Jessica Byerly has always had big feelings. What she has finally come to know as a blessing, felt a curse for much of her life. She was a shy, sensitive child. Blushing and overwhelmed by tears at every inopportunity, she felt most comfortable in her head and singing the songs that burbled forth from it. A storyteller from the outset, her realm of imaginary friends and buggy buddies in the rural reaches of southwestern Montana afforded peace and a world within her control.
The first daughter and middle child of five in a big Catholic family, she always felt her edges were a bit indistinct, like she was defined more by her place than her person. In that, she became a bit of a chameleon, shifting, sometimes imperceptibly, from one cadence to another as the situation and audience designated its needs and she delivered. Naturally bright and quick-witted, Byerly excelled at school — perhaps merely because she read teachers and tests in much the same way. And, as she mastered her raw emotional interactions with the harder realities of humans and a world that didn’t hold her same sensitive sensibilities, she eventually told a new story: one of untouchable sufficiency. She built walls, argued would-be infiltrators to their knees, and created her own safety. At least, for a time.
When her father — her person — died after a two-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma when she was just 19, the ground she had constructed crumbled beneath her feet. She completed her sophomore year of college — and the two years that followed to obtain her honors degree in English literature at the top of her class — without a perceptible blip in acumen. But she would never be the same. She lost what little remained of her faith and trust that the world held good things. She became her own beacon. And blade.
Like so many, she was her worst enemy, an expert at finding fault and relentlessly beating herself with it. Though she had the makings of a blessed life, she was chronically disillusioned by the world, by the social structures and greed that let so many suffer and die, uselessly. To create some sense of emotional equanimity, she worked to be of use to others. Integral to the mental health stability of her beloved younger brother, a shoulder for her baby sister and best friend, an unbiased ear to her girlfriends, an empowering voice for her co-workers, the chameleon re-emerged with purpose.
Eventually, her empathic heart landed her at Gallatin Mental Health Center, where she would work for the following six years as a crisis case manager for those struggling with suicidality and disabling mental illness, nurturing resilience, assessing needs, and helping each to realize treatment goals. Here, Byerly further cultivated her ability to read people, both in what they shared and what they didn’t, holding space for connection and vulnerability. She was a favorite among the clients, both for her big heart and her black-haired, resting-bitch-face advocacy. But, the position took its toll emotionally. Her empathic nature sponged the heartbreaking stories she bore witness to. Trapped by a sense of loyalty and a refusal to “fail her people,” she struggled quietly.
When she had her son Elijah in 2011, she knew she couldn’t bring the weight of all she held into that sphere and she finally found the courage to walk away. She began freelance writing and editing work from her home and withdrew into the domestic and cerebral spheres she had always loved. In Eli, she felt joy for the first time in over a decade and freelancing gave her the conduit to finally insist on her own worth. She became the editor in chief of Rey Advertising, producing several annual magazines and monthly newspapers for the following five years.
Then, in 2014, Elijah was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes a week before his third birthday and Byerly’s world imploded in a manner she would take nearly a year to recover from. Her life became one of needles and terror, of delicate skin marred by relentless jabs that never ended. And never would. Every day was a dance with mortality, a desperate plea to a god she no longer believed in to keep her son safe.
And the world just kept spinning on its axis, as it had always done, as if nothing had changed.
She eventually left Rey Advertising, focused on freelancing opportunities when they arose, and leaned into passion projects. She had her second son Xavier in 2015 and, with him, completed her family of four. She began an intensive yoga practice to exorcise her worries and reclaim her own skin. While her brain whispered chronic misgivings about not carpe-ing her diem and striving for success in all the ways the world has determined necessary, her heart was content.
When the pandemic hit, she shifted attention away from her freelance business, Evil Red Pen, to homeschool her sons instead; the danger to Elijah’s health, in particular, wasn’t worth the risk. She created lesson plans full of art, music, and literature; taught her kids to cook and dance and breathe; and enjoyed her first winter since childhood. At a time when fear and chaos ruled nearly everything around her, Byerly and her boys spent a quiet, peaceful year falling in love with life.
Since then, Byerly has come into her own. Through Evil Red Pen, she is finally integrating all the facets of her intellect, experience, and perception to create work both insightful and universally introspective. She exults in peeling away the layers to a story until the core remains, perfect and resplendent, needing only nuance and a nudge. She remains passionate about injustice and struggles with quick fury at the idiocy and ineptitude that continues to reign, but she’s learning grace. For everyone. Indeed, she still has to regularly flip the finger to her flailing sense of self-worth, to remind herself that perfection isn’t possible or necessary, but that, too, feels as it should. And she’s soon to complete yoga teacher training, realizing a dream and an investment in herself nearly a decade in the making. She will arguably be the angriest little yogi in her small hometown of Bozeman, Montana, but it’s a good kind of fuel. …the sort that lights the bullshit on fire, gives a gentle toss to long dark hair, and walks away. It’s cold here anyway.