Tuesday, May 31, 2016

After Divorce: Wanderlust

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Wanderlust: giving the soul wild range. In German, fernweh, or farsickness: feeling unsettled at home but grounded on the move as your edges expand and you become permeable to the world in its strangeness and incompleteness.
WanderlustFernweh. For years, I gratefully followed my husband’s itinerary, one that fed his imagination and desires, as well as professional ambitions. Sometimes they matched my own and we adventured in happy agreement. I tagged along with him, like I did every August as a kid with my parents, sprawled in the back of the station wagon en route to Cape Cod. Nancy Drew books, Nauset beach, and lobster dinners. After the sixth visit, it felt like home. After the twentieth? Nothing surprised me. It was just another place, albeit beautiful, to go to the beach.
My husband had traveled all over the world, and, as part of his early seductive conversation, regaled me with his stories of debauched adventure: dancing in nightclubs with female soldiers armed with AK-47’s in Tel Aviv, smoking hash with Italians in Sharm el Sheikh and with carpet dealers in Istanbul, motorcycling across Greek islands, and talking to the dead through a ouija board in Thessaloniki. Of course, I deferred. It was like having my own personal guide, translator, and raconteur. So, we traveled to Greece over and over because it was what he called his real home. Romania for six exhausting months, living in Communist block housing because he received a Fulbright. Italy crisscrossed without any itinerary except one dedicated to the slow-food delicacies on his menu. Tulum, Mexico where, one night, the Mexican military broke in and stole cameras and cash while my daughter slept in her porta-crib. And Jamaica, again and again, my husband nostalgic for his dissolute college years and the Rastafarians who smoked weed with him. He navigated the persistent hawkers in Istanbul, the heroin addicts in Bucharest, the more malevolent coke dealers in Negril, while I, happy and carefree, sunbathed, pushed the stroller, and drank wine
That sort of travel, just as safe as returning to Cape Cod, might have continued except that I got sick. I’m Bipolar, and for several years, my moods were chaotic: I was chronically suicidal, anorexic, and secretly (or not so secretly) purged everything I ate. So what should have been shared, easeful wanderlust, became more akin to each of us retreating into our own separate, cordoned off journeys. My madness and his corresponding disaffection meant a retreat from joy and spontaneity, necessities of wanderlust. We relied on an itinerary to keep us tied together and moving forward from one place to the next.
In our yearly trips to Greece (always, in the last years, Aliki, the same little beautiful bay on the island of Thasos), he shook off the mundane responsibilities of home and of being my watchman, and disappeared into gregariousness, booze, Rebetiko music, and late night conversations with anyone other than me, namely, the woman with whom he eventually had the affair. I was unaware, for years, and thought nothing when she tagged along on our family outings to tavernas and secret beaches and archaeological sites. In hindsight, in contrast to my austere misery unmitigated by the deep, blue sea and the grilled octopus tentacles crisp and charcoal-blackened, and the air redolent with wild thyme and oregano, she dove for octopus with him, and they danced the syrtos late into the night, and drank ouzo and raki in garrulous affection.
Me? My soul had folded itself into a tiny, tight packet of hopelessness, the antithesis to wanderlust. I saw every sheer cliff on that island as a place to jump off. After our lazy, cicada buzzing, afternoon meals at the taverna, I threw the beautiful food up behind the tamarisk tree or in a little hole I dug in the sand while my husband swam with the kids. One night, after an argument (he was staying out late and I returning to the room alone), I ran to the beach and swam into the bay, into deep and deeper water, hoping exhaustion would pull me to the bottom. I didn’t bother to look up at the cascade of stars. The landscape was contaminated. Instead of fernweh, farsickness, I was emptied out. The final year of our marriage, he went to Greece by himself for two months and I stayed in Pennsylvania with the kids: for me, that well-traveled landscape was marked by my suffering and shame; for him, the landscape offered liberation from me.
Travel is complicated. You still bring along your fears and mortifications. In Bucharest, I remember pushing my then two-year old son in his stroller for eight miles a day at a furious pace because I didn’t want to stop and rest inside myself. Consequently, I saw nothing and when I look back through photographs, I remember nothing except the night I got so drunk and felt so hopeless that I stood in our narrow apartment kitchen and took a flimsy butcher knife bought at the Romanian equivalent of Big Lots, and cut into my arms.
Those scars remain, but I’m now stable, in recovery for five years, and divorced. I no longer want an intermediary between me and the world. No husband driving the rental car around mountain passes. No husband in charge of the bargaining. No husband policing my meals, my exercise, my moods. No husband disappearing into the arms of another, happier woman. Just me.
Wanderlust. The skin between me and the world has dissolved. Instead of retreating from pain and joy and vulnerability, I’m consumed with farsickness. Why wait for a traveling companion? Do I fear the loneliness inherent to my soul ranging the universe on its own? Yes, of course. In two weeks, I’ll be going solo to Morocco. Not a condo on Cape Cod, not Aliki beach on Thasos, but an utterly unfamiliar landscape. My fears and insecurities will travel with me: bargaining in the souks, trekking into the Sahara, negotiating harassment (I’m tall, a woman, and American), and eating on my own. This last, maybe, is the most challenging. Can I sustain a hopeful, clever, and fulfilling conversation with myself? Plenty of women have adventured before me and done just that. In 1776, Jeanne Baret, dressed as a man, was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. In 1889, Nellie Bly did it in twenty two days. In 1975, Junko Takei was the first woman to summit Everest. In 1994, Liv Arnesen skied solo to the South Pole. All I have to do is get on a plane, get off, and meet my driver in Marrakech.
Amelia Earhart once said this of flying: “After midnight, the moon set, and I was alone with the stars. I have often said that the lure of flying is the lure of beauty.” This beauty comes precisely because you fly alone with the stars, because you have the courage to sit with the silence and tumult of the world without and the world within. When I was sick and no longer in love nor loved by my husband, I was estranged from the world’s clamor and longed only for my own final silence. Now my stomach tumbles with fernweh and I swoon with wanderlust, and my itinerary follows the stars that I now see when I look up into my night sky.
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Saturday, May 21, 2016

Mother's Day: A Bipolar Love Letter to My Children

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When I was pregnant with my first child, Sophia, I felt invincible, like an all-powerful fertility goddess full of unfettered anticipation. I’m bipolar, so maybe I was a little manic, but it felt soooo good. Pregnant on the first try, breathing smoothly and holding steady in warrior pose in anticipation of labor. I even led a month-long student trip to Greece eight and a half months into the pregnancy, convincing my midwife I would be careful, would take it easy, and would rest at night. Instead, I trekked up mountains and across dusty goat paths, brushing my hands through wild oregano; on the beach, after snorkeling, I massaged olive oil into my stretch marks, and into the wee hours of the night, danced the kalamatiano. In one photograph, I float on my back in the blue, buoyant Aegean, my round belly rising from the water like the moon.
Sophia was a dream. Can I say that labor was easy, that she slid from me as if down a water slide, and immediately nursed in soporific contentment? She slept for long, quiet stretches, which meant I did, too, and giggled, first, at the dog’s long, swinging tongue brushing her cheek. She traveled in front carriers and strollers across Greece, Italy, and Mexico. If there were tantrums, I don’t remember any. We called her our “trick baby”: her easiness convinced us to have a second.
My pregnancy with Alexander was difficult. I was tired, full of self-loathing about my failing ambitions, and often dragged down into the mire of depression since I stopped my meds. No fallout the first time, but this time? I was convinced my depression would damage my growing son who was so intimately linked to my chemistry. Irrational, like a belief in medieval humors and black bile running through the umbilical cord into him. But not so irrational. Wasn’t he suspended in a body flooded with cortisol and deficient in serotonin and dopamine? Wasn’t this amniotic bath contaminating him?
In a first photo: I sit in the hospital bed holding my newborn son, swaddled tight, against my chest with one arm, the other arm bare, visible. The scars that run up and down my arm are visible, evidence of what I believed deep down was my maternal unfitness. It should have been a beautiful photograph, but I couldn’t look at it. Shame and despair beside beauty and hope. I had my husband delete it.
I fell deeply in love with my son, Alexander. His enormous brown eyes gazed up at me in unblinking forgiveness: love, love, love you. He nursed for hours at a stretch, as if reluctant to give me up, as if expecting already I might leave him. He was not an easy baby — rarely sleeping that first year for more than two hours; I staggered to his room and rocked him and nursed him and sang every lullaby I knew — My Bonnie lies over the ocean, my Bonnie lies over the sea.... In those dark, sleepless hours, when I felt like a failed mother, when my bipolar disorder was wildly uncontrolled, I thought: Surely my family would be better off without me. Then I would look down at my son, who was looking up at me, and I thought: Just hold on a little longer, let him need you a little less.
From my journal, four months after my son’s birth: I am running, looking at the world flying past me, unable to see it, to feel how beautiful it is, and it is beautiful, it is April, austere tulips and dopey daffodils and crab apples blooming and I see them and I see through them, and all I do is occupy empty space. I am via negativa.
When he was nine months, I was admitted to the psych ward for the first time. My husband had to hold me down in bed because I threatened to run outside in front of any oncoming car. Depleted. Sleepless. Not eating. Manic. Depressed. What is called a Mixed State. I stopped nursing cold turkey. The hospital didn’t get me a breast pump for two days, so milk spilled down my stomach, soaking my pajamas and the sheets. How could my son ever understand my sudden and utter absence? How would I ever make it up to him? How would he ever trust me again?
For several years, that was the pattern: I was in and out of the hospital, trying to find stability, trying to find the right cocktail of medications that would allow me to slow down, trying to teach my classes, trying to make chocolate cake, trying to keep up with baths and lunches and field trips, trying to breathe and to breathe in my children. When I would come home from the hospital, Sophia and Alexander would insist on sleeping in my bed, each on one side of me, holding my hand or touching my leg for assurance that I was still there and not going anywhere, not leaving again, not trying to leave for good. They held me in place with their tiny, warm bodies with their insistent and unrelenting love: You are ours, they seemed to say, not yours, not anymore.
Their relentless love is why I am still here. They needed me in their world, so I returned to stability, self-compassion, and most days, even self-love. My children and I talk about the scars on my arms, and those years of my itinerant, unstable motherhood, and their fears for me — that the bipolar dragon might return and carry me back to its cave.
But it’s been years now, and I feel sound and steadfast, and truly, they don’t worry that I’ll be gone in the morning. Sophia is independent and bold, born of intrepid travel and buoyancy. She tells me her own fears, about boys and puberty, and about her dream to move to California and be an animator. Though he’s now ten, Alexander still crawls into bed with me. A sweet intimacy which I know is likely to disappear when he hits adolescence. But for now, I swoon over his long, skinny legs that bump against mine, and his head which sometimes settles close to mine on the pillow, and his deep, untroubled breath as he slips into sleep. And I understand that my children will never need me any less, and I will always secretly need them more.

A Love Letter to My Future Lover


Dear T. (Spaceholder):
Most of what I used to write was fiction. Inventing, stealing, and playing pretend. I read three novels a week, sinking into other worlds, other possible lives not my own. It was a way to escape myself, my life, all that I had failed to do. I could be anyone in my stories, anyone but me: a Ukrainian prostitute, a Polish home health aide, a sideshow freak. Those lives could be written as more meaningful than mine. I was sick—bipolar and aonorexia taking me down—and trying to die for so many years, that I had no hope for my story. Words brought clarity, meaning, and shape to my disintegration.
But then I began to get well, to surface from the black swamp of despair, and to imagine my own possibilities again and make meaning out of my life. It didn’t have to be about ending, but about redemption. And writing fiction no longer seemed as important as writing my truth, writing about vulnerability and pain, about rising up from the ash heap of the self and gaining altitude again with wings that were in tatters but still beating, still lifting me into the trade winds.
So I write what I feel and know about my experience in the world. This is me. I offer myself to you, Dear World. Be gentle or fierce, it’s worth the risk because the days have sharp edges now, and the hair on my arms stands on end, and my vision is acute, and I can hear my heart beating in my ears. I am permeable and the world rushes through me.
I used to ride horses at a stable that rescued abused horses. One afternoon, a new horse was alone in the paddock, galloping across the field and skidding to a stop at the fence line. Over and over. I thought it was playing. What’s the word? Frolicking. My instructor, Lee, corrected me.
“He’s wicky wacky,” she said. “After all the abuse, he’s terrified of being out there alone. He’s going to hurt himself rushing the fences like that. Watch this.”
She disappeared into the barn and returned with Chandi, a horse who had arrived skittish, but after long hard work, was now calm and reliable. She released Chandi into the paddock. The new, wild horse trotted over and immediately settled, nickering softly to Chandi as if in gratitude. No more wicky wackies.
Do you know that if you take one single heart cell, a myocyte, and place it in a petri dish by itself, it will go into arrhythmia, lose its steady rhythm and beat wildly? Wicky wacky. But if you take another heart cell from any other person’s heart in the world, and put it into the petri dish, the cells will immediately start to beat in rhythm together? As long as the beating cells do not touch each other, they beat at separate speeds. But when they touch? The side-by-side cells form interconnected sheets of cells, and beat as one.
That’s what it is like for me. I get wicky wacky when I’m rushing fences alone. It’s why, when I feel an intuitive connection with someone, a shared rhythm, I leap into that relationship. It’s how all my close friendships are: steadying, transparent, defenses lowered. Just seeing and knowing and accepting and hoping for each other. It’s why my marriage was a spectacular failure—we fell apart, cells in separate petri dishes, no interconnection, no shared rhythm.
You said, as if in astonishment, “You don’t wear your heart on your sleeve. Your heart is your sleeve.” A few years ago, though, I was guarded, defended, remote, and inaccessible. My ex-husband once said (granted in the middle of my bipolar collapse), “Your misery exhausts me.” Death seemed better than failure, seemed better than life inside death. But coming through all that? The worst that life could throw at me?
Risk, real daring is not jumping off the bridge but walking across the bridge to the unknown shore on the other side. Allowing myself to be seen—stripping all the way down to truth and longing and fear and tender, terrifying hope. In The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje writes, “The heart is an organ of fire.” And it’s true, isn’t it? The heart is not just there to help oxygenate and circulate the blood, but to quicken a thrilling rhythm, to throb in our ears, to push against our ribcages, burning us from inside with all that we feel and want. It reminds us that we are alive, yet, that we respire and are inspired, circulating ideas and words and sounds throughout our bodies, asking us to take necessary breath, to swallow language and love. And to be a little less alone in the petri dish, and a little more in syncopation, and yes, in love with each other.
Love, with love, in love,
Me

I'm a Blessing Not a Burden: Mental Illness and Hope



I'm alive and that’s a blessing.
In the essay, “My Friend’s Death Was a Blessing,” recently published at an online site and since taken down, the author states that her friend's death is a blessing since she suffered from what, in her limited opinion, was unremitting mental illness. Hence, her dead friend would have been a lifelong burden on her loved ones (among whom I don’t believe the author was counted). The response, the backlash, has been swift and generally supportive of this fact: as someone suffering from a lifelong mental illness, I shouldn’t kill myself in order to alleviate the burden on my family and friends, among whom are my children (whom I do count as loved ones).
I have Bipolar Disorder. I have often been an immense burden on my family and friends in times of deep suffering. Over five years, I was in and out of the psych ward and inpatient eating disorder treatment programs twenty times. Some might say I was locked up longer than I was free. My children sent me crayoned drawings and visited me in barren community rooms where they tried to get me to smile, tickling my side with their tiny fingers or kissing my cheek. I have been on almost every medication—anti-depressants, antipsychotics, atypical antipsychotics—and none of them worked. I went through twenty-five rounds of electroconvulsive treatment (“electric shock”) that failed to diminish my empty, black depression, but did wipe out ten years of memories, some terrible (waking up in the ER, strapped down, after a deliberate overdose) and some cherished (my children singing, drawing, dancing, whispering to me, growing inside all those years). A priest even performed an exorcism in my little locked room. How hopeless can you get to believe in the power of hokey pokey-demon-be-gone-claptrap?
Most days, I knew exactly how much of a burden I was on family and friends. My ex-husband once told me, “Your misery is exhausting.” Even my long-term therapist dropped me due to my suicidal instability. At the very end, my psychiatrist sat me down in a small, narrow office. Between us on the desk was my file, thick with charts and admissions and diagnoses and medication lists and my failures. “You are too extreme a case,” he said. “You are a hopeless case.”
He didn’t have to tell me this because I already believed in my hopelessness. My arms were covered in scars from decades of self-injury. I’d been trying to die in one way or another—jumping in a frozen lake, overdosing on alcohol and medications, swimming out to sea in the middle of the night, starving myself to the point of heart problems, having to be locked inside of a car while my ex-husband drove around Manhattan for two hours until I fell asleep because I was determined to jump off a bridge, any bridge, and the only way off the island is over a bridge. And passively: hoping to be slammed by a car, to skid off icy roads into trees, and researching how to poison myself via carbon monoxide and a hose and plastic bags over my head.
How could anyone love me like that?
And yet, my family and friends continued to love me through all of the misery and pain. Not all of them because I was a burden and difficult to love having no love to give back, and that’s okay. We meet each other where we are in this life, with our best capacities for love and forgiveness and acceptance at that moment.


I am a blessing. I have come out on the other side because I learned to hope again, to feel joy, to accept the necessary pain that leads to joy. I don’t have to die to be well. I will never, technically, be well: bipolar disorder is maintained but not cured. And the maintenance? Interrogating despair and knowing when I need to be reminded, over and over, by those who see and know me that it will pass. Falling into bliss and rolling around in its ecstasy but knowing when it might be mania, and stepping back. With the love and support of family and friends and my own kick-ass will to live, I am HERE, ALIVE, still have BIPOLAR DISORDER, but I am THRIVING.
I am a blessing, a benediction of grace and hope and impossible possibility. As are you.