How to Devastate Yourself

Maya Isai


The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any." – Alice Walker

Open a word document, write a paragraph, and then delete it, sentence by sentence. Do this almost every day (this is your version of the writing practice all your favorite authors have talked about). None of it sounds right, not yet. Tell yourself you used to be a much better writer. Before, you were good.

Never be clear about when ‘before’ happened; instead, let it float elusively behind you like the best kind of guilt trip—a constant but blurry reminder of something you did wrong. Like when your best friend says, ugh, you always do this. And you say, do what, and she just shakes her head.

Infinity scroll through the Facebook timeline of a white girl with whom you went to high school. Make direct comparisons between your bodies. Pay particular attention to her skin, which is smooth and hairless and not brown like yours.

Tell people you don’t know very well about your insecurities but cloak them in funny anecdotes: a man on the street once catcalled you and then, when you ignored him, screamed, you got big feet and a flat ass anyway! Laugh and say you don’t know how he saw your feet so quickly.

Run your hands over the pimples that have cropped up on your forehead, even though you know they’ll get bigger, and somehow more deeply embedded in your pores, if you do that. Find a mirror, and pick at the bumps until they bleed.

When other people disagree with you, yield your argument. Convince yourself that they are probably right—and that you are probably missing something. Say, okay, I can see what you mean, and fold your hands in your lap.

You are probably always missing something. You are made of missing. This is how you have thought of yourself for a long time now, like more of absence than flesh. You are not sure when this started—again, ‘before’ is a space without borders. Mostly, ‘before’ means I wish I was happier. It means, the thought of ‘happier’ makes me ache with wanting.

Attend a liberal arts school with a black population under 5 percent.

For four years, ask people for advice on questions you have already answered for yourself. Reconsider your truths once you hear theirs, and call this ‘growth.’

Watch the other black and brown kids with longing. See how the girls are girls together, how they laugh while they walk, how they celebrate each other. Notice how they recognize themselves in each other. Pay attention to how free they are with their bodies; heads up, arms swinging through the dining hall. Look down at the floor, hug your arms against your chest, and remember that you do not yet feel free with your body.

Nod your head yes when he’s on top of you, even if you’re not wet, and you know it’s going to hurt. When it does, don’t say stop; open your eyes and look past his face.

Offer the most treasured and intimate parts of your identity to others: Am I smart, do you think? Am I a good person? Am I beautiful? Tell someone you don’t trust about your softest most gentle memory. The colorful stories your brother made up to help you sleep at night when your parents were gone, or the warmth of your favorite cousin’s palm as you each reached across the swing set to hold hands. With every pump of your legs, you both reached the very same height, had the same view of sky.

Let this person, the one you don’t trust, do whatever they want with what you remember.

You are tall, but be smaller.

Develop a habit of telling people they can leave if they want—give them a way out of you, even if they don’t ask for one. You cannot be left if you have invited someone away.

You should feel like shapeless metal. You should not be able to recall the details of your own face when prompted. This is how you know you are doing it right.



Maya Isai is a native Brooklynite, and recent graduate of Middlebury College. Her senior thesis, on generational trauma, memory, and Afro-Latinidad in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, received the 2017 Waldron Award in American Studies. She has been published on Medium, Between the Cracks magazine, and several Middlebury publications. In summer of 2016, she was awarded a scholarship to Bread Loaf Writer's Conference. She is a lover of feelings and of expressing them in all manner of ways.