On Birthdays, Being 26, and Starting Over.

October 30th marked my 26th year on this planet. For the first time in my entire life I can say with certainty that it feels good to be alive.

I love birthdays. I love my own birthday, love other people’s birthdays; there’s something very exciting about celebrating life. I used to love my birthday because it meant I got to get fucked up on drugs and alcohol, and maybe cap off the evening with some anonymous sex. This year was the first sober birthday I’ve had since I turned 17. That’s almost a decade of being completely devoted and dependent on addictive substances to feel at home in my body. Alcohol made me feel all the things I was told I never could be: beautiful, charming, sexy, alluring. People paid attention to me when I had a glass of wine in my hand. Sometimes that attention was not good but nonetheless, I felt seen.

This birthday, I woke up early and had a friend over. They brought me a beautiful portrait they had done for me and we talked over coffee in my kitchen. Later, I went shopping for paint and canvas. I bought myself new bras and a few household things I needed. I got home and painted whatever came out of me as I listened to Sade, Anita Baker, Toni Braxton. In the evening, a few sober friends and I went out for dinner at a local vegan spot. We ate, talked, laughed, sat quietly, and even danced a little. In that space I felt I could be myself, I didn’t have to “turn on” another side of me brought out by drugs and alcohol. I didn’t have to be that woman who wanted to take up space but couldn’t do so in her own skin. I learned that in the presence of genuine care and love I was radiant. I felt alive and wanting. My friends brought me gifts and cards that they knew I would appreciate because they know me. They weren’t trying to buy my affection, they just knew what I needed to hear.

Getting through my birthday without a drink feels momentous. I woke up this morning alone in my bed without a hangover or rushing to the toilet to empty my stomach’s contents. I ate cake on my couch in my bra last night and went to bed with no regrets, no heaviness in my heart, not chasing the vision of who I thought I would be at this time in my life. Some people might think that sounds boring or sad, but when you’ve had a life like I’ve had, going to bed at peace is the best thing imaginable. I’ve had many a wild birthday. Birthday’s were just an excuse for me to get wild. Any happy or sad occasion would find me at a bar or in line at Wine and Spirits. In many ways, I feel like my body has outlived the way I’ve treated it for most of my life.

I made it to 26 this year. At 15, I would have told you I wouldn’t make it to see 20. I didn’t want to see 16 at 15. I have tried many times to get out of life. Whether the long game or the short. Having to wake up to another day of uncertainty, of terror and abuse, weighed so heavy on me from a very young age. I wanted to kill myself last year, the year before that, and the year before that but somehow I’ve made it this far. I joke, “despite my best efforts, I’m still alive” often. I can laugh at it now even though I had spent many nights crying over that exact sentence years ago.

As a kid, I couldn’t wait to be thirty. I would dream about waking up and putting on a suit to go to work. I’d stop at my kitchen island and eat toast as I looked over my bills. I was obsessed with the thought of paying a mortgage (now a truly decadent dream because who can afford to buy a goddamn house anymore). A dream that I think was purposely mundane because my childhood was so fraught and scary. I’m still four years out, and trying not to fast forward through the later years of my twenties, but I honestly can’t wait to reach that day where I wake up at home with myself. Making the art I love, surrounded by the people that I love and that love me.

The Girl With All the Gifts

The first poem I ever remember writing was early in elementary school. The summer before I had gone to visit my maternal grandparents, as we did every summer, and my grandmother had given me a rag doll as a gift.

I named her Sally Michelle. Sally was pale white with yellow yarn hair. Her eyes were canon sized and irrevocably blue. I remember loving her, throwing my arms out and spinning around in circles with her in the middle of the living room. On the drive back to Pittsburgh she never left my arms.

As the school year started my grandmother had fallen ill, and her outlook was not very positive. I didn’t know my grandmother very well but I cared for her and knew that I was supposed to be very sad. My mother was very sad. I sat down to write a poem for a school project and what came out was a poem about Sally and my grandmother. I tried to understand the idea of losing her by imagining her soul would get transferred (or trapped) into that of my doll. When I read this poem out loud to an audience of my fellow students and teachers, I got a very loud round of applause. Scuttling nervously off stage I felt myself start to smile, I knew I had something. A gift.

Two of the most profound relationships in my life were with women who were extremely emotionally abusive. Sometimes physical. After a particularly bad fight with my ex, she would try to pay her way back into my heart with a pair of shoes she knew I needed, a dinner, a get away trip. Never an apology. Just the motion of her arms extending out toward me, holding some object like a frail egg: See, here, I love you. Can’t you tell?

The fights grew more frequent and violent. When I broke up with her she wouldn’t stop crying. She came to my apartment to drop off some of my things and had hidden gifts in the bag: a pair of aubergine silk pants, a picture of us from a friend’s wedding, and a folded note. She had a talent for script and drawing that she never pursued until it was time to make her amends to me. The note, beautifully written, said: “If I ever let you down, I hope you feel my love.”

I couldn’t make sense of what that was supposed to mean, but the weight of the lack of apology, again, fell like a weight on my heart.

The other woman was unjustly cruel. She would hit me, choke me, tell me I was worthless, stupid, ugly, etc. etc; then, wordlessly, buy me a bar of soap. A candle. Something purple because it is my favorite color. See, here, I love you. Can’t you tell. I covered my body in lavender soaps and lotions for years. It helped to settle the fuzz in my head, but could never soothe away the memory.

Both of these women, I have found, were threatened by the most powerful gift I had been given: my voice My ex would make me write long Facebook posts declaring my love for her when things got bad. Other people weren’t so found of her, and she needed me to be a voice of dissent. My poems are things I keep quiet until they are ready for a reading or publication, and she hated this. She constantly needled me because I didn’t share enough of my work with her; she needed to know what I was writing in private, and control what I put out in public. One of the first poems I got published in 2017 was an ode to her. It’s one of the only love poems I’ve ever written that holds up. Her name is still attached to it which makes me a little ill, but I can’t rewrite the truth that my heart belonged to her, can I?

I lost journals and journals of poetry and non-fiction because these women were so threatened by what I had to say. The truth of what they did and how it made me feel. Poetry is a powerful tool. As Jeanette Winterson says: a tough life needs a tough language. I wrote poems through the turmoil of loving both of them as a means to hold myself up. They were something true and solid that I could hold onto while the rest of me wasted away.

I have spent a lot of the past two months writing about these women. Some of those things are headed to publication which is really exciting and terrifying. Telling the truth is tough business, especially when you still feel it’s your duty to defend that person with your life. I’m happy to be writing honestly about these things for the first time in my life, but I know that writing will have consequences. There will be no one there to present me with a small token when I’m hit with the backlash.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. My story is one you’ll be hearing along with many others for the rest of the month. It’s hard to leave when you’ve been told that there is no one else out in the world that can care for you and love you. It’s hard to leave if you’ve been isolated from all the other support systems in your life. My abusers made me feel worthless without them, but that was never true. We all have a gift that is more powerful than the love they gave us, the good love they refused to give us. We are far greater than what we’ve been told. I hope whoever needed to hear that hears it loud and clear. I hope you reach out to someone, or someone reaches out to you.

Also, remember this above all else: what happened to you is not your fault. You own your experience, it is no one elses to talk about, to take. If it helps, if you can, write about it. Don’t let them take your words from you.


If you have made it this far you know my name is Dani Janae. This blog, for me, will be a space to hash out the difficulties and challenges of writing as I go through them day in and day out. Beyond the dreaded writers block, beyond spending too much money on journals and good books, or finding the perfect pen.

When I talk to other writers I find the most common question to be:

how do I keep going?

It’s an incredibly difficult one to answer, but one I will try to answer in this space.

Today I am listless and foggy brained after traveling to Cleveland with @ki11erpancake for their first annual Flaming River Con. We got to talk about queerness and magic, and I spoke to how those things relate to my poetry.

At the core, poems are spells. Incantations, more accurately. I write poems to speak things into existence or cast them away. More often than not the greatest act of my poems are to speak myself into existence after spending my life wanting to disappear.

To be a poet is to not disappear.