Monica Bielanko
That's What She Said
Just A Junk Drawer Dream
You can also find Monica's writing here:

Chasing the Fix

I am no longer on social media and the difference it has made in my life is nothing short of astounding. Okay, that's a lie. I have what I refer to as a 'shell' Facebook account under a different name I use for work purposes. "Hello, I'm a producer for AccuWeather and your video of a tornado is really great! May we use it on our website and network with credit to you?" I don't follow anyone or post anything from that account other than work-related requests. I also check Twitter most mornings from my AccuWeather computer to see what's trending, again for work stuffs. There are no apps on my phone. Except the one that monitors my phone usage. Moment. Highly recommend. The number of times you check your phone and how many hours of your day you spend staring at that little screen will alarm you. The minutes add up to a horrific waste of life. The app keeps me honest with myself.

What happened to us? We walk around staring at screens and justifying all the staring at screens and how we need our phones so we're available 24/7 because we're all so goddamn important we can't let a text or email go unanswered for ten minutes and if we do someone else is texting or emailing again demanding a response and it's all bullshit. Half the stuff we all get up to on our smartphones doesn't really matter or even exist in the real world. Hearts and thumbs ups and Facebook debates with strangers, opinion articles passed off as news or fact that say nothing and mean even less, endless memes and photos of other people allegedly living amazing lives but who are just the same smartphone addicted junkie as the rest of us. Put down your phone and it all ghosts away, like that satisfactory snapping off of an old school TV where the image shrinks to a white dot that eventually disappears. Gone.

I used to spend hours of time scrolling social media feeds and reading news articles, justification acrobatics Cirque du Soleiling around my brain: I write online for a living, I need to keep up with social media so I can build a following who is interested in what I write which will, in turn, land me better writing gigs. Or: I need to read the news! News is important! I must be informed, especially with Trump at the wheel. And it's true, I do need to be aware of certain goings on in the universe as part of my job but that kind of thing can be accomplished in minutes, once a day. Truth be told, most online news these days is drummed up, clickbait nonsense. My desire to stay abreast of current events and trends was an imaginary value. I thought it made me informed and, in turn, a better person. It didn't. It just added to the noise in an already cluttered brain and I don't miss the bullshit headlines suckering me in for a read at all. I paid for each of those reads with time and time is a valuable commodity. Since deleting my news app I have discovered that anything important going on in the world will leak into my consciousness in one way or another and I can, at that point, choose to further inform myself in a mindful, intentional way. Endlessly scrolling a news app on my phone was an unnecessary time suck that almost always ended in reading ridiculous articles that were, in two words, consummate bullshit.

Picking up my phone became my default position. The slightest pause in my activity would see me reaching for my phone. Red stoplight. Pick up phone. Standing in line. Phone. That bled into my life as a mom, which of course, I'd justify by telling myself I work full-time and have three kids and, by god, If I want to read this article about how Kim Kardashian's waist-cincher changed her life while my kids splash in a backyard pool I bought with my hard-earned cash, I deserve it. While it's true that I have earned the right to read an article, what I was missing was the fact that reading the article and the one after that and the one after that was a monumental waste. Same thing goes for emails and texts. I'm checking for "important" work emails, I'd tell myself, ramping up a false sense of urgency and creating anxiety where there need be none. And then, when I'd made sure there were no emails awaiting my attention, I'd mindlessly wander to the good old news feed or Instagram or Facebook to scroll others' posts or maybe create my own post, which compelled me for hours afterward to check back in and see the reaction. And then check my work email some more. Then Instagram. Haven't checked Facebook in a few hours, let's see what's happening there.

Reading an article the other day - What is brain-hacking? - felt like someone throwing cold water on my face. My boyfriend, Anderson Cooper, talks to tech engineers in Silicon Valley who reveal some insidious shit about how they are basically programming people. Addicting them to their iPhones like sheisty drug dealers, creating computer codes that give your brain "rewards" that have no actual value. Thousands of ivy league educated engineers making the big bucks by devising ever-sneakier ways to keep your eyes on your smartphone, hooking you on that dopamine fix you get when someone hearts your photo or likes your status and the notification buzzes your physiology. Here's a bit with Anderson talking to a computer programmer whose job it was to write code that will get the brain to do certain things.
For example, on Instagram, he told us sometimes those likes come in a sudden rush.

Ramsay Brown: They’re holding some of them back for you to let you know later in a big burst. Like, hey, here’s the 30 likes we didn’t mention from a little while ago. Why that moment--

Anderson Cooper: So all of a sudden you get a big burst of likes?

Ramsay Brown: Yeah, but why that moment? There’s some algorithm somewhere that predicted, hey, for this user right now who is experimental subject 79B3 in experiment 231, we think we can see an improvement in his behavior if you give it to him in this burst instead of that burst.

When Brown says “experiments,” he’s talking generally about the millions of computer calculations being used every moment by his company and others use to constantly tweak your online experience and make you come back for more.

Ramsay Brown: You’re part of a controlled set of experiments that are happening in real time across you and millions of other people.

Anderson Cooper: We’re guinea pigs?

Ramsay Brown: You’re guinea pigs. You are guinea pigs in the box pushing the button and sometimes getting the likes. And they’re doing this to keep you in there.
The entire article is fascinating and worthy of your attention. Teams of highly paid engineers working to keep us addicted to our phones, constantly checking them like pulling at the lever of a slot machine to see what we're gonna get next. Facebook likes! Instagram hearts! Direct messages! Keep your Snapchat streak alive! Here is someone you may know on Facebook! Ping! Ping! Ping! Must click little, red notification. What if someone really needs me right now? (how often does anyone really need you right now?)

All those strangers hearting your photos, Facebook "friends" weighing in on your latest update, people you may have never even met in person causing you unnecessary anxiety or agitation. And there you are, little mule, checking scrolling checking scrolling in your endless quest to reach the carrot that doesn't even exist. It's all a fuckin' waste, man. A black hole of nothing that doesn't amount to shit. Oh, I'm not against keeping in touch with people who add value to your life or using social media in an intentional, limited way. There is genuine community to be found all across the Internet and it can be empowering and beautiful, but be honest with yourself: What percentage of your online life is truly adding value to your real life? What is your real life? Is your real life your online life? Do you even know any more?

I didn't know for the longest time. I confused my self-worth with my online activities which made me ridiculously defensive both online and in person to the point that I couldn't view a person's intentions or various situations with any sort of clarity. I allowed the Internet and the people on it, most of whom I've never even met, to dictate my mood, my self-esteem. It's still a struggle, letting go of the things that don't matter (figuring out which things don't matter is surprisingly difficult!) and focusing on real life and those online activities that add value to that life. I still feel the twitch to pick up my phone several times a day and find myself making up reasons to check it so I can scratch the itch, get that dopamine fix. But goddamn! When you wake up, pull your eyes out of your iPhone, realize what's slowly happening to all of us and wean yourself off the smartphone/online addiction, your mind immediately begins clearing out all the extraneous clutter and you feel good. Really, really good. THAT'S the fix I'm chasin' now.

The Erosion of Self 

I bobbed clumsily through life, barely afloat on an ocean of beer in 2016. But you'd never know it unless I told you. Is three bottles of beer an evening too much? I don't know. I'm genuinely asking but probably won't put much stock in your answer because I've answered the question every which way each time I ask it of myself, which is uncomfortably often.

The truth is it helps me relax in the evening after a day full of corporateness/meetings/managering and soul-destroying office jargon that, via notifications on my iPhone, trails me through my life like a determined stalker I can't shake no matter how fast I run, how well I hide. Notifications harassing me even as I wait for my kids at the bus stop, make dinner, put them to bed. Ping/email! Ping/email! Ping/text! Ping!Ping!Ping! The beer dulls the unrelenting torture just enough that I can get a little shut eye before the dance begins anew at 5:30 the next morning.

And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

I am straddling 40-years-old. I have been scrabbling like a motherfucker to figure out the kind of woman I want to be. Legacy. Because of my children, I think a lot about legacy. My legacy. It's only up to me, you know. It isn't as though there are folks who would expound on my alleged greatness upon my untimely departure from planet Earth, I don't think. I have to leave a legacy for my children in the way that I conduct myself on a daily basis and, much of the time, I don't think I'm doing that good of a job. I don't feel as if I've ever been truly known by anyone. Someone's daughter for 40 years, married for a decade, someone's mother for eight years and yet... I don't feel known. I feel misunderstood.

I am aware of the hole in my soul. I am a person who formed a personality around a gaping, nearly fatal wound. No one taught me integrity or how to be a good person. I was left to fend for myself. My life is a balancing act of pretending to be sweet and empathetic or revealing the black hole that swallows everything. Emotional black hole. I often wonder what it's like to experience life as someone else. Someone calm and assured, someone with great parents who instilled a sense of purpose and self worth within me. I'll never know. I can only view the world from this brain I was born with. And I am smart enough to know I am tortured. Is my brain too much... Or too little?

You with the lovely still-married parents who support you know matter what... Are you stronger than me or weaker than me? I can't figure it out.

This is heaven and we are god

It's taken me decades, but I am finally making peace with death. Oh, I still wake up at 3am in a panic; stomach churning, throat constricting, horrified by the idea of ceasing to exist. But that notion makes NOW so much more important.

Thing is, when I believed in the religious (Mormon) fairytale of an afterlife, ruling my own planet forever surrounded by family and friends, I was living half asleep. I didn't appreciate life like I do now. With the specter of death constantly looming, I feel more alive than I've ever felt. If death is the end, I find myself trying to find the beauty in each moment, every interaction with another human being takes on special meaning. I think harder about how my behavior affects others and I want to uplift, not cause anyone to feel badly.

THIS IS IT, motherfuckers. Right here, right now. This ain't a drill, this ain't a test you need to pass to get to the better thing. Who you are now is crucial. I'm not talking college degrees and jobs and money and status, I'm talking kindness and compassion and empathy and love. All the bullshit you've likely been taught about what makes a successful person that fires your ambition means nothing if it doesn't contribute to kindness, love and lifting up your fellow man, or worse, if it compromises kindness, love and your fellow man.

THIS IS HEAVEN AND WE ARE GOD. Think big thoughts and enjoy every sandwich, man.

When things get really bad in my life, when I feel rage and anger and hopelessness, I look around me and take it all in and my mind is blown every, single time. The sky, stars, trees, people, animals, kindness, love... It's magic. I get so choked up by the quiet mystery of the universe, the beautiful humanity; all of us living here together trying to raise our collective consciousness.

I email back and forth with my brother-in-law about this stuff and he wrote this:

"How very fast we would move forward/together on all fronts solving food and disease and war and energy and communication, travel throughout the universe, transportation and farming and even things like time... The most enormous, most pressing questions and problems that have vexed mankind for centuries would fall away like dominoes right down the line.

WE are god. Always have been. One soul.

One day something like pre & post enlightenment time marker will be recognized. And our lifetimes (and all that came before us) will be viewed as the dark age that it truly was/is. A slog of war and separatism and hate and money and inequality and slavery and ego all building and evolving (super slowly) towards an inevitable enlightenment, a togetherness of purpose... SCIENCE. Unlocking the whole motherfucker.

The goal is to slowly peel back the social frameworks imposed on us from birth and figure out who you are without all the shit that was forced on you and you passively accepted as true or right. Being raised an American is like being raised in a religion. Think beyond. Strip away all the labels that make you you and other people them.

WE are god. Always have been. One soul.

The only real, true things are love, relationships, nature, science and art.

Some of us recognize this more than others and it's our duty to lift up the lowest among us. If you see someone is struggling - they're easy to spot with the ignorant, narrow-minded and hateful rhetoric - it is your job to uplift and inspire, if only by passive example, because we are only as good as our weakest link. Humanity. THAT should be your religion.

“In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.”

A postscript to my friend on this day: Thank you for being you. Your gentle, easy attitude combined with your critically-thinking beautiful brain and your generosity of spirit is a daily inspiration to better myself. You know who you are.


The Beat Goes On

This should be interesting…

A photo posted by Monica (@monicabielanko) on

The thing I'm discovering about divorce with children is that not only is it one of the most miserable experiences you will navigate in your life, the experience has no expiration date. What I mean is, awful situations and realizations sneak up on you on a regular basis; things you hadn't even contemplated dealing with are suddenly sliding into bed with you in the middle of the night. Three years later and it still happens all. the. damn. time.

You can get several months of solid, positive relations under your belt and BOOM. One small thing knocks you on your ass. I've spiraled into divorce rage and/or sadness more times than I can count. Days and days where I cannot fathom coparenting positively with my ex-husband for ten minutes at the bus stop let alone the next two decades. I mean, shit. We divorced for a reason, didn't we? And it's not like divorce is the big fix for what went wrong in our relationship. All that shit is still there, waiting to eat our new, hard-fought post-marriage relationship alive if we allow it. The only thing divorce has done is make us less dependent on each other emotionally and affords us a lot of breathing room from each other. When we upset each other now we can retreat to our respective homes and I don't have to ask him what he wants for dinner. His business is no longer my business unless it involves our children and vice versa. Breathing room is nice. It works wonders at getting over most arguments.

But divorce didn't take away all of our mutual responsibilities surrounding our children. And when the handling of life's responsibilities played a role in the disintegration of your marriage, it can be a real motherfucker to handle them while divorced. Because your ex no longer shares a home and experiences with you, they may have become even more entrenched in the ways that slowly destroyed your marriage, yet you have to conduct the business of parenting, just like any married couple does. Finances, bills, where to live, holidays, birthday parties, school, childcare, child issues, the list goes on and on. Pretty similar to marriage, no?

I've put a lot of pressure on myself to maintain a positive divorce, perhaps because I'm a child of a really awful divorce, so when things become rocky I slump into despair. I obsessively contemplate all the usual divorce scenarios I've yet to deal with - stepmom entering the picture, changing custody schedules that accommodate the kids as they age - and I just feel depressed and overwhelmed at the prospect of navigating successfully through it all. I realized something recently, though, in the middle of a divorce rage depression and I thought I'd share it with you for some perspective when your divorce relations get tough...

I remember being married. It was a rollercoaster. Some years were better than others. Some months great, others awful. One week might be wonderful, the next is filled with arguments and anger and contemplation that perhaps you married the wrong person and maybe even your marriage is over. But you forge ahead and make it work because that's all you can do. And it gets better again, things eventually settle into okay and sometimes you even find yourself falling in love with your spouse again... What I realized is that I have been viewing divorce as the antidote to a diseased relationship, the end of feeling numb and terrible as a result of unhealthy interactions with this person. And it was that in a lot of ways, but in many other ways, my divorced relationship with my ex is no different than our married relationship. We're still going to have those good months and we're still going to experience the bad ones. We can still press each other's buttons in all the ways that led to the end of our marriage and all we can do is breathe, try to get perspective, and forge onward. What's the alternative? Hateful, childish assholes who talk shit about each other to our kids and make them uncomfortable when we're in the same room together? Not an option. This man is the father of my beautiful children, a member of my family. Families have disagreements and sometimes fight viciously. There has to be an acceptance of the notion that we are still family in conjunction with acknowledgment that we will always piss each other off, as people in complicated relationships do, and it's not the end of the world. It's fucking hard. But, the mind-blowing realization is that it's not any harder than being married, it's just hard for different reasons.

The notion that the divorce difficulties I'm dealing with now and the ones I'm facing down the road are no more complicated or challenging than the low moments of marriage is comforting, for some reason.

Because guess what? What divorce DOES do with time is make you less reliant on that person for your well-being. If you do divorce right and take some time for you, you learn to turn to yourself for strength and discover who you really are and what's important to you. And, in the process, you fall in love with yourself.

I LOVE MYSELF. The most ruthless battle cry there ever was.

As time goes on the little stuff doesn't faze you anymore and then the big stuff stops affecting you so much. You learn to let go of the things about your ex that upset you because you CAN walk away. You can hold your tongue, smile, say goodbye and go home, sit on your couch and turn on your Netflix and watch whatever the fuck you want while eating Doritos in your underwear with nobody there to judge you. And that, my friends, is one of the most beautiful things in the world.

A photo posted by Monica (@monicabielanko) on


Hall of Infamy

Like a recovering alcoholic making amends, I'd like to be cool with everyone in my life. No animosity, anger or flashes of rage at the thought of someone who once starred, or even guest-starred in just a few episodes, in the HBO series that is my life.

It's a nice notion, isn't it? Equanimity at the thought of anyone and everyone you've ever interacted with. Positive resolution for every not-so-great encounter or soured relationship you've experienced. Think how much mental energy that would free up! All the fucked up thoughts and feelings and rage and anger and regret and sadness and despair and martyrdom I impose on myself as a result of interactions and relationships that went bad somehow... GONE. Hell, half the people taking up real estate in that swampy acreage of my brain don't even know it, they're just out there trying to live their own lives, completely unaware I'm expending valuable mental energy on them.

There's this fucked up hall of fame up in my head where I've thumb-tacked 8X10 glossies of Those Who Have Wronged Monica. Here we have my dad, there we have a failed friendship from childhood that languished into adulthood when it probably should've ended in junior high. Oh look! Another "friend" from high school who began messaging my ex during our divorce. This guy over here is the ex-boyfriend from college who is a dick to me 20 years later; I obviously occupy valuable real estate in his Hall of Infamy. There's the guy who convinced me to fall in love with him then bounced in the unkindest of ways. There's the alleged "lifer" friend who wasn't around when I needed him most. That pretty girl over there is a potential friend who ended up being more interested in my ex-husband than me. There's that one guy at work, the secret sabotager...

I wonder what the size of my Hall of Infamy says about me or do we all have a sizable one just by the very nature of living life and having families and friends and relationships?

Regardless of size, we all have a Hall of Infamy. Even if you aren't one to hold a grudge, there are people who, when they occur to you, inspire a prickling of unwelcome emotions including but certainly not limited to anger, sadness, confusion. You feel like shit when you think about them not only because they hurt you in some way, but you're mad at yourself for not being able to move on. Sometimes you have a bad vibe with someone and may not even know why anymore. Most of the time, though, you know exactly why and your righteous indignation at feeling wronged has them locked in a position of honor in your Hall of Infamy.

Relationships are a perplexing tangle of beautiful Christmas lights: knots everywhere, but take the time and care to untangle them and plug them in and many lights will shine brightly, others are slowly dimming and several have gone dark. Yet the overall effect is still pleasing... Until more and more lights stop working. Can you replace the lights? Or is it time to toss the whole strand because too many have died?

Sometimes you pile on years without a member of your Hall of Infamy popping up and tangling your mind. Something inevitably happens, though, and you find yourself pacing contemplatively in front of their photo. Maybe you have a dream about them, perhaps a mutual acquaintance mentions them offhandedly or you inadvertently see them on social media and end up worm-holing their page for an hour and you come away unsettled, unsure how to feel.

I used to dwell on interactions I have with people a lot more than I do now. Shit, who am I kidding? In my quest to understand my relationships with people I analyze and obsess until my exhausted brain can't land on any kind of insightful perspective and begins haphazardly sifting thoughts like some kind of plastic beach toy draining sand through tiny holes. I'm infinitely better at recognizing my propensity for stewing but I still have to work hard to let it all go. Stewing only hurts me, of course. I know that but intellectual awareness can't heal a bruised heart. It's easier to let go when a person is someone from the past you have no cause to see; current and local Hall of Infamy-ers are another thing, entirely. I vacillate on the best way to deal: Pretend to myself that they don't exist and I don't care even though I know I do or confront them in a productive manner? Hey! That thing you did! It is still bumming me out and I'm having trouble moving past it. Can we talk about it? Can you explain your perspective of that situation? Direct confrontation with a positive outcome in mind is usually the fastest way to dissipate bad feelings and remove a photo from your Hall of Infamy, but not always. Sometimes you realize the other person just doesn't care to hear about how you feel or they're so lost in their perspective they can't find yours. You have to allow time to work its magic. People change, perspectives change and mutual understanding occurs. Or it doesn't but what went down doesn't seem as important anymore and the situation somehow gets resolved.

Lately I've been strolling through my Hall of Infamy, scrutinizing members, recalling situations and events that landed them there and revisiting my feelings for each person to see if time has afforded me a new perspective. The goal is to close up shop; no more Hall of Infamy. Who needs a Hall of Infamy taking up mental real estate? I wonder if it's even a possibility to get to a point where you've resolved all your relationships and interactions from the past? Where no one inspires a negative reaction within you?
Some people you can easily make amends with. You come together and realize you don't even remember exactly what went down and why bad feelings exist. With others you know exactly why they're in your Hall of Infamy but time has done it's thing and you can come together and explain your perspectives, apologize if needs be, laugh and move on. Other situations are much trickier, though. With some people the notion of ever reaching any kind of satisfying place feels impossible. You contemplate their photo, assess your emotions and realize you aren't ready...

As the year draws to a close and I analyze the people in my Hall of Infamy I realize I'm not ready in a lot of cases and I wonder if I'm not trying hard enough to move on; I wonder if I enjoy the martyrdom of feeling wronged; I wonder if some relationships just aren't worth it or if I should keep trying until my Hall of Infamy no longer exists and then I wonder if that's a realistic notion... But it occurs to me that maybe the ultimate point of being alive is to dismantle our Halls of Infamy.