Friday, December 31, 2010

Fabula-Rasa

New Year’s Eve: usually devoted to taking account of the year past, giddy revelry in a sexy black dress accessorized with a bottle of champagne, and optimistic (if unrealistic) resolutions. My biggest ambitions for this evening? A fireside game of family Connect Four, a dark chocolate double-layer cake (cooling on the racks right now), finishing my novel-of-the-day, The One Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (which transports me to an 18th century Dutch trading post in Japan), and remembering to be grateful that I am here, with my family, and alive.

Do I dare imagine a better year ahead? One where ITs powers are diminished, if not decimated by love and hope and healing? A year where I might make peace with and make amends to my body, remembering that food is not just fuel, but an act of love and nurturance, that my body, if treated with respect and affection, might see me through another 38 years? A year when I work towards accepting my many faceted self: ambitious, loving, determined, intelligent, mother, wife, friend and despairing, selfish, complicated, crazy, willful, needy, and scared? Neither black nor white, but gray.

Dr. B. wants me to imagine what my life might look like if I was 25%, 50%, and 75% “better.” Hard to see my way to that vision—the State of the Nation of Kerry is easily revealed just by looking at the state of my hands: fingers and cuticles chewed and gnawed, ugly stumps. Or by looking inside my brain: crossed wires, mangled synapses, ITs dark tumor tentacling across all that fragile matter. But yes, 25% better might allow me to be free of the oppressive daily urges to inflict self-damage. 50% better might allow me to experience real stability, even admit lasting joy. 75% better might have me believing that IT is not the bleak custodian of my future, rather I am—and I am the one with the compass in hand, pointed at my true steady North.

Isn’t the cliché “A New Year, A New You”? Blank Slate? Tabula Rasa? But I’m not looking for a new self or for a do-over. What I’m looking for—what might actually get me to 99% better—is to accept that I am good enough as is. That I am perfectly fine and lovable, if flawed and imperfect. Loved, in fact, for my flaws and forgiven my failings. Fucked up and just fine: fabula-rasa.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Be Here

The other night, Christopher and I were curled up on the couch in front of the fire watching the movie, “The Kids Are All Right,” and there’s a scene at the end where the two Moms are dropping their daughter off at college. In my head, I was practicing my very rudimentary arithmetic: in ten mere years, I’d likely be dropping my eight-year old daughter at college for her freshmen year, a mere almost-doubling of the time we’ve already had with her on this earth. An impossibly sad realization: how much longer will she allow me to towel her off after her baths, allow me to marvel at her compact, exquisite little body that is growing by leaps and bounds? How much longer will she snuggle into our bed at night, spoon up against me, her sharp knees and elbows jabbing into my back, reminding me of her warm presence? How much longer will she burst out with impromptu ‘I love you, Momma’s,’ unbidden, unasked for, entirely a result of her exuberant affection?

And then, there’s the knowledge of how my own nature suddenly darkened around her age, when self-consciousness and self-loathing came sneaking in, when I began to understand that I had to restrain myself, hold myself back in order to be acceptable and earn (or at least what I believed I had to earn) love? After all, by nine, I was climbing up counters and reaching for the Flintstone vitamin bottle to attempt an overdose because I concluded that I was unacceptable to myself. I could not bear to be me.

At the same time that I was doing my arithmetic, Christopher was calculating his own. He turned to me and said, “You know you have to be there with me when we drop our daughter off at college, don’t you?” His implication was not only that he would need emotional companionship to survive the momentously happy-sad occasion, but that, ten years from now, I needed to be there.

“You know what I mean,” he said, again. “You need to be there with me. You need to be there with us.”

The not-so-subtle subtext: I need to stay alive, not just for the next hour or day or month or year, but for the next ten, twenty, thirty—however long my natural clock might tick and tock.

His reminder was necessary because what IT (depression, the bipolar disorder, the eating disorder, cutting) refuses me is a glimpse into the future. IT is stuck in the past and is fanatically tied to this moment right now, no other moment but this, no other possible feeling but this pain in this moment, this need to hurt myself right now, this need to starve myself right now, this need to purge right now, this need to slice open my arms right now, right now, right now. IT is the oppression of RIGHT NOW; IT believes in immediate, impulsive action. No future thinking allowed, no admittance of hope, no belief in change.

His reminder was necessary, too, because of where I’ve been these past few weeks—back down in the black well. Awful, terrible, pressing urges to damage what remains of myself, to end my life—unbearable irony in this season of comfort and joy and hope. Exhaustive effort summoning up the appearance of presence amidst all the presents.

Be here. Simple instructions. Why then do they seem like the complex, utterly inscrutable instructions to some IKEA-self-assembly brain, complete with missing screws and bewildering diagrams?

Be here. More command than choice. Because really, what choice do I have when my living is essential to those tiny, fragile little lives who, despite the upheaval and craziness of me being their momma, love me with their fierce, wild abandon?

Monday, December 20, 2010

'Tis the Season

‘Tis the season of twinkling white lights wrapped around the tree, the banister, the front porch columns, after, of course, unsnarling them from their knotted mess. And nostalgic ornaments: the paper-plate angel my daughter made in preschool, the clothespin Sugarplum fairy my mom bought me when I went to see my first Nutcracker in New York City, the kitschy pink and gold plastic bells once attached to an expertly-wrapped wedding present (already 12 years ago!). And the aimless wandering around Toys ‘R Us debating the merits of a $50.00 Star Wars ship (do we really need more plastic crap in the house), a (plastic) dragon, this one with glowing red eyes (to add to my daughter’s collection of several dozen), and quasi-educational video games (which might help occupy the kids on those way-too-early, wintry Saturday mornings when Christopher and I are loathe to get out of bed).

Most importantly, this is the season of joy. J-O-Y !!! Contagious, exuberant, infectious, childlike joy. My kids are amped up on joy, counting down the days until Christmas, making their gift lists over and over, refining, adding, expanding (never contracting), arguing over what they should leave for Santa—peanut butter and jelly sandwich, gingerbread cookies, spicy tuna roll? Their joy reached a new height on Saturday: my husband organized a sledding party, complete with a roaring fire in the outdoor fireplace at a nearby picnic shelter, hot chocolate and coffee, chili and ‘smores. My daughter built a sledding ramp and fearlessly soared several feet into the air, landing in snow-smacking tumblesaults; my son, a little less hardy and brave, toasted himself by the fire, marshmallow goop sticky on his face and hands and jacket; my husband, ever the generous and ambitious host, tended fire and coffeepot and chili Crockpot alike. At one point, the gang of kids tromped over a giant plowed hill of packed snow, pretending to be polar explorers in search of ice dragons. By evening, my daughter’s hair was a tangle of icy dreadlocks and my son’s feet and hands burned red from the cold. They shivered and giggled in unbridled joy.

For me? This year (scratch that—these past five years), joy is complicated as it must co-exist with the ever-present, oppressive despair, with the pervasive feeling that I am an outsider to happiness and contentment, with IT. Joy can be exhausting—how long can I smile, maintain my cheerful exterior, join in the fun and reindeer games before I begin to feel the old damning irritability, self-doubt, and self-loathing sneak back in? A few hours at best. This year is particularly problematic—the lingering fallout from this most recent hospitalization, the cancelled trip to see my family for Christmas (psychiatric stabilization travel ban in place), the dogged doubt that I can survive IT, that I can indeed get well. And then there’s the every-other day routine ECT treatments, my body purpled in bruises (I’m a near impossible IV stick), my heart wanting to hold onto the hope that this time I really will see a way clear of IT (but pervasive urges to restrict and purge and cut remind me I am in no way near free of IT).

The best that I can do is approximate joy, take my cues from my loved ones who surround me. When they laugh and tickle and snuggle, so do I. When they willy-nilly cram red-hots into misshapen gingerbread cookies (an angel or a howling ghoul?), then eat them two at a time, warm right out of the oven, so do I. When they curl up on the couch in front of the fireplace, watching for the umpteenth time “Frosty the Snowman,” so do I.

Right now? The kids have just devoured bowls of ice cream. The fire is crackling. My daughter is perched on the edge of the couch watching “A Nightmare Before Christmas”; my son is writing a story about ice dragons and snowstorms; my husband is preparing himself for a late-night hockey game, and I am feeling, momentarily, the small presence of joy: I am here, with them. I am here, not in the hospital. I am here, trying to get well. Reason enough for joy. Fa-la-la-la-la!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Job for Life

I’ve suffered a pretty serious professional setback this week. The timing couldn’t be shittier as I’ve only just found some tentative stability once again. Suffice it to say, I’ve always been achievement-driven, always defined myself by what I do. Teaching four classes while taking three classes in graduate school? PhD by 28? Writing my first book and winning awards? Tenure-track job and glowing teaching evaluations? Accomplishments and accolades serve to reinforce that surface sense that I am, despite the craziness, okay, acceptable, lovable. As long as my professional life is zooming along, as long as I continue to do and do and do (and relying on the consuming busyness to compartmentalize IT, shunt IT to the side, managing as Surface-Successful-Me), then I can allow myself to exist, to believe that it’s possible to coexist with IT.

Now? Without the external applause, without the visible, tangible signs of success, I’m thrown back on the reserves of internal me. The Self stripped of all pretenses, all costume, all fancified get-ups. For years, Dr. B. has been trying to get me to believe that I am worth fighting for—and for years, I’ve agreed that as long as I could still meet those self-imposed, excessively high expectations, than sure, yes, I deserved love, deserved to live.

Given the continued loss of all those external signifiers, it’s time to find out if I am, indeed, worth it on my own. Can I finally believe that I am lovable because I simply am? That my life is inherently rich and full and meaningful? That for now, it is more than enough that my job is recovery? As my psychiatrist reminded me, now is the time to get healthy, now is the time to hunker down, bunker down with my family and allow myself to be loved and to love. No need to earn love anymore: I have it already. I am not alone, but am surrounded on all sides by a fortress of love. Christopher and the kids. We make a four-square together and that is enough, and that is all, and that is the point and purpose of life.

Of course, with this loss of professional status, my ego and pride are decimated. Part of me wants to yield to this defeat and give up. I’m exhausted from having to try and try to maintain stability, exhausted from the minute-by-minute effort required to reign in the manic despair. And this has been part and parcel of my existence for as long as I can remember. Nine years old and I am climbing up on the counter in the kitchen, rummaging the cabinets for the bottle of Flintstone vitamins, pouring them out in my hand, swallowing one after another in hopes that I can put an end to IT’s voice--already, even then, assaulting me. Fourteen years old and sitting on the toilet in the middle of the night, carving up my arms with a razor blade. Sixteen years old and attempting a drunken, middle-of-the-night swim out into the ocean, intending not to come back. Twenty years old and submerging myself in a campus lake in late November, and against my will, fished out by security. Thirty-three years old and threatening to hurl myself from the Triborough Bridge. Thirty-six years old and overdosing on Lithium. And I’ve been telling myself all these years that I can manage IT? That co-existence is possible? IT has no interest in living side-by-side with me in my successes. IT’s only purpose (and ultimate achievement) is my death.

Now, I must allow myself to be driven—not by goals or expectations or IT—but be driven by love. And to be grateful that after all these years, I am alive, have survived, that I am able, today, to sit beside my daughter after school and run through her spelling words, and give my son a push in his sled down the snowy hill, and spend a meditative hour baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies, and curl up on the couch, in front of a toasty fire with my husband, losing myself in a few hours of uncomplicated T.V., and later, burrow into a warm bed with a complicated novel, and that I will, eventually, fall asleep, waking, blessedly into tomorrow. Into my life—which is the real, necessary, meaning-filled work.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Well-Being

There is no “right” road to recovery, and my recovery is not a perfect process. Because I have the propensity to hold myself to impossibly high standards, I always expect that “this” time will be seamless, will not be marred by the potholes and divots of past attempts to get well. Perhaps what I need to rethink is my naïve idealism that there is some “well” to get to—some stable, static destination that equals (for all perpetuity) “better.” That recovery is something to accomplish—as if I’ll be given the gold star of approval if I hold myself to rigid rules and expectations. The achievement-driven part of me wants an A on my Report Card for Mental Health, wants to win the match, sweep all games and sets, 3-Love, wants the accolades and approval that “better” surely promises--Now, Kerry, you are deserving of our love and affection and compassion.

There is no "well," just well-being.

What I need to come to terms with is the plain and honest fact that I will never reach “well.” I am Bipolar; I suffer from cycles of debilitating depression—both of which are being better managed through ECT and therapy and medication. But my brain misfires, is often misaligned, and for better or for worse, this is part and parcel of me. I am tilted at a peculiar angle to the universe, but this angle is what has allowed me to have that slanted double-vision necessary for a writer. No easy surfaces or comforting false sentiment for me. I am wary, suspicious of false fronts, of shallow happiness. Because I am well-practiced at hiding and concealing and adapting, I know not to take the lives of others at face value. Love and happiness require more than the pat, singsong, rhyming Hallmark card consolations and buttressings. Peace and contentment require more than perfect Zen, cross-legged, chai-sipping meditation. A rich, complex life is ultimately one of bipolarity—I move back and forth across the spectrum, from rage to joy, despair to hope. That seesaw reminds me that I am capable of feeling ALL. As Walt Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself,” “I am large. I contain multitudes.”

As my psychiatrist has counseled, I need to start speaking to myself in positive terms, transform negative assumptions into positive, motivating encouragement. My recovery isn’t perfect? I’ve had false starts, haven’t been ready yet to embrace change and hope. How could I, after all, when despair and instability and self-deprecation and self-sneering have been my dogged adversarial companions these 38 years? Change, particularly change that seizes and rests upon hope, that necessitates a new vision for the self, is terrifying. The self is under revision. Re-vision: a new way of seeing myself, of defining myself to myself. Neither crazy nor sane, but compellingly complicated, and worth the time and effort needed to stay alive, to see my life through to its natural end.

And what matters most, right now? That I don’t revert to what is safe, what is comfortable—which are positions of self-blame and self-loathing. Instead, I take a deep breath, steel myself, and take heart—take up my heart which I have for so long left abandoned in the ditch. Take up my heart and take care of myself.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hospital = Hiatus

Hospital = Hiatus.

Put it this way: the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving were a disaster. IT rolled right over me, flattening me, making my life one-dimensional. Purging, skipping meals, running myself, literally, ragged, obsessing over cutting, tumbling down into the black well of despair. What else could Thanksgiving be but a complete unraveling, devoted as it is to food and family and, for me, forced fun? Wanting so desperately to “prove” I could manage a dinner party, that I could host houseguests for several days--all the while frantically, stealthily, guiltily looking for escape routes to purge, for any moment to avoid eating, and then contending with churning anxiety because I was terrified of being found out? And stupidly, at the end of the evening, exhausted from being “good,” believing I was due the liberating buzz, I snuck a few drinks.

I cannot drink. I know this. Drinking only takes me further into obsessive despair; it causes all the self-damning thoughts to erupt to the surface; it transforms me into an angry, defensive monster. And usually leads me right to cutting. Of course, Christopher discovered what I’d done—my intoxication spoke for itself. And rightly so, he was furious, issuing deserved ultimatums.

Bad decisions lead to wretched behaviors which always lead to isolation, feelings of guilt, a loss of integrity, insomnia, more intense impulses for cutting, mania and depression, and instability. Where does this cascade lead? Feelings of hopelessness, a loss of life-force, lunacy, and suicidal ideation. X marked the spot and I was dead center. No way to tunnel out of the earth that had collapsed on top of me.

But. I did not cut. I did not overdose. I did not drive my car into a tree. What I did was decide to save myself and stay alive. A few days later, when I went up to the hospital for my ECT treatment, I packed my overnight bag-- I decided to be honest with my psychiatrist who I have grown to trust: he cuts through the bullshit and believes that with the right approach (a mix of ECT, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and deliberately-focused hope) I can transform my life. In short, he inspires me.

“I’m not safe,” I said. “I’m so far in the well, I don’t think I can get myself out on my own, at home.”

He took one look at me, quickly assessing my fear and desolation and hopelessness, and checked me right into the hospital. A short, compressed stay: 5 days. Stepped up ECT treatments, my psychiatrist meeting with me each day to work through CBT, and the added assistance of an anti-depressant and a sleep aid. All of which have returned some believable stability. 5 days without purging, 5 days of consistent meals, 5 days of working on transforming the black, bleak thoughts into positive, future-leaning hope.

Today? Post-ECT, I felt good enough to decorate the Christmas tree with the kids, and string the lights and wrap the greens up the banister, and plan out a decadent double-layer chocolate cake I’ll bake tomorrow (yes! I can believe I’ll be here tomorrow) at my daughter’s request. Hiatus = Hospital = Hope.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Unexpected Pleasures

I’m feeling giggly, silly, happily unhinged by this day that has been devoted to pleasure. It was not my intention to languish inside happiness. In fact, the day began with an agonizing breakfast—having to talk myself through every spoonful of yogurt and granola and blueberries. Yesterday, I pulled on my go-to black dress pants, my teaching uniform, and they felt tight. Much tighter than last week when they slipped on easily over thighs and hips, buckled a bit even at the waist.

This week? I’ve uncharacteristically spent the last week or so indulging in desserts: a few slices of Christopher’s homemade pumpkin pie and my homemade chocolate chip cookies. I ate them because they looked good, ate them without ITs barrage (the one-sided conversation that usually goes like this: Eat that and you’ll get fat, you pig. You don’t deserve dessert. You haven’t earned it. You’re not even hungry anyway.) But it seems I am now paying for my (just) desserts with pants that feel tight.

Of course, this could just be the delusion of my anorexic brain which doesn’t like anything to fit, especially pants which should ideally be getting looser and looser, should not touch skin, should gape and flutter and drape around my body. Not fit to form. So perhaps what’s bugging me is the fact that the pants fit as they should, which is to say, to size.

If IT was silent through my week of desserts, it was hollering at me this morning over breakfast. Slowly I swallowed bite after bite until all that was left was the berry-stained bowl. Why did I eat? Dr. B. has given me the okay to start running again. A very modest distance and only a few times a week, but running! It’s been almost two months since I was able to open up and lope around the track, hobbled as I’ve been by an imposed walking-only program. My own fault, of course, because I’d been purging and my weight kept fluctuating, so stability was elusive. Hence, Kerry on slooowww motion. But running is now reinstated and I want to keep this privilege so that means I need to keep my weight stable, as well as no purging, so I ate breakfast, licking the spoon clean. And kept it despite IT pinching my hips and stomach.

My run was lovely, liberating, and loose. An easy two miles. I didn’t even break a sweat but that was okay because I was on the move again, limbs reaching forward, crossing ground. I felt like some thoroughbred too long cooped up in the stall and suddenly, the stall door opens and a wide, expansive meadow lies ahead, beckoning me out into the air. I felt as if I was floating.

Since Wednesday is my day off, I came home, took a long, hot shower, then made myself an extra-large cup of chai tea and curled up on the couch with the latest novel I’m reading: Sacred Games, a book written by a friend from grad school—for two hours I was swept up in the criminal underworld of India, roaming around hot, sweaty Mumbai with a weary police officer and far, far away from cold, rainy Meadville.

Then the phone rang. Christopher on the other end. “Hey,” he said, “if I came home right now, could I find you naked in bed? The kids are at school and we could have a little late-morning delight.”

But of course! “And afterward,” I said, surprising myself, “maybe we could go out for lunch together?”

A lunchtime tryst. Bodies moving together in pleasure. All of it before noon. Could the day get any better?

Because I was feeling so good, so at ease, I decided to spend the afternoon cooking dinner for us all. While I type this entry, there is a deep pan full of baked ziti in the oven. My kids are in the kitchen rolling around on the floor with the dog, giggling and squealing. My husband is on his way home from teaching. And I am absolutely content and deserving of this pleasurable day.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Ambition: Imperfection?

Assignment from Dr. B.: Imagine (and write) about what my life might look like if I wasn’t such an obsessive perfectionist. No easy task. In fact, I’m resistant to it because it means reconfiguring the ethos that my entire life has been built upon—that sheer force of will, mind over sick mind, a ruthless determination to be the best at whatever I set my mind to, is all I need to see my ambitions through. But these past few years of debilitating illness, of life under ITs dictatorship (and no benevolent dictatorship at that) has fostered a soul sickness in me. I haven’t wanted to do anything except flog myself, exact pain and suffering, following IT to what often feels like my premature, foreordained end. Scarred, starved, bat shit crazy. Locked away for good. The woman in the hospital gown pacing up and down a hallway, unable to hear anything but the deafening thrum of ITs voice whispering in her ear: die, die, die.

Except that’s not entirely true. I am hounded by the persistent belief that I am not doing what I should be doing: and that is writing. I am a writer. It is what I was born to do, to be. Impossible to separate words, the rhythms of language, the tumult of image and story from who I am. Writing is no mere hobby. Nor is it merely my profession. One word placed after another, one sentence exhaled after another—as essential as breathing.

My first writing teacher, Frederick Busch, told me that not only was I innately talented at writing, but that I had the energy and drive to see it through. Energy and drive: that’s what IT has taken from me and ground to dust. IT has convinced me that I have nothing left to say, nothing original to imagine, no stories to reveal. All I am is inert matter, an imagination left floundering in the desert, gasping for water, scorched by ITs damnable heat. IT tells me that unless I have something perfect to say then I should just shut up. Silence over stupidity and IT has me convinced that I am Idiot Extraordinaire.

Except there are the small niggling doubts that throw ITs system into question. For instance, would my ECT psychiatrist have asked me to talk to his hoped-for future residents about what it’s like living with—and recovering from—depression? Would my brother forward an email on to me from an old friend of his whom recently reread my first book, a collection of short stories, telling him how moved and stunned she was by the force of my writing? Would students keep asking me to advise their senior projects in writing if they didn’t believe that I had something to teach them about this mysterious craft? Would my college create a one-of-a-kind teaching position for me that accommodates the difficulties of living with Bipolar Disorder? Isn’t this a sign that I am a valued, irreplaceable teacher and colleague?

And, as Dr. B. reminded me, I am writing this blog. Christopher seconded that: “Think how many tens of thousands of words you’ve written for the blog in just the last year?” But, IT protests, that’s not enough. The blog doesn’t “really” count. IT has a way of discounting my small successes over IT, refusing to let me believe that “good enough” is what is letting me live right now. Good enough. A disquieting phrase. “Surely,” IT argues, “you should be doing more and better and longer and more perfect?” But Good Enough may be my saving grace. Good Enough leaves room for mistakes and forgiveness. Good Enough means I am, by right of birth, imperfect.

Isn’t that a relief? It means I can relinquish control over deadlines, over the “should haves” and “supposed to’s.” It means I acknowledge that I can be (and in fact am) loved because of my human failings. It means my own love can be imperfect: cranky, impatient, and frustrated. But also: that my love is good enough and this is revealed to me over and over, day in and day out by the mere fact that I have a husband who has persisted by my side, insisted upon loving me throughout these crazy, tumultuous years. That I have children who trail me around the house, throw themselves at me with passionate hugs and kisses and fight over whose turn it is to sleep next to me each night. That I am still fighting IT, still surviving IT, willing to stare IT down each week as I, terrified, go for ECT. That I know, without a doubt, each time I go under anesthesia for ECT, that I want to, no, must, wake up because the rest of my life is waiting, expectantly, for me. There are books to write. And children to love. And a husband with whom to share my dreams. And dreams. Dreams, still. Dreams, again. Dreams that promise a future.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Swim Lessons

ECT on Friday went off without a hitch. The IV slipped right in, anesthesia worked as it should, the seizure was short and sweet, and I woke up feeling great. Better than great. Instead of my usual collapse into bed for the afternoon, I was perky and ambitious, even suggesting to Christopher that we hit the supermarket and then stop for lunch. Yes, I was hungry—hungry enough to eat a real meal. Indian: paneer, vegetable curry, and rice. No measuring cups, just flying by the seat of my pants. Estimating how much I should have without any panic.

Part of my equanimity was certainly due to my mini “lecture” on Depression and the effects of ECT that my ECT psychiatrist asked me to give to a group of visiting potential Residents. “What does depression feel like?” he asked. I was lying in the hospital bed, waiting for the nurse to insert the IV, anxious about the imminent ECT procedure, and despite these nerve-wracking distractions, my doctor believed that I could offer them insight, an intimate glimpse into the debilitation of depression.

“What it’s like," I said, “is hell. I’ve been suffering from depression since I was at least fourteen, cutting my arms, starving myself. Depression leaves you at a great distance from yourself—you no longer have a self that you care about. You no longer believe there’s any possible way to climb out of the well. Inert, stuck, dead to the world. Everything that you know should bring you joy? Fails. There is no capacity for joy. No imaginative capacity; no ability to see beyond the bleak wall of yourself. What ECT has given me these past few weeks is a chance to get unstuck—sure I still have serious ups and downs, but I don’t stay down. There’s a new clarity—and maybe that’s also due to the fact that I’m no longer on any drugs, for the first time in 16 years, no drugs!—that allows me to see that I don’t have to stay at the bottom of the well. I guess what I’m feeling, as tentative and precarious as it may be, is hope.”

Later, Christopher said I was brave to speak as I did. “I couldn’t have done it,” he said. “Speaking about IT in front of a group of strangers. That just shows how far you’ve come—you’ve gained some distance on IT.”

That’s what I have to remember: I don’t have to live inside of IT’s demands. I can forgive myself, feel some small amount of pride that I am surviving IT, that I am making progress. For instance, yesterday, at my kids’ swim lessons, I was sitting with my daughter and we were watching her brother take his first few strokes without the aid of a flotation belt.

“I can’t,” he screeched. “I can’t do it!”

His teacher assuaged him. “Of course you can,” she said. “You’re already doing it!”

And in fact, he was—he’d swam the few strokes from her arms to the wall without even registering his success. Can I recover from IT? Similarly, I often feel like I’m sinking, drowning, flailing helplessly in the water. Can I stay afloat without IT, without the perverse comfort of depression, without the scaffolding of the Eating Disorder and its sick but soothing dictatorial order? My answer: Of course I can. I’m already doing it!

How can I be sure? Not five minutes later, because it was a million degrees in the pool room, I stripped off my sweater, leaving me only in my black tee-shirt. My daughter looked over at me, at my bare arms.

“Momma,” she said, “how do you think you got all those scratches on your arm?”

I took a deep breath. “You know, I got them so long ago, that I don’t really remember.”

Wishful thinking, perhaps, but my arms are healed these days. No cuts to have to hide or explain away, no crazy scenes with scissors or knives. No bandages or lies. Scars, yes. Over one hundred. But I believe that there will come a day when how I got them will be an indistinct, vague memory. I truly won’t remember how I could have ever done that to myself, how I could have ever believed that damage and death were the only ways out. What I will have in ITs place is a joyful, creative life and I will be swimming confidently and with imaginative purpose through love and light.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Screw Up

I screwed up. After writing yesterday’s blog, after my blithe optimism about overcoming IT, about managing to move through a day of spontaneous eating, I purged at the day’s end. A lovely dinner: mixed greens freshly picked from our Amish friend’s farm, homemade Butternut squash-sage gnocchi. Then: Christopher suggested dessert and even though I was full, I said Yes, because that’s what you say when you’re trying to defeat IT, when you’re trying to behave like a normal person and say Yes to a slice of cake that you yourself made the night before—a caramel-walnut, apple, upside-down cake.

Apparently, IT had other ideas. No way could I feel full. No way could I enjoy food, sink into sensory pleasure. After all, weren’t my skinny jeans feeling tight around the hips and ass? Wasn’t my belly bulging again? Wasn’t I back to gaining weight?

So I ate the slice of cake and walked upstairs, feeling the pressure rise in my chest, the need to be empty once again taking precedence over the need to be healthy. Christopher even asked me if I was okay, to which I replied, “Oh, sure. I’m fine,” because of course, I was not willing to be helped, I didn’t want to be stopped, I wanted, well, my, ITs own way. Throw it all back up. Achieve equilibrium. Return to negative calories.

So. No need for fingers down the throat. That’s how easy it is—just tilt the body, hang the head, and it’s all over.

Only there’s the fallout. Christopher creeping upstairs behind me, listening to the awfulness of it all, watching me lift the lid of the toilet to make sure it all flushed down. Christopher demanding I tell him WHAT I DID. IT is adamant that I keep all transgressions and humiliations private. Deny, deny, deny even though he knows the truth. No possible way to admit to the degrading and habitual failure that is an Eating Disorder.

Dr. B. today: “I want to see you live. I want to see you grow old with your kids and grandkids. I want to see you feel peace.”

And yet, I have no idea what that means. Peace? I have never felt peace, restfulness, ease. I keep thinking ECT will somehow zap my brain into compliance. I keep hoping that taking the small risks in eating like I did yesterday will counteract all feelings of self-punishment. But they don’t. And all I am left with is emptiness—nothing left to write, nothing left to feel. Just a life circumscribed by ITs demands. Which is no life.

At least no life that I want. Where do I from here? That is the question that remains before me.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The ECT Way Out

Apparently, ECT must be working—I woke up the day after Session #8, a Session not without consequences—in a fantastic mood. Woke up, on a Saturday, pre-7am to my son’s tickles and I tickled back. I didn’t shrug him off and roll back to sleep; I didn’t snap at him or nudge Christopher to take over parenting duty. I woke up with him, happy as a lark despite the previous day’s physical hell.

What went off-track? First, a mis-threaded IV, which should have been the first signal that all would not be well. Then, for some strange reason, I seem resistant to anesthesia which meant I had to be given an extra-big dose, which may or may not been the cause of an extra-big seizure (i.e., usually the seizure lasts 45 seconds; this time? 2 minutes). When I woke up, I had pretty significant memory loss (no idea where I was or who my doctor was—you know, the things that might matter?) so I was given a drug to counteract that, which led to a monstrous headache; so I was given narcotics to counteract that; which resulted in terrible nausea and vomiting and bed for the rest of the day. Head throbbing under the covers for hours.

And I woke up the next morning cheerful? Energetic? Feelings of giggly elation? The side effects, which seem to be proving themselves considerable, still pale in the face of such mood elevation. And, my ECT psychiatrist believes that the ECT can help with the Eating Disorder, and god knows I can use it. Even while resting in this even mood keel, the Eating Disorder has me by the throat (of course, where else would it have me?).

Take today, for instance. Sunday. Family day. The day Christopher and I put aside our mountain of grading and class prep and turn ourselves over to play and love. So, in keeping with my newfound mental steadiness, I thought it would be okay to venture off the yogurt-blueberry-granola breakfast and lunch highway (the one of precise measurements and rote routine) and experiment with Come What May. Christopher suggested fried eggs and toast—organic farm fresh eggs, his homemade sourdough. After I ate it, I felt consumed by guilt. I ate 2? 2? 2 eggs? Glutton, IT said. Now you have to go walk. So, I abandoned family and took a 4 mile walk (because I'm not yet at running weight) at the gym.

Around lunchtime, we decided to take a drive out into the country, find someplace to eat, then take a hike at the Wildlife Refuge. We wound up at Jack’s Place—a cross between a beer dive/cigarette den/greasy spoon. But it was the only option for miles and, Come What May Right? Part of freeing myself from the confines of IT and the Eating Disorder is relearning how to eat spontaneously and not panicking because the food isn’t to my insanely exacting standards. So. A cup of chili, a grilled cheese sandwich, and a handful of fries. Just one meal, I told myself over and over. Tomorrow I can go back to yogurt, but today is about the kids and they’re having a blast, devouring fries and chicken tenders and slurping up their once-in-a-blue-moon Sprites.

What was I doing? Outwardly, steeling myself, staying even, not letting the panic show itself. Inwardly? Let’s just say I had to fight not to purge for our entire hike through the refuge. How absurd is that? A beautiful, sunny Fall afternoon, my kids bounding through the woods, my husband at ease because IT seems “at ease,” and all the while I’m scanning the refuge (no, don’t think the irony of that place is lost on me—no refuge for me from IT) for spots to throw up. I rehearse in my mind: behind that bush, in that thicket, into the pond. Just let Christopher get ten steps ahead and you can excise all that food that is unnecessary, that only proves you to be a fat pig.

But here is where ECT might be helping me out. Instead of giving in to my irrational, mentally-ill self, I stayed with my right mind which meant I stayed close to the kids and Christopher on the hike. Which meant that I understood that the fallout from purging would be worse that keeping the food in the first place. After all, Christopher has given me the ultimatum: anymore lying in regards to the purging and I’m out of the house. Which means no more family Sundays. Which means me left to IT and IT alone—exactly what IT wants because then what would be the point of trying to live out my life?

As I’m sitting here, writing this, Family Day is coming to a quiet, contented close. Butternut squash are roasting in the oven: Christopher is making a Butternut-sage gnocchi for dinner. Christopher and my daughter are in the basement hammering and sawing away, building a house for one of her stuffed animals. And my son? He’s snuggled up beside me on the couch, asking me a thousand questions: What are you typing? What does that word say? When are you gonna be done? Wanting my attention, needing me and only me. Momma. And so, without delay, I turn from the page, which is always waiting, to my son, who has just announced that he will hug me all night long and forever.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Telling Stories

My daughter wrote her first play yesterday: “Turkey Adventure.” It involves two turkeys on the run from an evil (hungry) farmer, a nefarious wolf, and some cartoonish “crazy” Indians who live in the deep woods. She even typed the play into the computer at a rate of two words per minute, refusing my transcribing skills, wanting this play (and the effort involved in its production) to be hers and hers alone.

“Momma,” she said, “I even got my friends to agree to be in it. Three of them are boys, too. Can you believe it? Even boys want to be in the play. Maybe my teacher will let us do it in front of the class right before Thanksgiving break!”

Her enthusiasm is infectious. She has been swept up in the excitement of creation and imagination. Last night, up too late as usual, she was highlighting the various roles and speaking parts in the twelve copies of the play she printed out. And organizing a rehearsal schedule. “Maybe I can give everyone a piece of candy at the end of each rehearsal. That way they’ll want to rehearse again.” That’s my girl—practical and savvy, too.

What a gift to be able to watch her brim with enthusiasm, to begin to understand the thrill of creation and production. To watch the words spill from her fingers. To get caught up in the power of story. She reminds me of, well, me. The me that believed anything was possible. The me that would spend hours composing poems and stories and plays. The me that tried to write (and type out with two fingers) a potboiler, Southern gothic romance novel at the age of nine—a story involving a swaggering Yankee and an impoverished lady. I remember my fingers trembling when I typed, “Her bosom heaved,” though I didn’t really know what that meant or implied. Certainly my bosom, at that age, did not heave (nor does it now).

Similarly, my son has recently been transformed into the mad author. He tapes bits and piece of paper together, draws a series of interconnected pictures and then rushes to find me to write the words, the ideas that are filling his five-year old head. “Momma, you write it for me because I can’t,” he wails desperately, until I stop unloading the dishwasher, stop folding laundry, put away whatever it is that I am doing to transcribe his vision for him. The pressure to tell his story, to allow the pleasure of invention to fill him up. He whips out sentences so fast I can’t keep up with him. Of course, this being the season of all things ghostly and scary, his little books have revolved around witches and werewolves and frightening walks through dark forests and graveyards.

After we finish our collaboration, he implores me to read his story back to him, again and again (ad infinitum). And yet, even though I find it repetitive, his does not—his face glows, his smile grows almost unbelievably large as he listens to this story of his own making. It is exactly the same self-satisfaction I feel after writing one of my own stories or essays: I spun this gold out of air! I’ve found a language, a narrative for my dreams! That line-up of little black letters spell out something that is mine, that is me!

Why do my two little authors hold me in such sway? Because I have been empty of words for so long because of IT. IT decimates imagination. IT reduces me to the mechanical automaton doing ITs bidding: starving or cutting or purging or giving in to the manic highs and lows. IT tells me I am empty of any other story but ITs story and IT has already come up with my ending: death. IT insists that is my only possible ending.

And yet, watching my children give birth to their own best imaginative selves on the page, watching them create stories that suggest they can imagine alternate worlds, I am inspired. My ending has not yet been written. IT may show me one possible end, but that narrative path can change course. It’s like one of those Choose Your Own Ending books I used to read as a kid—make some narrative decisions and you might end up on page 43, flummoxed and floundering. Go back and choose another set of possibilities and you end up on page 56, the hero of the story. I want to be the hero of my story—instead of IT destroying me, I must destroy IT. How do I do this? Imagine an alternate story for myself, one that ends in light and love and restoration. I am still that girl, two-finger typing, swept up by the power of What Might Be.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Trick or Treat

When I was a kid, my favorite Halloween costume was Wonder Woman. In fact, I even had a framed picture of her over my bed, a super-heroine crucifix of sorts. Sure, there was a Saint Elizabeth medal hanging over my door, but I knew that when push came to shove, Wonder Woman would be the one to save me. After all, she had the golden lasso that could rope all evildoers into submission and the cuff bracelets that gave her superior jumping power. What did any Catholic icon have on that? And then of course, she was beautiful, with that cinched waist and mane of dark hair that curled up at the ends. And she was also smart, outwitting robbers and kidnappers and other nefarious types. So when Halloween rolled around, there was no discussion. I was Wonder Woman for several years running, always the same plastic pull-on costume and sweaty mask.

One year, I even put on my mother’s own silver cuff bracelets and, believing that I had assumed Wonder Woman’s powers merely by the force of my adoration and naïve emulation, I took a jump from the top step of my living room staircase and learned, by my broken arm, that I was merely mortal and had no super powers.

Super powers. I am in sore need of them right now. It has been a difficult week. I keep having to learn that I am still, really mortal. That IT has me falsely believing that I can conquer the ED on my own. As Christopher terms it, I, we, are in crisis mode once again as I’ve allowed the ED to take over—skipping meals whenever I can, purging whenever there’s an opportunity, and in the process, losing too much (though for IT, not enough) weight. If I were dressing up for Halloween this year, I’d have two possible costumes.

1.Ghost. Isn’t that what the anorexia-backsliding is about? Disappearing? Becoming invisible? Isn’t the ED always haunting me anyway? Always telling me I ate too much, that I’m too fat, that I’m a disgusting pig? Isn’t it always trying to scare me into submission? i.e., If you eat that apple or that slice of cheese or god forbid lick the spoon while you’re making brownies then you have committed an unpardonable sin and should die?

2.Ghoul. You know, the stringy haired, pasty-skin variety, lurching and staggering around, baring rotten teeth? That’s how I see myself after purging, like some wasted hag who scares everyone she comes in contact with, her husband and children alike.

Even though these are the costumes hanging in front of me right now, I don’t want to wear them. Ghost and Ghoul. That’s not me. Not that I expect any golden lasso to pull me out of this. “You have to give a damn,” Dr. B. said to me on Friday. “Nobody can do this for you.” Not Dr. B., not Christopher, not Wonder Woman. Is love enough to help me pull myself up from this Eating Disorder hell?

“Do you know why I’m still here?” Christopher asked me yesterday. This was right after he caught me purging an apple.

(An apple—how absurd is that? Even I know an apple has approximately zero calories. So what was the point of risking getting caught? It was the panic; an inability to sit with my discomfort after eating; my adolescent need to prove my diseased autonomy still had its say; my need to say Fuck You to food, to fullness, to health. Self-sabotage.) So really, why was Christopher still here after all these years of hell, a hell that feels so often like my own making?

He said, “Because I love you. Because I know how strong you are, stronger than IT. Because I believe you will get well.”

I said, “It hurts to hear you say you love me because I don’t believe I deserve it.”

“Tough,” he said. “I may be enraged at IT, at this disease, but I love you.”

I am trying to yield to that love. Eating and accepting food. Keeping my ass on the couch, in close proximity to him and away from all bathrooms for a good hour after meals. No running. No walking. No secret sit-ups. I’m trying to make peace with the fact that I have to gain weight again. Watch the scale creep back up instead of plummet back down. A tiny victory? I raided my son’s Halloween basket, eating a handful of Swedish fish, which may not seem like much, but when you compare that to yesterday’s decimation by apple? A victory for sure. I ate something I didn’t need but wanted. A small wonder for this woman.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Mad Dash at IT

ECT Round 7 went off without a hitch, which is not to say that I wasn’t filled with anxiety. But I did it anyway, thanks to the convincing assurances from the doctor in charge that the debacle of the previous week would never happen again. Apparently, the hospital even held back-to-back meetings about me and what had gone wrong. So, it was comforting to know that I hadn’t been over-exaggerating and that my fear was both validated and addressed.

Which brings me to the larger fear—letting people know about the ECT in the first place. Part of me has been hesitant to open up about it. I imagine that most generally think of ECT as the theory of last resort. That is, they must be thinking that I really am that crazy if this is what it’s come to—electricity and seizures, anesthesia and paralysis. The backbone of many a horror film. And add to that, that there is no absolute consensus as to how ECT works? Though as Dr. B. helpfully explained, “Basically what happens is a neuron dump. All neurons fire at once. A rebooting of the brain.” So not experimentation in Frankensteination. I am still me. Not tabula rasa, but a me that rests (even if temporarily) in mood stability.

And when I do open up about going through ECT? The intrepid adventurer speaks. “Oh,” I say, “it’s not really that big of a deal. You’re out and it’s over and then you wake up and feel shitty for a few hours. But it’s absolutely making a marked difference. No suicidal thoughts. No cuts on the arms.” But doubt creeps in. Placebo effect? I know I’m good at the happy-perky-me façade. Is that what the mood stability is about? Be better by seeming to be better? All the while I’m waiting for the sky to fall?

Then there’s the ECT doctor’s confidence that I am, must be getting better. After all, in ten days he takes me off all meds. That’s right. In four weeks, going from 7 meds to zero. It feels fast. Too fast, even. After all, I’ve been on some form of psychiatric medication since I was 24, almost 15 years of relying on the line up of pills to keep things (me) balanced. What if? I want to say to him. What if the effects of ECT don’t last? What if, two months from now, I spin out of control again, only this time without the safety net of mood stabilizers? He seems to suggest that a combination of ECT and Cognitive Behavioral techniques are all I need to climb my way out of my lifelong battle with IT. That sheer force of will and logic (assuming of course, that I can be logical, that I can assess what is illogical, that I won’t simply be caught up in the whirlwind of IT) can right what has for so long been wrong.

Maybe this is just ego talking. That is, IT (and the Bipolar Disorder and the Eating Disorder and the persistent living inside of depression) has made me feel like an outsider—hovering around those who are happy and content, around those who aren’t twisted by the agonies of living with IT, around those who are “normal.” Being an outsider to happiness and contentment, while full of misery, also sets me apart—I am not like you; somehow, fate and biology have made me, well "special." In its own twisted way, contending with psychiatric illness has provided me with a fallback identity, one that is set apart from the apparently “normal.”

And yet, it seems if I follow a clinical rubric, if I chart negative thoughts and locate distorted thinking and substitute positive thoughts, coupled with ECT, all that difference disappears. My suffering is not true suffering but just the consequence of an undisciplined mind. All I need to do is to submit to ECT and self-charting and I will be reassembled into a functional machine.

It doesn’t work like that. Case in point? The ECT and its attending Cognitive Behavioral workbooking haven’t made a dent in the Eating Disorder. If anything, that voice has only gotten louder, more devious, more determined. Maybe the Eating Disorder feels cornered now that suicide is off the table, now that the cuts on my arms have healed. Maybe the Eating Disorder feels exposed and alone, isolated off from the triumvirate. Like some rabid dog backed into a corner, snarling and lunging for whatever is in its way.

Maybe what I need to remember is to be grateful for this opportunity offered by ECT—that some of the crazy pressure has been lifted from me. That my horizon has widened. That I don’t presently feel like self-annihilating. That I’m being given the grace and space to tackle IT in the form of the Eating Disorder. That I have the chance to make a run for balance and stability. Even if it feels like a mad dash.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Post-Op

Almost two weeks post-discharge, and Electrogirl is still feeling pretty good. That makes two weeks without any suicidal rumination, two weeks without obsessing over self-injury. Two weeks of mood stability. I am suspiciously optimistic.

Of course, this past week (since my ECT on Friday) has not been without its anxieties. There were a few bumps in the past ECT session which were fairly traumatizing. My vein blew which caused the anesthetic to seep into muscle instead of vein, which in turn, meant I was conscious but unable to move much more than my eyeballs which, in turn, flitted back and forth as fast as possible in an attempt to signal to the powers that be THAT I WAS NOT UNDER AND STILL AWAKE SO PLEASE, PLEASE DO NOT START. Thankfully, my doctor was attentive and halted the procedure. But still. Complete loss of control. A small hint at what all those impending amputations, sans anesthesia, must have felt like for those injured civil war soldiers. What anticipation of pain feels like coupled with the inability to do anything about it.

I maintained the stiff –upper lip and didn’t let on that I was completely terrified and wanted to bolt from the OR, even handed over my other arm for a second try at the IV and anesthesia and ECT. Of course, I didn’t cry and insisted I was fine. I even laughed, or forced myself to laugh because I am not someone who admits fear or shows weakness.

There are consequences to that bravado. All weekend long I relived those few minutes in the OR, panicking each night in bed, unable to breathe, crying even, because I would have to do it all over again this Friday. It’s not the actual electro-convulsing that is scary. It’s the relinquishing of control, the muting of speech that is threatening. Lying immobile on the gurney, a passive body, unable to shout out STOP, having to trust that others know what they’re doing. With anesthesia, with electricity, with my brain?

It’s an analogous test, isn’t it? The part of me that doesn’t believe in coincidence, that doesn’t believe that life is merely a series of random chance happenings says, “Well, my biggest obstacle in recovery has been my inability to give up control. It’s what feeds the Eating Disorder. It’s what underlies the hours-long rumination at night. It’s what keeps me on the treadmill for miles and miles. Like a belligerent teenager, IT says, ‘No one can tell me what to do.’ Not Christopher, not Dr. B., not anyone who might be able to see a way clear for me from IT. The only voice that consequently gets heard is ITs voice. Now, the ECT procedure demands that I give up control and trust the doctors, trust their knowledge and expertise, trust that they will take care of me. If I can do this, if I can yield to this, then ITs voice might recede, too.”

Don’t get me wrong. My fear is not without basis so I’ll be certain to air my grievances before the ECT procedure on Friday, namely that they make sure I’m out, completely out before getting ready to zap me. But I’ll go through with it because ECT is holding out its hopeful hand, pulling me up through the sludge and the muck of depression. It’s giving me the chance to be grateful that I am alive.

Last night, my son lay sleeping in my bed, the king-size mattress ready to swallow him whole. How vulnerable he looked. I crawled in beside him, spooned his small body against mine. Breathed him in, kissed the top of his head, placed a hand over his beating heart. Gratitude, I realized, is not enough. I also need to be here, in body and mind, for my children. So even though going through ECT might scare the shit out of me, it is doing what it's supposed to do which means that I get to be Momma without the madness.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Electrogirl

Call me Ishmael.

Call me Electro-girl.

I’m back, scrubbed free of thoughts of nooses and self-abuses. Once again, my desperate depths (chronicled, perhaps to some extent in the last post), landed me in the psych hospital. Once again, I went in thinking, “Oh, just a few days to get me through the crisis moment,” only to emerge, bleary-eyed but with newfound hope, almost three weeks later.

I suppose it stands to reason that when you seem to have a drug-resistant depression as I do, and you begin looking up online the best way to form a noose, or contemplate how to duct-tape a garden hose to the exhaust pipe, those in the know might have a serious concern that I might indeed, in my usual impulsivity, act on the plans. And to some extent, I did, at least in the habitual ways I hurt myself—an armful of new scars to contend with, to explain away, to cover up under long-sleeves, to hide from my kids’ persevering curiosity.

“Momma, what happened to your arm?” my daughter asked upon my return.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I can’t remember.” Obfuscation? Abstraction? I forget that doesn’t work with a concerned 8 year old.

“No, Momma. Really. What happened? Did a dragon attack you?”

If only this could be explained away by some spontaneous, mythological attack.

“No,” I said. Because of course, in her world, a dragon would never attack a member of her family. Not when she loves both of them so much. “How about a snack?” I said. Food diversion always works with her because she is always hungry. And thankfully, the offer of the Pringles can worked.

But I know this won’t work forever. At some point, I’m going to have to explain myself. She’ll be the caterpillar smoking the hookah, with all the time and attention in the world. “Who are you?” she’ll ask. “And what are all those scars on your arm? And why do you keep going into the hospital and leaving us? And why do you have a brain disease? And why, Momma, why do you want to die?”

This time, I can say with surety, that I have left the hospital with (muted) optimism. No. I’ll go a step further and say, I feel good. How do I know this? I’ve been laughing an awful lot since my return—at myself, with the kids. And the suicidal rumination? Gone. You might ask, “How is this possible? You went into the hospital on 7 (yes, count them), 7 medications and arrived back home only on 1.” One small mood-stabilizer. Tegretol. It seems strange not to have to line up my competing armies of pills each morning and night, and stranger still that I seem to feel buoyed up without them. But there it is: laugher and stability.

Oh yes, and ECT, aka, Electroshock Therapy. I have embarked on a course of treatment by voltage and seizure and, miraculously, it seems to be working. All neurons firing at once; the brain plastic; new pathways forming? That might be the technical explanation for this week-long, sustained sense of well-being, of being glad I am alive, that I did not vacate the premises 3 weeks ago.

Is it scary? Hell, yes. Particularly the anesthesia and muscle paralytic. Because that asks me to cede all control over to a group of relative strangers and I am, as you have learned, not one to do that. It’s what the cutting and the eating disorder have at their hearts: my need to exact complete, tyrannical control over my, my, my (did I say “my”?) body. But therein is the lie because that control actually belongs to IT. “I” don’t really want to punish and torture myself, whip myself into submission before ITs implacable demands that I die. “I” want to live. I want to love and be loved. And yet. And yet. My arms and body might announce the opposite. So the practicalities involving ECT (the complete loss of self and self-control, momentarily, under anesthesia and paralysis) are unsettling.

And then there is the smaller detail of current and electrodes. I try not to think about that. I stupidly Googled “ECT” and landed at a website devoted to posting pictures of people undergoing ECT. I had to look away, at once from the wires attached, even if for only seconds, to the brain. Because those are images of utter passivity and if nothing else, I am not a passive person. As Dr. B. said a few days ago, “I don’t like to get caught up in battles of will with you.” I refuse to give in. And yet here I am, giving in already 5 times, and at least 5 more times.

Why do I do it? Because I have to. I want my life back and if this is the last option, if this is what stands between me and an early grave, then I’ll do it. For my family. For, dare I say, myself.

Which brings me to what matters most. The other night, I was snuggling with my daughter, glad to be home, glad to have my son on the other side of me already asleep in the blissful knowledge that HIS MOMMA was home, I decided to ask my daughter how she was feeling about this latest trial. Christopher had given her a rudimentary explanation of why I was back in the hospital and what ECT was—her curiosity demanded it of him and, well, she was old enough to know because the knowing might help allay some of her fears.

“So,” I said, “were you scared when Daddy told you about the procedure?” (Her word, not mine. “Procedure” a big-enough word to encapsulate the knowing and the not-knowing, a big enough word for her to assert her own sense of understanding, the word she and Christopher had settled on that offered some distance from the perhaps terrifying realties (to an 8 year old) of what was happening to me, “up there,” at the hospital.)

“A little,” she said, then hesitated. I thought she was going to cry. Instead, she surprised me and laughed. “But I think it’s kind of cool to have Frankenstein for a Momma.”

And with that--my daughter’s usual ability to surprise, with her beautiful sense of irreverence-- my newly discovered belief that I will live to see this through, that I will indeed, outlive IT, took hold. And I have not been able to shake it since. Frankenstein. Electrogirl. Still Momma. And here. And hopeful.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Misspellings

Yesterday, Dr. B. handed over a passage from Thomas Merton, in , I don’t know, a gazillion font? Yes, He was trying to make a point as I am often dense to the whispers of recovery. So I reprint it here in normative 12 point:

“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection we find in them.”

Okay, my initial, adamant response was that I, Kerry Neville Bakken, practice loving those around her without regard to faults that I might take (Bipolar/Eating Disorder) issue with. For instance, a close friend who looked like me six months ago—bigger, wider, in no way delicate. And the ED part of me says, “Discipline girl! Just rack up the miles on whatever machine you use, cut down on portion sizes and YOU, TOO can be like me.”

Like me. The giant lie. My ego wants to believe that I am someone anyone would want to be. And yet, I am no one anyone would really want to be--wracked with Bipolar Disorder, and Eating Disorder, and hyears upon years of self-injury. Be like me? Isn't that like wanting to be a velociraptor?

How awful that sounds. I’m already trying to reconfigure my friend into a different body, ignoring the fact that she is, really and truly, content. She doesn’t expect perfection from herself. She was okay, as is, and loved herself as is.

Then there was my daughter and her homework. I expected some replica of me: dedicated, assiduous, eager to be the best in class, the ribbon around the neck, the final kiss of: valedictorian of Elementary school. Instead, she rushes through assignments, her handwriting a version of chicken scratch in the farmyard pen.

And then yesterday, she brings home her spelling test, obviously embarrassed: “I got a B, Momma. I wrote a Z backwards and then forgot an L.”

Oh, did that resurrect my childhood insecurities. I remember my Dad reading through all my notebooks, pointing out misspelling and downright wrong answers. I was expected to immediately correct the transgression. Erase, rewrite. Erase, rewrite. Perfect, perfect, perfect.

But what my was my horrible, hard wired response? I tossed the B spelling test into the garbage.

“You can do better than this,” I said. “You just need to slow down and apply yourself. You got all the words right while we practiced.”

“But Momma,” she said, confused, “why didn’t you hang it on the refrigerator? I got a sticker along with the B?”

Fuck me, Fuck me. I am replicating scenes from my own childhood. I tossed that B into the garbage. I suck. I am an awful mother. A cruel mother. Can’t a B be good enough? Which is of course, what I learned growing up: mistakes weren’t tolerated; perfection expected.

So I tried to make it up to my daughter: unwrinkling the B, hanging it on the fridge. B IS GOOD ENOUGH. That what’s I’ve been learning From Dr. B. all these years. Good Enough is all I need to aim for. Perfection demands death. My latest foray? Searching online for the best ways to construct a noose. Then the where: some tree limb in some nearby state park. Or a garden hose duct-taped to the muffler, the car parked in an overlook of Tamarack lake.

But I’m brought back to Dr. B.’s missive: to love myself, in a beginning fashion, accepting faults, insecurities, to not twist myself into an image of perfection that the mirror always demands. I cannot love myself if am perfect. But that seems a corruption of Merton’s/Dr. B.’s message. I need to strive, in all relationships, to be myself, as in, fucked up in all the ways I am (so what if I terrify someone. Fuck them , right?) and to also be myself around those I love. No pretense. No pretending that I’m finer than I am. To admit to fantasies of the noose and garden hose. To admit to wanting to slice open my arms. To admit to wanting to go back to 109 pounds, ribs and backbone and hipbones, no excess. To be out of my mind.

Because this is what is the problem: I’m so tired of being “fine.” And at heart, I wonder if the six months in state hospital might, in fact, be the answer I need. But then again, I am here, sitting next to both kiddos, on the sly watching “Phineas and Ferb” and loving them beyond belief, for themselves, not as a reflection of my own selfish self. But for who they are. Misspellings and all.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Love Therapy

Today my daughter authoritatively announced, while we were snuggled up on the couch that what I needed, and needed that very moment was “Love Therapy.”

“What do you mean,” I said, because I’d never heard the word come out of her mouth. Of course, she knew I went to see my doctors weekly because of my brain “sickness,” but I’d neve r used the term “therapy”—certainly not in any context with me seated, nervously, anxiety-ridden on the edge of Dr. B.’s couch, while Dr. B. across from me trying to talk me down from whatever manic-edge I was precariously tiptoeing across.

Maybe I’d used it in terms of ligament/tendon/ACL repair. But that seemed too far from the mark. What she really meant was two individuals connecting because of shared compassion and love and need, real need for love and hugs.

“You know,” my daughter said. “When you get love and hugs from someone who loves you. For a really long time. Hugging and kissing you forever.”

My little sage.

And then she catapulted across the couch, arranged herself in some sort of upside down contortion, and proceeded to watch her favorite cartoon “Phineas and Ferb.”

And then I thought about what Dr. B. had told me today. That for the past five years what we have primarily been working towards is courage. The courage to wear short sleeves despite the rickrack of scars. The courage to eat meal, maybe even a dessert and not throw it up. The courage to speak my mind in public, to have a voice, to be seen and heard. The courage to stand up and look at my mottled, shadowed, and simultaneously light-filled life and say, Yes, I will live.

Courage.

According to the poet Mary Oliver, it might look like this:

"I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?"

Love therapy. Requires courage. Requires me to be flexible and open and soft. Requires me to accept the love of others, their hugs and kisses. Which reminds me of something that Dr. B. once said.

“You know,” he said, “some people ask for a hug at the end of a session.”

He left it open-ended since I find it impossible to ask for anything. But Love Therapy. Maybe my daughter is right. You just need to throw yourself into it. Accept the love and care of others. Which necessarily means accepting a hug, the intimacy of two bodies telling each other, with hands pressed on each other’s backs, the pull of a body against another purely out of care and love, nothing else needed, nothing else required except the moment when you relinquish embarrassment (because I need the hug) and open yourself to the moment of being held up and held close by another person. Love Therapy. Maybe I’ll ask Dr. B. for one on Thursday.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Living Big

As my students are gearing up to write their own memoirs for the course I’m teaching this semester, I thought I’d share with them a quote from one of my mentors, Frederick Busch who died far too early. He was writing a letter to the writer Elizabeth Strout, who was having difficulties in getting her novel off the ground. This is what he wrote:

“…Not only do I think it’s not shameful ‘to try for something bigger,’ I think it’s inevitable and, in fact, the job description of the serious writer. Why bother to write a novel, or story, or poem, if you know you can succeed at it? I thought the idea was that one is a writer because one is compelled to try for something so difficult, so large, so fearful to the writer, that failure is inevitable. And you measure yourself—and deserve to be measured—by what you did in the failing; and THAT is art.”

Of course, I was trying to inspire my students, trying to encourage them to take risks in subject matter, to reveal more of themselves rather than conceal themselves behind fancy language on the page. To write the BIG essay, the one that terrifies them, the one that seems impossible, to take that leap of faith and give it their all, write their blessed hearts out. Some of them looked at me like I was just this shy of crazy (though that’s not far from the mark) because I was speaking with excited, exuberant emphasis. Others smiled, were already, I imagined, thinking about the risks they would take for the course.

So I said,“Take your writing seriously, take yourself as a writer seriously, and I will take you, not just as student, but as a serious writer attempting (and failing at times) to create Art.” Art—that thing that keeps us reading into the wee hours of the night, or stops us at a museum in front of a painting, that asks us to remain with the painting for an hour, just gazing, deliberately, or the symphony we listen to on the drive back home from work that catches us in the throat so that we are weeping because it is so beautiful and we have to wipe our runny nose on our sleeve because we can’t find any damned tissues. We are so moved.

Art and the struggle to create it. That was the theme of today’s class.

And then I went back to my office and reread the Frederick Busch quote and realized that he was also talking about my recovery, too. For instance, I could aim small: Eat my meals today, do not purge today, do not cut today. You know, the hour-by-hour living that sometimes is all we have to hang on to. The little vows: I will not purge today. I will be a decent human being today instead of the unstable mess I’ve become. Today, today, today.

But then I thought, well, Fred would tell me to aim higher, to aim to make my life, if I may be so bold to state it, a work of ART. Yes, capital ART. A life filled with, yes, the shadows (necessary for contrast), but with the larger belief that I am necessary to the world, that my life is necessary to the world (if I might be self-important for a moment). I am here, as we all are, for a reason. A BIG reason. One that might not yet have shown itself, but is waiting patiently to reveal itself tomorrow or next month, or next year, or in ten years. So I have to stick around for that Bigger, more expansive life that Dr. B. keeps promising will be there if only I stay alive for it.

Another thought: If Art requires a struggle to make something BIG, then so does my life. I need to live BIG. At the moment I’m living small. Literally trying to get smaller, to take up less space, to drop weight. But I am also hiding under covers, collapsing into two hour naps just so I don’t have to move through an afternoon with my family. I avoid friends. I disconnect from family members, from my very own children who, clamoring, only want me, me, me—want my living presence and attention. Their little hearts are bursting for my attention. All of the tiny negotiations of living send me into a tailspin these days. A breakdown the other night because of a babysitter mix-up, which was almost immediately solved by a quick phone call to our back-up sitter. Yet, there I was, screaming at Christopher in the kitchen, losing my shit, feeling like the world was going to end. Small complications. A small life.

So live BIG. Be seen. Be heard. Be honest, even when telling the truth is agonizing and humiliating. Admit to throwing up the small handful of granola. Admit to walking six miles when you said you’d stick to four. Admit that you would give up running and horseback riding if you could only stay at 120 pounds. Admit to wanting to cut your arms up. Admit to feeling lost. Admit to feeling needy. Admit to wanting to end my life. Air the secret dirty laundry and IT becomes less menacing.

BIG. A B-eautiful life. An I-nspired life. A G-race-filled life.

Friday, September 3, 2010

IT. How Do I Hate Thee?

What I Hate About IT:
IT robs me of time. The time I spend thinking about not eating, the time I spend conniving to purge, the time I spend fantasizing about cutting, the time I wish I could just be left alone to die, the time I spend not being present for my kids or husband. Time is all I have, and it dwindles every day, and every day I give IT more and more of that precious time.

IT runs a dictatorship. No possibility of a healthier coup d’état by my rational, saner self. IT says that purging five times in one day (breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner, snack) is just as it should be. Zero calorie intake. It says that I don’t get to eat period. Period. Not even a handful of granola (purge) or a barely-any-calories apple (purge). It takes great pride in meals skipped—meals I need in order to stay balanced on my meds. As the great Dr. B. taught me today, the body needs fat to process the chemistry that keeps us alive—lipo-something. (Not liposuction which IT often fantasizes about—get rid of that roll around the middle—no creases or bulges or floppy skin. Juts a smooth, angular plane. The blank canvas. But I remind myself that the body perfected is really only the body dead (as Sylvia Plath also wrote in her poems)—the perfected body becomes the lifeless statue, the marble figure on the dais in some museum.

IT backs me into a corner, isolating me form those I love and those who, maybe more importantly right now, love me. I don’t want to answer the phone. Case in point: just this morning, I managed to drag myself out of depressive inertia (it is bad, bad, bad right now), and called my best friend. Can I tell you how relieved I was that she didn’t answer? That I didn’t have to talk? That I didn’t have to compose myself into someone with something worth talking about. Because let me tell you right now: when I am not wrapped up under the covers hoping my life will just go away, I am exhausted by the effort of composing myself into the talking ventriloquist’s dummy. Listening to what my rational self is telling me to say—see I can teach my writing workshop and feel professional and smart. But see too—IT is telling me to cut my arms, to not eat, to cease and desist.

IT wants me dead. That’s the direction I feel like I’m heading. Dr. B. reminded me today that he still has hope for me. That he can see an expansive life for me, one that is open to laughter and love. But IT can only see my end because let me be honest here. In this recent bout of mania and depression I have been an untenable bitch. Horrible to husband and kids alike. Avoiding phone calls. Skipping out on plans with friends. Just yesterday, my daughter came home from school all jazzed up, ready to pummel me with kisses. What did I do? Literally, I pushed her away, hands on her chest. NO, It said. NO. You do not deserve love and affection. Besides. Being loved is an impossibility when you are filled with self-loathing. And oh do I have a boatload of that.

IT hates my body. I’m seeing this Body Dysmorphic specialist, and today she gave me the task of standing in front of a mirror, naked, staring at all the parts I hate. Belly. Hips. Ass. Exposure therapy she called it. And better yet, have Christopher there with me. We’re supposed to talk my way through the anxiety. IT, of course, is derisive of such an experiment. NO fucking way will I ever come to terms with the roll and the fat and the width. And to have Christopher there with me, watching me watch me? And yet, isn’t this exactly what I need to do? Years ago, Dr. B. recommended the same exercise but I stupidly pooh-poohed him. How could that possibly help? Well, I guess I find out if it helps since that’s what on tap for the weekend. (And my husband, being the lovely man he is, says he relishes the opportunity to gaze upon my naked flesh). Now I blush.

IT is about contraction, not expansion. I’m reminded every day that this disease of IT has narrowed what is possible in my world. The ability to be a stable, guiding force for my children? Scratch that. The possibility of a third child, the triumvirate complete? All that I held on to, the baby blankets and burp cloths and mobiles and high chairs sold or donated. A gaping space in my attic storage room. A huge hole in my heart.

IT has taken me. Just the other day, I made the idiotic statement to my nutritionist that if I could remain at 120 pounds for the rest of my life, I’d happily give up running. One of the great joys of my life. I trade horseback riding. I’ve already traded my ability to write—not novel or story-in-progress to speak of. I’m giving up all that matters to me to IT—the malicious, hateful, loathsome dictator. I’m living a life that balanced at two poles: 1. Medicinally zonked out sleep (ah! Forget I exist and descend into narcotic slumber); 2. Manic outbursts: cleaning out closets (filling garbage bags); walking (since running has been taken away) 4 miles at top speed; ruminating and ruminating on all the ways I am a failure and deserve to die.

But then Dr. B. held my hand today, and for a moment, I felt steady and whole and loved. And IT wilted in the face of Dr. B.’s compassion. Grace, indeed.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Meaningful Coincidence

I was feeling lazy today, so I plopped on the couch and picked up the remote, scanning the guide for anything meaningful to watch. I never watch Dr. Phil—in fact, I have a strong aversion to his quick-fix psyche-show. You know what I mean: family members on stage, bawling about their problems and then his simplistic solutions. But maybe simplicity is exactly what I need right now because his show was about Eating Disorders and his guest was someone I spent time with when I was inpatient last December for my own ED.

Here’s the rub: I know I was supposed to be horrified by the examination of this woman’s life. There was even an almost naked photo of the woman—her breast blocked out by a yellow colo9r bar, her vagina covered by a blue triangle, the rest of her skin-and-bones body bared for all to see. I know I was supposed to see her body and instinctively should have shuddered. I mean, the entire audience was panned and all I could see were looks of disgust and horror. How could she? The unasked question. How could she think her body looks acceptable at 95 pounds? How could she not see herself as everyone else saw her: emaciated, wan, on the edge of death?

IT was watching with me and whispered, “Aren’t you in the least bit jealous of how thin she is? How few pounds are attached to her frame? Isn’t that what you secretly long for, the body-that-needs-nothing?

But then there was the other voice, that of Dr. Phil’s, yes, and he asked her, “Are you willing to do what it takes to get better?” Dr. Phil superimposed onto Dr. B., who is, thankfully, more complex and intuitive than Dr. Phil, but who has been asking me all these years, “Will you do what it takes to have the life you want?”

What is problematic about this question is IT doesn’t want me to have a life, at least a life that is worth its weight in pounds and ounces. Even when I’ve been inpatient at all of these hospitals for my ED, IT has traveled right along with me, demanding I secretly purge and exercise, while all the while I’m claiming I want recovery. So I’m a hypocrite, too. I want a life, a rich, full, purposeful life, and yet, at every turn I allow IT to undermine my faithful, honest efforts to recover. I see that woman on the T.V. screen and fantasize about being that thin, about letting go and handing my life over to IT. Which, by definition, equals assured death.

So. I’m watching Dr. Phil and the woman’s family members talking about how devastating the woman’s illness has been on the family—how they have been cornered by her IT, how they’ve had to give up so much to fighting or at least appeasing IT: money, time, friendships, love. And I think about my own family and my recent inpatients stay, about Christopher’s tireless efforts to keep IT at bay, about my kids’ questions about my eating and my “brain sickness.”

Just yesterday, my daughter decided she was going to have a dinner-lunch, swap meals. So she gobbled down a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. Then she turned and asked me, “Why don’t you have some, too? It’s fun to mix things up.” And all IT would allow me to say it, “No. I’m going to sti8ck with a lunch-lunch”—which means, of course, my measly bowl of yogurt and granola and blueberries. This is what IT takes, my ability to be spontaneous, and my ability to find joy in expected and unexpected places.

Dr. Phil. 3pm. Snack time as ordered by my dietician since I have apparently lost a good deal of weight while inpatient. It w3anted to find a way to get around eating that snack, even considered lying, claiming that a granola bar had been consumed. But in came Dr. B.’s voice, arguing with IT: Do what it takes to have the life you want. So while I watched this woman on T.V., a woman much like me, a woman who I once sat down with to eat our precisely controlled portions, who I once went through daily weigh-ins with, who I struggled alongside, I decided I was going to follow the plan instead of IT. I grabbed a jar of peanut butter, spooned out a few mouthfuls, sliced up my apple, and ate my snack while watching her on the T.V.. Eating what she refused. Eating what felt like too much, but which was exactly enough. Eating for recovery.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Impatient Inpatient

I’m back after a two week stint in the psych hospital. Mania plus suicidal ideation (plus a small cut and a burn on my forearm) apparently got the best of me. Which evidenced itself, in the hospital in a combination: lying in my soothing white room on my white sheeted bed, wishing I could die because I was unable to feel anything anymore—neither joy or pain. Alternately, pacing the hallways, religiously counting off one hundred laps, two to three times a day. Somewhere in between the two, I reached a sort of détente: dissolution of ambition and imagination.

The first few days are lost to me. Mania knocked flat on its back by a new combination of drugs: Lithium, Zyprexa, Remeron, Wellbutrin, Klonopin, Vistaril, and Trazadone. I have a fleeting memory of my friend Jennifer visiting me, my mouth stuffed with the cotton of meds; she gave me her Burt’s Bees chapstick (since it felt like my lips were peeling off). Then there’s a flash of my parents’ visit; my mother generously offering up a six-pack of Diet Coke—not realizing that caffeine was banned. I drank one anyway, even when a nosy fellow patient tried to remind me of the rules. Beyond that? Nothing. Kerry as slug.

The doctor finally realized that my garbled speech and inability to form coherent sentences might be the result of over-medication. So dosages were lowered and I began to emerge from my haze. This is when the pacing began, the obsession with counting off the laps. At one point I was walking so fast and furiously that a doctor poked his head out of a room and asked me to stop as I was interrupting their meeting. So I waited for the meeting to break up and resumed: thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-five, ad infinitum.

The eating disorder barged in, too. Every day, for every meal, I ate the exact same thing: two yogurts, one small cup of cottage cheese, and an assembly of sliced cantaloupe, grapes, and strawberries. Even this felt like too much, so sometimes I’d skip a yogurt or skim just the top of the cottage cheese.

The other patients? Most of them took wide latitude with the meal offerings each day, ordering double meals and desserts, their trays precariously full. Mine, in comparison, looked like the meal of some crazed ascetic. One patient, a recent Bosnia émigré, inhaled both the hospital’s meal, and then an hour later when his boatload of visitors arrived, ate a second home-cooked meal, replete with fruit and cake and chips and and and. Secretly, IT was proud of me, proud of my resistance. That extra cookies leftover from someone else’s tray? I declined, even though they looked good to my hungry self. That cherry cheesecake I ordered as a challenge to IT? Purged.

Slowly, slowly the mania subsided and now I am home, buffered by my retinue of medications, feeling placeless, feeling like I have lost my words, lost myself. Am I too low? I know that one of the descriptions the doctor used in regards to me was anhedonia: the inability to take pleasure in things that were once pleasurable. Today, for instance: I shuffled around the house, collapsing on my bed, staring at the walls, listening to my kids laughing, listening to my husband rattling around in the kitchen while he made pomodoro sauce from the tomatoes we picked yesterday and all I could think was, simultaneously: I don’t belong here anymore and How do I find my way back inside joy? And how do I do it when I am stuck inside a depressive inertia? Everything seems insurmountable, from feeding and bathing the kids to feeding and bathing myself. Squirting toothpaste onto my toothbrush feels is a herculean task. Getting dressed? A monumental necessity.

But I’ll do it because I want to live. Which is why I went to the hospital in the first place. Before the crisis, as a preemptive strike against IT. Now I need to summon up the reserves and carry on, one hour at a time, impatiently of course, because I am also counting the time I’m losing to IT—the hours and days and weeks and months and all added together? Years. The joy that I’m missing out on. The laughter with my kids. The pleasure of a big meal with my husband—foie gras, tagliatelle, seafood risotto (not in that combination). A me that is brave and bold and brimming with imagination and overflowing with words.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Shitty Momma Day

Shitty Momma Day. While I am filled with agitated energy (energy that insists on waking me at 4am to contemplate both the outline of my book-in-progress and potential methods of suicide, energy that compels me to go running even when I’m shuffling my feet like some thorazined inpatient, energy that keeps up the ruminating assault of negative thoughts), it seems I don’t have enough energy to smile at my son or read him books.

Last night, my son was restless, refused to stay in bed, kept coming downstairs interrupting MY couch time.

“Momma, I’m hungreeee,” he said.

So I handed him a tube yogurt.

“Momma, I’m thirsteeee,” he crooned.

I poured him a glass of water.

“Momma, I’m scared of the bad man who wants to hurt kids.”

“Upstairs to bed,” I thundered. “I’m tired of this nonsense.”

Nonsense? No mother in her right mind (I’m not), would send her child to bed when he’s scared of the bad man. A real bad man.

Back up: We arrived home from our vacation to a stack of mail and one very terrifying, homemade flyer. Apparently, we have a Dangerous Sexual Predator (convicted) living down the block. In my immediate, horrified rush, I showed the flyer to my kids, demanding they study his face, and, if he ever approached them (he shouldn’t as that’s part of his parole), they were to scream and find us.

“But Momma,” my son cried, “I’m scared of the bad man.”

I sighed and got my ass off the couch. Comfort and reassurance were what was needed. My own whining and irritation would have to wait.

I scurried upstairs with him and tucked him back into bed.

“Momma, would you read me a book?” he asked.

Here’s the thing: when I am approaching a manic episode (as I think I am), the smallest requests become major irritations. All I want is for the chatter of others’, even my own children's, to go silent. Everything in the manic brain becomes chaotic and muddled: voices seem louder and grating; simple clutter (socks on the floor, a pile of magazines askew) feels like the stash of a hoarder; other people needing you and loving you feels claustrophobic. All I want is to be left alone. But that’s impossible because I have accepted the responsibility of being a wife and a mother. I am part of a family, not an island unto myself. But as I told Dr. B. today, what I’d like is to be left on top of some barren piling in the North Sea.

The question remained: Could I read him a book.

“No,” I said. “I’m too tired.”

He looked crestfallen and I felt immediately guilty. I am, after all, a writer. I write stories for a living. One of the greatest pleasures in my own life was when my own father would read books to me at bedtime—chapters and chapters of Nancy Drew books. And here I was saying “No,” to my own son.

“Momma, snuggle with me,” he said.

“Okay,” I said. “Five minutes and then I go back downstairs.” If I could turn off my stupid manic head, I might be able to hear my heart which was saying, “It’s okay. Just let yourself go and fall asleep beside him, with him. You know you’re exhausted.”

But no, five minutes and I was sticking to it. Before I got up, my son cupped my face and started laughing. Insane cackles.

“Laugh, Momma,” he said.

I managed a few lame chuckles.

“No,” he said. “Laugh.”

So I forced myself to laugh and immediately his face lit up.

“Now keep laughing,” he said.

If only I could. But these days, all emotions are flat. Joy, happiness, excitement, even sadness have to be summoned up with great struggle. I plaster my face in the emotion so other people will believe I am present and listening and feeling. But I’m not. I feel alone and far away. Like I’m in another room, another house entirely. No, I’m not even in a house—because that would imply warmth and comfort, that would suggest that I am inside, part of the heart of a home. Not me. I’m locked out of the house. I can see the lights on inside, inviting me in, but I can’t find my key anymore. Instead, I’m alone in the wintry garden, arms and legs snagged on a thorny bush, snow up to my knees, teeth chattering.

I held my laugh as long as I could, then gazed down at my son, into his big brown eyes, eyes that said, “I love you. I trust that you will protect me from the bad man. I know when I wake up you will be here loving me back.”

I kissed him, and trudged back downstairs. This is the awful truth: Mania can even make me tired of love.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Vacation? Maybe Not.

T-minus 1 day left of vacation and then we make the twelve hour return drive back to Pennsylvania. I have a sneaking suspicion IT is hitching a ride up in the car topper, squashed somewhere between the suitcases, dog food, and sand pails. I wish it could be as easy as burying IT in the sand out at Point Beach on Lake Michigan, preferably under a pile of dog poop which is then under a mountain of sand.

But IT is persistent and resourceful—à la purging in the blueberry patch. On a whim, my husband and I went into Old Navy (50% off sign luring us) and I swiped up a few pairs of shorts and jeans to try on in front of, what felt like, Titanic sized full-length mirrors. Blech. Having to look at my almost naked body frontways and sideways and crossways? IT snickered, “You don’t really think you look passable in that, do you? Look at your fat butt and your flabby stomach. Look at how godawful BIG you are!” Or the past few nights having dinner parties with friends—friends I see once a year. You’d think I’d be engaged by their company, that I’d be able to relax and let down my guard. Instead, I was skittish, tense, felt far away, unable to be present. I felt like Helga in the Wyeth painting, “Farm Road”: she’s standing with her back turned resolutely away from the viewer, looking off into the distance at what? Not at the lone, dark tree on the horizon, but at the damning wall of earth in front of her. She is at a remove from the rest of the world, inaccessible, lost, like me, in her head.

That’s been the difficulty with this vacation. I’ve been too much with myself—IT has pulled me in, has gotten me tangled up with the bleak, awful thoughts. Thoughts of suicide worming their way in even on the best of days. And there have been lovely, heartbreaking days. My in-laws have an in-ground pool, so we’ve spent afternoon after afternoon sprawled on lounge chairs, both the stationary and floating kind. I’ve been reading well-written but brainless books under sunshine—the Stieg Larssen, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. I watched my daughter perfect what she calls, “The Sea Dragon” dive: arms tucked at her sides for descent, body rippling up and down through the water on ascent. Similarly, I watched my son brave his fear of water and plunge, willy-nilly in all manner of spastic forms, off the diving board. And my husband? I’ve watched a lot of the stress of the past year slide away as he hangs with his old college friends, drinks good wine, and makes brilliant food.

Why is this heartbreaking? Because IT slithers in and tells me I’d better store up these beautiful memories because this is my swansong. That I should squirrel them away because I won’t live to see them repeat next summer. I feel like the terminal invalid sitting lakeside in an Adirondack chair, camp blanket tucked around my legs, knowing full well these are the last days.

I know logically there is no reason for me to feel this way. In a conversation with Dr. B. (yes, a vacation phone session) he reminded me that he knows and believes that I can recover from IT. That I am not some passive slug; that I am, in fact, a fighter. Yes, fierce and brave. And that I need to bring all forces of will to bear on fighting off IT. No, defeating IT. Rising, like a phoenix, from this ash.

I don’t know that I believe this yet, but for now, I suppose it is enough that Dr. B. does. He holds onto hope for me. As he reminded me, when my kids were swimming in the frigid waters of Lake Superior last week, I didn’t take my eyes off them for an instant. Intense, ever-present vigilance. This is what I need to combat IT. So I am vigilant these days, taking note of what I feel might be the beginning of a manic uptick:

I’ve been waking up a lot the past few nights which is always cause for preliminary alarm—four a.m., eyes wide open, feeling wired.

Consumed with restless energy that even a 6am run can’t counter—and running even when I feel exhausted—unable to give myself a pass, to say NO to IT’s demands.

Can I say irritable for absolutely no reason?

I’ve been ruminating nonstop the past few days, unable to shut off the cascade of negative thoughts—many urges to self-harm.

The world—and my family—feel like they are at great remove from me.

Those bothersome thoughts of suicide.

And a nightmare last night: that I had a manic meltdown of the most spectacular kind and was in the car with my husband being driven to the State Hospital (all the while fretting over the class I was supposed to be teaching at that very moment). The effects of this dream are lingering, have me in a funk because it feels like confirmation of what I’ve been feeling all along: I am not headed in the right direction and am, once again, walking on that terrifying edge.

So, enough evidence to suggest I need to be Superhero vigilant, armed with the anti-IT ray gun. Even on vacation.