Tuesday, September 21, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 13, 2010

Love Therapy

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

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

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

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

My little sage.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Living Big

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 3, 2010

IT. How Do I Hate Thee?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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