"Of all the forms of wisdom, hindsight is by general consent the least merciful, the most unforgiving."
JOHN FLETCHER, intro, Jean-Claude Favez's Holocaust
Dr. B. recently gave me this assignment which I thought I'd share and would encourage you to attempt for yourself. No easy task, because I couldn't dodge the hard truths, but well worth the the honest appraisal.
What would I say to myself 10 years in the past?10 years ago would make me 29 and one month into my pregnancy with Sophia. Most of the previous year, I dashed between Mercyhurst College and Allegheny College adjunct teaching, careening between mania and desperate, catatonic depression—crying jags on the couch, burying myself under blankets in the dark months of Meadville’s winter. This continued a pattern that I suffered for most of my life—a few reprieves for a couple months here and there—most of them floating on romantic highs with Christopher, or professional highs having to do with my writing life and accolades received from “big-time” writers who admired my work, or chose my work for publication, or teaching awards I’d received while in graduate school.
Several months earlier, before getting pregnant, I would have been given the Bipolar diagnosis by a rather hapless local psychiatrist who spent a grand total of 45 minutes with me and put me on a combination of Zoloft and Depakote, neither of which seemed to do much good. Of course, I had to drop all meds once I got pregnant—and did so without any medical consultation—probably not the smartest idea, but that pregnancy was, mental health-wise, relatively stable, since I seemed to float on a hormonal high (not to mention all the Winnie-the-Pooh onesies and French Provencal crib bedding I was manically buying)—surely I would be the BEST mother; surely I could achieve the perfect balance between mothering and teaching and writing and well, wifing (I’d been offered a tenure track line at Allegheny that month because I’d shown them I was ALL THAT)—I was managing it all, doing it all perfectly.And then there was the writing I was doing—and publishing. And the classes I was teaching, and the stellar evaluations I was getting. And the general stability I was feeling while pregnant—happy and optimistic—this vision of perfect family, with the writer-husband and bohemian/quirky/alternative home life and the artistic/liberal arts college life I’d dreamed for myself (the Fuck You I’d been silently saying all those years ago when I’d been pushed to go to law school and marry some investment banker and dress in Ralph Lauren suits and buy some Mock Tudor on a cul de sac on Long Island—I could chart my own path and achieve it).
And I was so, so, so healthy in this pregnancy. Everything organic. Christopher making sure all the right foods and nutritional necessities were met. I was taking yoga classes up until the day Sophia was born. Seeing a midwife, not an ob/gyn, determined to have as natural a birth as possible—sure that my body would know what it was doing, trusting that my body would know what to do—wouldn’t need any unnecessary interventions—unless it was an absolute emergency. I was glowing—loving my growing belly, the roundness, the kicks and tumbles that I could feel, that body growing inside of me. I was capable of creating a life?The ultimate sign of my strength, of my super-strength, of my assumption that all of this was perfectly natural? I took students (with Christopher) to Greece during the 8th month of pregnancy for 3 weeks. Traveled the country—swam blissfully in the Aegean—my belly rising above the water like some mystical island. Perfect peace floating out there, buoyed up by the salt water—the ease of floating, of being, of resting out there with my baby inside of me—so SURE that all would be perfectly well, that all my troubles were behind me.
And then that perfect birth. I was so calm, so “mindful”—five minutes between contractions, and we were still at home in Meadville—I made Christopher stop at CVS for skin lotion before heading up to Hamot Hospital, a 45 minute ride away. Christopher has a picture of me in the labor tub: I look like I’m in a spa—naked (though you can only see me from the chest up), hanging over the side of the tub, holding a bottle of designer water in one hand (all I need is one of those cocktail umbrellas), my pregnancy-bikini-Greece-tan lines in full view, smiling, even though the contractions were in full steam—just breathing contentedly, like I’d learned in yoga. Did I mention I arrived at the hospital 8cm dilated? All the staff in a flurry, but not me. I just closed my eyes and listened to Bach. No drugs, no episiotomy, just 20 minutes of pushing, and out popped Sophia Grace, who immediately nuzzled her way to my breast.Fairy tale ends pretty much there, because the grandmothers descended a few days later, and of course, the territorial war began—who knew more about babies, about what was best, about who got to hold Sophia more, about about about about. Christopher’s mom was a “practical” nurse; my mom was a “PhD’d” nurse. Christopher was playing referee—I was caught in the middle, exhausted.
So what would I tell me NOW? All that supposed perfection? A crazy, frenetic lie. It will all collapse on you. What you are learning in yoga—which you’ve only been learning for one year at this point—is to slow down, to take stock of your body, to inhabit your body, the space you are in, to be present in the moment, to breathe—you need to take these lessons to heart.Instead, what you are concentrating on now (i.e., 10 years ago), is on being the best in the class—the most flexible, the one who can hold the pose the longest, the one who can stay in downward dog the longest, the one who can balance in tree pose without wobbling the longest—at being the perfect yogi—in 12 months or less.
What you know now, (i.e., 10 years later?), yoga can give you back to yourself, can make you REAL again—if you wobble while in tree pose, it’s not because you failed or aren’t good enough, it’s because your mind wandered, it’s because your foot pronates from all those years of forced ballet. So what? You wobble, maybe fall out of pose, but guess what? You can try again. It’s in the trying that you learn something: that you can try. Just like in standing pose: when you reach your hands over your head, feet firmly planted in the ground—the most basic stance—easy right? But symbolic, feet rooted, needing balance, needing a home—but arms reaching, needing an aspiration, needing also to stretch for something, a goal.What else? All that need to “prove” that you have achieved the FU life? Your life doesn’t have to be a life to prove a point. Yes, this is the basic outline of the life you wanted. Yes, this is the life you do want—built on the kind of life you are happiest in—filled with creativity, filled with books, and ideas, not built on crass, monetary aspirations and social climbing and material things; you have a husband who shows love, who is involved with his family, who is truly connected to his children (and, no small matter, is a very liberal Democrat); you live a life filled with travel; you fill your home with friends who are empathetic, who are all trying to improve the world (i.e., no Fox news watchers among them). You take care of animals and lost, wandering souls in the night. Your children are kind and generous and funny and creative and spirited and independent.
And yet—you are no longer glowing. You are gaunt. You no longer follow the laissez faire code (if, really, truly, you ever did). There is no real room for spontaneous joy or pleasure. Your body is a mess. Your arms? From wrists to elbows, complicated maps of scars no GPS could get anyone through. Despite the uncompromising love you have for your amazing children and almost saintly husband, you have tried to kill yourself and still contemplate it (and have urges to hurt yourself) at least once a week. You have tried every medication out there for depression and Bipolar Disorder. Not to mention 2 rounds of ECT—not just unilateral, but bilateral at high voltages—or pulses—or whatever the most serious kind with the most serious memory consequences there are because of how desperate your suicidal depressions can become.Part of me wants to say: backtrack to 10 years and five months, when you were sitting on that couch, suicidally depressed, before getting pregnant, and Christopher is off on one of his very long teaching days, and you are home alone, before you have brought anyone into this world who truly needs you to keep yourself alive in the face of the voice of IT who says you really, truly should die. Now is the time to just do it. Shake out all the pills in the house—put them in the food processor, mash them up with some bananas, swallow them all down. Get it over with. Don’t put your family—families—through 10 years of the hell to come. Just put an end to it now because you will never learn. It only gets worse from here on out. Can you imagine at 39 you will be worse than you are now? Do you know that maybe a little craziness is a little cute for a 29 year old writer—maybe even adds to a 29 years old writer’s caché? But at 39? Pathetic, so over-it. But now it’s too late. There are two kids who need you to live in spite of IT’s increased pathological demands.
Shit. Masturbator. Fuck.Or, as they say in Greek: Gamoto. Malaka. Skata.
I want to curse that naïve, multi-tasking, frenetic, Suicidal-Pollyanna (how’s that for Dialectical conundrum)? Shake her. Show her the road that lies ahead. Set up an emergency consultation with Dr. B. who I have not yet met. Head off the tsunami that is yet to come. Because there have been hurricanes all of her life—every year, hurricane season, for sure—but nothing like the total wipeout of the 6 years long tsunami to come.
I suppose I also want to tell her that she doesn’t have to wait 10 years to say Fuck It—not to life, but to all the expectations and demands for perfection that she puts on herself—or has internalized from others that others have demanded of her over the years. She knows what Voice is—she’s a writer. That’s the first thing that comes to her when she sits down to write a story—any of the award-winning stories that fly from brain to fingers to the page—the voices that are strong and sure and witty and smart and vulnerable and honest on the page. Why can’t she harness some of those fictional voices and allow her own to speak out loud for once?Really and truly, she only has so much of this surface self left—this perfect self left before IT will finally erupt and take over. Trying to keep all the seams together is exhausting. Things are fraying. Flashbacks surface, sink their fangs. Small, at-first-hideable, explainable cuts reappear. Drinking escalates again. Sleep becomes an impossible afterthought.
Rest. Rest. Rest? Don’t you see that you are missing yourself? Parts have gone missing on the inside, so no one else notices. And you are mostly numb, so maybe you don’t feel that they are gone. But you are hollowing out.What I would tell you now: Standing pose. The hardest one for you. Stand still. Arms above, reaching for the sky. Find the place where you are steady. Keep breathing. Allow the racing thoughts to dissipate. Just be for 30 seconds. 1 minute. 5 minutes. Can you do that? Don’t you know your life depends upon it?