Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Wicky Wacky

I woke, again, at four a.m.. For good. Everyone else in the bed—husband and kids--copacetically snoozed for the next three hours while I tossed and turned in the gray pre-dawn, Bipolar brain careening, as if I’d injected my carotid with ten shots of espresso, and thinking: papers to grade, house to clean, kids’ outgrown clothes to donate, insane dog to train, food to eat (but not wanting to eat), the seven hour drive to make to New York for Easter, housesitter to instruct in the care of dogs, cat, and lizards, novel to write today (yes, today I will have the necessary will and determination), the novel I will not write today (exhausted and unfocused), the one hundred emails to answer yesterday, new bed linens to find and buy for the new King size bed that will arrive in a very vague one to eight weeks, phone call to Mom, phone calls to friend after friend after friend that I’ve been neglecting, weights to lift and miles to run before I sleep.

And then IT slides up under the covers and starts berating me: You’re fat, you’re ugly, you’re worthless, you don’t deserve to eat, don’t deserve to be loved, don’t deserve to live. And then I feel for the scars on my arms, feel the memory-tug of that pain, that perverse self-punishment. So I reach over and flip on the white noise machine that Dr. B. has so generously lent me and IT’s volume diminishes, thankfully, to a whisper.

These frequent descents into insomnia feel exactly like that—riding the mine elevator all the way down to the bottom of the shaft in some hapless, frenzied excavation of sleepless nonsense. No creative muse sits on the edge of my bed, no complex problem-solving takes place, no gratitude list takes shape (even though there are three reasons for which to be grateful sleeping right next to me); my mind only babbles like some amped up idiot. At times like these, Dr. B. has encouraged me to surprise IT: get out of bed, go downstairs and fix myself something to eat. Even if it is just a spoonful of yogurt. Sustenance. Give IT the finger. I should try this, but at heart, at four a.m., I am just too damned lazy. (And IT says derisively: Eat in the middle of the night? What are you now, some uncontrolled binge eater? Do we need a lock on the fridge?

I finally, grumpily, got out of bed at seven. I should have just stuck my head under the covers, ostrich-like, and stayed there for the rest of the day because IT decided to set up camp. I felt myself teetering inside that inexplicable white hot anger that comes along with the Bipolar disorder and, I am embarrassed to say, for the next hour and a half, all I could do was yell at my husband, the kids, and the dogs. Stomp around. Growl. Beastly Momma. At one point, Christopher says, “Would you get a hold of yourself?” As if there was a self I wanted to hold onto; I was consumed with self-loathing, wanting to run away from myself, shed skin, muscles, brain, and heart alike.

But here’s the problem: I have to take it all with me.

Today has not been a total loss. It’s Tuesday, so I had my riding lesson. I arrived at the barn, checked the chalkboard, and found that I was riding Chandi, yes, the horsed that spooks at EVERYTHING, and today was no different. Lee, my instructor, had set up a course of cones and poles and wooden platforms. Of course, the minute Chandi and I started walking around the arena, he was suspicious, skittering sideways, refusing to go, rearing back and because I was already wobbly from IT’s harangue, my confidence plummeted and my riding fell apart—hands too tight, then too slack on the reins, seat too nervously forward, body too rigid, legs bouncing around. Finally, through Lee’s patient guidance, I pulled myself together and remembered that, through years of repetition, I could do this. And if I got chucked off today? I was wearing my helmet and would likely just land on my ass which I could brush off with the dignity of a tried and true horsewoman. Eventually, seat down, arms back, legs gathered at his sides, we seamlessly trotted the course.

Afterwards, while I was putting away the tack, Lee asked, “How was Jamaica?”

“Oh, fine,” I said. “I don’t think I moved from my lounge chair for five days.”

She laughed, and then said, more seriously, “Good. I was worried that things might get all wicky wacky for you while you were there.”

Wicky wacky. Lee wasn’t talking about any sort of psychedelic beach frolic. Because she knows about the Bipolar and Eating disorders, she meant, in horse-speak: Calm Line and Pace? (see previous post)

Wicky wacky. There will be days like this. Today, for instance, the mind askew, the mood unstable, urges to restrict and purge and self-injure on the rise. If not a calm line, at least I held the line when IT went all wicky wacky.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mirror, Mirror

My daughter, who is seven, recently started ice skating lessons and today was the BIG performance. A rainbow sash, silver spangled belt, flouncy blue skirt, and a complicated (for a beginner) choreographed number to Kermit the Frog’s The Rainbow Connection. Oh, and did I mention an audience of 200? My daughter took it all in her usual hyped-up stride—running back and forth in the locker room while precariously perched atop her skates, sneaking handfuls of Gummi Bears she’d crammed into her jacket pocket, apathetically nervous about whether she might fall, but mostly interested in the congratulatory bouquet (purple flowers, Momma!) and stuffed animal she’d receive at the end of the spectacle.

On the ice? She sped through the tinsel curtain, attempted a spin, and immediately wiped out. But not down for the count. She vaulted back up on her feet, wiped the ice shavings from her knees, and continued on with the show—gliding and sliding and falling again. The entire time her face was lit up with excitement, joy. Even when she fell, there was no sign of self-conscious embarrassment. At the end of the number, she gave the audience an exuberant wave, which sent her teetering off balance again.

Certainly there were other girls her age who were better skaters, more graceful, more composed. In the locker room, these girls had their hair shellacked, stood mannequin-still while their mothers applied eye shadow, eye liner, mascara, lipstick, and far too much blush. Their self-containment was eerie. At one point, my daughter flicked her lucky penny across the locker room floor; it landed at one of the girls’ skates. My daughter leapt for the penny, all spindly arms and legs, her white performance turtleneck stained with Blue Slushee drips, and cackled. The look of disdain from the girl directed at my daughter was, for me, heartbreaking but for my daughter? She didn’t even register it but went on with the penny chase.

How have I raised a daughter who is so wonderfully unself-conscious when I am afflicted by my own disdainful self-consciousness? I have always hated my body. When I was a kid, I was gangly. My nickname in grammar school was less cruelly The Stork, but usually just Bones. For years, I took ballet lessons, longing to be one of those poised, lithesome beauties on Pointe and in a diaphanous tutu; instead, I flailed in my pirouettes, tripped into my grand jetés, and wobbled out of my arabesques. The rest of the girls, in comparison, seemed compact, willowy, self-possessed, and they giggled at me as I fell out of form, as my tights bagged at my knees and ankles, at my chest which remained for years a perfect flat plane. And that wall-length mirror? I did everything I could to avoid meeting my eyes, unable to bear that awkward stick bug that stared back.

By the time I got to high school, I gave up ballet and took up booze as a more effective and quicker way to avoid looking at myself. And then I started cutting my arms, the cuts and scabs and scars made visible my self-loathing and attendant disconnection from my body. Fast forward to my thirties when anorexia and purging set up camp, all in an attempt to get smaller, to take up less room, to be invisible. I could manipulate and control my body, make it conform to the rules, force it into complete compliance, constrain all the unruly parts. I could, by consequence, become no one anyone would ever see. And then suddenly, family and friends did see—that I was sick and getting sicker. So off I went to hospitals and into Eating Disorder programs and got, at least in size and weight, Better. Healthier. Bigger. Three words that sting. I know I’m supposed to say, Oh! Glory Be! I’m not dying anymore. But I am not at home in this better, healthier, bigger body.

Case in point?
The other day Dr. B. asked me, “How can you bring Jamaica (and its peace and slowed pace) back to Meadville?”

My flip answer? “A whole lot of pot.” True but not exactly the answer he was looking for. “Besides,” I said, “Jamaica is already lost. I tried my best to keep my body out of the way of the camera, but Christopher managed to get me, bikini-clad, in a shot. I saw the photo today. That was it. I was horrified, in utter disdain for myself. What had I been thinking, walking around like that?” In an instant, the unself-consciousness I’d felt while in Jamaica evaporated the minute I saw myself in that mirror.

As if he could read my mind (which had been tabulating how long and far I’d need to run, how much less I’d need to eat in order to regain control), he said, “You can’t trust your perspective. You can’t be in control and sane. You need to yield to recovery."

The mirror, and by extension, the camera lie. They can’t record the two children my body housed. Or the tooth and nails fight I’ve been in to maintain a healthy weight. Or the battle scars on my arms that mark me as a survivor. Or the misconnections in my brain that can put that survival in deadly jeopardy. Which is why I took such delight in my daughter’s skating today. Sure, she flailed and stumbled and fell, but she was inside her body. What a joyful place to be.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Bliss of Nada

I have never been one to sit on my butt. Most days, I’m up and (fueled by bowl-sized cappuccinos) running by 7am. Not as early as my first writing teacher Frederick Busch who used to be at his computer in his office by 4:30am, and not coincidentally, wrote book after book after book. Nor as early as the garbage men outside my bedroom window who haul away the trash with as much cacophony as possible at 5am. And then, of course, there are the kids who start their kicking and rolling and giggling around 6:30. A niggle in the small of my back, a tug on my hair, a kiss on my cheek. Okay, okay, I’m awake. Really. 7am it is, though it may seem indolent in comparison but the following 15 hours are filled with a flurry of activity—lunches to pack, breakfasts to make, showers, then classes to teach, and kids then to pick up, more papers to grade, and dogs to walk, four miles to run and weights to lift, dinners to bake or grill or sauté, and dishes and dishes to clean and put away, kids' baths (separate these days), reading for class, then bed (kids) and tea (me), then bed. Repeat. Repeat again.

My life generally takes the form of a breathless run-on sentence. I’m not complaining. I have trouble sitting still. Some form of personality-based restless leg syndrome? Also a possibility: the low-grade mania that always dogs me, often referred to as hypomania. This less psychotic sister of mania is characterized by a decreased need for sleep or rest, an increase in energy (i.e., life lived in the exclamation point!!!), an elevated (or irritable) mood, and a flight of ideas. This is the baseline state at which I have lived most of my life. Rather, I should say, charged through my life. Hypomania tends to dispense with the inconsequential, which in ITs jagged angle of vision equals reflection. Meaningful reflection, the kind that needs the pause, the silent beat, the deep breath. Of course, all that excessive energy leads to rumination—which is all about relentless circular thinking that leads only to obsessing over what has been lost, what is imperfect, what is now impossible.

Enter Negril, Jamaica. IT tried to come along. In addition to my swimsuit, I packed my running gear, intent on getting up, if not with the crows, then with the Caribbean dove, and pounding out my four miles up and down the white, sandy beach, IPod attached, volume way up to drown out the cat calls from the insistent hawkers of papaya juice, carved chickens, and ganja. And surely there’d be some sand-free spot where I could do my 300 sit ups. To which IT said: But that is not enough. There will have to be speedy walks up and down the beach all day long if you have any intention of eating anything other than coffee. If you do intend to eat, fruit all day, one meal at night. And there are the 3 books you must read before you leave in 5 days. And no napping. Absolutely no wasting any second of this vacation. Does this register, soldier?

But here’s the thing: the first day I made a feeble attempt to raise myself from the lounge chair to go on one of those punishing walks. But then Christopher showed up with a fresh Banana Daiquiri (virgin) and I fell back into the torpor. But this word is imprecise because torpor suggests a sluggish inactivity. And while I may have been sluggish, I was anything but inactive. Idleness is the word better suited for what happened to me. I ate pineapple and papaya but I never had to move to get it. The Fruit Lady would sashay past my chair, a basket of fresh fruit on her head, hand holding a long knife, and she’d carve up a pineapple for me at my feet. And then the Juice Man would wander by with his cooler of rum bottles filled with fresh squeezed orange, carrot, and papaya juice. There was the frequent re-lathering of sunscreen. A hand raised to tip back the sun hat. Oh sure, I made forays into the water, which itself was not taxing as you could walk out 100 yards and it still didn’t hit your hip. And Christopher and I strolled down the beach in search of vegetable patties for lunch and a jerk hut for dinner. Okay, I moved more than I’m letting on. My eyeballs diligently drifted back and forth across the pages of my book (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo before the new collection of Alice Munro stories). And the beach was 7 miles long, so our woozy-headed strolls became Daiquiri-inspired saunters. And then there was kid-free vacation sex. Whenever we felt like it. As long as we liked. And we liked it a lot. No problem, man. No problem.

Which brings me to Nada. What I did on my vacation. I dozed and dreamed and dallied. I would normally say that I earned it, but that would be IT trying to stake a claim. Earn—ITs lie that I have to earn my keep, my food, my rest, my peace, my place on this planet. What do you have to say to that? IT demands. With a wave of my newly tanned hand and the assurance that I swam well, ate well, sunned well, and loved well, I say Nada.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Bob Marley on Recovery

Off I go to Jamaica for sun, love, and restoration. Back in a short week. Dr. B. and I were talking today about my commitments for this time away. They are simple but IT always tries to get in the way. So stiff upper lip, muscles flexed, heart open.

I will:

Stay Safe.
Eat well.
Walk easy.
Keep talking.
Love with Abandon.

And you can hold me to them.

There is, of course, a more musically appropriate presentation of these commitments. I present to you:

Trip Rules via Bob Marley Discography

1. Exodus
2. No Woman No Cry
3. Is This Love?
4. Satisfy My Soul
5. Survival
6. Wake Up and Live
7. Positive Vibration
8. Lively Up Yourself
9. One Love
10. Redemption Song

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

One Love

The last time I was in Jamaica, I got pregnant. Or may have. But you already know about my fuzzy math, so I may be a week or so off. Things seemed pretty good with one of those funny cigarettes and a couple of Red Stripes, and well, my metaphorical tide was high, and we wanted to move on with our life after what had been a damaging previous few months. I’d been in one of my manic phases (and off meds), and one night, while in New York City, I got entirely too drunk which always takes me to desperate, dark places, and this time was no different. Suffice it to say my husband had to drive around the island of Manhattan for a good hour because I threatened to jump out of the car and hurl myself off a bridge. Any of the nine bridges would do. Knowing I’m prone to damaging, impulsive actions, Christopher took me at my word and waited me out until I fell asleep. Because I am here, writing this, it is safe to assume his patient perseverance saved me, as so often is the case.

Once I sobered up from drink and mood, I landed on me feet in Jamaica. Negril Beach to be exact. I was swept up in the giddy hangover (Rah! Rah! Sis Boom Bah! Yay, Life!) that always surfaces after having survived a knock down-drag out fight with IT. So that trip was all about restoration and relaxation and what better way to hold Life close then to give life? After all, my first pregnancy had been a dream: off my meds, content with my growing body, in love with that she-creature somersaulting inside me. And for some crazy reason, things stayed in balance. No radical mood changes, no obsessing over weight, no IT whispering its suicidal message. I felt at home in myself.

And so, the second time around, I believed that a pregnancy conceived in sunset and sand and sanity could only assure equilibrium. After all, in Jamaica,I was happy, again, to be making sweaty, giggly love with my husband; happy, again, to walk the beach, to swim out in the blue water and feel the insistent pull back to shore; happy, again, to wake in the morning and drink my cup of Blue Mountain coffee on the beach and watch the day unfold; happy, again, to be beside my husband, to imagine our second child, to be, at the heart of it, alive.

Of course, I love my son and even knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have done anything different. But as I’ve recounted already for you, that pregnancy and subsequent post-partum year were nothing short of hell. I should have studied the statistics: for pregnant and post-partum bipolar woman, the risk of relapse into mania and psychosis is 50% and 75%, respectively. And because of my devotion to breast feeding, I refused any meds that might have helped cushion the fall. And I fell all the way down.

I am up, now, and on my feet. And yet despite the obvious pleasure this current Jamaica trip promises, it is bittersweet. Lately, I’ve been possessed by the quiescent desire for another child. I’d always imagined myself having three, a lovely trinity, but because of what happened as a result of pregnancy #2, it has been deemed best that I make do. These days, though, I ache for that life which could be growing inside of me. For instance: a few weeks ago, a woman and her five week old baby were at my house for dinner, and the baby was passed between one cutchy-cooer and another. I refused to look at that baby, couldn’t put my arms out to hold him because to do so would open up that well of inexplicable but instinctual desire. Another, please? One more to love? Mostly I’ve made my peace: I need the meds, I need my family, and my children (the ones I have) need me. Alive.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

On Daffodils and Detritus

All winter, there’s been an impressive mountain of dirty, dog-pissed-on snow heaved up against the curb. Now that it’s finally melted away, the pathetic strip of equally dirty and pissed-on grass is back as if to assert its right to herald Spring. The main difference? Sunny and warm(er) which means the dormant daffodils are back at it, dozens of green stalks bumping their heads up through the ground. What was it that William Wordsworth wrote about these silly flowers?

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon the inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.


I’m not exactly sure which idiot decided to plant our daffodils along the curb which lies along our busy road. They bloom and then within an hour, droop under the weight of all that dirt kicked up by cars. Petals tear, the long green leaves get stripped. Kids pick them on their walk home from school, and then pick them apart, leaving a mangled trail of green and yellow detritus down the block. So instead of dancing daffodils, we’re left with a ragtag, often denuded, filthy bunch of survivors.

I’m no Spring sentimentalist brimming with hope over the season of rebirth and its bulbs and bunnies. Of course, it is a seductive symbol. Couldn’t I make this the season of the Anti-IT? If not rebirth then a taking back of my life? To get out from under the decimation, to bud and bloom in spite of the detritus of this disease? To wave my frilly yellow head in the sunshine in defiance: I am still here.

The daffodil’s other name is Narcissus. To recount: In various stories, Narcissus is deemed exceptionally cruel in that he scorns those who love him. As divine punishment, he falls in love with a reflection in a pool, not realizing it was his own, and perishes there, not being able to leave the beauty of his own reflection. Now this daffodil, tortured and alone, is the kind that can flash on my inward eye. Because isn’t this exactly what IT demands? That I turn away from family and friends, disdain their love, reject their (more accurate) angle of vision on IT (and on my floundering efforts to take on IT by myself)? Isn’t my gaze locked with ITs? Aren’t I wooed by ITs terrible, hypnotic beauty?

Look into my eyes: if you weigh less and still less, you will be happier. If you purge, the panic will recede. If you cut your arm, the anger will subside.

Listen to me because I speak Truth: You need too much. You’re fat, huge, self-indulgent. You’re stupid, not worthy of your PhD. You can’t write—it is all an act and now it is over. You don’t know how to love your family. All you bring to this world is pain and damage. You really should just get it over with and die.


The antidote? Yesterday, when I asked Dr. B. what anyone could do to help me counter ITs deadly persistence, he took hold of my hands and said, “What I would do is look you in the eyes and remind you that you have people who love you—let us help.” So instead of looking back at ITs damaging reflection, I was looking into the eyes of someone who cares about me. It matters to Dr. B. that I live, as it matters to my family and friends. And I need to hold the lessons of Spring (sentimental as they are), close to my heart: life returns, the buds break open, and the Daffodils have their day.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

From Where I Am Now

I opened my email this morning to a message from St. Francis Preparatory School reminding me that my 20th High School Reunion will take place tonight, 8pm, 350 miles away from where I am now. I won’t be there.

From where I am now. That’s the phrase that cuts both ways. On the one hand, there are the new facts of my life: I am 37 (not 16), the momma of two and wife of one (attached at the hips and lips); I teach college, Creative Writing and Literature, and have published a book of short stories (interestingly, the exact thing I told my guidance counselor that I wanted to do when I grew up—grew up, another phrase in contention, because most days, because of the rapid switcheroo of mood swings, I feel like some tantruming 3 year old ); I have a close circle of friends (not too many, not too few); I have dogs and ride horses (constant reminders that it is not, contrary to IT’s unpopular opinion, all about mad me); and to counter the cold gray lid of Meadville, I travel to warm, sunny places—Greece, Italy, and Jamaica (in let’s see, 6 days, but I’m not counting).

On the other hand, aren’t I exactly the same girl who locked herself in a bathroom stall one morning and, unclasping the gold kilt pin from her plaid uniform skirt, scratched D-I-E into her arm? Aren’t I the same girl dogged by IT and insomnia, up until 2 or 3 in the morning, thoughts racing, tumbling pell-mell over each other? The girl who called 1-800-DON’T CUT (a treatment program for self-injury) and, too scared to leave a message on the answering machine, hung up? (And who, ironically, spent a month at the same treatment program 19 years later.) And the girl who stood in front of the warped full-length mirror in her bubble gum pink bedroom, feeling awkward and big and ugly and fat, unable to look at her bandaged arms, wishing she could be invisible? Aren’t I the same girl ducking her head in shame and self-loathing, hijacked by IT into wanting to D-I-E?

From where I am now? The answer would have to be NO. Because here’s the crucial difference. My life is bigger than the girl alone with herself. My kids, for instance, who are, as I write this, tramping up and down the stairs, involved in some elaborate dragon-centered role play, their ferocious roars filling the rooms of this house (and in one of the rooms is me). Or last night, when my daughter took hold of a wiggly tooth, and yanking it out, squealed with such surprise and joy, then immediately shouted for me, Momma, “Look, I did it myself! Aren’t you proud of me?” Or this morning in bed, my son, all warm and snuggly in his sleeper, rolled over and kissed my hand, and said, in all smiley seriousness, “I love you, honey!” Or this morning, in the kitchen, in the middle of barking dogs and shrieking kids and a teetering stack of breakfast dishes, my husband pulled me against him, arms around me, and said, “I want you.” Meaning not only Let’s Screw! (of course, this, too), but I want you here with me, with us, in our life.

Or tonight. I won’t be in St. Francis Prep’s cafeteria drinking bad wine, trying to make small talk, and crawling out of my skin. Instead I’ll be home, with friends coming for dinner. Maybe I’ll wear my blue short sleeved sweater. No shame for the scars. They are what they are. On the table? Leg of lamb, tzatziki, potato gratin, and green beans. And my carrot cake—double-layered, pineapple walnut filling, cream cheese frosting—and because I am now here, I’ll even have a piece.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Ooh La La! Momma!

I've had an auspicious confluence of events. Until now (now = late afternoon, me sprawled on the couch, gulping down a mighty powerful cappuccino courtesy of super-hubby), I didn’t notice the gestalt. Just another hectic day to get through, albeit with my spunky daughter, off from school, at my side.

#1: Are married, will eat. Yesterday, my husband and I went out for lunch. The local diner, nothing fancy, but a big deal as I’ve been eating the same thing for breakfast and lunch for the past 3 months: yogurt, granola, and blueberries, all of it carefully measured out, all of it meant to inspire confidence and quell panic. ½ cup, ¼ cup, ¼ cup. No second-guessing, no worrying about too much or too little. The classification and compartmentalization keep me away from the toilet, keep ITs demonic voice quiet(er). Dr. B., who knows when IT and the Eating Disorder are about their nefarious work, shook his head again this week at both the rigid austerity and the inherent sad irony: my husband is a world-class cook who makes everything from scratch and from organic sources; he wants to feed us love in pizza, pancakes, and piggy sauce. His is a world of buoyant abundance, while mine is one of tortured, ascetic negation.

Don’t get me wrong; I struggle with IT all the time. Like yesterday. Feeling plucky and praying lucky, I chirped, “Let’s go out for lunch!” Isn’t that what husbands and [normal] wives do together? Silly, mindless chatter over a mindful meal?

At this half-baked idea, IT said: How pathetic that you think a simple lunch is somehow courageous. It’s what people do every day. But then, you don’t get to be “people.” Don’t believe you are anything but crazy, neurotic, and alone.

La la la la I can’t hear you. I’m going to prove you wrong.

So I ordered a grilled cheese and sweet potato fries. Eyed the plate. Counted every bite. Obsessed over how little I could get away with eating. Tapped my foot. Chewed my nails. Tried to hide the churning in my gut from my husband. At home, glued myself to the couch, waited out ITs demands that I purge. Breathed in. Tick tick tick tick. Tock. Breathed out.


#2: Session with Dr. B.. In reference to the Tick Tock of Go-It-Alone’s clock: Why didn’t you tell someone what was going on? Recovery is a We, not an I. (Which is about the hardest truth to get my thick-skulled, often dim-witted head around.) No cutting corners. Ask for help before, not after. You can’t go at this alone. You have a team, family and friends and me—use us. And what made this appointment all the more poignant, is the fact that my daughter was waiting for me outside his office door. Waiting for me. A fact that needs the emphasis because it is one I so easily forget and neglect when IT’s reptilian brain seizes hold of my human (compassionate, empathetic, loving, life-leaning) brain.

#3: A stop, with my daughter, at Old Navy. Next week, Christopher and I fly solo to Jamaica for a needed few days of sun, sand, and for me, non-alcoholic, frivolous, fruity drinks. Put the lime in the coconut and mix it all up…. So yes, buying the sunscreen, the flip-flops, and the bathing suit cover-up has been a cakewalk. But the bathing suit? Several times over the past month I’ve taken myself shopping for said scary item. Stealth trips to the Gap and Target and T.J. Maxx. The same result every time: Me, tankinied in front of the mirror, furtive, sideways glance at what is in the mirror. And what is there is loathsome, unbearable, and unbareable. Then the catalogue of faults begins: too big, too wide, too fat, too tight, too much, pig, pig, pig, pig, pig. You might as well pour the vat of blood, á la Carrie, over my head. A horror show of ITs proportions.

Not today. Today I had my daughter, member of my team, waiting for me to start the fashion show. She raced over to the racks and picked out dresses and shorts and Capri’s and yes, bathing suits. “Momma, this! This, too! You’d look beautiful in that!” And inside the dressing room? She perched like some wise parrot on the bench and pointed out what she liked and what she didn’t like in the clothes. When a sundress pinched at the waist, she didn’t say, “Oh Momma, you should lose weight.” Instead? “I like the other dress better. It’s prettier on you.” In her eyes, I was perfect—except for a brief moment when my underpants slid down and my butt--too big? too little? who cared!—was bent in her direction. Then she cracked up (pun intended), and sang our family song: “I see your heinie. It’s nice and shiny. You better hide it. Before I bite it!” And here’s the kicker: for that half hour in the dressing room with my daughter, IT shut the hell up. And when I tried on the bikini she’d selected, a pink and blue number, just to humor her? “Ooh La La, Momma! Ooh La La!”

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Calm Line and Pace

A year ago today
I was unable to speak
one syntactically coherent
thought let alone write it down: today
in this dear and absurdly
allegorical place
by your grace
I am here

– Franz Wright, from “Thanks Prayer at the Cove”



It seems I’ve been a bit of a downer in the past few posts—tragic, joyless, bleak, without a balancing comic inflection. My husband reads them and keeps saying the same thing: “Harrowing. But where’s the redemption?” Meaning: Hello? Anyone for a little levity and Saving Grace? Isn’t this blog intended to chart recovery? No backsliding! No grim nostalgia for the rosy manic past! Just me and IT in the ring, duking it out, both of us bleeding from the nose and mouth. At the end of the twelve rounds? My glove raised in assured victory.

But nothing is assured in this fight.

I should try to stay on the up-and-up for you, whoever you may be. I know you’re waiting for the day when I’ll shrug IT off and emerge healed and whole. So am I. There’s a lot at stake for me these days in the simple act of maintaining balance, one foot in front of the other as I cross a beam that is only an inch wide. You see, besides the possibility that I could lose everything that I love to this disease (kids, husband, family, friends, writing, teaching), I am also facing a more immediate doomsday edict: the next hospitalization won’t be a short term junket, but will be a minimum 6 month confinement to a STATE FACILITY (the devastating import of this requires capitalization). My knees buckle—what do I have in common with the catatonic staring impassively at her thumbs? Or the psychotic smearing shit on the walls? Or the mundane mad rocking back and forth on her heels, plucking out her eyebrows?

Oh, ever-so-smart PhDed Kerry snickers: Nothing. I have nothing in common with any of that. (“Except,” the reasonable voice of unreason chimes in, “you have this funny history of becoming manically incoherent, starving yourself, purging, cutting yourself, and attempting suicide.”)

Oops. I’ve wandered down the brambled path again. Apologies.

I should disguise the edges of this ever-present, low-grade despair. I could, for instance, write about the past five days of sunshine and blue skies, a rarity in Meadville even in the best of summers, and the melting icicles, and my goofy dogs bounding through the snow in the woods, and how I tilt my face towards that beneficent light which feels like a whispered blessing: You will be restored to yourself. You will find the way back into your life, a life which is filled with love and silly joy.

Or I could write about my riding lesson yesterday. Back on Chandi, THE HORSE WHO SPOOKS AT EVERYTHING. Loud noises and unaccustomed objects (a pole, an orange cone, a square of sunlight on the ground) startle him, muscles bunch in frightened agitation, and then he hops around, rears back, speeds up. Or as Lee, my instructor put it, “He’s way out of control.” It didn’t help that melting ice kept sliding off the arena roof, so he would tense up and balk at simple things like sticking to 20 meter circles, bending at the curves, and maintaining a consistent trot. It didn’t help that my heart would pound in fear every time he went bonkers, and then I’d overcompensate—reins too short, bit pulling at the mouth, too much, then too little leg. “You’re out of control,” Lee said. “Remember: calm line and pace. Keep your seat back and loosen up on the reins. Your energy transfers to him.”

Which got me thinking about my own anxiety and fear and their relationship to mania. Because aren’t the manic phases steeped in anxiety and fear, don’t I get spooked, start imagining a monster where it is only a splotch of light, start speeding up because I can’t contain all the nervous, terrified energy, start balking at the simple things that keep me safe and grounded? And aren’t anxiety and fear IT’s weapons that keep me from recovery and grace?

Towards the end of the lesson, Chandi refused to step over a series of close-together poles. He’d start to walk up to them, then his ears would flatten back against his head, and he’d stand stock still, then back away. Poles on the ground. A pretty basic, non-threatening obstacle. And yet, wasn’t he imagining some enormous snake? The simplest task was alarming and the only way we could help him to walk through his fear was for Lee to take the reins and lead him over the poles, gently, confidently, quietly pulling him through the course.

Which also seems to be connected to IT and recovery: giving up control means ceding the reins for the time being, allowing others who can better see my route to recovery to guide me—maybe even pull me—through the obstacle course of IT, and in this guidance, help manage fear and anxiety. No need for blood at the nose and mouth, no need for the hyperbolically-raised glove. Just this assurance, and it is enough for now: Chandi and me, cool and collected, calm line and pace, stepping over the poles and sticking my seat.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Inpatient Admission: Take 1

September 2006

This is how tired I was: I was locked on the inside of the inside (read Suicide Watch Unit) of an Acute Psychiatric Crisis Floor.

“They fucking hate me,” Anna said from across the room. “All my friends. I hear them talking about me.”

She waited on her bed, cross-legged, long blonde hair cinched in a tight, high ponytail, fists in her lap, ready to pummel a wall, a nurse, me, herself. Anna was so young, so beautiful in her petulance and cursing and weeping. Ophelia on speed only hers was the naturally-occurring, manic variety.

I wanted to believe her. Surely there was a group of her former friends huddled outside in the parking lot beneath our reinforced Plexiglas window, whispering incantations—Anna, Anna, Fat and Blue. Anna Anna We Hate You—and she could, inexplicably, hear them.

I wanted to believe her when she said, “I don’t belong here. I want to go home. I’m not supposed to be here.”

I wanted to believe her because she, then, must believe me. Tit for Tat.
Really, I didn’t mean to cut up my arm with scissors. You didn’t really need to hold me against you all night in bed because I kept threatening to run outside and throw myself in front of a truck. Really, I’m not supposed to be here.

Her repeated insistence, louder and more hysterical over the next few hours necessitated nurses and orderlies (“Even when I was in my bedroom,” Anna shouted, “I could hear them. My landlord was fucking in on it, too. She tried to fuck with me, following me everywhere. She was in love with me. Always fucking with my apartment, messing with my stuff.”)

Didn’t she know that I was there for refuge, some small spot of time absent from chaos, from noise, from what I left behind? This was what was promised to me, at least in the abstract.

But didn’t I know this was bedlam? That my retreat to silence was only the opposite but equal response to an unrelenting careening around the curves by a disordered mind?

What I did not scream because I would not make a scene (Anna’s scene was both hyperbolic and honest as opposed to my deliberate disappearance from the scene): Please. Please. Please. I need to sleep. I haven’t slept in months. Shut the fuck up. Though this may sound like the exaggeration of someone equally crazy, this was true.

I was in that room with Anna for a reason. For two straight months, I’d been breastfeeding my nine month old son through sleepless nights (his) every hour, and then, because of my own version of Bipolar DeathMatch II, I had been unable to fall asleep between the intervals, waiting for him to wake again (twist, turn, roll, snuffle, snuffle, cry, wail), waiting for him not to wake up again (twist, turn, roll, roll back, silence, silence). So, two months with less than two hours of cumulative sleep a night equaled a nearly psychotic Mommy who was additionally exhausted because she had also been manically? maniacally? running 40 miles a week around and around and around an indoor track like some brutalized racehorse, and gradually and persistently cutting back on the food she would allow herself to eat (sicko reward and punishment system), and, oh yeah, for twenty odd years had been cutting her arms up with scissors and knives and glass and razors.

But unlike Anna and her conniving friends, I had a more pressing problem: six hours since I asked for a breast pump. What I forgot to pack in my obsessively methodical packing earlier that morning. Do I bring my books and the papers I need to grade by the end of the week? Must remain responsible! What about make-up and face scrub and Mango Tango Body Lotion? Must maintain appearances! And naively, what about a razor to shave my legs and armpits? Must not become a hairy, raving Sasquatch while inside because, of course, I was coming back out ASAP.

But the breast pump? I forgot it in the dish rack. Perhaps I couldn’t bear to remember to pack it since I’d never really needed it before. Now, milk dripped, dripped, dripped from under my soaked nursing pads, spilled down my ribcage, pooled in the folds of my stomach.

What I did not know at the time: I was being watched on 24-hour closed-circuit television. Live Fucked-Up Girls: The New Hit Reality Show. Anna and I were under surveillance. A room emptied of all personal effects, our bodies stripped and housed in bland hospital gowns, our feet covered in navy hospital socks, wrists banded in yellow. Two anonymous bodies known only by the risks such bodies pose to themselves.

What did the nurses see on the T.V.?
They did not see any tears from me. Not even when the tsunami of guilt crashed over my head and I started raking my arms under the sheet remembering the night before and my husband’s arms around me, restraining me because I threatened to do what? Or rolled my arm into the slash of light, inspecting the damage from wrist to elbow--I did this, again? (though regretting already that I did not swipe the stray safety pin I’d spotted on the floor of the intake examination room).

They did not see me sleep. I was so tired I could not sleep anymore. No, this isn't true. More precise: I would not sleep . My punishment for arriving Here when I had two children at home, one who needed the now dripping, pointless milk, the other who needed my arms wrapped tight around her tiny, warm body.

What did the nurses see on T.V.?

My fingers tiptoeing over the cuts on my arm.
My head falling to my knees, kneecaps blotting my eyes.
My arm, the good one, trying to staunch the flow of milk which won’t stop.
Milk soaking the hospital gown, the pillow, the sheets, but not the plastic mattress.
My body standing in the shower, my breasts in my hands, squeezing, compressing, my milk, his milk which is running down the drain.

There was no way out from under the indictment: I abandoned my son. How would he ever understand the inexplicable end to my nipple in his mouth, my body beside his? His Momma now gone, simply gone?

On the third day, the breast pump appeared, shrink-wrapped, on top of my pillow. I filled bottle after bottle, what would have filled him. Then tipped over bottle after bottle, spilled all of it down the sink. No more stained sheets and pillowcases.

On the fifth day, I stopped soaking through the pads. Just the sad, reliable law of Supply and Demand going about its efficient, impassive work.

What waste. But what I couldn’t see then, despite the pleas of Christopher and Dr. B., was that I, too, was wasting away.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Medication Malady

This is how Bipolar Disorder works (Ha! Ha! IT says, rubbing its hands in malevolent glee): it lulls me, momentarily and dangerously, into complacency, into a loss of vigilance because, Gosh, everything seems to be going Just Fine. See the bright smile? Note the renewed attention to detail! Clothes, make-up, hair—all of it Just So. (Okay, ignore the chewed fingers and nails--mere anxious oversight.) No crazy meltdowns, no ruminating over suicide, no all-nighters staring into the dark at the bedroom ceiling, obsessing about what I’m always obsessing about (job, kids, marriage, emptiness, loneliness, writing, not writing, forgiveness, guilt, penance, hunger pangs, and those scars raised in a grim Braille along my forearms).

All that chaos and frenzy feels remote, like some strange moonscape. Oh, that mad me? She’s running wild in Kathmandu, hair a snarled mess, bra torn, hooves for feet, warbling incoherent lullabies to wild monkeys. But the me right here, right now? She’s buoyed by Dr. B, her husband, and a handful of necessary medications. Finally, the right cocktail has been sorted out after 4 years worth of exhaustive trial and error and error and error: Lithium, Abilify, and Trazadone. A holy trinity.

Then Bam! Wham! Ka-pow! I wake up this morning looking like I’d rolled in some nightmare field of poison ivy—face aflame, skin itchy, eyelids swollen with hives. I know this rash. I’d had it when I was on Lamictal and the only way to get rid of it was to stop taking that drug which was, at the time, essential in maintaining equilibrium. The fallout? I’ve since played guinea pig to almost all the mood stabilizers, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, and anti-psychotics that are out there—Lithium, Depakote, Topomax, Zyprexa, Seroquel, Neurontin, Risperdal, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Prozac, Lexapro, Cymbalta, Remeron, Buspar, and Klonopin. None of which managed to touch IT.

This time it’s Abilify, a wonder drug that pulled me back from that terrifying manic edge just a few short weeks ago, and which is, according to my husband, who keeps careful track of my ups and downs, responsible for the past 6 weeks of stability. It’s allowed me to teach, to be a present Momma, to resist ITs demands for my life and stay out of the garage. But the rash changes everything, and so it seems I’ll have to give up Abilify, too. Cold turkey.

Once upon a time, I would have been relieved to dump my meds. All those bottles lined up on the kitchen counter cornered me morning and night; they meant weakness, fragility, and capitulation to the formal diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder. And no way was I going to BE an illness—shuffling, bathrobed, unkempt. See Kerry run. See Kerry jump. See Kerry fall on her ass over and over until she gets the message: You have a disease. You are not the disease. I even bought a weekly pill organizer; the order of making order felt like wresting some control back from IT. And as Dr. B reminded me, “You take these medications because you want to live. You take them for your family who wants you to live. You take them because you want your life back.”

Tonight I am simultaneously trying not to scratch my face off while also maintaining perfect equanimity and composure: See Kerry recollect this in tranquility. But really, I am just terrified, scared shit that mad me will seize this unmedicated moment, exploit my vulnerabilities, and lay siege. Listen close: Can’t you hear her hollering in the hills, intent for blood?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Numbers Game

Earlier today, we were piled in the car on our way to the supermarket and the kids were in the backseat arguing, not over the usual crap—whose hand was touching whose, who should shut up, who should stop singing “Farmer in the Dell” for the one hundredth time, but over, of all things, arithmetic. Addition to be more precise. My son, who is four and stubborn, kept insisting that his big sister’s sums were wrong.

“1 +1 = 2,” she said with a blasé confidence.
“No, it doesn’t. Three,” he said.
“2 + 2 = 4,” she said.
“No. Five.”
“4 + 1 = 5,” she said, insistent now.
“Six,” he screamed.
“No, it doesn’t.”
“Yes, it does. You don’t know how to add.”
“Yes, I do.”
“No, you don’t.”
“KNOCK IT OFF,” I yelled, from the front seat.

I was never any good at math; numbers are too abstract, too confusing. Both finite and infinite? Signs and co-signs? Now, such terminology reads like cosmological theory: numbers do explain my universe. At least, in the alternate universe of an Eating Disorder, concrete numbers offer tectonic proof, an architecture that shapes your days and decisions: add, subtract, multiply, divide. Less leads to less, never more, nevermore.

What do I mean by this? There is, as you might surmise, the nonstop counting of calories and ounces and quarter cups and teaspoons. Every bite is calculated, translated into Too Much. For instance, 195 calorie breakfast = ½ cup of nonfat yogurt (80 calories), ¼ cup of low-fat granola (100 calories), and ¼ cup of blueberries (15 calories. Yes, sadly even blueberries don‘t get a Free Pass in this rigid system). Repeat the exact same meal for lunch. The monotony ensures safety. And by this I mean that I am secure in the numerical tabulations of those two meals so don’t feel compelled (compulsed, you might say) to throw it all up in the toilet.

Then there’s Obscenely Bad Math. Not the innocuous 4 + 1 = 6, but the kind that kills. A word problem: we all have a Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR (not to be mistaken for BMI, Body Mass Index), which is the rate at which you burn calories in order to sustain life functions at rest at a normal room temperature. That is, the human body needs a minimum number of calories a day to perform necessary, vital functions to keep the brain working, to continue on with the business of life. For a long time, my anorexic brain maintained that my BMR was somewhere in the 500 calories-a-day range. This allowed for the desperate, plummeting subtraction: Less = Less of me, less space that I would occupy, less of the noisy, awkward, lumbering me. My messed-up math? 500 calories - 195 calories = 305, - another 195 calories = 110 calories left for dinner. Better? The days when I skipped meals, all three, and happily (delusionally) became a negative integer (a -500).

Of course, this anorexically invented BMR was crazy. No possible way to sustain life.

And yet, I followed more of IT’s unbending computations:

(8 laps = 1 mile = 100 calories) x 6= 600 erased calories.
Eat ½ of what’s on the plate, then ¼, only 1 bite, now nothing (0).
The scale subtracts pound after pound; any positive increase = 1 more mile, 1 less bite.
All exercise must end on even numbers (i.e., 6 miles, not five; 300 sit-ups not 297).
Clothing sizes minus and minus and minus themselves away until nothing (0) fits, so sweats and potato sacks are the way to go.
Sleep, too, follows this diminishing chain: 6 hours, 5 hours, 3 hours, 1 hour which = absolute, bat shit crazy.

All of this counting and computing was exhausting and claimed all available psychic space. How could there be time for giggles and fingerpaints and cupcake-making? How could there be time to pay attention to anything else besides sneaking in extra sets of sit-ups, counting the number of Frosted Mini-Wheat squares in the bowl, running up 20 steps and down 20 steps and running up and down the steps 50 times a day?

At my first intake evaluation for an Eating Disorders hospital, the scale said I was +5 pounds over admission criteria. “In percentages,” the intake coordinator explained, “you’re only 14% below Ideal Body Weight, 1% shy of hospitalization.” IT decided I had to step things up because obviously, I was still too fat, taking up too much room, was excessive. IT decided that to attempt recovery, drinking smoothies and eating little plates of food and being nice, nice, nice to myself was the easy way out. The only way I was going to “get out” of anorexia was the hard way, crawling on hands and knees, bleeding and starved, without anything and anyone. No easy way out, no relenting, no easing up. Try to back off? Try to soften things up? IT’s attack got more vicious. So nothing – nothing – nothing might = enough

One day, my daughter, all gleeful exuberance, threw her arms around me in an all-out hug. I hugged back, and immediately she let go. “You hurt, Momma,” she said. “I can feel all your bones.”

I do not want to be Skeletal Momma. I do not want to be merely foot bone connected to shin bone connected to thigh bone. I do not want my hugs to hurt. So I eat. Reluctantly. By agreement with my dietician, I am now on a meal plan that has an appropriate BMR and each day, I find myself having to inch my way to that caloric goal--which I can’t yet call my goal, because IT is convinced that More than Less = unhinged gluttony, and eating More rather than Less = the systematic dismantling of all of IT’s scaffolds, joists, and crossbeams that mimic support, order, and control.

IT doesn’t go down without a fight, but these days, I know I’m winning: just this evening I ate dinner by myself (25 points), didn’t purge (at least 25 points), and didn’t even think about counting calories (25 points) = 75 points of health and well-being, of telling IT to fuck off. There's a fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie waiting to claim those last 25 points. And when I give my daughter a hug tonight? We’ll both squeeze hard, and the only things I'll be counting are the beats of our hearts which are beating wildly for each other.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Dog Days of March

We have this 65 pound black Lab puppy, Athena, technically a year and one half, but she’s a Lab, and so is still silly, uncouth, and exasperating. She eats everything—cat shit, deer shit, even our other dog's shit straight from, well, the dog’s butt. We call it "soft-serve." She is especially fond of Tupperware, beer caps, and soggy baby diapers. Last night? A habanero pepper which left this insane pooch unfazed.

Athena is in constant, frenzied motion as is her tongue which is where my day begins: that long pink tongue lapping up pancake batter from the mixing bowl. Floury glop caked on her muzzle. My husband shrugged, "What’s a little dog slobber?" and continued on with the pancake making. Not an hour later, to my son’s wailing horror, Athena had chomped up his Storm Trooper figurine into plastic slivers. I promised my son we’d go to the Evil Empire for dinner since it was giving away Star Wars figures in the Happy Meals. This pacified him until we came home with said Happy Meal (miniature Millenium Falcon inside), set up dinner camp in front of a Star Wars Movie, briefly left the room, when all of a sudden, wailing horror once again. Athena ate the Happy Meal, chicken nuggets, ketchup, cardboard box and all.

I am, thankfully, medicated which evens out what should be funny little bumps in the road (The dog ate my homework! Really!), but which, to my Bipolar brain, often feel catastrophic, or at least feel like the harbingers of certain catastrophe. Everything devolving, decompensating, dissolving. Chaos. My brain doesn’t like disorder or disarray. Which is why the Eating Disorder continues to be so seductive—if I can’t bring the house into order, I can at least impose marshal law on the body, rigid rules to which I adhere without deviation. And voila! The body obeys, whittles itself away to nothing, becomes a shadow, or the shadow of a shadow. But of course, by perverse reversal, the body begins to revolt—hair falls out by the brushful, skin turns papery and dry, blood pressure gets wacky, the heart weakens. Deficits and decline and for too many, death.

Dr. B. would say my Dog Day is the good kind of problem to contend with. Without question, he would remind me of where I was just a few short weeks ago: IT turned manic and I stopped sleeping, had wild mood swings (that is went from hysterically depressed to suicidally depressed), felt like I was on amphetamines, and was stopped cold in my tracks by anxiety.

And then there was The Garage Moment. I’d just come back from grocery shopping, and felt hopelessly manic, felt myself inching towards the edge again, unable to see through the confusing fog of escalating desperation and circular rumination: WHY WHY WHY does this happen? Is it some switch in my brain that flips? Is it the mere and sheer basic interactions of living a “normal” life? I think about my friend with 4 kids under seven and she IS NOT losing her mind. Or my other friend who has a 4 and 2 year old, and just got tenure at the college and just finished her book and SHE IS NOT CRAZY. So WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? Why can’t I hold it all together anymore? This type of thinking, ruminative and hyper-critical, is often referred to as racing thoughts, as a flight of ideas, as distorted thinking. My husband likes to call it, “Fucked Up Thinking.”

So there I was, in the garage, all circuits bypassing the smaller ways to hurt myself. Instead of obsessing over cutting, over the small pain, over the immediate but passing satisfaction, I sat in the car, the garage door closed, the engine running, and what I thought was: maybe if I sit here long enough I can go the carbon monoxide route. Since by agreement my meds are hidden from me somewhere in the basement, and it seems I will never be successful at cutting my wrists, maybe this was/is a new path. So I sat there for a good fifteen minutes and then whatever sense was left in me got the better of me, and I got out of the car, got all the groceries out of the trunk and went inside as if nothing had transpired.

But of course, what got me out of the car were the groceries. One bag in particular containing a splurge, no-no buy for the kids: Froot Loops. This was the simultaneously awful and wondrous irony—suicide and Froot Loops. How could I contemplate them at the same time? Two absolutely opposing positions in the universe. Dark death in isolation vs. the sugary light of kids. My kids. They needed me to turn off the engine, to go inside and put away the milk and the cereal, to stay here and keep my promise that I would carry on. My daughter once drew a heartrending picture of this abstract idea (which hangs in the bathroom): a mythologically terrifying, double-horned, green and black monster (IT made concrete?) with the caption, STAY HOME MOMMA! That is, no more hospitals, no more ruminating on ways to die, no more wandering over to the Dark Side. Perfect timing: my son is imitating Darth Vader. Breathing in and out, in the heavy forced way, but unable to keep a straight face. Sugary light. Ketchup face. Sticky fingers. And Athena next to me on the couch, quiet and still. That tongue now licking my hand.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Monster/Mommy

I am in the middle of the long process (forms, forms, and more forms) of applying for Long Term Disability. The powers that be--employer/therapist/psychiatrist/
husband/and kicking-and-screaming, me—have decided it’s time for me to say UNCLE and put my health and stability before employment and ambition. It should be an easy decision; after all, I’ve been hospitalized every semester for the past 3 years and for at least one month out of every summer. I’ve been resisting this decision because it feels like failure, feels like nothing will ever be expected of me again, i.e., “She once showed so much promise. Now?”

It shouldn’t have to be this hard. I don’t understand why it is. It never used to be. Take 3 classes, teach 4, wait tables all at the same time? No problem. Finish my PhD by the time I was 28? Done. Get a tenure track job, teach full time, have a baby, publish a book? Check.

Now I can barely manage to marshal the forces to teach 2 ½ hours a week. And the noise of the kids and the dogs, and the messiness of living, merely living out a day, can send me into a tailspin. And then I just feel weak, cowardly, crazy.

A few weeks ago, Alexander made up this game he called Monster/Mommy. He would zap me with his finger and I would have to become a monster. He’d zap me again, and I was back to being Mommy. And my monster performance was a bit hysterical, desperate—Mommy losing her mind. And I could see it scared him, but he also laughed—he loved being scared but he also kept looking at me like he literally didn’t recognize me. This went on for 15 minutes and then suddenly he zapped me again and said, “Now be Mommy forever.” Isn’t this the perfect analogy? One minute I’m Mommy, the safe harbor, and the next minute I’m this terrifying monster. All traces of Mommy erased. And that insistent plea at the end—be Mommy forever. The absolute impossibility of that because that monster is also always there, ready to surface, ready to terrify the ones I love. I AM MONSTER MOMMY. And monster wife.

But my wonderfully forgiving and practical-minded husband reminds me that the reason this is so hard for me is because, I am, in fact, ill, have been contending with forces—the bipolar disorder, the eating disorder—that want me dead. So I am, right now, fighting for my life which is a BIG deal. (In comes the voice of IT: Oh god, how tedious. Here you go again being hyperbolic and dramatic. Get over yourself. Pull yourself together.)

It’s that word “Disability” that smarts so. It suggests that something fundamental has been dis-abled. The car no longer runs and should be hauled off to the junkyard. I do not want to turn into the crazy cat lady living in the crappy trailer anchored at Bide-A-While Park, waiting for the monthly disability check to arrive so I can shuffle off in housecoat and ratty slippers to buy 500 tins of Purina and a dozen bottles of Peach Schnapps.

I am more than this.
I am a loving wife and mom. This morning, the kids (who have been sleeping in our bed ever since I was last in the hospital) woke up absurdly early (i.e., before 6am), and usually I would be snarky, hissing at them to stay still, to BE QUIET, to leave me alone. Instead, I rolled over to them and we whispered for the next hour, giggling at their Daddy’s crankiness, cuddling close. At one point, a skirmish broke out: they each wanted to be closest to me. I want Momma. No, I want Momma. That sealed it: I was a Momma they loved, a Momma they wanted to be with. I was not Monster Mommy.

I am reading the book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, by Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun. The first paragraph seems apt in terms of the upheaval that I am experiencing right now:

“Embarking on a spiritual journey is like getting into a very small boat and setting out on the ocean to search for unknown lands. With wholehearted practice comes inspiration, but sooner or later we will also encounter fear. For all we know, when we get to the horizon, we are going to drop off the edge of the world. Like all explorers, we are drawn to discover what’s waiting out there without knowing yet if we have the courage to face it.”

Isn’t this my problem? Here I am at the edge of the known world—my job disappearing, IT trying to stake a permanent and deadly claim, physical pain feeling safe and justified and familiarly comforting, the bipolar disorder baring its fangs, trying to decimate me—all of this part of the old path. And now I am faced with the decisive moment—to recreate, to reimagine my life, myself. And I am terrified, shaking in my boots, unable to trust in a new way, a new path, some new freedom, some new, better self.

Isn’t this what Dr. B. is asking me to do? To trust the leap off of this new edge? Not the old edge of self-destruction, self-annihilation. But this new edge—self-creating, redefining, realigning. Time to be courageous and sail over this new edge and what I will sail into is a new, unexpected, extraordinary life.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Little Ears and Hearts and Minds

According to a recent article in The Archives of General Psychiatry, children with a bipolar parent are 14 times more likely to have bipolar-like symptoms and 2-3 times more likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety or mood disorder. Holy F-ing Shite.

Can I say, "Terrified?"

Now age-appropriate tantrums, sugar-induced manias, the after-school tears become, in my hypervigilant mind, evidence that I have passed on The Very Worst of Me.

Though to his credit and long suffering patience, Dr. B. has been pushing me not to vilify this disease but to find a way to be grateful for it. No fall-to-my-knees-Praise-Jesus!-how-grand-it-is-to-be-manic-depressive hyperbole. Rather, a genuine acknowledgment that gifts do come along with the diagnosis. One of which I am exhibiting right here on this blog: writing, perhaps, impulsively, with no thought to future fallout or reputation. Which is to say, I am in exactly the same position that mania and a few drinks used to lead, only now it is a sober energy, channeled into words of honesty (no words of wisdom--I am a long way to that).

But there are still those horrifying statistics and so my antennae try to pick up on the frequencies (and frequency) of my kids' behaviors. Good sense no longer tells me what might be a normal variation because of course, I'm sure that when I was a kid, I appeared normal, if hyperactive. And as a teenager? I hid my devastating depression, which started at the age of 14, from everyone. And cutting? I managed to hide that, too, beneath reams of bracelets and thickly-applied facial foundation. No one knew for 4 years, and even after my self-injury was discovered, no one knew that my rage and despair were more than a passing teenage phase.

So my antennae are tuned in because I want to know if, when things begin to spiral out of control for my kids.

Of course, it's not just the Bipolar Disorder that my children can inherit, but the Eating Disorder, too. Just Like Mommy. At least this is the phase my daughter is in for now. She watches me, inspects me, takes her cues from me ("Momma, why do you chew your fingers? Was this thumb bleeding? Momma, you have to stop!"). Which is why I was devastated a few weeks ago when I found her on her bedroom floor, a pair of jeans in her lap, her hands pinching her thighs.

"Momma, my legs are fat here. These pants make me look fat."

Up until this point, I'd believed I'd done an adequate job at shielding her from my anorexia. I never talked about weight in front of her, never let on how much I loathed my body. And yet, her antennae were tuned into my frequency. ("Momma, did you eat breakfast," she asked a few days ago. And when I came down with a cold this past week, she looked at me, serious and seriously worried, and said, "You won't have to go away to the hospital again, will you?")

Dr. B. suggested that I take these statistics and use them as a motivating force. Bipolar disorder is believed to be both genetically and environmentally based. So I am becoming a more stable, healthier Mom, in order to give my kids a stable, healthier home, an environmentally-friendly home. So I eat and take my meds and begin to write gratitude lists.

Here is my list for today:

The kids are flanking me on the couch—my daughter busily cracking and crunching on pistachios; my son's head resting on my shoulder.

Icicles on the house are melting.

The sun is shining—the gray lid has briefly lifted.

Soon, a woods walk with the dogs and kids.

16 days to Jamaica.

A brain that nominally works, that has something to offer to my students semester after semester—that I’m someone from who one can learn.

That I am crawling my way back into language, into writing again.

That I woke up in my own bed, beside my kids and husband instead of in some antiseptic, lonely hospital room.

That I am putting one foot in front of the other, surviving IT, keeping as even as I can.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

My Coming Out

So here I am, Self and the Blank Page, fingers nervously typing this: I think it's time to write this down, to deal with the shame and the self-loathing, and turn it around into self-affirming gratitude. This is the story of IT: "IT" is my abstract pronoun, the catch-all for my variety of afflictions. It inhabits capital letters, an impassive, unfeeling monolith. In contrast, "I," or for your sake, "me," which lives in love, in forgiveness, in the shrieks of pleasure coming from my kids right now.

Here it is: I am 37 years old, the Momma of 2, the wife of 1, and I have Bipolar Disorder and an Eating Disorder. Oh yes, and the nasty habit of cutting myself. This is something I've lived with for years and years, and now something my husband and children also live with, though I am happily therapied with the wonderful Dr. B. and on mood stabilizers, atypical anti-psychotics, and sleep inducers. (And am not yet catatonic or the walking zombified.) It has been an agonizing balance for all of us--trying to stay on this side of reason and simultaneously feeling the pull of unreasonability, irrationality, and that cunning vixen, Madness. But this is what I must accept: Life on Life's Terms. An easy cliche, part of the 12 Step Movement, but doesn't it also contain practical truth? I've been running myself ragged and frayed and scattered all these years, trying to "be" part of Normal, wearing the mask, trying to cover all the fractures and splinters with achievement, productivity, and insane, frenetic energy.

There is a price to pay for this madness. It happened the year my son was born, the year I breastfed around the clock (meaning no sleep--very bad for Bipolar), the year I stopped eating and started running 6 miles a day, the year cuts traveled my arms from wrists to elbows. The cost? I wound up in an inpatient psych ward. "You? You?" the shocked, disbelievers asked. "Me, me, me, me," I answered, getting smaller and smaller, embarrassed and ashamed.

What didn't work:

The "Oh Fucking Get a Grip" route (aka pull yourself up by your Saner Sister's Bootstraps).
The "Hide IT and Put On a Brave Face Route" (i.e., snazzy new haircut and fancy stash of Clinique makeup).
The "Get It Over With and Kill Yourself" route (luckily, and I'm learning to say gratefully, I'm still here).
The "Try All the Medications There Are" route (Lithium keeps the freewheeling crazies in check, but not the voice that says die or cut or starve or purge).
The "Rotating Psych Hospital" route (Each had a different philosophy; each failed in its own well-meaning way).

So here I am, trying the "Lay IT on the Line" route. Be honest. Free yourself from shame. Give your kids a Momma they can be proud of. Honest. Deliberate. Not afraid to look IT in the eye.

So I intend to write about what it feels like to be Mad, and in spite of this madness (here you can start singing this to the tune of "Free to Be You and Me,") to also be Momma, to be Me on the Route to Recovery.