and it never works out the way I imagined. It’s a great reminder for me in the rest of my life: my idea of “finished” and “happy” and “perfect” is never as good as what happens when I get feedback from other people, when my work collides with the rest of the world, and when I get another viewpoint. It happens in revision, too–I get to have conversations with different versions of myself on the page, and the Wednesday version of myself is usually more than willing to delete Tuesday’s paragraphs.
MA: This is one of my very favorite lines from your essay: “Other women were smart were myself were stupid were somehow here.” I just love that more than I can express. It says so much to me about how we get here, who gets here, our aloneness once we arrive and yet the universal ties we share. I realize I’m bringing my own experience to your words and creating something meaningful to me, but really, that’s what readers do, isn’t it? I’m fascinated by the idea that readers can take our words and imbue them with their own meaning. Can you tell me if what I took from that line is what you meant? And if not, does that bother you?
SH: Thank you! That’s one of those weird sentences that revision sometimes provides. I think I was in the midst of deleting a phrase and had too many verbs. The semi-nonsense pattern with all the passives made a loop that felt true to my experience. That’s exactly what I meant—that moment of each woman being alone between these verbs, just stuck. It seemed to reflect the surprising truth that I was no better or worse than anyone else in that situation—and then the shock that being stuck also meant I was part of something bigger than myself, that my experience might therefore have meaning.
MA: Ah, yes, the accidental creativity that we simply have to be open to. Isn’t that the best? Speaking of creativity, our guest illustrator, Kristin Beeler, read each piece of writing for this issue and designed a unique image for each. It’s really such a gift that an artist is willing to do that for us each issue. To me, it brings the written work to life in a new and exciting way. Her image for your essay was a very simple one, but sometimes simplicity can be the most powerful approach. What did you think of the image she chose for yours? How would you describe it as relating to your essay?
SH: That image is heartbreaking to me, the more I look at it. At first glance I thought the many small circles were pennies or pieces of pepperoni–but then I looked close and realized the hearts are formed from hammered nails. The weathered look of the metal and wood reminded me of how carefully we can compose a situation and yet how desperately we hold on to what looks like love. Those careful hearts–they remind me that nothing is simple. I’ve been in difficult situations with people who I loved and who truly loved me, and the experiences were so hard to figure out because they were mixes of care and cruelty, and neither of us knew which was which. And I’m reading about the history of Christianity right now, so it evokes the image of crucifixion. And a third set of associations is very personal, but I will say that the image itself is eerily connected to elements of my life story. Yes, the image is utterly appropriate.
MA: And finally, a question I especially love to read the answers to: what does “recovery” mean to you?
SH: Recovery evokes many beautiful /images for me: the space to breathe, to have contact with the spiritual side of my life, a chance to understand how my head works, and to learn from other people’s experiences.
For me, recovery is the opposite of the misleading term “self-help,” because I would not have glimpsed sanity without other people in intentional, structured communities. I have spent years sitting in rooms with mismatched chairs and strangers in the well-known organization for friends and family members of alcoholics and addicts. That’s my second family. So I have to go back to the basics: for me, recovery will always mean that free network where the clarity makes you laugh, the coffee is usually pretty bad, and the love helps you redefine what love means.
MA: Beautiful. Thanks for your time and insightful answers, Sonya. I really enjoyed your responses, and I think our readers will, too.
Here are links to more of Sonya’s excellent work:
Her newest book, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir
A photo essay about the writing process called “How Do I Write?” that originally appeared in The Oxford Magazine
The Amazon link for Cover Me
and for her first book, Opa Nobody