Friday, June 10, 2016

Open Heart Living

I live with an open heart. A difficult vulnerability as my heart is mostly scar tissue, and just like the tender scars underneath a chin — from a reckless childhood fall into the edge of a coffee table or drunken stumble into the corner of a bathroom sink — one small bump and I bleed all over again.
My body reveals my reckless, yearning, despairing history. Gravel in the knee after speeding down a potholed hill and tumbling from my bright yellow, banana seat Huffy bike. A thumb-shaped indent in my calf after a German shepherd attack left me scrambling onto the roof of a Volkswagen Beetle so the dog’s jaws wouldn’t catch my neck. A tiny pit near my temple from a chicken pox scab that I picked off when sequestered in bed, blissfully, with a stack of Nancy Drew books and glasses of ginger ale. Rivers of stretch marks on the insides of my thighs from growing four inches in eight months when I was twelve and felt ugly and ungainly and towered over all the boys who called me Olive Oil. A long snake running up my foot from college when I was drunk and then inexplicably bleeding and my boyfriend accused me of doing it to myself while the doctor sewed me back together with twenty-three stitches. Dozens of crisscrossed scars on my arms that I did do to myself with razors and knives and glass, trying to overwrite the chaotic and overwhelming psychic pain with the controlled and deliberate pain of an Xacto blade.
I’ve had to explain all of the scars on my arms to boyfriends, lovers, old friends, new friends, doctors, phlebotomists, even strangers, writhing in shame and panic: They can see and now they know and will leave.
When my daughter was seven, she grabbed my forearm and with her tiny fingers traced the raised, white scars. “How do you think you got these?” she asked. My daughter studied the world around her with focused intensity. She spent hours watching the slow progress of her Chinese Water Dragon molt its skin. Could I really have assumed that she wouldn’t see the dozens of white scars that etched my arms in their sad pattern?
I panicked. How could I answer that question? I was supposed to be the safe harbor against a painful, violent world. What would it mean for me then to be the source of such violence? So I lied.
“The cat,” I said, and pulled my arm away. “With its razor claws.”
When I was at the bottom of the well, cutting my arms in an almost daily assault, my therapist wanted me to write words over the scars and around the new wounds with a black Sharpie: Beloved Holy Forgiven. Words meant to remind me of who I was in spite — despite — my surety that I didn’t matter and hence, should die. Inscribe those words, words of softness and kindness, of redemption and love, onto my skin for everyone to see? How could these words be mine? I blew him off.
At our next appointment, he had me push back my sleeves, revealing a new ladder of scabs.
“What do you see?” he asked.
“Scars and damage,” I said.
“What’s missing?” he asked.
I looked away. More, deeper, dead, I thought.
“What’s missing?” he asked again.
“Oh,” I said. “Words. But I can’t write on my arms. I don’t want anyone to notice.” Somehow, even though “anyone” noticing my scars flooded me with shame, I believed it might be more shameful for “anyone” to see that I might mark myself with hope. Wasn’t that overreaching? Why risk imagining any possibilities that offered joy and grace and connection with “anyone.”
He was persistent so I relented and started wearing the words on my skin, trying not to care about the sideways glances from strangers. When I went for a manicure, the nail technician, Tommy, a chatty, breezy Vietnamese immigrant who liked to watch The Price is Right in between filing each nail, turned my arms over and read the words aloud: Beloved Holy Forgiven. My shame storm rose up: chest tightened, mouth watered, the need to run and dive back into the well. Tommy was saying the words again and again in his broken English in a room full of “anyones.” He smiled, a wide, white-toothed smile, picked up the nail file, and said, “Those good words.”
A few months ago, I was sitting in a booth at a diner with my first post-divorce, supersonic “fling,” T. He had read my blog before ever kissing me, and so knew all about my tangled, painful, shameful past and chose to come back (and has unexpectedly become a longer-term friend). Sex with T. was revelatory: for the first time in decades, my body was a source of unmitigated pleasure and joy. As is so often the case post-tumble, we were starving and though it was past midnight, found a twenty-four hour diner. We were sharing a black and white milkshake and a plate of bacon, when T. asked me to explain my scars, why I felt it necessary to hurt myself in that way.
“It felt like pain’s answer,” I said. “Like having a toothache and grinding down into the throbbing tooth. Somehow, secondary pain obliterates primary pain.”
He ran a finger down my forearm, a tender benediction. Usually I would have pulled away, and tucked my arm behind my back, but the small weight of him on my skin held me in place.
“You don’t do that anymore,” he said, “right? You don’t need to do that to yourself.”
T.’s gaze offered compassion and empathy, the necessary forces of the heart that obliterate shame. For a long time, we just looked into each other, each risking both seeing and being seen. The waitress must have thought we were high, like the giggly table of teenagers scarfing french fries behind us, or practicing some form of introverted tantric sex. But we’d been talking all night about who we were and who we were becoming, and we just rested in the quiet.
This is why I live my heart as openly as possible now, risking vulnerability for joy and grace and connection, understanding that most of the time, or at least in equal time, the return will likely be pain and humiliation and rejection. But that is acceptable, necessary risk because when it pays off? Transcendence. Starfish are creatures of transcendence, like their other name suggests: Sea Stars. Their powers are fittingly celestial. When a Starfish’s limb is cut off, the wound must first heal, but then cells proliferate, reaching for an imagined future. Regeneration of a new limb can take years. In our bodies? Scarring is, after all, healing, and is believed to be our form of regeneration. The scars that crisscross my arms, the scars that were once a source of shame, are now evidence of my celestial regeneration — years in the making — into a life filled with the transcendent possibilities of joy and grace and connection, and a body beloved and holy and forgiven.
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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

After Divorce: Wanderlust

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

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,

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Bipolar Recovery: How To Survive a Mauling

My psychiatrist has a life-sized stuffed tiger in his waiting room. At the big cat’s feet is a plastic bin serving up a mangled heap of smaller stuffed animals — parrot, cat, whale, unicorn — and plastic babies missing a limb or an eye. Freud was the first to have a therapy dog. His red chow, Jofi, would lie on the couch next to patients, and when the dog got up to scratch at the door for a pee, Freud would say to his patient, “You see, Jofi is so excited that you’ve been able to discover the source of your anxiety!” But a therapy tiger? Before my daughter knew the crisscrossed scars on my arm were self-inflicted, she used to call them my “tiger stripes,” and she was amazed that I had survived such claws. This tiger, too, comes with a warning. Taped to the wall is this notice: For Your Safety Please Do Not Sit on the Tiger.
I think about this posted warning. Is it a test? Does my doctor really want me to sit on the tiger? What are my unconscious motivations for wanting to sit on the tiger? What neuroses keeps me from sitting on the tiger? And really, safety’s sake aside, I’m supposed to take risks. So, reverse psychology? Or does he want me to make associations? As in, “Eye of the Tiger” — “Went the distance, now I’m back on my feet, Just a man and his will to survive...”
Another patient sits across from me, beside the tiger, nervously flipping through the pages of a kids’ Highlights magazine. Maybe he’s searching for cups and candles and lamps in the Search and Find picture. His knee jiggles. Anxiety? Hypomania? Low-flying schizophrenia? He doesn’t even look at me when I walk over, inches from his bouncy leg, to take a picture of the tiger as if I’m on some psychiatric safari. I sit back down and glance down at my tiger stripes. The last time I did anything like that was five years ago, which was also the last day I drank.
What I remember from that day: arriving at my friend’s baby shower, a blue ribboned gift in hand (cheerful whale stitched onto a matching bib, socks, and onesie), desperately sad because my life had unraveled. Bipolar, anorexic, alcoholic. The perfect, decimating storm. A surge of longing when I gazed at my friend’s moon belly. Always, I had imagined my future with three children. Oldest, middle, youngest — a noisy triumvirate. And I would be the kind of mother capable of holding all that needy, exhausting love.
But after the birth of my second child, my bipolar disorder escalated and my doctors said “no” to my irrational contemplation of a third, and my husband, who bore the brunt of my breakdown, adamantly refused. Too risky, too much, too sick. Besides, I hadn’t needed a tampon for two years — starvation accompanied by over-exercise had turned off the fertility switch. But baby hunger was all I could think about while playing the chocolate-smeared-on-a-diaper game. No more crazy Momma. Just my composed self rocking a warm baby, my lips against the heart-fueled pulse at the fontanel.
What I last remember: standing alone in the kitchen, laughter pealing in from the living room, an island crowded with wine bottles. I had promised my husband I wouldn’t drink since I could no longer control how much or what would happen when I did. But that magnum of acrid cabernet promise? I could blot myself out, find my funny again, instead of sitting on the couch full of nervousness, envy, and loneliness. A glass or two of wine would shake me loose. I filled a plastic cup and drank it down in one swallow. Then another, quickly, desperately. How many could I drink before someone came into the kitchen and caught me? Six, seven, the whole bottle?

What I next remember: waking in the hospital, cuts up and down my arms, and my husband standing in the corner of the room, his lips pressed together, no longer worried and forgiving, but hard and immobile. My kids were nowhere. That is, they were stashed somewhere safe because I was unsafe.
“I’m sorry,” I said, again, adding to my long recitation of sorry’s over the years.

“Do you know why you’re here?” he asked. He hadn’t accepted my apology.
“There was the shower and I drank.” Nothing else after, just an empty, black hole that I didn’t know how to fill.
“After you guzzled wine, you ran outside into the snow and cold without your shoes or coat and wouldn’t come back. Your friends called me, so I could come get you. When I found you out by your car, you insisted you were going to drive off and kill yourself. You meant it. I got you home, but then you did that to your arms. Your doctor said you needed to be admitted.”
I can do this better, I thought. I can do this over. I can stop and be well.
My husband didn’t move toward the bed, but was rigid with fury and resolve. Couldn’t he remember that he had promised to love me, in sickness and in health? Couldn’t he give me another chance, and another chance, and a chance after that? But I knew there would be no talking myself out of this, as I had before: I promise, I promise, I won’t drink so much. I’ll count my drinks. I’ll pay attention.

“I won’t do this anymore,” he said. “If you don’t stop drinking, you lose the kids and me. It’s your choice but this is it.”
The room fell away. Lose them? They were the only reason I was alive. And my husband marooning me with self-loathing and despair? My daughter once drew a picture for me when I was in the hospital during one of my manic episodes: an enormous green and black winged creature with the words, “Momma Come Home!” It was fierce and fiery, born of courage and will. She was calling me to that again.

“Yes,” I said. There was no alternative, not anymore. I had to go home, whatever it took.

In the almost five years since that moment, I got sober and stable and ironically, divorced. The marriage couldn’t ultimately survive the turmoil of my illness or the betrayal of his affair.
For much of my life I said “No” — to love, grace, and assistance. I would go it alone, never mind if I could. Now, “yes” is reflexive. Can I love myself? Yes. Am I a good enough, at times even better, mother? Yes. Do I have the courage to live an authentic life, in truth and forgiveness? Yes. Am I afraid, legs wobbling, in this new life of mine? Yes, but the trajectory from that lonely woman, cut up and starving and hung-over, to the woman writing this without shame and with a belief that the universe is saying “Yes” back to me? I don’t sit on tigers anymore, but I am not risk averse. I risk integrity and truth now, and push my sleeves back, revealing my scars, my tiger stripes, and maybe even risk your seeing all that pain and healing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Saying Yes to the Universe

Even when I’m standing still, I’m still moving.  When I’m awake at night in bed, paralyzed by fear and regret, sure that my life is going nowhere (i.e., into the shitter), I’m still moving.  Our galaxy, the Milky Way, rotates at 225 kilometers per second, and careens through our infinite cosmos at 305 kilometers per second.  So every sixty seconds, I travel 20,000 kilometers, or 12,000 miles.  And so do you.

This is a fact, though physically, I can’t feel its truth in my body.  I stand at my window, watching the pit bull next door lope around the yard, or across a few weeks, notice the hostas push their twirled leaves through the ground and unfurl, or the man who staggers up and down the block in his ragged trench coat, dragging his wire cart behind him that is packed with cases of cheap beer.  Everyone else is moving but me.  The universe doesn’t hurl me through the glass and back out into the world with bloodied hands and knees, so I mistake my apparent stillness for the hopeless inertia. 

It didn’t always feel like this.  When I was a kid, I ran at the world.  When I was five, I put on my mother’s silver cuff bracelets which, I believed, imbued me with Wonder Woman’s vaulting powers, and stood on the top of a flight of stairs and jumped.  Of course, I broke my arm, but for a few brief seconds (one?), I was caught in an exhilarating tumble through the air.  At nine, I secreted myself in the basement in front of a robin’s egg blue Smith Corona, and typed out, with great assurance, the opening chapters to a torrid, Victorian romance novel.  What did I know about a heaving bosom and a throbbing manhood?  Nothing, except for when the neighbor boy and I showed each other all that we had in his backyard shed.  But I could dare to imagine what I didn’t know.

As an adolescent, the snake of Bipolar depression slithered in, and I drank to feel better, and cut myself to feel worse--an intertwined attempt at desperate self-medication.  Drinking could, in the moment, transform me into a funnier, more expansive, brash self.  I risked more (though might feel shame and regret later).  Cutting was a way to render unseen pain visible and specific (I smiled for the world while imagining jumping from a bridge).  My arms, concealed under long sleeves, throbbed in acute response to the injuries I suffered on myself.  
For many years, I was pinned beneath the immoveable rubble of illness (Bipolar, Anorexia, Alcoholism) and failure (loss of a job, end of a marriage), standing at the window as what could be my life rushed by at 12,000 miles a minute.  But I am in what is called “recovery” now—no more drinking, only necessary eating and stability.  We usually think of the word “recover” to mean a regaining of health or a return to some prior, longed for condition.  But its Anglo-French roots are more instructive: “to regain consciousness.”  A coming back to the essential self, the self before the shit; the self that can take imaginative, daring leaps into the cosmos. 

Over a year ago, I got divorced from the man who I believed, at least twenty years prior, was my soulmate, a heady designation, more suggestive of a na├»ve trust in those bodice ripper romances.  When I found out about his many years affair during our marriage?  Momentarily decimated.  For weeks, I was nauseated and sleepless, imagining them together, imagining myself never moving again out of bed, out of grief and anger, out of my life inscribed with pain and back into the world of movement and flight and joy.

But I decided that rather than stay put, I was going to say “yes” to whatever the universe offered me as long as the offering wouldn’t kill me.  Reconnecting with the friends I lost track of along the way out of shame in my years of illness?  Yes.  Try dating while sober?  Yes.  Try a heady fling that left its metallic taste of adrenaline in the mouth—like swallowing blood, sharp and clear?  Yes.  Try affection, transparency, and vulnerability with the people, new and established, in my life?  Yes.  Try to say “yes” with integrity and authenticity. 

In one of the photo albums at my parents’ house, there is a picture of me when I’m six in the hours before my birthday party.  The backyard table is strewn with streamers and party favors.  On each paper plate, a tasseled, pointed hat and one of those noisemakers that uncurl like a long, happy tongue.  For some reason, I am not in a party dress, but in a blue flowered bikini.  On my feet?  No MaryJanes, but roller skates.  My arms are opened wide and one foot is lifted from the ground.  Me, the photo seems to say, this is me moving into my boundless life.  It is the “yes” I say now.          

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

When You're Sober and Your Partner's Not

When I got sober, I didn't ask my then-husband to quit drinking.  In the foggy, shame-filled logic of early sobriety, I felt guilty.  After all, he had moved the booze from a locked cabinet (which I easily picked open with a kabob skewer) to some other super secret place in support of my recovery.  Underground bunker?  Mars?  A few months in, though, he wondered if it would be okay to bring it all back home.

"Yes," I said.  "I'm fine.  I'm the one who can't drink, not you."

The cabinet was reassembled with the delicious clutter of scotch, gin, vodka, ouzo, tsipouro, brandy, kahlua, rum, tequila, and wine.

It was mostly fine, except when it wasn't.  At night, over dinner, he would pour himself a glass or two or a third splash of wine, and sitting beside him on the couch, I could smell that dark promise, just like the little vial marked "Drink Me" in Alice in Wonderland, filled with "not-poison" liquid that smelled of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast.  I scrambled to remember that what he was drinking would indeed kill me.  Maybe not right there on the couch in front of the blazing fire and the big screen TV broadcasting The Walking Dead and its rotting, zombie bodies, but in a few drinks, a few days, a few bottles.  Alcohol flips the suicide switch in my brain.  I might be sitting on the couch eating an arugula and egg pizza, but after a bottle of cabernet, I want to cut my wrists with the crusts.

I believed that my recovery was my fault, my business, my responsibility.  It was and is.  But in a marriage or relationship, recovery is pursued together.  I believed this even as we sat on the couch pretending that our marriage was also healing.  Even as I fetched him a scotch glass at the end of the evening so he could pour himself a snoot or two.  After all, he had the difficult job of living through and with me.  It was the least I could do.  Even as I gathered up the wine glass and scotch glass and hand washed them. I hated scotch, but in the last days of my drinking, took swigs straight from the bottle, swallowing fast and hard, trying to obliterate myself.  Still, I reasoned, this was my just dysfunctional penance.

Some nights, fewer in the end of our marriage, we had sex, a sign that we were still bound to each other (though, he was already, by this time, bound to another woman).  Since sex necessitates bodies against each other, mouth against mouth, breath against cheek, I had to hold my breath when he moved close.  Not out of distaste for him, but for the booze.  I couldn't taste his scotch and wine in my mouth, couldn't breathe in the potential for damage.  Sex shifted from (fraught) pleasure to my fending off a longing for drink and drunkenness, and my turning away (staring at the wall, the dresser, the knobs on the dresser) to stay intact.

Alcohol always made sex easier for me; I was less barbed with the thorns of insecurity and disconnection.  By extension, alcohol made it easier to forget what I'd done while drinking alcohol which would then, once again, make me do shameful things which I would need to again forget.  The ouroborus.  The snake eating its tail.  At one of our very drunken Christmas parties  (think guests throwing up in the bathroom or passed out on the couch), I batted my eyelashes at my husband (who thought maybe I's had enough to drink), and wooed him into sex on the back steps.  Thrilling because we could be discovered, but it was my way to deflect his attention.  He would be agog at my daring and I could continue with vodka cranberries.  The next morning, hungover, I could only feel shame.  That wasn't me, not really.  

What was becoming clear, too, was that the "me" who had married my husband, who had spent years and years drinking at ports of call all over the world, and waking up hungover and ashamed in these places, was no longer able to sit on the couch and pretend that his drinking with me was okay.  Alcohol muddies intentions.  Did he want to have sex with me, or, like my plastered performance on the stairs, was his desire fueled by booze?  Beer-wine-scotch goggles?  Was he interested in authenticity and integrity with me, something I was trying to practice in recovery?  (Apparently not, evidenced by his secret, several-years affair).

I don't know if a future partner will have to be a sober partner.  Perhaps my now-ex-husband's drinking was troublesome because we had spent so many years ritually drinking together.  We clinked glasses on balconies and in vineyards and on beaches in Italy, France, Greece, and Turkey.  Many of our loveliest and most poisonous memories are strung together by booze and its accompanying love and anger and betrayal and regret.  How do you come out from under that weight?  How does one partner summon the hopeful promise (writ small: soft unwinding of a day) of Laphroig in a crystal Tiffany snifter while the other is trying not to guzzle the bottle (that same hope, writ large: this will finally make me okay).

Now that I live on my own, in a house without booze, I am less vigilant.  Maybe I'll binge on mandarin oranges or handfuls of Lucky Charms, but there's nothing (barring a slip on a dog squeaky toy or impalement by Legos) that can kill me.  When I need to blot myself out, I call friends and talk until empty.  When I'm feeling insecure, or unhappy or unfunny or unlovable, I write my truth, hug my kids and dog, and expend all that prickly energy at CrossFit or on the track.  And sober sex?  With its clear intent and active choice, it is dangerous and thrilling because it is full of feeling.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Divorce and the Ex-Husband Tattoo

In the year since my divorce, I’ve been visiting a plastic surgeon every month.  Not for Botox, though maybe that would help the mid-forties creases across my forehead, nor for Latisse, which might assist me in batting longer eyelashes at potential romantic partners, but for tattoo removal.  I sit in the cushioned lounger, wearing enormous orange-tinted goggles, the kind you might use for downhill skiing, and the doctor sits across from me on a stool, also goggled, wielding the light-beam laser. 

“I’m sorry,” he says, “but this is going to hurt.”  He turns on the machine, and the light sparks against my skin in sharp pricks of pain.  The laser moves slowly across the tattoo, raising an immediate, red, blistering welt.  This hurts, more than getting the tattoo in the first place, but I am well-practiced in swallowing pain.  Really, it’s just a matter of breathing through it, telling myself that it will pass.  When you’re Bipolar, when you’ve been decimated by an eating disorder and alcoholism, when your arms are crisscrossed with scars from when you used to cut yourself, a little transitory pain is nothing at all.

Which is not to say that removing the tattoo is any less painful than all of that.  On my first visit, the doctor inspected my arm; my wrist to be precise.  The old shame rose up because I was certain he was narrowing in on the scars.

“Not the whole tattoo,” I said.  “Just my ex-husband’s name.  I want to keep my kids’ names and the swallows.”

“You know,” he said, and ran his thumb across my wrist, across my ex’s name in Greek letters, a band of stylized black ink, “I have two rules for tattoos.  One: no tattoos on the neck.  Stupid idea.  And two: only tattoo blood relatives, or children, on your body.  The rest you’ll regret.”

That first time, on the drive home, I cried.  My ex-husband’s name was indecipherable, a red throbbing flame across my wrist.  It looked as if I had cut myself again, something I hadn’t done in years.  The wound whispered to me in that old way: Hurt yourself.  You deserve it.  Even he stopped loving you. 

But what I really cried over was what I had already lost.  I got the tattoo five years earlier, after my last residential treatment for my eating disorder and bipolar disorder.  I’d been staring at my forearms, counting scars, ruminating on the years of impulsive damage, on the shiny straight-edge razors and the rusty ones filched from tool boxes, on broken glass pocketed from gutters, on kitchen scissors, sewing scissors, nail scissors, serrated knives, chef’s knives, and at my most stupidly desperate?  When I was in the ICU after a manic suicidal overdose, a nurse gave me a can of Diet Coke—metal flip-top intact.  With every shower, every application of body cream, every decision to wear short sleeves or a bathing suit, I had to face what I’d done.

What could I do that would change the way I saw those scars?  What could I do that might give me pause in the next impulsive flash?  What could I do that would remind me of what ties me to this world of love and joy and redemption, namely my husband and children?

A tattoo.  On my wrist, superimposed on the tangle of scars.  Greek themed, since so much of our lives were tied to that county—engagement, pregnancy, infancies, depressions, recoveries, our four-square made one.  Two swallows swooping at each other, an ancient archaeological painting from a site in Santorini. Swallows: the birds of spring, of new life, of hope.  Surrounding the birds, the names of my family in Greek:  The intended result?  I could look at my arm and see meaning and purpose.

Mad Mike, the tattoo artist, buzzed at my wrist with his needle. At one point, he stopped, and said, “You’re awfully quiet.  My clients tend to make a little more noise.  They find it painful.”

I shrugged.  “I do a lot of yoga.”

He laughed.  “But you seem serene.  But I guess I can see you are maybe used to pain in this area?”

“That’s what the tattoo is for.  Hope.  A reason to live.”

“I’m glad I can create that for you.  Not my usual barbed wire or Celtic Knot.”

I surprised for my family.  My (ex-)husband loved it, and my daughter wanted to get a tattoo of her stuffed dragon. 

“You know what else that’s cool about it?” she said.  “It’s beautiful and it covers up all those scars!”

Divorce revises our understanding of the shared dream, the shared future, that four-square made one.  What keeps me here has necessarily shifted.  My children are still part of how I see myself unfolding.  But what I have discovered, is that while I was inscribing my family on my body, it was simultaneously breaking apart.  My ex-husband told me he loved what I had done to myself (finally something that I’d done to myself that didn’t inch me closer to death but towards life), but he what he didn’t tell me was that he was having an affair, and not invested at all in our shared future.  I often wonder what he must have been feeling when he saw his name on my wrist, and knew that he was lying, or leading me to believe in a lie.  And how maybe he couldn’t tell me because my recovery indelibly depended on us. 

His name, after a year of treatments, is almost gone.  The light beam breaks down the ink and scatters the black particles throughout my body.  They will always be there--floating microscopic memories of love and pain, of what can and can’t, in the end, be erased.  

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

10 Things No One Told You About Divorce

1. Sometimes you eat like a scavenging member of the Donner Party, dragging a carrot through a tub of expired hummus, eating bran cereal (or the kids' Lucky Charms) by the fistful straight from the box, spooning peanut butter, the main protein source, onto your tongue, and shaking chocolate chips from the bag for dessert. You do all of this standing by the sink in the dark because you don't believe it's worth the effort to cook sustaining, delicious food just for yourself. People begin tell you that since the divorce, you've gone feral.
2. You start walking around the house in shabby underwear (when you don't have the kids), and notice your white panties are gray. So you shuck them off, and your tired bra, too, and look down at the body that you agonized over for all those married years. You doubted that you were enough and his affair seemed to confirm this. But standing naked now, with just yourself to please, you suddenly realize: "I am effing beautiful."
3. If you change your married name back to your unmarried name, your younger name, your name before all of the collective joy and pain, you cry the first time that you sign a check or bill, having to invent a new signature on the spot. That signature might even resemble your childhood signature: a loopy, hesitant inscription of your name on the world. Resist dotting your "i" with a heart.
4. If you have children, they worry about you. They say, "You should try to find someone! Go online! We just want you to be happy like Dad is with X." You might want to say something disparaging about their father and the girlfriend. Don't. Your children love you and their father with their wide and forgiving hearts. Instead, pull them close, kiss each cheek, and say, "I have you. I don't need a man to make me happy." Which is true, but also a tiny lie.
5. If you venture into online dating, know that perfect strangers will ask you to describe your calves and teeth, as if you are up at the cattle auction; couples will ask you to couple with them; voyeurs will want to watch you with younger partners; and younger partners will woo you with their staying power, intuiting, too, your mid-life desperation (the ex is already engaged to the other woman). Delete these messages. Or not. Trudge around the house in your gray underwear or have an exhilarating fling.
6. You spend a lot of time inspecting the gray roots when you blow-dry your hair, wondering how you got to be this old and alone. When you towel off after showering, you'll notice the gray hair below that simultaneously sprouted with the divorce decree. Dye the top? Dye the top and bottom? Surely someone else will come along so grooming is essential. Your secret fear? No one is coming along again. Except for the crazy stalker guy from
7. Because your ex was usually in the driver's seat, he generally set the radio station, the temperature, and the level of road rage. You are now Danica Patrick. Turn up Taylor Swift, blast the heat, and instead of shouting invectives at other drivers, encourage the kids to join you in a sing-a-long to "Bad Blood." They won't actually sing-a-long, and slump in their seats when you pump the brake, pretending to have bad-ass hydraulics. But they will see that you can be happy alone and with them.
8. You realize all the pee on the toilet was not, in fact, your ex's, but is due to your son's bad aim. You feel guilty over all the times you stepped on wet tiles and sat on the wet toilet seat, damning your ex to outhouse hell. You feel guilty for all the arguments, for going to bed angry, for holding your ground long after it mattered. However, guilt aside, in the next co-parenting email exchange, you need to tell your ex to work on your son's toilet etiquette.
9. You are not be prepared for the vast ocean of your king-sized bed. At night, even though you have an extra ten feet of space, space you coveted when you were married (you were pushed to the edge of the bed by your husband, the dog, and often, your son), you still sleep on a narrow sliver. In fact, you don't disturb his side but pile your dirty yoga pants in an approximation of his body, like filling in the empty space of a body's outline at a crime scene. When you wake up in the middle of the night, you pat the lumpy, reassuring pile as if he is there.
10. Sometimes, it feels like the end of your life. Your therapist nods ambiguously. "I hear you," he says. You're not sure he does. Later, when you are at your friends' house for dinner, the husband-friend tells you that he thinks you are amazing, and that you have come so far and with such grace, and that you are loved by so many. His eyes get wet as he says this. Divorce might feel like the wages of love's failure, but love still waits to catch you off guard.