Monday, May 31, 2010

An Anniversary Wish

Yesterday was my twelve year wedding anniversary. Instead of a fancy dinner alone with my husband (such a dinner is wasted on me these days since I’d likely deliberate between salad and salad, and really, why spend money on lettuce leaves alone), the whole family went to Presque Isle for sand and sunshine and very cold Lake Erie water—our approximation of a beach day on the island of Naxos in Greece. Though, my lunch here was radically different than my lunch there.

Here: one-half of a Spartan turkey sandwich, no cheese; the other half I furtively wadded up in an aluminum ball and tossed into the garbage bag. Impossible to eat the whole thing, especially in a bikini. I kept eyeing my stomach, expecting my girth to expand with every bite. “Beached whale,” IT said. Of course, I also kept my eye on the two anorexic women my radar had spotted; I wasn’t horrified at all, but jealous. Sick and sad, I know, but I still long for my own anorexic body, the one without curves, the one that was suddenly diminutive (even at my 5 feet 10 inches), the one of angles and sharp planes, the one with the bony hips and disappearing breasts, the one that swam in size Zero. I have been told by everyone that loves me that I looked horrible then, emaciated, hollow, exhausted. And that I was out-of-my-mind crazy then—in complete nutritional deficit, meds no longer working because of the lack of calories, dissociative and suicidal. And yet. And yet, that underweight body continues to haunt me, continues to call to me. Less is more, less is more. This is the pathetic State of the Nation of Kerry: on my anniversary, instead of daydreaming about my wedding day, or reminiscing about my 3 week honeymoon in Tuscany (utterly food and sex-centered), I was dogged by the ghost of anorexia.

There: The Greek beach lunch? After a few hours of sunshine and snorkeling, the family stumbles up to the taverna that sits in the shade of tamarisk trees. We order quickly because we are ravenous: oil-cured olives, atherini (teeny-tiny fish, flash fried), a village salad topped with a scoop of mizithra cheese, horta (pungent greens dressed in olive oil and lemon), briam (oven roasted tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes), grilled octopus dressed with oregano and lemon, meatballs, stuffed squid, fried potatoes, and and and and. By the end of the meal, our faces are shiny with olive oil, but we have eaten very, very well. And after lunch, I don’t worry about my full stomach, don’t feel the insane body-consciousness and self-loathing. Instead, I am grateful for my body, and it’s long, strong limbs which will kick me back and forth across the bay several dozen times as I snorkel again in search of sea urchin shells. I watch the kids search out hermit crabs and swim until their lips are blue and their teeth chatter. My daughter splays herself across an outcropping of rocks warmed by the sun like a little sea goddess; my son shivers up beside me, snuggles close to be warmed by me. And my husband? He gives me the waggly eye, which tells me what’s on his mind: our bedroom and our naked bodies, and okay, maybe an icy glass of ouzo. Here’s the thing—this isn’t fantasy. I’ve had this day over and over which means this isn’t completely lost to me.

Another Anniversary-ish memory? My friend Michelle recently reminded me of when she came to visit Christopher and me, a year or so after our wedding. As I mentioned, our honeymoon in Tuscany was absolute gluttony—pasta, wine, sex, pasta, wine, sex. We drove from one region to another, one restaurant to another in search of perfect food. Which we found at La Macchia Alta, a small horse farm/hotel at the end of a long dirt road. The only people staying there were a group of Italian couples who knew little English. But one evening, over extraordinary Pasta Bolognese and pitchers of red wine, one couple, from Bologna!, wrote down their recipe for the dish. It didn’t seem like much—soffrito (carrots, celery, onions), ground veal, pork, and beef, heavy cream, white wine, butter, pancetta, and NO! garlic—but it was, and still is on a regular basis, heavenly. When we returned from our honeymoon, we immediately bought a hand-cranked Pasta machine. After so much good, fresh pasta, there was no possible way to settle once again for dried tagliatelli or fettuccini. Over the course of the year that followed, Christopher mastered the Bolognese sauce and perfected homemade pasta. And I happily ate it all.

Enter Michelle into our kitchen eleven years ago: “There was pasta rolled out from one end of the counter to the other. Thanks to the pasta attachment you had gotten for Christmas. You looked at me and smiled and said, "THIS is why I've put on 10lbs this year - and it was worth every calorie," and then you grabbed your glass of wine and started jigging right there in the kitchen.” When Michelle wrote me a few days ago with that memory, I was absolutely astonished. How is it possible that I ever would have been okay with pure, hungry and not-so-hungry-but-just-eating-because-I-damn-well-felt-like-it consumption? How was I ever a woman not just resigned, but positively jigging over a ten pound weight gain? That woman seems like a foreign stranger, impossible that we share the same body, that we inhabit the same life. And yet, there I was, having a riotous good-time with making and eating food. That woman THERE has a capacity for joy, for lightness, for spontaneity; this woman HERE is not consuming, but is being consumed by the ruthless pursuit of lightness, thinness, nothingness which leads to the absence of joy.

I want to be the woman jigging around the pasta machine again, the woman with the delicious smear of Bolognese sauce on her lips, the woman who is famished from snorkeling and orders more than she can possibly eat, but tries to eat it anyway, the woman who celebrates her wedding anniversary with both the beach day and the fancy dinner out and orders exactly what she desires.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Truth Telling

Today did not begin auspiciously but atrociously. I sometimes forget that other people remember that I have an eating disorder. For instance, Monday morning: Christopher came into the kitchen, all ready to head out to work, and asked me if I’d had breakfast.

“No,” I said, because my intention, or IT’s intention, was that I skip it. “But I will.” I made all the appropriate motions that signaled imminent dining: got out the yogurt and granola, thawed the blueberries.

“Okay,” he said, and left.

So I couldn’t lie all the way, right? I’d eat something and then be able to claim I’d had breakfast. (See? This is how sneaky IT and the Eating Disorder are—they take great pleasure in splitting hairs.) I measured out quarter portions of everything and at that very moment, Christopher came back upstairs from the garage and into the kitchen, and well, all went to pieces: accusations, slamming doors and fuck you’s.

“I can’t trust you,” he said. “You cheat and lie. Do you even want to get better?”

He was right. I have lost my integrity. I don’t even believe myself when I say I won’t skip or purge because IT is a saboteur—IT preys upon my happiness and well-being and seizes upon any chance to use its black arts of subversion, obstruction, disruption, and destruction towards my end. My end meaning both the end of my life as I know it (aka Warren State for six months, the end of my life inside my family, a life inside love and forgiveness) and the end of my life (the kind of despair that leads to death).

Today? Here is the awful ironic rub. I ate my breakfast. Measured it out honestly. One bite after another until the bowl was clean. But the kids weren’t eating their breakfast—Total cereal. So without thinking of the fallout, I dumped their cereal down the insinkerator and ran the disposal.

Almost immediately, Christopher came downstairs. “I need to talk to you,” he said.

“What?” My tone and posture was, I imagine, absolutely defensive.

Of course he came running. My preferred place to purge was down the disposal—all traces immediately pulverized, the self, which is trembling and mortified, is scrubbed clean. Cleaner than the toilet which needs more than one flush—the horrible bits and pieces floating, in condemnation, around the bowl—leading to panic. Will someone come before I can reflush? Can I avoid humiliation? (Thinking always of the time I was absolutely bat-shit crazy in Greece, manic and purging up to eight times a day; one night, at a dinner party on the beach, leaning down and purging into a glass; Christopher caught me and plain and simple I wanted to die.) So the insinkerator is quick and makes IT all immediately disappear.

“You just purged,” Christopher said. “Didn’t you?”

“No, I dumped the kids’ cereal down the drain.”

“You purged. Don’t lie to me.”

“I didn’t fucking purge. But it doesn’t matter what I say because there’s no way for you to believe me either way is there?”

He eyed me for a long time then pulled out the black Sharpie from the drawer. On my left arm he wrote: What It Takes (from the guiding principle, “I’ll do whatever it takes to have the life I want.”). On the left arm: TRUTH.

Later this morning, I saw my friend Jen, and she suggested that I try to tell myself another story, that the story of IT has taken up prominent residence in my head and I need another story about myself to tell. That is, the story of IT is about my self-destruction; that self-destruction at times can feel instinctual.

“No,” Jen said, “it’s not really instinct, is it? Your true instincts are for self-preservation and self-compassion. You just need to start telling and listening to that story.”

Which brings me back to TRUTH. What I assume Christopher meant by this was the need for me to tell the truth, to be honest, to own up to my slips and mistakes, to admit to the Eating Disorder’s subterfuge. All of which I am trying to do, though to be honest, it is easier to admit to skipping meals than it is to admit to purging and its disgusting, shameful mess—I don’t want anyone imagining me with my head over the toilet bowl or over the insinkerator. It’s like exposing some deep flaw of the self—weakness, failure, self-degradation.

But there’s another TRUTH. Oscar Wilde once wrote, “A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.” Isn’t that true of my relationship with IT? I’ve been so willing to die for IT’s truth: that I am worthless, unlovable, irreparably flawed, crazy, damaging, deserve pain, deserve to die, and should, like some old stray dog, be put down. IT’s story has often been the shaping story of my life. And yet, IT’s narrative, the unhappy ending IT wants for me, is not the TRUTH.

Sure, there was the girl who swallowed the bottle of Flintstone vitamins, but there was also the girl who would make up bedtime stories for her sister about microscopic elves who lived in the curve of our ears and swung, Tarzan-like, between locks of our hair. And there was the teenager who said on the toilet in the middle of the night cutting her wrists with razors, but there was also the teenager who would willingly spend a Saturday night at home alone, reading Hemingway and writing her own stories, longhand on loose-leaf, feeling full of happiness just to put one word in front of the other. And the college student who deliberately OD’d on alcohol believing it was time to stop trying to avoid IT, but also the student who eagerly signed up for one English class after another, slowly but surely becoming a writer and finding a mentor who believed in her unwaveringly. And yes, the wife and mother who felt hopeless and swallowed a big handful of Lithium and woke the next day in the ICU, but there is, most importantly, the wife and mother who loves her family unconditionally, and is equally loved by them.

Today started atrociously but that is not today’s TRUTH or today’s full story. I could talk about my quasi-Reiki session with Jen, or the follow-up tea with Roberta in her blooming backyard, or lunch (yes! More than yogurt) with Christopher on a restaurant’s sunny patio, or the pizza party we’re having, impromptu, this evening with some friends and their kids. Or what I said to Christopher when he asked me how I was feeling.

“Good,” I said. “I’m actually feeling pretty good today.” What a story to keep telling.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Three Eggs in a Nest

So I’m sitting here picking off the bright pink polish from my nails, then chewing them and spitting out the little bits and pieces of, well, me. Which is exactly what IT has been doing all day long—chewing me up and spitting me out.

The antithesis to yesterday when the family drove up to Presque Isle for a day at the beach. A lovely day. The kids spent hours dragging driftwood across the sand; they braved the frigid lake waters; and I even ate a sandwich for lunch: turkey and cheese on Christopher’s homemade sourdough. Though to be honest, IT made a break for it and tried to convince me to dig a hole in the sand and purge. (A pathetic reversal of my kids’ sand-castling). Christopher was snoozing; it would have been so easy and effortless; instead, I tipped my face up to the sun and tried to concentrate on being warm, on the gleeful shrieks of my kids, on a day thus far unmarred by restricting or purging. A benediction of sorts.

Nasty IT. As if to make up for missed opportunities, IT insisted I skip breakfast today. Oh, yes, I assured Christopher that I would eat, and I even served myself up a half portion that I intended to dump down the drain, but then he caught me and that was that. Full portion while he watched my every bite. IT didn’t like that. IT grew resentful and angry. Crazy thoughts: if I was alone (i.e., not married, no kids) then I wouldn’t have to eat. If I didn’t eat, I could die. And of course, that’s what IT wants. Me floating down the river à la Ophelia.

Later, when I told Dr. B. that I had “difficulty” this morning with breakfast, he said, “I had a feeling about that.” He left the room and returned with a container of yogurt and an orange. “My lunch,” he said. “Now yours.”

“I don’t understand why I have to eat breakfast twice,” I said. “And that orange is the size of a soccer ball.”

“We eat to live,” Dr. B. said. “When IT tells you not to eat, what do you do?”

“Eat more,” I said, unhappily.

To IT, more, any more than the rigid restriction means BINGE. An extra ¼ cup of yogurt? A handful of pretzel nuggets? A naked celery stick (no Ranch)? Horrifying excess. That orange and container of yogurt before me on the table might as well have been one of those thirty-foot buffet troughs filled with pizza and corndogs and Fettuccini Alfredo, and there I was, plate piled high, stuffing my fat face, cheese sauce smeared on my lips.

An orange. Aren’t oranges what athletes eat during practices and games? Mostly water. Can’t I eat an orange? But that’s 85 calories. And the yogurt at 110 calories? That equals 2 miles on the treadmill and I can’t go running today so I’m stuck with it, all of it, and it will probably stick to my ass and thighs. It will stick. And I am stuck. I know this. I am hopeless mired in the Eating Disorder today and IT is in control.

The last time I was at Dr. B.’s? I had to bring a BIG breakfast with me and eat with him. Yogurt but also a Cinnamon Crunch bagel, the size of a Frisbee, with mountain of cream cheese. I was embarrassed buying all that food. I finally managed to eat it and then Dr. B. pulled out plastic wire ties and anchored my arm to a chair—for 2 hours. No way to purge, nowhere to go but to sit, silently, with myself. This should have been terrifying. Instead, it was the most peaceful two hours I’ve spent in a long, long time. I literally gave up control, yielded all choice, all will(fullness). And what I discovered, is that without the exhaustion of the constant negotiation with IT, IT was relatively quiet. I had a reprieve.

Not this time. After breakfast #2, Christopher persuaded me that lunch was up next since I had to eat with him now, and not later, when I was alone and likely to skip or purge. “We’re going to eat IT into submission,” he said. So, a tuna sandwich. 420 calories. Terrifying addition to the ever-increasing calorie count.

And now, I’ve just returned from the dietician and feel shattered. The appointment began with a weigh-in. I always slip out of my shoes before hopping onto the scale—no additional ounces needed there. And after this past week of less purging, restricting, and running? I gained a pound. I know. The body fluctuates and a pound today may disappear tomorrow. But I am overwhelmed. Instead of the past week being a success (as it should be with ED behaviors decreasing), it feels like an utter failure. One pound will run rampant and multiply into five, then, ten. This feels out of control, and yet, I know it is I, or rather, IT and the ED that is out of control. Part of my brain is still healthy, still clings to this life and is smart enough to know that IT and ED are liars, propagandists.

This morning, my daughter forgot to bring in her nest that she found to school; she wanted to show off the perfect twig circle and three, red-wing blackbird eggs. Christopher and I drove up to her school so I could drop it off for her.

“Isn’t this the perfect metaphor,” he said. “You’re carrying a nest of three eggs."

Three eggs in a nest: I don’t just carry myself through IT, I carry the three of them, too. Those eggs are fragile. I need to hold them very carefully. I don’t want to break them.

IT would like to destroy us all. My life, and by intertwining extension, their lives as well. So if a double-breakfast and a pound of flesh are what it takes to muzzle IT for today, then so be it. Today, Dr. B. reminded me, once again, of my mantra: I’ll do whatever it takes to have the life I want.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Track and Field

Today was Track and Field Day at my daughter’s school. She was excited (Yay! Outside in sunshine playing games!) but also terribly nervous.

“I know I won’t be good at anything,” she said before leaving. “I was embarrassed in gym yesterday because I couldn’t really play soccer.”

In part, it’s true. She doesn’t have the single-minded ambition to run harder or throw farther; she doesn’t have the inexhaustible stamina to Keep On Pushing; she doesn’t really care about winning, either, which makes it difficult to get the blue ribbon for the football-through-the-hula-hoop-game or the backwards-jumping-sack-race. Instead, she’s more likely to be wandering off at the sidelines investigating the worm now squiggling between her fingers or the blue robin’s egg fallen behind a bush, now resting in her warm palm.

“But you are good at things,” I told her. “You’re an excellent swimmer (she is) and my gosh, a great artist. You can draw animals that look like animals instead of cartoon blobs which is what mine look like.”

“I know,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I am a good drawer.”

I was glad for this self-assurance because it meant there was some stable internal image of herself as smart and talented and good-at-something which she could hold onto during these rough days of girl drama.

But my daughter wasn’t the only one who was nervous. I had volunteered to help out for a few hours at an event and had been assigned to Burlap Sack Race. This sort of volunteering is not something I usually do as it involves other mothers that I don’t know but all of whom know each other because they volunteer together. Rah Rah Sis Boom Bah! I almost called the whole thing off last night when Christopher asked me if maybe I’d want to go for the whole day since our daughter was so excited to have me there. And she was. “You’re coming?” she squealed, when I told her the news.

Those other mothers? All year long they’ve been helping out in the classroom parties, on field trips, have even shown up to have lunch with their kids at school. Not me. The noise of all those kids would be overwhelming. It already is when I pick her up from school in the afternoons. The shouting and jostling. Kids being kids. But to my Bipolar Brain, all that loud chaos makes me irritable and breathless. Like today: a few of my daughter’s friends rushed up to me, threw their arms around my waist, wanting hugs. I hugged back, but felt awkward and stupid and false (Get off me, I wanted to say, but couldn’t because part of me does want to be THAT kind of mom—cheery, breezy, lovable).

I don’t fit in with other mothers. I don’t know how to make small talk, or maybe that’s all I know how to do is the most basic small talk: weather, weather, and oh, did I mention weather? I had the same problem in high school and college. I was the one hovering on the edge of the circle, waiting for the right moment to jump in and say something smart and witty, but the moment never came or somebody else was on top of it, so I was left outside of them—their friendships, their intimacies. And for some reason that circle of women has always looked similar—blond and lithe and poised. Watching these women together always filled me (and still does) with a sense of longing.

Back to Pain and Suffering—I mean Track and Field. Burlap Sack Race. I let the other mothers direct traffic, herd kids, call the shots. I was just happy to stand with my group of kids and get them into a straight line. They seemed to like me! They really liked me! One girl told me she liked my nail polish. Another told me she liked my earrings. Then there were the huggy girls wanting my hugs in return. And I didn’t even have to talk to the other mothers. All good, because today I was not up to chit chat. Not after the past few days—the exhaustion, the edginess, the suicidal flights of fancy.

But as I was instructing one of the girls to move back into line, she turned to me, steeling a withering gaze upon me, and said, “Weirdo.”

Just like that, all good will evaporated. I wanted to shake her. How dare she? But of course, I am not that kind of person so I said, instead, “We don’t call people names here. I think you should apologize.”

She shrugged, stepped back into line, but said nothing.

All of my insecurities were bared. Weirdo. How had she been able to see through my mask? See past my giant black sunglasses, the perfect prop for keeping my distance? But what about the khaki shorts, the tee shirt, the make-up in place, the hair carefully straightened. I thought I’d pulled myself together, looked like any other mother and instead, she had called me out, named me for what I was. Weirdo. A version of the names I’d been called a long time ago by classmates: Crazy Kerry! Crazy Kerry! A version of what my abusive ex-boyfriend used to say to me: You’re fucking crazy. No one will ever love someone like you. You’re a cunt, a bitch, a whore. A version of what IT says to me: Unloveable, Unfixable. Fat, Ugly, Pig.
Weirdo. Weirdo. Weirdo.

And this girl is in my daughter’s class. If she has no shame, no fear in saying this to me, a grown-up thirty-one years her senior, than what might she be saying to my daughter? Is my daughter carrying around some secret, shameful name, too? And all of us? What names do we still carry inside that feel all-damning and all-powerful? Names that whisper to us, seductively, convincing us that they are our true names and the degraded, humiliated self is our true self?

Dr. B. would probably remind me to look at the graffiti on my arms: Beloved, Generous, Hopeful, Forgiven, Real, Blessed. True names for the true self.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Tired of IT

I’m tired, this week. Tired. So fucking tired of IT and of fighting IT, of trying to stay balanced, trying not to fall off the tightrope which is swaying and rocking beneath my feet and I’m twenty stories up. Holding on with my toes, knowing I have no choice but to stay on, but imagining, too, the freefall, giving up and letting go. I feel diminished, deflated, like a tire poked through by a sharp nail—flattened and exhausted by the assault that comes at me from all sides.

“You fat, fucking cow,” IT says. (Your husband notes that when you get tired, your use of profanities increase.) “You’re like some pig at the trough snuffling up food. Don’t you see how enormous you are? And those arms, those cross-hatched wrists. You deserve the pain and punishment of the razor. Flayed alive. That’s how it should be. Because all you do is damage your family. Didn’t Christopher just tell you that you can’t live at home if you’re purging and restricting when you have a seven year old daughter? Can’t you see that she’s watching you, every move you make, every step and every misstep? Really, don’t you think it’s time to die? Let me take control and you can finally go away. You can be done with yourself.”

But then there’s Christopher and Dr. B. and my family and friends who tell me to fight IT. That I have to stick to the program in order to fight IT. But the program feels impossible these days, especially when I’m seizing every moment to skip a meal or purge. Which only increases the shame and self-loathing. Nothing like getting the backsplash of vomit in your face and hair to tell you exactly how far down the well you’ve fallen. I’m like some animal reduced to my basest self. Or dragging my daughter up to the bathroom at a recent party just so I can purge the handful of crudités (fucking crudités, zero calories, water and fiber nothing more). I need the cover of my daughter as I’m not allowed to go to the bathroom alone anymore after meals, snacks, handfuls, mouthfuls, bites. Talk about how angry this makes me—pissing with the door open, having my husband standing sentry in the hallway, always having to account for my movements around the house. But of course, I’ve brought this on myself.

This narrowed idea of a life brings despair. Despair hollows me out, makes everyone, and their love, seem distant, inaccessible. I am underwater and make no movements to swim back to the surface. Part of me wants to sink like lead to the bottom of the dark, cold sea.

Dr. B. reminded me of Terry Schiavo, the woman who was at the center of controversy a few years ago—her husband wanted to remove her feeding tube, her parents objected. But no one really talked about what got her there—bulimia. She had some sort of stroke after purging and essentially became a complete vegetable.

“I don’t want to see your life become that,” Dr. B. said.

I was angry and flip because IT has convinced me that there is no way out of IT this time, so why even try? So I said, “Oh, I would never let that happen. I’d find some way to die first.” Idiot. I wouldn’t have a choice in the matter because I’d be without a voice, without identifiable will, under the control of others.

Does this scare me? Oh, absolutely. I was up last night, unable to sleep, full-on panic attack. IT was sitting on my chest, making it difficult to breathe, heart racing, fingers and toes tingling. I’d been thinking about stroking out over the toilet bowl (what a disgusting, pathetic possibility), worrying that I was throwing off my cardiac system with possible electrolyte imbalances. Because that’s how bad the purging has gotten—automatic urge regardless if it’s a plate of lasagna or a few carrot sticks or a spoonful of yogurt. Everything that comes in, must go out. That’s IT’s message. A simple system, but one that is dehumanizing and debasing. Again, the face I see in the toilet bowl is my own. It’s no wonder I think of razors and pain after purging. Thoughts of suicide quickly follow. So it’s cleaner, less agonizing to skip meals. Hunger pains are the kind of pain that can be hidden but still felt. Punishment concealed.

“Do you need to go back into the hospital?” Christopher asked last night.

“God no,” I said. “That means six months at Warren State.” But part of me, the exhausted, worn-out me that has taken up residence this week, wanted to say, “Yes. Please, yes. I’m so tired of fighting, so tired of the racing thoughts, so tired of the obsessive thinking, so tired of urges and urges and urges, so tired of planning out possible ways to die. Please let someone else take over. Let me no longer have a say in whether I eat or don’t, whether I cut or don’t, whether I live or die. Because I want to live and see my life, this wonderful, love-filled life through.”

But I don’t say this because I’m scared, because IT doesn’t want me to change. And really, maybe this black mood will pass and this is just a fucking shitty week and I have managed to survive many, many, many of these kinds of weeks. So I crawl into bed in between my kids who are asleep, and who have earlier insisted I sleep in the middle, where they can both spoon against me, where they can both feel safe that I will not leave, that I will tickle them awake again in the morning, that I, too, will wake and feel loved.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Live Your Life Well

May is Mental Health Month, and this year’s theme is “Live Your Life Well.” How is this catch phrase meaningful to me?

Live:

This is an essential directive and my sacred task. To stay alive. It seems ridiculous to have to say this, more so to write it because Healthy Me is standing on the sidelines, one hand on hip, the other smacking my forehead. Of course I want to live.

I have my son’s snotty, cookie crumby kisses, his warm hand on my cheek, his tiny body finding mine at night, spooning up against me. He needs me in the primal way four year olds need their Mommas, close and tight. He is my son but I am his sun—I am the one he revolves around (except when Christopher gives him the bellyache tickles or spears a worm on his fishing hook or cooks him from-scratch Chicken Nuggets). When I pick him up from preschool, he tackles me and says, “I love you Momma. Will you marry me?” The proposal is sincere—he wants me to live beside him forever.

I have my daughter who needs me more and more as each pre-pre-teen day passes. She is navigating the intricacies of being a seven year old who prefers dragons, bugs, and furry creatures over Hannah Montana, the Jonas Brothers, and boyfriend-girlfriend role playing. So the teasing has been pretty merciless. And then there are the rapid-fire, shifting friendships which have recently relegated her to the status of “third-in-line” best friend. My heart breaks and breaks as she tearfully tells me how sad she is, how she has “a funny feeling in her belly all day long,” how she wants to move far away. “Vermont,” she says, “or Greece.”

And then there’s the beginning of body-consciousness: “I’m too short. My ears are too small. My belly is fat. I need to exercise more.” Have her antennae been picking up my own twisted agonies of the body? She needs me to live with the body I have. She needs me to stay alive in the body I have. She needs me to live a long life as her Momma.

And yet, despite these miraculous reasons to live, IT is always after me to die. There is, obviously and horribly, suicide. I’ve tried that again and again. At nine, the Flintstone's Vitamin Overdose. At sixteen, the middle-of-the-night swim into the Atlantic Ocean. At twenty, the deliberate alcohol overdose and a blood alcohol level of .39. At thirty-three, the would-have-if-I-could-have threat to jump off the Triborough Bridge. At thirty six, hitting a low, low body weight with all the associated nutritional (hair falling out, skin dry, exhaustion) and physical problems (low blood pressure, troublesome cardiac readings). And then later that year, swallowing a large handful of Lithium and waking up the next day in the ICU. All of this and I am still alive. Though as I told Dr. B. a few weeks ago, “The Eating Disorder allows me to punish myself without the external scars. Nobody sees IT.” (Which isn’t altogether true as several of my friends have told me in the past few weeks that they can see IT: the body, diminishing, becomes a visible sign of internal decompensation.)

Dr. B. put it to me plainly: “You have a choice. You can live a life of hospitalizations, of zero expectations, of managing IT. Or you can live a life of potential and possibility, of integrity, of recovering from IT. You can choose death or you can choose life. Which will it be?”

Which will it be? Which will it be? The answer should be so easy. And it is when I am with my family, and it isn’t when I am alone.

Live. In the end, I don’t have a choice. According to a recent study by Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, losing a parent to suicide makes children more likely to die by suicide themselves and increases their risk of developing a range of major psychiatric disorders. I love my children too much for them to become statistics of IT. So I must live.

Your Life:

Here are the basic facts. I am thirty-seven, a wife and mother of two. I am employed by a small liberal arts college as an English Professor. I have Bipolar Disorder (and this will not change so I’d better make my peace with it) and, at present, am suffering from an Eating Disorder. I have one-hundred and three scars on my forearms, all self-inflicted. I have attempted suicide. I have been hospitalized ten times in the past three years, for as short at four days and for as long as two months. Because of all this, I am applying for Long Term Disability which will mean (devastatingly) that I will be giving up my tenure-track job.

Blah Blah Blah. All of the above is merely information, a roll-call of facts, the kind of statements that have appeared on my Inpatient Admissions Form and are meant to provide a quick clinical summary.

For instance:

Inpatient Hospitalization #1: "This is a 34 year old white female professor who presents to the Emergency Room secondary to suicidal ideations with a plan. The patient states she has a history of bipolar disorder. The patient states that she is having decreased sleep, interest, energy, and concentration and is having feelings of guilt as well as poor appetite and some anhedonia. The patient states that she has a history of cutting. The patient denies lack of need for sleep. The patient admits to having racing thoughts. The patient is thin, with a high degree of grooming and hygiene. The patient cannot contract for safety at this time."

Nutrition Consult #1: “Kerry was a pleasant, anxious young woman who is reluctant to acknowledge that she has an “eating disorder” but acknowledges that “her eating is disordered.” Her current habits are severely restrictive and are significantly compromising her health. Kerry appears to have a good support system in her husband although she is not convincing in her readiness to truly address her eating disorder for her own sake. Her thought process regarding “normal” eating is extremely distorted.”

Is this my life? A sequence of increasingly dire diagnoses? The present threat that my next hospitalization will be six months at Warren State? That is no life. Not mine, anyway. Not any life I would want.

On the other hand, there is my other life, the one that involves a white washed house on the island of Thassos in Greece. Olive tins filled with geraniums on the front steps. Sky blue shutters on the windows. Christopher is in the back yard roasting tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes in the wood burning oven. He is, of course, sipping on an ouzo. Sophia, now fifteen, is crouched on the ground in a far field collecting beetles in a jar which she’ll investigate under microscope later. Alexander, now twelve, is hunting octopus down in Aliki, a peninsula comprised of three bays.

I can see the beach from my study window; it glitters with white stones and the water is clear, then deep blue and cold. I have been at my desk, bathed in all that brilliant sunshine, working on the final chapter of my novel. A vase of orange poppies is on the table beside a carafe of icy water. The writing hour has come to a close. I call for Sophia and Christopher and we walk down the road to the beach to meet Alexander for lunch at a taverna: grilled octopus in oregano and lemon, baked feta, a plate of wild greens, a village salad topped with oil-cured olives, taramasalata, a loaf of fresh, sesame bread. I am hungry and eat well, without guilt or the dark urges. A swim, then, to shake off the work-a-day morning and lunch time lethargy—snorkels and masks, searching the sea floor for sea urchin shells, those beautiful, fragile husks. Afterwards, the four of us collapse on the beach for a snooze to the cicadas whirring in the cypress trees.

And just because this is my dream, my other life, when I wake, my horse is waiting for me—tied up to an olive tree, and we go for a sunset ride into the hills, stopping for the goats that come out to greet us, their bells jangling around the scruffy necks. That night, after a simple dinner at the table in the yard, under moonlight and candlelight, Sophia and Alexander wander into the village to see what there is to see, while Christopher and I disappear into our bedroom and make love.

This is the life that doesn’t make it onto those forms. This is the life I am, at least in imagination, living.

Well:

As in “to the best of my ability,” keeping in mind that I need to make accommodations for the Bipolar Disorder, realizing that I need to have realistic expectations for myself.

But also Well: Better, recovered, healed. No longer at the bottom of the well. Flooded with love and life instead. Well-nourished, well-being, well-adjusted, well-balanced, well-done, well-grounded, well-ordered, well-beloved.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Where I Am Not

Once again, I am flying solo for a few days with kids, dogs, lizards, cat, and surely a mouse and spider or two by my side. The weather in Western Pennsylvania, is cold and wet, more like November than May which isn’t doing wonders for mood stability. My brain expects shorts and sunglasses and sun block; meanwhile, we’re in winter coats with runny noses, huddled (we were, last night!) before the fireplace. Fireplace, not outdoor wood burning pizza oven where we were last week when it was an unpredictable 70 degrees.

But I’m not complaining because of where I am not.
I am not in the State Hospital.

I am not naked in the shower, trying to shave my legs while a grim, grizzled nurse supervises me.

I am not greasy and dirty because I wasn’t allowed to take a shower because I didn’t make the .3 ounce weight gain.

I am not being forced to drink 4 Ensures a day on top of eating 3 meals and 2 snacks a day.

I am not coloring baby animal pictures during a lame attempt at Art Therapy.

I am not under suicide watch with a camera pointed at me 24 hours a day.

I am not separated from my husband and kids by locked doors.

I am not banging my head against the wall until orderlies come running and restrain me.

I am not cutting up my arms with razors.

I am not dangerously underweight.

I am not overdosing on Lithium and I am most certainly not in the ICU.

You see, today I finished up my grading for the semester, which means I actually made it through/withstood/survived/succeeded in finishing out the semester. In January and again in April, there was serious talk of the hospital again. “Again” means six months in the State Hospital where they keep you from hurting yourself (in all the variety of ways I manage to hurt myself) through drugs, restraints, and something called a buckle shirt. Not to be mistaken for a hair shirt (which, to my self-injurious mind, the mind that bends towards punishing asceticism, sounds just fine).

So today is important for two reasons:

1. I fulfilled my teaching responsibilities. I even received a lovely note from one of my students: “Thank you. You have given me and the class so much. I feel as though the Muse has come back to me.” This after a semester of intense anxiety, of feeling like some idiotic talking head, of worrying that I was in the middle of teaching meltdown. I was paralyzed before every class, my body shaking, sweat pooling at my lower back. But now this note from the student reminding me that I could inspire the Muse to return to him. Maybe I can summon her back down to me. Because of this, I’m that much closer to regaining my integrity.

2. I’m home and on my own which means several things. I have to take responsibility for the meal plan: To Eat, or Not to Eat. That isn’t the question. To Eat is the only possible answer. I need to stay safe, no overmedicating, no sharps, no IT vs. Me knockdown, drag out fights, no self-punishment. I must strive to be a balanced Momma with the kiddos—restraint, patience, forgiveness. And in some small way, Christopher trusts me, alone and alone with the kids, and by extension, I need to trust myself. Certainly, this can be one giant leap (freely forward) into regaining my integrity.

I am not without some guidance. Dr. B. offered the following operator’s manual for counteroffensive maneuvers against IT:

1. I can’t be thin and sane. (My weight drops too low, the meds don’t work; the meds don’t work I become a raving madwoman. Thin also requires a devotion to the idolatrous IT. To be sane, means to recognize the spirit of lovingkindness.)

2. I can’t be sane and in control. (The more I clamp down on myself, the more rules of order IT imposes, the more I believe in IT’s power versus my powerlessness, the crazier I become.)

3. When IT says not to eat, eat more. (This morning, at breakfast, I was ready to dump my yogurt down the drain but stopped. Who was I kidding? Who was I hurting? Each bite, hard won, is a finger in the face of IT).

4. When IT tells me to go small, I need to sprawl. (Preferred body position? Arms crossed, legs crossed, bent over like someone with osteoporosis. It’s not about modesty, but about not wanting to take up space, not wanting to be seen.)

5. When IT tells me to shut the fuck up and keep it all to myself, I need to speak up loud and clear to someone on my team. (Today, for instance, long conversations about IT and the Eating Disorder with Jen and Laura, conversations I would have rather ducked, but I tried to speak (freely forward).

I spoke up to my friend Jen this morning, thus beginning the day in integrity, and talked about how difficult it was to be exposed and vulnerable, how my chest corkscrewed with anxiety, how my legs were ready to bolt (not unlike Chandi yesterday), how my fingers wanted to drum on the couch, how they wanted to scratch (until bleeding) my legs and arms. All of this as a result of a simple meditation we practiced together. IT’s revenge against my attempt to quiet the mind, at slowing down the racing thoughts.

But seeing myself sitting there, eyes closed, hands folded in my lap in what should be a position of repose? Ugh. No way to simply Let Go and be. No way would IT allow me to be present. Instead, IT just made me feel hyper self-conscious. Like when I used to go to yoga class and we ended with corpse pose—lying on the floor, telling myself to relax, relax, relax but feeling myself tighten up, hands clenching and unclenching, counting up and down the seconds until it was over.

BE STILL, my heart says. Please, be still.

The only way to find that stillness from thought was to go for a run. But instead of my usual ticking off of the miles and rigidity in terms of when I had to ramp up the speed on the treadmill, I covered the computer with my towel and ran, just ran for the pure pleasure of it. When I felt like going faster, I did, and I also allowed myself to go slower, to back off on the intensity. A definite No No for IT. And when I finally decided to finish? I felt like laughing, like running from the gym to my car in joy. It’s silly, but at one point when I was running I imagined myself as a horse galloping exuberantly around a field, legs working in perfect tandem. A body in good working order, fueled by breakfast, free from injury, ready to fly.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Freely Forward

This morning I headed over to Hobbs Hollow for my weekly riding lesson. The weather was absolute shit—teeming rain, temperatures in the 40’s (hey, weather gods: it’s mid-May!), groaning winds. I knew I’d be riding Chandi, the horse that spooks at everything, so my enthusiasm was close to zero. I didn’t want to spend the hour wrestling with him, trying not to get bucked off, managing his every sidestepping, rearing refusal to go forward and around the arena. What I wanted was an easy ride, the seamless trot, the in-time canter. I wasn’t going to get this with Chandi, not today and so I even contemplated calling Lee and cancelling—I could blame it on my occasional runner’s knee flaring up. Sorry, no can do. See you next week when the sun is high and the world is dry.

But I couldn’t do that. I’m not someone who simply folds in the face of fear or physical demands. That’s probably why I’m “good” at the Eating Disorder—IT won’t let me cry UNCLE. IT uses (and abuses) language that makes it nearly impossible for me to surrender. IT says: “You will not give up. You will not capitulate. You are not weak. You must see this through to the bitter, deadly end.” Insane, I know. But that’s how insidious IT and the Eating Disorder are: they (mis)appropriate words of courage and conviction and perseverance so that I come to believe that I am strong, filled with righteous determination in following ITs rules.

But as I considered cancelling my riding lesson, I realized that that is exactly what IT would want me to do. Give in to my unfounded fears because that is what they are, at least in connection to Chandi. I am a good horsewoman; I know how to stick my seat; I know how to stay composed even when Chandi would like to chuck me off. What I do best? I ride through my fear.

So I kept my lesson. As expected, with the rain pounding the arena ceiling, the wind howling outside, and the barn sparrows flitting and darting all over the place, Chandi refused to go near the mounting block, snorted and hopped away from the jump wings that were set up around the arena, and when we trotted? He bolted into a fast canter. What did I do? My first instinct was to go around the jump wings. Why court trouble? Just bypass them.

But Lee stopped me. “Of course it’s easier,” she said. “But you haven’t tried to go through them yet and you don’t know how he’ll react.”

So I calmed him down through strong but careful leg and rein aids, bent him around the corners that terrified him so, then flapped my calves to keep him moving through the jump wings, and by extension, through his fear. A snort, a sidestep, and then we were through and through again and again. When he got all crazy in the trot and ran into a disorganized canter, I kept my head, despite my fear, and allowed him to go fast once around the arena to work out the manic tension. I pulled him back into a more collected trot.

“That was smart riding,” Lee said. “You kept your cool and didn’t get all unbalanced and you let him get out some of that nervous energy. Look at how much more supple he is, extending his neck for you, and his trot has settled. Really good there.”

So once again, my riding lesson offered a lesson for recovery. IT feeds on my fear—my fear of becoming unhinged once again, of losing control of both body and mind. So IT says, “Follow me and my rules, listen to their perverse comfort and there’s no need, then, to acknowledge any fear. You can step around it, allow the obsessive thinking and the mania to crowd out everything else.” But what I’ve learned is that I need to walk through the fear, keep on appropriate pressure in order to arrest any back stepping, in order to counter any refusals, in order to keep moving freely forward. And when I feel like bolting? Remember that a balanced seat will influence a balanced mind and a balanced mind will keep the wicky wackies from running more than once around the track.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Mother's Day Vow

My Mom is Special, courtesy of my daughter

My mom is special because: She makes yummy muffins.

My daughter has a wonderfully forgiving palate. My latest batch of blueberry muffins were a spectacular failure—I used dried blueberries which, when baked, became little shriveled blueberry turds. And the cake part of the muffin? Dry and crumbly. But no matter. In my daughter’s eyes, I made them ergo they were good. But as Christopher pointed out, I make and make and make and make (muffins and cakes and cupcakes and cobblers) but don’t eat. I might as well be cooking food for a ghost.

I like it when my mom: tickles me and snuggles with me and hugs and kisses me.

The tickling demands, as of late, have both increased and become more insistent. As have the reciprocal tickles. She sneaks up and wiggles a finger into my armpit, or raises both of her arms. “Try to tickle me,” she says, and instead of shrieking and dashing off in mock terror, she runs at me like a little lunatic desperate for tickle, the laugh, the relief from being in control of herself. Which is what she also wants when she tickles me: Momma relieved from that self-imposed tense order; Momma freed from the grimace; Momma laughing herself silly.

My mom is smart! She even knows: mathimaticks!

Oh my lovely delusional daughter. I can barely help her with her long subtraction and often befuddling word problems. I need to check her answers with a calculator (though I do this secretly, lest she think I’m taking the easy way out). Perhaps she’s referring to my mathematical cheerleading. I sit beside her while she does her homework and keep her moving through each problem, encouraging her to keep at particularly frustrating sums. “You’re smart,” I say. “You can do this if you take your time.” (I’m also not adverse to pointing out where she might be going astray and suggesting she return to incorrect answers. What I want to teach her here is perseverance).

But of course, there is my secret mathematics, the numbers and additions and subtractions and multiplications and divisions that I tabulate all day long. My brain is an abacus for the Eating Disorder, obsessively playing the numbers game: calories consumed - calories burned should = a number less than 900 which is the approximate calories needed to sustain a body at rest. (Though here I veer into physics as mine is never a body at rest, but a body in motion which tends to stay in motion.)

My mom is best at: running laps!

This one is bittersweet. On the one hand, I’m glad she identifies me as an athlete. Occasionally, I’ll bring her with me to the gym and we run around the track together, challenging each other to pick up speed, to run a silly lap in skips and hops, to run an exuberant lap in leaps and bounds. I want her to feel the same joy I feel in moving her body, in breaking out in a well-earned sweat, in being a woman who is on the move.

On the other hand, it makes me sad that it is lap-running that she has singled out as my talent. The metaphor for IT, the Bipolar Disorder and Eating Disorder: the endless, often pointless exercise of running in circles for hundreds of miles, starting and stopping in the exact same place, the monotony of spending all this time moving and getting nowhere. For example: where I am now. My husband asking me, yesterday, if I want to spend this summer in the hospital again because that’s where I’m headed (which replicates the pattern for the past 2 years). Which is Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Athlete or Mad Momma? The body healthy and strong, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound or the body sick and depleted, unable to hug and kiss my kids because that body is under medical and psychiatric lock and key?

I’d like to tell me Mom: I relly relly relly relly relly relly relly relly relly relly relly relly love her.

This afternoon, I was on the couch and my daughter yelled, “Smash Momma!” Both my daughter and son ran at me, hurling their bodies on top of mine, jockeying for position.

“I get all of Momma,” my daughter said, and wrapped both arms around me.

“No,” my son said, elbowing her. “I get part of her, too.”

“You get to share me,” I said, but that fell on deaf ears.

For the next fifteen minutes, they tickled and argued their way on top of me. At one point, my son grew grave and rested his tiny, warm hand against my cheek. “I love you,” he said. “I’m going to marry you when I grow up.”

“You can’t,” my daughter said. “She’s already married to Daddy.”

“Yes I can,” he said. “You can wear a wig.” My lovely little boy, claiming me for the present and future, keeping me by his side.

And finally:

My Mom is as pretty as: a Daisy.

At first, I thought: well, my daughter thinks I’m cheerful and upbeat. An uncomplicated flower. Is this what she longs for? A Momma who predictably shows up each Spring with her bright yellow face and soft, white petaled crown? A sweet, steadfast Momma? As opposed to me and my unpredictable, destabilizing hospitalizations, my flare-ups of mood, my tense manically-ordered Disorders? So I Googled “daisy” and this is what I found.

Daisy: a diminutive member of the sunflower family, often associated with childhood innocence, dreams, love, honor, happiness and repose.

Had my daughter developed some sort of floral ESP? I need to reclaim my innocence from the brutality of IT and treat myself as if I was my own daughter. I need to dream again about my future, one that promises recovery. I need to wrap myself in the saving power of love. I need to restore my honor and integrity and be a reliable force of good and well-being. I need to cling to happiness and allow it to restore my spirit. I need to take my repose and rest inside grace. This is my solemn Mother’s Day vow.

Friday, May 7, 2010

New (No) Rules

The body tries to tell the truth. But, it's usually too battered with rules to be heard, and bound with pretenses so it can hardly move. We cripple ourselves with lies.
--Jim Morrison



Yesterday, I went for a walk in the woods with my good friend Jen. Brilliant sun, cumulus clouds, deep blue sky, glittering leaves. A day to tip your face up and receive the warm blessings of the atmosphere. A day to spend in gratitude for the small incidentals (sleeping through the night, mood relatively stable, fingernails finally painted Plummy Purple) as well as the BIG THINGS (family, love, forgiveness). A day for a walk and talk with a friend.

Except IT wouldn’t leave me alone. For the walk, I’d given up a run at the gym. This should have been a no-brainer: beautiful day, exercise outside and with company over the monotonous treadmill in Ipod isolation. But IT had other ideas. Rule #1. A morning off from work means a 4 mile run at the gym. Rule #2. 4 miles must be completed in 36 minutes. Rule #3. At least 400 calories must be burned. Following these initial rules was the only way I’d get to eat and sit with my food (i.e., no purging) later in the day.

Of course, I’d already started my morning mired in ITs rules. Rule #5. Breakfast (and lunch) must be: ½ cup of yogurt, ¼ cup of granola, ¼ cup of blueberries. And no estimating. Measuring cups are mandatory. Rule #6. When possible, make all measurements equal zero. That is, given the chance, DO NOT EAT. Rule #7. That’s not a hunger pain; it’s an emptiness pain. Believe this is good.

And then there are the more intangible rules. The ones that begat all others. Rule #8. Do not let anyone see your pain. Rule #9. Do not ask for help. #10. Do not accept help. Aren’t these last rules at the very at the heart of IT? Pain and suffering must be concealed, masked over by cheerful energy. When I cut my arms as a teenager, I kept it confined to my wrists which I then covered over with makeup and covered over that with a stack of bracelets. I’d flex my wrist, feel that necessary, damning pain. “All mine,” IT said. “You can’t tell anyone.” And I didn’t. Not even my therapist at the time. For two years I sat on his couch talking about art and books and self-loathing, all the while keeping my arms buried under sweaters and long sleeves, even in the summer months. No one was safe, not even someone charged with keeping my secrets because IT convinced me that if I told any of the people charged with my safekeeping they would think I was disgusting, reprehensible, crazy, not worth helping at all.

Jen began our walk with a statement aimed at the heart of the matter. “You’re looking a little thin these days,” she said. "I'm worried."

Not a question: “Are you?” Because that would suggest that my perspective, my sick-with-IT answer, might be legitimate. But a statement: her rational mind holding incontrovertible physical evidence and offering it to me as a declaration. You’re growing (the terrible irony) smaller.

I/IT said, maybe even convincingly, “I’m okay. It’s just the running. I’m not dropping too low. If I was, my dietician would step in. And I’m sticking to my mealplan.”

Remember Rule #8? No way would IT allow me to let on that I was feeling desperate and out-of-control, that I knew I needed help. Instead? Tut tut! Stiff upper lip! Shipshape! Of course, there was the hidden fact that I hadn’t seen my dietician in a month so she might have something say after all. But, I rationalized, she was super-skinny, too, so she obviously doesn’t eat enough. How can I trust her assessment of me?

Jen said, “Let me just say, from an objective point of view, you’re looking like there’s less of you.”

IT and the Eating Disorder, the deadly tag team, hold as a truth that Less is More—more of the (veneer) of control, and Less is Less—the body whittles away to what is only essential. So this was exactly what IT likes to hear.

“It’s so hard,” I said, “because I look in the mirror and see Fat Pig. And when other people tell me I look too thin, I can’t really trust their perspective. Christopher mentioned something the other day about my losing weight, but here’s a guy who prides himself on being about the same weight he was in high school. Besides, he doesn’t have weight issues like me.”

“You don’t have those kind of weight issues,” Jen said.

“But I do. I feel overweight, too big. When I was at my lowest weight, I was thirty pounds less than I am now. So being here, where I am today, I just feel enormous, like there’s too much of me.”

“Can try to listen to your healthy, clear-headed self?” she said. “Because I know that self loves food. I know that self wants to get well.”

“I try and fail. Just the other day I had a piece of cheese. A stupid little piece of cheese because I was hungry. But IT doesn’t allow snacks, nothing but the official three meals. So I purged. This tiny piece of cheese had absolute power,” I said. “Every meal is a battle of wills: Mine and ITs.”

“You know that you’re still in a place where you can stop the slide,” Jen said. “You don’t want to be in that place again, do you, back in the hospital? You want to stay home with your family; you want a summer at home; you want your life back. Don’t you?”

Of course. Of course. But also, because of ITs magnetism, I’m not sure. I’m not sure. Because to find my way out of this morass, would mean I’d have to start breaking the rules. Which is odd because I’m a girl well-versed in rule-breaking. Dying my hair navy blue? Drinking in (and I mean in) high school? Sneaking into Manhattan via the Long Island Railroad to hang out in the Village, drinking beer on streetcorners? Okay, maybe this was just adolescent rebellion. But IT? I prostrate myself to ITs dictatorship all day long, every day without regard for my own welfare. Here are my arms, I say. Cut them up. Here is my body. Starve it. Here is all of me. I am yours. ITs. Enslavement. Bound by rules. Dr. B. said to me, “Why not break ITs rules which are surely deadlier than any others you’ve come up against?”

So here is the plan: I’m going to stage my own small act of civil disobedience this weekend. Two days lived without rules. No counting calories, no measurements, no specific food groups; exercise only for enjoyment; asking for help when anxious or when urges arise. IT will yammer at me the entire time: you’re getting fat; you’re losing control; you’ll fall apart. So I’m going to have to practice tolerance and patience and surely I’ll be listening to DR. B’s white noise machine. Most importantly? No shame, only hunger deeply felt and rightly fed.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Home Sick

“A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.”
--Robert Frost


My little monkey was home sick today. She was up all night long (and by default, so were the rest of us) with a sweaty, headachy fever and a cough that sounded like a cross between a rumbling thunderstorm and a faltering weedwacker. We dosed her with Ibuprofen and Delsym but nothing worked. So Christopher and my son went off to work and school, while I cancelled my riding lesson and prepared myself for a day of bad cartoons and weak, honey-overloaded tea.

My daughter, on the other hand, was ecstatic and kept reiterating the reasons why she should stay home sick from school: 1. She didn’t want to get her teacher sick; 2. She didn’t want to get her friends sick; 3. Her friends were mean anyway, so she needed a break. And it’s true: her friends have been teasing her mercilessly over the past few days, laughing at her laugh, at her small stature, at her unbounded love for all things dragon. After-school pick-up now began with her running to me, then announcing she’d had a “very bad terrible day,” and finally crying quiet, body shaking tears. I dreaded it because I felt helpless. How could I explain the inexplicable cruelty of her friends, of her best friend who had announced to my daughter that she’d found a new best friend?

“Why are my friends so mean to me?” she asked, on the car ride home. “They kept saying ‘Dragons Stink!’ and I tried to smile and pretend it was funny but every time they said that I felt sad inside.”

“People can be stupid,” I said. “And sometimes being mean makes them feel big and important.”

“But why to me?”

“It’s not you, sweetheart. There’s no reason to be mean to you. There’s no reason to be mean to anybody.”

“No,” she said, with a sigh. “If I met someone who loved spiders, and I didn’t, I’d just mind my business.”

So I could understand why my daughter would be pleased, so absolutely relieved that the thermometer read 102 degrees. She was sick and tired of negotiating the thorny tangle of second-grade girl drama and just wanted to be sick (yay!) and home (double-yay!) with me.

Only we couldn’t stay home. I had to get my Lithium level checked so she had to get out of bed and tag along. The phlebotomist tied the rubber band around my upper arm, tapped the crook of my elbow looking for a vein, then paused to read aloud some of the words Christopher had written in permanent marker along my forearm: Integrity, Hope, Self-Love. I wanted to crawl under the chair, ashamed. She’d likely seen the scars, too.

My daughter squeezed my hand. “Momma, what’s integrity?”

“Oh gosh. I don’t have it these days,” I said, “but it sort of means being honest and truthful in what you think and do and say.”

“You tell me the truth,” she said, then pointed at the vial that was quickly filling with my blood. “Can you see your brain sickness in there?”

“Maybe one day,” I said. “But right now it’s invisible.”

“It’s a superpower then,” she said, satisfied. “Which makes you Super Momma.”

How can I be Super Momma after all I’ve put her through? But I forget the wondrous power of a child’s forgiveness that comes only from grace.

Integrity. My mentor, Frederick Busch, once told me that what you rely on are “words of integrity from people with integrity.” All of my backsliding and half-truths regarding the Eating Disorder these past few weeks have robbed me of my integrity. How could I explain that Christopher had written that word on my arm not because I have integrity at the moment, but because I need to remember to want it. IT makes it nearly impossible to remember that I need to come home to myself—myself with health, myself with balance, myself with peace of mind and body, myself with integrity.

I am home sick with “homesickness.” I, too, have “the lump in my throat,” that wrenching knowledge that I am absolutely lost and don’t know how to find my way out of ITs ugly, painful mess. Instead of well-being, I, too, feel that “sense of wrong”: that I am living at a dangerously acute angle to the universe. How many times can you attempt or rehearse your suicide without IT giving you what IT has made you think you want? I, too, am in the throes of “lovesickness”—IT accrues power when IT divides me from those I love. When IT convinces me I don’t deserve love. My lies and half-truths and evasions separate me from love—the love of my family and friends, the love I (still might) have for myself.

A few weeks ago, Dr. B. said, “Love defeats IT.” He’s right. I was homesick today, and my daughter, also home sick, saved me. Instead of crappy cartoons, we sat on the front porch in the sunshine, surfing websites offering beach cottage rentals in Florida (maybe this July?), and dreamed aloud together about our future--building sand castles, moving to a farm, and enrolling in dragon-riding school. Do you want your integrity back? I asked myself. Here it is: You are joining dreams which means you are promising to stay here with her, now and in the future. She is love. She is your way home.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Safe

Though my daughter is only seven, she’s wise beyond her years. Yesterday, the whole family went to see the new environmental film Oceans, and as each sea creature swam or scuttled into the frame, she whispered excitedly, “That’s a Stone Fish! That’s a Dugong! That’s a Blanket Octopus! Oh my god! A Sea Dragon!” (Meanwhile, Christopher and I could muster nothing more specific than, “Pretty fish! Big whale!”, and my son, who is four? Enraptured with leaning over the railing, straw in his mouth, spitting blue slushee on the floor.)

I looked at Christopher. “How the heck does she know all this?” It’s not so much that she seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world; it’s that it’s all available for immediate recall. Nothing has been forgotten.

He shrugged. “Her books, I guess.”

This is the girl who can recite appearance, habitat, and preferred foods of fifty-five sub-types of dragons (the imaginary sort). But it’s also the girl who sulked and cried bitter sloppy tears at the circus the other night because we wouldn’t buy her both the rainbow lightsaber ($10) and the plastic balloon unicorn ($15). She is a wonderful study in contrasts.

Later that night, while Christopher and I were watching “The Pacific” on TV, she snuck downstairs.

“I can’t sleep,” she said. No wonder—she sucked down her entire Coca-Cola slushee. Her eyes were wide and bright. “I heard banging. Like a gun.”

“We’re watching a movie about a war,” I said. “They have guns.”

“Oh. Guns are bad. Fighting is bad. Momma, are you coming up to bed?”

“In a minute,” I said. “We’re having dessert. Do you want some?”

She sniffed at the rhubarb-ginger-honey compote Christopher had made to go on top of ice cream. “Yuck,” she said, and jumped down on the floor beside the dog.

Meanwhile, Christopher and I ate our ice cream (I’d been to the gym earlier that day, so I told IT one small scoop wouldn’t be the end of me), and then I went to the bathroom to pee. Without asking, or informing, or whatever it is I’m supposed to do when Emergency Measures Are in Effect.

Christopher charged after me, full of anger. “You just purged didn’t you?”

“No, I didn’t purge. I was peeing. Couldn’t you hear?” I was defensive, tired of having to explain my every move. Didn’t I just pee with the door wide open? Of course, I understood Christopher’s anger, stemming from fear and concern.

“Then why were you reaching down?” he said. “And what’s this in the sink?”

“The kids’ toothpaste. I didn’t fucking purge.” Immediate loud spike in resentment and fury. I forgot to remember my daughter was there and listening. Shit shit shit. I’m trying my best to shield her from IT and the resulting fallout—tense conversations (arguments?) with Christopher and weird rules like keeping the bathroom door open. I wonder if she finds it a relief to go over to her friends’ houses where normal mommies behave reasonably—eat a chocolate bar, speak in pleasant tones, paint their (unchewed) nails Party Pink.

Christopher gave me the hairy eyeball, so I stomped upstairs with my daughter. We dove under the covers and settled in, her toes scratching against my leg.

“Momma,” she said. “Why does Daddy have to protect you all the time?” What did she mean? It’s not as if he led the way by shield and sword, or played bodyguard with gun and fist. But I knew she was referring to the awful (and often repeated) scene downstairs: Christopher rushing after me to interrupt some unfolding scene of self-damage.

“Well,” I said, “we’re married so we take care of each other.”

“But why does he protect you? Why is he always running after you and asking you questions about what you’re doing? Like, are you safe?”

Ahh. She wanted to know why he’s always asking me what (or if) I ate; why he’s always standing watch at the bathroom door; why he needs to know if I’m safe. Really, what she wanted to know is if I needed to be protected from myself. It’s why she likes to keep me close. Her body cuddled up against mine—toes on legs, fingers on arm. It is also why she and her brother insist I sleep in the middle, between them, so I can’t sneak out of bed, so they can keep me here.

“It’s my brain thing,” I finally said. “Daddy likes to protect me from my brain, when it isn’t working right.”

“Oh,” she said, “then why don’t you just go to your doctor and get more medicine?”

“Sometimes the medicine isn’t enough.”

“Do you think you should go back to the hospital?”

“Oh, no, sweetheart. I’ll be okay without the hospital.”

“Good. Because I want you to stay here.”

I reached over and tickled her in the armpit. “Got you in the birdie’s nest,” I said.

She giggled then tickled me back. I laughed, loudly, wanting to show here I was here, with her, right now.

“You’re laughing, Momma,” she announced. “You hardly ever laugh. And I’m making you laugh!”

Oh god. So I’ve been that bad. “You always make me laugh,” I said. “And I love you to infinity.”

“Good,” she said. “You should laugh more.” Then she flung herself back into the pillow, grabbed my hand, and went to sleep. And I stayed between my daughter and son, between their warm, tiny, necessary bodies. I prayed that I would be a momma who laughed and loved and lived. And then I went to sleep, safe and sound.