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.