Monday, October 31, 2011

Cleaning House

October 31, 2011

The past few weeks, I’ve been manically cleaning house.  Tossing decades old sheets and towels, throwing out gym clothes I’ve been wearing since graduate school days, tearfully burying at the bottom of the garbage pile, my pretty, expensive nursing bras that I’d been hopefully holding onto, just in case things got better enough to try for Bakkenaki #3.  Then there have been the kitchen and breakfast room paint jobs, which have meant a corresponding sorting of glassware and needless-ware and chipped-ware and junk-ware and ugly-wedding-present-now-thirteen-years-out-so-we-can-throw-it-out-ware.  Baseboard scrubbing (years of dog hair) and shop-vacuuming the basement ceiling and floor of cobwebs, bug husks, and hibernating daddy longlegs. 
All of this industrious activity is productive and certainly makes me feel like I am accomplishing something instead of just sucking money from the government for being sick.  See?  Momma extraordinaire.  Just yesterday, Alexander walked into the breakfast room where I was repainting a cabinet, and he shouted out to his sister, “Hey, Sophia!  Come see!  Momma is painting!  Come see what a great artist she’s being!”

Both practical proletarian and imaginative artisté.  What better model of modern motherhood could there be?
But really, I am dodging the intended subject of this post.  Just as all that home improvement is a diversionary tactic.  It keeps the focus away from me.  Literally.  No time to look in the mirror.  No time, really, truly, cross my heart, to eat.  Okay, maybe I grab a handful of Go Lean Crunch Berry here and there.  Or a half-handful of Craisins.  But the days just pass.  I mean, I have to fit in AA, and kid-crap pick-up, and general house-cleaning.  So I just forget to eat. 

Doth the lady protest too much?
I received a response to one of my blogs the other day, and the writer told me how much my honesty meant to her, because I “get IT,” particularly around the matter of eating—or rather—not eating, how difficult it is to explain why it is so hard to eat that last bite, how hard it is to stick to recovering from an Eating Disorder, even when you have every reason to—husband, kids, people who love you.  And I realized that for weeks I’ve been dodging my own struggles with ED—I haven’t really written about it here.  I’ve been going on and on about how I’ve been hippy-hoppy-happy.  Tap dancing, patting my back, whistling, if not Dixie, then maybe some nostalgic Sex Pistols.

Which is not to say, some things haven’t been going well.  I’ll just be efficient, like one of my many Home Depot lists these days:
1.      8 months sober as of October 27th
2.      Graduated from my Partial Hospitalization Program on October 26th
3.      Dr. B. has taken me back on! (with conditions)
4.      My yoga teacher has asked me to teach a yoga class for him next Fall! (Really?!)
5.      No cutting since August.
6.      I’m trying to be open and honest and courageous.
7.      I’ve made many new, authentic friends through recovery.
8.      I’m addressing my character defects and working on changing them.
9.      I’m beginning to make amends to the people I have hurt along the way.
10.  I’m learning how to head panic, anger, escalating self-harm impulses by talking to Christopher first.

Notice what’s missing?  Despite 5 inpatient stays over the past 4 years or so at Eating Disorder Treatment programs, I’m still stuck in the quicksand.

Here are the facts: My weight, once again, is low.  Not as low as it has been in the past, but low enough for my husband to say that I look emaciated.  Low enough for friends I trust to tell me I look “too thin,” “awful,” and “gaunt.” 

Do these remarks bother me?  Of course, it stings my vanity.  I don’t want to look ugly.  But then again, I’ve never really been interested in being attractive, per se.  I’ve always been uncomfortable being, well, “beautiful,” something I’ve been called all my life.  When I was a teenager and worked for my father at his law firm in the city, we’d ride the train and then subway together, and I’d always get stared at by men, much older-suited-up men, men my father’s age, and get jostled by these men.  All I could do was stare at my shoes, hope my father wouldn’t notice them looking at me, because I didn’t want to embarrass him.  I hated them looking at me.

Later, my being attractive always elicited unwelcome remarks from guys in bars, then of course, there was the abusive boyfriend in college, and then in graduate school one night, when I was drunk, and not quite passed out in bed, but the party was still going on, a friend’s boyfriend came into the bedroom, and put his hand up my skirt, then under my underwear, felt me up—or down, I guess—and I didn’t move, didn’t say a thing—just kept my eyes closed, kept wishing him away.  So all of my life, my being “pretty” has just meant, mostly, attention I haven’t really wanted. 

Besides, this losing weight isn’t about trying to be more attractive, isn’t about media influence—it’s tied to trying to get rid of excess—a kind of purging.  Whatever isn’t necessary can go.  Whatever isn’t essential?  Dump.  Like what I’m doing with the house.

But okay.  I know I’m in the Red Zone.  Hair is a mess again.  I’m bruising easily and the bruises take forever to fade.  So I took action—got blood work and an EKG done.  Everything came back normal—except I know it’s not, because I’m skipping meals whenever I can.  And avoiding mirrors.  Because whenever I catch a sideways glance of myself, I see what my friends and husband see—the hollowed out cheeks, the protruding hipbones, the wan, exhausted face.

Two days ago, I got an unexpected phone call from a friend who was in my Partial program with me over the summer and has struggled with an Eating Disorder for 13 years—anorexia and bulimia. 

“I’m dying,” she said.  “My doctor has given me at most, 1 year.  Even if I turn things around today.  My heart has a murmur—I need open heart surgery, but they don’t think I’d survive the surgery.  I have a tear in my esophagus from the purging—I’m throwing up blood.  I need surgery for that, but they think if they put an endoscope down my throat that will just tear it even further and I’ll bleed out.  I’m so anemic, I need a transfusion.  My liver is shutting down and there’s no treatment for that.  I need dialysis.  So basically, 1 year, and if I go inpatient and they’re able to help, that might extend things by a few months.  Oh, I have to go.  My husband just walked in from work.”

Dying.  No turn-around.  No recovery possible.

Her husband.

No recovery possible.

Her husband.

Her friends.

Her husband alone with her dead body.

Her friends left with her death.

Her husband alone.

Her dead body.

No chance for kids ever.


My husband.

My kids.

My body.

Recovery is still POSSIBLE.

Yesterday, Alexander and I were driving home from the grocery store, jamming out to Coldplay’s “Paradise,” my new obsession song (have you seen their elephant freeing itself from the zoo and taking off for Africa video? Impossible, but improbably touching, particularly in light of the recent Ohio massacre of all those lions and tigers and bears, oh my, I cry and cried)…).  Right then, in front of me, on our little town highway, a beautiful, three point buck (I think I counted correctly in that flash of an instant), dashed into the road.  I barely missed hitting it.  In my rearview mirror, I watched the car behind me slam into its hindquarters.  The buck toppled to the ground, its front legs scrambling to get up, its back legs paralyzed—momentarily, and then, miraculously, it was on all fours again, all muscles defined, propelling it at top speed, flying and weaving through the now slowed traffic.

The buck disappeared into the woods adjacent to the bike trail.  To rest.  To catch its breath.  To repair.  To die?  To live?

“Momma,” Alexander asked, from the backseat.  “Will the deer be okay?”  He was twisted around, his head and eyes following the path of the deer.

Already, I was wiping away tears.  “I don’t know, honey.  But maybe.  He sure is trying to be okay.  Maybe he’s running home, back to his family.  Maybe they’ll take care of him.”

Maybe.  But that sheer, instinctual, absolute, glorious force of will to try to be okay.  To leap out of the path of death.

My lessons keep coming exactly when I need them.  As a teacher, I know when to listen and study and take them to heart.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Humility, Serenity, and Barbarian Joy

October 23, 2011
"Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real."
                                    --Thomas Merton

Humility.  Not my strong suit.  Because with humility comes its’ sister action: Yielding.  This was the subject of my AA meeting this morning.  And coincidentally enough, the guiding subject of my week.  But more on that later.
For me, in the past, humility always seemed too close, linguistically, to humiliation.  This was something I was particularly adept at—whether it was having my husband wake me up in the middle of the night because I peed the bed (and by extension, him) from my oh-so glamorous too many Riedel-filled glasses of wine; or having the police hover over my bed in the middle of the night because my husband had to dial 911 as I’d slashed up my arms and threatened suicide—one officer inspecting my arm with his penlight, another writing notes in the official casebook, and all I could think about were the neighbors and what they were thinking about with the squad car in our driveway; or the time in college, when drunk beyond drunk, I agreed to a one night stand with some dumb frat boy who was in my anthropology class, and the next day, in class, he ignored me—a study in survival of the dumbest and drunkest?; or any of the number of times Christopher has caught me in the act of purging, or pointed out the “leftover” that didn’t make it down the toilet in my sneaky, hasty, guilty flushes.

Humiliation.  No wonder I’d wanted to die so many times over.

But humility.  AA’s Step 7 promises that with true humility comes serenity with open heart, willingness, and yielding to a higher power comes peace.
As I write this, on my porch, in the fading, rare sunshine of a Northwestern Pennsylvania afternoon (all we’ve had for the past week has been rain, cold, and wind), I’m bombarded by the chaotic shrieks of my barbarian kids and their friends biking, zooming on scooters, and catapulting leaves in the driveway—anything but serene, but they are possessed with pure, exuberant joy.  My heart swells with envy.  When was the last time I felt that wild with being loose and free in body and happiness and play?  Truly, I don’t know, as these days, these years and years, I’ve been overwrought with self-consciousness, with the churning self-criticism, the over-thinking, and the constant hovering between wanting to damage myself, inflict pain, and give in to suicide.  Where in all that is there any room for barbarian joy?

But at the AA meetings’ opening, we went around the circle, reading the 7th Step.  Beside me, sat Scott and Renee (not their real names), recently engaged, both in their twenties.  Renee is a dual addict, sober 2 years, the mother of three young boys, on welfare, missing all of her teeth (would I have the humility to go out in public like that or would my pride, my vanity keep my inside, stuck to the bottle?), and an inspiration.  Scott, a veteran, recently back from a relapse, the product of a horrendously abusive childhood, and bipolar like me, by all appearances would seem like some, well, ex-meth head dirtbag.  But he is smart, and I mean, intelligent smart, not just street smart.

When it came time for Renee to read her few paragraphs, it soon became evident that she was barely literate, stumbling over words more than 5 or 6 letters long, but trying them out anyway.  Humility and courage and grace.  Look where true recovery can lead you.  Or Me. Set aside pride and vanity.  Renee could have been humiliated by such an attempt.  Instead, she giggled at her missteps.

And that WE I spoke about in my previous post?  Scott sat right beside her and at every hesitation, he quietly whispered the right pronunciation to her, coaching her through the words.  Cheering at every difficult word she managed to sound out on her own.  Love and support, two heart cells beating as one.

So how have I been practicing humility this week?

That yielding I mentioned?  I admitted to myself and to my psychiatrist and nutritionist that I had some concerns over my nutritional status as I haven’t been keeping to my eating plan as I said I was; i.e., I’ve been skipping meals.  There have been some symptoms of nutritional deficit besides the expected and evident weight loss: vitamin deficiency fueled acne and some chest pains perhaps related to plain old anxiety, but possibly related to electrolyte imbalance.  At night, I’ve been plagued by my heart pounding, chest tightening, and I don’t want my children to roll over in the morning and find me dead of a heart attack.  I don’t want to burden them in that way.  So, I humbled myself, told my doctors the truth, and asked for them to do bloodwork and order an EKG.  All of this will be done this week.  And, I’ve come clean with Christopher, too, in this regard—have stepped back onto an honest eating plan.  In just a few days, “miraculously,” my skin has cleared up.  Amazing what regular meals and a belly full of spinach can do!

But the more momentous turning point has been getting back in touch with Dr. B.  The real Dr. B.  The five-years therapist Dr. B..  When I was on my spiritual retreat last weekend, I brought along an old journal in which to take notes—a journal half-filled with entries from the previous few years, and so many of those entries contained almost verbatim conversations I’d had with Dr. B. in therapy sessions.  Important conversations, challenging, revealing conversations that reminded me how well he knew me, how intimately he knew my character defects, the ways in which I can lie and manipulate and dodge, the ways in which I was/am unwilling to yield to wise counsel.  A higher power.  And my higher power, generally speaking since I am not religious in any dogmatic way, tends to be Dr. B;,  he is wise, intelligent, summons his knowledge from a variety of sources, and ultimately, knows what is best for me in my recovery.
I just tend not to listen because I think I know better.

But I know now, I don’t know better.  At least when it comes to getting better. 
So rereading those journal entries, I realized I wouldn’t ever find a better therapist.  Thinking back on those months when everything fell apart—December, January, February—I also realized I didn’t remember how it fell apart.  Not in any real, clear way.  My narrative?  Dr. B. didn’t like the path that Psychiatrist/ECT Dr. B. had chosen.  HIS pride got in the way.  So he dumped me.  All I remembered was walking into Dr. B,’s office and him telling me he couldn’t work with me anymore.  All I remembered after that was feeling humiliated.  The BIG H.  Betrayed.  Ashamed. 

So, okay then.  FU.  I deleted Dr. B.’s number from my cell phone and thought, “I’ll show him.  I can do this recovery thing without him.  I can get better without him.  All I need is a few volts of electricity zapped through my brain—okay, maybe more than a few—and the past 39 years?  All better.”  This narrative allowed me to wipe my hands of any responsibility.  Shift responsibility.  No need for humility.  That little BIG H.
But after the retreat, I wanted to know, truly, how did all that end?  Because he was not the sort of man to act in that way.  He was kind and loving, a grace-filled, forgiveness-filled man, who would only sever ties with me if the mitigating factor was extraordinary.  So a few nights ago, I turned to Christopher and asked him what happened.

“Please,” I said.  “I need to know.”
His eyes widened, a look of disbelief.  “I never thought this day would come.  You’ve been so tied to the story that he betrayed you all these months.  I am so proud of you that you’ve come to this place, that you’re willing to consider the truth.  So here goes.  Do you remember our meeting together with Dr. B.?”

I shook my head.  Nothing.  Nada.
“We were in his office together.  You were crashing hard.  Totally manic.  Cutting yourself.  Your eating disorder on a rampage.  Suicidal.  We were losing you.  Dr. B. asked you if you could pledge safety to him.  You said, ‘No.’  So he wanted you to go to the hospital to go inpatient immediately.  You refused.  So he said he would have to 302 you (involuntary admission).  You were belligerent.  There was talk of police and an ambulance to escort you.  So you calmed down, said you’d let me drive you over.  On the way over, you kept saying you didn’t want to go to the hospital, that you didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to the kids.  When we got there, Dr. B. (psychiatrist/ECT Dr. B.) came down to the ER with a resident and interviewed you.  He basically said he didn’t think you were in crisis, that you didn’t need to be admitted.  When he asked you if you could pledge safety to him, you said, ‘Yes, of course you could,’ because you didn’t want to be in the hospital.  You lied.  So that’s why Dr. B. had to stop seeing you.  Ethically, professionally, he couldn’t be caught in the middle anymore.  He couldn’t be responsible for what you might do.  You betrayed his trust.”

I took all this in.  Breathed a sigh of relief.  The truth made complete sense.  The past 8 months of anger—of feeling betrayed—disappeared.  What I felt, instead, was an enormous sense of empathy and compassion for Dr. B..  How hard it must have been for him to end therapy with me after 5 years, because after all, he had devoted all that time to believing he could help me recover, help me turn my life around, and what had I done?  In the space of a few months, had impulsively “hooked up” with a new Dr. B., like some ecstatic cult member, believed in his intransigent sermon that ECT was my sole cure, the answer to all the ills that had plagued me for all these years, that my beloved Dr. B. was, in essence, akin to a time-wasting charlatan.
But like all cult leaders on the run, Psyhciatrist/ECT Dr. B. has fled, left me flailing, left me to the aftershocks of ECT.  Yes, I admit, ECT has its lifesaving place.  A last resort option.  It kept me from throwing myself under a bus, from swallowing all the pills in my house.  But, as I’ve recounted here over and over, it has stolen much of what is precious to me.  An expensive emergency measure.
Readjusted memory.  Remembered my 7th Step.  With humility comes serenity, but humility requires courage, and courage means I must take a risk and open my heart, be vulnerable.

While I’d deleted Dr. B.’s number from my cell phone, my computer’s email list had perfect memory.  I hit COMPOSE, and sent him an honest letter, accepting responsibility for the crash and burn, for the lying, the manipulation, and the collusion with Psychiatrist/ECT Dr. B., and most importantly, asked if he’d be willing to consider working with me again, as I’d be “graduating” from my Partial Hospitalization program this Wednesday.  I spent 24 hours chewing my nails, pacing, wound up. 
And then my INBOX posted his response.  He was willing to meet for a mutual “interview” to see if it might be possible for us to work together again and see if it might be possible for him to help me.  We met on Friday.  I wanted to cry.  I wanted to run away.  I wanted to hug him.  I wanted to beg for his forgiveness.  I wanted I wanted I wanted I wanted….I wanted him to simply say yes, he would take me back.  All was forgiven.

“Yes,” Dr. B. said, “I’ve forgiven you long ago. You can’t work in this business and hold grudges.  But I’ll need to take some time before I can decide whether to get into the thick of this with you again.  Because to be honest, I can’t work with you and not care deeply about you.  So I’ll need to think seriously and carefully about this.”
Strangely enough, I didn’t run, didn’t panic, didn’t shut down.  What I felt, instead, was what AA promises.  Serenity.  Peace.  I’d already received the answer I’d been seeking.  I’d been forgiven.  Dr. B. wouldn’t turn me away out of a lack of care, but because he cared.  Our work together had meant something to him, and to me.  Regardless of what happened in the future, whether it was a ‘yes’ or a ‘no,’ we’d both had our hearts touched by each other.  And wasn’t that the purpose of this life together?  To risk loving and caring for another person?  To have the humility to ask for forgiveness in order to receive grace?

Grace.  There was a moment in our meeting when our eyes met, and it seemed to me that there was no need for words—ironic since what we were ostensibly doing was “talk therapy”—when really, our hearts were meeting.  And everything felt okay.  And everything felt still and quiet.  And it seemed as if his eyes were welling with tears.  I know mine were.  And there was pain in our looking into each other, over all that has happened in the past.  And there was also the need to want to say, it is love that binds us all together, in the petri dish, in the pasture.  We don’t forget what we have meant to each other.  Even if you forget books you have read, or words that you know, or how to drive to Big Lots.  You always remember love—the people you love; the people who love you.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

1 + 1 = 1

October 18, 2011

 I learned a compelling fact about heart cells this weekend.  If you extract a single heart cell and place it in a petri dish by itself, it will madly fibrillate, immediately experience arrhythmia, like some tweaked out methhead alone in woods, twitching and dancing then slumping against the walls of his mobile home down some lonely road that stretches into the dark woods.
But here’s the astonishing solution: take another heart cell.  Any heart cell, from any other human being.  Just one.  Place it in that very same petri dish and immediately, both cells will start beating together, defibrillate, achieve a life sustaining, balanced heartbeat.  One needs the other to be saved from its isolating craziness.  One needs the other to be brought out of isolation and alienation back into supportive, healing companionship.  Just like we need each other.  Just like I need You.

I heard this and immediately was brought back to a similar story, an encounter I witnessed a few years ago at the stables where I used to ride.  Used to, the key words.  Can’t at present due to my fluctuating body weight.  I need to have enough weight to stay on top of a horse, enough strength to keep my thighs gripped around a horse’s barrel in order to stay on and upright, in order to convey to the horse that I can stay with him as we trot or canter or jump.  And with all the meds I’m on right now, it’s uncertain I can sustain my balance for sixty minutes, that like those two heart cells, I can stay in syncopation with the horse, become and stay as one for the length of a lesson.  And then for the sake of consistency for my instructor, she needs to know I can show up for lesson after lesson, month after month instead of the interruptions of “unexpected” hospitalizations that seem possible these days.

But I digress.  I was out at Hobbs Hollow, a stable that uses only rescue horses, horses damaged from neglect, abuse, trauma; horses that need to learn to trust their handlers and riders again through patient and consistent care, through a light, yet firm seat and hands; horses that are used to humans treating them like shit; horses that now have to see that sometimes humans offer carrots, a warm blanket, and a soothing whisper.

Sophia and I stopped out at the stables just for a visit and were leaning against the fenced-in-field watching a gorgeous, black thoroughbred trotting, cantering, galloping, and circling wildly inside the field; she’d rush at the fence, then skid to a stop.  Then start the whole cycle up again.  From our position, it seemed like the horse was having a wonderful, playful romp.  The sun was out, the field full of clover, her black body gleaming as she sped around in willy-nilly circles.

Lee, my instructor, came over and stood beside us.  Her fingers were hitched in the belt loops of her jeans and she was chewing on a stalk of hay.

Sophia, teetering on a fence beam, her polka-dotted shirt in tune with the scene, sighed, “I wish I could be out there running around like that!”

Lee spit the hay from her mouth.  “That’s how a horse gets hurt.  Running around like that.  That’s Fate and she’s having a nervous breakdown out there alone.  We just got her in yesterday.  She was in her stall, kicking at the walls, so we took her out here.  But she’s just going nuts.”

Sophia’s face lit up, like it always does when she has an IDEA!  “Maybe she needs a friend, so she won’t be so lonely.”

Lee chuckled.  “Sophia, you are a right on little horsewoman.  That’s exactly what we’re about to do.”

I stood there watching Fate, taking in Lee’s words, having to realign my misinterpretation of her “play.”  This beautiful, even regal trot—sudden switch to a fierce gallop, stopped suddenly by the end, the fence, then the skid, the quick turn, the canter back—this was a chaotic, disorganized shifting through paces, this was DISTRESS, a terror at wanting to not be alone out there.  Fate was trying to find a way to run off, to run out of the isolation, but was only becoming more disorganized, more frenzied.  Watching her, what could be--to the unobservant, unschooled eye--play, a beautiful energy, an abundance of spirit, a running loose and free, butwas only a fraying, a disintegration, a coming apart.  But according to Lee, and understood by Sophia, Fate could be put back together merely by the comforting presence of another horse out there with her.  Just like those heart cells.

Fate not left to Fate’s own Self.

And this was the precise cure.  A stablehand led out Peppy, a calm, even-minded Quarter horse.  Peppy was set loose in the field, and ambled around.  Fate stopped in her tracks, gave Peppy a suspicious, long look, then without much ado, trotted over to him.  Soon enough, the two horses were walking serenely around the field together, side-by-side, munching on the purple clover.

This is exactly why I love horses so much, why I love riding them particularly Lee’s rescue horses.  Damaged like me, suspicious like me, vulnerable like me, needing soft hands like me.  But the miraculous, transformative feeling when I am on a horse like Fate, soft hands on the reins, connected by the slightest pressure, with the slightest movement to her mouth, my legs wrapped around her barrel, again the slightest pressure of thighs and calves and heels—no kicking, no jabbing, just an adjustment of pressure, a tightening of my muscles against her body—more like lovemaking (no, don’t go there, but you know what I mean).  I can feel her breath moving against my legs, and in the trot, my body rises with hers, and in the canter, my body glides with hers, and in jumping, we soar together.  One and One become One together.

I dreamed of this before I ever was on a horse.  As a child, I checked out How to Ride a Horse books from the library, read them, memorized the instructions, the horse’s anatomy, the tack, and then would lie in bed for hours, eyes closed, and just imagine from start to finish an entire ride—fetching “my” horse from the stall, grooming her, tacking her up, then taking her out into an arena or out on the trail, and riding—walking, trotting, cantering, jumping.  These star-filled rides sustained me during many difficult nights of very real self-doubt and insecurity, very real loneliness and alienation—already at 7 and 8, I could feel myself rushing around in wild, desperate circles.  So those imagined rides on the back of “my” horse, on a mapped out over-fences course, fences that were risky, thrilling, four-five feet high, enough to get both our heartbeats pumping fast, but still in syncopation, that was enough.  No longer alone in the field of my bed, no longer rushing fences.

1 + 1= 1.

So you can imagine both my surprise and my matter of factness, when at my first real riding lesson at 9, my instructor told me that she had never met a more natural rider, that it was as if I’d been riding for years, that I made it look effortless.  What I wanted to tell her was that I’d been riding for years in my dreams, that I’d been one with horses forever.

Where is all this going?

A few things have come together for me in the past few days.  I realized the value of my group at the partial hospitalization program I attend.  Outside of that room, many of us feel lonely and alienated by the sheer nature of the mental illnesses we contend with on a daily basis.  Many of us feel ashamed, afraid to talk about what we struggle with; feel “crazy” out there in the “normal” world.  But the minute we enter our group room and sit down with each other, we are inside that field together.  Alienation and loneliness disspate.  We find that are heart cells in many ways beat in the exact same ways—our struggles are similar and our desire for connection and recovery is exactly the same.

I also just received an email from a friend who I lost touch with, but with whom I’ve reconnected to via Facebook and my blog.  Because of what she’s read of my struggles on the blog, she felt like she could help me by sharing many of her own similar struggles that she’s had to contend with over the years and her own path to recovery.  My first thought on reading her email was: If I only knew!  We both could have been saved from our loneliness over all these years!  We both could have been there for each other over all these years!  But of course, for many of these years, it is quite possible we were both not ready to be honest and vulnerable, to risk an open heart.  I know in my case, I would have probably chosen to have remained alone in the field, charging the fence and any other horse who tried to get close.  But my second thought was: Here we are, both ready to open our hearts to each other, to share our stories, to walk the field together, maybe even munch on the clover of happiness, share in the sunshine of our recovering selves.

Then of course, there’s the connection to my family.  I think all I need to provide you with is two images.  One: I am in any of the various hospitals I’ve been in, alone in my hospital bed, sometimes tied to it, sometimes my arms wrapped in bandages, sometimes an anesthesia mask strapped to my face and electrodes taped to my skull, shivering with cold.  Two: I am in my King-sized bed at home, mashed up against Sophia and Alexander and Christopher and the forty stuffed animals that regularly join us; we are generating enough heat between us all to melt the polar ice cap; I lean over, before hitting the pillow and kiss the kids’ sweaty foreheads a dozen times over, and then Christopher and I mumble our sleepy “I love you’s” before it’s lights out.

Finally, there’s you, dear Readers.  And I do mean Dear.  I write this blog for me.  I write this because I am a writer.  I write this to make meaning out of the pain.  I write this with language that tries to give the pain and yes, the beauty, shape and truth.  I write this to be a caretaker of memory and the gardener of recovery.  But I also write this for You.  I have made this public for You.  I could have simply kept all this in my little black journal hidden away under my bed.  I could have kept it in pen, gone all melodramatic and histrionic.  But I have tried to be honest, tried to be vulnerable, tried to find a voice that is balanced, tried to stay hopeful even when IT presents as hopeless.  But what I have hoped is that You might find yourself, or part of your story here.  That you might not feel so alone and alienated.  Back to the isolated heart cell.  Back to Fate running crazy circles and rushing that fence.

It is why I treasure your feedback.  Okay, so maybe when I hear from you a tiny part of my ego is shouting a lá Sally Field, “They like me!  They really like me!”  But really, what I feel is less alone, less like the crazy person in the isolation room at the hospital with the mattress on the floor, given her food on the Styrofoam tray, given only a plastic spoon, watched by surveillance camera 24 hours a day.  I feel like you’re in there with me in the petri dish, our hearts beating, if only momentarily, together.  I feel like you’re in that field with me, that we’re walking around under the sun, or sometimes, under the dark cloud together.  No longer in solitary confinement.

1 + 1 + 1 + 1+ 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + = 1    

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mad Momma Libs

October 13, 2011

Lately, Alexander has been obsessing over Mad Libs.  In fact, he threw one of his rare, though powerful, pouty, foot-stomping, “Life isn’t fair!” tantrums when I came home baring surprise presents for both kids last week: a Mad Libs book for Sophia and an age-inappropriate Icky/Bizarro Body Book (i.e., up close and personal photos of how Oreos are transformed by the digestive track into poop).  I thought that Alexander, at age 5, would prefer the poop over the more ponderous grammatical concepts of nouns, verbs, and adjectives.  Apparently not. 
I was the Unfair Momma. 

But Sophia being Sophia, the daughter who delightedly stirs octopus brains on the beaches of Greece with her forefinger in pre-Nobel for Science, happily traded books.  I spent the next several hours and days explaining and re-explaining the differences between nouns, verbs, and adjectives. 

“A noun is a thing, like dog or cat or, well, poop.   A verb is a thing you do, like run or walk,” I said.
Alexander nodded, “Or poop.  You can poop, too.”

Ahh, a potential linguist in the making.  Already he understands the way language can be manipulated.
“And an adjective describes something.  Like red or slow or soft or tired,” I said.  Tired.  Yes, I know that only too well these days.

Again, he nodded.  “Brown!  Like brown poop!”  So, not interested in reading about it, but certainly fascinated in its literary composition.
Alexander’s Mad Libs have thankfully drifted away from excrement and veered towards T-Rex territory, and since Halloween is fast approaching, ghosts, pirates, zombies and blood are often repeated nouns; run, scare, and hide are the verbs; while red, bloody, scary, and dark are the go-to adjectives.

(Small digression: we went to one of those Haunted Houses last weekend, this one underground, and really meant for adults as most of the tableaus featured fairly sadistic CSI/Dexter type scenes.  I confess, I was scared, but held it together since I was holding Alexander’s hand.  For the first few rooms, he gripped my hand, his voice quavered, and he kept saying he was scared.  All of a sudden, though, he decided he was some sort of brave Superhero, and he ran up to each awful incarnation—the bloody Freddy Kreuger, the Chainsaw-wielding Madman, the creepy, man-spider crawling around on all-fours—and shouted in their faces, “You don’t scare me!  You don’t scare me!”  And the thing was, he meant it.)
So today, Sophia and Alexander proposed Mad Libbing Momma.  I was initially hesitant.  What sort of nouns, verbs, and adjectives in reference to me would they come up with? 

Noun: Okay, maybe an easy given—Momma.
Verb: Leaves. Disappears.  Yells.  Screams.  Cries.

Adjective: Sad.  Mad.  Scary.  Crazy.
But I gave Sophia a reprieve from studying for her Social Studies test (Regions and Weather—to be honest, a pretty hard test with a lot of vocabulary and information—not sure I could memorize it all unless I was hoping to get a job as a meteorologist for CNN) and this is the result.

Sophia’s Mad Momma Lib:

Roses are red, CHIPMUNKS are blue.  She PLAYS like a CAT.  Mom can be fun, and loves GREECE.  She wears clothes that are LIGHT BLUE every day.
Alexander’s Mad Momma Lib:

Roses are red, T-REXS are blue.  She HOPS like a SEA SERPENT.  Mom can be fun, and loves DISNEY LAND.  She wears clothes that are ORANGE every day.

And my own self-referential Mad Momma Lib:
Roses are red, BIRDS are blue.  She TWIRLS like a TREE.  Mom can be fun, and loves GREECE.  She wears clothes that are PURPLE every day.

Nothing here suggests crazy.  Nothing here mentions my long absences, the hospitalizations, the manic flights of desperation, the disappearance into the dark cellar of depression over and over.  They knew, and I knew, in advance the theme of this Mad Lib was me—and yet—the words that came to mind, were words of strength, of agility of movement, landscapes of light and innocent play. 
Okay, a few roaring, coiling monsters, but my son draws those monsters and hangs them on his wall.  “You don’t scare me!”  I have to remember that he runs up to those monsters, seeks them out.  They don’t scare him.  He longs for the rollercoaster. 

And Sophia?  The curled up, serene purring cat.  For instance, last night, we had what might be a typical pre-teen blow-up fight, initially mishandled by both of us, but then, we resolved it.  For most of the night, though, I carried her words around inside me: “I’m angry at Momma!  She yelled at me.  I’m so angry at her!”  Remembering the wounds I carried inside my own 9 year old self when I believed I was unfairly yelled at by my own mother.  But later that night, after we apologized to each other, after we hugged and made up, I overheard her telling—no, telling isn’t a strong enough word—insisting that she was going to sleep next to me that night.  “It’s my night to sleep next to Momma.  She’s mine tonight.”
Mad Libs.  Mad Love.  Momma Love.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Scars, Swallows, Serendipity, Serenity

October 5, 2011

For the past few weeks (well, decades, really), I’ve been staring down at my forearms, counting scars, ruminating on the damage, and because so much of that occurred in pre-ECT years, am able to remember (unfortunately? Perhaps here, memory loss might be appreciated), in vivid, tortured detail, the impulsive and predetermined scenes, all the various implements—those shiny, new straight-edges, the rusty ones filched from tool boxes, plastic Daisy razors snapped open, glass broken against concrete, dirty shards of glass pocketed from gutters, kitchen scissors, sewing scissors, nail scissors, serrated knives, chef’s knives, and at my most stupidly desperate: there I was in the ICU coming back to consciousness after a desperately, deliberate manic suicidal overdose on Lithium and Ambien, given a can of Diet Coke—flip-top intact-by the attending nurse, and in an unattended few minutes, manage to cut up my arms with aforementioned flip top.

So, by now, with every shower, ever application of honeyed body cream, every decision to wear short sleeves or a bathing suit, I must face what I have done and what I have too often, in my impulsive, dark moments, continued to do.
In these past weeks, I decided it was time to do something different, time to inscribe hope.  Is it possible to reinvent the wheel?  What could I do that would change the way I see what is already there?  What could I do that might give me pause in the next impulsive flash?  What could I do that would remind me of what I have to keep me tied to this world of love and joy and redemption, namely Christopher, Sophia and Alexander?

A tattoo.  On my right wrist, superimposed on the tangle of scars, on the usual, go-to- cutting hand.  I have one tattoo already, on my lower right hip-ish area.  A blue jay on a cherry blossom branch—vocal bird unafraid to speak its mind; the flower of hope.  This new, permanent symbol?  It would have to be Greek themed, since so much of our lives are tied to this county—engagement, pregnancy, infancies, depressions, recoveries, our four-square made one.

Two swallows swooping at each other, an ancient archaeological painting from a site in Santorini.  Swallows: the birds of Spring, of new life, of hope.  Surrounding the birds, the names of my family written in Greek:  The intended result?  I look at my arm and will see the meaning and purpose of my life.  A hopeful deterrent.

Yesterday afternoon, I took my pictures to the local tattoo parlor, and the artist, Mad Mike, told me he could sketch it out and have it ready to go by today.  Excellent.  A perfect surprise for my family!

The rest of the day seemed to skyrocket.  And I do mean that in the giddy, manic, uh-oh kind of way.  A beginning mania that’s been creeping up on me the past week.  7am to Midnight, nonstop.  Every hour packed and planned, no sitting, no stopping, go go, go.  My energy up, up, up but so is my irritability.  The excited goodness!! Yesterday beginning to take a downturn with the kids’ swim practice.  Alexander finishes his practice 30 minutes before Sophia, swimming his little, determined heart out, climbing out of the pool, shivering and blue.  We go to the locker room for a warm shower and change of clothes, and when I rummage through the swim bag, realize to my immediate, agonizing self-recrimination, that I have forgotten his underwear and warm sweatpants, which means all I have is his wet, cold swim trunks.  And why don’t I have a change of clothes?  Because I was rushing, rushing, rushing too fast, and left them right on the kitchen counter.  I try as best as I can to dry his trunks under the hand driers, but they are still damp, and he is still shivering as we sit in the bleachers for another 30 minutes waiting for Sophia to finish her practice.

But all is not lost.  I return home and head to my AA meeting, where the theme of discussion is hope.  Fitting considering my tattoo decision, considering my success with Carolyn’s visit the previous weekend.  As I recount that story to the group, talk about how I have, for the first time, come to believe that my recovery is actually possible, that I finally have genuine hope for myself because of the support I receive from my family, from my AA family, from my family up in my Partial Hospitalization group, I am additionally bowled over at the end of the meeting when these two men, utterly different—one, my mentor Grandpa, the other, this big, burly Southern black man—each tell me that they love me, are inspired by me.  Me?  I give other people hope?  Really?  As Sophia would say, crazy amazing!

I return home, gushing about the meeting to Christopher, brimming with joy and hope, almost moved to tears by my happiness and secret anticipation over the next day’s tattoo. 

Until I hear Alexander hollering from upstairs about his booboo on his leg—another potential staff infection.  For some god-awful reason, he is prone to them.  I go upstairs, apply hot compress to the pus-filled boil, then try to squeeze it to relieve the devil inside.  What this means, as I know from experience: Alexander starts screaming, crying, tears streaming down his face, begging me to “Stop, stop, please Momma stop, please, you’re hurting me, Momma, please, Momma please!”  Sobbing uncontrollably.  I try to steel myself against the awful pain, his and mine.

Christopher comes running up the stairs, sees me hunched over the poor boy, finally bandaging him up, leans over and whispers to me, “Kerry, don’t you remember the doctor said not to squeeze them?”

I shook my head.  “No,” I said, with added, emphatic, unnecessary spite.

“You don’t remember?  When we came back from Greece in July and we brought him to the doctor after he had one and we squeezed it and the doctor said we could actually spread the infection through his system that way?”

I shook my head again.  No memory at all.  Another ECT wipeout.

“Well, you’d better give him some Ibuprofen.”

I stomped off to the bathroom, loaded up the plunger, came back into the bedroom and got ready to plunge the grape medicine into Alexander’s mouth, opened expectantly like a little wounded bird.  He was still sobbing, still moaning, still shaking, still saying, “Momma, Momma, you hurt me, you hurt me.”

Christopher suddenly stopped me.  “Are you sure that’s the right dosage?  Did you check the dose?”
I glared at him, my manic, guilt-ridden hackles immediately standing straight up.  “What?  You think I can’t read now?  You think I’m incompetent now?  Now I’m some terrible mother, too?”  Saying all this nasty, lashing out shit, directing at him, easy target, because really, I was thinking all this, already at me.

He responded, in kind, with anger, bemusement, in self-defense.  Then said, “It’s almost 10:00.  We should eat.” 

I should say that he had spent a lot of time, after a long day of teaching, making a very delicious dinner: a gratin of potatoes, kale, spinach, and 3 kinds of yummy, exotic, Frenchy-cheeses.
My response?  Juvenile, eating disorder, FU bitch: “I’m not eating after this.”

I stomped downstairs, to the couch, glared at the floor, the coffee table, then my forearms, seized suddenly by the most intense desire to grab the nearest, most convenient sharpest object at hand—could I push past Christopher into the kitchen?—the chef’s knife in the sink, and cut deeply into my arms, over and over, intending stitches at the very least.

Because all I could think is this: You are a shitty, awful, terrible, no-good mother.  You have caused your son unnecessary, horrible pain.  It is not just that you are forgetting words, forgetting names, forgetting how to drive around your small town, but you are forgetting essential medical information necessary to your children’s health and well-being.  You deserve pain.  You deserve to pay.  You deserve to remember this night and the only way to remember is to make sure this night leaves its mark on you.  Scars.

But I did not give into this impulse.  Instead, I was seized by my body convulsing in sobs, wracking, heaving sobs.  Once again, Christopher came running, sat beside me, his hand on my back, his voice soothing, forgiving, loving me still, offering healing and hope.

After I caught my breath, hugged Christopher, wiped the unattractive blobs of make-up and snot from my face, I went upstairs and smothered Alexander in hugs and kisses and apologies, asking for forgiveness.  Already, he had settled down, already he was giving me wet smooches and insisting on my Momma-magnificence, and already Sophia was acting as Greatest Big Sister, offering him free Pokémon cards from her treasured stash to help him feel better.  My heart swelled watching them in powwow on the bed.

Today: In the tattoo chair, forearm swabbed with alcohol, Mad Mike buzzing at my wrist with his needle.  At one point, he stops, and says, “You’re awfully quiet.  Usually, my clients tend to make a little more noise and move around a little more.  They find things a bit more painful.”

I shrugged.  “Well, I do a lot of yoga.”

He laughed.  “But you seem so serene.  But I guess I can see you are maybe used to pain in this area?”

“That’s what the tattoo is for.  Hope.  My family.  I look down and see beauty and a reason to live.”

“I’m glad I can help create that for you.  Not my usual Pimp Daddy or Celtic Knot.”

Nervous, nervous, nervous.  Reminder: a surprise for my family.  But Christopher loves it, and he thinks I got all the names translated correctly into Greek.  As I showed it to him, I started crying—over the tattoo’s beauty (it IS unequivocally beautiful), but also because the timing was perfect, considering last night’s almost-crisis.  And Sophia and Alexander? 

Well, Alexander announced with his authority, “Now you have 3 birds!  One on your bum and  two your arm!”    

Sophia’s eyes widened, then she smiled.  “It’s so cool, Momma.  How old do you have to be before you can get a tattoo?”

“18,” I said.                                                                                       

“Oh,” she said.  “I want to get one of Thunderdust (her beloved, stuffed, blue dragon).  You know what else that’s cool about it?  It’s beautiful but it also helps cover up all those scars!  I love it!”

Hope.  I have it.  And now I have it on me.