Friday, April 30, 2010

The Writing is on the Wall and On My Arms

The Lost Thought

I felt a cleaving in my mind
As if my brain had split;
I tried to match it, seam by seam,
But could not make them fit.
The thought behind I strove to join
Unto the thought before,
But sequence ravelled out of reach
Like balls upon a floor.

--Emily Dickinson

It is time, Dear Readers, to fess up. Honesty is the guiding intention in my writing here. Not just a Tell-the-truth-when-asked-for-it honesty. The slippery version of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell which I’ve been practicing these days. “I’m doing better,” I say, deciding (Ha! Ha!) that I’m being asked about the Bipolar Disorder, not the Eating Disorder. Nor Dickinson’s “Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant—Success in Circuit lies”:

Q: “How often have you purged this week?”

A: Shrug. “I don’t know,” I say, which is a kind of Truth, because I don’t have some secret spiral notebook where I’m keeping count, but not true because I should say, “Almost every day.”

No, the truth I’m trying to adhere to is forthrightness. No reticence, no dodgy “I’m fines,” but truth even when it hurts or feels shameful. Expose IT to the light and like a cockroach, IT will scurry away to ITs hidey-hole. Every treatment program I’ve been in for the Eating Disorder has chanted the mantra, “Secrets Keep You Sick.” At Rosewood, first thing in the morning, we’d go around the circle and talk about the secrets we’d been keeping since the day before—the obviously dangerous ones--meal not finished, portion size not adequate, purging, cutting, lying; but also the equally dangerous thoughts and urges that festered below the surface, that could be easily smoothed over—See the bright smile? Note the clean plate? I’m the perfect patient! All the while that patient (me) is listening to the constant chatter of IT, rehearsing, on the mind’s stage, cutting or purging or skipping, and longing, desperately, for that feeling of emptiness and the consequent power over hunger, over any of the body’s wants and needs, over abundant desire.

Remember to remember: IT wants to cut me off from joy.

No choice but to tell all. Not that what I’m about to tell relies on any sort of salacious, self-investigative tabloid journalism. But here it is: According to Dr. B., IT has gone stealth, flying low under the radar, so that it might appear to others that I am doing fine when in fact, as he put it to me squarely, I am out of control. It is just as Emily describes it: a cleaving of my mind, a splitting of my brain. I am of two minds right now, and it’s killing me.

Mind #1: I am holding on tight to the railing, white-knuckling it, am talking the good talk, speaking Recovery-ease. I can pull myself together in the morning, flat-iron the hair, apply make-up, then walk into a classroom and sound knowledgeable, like someone from whom there is something to learn. I tell my students, “Take chances, reach big in your writing and be willing to fail. It’s like Frederick Busch said, “It’s in the failing that we make Art.” You need energy. Many writers have talent, but it’s perseverance that will see you through.” (Note to self: perseverance will see me through IT, not the wishy-washy vacillations that have me transfixed.) After teaching, it’s home to the kids where we make banana-peanut butter cupcakes, bike ride in the driveway, then Christopher and I throw an impromptu pizza party with friends in the backyard that stretches into the dark night; we all gather in front of the wood fire, laughing easily, pointing at the stars above, scratching the dog’s head, cuddling close with the kids.

Ta Da! See? I’m fine. Smiles all around. Pat on the back. My husband’s proud acknowledgment that I’ve been able to fight through this latest round of the manic wicky-wackies and have come out relatively unscathed.

Mind #2: I’m FINE (Fucked up Insecure Neurotic and Evasive). I’m watching this mind unravel, and like Emily’s ball of yarn, it rolls across the floor, out of reach. Mind #1 wants so desperately to be well, or if not well, at least perceived as well. Well enough. This is the same mind that settles for making it through and eking it out and still holding on. Mind #2? Does not give a fuck. This is ITs reptilian brain (cold-blooded, jaws snapping, salivating) which keeps pushing me out on the edge, waiting for me to fall off, down, to the bottom, to my end.

For instance: earlier this week I was yelling at my kids for some minor offense; I was fierce and frightening and screaming so loudly that my daughter cupped her hands over her ears and screamed back. Immediately I felt ashamed, like a horrible, terrible, no-good momma, the kind that damages her kids, the kind that is volatile and unreliable, the kind that should be locked up, in restraints, drugged on Haldol . So, Mind #1 stepped in: I apologized to them, showered them with kisses and hugs, then tucked them into bed. Enter Mind #2: I went down to the kitchen, took out a small, sharp paring knife, and pressed it against my arm, drawing it lightly back and forth. I imagined slipping it in, drawing blood.

"Do it, do it, do it," IT hissed. "You deserve pain for what you did to them."

But then Mind #1 reminded me that if I cut again I would go to the hospital, the big, bad scary State Hospital where they have ways to keep me from hurting myself. So back went the knife but not the punishing desire.

Another? I can say that Mind #2 has unleashed, once again, the dark forces of the Eating Disorder. Impossible for me to say that I am in Recovery. This is total relapse. And once again, I’ve hidden the extent of the meal skipping and purging, wanting to shield those close to me from this truth because I want to be fine. But that is not entirely the truth—Mind #2 doesn’t want recovery. IT doesn’t want me to reveal the bleak truth because IT wants me sick, debilitated, alone, in despair, dead. “Call someone before you get into trouble, not after,” Dr. B. tells me. But IT says, “Don’t tell anyone because then I might be stopped. And I don’t want to stop.”

So it appears I am a toxic waste site once again and I’m not sure how to clean myself up. Or decontaminate IT. But I have a start: Dr. B. asked me to push back my sleeves today. “What do you see?” he asked.

“Scars upon scars,” I said.

“What’s missing?” he asked.

I looked away, feeling already the tug of cutting, the scars taunting me. More and deeper until dead.

“What’s missing?” he asked again.
“Oh,” I said. “Words.”

Words. When the cutting was out of control, he used to have me write words up and down my forearms with a Sharpie: Hope, Loved, Forgiveness, Resilience, Beautiful, Compassionate, Worthy. Every time I looked down at my arms, there were the reasons to persevere.

“But I can’t write on my arms. I have to teach. I don’t want anyone to notice.”

He answered, “Because IT wants you to shrink, to disappear, to be unnoticeable. When you come on Monday, I want you wearing your words.”

So Dear Readers, I am taking suggestions for words that will help mend the mind, ravel it all back in. I’ll start with Hope, “the thing with feathers/ that perches in the soul.” What comes next?


Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

--Emily Dickinson

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sound Mind and Body

When I pulled up at Hobbs Hollow today for my riding lesson, Lee was walking a new, chestnut horse back and forth through a huge mud puddle. Each time the horse stepped near it, she’d shy away. So Lee jostled her head, gave her staccato pokes in the side with an elbow.

“That helps readjust the nervous system,” Lee said. “Nobody knows why it works, but it does. It’s like when you bend Chandi and he starts licking his lips. Things settle.”

And she was right. The little mare splashed through the puddle without protest. But then there was a patch of white concrete on the ground that she backed away from. And a rusty metal barrel she snorted at. The world (or at least this small corner of the parking lot) seemed fraught with danger. But Lee let her eyeball each menacing object, sniff at the ground, flick her tail, make peace at her own time.

“All this should have been dealt with years ago,” Lee said. “Someone (note: not the horse) wasn’t up to snuff.”

I pointed at the mare’s side, at the six-inch circle of scar tissue.

Lee shrugged, “An accident of some sort. Maybe a fight with another mare. They can be vicious.” Lee can propose the horse’s general history, but like all of us, can only intuit the particular abuses and injuries.

“See,” Lee said, leading the horse back to the barn, “someone didn’t take the time to work with her anxieties. She’s seven, too old to spook at all this ordinary stuff. It’d be one thing if she was from the city and there was a snake on the ground. But this horse has grown up pastured. And her owners are horse people. They should have worked her through all her jitters by now. Someone was lazy. Or inconsistent. Either way, it wasn’t good for the horse.” She paused as the horse swung its head back and forth, taking in the fence in front of her, the clanging of some loose rope on the flagpole, the whinnies of one of her barnmates. Lee sighed, “You let her see what’s around; let her realize it’s nothing dangerous; don’t rush her. But really, she’s too old for this nonsense.”

Whenever Lee speaks, I listen—not just for the horse lesson, but for applicable life lesson. You see, Lee trains, or retrains horses that have been abused or neglected or poorly schooled. For instance: there’s Wing, rescued a few months ago from a nearby farm where she had spent the long, cold winter without a blanket or sheet. When she arrived at Hobbs Hollow, her coat was mangy and her eye infected; she was thirty pounds underweight and depressed. Now? She’s zippy, energetically canters across the field, and is, once again, rideable. Sound.

All of Lee’s horses are in a kind of rehab, learning to move through anxieties, to step over fears, to correct bad behaviors that might get them, or a rider, hurt. And because I am in my own self-designed rehab, I take her lessons to heart. Not that I am some horse bucking at the bit or refusing a jump or shying at a ground post. But aren’t I, in a way? I have, after all, been officially diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and I’m terrified of change, paradoxically afraid of giving up IT since IT has been a constant, if debilitating, companion for decades, and don’t my bad behaviors—the not eating, the purging, the cutting—damage my body, don’t they collaterally damage my husband and kids? (Wasn’t it my daughter who just the other day patted her tiny waist and said, “I need to walk off my fat belly.” Didn’t I once use my son’s diaper change as pretext to purge in restaurant bathrooms? Don’t my kids ask me what happened to my arms, and don’t I have to make up lies?)

IT chimes in here, taking the opportunity to add ITs no-cents: “Aren’t you getting old for all this nonsense? You’re only living on borrowed time anyway. Might as well haul yourself off to the glue factory.”

At this, Lee would grab my halter, give my head a firm shake, poke me in the ribs. Time to readjust the mental system. Remember to remember: Choose life.

But it’s true, too. I am too old for this nonsense. Too old to have my husband interrogate me over the day’s meals—eaten, skipped, purged. Too old to have to ask for a pair of scissors since they’ve all been hidden from me. Too old to have my medication secreted away some place in the basement because fear dictates I might try to overdose again. Too old for ITs shit.

Wing is sound, can now take flight over fields and fences. I want to be sound, too. Sound in mind and body. Sound = Free from injury (of the self-inflicted kind) and disease (the plague that is IT). Free from error, fallacy, and misapprehension (ITs lies and my belief in them). Having true premises (trusting the clear, logical, healthy perspective of my team over ITs warped, damaged, destructive perspective). Showing good judgment (finally being able to trust in myself, that I will take care of myself, that I will love myself). Sense over nonsense.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream?

I remember when my body
was a friend,

when sleep like a good dog
came when summoned.

The door to the future
Had not started to shut…

--Linda Pastan

In the manic wicky-wackies, I don’t sleep. At least, not that much. Not when its accompanying racing thoughts lunge for my throat and give me a good, tough shake, like the unstuffed mallard duck my enormous Labrador Retriever, Athena, mauls in good fun. Shake, shake, shake! Kill the duck, kill the duck! So while I resent that 3:17am blinking, blinking, blinking on the clock, I am also not tired at all. Eyes wide open, staring at absolutely nothing on the ceiling; hands clenching and unclenching; empty stomach growling (“Shut up,” the Eating Disorder says. “Shut up. You are not hungry.”); legs restless; heart beating fast.

What is most annoying about the insomnia is the weekend, when my kids do in fact sleep until 8 and then disappear into the next room to watch cartoons until 9:30. Christopher is deep in dreamland, an occasional twitch or toss lets me know his imagination is hard at work. But me? Awake already for hours and hours, inventing plotlines for the novel I have yet to write, listing (and then discarding) story ideas, pinching my stomach and hips for the weight IT says I need to lose, worrying about the financial fallout from my upcoming Long Term Disability leave, despairing over the tenure track job I’ll be giving up, and mostly cataloguing all that I’m losing (or have lost already) to IT, both body and mind.

One of the things I’m losing is my memory. Lately, Dr. B. has noticed my diminished capacity to remember—what happened ten minutes ago, yesterday, last week, last year. Side effect from the meds? From the insomnia? He is convinced that it is neither and tells me, “IT wants everything. IT wants to wipe out your memories. IT wants to wipe out you.” I recount the skip-hop middle-of-the-night ruminations to him, how they continue on into the day, how they encroach on everything. For instance: an hour ago the entire family was sitting on the couch, Christopher and the kids tumbling around in a ticklefest. What was I doing? Sitting apart from them, on the other end of the couch (it’s a big couch so I might as well have been sitting on a Yangtze riverboat in China), chewing over ITs abusive litany of my failures. And then my own guilty conscience weighed in, berating me over the fact that I am letting myself get pulled under by IT, that I’m not on the other side of the couch tickling and being tickled, that I’m not part of this new memory-in-the-making.

“Why don’t you get mad at IT?” Dr. B. says. “You get mad at yourself for everything, but not at IT. It doesn’t make sense.”

And it doesn’t. None of IT makes sense. Instead of listening to my healthy self in recovery, time and again I stupidly (habitually) listen to ITs lies. I listen to IT when IT tells me to secretly skip a meal--say I ate the ½ cup of yogurt and granola and blueberries but don’t actually eat it because that means I can start the day in a calorie deficit. I listen to IT when IT tells me to purge the French fry (yes, one) I swiped from my son’s plate because that is an extra, not part of the carefully calculated mealplan. I listen to IT when IT tells me that there is still room on my forearms to draw the razor, that the dozens and dozens of thin white scars aren’t nearly enough, that my body can only be a site of pain, no pleasure possible. I listen to IT when IT tells me to run one more mile, then two, to add on another one hundred sit-ups, to weigh myself and weigh myself again because maybe in the minute difference I’ll have lost an ounce. I listen to IT when IT tells me that I am better off alone, that I can’t possibly be someone that matters to anyone, that all I am capable of is inflicting damage on those that I love, so, IT says, you need to die.

“Push against this,” Dr. B. says. “You’re smarter than IT. You have a choice: you can listen to IT, or you can listen to that part of you that wants to live.”

A choice. So often it feels like IT (and the accompanying Bipolar/Eating Disorders) is an implacable, inexorable monolith, presenting ITs grim, immobile face, demanding immediate, punishing appeasement. Add insomnia and its resulting manic exhaustion to all that? I forget that I have a choice—that I can choose to eat, choose not to purge, choose to be nice to my body, choose to love and be loved, choose to live. But I forget and forget again and forget yet again that I don’t have to die. That I want to live. See how IT eats away at the most important thing I need to remember? I don’t have to die. Say it again. I don’t have to die. One more time for your husband and kids and family and friends. I don’t have to die.

And I don’t. What I have to remember is the manic wicky-wackies will lift. It’s happening now as I write. I came to my computer a roiling, irritable mess. I mean, how is it possible to be cranky and stand-offish during a full-on family ticklefest? And yet, there I was on the couch short-tempered, prickly, oowwing a bit too deliberately and loudly when my son’s finger poked at my side. I was having none of their fun. See if they could make IT laugh. I hear Dr. B sigh, “You’re losing out, letting IT win again.” So I am writing about IT now, putting IT on notice that I intend to win.

One small victory? For several days now, with the help of an increase in Lithium and Abilify, I have finally, blessedly slept through the night. And dreamed. And dreamed. And in my dreams I remembered this: as Wynken, Blynken, and Nod sail off in their shoe, the moon asks, “Where are you going and what do you wish?” A perfectly wise and useful question, akin to the one Dr. B. asked me before I left his office today: “What will you choose? Death or Life?” I need to remember that there is a choice—IT, the nasty cult leader who will slip me the fatal Kool-Aid or Life, with its sunset pizza parties in the backyard, its two kids in the bed, their breath warm on my neck, its spontaneous, rollicking family ticklefest, and the kids’ breathless cries, “Stop!! No More!!”, its being with them instead of being without.

Where am I going? I am going to recover.
What do I wish? I wish to live, to thrive, to love and be loved.

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe,—
Sailed on a river of crystal light
Into a sea of dew.
"Where are you going, and what do you wish?"
The old moon asked the three.
"We have come to fish for the herring-fish
That live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we,"
Said Wynken,
And Nod.

--Eugene Field

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Four-Leaf Clover

My daughter found a four-leaf clover. Of course she was thrilled. “Momma,” she shouted, “only like three people have found them in our time, right?”

According to my daughter’s scale, “our time” means the everything-post-dinosaur epoch. I nodded anyway, even though, according to sources, the likelihood is 1 in 10,000. But who cares when you have a daughter hooting and hollering over her find, which she found without even looking for it? You see, she’d been having a very bad day. Second grade betwixt and between girl drama— pinched arm, spilled bubbles, teased over her laugh, ostracized at recess. When I picked her up from school, she was sobbing; great drippy tears streaked her cheeks.

“Let’s move to the farm, Momma. The one in another state,” she said. “I want to go to a new school. I want to be homeschooled.”

So it was lovely serendipity later that afternoon: she rolled down the hill and landed in a patch of clover. Voila! The four-leaf clover was right beside her hand. On the way home, she waved it over my head in the car and whispered, “Please get me a new Webkinz.” (Webkinz: stuffed animals that have online counterparts; my daughter’s latest obsession.) Then she waved it over Christopher’s head and whispered, “Please get me a pack of GoGos.” (GoGos: cheap plastic inaction figures; her other, equal obsession.)

“A four-leaf clover brings you good luck,” I said. “It doesn’t Bippity Boppity Boo a new toy.”

“Oh,” she said, momentarily crushed, but then her face brightened. “So like today. I was having a bad day and now I’m happy again. I’m going to show it to everyone at school tomorrow and they’re going to be amazed!” Just like that, she was already imagining herself back in the classroom with her friends (and by extension, I wouldn’t have to teach her about the Revolutionary War and long division). Oh, beneficent, felicitous luck.

1 a : a force that brings good fortune or adversity b : the events or circumstances that operate for or against an individual.

My daughter’s got the green force of good luck pressed between the pages of my Life Recovery Bible—given to me by a traveling minister who led a prayer service at Rosewood, the inpatient Eating Disorders treatment center where I spent the better part of two months. As providence would have it, the four-leaf clover lies within Psalm 25, which coincidentally contains these lines,

Turn to me and have mercy,
for I am alone and in deep
My problems go from bad to worse.
Oh, save me from them all!...
Do not let me be disgraced, for in
You I take refuge.
May integrity and honesty
Protect me,
For I put my hope in you.

My skeptical self would say this is mere chance, but Dr. B. would say, as he has been saying recently, “No such thing as coincidence when it comes to you.” So I’ve been uncannily lucky or specifically chosen by the universe to receive this prayer, a disturbingly accurate depiction of where I am these days—in deep distress, struggling with ITs escalation, living in disgrace. Because of the Bipolar and Eating Disorder craziness, I am the source of shame, living outside of grace. Nothing more self-degrading, humiliating, and shameful than exploding in body-shaking, senseless anger in front of the kids or desperately trying to cut my arm with a too-dull knife or furtively vomiting, like some sick dog, behind a tree.

I’ve been relying on a more dangerous luck these days. Fingers crossed, in constant motion, trying my best to outrun IT. Failing. IT nips at my heels, lunges for my neck. There are my terrified backward glances, so I know IT has caught up with me once again. And yet, I so often go about my day without a plan, without the necessary weapons to do battle with IT. And in the Bipolar/Eating Disorder epoch, I need an arsenal at hand. What Dr. B. calls my toolbox. “What’s in it?” he asked me yesterday. “I hand you these tools and they just disappear.”

He’s right. I’ve been given an entire armory, and yet, on a day-to-day basis I forget to go in through those doors and select the weapon most appropriate for battle that day. I could choose to practice radical acceptance, call someone on my team and be honest about my struggle and ask for help, say a Lovingkindness meditation, admit powerlessness, and more importantly, believe that my life is unmanageable, give up control, yield to the IT free perspective of my team, get mad at IT instead of me, read through my anti-IT packet, distract myself from urges by: taking a walk, baking a cake, reading a book, saying what I’m thankful for, writing a blog, cleaning the house, playing with the kids, having sex, sitting in stillness and breathing. I could say, aloud, my list of mantras: I deserve to live. I deserve to love and be loved. I deserve to eat. I give up the right to punish myself. I have hope for myself. I want to live.

Instead, I make asinine statements like, “Luckily, I’m not dead yet.”

IT scoffs at luck, shreds the four-leaf clover, and says, fangs dripping, “Luckily, Kerry, I’m still after you.”

I don’t want to lose it anymore—like yesterday, panicked and crying and shaking over my own very bad day. I don’t want to lose my family, my mind, or my life. It’s time to lose IT and suit up in armor and defend myself with sword and dagger, mace and battering ram. With the four-leaf clover in my pocket, determination in my mind, and hope in my heart, I say aloud my battle prayer: May integrity and honesty protect me. And you. And all of us.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Reading for My Life

The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency—the belief that the here and now is all there is.—Allan Bloom

I was born with a silver book in my mouth. My parents say that by the time I was four, I was reading fluently, by six, devouring Nancy Drew books at the rate of two and three a week, and by ten, had moved on to the Adult section at the library, checking out armloads of gothic romance mysteries. I’d disappear into my bedroom, sit on the floor, knees up, back against the bed, and speed through the pages. (I even tried writing one of my own torrid romances on an old Smith Corona typewriter in the basement. Something about an antebellum widow with a heaving bosom who meets a lonely, laconic Northerner with fiery loins. All of the innuendo and clumsily written acts of sexual congress were entirely and floridly derivative, patched together from scenes I had read.)

I always had a book with me—at the doctor’s office, in the car, on the bus, in the tub, on the toilet, at the dinner table (where I could only admire it beside my plate). I could be someone other than me. Me was awkward, gangly, self-conscious, self-loathing, too much. So I disappeared into books. Hours evaporated. Especially those often solitary hours at school: I remember sitting in Sr. Mary Alice’s third grade class, ignoring the math equations on the board, ignoring the boys behind me and their nonstop jibes—Bones Neville, Bones Neville, Bones Neville-- and instead, reading Judy Bloom’s Blubber which I’d secreted in my lap. It was the story of a girl similarly body-conscious, similarly mocked and bullied, similarly lonely. All of a sudden, Sr. Mary Alice’s wooden pointer rested on my shoulder. “Miss Neville,” she said, “Hand it over.” With great reluctance, I gave her the book, which only found its way back to me at the end of the school year. Or a year later, when all the other girls in class received party invitations except me because, as the birthday girl said, “You’re too crazy. Nobody wants you.” I wouldn’t let myself feel that, that could drown me. What could I feel? There was my dog eared copy of The Outsiders in my desk, and doesn’t Johnny tell Ponyboy to “stay gold?” Well then, that’s what I’d do: I’d show them and stay gold.

In high school, I worked at B. Dalton Bookstore, oddly located in what was referred to as the Miracle Mile—a half-mile outdoor mall containing luxury shops. Most people were shopping at Tiffany’s and Versace, looking for diamond bracelets and leather miniskirts which meant the book store was generally empty. Fine by me. I sat behind the cash register haphazardly reading my way through the fiction shelf (Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera led to Steinbeck’s Winter of Our Discontent led to Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!) or canvassing, daily, the self-help aisle trying to find the book that would explain why I hated myself so much, why I was so blackly and always depressed, why I hacked up my arms (Tough luck in 1989—no such book existed). I did, however, find Suicide: The Forever Decision that I shoplifted because I was too embarrassed to buy it, a decision that literally did save my life. On dark, hopeless nights, I’d pick up that book and read it over and over—my proxy therapist when I didn’t have one.

Reading during the bleak times is what so often saves me. Stories reveal the honest nobility in living out a life filled with complications. Words, phrases, bits of dialogue fill me up with their transformative power, keep IT at bay if only for a little while. When my insomnia kicked in during high school and I was awake until two and three in the morning, fighting urges to self-destruct, keeping myself glued to the bed because I knew if I got up, I’d find my way to the bathroom and the razor blades, I’d read and read and read my way from page one to page three hundred and one. Some of the time anyway.

In college, what kept me alive were two things:

1. All of the English courses I piled on semester after semester, which in turn meant many, many books that I read with great passion and feeling, but also with a mind engaged in reflecting on the architectural craft of the story--the nuts and bolts, the foundation and the roof, the windows and the door, how all of it comes together to create Art. And Art was necessary with its epiphanic arias dedicated to beauty and ugliness, love and pain. That Art was bigger than IT, bigger than me; it allowed me to look beyond the self, to live a little longer. As Allan Bloom suggests, we read because we can then believe that there is more than the here and now, more than IT and Me.

2. Frederick Busch, a novelist, short story writer, and my teacher. During my freshman year fiction writing workshop, he saw something in one of my wretched stories (about a boy watching his uncle go through post-traumatic stress over his fighting in the Vietnam War—I knew little about the war, even less about PTSD so the story was a pretentious flop on both fronts). And yet, Fred pointed out that not only was it well-written, but I had taken an imaginative leap—had stepped outside of my own narrow experience in order to enter the life of an “other” another. Over the course of four years, he helped me to believe that I was (not could be, but already was) a writer; “I’m sorry to say,” he said, “but you’re the real thing.” (He was practical, too—cautioning against the life of a writer, with its endless parade of rejections and financial struggle.) And yet, those words were a beacon that kept me (keep me!) swimming to shore. I write (and by default, read) because I must. I write to keep ITs unhinged rant in the background. I write because, as Dr. B. tells me, my voice matters.

Here is the devastating fact of the moment: I can’t read. Novels sit unopened on my nightstand. The manic wicky-wackies make short change of concentration, my eyes jitter and skip all over the page. I can’t summon up the scrupulous energy needed to read carefully, for both pleasure and edification. Therein lies the problem—there is so little pleasure left after IT moves in that stories lie inert on the page, characters seem only a conglomeration of facts and tics, the unfolding of language seems, to the manic mind, to be brutally precious and ungodly slowwwwww. And then there is the background chitter-chatter, IT interrupting at every sentence, IT putting forth ITs concerns (eating/not eating, racing thoughts, urges to self-harm) which push aside the book. Who can read with all that noise and bother?

So the books sit on my nightstand in silent, indignant protest, consigned to wait until a pleasurable concentration returns. What I have in their stead, while I wait out this manic backsliding, is the belief that I will read and write my own stories again. That what I am doing here is writing my story which is, in itself, a heartfelt prayer that there is more than the here and now, more than this manic moment. That my story is expansive and will extend into a grace-filled future.

“Stories are the heartfelt prayer, the valiant promise, that what we have loved might live forever.”--Frederick Busch

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Amish Like Me

Do you want to know the bizarre thing about my Eating Disorder? Despite the anorexia and purging, I love food. I eagerly await the monthly arrival of Bon Appetit or La Cucina Italiana, scour their recipes, rehearse menus, imagine baking a chocolate-coconut macaroon torte or cooking tagliatelle all’uovo con pepperoni rossi (doesn’t everything taste better in Italian?). We have a cupboard crammed with cookbooks, from the practical (the go-to-for-brownies The Silver Palate, Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything, and an outdated Joy of Cooking), to the impractical (Larousse’s Gastronomique in French, The Greek Culinary Tradition in Greek, and The Zucchini Cookbook in Zucchineese). There’s usually a stack of these cookbooks on my bedside table; I read myself into an ecstatic sleepy, stupor (yes, the dichotomy is true), dreaming about mini madeleines con panna cotta e miele, pâté de lapin, kotópoulo me syka.

And then there is Christopher who is a fabulous, locally celebrated cook who thinks nothing of kneading up sourdough bread (from a 7 year old starter he smuggled back from Greece),or rolling out fresh lasagna noodles on a Tuesday night, or firing up the wood-burning pizza oven he had built for his 40th birthday and slinging out two dozen pies for an evening with friends.

Even though it all so often tastes like dust in my mouth, even though a bite can feel like a concrete block going down, even though the calculator in my head compulsively counts calories, even though I always fight the urge to skip meals and to purge, I still love food. I just don’t want to eat it.

Or, I should say, IT doesn’t want me to eat; IT wants me to diminish, dwindle, and disappear. The sensual pleasure we all associate with good food—a buttery pastry crust, the prickly tang of Roquefort, dark chocolate ganache sliding over the tongue—that pleasure only lasts for one, maybe two bites. After that, IT starts demanding self-abnegation and austerity. IT would be happy if I renounced the world in favor of solitary cloister in some dank stone hut with a hard rusk of bread, sour wine, and a wormy rind of cheese.

ITs reductive meal stands in sharp contrast to the ½ bushel of organic produce we receive every Friday. Here’s the irony: my husband and I help manage a CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture Cooperative) which is farmed by our good friends, an Amish family, headed up by the wise, long-bearded patriarch, David, who is, on the one hand, a conservative, devout man of God, and on the other, a radical farmer who reads Thoreau and Michael Pollan, supplies produce to the Whole Foods down in Pittsburgh, and feeds us. Each week, thirty-five families come to our garage to pick up the harvest. And in the box? It’s early in the growing season, but this week our box contained baby arugula, red Russian kale, mixed salad greens, potatoes, radishes, a dozen fresh eggs, maple syrup, and homemade wheat bread and soup noodles. In the summer and fall, the box overflows with strawberries, tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, peppers, cabbage, watermelon, cantaloupe, squash, beets, and corn and…and…and. All of it organic. Each week, Christopher writes up a newsletter with recipes (all of which have made their way into our local Market House cookbook).

A few years ago, my parents and I went out to David’s farm for their yearly visit, and all of David’s seven kids came out to greet us. David’s eldest daughter, who I’ll call MaryAnne, had always been extremely reclusive (she usually ran and hid in her bedroom or was almost neurotically taciturn) and a good deal overweight, but that didn’t seem unusual to me. Many of the Amish women I’ve come in contact with were similarly inclined. But this time around? She was, well, from what I could tell in her ankle-length dress, extremely thin, and she chattered and giggled non-stop with my Mom who said, “You look wonderful! How did you lose the weight?” My mom, who is very direct (and often out scouting for new diets), wasted no time getting to the heart of the matter. I, however, was horrified, afraid she’d crossed some English-Amish boundary.

But MaryAnne just laughed and said, “Oh, I’ve been doing Atkins. No carbs at all.” (If you know the Amish, carbohydrates are often the center of a meal. Bread, potatoes, pie: the holy trinity.) She went on at great, speedy length about her dieting techniques, about skipping meals, about hiding out in her room when meals were served. All of this floored me.

An Amish woman concerned with body image? I mean—and here my dumb, English, naïve self stumbles in—basically Amish women tended house and had babies, a lot of babies, and they were covered up, head to ankle, and never looked in mirrors or stepped on a scale or suffered the torture of bathing suit season. Why would MaryAnne feel compelled to lose weight? (I also hadn’t considered that she was of marriageable age and would be worried about the way prospective suitors would see her, or more importantly, how she would see herself as she undressed by candlelight. You don’t need a mirror to see a body that you loathe. Just look down, or run a hand across your stomach, or pinch the flesh at your side. Even an Amish woman might wish to transfigure that body.)

A few months later in July, Christopher went out to the farm with the kids. While my daughter and son jumped on the trampoline and chased chickens, Christopher and David chatted about CSA business, and then David asked, “Where’s Kerry?”

Christopher took a deep breath and explained about the Bipolar and Eating Disorders and how they had ravaged me, how I had tried to die and wound up in the ICU, and that I was now in a hospital in Arizona receiving treatment, trying to get better.

“Oh, Christopher, I’m so sorry to hear that. You know, MaryAnne has Bipolar Disorder and an Eating Disorder, too. It’s been a real struggle for her and the family,” David said. “But she’s getting help. There’s a company on the internet that sells vitamin and mineral supplements that are supposed to help with the Bipolar. You might want to look into it.” (This is what I love about David: he runs his electric typewriter and chest freezer off propane, and yet he is hip to online alternative treatments for mental illness! He is a wonderful study in flexible contradictions.)

So it’s possible to develop an Eating Disorder even at the source of all that good food. And the Bipolar disorder isn’t merely the result of nurture; hence it isn’t MY FAULT (IT wants me to believe this which then sets up the self-injury, the cycles of self-punishment, the belief that I JUST NEED TO GET MY SHIT TOGETHER). It is also a result of nature. If the Amish farmer’s daughter can have an Eating Disorder and Bipolar Disorder, even after living inside a family filled with love, even after being sheltered from the stress and chaos of the modern world, then almost anyone can develop these democratic diseases. Me, for example. And in the right circumstances with the right line-up of genes, you, too.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Om Namah Shivaya

I learned a new word last night: Dharana. At least, I think that’s how you might phonetically spell it. Because I am a writer, I collect words, roll them around in my mouth like marbles, swallow them down. Dharana is a word that came up in a spiritual awakening program that I went to last night which drew on Eastern religious philosophy, primarily Hinduism. I never would have expected my cynical, skeptical self to be seated in front of a guruesque teacher-- lit up by candles and a halo of spotlights--speaking about bliss, inner divinity, and luminous self-transformation. Of course, my initial impulse was resistance. How could I yield to this woman before me, dressed all in white, seated cross-legged on an imposing red velvet armchair like some imperious pasha? What exactly could she say to me?

The last time I went on a spiritual retreat was in High School when I attended a Catholic Christian Awakening weekend—what I mostly remember about those three days, besides the fetishistic “Save Yourself and Your Soul! Save Sex for Marriage!" cheerleading, is the creepy button we were supposed to wear over our heart: a yellow smiley face surrounded by the words, “God Don’t Make Junk.” The cutesy lapse in grammar summed up the saccharine sweet approach to spiritual enlightenment and therapeutic self-examination. Besides, the only buttons I wore then were those advertising The Sex Pistols and The Clash (of course, I was a johnny-come-ten-years-too-lately to those bands, and a suburban Catholic school girl to boot, so my bad-ass punk self had more to do with hairspray bottles filled with vodka and the ladder of cuts and scars that traveled my forearms than any real safety-pin through the nose rebellion).

But last night, I made a leap of faith, along with two hundred other people, and listened to the guru.

Shiva,” she said, “is the supreme god who is also the divine self that is in all of us. Shiva is the god of mercy and compassion, protecting us from pain and suffering. That divine self is bliss. And isn’t that what we long for? To be connected to the source of all that is light and joy?”

I looked down at my hands folded in my lap, at the white scars that crisscrossed my forearms. So much pain and self-loathing written permanently on my body. And the absolute unease I was feeling in my body, having just eaten dinner and wanting to purge (a simple salad which might as well have been a ten pound, ten layer lasagna). If I felt any spark of the divine within, wouldn’t that be enough to stop the self-mortification? To put it in earlier terms, wouldn’t I recognize that I wasn’t, in fact, “junk” but holy, indeed?

“Longing,” the guru said, “isn’t that what we long for? To feel self-compassion and self-love?”

Yes, I thought. Yes, yes, yes.

“The Kundalini Shakti,” she said, “is the natural energy of the self which is usually cloaked by the mind of thought and which is waiting to be awakened. God-consciousness, enlightenment, and self-realization are all part of the kundalini shakti. The awakening of the kundalini shakti brings pure joy, pure knowledge, and pure love.”

The mind of thought, the mind of thought, the mind of thought. The wheels turn and turn and turn but I go nowhere. That’s been my problem these days with all the destructive manic rumination. The thinking and over-thinking and chaotic thinking and recriminative thinking—it takes up so much space and energy that there is little room for joy and love. The manic thinking is vituperative, it festers, infects me with its debilitating disease. Dis-ease. There is no rest, no easing of ITs attack. For instance: there I was listening to this kind woman speak about bliss and love and how that could be mine, too and simultaneously, I was thinking about the parmesan-sprinkled potatoes that were part of my salad, the calories that were still sitting in my stomach, the toilet I could sidle off to, and the quick, satisfying purge—all gone, just empty now.

Listen, listen, listen I told myself. You may have something to learn here.

Dharanas,” the guru explained, “are meditative techniques used to still the mind, which can be a nearly impossible thing to do, and yet, with practice it can be done, if only for a moment at a time. And when the mind is still, when thoughts recede to the background, you are at utter peace. You are in contact with the divine in you.”

Still the mind. I was having trouble just keeping my body still. But I tried to imagine what that might feel like, to have the thoughts go quiet, to exist in the pause between breaths, to feel complete well-being and to Be Well. I have been unwell for so long now that the dis-eased state is at ease, and the recent state of emergency feels like the natural progression. I Am Kerry Ergo I Am Crazy. But a meditative practice that can quiet the unquiet mind? That can shush the Bipolar/Eating Disorder wicky-wackies?

Then the guru gave a nod, and the harmonium and drums started up and the chanting began:
Om bolo bolo sab mila bolo bolo Om namah shivaya

I don’t remember what that meant, only that the chanting went on for a half hour. Two hundred voices calling out to Shiva, the god who protects and creates. A chant for healing. At first, I was too self-conscious to join in—the sound of my own voice is often grating to me. But as I listened, I felt swept up in the power of the collective voice. I started chanting the words, singing the words.

And do you know what happened? For a few moments here and there, my mind went still—IT was quiet, all judgments suspended, all destructive desires disappeared. Dare I say I felt peace? Of course, the moments passed and the mind ratcheted up again. But I had it and I can have it again.

*You can listen to a version of the chant at:

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Where Do I Want to Go?

On the way to see Dr. B. today, I hit a squirrel. This is the exact same road, close to the same spot where I hit a cat several months ago. Slaughter highway? I may have been driving too fast.

(Of course, in these manic days, whether the vehicle is my car, my body, or mind, my foot seems always weighted to the accelerator in an unrelenting, unproductive fast-forward. Because of the insomnia, Christopher encourages me to nap. To nap, perchance to dream. To pause, anyway. And what a wonderful nap it could be in our brand new King-sized bed that was delivered yesterday, along with a small fortune in new bed linens. Instead of space-saving fetal position, I could sprawl, all limbs unfettered. And sleep. Or not sleep, because all I do is twitch and fidget, feel the waves of anxiety crest in my chest, hear ITs vicious mantra. Might as well get up and vacuum—that steady noise helps quiet IT, fold laundry, empty the dishwasher, remake the beds, clean out my closet, sort through the kids’ markers—those that work and those that have not worked for months, bake some elaborate, triple-layer cake, run up and down the stairs, sort through Tupperware--lidded vs. lidless, chew fingers, dig fingers into arms, try not to completely give in to the manic enterprise. Wait, was there a nap somewhere back there? No, but there was a squirrel… )

The squirrel. Before I could veer out of the way, I was upon the poor little guy, felt the bump under the tire. In the rearview mirror, I watched its body wretchedly twisting into the air, tail flicking back and forth. Not an auspicious beginning to therapy day. And then the squirrel suddenly hopped up, puffed its tail, and darted for the woods. No doubt to die.

See? That’s where I am these days. I should be cheering for the squirrel’s resilience and survival instincts. But those are the exact things it seems I am without at the moment. I know enough not to give credence to predestination. That is, I know that this manic scuttling along the dark bottom of the deepest sea floor doesn’t have to end, say, with my death because--Now cue in the angelic choir—I do believe I can be saved. And I continue to make the small decisions in favor of recovery. Like driving up to see my therapist despite the restless exhaustion, despite feeling overwhelmed by IT, despite the despair that has burrowed through skin and muscle, right down through the bone.

The happier narrative? The squirrel lived to see the spring unfold, to leap across the branches of some tall oak, to hoard another cache of acorns.

I went to therapy, which is never easy, but today was particularly challenging. At the end of my session, Dr. B. asked me in all deliberate earnestness, “If things bottom out, where do you want to go?”

“Go?” What did he mean? I could go back to Jamaica, get my fix of sunshine and banana smoothies. I could go home, to my husband and children and dogs and lizards and cat (as well as scattered shoes, plastic toys, and stuffed animals; dog hair nests and cat puke clumps; and the meal worms and crickets necessary for a balanced lizard diet). I could go to the bathroom, but these days that’s just an invitation to purge, followed by unhinged self-loathing.

“Which hospital do you want to go to? Western Psych? Cleveland? Millcreek? Meadville? Warren?”

I never gave him an answer because I know where I’m supposed to go if things fall desperately apart. Warren State Hospital, a minimum six month stay. I will not go there. I will not let myself go there.

So if not there, go where?

I could say I want to go back to the time before IT launched its coup d’état, when my arms were free of scars, when I could eat without the corrosive, obsessional thinking, when I loved myself. But then I can’t think of a time when I’ve been free of ITs totalitarian regime. When I was nine, I tried to overdose on a bottle of Flintstone vitamins. When I was fourteen, I started cutting my arms. When I was thirty-three, I stopped eating. And all along, IT has been whispering that I’m unlovable, worthless, better off dead.

I could say I want to go where I’m safe from IT, and by default, from myself. Someplace where I’m not causing collateral damage (all week I’ve been on edge, yelling at Christopher and the kids, my volume and RPM turned up, way up). So, some floating iceberg—which of course, is melting away—or the State Hospital.

Where I can go is to the place and source of joy. So today, I wound myself back up, and took the kids to their swim lesson. Last year my son was traumatized by swim lessons—he screeched and cried and refused to get in, to kick his legs, to get his face wet. He clutched the side of the pool, blue lips chattering, and howled for me and Christopher who sat way up in the stands. Our theory: if he couldn’t see us, he’d ease into it. Now, it is a small wonder to watch him hold his breath and duck his head. Instead of sputtering and tears, he pops back up, all smiles and giggles. “Again!” he says. Down he goes. And my daughter the fish! She jumps and squeals and flips around in the water, unable to contain her ecstasy. Today she learned how to do a standing dive. The other kids belly flopped their way through the lesson, but my daughter adjusted her enormous goggles, raised her hands over her head, and launched herself into the pool. She even gave a fancy foot waggle as she shot through the air, as if to say: Oh, the joy of flying! Oh, the joy of being inside my body! Oh, the joy of being me and alive and here!

And for a moment, IT is quiet and I can hear my daughter saying, “You say it, too, Momma. Say it as if your life depends on it.”

Oh, the joy of being me and alive and here.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Life Vest is Necessary

According to those in the know, I am, right now, on a ship lost at sea, taking on water, sinking fast. Manic arrhythmia has everything beating too fast, throwing me off balance. Erratic sleep(lessness), irrational, disordered thinking, and all the BIG BAD urges festering beneath the skin—I don’t want to eat, if I eat I want to purge, if I purge I want to cut, if I cut I want to die, and then I try to, and then? A wide swath of damage and destruction. As Christopher reminded me last night, the time it takes for that rapid chain of events to unfold can be anywhere from 1 week to 1 hour. That’s how mania works: all impulses become immediate, vociferous actions. Actions that belong to IT and not recovery.

RECOVERY: it looks like it can better stand up to IT when capitalized. What does that mean when I, no, we (because my team is part of this, too), are in emergency, lockdown mode? I wear the life vest, listen to the alarm, follow captain's orders. So Christopher calls me on the hour to check-in (Did I eat lunch? Am I safe? But really wanting to know: Are you still alive?); in turn, I call on my friends, give the honest answer when asked Q. How are you? A. Unstable, unsteady, underwater. It means I sit on my butt for hours after each meal and Christopher plays bathroom monitor. I have to eat otherwise I will go wicky-wacky. Scissors disappear and knives stay in the knifeblocks. Lithium (I’ve overdosed on that before) and Abilify are hidden in some inaccessible place, dosages counted and doled out. I fill my time with running and reading and grading and riding and writing and cleaning and laundry and errands and kids and dogs and my husband. All of this doing and doing and doing may seem like some convincing impersonation of mania, but empty time is deadly time as it allows IT to start directing the show, and as Dr. B. keeps reiterating, IT wants me dead.

I don’t want to die. So here I am trying to keep things orderly, moving from one sentence, one word to another. Writing. And reading--this poem (“Having It Out with Melancholy,” by Jane Kenyon) again because, while I’m furiously bailing out the water from my boat, I’m keeping an eye on the horizon for the words that will keep me afloat. Jane Kenyon (herself a poet with Bipolar Disorder who died of leukemia a few years ago) is able to get at the dark absurdity of IT, the relentless hounding of her by IT, the mountains of pills that are supposed to, if not cure, then tamp down IT, the exhaustion of the constant fight with IT, the small, often unforgettable but miraculous moments that save you from IT, that keep you breathing, and ends with hope, that thing with feathers quivering on a branch outside her window, small heart beating resolutely, dark eyes fixed on the world and on staying alive in it. So here it is, long, haunting, necessary:

Having It Out with Melancholy
If many remedies are prescribed for an illness, you may be certain that the illness has no cure.
A. P. CHEKHOV The Cherry Orchard


When I was born, you waited
behind a pile of linen in the nursery,
and when we were alone, you lay down
on top of me, pressing
the bile of desolation into every pore.

And from that day on
everything under the sun and moon
made me sad -- even the yellow
wooden beads that slid and spun
along a spindle on my crib.

You taught me to exist without gratitude.
You ruined my manners toward God:
"We're here simply to wait for death;
the pleasures of earth are overrated."

I only appeared to belong to my mother,
to live among blocks and cotton undershirts
with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes
and report cards in ugly brown slipcases.
I was already yours -- the anti-urge,
the mutilator of souls.


Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin,
Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax,
Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft.
The coated ones smell sweet or have
no smell; the powdery ones smell
like the chemistry lab at school
that made me hold my breath.


You wouldn't be so depressed
if you really believed in God.


Often I go to bed as soon after dinner
as seems adult
(I mean I try to wait for dark)
in order to push away
from the massive pain in sleep's
frail wicker coracle.


Once, in my early thirties, I saw
that I was a speck of light in the great
river of light that undulates through time.

I was floating with the whole
human family. We were all colors -- those
who are living now, those who have died,
those who are not yet born. For a few

moments I floated, completely calm,
and I no longer hated having to exist.

Like a crow who smells hot blood
you came flying to pull me out
of the glowing stream.
"I'll hold you up. I never let my dear
ones drown!" After that, I wept for days.


The dog searches until he finds me
upstairs, lies down with a clatter
of elbows, puts his head on my foot.

Sometimes the sound of his breathing
saves my life -- in and out, in
and out; a pause, a long sigh. . . .


A piece of burned meat
wears my clothes, speaks
in my voice, dispatches obligations
haltingly, or not at all.
It is tired of trying
to be stouthearted, tired
beyond measure.

We move on to the monoamine
oxidase inhibitors. Day and night
I feel as if I had drunk six cups
of coffee, but the pain stops
abruptly. With the wonder
and bitterness of someone pardoned
for a crime she did not commit
I come back to marriage and friends,
to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back
to my desk, books, and chair.


Pharmaceutical wonders are at work
but I believe only in this moment
of well-being. Unholy ghost,
you are certain to come again.

Coarse, mean, you'll put your feet
on the coffee table, lean back,
and turn me into someone who can't
take the trouble to speak; someone
who can't sleep, or who does nothing
but sleep; can't read, or call
for an appointment for help.

There is nothing I can do
against your coming.
When I awake, I am still with thee.


High on Nardil and June light
I wake at four,
waiting greedily for the first
note of the wood thrush. Easeful air
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome

by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.

Where is my bird singing in the tree? I could say that it is, for now, the wonderful monotony of running laps this morning which drowned out ITs insistent voice. I could say it is Dr. B.’s voice, his words in my head, asking me, no telling me that I need to stay hitched to this ride, as tumultuous as it may be, and live. I could say it is the familiar sound of my kids fighting over who gets the first plate of pancakes, then their voracious gobbling of them up. Or Daphne asleep in the chair, snoring away, or Athena asleep in the kitchen, finally and blessedly silent. I could say it is the mere fact of rereading this poem this morning, hearing another voice describe what I, too, have been attempting to describe, another person who lived and lived with IT. I could say that it is Christopher, who is not home right now, but who will, I can rely on this!, come home, and to me—despite all of the awful, tedious shit of IT. And finally, why not today’s fleeting sunshine, such wonderful illumination. Not all is gray and cold or buried or burrowing or biting. And there is this: writing my way through IT, and the reprieve it offers in the brief surfacing for air, for light, for the hopeful, expansive view.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Newly Listed: Fantasy Farmette!

My daughter found her farm today. Actually, a farmette for sale midway down the dirt (yikes! in winter) Plank Road a few miles outside of our wanna-be city (riding lawn mowers aren’t supposed to be urban accoutrements). Because my daughter has been unrelenting these past few days in chattering on and on about the farm vision, and because Christopher and I ourselves have similar pastoral inklings (our home on Grove Street, we agreed, was only temporary because of the postage stamp backyard, the busy city-ish street, the dogs who want to play Frisbee in the yard, the kids who want to climb trees and run around without worrying they might get run over at any moment by speeding traffic), I meandered around Meadville’s yesterday and came across the newly posted listing:

14.8 Acre Farmette. Beautiful country farmette includes charming house with hardwood floors, beautiful woodwork, 5-6 bedrooms and two full baths. Spacious kitchen features lots of cabinetry. 14.8 acres with large barn, two ponds and garage. Many fruit trees, flowers, and beautiful views! Many upgrades.

What the hell, we said. It’s Sunday, designated Family Day, and in decent weather, that usually involves a drive, bumping along the back roads in search of woodchucks, deer, and, on the off chance, some rural estate (aka Pottery Barn farm) for sale. No dilapidated fixer-up—Christopher can fix up an arugula and egg pizza, and I can fix up a fancy fruit tart, but termite-ridden support beams, sagging bay windows, and foundation repairs? So we drive and drive and drive, up and down hills and around curves, jouncing over the ruts (though also in hope that our two children will Please Be Quiet and drift off into some Family Day nap).

We drove out to see the farmette today and my daughter immediately spied the For Sale sign. “Is this our farm?” she asked, hysteria creeping in. “I want it! I want it!”

Of course, we hadn’t made any arrangements with a realtor to take a tour, but Christopher pulled up into the drive anyway.

“It can’t hurt to ask if we could see the place,” I said. My daughter, son, and I waited as Christopher knocked on the front door (no answer), then the back door (no answer—ah, yes, Sunday, Noon, church supper somewhere), and then finally, after ascertaining there was no chained-up dog or rabid cow on the premises, ushered us out.

I can say with surety, that from a distance, the farmette looked perfect. A big white farmhouse with a decorated gabled roof and front porch; a sweet row of pink and purple hyacinth in early, full bloom; a kitschy-cute, red chicken house (our own eggs!); and acres and acres of green fields.

“Oh, Daddy,” my daughter squealed as she ran over to an enormous tree stump, “this would be just perfect for tea parties.” My son followed her, jumped on top of the stump, and brandished his arm like a sword. “I’m king of the farm,” he announced. Down the hill, were the advertised two ponds and several apple and pear trees just putting on their blossoms. “Daphne and Athena could swim down there,” my daughter pointed, “and we could climb the trees.”

Christopher and I exchanged glances and then went to peek into the windows.

Oh, the horrors! Okay, maybe not that bad. But when your comparison model is a 120 year old giant stone house that you’ve now lived in for 10 years, which is generally orderly and clean, which has been decorated with some (hopefully) sense of aesthetic principles, which is beautiful with its original woodwork and generous rooms?

To see the farmhouse’s rooms clogged with stacked Tupperware bins, creepy Mother Goose wallpaper, and chintzy molding? Where were the hardwood floors? Where was all that cabinetry? The ponds, on closer inspection, were riddled with garbage and some weird, green run-off muck. The chicken house? We opened the door and found a strange house within a house, and in the inner house? Taped along the back wall, a calendar page with a sunset photo of a beach, and in the middle of the stall, a weird jerry rigged seat wrapped in a white sheet.

“Hey,” I said to Christopher, “that’s where you can put me when Momma Goes Mad.” I don't think he found it very funny.

It was at that moment that I felt a perplexing, low-grade panic and dread. You see, despite the farmettes drawbacks, I had already imagined myself living there—in part, because my daughter was hypnotizing us with her already-settled-upon moving plans (Where will we put the cat when we move? We’ll need a trailer. It would be okay if we moved by May but no later!). So as I was standing on the lawn, looking down at the road, all I kept thinking was: dirt road, dirt road, your friends would never make the journey in winter and winter lasts 8 months so you’d be stuck out here in the sticks alone and who the heck are you kidding? You’re a suburban girl from Long Island who grew up in a planned development. Chickens? Ponds to dredge? Acre-age? And what happens when the bat-shit-crazy moments descend? Will you (literally) run for the hills and take another wintery dip in a pond like you once did long ago in college? What about when darkness descends? And it will descend out here, every night, on schedule.

We buckled ourselves back into the car and drove off. From the backseat, as expected, my daughter, buoyant and energized, said, “I’ll make a For Sale sign for our house when we get home. I bet twenty people will want to buy it. And then we can move to our farm.”

“Why do you want to move so badly?” Christopher asked.

Reminder: my daughter is seven. She said, “I’m ready to begin the next part of my life. We can all start the next part of our life together.”

So I wonder what she wants to leave behind. I wonder what we all want to leave behind in contemplating a move away from the old—old house, old patterns, old behaviors, old craziness—to the new, the charm of the farm, verdant fields, strawberry patch, lambs on the hill, and Momma at home, knitting woolen socks, stitching kitchen curtains, not locked up in a hospital or chicken coop.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Just the Crust

Because my husband is still away and he is our resident cook extraordinaire, I caved into the kids’ overwrought pleas and took them out for dinner at Pizza Slut. Err, Hut. This was a decision fraught with controversy. 1. Christopher built a wood-fired oven in the yard for his 40th birthday; as a result, the only pizzas I’ve eaten in years are of the papery-crust, wild mushroom with truffle oil variety. 2. Pizza Hut is hell for those recovering from an eating disorder. Stuffed crust pizza (1 slice = 395 calories), Mac and cheese and bacon (1 serving = 1050 calories), and Hershey’s Chocolate Dunkers (1 piece = 400 calories). The only possible thing I’d put near my mouth was a diet soda.

I decided they would eat and I’d watch. Getting my son to eat involves micromanaging, anyway (i.e., playing food slave and dropping the grapes into his mouth), which by default means no time for me to eat. (Okay, lame excuse). But post-Pizza Slut, I’d put together a salad. Not just a measured, anorexic wedge of iceberg, dressing on the side, thank you. But baby arugula, hard-boiled eggs (yes, plural), and olives bathed in extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic, a slice of homemade sourdough on the side. Surely this is a salad that could stand up to goopy, greasy pizza.

The kids both ordered mini-pizzas of the personal variety: 1 cheese, 1 pepperoni.

“What do you want, Momma?” my daughter asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “I’ll eat later.”

Of course, that has been the difficulty these days while Christopher is away: my eating later and alone. Both conditions feed the urge to both skip the meal (i.e., you’re not hungry anyway and there’s no one here keeping track) and, if I give in and eat (listening to my healthy self), there is then the urge to purge (You think a salad is a freebie?). But there was no way I could eat Pizza Hut, together or alone. I’d be at the toilet in an instant. So I sat with my pitcher-sized glass of Diet Pepsi (already on refill #2) and watched them charge ahead with gusto and bravado—The puffy crust is so good! I’ll finish before you! No, I will. No, I will.

Midway through the meal, my daughter offered me a piece. “I thought you said you’d eat with us!” she said, while nodding—happy to share, happy to share—but there is also the implication of concern. Every night before I tuck my daughter into bed, she gives me a stern look and wags her finger. “What are you going to have for dinner? You’re going to eat, right?”

I run over the intended menu—tuna salad sandwich--while IT derisively challenges, “Eat? What makes you’d think I’d let you eat?”

“Yuck,” my daughter says to the tuna, but then “Are you going to eat now?”

Of course, part of her playing the taskmaster is her way of knowing the night’s schedule, most importantly these days, when I will climb into bed with her. She gets lonely and scared and wants me, me who has failed as a mother in so many ways, me still. But there is also genuine worry: she rarely sees me eat, has seen my body malnourished, and knows that I am often hospitalized. Also, she hears Christopher’s badgering me about meals eaten, meals skipped, and meals purged; her mimicry is heartbreaking. She knows too much.

But still, I refuse the pizza: IT will not give way. She gave the pizza two huge chomps, and then handed me the crust. “You eat it, Momma.”

So I ate, out of love. Just the crust. Because she’s watching and wants me, still.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Down on the Farm

My daughter cloppity-clopped down the stairs last night around 10 and skidded into the den where I was reclined on the couch watching embarrassingly bad TV. When Christopher is away, I tend to watch marathons of What Not to Wear and Criminal Minds—it’s a way to remind my brainy self not to be so uppity. My daughter, for once, wasn’t at all interested in what was on the screen.

“Momma,” she gasped, “I know what I want for my birthday!”

I sighed, ready to end that conversation before it could even start. Her birthday isn’t until July and recently, my daughter has become, and I say this with all maternal love, annoyingly obsessed with the immediate acquisition of things: stuffed animals, video games, and dollar bills.

But she continued in a rush, “I don’t want a laptop and I don’t want any more Webkinz. I want a farm! A real live farm that we can live on.”

I nodded, gave an oblique “UhHmm,” and hoped that was it so I could get back to my silly disengagement.

“No, Momma. Really. I could take care of all the big animals—like the horses and cows. And my brother could take care of the little animals—like the chickens and ducks. And Daddy could build a barn and plant vegetables. And you could use the wool from the sheep and knit us clothes! And we could call the horse Trotty, and the cow Dairy. Do you think we can? Please? All I want is to live on a farm!”

By the time she finished describing this Arcadian, agrarian vision (one in which my feminist self notes, I am tied to my spinning wheel and consigned to knitting underpants), her eyes were glassy and wet. She was so excited by this future vision that she was quivering with gleeful anticipation.

“I would love to live on a farm," I said, "but the only ones around here are scraggly, broken-down ones. The nice ones aren’t for sale.” (As Dr. B. would later point out, “I can only see you on the Pottery Barn farm.”)

That didn’t deter her, and she followed me into the bathroom, waited a moment for me to pee, and then she said, matter-of-factly, “We’ll just hire builders and they can fix it up. And Daddy can mow the grass and you can make the curtains.” (Again with the archetypal Farmer’s Wife. Whatever happened to Momma the Professor? Or Momma the Writer who can’t sew on a button?) “Oh, I can’t wait, Momma. I can see it. I really can see our farm,” she said.

And even though I was in an awkward, pants-down position, I pulled her to me and gave her a hug. “I love you,” I said, “and maybe someday we’ll move to a farm.”

A very distant proposition but there was no way I could disabuse my daughter of such an extraordinary vision. And I mean vision: she sees her future and it is so moving, so emotionally real, that she cries. That’s the kind of vision Dr. B. has been asking me to work on these past few years: what would a life without IT look like? (Not a life without the Bipolar disorder, that’s here for good but is not synonymous with IT, which is the big bad voice in my head that likes it when I destroy myself.) Most of the time, my vision is distorted by IT—I see my body as if reflected in a fun house mirror, I see my arms covered in scars and feel compelled to add to the horrifying (100) total, I don’t see how much I am needed and loved. So I have to be deliberate and work on my angle of vision; see around and through IT to that vision of a light-filled, sloppy-love life.

So here it is. My vision of a perfect day. And I won’t badger you into the bathroom.

It is early, just past dawn and I’m awake. But instead of the sinking feeling, instead of wanting to crawl back under the covers and try to pretend I don’t have to get up and move into my day, I reach for Christopher and we make love and I am at ease with my body, with him. The room fills with light, darkness lifts. I hear the kids down the hall, their feet thumping. They tumble into our room, still sleepy, tired smiles, tousled hair. They climb up into our bed and snuggle between Christopher and me. Their bodies are warm and soft, like baby rabbits. The four of us stay spooned together for a while, and then it’s up and out of bed and into the day.

Breakfast for everyone, myself included. I am not anxious, am not thinking about how little I should eat or how fat I am. Instead, it is oatmeal, steaming hot, with brown sugar and raisins and I spoon it up, slowly, enjoying it. The kids go off to school, and instead of panicking over preparing for class (I am after all prepared), I sit at my computer and write for a few hours. The last chapter of my novel. I feel like myself. I feel complete. I have a purpose. I am creating, imagining, am caught up in the story’s possibilities.

Then I go for a run—feel my legs moving, pushing me forward. I round the curves of the track in a weightless gallop. Happiness. I forget to keep count of the laps, am running just for the sake of running, for the lightness, for the floating.

Lunch. My favorite: tuna salad on rye toast. I don’t worry about the mayonnaise or the bread. I am hungry so I eat.

Then class. A writing workshop. I am energized by my morning of writing and running and family cuddling. I laugh with my students, though we are serious in our intent. Once again, I feel larger than myself, feel like an arrow quivering in the bow, ready to hit the bull’s eye.

Home. Helping the kids with homework and crafts and maybe we dance and sing a silly made-up song at the top of our lungs. Walk the dogs—acknowledge Athena’s athletic exuberance, her delirious joy; acknowledge Daphne’s staid, slow progress, her need to sniff every tree. Appreciate the sun, the magnanimous light, the leaves bursting.

Dinner. Christopher fires up the pizza oven. Once again, my favorites: arugula and egg pizza, wild mushroom pizza with truffle oil, pear and gorgonzola pizza. All of it delicious.

Baths then bed for the kids. We cuddle again, and my son falls asleep while I am rubbing his back. My daughter is propped up in bed reading a book, listening to Norah Jones on her cd player. She gives me an exuberant hug. We play our “How much do I love you game.”

Meanwhile, Christopher has lit a fire in the fireplace and we curl up on the couch, feet touching, unwinding from the day. Finish up class preparations, watch a movie, then tired, crawl into bed, Christopher pulling me close as I drift off the sleep.

So what does this day suggest? Closeness and warmth. Love and desire. Routine and inspiration. Pleasure and Happiness. The order of love and contentment.

And just because I can, here’s one of my favorite poems that proposes its own perfect vision:
Late Fragment, by Raymond Carver

And did you get what
You wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on earth.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Flying Solo

My husband has landed in Denver for a writers’ conference at which he will suavely schmooze with other writers over books, bombast, and booze. He is good at it. Very, very good.

I, on the other hand, am socially inept without a good-sized bowl of wine. And then I just get unsocially smashed. So that’s one reason I decided to stay back with the kids in Meadville, Pennsylvania. The other reason, of course, is the precarious State of the Nation of Kerry—the instability and sleeplessness, the engine at full throttle but only spinning my wheels, the spiteful and insidious resurrection of eating disorder behaviors, the frantic, clutching-at-my-throat anxiety. All that coupled with the given anxiety of being one writer among six thousand makes a volatile cocktail. And I’m not drinking these days.

So I’m flying solo until Saturday. A measly four days. Not even: two and two-halves. What does this mean? In the immediate, practical realm, it means waking up fifteen minutes earlier so I can squeeze in a shower (though not enough time to shave my legs), making sure the kids’ lunches are made the night before, having to buy my morning cappuccino instead of Christopher playing barrista, frying up blueberry pancakes in the morning and whipping up homemade mac and cheese at night.

But in IT’s deadly realm? 10 meals alone. 10 chances to skip the meal or purge. 6 medicating decisions: take the Abilify or not? Squirrel away the Lithium in case things get that bad again? 100 urges to cut myself. Countless moments of over-exhausted manic surges.

To counter IT? The realm of Health and Sanity. Stick to the mealplan. Take my meds. Stay away from sharps. Call the team when things go wicky wacky.

To be fair, my husband just didn’t abandon me to my, or ITs devices. He set up a roster of people who will call me each day, went over the Safety Plan again and again in the days leading up to his departure, and today, when I got home from work, I found an entire flowchart dedicated to my safety taped across three kitchen cabinets like a wallpaper of wellbeing.

Column 1: Why do you eat? } For your health, kids, sanity, to battle it. Why do you tell the truth? } For your health, kids, and sanity.

Column 2: Fudging, withholding information, skipping meds and meals, purging, alcohol use, excessive exercise } isolation, feelings of guilt, loss of integrity, insomnia, mania and/or depression, instability. Reaching out for help, taking meds religiously, being honest about the meal plan, resisting impulses to purge and drink, and moderate exercise } integrity, connectedness, well-being.

Column 3: My Mealplan: breakfast, lunch, and dinner mapped out along with a space for my honesty signature each day.

My husband has me covered. I can’t reach for a glass or plate, or run the sink, or really enter the kitchen without seeing all that conscientious love. It helps to see it. When IT is around and I’m flying solo, I need to remind myself that Love, which I am given in abundance, is the perfect co-pilot.