Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Ninja Theory released Hellblade in August 2017. Earlier this month, a sequel was announced. And this Thursday, oblivious to the sequel announcement at that time, I played the original. That has become one of my favorite gaming experiences in 2019, and I anxiously await the follow-up title.

I haven’t played any of Ninja Theory’s other games. I had only heard of Hellblade because of the general praise for its depiction of psychosis in a video game. I didn’t have any set expectations going in. I found myself sucked in very early.

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To begin, let’s acknowledge that Hellblade is a very pretty game. That it manages to preserve so much of its graphical fidelity in this Switch port is impressive in and of itself. It’s interesting to look at–I say interesting because it’s often more fantastical, horrifying, or grotesque than beautiful.

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Combat is easy to pick up and feels good, too. It’s simple enough: heavy and light attacks, dodge, block, a headlong charge useful for disrupting certain opponents, and a focus ability that charges up over time and slows enemies down (and makes certain enemies stagger or become corporeal) when used. The formula doesn’t get mixed up much. And while new enemies are introduced over time, there are less than a dozen enemy types altogether. Sometimes battles can be trying, with multiple opponents wielding mixed arsenals. There are also several boss fights against larger, unique enemies; these fights required the most precise use of the combat system and felt uniquely desperate. If I sound muted about the combat, it’s because I am. It’s engaging most of the time, but it’s nothing special. Thankfully, the game is not combat-focused; it’s just one of three major play modes. The other two play modes are exploration and puzzles.

This is a game designed around levels, but they can often feel vast, with many paths to wander. You don’t level up in the game; Senua is Senua, and her equipment is her equipment. This isn’t a quest for gold or glory, and so there’s nothing to collect. At one point, Senua has to get a new sword, but the process of obtaining that sword is deeply tied to narrative; it’s not about fetch quests for materials or finding treasure chests with new weapons. While you do have many paths to pursue, few are truly unrelated to the narrative of the game, and the main “resource” to locate consists of the runic monoliths that, when focused on, unlock a voice-over narration about some aspect of Norse myth (as told by a deceased mentor of Senua’s). In short, exploration is part of the narrative.

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Puzzles are varied but typically revolve around the use of Senua’s focus to change her perception of reality. You might be called to detect the natural presence of a rune in the environment, or to line up symbols with the shape of a seal on a door, or to reconstruct a bridge or set of stairs by viewing the ruins from a particular angle. It’s often mind-bending, though thankfully seldom frustrating.

More than anything, this is a game about story. Senua is a Pict from Orkney in the late 8th century. She experiences psychosis, which is mainly represented in the game through delusions and hallucinations, though also through interesting use of visual phenomena and a certain sort of pattern-seeking behavior, among other things. Senua is plagued by voices, which can be hurtful or helpful. The worst of the voices is representative of the Darkness, a destructive force that she believes kills everyone she cares about and is slowly rotting away within her. The game kicks off in the wake of a Viking raid in which her lover was tortured and killed as a sacrifice to the Northmen’s gods. Senua is under the delusion that if she can take the decapitated head of her loved one to Hel and bargain with or defeat Hela, she can restore him to life. Her personal journey, and her past life, are secrets to be uncovered by the player, and I won’t get into them much more here. Suffice it to say, one of the greatest successes of the game is that it presents the journey as a fantasy narrative that the player can buy into; while you’re playing, Senua’s goals seem like reasonable objectives, as they must seem to Senua herself (in fact, she sees them as the only options). In this way, more than any particular visual or auditory device (although the use of light and color and sound is unnervingly effective), the narrative itself does a remarkable job at placing the player within Senua’s mindset. It all seems so reasonable, so plausible, that we can easily forget that we are playing a game of historical fiction, not fantasy.

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Death and fear of loss are central concerns of the game. Senua fears her own decay and death. Senua cannot get over the death of her lover. The death of her mother becomes an increasingly prevalent trauma. The game’s narrative literally sends us to Hel. But the game design also makes that fear of death part of the gameplay. Early on, Senua is infected with a variant of dark decay that creeps its way up her arm, advancing at key story moments and every time she “dies.” Death unwinds events a bit, but it has still “occurred,” and the cost is the advancement of the rot that threatens to permanently end her. She can die many times, but once the darkness reaches her head, she will die her final death. The game presents this as a risk of permadeath. This threat reinforces the fear of death in the player’s mind, but the rot progresses so slowly that it is not a primary concern, and there are so many opportunities to surge to your feet after a fall with enough button mashing that death is rare anyway, at least on the auto-difficulty that I played on. In fact, some sources I’ve seen indicate that the permadeath is all a bluff, not something that can actually happen within the game, and yet another example of game design used to reinforce the psychosis and unreliable narrative/experiences of the protagonist.

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The cinematography and direction of the game are also fascinating. There are a great deal of cutscenes, though the distinction between cinematic and gameplay is often blurred. While we almost always experience the game from the third-person perspective, despite sharing in Senua’s hallucinations, most cutscenes feel oddly second-person. A good deal of the game could almost be described as second-person, as one of the primary voices often narrates the story and the past to us, often speaks to or about us as if we are one of Senua’s voices, and comes close to breaking the fourth wall in its engagement with us. We are Senua and yet we are apart from her; you are always a “you,” not an “I” or a “they” but a tag-along presence directly connected to the events. The cinematics can be especially disconcerting, focused so much on Senua’s face and reactions; we are often forced to take the perspective of a monster or abuser or similar predator/dark force. It’s a disorienting effect that I’m still thinking about, coming to terms with. We are Senua; we are the forces that oppress her; we are an observer; we are an aid. The focus always on Senua, even though perpetually outside of her immediate perspective, reinforces that the external world as we see it is merely a representation of Senua’s inner reality, that we should always be questioning what is “real” or “unreal.”

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The use of historical and psychological research, considerable interviews and involvement with academics and those who have experienced psychosis, and innovative game design creates a truly compelling, unique, and authentic experience. It’s more than the fantastical monster-slasher that it may seem at first glance. I would strongly recommend this game to anyone, except that it is a deliberately disturbing, uncomfortable experience. I was often on-edge, uncomfortable, distressed, and even terrified while playing. If you have experienced psychosis or have an aversion to disturbing images, graphic depictions of suffering, or violence, you should pass on the game. My wife was fascinated by it but ultimately had to abandon viewing the game because of the disturbing sound design. Hellblade actually comes with a trigger warning, the first I’ve seen in a game and hopefully something the industry will start to pick up more and more in the future. It also offers a website for those suffering from mental illness, to tap into mental health resources in their own country. It’s a smart, thoughtful, empathetic touch.

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If you can’t play the game, try to look up the documentary about its making that comes with Hellblade. It’s fascinating to learn more about the historical and psychological research that went into making it. And while virtually every game has dozens, if not hundreds, involved in the creative process, the documentary really drove home to me that this was a game that uniquely had an auteur guiding its creation, development, and vision: Tameem Antoniades, the game’s writer and director (and a founder of Ninja Theory). I have considerable respect for his vision, the work of his team, and the insight of those involved in aiding the project to ensure an accurate and visceral representation of psychosis.

I hope that we can see more games willing to go to such depths to portray a challenging subject like psychosis. To have mental illness in games as more than a simple threat, debuff, or sign of villainy would be amazing. And Hellblade shows that games are uniquely positioned to place their audience within the mindset of minorities who are otherwise Othered.

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When the Joker gets serious

I saw Joker a few weeks back, and while it was a hard film to watch, it was an interesting film, especially when read as an homage to eighties-era Scorsese films. And of course Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck, the disturbed and isolated man who would become this version of the Joker, is fascinating. The combination of his delivery, the intensity and brutality and concreteness of the moments of violence on-screen, and the disconcerting music made watching it a rather distressing and memorable experience. It’s a good film, and there’s a lot to chew on about mental illness, societal responsibility, and the politicization of individual disaffection and violence. I don’t think it offers clear answers to these larger implicated questions; everything is complex, disturbed, and somewhat peripheral to Fleck’s awareness, and it is through Fleck, a very unreliable narrator, that we perceive his world.

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I’ve been meaning to say something, anything, about this film since watching it. But it’s been hard for me. Sam was very deeply affected by the movie, by its tone and its sounds and Fleck’s pathetic isolation and silent misery, his eagerness for approval even when perpetually faced with dejection. A particular moment hit us hard: when we see his notebook of stand-up material, with the page that reads, to paraphrase, that the worst part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to act like you don’t. Sam’s mental health struggles are nothing like Fleck’s, but there are enough connections to be made in the broad strokes that she could, as a naturally empathetic person who tends to believe the worst about herself, see elements of her own life and mental illness in his experiences. She actually had to walk out of the theater within the first half. While Fleck’s condition might not look, in particular, like anyone else’s, his experience is nonetheless grounded in that of those suffering with severe mental illnesses. And it is impressive that Joker makes us, whether we want to or not, sympathize (or even empathize) with this man until we reach a point where we cannot any longer. He crosses a line, many lines in fact, lashing out violently, going further than necessary, delighting in that violence, embracing the darkness and chaos, finding humor and delight in the suffering of others. We can sympathize with him until he shows us that he has no sympathy or compassion himself, that he has been twisted into something tragically evil. Still, Fleck is a man who needs help, and the system fails him at every critical step throughout the film.

It’s sad that so much of the conversation around The Joker was focused on whether he emulated or idolized disturbed, extremist white men like contemporary “incels.” If incels choose to idolize him, they are very clearly missing the point. He is not a hero. But this is reflected within the narrative events of the movie. Fleck is disturbed and violent; he’s not an icon of the oppressed or impoverished or disaffected. And yet we see people rallying around him, taking on his clown identity as though wearing Guy Fawkes masks. They misinterpret his illness as inspiration, all evidence to the contrary. Fleck cannot understand the political ramifications of his actions; he cannot accurately interpret why people are choosing to use his likeness. He sees himself as apolitical–this isn’t quite true, but his actions are devoid of a political purpose, and the political is broader than his individual situation, which serves as a single anecdote to showcase the failings of Gotham (a very obvious New York stand-in here) in its care for its most vulnerable members. Even the mob-like activism that forms around Fleck seems unclear about what exactly it is for. They definitely don’t want a Mayor Wayne, and they think that rich people suck. We don’t see any solutions, except for anarchic violence. And that violence seems to mostly come from white men. White men unhappy with the perceived elite, lashing out any way they want, with the goal of causing pain and terror, tearing down rather than building up. On the one hand, we have the unconcerned wealthy, represented in the white male mayoral candidate of Thomas Wayne, and on the other we have other white men who would choose to blow everything up when they feel slighted. It feels as much a moment of the eighties in which the film is set as it does a moment for our modern era.

I want to make a hard pivot here to the Telltale Batman games. Joker prompted me to give the first five-episode game another try, this time on the Switch. I plowed through it over about a week, playing roughly an episode a night. Then I moved on to The Enemy Within, again moving at the rate of about an episode a night. These games really shine in their narrative, their characterizations, their willingness to do fresh and wildly divergent things with established Batman lore as contained within their pocket-universe continuity, and their ability to give the impression that your choices really matter and that those choices often cause as much harm as good. But for this post, I bring them up because they also portrayed mental illness in a mostly sympathetic way. It’s interesting, though hardly original, to reflect on just how many Batman villains suffer from a mental illness, and how those mental illnesses often are totally distinct, even as the villains (and Batman himself) might just get labeled “psychopaths.” In the Telltale games, you have some choice in how you play your Batman and thus how you respond to others, but it’s hard not to see, for instance, how much Harvey Dent suffers with his compulsions. He’s driven by a series of very traumatic events that finally drive him to a psychotic break and a spree of violence.  I tended to play my Batman as merciful and focused on justice, so my Bruce Wayne often empathized with his foes, acknowledging their suffering, pleading with them to seek help.

I don’t know if a harder, crueler Batman wouldn’t have provided as many moments to view the villains compassionately. But my Bruce never gave up on Harvey. And in The Enemy Within, he never gave up on John Doe, the nascent Joker. In Telltale’s Batman games, John Doe is a known entity in Arkham Asylum. He’s intelligent, charismatic, and eager to please his heroes. But he mocks and subverts authority figures (at first, just behind their backs) and delights in violence. Over the course of the games, especially the sequel, you have the option to influence how John Doe develops; you in effect determine what sort of Joker he will be. He has three key role models: Batman, Bruce Wayne, and Harley Quinn. If you show him trust and respect, he will reciprocate. And he quickly learns that Batman and Bruce Wayne are one and the same, but he doesn’t let on right away. Because I quickly grew attached to this outcast, so lost on release from the mental institution and so eager to find connection, I was determined to try to help him find a path of stability. The two main outcomes are either a cruel, unhinged villain or an excessively violent vigilante. Either way, he eventually becomes so violent and destabilized that Batman must defeat him. At the end of my experience, a vigilante Joker finally went too far, feeling betrayed by Batman and gruesomely killing several law enforcement agents. Batman and the Joker had a brutal fight. In the end, when Joker was finally subdued, I still chose to reinforce to him, when he asked, that we had been friends. The worst thing for the Joker was that he had to return to Arkham, back to the beginning, which seemed to be a denial of his development as a person, at least in his mind. But because I had treated him as a friend, the final scene of the game depicts Bruce, as Bruce, visiting an obviously delighted Joker in his cell.

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The games did so many interesting things with new and established characters, but I just wanted to focus on their depiction of the Joker here. It was impressive that the game could clearly show that he was doing vile things, for which incarceration and (probably permanent) removal from the public was appropriate, while still showing that he was struggling with a variety of mental illnesses that propelled him down his path. Joker should not have been out on the street, unsupported and unattended to. As a result, he did horrible things. He was still a human, regardless.

Of course, most people with mental illness are never going to be violent. And there are many types of mental illnesses, most not creating a profile of the “criminally insane.” But there are some people out there with severe mental illnesses, who could hurt themselves or others, and the existing mental health and justice systems just aren’t adequately helping to avoid disaster. Arthur Fleck and John Doe are not representative of someone suffering from bipolar disorder or anxiety. But it was refreshing to see these properties seriously wrangle with the troubled mental states of the Joker and other Batman characters, rather than taking it for granted that they were reducible to terms like “evil” or generically “psychotic.” Think of other big-screen depictions of the Joker: Nicholson’s prankster-gangster, Ledger’s chaotic force rejecting any single narrative or any ability to understand him, or Leto’s abusive and animalistic thug. Even though Leto’s Joker has a defined background as a mental patient who escaped via manipulating and dominating a psychologist, his mental state is of no concern to the events of Suicide Squad. He’s melodramatic and high-octane, a caricature. Nicholson and Ledger are foils and obstacles to Batman. Nicholson’s version creates Batman by killing his parents; Batman creates the Joker by knocking the murderer into a vat of chemicals. Joker emerges fully formed as a lunatic with a deadly sense of humor. And Ledger’s Joker defies characterization; as masterful as Ledger is in the role, his version of the character is more a philosophical conundrum, a challenge to Batman’s attempt to restore justice and order to Gotham. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” and we are not allowed to understand such a man.

Works like Joker and the Telltale Batman games show us humanity in a deranged villain. We don’t need to defend his actions or provide excuses for his behavior; we don’t need to take his side (and we shouldn’t). But we should examine how our society allows these personalities to form, allows violence and bloodshed to be unleashed before we think to even get involved. And what of the many more who never become violent, who perhaps languish in poverty or homelessness, ignored by us all? The Joker forces us to see him, just as select offenders involved in sensational crimes force us to see them. But we so often choose to ignore the suffering of others, so long as they never redirect that suffering toward us.

Further Reading

Hoskins, “Justices sharply split on insanity defense case,” The Indiana Lawyer, 23 Dec 2010.

Mental illness and violence,” Harvard Mental Health Letter, Harvard Health Publishing – Harvard Medical School, Jan 2011.

Odendahl, “Indiana’s struggle with insanity defense mirrors coming SCOTUS case,” The Indiana Lawyer, 5 Sep 2019.

Raphelson, “How The Loss Of U.S. Psychiatric Hospitals Led To A Mental Health Crisis,” NPR, 30 Nov 2017.

Review: Manic

This is different fare for what I’d normally share on here. I think that Manic is a worthwhile read, though, and I found my reaction to the book to be complicated. I’m not trying to be an “advocate” or an “ally” with this post, and I won’t speak for others, but this book made me confront some of my own biases and gave me a little better insight into loved ones with mental illness. For that, I think it’s worth it to read, to share, and to discuss.

Manic: A MemoirManic: A Memoir by Terri Cheney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading Manic is a good way to try to understand bipolar disorder from the perspective of someone suffering from the illness. There is a lot of dark and troubling subject matter–there’s sexual assault, domestic violence, several suicide attempts. It’s also shockingly funny at many points. Terri Cheney seems very self-aware about her illness, and that awareness seems to have taken decades to develop. I think it’s an empowering and reassuring story for those who suffer from, or love someone with, bipolar disorder. No matter how dark things get, one can always eventually find normal, at least briefly, and it’s a fight worth waging. The book is also a churning, disorienting experience, sliding between episodes of mania and depression, hopping between anecdotes, disconnected from chronology.

At the same time, all memoirs walk a thin path between being intimately revealing or becoming seemingly narcissistic. I think a lot of how any memoir is perceived comes down to the reader’s own preconceived biases and preconceptions, so I would certainly not want to accuse any memoirist of being self-absorbed. Still, I must confess that the narrative leaned that way in my perspective.

Part of it’s the nature of the disease. Depressions, with a deep hopeless pain that clouds out everything else. Manias, with compulsive, irrational, selfish excesses. To recount the life and genuine emotions of a manic-depressive involves more than a little bit of self-absorption. The illness seems to make one’s tortured self the center of everything.

Part of it, though, is that the narrative reads a little like the author wishes to convince the reader of how she should be absolved for her own sins. I find it hard to forgive someone for atrocious actions against others, even if those actions are due to an illness. That’s something in me, and I’m not saying it’s right, but it makes it difficult for me to fully sympathize. I often felt more for the others in the story that she hurt, directly or indirectly. Of course, when she was in deep depressions, or when others hurt her, I didn’t seek out a reason to blame her for what happened–where I could be “on her side,” I was. I suppose it’s just part of my own framework for seeing the world, as someone who is not manic-depressive but who has loved ones suffering from bipolar disorder.

I also was left wondering more about Cheney’s relationship with her mother. So much time is spent on her father, but her mother, who seems to have been the more supportive force, is virtually absent. I would have liked to understand her relationship with her mother. I understand that memoir is not strictly autobiography, that we aren’t meant to see every aspect of the author’s life, but I suspect that her mother might have had a more critical role in her coping with her illness. (The acknowledgments conclude, “To my beautiful and courageous mother, who has lived through everything I’ve written about and then some, and loved me nonetheless. And to my father, for everything.”) In fact, there are other tiny elements, threads left unpicked, that suggested to me that a considerable amount of her relationships were excised to emphasize her isolation. It’s probably authentic that she often felt alone, removed, disconnected, unsupported. But–and I have no firm evidence to support this–I do imagine that she probably always had more support than she let on.

In general, Cheney seems to have had a fairly privileged life. She had, it seems, loving and supportive parents, though she may have been a child of divorce (I don’t think this is ever addressed). She had a great education and a great career. She had a lot of money to blow through in her manic states. She could take ample time off work. Her illness nearly destroyed her many times, but she had more of a social and financial safety net than many sufferers of severe, chronic mental illness possess. I would not wish that her life was rougher, but she has lived such an apparent life of privilege that I found it difficult to relate at times. This is significant and an insightful reminder in and of itself, of course: mental illness can consume anyone, can ruin anything, regardless of one’s status. Mental illness doesn’t care about class.

I think I’ve learned things from reading–sometimes specific things, like the significance of controlling weight and eating for some with the illness, but also in a broader way, in considering how I view the illness, where my own biases still lie, and how I interact with and think about people with mental illness.

In short, Manic is easy to read but challenging to process.

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2 book reviews: Wishful Drinking and On The Front Lines

Star Wars: On the Front LinesStar Wars: On the Front Lines by Daniel Wallace

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m a sucker for art books–and I’m a sucker for Star Wars. Of course I’d like a book like this. Additionally, I’ve always been especially fond of the in-universe and pseudo-in-universe textbook narratives represented by books like The New Essential Chronology, The Essential Atlas, and The Essential Guide to Warfare; this book feels like a continuation of that tradition (interestingly, Daniel Wallace, the author of On the Front Lines, was also a writer on two of those three books).

These books dig right into what I love about Star Wars: the feeling of a living, breathing galaxy of its own, with a rich history and varied cultures. There’s a place for everyone somewhere out there, and there’s a lot more to the galaxy than what’s seen on the screen. They also provide an interesting reflection on our real histories and “nonfiction” books; these essential guides are typically written from the in-universe perspective of the winners, often with limited information about actual events that presents those events in a slightly re-framed context. History is not always objective truth, so much as it is the best interpretation of the available documentation, with all the bias inherent in any form of interpretation.

On top of the above, these sorts of guides provide a broader context for events in the films, providing tactical explanations behind the actions of, say, Admiral Ackbar’s willingness to engage with the Imperial Star Destroyer blockade at Endor (On the Front Lines suggests he ran with Lando’s suggestion and hoped to punch a hole in the line to retreat with whatever survivors remained, rather than holding onto hope in the apparently failed Rebel ground team), or the Ewoks’ quick about-face in their interactions with the Rebels (they were angry with off-worlders for destroying sacred trees, and they were suspicious initially that the Rebels were in league with the Imperials and intended to eliminate them as ritual sacrifice–Threepio’s significance is downplayed somewhat). They also manage to point out how emotionally satisfying cinematic moments often boil down to absurd, basically insane, sure-to-fail decisions on the part of the protagonists.

In addition to providing additional reasoning and reinterpretation, On the Front Lines manages to reincorporate elements of old canon into the new and to provide new twists on older Legends events. I especially liked this light updating of the canon, and I liked the diverse faces and perspectives presented in the text.

Last but certainly not least, On the Front Lines is beautiful, packed full of gorgeous artwork, with two-page spreads of each epic battle covered. It would make a great coffee table art book, even if never actually read cover-to-cover.

I will say that I am excited to see this sort of in-universe guide reappearing in the new Disney canon. Visual guides and encyclopedias are fun (though often aimed at a younger audience, and not necessarily with much thematic cohesion). But I’m all about these sorts of guides, and I hope to see more!
Wishful DrinkingWishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was up late last night, picked this up, and started to read. And kept reading until I’d finished. It’s a short book, but it’s a good one too. The language is light, conversational, entertaining, often funny and sometimes dark, refreshingly candid and sincere, playful, and yet sometimes a bit circular or repetitive (I’ll chalk that up to the conversational nature of the novel, and its basis in a stage show). Carrie Fisher dealt with topics here like mental illness, substance abuse, complicated parental relationships, and lifelong celebrity with frankness and humor. This was the first Fisher-authored book I’ve read, and I look forward to reading more (and hope that some of her other works might dig a little deeper into some of those most difficult topics, though I’d certainly be pleased if that lovely voice and playful language is always present).

If you have an afternoon, give this a read.

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Sharing my wife’s interview…with me

My wife writes about dealing with her mental illness and navigating identity with a multicultural background on her own blog. I have so far abstained from sharing anything from there on my own site, because at some point I would just share all the things. But recently she interviewed me to talk about what it was like living with someone with mental illness, and I suppose I’m sort of flattered, and it’s hard not to share something that (I think) makes me look good!

If you’re interested to read more, see below. But her entire blog’s worth checking out if you’d like an honest conversation about the subjects I mentioned above. If you do read the interview and don’t know me personally–yes, I really do ramble as much as that post makes it seem. And I have a horrible habit of trailing off in the middle…

“Being real, not hiding things and being able to talk about things that bother you and not let it fester…That’s important.”

via Interview with My Husband — Learning to Walk the Tightrope