Sunday, September 25, 2011

At Family Meal, Love is Real

My daughter had a new friend, Jordan, over for a playdate on Friday. Jordan walked by the chicken Christopher had trussed up in a roasting pan, festooned with carrots and potatoes.

“Lucky!” Jordan exclaimed. “You’re going to have a family dinner?”

“Yes,” Christopher said. “It’s an organic chicken I got from our Amish farmer.”

“You mean you’ll all eat together?”

I nodded.

“The only kind of family dinner we ever have is at McDonald’s,” Jordan sighed, sadly, wistfully.

Sophia tugged my arm. “Please, Momma? Can Jordan stay for dinner? Can she stay the night?”

I glanced over at Christopher and shrugged. It wouldn’t be all that much extra work. And Sophia deserved to have an extra, fun night after surviving the uncertainty of my hospital absence. Besides, for weeks, she’d been gushing about Jordan, Jordan, Jordan and how much alike they were, and how quickly they’d become friends.

“Sure,” I said, “but you need to promise that you’ll go to bed at a reasonable hour.”
They both squealed in delight.

To set the mood, and make it extra special, I lit taper candles and set them in crystal holders.

At dinner, Jordan insisted that it was the best meal of her life. Absolutely the best meal of her life. Sophia and Alexander were super lucky to be able to eat dinner with their mom and dad every night; her dad lived in Texas and she hadn’t seen him in years and years. And while the chicken was delicious, wasn’t it sad to have to kill it to eat it?

Sophia shook her head. “Nope. It lived a good life. It got to run around on a farm, free, eating bugs and grass. Not like the chickens in the supermarket that live inside factories and got fed pellets. This chicken lived a happy life. That’s why it tastes so good.” With that, she slurped down a palm-sized piece of crispy skin.

For dessert? Jordan was amazed over my homemade chocolate chip cookies, and equally amazed over Christopher’s buttermilk, blueberry pancakes the next morning.

“This was the best, best sleepover ever! I wish it didn’t have to end,” Jordan said, as she left.

Listening to Jordan’s gratitude, her simple, easy thankfulness, reminded me that I am lucky not only to be married to a husband who takes pleasure in setting a table with beautiful food, who loves to feed his family with healthy, organic, from-scratch meals, but I am supremely lucky to be part of an intact family. My husband lives with me. Most nights, my husband and kids and I are all squashed together in our king-sized bed—not because we lack enough bedding, but because we’d rather feel the reliable, warm, comforting presence of each other’s sturdy, necessary bodies all in one place.

There are four in the bed and the little one says, “Roll over, roll over…into each other, loving each other.”
Despite my darkness, despite the black dogs that hound me, that nip at my heels, despite my frequent, often unexpected, inexplicable absences due to sad, desperate hospitalizations, my family is always waiting for my return to them: family dinner at the table, Christopher’s homemade loaf of sourdough warm and sliced and buttered, the kids snuggled under the covers in bed, ready for the complete family cuddle. Momma, Daddy, Sophia, and Alexander nestled together against the dark night. Love in a complete foursquare. The best, ever.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Bonkers, But Beloved

September 19, 2011

Late Fragment
--Raymond Carver
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Beloved. Ever since my discharge from Western Psychiatric Hospital last week, I have been inundated with convincing assertions that I am loved and needed and worth this continued, exhausting, often horrendous fight—what often feels like a fight to the death. Only this fight to recover, to regain stability and sanity, is a fight to live, a fight for life, a fight to inhabit the love that I am given on this earth. Love that keeps me tied to morning and evening, that keeps me continuing to wake and begin another day, that keeps me burying myself in forgiving release of blankets and bed and sleep surrounded by my family that loves me despite my faults and failings: Christopher at one end of our giant bed, my two children on either side of me, each fighting over who gets to sleep next to me. A problem solved by my sleeping in the middle, between Sophia and Alexander who don’t yet trust that I will stay between them, with them, will stay asleep with them and wake into a new day beside them. They are afraid I will leave again, that I will be committed, once again, to some distant hospital ward.

Alexander has anchored himself to me, following me around the house, keeping me in close proximity. “I love you, Momma. I love you, Momma.” He tells me this over and over, all day long, usually accompanied with a sloppy, gloppy mouth-to-mouth kiss. Or he tackles me, arms thrown around my legs, squeezing me tight to him, refusing to let me disappear again into the mysterious, confusing crazy hospital.

Sophia tells me how happy she is that I am home and how scared she is for me to leave for my now outpatient “procedures,” because she doesn’t believe the hospital will let me come home. My “procedure”—ECT—what Sophia only imagines as some terrifying, necessary electrocution. She doesn’t understand why electricity pulsing through my brain via electrodes doesn’t kill me. How can it possibly help me? “Please, Momma, don’t get your Procedure again,” she begs.

Tomorrow will hopefully be the last outpatient ECT treatment. Not that I am necessarily ALL BETTER, but the side effects have become intolerable. Short term memory has been decimated. I open my Kindle and can’t remember what books I’ve read. I open the book I am presently reading and don’t remember what I previously read the night before, don’t remember the plot hitherto revealed in previous chapters. I am forgetting appointments. Misplacing important paperwork. Confused by the simple act of driving around my small (literally small) town—lost in the side streets, having to rely on my GPS to navigate me around what was once easily crisscrossed.

Should I trade my memory for mental stability? Yes, the electrical shocks seem to haul me out of the abyss of hopeless depression. ECT is, as many psychiatrists have told me, the last resort option. My last resort option. But I am not willing to sacrifice my memory, my ability to make new memories, to recollect my children telling me they love me, they need me, that I am the best Momma ever. I need to remember my life with them, the small, inconsequential moments—did I tuck them into bed? Did I make their peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches? Will I remember that Tuesday is the day Sophia and I go to the Humane Society to volunteer with the dogs and cats? Will I remember that Thursday is Alexander’s kindergarten Open House, that he will be deliriously happy to show off his big boy locker, his desk crammed with his worksheets and art projects? Will I remember that my love, despite the debilitating illnesses that attempt to annihilate it—Bipolar disorder, Anorexia, Alcoholism—that my love is needed, is necessary, is EXACTLY what my children rely on to keep their world stable (even when my own world is profoundly unstable)?

And Christopher. He has remained by my side these 17 years, has remained faithful to me, his often crazy, confusing, frustrating, infuriating wife. And I don’t mean merely sexually faithful. He has wholeheartedly given his heart to me, choosing to love me, choosing to forgive me, choosing to believe in my eventual recovery despite my backsliding, despite my relapses, despite what must often seem like impossible (sustained) healing. And yet…and yet, he is willing to play SuperDad when needed, willing to take over when I am hospitalized, willing to tug me time and again out of depression’s hole, willing to hold me close, tight against his heart so I can continue to believe that I am lovable despite my often irrefutable belief that I am not lovable, forgivable, worth the trouble of maintaining faith in our meaningful, essential, crucial future together. Together, mutually beloved.

And then there are the unexpected reminders that I am beloved and needed and necessary to the world of others. All the cards I received while in the hospital from my AA groups. All the emails I receive from readers of this blog, insisting that these entries, these sentences that I string together are meaningful, are helpful to the recovery of others. The phone calls I receive from friends near and far, friends who are part of my recent life, and friends who were once part of my more distant life—all friends reminding me that I am beloved.

The fight to stay inside this life, the fight to believe that despite the absolute, horrendous craziness, the struggle is worth it. I am loved and I love. I am here and continue to survive because I am loved and I love. Love is truly the best, the most essential medicine.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

STRUCK BY LIVING: Book Review

In Struck by Living, Julie Hersch reveals the devastation wrought by a lifelong battle with the insidious disease of depression. She tries to outsmart it, out work it, out achieve it, out mother it, outrun it, out maneuver it across several decades, and still, depression manages to stealthily bypass the defenses and obstacles she'd erected by living in a super-accomplished, "super-happy" life, reducing her to a woman who is a grim shadow of her former self.

However, this memoir is not about tracing Ms. Hersch's descent into catatonic melancholy; instead, through her choice of narrative manipulation, we move with her back and forth across time, glimpsing the woman well on the road to recovery, while being allowed to look back with her into the confusing, isolating hell that it once was. Her recovery is not complete, she confides, there is always the chance for relapse, for the demons to return, so vigilance is always present, a crisis plan always in place. But what has changed for Ms. Hersch, by the end, is her acceptance that she does not have to be the woman confined to locked wards, but can be the woman struck back to life by an electrical charge to the brain, a small yielding to medicine, a trade off: she must allow herself to be momentarily powerless in order to regain power over her life and herself once again.

Perhaps the strongest message of this memoir is one many women who are mothers and struggle with mental illness need to hear. For many of us, we have lived with the false promise: that love can heal what wounds us. Love will be the medicine to dispel the dark storms that gather suicidal force. Love of husband and children will be enough to keep us here, will be enough to keep us from wanting to give in and give up. Surely that love will summon up enough concurrent guilt. But those of us who are mothers and wives and who love our families often desperately, in the midst of our illness, can't see or hear beyond the illness. The voice of depression is damning, is All. And so we succumb. Some succeed, some fail. How could we ever imagine leaving our spouses and children with a legacy of suicide?

But as Ms. Hersch reminds us over and over, when we are suicidally depressed we are no longer our loving selves. We are lost, empty, without hope. If only love was enough. Thank god, as Ms. Hersch realizes, a current of electricity can be enough to allow love to fill her back up again--so that life, her life, filled with love, is not just enough, but abundantly fulfilling.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Home-Going

Last day in Western Psych. Last day where my napkins are inspected, my toilets are flushed for me, and my post-meal hours are monitored by ever-vigilant "melieu" therapists. Of course, I have one more inpatient ECT session tomorrow before Christopher picks me up, and then 2 outpatient ECT sessions next week that I need to get my ass down to Pittsburgh for--along with a student-stranger-chauffeur who Christopher has hired to drive me back to Meadville from Pittsburgh. The doctors don't recommend driving on a recently anesthetized, electrified brain.

To be honest, the crushing depression seems to have lifted, a least a few inches from my shoulders and soul. I no longer feel like swallowing all the bottles of prescriptions that are lined up, waiting for me, in the medicine cabinet at home. I no longer feel like taking a razor blade to my arms and hacking away at my anger and self-loathing. I feel like I am a tolerable person. I believe that I am needed on this earth--Sophia and Alexander keep demanding, on the phone every night, "when are YOU coming home? We need you. We miss you."

It feels like simple, expected, repeated mental collapse (just give in, Kerry, IT whispers to me every day. Just end all this mess. Free your family to move on, to find a momma more stable, more reliable, less bleak and grim. A momma without the hundreds of scars on her arms; a momma who can eat, without qualm, breakfast, lunch, and dinner; a momma who is sane enough to keep her Assistant Professor of English job, who can continue to contribute to the lifeblood of the family. Instead, who are they left with? A momma in and out of psych hospitals; a momma whose depression necessitates frequent zaps of electricity (yes, that bad); a momma who can no longer hold down a job, but who must rely on Disability payments and Social Security benefits.

A momma who is a failure.

No, Sophia and Alexander would argue, a momma we love; a momma whose love we need.

So after a Friday night alone with Christopher in Pittsburgh--trying to pretend like we can manage a "real" date--fancy restaurant, fancy dress and heels, and he'll have to bring along my razor so I can shave my legs before donning said dress and heels (the hospital doesn't allow anything so sharp on the premises, likely for good reason), then home to my kids and Christopher, and my insane dogs, and my own bed, and a long, hot shower, and sex--no, lovemaking (can I remember how to connect to my own body, to trust it to feel good again?)--and quadruple snuggling in our King sized bed--all four of us burrowing into each others' warmth, all toes and knees and legs mixed up in an all-family braid of bodies.

Can I attempt to explain the devastating loneliness I felt when I saw the picture of the kids' first day of school this week? Alexander off to kindergarten; Sophia to 4th grade. The two of them standing on our front porch, eager to get the walk up to school under way. Each of them looking official and fancy and lovely--Alexander in his plaid button-down shirt, his hair spiked to attention; Sophia in an adorbaly grown-up skirt, a long, flowy chiffon scarf tied loosely around her neck, proclaiming her absolute nineness.

I missed it. They were assembled on our front porch with Dad behind the camera. I was sealed inside the Psych Ward, all doors and windows locked, all movements tracked and recorded on the patient--every-fifteen--minute--check-up sheets.

But tomorrow, Christopher will pick me up, drive me away into the heart of Pittsburgh, to a fancy room at a bed-and-breakfast, to a fancy dinner at a trendy restaurant on the Strip--a dinner that maybe I can eat and enjoy and not feel pressured to restrict, to count off, to throw up afterwards. Then back to our B&B, for a leisurely roll and tumble in the bed. My body and his body a matched set

Then Saturday, home to Meadville, and the kids--who are waiting, waiting, waiting for me to walk through the door and swoop them in my arms and promise them that I will stay, I won't leave, certainly NOT for good in the way I had been planning before this latest hospitalization. What I need to remember is this small, wondrous fact: My life with my family is good, is necessary, is a magical force.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Last Time In?

Sad today. Looking at all the women of various ages who surround me here in the hospital, all of them struggling with anorexia or bulimia, many of them wound tight with anxiety, many of them without a supportive family who will visit them while in the hospital, or a family to return home to after time served is up. And then there are the women who also have cuts and scars decorating their arms and legs--we're like some bizarre tribal collective, skinny-starving, manic and depressed, tattooed with cross-hatchings of self-inflicted scars.

One woman in particular--I'll call her Mimi--makes me especially sad--secret crying in my pillow at night. She must be close to seventy years old and she's still struggling with this terrible Eating Disorder, and her wrinkled arms and legs bear testimony to recent self-inflicted cuts, and her anxieties surface and wrap themselves around her, immobilizing real, healing actions. What is awful, though, is that she has no family--no one visiting her to help pass these monotonous, tedious days; no one sending her cards or books, no family that seems to want to claim her as one of their own--part of a larger group tied together by blood and history and goodwill and even, on occasion, love.

And then there's another patient--I'll call her Marion--who has been shuttled between the Eating Disorders Unit at UPMC, and more long-term "incarceration" at Warren State, the Big, Bad, State Psychiatric hospital. Back and forth and back and forth. Her entire waking and sleeping life consumed by this disease's ironic voracious ability to consume every part of your life. Of course, Warren State is the holding pen that I've been threatened with increasing frequency over the past two years. Long term, hopeless, non-rehabilitative psychiatric incarceration. That's an option that has been presented to me because I keep failing to maintain balance, keep relapsing, keep spinning towards suicidal options.

But then my kids visit me yesterday, and I am reminded that I am not yet alone, have not yet been ditched to depersonalized psychiatric care in the forbiding fortress. Sophia kept sitting in my lap, kept pressing her face into my neck and shoulder, burying herself into what is left of Momma-Love. And Alexander, drawing me pictures for my antispeptic walls--variations of the same theme: Hearts and Love for Momma. Yesterday, on his visit, he kept reaching for my hand, stroking my arm, planting determined, sloppy kisses on my mouth. My children, despite all the hell of the past few years, are still willing to claim me as Momma, as someone they love and need.

And Christopher? What I imagine: he is exhausted by me, by this never-ending re-recovering. The wedge that the Eating Disorder, the Bipolar Disorder, the Secret Self-Injury, the secret (now past) drinking. What must he see when he looks at me, wife and mother? He can no longer trust my promises to stick to recovery plans, he can no longer trust the story I tell of myself, the story that provides an autobiographical account of my days and nights. The very basic questions are suspect: Who, what, when, where, why, how? Can I be trusted to answer with integrity? Do I have any integrity left after spending the past 5 years shredding it?

I can see he is tired, can see that he might be close to giving up. And it seems I have a choice: a life behind psychiatric walls and doors and locks; a life that still promises several decades of disturbed eating, of starvation and purging, that still offers arms and legs, great swathes of skin ready under the razor.

But I don't want this life, this future. I want to return to my family, to our four-square of love. What I need, right now, is to cry--to really let myself go and cry, sob, refuse in my tears to yield to this CRAZY life that has been trying to claim me for its own, to take me from my family, and resist. Stay sane. Stay balanced. Stay still and let the love I already have inhabit me, and run riot.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Leave-Takings

Land Ho! My psychiatrist told me this morning that I'll likely be inpatient for 3 more ECT treatments--tomorrow, next Tuesday and Wednesday--and then I will most likely be discharged, to continue ECT as an outpatient. While I know the assembly-line service is necessary to accomodate all the patients who need ECT in this hospital, the sardine-line-up is disconcerting; it feels closer to some sort of nefarious medical experiment testing the resiliency of one-brain-after-another to different pulses of electricity. I miss the chumminess of my treatments at Millcreek, with Dr. B. who surprised me with an all-staff-particpatory pedicure (the time I went into ECT with black toenails, and woke up with them peachy pink), the staff who knew me by name, who knew my husband, who knew which vein was best for the IV.

Now I feel like one of those life-vests statshed under an airplane seat; you know, the kind that have two little cords that you pull to inflate. That's me. A PICC line dangling from my upper-arm, easrier all around for the nurses to insert IV's into my tricky veins. Somehow, though, I feel that if I yank the lines hard enough, not only will the tube slide out of the newtwork of vein the professionals have threaded it through to reach the Vena Cava, but I will also, unceremoniously deflate. I suppose it wouldn't take all that much these days to enact that sleight-of-hand: just like a venetian mini-blind, just pull on my dangling cords, and my body--filled mostly with air as it is, would certainly just collapse and fold in on itself.

Like a fan I once had as a child, when I was obsessed with history, with knowing (or feigning to know) the hisory of antique objects. I was obsessed, and even at ten, read my father's Smithsonian Guide to American Antiquities cover-to-cover. The mystery of possession combined with the magnificence of a prior story that could etch itself into wood and metal and fabric and stone. One afternoon, I wandered into a pseudo-antique junk shop, and picked up a purple, velvet bag; I unloosened the string and shook out a white, bone, ivory fan, with intricately carved patterns, and its panels held together by several ivory-satin ribbons woven throughout the lattice-work. I imagined the woman who last held it, perhaps a girl not much older than I was, dressed in some taffeta bustled gown, flicking the fan open (when admirable suitors bowed before her) and shut (when oafish, unmannered suitors begged for a dance).

The shopowner saw how taken I was with the fan. "It's yours," he said. "It belongs with you."

My parents had their own antique "finds"--they'd gone to an estate sale one summer out on Shelter Island, and spied these 2 horrid, leather-covered wing-back chairs. They thought they'd simply recover them with some more pleasing fabric. However, when they pried off the hundreds of brass grommets that kept the red leather wedged tight around the chairs' skeletons, what they unconvered were two magnificent Queen and King Chairs, their backs carved in elaborate, regal wooden roses and turrets and sceptors; their seats covered in meticulous, painstaking needpoint covers.

But why this sudden sharp turn into antique reminiscences? Part of me wonders what sort of material legacy I will leave behind. How will my children and grandchildren and their children come to know me intimateoly, that is, beyond the staunch name on the family tree, beyond the hushed whispers explaining my sad mental predicatment and the unrelenting attacks by the various illnesses and diseases attached to "that which shall remain unnamed."

There are the obvious objects: my books and essays and scratch-filled notebooks and journals. Surely, this is the easiest, albeit messiest stepping into my life, my past. But what about the tangible objects? What is meaningful to me now?

Bits and pieces of expensive or quirky jewelry. Recipes haphazardly photocopied or torn from magazines and stuffed in the manila folder simply labelled: Food for Thought. Italian pottery. The watercoloury-mermaid bowl carried back from Chios, Greece. The fishbowl stacked with the husks of sea urchins, their delicate, spiky shells carefully balanced on each other, forming an almost impossible ziggurat.

The bits and pieces of myself that I will leave behind that MATTER; the bits and pieces that I am already leaving behind that MATTER. Yesterday, the kids had their first day of school: Alexander in kindergarten, Sophia in 4th grade. I couldn't see them off, couldn't brugh their hair, couldn't help pick out their clothes, couldn't kiss their soft cheeks goodbye or grip their hands in one last MAY-THE-FORCE-BE-WITH-YOU shake, no kiss goodbye at their classroom doors.

Nothing. Because I am locked away in a hospital in Pittsburgh and they are happily walking to school a few blocks from our home in Meadville. So what did I do? I wrote them each secret notes--love and kisses--and absolute pride--and had Christopher secret them in their lunchboxes. Both kids were surprised and ecstatic, though later, on the phone, Sophia confessed, "It made me really happy to get that note from you, Momma. But I also started crying. I just miss you so much. I just wish you could have been hiding in my lunchbox."

Good, necessary encouragement to keep my shit together in the next week, to keep my fingers crossed that the ECT treatments will kick in and level me out, that I can come to some sort of compromise in regards to the Eating Disorder--remember food isn't merely about calories in and calories out, but it is about pleasure and love taken in, swirled around the mouth, immersed in the abundant flavors, and then swallowed down--all that lovely beauty and taste now part of my whole. A whole with love to spare, a whole with tentative stability, a whole that also needs its necessary parts: Christopher, Sophia, and Alexander.