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.