Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Museum's Education: Madness, "Madame X," and My Body 
 
 

 Exhibit #2: “I Wake to Your Screams,” Kathe Kowalski (from the S Series, 1979-1991), The Erie Museum of Art

Again, a museum.  Again, spiritual instruction. 
My intention was to drop the kids off at The Erie Art Museum for a 3 hour Lego Build/Stop Action Film class and head directly to Starbucks for a mammoth Venti Chai Latte, followed by aimless (no discretionary funds) browsing at the mall.  Generally, I avoid malls—something about the fluorescent lighting bearing down on me, coupled with Christmas Muzak and chirpy sales associates is debilitating.  I usually leave with a headache and pair of unnecessarily expensive, new jeans (I already own 8 pairs, but Surely!  Surely! A more perfect pair is out there?).

Instead of heading for the museum exit, I took a detour.  Reflexive pleasure.  When I was a teenager, I used to take the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan and walk and walk and walk all the way up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and then spend the day wandering the halls, stopping wherever I wanted for as long as I wanted—a beautiful marble kouros, his one leg thrust forward in brazen nudity, and his hair falling in rippled stone (I loved this brash boy); Modigliani’s “Reclining Nude,” her face turned toward the viewer, her body unabashedly stretched across the canvas, dark hair cast behind her shoulders (she looked like my possible future self!); a green silk and leather French corset from the 18th century, the baleen stays and tight lacing both seductive and horrific (my hands encircling my waist could in no way approximate 16 inches).  What didn’t follow me from one hall to the next?  IT’s incessant chatter sizing me up and finding me wanting in everything: You are ugly and unlovable and fat and ungainly and stupid and crazy.

How could any of that overtake the breathtaking courage of Madame Pierre Gautreau, the poised model for John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X.”  Madame Gautreau wears daring black eveningwear—a plunging sweetheart neckline, straps made of pearl and metal, creamy skin, reddish hair pinned up, neck turned away in a graceful curve (I wanted to run my finger down her neck!), and her profile succinct, controlled, and wonderfully sharp.  She knows she is both arresting and desirable.  Men will love her--easily, giddily, foolishly—but she will always own herself.  Standing in front of her portrait, her imposing, self-assured silence filled up the wobbly, anxious silence within me and I knew I was (or would be, once the strictures of my life circumstances were released) my own self—I could look at you or not; talk to you or not; kiss you or not; make love to you or not. 

Of course, the moment I left the Museum to walk back to Penn Station, I was cinched back into my corset—eyes on the ground, speed walking, passively ignoring the remarks from men in suits brushing against me, men at construction sites collectively shouting at me, men in front of convenience stores clutching paper-bagged, beer bottles and leering at me.  How to be Madame X?

So the detour to the Erie Art Museum’s Bacon Gallery and its new exhibit: “Full Exposure: The Uncompromising Life and Lens of Kathe Kowalski.”  Silver gelatin photographs of people living inside their struggles.  People in nursing homes, in abject poverty, in prison.  The photos aren’t voyeuristic, but compassionate: studied glances of people trying to live in spite of their unjust due.  Though in the photos, the subjects never looked posed, are not preening, have not composed their presentation in order to sway our opinion.  They are as they are.  Often frighteningly real.  Just as I saw future possible selves in Modiglinani’s “Reclining Nude,” and Sargent’s “Madame X,” I also saw future selves in their photos and I was unsettled.  No, more than that.  I wanted to back pedal out of the gallery and go back to aristocratic composure. These series of photographs might not seem self-reflective—poverty, prison, nursing homes?—but I found versions of myself on all the gallery’s walls. 

In the photographs of poverty, the subjects are often overwhelmed by their chaotic, messy surroundings.  Everything haphazard.  The people—adults and children—seem both hardened and fraught, possess a cool awareness that this is what their life, thus far, amounts to—buried under numbing poverty.  I am not poor and I have never known poverty, but I know what that internal scrabbling against absolute destitution feels like, though mine has been against emotional and spiritual destitution.  I know what that panic of nothing left-nothing left-nothing left feels like, though mine has been in regards to hitting the bottom of the empty well. 

Prison?  I have never been incarcerated so I cannot even begin to presume I know what it means to be confined behind bars, to have life and free will restricted to that extent.  But certainly, I have been incarcerated inside the unforgiving system of Bipolar Disorder and an Eating Disorder, of perfectionism and despair, of Alcoholism and its four walls. 

But the photographs that truly have stayed with me are the ones of women in nursing homes.  Some of these women are young—perhaps illness (physical or developmental) has made them patients.  But it is the hint of their mental illness—the spastic splaying across a wheelchair (not at all reclining), the head thrown back and mouth opened wide in an cackling, full-body laugh (indecorous, the French Salon might say)—that scares me so.  That could be me.  I am that close sometimes to the tipping point.  To running into the street naked, arms slashed up, banging my head against the pavement.  Losing explicit control.  (This is why I am a writer—the orderly, precise progression of words into sentences into paragraphs helps keep the psychotic demons at bay.)
And then there are the photos of Kowlaski’s own mother who had Alzheimer’s.  In almost every frame, the woman is half-dressed in a dingy slip or her underwear is half-tugged up her thighs, or she is naked and folded up on her bed, and often, sentences and phrases (“I wake to your screams”) are written around the photographs speaking to her imagined internal state.  I didn’t know how to look at these photos; all I wanted to do was look away.

Yes, part of it was fear.  The subject was elderly and vulnerable (though protected by her illness): wrinkles cross-hatching her entire body, flaccid breasts sagging down to her belly like socks filled with change, arms and legs flabby and slack.  This is what I could look like in 40 years.  Could?  No, will likely look like.  No, stop prevaricating.  Will look like.  40 years already and what do I have to show for it?  (Insert IT’s malevolent chatter: You fucked up.  Lost your job.  Where’s the 2nd book?  How fat is your psychiatric record?  Why do you put up with yourself and your failings?  Just put an end to yourself already!)  And what is more, because of the 30+ ECT treatments, my brain scan might suggest my (in the words of my neurologist) “resultant memory deficits and mild cognitive decline,” could be a precursor to Alzheimer’s.  Hell, I see my neurologist next week and he’s going to decide if in fact I DO need to be on Alzheimer’s medication. 
This is the image of myself that I find impossible to contemplate, let alone live with: language (i.e., being a “writer”) gone, self-awareness gone, me standing in a room, naked, not minding that I’m being looked at.  Though one could argue that Modigliani’s nude and Madame Gautreau are the positive, other side of this—they don’t mind being looked at either.  No one here has any shame.  Why do I cling to shame?  What protective costume does it offer me?    

But to be honest, another part of why I wanted to look away was initial revulsion.  The old, flabby, imperfect body.  Here, Anorexia’s voice butted in.  Starving myself was not just about starving myself to get to the lowest possible weight while subsisting on the least amount of calories.  An Eating Disorder is often about taking complete control—at least on the surface—of one’s body.  I could determine what I wanted my body to do; I could imagine my own corset and whittle myself down to what was only necessary; my body would never betray me with a flabby thigh, a stomach roll, an uncouth laugh.  All baleen stays in place and everything cinched in tight, then tighter, then tighter.  I remember reading an article about autopsies doctors would do on women who wore corsets.  Their internal organs were rearranged to fit inside the stricture.  Their lungs compressed so all they could manage were asthmatic breaths.  Those fainting couches were there for more than languorous purposes.  With Anorexia, I became an overly circumscribed inmate taking itty bitty steps, huffing infinitesimal breaths, refusing to rebel against the warden, IT, and I almost died.
But that elderly, infirm woman looking back at me?  What would she see and say?  Because, of course, Alzheimer’s pushes out the censors.  Why are you being so stupid?  The body is not some detached object to manipulate, to carve, to starve, to cut off, to disown.  You can choose what to fill your emptiness with—shame and fear and loathing and despair; or the voice of your nude and Madame X, and even, yes, me.  We are who WE are.  Here, in front of your gaze, you can’t touch us, you can’t even know us because we are not owned or known by our bodies.  We are what is contained beneath our majestic and fearsome hides, impervious to time and wasting.  We are all long dead, but we are here.  So stop fucking around and wasting your time dithering in your cell.  Write and your insides will fill again.

Or something like that.

 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


October 10, 2012
 
Flying for the Curve
 
 
                                                Vase: Albert R. Valentien, c 1883
 
Just when I think the Bipolar pendulum has settled into a resting position, the weight of depression starts swinging it again.  It came out of nowhere—well, I shouldn’t say nowhere since the sharp teeth of “things as they are in stasis” continues to nip at me.  One fang for the Eating Disorder, another for self-harm urges, another for my perceived (an ongoing) failures, another for my feelings of purposeless.  But these are all manageable because they are expected—they don’t send me back into bed, covers pulled over my head, wishing I would never wake up again.
But that’s what happened this time.  Even in my decades-old bout with depression, I have never been one to take to my bed in the soup of lethargy and self-pity and crushing abnegation.  I’m the one to grin and bear it (okay, while bearing, too, the cuts on my arms).  Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve read too many 18th century novels where the female characters are bedridden due to the humours of melancholia—depression as a form of soul-crushing consumption.  I’ve never taken to bed when the fangs sink through my skin, but taken up arms?  Yes, I’m a well-trained sniper.  Knives and razors, vodka and wine, starving and purging.  It all seems like an active way of contending with depression.  But crawl into my hidey-hole, stop doing, stop pretending to be okay?  Maybe it has to do with my mom’s urgings when I was a kid to, “Get up!  Get moving!  Get outside!  You’ll feel better!”  After all, that’s what she did when she was feeling depressed or angry: weeded the garden, played tennis, ran errands, had friends for coffee, graded papers, prepared for classes, wrote a dissertation, cleaned the house—all of the things that keep a life moving.  Despite the collapse of a few floors, the electricity wonky, the foundation cracked, the structure still stands. 

This moving in spite of might seem like utter denial, a refusal to examine what is giving way.  And yet, while this has become a problem for me—always wearing the “everything is just dandy” mask—my mother’s movement away from yielding to depression has also provided me with a temporary uncoupling from depression's mucky mire.  How else would I have lived through high school and college and graduate school if I caved in?  How else would I have written my first book and believed that it was worth writing?  How else would I have been courageous enough to yield to my husband’s love?  How else would I have dared to have my children?  Moving in spite of.  
Yet, all the above paragraphs should read like an act of hubris.  I caved.  When depression moved in this time, I threw up my hands in surrender.  What is the point to try again?  It just keeps coming and coming and coming.  Why get out of bed when there’s nothing to do?  Nobody to be?  And so, I sent my husband and kids off to school and went back to bed, desiring only the complete white-out of sleep.  In exile from myself.  An exhausted relief.  For days, I slept as long as possible—until a meeting or doctor’s appointment or end-of-school day rolled around.  Heavy, soggy, dreamless sleep.  When I finally woke, the first thought I had was, “No.”  No, I do not want to move into the world.  No, I do not want to talk or listen, not even to my kids, not even when they show me their art projects and tests and Halloween costume ideas.  No, I do not want to walk the dogs, even though I know Athena will be electrified with joy and Daphne will be relieved to move her arthritic body.

When I finally did something (called my psychiatrist), we agreed that my current anti-depressants seemed to have pooped out.  That’s been my history with anti-depressants: they work for six months, a year, and then are rendered ineffective.  There’s not a lot left to try on the market, but I started up on the newest—which lasted a week.  The side effects were horrible, and it seems to have triggered a switch over into agitated depression (i.e., depression with symptoms of mania).  So yes, I’ve gotten out of bed, but now I don’t sleep (well, not much anyway).  Which is to say, if ever there was a time to give up, this would be it, right?  Or if not give up, then just give in.  This must be as good as it will get.  A few months of stability—that’s all I can rely on from now until end time.  Isn’t it better to drop false expectations?  Wouldn’t it be better to release those ambitions I still have for my life that can’t be fulfilled if I’m consigned to the rollercoaster? 

This predatory circling of thoughts is, I know, irrational—but completely rational to the agitatedly depressed mind.  But these thoughts lead to others with far more troublesome consequences: there’s always meds to take by the fistful or highway curves to take too fast or (and here’s where the manic craziness kicks in) if a certain political party wins the election and screws with Social Security Disability benefits and I lose mine then really, what worth do I have to my family?  I’m just a burden and I bring nothing “in,” so time to make myself less burdensome.  Yes, insane thinking.
Just when I’m about to let myself become consumed by the black dog, I’m given a sign, a way out, a way to keep moving in spite of.  Yesterday, my husband and I drove down to Pittsburgh to go to the Carnegie Museum of Art—we needed a Whitman moment, as described by the poet in “Song of Myself”: he goes to the woods to feel, “My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs…”  We go to the museum to be reminded of who we are and strive to be, to be reminded that our respiration and inspiration are entwined in our art.  Not to mention on the way home, a stop at Penn Mac on the Strip to pick up a few pounds of fetid, dank-basement French cheese, fresh Mozzarella, and locally cured hot Soppressata.
Christopher and I wandered apart in the museum’s 19th century wing and I found myself drawn to a small painting of flowers in a simple gold frame.  I find most antique frames lurid—all the gilt, the swirled popcorn carvings, the way the eyes are drawn out and away from the painting.  At least my eyes, anyway.  There was an old man standing in front of the painting as well: scruffy white beard, wool cap, black glasses, a small banded notebook in hand.  I smiled and he nodded, then said, “You like this painting?”  A heavy accent—French?  Eastern European?

“Yes,” I said. 

He turned towards me, away from the painting, “But why?  Why do you like it?  Help me understand.”
Believe me.  It’s been a long time since I took Art 101.  I like what I like when it comes to visual art and often have a hard time articulating it without sounding like I’m grasping at straws.  “Well,” I said, “I like how the flowers are at the very bottom of the painting and not at the center.  All the space above draws the eye down into the flowers, their color.”

He shook his head.  Maybe I wasn’t clear?  Maybe he couldn’t understand me?  Really, I had no business trying to explain a painting to a tourist.
“No, no,” he said.  “Not the painting, the frame.”

Strange, we were both contemplating the frame.
“It’s simple,” I said.  “Not overdone.  It allows you to look at the painting.”

He smiled, shook his head again, and said, “Yes, but more.  Don’t you see?  It extends the painting.  The canvas doesn’t stop but moves beyond the frame.  Come.”  He moved to an Arts and Crafts era vase on a pedestal and opened his notebook.  The placard read: Albert R. Valentien, c1883.  The vase was at least three feet tall, mostly a creamy yellow, but threaded across its curve, the limbs of a tree, big green leaves, and several brown swallows in coasting in flight.
“It’s about the extension of space,” he continued, “making the form move, not cutting it off.  You see, I am a painter and I have been struggling with this.  How to paint Canada Geese into a painting so that they are not arrested in flight.”  He took out a pen and sketched a square around small black birds he’d drawn over and over on the page.

I looked at the geese in the notebook and then at the swallows on the vase.

“Look,” he said, “here in this square they are trapped, dead.  But here on the vase,” he reached out his hand towards the swallows flying across the vase’s curves, “here there is no end to their flight.  Despite the form being closed—it is a vase, after all, and not the sky—it is still endless movement.”  He tipped his cap and said, “And that is your mini-lesson for the day.  Thank you for listening to me.”

Fate intervenes not just with metaphorical example, but with an actual “lesson.”  I have met an unexpected teacher and have been taught about the necessity to see beyond the frame—the form that encloses the creative force within.  All movement--flight of birds, progress forward and upward and outward from my old self into this new recovering one--requires an imaginative, creative curve to guides the eye and mind into what can lie beyond the known.  Give in because this is a good as it gets.  This is a sentence that puts the end stops to respiration and inspiration, a sentence beginning from the left and ending in a straight line at the right.  But flying for the curve and its promise that there is still a beyond?  Moving in spite of.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mean Girls

"If you only knew how mean she really is.  You know that I'm not allowed to wear hoop earrings, right?  Two years ago she told me hoop earrings were "her" thing and I'm not allowed to wear them anymore.  And then for Hannukah, my parents got me this really expensive pair of white gold hoops, and I had to pretend I didn't even like them...it was so sad."  --Gretchen from "Mean Girls" 



Only three weeks into school, and already Sophia comes home in tears: “It’s the mean girls,” she says. Three girls are bullying her. Aggressively confronting her over her clothes(she wore the same shirt one of them wore several days earlier and said she was“copying” and better not come back to school wearing it again), taunting her,saying she should be in First Grade she’s so short, following her around and calling her “Dragon Girl” (she loves dragons and sculpts pretty elaborate and impressive dragons from clay), saying “Dragons are for babies. Are you still a baby?” And she cries at her desk, at lunch, at recess. Sophia has a pretty thick skin(she makes fun of me for crying at her kids’ movies) but this doesn’t seem like she’s a target for a day, but has been singled out for the foreseeable future.

In the car on the way home, she tells me she’s already tried the advice given in the anti-bullying movie they watched at the start of school.  "First I tried ignoring them; then I used words: Leave me alone. You’re just being a stupid bully. But nothing works. Maybe it’s because I’m so small,” she said.

That was it. I gave her time to work it out after the initial episodes; I wanted her to believe in herself and her strength and not to run from the bullies. “Sophia,” I said, “you did nothing wrong. It’s not about you; they say these mean things because something is wrong with them. And if you want, I’ll go and talk to your teacher about this.”

She nodded her head. “That would be good,” she said. “But why do they do this? Why can’t they just leave me alone?"

I have an appointment this Friday with her teacher and you better believe I’m not backing down because I know, from experience, how she feels: afraid, anxious, and alone. Her confidence in herself is damaged.

For my entire Fifth Grade year, I was the kid designated by my classmates as the one to be “hated.” No Birthday Party invitations placed on my desk at the morning bell, no giggly conversations about boys at the lunch table, no silly notes passed to me by a girlfriend sitting two rows behind and four seats over. I was blackballed for no specific reason other than the fact that it was my year to be bullied, or the victim of what the professionals call “social aggression”—a confusing term since “social” can be understood as the interaction between people; or it can be understood as interacting in a friendly way. Kindly, affable, welcoming aggression. I was desperate to be let back “in." Every day at school was lonely, and I kept myself as small as possible at my desk to avoid surreptitious kicks aimed at my feet, spit balls aimed at my head--an impossible feat as I was the tallest person in the entire class. But still, I tried—knees bumping the underside of the desk in the exact middle, my shoulders hunched around me, all my textbooks and papers gathered in the middle of the desk top. Maybe no one will notice me today, maybe I can slip by, maybe, maybe, maybe I’ll be let back in. Ironic, because I wanted smaller, and Sophia wants taller.)

One morning,in a desperately self-degrading attempt to be part of the The All-Powerful Girl Pack, I walked up to Julie who was passing out invitations, and begged for one. “Please can I come? I’ll be good (everyone called me hyper and crazy). I promise….”  I trembled while she decided my fate, consulting with a few other girls. Now everyone would know how pathetic I was."

"I’ll have to ask my mother," she said.  "But nobody wants you to come.”

She was right. When I showed up at the party, I was wrong from head to toe: my jeans weren’t the designer brand of the moment, my white shirt had “babyish” ruffles, and my hair wasn’t flipped with a curling iron. Everyone laughed at my gift: a stuffed Hello Kitty doll. Since Julie covered all of her notebooks with Hello Kitty stickers, I thought this was perfect, so perfect that maybe she’d like me again, and if one girl did, then maybe another would.

Of course, recess was horrible. All morning, my anxiety would climb, and as we walked out to the playground in two single lines, my heart would thump and thump like a battering ram, and my stomach would twist itself into a water knot—a knot that is almost impossible to untie—because I knew what was in store: either sitting by myself on the curb, or my former friends maliciously circling around me like sharks, whispering (because if they were overheard by a teacher, they’d get detention), “Loser! Skeleton! Psycho!  You're so ugly you make us want to barf! Why don’t you just go home and die!” Or, as mentioned in a previous post, chased around the schoolyard by them as they pinched my shoulders and chest in a mock search for bra straps and boobs.

Yes, I was resilient because I knew they’d zero in on someone else eventually, so all I had to do was wait it out. I couldn’t tell my mother about it because I was ashamed—surely I did something to deserve all of that, and she would likely know what it was, and I didn’t want to embarrass her by my behavior, by my essential un-likeability which invited the ostracism. I wish I had someone to tell me that I was perfectly okay and loved and none of this was my fault. I wish that I had been reassured that I didn’t have to alter myself to be accepted and likeable. I wish I had been told that I was beautiful and courageous and creative and smart. It might have made a difference.

Of course, by the next year, I’d earned a reprieve and a steadfast ally--Erin, my best friend ever since. But here’s the thing: I wasn’t really resilient because I wear the scars of that year. My anorexia colludes with those taunts when I look in the mirror—too tall, too skinny, fat cow, disgusting.  So in a way, by starving and purging, I'd been trying to make my body perfect, above reproach. And if I keep shrinking and shrinking, nobody will notice me because I will have no body. My basic belief that I am unworthy, not good enough has also been shaped by those backs turning on my approach, by the invitations I never received to parties, playdates, and sleepovers. And my alcoholism? A way to help me slide into those groups of girls at parties, a way to talk to them, a way to get them to like me because I could drink like them, drink more than them. In part, a way to transfer “their” loathing of me into my loathing of me. I can become my very own mean girl, better at it than “they” were. I could always win because I could inflict greater self-damage than “they” could.  I'm not suggesting that the root of all my ills lies in fifth grade bullies--but certainly, those bullies fostered what ails me.

No, I don’t blame those girls. Likely most of them were self-conscious, too, about who they were becoming, and fearful about losing their places at the center. I know that I was no angel of justice. I’m sure I gossiped and giggled, but I don’t remember ever being part of the circling sharks or deliberately cruel. And yet, don’t we all know the exact, right words that will wound the most? So often, we say them—if not aloud, then in our heads. And most often, what we say in our heads is directed at our own bodies and self-worth: Fat Pig. Skeleton. Bitch. Psycho. Nobody Likes You and Nobody Ever Will.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Shame May Be Fatal. The Antidote?

June 26, 2012


Doesn’t this poster get to the heart of the matter?  (Of course, it is a World War II poster aimed at soldiers suffering in silence with syphilis).  But aren’t we the intended audience, too?  I know I am since fear and shame are the two gears that I shift between.  Oh sure, I can fearlessly step into a chute, listen to a computerized voice count down from 5, and when the floor gives way, fall 150 feet down a vertical waterslide.  And at the end, with one of those deep-crack, bare-cheeked wedgies, no possibility of squirming my suit free while simply sitting on the slide, I can stand up, and before the crowd, dig deep to reposition my suit. 

I’m talking about crippling shame, the kind that has its treble hooks in my heart and gut.  It tells me that I am fat and ugly, crazy and damaging, and should die because I am not a good enough mother/wife/friend/writer.  That reaches its hook back into the near and distant past, catching and keeping (there is no release with shame) the endless list of humiliating, damaging, not-good-enough-not-worthy-enough memories:
I am always five years old in an emergency room with a broken arm since I believed I was Wonder Woman (my mom’s silver cuffs on me), with her superhero leaping powers, and jumped down a flight of stairs.  And as the doctor is about to reset the bones, the other doctor is still pinning me down, always saying, “Watch out, the brat’s about to cry.”  I try to shut up, not cry, not kick when the pain came.  If I want to be Wonder Woman, than I have to BE Wonder Woman—impervious to pain, capable of impossible feats of control.

I am always eleven years old in the school courtyard at recess, surrounded by a pack of girls I’d considered my friends, and they are always pointing at my flat chest, pinching my shoulders for the bra strap that is not yet there, and shouting, “Scarecrow!  Olive Oil!  Flat as a board!”  And the boys are always spurred on by the girls and join in, and then they all start chasing me, trying to grab my non-boobs, trying to pinch for straps and I am always running around and around the courtyard, trying to outrun them, trying to free myself when I’m caught, desperately listening for the jangle of the bell, but never screaming, never calling for help because I know that I am ugly and undesirable, awkward and necessarily ridiculed.
I am always standing in front of the mirror, hating what I see—too thin, too fat, not thin enough—leaning in to grip the skin at my hips and thighs and stomach, picking and picking at my face because I believe that soon I will be able to be pretty and “good enough” if only I can keep that ugly, worthless image of myself at the forefront to guide my lived life.

I am always the one who stays with an abusive boyfriend for four years because he tells me, and I believe him because it corresponds to what I already believe about myself, “You’re crazy.  No one else will stay with someone as fucked up as you. I’m your only chance.”
I am always the one who is crazy—the professor asked to leave due to numerous psychiatric hospitalizations, the wife and mother who cuts her arms, starves and purges, and gets drunk and destroys herself, who deliberately swallows too many pills, who fails at recovery over and over, in an out of hospitals, who is finally on a stretcher, bite guard in mouth, anesthetized, and given Electroconvulsive (shock) Treatments (25? 35? Memory is gone.)

And lest you think it’s just the big stuff, the small, inconsequential stuff gets hooked, too.  Last week, I pulled into a gas station and as I walked up to the pump, I glanced over and saw my former riding instructor, Lee, fingers hanging from a belt loop, boots mucked up with manure and mud.  I stopped taking lessons without explanation (well, I was in the hospital), and never got back in touch.  I was immediately flooded with shame: hot, nauseated, unable to breathe, unable to think clearly.  My response?  I turned my back and walked backwards to the pump, walked backwards to put my debit card in the slot.  No Way was I going to be seen.  Ridiculous, right?  This is what shame does to me: I twist myself into knots and duck for cover.
But this is also what shame does to me: I miss out on encounters that might be restorative.  I have only known Lee to be funny, gritty, and supportive.  She would never be angry that I suddenly stopped lessons because she also knows about my Bipolar and Eating Disorders (towards the end, she was worried ANYWAY that I wouldn’t be able to grip the horse with any strength as I was frail and obviously underweight—my once skin tight breeches were voluminous).  What might Lee have said?  “We’ve missed you down at the stables.  When are you coming back?  I thought you’d disappeared on me and I’ve been worried.  I know how hard things were.  The horses missed you.”  Empathy, concern, friendship.  But I’ll never know.  

Instead, like a roach, I skittered backwards in fear and shame.  It’s why I’m afraid to look at my naked self in the mirror.  It’s why I allow acquaintances to assume I’m still teaching at the college.  It’s why short-sleeve weather is so difficult.  It’s why I’ve learned to not feel hunger or hope.  It’s why I disconnect from feelings, from my body.  It’s why I don’t let others see my vulnerabilities, my tears, and even, sadly, my joy.
Shame.  Shame.  Shame.   The figure in the poster: eyes closed and hands over face, a double-walled darkness, refusing to be seen, refusing to meet the empathetic gaze of another, suffering alone with that punishing feeling that ultimately comes from believing in my unworthiness.

“Shame may be fatal.”  Certainly my shame has kept me from asking for help, from telling my truth, from trusting my husband, my friends, and Dr. B. because I have to be that girl on the ER stretcher not screaming, not crying, not in pain, proving I can take it.
“If you fear you have contracted a disease, don’t let false shame destroy health and happiness.”  My disease believes that I am unworthy.  It has metastasized throughout my mind and body.  It has led to alcoholism, starvation, razors and knives and scissors (Oh My!) and cuts that should have been sutured and tended to, medications and more medications, hospitalizations where I’ve been “placed” in the quiet room and on suicide watch, with supervised meals, heart monitors, and therapeutically shocked with electricity.  And the attendant destruction of health and happiness?  If you are like me, then you have never been truly happy in yourself and the varied punishments you mete out to yourself guarantees the progression of the disease. 

From a diagnostic perspective, shame is a disease.  And false shame?  It is the soul-killing belief that my worthiness comes from finally achieving “good enough” even if I kill myself trying.  It is feeling and holding onto shame and letting its false message serve as the final, architectural plan for the expansion and contraction of my happiness, my self-love, my self-compassion, and my self-acceptance.
Dr. B. has been faithfully trying to show me that shame can only survive in the dark.  Full light can make it dissipate then disappear.  Revealing my shame, talking about my shame with him and my trusted life companions, offers the chance for healing empathy and sustained connection.  I no longer have to go silent, run in helpless circles, or close my eyes to you.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mermaid Strong

June 14, 2012

                                                       Our Soon-To-Be Room with a View

In four days, I’m once again off to Greece:  a do-over, do-over, do-over.  The past two trips were mini-disasters as I was either sneaking off to purge in toilets, behind tamarisk trees, even in a frantically scooped out hole in the sand.  Or eating as little as possible, throwing my food to starving cats or secreting it away in crumpled napkins.  Or crouching in front of the mini-fridge to take furtive gulps of Ouzo.  Or deliberately cutting my arms, ankles, or hands in a way to look as if I’d tripped on the rocks or brushed against a thorny rose bush.  And then there were the times Christopher had to restrain me from impulsively ending my life—trying to jump out of the car, in the dark, over a cliff edge; running down a busy Athens street with the aim of throwing myself under a truck, dreaming of swimming out into the Aegean and not returning.  I was not an ideal traveler.
This time will be different.  I haven’t purged in nine months, have gained twelve pounds, have been sober for almost sixteen months, haven’t cut myself or experienced a white-out crisis in ten months.  I seem to be back on a more stable course and Christopher won’t have to play babysitter/orderly/policeman/repair man, which certainly must be a relief for him: he doesn’t have to worry about what might happen next and next and next.  Maybe I can be present for the trip as well.  I can sit on the beach without endlessly obsessing over how much I ate at lunch (maybe even enjoying grilled octopus, tomato fritters, and baked feta slathered on crusty bread), watch the kids snorkel around the bay in search of dinner’s octopus, bask in the sunshine (slathered, of course, in SPF 50) and swim lazy laps in the cold water, feeling mermaid-strong-supple-sleek.  In the moment and content.

I’m realistic, though.  Dr. B. warned me about seeing my two weeks on the tiny island of Thassos, in our rental house overlooking olive trees and the clear waters of Alykes Bay as a magical elixir.  Believe me, I know better than that.  AA’s Big Book cautions against looking for the “geographical cure” as we pack all of our addictions and psychiatric problems in our carry-on.  Previously, I’ve relied on my time in Greece to keep my volatility and mood swings at bay.  Who could be depressed with feet in Aegean waters or the scent of thyme and oregano all around?  Who could want to give up on life, on self under the Aegean sun’s blessing and the moon’s bright beacon?  Who?  Me, time and again.  I am no longer naïve.

Though I am twelve pounds heavier—everyone says “healthier”—I can barely look at myself in the mirror because all I see is someone fat and out of control.  In a bathing suit in front of many friends and strangers and my husband?  I’ve done a test run this past week—taking the kids to our town pool—and every time I shift in the lounge chair or walk on the pool deck to get into the pool, I’m been hyper-conscious and ashamed that my stomach is no longer concave but rounded--more “womanly” than anorexic though I just see myself as the reincarnation of the Venus of Willendorf.  I feel like my stomach is spilling over my bathing suit bottoms, am no longer whippet-thin and this is terrifying as a bathing suit is de rigueur on the beach.  My rational self says, “You are okay, better than okay, more like you and less like a skeleton.”  My irrational self, stuffed with delusions and distortions says, “Don’t believe the hype.  Nothing is okay.  You look less like you and more like a sausage splitting its casings.”

Though I am more stable, less inclined to hurl myself off a cliff, I haven’t yet hooked myself up to a paraglider.  Just yesterday, I was walking to my Dual Diagnosis meeting (for people suffering from a substance addiction as well as a psychiatric illness) in the soft sun of the evening, looking at all the blooming flowers in yards—pink peonies, apricot roses, tiger lilies, some unknown purple clusters—when a thought just interrupted everything: “You can’t commit suicide now because you’re home with the kids and Christopher is away, so they would have no one.  Besides, they’re giddy about Greece.  You couldn’t do that to them.”  I really have no idea what prompted this—except IT must be on the defensive because I’m moving forward into health and stability and a future.  At the meeting, as I was retelling this suicidal-ideation blip, I said, “This is so fucked up!  Who the hell thinks like this?”  Apparently I do.
Last night, I had another relapse nightmare: I was out at a bar/party, the place crowded, and I was drinking.  Not sipping my wine, but downing it as fast as possible, one glass after another.  But I was being watched by my best friend’s father who had been sober for all the years I’d known him, and he looked me in the eyes and said sadly, with kindness, “Please don’t do this to yourself.  Don’t throw it all away.”  Did I listen?  I just proceeded to get drunker, blacking out, and waking in bed at home with Christopher, who was furious—even though I believed I’d managed to fool him.  Message?  Relapse is always possible.  No slacking off in recovery.

A double-message evening, because an AA friend called to tell me a friend from our Women’s Meeting died the night before.  She’d started using heroin again and that was that.  Just three weeks ago, she was telling us that she wanted to stay sober, she wanted to kick this addiction’s ass because she wanted to try to reconcile with her teenage daughters who refused to speak with her.  I could hear her certainty and conviction in THIS TIME being able to stay the course.  So I don’t assume anything about my own recovery.  Just for today, just for now. 
Which takes me back to Thassos and my rental house.  My husband has been emailing me pictures of the house—a lemon tree in the yard; mint, thyme, rosemary, and oregano growing everywhere; a balcony overlooking the bay; a five minute walk to the beach.  Just for now, I believe this time will be better because I am mermaid strong.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Greenest Saddest Strongest Kind of Hope

May 4, 2012


                      A Certain Kind of Eden
                                    -Kay Ryan

           It seems like you could, but
           you can't go back and pull
           the roots and runners and replant.
           It's all too deep for that.
           You've overpried intention,
           have mistaken any bent you're given
           for control.  You thought you chose
           the bean and chose the soil.
           You even thought you abandoned
           one or two gardens.  But those things
           keep growing where we put them--
           if we put them at all.
          A certain kind of Eden holds us thrall.
          Even the one vine that tendrils out alone
          in time turns on its own impulse,
          twisting back down its upward course
          a strong and then a stronger rope,
          the greenest saddest strongest
          kind of hope.

Hope  Hopen   Nadzieja  Espoir  Harapan  Esperanza  Hoffnung  Hopp  Nadĕje  Håper 

Hope is the belief that Spring will come after a long Winter, that the trees will bud, the birds will reappear at the feeders, the forsythia will burst with yellow blossoms.  Hope is expectation that despite the brutal Winter, the thaw will come, the ground will warm, and the heavy coats can be put away.  So hope contains belief and expectation; it’s not just an unfounded wish.

I suppose that’s where I’ve been making my mistake—choosing speculative wishes over hopes that are grounded in belief with the expectations that they can be fulfilled.  I’ve been holding onto the hope that I can beat Bipolar disorder into submission.  That one day, I’ll be “normal,” won’t have the mood cycling, won’t have to be vigilant, won’t have to take preemptive measures, and won’t have to take meds— simple as Mind over Matter.  I’ve been hoping if I ignore the warning signs, then maybe they don’t actually mean anything—after all, I know lots of people who move through their days at my pace, lots of people who get depressed, and that doesn’t lead them into crisis.  So I keep hoping that maybe I’m “normal,” finally like everyone else.  Of course, I’m not—it’s been proven to me over and over.  “Everyone else” doesn’t wind up starving themselves or cutting themselves or in psychiatric wards or overdosing on meds or wanting to drive into the back of trucks or planning what back country road to drive to and then park, and then overdose.  They don’t regularly wind up in this place over and over.

So hoping to be “normal” is not possible.  I need to shift my Hope to things that are possible, tangible.  For instance, I am filled with hope when I am writing—whether it’s my novel-in-progress or the story-also-in-progress. Slow progress right now since I don’t have much time, but I take what I can get, and I'm trying to be okay with the fact that there’s no rush to the finish line.  So I don’t finish my story in 3 weeks’ time?  That was how I worked before kids.  Now with kids, my time is divvied up in tablespoons, my concentration scattered.  But I am still filled with hope every time I sit in front of my computer and work on the story—because I can see it through to the end; I know where I have to go, where my character is taking me.  I hear what she needs to tell me and that I need to tell her story.  And for that block of time—one or two hours—I am thoroughly, completely absorbed.  Not in “my” often wobbly head, but in my character’s head, her world, the details of her past and present and future.  I had no idea that for the story I’m working on that I would have to research the city of Kirkov in the Ukraine, looking at maps for street names, reading about the aircraft plant there that made the Antonov plane, where my character’s father used to work, and discovering that the city also has a bizarre Museum of Sexology.  There is pleasure in putting together the right words, finding a rhythm for language, for a character’s way of speaking and then inventing her past—where does it all come from?  How can I, Kerry Neville Bakken, in Meadville, Pa, possibly imagine a scene of a young girl and her father in the airplane factory in a small city in the Ukraine, the two of them, sneaking into the hangar after dark, seated in the cockpit of the Antonov, pretending to fly to exotic places, because after all, they live in the Soviet Union, and can’t fly anywhere at all?  I’ve never been to the Ukraine, and yet, I can see them there, in that cockpit, so clearly.

I hope there will be a time when this dark shadow of depression will lift, and if not lift for good, at least when it returns, won’t be so ferocious, won’t carry with it the insistence that the only way out will be to take my life, won’t keep assaulting me, on a daily basis, with rolling tapes of simulated possibilities of my suicide—all the options that I could seize—a perverse, reverse Carpe Diem.  This shadow has been dogging me for all of my life; certainly since I first downed that bottle of Flintstone Vitamins when I was nine.  That gate was opened and hence, that option has always been an option if things got THAT bad.  And they have, over and over, or if not THAT bad, and just bad enough, then ½ way suicides, ½ way punishments—cutting or burning, at least 100 times because that’s how many scars have been left.  Instead, I hope I will be able to feel confident in the knowledge that it doesn’t have to get THAT bad or even bad enough, and I am capable of following a plan that can help me get out of the black hole faster, can help me feel less at the mercy of IT, less alone, less guilty, less likely to choose any other option than protecting my life and well-being.

I hope to be able to go running and horseback riding again, to feel like an athlete who I have been all of my life, and not some invalid.  Invalid= in valid=of no consequence.  Right now, I’m living in a body of no consequence.  Really, my body does nothing except walk a few blocks with the dogs and run up and down the stairs at my house.  I have never been so inactive in all of my life.  And of course, this is my own fault because I am unable to give up a certain idea I have of what I’m comfortable with in terms of how my body looks, in terms of my specific weight.  I hope that I can find the courage to yield on this.  I hope that I can come to understand that eating is meant to be pleasurable, that I am not some monk, dedicated to rigid asceticism, sitting down to his daily ration of an oily, bony fish and hunk of bread at 4am.  I do not need to pledge my whole body and soul over to IT.  That keeping my body and food under regimented control might offer the appearance of control, something that seems to alleviate anxiety, the chaos inside my head, to quiet the noise, to simulate self-control (when so often I lose control)—but this rigidity is brainwashing and will kill me.  I hope I can relearn to find pleasure in food, to choose to eat what I enjoy, to practice balanced eating.  After all, I have a husband who loves to cook for me,

I hope to look down at my arms and forget to see my scars, or if I do, be able to say, “Been there, done that.”  Right now, they are permanent marks of shame and guilt, and they are also seductive hauntings—every time I glance at them, I remember a specific time I’ve cut myself, can feel the razor or knife or scissors splitting the skin, the immediate, satisfying pain of it, and every scar demands yet another.  So right now, it feels like there’s no escape: I look at my arms (no way around that), and feel the impulse.  And when I’m feeling black and blue, like I am now in my Bipolar downslide, I can actually feel my forearms throbbing, need to clench my fingers into my palms just to mitigate the rising anxiety.  So I hope to get to a place where I have no desire to cut, where there are no ghost memories haunting me, where my impulse is not to hurt or destroy or punish my body, but to take care of my body.  Pain won’t have to be the answer.  Maybe I’ll feel comfortable crying (and won’t cut it off at the first tear).  Maybe I’ll feel comfortable asking to be held and will be able to not just tolerate that physical contact, but will feel connected, feel the healing offered by somebody else holding me against them, offering me love and the safety of their presence.

I hope that I can love my body as it recovers from anorexia, as it begins to change shape.  I have fallen in love with my underweight self: I love the clavicles and shoulder bones and spine and hips and ribcage that bump out against my skin, and the long desired feat of a concave stomach.  I love the fact that it is a clear sign of restraint, of not giving in to appetite.  I hope that one day I can look in the mirror and instead of seeing a body to pick apart and condemn, I’ll be able to  see what others see and accept this: that I am fine, maybe better than fine, maybe even “pretty,” maybe even “beautiful” and this is not something I need to be ashamed of, not something that I need to be embarrassed by, nor is it something that is dangerous to be anymore.  I’m almost 40 and I know how to stand up for myself.  Being pretty has always been uncomfortable.  Nice to get the compliments, but it makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable.  And then there’s the burden of being attractive, the implication that my appearance has the power to attract others to me—that somehow, I am culpable and that the men who circle around will come inevitably because “I” attract “them.”  I am responsible for their come-ons, for their unwanted advances, for their violations.  But I hope that I can accept my appearance as a gift.  When it comes time for me to work on my “mission,” the fact that I am “pretty” might help reduce the stigma of mental illness: not everyone has to have ratty hair and rotten teeth and a shopping cart full of soda cans.

I hope that not only will I be in Greece in June (after all, the tickets for me and the kids are already bought, and I’m bringing the kids over alone to meet Christopher there), but that I will be there for the day when we are able to buy our own summer house on the island of Thassos, set in the olive grove, overlooking the turquoise cove that I have swam in hundreds of times, the first time when I was twenty-four, and Christopher and I pitched a tent on the archaeological site.  During the day, we would hike the goat paths, visiting the monastery a few miles away, hiking over to the second beach, or simply walking a few hundred yards to Aliki beach, the beautiful, tranquil bay right at our doorstep.  We had picnic lunches and ate dinner at the cove-side taverna, or walked uphill to Archondissos restaurant, a place that served extraordinary food—seafood caught that morning by their son, Tasos, vegetables grown in their garden, braised meat, potatoes, beans and stews cooked in their wood oven,  and wine and tsiporo made at their own still.  Christopher became friends with Tasos, promised we’d be back to the island someday, and we’d stay at their small hotel.  Of course, who knew that we’d be back and stay with them seven times, that Christopher would go to Tasos’s wedding, that Tasos’s whole family would welcome us into theirs year after year.  Fate and circumstance have worked together: from camping in a tent to finding the place to call our Greek home (now we just have to find the money…).  I hope to live in our house for three months each summer with Christopher and the kids, live inside all that sunshine, swim in Aliki bay every day, tend to the bougainvillea growing madly across the patio trellis, pick apricots, lemons and cherries from the trees in the yard, listen to the hum of cicadas in the cypress trees, watch as the kids learn to hunt octopus with Christopher and swim further and further out into the bay, their longer, stronger bodies moving from childhood into adolescence, maybe Sophia gaining a Greek boyfriend for the summer—zooming off on his moped (with helmet) to a local café, maybe Alexander fighting off the charms of a gaggle of Greek girls, those gorgeous brown eyes of his irresistible.  I want to sit with Christopher on the patio at night, watch the lights down in the port, a string of bright pearls, and look up at the stars, so many stars here because there is no pollution, no bright lights from buildings, or streetlights, listen to the quiet, listen to each other. 

I hope that someday IT will be silent—when I say IT, my name for that voice inside my head that calls me to destroy myself through whatever available method, who tells me I’m not worth saving, who tells me I’m worthless, that I’m crazy, that I’m ruined, that all I do is destroy those I love—I say “IT” but I wish I had a specific image to go along with the amorphous name.  Not the devil or Satan—too easy, too clichéd, too Santorum, too fire and brimstone; not some mythological beast—too Goth, too Pokémon, too close to what my kids draw.  But maybe it’s better that I don’t have a specific image—then there’s nothing to exorcise, nothing to try to forget.  I hope that I can live a day without the tyranny of guilt and shame and self-blame and self-loathing and self-recriminations and self-criticism.  I hope I can string a day into days and days into months and months into years.  But as AA counsels, it would be nice to start with one day at a time.  And I hope as IT loses its voice and grows silent, that I will learn that I’m not as damaged and damaging as I believe.  That I am allowed to be loved and don’t just have to tolerate being loved, but can find joy and happiness and ease in being loved.  I hope that someday pain and self-abuse won't feel like the right and necessary response to shame and guilt and self-directed anger.  Instead, I hope that I can accept and forgive myself and learn that I can have self-compassion and I don’t have to punish myself for not being perfect or “normal” or not living up to my rigid expectations.  I hope I can accept that I am loved for who I am and not for what I do, or how perfectly stitched up I manage to keep myself, or how many things I’m able to accomplish. 

I hope that I will stop believing IT when IT tells me that I can get through all of this on my own, that I can manage, that I’m not doing too much, not going to fast, that I don’t need a rest, that I don’t need to ask for help, that I can do more and more because after all, that’s what I’ve always done, that’s what always been expected of me and what I expect of myself—A’s in everything, the best tennis player, winning writing awards in elementary school, winning scholarships in elementary school, getting into the best colleges, excessive drinking and still getting A’s, taking 3 classes in grad school (and getting A’s), while teaching 4 classes, while also waitressing at a bar/nightclub which meant little sleep, and then winning the campus wide award for Best Teaching Assistant of the Year (out of hundreds of TA’s), and still trying to look pretty, and being thought of as a prodigy by my writing teachers, and publishing, and then teaching full-time while writing my book and publishing my book and having kids and trying to be a perfect mom and falling apart and being hospitalied but still teaching still trying to keep IT ALL TOGETHER at least on the surface, and teaching on the days in-between Electric Shock treatments and therapy appointments, and and….  So I hope I can learn that it’s okay to go at a slower speed, that it’s okay to ask for help sooner than later, that I have nothing to prove, that I don’t have to earn my place, don’t have to compensate for my “beauty” by proving that I’m also not just smart, but smarter than everyone else, that I’m not just a good teacher, but the best in the entire college, not just a good writer, but the prodigy, the one who has to live up to the burden of all those expectations—all those writer-mentor-fathers.  I hope all these voices will stop hounding me, that I will be able to grasp hold of vitality—the power to live and grow, to be filled with energy, exuberance, and love’s illumination. 

FYI: For those of you similarly struggling, try sitting down and writing your own Hope Missive.  Be courageous and daring in what you Hope for.  Then read it every day and aim your daily actions towards the fulfillment of these achievable dreams.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

SOS Titanic, SOS Momma May Be Mad


April 15, 2012

SOS: Save Our Ship

SOS: Save Our Souls

SOS: Send Out Succor

. . . _ _ _ . . .

My Great-Grandmother, Annie O’Connor, had a ticket in steerage on the Titanic.  She should have walked up the gangplank with her small suitcase at what was then Cork Harbor in Queenstown, Ireland, and been directed to her assigned place in Steerage with all the other poor, hopeful immigrants.  Likely, she would have gone down with the ship, and you might have seen one of her barnacle-encrusted leather shoes on the ocean floor in the hulking, rusted remains of the ship in a scene from a film now playing on Discovery or National Geographic, the waterproof camera snaking its way across chairs, through windows, and over tables, to show us all the ghostly vestiges lying all those miles beneath the surface.  Of course, had she turned in her ticket and claimed her narrow bed at the bottom of the ship, I wouldn’t be anyone’s Great-Granddaughter.  I wouldn’t be here at all, sending out my own SOS.
  . . . _ _ _ . . . 
Instead, my Great-Great-Grandparents decided at the last minute, that their daughter, at sixteen, was too young to strike out for America on her own and they sold her ticket to someone else who most certainly perished in her stead.  Luck?  Wise parenting?  Gut instinct?  Her mother tossing and turning at night in those last days before the departure knowing in her heart that something was not right about letting her daughter go, not yet, too young, too many dangers for such a girl on her own in New York City, and that vast ocean separating them for good, never to see her daughter again, so just one more year to keep her home and hers.

Did Annie pitch a fit?  How dare you ruin my plan?  My dreams?  How dare you take all that I’ve been planning and hoping for away from me just when it was within reach?   I know I would have, knowing my sixteen year old self.  But unlike me, my Great-Grandmother actually listened to her parents and didn’t find some way to circumvent their wise authority and waited a year, thus didn’t sink with the ship in the frigid waters, and hence I am here, writing this missive, struggling once again to stay afloat because I waited too long to ask for help.  Stubborn, resistant, think-I-can-do-it-all-and-on-my-own-me.

J. Bruce Ismay, the Managing Director of the White Star Line, on board the Titanic, apparently pushed the captain to ignore his common sense regarding iceberg warnings, and demanded the ship go as fast as possible to reach New York City ahead of schedule in order to break the record for the Atlantic crossing.  The Titanic was unsinkable, no?  That’s what I’ve been doing these past few weeks, ignoring the warnings that Bipolar icebergs have been lying in wait below the surface, pushing myself at breakneck speed, unwilling to slow down because I’ve been feeling a little, well, okay, a lot depressed, shrugging my shoulders at the increasing volatility of my moods, chalking that up to unstable sleep patterns.  Oh, yes, another sign that the bio-chemical forces in my brain may be in upheaval, but I’ll ignore that, too, and explain that symptom away by restlessness and racing thoughts.  Oops, yet another symptom?  But I have a lot on my mind, like constant nightmares where I’m deliberately relapsing, downing glasses of vodka, and then realizing what I’ve done, so then saying, “What the hell, I’m done for anyway,” and giving up, or obsessing over the pointlessness of sticking to my eating plan, being assaulted by IT’s voice in the dark hours of night telling me to stop eating because I’m disgusting and fat, telling me I deserve to make up for my volatile meltdowns (generally directed at my husband and kids) by enacting some painful penance with razor or knife or scissors.  Who could sleep with all that going on?  And who would want to sleep if it meant having a relapse nightmare, when even sleep offers no respite or refuge?

I know how quickly I can stand at the edge of all this and jump, give into IT’s seduction.  Last week, I told Dr. B. that I felt like either a.) Locking myself in a room and taking all the medications in my house, cutting up my arms for good, and just letting everything go quiet once and for all; or b.) Flushing all my meds down the toilet and give into this disease, let the mania and depression have their way with me--just be genuinely-who-I-am-without-the-pharmaceutical-panacea-crazy.  This is how I always feel when I’m out on the edge—the constant, exhausting tension of having to remember why I have to keep fighting to stay stable, why I have to keep wanting stability, why stability is worth it.

So I made a list of the small, even inconsequential reasons as to why I want stability right now, and I mean RIGHT NOW because NOW is about all the leeway I’m giving myself. 

1.      Alexander is learning to ride a bike without training wheels and I want to see the day which is coming soon when he’ll take off on his own, whooping and hollering in joy.

2.      Sophia and I have been smothering a few dogs that have been at the Humane Society for several months with extra love, crossing our fingers that this will be the week they’ll be adopted.  I want to be there for THE week Foxy and Trey and Goldie and Winter are loved enough to find homes.

3.      Warm weather is soon here (even though it snowed last week) which means my white lilac tree will bloom which means I can stand on my deck and close my eyes and breathe in all that sweetness.  I missed it last year when I was inpatient for my Eating Disorder out in Arizona.  I do not want to miss this gift again.

4.      I am working simultaneously on a novel and short story and when I am writing, tapping away on the keyboard, watching the words, the sentences, the paragraphs and pages build, the story taking shape, I feel peace and a sense of purpose.  I would like to see these through, be able to put the final period on the pages, not leave the stories unfinished, my characters in forever limbo.

5.      Because stability is a meaningful gift I can give my husband and children.

I went to Girl Scout camp when I was ten, and we learned this song about the Titanic that we sang during mealtimes; it even had accompanying hand gestures (i.e., every time we said “captain,” we raised our hand in salute, when we sang the phrase, “it was sad when the great ship when down!”, we swooped a hand towards the floor).  We sang this song at the tops of our lungs, energetically, jovially—looking back, it seems odd that such a tragedy was turned into a campfire/mess hall tune, particularly when the lyrics were both gravely melancholic and matter-of-fact.  To give you a small sampling:

“Oh they built the ship Titanic to sail the ocean blue
and they thought they built a ship that the water wouldn’t go through.
But God raised His hand and He said it would not land!
It was sad when the great shop went down.
It was sad!  It was!  Real tough!  It was sad when the great ship went down!
To the bottom.  All the husbands and wives, little children lost their lives!
It was sad when the great ship went down."

There are several verses, one involving the Captain standing on deck “with a teardrop in his eye, as the last one went, he waved them all goodbye.  Goodbye!" (a grandiose hand wave accompanies this).   And of course, once again, it is God who raises His hand and decides the ship shall not land, so husbands, wives, and little children all die. 

But it is not God who caused this disaster, but basically a pile-up of human errors: a failure to slow the ship down and heed the iceberg warnings, to divert course, to wait until daylight to navigate a safer path through the treacherous waters, a captain who should have listened to the knowledge he’d gained through years of training and practice rather than give into the hubris and grandiose demands of the White Star Manager.  And of course, the White Star Line owners who threw money at First Class accommodations, gilding the ballroom, mounting countless chandeliers, carving elaborate balustrades, installing dazzling stained glass windows, but failing to invest in enough lifeboats for all passengers, rich and poor, travelers and employees.

I know from past experience that even with medication, I am not unsinkable when Bipolar icebergs have been spotted , but there are many things I can do to keep my ship afloat, to repair damage in transit, to avoid scraping my sides, gutting my hull and going down.  I’m learning to heed warning signs and slow down rather than continue at my breakneck speed.  I’m learning to ignore the demands of the Manager IT who would chart my sure collision with that iceberg—IT lies, tells me the iceberg is small, hardly there, that I can manage it alone, can go around it, but I know that 9/10ths of an iceberg lies beneath the water’s surface. 

Instead, I’m listening to the real Captain, who has experience and integrity—right now, that’s Dr. B., who knows how to chart these waters, who tells me that even in the darkest, most desperate hours, I don’t have to act on impulses, on the Manager’s demands, who reminds me that I can wait until daylight to reassess my course and reassemble my crew: call my psychiatrist who will adjust medication, talk to my husband, reach out to trusted friends, attend AA meetings, and ask him, Dr. B., for help.  Send out the SOS and ask OUT LOUD for help. 

And then there’s the matter of lifeboats.  This time around, I have one and it’s big enough to fit me, all of me in all of my distress and I’m jumping right in before the boat sinks.  My lifeboat is stocked with all of the above—the meds, the meetings, the necessary people and professionals--and right around my neck and buckled around my waist is my life jacket filled with what is perhaps most essential of all: hope.  Hope wrapped around me and buckled on from the outside because it is mostly on loan from those who believe in my essential buoyancy.  But just in case, I’m also setting off an emergency flare to make doubly sure I don’t strand myself out here alone, lost at sea.  

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