Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Unexpected Pleasures

I’m feeling giggly, silly, happily unhinged by this day that has been devoted to pleasure. It was not my intention to languish inside happiness. In fact, the day began with an agonizing breakfast—having to talk myself through every spoonful of yogurt and granola and blueberries. Yesterday, I pulled on my go-to black dress pants, my teaching uniform, and they felt tight. Much tighter than last week when they slipped on easily over thighs and hips, buckled a bit even at the waist.

This week? I’ve uncharacteristically spent the last week or so indulging in desserts: a few slices of Christopher’s homemade pumpkin pie and my homemade chocolate chip cookies. I ate them because they looked good, ate them without ITs barrage (the one-sided conversation that usually goes like this: Eat that and you’ll get fat, you pig. You don’t deserve dessert. You haven’t earned it. You’re not even hungry anyway.) But it seems I am now paying for my (just) desserts with pants that feel tight.

Of course, this could just be the delusion of my anorexic brain which doesn’t like anything to fit, especially pants which should ideally be getting looser and looser, should not touch skin, should gape and flutter and drape around my body. Not fit to form. So perhaps what’s bugging me is the fact that the pants fit as they should, which is to say, to size.

If IT was silent through my week of desserts, it was hollering at me this morning over breakfast. Slowly I swallowed bite after bite until all that was left was the berry-stained bowl. Why did I eat? Dr. B. has given me the okay to start running again. A very modest distance and only a few times a week, but running! It’s been almost two months since I was able to open up and lope around the track, hobbled as I’ve been by an imposed walking-only program. My own fault, of course, because I’d been purging and my weight kept fluctuating, so stability was elusive. Hence, Kerry on slooowww motion. But running is now reinstated and I want to keep this privilege so that means I need to keep my weight stable, as well as no purging, so I ate breakfast, licking the spoon clean. And kept it despite IT pinching my hips and stomach.

My run was lovely, liberating, and loose. An easy two miles. I didn’t even break a sweat but that was okay because I was on the move again, limbs reaching forward, crossing ground. I felt like some thoroughbred too long cooped up in the stall and suddenly, the stall door opens and a wide, expansive meadow lies ahead, beckoning me out into the air. I felt as if I was floating.

Since Wednesday is my day off, I came home, took a long, hot shower, then made myself an extra-large cup of chai tea and curled up on the couch with the latest novel I’m reading: Sacred Games, a book written by a friend from grad school—for two hours I was swept up in the criminal underworld of India, roaming around hot, sweaty Mumbai with a weary police officer and far, far away from cold, rainy Meadville.

Then the phone rang. Christopher on the other end. “Hey,” he said, “if I came home right now, could I find you naked in bed? The kids are at school and we could have a little late-morning delight.”

But of course! “And afterward,” I said, surprising myself, “maybe we could go out for lunch together?”

A lunchtime tryst. Bodies moving together in pleasure. All of it before noon. Could the day get any better?

Because I was feeling so good, so at ease, I decided to spend the afternoon cooking dinner for us all. While I type this entry, there is a deep pan full of baked ziti in the oven. My kids are in the kitchen rolling around on the floor with the dog, giggling and squealing. My husband is on his way home from teaching. And I am absolutely content and deserving of this pleasurable day.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Ambition: Imperfection?

Assignment from Dr. B.: Imagine (and write) about what my life might look like if I wasn’t such an obsessive perfectionist. No easy task. In fact, I’m resistant to it because it means reconfiguring the ethos that my entire life has been built upon—that sheer force of will, mind over sick mind, a ruthless determination to be the best at whatever I set my mind to, is all I need to see my ambitions through. But these past few years of debilitating illness, of life under ITs dictatorship (and no benevolent dictatorship at that) has fostered a soul sickness in me. I haven’t wanted to do anything except flog myself, exact pain and suffering, following IT to what often feels like my premature, foreordained end. Scarred, starved, bat shit crazy. Locked away for good. The woman in the hospital gown pacing up and down a hallway, unable to hear anything but the deafening thrum of ITs voice whispering in her ear: die, die, die.

Except that’s not entirely true. I am hounded by the persistent belief that I am not doing what I should be doing: and that is writing. I am a writer. It is what I was born to do, to be. Impossible to separate words, the rhythms of language, the tumult of image and story from who I am. Writing is no mere hobby. Nor is it merely my profession. One word placed after another, one sentence exhaled after another—as essential as breathing.

My first writing teacher, Frederick Busch, told me that not only was I innately talented at writing, but that I had the energy and drive to see it through. Energy and drive: that’s what IT has taken from me and ground to dust. IT has convinced me that I have nothing left to say, nothing original to imagine, no stories to reveal. All I am is inert matter, an imagination left floundering in the desert, gasping for water, scorched by ITs damnable heat. IT tells me that unless I have something perfect to say then I should just shut up. Silence over stupidity and IT has me convinced that I am Idiot Extraordinaire.

Except there are the small niggling doubts that throw ITs system into question. For instance, would my ECT psychiatrist have asked me to talk to his hoped-for future residents about what it’s like living with—and recovering from—depression? Would my brother forward an email on to me from an old friend of his whom recently reread my first book, a collection of short stories, telling him how moved and stunned she was by the force of my writing? Would students keep asking me to advise their senior projects in writing if they didn’t believe that I had something to teach them about this mysterious craft? Would my college create a one-of-a-kind teaching position for me that accommodates the difficulties of living with Bipolar Disorder? Isn’t this a sign that I am a valued, irreplaceable teacher and colleague?

And, as Dr. B. reminded me, I am writing this blog. Christopher seconded that: “Think how many tens of thousands of words you’ve written for the blog in just the last year?” But, IT protests, that’s not enough. The blog doesn’t “really” count. IT has a way of discounting my small successes over IT, refusing to let me believe that “good enough” is what is letting me live right now. Good enough. A disquieting phrase. “Surely,” IT argues, “you should be doing more and better and longer and more perfect?” But Good Enough may be my saving grace. Good Enough leaves room for mistakes and forgiveness. Good Enough means I am, by right of birth, imperfect.

Isn’t that a relief? It means I can relinquish control over deadlines, over the “should haves” and “supposed to’s.” It means I acknowledge that I can be (and in fact am) loved because of my human failings. It means my own love can be imperfect: cranky, impatient, and frustrated. But also: that my love is good enough and this is revealed to me over and over, day in and day out by the mere fact that I have a husband who has persisted by my side, insisted upon loving me throughout these crazy, tumultuous years. That I have children who trail me around the house, throw themselves at me with passionate hugs and kisses and fight over whose turn it is to sleep next to me each night. That I am still fighting IT, still surviving IT, willing to stare IT down each week as I, terrified, go for ECT. That I know, without a doubt, each time I go under anesthesia for ECT, that I want to, no, must, wake up because the rest of my life is waiting, expectantly, for me. There are books to write. And children to love. And a husband with whom to share my dreams. And dreams. Dreams, still. Dreams, again. Dreams that promise a future.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Swim Lessons

ECT on Friday went off without a hitch. The IV slipped right in, anesthesia worked as it should, the seizure was short and sweet, and I woke up feeling great. Better than great. Instead of my usual collapse into bed for the afternoon, I was perky and ambitious, even suggesting to Christopher that we hit the supermarket and then stop for lunch. Yes, I was hungry—hungry enough to eat a real meal. Indian: paneer, vegetable curry, and rice. No measuring cups, just flying by the seat of my pants. Estimating how much I should have without any panic.

Part of my equanimity was certainly due to my mini “lecture” on Depression and the effects of ECT that my ECT psychiatrist asked me to give to a group of visiting potential Residents. “What does depression feel like?” he asked. I was lying in the hospital bed, waiting for the nurse to insert the IV, anxious about the imminent ECT procedure, and despite these nerve-wracking distractions, my doctor believed that I could offer them insight, an intimate glimpse into the debilitation of depression.

“What it’s like," I said, “is hell. I’ve been suffering from depression since I was at least fourteen, cutting my arms, starving myself. Depression leaves you at a great distance from yourself—you no longer have a self that you care about. You no longer believe there’s any possible way to climb out of the well. Inert, stuck, dead to the world. Everything that you know should bring you joy? Fails. There is no capacity for joy. No imaginative capacity; no ability to see beyond the bleak wall of yourself. What ECT has given me these past few weeks is a chance to get unstuck—sure I still have serious ups and downs, but I don’t stay down. There’s a new clarity—and maybe that’s also due to the fact that I’m no longer on any drugs, for the first time in 16 years, no drugs!—that allows me to see that I don’t have to stay at the bottom of the well. I guess what I’m feeling, as tentative and precarious as it may be, is hope.”

Later, Christopher said I was brave to speak as I did. “I couldn’t have done it,” he said. “Speaking about IT in front of a group of strangers. That just shows how far you’ve come—you’ve gained some distance on IT.”

That’s what I have to remember: I don’t have to live inside of IT’s demands. I can forgive myself, feel some small amount of pride that I am surviving IT, that I am making progress. For instance, yesterday, at my kids’ swim lessons, I was sitting with my daughter and we were watching her brother take his first few strokes without the aid of a flotation belt.

“I can’t,” he screeched. “I can’t do it!”

His teacher assuaged him. “Of course you can,” she said. “You’re already doing it!”

And in fact, he was—he’d swam the few strokes from her arms to the wall without even registering his success. Can I recover from IT? Similarly, I often feel like I’m sinking, drowning, flailing helplessly in the water. Can I stay afloat without IT, without the perverse comfort of depression, without the scaffolding of the Eating Disorder and its sick but soothing dictatorial order? My answer: Of course I can. I’m already doing it!

How can I be sure? Not five minutes later, because it was a million degrees in the pool room, I stripped off my sweater, leaving me only in my black tee-shirt. My daughter looked over at me, at my bare arms.

“Momma,” she said, “how do you think you got all those scratches on your arm?”

I took a deep breath. “You know, I got them so long ago, that I don’t really remember.”

Wishful thinking, perhaps, but my arms are healed these days. No cuts to have to hide or explain away, no crazy scenes with scissors or knives. No bandages or lies. Scars, yes. Over one hundred. But I believe that there will come a day when how I got them will be an indistinct, vague memory. I truly won’t remember how I could have ever done that to myself, how I could have ever believed that damage and death were the only ways out. What I will have in ITs place is a joyful, creative life and I will be swimming confidently and with imaginative purpose through love and light.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Screw Up

I screwed up. After writing yesterday’s blog, after my blithe optimism about overcoming IT, about managing to move through a day of spontaneous eating, I purged at the day’s end. A lovely dinner: mixed greens freshly picked from our Amish friend’s farm, homemade Butternut squash-sage gnocchi. Then: Christopher suggested dessert and even though I was full, I said Yes, because that’s what you say when you’re trying to defeat IT, when you’re trying to behave like a normal person and say Yes to a slice of cake that you yourself made the night before—a caramel-walnut, apple, upside-down cake.

Apparently, IT had other ideas. No way could I feel full. No way could I enjoy food, sink into sensory pleasure. After all, weren’t my skinny jeans feeling tight around the hips and ass? Wasn’t my belly bulging again? Wasn’t I back to gaining weight?

So I ate the slice of cake and walked upstairs, feeling the pressure rise in my chest, the need to be empty once again taking precedence over the need to be healthy. Christopher even asked me if I was okay, to which I replied, “Oh, sure. I’m fine,” because of course, I was not willing to be helped, I didn’t want to be stopped, I wanted, well, my, ITs own way. Throw it all back up. Achieve equilibrium. Return to negative calories.

So. No need for fingers down the throat. That’s how easy it is—just tilt the body, hang the head, and it’s all over.

Only there’s the fallout. Christopher creeping upstairs behind me, listening to the awfulness of it all, watching me lift the lid of the toilet to make sure it all flushed down. Christopher demanding I tell him WHAT I DID. IT is adamant that I keep all transgressions and humiliations private. Deny, deny, deny even though he knows the truth. No possible way to admit to the degrading and habitual failure that is an Eating Disorder.

Dr. B. today: “I want to see you live. I want to see you grow old with your kids and grandkids. I want to see you feel peace.”

And yet, I have no idea what that means. Peace? I have never felt peace, restfulness, ease. I keep thinking ECT will somehow zap my brain into compliance. I keep hoping that taking the small risks in eating like I did yesterday will counteract all feelings of self-punishment. But they don’t. And all I am left with is emptiness—nothing left to write, nothing left to feel. Just a life circumscribed by ITs demands. Which is no life.

At least no life that I want. Where do I from here? That is the question that remains before me.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The ECT Way Out

Apparently, ECT must be working—I woke up the day after Session #8, a Session not without consequences—in a fantastic mood. Woke up, on a Saturday, pre-7am to my son’s tickles and I tickled back. I didn’t shrug him off and roll back to sleep; I didn’t snap at him or nudge Christopher to take over parenting duty. I woke up with him, happy as a lark despite the previous day’s physical hell.

What went off-track? First, a mis-threaded IV, which should have been the first signal that all would not be well. Then, for some strange reason, I seem resistant to anesthesia which meant I had to be given an extra-big dose, which may or may not been the cause of an extra-big seizure (i.e., usually the seizure lasts 45 seconds; this time? 2 minutes). When I woke up, I had pretty significant memory loss (no idea where I was or who my doctor was—you know, the things that might matter?) so I was given a drug to counteract that, which led to a monstrous headache; so I was given narcotics to counteract that; which resulted in terrible nausea and vomiting and bed for the rest of the day. Head throbbing under the covers for hours.

And I woke up the next morning cheerful? Energetic? Feelings of giggly elation? The side effects, which seem to be proving themselves considerable, still pale in the face of such mood elevation. And, my ECT psychiatrist believes that the ECT can help with the Eating Disorder, and god knows I can use it. Even while resting in this even mood keel, the Eating Disorder has me by the throat (of course, where else would it have me?).

Take today, for instance. Sunday. Family day. The day Christopher and I put aside our mountain of grading and class prep and turn ourselves over to play and love. So, in keeping with my newfound mental steadiness, I thought it would be okay to venture off the yogurt-blueberry-granola breakfast and lunch highway (the one of precise measurements and rote routine) and experiment with Come What May. Christopher suggested fried eggs and toast—organic farm fresh eggs, his homemade sourdough. After I ate it, I felt consumed by guilt. I ate 2? 2? 2 eggs? Glutton, IT said. Now you have to go walk. So, I abandoned family and took a 4 mile walk (because I'm not yet at running weight) at the gym.

Around lunchtime, we decided to take a drive out into the country, find someplace to eat, then take a hike at the Wildlife Refuge. We wound up at Jack’s Place—a cross between a beer dive/cigarette den/greasy spoon. But it was the only option for miles and, Come What May Right? Part of freeing myself from the confines of IT and the Eating Disorder is relearning how to eat spontaneously and not panicking because the food isn’t to my insanely exacting standards. So. A cup of chili, a grilled cheese sandwich, and a handful of fries. Just one meal, I told myself over and over. Tomorrow I can go back to yogurt, but today is about the kids and they’re having a blast, devouring fries and chicken tenders and slurping up their once-in-a-blue-moon Sprites.

What was I doing? Outwardly, steeling myself, staying even, not letting the panic show itself. Inwardly? Let’s just say I had to fight not to purge for our entire hike through the refuge. How absurd is that? A beautiful, sunny Fall afternoon, my kids bounding through the woods, my husband at ease because IT seems “at ease,” and all the while I’m scanning the refuge (no, don’t think the irony of that place is lost on me—no refuge for me from IT) for spots to throw up. I rehearse in my mind: behind that bush, in that thicket, into the pond. Just let Christopher get ten steps ahead and you can excise all that food that is unnecessary, that only proves you to be a fat pig.

But here is where ECT might be helping me out. Instead of giving in to my irrational, mentally-ill self, I stayed with my right mind which meant I stayed close to the kids and Christopher on the hike. Which meant that I understood that the fallout from purging would be worse that keeping the food in the first place. After all, Christopher has given me the ultimatum: anymore lying in regards to the purging and I’m out of the house. Which means no more family Sundays. Which means me left to IT and IT alone—exactly what IT wants because then what would be the point of trying to live out my life?

As I’m sitting here, writing this, Family Day is coming to a quiet, contented close. Butternut squash are roasting in the oven: Christopher is making a Butternut-sage gnocchi for dinner. Christopher and my daughter are in the basement hammering and sawing away, building a house for one of her stuffed animals. And my son? He’s snuggled up beside me on the couch, asking me a thousand questions: What are you typing? What does that word say? When are you gonna be done? Wanting my attention, needing me and only me. Momma. And so, without delay, I turn from the page, which is always waiting, to my son, who has just announced that he will hug me all night long and forever.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Telling Stories

My daughter wrote her first play yesterday: “Turkey Adventure.” It involves two turkeys on the run from an evil (hungry) farmer, a nefarious wolf, and some cartoonish “crazy” Indians who live in the deep woods. She even typed the play into the computer at a rate of two words per minute, refusing my transcribing skills, wanting this play (and the effort involved in its production) to be hers and hers alone.

“Momma,” she said, “I even got my friends to agree to be in it. Three of them are boys, too. Can you believe it? Even boys want to be in the play. Maybe my teacher will let us do it in front of the class right before Thanksgiving break!”

Her enthusiasm is infectious. She has been swept up in the excitement of creation and imagination. Last night, up too late as usual, she was highlighting the various roles and speaking parts in the twelve copies of the play she printed out. And organizing a rehearsal schedule. “Maybe I can give everyone a piece of candy at the end of each rehearsal. That way they’ll want to rehearse again.” That’s my girl—practical and savvy, too.

What a gift to be able to watch her brim with enthusiasm, to begin to understand the thrill of creation and production. To watch the words spill from her fingers. To get caught up in the power of story. She reminds me of, well, me. The me that believed anything was possible. The me that would spend hours composing poems and stories and plays. The me that tried to write (and type out with two fingers) a potboiler, Southern gothic romance novel at the age of nine—a story involving a swaggering Yankee and an impoverished lady. I remember my fingers trembling when I typed, “Her bosom heaved,” though I didn’t really know what that meant or implied. Certainly my bosom, at that age, did not heave (nor does it now).

Similarly, my son has recently been transformed into the mad author. He tapes bits and piece of paper together, draws a series of interconnected pictures and then rushes to find me to write the words, the ideas that are filling his five-year old head. “Momma, you write it for me because I can’t,” he wails desperately, until I stop unloading the dishwasher, stop folding laundry, put away whatever it is that I am doing to transcribe his vision for him. The pressure to tell his story, to allow the pleasure of invention to fill him up. He whips out sentences so fast I can’t keep up with him. Of course, this being the season of all things ghostly and scary, his little books have revolved around witches and werewolves and frightening walks through dark forests and graveyards.

After we finish our collaboration, he implores me to read his story back to him, again and again (ad infinitum). And yet, even though I find it repetitive, his does not—his face glows, his smile grows almost unbelievably large as he listens to this story of his own making. It is exactly the same self-satisfaction I feel after writing one of my own stories or essays: I spun this gold out of air! I’ve found a language, a narrative for my dreams! That line-up of little black letters spell out something that is mine, that is me!

Why do my two little authors hold me in such sway? Because I have been empty of words for so long because of IT. IT decimates imagination. IT reduces me to the mechanical automaton doing ITs bidding: starving or cutting or purging or giving in to the manic highs and lows. IT tells me I am empty of any other story but ITs story and IT has already come up with my ending: death. IT insists that is my only possible ending.

And yet, watching my children give birth to their own best imaginative selves on the page, watching them create stories that suggest they can imagine alternate worlds, I am inspired. My ending has not yet been written. IT may show me one possible end, but that narrative path can change course. It’s like one of those Choose Your Own Ending books I used to read as a kid—make some narrative decisions and you might end up on page 43, flummoxed and floundering. Go back and choose another set of possibilities and you end up on page 56, the hero of the story. I want to be the hero of my story—instead of IT destroying me, I must destroy IT. How do I do this? Imagine an alternate story for myself, one that ends in light and love and restoration. I am still that girl, two-finger typing, swept up by the power of What Might Be.