Lives don’t actually have coherent, linear story arcs, but if I had to retroactively tease one essential narrative out of mine, it’d be my transformation from a terror‐stricken mouse‐person to an unflappable human vuvuzela.
I was clinically shy as a kid. Once, in the first grade, I peed my pants in class because I was too scared to ask the teacher if I could go to the bathroom. And just a few decades later, here I am: the Ethel Merman of online fart disclosure. Women ask me: “How did you find your voice? How can I find mine?” and I desperately want to help, but the truth is, I don’t know. I used to hate myself; eventually, I didn’t anymore. I used to be shy; eventually, I made my living by talking too much. It’s flattering to believe that we transform ourselves through a set of personal tangibles, but reality is almost always more mundane. Necessity. Luck. Boredom. Exhaustion. Time. Willpower is real, but it needs the right conditions to thrive.
But I can tell you the stepping‐stones that I remember along the path from quiet to loud. Maybe, if you follow these steps to the letter, you’ll end up here too.
I was four years old, following my mother around the grocery store. She stopped near the bulk dry goods, and I stuck my hand deep into a bin of beans, cool and smooth. I thought the beans were cute, and there were so many of them, one wouldn’t be missed. When we got home, I showed my mother my prize. To my surprise, she was mad at me. It’s just one bean, I said. It’s not stealing.
“What if everyone who came to the grocery store took ‘just one bean’? How many beans would the grocery store have left?”
We drove (drove! wasted fossil fuels! we fought wars over those!) back to the store, and I returned the bean.
Third grade. My mom’s friend spread her arms for a hug. Hopped up on my latest vocab test, I gasped in mock horror, “Are you STERILE!?”
I thought “sterile” meant “germ‐free.” Turns out, it also means that your uterus doesn’t work anymore. She quipped something dry and perfect that I cannot remember. Everyone laughed at me and I hid in a small cupboard for one year.
Okay, so it was these massive palazzo pants—like polyester JNCO jeans—with a long‐sleeved velour shirt, a teal cummerbund, and a felt vest festooned with paisley appliqués and rhinestones. The overall effect was “mother‐of‐the‐ bride at a genie wedding who hot‐glue‐gunned her outfit in the parking lot of a Hobby Lobby.”
I was in this choir for 10 years.
Contrary to all of your body’s survival instincts, this is not, in fact, fatal.
Oh, you think you’re a badass for leaving the book jacket on Half-Blood Prince? Try reading Robert Jordan on the bus in 1997 with your bass clarinet case wedged between your legs while wearing a Microsoft Bob promotional T‐shirt your dad brought home from work. Then try losing your virginity.
Step Six: Break a Heel on the Stairs in Your College’s Humanities Building and Fall Down So Everyone Sees Your Underpants
You know what’s a liberating thing to figure out? Everyone’s butt looks basically how you think it looks.
Step Seven: Neglect to Tell the Heavy Metal Doofus You Lose Your Virginity to That It’s Your First Time and Then Bleed All Over His Bed
“Okay, but, having your bed anointed with virgin’s blood is like the most metal thing ever, right?”
“You should go.”
Too bad I missed the heads‐up that my landlord would be touring my apartment with two appraisers from the insurance company just as I stepped out of the shower fully nude and singing “Just Around the Riverbend” from the soundtrack of Disney’s Pocahontas! YOU’RE WELCOME FOR THE BONERS, INSURANCE APPRAISERS.
On November 17, 2010, I received this e‐mail from my handsome, gay apartment manager:
I have had complaints from tenants regarding “sex noise” coming from your apartment, really late at night. The complaints are about creaking and vocalizations late at night (3am).
Well, I am a dead body now, so problem solved.
Step Ten: Tip Over a Picnic Table While Eating a Domino’s Personal Pan Pizza in the Press Area of a Music Festival
In 2010, I found myself sitting alone at a picnic table in the press area of the Sasquatch! Music Festival, sweatily consuming a $45 Domino’s pepperoni personal pan pizza and a Diet Pepsi and hoping nobody noticed me.
Someone was interviewing the band YACHT at the next table. A little gust of wind picked up and blew my Domino’s napkin off the picnic table and onto the ground.No big deal. I leaned over, nonchalantly, to pick it up. Unfortunately, I misjudged the flimsy plastic picnic table’s center of gravity.
When I leaned over to grab the napkin, the table leaned over too.
I fell in the dirt. The pizza fell on top of me. The Diet Pepsi tipped over and glugged out all over my dress. The table fell on top of the Pepsi on top of the pizza on top of me. The napkin uttered away. EVERYONE LOOKED AT ME. The music journalists looked at me. The band YACHT looked at me. In an attempt at damage control, I yelled, “I’m really drunk, so it’s okay!” which wasn’t even true. All that anxiety about trying not to be a gross, gluttonous fat lady eating a “bad” food in public, and I wound up being the fat lady who was so excited about pizza that she threw herself to the ground and rolled around in it like a dog with a raccoon carcass. Nailed it.
Step Eleven: Get a Job Blogging for a National Publication with Thousands and Thousands of Commenters Who Will Never Be Satisfied No Matter What You Write
At a certain point you just have to be like [jack‐o motion] and do you.
Hollyweird Fun Fact: Pat Mitchell does not like this at all.
Third grade. It was third grade, okay? Are you happy?
This is the only advice I can offer. Each time something like this happens, take a breath and ask yourself, honestly:
Am I dead? Did I die? Is the world different? Has my soul splintered into a thousand shards and scattered to the winds? I think you’ll find, in nearly every case, that you are fine. Life rolls on. No one cares. Very few things—apart from death and crime—have real, irreversible stakes, and when something with real stakes happens, humiliation is the least of your worries.
You gather yourself up, and you pick the pepperoni out of your hair, and you say, “I’m sorry, Pat Mitchell, it was very nice to meet you,” and you live, little soldier. You go live.
Lindy West is a Seattle-based writer, editor, and performer whose work focuses on pop culture, social justice, humor, and body image. She’s currently a culture writer for GQ magazine and GQ.com and a weekly columnist at The Guardian, as well as the founder and editor of I Believe You | It’s Not Your Fault, an advice blog for teens. She is a former Jezebel staff writer.
Excerpted from SHRILL, by Lindy West. Copyright © 2016 by Lindy West. Reprinted with permission from Hachette Books, a division of the Hachette Book Group. All rights reserved.
Author photo by Jenny Jimenez.