Stephanie Sprenger

  • Am I an Acquaintance or Friend? I Can’t Figure Out If She Wants To Be Friends

    Does she want to be my acquaintance or friend? In this month’s HerTake question, Nina answers a question about how to know if someone is interested in pursuing a friendship, if someone wants to be an acquaintance or friend.

    Have you ever been confused about whether your efforts were appreciated by a potential new friend or if that person is simply trying to stay at the acquaintance level? We love that our community helps each other in the comments section. Please add your two cents!

    Do you have a question for Nina? Use our anonymous form. You can read Nina’s answers to past questions here.



    Dear Nina

    For the love of everything good and decent please help me! I’m driving myself nuts over this situation. I’m never like this with my other friends, but this one woman has my head spinning. Are we friends or not? Sometimes I can’t tell.

    Here’s the situation. I’ve struck up what I guess you could call a friendship, sort of, with a woman I’ll call Mindy. I’m so confused about what it is. I just can’t read Mindy at all. I only see her two nights a week, as she is my child’s dance instructor. We text back and forth throughout the week, mostly joking around about life. I admire her and she has told me the same. So great, mutual admiration, joking around—wonderful. However, when I see her in person, there’s virtually no acknowledgement of my existence if I don’t acknowledge her first.

    Now, to be fair, Mindy doesn’t really acknowledge any of the parents first, but being a friend, I assumed she would at least say hello. And it’s pretty much the same with the texting. She seems to enjoy talking with me when we do talk through texts. She always responds right away and keeps the conversation going. However, when I’ve asked her to hang out in person, she always has an excuse not to. She says she doesn’t go out much, but she does have a close group of friends that gets together to drink every so often.

    I wish I knew why Mindy is not open to hanging out with me. I’ve even, in a moment of weakness, asked her if I was being a pain by texting her and she said, “Absolutely not. Why would you ask me that?” I’m just not sure if I should keep pushing on with the relationship or not. It’s getting exhausting trying to figure Mindy out. And truthfully, it hurts that she’s not acknowledging me when I see her. I can’t figure out if she even wants to be friends.


    Can’t Figure Her Out


    Dear Can’t Figure Her Out,

    I don’t blame you for feeling confused about how to think of this friendship and for that I blame the texting. The friendly banter you and Mindy have established between your child’s dance lessons has blurred the line between acquaintance or friend. Despite all other evidence suggesting that you and Mindy are “friendly,” but not deeper friends, the day-to-day catching up via text has superficially elevated an otherwise casual acquaintanceship.

    Technology can help us keep in touch with our good friends, but it can also create a false foundation for a friendship. Just because it’s easy to keep in touch with texts and emails, it does not mean that a worthwhile relationship exists beyond the words on the screen. Every case is different. I have relationships with women I’ve met online who I will never meet in person, but the connection feels deep and real. How do I know? The efforts and sentiments are mutual. I think your awareness that you’re always initiating the texts is why you’re feeling uneasy about Mindy.

    Should Mindy say hello to you and other parents when you all come in for class? Probably. I’m guessing she doesn’t fuss over you specifically because she’s in a professional role where she’s focusing on the students. I wouldn’t take that too personally or read too much into her lack of effort there. The fact that she rarely initiates the texts and seems uninterested in getting together is what tells me that Mindy is not interested in being more than “friendly.”

    Please keep in mind that Mindy’s lack of interest may not be personal and that you have no idea what else is going on in Mindy’s life. Maybe one day she will initiate the conversations or she will include you with her friends. It’s impossible to predict.

    Wait It Out

    You have to decide if you’re willing to wait. I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t wait around for Mindy, but it would probably help your level of frustration to consider Mindy a “fun acquaintance” for now rather than one of your better friends or even a real potential for a close friend unless she does show interest in seeing outside of the texting context. If you ever decide that you’re tired of making the first contact, you can stop trying and see what happens. If the acquaintanceship disappears, then I would encourage you to put your efforts, even these casual texting efforts, elsewhere.

    Acquaintances Are Fun Too!

    Despite everything I’ve said here, I don’t want this month’s column to devalue the role of a solid acquaintanceship because there’s much to appreciate about these types of friends. By “solid” I mean mutually satisfying and casual, which these friendships can be if we accept that not every relationship needs to reach best friend status or even good friend status.

    When I think of all the women I enjoy (truly enjoy) seeing at the gym, coming in and out of my kids’ schools, at our synagogue, or even catching up with on Facebook, I get a big smile on my face. I respect and like each one of those woman, but if I spent tons of time texting with them all and making plans to get together, I wouldn’t have time for anything else in my life. My days would be less joyful, however, without these daily run-ins with various women (and some men) I know in town. This was a slightly off-topic tangent from your question about the difference between an acquaintance and a friend except to remind you that Mindy might become someone you enjoy talking to here and there and it doesn’t have to feel personal if it’s not something more.

    I hope this helped!


    Editor’s Note: Also, check out Nina’s post about how to turn an acquaintance into a friend.


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    You can follow Nina on her blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

    We’re always looking for new reader questions for Nina! If you have a difficult friendship situation that you’d like advice on, fill out our anonymous contact form.

    **Two of our most popular online writing courses, The Balanced Writer (our newest class, offered this past winter!) and Publish Your Personal Essay, are being offered as significantly discounted self-paced courses for a limited time! Just $40 each or $60 for both! Don’t miss this great deal; sign up now to treat yourself to some inspiration, polish your skills, and connect with a writing community! Details here.

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  • HerStories Voices: What a Sinking Ship Taught Me About Love

    This week’s essay, written Louise Gleeson, is about a harrowing night during which the author awaited news of her parents’ fate following a tragic accident. Over the course of many scary hours, Louise reflected on her parents’ marriage. It’s funny how our opinions on marriage change as we get older and our own relationships mature and flourish, or fall apart. Do we learn how be in a successful relationship by modeling our parents behaviors or by avoiding their mistakes? And considering the fact that each marriage is unique, does it even matter? I can’t give away the ending, but I hope you enjoy this wonderful piece of writing. – Allie

    HerStories Voices

    What a Sinking Ship Taught Me About Love

    I’m a high maintenance bedfellow. A sliver of light or a creak of sound during my descent into sleep means game over for the rest of the night. And I’m not that nice about it.

    Despite my nocturnal shortcomings, my husband and I have been sharing a bed for two decades, and we’ve become skilled partners under the sheets. I am persistent in my belief we should end each day side by side, and he puts up with me.

    I hadn’t thought about it in a bigger picture way until that night. I could hear him moving overhead, dawdling and distracting himself until I came up after him. Sometimes, he gives up and goes to bed ahead of me, especially at the end of one of those days that make it hard to feel any generosity towards each other. But that night, he was waiting.

    I was scrolling through my online news feed one last time, before letting the dog out and turning lights off downstairs, when I saw a breaking news headline from The New York Times, “Cruise ship sinks in China on Yangtze River.”

    I must have called out his name sometime during the rush between my desk and laptop, with a copy of my parents’ travel itinerary trembling in my hand. I crouched on the floor, not trusting my legs, and desperately tried to clear my thoughts before the pounding sound of my pulse filled the space between my ears.

    Somehow he was down on the floor beside me while my panicked whisper filled him in: “My parents’ cruise ship is on the Yangtze River today.” I could hear myself repeating it again and again, as though to convince him to take action—because I didn’t know what to do next.

    It was of no consolation that the initial news report said the boat was carrying Chinese tourist groups. My parents never travel through Asia with North American tour groups; they prefer a more authentic experience that allows my adventurous Irish father to enjoy the traditional Asian cuisine and entertainment he has learned to embrace since falling in love with my Chinese mother. In a Skype call a few days earlier, he had boasted about being dubbed Mr. China by his fellow travellers for his ability to assimilate into the local culture.

    When my eyes traveled further down the news story to the fact all those on board were between 50 and 80 years of age, I had to flatten myself on the floor to brace against the sudden tilt of the room. The location of the sunken ship was the same sightseeing destination my parent’s cruise ship was meant to be visiting that day.

    I watched my husband quietly compare the itinerary he had taken from me to the news article on the screen, and when I saw him begin a search for a contact number on an official government website, I squeezed my eyes closed against the visual of my parents drowning.

    I let myself calculate the time difference and started to shake uncontrollably as I imagined them in the past tense. A single thought looped through my brain, like it was trying to keep pace with my persistent pulse:

    They must have been so scared for each other.

    Because I knew if they were on that sunken ship, any fear they felt for themselves would be overwhelmed by the fear they felt for the other. They met and married within six months, against the wishes of both their mothers, because they knew their marriage would leave no room for second-guessing. They raised my sister and me during a time when interracial marriages and biracial children were still something to be judged. They have always been united, because it was an essential part of their choice to be together.

    They started traveling abroad without us when I was in my senior year of high school, leaving my younger sister and their travel itinerary in my trustworthy care. It was only when we were grown, and they had both retired, that my mom started including up-to-date photocopies of their passports—in case something happened to them, she explained.

    I told her she was being morbid the first time I noticed the additional pages, and she looked at me and said, “If something happened while your father and I were on a trip together, it wouldn’t be the worst thing.”

    After we found the number for our government’s travel crisis helpline and gave them my parents’ passport numbers, I followed my husband upstairs not knowing what else I could do. I tried to read a book while waiting for a return call. Beside me, he eventually fell asleep and quietly started to snore. It wasn’t keeping me up this time; I had my adrenaline to do that instead.

    Sometime during my teen years, my mom began sleeping upside down in the bed to create some space between her ears and the sound of my dad’s snoring. We used to make fun of them, saying we never knew where we would find her in the bed by morning.

    When my sister finally left for university, my mom made the space between her and my dad even greater by moving into the empty room and setting up a new place to sleep. By then, I had started my own journey into romantic relationships, and instead of laughing at their sleeping arrangements, I was judgmental and indignant repeatedly telling her something like snoring would never separate me from my partner in bed.

    Maybe I thought it was a sign they had allowed staleness into their relationship, like they weren’t trying hard enough or too easily letting a distance grow between them. At the time, I was still greedy for outward gestures and declarations to reassure me of my romantic partners’ love. Losing myself to that togetherness was part of what I thought united a couple that had declared themselves in love.

    My mom would tell me, “Your dad keeps me up. And knowing he keeps me up, keeps him up.” She reassured me they didn’t need to sleep beside each other to stay in love. She was steadfast in her belief. They’ve happily maintained their sleeping arrangement ever since.

    Still, it sounded more practical than loving. And I was determined that once I found someone to share my bed with every night, I would not let any space come between us.

    I did end up meeting him, the guy who taught me that losing myself to him was not the best way to love or be loved. The reassurances of his love are there beside me each night, whether he is in the bed with me or not. Every time we brought one of our four children home, he moved out of our room for the first few months to allow me to synchronize my sleep with our newborn. He often slept on a couch or curled up in a twin bed in one of the other kids’ rooms And I knew it was a sign of growing love, not an indication that it was lacking.

    My parents knew they could be apart without losing their closeness. But when I challenged her all those years ago, my mom was too wise to give that advice away easily. She let me watch her and my dad figuring it out, so I could too. They had a ritual of kissing each other on the lips exactly three times whenever one of them left the house, and that didn’t change with the adjustment to their sleeping habits. In fact, I didn’t notice any blips in their affection for one another. Their nightly ritual of checking in with each other before turning in has been going strong ever since.

    And so, while I waited to hear if my parents were on that ship, I was stuck on that thought. If either of my parents had a chance to swim to safety, put on a life jacket, or be rescued, they would have refused unless they could stay together. Their love, even with a greater physical distance placed between them during the nighttime hours, never translated to what they feel for one another.

    Maybe, I realized as I waited for news of my parents’ fate, years of partnership turn the desperate need to press our bodies against one another into a quiet gratitude and respect for the other parts of ourselves that become connected.

    When the call finally came several hours later, and I was reassured my parents had been further along the Yangtze than the fateful cruise ship, my husband sat up in our bed and shared my relief and tears. Then, without needing a reminder, he turned on his side and settled into a position least likely to make him snore.

    And I reached for his hand under the covers and tried to fall asleep before he did.


    Lousie_Headshots_CLBuchanan-0108bw (2)Louise Gleeson is a journalist, blogger and mother of four. She writes about parenthood, relationships, food and her obsession with concerts. She does whatever she can to avoid acting her age and is on a mission to flog the internet with optimism and joy. Louise blogs at and can be found on Instagram and Twitter @louisegleeson





    **Our theme for our May Voices column is “motherhood.” Email Allie at herstoriesvoices @ to submit, and check out our submission guidelines first. We will then take a summer hiatus from our column and will announce our fall themes and re-open submissions in August.

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  • HerStories Voices: Perspectives from the Woodpile

    I love this week’s essay (featuring our April theme of “Life Lessons”) because the writer, Julianne Palumbo, beautifully describes a conundrum of parenting and I can’t stop thinking about her situation. What do we do when we want to tell our children to do something different from what’s considered the right thing to do? And who’s to say what the right thing is? She conveys the angst that we can feel when we get a teaching opportunity with our children – one that can be a huge life lesson. Oh, the pressure! Even after reading this essay multiple times, I still don’t know what I would have done in the same situation. I just hope that I would handle it with the same grace as the author did. – Allie

    HerStories Voices

    Perspectives from the Woodpile: Asking My Teen to Honor His Commitments

    I am standing on our porch in front of the exhausted woodpile. The air bites my hands and face as I scavenge through chips and bark for burnable logs that I can throw into the fire to keep it warming. Although winter passed resentfully, if I close my eyes and listen, the birds sing a different story. I absorb the “berto, berto, berto” of the cardinal and pretend that spring is springing the way spring should be.

    Open my eyes and I stare at the devastation that was our woodpile after five cords of wood warmed our house to a livable temperature. I squeeze my lids shut again. There’s a breeze that breathes both winter and spring into the air. It’s a game now, one I want spring to win.

    So, too, tugs the debate I have been having with my teenage son. It’s about commitment, and there are two sides to the story. Mostly, I sympathize with his side, while I try to hold the line on mine. As of yet, neither one of us is winning. Two perspectives, both based in the unfairness of reality.

    When my son was seven he fell in love with his sport. From that moment, it became the most important thing in his life, affecting how he spent his time, what he ate, and how much downtime he allowed himself. It was practice, practice, and more practice. My husband and I supported him, driving him over an hour to practices and traipsing around the East Coast for tournaments, because he was so dedicated and because having a goal gave him focus in everything he did.

    Over the years, he played year-round. He would go to every team practice and every game, like the postman, without regard to weather, illness, or the homework brewing in his backpack. We gave up countless family events, trips, and down time to travel to games all over the East coast and sometimes beyond. Summer, too, was filled with camps and training.

    As he got older, he failed to grow as quickly as other boys his age. He began to sit on the bench because of his small size, and players who never showed up to practice but who had greater physical strength but less skill would play over him. Still, he kept practicing.

    Once he reached the teenage years, things went downhill. It took seasons before we realized that, despite promises and reassurances that he would be given a fair chance to perform because of his skill, his coach had another agenda that didn’t include him. He became frustrated by the unfairness. Players who never came to tryouts were still put on the team. Players who missed practices played over others who went. Rules were bent and broken, and some players, like my son, were given no opportunity to prove themselves.

    After nine years dedicated to a sport that had given the actual beat to his heart, he decided to quit. The deep joy he had always felt when he touched the ball had turned to anger and frustration. He told his club coach that he did not want to play spring season. Unfortunately, my son was last in a list of boys who had expressed their desire to quit the team, and the coach needed him to stay for there to be enough players. This particular coach had been fair to him, and since he asked him respectfully to fulfill his commitment, my husband and I agreed that he should honor it. But, my son didn’t agree.

    Hence my struggle. How do I argue with a seventeen-year-old who had done it all right, who had given his heart and soul to a sport only to have it stomped on and ripped out by coaches who cared nothing for earnestness or for his commitment? His hard work hadn’t paid off. Many of the adults involved had asked for an abundance of dedication on his part but had failed in their own commitments to be fair and to coach in a way that was best for the players. Now, my son was being asked to hold up his side yet another time.

    I have never stood up so half-heartedly for something. He has never stood so strongly against something.

    If ever I was at a loss for words to support my arguments, this was it. I couldn’t argue that commitment paid off. It hadn’t. In fact, it couldn’t have paid off less. I couldn’t argue that something good would come out of it, because there was no longer anything that he wanted from this sport. He just wanted to be free of it. That was his parting wish.

    I could argue only that it was the right thing to do because a man has to live by his word. It was about the type of adult I wanted my son to grow up to be. But, as much as I believe that and have always tried to live and to teach it in all parts of life, it couldn’t have rung more hollow this time. I truly didn’t believe that he owed this sport anything. All I could think was, “commitment to what?”

    To complicate matters, he recently started playing tennis on his high school tennis team. He loves it and is showing the same drive and dedication I had seen from him for so many years. Fulfilling his commitment would affect his tennis as often games overlapped.

    After days of debate, we agreed to agree that he would fulfill his commitment to the extent he could without adversely affecting his grades and his position on the tennis team. This is where we have left it—someplace in the middle of—shouldn’t have to but will anyway.

    While I think we are holding true to a lesson here, I’m truly not certain what that lesson might be. I keep reminding him when he reminds me how much he doesn’t want to waste the time to go to games, that something good always comes of giving of yourself. Maybe he will call on this experience some day when he’s an adult and he’s faced with something he doesn’t want to do. Maybe his being there will be a positive in someone else’s life.

    But I can’t help wondering—will filling this commitment now make him more or less likely to want to fill commitments in the future? Would it even matter to his character if we let him walk away? With three almost-grown children, I feel I should know the answer to this by now.

    The cool days plod on. I bang clumps of grass from his cleats. I pick tennis balls up off the lawn. The sun peeks a little.

    Spring is winning.


    authorphoto1 (2)Julianne Palumbo’s poems, short stories, and essays have been published in Literary Mama, Coffee+Crumbs, Kindred Magazine, Poetry East, Mamalode, Manifest Station, and others. She is the author of Into Your Light (Flutter Press, 2013) and Announcing the Thaw (Finishing Line Press, 2014), poetry chapbooks about raising teenagers. Her essay will be published in the upcoming HerStories Anthology, So Glad They Told Me. She is the Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Mothers Always Write, an online literary magazine for mothers by mother writers. You can find her here: and .


    **We are currently accepting submissions for our May Voices column: the theme is “motherhood.”

    **Our spring sale is still happening! Sign up for two of our most popular online courses— The Balanced Writer and Publish Your Personal Essay– as self-paced classes offered at big discounts! Details here. Join a fantastic group of women working through the classes as well as our Facebook community!

    ** Have you seen the cover of So Glad They Told Me: Women Get Real About Motherhood yet? Our publication date is August 23rd! More information here.motherhood-web1


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  • When a Group of Friends Falls Apart


    In this month’s HerTake question, Nina is tackling the sticky issue of maintaining individual friendships when a group of friends falls apart. Have you been in this situation as an adult or even in younger years, perhaps? We love that our community helps each other in the comments section. Don’t be afraid to add your two cents.

    Do you have a question for Nina? Use our anonymous form. You can read Nina’s answers to past questions here.


    Dear Nina:

    I’ve shared a close friendship with a group of women for several years. However, the dynamic of the group is evolving and the group of friends is falling apart because of external and internal reasons. I’ve maintained individual relationships with each woman; however, now I feel like I am in the middle, because although I get along with each person individually that isn’t the case across the board.

    Should I address this with the group or let it go? And if I choose to let go of the group, how do I continue to maintain individual friendships without stepping on anyone’s toes?

    Any advice is appreciated.




    Dear Confused,

    Without knowing the details of why your group is falling apart or any of the other micro issues, I know others will relate to the problem of being connected to a group of friends that is long past its expiration date.

    Before I go on, I want to address the people reading this question (and answer) who are silently asking themselves, “Why is an adult part of a group of friends anyway?”

    Reasons Why Adults End Up in a Group of Friends

    • The group is a carryover from high school or college with some new configurations, but it started “way back when.”
    • The members of the group all met in a common setting like a class or in a work environment that no longer meets regularly so the group formed to keep the individuals together.
    • There can be a bit of mystery to how and why a group forms. Frankly, sometimes the group can feel manufactured, which is usually the first kind to fall apart.

    I’m not going to say all groups disintegrate because I couldn’t possibly know that, but every group I’ve been a part of has gone through significant permutations over time. Some of those permutations have led to an ultimate disintegration, but in each case, the new reality has been more of a relief than a problem.

    In other words, I’ve never been part of a group that was worth keeping together under all circumstances. The group’s history should never become more important that its current health. (By “health” I mean, the members of the group are kind to each other and as free from drama as possible.)

    Ultimately, the individual relationships are what matter most, especially when the group dynamics feel forced at best and unpleasant at worst. Sounds like you’re in at least one of those positions right now so let’s get practical.

    How to keep your relationships strong with the individuals you like:

    #1. Based on your question, this needs to be said: It is not your problem whether other members of the group continue to stay friends or whether they form a new group. At this point, you need to focus on who brings out the best in you and vice versa. I wouldn’t make any formal announcements about your desire to step away from the group. This will be a case of actions speaking louder than words, or you simply slipping under the radar, which is probably for the best.

    #2. Make consistent plans with the women you enjoy. Lunch, walks, coffee, tickets to a show—anything that means time spent with one other person. Personally, I find walks the best way to catch up with one friend at a time. Also, there’s a natural end time, which is a nice plus (in my opinion).

    #3. Be careful to avoid allowing the growing bonds with certain individuals to revolve around a common frustration with the former group. It’s tempting to get others to feel the way you do about the group or to commiserate with individuals who already share your aggravation, but too much of this chitchat will create a false sense of closeness. Don’t fall for it!

    By the way, these group permutations happen in families, too. Sometimes different groupings of siblings and siblings-in-law are closer and sometimes they’re in a moment (or years) of drifting apart. Same goes for cousins and other relatives. David Sedaris had a great essay recently in the New Yorker that is seemingly about shopping in Tokyo, but is really about these shifting group dynamics. Other than enjoying the standard cleverness of Sedaris, I also liked the matter-of-fact attitude in which he talks about how relationships morph again and again.

    Thanks so much for your question, Confused. I hoped at the very least I helped you see how normal the shifting dynamics are.

    Good luck!



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    You can follow Nina on her blog, on Facebook and on Twitter.

    We’re always looking for new reader questions for Nina! If you have a difficult friendship situation that you’d like advice on, fill out our anonymous contact form.



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  • So Glad They Told Me: Cover Reveal and Release Date Announcement!

    It’s been over a year since we announced the call for submissions for our 4th anthology: So Glad They Told Me: Women Get Real About Motherhood. After Stephanie’s viral post I’m Glad Someone Told Me, we were blown away by the response to our social media campaign, #sogladtheytoldme, in which mothers shared the supportive, real advice they heard from other women about motherhood . . . or wish they’d been told, but weren’t. We realized how important this topic was, and how many mothers were eager to share their own experiences.

    After reading over 220 powerful submissions, we spent a weekend together choosing the contributors for this anthology. We selected 60 (!) incredible writers whose stories moved us, entertained us, and made us think, and we’ve been busy working behind the scenes to get ready for publication. Today we are proud to reveal the cover for our book as well as announce our release date: August 23rd, 2016! 

    You’ll be hearing a lot more from us soon as we introduce you to the talented contributors to our book and unveil our new So Glad They Told Me website!

    We are so proud to share with you the cover for our 4th anthology, and we can’t wait for our summer release date!


    Stay tuned for more information about the book, and in the meantime, don’t miss our spring sale on two of our most popular online writing courses– Publish Your Personal Essay and The Balanced Writer– now on sale for a huge discount as self-paced online courses. Details here! It’s a great opportunity for writers looking for a little inspiration, community, or a chance to polish your skills. Sign up now!

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  • HerStories Voices: Girl With Headache

    This week’s essay, written by Stephanie Harper, riveted me from the start. After reading about her harrowing experience of living with a headache disorder, which is often debilitating, I’ll never again complain about having to take Advil for my tension headaches. As her essay reveals, our writer never loses her sense of humor. Her story is courageous and inspiring. I hope you enjoy. – Allie.

    HerStories Voices


    Girl with Headache

    By Stephanie Harper

    It’s 7:30 in the morning and I’m warming up with the rest of my choir, as I do on so many Sundays. It’s not a particularly notable morning. I am wearing a purple dress, Simply Vera by Vera Wang, which I bought because it sounds very impressive to say—even though I got it for $20 at Kohl’s. I like it because the fabric is naturally crinkled in a way that looks like I just rolled around in the grass, so I don’t feel the need to iron it. It’s also long enough that it reaches my knees, a major accomplishment for any garment because I am 5’11. That means I can wear it without the awkward bike shorts or leggings underneath. I’d say I feel great in my new purple crinkle dress, except that I don’t.

    I woke up feeling off. Decidedly off. This in of itself isn’t totally unusual. I’ve gotten up every morning for the past 20 months with a headache, one that never goes away. One that sits behind my right eye, the way that pesky squirrel sits on the fence and stares at me, twitches in a creepy way. I hate that squirrel. I used to have recurring nightmares about that squirrel stalking me across my college campus and attacking me while I slept. That’s what this headache is like—a possibly rabid, rodent stalker. That being said, this morning’s feeling is different, something hard to put into words. It’s as though my brain is under water. Not in a gasping for air sort of way, but more like when you open your eyes to try and peer through the blue of a swimming pool. Fuzzy and distorted. Not quite right.

    We start rehearsing our first song and I am looking at my music and I am seeing and reading it but I’m struggling to get the words out. It’s like my brain has been given a delayed start, a mental snow day. It’s infuriating because I like to sing and do it well but I’m flubbing all over the place. The words are so slow. My brain and my body feel so slow. My arms and legs feel as though the muscle has been replaced by jelly and I am sloshing around like one of those inflatable people that dances wildly at the entrance of a used car sale.

    This is not working.

    I tap my mom’s shoulder—she also sings—and then I sit down on a chair, leaving my stand and microphone erect before me. The choir sings on. My mother turns around. She lowers my stand and looks at me.

    “What’s wrong?” she says, though this question is perfunctory, like “how are you?” She knows.

    “We have to go,” I manage to sputter, though I can hear the words rolling off my tongue slowly, the way the smoke of a good cigar might curl.

    She cocks her head. She hears it too, that slight delay. “Home?” she asks.

    I think for a moment. “Hospital.”

    What follows is a blur of concerned citizens rallying to get me from the worship center to the car. My mother escorts me out of the choir loft and plops me down in a leather chair in the church narthex. A friend of ours, a fellow choir lady, kneels beside me. I can tell she’s scared. Her blue eyes are alight with worry, the way a mother looks when her child has climbed just a little too high on the playset and disaster seems imminent. She talks to me, asks me a few questions, but I don’t really hear what she says. Or what I say.

    I try to crack a joke with my delayed words. “Guess I haven’t had my coffee this morning.”

    She smiles. “At least you never lose your sense of humor.”

    My mother comes through the door. She’s pulled the car around to the front of the church for easy access. I’m ushered down the ramp by two tenors, one on either side, as though I am the Queen Mum or someone equally old and important.

    As we approach my Yaris, I say, “my clown car. The guy on my right laughs. He says, “There’s already 12 people in there.” In a few minutes, my mother and I are off to the ER.

    This is not the first time I’ve been to the ER since my headache started. I try not to go often, but it happens—when a flare up is particularly bad or when new symptoms emerge and something seems out of the ordinary. Like today. Sometimes I go because I have convinced myself that I’m having a stroke or an aneurysm. That there’s no way whatever is happening to me is a “normal” part of my headache discourse. Sometimes I go because I want it documented. Sometimes I go because I just don’t know what else to do.

    This morning, I’m going because I’ve never had this speech problem before and it’s genuinely freaking me out. I can tell by the way my mom watches me that it’s genuinely freaked her out as well.

    I have been to several ERs and met a whole slew of ER doctors and nurses. And, it’s almost always the same. I walk in the door. Sometimes I’m wearing sunglasses because my eyes are so light sensitive I can’t take them off. Sometimes, I’m leaning on my mother’s arm for support. The front desk person looks concerned. Sometimes they ask if I need a wheelchair. I always wave them off because I am stubborn and maybe a little foolish.

    When I make it back to the exam room, a nurse asks me about my symptoms, my medications, all the standard questions. Then, the doctor enters. He says some version of “What brought you in today?” I explain what’s going on and try to hold off on the whole headache thing for as long as I can. But it always comes up. I’ve had a headache for three months, six months, eighteen months. I have these flares. They get bad. But this time it’s different. I’m scared. Trying to be vigilant. Just in case.

    Then, the same thing happens every time. The doctor writes a few things down and pumps me full of painkillers like morphine or Dilaudid. He might put me on oxygen for a few hours. Or give me a headache cocktail of Benadryl, Haldol, and something for nausea. Every hospital has its own unique protocol. Someone always sends me home. I’m there for maybe four hours at the most. This is because I am just a girl with a headache. I don’t want to be, but I am. There is nothing anyone can do for me, no magic test or antidote. The best they can do is drug me up and hope that I sleep it off, that my headache resets to its usual nagging but bearable level by the time the drugs wear off. That’s what you do for a girl with a headache.

    This trip to the ER is only slightly different. I have a CT scan, or so they tell me. I don’t remember because the Dilaudid has kicked in and I’m not present. I’m somewhere else. But everything is as normal as it always is. I’m not having a stroke or a brain aneurysm. Nobody seems to know why, on this particular day, during this particular flare up, my speech has been delayed and my motor function stunted, but they don’t seem too worried. Not out of the realm of what can be expected with headache like mine. So I go home and sleep for another four hours. Then, I go to dinner. Business as usual.

    At dinner it hits me again, that weird feeling from the morning. I get up to go to the bathroom and my mom can see it too. She follows me, which is a good thing, because I open the door to the ladies’ room and then I collapse a little, fall in on myself, everything jelly again. But she’s right behind me. She helps me collect myself and I use the restroom, splash some water on my face, and then we go out to the car so I can lay down while they pay the bill. I sit down in the backseat and look at her. I ask her a question, something like “What’s going on?”

    She just stares at me.

    I ask her again.

    “I can’t understand you” she says.

    “What do you mean?” I ask her, even though her face says it all. Jibberish.

    “Stephanie,” she says, putting her hand on my arm. “I swear to God, if you are doing this on purpose or because you’re just too tired to try, I’m going to kill you.”

    The rest of the night continues in a similar fashion. We get home and my grandpa helps me inside, a death grip on my arm that is almost worse than the pain in my head. He lays me down on the couch in the living room. As he gets up to head home, I hear him whisper, “This is the damndest thing I’ve ever seen.”

    My mom tells me I need to go to bed. We make it half way down the stairs before I black out and collapse. My dad comes and helps wrestle me to my feet. They get me to my bedroom, pulling me along like a drunk who’s lost control of her body. I wish I’d had a few drinks. It’d be a hell of a lot more fun.

    My mom gets me ready for bed and tucks me in, like I’m five. “I think you just need to sleep it off,” she says. Then, she turns out the light.

    About fifteen minutes later I realize I have to pee. I get up and go to the bathroom. I black out again, this time while I’m washing my hands. Mom comes to help me. She gets me on my feet and through my doorframe and I black out for a third time. Now, I’m sitting on the floor of my bedroom, staring up at her.

    “Why are you doing that?” I ask her. My speech has come back a little, slurred but understandable.

    “Doing what?”

    “Why is your face like that?” I move my hands up and down, trying to make a dripping sort of action. Her face drips like a scoop of ice cream betrayed by heat and gravity. Neon flashes of light fly around her head. It’s freaking me out.

    “What are you talking about?” She sounds concerned but also a little annoyed.

    “Your face is melting.”

    “We need to get you back in bed.”

    This starts an argument. I want to go back to the hospital. My mental state is, in a word, goofy. Like a small child. I’m frightened and I want someone to fix it. This can’t possibly be normal. I’m going to die in my sleep. I know it. This time, it really is the end. But my mother thinks I need to sleep it off and see how I feel in the morning. She doesn’t think there’s anything to be done in the ER. We’ve already been there once today. At this point, there’s nothing left to do.

    “If I die in my sleep, it will be all your fault,” I tell her, as she helps me into bed one more time.

    “Then, I’ll feel bad,” she says, and moves for the door. “You have to sleep now, okay?”

    “Okay,” I say and roll over onto my side. She turns the light out.

    “Hey, mom?”


    “Will you check on me sometime, just make sure I’m still breathing?”


    I relax a little knowing she’ll check in. I settle into the covers. “I hate this.”

    “I know,” she says. “Me too.”

    In the morning, I feel like a new person. Or maybe not new. More like I’ve been reset. I am tired but back to my usual state of ache, my baseline just behind my right eye, where it always is. This is as close to a rebirth as I can get. And, on a morning like this, after a day like the one I’ve just had, this is good enough.

    I am constantly exploring new territory with this headache disorder. Even as I write now, it’s been two-and-a-half years since the pain started. Two-and-a-half years of waking up every morning feeling a little tired and (hopefully) a little renewed. It’s not ideal, but I have found a way to make every day a new day. Each day, I have a chance to have a good day, one where I don’t get sick, I don’t need to nap, one where I can enjoy my friends, my family, my life, without too many painful consequences. And, on the days where none of this is true, where I can’t get out of bed, or my speech goes awry and I think people’s faces are melting, I can count on the newness that tomorrow will bring. And, that’s that. In this new life of mine, I’ll continue about this day and the next day to the best of my ability, with the hope that love and joy will continue to come my way in the midst of pain. That is really all I can do.

    I am just a girl with a headache.


    Stephanie Harper image1 (3)Stephanie Harper received her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Fairfield University with an emphasis in fiction in July 2012. Her work can be found in The Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, The Montreal Review, Poetry Quarterly, Midwest Literary Magazine, Haiku Journal, and Spry Literary Journal. She served as Fiction Co-Editor for Mason’s Road Literary Journal and is currently an editorial reader for Spry Literary Journal. She lives in Denver, CO.

    Stephanie’s Twitter is @StephanieAHar

    Stephanie’s Instagram is @StephanieAH27

    Stephanie’s website is

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