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