How We Hung In: Jessica Danger on Intuition, Storytelling, & Making Some %@!#ing Sandwiches

How We Hung In: Jessica Danger on Intuition, Storytelling, & Making Some %@!#ing Sandwiches

This is the first in a series of conversations with

wonderful everyday humans
talking about how they kept going.

Perseverance is a running theme in my novel, Jobs for Girls with Artistic Flairthe story of a young woman who aspires to become a tattoo artist in a 1980s, blue-collar town, when the field was overwhelmingly male—but it’s also one of my abiding interests in real life. “We can do hard things,” say the inspirational mug and t-shirt and boho tapestry. Okay, but practically, nuts-and-bolts—how? 

Meet Jessica Danger,

a human being who inspired me from the night we met five years ago in Vermont, bitter cold outside, talking about tattoos and writing while raising kids.

If you’ve survived a time of overwhelming responsibility,

I think you will identify with Jessica’s story. But the surprise treasure of this conversation, for me, was hearing how she is re-purposing—and even releasing—some of her survival strategies as she moves into another chapter of life.

(An asterisk to this story: In 2017, just two weeks after we first met, Jessica did a life-changing good deed for me. It felt minor to her, but I will never forget it, and we talk about it at the end of our interview, next week in Part 2. Jessica had so many gems to share that I had to split this interview into two parts.)

“I did all the things I wanted to do—just with a baby on my hip.”

Jessica at 18 with her firstborn son Tomas

Jessica Danger was 17 when she became pregnant with her first son. She’d always planned to go to college and become a writer; she did it anyway. “I’ve always been a goal-oriented person. I did all the things I’d wanted to do—just with a baby on my hip. He went to my classes with me; I waitressed and worked all these jobs and sometimes he’d come with me.”

Jessica at 41 with her son Tomas and grandson Marlowe

(Sidebar: Jessica’s son Tomas is now 24 and engaged, with an infant son of his own. Please someone write a book called Gorgeous Badass Grandmas and put her on the cover.)

In her son’s first few years of life, Jessica was carrying other responsibilities as well.

Jessica with her father and toddler son Tomas

All her life, her father had been an alcoholic, and as she turned the corner on adulthood, “given my role in the family, a lot of his care fell to me. I remember picking him up to take him to rehab, again, and having to unlatch my kid’s carseat to put my dad in the truck.” Their relationship fell apart in her early twenties.

Jessica’s sons Tomas, Elliott, and Oliver

Jessica went on to finish her Associate’s degree, then her Bachelor’s, then her Master’s. She raised her son as a single mom until he was eight years old, then married and had two more children. She ran small businesses with her then-husband, including music and tattoo conventions, all the while teaching at the college level and working side jobs.

Late night schoolwork while holding her infant son

In sum: This is already a story of perseverance, but one of the most difficult years of Jessica’s life came in her early thirties. After a decade of estrangement from her father, she learned he was dying of advanced liver disease, and took on the role of his primary caregiver.

“The only way I knew how to approach the world was through storytelling.”

Jessica’s dad in his youth

Jessica: When he got sick, there wasn’t just the business of attending to him; there was also the business of addressing how I’d forfeited a decade with my father who was now dying. My marriage was falling apart; I was already living separately from my husband. And although I’m an active member of AA now, in active recovery now, I myself was still actively drinking then. Nothing was even close to easy.

Even as a kid, the only way I knew how to approach the world is through stories and storytelling. That’s what I did to get me through that time in my life: I wrote. I didn’t realize I was writing a memoir when I was still taking care of him; I was just writing to myself about my dad.

I also found the small, colloquial tasks of living to be super meaningful.  Everything was a clusterfuck and out of control, but in this moment, here is one thing I can do: I can drive to see my father. I can pick my children up from school. I can pack this lunch for them. Because if I wasn’t doing something, I was in my head constantly trying to think of things I hadn’t thought of before—a new way to approach it, or something I could be doing differently. How can I be a better mother? How can I be a better daughter? How can I be a better partner and wife? I didn’t have any of those answers, but I knew how to make a fucking sandwich.

“You become acutely trained to know what’s coming next. You don’t un-know that.”

June: Oh, man. What you just said—I’m so familiar with those gears turning. “I don’t know what I’m doing. How do I do this better? How do I solve this one?” Especially during the pandemic, homeschooling young children for 18 months and trying to keep everyone OK while I still had a huge workload of my own. I think a lot of mothers have felt this way: “There must be a way this whole situation could be better if I could just figure it out.” And lately I have been actively trying to retrain my brain not to do that constant gear-turning. Do you find that was specific to that period in your life, or a trait you’ve always had?

Jessica as a baby with her dad (in the pool) and her mom

Jessica: Yes to all of it. I am the daughter of an alcoholic through and through. My mom worked her ass off; she is a goddamn hero. But if you’re a child who grows up in that type of environment—which doesn’t have to be an alcoholic parent; it could be anything—you become very acutely trained to constantly know what’s coming next, where you should and shouldn’t stand, what you should and shouldn’t say. My dad was funny and smart and loving and brilliant, and I genuinely enjoyed him. But there was always that gray area where you had to watch out for what was coming next.

June: Meaning an emotional outburst, or…?

Jessica as the middle school valedictorian, pictured with her parents

Jessica: It could be anything. Maybe he wouldn’t get shit-faced drunk and I’d have a happy, fun dad that night. Or maybe he would, but he’d pass out. Or maybe there would be a fight. You never knew, but you knew enough to know there would be something. The trait I learned from that—I’ve found it has served me well. You don’t un-know that.

“I like to think of it not as a defect of character, but a really polished, shiny character trait that kept me alive to 41.”

June: What would you call that character trait?

Jessica: Well, I think it’s anxiety driven by hyper-vigilance. [laughing]

June: [laughing] I was going to say “hyper-responsibility,” but I wanted to hear how you would describe it.

Jessica at Crossfit training

Jessica: I like to think of it not as a defect of character, but a really polished, shiny character trait that kept me alive to 41. But also, how wonderful that now I can use it differently.

Through therapy, and through life, and working my own 12 step program, I finally feel OK now just showing up and saying “I actually don’t know. I have no idea what I’m doing, but here I am. And I’m just going to use what I have so far and see how it works out.”

Jessica with sons Tomas, Elliott and Oliver

Particularly as parents, we are the ones who are expected to know what we’re doing. There can be a lot of identity-seeking in that; if you feel needed, then you feel valuable. And when that’s gone, how do you gauge your own value? That can be paralyzing. That’s where you get to step up and go to bat and how you decide to define yourself as valuable, whether or not you’re being “productive.” Part of it is finding people in your life, and finding yourself enough, to be OK with saying “I have no idea what I’m doing right now.”

Next week, in Part 2 of this interview, Jessica shares how showing-up-and-not-knowing is working practically in her life, including a recent “story of alignment,” and what it means to take “the next indicated step.”

Jessica is also currently seeking representation for her book No Heroic Measures: “A memoir about alcoholism and addiction, parenting and being parented, but mostly it’s about navigating loss and engendering empathy…and also a lesson in not calling dying men ‘assholes’, but we’re still learning.” Contact her at, or find her on Instagram as @mamadanger

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *