Friday, December 31, 2010

Fabula-Rasa

New Year’s Eve: usually devoted to taking account of the year past, giddy revelry in a sexy black dress accessorized with a bottle of champagne, and optimistic (if unrealistic) resolutions. My biggest ambitions for this evening? A fireside game of family Connect Four, a dark chocolate double-layer cake (cooling on the racks right now), finishing my novel-of-the-day, The One Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (which transports me to an 18th century Dutch trading post in Japan), and remembering to be grateful that I am here, with my family, and alive.

Do I dare imagine a better year ahead? One where ITs powers are diminished, if not decimated by love and hope and healing? A year where I might make peace with and make amends to my body, remembering that food is not just fuel, but an act of love and nurturance, that my body, if treated with respect and affection, might see me through another 38 years? A year when I work towards accepting my many faceted self: ambitious, loving, determined, intelligent, mother, wife, friend and despairing, selfish, complicated, crazy, willful, needy, and scared? Neither black nor white, but gray.

Dr. B. wants me to imagine what my life might look like if I was 25%, 50%, and 75% “better.” Hard to see my way to that vision—the State of the Nation of Kerry is easily revealed just by looking at the state of my hands: fingers and cuticles chewed and gnawed, ugly stumps. Or by looking inside my brain: crossed wires, mangled synapses, ITs dark tumor tentacling across all that fragile matter. But yes, 25% better might allow me to be free of the oppressive daily urges to inflict self-damage. 50% better might allow me to experience real stability, even admit lasting joy. 75% better might have me believing that IT is not the bleak custodian of my future, rather I am—and I am the one with the compass in hand, pointed at my true steady North.

Isn’t the cliché “A New Year, A New You”? Blank Slate? Tabula Rasa? But I’m not looking for a new self or for a do-over. What I’m looking for—what might actually get me to 99% better—is to accept that I am good enough as is. That I am perfectly fine and lovable, if flawed and imperfect. Loved, in fact, for my flaws and forgiven my failings. Fucked up and just fine: fabula-rasa.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Be Here

The other night, Christopher and I were curled up on the couch in front of the fire watching the movie, “The Kids Are All Right,” and there’s a scene at the end where the two Moms are dropping their daughter off at college. In my head, I was practicing my very rudimentary arithmetic: in ten mere years, I’d likely be dropping my eight-year old daughter at college for her freshmen year, a mere almost-doubling of the time we’ve already had with her on this earth. An impossibly sad realization: how much longer will she allow me to towel her off after her baths, allow me to marvel at her compact, exquisite little body that is growing by leaps and bounds? How much longer will she snuggle into our bed at night, spoon up against me, her sharp knees and elbows jabbing into my back, reminding me of her warm presence? How much longer will she burst out with impromptu ‘I love you, Momma’s,’ unbidden, unasked for, entirely a result of her exuberant affection?

And then, there’s the knowledge of how my own nature suddenly darkened around her age, when self-consciousness and self-loathing came sneaking in, when I began to understand that I had to restrain myself, hold myself back in order to be acceptable and earn (or at least what I believed I had to earn) love? After all, by nine, I was climbing up counters and reaching for the Flintstone vitamin bottle to attempt an overdose because I concluded that I was unacceptable to myself. I could not bear to be me.

At the same time that I was doing my arithmetic, Christopher was calculating his own. He turned to me and said, “You know you have to be there with me when we drop our daughter off at college, don’t you?” His implication was not only that he would need emotional companionship to survive the momentously happy-sad occasion, but that, ten years from now, I needed to be there.

“You know what I mean,” he said, again. “You need to be there with me. You need to be there with us.”

The not-so-subtle subtext: I need to stay alive, not just for the next hour or day or month or year, but for the next ten, twenty, thirty—however long my natural clock might tick and tock.

His reminder was necessary because what IT (depression, the bipolar disorder, the eating disorder, cutting) refuses me is a glimpse into the future. IT is stuck in the past and is fanatically tied to this moment right now, no other moment but this, no other possible feeling but this pain in this moment, this need to hurt myself right now, this need to starve myself right now, this need to purge right now, this need to slice open my arms right now, right now, right now. IT is the oppression of RIGHT NOW; IT believes in immediate, impulsive action. No future thinking allowed, no admittance of hope, no belief in change.

His reminder was necessary, too, because of where I’ve been these past few weeks—back down in the black well. Awful, terrible, pressing urges to damage what remains of myself, to end my life—unbearable irony in this season of comfort and joy and hope. Exhaustive effort summoning up the appearance of presence amidst all the presents.

Be here. Simple instructions. Why then do they seem like the complex, utterly inscrutable instructions to some IKEA-self-assembly brain, complete with missing screws and bewildering diagrams?

Be here. More command than choice. Because really, what choice do I have when my living is essential to those tiny, fragile little lives who, despite the upheaval and craziness of me being their momma, love me with their fierce, wild abandon?

Monday, December 20, 2010

'Tis the Season

‘Tis the season of twinkling white lights wrapped around the tree, the banister, the front porch columns, after, of course, unsnarling them from their knotted mess. And nostalgic ornaments: the paper-plate angel my daughter made in preschool, the clothespin Sugarplum fairy my mom bought me when I went to see my first Nutcracker in New York City, the kitschy pink and gold plastic bells once attached to an expertly-wrapped wedding present (already 12 years ago!). And the aimless wandering around Toys ‘R Us debating the merits of a $50.00 Star Wars ship (do we really need more plastic crap in the house), a (plastic) dragon, this one with glowing red eyes (to add to my daughter’s collection of several dozen), and quasi-educational video games (which might help occupy the kids on those way-too-early, wintry Saturday mornings when Christopher and I are loathe to get out of bed).

Most importantly, this is the season of joy. J-O-Y !!! Contagious, exuberant, infectious, childlike joy. My kids are amped up on joy, counting down the days until Christmas, making their gift lists over and over, refining, adding, expanding (never contracting), arguing over what they should leave for Santa—peanut butter and jelly sandwich, gingerbread cookies, spicy tuna roll? Their joy reached a new height on Saturday: my husband organized a sledding party, complete with a roaring fire in the outdoor fireplace at a nearby picnic shelter, hot chocolate and coffee, chili and ‘smores. My daughter built a sledding ramp and fearlessly soared several feet into the air, landing in snow-smacking tumblesaults; my son, a little less hardy and brave, toasted himself by the fire, marshmallow goop sticky on his face and hands and jacket; my husband, ever the generous and ambitious host, tended fire and coffeepot and chili Crockpot alike. At one point, the gang of kids tromped over a giant plowed hill of packed snow, pretending to be polar explorers in search of ice dragons. By evening, my daughter’s hair was a tangle of icy dreadlocks and my son’s feet and hands burned red from the cold. They shivered and giggled in unbridled joy.

For me? This year (scratch that—these past five years), joy is complicated as it must co-exist with the ever-present, oppressive despair, with the pervasive feeling that I am an outsider to happiness and contentment, with IT. Joy can be exhausting—how long can I smile, maintain my cheerful exterior, join in the fun and reindeer games before I begin to feel the old damning irritability, self-doubt, and self-loathing sneak back in? A few hours at best. This year is particularly problematic—the lingering fallout from this most recent hospitalization, the cancelled trip to see my family for Christmas (psychiatric stabilization travel ban in place), the dogged doubt that I can survive IT, that I can indeed get well. And then there’s the every-other day routine ECT treatments, my body purpled in bruises (I’m a near impossible IV stick), my heart wanting to hold onto the hope that this time I really will see a way clear of IT (but pervasive urges to restrict and purge and cut remind me I am in no way near free of IT).

The best that I can do is approximate joy, take my cues from my loved ones who surround me. When they laugh and tickle and snuggle, so do I. When they willy-nilly cram red-hots into misshapen gingerbread cookies (an angel or a howling ghoul?), then eat them two at a time, warm right out of the oven, so do I. When they curl up on the couch in front of the fireplace, watching for the umpteenth time “Frosty the Snowman,” so do I.

Right now? The kids have just devoured bowls of ice cream. The fire is crackling. My daughter is perched on the edge of the couch watching “A Nightmare Before Christmas”; my son is writing a story about ice dragons and snowstorms; my husband is preparing himself for a late-night hockey game, and I am feeling, momentarily, the small presence of joy: I am here, with them. I am here, not in the hospital. I am here, trying to get well. Reason enough for joy. Fa-la-la-la-la!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Job for Life

I’ve suffered a pretty serious professional setback this week. The timing couldn’t be shittier as I’ve only just found some tentative stability once again. Suffice it to say, I’ve always been achievement-driven, always defined myself by what I do. Teaching four classes while taking three classes in graduate school? PhD by 28? Writing my first book and winning awards? Tenure-track job and glowing teaching evaluations? Accomplishments and accolades serve to reinforce that surface sense that I am, despite the craziness, okay, acceptable, lovable. As long as my professional life is zooming along, as long as I continue to do and do and do (and relying on the consuming busyness to compartmentalize IT, shunt IT to the side, managing as Surface-Successful-Me), then I can allow myself to exist, to believe that it’s possible to coexist with IT.

Now? Without the external applause, without the visible, tangible signs of success, I’m thrown back on the reserves of internal me. The Self stripped of all pretenses, all costume, all fancified get-ups. For years, Dr. B. has been trying to get me to believe that I am worth fighting for—and for years, I’ve agreed that as long as I could still meet those self-imposed, excessively high expectations, than sure, yes, I deserved love, deserved to live.

Given the continued loss of all those external signifiers, it’s time to find out if I am, indeed, worth it on my own. Can I finally believe that I am lovable because I simply am? That my life is inherently rich and full and meaningful? That for now, it is more than enough that my job is recovery? As my psychiatrist reminded me, now is the time to get healthy, now is the time to hunker down, bunker down with my family and allow myself to be loved and to love. No need to earn love anymore: I have it already. I am not alone, but am surrounded on all sides by a fortress of love. Christopher and the kids. We make a four-square together and that is enough, and that is all, and that is the point and purpose of life.

Of course, with this loss of professional status, my ego and pride are decimated. Part of me wants to yield to this defeat and give up. I’m exhausted from having to try and try to maintain stability, exhausted from the minute-by-minute effort required to reign in the manic despair. And this has been part and parcel of my existence for as long as I can remember. Nine years old and I am climbing up on the counter in the kitchen, rummaging the cabinets for the bottle of Flintstone vitamins, pouring them out in my hand, swallowing one after another in hopes that I can put an end to IT’s voice--already, even then, assaulting me. Fourteen years old and sitting on the toilet in the middle of the night, carving up my arms with a razor blade. Sixteen years old and attempting a drunken, middle-of-the-night swim out into the ocean, intending not to come back. Twenty years old and submerging myself in a campus lake in late November, and against my will, fished out by security. Thirty-three years old and threatening to hurl myself from the Triborough Bridge. Thirty-six years old and overdosing on Lithium. And I’ve been telling myself all these years that I can manage IT? That co-existence is possible? IT has no interest in living side-by-side with me in my successes. IT’s only purpose (and ultimate achievement) is my death.

Now, I must allow myself to be driven—not by goals or expectations or IT—but be driven by love. And to be grateful that after all these years, I am alive, have survived, that I am able, today, to sit beside my daughter after school and run through her spelling words, and give my son a push in his sled down the snowy hill, and spend a meditative hour baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies, and curl up on the couch, in front of a toasty fire with my husband, losing myself in a few hours of uncomplicated T.V., and later, burrow into a warm bed with a complicated novel, and that I will, eventually, fall asleep, waking, blessedly into tomorrow. Into my life—which is the real, necessary, meaning-filled work.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Well-Being

There is no “right” road to recovery, and my recovery is not a perfect process. Because I have the propensity to hold myself to impossibly high standards, I always expect that “this” time will be seamless, will not be marred by the potholes and divots of past attempts to get well. Perhaps what I need to rethink is my naïve idealism that there is some “well” to get to—some stable, static destination that equals (for all perpetuity) “better.” That recovery is something to accomplish—as if I’ll be given the gold star of approval if I hold myself to rigid rules and expectations. The achievement-driven part of me wants an A on my Report Card for Mental Health, wants to win the match, sweep all games and sets, 3-Love, wants the accolades and approval that “better” surely promises--Now, Kerry, you are deserving of our love and affection and compassion.

There is no "well," just well-being.

What I need to come to terms with is the plain and honest fact that I will never reach “well.” I am Bipolar; I suffer from cycles of debilitating depression—both of which are being better managed through ECT and therapy and medication. But my brain misfires, is often misaligned, and for better or for worse, this is part and parcel of me. I am tilted at a peculiar angle to the universe, but this angle is what has allowed me to have that slanted double-vision necessary for a writer. No easy surfaces or comforting false sentiment for me. I am wary, suspicious of false fronts, of shallow happiness. Because I am well-practiced at hiding and concealing and adapting, I know not to take the lives of others at face value. Love and happiness require more than the pat, singsong, rhyming Hallmark card consolations and buttressings. Peace and contentment require more than perfect Zen, cross-legged, chai-sipping meditation. A rich, complex life is ultimately one of bipolarity—I move back and forth across the spectrum, from rage to joy, despair to hope. That seesaw reminds me that I am capable of feeling ALL. As Walt Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself,” “I am large. I contain multitudes.”

As my psychiatrist has counseled, I need to start speaking to myself in positive terms, transform negative assumptions into positive, motivating encouragement. My recovery isn’t perfect? I’ve had false starts, haven’t been ready yet to embrace change and hope. How could I, after all, when despair and instability and self-deprecation and self-sneering have been my dogged adversarial companions these 38 years? Change, particularly change that seizes and rests upon hope, that necessitates a new vision for the self, is terrifying. The self is under revision. Re-vision: a new way of seeing myself, of defining myself to myself. Neither crazy nor sane, but compellingly complicated, and worth the time and effort needed to stay alive, to see my life through to its natural end.

And what matters most, right now? That I don’t revert to what is safe, what is comfortable—which are positions of self-blame and self-loathing. Instead, I take a deep breath, steel myself, and take heart—take up my heart which I have for so long left abandoned in the ditch. Take up my heart and take care of myself.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hospital = Hiatus

Hospital = Hiatus.

Put it this way: the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving were a disaster. IT rolled right over me, flattening me, making my life one-dimensional. Purging, skipping meals, running myself, literally, ragged, obsessing over cutting, tumbling down into the black well of despair. What else could Thanksgiving be but a complete unraveling, devoted as it is to food and family and, for me, forced fun? Wanting so desperately to “prove” I could manage a dinner party, that I could host houseguests for several days--all the while frantically, stealthily, guiltily looking for escape routes to purge, for any moment to avoid eating, and then contending with churning anxiety because I was terrified of being found out? And stupidly, at the end of the evening, exhausted from being “good,” believing I was due the liberating buzz, I snuck a few drinks.

I cannot drink. I know this. Drinking only takes me further into obsessive despair; it causes all the self-damning thoughts to erupt to the surface; it transforms me into an angry, defensive monster. And usually leads me right to cutting. Of course, Christopher discovered what I’d done—my intoxication spoke for itself. And rightly so, he was furious, issuing deserved ultimatums.

Bad decisions lead to wretched behaviors which always lead to isolation, feelings of guilt, a loss of integrity, insomnia, more intense impulses for cutting, mania and depression, and instability. Where does this cascade lead? Feelings of hopelessness, a loss of life-force, lunacy, and suicidal ideation. X marked the spot and I was dead center. No way to tunnel out of the earth that had collapsed on top of me.

But. I did not cut. I did not overdose. I did not drive my car into a tree. What I did was decide to save myself and stay alive. A few days later, when I went up to the hospital for my ECT treatment, I packed my overnight bag-- I decided to be honest with my psychiatrist who I have grown to trust: he cuts through the bullshit and believes that with the right approach (a mix of ECT, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and deliberately-focused hope) I can transform my life. In short, he inspires me.

“I’m not safe,” I said. “I’m so far in the well, I don’t think I can get myself out on my own, at home.”

He took one look at me, quickly assessing my fear and desolation and hopelessness, and checked me right into the hospital. A short, compressed stay: 5 days. Stepped up ECT treatments, my psychiatrist meeting with me each day to work through CBT, and the added assistance of an anti-depressant and a sleep aid. All of which have returned some believable stability. 5 days without purging, 5 days of consistent meals, 5 days of working on transforming the black, bleak thoughts into positive, future-leaning hope.

Today? Post-ECT, I felt good enough to decorate the Christmas tree with the kids, and string the lights and wrap the greens up the banister, and plan out a decadent double-layer chocolate cake I’ll bake tomorrow (yes! I can believe I’ll be here tomorrow) at my daughter’s request. Hiatus = Hospital = Hope.