Secrets: Stories about the things we keep to ourselves

This week, we present two stories about the the parts of ourselves that we keep under wraps.

Part 1: At 22 years old, Jenn Montooth is accepted to graduate school just as she discovers she's pregnant.

Jenn Montooth is a public historian for the National Human Genome Research Institute where she helps with the public’s understanding of genomics and captures the history of the Human Genome Project. She received her master’s in public history from UMBC where she focused on the Black Power movement. Her articles on the Black Power movement and the history of abortion rights have been featured in the Washington Post. Most importantly, Jenn loves storytelling and is thrilled to be part of the Story Collider family. She is the executive producer of the live storytelling show Health’s Angels: Personal Stories about Women’s Health, where women can share their mental, physical, and emotional health stories. You can find more at Say hi to her on Twitter @jenn_montooth.

Part 2: Studying addiction as a neuroscientist gives Anna Miller a new perspective on her past.

Anna Miller is a graduate in neuroscience and psychology from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. When she’s not being an academic scholar, Miller is a trilingual artist the Milwaukee music scene she better known as Mwgli. Born in Bogota, Colombia and raised in a Greek-American family her music combines Latin soul and new age hip hop with moody, ethereal, and exotic soundscapes. During her time as a student at Marquette, Miller was published in the journal of neuroscience, she’s now researching how we fight stress and the effects of drug addiction.

Note: This episode was originally titled “Secret Shame.” We meant this as a critique of what society deems shameful. However, it came to our attention that this could be interpreted in a way that could be hurtful or stigmatizing. This was not our intention, and we apologize for the oversight.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Jenn Montooth

“I am an adult.” I am saying this to my 22-year-old self over and over as I'm looking down at my graduate school acceptance letter and I'm like, “I am finally on the right track.” I am on a track, at least. It's better than none. This is going to be the first time in my life where I’m no longer a barista where the steamed milk is constantly burning my hands. For once, I don't have to work three or four jobs in college just to pay for college. I am going to be a scholar, a historian, if you will.

And then I'm going to get a real job. And then I'm going to come home at the end of the day and drink a glass of wine. That's right. Out of a glass, not a plastic LeBron James cup with a hologram doing a slam dunk. We'll have real cups in my house.

So days after this, I'm sitting with this excitement and wonder about what adulthood is going to look at. I'm 22, I'm not 15. But I also noticed, while I'm super excited, I am exhausted and I'm nauseous and my breasts are swollen. When was the last time I had my period? I can't remember, so that's a bad sign. This is pre-tracking app so I don't know.

But you know what? It doesn't matter, because I'm an adult now, remember. I'm very responsible. So I'm just going to go to the grocery store and get a pregnancy test.

Jenn Montooth shares her story with the Story Collider audience at the Beir Baron Tavern in Washington, DC in June 2019. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

Jenn Montooth shares her story with the Story Collider audience at the Beir Baron Tavern in Washington, DC in June 2019. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

Bing-bam-boom. I get to the grocery store and I'm like, “You know what? I'm already here. Let me just go get that ‘negative’ so that I can go to the thrift store afterwards and enjoy the rest of my day.”

So I'm sitting in the bathroom and that pink circle starts to slowly fill up and I see a horizontal line. Negative. I'm like, “Oh, yes, Jenn. You paranoid idiot. Of course you weren't pregnant.”

I look back down and now that I see there is a vertical line on top of the horizontal line. Positive, which is great for a GPA but bad if you do not want to be pregnant.

And I was like, “No. How could this happen to me? I don't get laid. I'm a student. I don't just go franting around.”

And this is the first guy I hooked up with in a year and look how it turned out. He was some random guy I met at a party and then he wanted me to come over and watch Bad Boys 2. Naive me, I thought that's what he wanted to do. I was pretty disappointed when that wasn't the case. But here we are.

So for some reason, it's frowned upon to stay in the Safeway bathroom forever so I have to leave. The bathroom is on the other side of the store, so I'm all the way in the back and I have to walk through. I'm paranoid that somehow everyone in the grocery store knows I'm pregnant and I'm also scared that they somehow think I stole the pregnancy test. I'm just waiting for someone to point at me go like, “We got a pregnant robber over here.”

But again, they're like hiding their kids from me.

So all this newly found maturity I had gained as an adult has quickly dissipated and now I am desperate for reassurance. And within a few hours, I tell everyone I knew I was pregnant. Horrible idea. Never do that.

You know, I should point out that I pretty much knew right away that I did not want a kid. I'm 22, I'm broke, this is the last thing I want. I want to go to school. But I'm also terrified so I'm kind of hoping for reassurance from my loved ones.

I'm hoping they'll say something like, “You know what? Just make the decision that's best for you. You're going to be fine.” But that's not the case unfortunately.

My best friend from high school was like, “What are you going to do? You know I’m like against abortion, right?”

And my family was like, “Oh, abortion, that doesn't sound like you? Maybe you should think about adoption.”

And the guy that got me pregnant called me in five-minute intervals and he was like, “Hey, Tim again. Just want to make sure you're getting that abortion. Just so you know, it's the only way I'm going to support you.”

Prince Charming. I think he's single, ladies, if you're interested. Why am I not with him right now?

Jenn Montooth shares her story with the Story Collider audience at the Beir Baron Tavern in Washington, DC in June 2019. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

Jenn Montooth shares her story with the Story Collider audience at the Beir Baron Tavern in Washington, DC in June 2019. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

And my boss at the time at the coffee shop was like, “Jenn, you are going to be a great mom just like work really hard and save your money,” which, first of all, eww. No, thank you. No. So gross.

I thought about my situation at the time. I am a barista, so I don't have money, and I'm living with a bunch of male roommates who are not exactly frat guys but they're definitely the type of guys that barge in your room on a Tuesday night and they're like, “Take a shot with us, you coward. Like stop doing your homework.”

One of them could only fall asleep if he was in the living room sleeping on the couch, listening to Mad Max at full volume. I could quote that entire movie to you right now and it's not by choice.

So their reaction when I told them I was pregnant was to look at each other and go, “House baby!”

I know. I was like, “No. Absolutely not.”

So as the shock is wearing off of all this, all of these random voices just coming at my face is very overwhelming. At this point in my life, no one is supporting me and also I don't know anyone that's had an abortion so I feel entirely alone at this point. The only way I can get through it is each night, I would go into my car and I would either drive or I would just sit there in my driveway and I would play a Simon & Garfunkel CD in my car and just cry.

This was probably, I was only pregnant about a week, but when I look back it just feels like this long time, just this haze.

And even though it sounds really sad, it felt so good to cry. I was in shock so I really wanted that emotion. I would always listen to that CD when I was PMS and needed to cry so it kind of felt like I was training up for this moment. I don't know why.

There was this particularly lyric in Kathy’s Song, I don't know if any of you know it, where they say like, “the only truth I know is you,” and that part always got me. Like in between sobs, I was like, “You're right, Paul Simon. I only know myself. You're so right.”

But that made me realize that I already knew what I wanted to do. I was just really scared. But even though I was alone in this, that meant I had to take care of it alone. So I decided, eventually, that I was going to stop crying and I was going to replace that Simon & Garfunkel CD with the self-titled Genesis album and I was going to go get that fucking abortion. Go and clap. Thank you.

You're fucking right. I got that abortion. Of course, after that, it was really hard because everyone in my life was still judgmental so I had to lie to a lot of people and say I got a miscarriage so that I didn't have to deal with their judgments. Everyone else also made me feel really guilty about my decision so even though I was relieved, I felt really guilty about it.

It took me about two years to get over that guilt and to realize that it was totally fine. But it happened in one night. My friend came into town and I knew that she was accepting and I just kind of had a feeling that she was going to take it well so I asked her to go for a walk with me in the dark so that I didn't have to face her. It's pretty much just shouting it out into the night.

I said, “I had an abortion.”

And her response was like, “Oh, yeah. I had two a few years back. My boyfriend was an asshole.”

I was like, “What?”

She's like, “Yeah, it's fine.”

Finally, I was like, “Yes! I am fine and I do not have to feel ashamed about it. In fact, I feel great.” And it was so healing and I hope I can do that for other people.

Thank you so much.


Part 2: Anna Miller

Speaking of my mom, when I was little, I thought that science was magic. So my mom used to say that as soon as you could walk, you could wonder. And I would ask her questions like, “Mom, why is the moon made out of cheese?”

To which my professor of a mother would respond, “Actually, it’s made out of elements like magnesium and aluminum.”

“How do we know that, Mom?”

“Well, the scientists built a big metal bird and they flew it up into the sky and they took pieces of the moon into their hands and they brought them back down to earth so that I could tell you what’s in them. Science is magic.”

“And Mom, why do I have to take medicine?”

“This medicine is called an antibiotic. It’s penicillin. It will help you feel better.”

“How do you know, Mom?”

“Well, the scientists discovered it hiding in mold. And they took these little soldiers and they crushed them up in their hands and they made pills that, once you put it in your body, will fight for you. Science is magic, right?”

Anna Miller shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Dandy in Milwaukee, WI in June 2019. Photo by Mahdi Gransberry.

Anna Miller shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Dandy in Milwaukee, WI in June 2019. Photo by Mahdi Gransberry.

“And Mom, why does Dad drink all the time?”

“I don't know.”

“Does anybody know? Do the scientists know?”

“Nobody knows.”

So I’m seven years old and I’m wondering, so I go straight to the source.

My dad when he drank, he would drink Svedka straight out of the bottle. He would sit at the kitchen table and sit just quietly by the window and he would just drink his Svedka and he would just stare at the space between atoms.

I remember asking him about it. The only time I think I ever directly asked him about it, seven years old. I walked up to him and I said, “Dad, does it taste that good?”

He didn’t even look at me. He just stared at the space between atoms and he just said, “Go to your room, sweetie.”

So that night I went into the cabinet where my mom kept the household cleaning supplies and the Mr. Yuk stickers that she would stick diligently onto everything we were not supposed to drink. This is not juice. And I took all the Mr. Yuk stickers and I covered his Svedka bottle in them and he still finished the bottle. Why, right?

I think growing up in that house we all wondered why. And wondering why became a part of me just as I’m sure it was a part of him.

By the time I was old enough to drink, and by this I don't mean legally. I mean old enough to figure out how to get alcohol, it was Thanksgiving. I was in middle school and my parents had all this dinner wine. My dad would drink an entire bottle of Svedka but this much dinner wine. Why?

So I stole the dinner wine and I drank a lot of it. It burned going down and it burned coming back up and it was ugh. But I do remember this feeling of release. This feeling of release from tension, this place where you forget things, where things aren’t the way they used to be. I kind of remember that. And nobody ever found out or, if they did, they didn’t say anything.

As I got older, and I started exploring more, now I’m in high school, I started to get my hands on things that weren’t alcohol. Drugs. So I grew up in a small Wisconsin town and there's really not that much to do if you're in high school, except for drugs. At least, for somebody like me who stands out, somebody who’s terrible at sports and really good at art, and really good at music and likes to skateboard, but doesn’t really fit in.

So here I am in high school doing drugs. Somehow I’m still in all the honors classes, AP English and just really skating by on my smarts, passing my tests, not doing any of my homework.

And it starts to get worse and worse and worse and, by the time I graduate, I need to go to rehab. I didn’t go voluntarily. My mom walked me in the car and she drove me to rehab. The rehab she took me to was the rehab my father was staying at. At this point, he was in and out of rehab all the time. He had lost his family, he had lost his friends, he had lost his job, he had lost himself, he had lost his mind.

I remember pounding on the windows of the car as we were on our way to the rehab and when we got there and I saw my dad walk down the stairs. I recognized that look. He was staring at me but he wasn’t looking at me. He was looking at the space between atoms.

And my mom threw my suitcase out down onto the ground and my dad picked it up and I followed him up the stairs to his room, which was full of bunk beds. Bunk beds full of people just like him. But there wasn’t a bunk bed for me because everything was full so they roll in a hospital cot.

I’m sitting there with my suitcase. I have no idea what’s in it. I've been up for days and we’re just sitting there quietly.

He asked me, he said, “If you could leave right now, what would you do?”

I said, “I would get high.”

And he said, “Well, you're not leaving until that answer changes.”

So I made it about three days. There were all of these older men in there and some of them talked way too much and some of them didn’t talk at all. By the end of those three days, I realized that if I continue down the path I was on, I would also end up with my own bunk bed.

So I called my mom, I went home and I tried to start over. Like I said, I had been skating by on my smarts so I was passing all my tests so I had a good enough GPA and I had good enough ACT score to get into college. And my mom being a professor, she kind of helped me slide under the door and I got into our local four-year college, University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

So I get into college. I sign up for all my classes. I start going to all the freshman orientations and I meet all the wrong people immediately. I start going to parties, like this is awesome. This is so great. So many people like me. The problem was everyone was like me.

So I’m drinking, I’m not going to class, I relapse and I stop going to college. I cut off my family and I’m living in an attic with some other artists and I’m just doing drugs all the time. I think at this point I’m 19 years old and I didn’t really realize how bad it was getting because everyone around me was acting like everything was fine.

Until this one day I looked in the mirror, and I’m not proud of this, but the truth is being young and being pretty I could talk my way into getting a lot of free drugs, a lot of free stuff, but at this point I remember looking in the mirror and I could see the outlines of the bones in my cheeks and I was no longer pretty. My hair was falling out. My eyes were just too big for my face. And I couldn’t stand up straight because I had pneumonia, which I couldn’t feel because I was doing drugs.

I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping and I was falling apart. I looked in the mirror and I saw this space between atoms.

So I called my mom. Like the prodigal son returning home, I packed anything that I owned, which wasn’t much, into garbage bags and I begged her to take me back.

She said, “I'll take you back if you go to college.”

At this point I’m really sick so it takes me a few months to recover, but I do go back to college.

And I cut everybody off. I say, “All right. You know what? I got close again this time but not again. This time I got this. I’m going to cut everybody off. I’m going to start over.”

But I have no friends. I have nothing to do so I just do my homework. It takes me about a month before I realize the wonder is still there. And college is the best place in the entire world because nobody is telling you, “Hey, we’re cutting funding to the art program.” “Hey, we’re cutting funding to the foreign language program and giving it to the football kids,” again.

Now, I can take French Film. I can take Psychology. I can take Art History classes. I can take Epigenetics. I can take Neuroscience. Anything I've ever wondered about right there at my fingertips. And I’m a minority so I get half my school paid for.

I didn’t realize at the time how important neuroscience would become to me but neuroscience, over the next few years, became my life. Neuroscience is the study of the biological manifestation of behavior. So where psychology is talked about more as a soft science, neuroscience tries to find the cellular basis of behavior and of disease. It’s fascinating and it’s mysterious. We really don’t know that much about the brain.

And this was so tempting to me. I would ask my professor why and they would say, “Well, we don’t know. Scientists haven't figured that out yet.”

Wow. Magic, right? Something incomprehensible.

And I said I want that to be me. I want to be a scientist. How do I do that? So I started asking questions and then, before I knew it, the only neuroscientist at our school gave me the chance to do research with him. And what did I want to do research on? Addiction.

Anna Miller shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Dandy in Milwaukee, WI in June 2019. Photo by Mahdi Gransberry.

Anna Miller shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Dandy in Milwaukee, WI in June 2019. Photo by Mahdi Gransberry.

Luckily, he had some experience doing this type of research. So we did research on nicotine addiction using an animal model of self administration where an animal will press a lever and receive an injection through a catheter of nicotine, because a rat can’t really hold a cigarette.

And what we found was that when we chronically stressed our rats, obviously, all according to protocol, then gave them the chance to self administer nicotine, even if they hadn’t touched it for months, with stress they go right back to it. Fascinating, right? And you could find the biological differences based on how much stress, how much stress hormone was flowing through the rat at the time, therefore, and how much nicotine. It was all malleable. Fascinating, right? Breaking down this mystery into data.

Before I knew it, I was president of the honor society, I was presenting my research at Berkeley, I was presenting my research at the Society for Neuroscience, and I was applying to grad school. I applied to thirty different programs, the acceptance rate is 2%, and I got into three of them.

So now I’m flying across the country, meeting all these professors who I used to be but a shadow in the past. I am now the top of my class. I am that girl on the front row with her hand up that everyone rolls their eyes about.

So I get into grad school here in Milwaukee at Marquette. I get a full ride to get my doctorate, $100,000. Coming from an immigrant family, this is, whoa, you've made it. A doctor. Nice. Wooh, I thought you were going to be an artist for a sec there.

So I get into grad school and I am just elated because who I was, that girl looking in the mirror, nothing but a memory in the past.

So here I am in grad school, super excited, 22 years old. I’m taking classes, I’m teaching classes, I’m giving lectures, I’m volunteering, I’m working for the post doc, I’m working for the senior grad student, I’m writing my thesis, and I’m learning these complicated laboratory techniques, confocal microscopy, immunohistochemistry. I’m working around the clock.

At first, I’m so excited that I don’t really notice how much I’m working. And then I’m working all the time. I’m going to the lab at 6:00 in the morning when it’s dark and I’m leaving the lab at 7:00 p.m. and it’s dark, because this is Wisconsin.

And I start to not eat. I start to not sleep, because I just want to be perfect. I just really, really want to prove that I deserve to be here. There were only three people admitted in my class and one of them came from Yale, so here I am. But I deserve to be here. I’m going to work and I’m going to prove I deserve to be here.

And the lab that I joined, Dr. __________’s lab, it researches cocaine addiction and stress. They have found some pretty similar findings that the stress hormone cortisol, when it’s released, it can actually set the stage for triggers of drug use to kind of come up to the forefront. When you're stressed you're in this state of constant alertness such that cues that might otherwise have gone unnoticed can actually trigger you to crave when normally they wouldn’t.

So we’re researching this and it’s fascinating and I get published. I get published as a first year student in the Journal of Neuroscience. Sixth author, but, hey, it counts. And I am once again traveling and presenting my research. Everything is amazing and I finally made it. I’m doing the thing that I’m supposed to do and who I was was just a memory in the past.

And then it happens. Trauma. I went through a horrible assault experience and I became what I was studying. I’m chronically stressed, as most graduate students are, and now I've gone through trauma. Trauma changes your brain chemistry. Trauma, it can make you more vulnerable on a biological level. And this is something I study. This is something I know about.

But it’s not going to apply to me. It’s not going to apply to me because I deserve to be here. And I’m not who I was so I’m just going to work harder and I’m just going to do my best to try and not let it affect me. That’s not how you deal with trauma, spoiler alert.

So I get a therapist and I start doing music again seriously. Funny thing about music is that music is like magic too. If you hold up your fist like this and you put your pinky to the side and pretend this is a brain, this part in here, this center part is your limbic system. Pretend that’s your limbic system right there. That’s your amygdala. It’s this part of your brain that processes emotion. And either one of these sides, your pinky and your thumb, this is your temporal lobe of your cortex. This is where your auditory processing takes place.

There is a direct wired connection between your ears and your amygdala. That’s why music can wake people from comas, why it can remind an Alzheimer’s patient who they are, where they were. Something about music and sound is directly wired into our memory. And so I use music as therapy to access the emotions that I was shoving as far deep as I could. It kind of worked for a while but the problem with chronic stress is it’s chronic so I didn’t get to stop being in graduate school.

Now, I’m in my second year. Now, I have to do my Master’s thesis. Once again, I’m running around because I have to top myself. I was sixth author, now I want to be third author so that I can be first author two years from now.

And I’m pushing myself and I’m pushing myself and I’m pushing myself and I’m not sleeping and I’m not eating and my hair is turning gray. I’m 23. And I relapsed. I tried to hide it because I didn’t know what to do, because I’m here and I deserve to be here and I’m not that person that I was.

A few months go by and I have to give my outline for my Master’s thesis. So I go to my PI to do that, to give him my Master’s thesis. I walk in and he blindsides me.

He says, “You failed your final in neuroscience foundations.” Whoa. And then he says, “Because of that, we have to put you on academic probation and you have a choice that I need you to make right now.”

And I’m like, “What?”

He says, “You can either stay and extend your stay and stay in this program for another year,” which would mean six years total, “or you can go. If you stay, and I know you just put out an album,” was what he said, “if you stay, I need you to give 200% to neuroscience.”

And I’m sitting there, no sleep for days, trying to remember everything that I learned all the time and applied in the right ways and the right places and trying not to mess up the research, frustrated that my experiments won’t work. Apparently, no one’s experiments work at first that’s why you do it for so many years. And trying to keep it all together and trying to be perfect.

I’m like, “That’s a whole other 100% that I’m giving you. I have nothing more to give. I’m already spending my Christmas in the lab with the lab rats. The only difference between me and them is I’m on the other side of the cage. That’s it.”

I’m like, “I can’t. If I give you anything more, I won’t have anything left of myself.”

So I probably should have taken a second to think about it, but, no. I said, “I think I’m done.”

I got up and I walk into my office and I just sweep everything off my desk. All the data, all the notes, all the Post-Its of everything, the little vials with the brains in them. I probably shouldn’t have kept that. But I sweep it all, sweep it all, sweep it all into these garbage bags. And why does my stuff always end up in garbage bags?

I’m just cramming it in there and the graduate students finally look at me and they really look at me. I take all my stuff and I just run. I just run down three flights of stairs as fast as I can. As fast as I can, I just run with my stuff and I burst out the doors. I get outside and I’m on the sidewalk and I look up and it’s day. It’s day and the sky is blue and I haven't been outside during the day when the sky is blue in months. And I’m free.