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Guest Posts, Mental Health, parenting

All Boys Paint Cows

August 31, 2020
nick

Self-portrait by Nick O’Rourke, age 15

By Miriam Feldman

My husband and I are driving to Paris from the south of France. I am in the passenger seat, writing ideas for a story about our son, on a napkin. Our son, Nick, has schizophrenia.

You see, I am the self-appointed conservator of his legacy. I have no complete poem, painting or song to present. Yet. Scraps of a life, one piled up on the other, form the work of art that is his story. I will continue to document his life and put it into the world for as long as I am here. Perhaps he is stricken, but perhaps he is just too magnificent for this world, a blazing light they don’t have eyes to see. But I see. A mother’s eyes can always see. Super tough, I can look directly at an eclipse without damage. Blindness is not an option.

*

When he was still inside of me, a tiny little tadpole boy swimming around, my husband and I heard his heartbeat for the first time. Back in those days they didn’t do sonograms without a medical reason, so the mystery of an unborn child was a universe of questions. We sat in the doctor’s office as she placed the stethoscope on my belly, and the sound came whooshing through a speaker. It was like the repetitive slap of water on some distant ocean shore. My husband blanched and reached behind him for a chair, then sat down hard. He had to breathe into a paper bag, overwhelmed by the sound of Nick’s beating heart.

Afterwards, we went to a small Ukrainian restaurant to have lunch. I ordered soup. It was particularly delicious, and I tried to figure out why. Staring at the bowl, I noticed the way the carrots had been cut. They weren’t the usual uniform disks, graduating in size from the thick part of the carrot to the tip. They were crazy random shapes, as though the cook had performed a wild cutlery dance, shiny blades flying. There were circles, half-moons, rectangles…little snippets of carrot that defied description. That was why the soup was so good. Something about the constellation of shapes enhanced the flavor, made it more interesting. When something arrives in an unexpected form it holds adventure, interest, mystery.

Nick arrived six months later and filled our world with his own configurations of unexpected stars. Some were beautiful, some had sharp edges that cut.

*

Driving along a grey serpent of highway, we descend into a valley. Immediately, I see the blue and red lights. It is the blue that catches your eye. We are all used to seeing the red, yellow and green of traffic lights, but like the black and white of a police car, blue calls out “calamity!”

“What is going on down there?” I say, sitting taller, my straightest spine. The traffic slows down and I can see people on the median, an upside-down van, personal belongings strewn everywhere.

“Pull over, I need to go there.” My husband knows me well enough not to argue. There would be no way for me to pass and not go see about what I could do. It is how I am wired; I am addicted to trying to help. I need to know I tried. I want to be a hero but I never am. I read about a woman who was electrocuted running into water to help a man stranded in a storm, ignoring the downed power lines lapping creepily at the edges. I thought, “I would have done that.”

Grabbing a water bottle, I open the car door before we have even come to a stop. My husband admonishes, “be careful crossing…” but I am gone.

I can’t decipher the situation at first. First, I see two women attending to…what? Oh, a little dog. “He was thrown from the vehicle,” one says, as she pours water on his head. “I’m trying to cool him off.”

“Do you need more water?” I ask. No, they don’t.

The van is about a hundred feet away from me, several people lean inside, wearing blue latex gloves. Where did they get gloves? The ambulance hasn’t even arrived yet. The air has a very still, artificial feeling as I walk over, through the debris, artifacts of a trip, a life. My foot sinks into a package of mushrooms. I see shoes, papers, a book, an open box of spaghetti that landed like pick-up sticks. A young woman bends over and retrieves a wallet, “Here is his license, now we know his name.” I wish I had been the one to find the wallet. I walk over to the van.

Sound reduces to a muted decibel, wind moves slowly, and I see the two people in the vehicle, roof partially ripped off. I think of an Edward Kienholz installation I saw at the museum in L.A., everything in the whole world shoved into the corner of one room.

Kienholz left detailed instructions when he died in 1994. He was buried, sitting in the front seat of his brown 1940 Packard Coupe, a dollar bill and a deck of cards in his shirt pocket, and the ashes of his dog, Smash, on the seat beside him.

The couple in the van look pale, not just their skin, but the entirety of them is a shade lighter than the rest of the world. Arms and legs splayed out stiffly, they look a bit like big dolls. Blue gloves firmly hold a red-soaked towel against the old man’s head. “Hang on, hang on,” someone says. It sounds to me like they are all under water. The woman with the wallet says, “His name is Fred.” The woman in the car moans it is her shoulder that hurts.

There is nothing I can do, nothing for me to contribute. My fingers moving against each other as if I could feel the air at my sides, I just stand there. The old man and woman, vacation careened terribly off-course, will be tended to by other drivers until the professionals get there. I go back to the car.

As we drive away, we pass the ambulance, siren cutting the day, headed up to help Fred and his wife. The radio is playing one of Chopin’s 24 Preludes and mournful piano chords fill the car. My fingers still caressing thin air, I listen. The countryside condenses as we approach the city.

*

An hour after we leave the accident, we reach Paris and our small hotel. I immediately turn on the television, wanting to see the news. Ridiculously, I expect to find out about the crash. I want to know how Fred is doing.

Instead, I am informed that an abandoned, just born, baby has been found in some bushes by a policeman. The anchorman teases the story before commercials, “Stay tuned to see what the officer first said to the baby. It was captured on his bodycam!” They show a second or two of film, two dark hands reaching into the foliage, an infant’s quiet cry, wind sounds, a man’s voice.

I sit on the awful hotel bedspread and wonder if I can bear the sadness his words.

They return with footage of a stocky officer holding the infant and telling her not to worry, that help is coming. But I heard something else during the lead-in, in the moment he pulled her out of the bushes. I had heard the real first thing he’d said, and it was “I’m sorry.”

I’m sorry you came in the world like this? I’m sorry you came into a world that is like this? I’m sorry this atrocious thing happened to you?

The news media had missed what he’d really said first. They’d missed the most plaintive, simple and enormous apology ever made.

*

The Sacre-Coeur Basilica at Montmartre in Paris sits on a hill surveying the city. It can be seen from almost anywhere. Standing on the top floor of The Centre Pompidou with my forehead smashed against the glass of a floor to ceiling window, I stare. Far away and across the city, the Basilica seems to be lit by its own sun. The eerie light calls up a memory and I am struck, like a blow to the head, by the fear I’ve forgotten something important. I can’t remember the details, but something happened with Nick up there, a decade ago when we came to Paris to paint, just before he lost his mind. What was it? Straining for the memory, I think of the small black moleskin notebook he brought on the trip. I’d found it, and read it, years later. Just prior to his unspooling, he’d recorded a beautiful, unsettling narrative from the cliff. One foot in our world, one foot in his future world, he’d told us what was happening in arduous, aching cursive.

When was the moment? When was the exact second of the shift?

And then I remember what happened. We’d lost him up there. One moment he was next to us, and then suddenly he was gone.

“Where did Nick go?” I’d asked my husband,

“I don’t know, he was right here.”

We began to look for him. We searched everywhere, the building, the grounds, then back to the building. I remember standing at the top of the endless steps outside and squinting at a group of kids lolling around, thinking he must be with them. I was wearing a slippery crepe skirt and flowered blouse that whipped about my body with the wind. Eventually, he just appeared.

“Where were you?” I asked, my voice strident from worry.

“Right here,” he said, “around.”

From my perch at the Pompidou, I see a crack, a split second of light between the truth and what might have been. I want to dive into that space.

My husband walks up to me, leans against the glass, and I say, “Remember when we lost Nick up there?”

His voice low and measured, he says, “You know, I’ve always thought that was where it happened.”

“What do you mean? What are you talking about?”

“I think something took him, up there on that hill, and gave him back to us altered. I think that is where he went crazy.”

This had never occurred to me and immediately I knew it was true.

“That’s pretty woo-woo, even for you, buddy,” I say because the idea is more than my brain can manage and I have to trivialize it in order to continue breathing.

“I know,” my tall and dark husband says, “but I believe it.”

The sun dips behind a menacing cloud and the Basilica darkens. Its luminous stone façade suddenly looks drab, desolate. My husband wanders off to the contemporary collection, I turn to the modernists.

*

When my kids were small, they used to loll around on the floor of their father’s studio with big sheets of butcher paper and paint while he worked. One day Lucy was teasing Nick because he always made cows and he shot back, “All boys paint cows, and anyway, I’m just starting. I’m going to paint a lot of other things.”

*

Sitting on a narrow bench in the Modern Collection (from 1905 to the 1960’s), I think about the day we lost Nick at the Sacre-Coeur. The area under my jaw constricts and saliva begins to pool in my mouth. There is a quickening of the blood as it moves through my veins. My arms crossed tightly across my chest, like armor, I lean forward and stare at the floor.

We were just walking around and then you were gone. We looked and looked for you, we did. Where did you go? Was it a portal? Can we go there now and find you? Please. Or are you in here? Are you at the Pompidou? Is this where you went? Did you go through a door we couldn’t see and just come here? Are you in the big Fernand Leger, in the corner, with the cerulean and the ochre? I would have thought you’d go to a Picasso, NickNack, but did you decide to trick me with a Leger?

Or was it the perfect little interlocking slats of varied woods of the floor, all different colors, that drew you to the Pompidou?

I’m rocking back and forth now with clenched bones holding in the torrent. I don’t want to cry in public, but now I am convinced some bad magic really did happen and it is true that we lost him here in Paris.

So this is what happens if I let the stoppers out? This is what happens if I think about it?  Unbelievable, unyielding pain? Shredding of intestines? The longing, like gravity, for you? Then bring back the stoppers because I can’t live like this.

My husband walks into the gallery, sees me hunched over, sits down and puts a large hand firmly on my back, just between my shoulder blades.

*

It is 11:06 and I am at the desk in our hotel room, looking at the black night outside my window as if it were a painting. I want to believe Nick is sleeping peacefully right now, across oceans. If I could just know that, I would ask for nothing else. I haven’t gotten any texts from his caregivers, so he must be calmer than last night. I want to believe that with all my heart. I want to just slip into sleep and trust that all is well. Oh, I want.

Then, in the window, I can see Nick and his sisters painting in their father’s studio, the plywood floor a medium gray and the walls pure white in order to contain the colors of the paintings with neutrality. Against this palliative backdrop, my children are exuberant, messy, incongruous. Small pots of tempera are pushed to one side. The children lie on their bellies in baggy shorts, no shirts, legs flopping languidly as they move brushes across paper.

And then Nick looks up at me across time and space, as I sit at my computer in the dark. He smiles at me from his childhood, his cherub mouth so young and new, “I told her, Ma, all boys paint cows. I’m going to paint a lot of other things before I’m through.”

Miriam Feldman is a painter, writer, and mother originally from Los Angeles, California. After her son, Nick’s, diagnosis with Schizophrenia more than ten years ago, she began writing to document and explore the ways this new reality affected her relationship with her children, her husband, and herself. Her blog, https://www.miriam-feldman.com, explores issues of motherhood, mental illness and the politics of our mental health system. She holds an MFA in fine art from Otis College of Art and Design. Her paintings are in collections across the United States. She is represented by Hamilton Galleries in Santa Monica, Ca. Most recently, she joined Bring Change 2 Mind, Glenn Close’s organization to fight discrimination and educate around mental illness. She is on the Advisory Council and has a monthly blog on the website https://bringchange2mind.org. She is a frequent guest on mental health podcasts including https://player.fm/series/who-lives-like-this/art-and-chaos-with-mimi-feldman and http://www.sheilahamilton.com/category/podcasts/. Find her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/mimitheriveter/ where she is busy building a community of family and loved ones dealing with serious mental illness. Miriam now resides on a farm in rural Washington State with her husband, Craig. Nick lives in the small town nearby. She splits her time between the farm and Los Angeles, painting, writing, and staying active in the mental health community.

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Guest Posts, Mental Health

The Universe in the Kitchen

April 13, 2020
sun

By Adrienne LaValley

I didn’t know that everyone doesn’t spend their lives waiting for the other shoe to drop until I was well into my thirties. I think it was the look on my friend’s face when I said “I’m so nervous things are going well right now. When’s it all gonna end?” She couldn’t quite understand the palpable, stomach twisting fear I had about the inevitable future. I thought everyone had that certainty. That no matter how long things had been good for, the shit was coming to hit that proverbial fan. Hard. You could bet money on it. Because it was fact. Not speculation. Not paranoia. Fact. The better things were, the longer they stayed that way, the more terrified I’d become about the looming fall out. These fallouts that were slowly shaping who I’d become as an adult. Not that I could see it at the time. Or until five years ago really. Enlightenment by therapy. The fallout was dark and moved with the momentum of a freight train barreling around the bend. An unstoppable blackhole that sucked the life out of everything around it. Just writing this I can feel my face fall. It’s visceral. The fallout is far enough away to stop causing damage, but close enough to still make my skin crawl. Not my fallout though. My dad’s.

Living with a bipolar parent is like living with the sun. Forever orbiting someone who wields both the power to nourish and love you and the spontaneous drive to destroy who you are at your core. Like termites eating away at your foundation until there’s nothing left but anxiety and self doubt. Then they die and you’re bestowed the gift of reconstruction. Who will you finally be now that the sun has gone down?

One morning in the nineties I came barreling down the stairs like a kid leaving for Disney World. The house was treading on the thinnest ice sheet of normalcy for a moment and I was cautiously hopeful. Again. A sort of middle ground that only came around when my dad was well medicated. But as I bounced into the kitchen, arms wide and ready to vomit love on anyone I came across, I saw him hunched over in such a way that I knew it was all gone. The air changed. It was thick with tension and smelled of evil enjoying itself just a little too much for 7 am. “Morning dad!!! Sleep ok?” My heart dropped like a ton of bricks at the deafening silence that followed. “Morning…” he said, with the heaviness of someone who’d lost everything and didn’t even know it. Fuck, it’s gone. It’s all gone again. Here we go. Man your stations, war is imminent. Shields up. Head down. Get ready.

…“Did you take my braided belt?”

“Your what?”

“My braided belt. The brown leather one. Did you take it?”

“Nope, didn’t take your belt.”

“Someone god damn took it.”

“No dad, Jesus I didn’t take your belt. Why would I do that?”

“Did one of your friends? They did, didn’t they? Was it Colleen? It was, wasn’t it? Selfish little asshole. You get that back from her. Someone took my god damn belt. Where is it?”

My brain usually fails me when digging through these particular memories. The ones where I meet my other dad. The evil one. “Hello there. You suck so bad. Gotta jet.”

I’m sure I said something for the record books, I just can’t remember exactly what. I have gaping holes in my childhood memories. They come in waves of bad dreams, flashes of screaming a lot and crying until my face was blue, apologizing for something I didn’t do then slamming a door somewhere. Sounds right.

That was only if the sun was pointed at me though. Which I preferred. I knew how to handle it and if for some reason I just couldn’t on that particular occasion, I knew how to live with the constant stomach churning and heartbreak. It was just a regular Tuesday. But to watch the sun shoot flares at my family was like watching our house burn down, helpless to stop it and paralyzed with fear. That barreling train crashed into everyone who loved and supported it and to the untrained eye, it relished in taking as many people down with it as it could.

The sun didn’t always rage and spew flares though. It could be warm. Warm and shiny and really excited about everything in life. And if that warmth was pointed my way, I basked in its glow and relished how lucky I was to know and be loved by someone like that. Someone so bright. So full of life. Someone who convinced me I was incomparable to virtually every other person alive. I was special. To be separated from the pack and nurtured to perfection. Days were full of snowball fights and inappropriate jokes at someone else’s expense, spontaneous road trips, manic fun, 5am tennis practices, and overly eager encouragement to be the best no matter what. At this. At that. And definitely at that. I could always be better. It was an endless merry go round of love and pressure and hurt and betrayal and love and pressure and hurt and betrayal. As the planets circled the sun.

I know all of this because I am one. I’m a planet. And my brother and sister and mom are too. We orbited the sun of our home for half our lives, then from a close distance for the other half. All of us. We orbited and constructed our lives around the unsettling, unpredictable love of my father. Until we ran away. Or he died. Or both.

I’ve heard that children of a mentally ill parent tend to be more empathetic, sensitive, intuitive, malleable, loyal and compassionate. Of course we are. We’ve danced with the sun. Fine tuned the art of tip toeing. We know the delicate ballet of appeasement like we know how to breathe. We can intuit someone’s mood like our lives depend on it. Because it did. For however many years we spent reassuring the sun that someone loved it. We do all of this simply by loving an impossible person. Someone who everyone else gives up on or shakes their head in confounding exhaustion at. And we don’t often let go of our impossible person. Because everyone else already did. Somewhere in the recesses of our hearts we believe impossible people deserve love too, in spite of not being able to reciprocate it very reliably. Even deeper in our recesses we believe that if we do let go, we’ll lose our sun forever. And that’s the scariest thing of all. To be abandoned by someone you abandoned first. After all, saving ourselves was never the first priority. It wasn’t even the second or the third. Frankly, it never crossed our minds until someone mentioned our well-being one day. We stared at them with a genuinely perplexed look. And they stared back just long enough for something to spark in our chest. A whisper of self preservation. Something niggling in the back of our heads that we deserved a better life than this. Our souls carefully tapping from below, just in case we were listening this time. Just leave, it says. Just leave.

But we’ve been well trained to know that the sun can’t survive without us. It can’t survive without its planets and its moon. We’re the only ones who understand how it operates. And without us it would be all alone in the inky blackness of its own celestial abyss. And so the dance of codependency forges on, stronger than ever. I’ve heard that children of a mentally ill parent tend to be more untrusting, desperate for structure, constantly self effacing, full of anxiety and always in search of something more perfect. Of course we are. We’ve danced with the sun.

Last year I rode out to Fort Tilden to catch the solar eclipse. I was in awe of how many people were in awe of it. Millions of gazers all over the country gathering to watch the sun god be rendered powerless by our little planet and its little moon. Our pale blue dot. Even more astounding was that in the looming countdown to artificial nighttime, the life around us adjusted accordingly. Crickets started chirping, a few bats started flying around disoriented from lack of sleep on a long summer day, the fresh scent of early evening wafting through the breeze. A powerful entity going dark, the life around it adjusting. Surviving. When the sun and the earth and the moon are all perfectly in line.

When we lined up in the kitchen to watch our personal eclipse we also adjusted accordingly. We’d hunker down for dark mode, which could last for weeks depending on the season. We spoke quietly and avoided the sun at all costs, careful not to disturb it. Never complaining if it tucked itself away in it’s room for days on end. We were safe if it stayed behind closed doors, doing whatever it needed to do to survive the grip. During these times my walk home from school slowed to a crawl. Surely there was a friends house I should be visiting right now. Maybe Nicole’s mom bought fruit roll ups again. I’d drag my feet and trudge home every day, mentally preparing myself to find my dad hanging from the garage rafters. “Would I get there in time? Why am I walking so slow? Feet, fucking move faster. Would I even be able to get him down though? Is there a ladder nearby? Do we even have rafters? I don’t think we have rafters.” But I could picture it so clearly. Like it had already happened and the universe was trying to warn me. It knew that’s how he’d do it. And that he’d make sure I was the one who found him. I was the one he opened up to, after all. I was the one he’d sit down in front of to explain why my mom was so horrible and why he was unfaithful to her for all those years. Why my friend’s mom was something he just needed. I knew how the sun operated. I’d surely be the one he’d bestow his suicide on. But I’d never find him hanging in the garage. He was always alive. Hunched over, now keenly aware that he’d surely lost everything. But alive. A sad calm would hang in the room as long as it was silent. Sarcasm and utter despair if we engaged. Spinning around and around, getting lost in the orbit of the sun never knowing which dad we’d land on but always knowing the truly evil one would be back. He always came back. Like a heavy shoe forever hovering above.

I can’t help but think about what could have stopped the cycle? What could slow the orbit? Something that could have made our universe even marginally more tolerable. Like ketchup on dry eggs. Sometimes I think naming it would have. Just calling it out helps it lose some power. That’s what they say, right? The enlighteners? We knew who and what our sun was, but we didn’t really talk about it. We blamed the sun over and over and then when that got old we blamed ourselves until the rage came clawing from below. Then we blamed the sun again.

Had my dad really sat us down and named the things he did maybe we’d be better off. Therapy was long and painful and arduous and obnoxiously expensive. And I’m still talking about it, for Christ’s sake. He’s still a star in my fucking galaxy. I still struggle to understand healthy relationships and have a distorted ideas of authority. I always gravitate towards people I think need to be fixed. However irritatingly subconscious that is. Because it’s what I’m uncomfortably comfortable with. Feels like home. Maybe if he’d been able to admit to the things he did I’d be a better version of myself. I don’t know the answer to that and I never will. He took his guilt and shame and apologies to the grave with him. If they were ever there in the first place. That’s still up for debate amongst my family members. Did he even know what he did? Did he clock the damage he caused? Probably not.

At one Thanksgiving dinner where we all know family recovery starts and ends, I reminded him of the time my rabbit Poster Nutmeg was found missing his entire body. I found a small pile of him in the neighbor’s dilapidated garage where we knew this one evil cat liked to hang out. George, the orange striped serial killer. My dad joined me in the garage to stare down at what used to be my fluffy pet. He stuck his hands in his pockets rocked back on his heels and said ‘Hey, at least someone got a good meal.’ Then walked back inside. Even as I was recounting the story to him over mashed potatoes and too much wine I could see on his face that nothing was registering. He was incredulous, even. If that wasn’t enough to satisfy my curiosity, the roaring belly laughter and: ‘I’d never say something like that’ that followed certainly drove the point home. Even if he did know what he’d done at one point, he lied to himself until he believed it never happened. Is there really a difference?

My question for fellow lovers of impossible people is… would you change it? If you were the child of a mentally ill parent would you go back and be a different formula blended in a different bowl if you could? Have a different set of genes? My genes terrify me. Bipolar disorder can be incredibly genetic sometimes ripping through generations of family, as it has mine. Its companions are addiction and eating disorders and anxiety. Who’s kid will have it? Do I have the gene just hiding away in there somewhere waiting to rear it’s ugly head? My own anxiety fuels that fire. But would I be someone else in order to erase all that?

I have family members who suffer on a daily basis. They can be utterly debilitated by the pain their own brain inflicts on them. Would they change that if they could? Would my dad? If he knew what he did to us, would he go back and never get married or have kids? To spare them? I don’t have the answer. But sometimes I think about who I’d be if I never lived this life. If I was born with different parents in a different house with stability and safety and normal mornings. Who would I be now?

I can’t help but wonder if I wouldn’t change it. The more I look into it, the more I look back at the ugly, the more I like myself just exactly this way. If I changed everything, I’d have to change well… everything. I might be less loyal, less empathetic and less intuitive. I might love people less, or want to have conversations about the Kardashians instead of mental health. And then someone who really needed to hear this might never know that someone else grew up orbiting their own personal sun too. And that it all really happened. That someone believes them. I believe them. If the formula changes, so does the product. And if I start to accept that, who knows what road I might find myself on. Learning to love who I am just exactly as I was made? Preposterous. Right?

Sometimes I wonder if living with an impossible person wasn’t the greatest worst thing I’ve ever done. This is only after years of dissecting the facts of course, or what I remember of them anyway. I know I’ll never fix all the things. I don’t even think I want to. All the digging around and ripping apart and examining has just made me think… if hurt people hurt people… what do you think healed people can do? And when will the planets finally be healed from years of orbiting the sun so close? Maybe never. Some burns just leave a scar that way. So they heal the best they can and then they look for shade. Hoping to find another planet cooling off under a tree somewhere so they can finally talk about just how bright that sun used to be.

Adrienne LaValley is an actor, writer and creator of the podcast ‘The Old Man and the Me’. She writes and records in an attempt to expel shame and stigma surrounding mental health issues while also never tiptoeing around the frequent crapstorm they can cause. She tells stories about life, mental health and lack of both in the hopes that people will feel a little less alone out there. Her full length play ‘The Good Father’ recently had a reading at The Paramount Theatre with the Dramatist’s Guild and will start workshopping in the new year. She lives with her husband and superdog Junebug in the Hudson Valley and wishes everyone would pay it forward just a little more often.

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Guest Posts, Mental Health

Nevertheless She…

January 15, 2020

By Shirley O’Shea

In 2016, my nervous system fell apart, like a blue supernova of gases collapsing in on itself. After a hot, sleepless night in July I knew it was time to go to the hospital. At the age of 49, I knew when the hospital was the only place I could be sick and not have to keep trying to be healthy for the sake of my family or employer or anyone else, and at this point, anyway, such efforts would have been impossible. On the morning of July 2, I sat at the kitchen table trying to calmly sip tea and hold my husband’s hand while I waited for my psychiatrist’s call to let me know if a bed was available. I smiled at my husband; I told him I would be in the hospital for only a few days. More than three years later, I am still working on my recovery.

I work hard at recovery. I exercise whenever I can muster the mental energy to leave the apartment and elevate my heart rate at the gym, go on a hike or roll out my yoga mat. I have a strong spiritual practice. I remind myself to be grateful for the good and precious things in my life – my husband and son, the natural beauty of the upstate New York region in which I live, my faith. But sadness dogs me. I never feel that I am anywhere near good enough for….what? What?

Recovery for me means being at peace with myself, being able to abandon my inner critic as I would a toxic “friend.” Why is this so monumentally difficult for me to do? Why is peace so elusive for me? Naturally, the roots of my lack of self-acceptance run deep. It is a hell of a journey to claw one’s way out of hell.

July is my month to break. The first time I experienced a major depressive episode with severe anxiety was in 1984. I was 17 years old. I had worked harder at my studies than I ever had, because I wanted to be accepted into a prestigious university. But I woke up one morning and, instead of thinking about what I could do that day to get into Harvard or some such institution, I felt lost, oppressed by guilty ruminations and sad about everything. For a few days I was sleepless and unable to eat. I told my mother about my feelings of guilt and shame and she listened, but did nothing. Her own father had just died from liver cirrhosis caused by a lifetime of self-medicating with beer, and my father’s sister was in the late stages of alcoholism, having survived a suicide attempt in the spring; she would not survive the attempt she would make in October of that year. Therefore, my parents were completely unavailable to help me as I struggled to survive my own illness.

There were one or two moments when I opened the hall closet where my father kept bottles of whiskey for when his father came to visit. While my parents slept, I contemplated drinking as much from those bottles as necessary to send me to heaven. But I was too afraid to try.

The one thing my parents did to try to help me was to request a visit from our family’s fundamentalist pastor and his wife. They brought a carton of ice cream and as I sat next to Pastor John’s wife, I told her about taboo thoughts I was in agony about having and about which I cringe now. The woman smiled bravely – this was clearly unknown territory to her – and told me there was a Christian psychologist I should see. My parents didn’t take me. They didn’t have health insurance, and most likely a conservative Christian psychologist would have done more harm than good.

I am convinced that religious fundamentalism is not just a social evil – it destroys the psyches of emotional individuals who are predisposed to self-examination and who care about being good people. As a teenager I had beseeched my parents to attend a mainline Protestant church, but for reasons never made clear to me, they resisted. The black and white theology they imbibed at our church suited them in many ways, and it did not occur to them that it was harming me.

Two things helped me to recover from that severe episode – time and literature, specifically, Kafka, whose “The Metamorphosis” convinced me I was not the only person who was mad around here, and even made me think that, possibly, the madness was around me, not in me. Also, during my first year in college, I discovered the religious poetry of George Herbert, whose gentle verses on the love of God showed me there was a different way of being Christian – something I had already intuited. George Herbert was a priest in the Church of England, and at the promptings of a seminarian I met while in college, I became an Episcopalian – a much more humane expression of the Christian faith, and a major step in my journey to becoming a Christian humanist.

But even sound theology cannot completely rearrange bad neurochemistry, the legacy of fundamentalism, a stern upbringing and a family history of mental illness. During my junior year of college, I became absolutely driven to earn straight A’s. I pulled it off, but that summer I became seriously ill again, plagued by the obsessive guilty thoughts and frightening thoughts that I might harm others. I had an exceptionally needy boyfriend who was devastated to discover that I was weak and flawed. He drove me past a state psychiatric hospital and said to me, “That’s where they put the crazies.” In the middle of the night, I took a pair of cuticle scissors and lightly drew them across my wrists, thinking what a feeling of relief I would have if all the hot and tormented blood in my veins drained out of me. But an internal voice told me, “It’s not worth it.”

A few days later I admitted myself to the psychiatric unit at my local hospital. I was diagnosed with OCD and secondary depression. Again, even with medication and psychotherapy, it took a year for me to recover, which was really just a return to baseline. I hadn’t really learned anything from my experience.

When I was 28, I worked as a paralegal at a law firm that was infamous for the mistreatment of its employees. I gave the job all my energy and dedication – I wanted to be the perfect paralegal. My second summer there I broke down again, went into the hospital and came out with a new diagnosis: major depression with obsessive and psychotic features. This time, I had a boyfriend who accepted my illness in stride, as part and parcel of someone who had ambitions of writing – the divine madness of the artist, that sort of thing. This sweet, accepting and gentle man became my husband.

Although I recovered from the worst of my symptoms – guilty ruminations, distressing OCD thoughts, sleep disruption and lack of appetite – I did not change the substrate of my mind, which was perfectionism. Perfectionism is a demon that condemns those who live with it to self-loathing and fear. Whether my illness causes my perfectionism or vice versa, I do not know and may never know. But I believe if I do overcome perfectionism, I will have achieved something greater than writing “Hamlet” or “Paradise Lost.”

I believe the genesis of my 2016 breakdown was my belief that I must be a perfect mother. Although I grew up wanting to have a career and motherhood, my illness made having a career very difficult. But I believed I could handle motherhood. It’s all about instinct, isn’t it? How hard can it be to love?

A strange and wonderful thing happened early in my pregnancy. I remember the moment distinctly. I was driving home from my part-time job at a small-town newspaper, and I realized that I could reject all the negative messages I had received from fundamentalist Christianity, or any faith, from my family – I felt profound liberation and joy. As I scanned the countryside all around me while I drove and thought these wonderful thoughts, I felt two new lives within me. Pregnancy hormones were the best anti-depressant I’ve ever had. The problem was, the moment I pushed my son out of me, the hormones immediately returned to pre-pregnancy levels and I returned to my baseline depressive thinking.

Loving a child, for me, is not a problem. But motherhood, the daily striving to meet the needs of a child, is more stressful than any tyrannical boss. And when it became apparent that my beautiful, exquisitely sensitive son suffered from anxiety and began to struggle in school, I became consumed with fear and guilt. I had failed at my most important calling yet. None of my husband’s or mother’s reassurances that I was doing my best, and all that was possible, put my fears to rest. This time, I was not failing my ego, or an employer, or a church. I was failing my flesh and blood. Psychically, I began to die.

Despite numerous drug trials and electro-convulsive therapy, my depression worsened. But I noticed that my depressions were sometimes, briefly, interrupted by times of elation and euphoria. I suspected I had bipolar type II disorder. I was diagnosed as such in 2012, but none of the medications prescribed for me worked. And then, in 2016, my mind disintegrated. I was practically unable to walk or speak. I lost 20 pounds in two weeks. I was gripped by fear that I would not be able to raise my son. Each time I walked past the cupboard where my battalion of medication bottles was kept, I thought surely now was the time to swallow them all and be done with it. But then, who would love my son? I believe the grace of God helped me to believe my life was worth sparing.

It is taking me longer to heal this time around. But now I have realized that the perfectionism I internalized and to which I am genetically predisposed, most likely due to an anxiety disorder, is my greatest enemy. Maintaining my spiritual practice, spending time in natural places and on my yoga mat are, for me, coming home. Yoga places great importance of awareness of the breath, and as a Christian, I believe I am made of stardust and the breath of God. And now, God’s oxygen is the substrate of my brain, rather than perfectionism – at least, some of the time. So I need to remind myself of this every day. It is okay to love myself as I am, just as I love my son as he is. The important thing for me is to keep going. For the sake of all the beings I love, I will.

Shirley O’Shea is a freelance writer and literacy volunteer who lives with her husband, Geoff, a psychology professor, and her tween son, Jeremy, in Oneonta, NY. Shirley grew up in the hinterlands northern New Jersey and graduated from Upsala College. She has worked as a paralegal and a first-grade teacher and newspaper reporter. She has had essays on mental health and experiencing the sacred in nature published

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Walk This Way

December 17, 2019
walk

By Sarah Boon

If you’d told me last summer that I’d be training for a half-marathon this summer, I would have laughed hard and loud. Not because it was funny, per se, but because of my mental illness and the crippling grip it has on me.

In 2014, my psychiatrist diagnosed me with bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. The former is when your mood swings from euphoric highs during which you feel invincible, to deep lows during which you feel the world is going to end – something I realized I’d definitely been experiencing over the past five years. The latter is an underlying condition that I recognized as soon as he diagnosed it: I have been anxious since I was a child, always worried that something bad is going to happen or that I’ve done something wrong, and it’s coloured my whole life. He explained that this combination of illnesses is one of the most difficult to treat, adding that cognitive decline, or changes in your ability to think, is common among people with bipolar disorder.

I tried over a dozen different drugs to manage my illness. One required that I stay close to the bathroom, another sent me to the ER with a migraine so terrible I thought my head would explode. Some medications knocked me out to sleep in minutes, while others led to nausea and vomiting. I got used to experiencing a range of unpleasant side effects, until we finally found a mix of medications that made life a little bit more manageable.

All this is to say that I’ve spent the past seven years being held hostage by my illness. It tells me when I need extra sleep, when I need to avoid groups of people, when I should adjust my medications and, if there’s anything left, when I’m able to be sort of normal. It’s not clear on which days I’ll feel okay versus days when I feel terrible, and there’s no easy way to correlate certain activities or events with a specific emotional or mental response. I still have highs and lows, despite my medication being delicately balanced in an attempt to avoid these swings.

My illness dictates how my days and weeks go, and I often resent it for that. If, as Annie Dillard said, “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives,” then my life is a combination of excess sleeping and trying to maintain a stable mood, like sitting on a children’s seesaw and trying to hold steady in the middle. This is definitely not the life I wanted or expected to live.

My illness has also made me less than active, and that – combined with the unfortunate but common side effect of the medications – has led to significant weight gain and reduced fitness. I haven’t been able to commit to regular exercise or joining a fitness club because my life is so unpredictable. Physical deterioration is not discussed much in mental health circles or stories. As Virginia Woolf writes in On Being Ill, we tend to focus only on the mind, “the thoughts that come to it; its noble plans; how it has civilised the universe. [We ignore] the body in the philosopher’s turret…Those great wars which it wages by itself…against the oncome of melancholia, are neglected.” But having a body you don’t like is just one more thing that feeds depression.

Then last January, something changed. I experienced one of the highest high moods of my life: so high that I had to increase my regular medications and take copious amounts of a new medication to manage it. I felt like I could do anything. I wasn’t sleeping. I was writing essays in my head at all hours of the day. I was purchasing all sorts of things online. I was pitching freelance pieces left, right, and centre. I was back to my former state of juggling more balls than I should have been able to manage. And I loved it.

When you’re used to being depressed, submerged under an immovable weight that just can’t be lifted, a bipolar high feels like a gift, even though you know it’s going to end badly and have serious impacts on your brain function and mood. Indeed, I did a series of cognitive competency tests shortly after one of my earlier high episodes to see if I could go back to work, and I failed several of them – likely due to a combination of cognitive decline and mental fuzziness caused by the medication.

One good thing came from this high, however – I decided that I needed to be more in charge of my life. I wanted a sense of personal agency, something I’d been missing as I was tossed around by the vagaries of my illness and the side effects of the medication. I wanted goals, and a series of steps to reach those goals – steps I’d chosen myself to track my progress. I wanted to be more fit, to be active like I used to be, when I hiked and skied in the Rockies, swam 3,000-4,000 metres every other day, and lifted weights every second day.

What did “taking charge of my life” mean in practice? It meant walking the trails around my house again, something I’d done when we first moved in but dropped during a depressive phase. It meant committing to writing a book about my field experiences as a research scientist. It meant deciding to do the Lake-to-Lake Marathon.

I first heard about the Lake-to-Lake Marathon last year and was intrigued. It follows a gravel railbed trail for 42 kilometres from Shawnigan Lake to Lake Cowichan on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, crossing several old train trestles along the way. I liked the idea of walking on gravel rather than asphalt, and checking out the view from each of the different trestles. I didn’t think about the training so much as I envisioned a lovely walk in the woods and crossing the finish line.

People with bipolar disorder are notorious for promising the world during a high phase. We have a tendency to take on more than we can manage, and that impulse collides with the inability to do it, leaving us holding the pieces and wondering what went wrong. During that high earlier this year, I promised several writing assignments and ended up having to cancel one and not do as good a job as I’d planned for another, which made me feel like a terrible writer. But I never lost that idea of wanting to walk the marathon.

Some people would have happily chosen a 10-kilometre race, but I wanted to challenge myself with something longer and more difficult, something that would allow me to enhance my fitness levels. I wanted to force my body to listen to me and do as I asked, to push me strongly over the finish line. As my high mood declined, however, I realized that there was no way I could do a full marathon. So I switched my sights to the half-marathon.

In June I got serious about training and started walking longer distances than my usual 3-4 kilometres. My plan was to just walk farther each day until I hit close to marathon length. My longest walk as of the middle of July was 14 km. But walking is time-consuming, and it’s difficult to fit a 2.5 hr walk into an already limited day. I’m up at 8.30 am and back in bed at 10 pm, with a 2.5 hr nap in the afternoon. Within those hours I not only have to walk, but I also have to eat, wrangle dogs, do house and garden chores, run errands, and keep up my writing – especially now that I’m working on a book.

What happens if I have a bad day (or week) and have to stay in bed? Like the day after that 14 km walk, when reality came back to bite me and I had to sleep all day? It’s made me realize that my training has to take into account how my body and mind feel, that I have to consider not what other people do, but what I’m able to do. I can’t afford to re-injure my knee, or to draw too deeply on my limited energy stores while training. I have to walk at my own pace, not the pace set by the faster walkers on the course.

Thank goodness I’ve found a half-marathon training program that allows for two days off a week, and includes only one long walk a week (like my 14 kilometre walk), with shorter walks at faster speeds or a session of repeated hill climbs during the rest of the week. Suddenly things seem much more manageable – I can fit most of my daily walks into an hour or two, and I can recharge on the days off. This also allows me to manage bad days – I can just shift my days off. I can also use the extra time for writing.

I’m proud of myself for sticking with the training so far, and am starting to see some benefits like reduced resting heart rate and some weight loss. The half-marathon itself will be tough, but it’s almost tougher to make sure I get out at least five times a week to train. I enjoy my training sessions, though. Walking gives me a way of thinking through life issues, plus writing and book ideas. It’s also a way to zone out and let my feet do the work. As Antonia Malchik explains in her book, A Walking Life, walking helps re-centre ourselves in our body and in society, heal hurts and organize thoughts, and remember the past and aim for the future. That’s exactly what I need to help me balance both my mental and physical health, and is similar to advice I’ve read from other prolific walkers.

I’ll never get rid of my illness, but I can do my best to take charge of it and work within its physical and mental limitations, and to focus on the positives as much as possible. As Anne Giardini writes, “The days cannot be stretched, but they can be shaped.” I can shape my days around my walking goals, with the understanding that they may need to be modified at times, depending on how I’m feeling. I can walk that Lake-to-Lake Half-Marathon. Crossing the finish line after having committed to all that training will be the best gift I could give myself.

Sarah Boon is a Vancouver Island-based writer whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, Longreads, Hippocampus, The Millions, Hakai Magazine, Literary Hub, Science, and Nature. She is currently writing a book about her field research adventures in remote locations. Sarah Boon is a Vancouver Island-based writer whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, Longreads, Hippocampus, The Millions, Hakai Magazine, Literary Hub, Science, and Nature. She is currently writing a book about her field research adventures in remote locations. Find her on Twitter at @SnowHydro

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Abuse, Guest Posts, Letting Go, Mental Health

Yellow

November 10, 2019
smoking

By Kelly Wallace

I was still in love with my ex when I broke up with him over the phone late at night at the Hilton Garden Inn in Ithaca, NY. It was the first Sunday in June 2017. I was there for my friend’s 20th college reunion. My ex was making me question my sanity. I wasn’t telling my friends what was going on because I was ashamed. We argued for hours. We had tried therapy. It failed.

I had had enough.

According to an article titled “In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship? 5 Steps to Take” on the website Psych Central “…Is it me or him? You feel anxious around him, believing that somehow you can make things right again, you want to feel the love you did when the two of you first got together. Deep down, your biggest fear is that his opinions of you are right..that there really is something wrong with you, and you just may not be loveable the way you are.”

I was enough for myself.

***

We talked for hours in his kitchen and he made me pesto with the basil that was almost dead from his garden box. He referred to his ex, Stephanie, as “shitbag” when he told me about her. She was the mom of one of his students. He taught elementary school band in a suburb of Boston and retired at 40, a few years earlier. She had had her eye on him for a long time. When her daughter was done with band she swooped in. They met for coffee. She was still married. She told him she was divorcing soon. They started dating. Three years of them breaking up and getting back together should have been a red flag.

For me it was an invitation.

It’s August 2018, a little over a year after I have ended things with my ex. I’m on week two of vacation with my mom but take a side trip down to Boston to get away from the 250 sq. ft. cabin we are sharing on Sebago Lake in Maine. Throughout the trip Mom is coughing up a storm. In the morning. At night. It drives me bonkers. She has COPD and sounds like death.

She smoked for 15 years. 3 packs a day until she quit.

***

I am creepy.

On my side trip to Boston away from my Mom and her coughing I take another side trip-to Medway, Massachusetts, a rural town 45 minutes west of Bean town. It’s sleepy, woods, twisty two lane roads and ponds. My ex hated it and left to live in Portland, Oregon where I live. We live. We live on the same block. I don’t talk to him.

He stares at my driveway when friends come to visit and studies their cars. They come to the door saying the same thing over and over: “Did you know your ex was standing in his yard totally staring at me as I parked and got out of the car?”

“Yes.”

It’s beautiful in Medway. On the radio, the Dj asks: “how are you creepy? There’s something trending on Twitter about being creepy.” I think about calling into the radio station to tell them what I am doing but decide to pull over to the side of the road and use my notepad on my phone to write down what the DJ is talking about. This is perfect for a story.

***

My parents divorced almost 35 years ago. Dad is bald, 69 and glasses. He is home resting in Oregon after falling off a ladder and breaking his right shoulder and hip. He texts me: “Boston. My aunt so and so lives there. I haven’t been out that way in a long time.” He has so many aunts I can’t keep them straight.

He was in the hospital for two weeks undergoing intense physical therapy. Sometimes I feel like he is judging me but I don’t know. I don’t know what the what is. There’s something in me that wonders. He has yellow teeth. He’s a lawyer. There are no grey areas. He is black and white. Law and order.

Right before he fell I had a phone reading with a psychic. The psychic, Donna, kept talking about him in the past tense. I corrected her.

“But he’s alive.”

“I hate to tell you this dear, but, I’m talking to him from the other side.”

“What does that mean?”

“He will be passing soon.”

That was a year ago.

According to the AARP, the increased chance of older people dying after hip fractures has long been established in a number of studies. Now a new study has found that breaking other major bones also may lead to higher mortality rates for older adults.

***

My ex was a heavy smoker. When he quit smoking twenty years ago he was living at home in Medway with his parents. He started chewing Nicorette, that terrible gum. His Dad worked for a pharmaceutical company and would bring home bags and bags of it. He became addicted to the gum and then had to wean himself off it.

One day my ex’s dad came home from work and my ex was searching in the couch cushions for a piece of that gum, in case one had fallen out of his pocket.

“Why don’t I just give you a piece of that gum?” His dad said.

“No dad,” he turned an easy chair over and was searching under it. “This is what I need to do to stop chewing that gum.”

According to WebMD, “Most users of nicotine gum…see it as a short-term measure. GlaxoSmithKline, marketers of Nicorette, advises people to “stop using the nicotine gum at the end of 12 weeks,” and to talk to a doctor if they “still feel the need” to use it. But that guideline hasn’t kept some people from chomping on it for many months and even years.

My ex’s childhood home in Medway is two story, purple with a horseshoe driveway and even more rural than I imagined. I drive to the end of the cul-de-sac, put the car in park and look at the front windows. That’s where he was hunting for the Nicorette under the couch. I drive away because I’m creepy. A half mile away there’s a “Stephanie Drive.” His ex’s name. I pull over to write the detail on my notepad. Another perfect idea for the story.

***

My fourteen-year old formerly feral cat, Billie, died two months before that night we broke up on the phone in Ithaca, NY. Billie would go over to my ex’s house on her own and spend time there. I had to get another cat right away. The house felt lonely without her. My ex and I went to Purringtons and he found a tuxedo with a little white star on his head staring out the window at all the people walking by on MLK, Jr. Blvd. I put a hold on the cat with the star on his head, Starboy, and took video of him playing with a Donald Trump catnip toy. My ex was coughing in the background and talking excessively. He was always talking so much with his dull yellow teeth. They were yellow because he smoked for over a decade and never went to the dentist.

I said something to him and sounded annoyed in the video.

According to the website Empowered by Color, “…The color yellow can be anxiety producing as it is fast moving and can cause us to feel agitated.”

My teeth were yellow after a friend committed suicide and I started smoking a pack a day for almost two months. I quit shortly afterward. Cold turkey. No Nicorette gum.

Starboy’s eyes are green.

My ex eventually did quit the gum.

***

The motorcycle cops started going by my house escorting the hearses following closely behind. It became a regular Sunday morning routine along with me reading self-help books with Starboy and his green eyes curled up next to me on the couch. There’s a cemetery nearby. I would tear up as the cars drove by with their flashers. Yellow. Blink. Yellow. Blink. I was determined to be different.

Billie’s eyes were yellow.

My house is green.

***

After she is done coughing Mom goes into the kitchen in our cabin in Maine and rustles plastic bags, pushes buttons on the microwave, talks to herself and clinks spoons while she eats her breakfast. “What are you doing in there old lady?” I wonder. Her ocd and need for order marching her around like a drill Sargent. I get up from reading in bed. She separates crookneck squash from the trash into a plastic bag. It’s not for compost. It’s to keep it from smelling up the regular trash she tells me.

***

I text my best friend back in Portland about the weird food separation. “She’s crazy,” she texts me back. I probably shouldn’t use that term to describe my mom. According to the article, ‘Personal Stories: Don’t Call Me Crazy,’ on the NAMI website…”Mental illness is an illness, even though some choose not to accept it. ‘Crazy’ has been a word to portray those who suffer with mental illness as dangerous, weak, unpredictable, unproductive and incapable of rational behavior or relationships. It is a word used without any serious thought or consideration… It is a word that can be used to criticize an individual or group, keep a stigma in place or, when used in commercials, sell cars, sweets and even peanut butter.”

***

While I drive around Medway I hear my ex in my head telling me I’m crazy. He told me things like, “northeastern women had an edge.” He didn’t need to tell me that. I had spent considerable time on the East Coast. I knew about that edge. I had friends in New York. I had plans to move there at one point. He said I wouldn’t survive in New York because I wasn’t assertive enough.

“Bobby, from Leominster,” The DJ says in his thick Boston accent. “What’s the creepiest thing you have ever done?”

“For a while I was collecting corn snakes,” Bobby from Leominster pauses. “That didn’t really attract the ladies.”

“Ugh,” the DJ says. “That’s pretty weird.”

This is perfect for a story.

***

During my verbal fights with Mom when I was in high school she would say “you’re just like your father.” I didn’t know what it meant except that I was bad. I was always the bad one. I carried a yellow blanket and sucked my thumb until 10. I was the bad one for reporting that Dad’s dad, my paternal grandfather, molested me. My grandparents hid the blanket in their closet. Dad’s silence. The paternal family’s silence made them complicit. The police searched my grandparent’s house and found the blanket.

***

My paternal grandmother allegedly called me “Crazy Kelly.” Whenever we argued my ex called me crazy. After we broke up I wondered what nickname he had come up with for me.

Crazy?

Crazy Shitbag.

***

My ex told me he had a lot of projects he wanted to tackle when he bought his house in Oregon. He wanted to install a new roof himself on the back side of his house. “I don’t want you doing that,” I told him when we were together. I didn’t want him breaking a bone or ending up in the hospital.

A year after we broke up I saw shingles being loaded onto the roof of his house.

I didn’t care if he broke a bone.

He deserved it.

***

I was a smoker for 5 years.

My mom smoked for twenty years.

My ex smoked for 15.

My dad never smoked.

I wasn’t going to end up like any of them.

 

Kelly Wallace developed a writing style that both roots in the moment and peels back the layers of human nature at the Pinewood Table writers group led by award-winning authors Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose. Kelly’s writing honors include publications in VoiceCatcher and Perceptions magazines, fellowships at the Summer Fishtrap Gathering and the Attic Institute, and residencies at Hypatia-in-the-Woods. A graduate of Wells College in Aurora, New York, and an entrepreneur in Portland, Oregon, Kelly avidly photographs odd sights while out driving for her day job. Kelly is an active and recognizable member of the Portland writing community, consistently engaging with hundreds of readers and authors of all genres and levels of writing.

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Guest Posts, Mental Health, Surviving

Grab Life by It’s Horns and Don’t Let Go

September 30, 2019
horns

By Erin Barrett

Life is a road with many twist, turns and forks. It is about how you perceive your obstacles in life that can make or break you.

Grab life by its horns and don’t let go is my philosophy and my way overcome the road blocks and keep moving on.

In any rodeo the cowboy faces the deadliest challenges of his life. He gets up on top of the bull that could injure, paralyze or even kill him. The cowboy still climbs on top of it, knowing that he could die and hangs on to dear life for as long as possible. With determination and perseverance he doesn’t let go, no matter how many times the bull bucks to throw him off.

You are the cowboy or cowgirl, the bull is your life. Although it can be intimidating and scary you have to be strong and take control.

When I was a child I had to transfer to a public school, after four years of feeling safe being with kids like me.  It was scary, I didn’t belong with the “normal” kids in my school. They made sure that I knew that I never belonged there.

In Junior High I was the outcast. The boys called me names like “ugly” and “retarded”. Making unwanted sexual advances at me. It got so bad that I hid  in the copy room until the next bell. Not a single soul came to help me, I was by myself. I tried my hardest to kick him and fight him off.

The sexual harassment continued through out high school. During my senior year I wanted to prove the boys wrong. I prepared a speech, one with meaning and practiced it every day until it was time. On the day of graduation, it was cloudy and it was my turn to speak. When I walked up on the podium, not one but two rainbows appeared above me. I made it in the newspaper and inspired moms giving them hope.

I could have given up but I didn’t. I survived 6 years of depression through poetry and hypnosis. I do believe through the obstacles we face, we get stronger. Through the pain and hurt there is light at the end of the tunnel, you can’t give up.

My freshman year in college, guys would call me and say things like “he wants to fuck me against the wall.” Got so bad that I had to file a complaint. I tried to fit in sororities but  I didn’t belong there, so I had a bunch of guy friends I hanged out with. We would watch vampire movies and  go karting.  One of them had a crush on me and proposed to me Even though I had a blast with them, I still felt like I didn’t belong there. I would take long walks around the campus,  I would even get the nerve to get hit by a car.

I was working on an autobiography about myself and as I was writing, I met a black man. He read my story and invited me to his place. That was the first time I kissed a black man. He asked me how old I wanted to be to get married. He also told me his dream was to defeat George Foreman. One day he was coming back from a boxing match and told me he had something for me. All I could think was “Oh no what if he wants to propose to me” “ what if it’s a ring?” Luckily it was just a t-shirt.

When I turned in my autobiography into the teacher. She wanted to share it with the class. As she read it, the entire class became dead silent.

Although there were awful times at the college, there were also some memorable ones. I met a guy who could take my breath away and move me like no other.  I had my first angelic experience which will always be a mystery.

My life got a little better for a while then I met my husband on an online dating website. Back then it was considered to be dangerous and unsafe. Out of desperation and worried about dying by myself, I married him. It wasn’t love at first site but I grew to love him. With him I’ve been through 2 miscarriages and 2 C-sections. We have 2 beautiful girls now ages 10 and 13.

Of course like most marriages we had financial troubles but it wasn’t until Labor Day weekend in 2017 my world came crashing down around me. The police searched our house, trashing it like a tornado came through the house. Children Services took my kids away and the house was condemned for 2 weeks. We spent 2 weeks at a hotel.

Through this experience it has empowered me. I could wallow in my self-pity or rise up to the challenge and take the bull by its horns. So instead of moping around all day every day after work I would go back to the house and clean. I turned on my motivational music and cleaned the house from top to bottom. When I was done cleaning, I painted the entire house. I wanted to show children services that I can do this and that I am not giving up.

I followed my gut instinct, I got a part time job and set up my own checking account. It is a good thing because on May 18 2018 my husband got arrested. I lost his income to help me with the bills, my part time job saved me from losing the house. Now I am in the beginning stages of divorcing him.

Since I am separated, I am freer and have a strong hold on my life. Better control of my finances and a clearer sense of myself. I did not let myself get bogged down with pity and depression. I used all the emotions running in my veins to empower me to keep moving.

I taught myself how to cook, how to cut the grass. All the tasks I relied on him to do. I kept my head up high and kept moving forward.

I am not angry with God or even with my ex. I looked uncertainty and doubt  in the eyes and said give me your best shot.

In order to move past the pain and hurt you need to visualize your future and find your strength. Get a new perspective in your life and stay positive.

If I let my bull get the better of me I will have never seen the bigger picture. I chose to move forward and take it head on, leaving my fear and doubt behind. I chose to see my life in a positive light.

There is good everywhere sometimes its difficult to find. I’m  a strong believer that things happen for a reason.

Whether you lost a love one or lost a job and life has you down. There is a cowboy inside us, you may need to dig deep within you to find him but he is there.

When things are at your lowest, find one thing that inspires you and motivates you. For me it was my kids that keep me going. Turn that sorrow and pain into your strength and grab your bull by its horns and take charge.

As a person once told me when one door closes another one opens. Be your own champion, find your strength, grab hold and don’t let go. It might be hard and it may hurt at times but you just need to keep moving forward never looking back.

I promise one day when you find your peace and happiness you will look back at all your pain and heart ache and know deep in your heart that you survived and got stronger from the experience.

You will soon realize who you really are. All the pieces to your journey in your life will fit like a gigantic puzzle. You will be able to see the big picture.

It is in our human nature to take the easy way out instead of taking the road less traveled. It takes one moment in our life to impact us for the rest of our lives. Life is too short to not rise above the obstacles and challenges that come across our path.

Don’t let that bull scare you. Don’t let it control you and turn you into someone that you are not. We all face pain, we all hold onto the hurt and scars but it’s those who persevere and rise to the challenge that become champions.

With each heartache you come across and downfall you have, it will make you a stronger person in the long run. You have to rise above the occasion and persevere. There is light at the end of the tunnel. In order to reach it you must keep going and never give up.

That cowboy inside you wants to conquer the bull and live in history for the longest ride. It might be scary and it might think he has the best of you but it doesn’t. Not if you don’t let it get to you. You have to believe you can do it. Nothing is impossible if you have courage to take charge.

Take charge of your life, find strength to overcome the obstacles that stand in your way. Grab life by its horns and don’t let go no matter what.

Erin Barrett is a poet and essayist who believes in the power of language. She lives in Cincinnati Ohio where she is the mother of 12 and 15 year old girls. Erin has a bachelors degree in management and currently work as a medical assistant with cancer patients full time. 

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Guest Posts, Mental Health

Call Me What You Will

August 18, 2019
illness

By Rebecca Chamaa

I am one of them, a “mentally ill monster,” and let’s be honest it isn’t just Trump that uses that language. The President might be divisive on many issues, but on this one, he’s in the majority. How do I know? What statistics or facts am I basing my statements on? Life as someone with paranoid schizophrenia. I am making an observation. True, there is a portion of the population that is battling against the stigma of severe mental illness. I can easily name twelve people who live with the same diagnosis I have. I can name them only because those people are brave enough to publicly admit to having a disease that sufferers are demonized or criminalized for having.

Once there was a saying that leprosy was the only illness that was also a crime, but that saying isn’t true now that people with schizophrenia are let alone to eat out of garbage cans or locked up for crimes directly related to their symptoms.

Of course, I want to speak out against the treatment, so many of us struggling receive, like living with delusions, voices, mysterious smells, tastes, and other forms of hallucinations. Speaking out doesn’t make people care, though. I know parents who have a child with this illness who blame severe mental illness for mass shootings. The illness, even if it impacts someone you love, can carry a deep and insidious stigma. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health

A Horse Brought Me Back To Life

April 26, 2019
horse

By Sarah Van Sciver

As I exit my car I notice the unseasonable warmth on this early February day at the farm. I don my black and white wool Persian hat over the two braids in my hair but decide I can ditch my coat and get away with wearing my hooded, gray fleece.  The welcomed warmth mirrors the inner thawing that has begun to occur within me during the past couple of weeks. The urge to keep painful emotions tamped down still remains but just as the winter clouds make way for the sun I, too, feel a small opening.

For the past five months, I have stayed committed to coming to a farm once a week where I have been participating in Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy, a type of therapy where horses play an essential role in healing trauma. Most of these days I’ve wanted to quit and run as far as I can to escape the frightening sensations that have finally begun to loosen their hold in my body. Like placing a healing salve on an open wound, the process has been painful; bringing to light what caused the pain in the first place.

Throughout the experience, bitter and painful as it’s been, I’ve come to realize that what I fear the most is also what I crave the most: touch and true connection. As if I had a blindfold over my eyes most of my life, I never realized the constant feelings of isolation, loneliness and disconnection I experienced were due to living with unprocessed and extensive trauma. Somehow through some kind of magic, the horses have brought me face to face with this pain while simultaneously healing the broken places inside of me. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Dots And Holes

August 21, 2018
dots

By Avery Guess

  1. Morse Code

Morse Code is made up of dots and dashes, or more accurately, dits and dahs, but I don’t know anyone who uses the latter. I never could listen to Morse Code and understand anything beyond the standard S.O.S., and even then, I’d worry that I hadn’t heard the message correctly. My first name, Avery, is made up of a total of 8 dots and 6 dashes. My last name, Guess, 10 dots and 3 dashes. Anxiety has 8 dots and 8 dashes. Depression contains a whopping 17 dots and only 8 dashes. Bipolar disorder, 27 dots and 16 dashes. Except in the case of anxiety, the dots prevail. There is no escaping them.

  1. “Repetitive Vision”

I saw Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Room” titled “Repetitive Vision” in Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory in August 2014 while visiting Katie, a friend I’d met on Facebook a few years before. If I had heard of Yayoi Kusama prior to seeing her work that day, it was only in passing. Kusama is a Japanese artist who has been active since the 1950s. When she is not working in her studio in Japan or overseeing her popular installations, she lives in a mental hospital a couple of blocks away. She has experienced hallucinations from an early age that appear as “flashes of light, auras, or dense fields of dots.” When Katie and I walked into the room, and the door we entered through closed behind us, I experienced the exact opposite of claustrophobia. The walls and ceiling are made up of mirrors. The floor is white and scattered large neon coquelicot polka dots. These reddish-orangish dots also cover the three white mannequins with grey wigs who stand in various poses within the room. The effect the mirrors creates is that of infinite repetition. Katie and I stood amongst the mannequins and began imitating their poses, walked around the box we were inside trying to find an end, and took photos of ourselves within this magical environment. I could have stayed for hours.  Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health, Young Voices

The Day You Lose Your Mind

August 2, 2018

Note from Jen Pastiloff, founder of The Manifest-Station. This is part of our Young Voices Series for Girl Power: You Are Enough. We are always looking for more writing from YOU! Make sure you follow us on instagram at @GPYouAreEnough and on Facebook here.

By Jessica Young

It’s funny what they don’t tell you on the day you lose your mind.

Rhyme, reason, it all just dwindles away and you’re left with the bare bones…the soot.
The soot that is left is all of the debris you’ve left “for later”,
the “I can’t possibly handle this kind of emotional baggage” kind of debris.
The particles of dirt that gather at the base of your neck, weighing on your shoulders,
tangling up and knotting the muscle so you feel bogged down… weighed down… too heavy.

It’s funny what they don’t tell you on the day you lose your mind.

The weeks leading up to my Bipolar diagnosis were some of the most agonizing moments of my entire existence;
dissociations, delusions and absolutely no chance of sleep.
Sleep never comes.
You want it, you need it, you beg for it, but it just never comes.
The effects of sleeplessness on most people include many of the same effects for a person with Bipolar.
If you take that period of no sleep, combine it with some over the counter sleep medication
(twice the recommended dose because that’s all that seemed worked at the time),
combined with a prescription for Celexa (a drug that exacerbates the symptoms of Bipolar disorder)
and you get a recipe for a Manic disaster. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health

The Howling Wounded Thing

June 11, 2018
howling

CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. The world needs you.

By Beth Cartino

“I just want to get really high and then go to sleep forever.” They sits across from me in a dreary, unadorned office, knees tucked under their chin, arms hugging their legs tight to their chest, eyes peering out at me from behind a veil of midnight blue hair. This is the pose they adopt when they’re feeling exposed and vulnerable. They are in middle school, but they have the experience of someone twice their age, and right now, at this moment, they look painfully young.

“Have you been thinking about suicide?” My voice is even, my eyes unflinching. I notice a physical urge, like the one you get when you want to scratch your nose, to mirror their posture. I don’t. I ask myself a question I frequently ask when working with a kid who is thinking about suicide. What could somebody have said to me when I was twelve that would have stopped me from trying to kill myself?  I never can come up with an answer but this is the message I try to convey, not only with my words, but with every cell in my body: “You are loved. I see you. I will not judge you. I am here with you.  I am not going anywhere. You are not broken. You are not a problem that needs fixing.”

*** Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health

The Last Hurrah

May 7, 2018
moms

By Amy Connor

I was about 8 years old when I realized my mom wasn’t quite like all the other moms. Most other moms didn’t speak of their wish to commit suicide to their kids. Most other moms didn’t threaten to drive the car off the bridge on the way home from school when they’d had a bad day. Most other moms didn’t spend a week in bed with the curtains drawn.

My mother suffered from severe clinical depression that left her consumed by emotional anguish. She felt that life had dealt her a raw deal (and maybe it had) and she expressed her resentment of her circumstances by lashing out. When my mother felt wronged in some way, which was regularly, no one and nothing was off limits. Her objective was to hurt her target by whatever means necessary, all the while convinced that she was the true victim. This often resulted in unwanted drama at otherwise joyous family events (graduations! weddings! births!) and the innocent, notably my sister and me, were collateral damage. Making other people feel bad when she was in such pain leveled the playing field and made her feel better. Quite simply, confrontation gave her a buzz. It was her comfort zone and an area where she excelled.

My mother’s verbal outbursts were only slightly upstaged by her love of angry letter writing. When she felt she had received poor customer service, she would sit down and dash off a letter with the hopes of getting someone fired. Her angry letters were a source of humor for me and my teenage friends and would always begin by proclaiming that “[Insert company name here] is the loser!” in bold type. She’d insist that we proof multiple letter drafts and only when she was satisfied that the missive would present the maximum level of discomfort for the recipient would it be mailed. Continue Reading…

depression, Guest Posts, Mental Health

Couched

May 4, 2018
couch

By Tina Porter

It was way too early for a knock on the door, but there it was; and there I was, in my red terrycloth bathrobe. I hadn’t seen the two women come up the walkway, but here they were, looking back at me through the big window of the front door.

“Hi,” I said as I slowly opened the door, clamping one hand on the two frayed lapels of my robe while running the other hand over my just-out-of-bed hair.

“We’re sorry to bother you,” said the lady in the front, who had an officiousness that took me off guard as she stood there in clothes almost as worn as my robe. “Is that couch available? Would you care if we took it?” She pointed over her shoulder, to the chocolate-brown, ultra-padded, ultra-suede, three-cushioned couch sitting on the curb, between our mailbox and the garbage bins.

“Oh, no,” I said. “You don’t want it,” I shook my head and pinched up my face. “It’s so … gross.”

“I have a steam cleaner,” she said while the woman behind her looked over her shoulder at the couch, trying to hide the look in her eyes that betrayed she agreed more with me than with her friend.

“I’m not going to say no,” I said, after taking a deep breath, “because it is obviously out there for the garbage man. But ….” and I trailed off, mimicking repulsion with my face and with a shudder that ran through my body. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health, No Bullshit Motherhood

But, What If…?: Confessions of an Anxious Mother

April 4, 2018
anxious

By Catherine Jones

I suffer from anxiety, which is debilitating at times.  I have suffered for as long as I can remember, both mentally and physically.  And while I’ve tried many methods that help to alleviate my symptoms, I know my anxiety will never completely go away.  It only got much worse after my child was born.  I had a lot of time during my maternity leave to come up with some truly unreasonable, completely invalid fears.  One of my biggest issues with anxiety is that I know I’m being silly, but I can’t help it.  I know there’s no reason to be afraid to ask for help finding an item at the grocery store and there’s definitely no reason to contemplate all the awful things that may happen to my child.  I hope some anxious mothers out there can relate, or at least be relieved that they’re not nearly as imaginative (cuckoo) as me.

When my son was first born, he hardly slept, or if he did it was for maybe an hour at a time.  He was always hungry and wanted to be nursed for hours and then be nursed again after a short catnap.  He never seemed particularly tired, but I was getting loopy from a lack of sleep.  When he did manage to sleep at night for a few hours at a time, I kept getting up to check on him, straining my eyes in the darkness to make sure his little chest was still rising and falling.  When he switched to formula and actually started to sleep through the night, I was terrified.  Why was he sleeping so much?  Was something wrong?  Infants are supposed to sleep for most of the day, but not my baby!  I slept on a cot in his room for months. Continue Reading…