Thursday, June 10, 2010

Safe In Myself

The other day I was talking with Dr. B. about the double-life I seem to be leading these days—the zippy life above the surface, and the sink/sank/sunk life below the surface. It’s like I’m in a boat, speeding across the top of the waves, full throttle. I look fine, if a bit windblown and queasy. Inside that boat?

Take today, for instance: manically stripping a foyer-full of dark, paisley wallpaper, painting the walls a bright terra cotta, wrangling the kids, logging my miles, lifting weights, crunching sit-ups, working on my book, having lunch with a friend, showering, blow-drying, and make-uping, walking the dogs, dinner out with the kids and my mother-in-law, doing, doing, doing, accomplishing, accomplishing, accomplishing.

Below the surface? My fishing line drags a behemoth catfish, an ugly bottom feeder, which is trying to pull me back down with it. That fish is no Rainbow! Rainbow! Rainbow! fish of the Elizabeth Bishop ilk. It’s more like one of those horrible, sharp-fanged creatures trying to swallow me whole from a Hieronymous Bosch painting. Aren’t the sinners in those paintings often shown vomiting some maggoty effluence? Doesn’t that get pretty close to my own below-the-surface self-portrait these days?

“When are you going to cut the line and let the catfish go?” Dr. B. asked.

These days the only way that seems possible is lobotomy, psychosurgery, brain transplant. It feels like I am IT, though I know this isn’t true, can’t possibly be true because there is also that third life that waits for me on shore—that is the life of love and light with my family.

Today was my daughter’s last day of second grade and she was all wiggly ecstasy on the way home from school.

“Can you believe you’re driving around a third grader?” she asked, astonishing herself.

My answer was, “Oh gosh, whatever happened to my tiny, cute baby who I carried around in my arms?”

“I’m still tiny and cute,” she admonished.

But my other answer, the answer that I couldn’t say, is, “I can’t believe I’m alive to see the day you graduated from second grade.” IT has been after me with such vicious intensity these past few years that I’ve been woefully without sustaining hope. The below-the-surface me still believes IT will kill me. But the me that is shore bound knows that I must live, despite IT, because my premature, IT directed death would devastate all those that I love.

So I hold onto the moments when I am on the beach striding towards that lighthouse in search of peace and safety and love. Like last night. Both kids started out in their grandma’s bed. She’s visiting so becomes, of course and absolutely, their magnetized end. And yet, I woke up this morning to my son in a deep, contented sleep beside me. His body tucked up against mine. His beautiful head damp with the sweat of two bodies so close together. Delicious.

And I need to stay on shore for those wise riding lessons. The other day, Lee put me on Chiquita, a strong, cob pony with a penchant for getting ahead of herself. It was a brilliant day so we went for a trail ride; I was in front, Lee behind, so she could observe Chiquita and me at work. It was a frustrating exercise in my failure to effectively restrain her. She kept speeding up, wanting to break into a trot.

Lee stopped us. “From the waist down you look good. But from the waist up, you’re too rigid, too bunched up. You need to relax,” she said.

I took a deep breath, shrugged my shoulders.

“Good instinct,” she said, “but it didn’t really change anything. Chiquita keeps rushing because she can sense your tension. Most riding teachers would say to keep a straight back, keep your elbows at your sides. But that’s not working here. Sometimes you have to forget the rules that you know and try something radically different, something that runs counter to those rules. So instead of sitting up straight, try slumping. Become mush.”

Easier said than done, but Lee put me through a series of exercises to encourage mushiness. And as usual, Lee was right. Chiquita became less tense, less rushed. All the rules I brought with me regarding the “proper” way to ride went out the window. This also seems to be a lesson to bring to my struggle with IT. Break IT’s rules. When IT demands rigid adherence, let myself slump, get a little messy.
Which brings me to a conversation I had with my friend Jen. She asked, “What do you need? What do you already know that you need?”

“I need to be safe from myself,” I said. “I’m so tired of living with constant self-destructive and suicidal impulses. All day long it’s a struggle to keep my head above surface. All day long images of my end at my own hands hound me. I don’t know what it feels like to be free of IT and the belief that I must hurt myself. So yes, I need to be safe from myself.”

She watched me and then reached for my hand. “How about we change one word? You need to be safe IN yourself.”


  1. Break the rules, yes, break the rules that want to hold you so rigidly in their tyranny.

    Your friend Jen asked the same question I just asked of my own daughter yesterday--What do you need from me? She has to fight her own fight. The only thing that we bystanders can do is hope and offer what we can.

  2. I love the idea of throwing out all the rules and making new ones for my life.

    I spent so much time trying to overcome IT (albeit a different IT). Running away. Hiding. Hoping to get rid of IT. It wasn't until I learned to accept IT and allow it to be a part of me that I found the strength I needed to master IT; we share a space but I am in charge of the space. IT's just a part of me. IT isn't me. I am so much more. And so are you.