Browsing Tag

healing

Birthday, Guest Posts, memories

I Hear You, Please Come In

December 26, 2020
birthday

By Charna Cassell

 “The hand that still works grips, won’t let go.”
-Margaret Atwood, A Visit

I recently turned 45 and for the last few years, I’ve dreaded my birthday. Not for reasons you might think, like sagging skin or facing my mortality or no longer making certain age-group cut-offs on dating apps. I’ve dreaded it year after year, right around my birthday, I re-experience the pattern that was imprinted on me before I could talk.

This bracing around my birthday began five years ago. That was the year I offered trauma and resilience training at an orphanage in my birthplace, Nepal. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t been to the country since I was 16: I felt like I belonged.

The staff and children threw a party for me on the day I left. The gifts were abundant, and touching: Hand-drawn pictures, a small Buddha statue, a red felt hat. 400 people celebrating your existence with genuine love sets a new standard.

The contrast of returning to Oakland (on my birthday, no less) was stark. As I unlocked the door to my apartment, it struck me that I was entirely alone. This wasn’t a new feeling; during different periods of my life, I’ve felt like an orphan too. Not because I developed a special talent for forgetting my past, or got good at being alone, what with my father in prison for the first half of my life and my mother addicted to drugs and habitually choosing men over me (her ability to parent herself, let alone a child, insubstantial). It was because of what happened when I was born.

A triangle of isolation existed between my dad, my mom, and me before I came into the world. My father was hiding out from the police when an earthquake hit Nepal and my mother fell down a set of stairs, leaving her with a partially severed placenta. Ten days in a rural hospital passed before her water broke and out I came in a rush. I was tucked into a cardboard box that functioned as a makeshift incubator while she grew distraught in a distant room, not knowing if I was okay. Although I imagine I was tended to well by the Nepali nurses, I only saw her intermittently. Years later, I learned they told my mother she would kill me if she overfed me and took me away from her frequently.

My body learned, before anything else, that I could not depend on my primary caretakers for food, shelter, or love. That I could not trust that protection would consistently be available when I needed it.

My nervous system recalls this when my birthday arrives. Around this time, I feel caught between two worlds; trapped between the panic of birth and the numbness of being in utero. A blanket of tension runs the length of my body while my chest feels like it’s clogged with stones.

Under my skin, I sense an urge to mobilize into action, to complete something. To get out of this skin, this relationship, this home, this womb. Anniversaries of any kind can evoke plenty.

What does this tell me? It reminds me that we decide a lot before we are verbal. We know and choose what feels good and right and safe, just as we know in our cells and bones what does not. The frantic flapping in my ribcage, the shame I feel for wanting contact and the assurance that it’ll arrive on time, those stones in my heart—all of these sensations that I experience when my birthday rolls around were created before I had the words to articulate what I needed.

We’re inclined to think of these preverbal feelings as the realm of fetuses and infants, but their distant cousins surface in the adults we become, dictating actions and reactions that emerge without the concrete memories to explain them. This unconscious voltage may run through us for years.

The day before my 45th birthday, I was at a friend’s party. Two men who previously held starring roles in my life—one as a close friend, the other as a lover—were milling around the dance party and food table. Both are my teachers (or my “sex angels,” as I call them) because they come in and out of my world to teach me things and help me evolve. (These lessons don’t have to involve sex, but they do usually involve intimacy and pain.) Echoes of the sorrow and fear I once felt in being alone and forgotten had been activated by both of these men in the past. I was already feeling vulnerable, and now this?

My formerly close friend told me at the party that he was moving to Bali and asked, “Have you been there?” I looked at him and couldn’t tell if he was joking. When I saw that he wasn’t, I laughed in pure awe. Eight years earlier, he had invited me on a month-long trip to the very place he was asking me if I’d ever visited. We’d purchased tickets, planned for it with giddy excitement—and then he disinvited me because his other friend wasn’t sure about traveling with me. Once I reminded him of this, he said, “Why would I want to remember something like that about myself?”

Why indeed.

But memory is an interesting thing. When I think of selective memory, I think of memories that were once conscious but carried an untenable amount of remorse, terror, or grief—so much so they fell into submission, below consciousness, to protect the feeler.

My old lover’s memory seemed to work towards a similar sort of self-preservation. We had an on and off-again relationship for years. When we were on, he expressed he loved me…then later denied it. A week after gender-bending, kinky sex, he forgot it happened.

I broke up with him, and broke up with him again, only to be pulled back in by an invisible thread that seemed to connect us across multiple dimensions. I imagine that our souls and bodies remember each other and that in a different timeline, we were madly in love and able to express this with ease.

In this particular life, he doesn’t have the capacity to be in a skillful relationship with me. Sure, we’re friendly when we bump into each other in the produce aisle—or around the cheese platter at mutual friends’ parties—but he’s cautious and awkward, no matter that (or perhaps precisely because) we’d seen each other naked. With a slice of brie in one hand and a glass of sparkling water in the other, I teetered between wanting to hold him a little too long when we hugged and the desire to turn away.

I saw both of these men three hours after an attachment therapy session where I moved through the preverbal fear of not being chosen, remembered, or loved. The universe, I’m convinced, orchestrated this encounter.

Because here’s the thing: A great deal can be imprinted on us before we’re born or when we were children, but we also have a lifetime to unwind the hardships our bodies remember. Triggers are opportunities to bring buried traumas into the present, to where they can be integrated.

When I was a child, my grandmother disowned my mom. This devastated both of them. It prompted my mom’s self-destructive, numbing actions—her tireless desire to not feel a thing, which she bedded down with for decades.

The first signs of my grandmother’s dementia surfaced during a conversation about attachment theory, when I was trying to explain what can happen when a parent is not attuned to their infant and care is erratic or nonexistent. She interrupted me to say, “Well, anyone who throws away a child should be taken out and shot. I found a baby in the trash can outside my house. I cleaned him up and gave him a haircut. His name is Charlie and he goes to college but every day, he always comes home and eats sandwiches with me for lunch.”

She paused. “He’s such a good boy,” she added.

Charlie was one of many children my grandmother rescued. By her 93rd birthday, she had hundreds of children she’d “adopted,” and they all lived with her in Cassell’s Castle. They all shared her birthday, too, and when we sang, “Happy Birthday, Marion,” she gleefully sang over us, “Happy Birthday to everyone.”

Some of our relatives thought she was crazy. I didn’t. I was only reminded that guilt runs deep, and that what she couldn’t remember—abandoning her flesh-and-blood daughter—was making itself known and asking, in its strange way, to be integrated.

My grandmother passed away five years ago. These days, I treat my nervous system with as much care as she, in her mind, did her Charlie.

I acknowledge my triggers and excavate the source of the original hurt; I try to remain in the present. I power through strength-training exercises with a personal trainer—slow, weight-bearing practices that activate my fight-or-flight response and fortify my nervous system. I parent myself each time I snuggle my dog or take a walk instead of blazing through work and ignoring my need for food or a good stretch or a conversation with nature. I’ve stopped choosing lovers who are scared of their desire for me or the emotions that are aroused in our relationship; ambivalence doesn’t have the same draw it once did. And in the process of becoming as conscious as I possibly can, I realize that these people—from my mother to my father to my sex angels—are each playing their part in reminding me that we are all doing the best we can. That so little is personal.

Through this lens, I see them as gifts that help bring the preverbal forward. I feel through the pain, loss, and separation as if feeling my way through a dark room, knowing, when I reach the light, that their forgetting and absences aren’t really about me.

I am alone I am not alone I am loved I am cherished I am valued I am important I am an item on the menu at Café Gratitude, apparently. And I am 45.

Charna Cassell is an Embodied Leadership Coach and Body-Centered Psychotherapist who has helped people heal and celebrate their sexuality for the past twenty-five years—first as as sex educator and sex toy clerk at San Francisco’s Good Vibrations, then as a somatic coach and bodyworker, and now as a psychotherapist specializing in working with trauma. Charna can be found online here.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, healing, Mental Health

The Long Path: Healing the Wounds of Childhood

December 15, 2020
bag

“I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete.
It’s so f***in’ heroic.”
–George Carlin

By Julia K. Morin

When you look at this photo, you probably see nothing more than a plastic bag.

I see the trigger that caused me to have two panic episodes in the hospital— the first roughly three years ago, and the second about a year ago — and ultimately, the catalyst for me realizing I was struggling with unaddressed childhood trauma tied to my mom’s sudden death 25 years ago, and needed to seriously consider trauma therapy (which I began almost five months ago). Unfortunately, due to current events with the coronavirus pandemic, social distancing and the transition to virtual therapy sessions as the new normal for the time being, my therapist and I came to the decision together to table any further trauma “digging” until we’re able to meet in person again. I quickly learned just how emotionally triggering and draining these sessions are, and that I need as much support as I can get — in person — to get through them.

I’m proud of the difficult trauma work I’ve already done, I’m proud of myself for taking the first step (despite how long it took) to recognize that I needed this help, and then getting it — without any shame, explanations, justifications or apologies. And I know I still have a lot of hard, emotional work ahead of me when we resume. But that grueling work is what needs to be done in order to begin peeling back many complex layers, and prying beneath the surface I’ve just barely scratched all these years of loss, trauma, triggers, and how this has all manifested in my adult life.

It has taken me a while to open up about all of this, but recently I had to pick something up for some medical labs, and was sent home with this bag. I didn’t think anything of it at first, because I only saw the white side of the bag. It wasn’t until I got home, put it down and saw it in my dining room, and the words on it, that I realized it wasn’t just any plain old white plastic bag — and felt the familiar panic rising up.

I crumpled the bag up in a ball and threw it in the trash. I crumpled myself up in a ball and threw myself into bed. I took the bag back out of the trash and broke down crying and wanted to set it on fire.

Because 25 years ago, I saw this very same ‘patient belongings bag’ in the dining room of the house I grew up in…and its contents were the clothing & jewelry my mom had been wearing when she entered the hospital, and died less than two days later.

In April 2017, I was in the hospital for a diagnostic procedure (my first time in a hospital as a patient) prior to surgery, and suddenly found myself inconsolable. And then I had an epiphany: the plastic belongings bag I had been given by a nurse. A light bulb went off in my head. And then everything got very dark.

And this is how a plastic bag became the thing that makes me come undone.

My hope is that over time, addressing & talking about this and other trauma triggers/memories (and addressing associated cognitive distortions) will help to lessen the panic and intense emotion an inanimate object or other visual association has been causing me.

Because right now, it feels like a Goddamn plastic bag has control over me.

I keep catching myself saying it’s stupid or it’s silly, because…it’s just a bag. But in truth, nobody else can possibly know or understand how “just a bag” makes me feel. And now I recognize this as trauma.

My plastic bag is someone else’s fireworks that trigger the memory of an explosion that nearly killed them while deployed overseas. Or another person’s certain smell that they associate with someone who abused them.

This is hard, heavy stuff, and I understand not everyone is comfortable with it. I’m still not completely comfortable with it. But if you’re still reading, please remember to be gentle & kind with yourself and with others.

Because these are the invisible battles people are fighting as they go about their day, doing the best they can and just trying to be okay. These are the silent struggles we so often don’t see or know about that keep people up at night. These are the reminders we all need that everyone carries an invisible burden on their back, and what we see portrayed on social media is rarely a complete picture of what people are dealing with internally.

At eight years old, I watched my mom being loaded into an ambulance in our driveway from a bedroom window. That was the last time I ever saw her. That was the last time I would ever see her again for the rest of my life. Will I ever “get over” that? No. Certainly loss and traumatic experiences change shape over time, and we somehow figure out how to continue on with life and adapt with that massive void in our hearts. We learn to “dance with the limp,” in the words of Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers. I know many, many people who have experienced and witnessed horrible, painful things that have changed them forever. They will never be the same. They will never “get over it.” They will be forced to learn a new normal and to figure out how to breathe with a piece of their heart missing, and they will survive and maybe even thrive eventually. But there is no date they will circle on a calendar with a note: “Be done hurting about this by today.”

These experiences are a key part of our stories. But do they define us? No. Neither does how long it takes us to process them, to feel a little less broken apart, to start to patch our shattered hearts back together, to feel “okay” again. And it’s okay if we’re never completely okay again.

It’s okay if we dance with a limp forever.

And, a note about grief now that I’ve recently survived the 25th anniversary of my mom’s death, and another Mother’s Day without her: grief is not linear. Neither is trauma. There is no straight line from point A to point B. There are no shortcuts. There is no right and wrong; no mathematical equation or formula. It has taken many years for me to figure out that the reason I’m still carrying around such a heavy burden of grief and trauma from my childhood is not because I’m broken, weak or somehow defective at healing. It’s because I experienced a significant loss and associated trauma at an age where my brain was still growing & developing, and simply was not capable of processing the loss and its magnitude. The result in these cases is typically a sort of delayed processing that only really begins to occur later in life.

And then one day at 30 years old, you have a panic episode in a hospital (followed two years later by another), and suddenly realize the sheer weight of this grief and trauma you’ve been carrying on your back for 22 years is actually crushing you. It’s winning.

So I decided to take back my power and start on the path of turning trauma into healing. I’m giving myself credit for doing the hard, painful work…and giving myself grace that it’s not going to be an overnight process.

This bag is my cross to bear. It is the tidal wave that keeps trying to ravage my boat, knock me down and drown me.

But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let it steer this ship.

Julia Morin is a writer, wife, aunt, dog & cat mom, sister, daughter, friend, and a survivor, residing in New Hampshire. She is passionate about ending the stigma around both mental health and grief, and speaking openly about these struggles and the ways they have impacted her own life.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Forgiveness, Grief, Guest Posts

Forgiving Mom…Finally

November 29, 2020
day

By Fredricka R. Maister

“Sorry, girls, but the car won’t start so I can’t drive you to the pool today,” Mrs. Gilbert told Joanne and me that hot summer morning. The date, forever rooted in my memory:  August 8th, 1961.

I may have been a clueless 12-year-old kid, but I instantly suspected Mrs. Gilbert was lying.  I didn’t believe for a second that her car had mechanical problems.  Besides, she could have used her husband’s car.  Dr. Gilbert was working in his home medical office, his car sitting unused in the driveway.

I don’t know why, but I could just feel that something catastrophic had happened or was about to happen, something unspeakable. Why else would Joanne and I have had to stay cooped up inside all day, cut off from the sunny outside world?

Strange as it may seem from today’s vantage point, my dread-filled focus and feelings that day centered on nuclear annihilation, World War III, the end of the world. As a baby boomer growing up during the Cold War, I could not forget the  “duck and cover” drills we regularly practiced during the school year. Crawling under my desk, my arms covering my head, I would silently wait,  contemplating what death would feel like in a nuclear blast while still hoping for the “All Clear” bell to sound.

Even though I never heard any news reports or air raid sirens warning us to seek refuge in a fallout shelter, that doomsday consciousness haunted me all day at Joanne’s.  Of course, I kept my thoughts to myself; Joanne would have laughed at me had I told her we were going to be blown to smithereens.

I had slept at Joanne’s house the night before, the latest in a succession of sleepovers at friends’ houses since my 54-year-old father had suffered his first heart attack three weeks before.  While my sister, who was four years younger than I, stayed at home with Mom, I was passed around “like a hot potato” from friend to friend.  I couldn’t remember when I last slept in my own bed; I sometimes wouldn’t see my mother and sister for days.

Physically ousted from my home, I was kept out of the loop on the latest medical updates about my dad’s condition. On the rare times I was there, I would eavesdrop on my mom talking on the phone with family and friends.  That’s how I found out my dad had suffered two heart attacks and was still in the Intensive Care Unit at the hospital.

I once cornered my mother in her bedroom, my need to know the truth about my dad trumping any upset I might cause her. “Is Daddy going to die?” I blurted to which she responded with an evasive “We hope not.”  I never asked again.

For the first time in my life, I felt utterly alone and abandoned, but no one seemed to notice or care. I found myself pretending that my home life was normal, and that my dad would soon be discharged from the hospital.  No one ever sat me down and explained just how precarious his medical condition was.

I recall Leslie, another friend I stayed with during my father’s hospitalization, telling me one night before we went to bed, “Let’s pray for your dad.” I didn’t comprehend why we needed to pray when his condition didn’t seem life-threatening.  The possibility that he might die eluded me then and during my stay at Joanne’s house.

In retrospect, I don’t think I consciously connected the dots between Mrs. Gilbert’s “lie” and my father’s health status.  I was too obsessed with being obliterated by an atom bomb.

Joanne and I passed that endless day playing board games and Solitaire.  I kept watching the clock for the hours to pass, but time stood still as my anxiety spiked.  I needed to be with my mom and sister when the bomb was going to drop, but I had to wait until Joanne’s parents could drive me home that evening.

***

An ominous quiet filled the car.  Although I looked forward to seeing my family, the anxiety and dread that had surged inside me all day only intensified.  When Dr. Gilbert didn’t turn the car into the street leading to my house but proceeded to my uncle’s home where Mrs. Gilbert said the family had gathered, I felt my heart sink into the pit of my stomach.  Why was my family gathering anywhere?  Why weren’t my mom and sister at home?  I suddenly realized that the end of the world I had anticipated had been nothing but a figment of my imagination.  All my foreboding had related to an inexplicable inner knowing that my father had died.

By the time we arrived at my uncle’s home, I could no longer deny my new “fatherless” reality. As I raced up the steps to the door where my uncle was already waiting for me, Mrs. Gilbert called out, “ Honey, be strong.”

Finally, privy to the truth, I learned that my father had died at 8 o’clock that morning.  His nurse had just turned on the television. When she turned around to say something to him, he had already succumbed to a massive heart attack that ended his life.

And, just as I suspected, Mrs. Gilbert had lied about the car.  She and my mother had spoken after Dad passed that morning and decided I should be kept away from the pool to avoid running into someone who might say something about his death.

***

That fateful August day back in 1961 has left an indelible impression on my memory and my psyche, more so than my dad’s funeral the following day, which I barely remember.  A few days after his funeral, my mother sent me away, not to mourn but to have fun at the Jersey Shore where my cousins had a bungalow. I was never asked if I wanted to go; I know I would have preferred to stay at home. For over a week as I rode the ocean waves and biked the boardwalk, I, the expert at the “pretend” game, acted as if nothing out-of-the-ordinary had happened.

Unresolved feelings of anger and abandonment associated with the weeks before and after my dad’s abrupt passing followed me into adulthood with an emotional vengeance.  Even now, more than 50 years later, my emotions often feel raw and palpable and I can’t seem to let them go.  Whenever I hark back to those feelings in sessions with my therapist, she tells me that their grip on me keeps me stuck in the past, unable to embrace the present and move forward into the future.

She reminds me that the intentions of family members and friends like Mrs. Gilbert were all well meaning.  In the 1950s and 60s, the priority, as a society, was to shield children from the trauma of a loved one’s death.  There was little recognition that children were emotionally sturdier than they appeared and could handle the truth.

***

I recently had an honest talk with my family about that turbulent time and its emotional impact on my life.  As I expected, my sister justified my mother’s decisions.  “I was in day camp then.  Mom was at the hospital with Daddy all day.  She couldn’t leave you alone at home to fend for yourself. You were only 12-years-old.  As a mother, I would have done the same thing.”

I assumed my nephew, whom I call “my soul child” because our emotional temperaments are usually in sync, would be more sympathetic to my side in our family drama.  Instead, he told me that although it might be cathartic for me to tell the story from my “angry” perspective, I should put myself in “Grandma Bea’s shoes at that time.”

The need to empathize with my mother, who bore the brunt of my anger, has not been a new concept for me. I just never felt motivated to re-visit that part of my past without the resentments and bitterness I’ve been dragging around for decades.  However, since my heart-to-heart sharing with my family, not to mention the emotionally mellowing and wising up that seems to occur as one ages, I’ve felt a shift in attitude, a possible readiness to extricate myself from all that psychological baggage.  To that end, my nephew’s words “to put myself in Grandma Bea’s shoes at that time” resonated, flashing me back in time.

I see my 45-year-old mother, grappling with the reality of sudden widowhood, alone among her friends dealing with the death of her spouse and the father of her young children.  Unlike today, there were no how-to books, self-help articles or support groups; as a woman conditioned to hiding her innermost feelings, seeking professional help was never an option.

Unsupported by the 1950s-1960s culture bent on protecting children from parental illness and death, my mother was muddling through as best she could.  In fact, when I eventually confronted her decades later about her “hurtful” behavior, she apologized, explaining  “I was just doing what I thought was best for you.” I had no doubt that her remorse was sincere, but I still held onto my grievances, unable to cut her some slack.

Despite the blame and anger I have felt towards my mother, now deceased for over a decade, I have never ceased to stand in awe of her strength and resilience in surviving the death of my father.  His sudden passing not only left her a widow but a widow without money.  Our family’s financial status took a sharp downturn to the point of bankruptcy.  My mother sold our lovely house and we moved into a cramped rental apartment she could only describe as “indescribable” in another part of town where my sister and I had no friends. Mom had to go to work immediately.  She had nursing credentials, but the pay was low and the shifts long.

In a matter of a few months, I watched my mother morph from a dependent housewife into a struggling breadwinner who would single-handedly raise two daughters—no mean feat for a single mom.  I might add that those two daughters, despite the trauma of losing a father at a young age, matured into high-functioning, responsible and independent women.  For that, I credit my mother and am most grateful.

***

I have always been a firm believer that people, places and things appear in your life, when the desire to heal is greatest. Such was the case when I came across this quote in an inspirational book I read each morning:  “Forgiving is not about forgetting, it’s letting go of the hurt.”

I’d never encountered that quote nor heard of its author, Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) who, according to the National Women’s History Museum, “…became one of the most important black educators, civil and women’s rights leaders and government officials of the twentieth century.”

The timing could not have been more appropriate as the quote matched up with my growing willingness to let go of the hurtful emotions of my past. Had Mary McLeod Bethune’s inspiring words caught my attention for a reason? After more than 50 years, could it be time to finally forgive Mom?

THE END

When I finally was ready and able—emotionally and creatively–to address my dad’s death in my writing some 15 years later, that fateful day back in August 1961 became the inspiration for my poem, “To My Father.”

TO MY FATHER

Bells of doom

rang in the day.

World War 3, I thought

being a child of the 50’s.

Something was out of tune

silencing all gay songs.

Even time trudged by

like dead weight falling

each plunge—

a dirge of doom.

Why a shroud

over the sun

this day—

until,

Grown-ups’ tears

later revealed the truth to bear:

The bells had tolled for you

at 8:00 am

while my eyes were just opening

to the prospect of a new day—

your doomsday.

Fredricka R. Maister is a freelance writer, formerly of New York, now based in Philadelphia, whose personal essays have been published in a variety of print and online publications, such as The Baltimore Sun, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, New York Jewish Week, Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, the Forward, Big Apple Parent, The Writer, OZY.  She has also appeared in the anthologies, ‘The Man, Who Ate His Book: The Best of ducts.org, Volume II and Wising Up Press’ View from the Bed/View from the Bedside.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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eating disorder, Guest Posts

Jumping, But Not For Joy

October 25, 2020

By Rebecca Portela

My senior year of high school started in the midst of my deterioration. I spent a lot of my time reading memoirs of women with eating disorders, while my mother read psychology books on understanding women with eating disorders. Our relationship was fickle, despite the fact that we both just wanted me to be healthy and didn’t know what was causing me to be in such distress all the time.

Thinness was just the side effect of my strict regimen of calorie counting, exercising, and sheer mania. It was simply an ongoing endurance test, and I constantly needed to push my limits. And I always took it too far. My personal record was a whole week without eating or sleeping. Because why stop at starving? Let’s add a side of delirium, too. I spent most of the time at a friend’s house doing jigsaw puzzles. We had taken over the dining room table and the living room floor. We eventually had to dismantle our least favorites to make room for new puzzle stations. I was quite proud of our specific strategy styles. I pulled out the corner pieces and the edges, and he immediately grabbed the two closest pieces and tried to make them fit together. Sometimes he would force them, mashing his thumb down on top of them, convinced that they belonged together. Without speaking, we made piles of same-colored pieces and designated them accordingly. Sometimes we would have to speak and say things like, Be on the lookout for a little hat with some gold in it. During smoke breaks, he sat at the edge of his pool and splashed his feet in the water. He’d take in a big drag and as he exhaled, he’d make definitive claims like I’m gonna move to New Zealand and become a welder. I walked around the edge of the pool, stepping in the exact middle of each tile and saying something like, Can I come with you? We watched the sun come up on the seventh day and, by then, the leaves on the trees were puzzle pieces with little bits of sky. My cigarette smoke made love with his on top of the pieces of puzzle sunrise. I blinked and heard my eyelid unstick from my eye, like fresh Velcro. I knew that he would never move anywhere and he knew I would never go with him. The freckles on his hands lifted off and popped like juicy bubbles, interrupting all the smoke sex. A wild laugh bounced around at the back of my throat and I threw up all of it with the rest of the emotions in my gut. My back was itchy, which was how I knew I was on the grass now, crying or laughing or screaming or puking.    

I fainted at school, and they called my mother to come and pick me up. She warmed up a can of soup that was in my pre-approved cupboard of “safe” foods. It was a soup called “Super Broccoli” and contained exactly sixty calories, and not much else. I waited until she left the room and dumped it down the garbage disposal. It wasn’t long after these periods of rebellion that my body kicked into survival mode and ate, whether I wanted it to or not.

This is where bulimia creeps out of the woodwork. Bulimia terrifies me because she is a slippery garden hose, whipping around in all directions and out of control. She is a gluttonous savage that devours everything in sight and then rejects it. She goes from zero to sixty to zero again in the blink of an eye. I did everything possible to kill that bitch.

I frequently turned to drugs and men when I couldn’t control my eating disorder. It was the only way to curb my obsession and compulsions, which were the actual root of my problem. After my first encounter with drugs, I craved the escape. I craved the insanity. I craved the feeling that nothing is real and so nothing really matters. I liked that my thoughts were turned off and that food wasn’t the focus of my existence. I was too busy being out of my mind. I didn’t have to care about anything.

My utter recklessness should have sent me to an early grave. As I peaked on one of my acid trips, I had a fleeting thought that a police officer, in the distance, suspected something. Or was that a tree? Speaking of which, I needed to get home to plant a tree because I needed to feel connected to the earth. Everything was connected. I was the earth. I was invincible. So I jumped in my car and played a very dangerous game called Driving Home on LSD, listening to “Eleanor Rigby” on repeat. Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door. Who is it for? All the lonely people, where do they all come from? It took me an eternity to drive the twelve miles from Coconut Grove to Cutler Ridge––two hours in real time. I didn’t even have a driver’s license at the time. My hands gripped the steering wheel so tightly that they were throbbing and visibly pulsed in front of me. The traffic lights wore majestic tails that stretched out into the swirling neon signs of strip clubs and bars. The fusion of lights, honking cars, and the mysterious symbols on the dashboard was making it impossible to concentrate. A little lightbulb went off in my head every second, rapid fire, you need to push on the pedal, you need to push on the other pedal, now the other pedal again. It was exhausting and a little bit of an existential crisis. I’m still dumbfounded that I didn’t kill anyone that night.

The comedown was always the worst. My entire body was crawling with bugs that weren’t really there. They were digging into my skin and some even made it all the way into my blood, burrowing into my identity, taking over. I wanted to surrender to the creepy crawly bugs of sadness. I could feel myself giving up. I was losing myself.   

2002, eating disorder treatment, take two. The treatment facility tried to incorporate “real life” as much as possible, so that it wouldn’t be as difficult to transition back into the world upon leaving. We were assigned an apartment in a building with regular people. The first floor was the eating disorder floor and the second floor was the substance abuse floor. And the other ten floors were for normal people. Our roommates were also people in the program who vowed to follow an honor system and refrain from “behaviors.” One of my roommates came outside on our porch to join me for a cigarette. She scolded me for doing sit-ups in the middle of the night and told me to cut the shit or leave. The weird part was that I did actually want to get better, but my eating disorder had been with me for so long and had been what kept me company all these years. Little rebellions were all I had left. So I found myself doing sneaky little things just to feel the slightest bit in control. Every night I would slink into the kitchen when everyone was asleep and dump out some of my salad dressing and fill it with vinegar. By the end of the first week, it was 100 percent vinegar. I had never felt more pathetic. I decided to give recovery a real shot.

Each morning both floors boarded a bus that we called the Druggy Buggy, to head to the main building, where we spent most of the day in groups and individual therapy and met with our nutritionist. I was very expressive in group, writing allegories and poems about my eating disorder, comparing it to an abusive lover, a rabid animal, or even a parasite baby inside my womb. At night we would attend various Anonymous meetings around the area. Almost all of the women in the treatment center had issues with drugs and co-dependency, so we attended those meetings as well.

On my eighteenth birthday, I boarded the bus and smushed my face up against the window. I stared out at the traffic and chanted to myself This.is.not.my.life. This.is.not.my.life. Thisisnotmylife. A child in a car seat stared back at me from a car driving below. I forgot where I was for a moment and made silly faces, making the little boy laugh. I glanced over at the mother driving the car. She looked up at me and smiled. She became startled as she noted the words on the side of the bus, checked out the twenty other twig-shaped people inside, and sped off. I peered over the side and read: IN RECOVERY. It might as well have read: THIS BUS IS FULLA CRAZIES. HIDE YOUR CHILDREN.    

I stepped on the scale with the number facing away from me. My nutritionist frowned and scribbled some notes on my chart.

“What’s wrong? What’s happening?” I asked.

“We’ll need to up your fat intake by 50 grams. You’ve lost some weight,” she replied casually. That put me up to 120 grams of fat a day. Being a vegan, this meant I had to chug olive oil.

“This doesn’t make any sense. I thought we were supposed to be learning how to eat normally. Normal people don’t have a nice tall glass of oil with their dinner. Seriously, this is insane. I won’t do it. This is bullshit.”

    This particular treatment center operated very differently than any other facility I had experienced. They banned all sugar and flour from our diets and focused on a more whole foods approach. The idea was that sugar and flour were addictive empty calories. It was also one of the main reasons I agreed to admit myself. Ya know, before I knew I’d be doing shots of oil without a chaser.

The girls that were following their meal plan and maintaining their weight got special privileges. They got to choose between a thirty-minute run, an outing with a trusted pre-approved person, extended phone calls, or being able to come along on group field trips. I was doing really well and got awarded all privileges. As I sat awaiting my turn on our bowling outing, all that oil just didn’t seem worth the payoff.

For my unsupervised outing with my person, I chose my boyfriend, Jason, to take me to dinner. There was a vegetarian restaurant called Here Comes the Sun that I was excited to go to. I had never been to a fully vegetarian place before. He came to pick me up and we hugged for a long time. We hadn’t really spoken since I told him I had a problem, a problem so big that I needed to go to rehab for it. He was as supportive as he could be for someone he’d just started dating, but he didn’t really know how to proceed.

We started driving and the farther we drove from the center, the more antsy I got. What if we just ran away and never went back? What are they gonna do? I needed to rebel in some way. I had to take this opportunity.

“Pull in here,” I said, pointing to a cheap motel off the highway.

“What? Why? We have reservations. What are you saying?”

“C’mon. I miss you. It’ll be hilarious.”

He turned into the parking lot and we giggled wildly as we walked to the front desk knowing we would be checking out a few hours later. I giggled even more. I was skipping dinner. And going to get away with it.

The room greeted us with fragrant, stale must. The one working lightbulb strobed and hummed, leaving little to the imagination of what kind of sketchy meetings this room had seen. The motel bathroom was maybe once lime green, but now had a permanent brown film coating the walls. The shower curtain was decorated with cigarette holes. We looked at the floor and sat on opposite sides of the bed.

“You look well. How are you really doing though?”

The air conditioner dripped arrhythmically. 

“I’m good. Can we talk about something else?”

He started talking about his grandmother, who was sick but still had her spirit. He tried to visit her once a week. They always went to the same restaurant. And he always made the same jokes that she liked to laugh at. He told me stories of stupid things his friends had done over the weekend. I rested my hand on the unusually moist bed and immediately yanked it back to my lap. We were sitting in front of each other, like a jail call with the glass in between us. I was in jail and he was living on the outside and this wasn’t real life. The light flickered, making his face look like he might ask things like, Do you want to die tonight? I started to cry and he awkwardly moved over to me and put his arms around my shoulders. He smelled like fresh mint and cloves.

The week before I was discharged, my therapist had me write a letter to myself that she would send to my house six months later. I stared at the blank piece of paper and honestly couldn’t imagine what six months from then would even look like. Or what I would possibly want to read from my six-months-younger, in-treatment self. What wise words of wisdom could transcend the barriers of a possibly relapsed future me? Or a possibly flourishing me? Or a possibly deceased me, and my poor mother opening this now irrelevant letter from her then-alive daughter?

Bex,

Don’t fuck it up.

Seriously.

I stuffed the letter in an envelope and gave it to my therapist.

“That was a short letter.”

“Yep. Short and sweet.”

Rebecca Portela is a writer and speaker for human rights and animal protection in New York City. She specializes in the genres of psychology and comedy writing. She recently finished writing her memoir, Unearthed, where she uses her unique sense of humor to address difficult subject matters, including PTSD and sexual abuse. Her work can be found in Idle Ink magazine, Beyond Words (Queer Anthology), X-Ray, trampset, io Literary, Stone of Madness Press (inaugural issue), and elsewhere.

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Chronic Illness, Guest Posts, pandemic

What Doesn’t Kill You Still Sucks: HIV & COVID-19

August 28, 2020
covid

By Martina Clark

The last time I went outside it was March. March 2020, I believe, but who actually knows. Time has become the intellectual equivalent of holding water in your hand.

Like most of us, I’m under ‘stay-at-home’ rules during this pandemic. I live in Brooklyn, NY which has had approximately the same number of cases of COVID-19–and twice as many deaths–as all of Canada.

Like too many of us, I’ve also been under quarantine. It is almost certain that I have contracted COVID-19, although I can’t confirm this with 100% certainty because it is nearly impossible to be tested for the virus. The only viable way to get a test is to go to a hospital. On the off chance I have some other illness with identical symptoms, the last place I want to go is to an Emergency Room filled with people who are already ill. I don’t want to expose myself further. I don’t want to get on public transportation to travel. And I certainly don’t want to add to the burden of overwhelmed health care workers just for a test.

I’m about three weeks into this journey and I count my blessings every day that I’ve had a ‘mild’ case which, from my experience, presented as such:

  1. Fatigue. Extreme fatigue. Early on in this global health crisis, I joked that my ‘quarantine adaptive gene’ was strong because I’m quite happy to stay home and am never bored. But being lazy is not the same as fatigue and this virus made it nearly impossible to get out of bed many days, and the smallest of tasks wore me out. I’m slowly getting back to normal, but I still need more sleep than usual.
  2. Body aches. Again, I’m not a super sporty person, but walking up and down a flight of stairs is normally not a challenge. With this virus, however, one flight of stairs–up or down, not even both directions–felt like I’d done a thousand squats, run a marathon, and been poked with needles all at the same time.
  3. Chest pain. This is the part that lingers but, mercifully, with lessening intensity. In the first week of illness, I felt as if I had claws inside my rib cage. I’ve had bronchitis and I’ve had shingles. This was more painful than both combined. Today, three weeks later, it only feels like a Shrek-sized creature is squeezing my chest. Tightly. It hurts more if I sit too long. It particularly hurts in the morning when I wake up. But it is better. Much better.
  4. Nausea. Motion sickness on steroids. I choose to believe that whatever creature was clawing inside my chest was also making sardine milkshakes for fun. The worst was waking up to the nausea, although going to sleep with it wasn’t much fun either. During the day, it would sometimes abate, but not for long. It also lingers but is much milder than before.
  5. Headaches. I thought I’d been spared the headaches, until I wasn’t. They hit me quickly and like a brick. I’ve only ever had one migraine, but this was reminiscent of that experience, although without the light-sensitivity. Thankfully, those were neither constant nor lingering.
  6. Sore throat. Similarly, I thought I’d missed this symptom, but it joined my COVID entourage in the third week. It is not unbearable, but it is unpleasant. But I can swallow and breathe so I count myself lucky.
  7. Dry cough. The least annoying and, luckily, the least severe. I’ve definitely had worse coughs in my life, but this remains worth noting, as it is a regular reminder that I’m still not over this virus which is still working its way through after three weeks.
  8. Fever. Apparently, I’m a bit cold blooded because my temperature never topped 99º.
  9. Loss of smell or taste. Never happened. The litter box still needs regular cleaning.
  10. Shortness of breath. I count every lucky star in the sky that I never experienced any shortness of breath. My breathing has been shallow, and still is, but I’ve never struggled for air. I am so very lucky.

But this is not my first virus rodeo. The real kicker in this story is that this year marks the fact that I’ve been living with HIV for half my life, 28 years to be exact. I sincerely believed I’d served my time with life-threatening viruses but, apparently, the universe thought otherwise. I followed the guidelines, socially distanced, washed my hands, sanitized surfaces, and used face coverings before they were cool, but I still got exposed.

Most likely I was at higher risk because I have HIV. On the other hand, I’m wondering if I managed to avoid a worse case because I already take antiretroviral medications for HIV. I don’t know, nobody does. My doctor said that they are designing trials to study COVID-19 in people with HIV so perhaps they’ll be able to, one day, find out. I will gladly volunteer to be studied, as I have with WIHS, a natural history study of women living with HIV for the past 25+ years. My nephew calls me a ‘living resource’ which makes me proud and gives my survival that much more purpose.

Last week my doctor told me I was cleared to go outside, like actually outdoors, but I haven’t yet. Each day I look out the window and think, maybe tomorrow. I have amazing neighbors who shop for me when needed.

I have an extraordinary crew of siblings and niblings who check on me, send fruit baskets and cards, and offer to do grocery runs on my behalf and then drop and dash, leaving the goods at my doorstep.

My partner, by chance, was away visiting family–and is now stuck in another state–so I have not had the added burden of worrying about putting him at risk during my quarantine. Thanks to FaceTime we’re connected several times a day so although I am alone physically, I am far from lonely. It may sound strange, but I am grateful he is not in New York right now to experience this catastrophic chaos or the incessant wailing of ambulance sirens.

Friends check on me, my doctor checks on me, family check on me, and my beautiful cat, Sangha, reminds me that she is still in charge and needs more snacks. She snuggles with me and provides feline contact. She’s a tiny warm body, but she still counts.

And, surprisingly, (or maybe not) I feel far less alone than I did when coping with my diagnosis for HIV. We don’t know much about COVID-19, but this pandemic has hit like a tsunami. The numbers are staggering and horrific, but I know I am–tragically–not alone. 

With HIV, however, I’d never seen another woman with HIV–that I knew of–and so I felt I was on my own. I wasn’t, but that was how it felt. Today we are building on the experience and knowledge borne from the response to HIV and AIDS. While it is a reminder that we didn’t act quickly enough in the 1980s and 1990s to that pandemic, it is, at the same time, gratifying to know that all of the work that has been done by activists and scientists, and others, has not been for naught.

I’m so blessed that my story continues to transition to a happy ending, yet so very sad not everyone else is as lucky. My heart goes out to all who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, as well as to HIV and AIDS and all of the other awful fatal causes. Stay home if you can. Stay safe as best you can and know that you are not alone.

Martina Clark teaches writing for CUNY, but previously worked for more than 20 years as an HIV educator for the United Nations system, notably for UNAIDS, UNICEF, and UN Peacekeeping. She holds a BA in International Relations and an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature. Martina lives in Brooklyn, NY, but will forever be a Californian.

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Guest Posts, motherhood

Daughter Lost

July 2, 2020

By Katrina Willis

We had borrowed a baby, and now the baby was gone.

“Where did you last see her?” I asked my friend.

“I don’t remember,” she said. “But look… there are turkey sandwiches for lunch.”

“We can’t eat turkey sandwiches when the baby is missing,” I said.

“I’ll be quick,” she said. “I’m so hungry.”

While she ate her turkey sandwich, I rushed frantically from baby to baby—there were so many in the stress center waiting room—looking for the one we were responsible for. But the babies all had the same faces, and I could no longer remember what our borrowed baby looked like.

The car seats on the floor—there were so many—were all empty.

People wandered around, drugged and dazed, in stress center scrubs. The scrubs had no ties. Ties were too dangerous to those who wished themselves or others harm.

We didn’t find the baby before I woke. She remained missing.

It was just a dream, of course. But it wasn’t.

The baby was missing.

***

My 19-year-old daughter had texted me the day before: I only ever wanted my fucking mom. But she died when you came out. I don’t even recognize you anymore. I doubt I’ll ever get her back.

The word was a dagger.

            Died.

            Dead.

I was dead to her.

Erased.

Eliminated.

***

I’d spoken with her brothers earlier in the week. First the baby (17), then the oldest (23). The middle (20) chose to remain his usual silent self.

The two who talked told me they wanted more one-on-one time with me. I assured them I could do that. They listed all the things they thought I’d done wrong when I came out as gay, when their father and I divorced after twenty-three years.

I let them air their grievances. I listened. I nodded. I acknowledged their pain. Divorce is hard on everyone.

“What can I do moving forward?” I asked. “What matters most to each of you?”

“Time alone with you,” they agreed. And they said I should talk to their sister. She was the angriest of all. They told me to prepare myself for her storm.

There is nothing you can do to prepare yourself for a child negating your existence.

***

When she was a baby, she never cried. She watched the world with bright, blue, inquisitive eyes. She laughed at her older brothers and sucked two fingers on her right hand. Her pink blankie went with her everywhere. When I had to wash it, she stood in front of the washing machine with her pudgy, starfish fingers pressed against the window. She cried as the pink spun round and round, “My blankie. My blankie!”

Before speech therapy she could not properly say her “r’s.” And she had so many ear infections when she was little, she could not hear the mispronunciation. Her father and I used to laugh at her adorable impediment. Hands on hips, she would confront our laughter with disdain. “I not talka you, Mama!” she’d say. I would fold her up my arms, hug her into my chest.

“I love you, Mary Mack,” I would assure her. “You’re my sweet, precious, smart girl.”

She was kind and gentle with animals. She loved them all, from hamsters to fish to puppies.

She and I made bags for the homeless because she was so distressed by the thought of someone sleeping on the street without an Oreo. We filled the bags with bottled water, toothbrushes, deodorant, and snacks. She and her little brother decorated the brown, paper outsides with sentiments like, “Hope you find a home soon!” We passed them out at stoplights and intersections.

***

The initial call went well. She was 2,200 miles away at college, walking on the beach.

“It’s going to rain here soon,” she said. “I might not be able to talk long.”

I asked her what she needed from me. She told me I was different.

“How so?” I asked.

She couldn’t articulate.

I wondered: Does she think I’m different because she’s only ever known me as a wife and mother? Is it hard for her to imagine me as a human, an independent woman who has her own doubts and fears and dreams? Is that why I felt different to her?

But she couldn’t really say.

I assured her that I loved her, that I would do anything for her, that I hadn’t changed even though our family dynamic had. I was still her mother, I would always be her mother.

Then the rain came, and she was gone.

***

When my four kids were little, I read to them every night before bed. In our white-picket-fence-suburban-home, there was an upstairs hallway that connected all their bedrooms. At one end, was a sitting area with a rocking chair and a bookcase.

We were reading Where the Red Fern Grows, and when the mountain lion attack came, I choked back my sadness, breathed deeply.

“Do you want me to finish, Mom?” my oldest son asked as tears streamed down my face.

But I continued to read the fates of Old Dan and Little Ann.

My sweet, sensitive daughter burst into tears and ran into her room, crying, “I can’t take it anymore! It’s too sad!”

It was Little Ann dying of grief over the loss of her beloved companion that shook me the hardest.

I didn’t fully understand that kind of grief until 16 years later when my blue-eyed beauty—who no longer had a speech impediment—erased me.

***

“She thinks she should have never been born because I’m gay,” I tried to explain to my own aging mother as I sat with her in the nursing home and cried.

Of course, I ran to my Mom. My rock. I needed her then like I’d never needed her before.

“She says she shouldn’t be alive, and she doesn’t know how to reconcile the fact that she is. She said I lied to everyone my whole life, but I didn’t, Mom. I just didn’t know. I didn’t know that I could create a life with a woman. Her dad and I had 23 mostly good years together, but he wasn’t perfect, either. If she knew all the details about him, she might feel differently. But those aren’t my stories to tell. They’re his.”

“Oh, Trinks,” my mom said, “I can’t believe this is happening. You’ve been such a good mother to those kids their whole lives. Why is she being so selfish now?”

“She’s hurting, Mom. And I understand that. But she blames me for everything. She says her dad didn’t leave, I did. But I never left my kids, Mom. I would never leave them. I left the marriage. Their dad did, too. It was a mutual decision. But that’s not how she sees it.”

“She will someday,” Mom assured me. “She’s angry and young and selfish, but she’ll come around.”

“What if she doesn’t?” I asked.

What if she doesn’t?

***

I’ve thought mostly about pills or a closed garage. The other options seem too brutal, too violent. I don’t have access to a gun, and I’m afraid of heights. That makes a jump pretty implausible.

I’ve Googled the effects of suicide on the children left behind, and it’s not pretty.

But neither are the effects of coming out as gay and divorcing, either.

Would they be better off without me? Would they heal more quickly if I just removed myself from the picture? Would they bond more closely with their often harsh and degrading father in my absence? Would they appreciate my life insurance money more than they appreciated my presence?

Is it the one gift I can give them to atone for bringing them against their will into this painful world?

Ending a marriage that was laced with infidelity and condescension—and at the end, physical assault—seemed the right thing to do. I wouldn’t want any of my kids to stay in that situation. What kind of example was I setting for them if I continued to stay? To take it? To let myself dissolve into nothingness?

I thought I was teaching them to stand up for themselves, to live their own truths, to never kowtow to another.

But in their eyes, the lesson was about leaving instead of staying. It was about lying instead of living.

They were happier when I was closeted and quiet.

Was I?

***

My cousin said to me, “I don’t take credit for any of my kids’ successes, and I don’t take the blame for any of their shortcomings, either.”

I’m trying to cling to that belief system, but my guilt is strong. It’s a super power of mine, feeling the responsibility for everyone else’s well-being.

Some call that co-dependence.

***

I cry most every night thinking about my kids’ pain. All I’ve ever wanted is their happiness, but I cannot create it for them. Only they can make that choice. Each of them, individually.

I have loved and supported and championed them. They have had nice homes and good food and basements full of toys and fun vacations and strong educations. They have been held, nurtured, encouraged, and cheered. They have been disciplined and taught manners and have been held accountable for their actions.

They have been beloved.

They are beloved.

And they are themselves now, no longer mine.

When my head is on my pillow, I can still smell the sweaty, sweet scent of their baby hair; can feel the weight of their baby bodies in my arms in the middle of the night, feeding them, keeping them safe and warm, their baby bellies distended and full.

But when I wake, my pillow is just a pillow, smelling mostly of Downy dryer sheets.

And the baby is missing.

Katrina Anne Willis is the author of Parting Gifts (She Writes Press, April 2016). Her personal essays have been featured in numerous anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Possible, My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends, and Nothing but the Truth So Help Me God. She was recognized as one of six distinguished authors at the 2016 Indianapolis Book & Author luncheon, was named a BlogHer 2015: Experts Among Us & Voice of the Year; was awarded the 2014 Parenting Media Associations Gold Medal Blogger Award, participated in the 2013; Listen to Your Mother&; show, and was a 2011 Midwest Writers Fellow.

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Gratitude, Guest Posts, memories

Take The R Train

April 2, 2020
choice

By Laraine Herring

My mother could have remained in Bay Ridge, taking the R train into Lower Manhattan to work at the Stock Exchange. She could have not met my father, who could have passed Spanish at Wake Forest and graduated there instead of transferring to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where they did not require two years of Spanish for a History major, where he did meet my mother, who was the first female accepted into the graduate school of mathematics at Chapel Hill, at an uncharacteristic football game where she’d gone with her roommate as an out for her blind date. But if she had remained working at the Stock Exchange riding the R train this would not have happened.

My father would have married a woman named Betty, not Elinor. I’m reasonably confident of this because when he died we found drawings Betty had made for him of his face, his golf swing, his eyes, and she called the house a lot and tried to make friends with my mother. She stopped calling once we moved from North Carolina to Arizona, but I still have one of the pictures she drew in a box in my closet. She could have been my mother, but there’s a reasonable chance she is dead now, or at the very least married to someone who never quite measured up to my father, but who nonetheless was a decent man. Betty could be writing this piece too. She would start with: I might have married Glenn…and I don’t know what she would have written next because I don’t know her. But I have her picture.

My father could have died with the polio in 1949 like he was supposed to. Like everyone did. Like the boy who was in the iron lung next to his who died in the night, my father talking to him in the dark, not realizing he had gone. The boy’s name was Charlie, and the two times my father spoke of him, he trailed off into ellipses.

Charlie could have lived like my father lived. He could have broken out of the iron lung and not imprinted my father with his death in the night. It is hard for a boy of eight to carry the death of a boy of seven in the dark. That’s a weight that lingers, like the bitter of chocolate.

My father could have died in 1976 after his heart attack like he was supposed to. Like the doctors said he would. Like maybe he would have, except one round of doctors had already told him in 1949 he should have died and he told them he was not going to die and so he had a script for what to do the next time he heard that.

I could have died in 2017 of colon cancer, but I didn’t. I knew how to tell the doctors no because my father told them no twice. Even when he died, he told them no. He pulled out his tubes in unconscious urgency. He clawed at his oxygen. It was his time for dying, and he was telling them no to the saving.

If my father hadn’t died in 1987, I would have gone to Oregon. I had a scholarship to William and Mary and I was desperate to get out of the desert and into the green. But I graduated from high school in 1986 and I knew I couldn’t go because my father was dying and so I didn’t go, but every time I visit the Northwest I see my shadow in the train and I see a possible life where I wouldn’t have met my husband, who is a born and bred Northern Arizona man, a man who becomes sad in the rain. Too much sun makes me sad, but not my husband, and somewhere between 1986 and now I realized that every choice I make may not give me everything I want. Every choice is many choices. I can visit the trees and the water and the damp, but I slept with many wrong people before I met my husband and I know what right feels like now, even if it’s in the desert.

If I hadn’t lived with the abuser in 1988 after my father died, I wouldn’t have had my heart smashed open to an empathy I didn’t know was possible. Or I might have died there. Other women do. I walked out of their graveyard.

If my father’s family had not been Southern Baptist we might have remained in the will and could be living in North Carolina by the Atlantic in the family home. We could have an altar of sand dollars on the dining table, gathered over years of morning walks at low tide. I might wear navy and forgo white after Labor Day and know how to can peaches. But probably not.

If I had stayed in Phoenix in 2003 instead of moving to Prescott—I had to get out of the haunting heat-sun—I wouldn’t have met my husband. I left Phoenix because a tree fell on my house and then I had a dream that echoed the dream I had when we first moved to Phoenix in 1981—I will die in this place if I don’t leave—and so I was gone in a month. This is the only time in my life I made a decision of that magnitude so quickly.

That’s not true. I told the oncologist I would not do chemotherapy and radiation even quicker. They pushed it like a desperate realtor hawking swampland in Florida but I said no. I come from a long line of people who told the doctors no. They were exasperated and fired me as a patient. This was OK because I am not patient.

If I hadn’t told my doctors no, I wouldn’t have met the psychic in Encinitas the year after my surgery who handed me a rose quartz and looked me straight like only the real psychics can do and said, “It must have been so hard for you to fight for your body’s intuition.” And I cried in the middle of the psychic fair, watching the Pacific breeze blowing her psychedelic psychic skirt around her legs. She was the first person to recognize that—the first person to let me recognize that—yes, yes, I had to fight to say no. I had to fight. The wrong choice was easier. The wrong choice was covered by insurance. My wrong choices—every single one of them—were the easier decisions. The ones that cost me my voice.

“I didn’t know how hard it would be,” I told her. Harder than cancer. Harder than surgery. The refusal to walk the pre-written cancer-journey-story filleted me. “If I did chemo, I would die,” I said. And she held my hands and let me cry and the ocean carried my salt away like she always does.

If my mother had stayed in Bay Ridge riding the R train, I wouldn’t be with her today, riding the R train, returning to Bay Ridge to eat pizza at Lucas, which is now the Brooklyn Firefly, because it was where they went for pizza when she was a girl, back when she wasn’t allowed in the special math and science high school because it was only for boys, back when my father was learning how to walk again and Betty was drawing his picture and I was waiting somewhere velvet-dark until I found the woman who was strong enough to bear all of me.

Laraine Herring holds an MFA in creative writing and an MA in counseling psychology. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in national and local publications. Her fiction has won the Barbara Deming Award for Women and her nonfiction work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in K’in, Tiferet Journal, The Manifest-Station, Quiet Storm, Vice-Versa, and others. She currently directs the creative writing program at Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona. She can be found online at www.laraineherring.com.

 

Upcoming events with Jen

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Interview, Women are Enough

The Converse-Station: Emma Hudelson interviews Erin Khar

February 20, 2020
recovery, drugs

A note from Angela: Jen and I have been fans of Erin Khar for years, and we were thrilled when we were asked if we could share this interview. Erin’s book, Strung Out, is being published on February 25th and Emma Hedelson provides us with a window into Erin’s remarkable story. Enjoy this introduction to both Erin and Emma and after you finish reading, you can order the book here

Introduction by Emma Hudelson: 

At thirteen, I took my first gulp of liquor, kept gulping, and woke up in the hospital. If you’d asked me then, I would have told you it was just a little fun that had gotten out of control. But really, the escape of booze had seduced me completely. It promised disappearance, and eventually, it made me turn my back on a strong education and a promising career as a junior exhibitor equestrienne with a high-performing horse. By the end of high school, my list of disappearing acts included running away from home, getting blackout drunk every weekend, smoking pot daily, developing a cocaine addiction, and attempting suicide.

Therapists and psychiatrists couldn’t reach me. My mom, a single mom, tried her best, but she couldn’t contain me. She read guides like Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, which is a great book, but with only one chapter devoted to substance abuse. What my mom needed—what I needed—was a book like Erin Khar’s Strung Out, a memoir of addiction and recovery, written by a woman who had once been a girl like me—a girl who wanted to disappear.

I survived my adolescence, entered recovery, and went on to find a career as a writer and teacher. Eventually, even horses found me again. Today, I’m ten years sober and in graduate school. Most young women whose teen years look like mine aren’t so fortunate, and most don’t have a good model of successful recovery. Strung Out could be that missing model. None of the existing addiction memoirs address the intersection of girlhood, trauma, mental health, and substance abuse the way it does.

Like most of her fans, I found Erin Khar online. She runs “Ask Erin,” the popular advice column at Ravishly.com with the tagline “She’s made all the mistakes, so you don’t have to.” Erin is compassionate with her advice, whether the issue is as serious as “I think the guy I’m dating raped me” or as less-serious as “An update on a one-night stand with my coworker.” She always provides suggestions to seek professional help when needed and links readers to available resources. She’s the cool big sister most women never had: smart and savvy, with a strong lipstick game. In the midst of writing about my own addiction and recovery, I found out Erin had written an addiction memoir. To my delight, I also discovered she had a history with horses, too. Naturally, I decided she was my long-lost, much-cooler, way-better-with-lipstick big sister, and requested an advanced copy of her forthcoming book.

In its pages, I saw myself. I’d discovered a role model, one generous enough to share her story with the world. Luckily, Erin was also generous enough to spend an hour chatting with me about recovery, community, and of course, horses.

Emma Hudelson: Why did you decide to tell your story in memoir form?

Erin Khar: I wanted to write the book that I had needed when I was younger, to give people who were struggling a voice, and to open up conversations about addiction that will contribute to reducing stigma and shame.

EH: I definitely could have used this book when I was younger! It sounds like you’ve thought a lot about your readers. How do you view your relationship with them?

EK: My goal is to make anyone, whether they’re experienced with addiction or not, more comfortable with talking about it. Shame and letting go of it is another big theme of the book, which is something that someone who hasn’t struggled with addiction can relate to. We all have ghosts that we’re afraid to face, and the trick is facing them so we can move on. I hope I connect with readers in a personal way, so that it feels like an intimate conversation. Hopefully, something productive comes out of that writer-reader relationship.

EH: I love how you don’t shy away from talking about things like shame, trauma, and mental illness. That’s something the recovery community doesn’t always handle well. So many of us in recovery, myself included, have a dual diagnosis of substance abuse disorder and a mental health disorder. To stay sober and stable, I have to work on both my mental health and my recovery. Were you conscious of that as you were writing?

EK: Yes. My foundation for recovery was in twelve-step programs. At that time, there was a lot of stigma about psychiatric medications. I thought there was only one path of recovery and I thought that if I couldn’t fit into that path, I wasn’t going to make it. I hope people walk away from this book understanding that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to addiction, because in my experience, particularly with opiate addiction, there’s often another component. It could be an actual mental health diagnosis or have a trauma-related origin. You can do all the recovery work in the world, but if you’re not addressing those deeper psychiatric issues, I think it’s difficult to maintain any sort of recovery.

EH: I’ve been sober ten years, and I’m still involved with twelve-step programs. When I first came in, I heard a lot of, “if you take a mood- or mind-altering drug, you’re not sober.” That included antidepressants. That’s bullshit. There are multiple roads to recovery. Twelve-step programs work for some people. Others need something else. I know twelve-step wound up not working for you, but it seems like you don’t have any bitterness towards it.

EK: No, not at all. I think I would have died trying to get sober if I didn’t have twelve-step programs. The work that I did there gave me enough of a foundation to get the help that I needed. I don’t know that they’re for everyone, but I’ve seen them help a whole lot of people. The sense of community there is super important. I don’t ever want anyone to feel that there’s only one way to achieve recovery. I achieved long term recovery after I realized that I could have recovery without being restricted to a twelve-step model. It’s been almost seventeen years since my last drug.

EH: That’s so cool!

EK: Yeah, it’s a big deal! I’m also a proponent of harm reduction. I would much rather have someone be on suboxone for ten years than constantly relapsing and detoxing. That wouldn’t necessarily be the answer for me, but if suboxone is improving someone’s quality of life, then I’m 100% for it. I look at addiction as a public health issue. We have a responsibility as a society to ensure that people who are suffering have the opportunity to get help. That help might not come all at once. Often, harm reduction is a path to recovery. I think people are starting to see that model works better than this all-or-nothing from the beginning model.

EH: There are multiple pathways. It’s not just the twelve-step model, SMART recovery, or moderation management.

EK: Whatever works, works. It shouldn’t matter how somebody gets there. You’d tackle any other medical problem the same way. There are several approaches to treating cancer, so if one doesn’t work, then try another. The same should be true for recovery.

EH: With cancer, you would try multiple treatments. You wouldn’t just try radiation. I think that really makes sense. You said the sense of community that can be found in twelve-step programs is something you see as a foundation of recovery. What can women in recovery do better to stay connected and form that community?

EK: As much as everyone has criticisms of social media and the internet in general, it does connect us in ways that were never possible before. So even if you’re in a physically isolated place, you can find online recovery groups. There’s a whole world of help of there. I have formed some of my closest relationships with people I’ve met online. When it comes to supporting each other in recovery, the best way people can support each other is to avoid judgment of how recovery unfolds. That includes relapsing. When you’re in recovery, it’s scary to see someone close to you relapse because that can feel threatening to your own recovery. It’s very easy to jump into a judgmental place. Remembering the old adage that’s used a lot in twelve-step—“there but for the grace of god go I”—I always remind myself that the person in relapse could so easily me be. Even if we’re outwardly in a very different place, we’re both humans. That’s a human being having a human experience. Obviously, in early recovery, you might have to distance yourself to protect your own sobriety. But as the years go by, it becomes a lot easier to be there for people in jeopardy.

EH: In the book, we see you relapse, but we see people who are close to you relapse. It’s a struggle for all memoirists to write about other people. You write about your parents and ex-husband, too. Did you have any self-checks that you used to make sure that you were staying in your story and not moving to into someone else’s story?

EK: I would look at myself as a character in the book. As in, “Erin is the protagonist. Is this told from Erin’s perspective?” I can’t fill in the blanks for anyone else. I’m the camera, so I can only see it from my point of view. I can say, “she told me she felt this way,” but I can’t assume anything. It’s challenging! Even now, I’m sure I could go back into the book and realize I didn’t always do it perfectly.

EH: Speaking of turning yourself into a character—I love how you portrayed all the horrible, heartbreaking negative self-talk throughout the book. While you were writing, how did you navigate these moments where you were in conversation with this really dark part of yourself?

EK: It helped that I have so much distance from the events. I probably couldn’t have written this book ten years ago. When reconstructing moments, I tried to focus first on things I knew were concrete. Yet still—facts that I recorded in my journal are only facts according to what I observed in that moment. As I moved through the different parts of my life in the book, I tried to write each chapter with the voice of me at that age but with the added commentary of me at this age, right now, looking back. By working chronologically and trying to focus on concrete details, I was able to separate myself enough to keep the narrative arc without being swallowed by it.

Especially in edits, I had to make sure that I was doing things to take care of myself. I went back to therapy and made sure that I have everything in place for this whole journey. Not just the writing, but the publishing, and talking about the book once it’s out in the world. As comfortable as I am talking about it, it’s certainly emotional, even in my body.

EH: Speaking as a writer, it’s a gift to be able to recreate memories and write about them, but it’s definitely not comfortable. People will ask me if writing about addiction, trauma, and recovery is cathartic or healing. Sometimes, maybe, but it’s also—no. Not at all. What’s your experience?

EK: You have to do the healing before you sit down to write the memoir. Maybe that’s not true for everyone, but for me, I had to do the work beforehand. Without it, I couldn’t have written as honest a memoir. I couldn’t have confronted the things that I confront in the book. Putting all my ugly truth out there is very freeing, because I don’t feel like I have anything left to hide. For victims of trauma, that can be very satisfying. It’s like getting the last word on your own story.

EH: Your pub date is coming up soon.

EK: February 25.

EH: Do you feel like you’re prepared for the barrage of emails and messages that you’re probably going to get?

EK: Because of the advice column, I already get 50-75 emails a week from people—and obviously, I can’t answer them all. I’m sure that will increase, but I’m trying to remember that the book is only one part of my life. Obviously, it’s a very big part of my life, but even though my story is out there I’m still allowed to have personal boundaries.

EH: In the book, you address that. You explain isn’t all of you on those pages. I think that’s really important to understand. It’s easy for someone to pick up a memoir and think they know the author intimately.

EK: In some ways, they do! They will know parts of me—more than what I showed people in the past, back when I was hiding from everybody. But they’re only seeing me through one lens.

EH: I have to ask you about one more thing. When I was younger, I was really into horses, like, going-to-the-world-championships into horses. When I got away from riding, my addiction took hold of me and didn’t let go. In your pre-addict days and days of early addiction, you were a very serious rider, too. When it comes to addiction and young women, is there something about the horse that’s special?

EK: There is a special relationship that happens between a human and a horse. It’s difficult to put it into words that make sense to people who haven’t experienced it. When a horse and rider are really connected, it’s symbiosis. The best riders in the world don’t have to utilize a lot of aids. They have really light hands and legs because everything is done through this symbiotic connection. It’s not just a shift in physical weight, but energy, too. I could hop on one of my horse’s back—maybe it wasn’t the smartest idea—bareback, without a bridle, just a halter on, and ride. There was so much trust between us. For young women growing up in this world, it’s difficult to trust people. We’re given conflicting messages. Our bodies become both super sexualized, but then we’re shamed for that. That makes us not trust people. I’m speaking generally here, not just about my own experience. With a horse, there’s this love story because of the trust. The horse doesn’t want anything but to be in the moment with you. The horse becomes a place where we can put our trust.

Emma Faesi Hudelson is a teaching fellow and PhD candidate studying literary nonfiction at the University of Cincinnati. She writes on addiction, recovery, and mental health. Horses, too. Her work appears or is forthcoming in BUST, the Chattahoochee Review, the Fix, the Manifest-Station, the Rumpus, and other publications. Her essays have been selected as finalists in the 2017 International Literary Awards and Creative Nonfiction’s Spring 2018 Contest.

 

Erin Khar is known for her writing on addiction, recovery, mental health, relationships, parenting, infertility, and self-care. Her weekly advice column, Ask Erin, is published on Ravishly. Her personal essays have appeared in SELF, Marie ClaireEsquireCosmopolitanGood Housekeeping, Redbook, and others. She’s the recipient of the Eric Hoffer Editor’s Choice Prize and lives in New York City with her husband and two kids. Order Strung Out here

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

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

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Grief, Guest Posts, healing

I Made Peace With My Body And Found My Soul

December 15, 2019
body

 By Lisa Poulson

The house, above the village of Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt, is set on a hill overlooking the whole Luberon valley. Climbing roses cling to its traditional Provençal stone exterior. In California, a plant with just one or two flowers seems in ill health, but here a single blush rose on a vine by the front door feels like beautiful simplicity.

The chic and spare interior is layered with thick coats of pale plaster that curve around me as I walk up two flights of stairs to my room. It’s my first time in Provence, with six girlfriends in this wild, raw and beautiful part of France.

There are wide, cool terracotta tiles, a velvety duvet and no curtains in my bedroom, which is on the third floor of the house, facing the valley. After I settle in and unpack, my friends and I have our evening meal at a long, rough hewn dining table under a tree on the patio. It’s the first week of May. A hint of the Mistral rolls through the hills. I haven’t felt this peaceful in a long, long time.

The next morning, the barest hint of dawn through my uncovered windows wakes me. I smell the remnants of my Diptyque Pomander candle before I open my eyes. I turn my head toward the window and, drowsy and semi-conscious, am immersed in exquisite beauty.

It’s a little chilly as I sit up in bed to watch tender pink light emerge from a piercing bluish fuschia, to see the tall trees shift from shadowy black to darkest teal, to see the rows of lavender on the hill opposite our house emerge from the darkness. The mountains beyond the hills are a Pantone palette of dark to lighter slate blues. Birds are singing. The wind is soft. This dawn is as delicate and rich as Venetian velvet.

After several minutes of watching the colors change and the light bathe the whole scene, a voice, insistent and gentle at the same time, says, ‘If you didn’t have a body, you wouldn’t be able to experience any of this beauty. Not one bit.’

Sitting in my sleep-warm bed, bathed in this exquisite sunrise, I feel peaceful enough to simply accept this truth about my body without argument. As the sun’s light turns the trees green I roll this idea around in my head, thinking about what beauty means to me. Everything. Beauty means everything to me. I’m almost breathless as I absorb the blindingly simple truth that I can only experience beauty through and because of my body.

I am 56 years old. I’ve had a fraught relationship with my body since I was a tween. And yet, in this moment, seduced by the serene Provençal beauty all around me, I reorder what I feel and believe about my body, what it is for, what it has given me, why it’s a miracle.

 ***

It’s been a long and grinding road. I was 10 when I first doubled over with burning pain on both sides of my gut. It wasn’t until my twenties that I got a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which gave me a name but not a solution for the boiling distress that turned my body into an incomprehensible ‘other’, a caustic alien that delighted in causing havoc on dates, before job interviews, at baseball games.

At 30, the man I loved was killed after the Coast Guard helicopter he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic. We had been engaged for two weeks. Grief came in molten waves that would growl and stretch, enveloping every part of me. I never knew when my body would start sweating and shaking, drowning me in unbearable sorrow. When grief descend my only choice was to submit to being ravaged.

About a year after my fiancé died I went on a date, thinking it was time to “move on.” But at the end of the evening when he leaned in to kiss me I panicked. Another man having access to my delicate mouth was more than I could bear. I ran up to my apartment and burst into tears.

In the midst of this emotional disarray I accepted a job offer in Silicon Valley. Just 15 months after my love died, I left New York City and all of my friends behind. In a strange place, with few friends, tons of work pressure, and carrying a mountain of grief, I turned to food, the most reliable and consistent comfort I knew, and buried myself. I gained 75 pounds in six months.

My gut tormented me, I came down with mononucleosis, my head raged with migraines. I felt trapped inside a body that hurt and humiliated me daily. With bitter self-hatred, I told myself that this body, this alien saboteur, was a billboard for my weaknesses as a person. I didn’t deserve amity with my body, I wasn’t strong enough or good enough to be free.

By the time I was 35 I was emotionally numb, physically miserable and nearly 100 lbs overweight. I was in New York on an exhausting business trip. I stumbled into my hotel room and collapsed against the side of the bed in my underwear, my short legs splayed out in front of me. I stared at my undressed body in the wall of mirrors that were the closet doors. I watched my piles of flesh undulate as I breathed in and out. I forced myself to face everything in the mirror. My legs, my belly, my double chin. My lip curled in revulsion as I stared into deadened eyes. I hated everything about my life. My job. My body. Myself.

Eventually I lost the weight, but I couldn’t love and happily inhabit my complicated and demanding body, where the alien still reigned. In my 40s my career grew and grew, but inside my body was one long repressed scream of rage and frustration. I wanted to swear, to smash things, to scream and shake, to quiver and whimper with passion, to drown in and be intoxicated by love and lust. None of those things happened. Because I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a proper Mormon girl does not do these things.

I could have gone to the gym every day to expel that pent up desire, anxiety and anger. But a completely numb body is easier to manage than a body that is partially awake. A body that is awake and vibrant and beautiful wants things. Things a Mormon girl can’t have. So instead my weight yo-yoed. My gut burned. And then I got eczema – the skin on my palms became raw and started to peel off. My spirit was choked in a body I refused to love. I was a broken soul.

***

During the next decade I patronized several spas, worked with a cornucopia of health practitioners and healers, tried so many elimination diets. Sometimes I looked better, sometimes I felt better, sometimes I had beautiful moments of connection with my body, usually at an expensive spa after a luxurious treatment. But back in my real life, every time there was a new injury, every time my IBS flared up, every time I gained weight, I blamed the alien, the mute and malevolent force inside me who seemed determined to hurt and undermine my every effort to heal. I saw no way out.

But in late 2016 the movie Arrival hypnotized me. The heroine, a creative, accomplished linguist, was asked to interpret the language of aliens called heptapods. I drank the movie in, read Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life on which the movie is based. I thought and thought. What if my body is like a heptapod, a benevolent and complex organism with miraculous gifts to give? Was it possible that within my body I’d find a wisdom that would transform me if I could just learn to speak and listen to its language?

***

That late spring morning in Provence, watching that glorious sunrise, was the first time I heard and understood a sentence in heptapod. ‘It’s your body that gives you the gift of all of this beauty.’

For decades, I had only seen what was wrong and broken – I thought my body was 90% a disaster. I did not see that the things I love – color, art, music, flowers, the scent of perfume, the feel of cashmere on my neck – only come to me because I have a body. My body isn’t a crucible of humiliation and frustration, it is a miracle.

I let the slow and pure beauty of Provence work on my nervous system. Everything there taught me the simple joy of living in a body in the world – fresh goat cheese drizzled with new olive oil and tiny flowers, earthenware vases filled with hardy irises, fields of red poppies shimmering in the breeze, baby green leaves on grape vines that aren’t manicured into antiseptic perfection.

At the end of a week there, after several more ravishing sunrises and sunsets, after living among a people whose lives are bound up in the beauty of the land, I came home to California with a changed heart.

There’s a calmness between my body and me now – the anger and shame have been replaced by a patient, warm affection for the wise heptapod who is teaching me a new way to live. I am learning what it feels like to move through the world with a partner – a wise and remarkable heptapod who has always been with me, every moment of my life. I am whole.

Lisa Poulson is a voice in favor of the complex beauty of female power. She is the descendent of fiercely resilient pioneer women who crossed the American plains with their children – even after their husbands died along the way. She is a successful Silicon Valley PR veteran and a woman who survived her the death of her fiancé four months before their wedding day. Lisa lives in San Francisco, where she spends her free time absorbing and creating as much beauty as possible.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Family, Grief, Guest Posts

Grief, Unfolding

December 5, 2019
gift

By Julia Dennis Car

“Jo, you can’t kill Daddy.”

My mom and her sister stood, broken, at the bedside of their father, my Granddaddy.  The cancer that started in his bladder had taken over his other systems; he “lived” mostly unconscious, thanks to morphine.

Mom couldn’t stand to see Granddaddy in such a way, and I know in her guts she would have done anything to separate him from his pain.  My aunt isn’t fiery like Mom, and she knew Mom had what it took to hold the pillow over Granddaddy’s face. She didn’t kill him; the cancer did, days later.

Now it’s my turn. I’m standing in her corner as she nears the end of her own battle with cancer. In the end, will I will have the same impulse to smother her?

Mom’s diagnosis of Stage IV ovarian carcinosarcoma delivered a sucker punch no one saw coming.  It’s incurable, and only about 25% of women live as long as five years. I imagine her little round body up against the ropes, her healthy tissue pummeled by disease and its treatment. If left untreated, her body’s systems will gradually succumb. They’ve already started.

They took the womb, ovaries, cervix, parts of her intestines, and the surface of her liver. Sewed her up tight.  My first home is gone.

With unbridled optimism, Mom trusted her doctor’s plan of care and faced off against her next enemy.  Chemotherapy. Can you imagine a more difficult choice? Don’t take chemo, and slowly die, or take chemo, and die slowly.

With fingers crossed, I watched Mom take the beating of her life and was lifted up by her light and positivity. After the months-long regimen, a scan found the stuff was no longer “active.” She got some time off for good behavior and slowly regained some strength and vitality.  Our family vowed to embrace each day, focus on the positive.

Mom is a feisty woman, a flaming introvert, but without a demure bone in her body. She’s crass, enjoys dark and twisted humor. Once, while visiting San Francisco, she high-fived a costumed Grim Reaper in a public park then insisted the image be framed on her gravestone.

Days after her diagnosis, Mom hung a set of pink boxing gloves on her front door to prove to the world that she intended to pummel her disease as Ali did Frasier.  In the oncologist’s office, two years into the bout, she laid some wit on the nurses. When they left the room, she told me “When I stop being funny, I’m done.”

She’s still funny, but her cheerfulness is waning.  The insidious fuck is still inside her, having its way with her, never really having gone.  It’s in her liver and her guts, probably other places too. She’s at the end of her second phase of chemotherapy.  The gnarly effects of the disease and the treatment are taking their toll, and she’s so, so tired.

Albert Einstein said, “human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust —we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.”  As for my own part in this, I see myself dancing with grief and gratitude.  The maestro taps his baton, and I’m an accordion: bending, twisting, squeezing, breathing.  Some days the notes I play are fear, worry, sadness, regret.

I watch her struggle. And tire. Though outwardly I remain upright—strong in the face of this disease and her pain—the truth is at times there’s no air left in me, and I bend or lean into whatever will hold me up. I cry; wail the sharp notes away.

But soon enough, invisible hands unfold me, pulling and stretching me out as I fill with air.  Soon enough, I can breathe again. It’s not my cancer, but it’s changed me. It has wrung me out and left me raw. And I’m realizing that the painful stuff is a gift.

I’ve had this woman’s hand to hold for more than forty years. With unconditional love. Her illness and mortality have bitch-slapped me into understanding and appreciation.  My mother’s killer screams Wake up!  Don’t you realize the gift you’ve been given?  I do.

You see, in the midst of this pain and uncertainty and fear, beautiful things have happened.  These last two years have been the hardest, and best, of my life. I’ve been helpless, unable to affect change; therefore, I’ve had to let go.  I’ve unfolded. Aware and accepting of mortality—hers, mine—I’ve felt her love more deeply, tried to love her more deeply. I hope she’s felt it.

I’ve made two trips around the sun, and the days were full of love and light, opportunities and misfortunes, laughing and heartbreak. While holding the hand of impermanence, I’ve uncurled my fingers, loosened my grip on fear and insecurity. Wrapped myself in vulnerability.

I hiked for three days on the Appalachian Trail, confident and proud and strong. Crippled with despair, I limped into a therapist’s office, debilitated by depression. Swaddled with love of family and friends, I shaved my head and tattooed my arm and laughed till I cried and sobbed until I was at peace. I’ve said yes to more time by myself and prioritized more time with my family.  I’ve learned to say “no” to things that don’t nourish me. Except ice cream. I always say “yes” to ice cream.

I’ve asked hard questions and confessed hard truths.  Entering their adolescence, my kids broach topics Mom wasn’t comfortable delving into when I was their age:  illness and responsibility and death and sex. I answer with raw honesty. They’ve seen me in tears and I hug them to me and share my pain with them.  I think it’s wrong to pretend it’s not there.   I’m crying because I’m sad.  Yes, she’s slowly going to become sicker and sicker.  We aren’t going to the beach this year so we can spend time with her.  Yes, she’s going to be cremated. I want to be cremated, too. Regarding matters unrelated to Mom’s illness, but highly relevant to their curiosity and social understanding (and a disheartening example of the hyper-sexualized culture kids are growing up in) Yes, orgasm is “a really good feeling when you have sex,” but you can feel it by yourself too.  No, you don’t need to be watching porn.

For many years, I struggled to understand Mom.  She wasn’t blessed with physical gifts like Laila Ali and has never had a green thumb.  On the contrary; her favorite quote is “Sweating is gross and fresh air makes me sick.” She stays inside, reading; I’ve run marathons. She’s quiet; I’m loud. I deep-dive into conversations; she’s more comfortable on the surface.  I lift up furniture and tend to plants and pour my heart out on the page. She’s there, watching all of it. Though she kills all things that conduct photosynthesis, Mom grew a beautiful family; planted roots that spread deep and wide.

Before Mom’s illness jabbed me in the heart, I didn’t value her quiet; rather, I doubted its power.  Mom has shown me that there are more ways to demonstrate strength than with vigor and brawn. She’s shown me that I don’t always have to do something; hers is a quiet persistence of being.

My connection to Mom is primal, deep.  In so many ways my opposite, I feel her pull as the force that keeps me balanced.  Her spiritual tether is met only by the one I share with my own children. She’s been there, ready, even when I didn’t even know I needed her—I hope to be for my kids all she’s been for me.   And these days, when I’m rolling around on the mat in a struggle to make sense of all this, I try to use her own words of wisdom to self-soothe: “When you give birth to a baby, you grow a new heart.”

See, in a macabre way, my grief is a baby.  Mom’s disease birthed this dark pit inside me.  I like to imagine that as I trudge through the progression of her illness (and, ultimately, her death) I’m cultivating space in my heart for my grief and gratitude to live harmoniously.  Like Yin and Yang, there is literally darkness and light in my little heart, all snuggled up tightly together and swirling around.

Maybe that’s what this is all about: vulnerability and strength, terror and comfort, distortion and balance, heartbreak and growth, dying and living. The cyclical, recursive nature of it all.

Allow me my suffering, so that hers may end.  Allow the pain to break me, so that I may put myself back together.  I’ll be stronger where the cracks mend, and softer in the more stubborn places.  Allow me the lessons to be learned in her absence. Allow me to experience her in new ways—ideas, smells, sounds, gestures.  Allow me to grow bigger; big enough to hold my grief and build a life that’s richer and more beautiful. I think I can hold it all.

About a year and a half into this journey, at a concert with my brothers and some dear friends, I passed out cold. Imagine a beach ball that’s been forcefully submerged under water. The pain and worry I’d managed to shove down demanded to surface. An anxiety attack hit like a ton of bricks. As I awoke, my two brothers literally holding me up, I remember my body heaving as I sobbed: “I’m afraid of how much it’s going to hurt.”

The ancient poet Hafiz wrote that “It helps to see the Creator’s kind face / before he rolls up his sleeves, / and starts pumping the bellows / and cleans off his wire brush / and works with his other tools / he eyes you up / knowing how much this is going to hurt / to make you perfect.”

Why are we here? To be made perfect? I don’t know much, but that I was given the gift of consciousness. I believe it’s my job to do the work: to pay attention to the Universe and embrace my place within it. To learn the lessons. That means with open arms I must greet the anguish and the pleasure. I’m willing.

Mom is in the final round of this slugfest. She’s losing stamina in her bob and weave. Soon enough, she’ll receive the final blow, or choose to throw in the towel. I’ll be rocked from my foundation. But I will be ok down here; I am rooted in her. I will remember her.  I will celebrate her. I will talk about her and laugh, curse and cry. Her influence is indelible.

For now, I will sit with her and hold her hand and just be. For the rest of forever, my dust and Mom’s dust will dance; her warm, loving hands guiding me and loving me and leading me as the piper plays on.

Julie Dennis-Carroll is a family-centered West Virginia native who’s called Western North Carolina “home” since 2007. She is a writer by passion, and uses writing as therapy, though she is a speech-language pathologist by training. Julie fills her heart by reading, traveling, and playing in the dirt.

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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, Relationships

Notes From A Sentimental Hoarder

August 30, 2019
feelings

By Monica Garry

Ok. I admit it. I’m a sentimental hoarder. That took me a long time to realize. You’d think I would have figured it out when I stopped being able to shove things in the box in my closet that held everything from the condom wrapper from when I lost my virginity and the hundreds of letters to exes that I never sent to the pen that I used when I signed my first lease and an ice cream spoon that I don’t even remember the sentiment behind.  Although I’d be a very good candidate for Queer Eye, it wasn’t the memory box that brought to light my toxic need to hold onto the past, it was a showing for an apartment.

So, before I admit one of the crazier things I’ve done in my life, let me give a little back story. It’s nothing huge or enlightening or monumentally romantic…it was just a girl — a girl I loved who chose to stop loving me back. Now, I’m going to say the shallow horrible truth that we’ve all felt at one point or another and have always been too nervous to share with a crowd: I only loved her when she stopped loving me. Come on, admit it. We all have that person. The one we conveniently kept around for years because even though we broke their hearts time and time again, they stayed. It fed our ego, made us feel memorable.

Even if we didn’t do it consciously, we threw back that big glass of ego boosting love like a cold beer during a real bad hangover. You may not even know you’ve had a person like that – chances are, if you called things off with them, you’ll never realize they were your self-esteem boosting medication, because they never truly mattered. That sounds horrible doesn’t it? I mean, we’re talking about real people here, with real feelings. Well, guilty as charged.

I was one of those chronic people-users, until this one particular girl shed light on my horrible grotesque rat hole of insecurities that I had been so desperately trying to keep closed. It had been about 2 years of back and forth, I would reach out, see her for a couple weeks, and disappear. Then she’d drunkenly call and text me for weeks after saying I was the only one she’d ever love. Eventually, I’d get bored with my life, play into her feelings, and repeat. You’d think I wouldn’t be surprised when she began to pull away, but you’d be wrong.

I was utterly shocked. I call it PESD – post empowerment stress disorder. She adored me and that empowered me, so the second she was gone, the rat hole that I’d kept covered up for years began to uncover itself. And the only way I could make sense of all those fearful emotions was simple at the time, “I can’t lose her because I love her.” Wrong again. What I should’ve said was, “She gave me the attention that poured dirt on top of my rat hole; she put me on a pedestal. But now that she can see my flaws, that means I have to see them too. Whoa. I sure as hell don’t like that.”

So, in the midst of my desperate and unflattering attempts to gain her admiration back, she left. Just like that, she packed her bags and moved across the country without so much as a text goodbye. As I’m sure you can imagine, I went insane. I actually thought about flying to New York to ask her to marry me. MARRY ME! (I know what you’re thinking and, yes, I have since been going to therapy.) Luckily, either the small amount of logical thinking I had left, or my bank account, convinced me to not do that. Instead, I did something less, but nonetheless, crazy. I set up a showing at the apartment she’d just moved out of. I was sure I needed closure. We’d had no form of goodbye, so I thought seeing her empty apartment and bidding my dramatic farewells would heal me.

I needed some sort of ritualistic way to let go; to gain my power back. Now, I would love to tell a grand story of how a stranger said something oddly philosophical to me that made me turn around that day, that made me realize I was still desperately trying to cover that damn rat hole. But it’s a much less interesting story. I woke up the day of the showing and decided to go grocery shopping, and it wasn’t until 15 minutes after the appointment time that I remembered I had even scheduled it. I didn’t laugh or cry or have a come-to-Jesus moment, I just shrugged my shoulders and proudly wrote in my diary that I didn’t do that crazy thing I said I would do. And as I wrote, I began to realize that I didn’t feel bad about not being able to say goodbye, I just felt bad that she had seen my rat hole and decided to leave. She had seen the horribly selfish part of me that only I knew existed, that was a result of my chronic need to deny and cover up my deeply rooted insecurities.

I began to realize that I had held on to all of these memories and souvenirs and feelings because, on the contrary, I in fact didn’t want to feel. I was so scared of losing who I was in those moments because I hadn’t yet felt them or made sense of them. All of these feelings and dramatic attempts to hold onto the past were really just my own messy way of covering up some pretty ugly truths. So, I threw it all out – the condom wrapper, the letters, the pen, everything but the spoon. I kept that damn spoon. Because it has no meaning, and I think that’s kind of the point.

Monica Garry is a recent Psychology graduate from St. Catherine University, currently working at a Nonprofit organization in Minneapolis as a case manager for adults experiencing mental illness and homelessness.

Guest Posts, healing

I Diagnose Other People for a Living, but No One Can Diagnose Me

July 15, 2019
surgery

By Melissa Neff

My psychology career has been devoted to helping other people learn about themselves. But when chronic back pain usurped my life, no one could tell me what was wrong with my back, or how to fix it.

As a psychologist in private practice, I divide hours into 15-minute segments, punctuated by the beep of a timer and my client’s choice of Batman or emoji stickers. A few weeks ago, I handed Jaden, an energetic and wiggly 6-year-old, a pile of putty to fidget with as we waded through an IQ test. Through a projective storytelling task, I learned what monsters were hiding under his bed, and what type of laser proton field he plans to construct to keep them out.

When Jaden’s parents return for the results, I explain, “Assessment is like pieces of a puzzle. Each test tells me something about your child.” Test by test, I plot out Jaden’s abilities relative to other kids his age on a giant white board, dotting his exceptionalities and weaknesses in purple marker. “He can solve 8th grade math equations, and he is smart enough to grasp that one day he will die; however, this thought, which most 6-year-olds can’t yet contemplate, terrifies him. So, he has constructed a laser field as a way of coping with demons that he does not yet understand.”

I inundate Jaden’s parents with labels – Gifted, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder – labels which do not define him, but which describe him so we can strategize how to best help him. When Jaden’s parents leave my office, I want them to understand their child better. I want them to feel supported and validated about what they’ve always known to be true about their child, which often, no one else saw or believed. I want my clients to have answers.

Like many psychologists, I have, too, have spent some time on the other side of the couch. Like Jaden, I, too, have been plagued by anxiety. When I was still healthy, I spent nearly every day running and dancing and hiking those thoughts away until they melted into a pool of sweat at the back of my tank top.

But all of that changed six years ago, when I twisted my left foot the wrong way while shaking my booty to Rihanna during a high-intensity dance class. When my foot didn’t heal, the podiatrist shoved it in a boot for two months, which slanted my pelvis and led to a gradual stabbing in my low back that didn’t remit when the boot came off. I began to curse the Devil Spot, the dwelling inside my low back where it felt as if tiny trolls were stabbing me from the inside, punishing me for a transgression they had yet to reveal.

No matter how much stretching and resting and icing I did, the Devil Spot nagged at me, pleading to be heard like a tantruming child. Its screams grew louder and louder until they were all I could hear. Pain eclipsed my every waking moment, and suddenly, I became one of 25 million people in America with chronic pain. At work, I couldn’t stand up and talk to my clients for longer than 3 minutes. At home, it was all I could do to not toss a spatula across the kitchen, infuriated that I couldn’t stand for long enough to sauté a goddamn pan of broccoli.

I threw all of my free time and savings into rehab. I just wanted to dance again, to run again, to feel my body sherpa up and down mountainous hiking trails the way it was made to. My osteopath glided and jerked my left leg until my pelvis straightened, explaining in carpenter-speak how a normal pelvis should connect to the spine without jamming. My chiropractor jerked me back into place, asked me for my copay, and rushed me out the door. After each adjustment, I slid back into crookedness, but I kept going back for more because I didn’t know what else to do. My physical therapist urged me to try water aerobics. After about fifteen minutes doing low kicks with the 80-year-old women in my class, the Devil Spot detonated, forcing me to hobble out of the pool in tears.

Pain became the only thing I could think about. Nothing I did to stop it helped. In fact, every intervention seemed to generate more pain. The only thing everyone agreed on was that I should avoid back surgery. Failed back surgery is so common that it has its own diagnostic code.

Months passed. Years passed. For a while, I sought relief instead of fixes. I tried every type of massage –Hawaiian Lomi Lomi, deep tissue, and Rolfing. I begged Chinese doctors to poke my feet with long acupuncture needles. I asked a woman who saw angels to clear up energy from my past lives. The stabbing would relent for a day or two, but never more. So, I stopped. I stopped getting adjustments. I stopped trying to hike. I stopped at my third physical therapist. I stopped having dinner parties. I stopped getting invited to dinner parties. I stopped having sex or only had it in the dark, where I could covertly wince.

More months passed. Each day, I averaged about a 7 on the pain scale. My stomach ached from popping Ibuprofen like Tic Tacs, but I needed them to get me through the day. I hated my life. I hated my job. I hated myself. I was becoming a person I didn’t recognize, a person whose fat clothes didn’t fit, a person who got her only endorphins from Dairy Queen Oreo Blizzards. I needed answers. I needed to find someone like me, someone who would sit with my images, get out their white board, and contemplate my symptoms until they morphed into the correct diagnosis and paved a road towards treatment. I didn’t care anymore that this might mean someone drilling my spine apart, filleting me like a fish, and rebuilding me piece by piece. I was out of money and patience, controlled by something I couldn’t get under control no matter how hard I tried.

Dr. Keller, my pain doctor, agreed that it was time to consult with surgeons, who are known for their diagnostic precision.

Surgeon Number One suggested there might be a tear in my disc.

Surgeon Number Two diagnosed sacroiliac dysfunction. If he just literally could nail together my pelvis to my spine, it would become less mobile and less painful, he said.

Surgeon Number Three, the arrogant one who I was sure would break the tie, turned around slowly in his leather chair and said, “I’m not sure why you’re here. There’s nothing wrong with your back.”

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“There’s no surgery I would do on your back, because it’s totally fine.”

The tears I’d been holding back busted through, my face opening into a floodplain. “It’s fine? Then why am I in so much pain? Why does my back stab so badly that I can I barely stand, or concentrate? Why can’t I ride in a car for longer than an hour? Why can’t I get through Costco without an automated cart?”

“You just need physical therapy.”

“I’ve tried that. Three times, with three different therapists. It hasn’t worked.”

“Acupuncture can also help.”

“I’ve tried that. Twice. Didn’t work.” I breathed back the snot dripping from my nose. When he didn’t offer me a Kleenex, I wiped it away with my sleeve.

“Do you think there’s a tear in my disc?” I asked. “That I need a fusion?”

“No.” But he leaned in closer as he noticed my tears.

“You know, I’ve had some patients with similar pain. You know what helped them? Therapy. They go see a therapist, talk a little bit about their family, and in three, four months – their pain goes away.”

Clearly, this asshole had omitted reading the check-box where I’d listed my profession as “psychologist,” implying that I know something about this stuff. Had he read any of my check-boxes? Was he saying that I was crazy? That I had conjured this problem within my body as a way of dealing with my issues? Had he read the referral from Dr. Keller, who’d shot me with cortisone in my SI joint three times that year, issued me a handicapped parking pass, and sent me to this man for an actual answer?

In my car, my head fell on the steering wheel, dousing it with sobs. I wanted to call my partner to debrief, but what was the point? I was still at the same place, with no answers.

For weeks, I contemplated my choices. I insisted that my doctor perform the dangerous discogram that did, indeed, reveal a tear in my disc. I had a minor surgery to cauterize the disc. But when I started to move again, the Devil Spot ignited and raged on. I blew up balloons with my new physical therapist to pull more air into my left lung in an attempt to align both sides of my body. I let a different physical therapist put her finger in my vagina, inspecting my pelvic floor for tightness. I tried new medications. I cut down my hours at work. I forced myself to meditate. None of it helped.

Left without a clear direction, I made a radical choice: to have a surgery that wouldn’t fix the problem, but which would mask the pain. An implanted spinal cord stimulator would send soothing signals to my brain to divert it from the perception of pain. I scheduled the surgery, but my insurance required me to have a psychological evaluation first. After laughing my ass off at the irony, I drove three hours south and sat all day in a fake leather chair like the one I had for clients in my office, checking off answers on personality inventories I’d spent years administering to other people. The psychologist gave the green-light, but on the eve of my surgery, my gut rumbled with uncertainty. Scanning my brain for a last-minute fix, I recalled a conversation I’d had with a friend’s father years ago, who told me that a physiatrist, a doctor of the muscles, had saved him from back surgery. I Googled physiatrists, found Dr. Landon, who was new in town, and told Dr. Keller that I wanted one more consult before moving forward.

In his office a week later, Dr. Landon thanked me for sending him a three-page synopsis with all my provisional diagnoses and every treatment I’d tried. He’d reviewed that and my imaging the night before. He spent two hours asking me a series of rapid-fire questions to rule out all kinds of different disorders. He looked me in the eye and listened to my story. He offered me more Kleenex as I cried. He spent two hours examining my hips, pelvis, legs, and back. He told me that he had a few ideas about what might be wrong, and he labeled them all: Sacroiliac Joint Dysfunction. Pelvic Floor Dysfunction. Hip-Back Syndrome. Myofascial Pain Syndrome. He assured me that we would go down each rabbit hole, investigating symptom by symptom until I had my answers. He didn’t have a white board, but he did make a drawing on his iPad explaining how my hips might be causing back pain, which made me consider my symptoms in a new way.

Dr. Landon asked me to postpone surgery until I tried the rehab program he created for me. “I will do my very best to help you,” he said as I left, “But I can’t promise anything.”

In the safety of my car, I simultaneously grinned and sobbed, allowing child-like bawls to crawl up my chest and quake out my lips, loosening my grief like leaves on a tree that had needed a good shake to break free. Finally, I had found someone who would diagnose me with the same level of precision, empathy, and care as I did for my own clients. I always tried so hard not to cry, not to complain, not to ruin conversations by talking about my pain, but hopelessness had become a rock in my chest, hardening around my broken heart.

For the first time since the Devil Spot had made my life a living hell, I felt less alone.

Dr. Landon’s program is working. I can stand for 30 minutes instead of 3. I can do half of an old lady water aerobics class without tears. Last week, I walked into a gentle dance class and grapevined and kicked behind Dolores for ten whole minutes without stopping, and shouted with her along to Huey Lewis. The more I squat and lunge, the stronger the tissue around my disc becomes. I am forcing myself to meditate, and when I sit in silence, I learn things – about the way I sit, the way I stand, the way I don’t take in full breaths, how I hold in stress until it becomes a stabbing pain in my ass. Surgeon Number Three was right, even if he was a jerk about it; I needed to go back to therapy, because how I manage my emotions is a piece of my puzzle.

Twice a week in neurofeedback, my therapist attaches electrodes to the calming center of my brain. Twice a week, I leave feeling less anxious, and in less pain. I am noticing that when I have a bad day at work, the Devil Spot cramps and pulses much earlier than usual. As I lean forward to bear witness to other people’s stories of abuse and abandonment, my muscles clench more with the weight of their stories. When I am a receptacle for other people’s pain, my pain worsens.

In therapy, it is my turn to speak. I tell my therapist the truth: I am no different than my clients. I was born with big feelings, big reactions, big thoughts. I never felt safe expressing them until I met my current partner, who holds me when I cry and does not ask me to stop, who listens to my ideas and loves every part of me that’s big.

It has taken me forty-one years to realize that I’ve spent my entire life putting other people first. As a six-year-old, I became a mother to my mother. After my dad left, she secured two or three jobs at a time to make sure we had Gap jeans and could afford to play after-school sports, but there was no time for cooking, cleaning, or feelings. When I tried to tell my dad how much I missed him on visits, when tears welled up in my eyes and my words grew gummy, he insisted we change the subject because it was obviously upsetting me. For him, I joined clubs and earned scholarships, learned to courageously mute all my big feelings, and championed his marriage to a woman who smiled at me through gritted teeth to ensure that I wouldn’t take up any more of his time. It was the right thing to do – choosing attachment over acceptance meant that I would be supported, loved. When I headed off to a big city college, I felt brave, strong, and independent. By graduate school, I was on my way to becoming a logical, impenetrable adult. I had a life plan: I would help people with their big feelings, and run far up mountains away from my own.

But I didn’t respect myself. I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t helping people. I didn’t know that my voice needed to be heard too, until the right people listened. Now, I’ve begun to stop and notice when the pain flares, and ask myself what I am feeling, not feeling, or not saying. I let myself feel it, although I am still learning how to say it.

The more I creep back into my body, which froze with pain until I felt safe enough to learn why, the more I release the trapped emotion from my back and baby the Devil Spot back to life, the less I want labels and procedures. I insist to Jaden’s mother, who cries when I label him with autism, that a diagnosis does not define a person, but is a valuable guidepost – a roadmap – to greater self-understanding. What I don’t say is: I understand. We are all jagged and broken in some places, but if we don’t let our edges come up for air, if we don’t let others see them, hold them, and heal them, they will fester and become unnecessary wounds.

Melissa Neff is a writer and psychologist living in Montana. Her fiction has been featured in WitLit and Wild Quarterly. She is currently writing a memoir about chronic pain and how it has unexpectedly healed her body, mind, and spirit. She is fortunate to spend most of her days supporting her differently wired clients to become their very best selves. You can follow her on twitter at @MelissaNeff17.