Browsing Tag

mental-health

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Frostbite

August 10, 2021
cold

by Alec O’Hanson

Winter comes after me like a starving dog. I can feel its breath against my heels when the leaves turn, hear the snap of its bitter teeth in the coldness of the wind. I know that by the time the leaves fall, I will have fallen with them. There is no running from something that lives inside of you like a dormant parasite.

By August, I can already tell this winter will be far too long. The sky itself is as hollow as the space in my chest. With each drop of the temperature, I can feel warmth draining from me; a steady trickle that’s just significant enough to know it’s happening, but also just faint enough that I can’t convince myself it’s really there.

It is hard not to feel helpless against the bitter cold when it creeps upon you and tangles itself into your skin so quietly. There is no warning or noticeable first frostbite. I wake up in the middle of the week and I realize it’s far too cold to go outside without a coat to protect me against the winds, and by the end of the next week I’ve decided it’s far too cold to go outside at all.

Before the tides of September hit, I find myself submerged in carpeted walls and the low, noise-cancelling hum of a false sense of security. My mother says it’s strength and willpower that puts me here, but when I tell the new therapist that I think winter is trying to kill me, I feel nothing but fragile and weak.

“The first step towards getting better,” she said, half-hidden by the frost-bitten car window, “is wanting to do so.”

It feels almost futile to attempt therapy only when I am finding myself so cold that I can’t feel my fingers, much less my own heart. I do not want to be in this room in the same way I don’t want to be anywhere else. It’s an hour of my day and a shred of my energy that every fiber of me wants to hold onto for tasks that used to take no time or effort at all. It’s almost as if I have put myself on emergency rations. I have developed a scarcity complex towards life itself — there is only so much of myself to give when I already feel so empty.

I tell this to my therapist, and she asks if I’m still on medication, which I am. But I’ve found that all they do is stabilize, and that holding still at a low is still nonetheless a flatlining low. But it’s a compromise, and I figure that being able to settle a score with myself with my bargaining chips in scarcity is the best I can ask for. It’s just difficult to explain this to somebody who only feels the cold on the surface of their skin instead of running deep beneath it like mine.

I have memorized the answers to the quiz my therapist gives me halfway into October. They aren’t lies, because if I’m going to put energy into it, I don’t want to waste it by sabotaging myself in such a pointless way. But I find myself tired of being tired, and I don’t have the energy to try and stay positive about what is still a consistent negative because I don’t have the energy to attempt any methods of improving the state of it.

That’s a mouthful if I’ve ever heard one, and a confusing one at that, so I stick to my compromises. More than anything, I want to be understood, so I speak in tongues that don’t fully translate to the same truth.

Do I struggle to fall or stay asleep? No, but I am sleeping more than usual. It’s another hour towards spring; another minute away from the cold. Do I feel down, depressed, or hopeless? They like when I joke about exam season, so I do, instinctively. It’s a half truth, which isn’t an entire lie. More often than not I feel nothing at all, as if the coldness of winter has sunken itself into my bones and made me numb to its bite. Have I lost interest in things that I typically enjoy? I don’t remember what it feels like to laugh, but somehow I’ve managed to waste all twenty-four hours of my day without realizing it, so I must not be that bored.

I make it to exactly five of these weekly appointments before the cold finally makes itself a home within my bones and I decide that I’m too tired to keep thawing it off only for it to freeze back in place. I also decide that medication is making me far too aware of what day of the week it is, which is easy — the pharmacy stops calling after the first time and I reckon in hindsight that the medication wasn’t really meant to warm me up in the first place. When there is very little to rely on, and when I am so opposed to unsteady footholds, I have to make these kinds of compromises. I am helpless, I tell myself, against the direction of the northern winds.

I spend the next two weeks scraping the bottom of an empty barrel, shaking and vomiting but most definitely feeling something for the first time since I bothered trying to medicate myself in the first place. Cold as I am, even the lick of flames against my frostbitten skin comes as a relief rather than the searing agony it ought to be.

Sometimes, it’s so easy to get caught up in everything and forget about what’s most important. When November strikes down, I have been so caught up wallowing in the throes of nothing that I have forgotten what important even is. I am getting colder again, and it is getting easier to tell people I’m sick and that I’m sorry but I can’t make it after all.

Actions have consequences, but if you bury your head far enough in the snow you can convince yourself they don’t. People stop calling and visiting because it’s impossible to reach out to somebody who has been swallowed up in the tundra so thoroughly. The peace and quiet is nice, even if the silence leaves way too much space for misery to fill. It’s still a choice that I made, amidst a suffocating helplessness, and I know what’s best for me in the coming months. I am terrified to spread the frostbite that clings to my skin and spreads into everything I touch.

There is a snowball at the top of the hill in the middle of a windstorm. It’s probably December, but I don’t fully realize this until it isn’t December anymore. Which is fine with me. I always found December to be somewhat of a drag, though I’m frequently told that I’m the one that’s a drag.

Perhaps there is a sliver of truth to that. A small, cold, and bitter part of me hates the lights and the family dinners and the presents and the holiday. I have a reputation for being a grinch, but at least that means nobody wants to bother me.

It is only with the reprieve of New Year’s Eve that, for a fleeting moment, I feel the ice melt away. There’s very little comfort that comes with the sting of thawing. It’s as if I’m standing in the center of a hurricane, surrounded by what I’ve missed and what is inevitable. There are so many days in a year. There are so many days of waking up and getting dressed and talking to people, and I am already wind-beaten and exhausted from the thousands of days behind me of this exhausting sameness.

I write a list of resolutions out of habit and desperation, and as always there are two of them that I find myself making every year. I want to get better, and, I want to make it out alive.

I can say, at least, that I have seen the last one through every year since I made it. I don’t write it because I feel particularly like there’s a chance I won’t do so, but rather because I can at least make sure I reach one of these resolutions by the end of the year. I like to think of it as a safety net, because when you are standing in the eye of a snowstorm and seeing three hundred and sixty five or so days of broken resolutions, it’s easy to forget which direction you were heading in the first place.

As for the first, it’s hard to tell if I ever meet it, but I think that might be the point of making the resolution. It’s impossible to define “better” when you struggle to define “worse” or really anything of significance at all. Measurement of successes is futile, which is something I learned from my therapist, but that means my acknowledging this must be indicative of an improvement somewhere. I’ll take what I can get in that aspect.

Sometimes I do feel like I have gotten better, but then the winter comes after me again and pulls me back down into it. It’s hard to tell how close you have flown towards the sun when you are already drowning twenty thousand leagues back beneath the freezing sea.

I make a promise to myself every year to get better not because I feel like it’s a point I can reach, but instead because I think the resolution itself is the foothold I have in doing so in the first place. The first step towards getting better is wanting to do so.

For a moment, as I watch another year bury itself in the snow that makes itself a graveyard around me, I want to do so. It’s a stab of desperation, and it’s molten.

I know that beneath the sheet of white is something warmer, something bigger. I have made it through plenty of starving winters before, and with each one I feel the sharpness of the cold grow softer against my weathered skin.

Humans and beasts and what lies between them have all adapted to circumstances to survive. Survival, if anything, seems to be the best way of defining “better.” What doesn’t kill you inevitably must make you stronger, so if facing a dozen winters hasn’t frozen me to death yet, then maybe there’s a possibility I’ve developed a resistance to the cold.

Winter comes after me like a starving dog, but at least I know when it comes. There are only so many times a dog can bite you before you learn how to grab it by the teeth, after all.

January arrives, and this time, I brace myself against the cold.

Alec O’Hanson is a (closeted) transgender man currently finishing his last semester at New River Community College, aiming to transfer to Radford University afterwards in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in English. He has been writing in fervor for as long as he’s had access to words, and his goal is to make that everyone else’s problem, too.

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, memories, Relationships

Camping Under the Influence

July 14, 2021
camping

By Carrie Friedman

I squint as I read the fine print of the disclaimer that says the campsite is NOT responsible for any coyote, snake, or bear bites or maulings. As I sign our lives away, I say, “This was a mistake,” loud enough for my husband to hear. Our daughters are already running free, up and down the meadow, like they’ve never seen so much open space, possibly because they never have in our crowded Los Angeles suburb. We have arrived at this southern California campsite for a whole weekend of “unstructured fun!” as the parent-email boasted, with other families from our daughters’ school. Our daughters begged us to go this year, so here we all are. “It could just be that you’re not in the right mindset,” my husband, who is one important notch more outdoorsy than I am, says.

He’s not wrong. Only hours earlier, I boarded a plane back to California, from my native Wisconsin. I was visiting my dad, who is in the late stages of dementia and Parkinson’s. Every time I leave him, I know that this could be the last time I see him. This slow-motion loss feels unscalable.

“I’ll be fine,” I say. I want our girls to have this camp experience.

I go to the campsite store and buy a bottle of wine and a bottle of pre-made, pre-mixed margaritas. I start drinking as soon as I find a cup. I drink to blur the edges.

I’ve never been the type of person who drinks in the wilderness, gulping the air like it’s a delicious treat, then says (and means) things like, “I love nature,” or talks about a higher being “creating this masterpiece for us.” But when I inhale the air at the campsite today, I feel a familiar ache. I’m reminded of why I hate camping: it makes me homesick. If the smells of evergreen, mildew, loneliness, and campfire were blended in a bottle, they’d be called Eau de homesickness.

I down a margarita as if I’m a marathoner at a pitstop.

When I was a gawky and overly sensitive 10 year old at summer camp in Wisconsin, my escape was red Kool-Aid that the camp rebranded “Bug Juice.” It was so sweet and concentrated you could chew the sugar granules. I was addicted to the sugar high it gave me: it helped me forget how much I missed my family back home, 90 miles from camp. It helped me feel less awkward around kids I didn’t know. The inevitable crash left me lower than before, sobbing all night in bed while my cabinmates slept. It was a gutting cry, a cry that physically hurt – replaying every fight I’d ever had with my parents or siblings, wishing I were back with them.

My dad, sensing my homesickness, would send funny letters, mailed to arrive by every day’s rest time. I’d read them as I scratched mosquito bites into scabs. His words always made things better.

I drink my way through the first half of the weekend – buzzed, friendly, seemingly carefree – having a drink anytime the ache, or a thought or memory about my dad tries to creep in, like a sad version of a drinking game.

People call this “Glamping” because we are in cabins with indoor bathrooms, not tents and outhouses, but there is nothing “glam” about it. Directly above our bed is what appears to be a hastily made loft with about 20 inches of crawl space and some crib-sized mattresses for our six and seven year old. A rickety metal ladder is propped precariously against a wooden railing that feels like it is as sturdy and well-put together as a shelf I constructed in shop class in third grade. My kids and husband sleep well. I stare at the cedar walls and ceiling all night, trying not to think but thinking nonetheless. If that was the last time I’ll ever see my father, did I say everything I needed to say?

The next morning, I admit to my husband that perhaps the pivot from emotional wilderness into actual wilderness was too much for me. He offers to pack us up and leave early. But the kids are having so much fun, we decide. They have already strapped on their bike helmets and taken off on their scooters with their friends for the morning.

The days are packed and noisy. There’s a hike and a talent show. And smores and drinks with other parents, as our kids don glowstick necklaces and bracelets and chase each other through the woods – streaks of neon as they run past and between the trees.

I buy and drink more wine. In the middle of the final night, dizzy from alcohol, I leap out of bed and vomit in our cabin toilet. As I’m about to flush, I spot a giant brown spider on the handle. I nearly vomit again, but instead scream into a towel, so as not to wake my family.

“I just killed a brown recluse spider in our bathroom,” I tell my husband. He rolls over in bed. I’m not expecting a parade but at least a little gratitude for saving his and our daughters’ lives would be nice.

“Really, Carrie?” he asks, dubious. “A brown recluse, with the violin shape on its back and everything?”

“Yes,” I whisper, a chill running down my spine. “Except it was so big it was more like a cello. This guy could have carried our suitcases. I’m done with camping,” I say.

“Glamping,” my husband corrects.

“I’m going to sleep out in the van.”

I wake up on the third row of seats in the back of the minivan to a blinding sunrise. It’s a new day. My pounding hangover headache feels like a nuisance, a distraction, from the real pain I’ve been trying to avoid. How quickly in the two years since my father’s diagnosis and rapid decline, had my drinking gone from a glass of wine after the kids went to bed to “take the edge off” to “mommy juice at a late afternoon playdate,” to a nightly necessity to numb or push out sadness, which I defended as “self-care.” If this is self-care, it’s not working.

Again, the smells of homesickness fill the air, and I remember things I don’t want to remember.

The letters my dad sent me when I was at camp were a funny serialized mystery he had written, in installments. Each chapter ended on a cliffhanger, and he timed when he mailed them perfectly: I always had a new letter, a new chapter, waiting for me in my cubby every afternoon for resting time. But my camp experience began to improve. I enjoyed horseback riding and canoeing and making lanyard bracelets. When I returned home after camp, my dad discovered his last three envelopes unopened in my suitcase. I tried to explain that I was too tired to read each day. My dad pretended not to care, but I could tell he was hurt.

With this memory, my gulping sobs shake the van.

Suddenly, I am starving. The campsite seems deserted at 7am. I walk to the restaurant/general store. Campfire ashes from the night before float in the air like feathers. My eye makeup presumably everywhere, I imagine I look like a raccoon walking on its hind legs.

I wander through the empty store/restaurant, looking at foods and offerings but not really seeing them. For awhile, I stare without realizing it at a woman making eggs in the kitchen. She has long press-on nails that wrap around the spatula and flip fried eggs and scrape scrambled eggs on the griddle. She has velvety Disney princess eye lashes that must take forever to glue to her eyelids.

I can tell by the way she’s looking at me that my eyes are swollen and red.

“Rough night?” she asks.

“Rough week,” I say. “Rough year.”

“What can I get for you, Hon?” she asks.

Her term of endearment makes me cry again. “Could you make cheesy eggs? They’re just scrambled eggs with cheese on top.”

“Of course, Hon,” she says.

She unwraps and slaps an orange Kraft single on top of the scrambled eggs. It becomes shiny with sweat as it starts to melt.

Cheesy eggs taste like what he used to make on Sundays when we were kids and teens. His variations on the classics, like applesauce pancakes, fried matzo, spaghetti pie, never tasted very good, but now, just thinking of them makes me crave them. The gooey applesauce, somehow still cold, oozed out from the otherwise cooked pancake. The nutty, charred edges of the matzo.

The cook hands me a Styrofoam plate with the eggs covered in cheese, then says, “I’ll ring you up. They’re a dollar fifty.”

Maybe she feels sorry for me and is giving me a discount, I think as I swipe my debit card. Nothing costs so little anymore, let alone a protein.

I sit at a picnic table in the woods, with the yellow scramble. The eggs taste like cheese flavored plastic, just like when my dad made them, and go down easy. Comfort food indeed.

Before I left the last time, he said two things that made sense. I was shocked by the clarity with which he said each, considering he barely speaks anymore and when he does, it’s usually gibberish. He said, “You never give up,” more as a command than a fact, and “I love you so much.” When I was a teenager, I had felt overwhelmed by his belief in me. At that time, I think he loved me more than I loved myself. I felt that way again, but stronger in the thought of losing him.

I can’t swallow anymore because of the lump in my throat. I’m remembering all the things I wanted to say to him, but didn’t, two days ago while I sat with him and held his hand: I’m sorry I didn’t open those last chapters of your story, I’m sorry we made fun of your creative Sunday meals. Thank you for writing those letters, thank you for your food and time and love.

I sit in the pain and really let myself feel it. Sober. At first it feels like I might suffocate, so I take slow, deep breaths while I cry. I cry because I miss my father, and I cry for the moments I have missed with my own children this weekend, blurry from alcohol when they could be sharper, more vibrant in the light of reality: my older daughter singing in the talent show, my younger daughter blowing dandelion fuzz every chance she could, strands of roasted marshmallows sticky on their cheeks.

I decide it’s time to stop multiplying my depressants, so I vow to quit drinking and camping, at least for a while.

“Well,” my husband says as we pack the car, “at least we weren’t mauled by any bears.” I laugh. I breathe in the last of the evergreen, mildew, and campfire smells. I’m relieved to be leaving, but to my surprise the wilderness and the loneliness follow me home.

Carrie Friedman lives and writes in southern California. She has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, among other places. Her website is: www.carriefriedman.com

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Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Family, Guest Posts, Mental Health

I Come From Wicked Women

May 24, 2021
mother

by Ramona Mead

Like many eighth-grade girls, I spent a lot of time at my best friend’s house. A woman lived down the road who was a menace to their neighborhood, would start a feud with a neighbor over an errant garden hose. Her trailer home set at the end of a long gravel drive was the kind of place kids avoided on Halloween. She sped around on a bicycle, stiff and severe, never acknowledging her surroundings.

Whenever the woman passed by, my friend’s family burst into a mocking rendition of The Wicked Witch of the West’s signature tune, “Duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh-duh!” My friend and her family had no way to know it was my grandmother on that bicycle, and I never spoke up.

It was my mother’s mother, I called her Mom-Mom. Though I was around her as a kid, I can’t say I knew her. By the time I was in eighth grade, she and my mother had been estranged for more than five years. Ever since then, when I see that witch from The Wizard of Oz, I’m struck by the resemblance to the women in my family, including myself—it’s mostly the sharp profile (and the meanness.)

Mom-Mom’s husband, my Pop-Pop, died when I was six. At the time, I only knew he was “very sick.”  I spent countless hours in squat pleather chairs of a mauve ICU waiting room, supervised by friendly nurses in pastel scrubs. My mother stayed at her father’s bedside until it became clear there was no hope he’d recover, and his life support machines were turned off.

I don’t recall the first time my mother told me the story how Pop-Pop died, it’s always been our family narrative and it goes like this: Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop were drunk and had an argument, she hit him in the head with a frying pan and he never woke up. It’s such a nonchalant description, I didn’t question this narrative until I was an adult in therapy.

“You mean she murdered him?” my therapist’s eyes widened after I casually recounted the version I’ve known my whole life. It always came across as it was his fault for not waking up. That’s a classic move in our family, blame the victim to avoid responsibility. After all, it’s not like that was the first time she’d hit him.

Our family lore says alcohol fueled altercations between my grandparents were common. Pop-Pop occasionally sported a black eye as a result. He never retaliated or talked about it. As an adult, I’ve asked my mother and aunt why Mom-Mom was never arrested after Pop-Pop’s death, and they give the same explanation, which is surprising. They say their dad “loved his wife so much,” they knew he wouldn’t want them to pursue legal action.

I was twenty-one when I had my first fight with a boyfriend. I didn’t want him to take a trip without me because I was jealous of another girl who’d be there. We were yelling at each other as I gathered up everything to do some laundry. I walked out mid conversation, to our building’s laundry room two doors down. I fumed while stuffing everything into a washer and cramming quarters into their slots.

I marched barefoot back down the sidewalk, my retorts finely tuned and ready to launch at him. Then suddenly, there he was getting in his car without offering me so much as a glance.

The blocky jug of laundry detergent soared across the parking lot before I even registered that it had left my hand. It landed on the wide hood of the Mustang with a solid thud as the car inched out of its parking space.

I rushed to our door without looking back and slammed it behind me, my lips trembling. What had I done?! My chest tightened and my tongue tingled. My anxiety had never escalated to this level in front of J before.

In the two years we’d lived together, he saw me kick over a kitchen chair or cry during episodes of panic when I was overwhelmed balancing my checkbook or studying for a test. Those were incidents where I’d struggled against myself, and he’d left me alone to work through them. This was the first time I’d lost control in J’s direction.

Through a slit in the blinds, I watched his car ease back into its space. J retrieved the jug of Tide with little effort and came through our front door as if he were returning with groceries.

I braced for the slap and barrage of insults I imagined I’d earned, as had always been the case growing up. Like the time in my junior year of high school when, in a fit of agitation over finishing a report on time, I’d slammed my palms against the keys of our electric typewriter until they stung then tossed it across our kitchen table. My mother pulled me out of my seat by my hair, slapped my face and called me an ungrateful bitch.

J set the jug on the coffee table without comment. Time seemed to slow down as I fought to get my breathing to a normal pace. He came to where I still stood by the window, pulled me close and held me for a moment. Then he gently separated us to arm’s length and spoke slowly and softly, “If you ever do anything like that again, we are done. I will never be with you anymore.”

When I realized he was comforting me, not punishing me, my confusion morphed into relief then embarrassment. I couldn’t lift my head to meet his gaze. I stared down, watching my hot tears drip onto my t-shirt.

J said he knew I needed help. What did I need? he asked, he’d help me get it. I didn’t know. Neither of us understood at the time that this behavior was how I had been taught to react to conflict. Despite the fact that we were later married, J never knew the details of my abusive childhood or the extent of my mother’s dysfunction because I didn’t fully understand it myself yet nor admitted it to anyone.

We decided I would start by scheduling a doctor’s appointment the next day. Later that night, our argument settled, I lay in the dark picturing that jug of Tide thunking onto the car’s hood, over and over and over again. Sour shame rose in my throat every time. And then in my mind, the jug was a rock spidering the windshield of my step-dad’s truck. My mother stood panting beside our front porch after hurling the softball sized rock, screaming insults as he drove away.

I was transported right back to that morning, holding my breath until I exhaled as the rock rolled down the windshield, off the hood of the truck and continued down the hill. While my step-dad had never raised a hand to my mother, I thought surely today was the day. I kept watch as his truck continued around the curved driveway, veered onto rutted dirt lane, then to the paved road, and out of sight.

This wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed my mother’s rage and wondered Why doesn’t someone stop her? It never occurred to me that someone might have tried.

My mother creates her own version of reality to get her through without ever taking accountability for her behaviors. When people call her out, she bails on the relationship. Whether it’s a spouse needing a break, or a hairdresser wanting to change her standing appointment time. When my mother tripped over a throw rug in the house, it went into the trash. If she choked while eating spaghetti, that brand of pasta was forever boycotted. So the question I’ve pondered for more than a decade is not why didn’t my mother want to change but why did I?

J was the first person to tell me, “You need help and I love you, so I want to help you get it.” All my life, my mother told me “there’s something wrong with you,” and “you’re sick in the head like your father.” She never once told me how I could make an effort to be different. She took me to medical doctors for my physical symptoms: chronic stomach pain in sixth grade, migraines at age fourteen, and I took treatments but there was never a search for a root cause. A doctor’s suggestion that these things could be stress related was dismissed by my mother. I was being dramatic, exaggerating, seeking attention.

Sometimes it feels like the strongest drive in my life, even stronger than my will to live, is my desire to not be like my mother. For many years, it felt like turning into her was inevitable.

The day I threw the laundry soap was the first turning point away from that course. It was the start of other people teaching me how to be a person in the world. My mother didn’t teach me or allow herself to be taught. I’ve determined the difference comes down to who we are at our cores. I have always had love and light at my center, my mother and grandmother had meanness at theirs. I didn’t always let my light shine because I was mocked and punished for being different from my mother, for being sensitive and silly. I was taught by example to behave in a way that went against my nature. That caused me a great amount of distress and anxiety. J was the first person to give me another option.

I have the possibility of wickedness in me. It was passed down from the surly old woman on her bicycle, to her daughter who then abused her daughter. Acknowledging that wickedness in me was the first step in not acting on it and taking a different path. I do not want to be a woman who terrorizes people. I don’t want to be a joke in my neighborhood or feared by my family.  I am my mother’s daughter but I am not my mother. I come from wicked women and I choose not to be one.

Ramona Mead is a writer, reader, and book blogger, among many other things! Her personal essays have appeared in various online publications. She’s working on a memoir about her relationship with her mother in regard to trauma, family estrangement, and Huntington’s Disease. She lives outside Bozeman, Montana with her husband and a houseful of pets. You can find her on Instagram @RamonaMeadBlogger and her website www.RamonaMead.com.

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Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story itself is important.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Mental Health, pandemic

Ghosts

March 1, 2021
shadowy photo of woman during day

By Laura Cline

I feel her following me.  The ghost.

Somehow, it is already seven p.m.  My hands are under the hot running water, rinsing the dishes and leaning over to put them in the dishwasher.  The little girl voices swirl around me.  “Girls, time to settle down.” They don’t hear me.  I keep rinsing the dishes and the ghost wraps her arms around mine- strangling- embracing.

I’ve been here before.  This feels familiar.

Not that I have lived through a global pandemic, but my heart has been in this place, my head, my hands, all the parts of my body. My days have melted together into the longest day, the mornings weeks, months from the nights.  The rhythm of my day is need- food, water, attention, sleep.

I wake up every morning and immediately feel the fog pull me back under.  I haven’t slept enough the night before.  I was up late folding the laundry, slipping into the warm water of the bath, rocking the baby, holding her to my breast.  I hear the voices, the cries.  “Mooooooom, mommy, get me mommy.”  This day will be just like the last. I put on my glasses so I can see and pull back the covers.  The ghost sits in the rocker across the room.  My eyelids feel heavy, made of lead.

The television is always on in the background, but I barely hear it.  My daughter asks questions about what is happening. “What is she doing, mommy?”  “I don’t know, honey.  I wasn’t paying attention.” Instead I scroll though post after post on Facebook.  I stop when I see one about the virus, when I see one about the baby.  I read it and feel it sewing the sides of my rib cage together, the tightening of uncertainty.  When will it be over? Will this last forever?

After my daughter was born, I was diagnosed with PPD, PPPTSD, PPA, and PPOCD.  Four acronyms, but one feeling.  One ghost, drifting through her days. One shadow, drawn in tears.

COVID-19 is it’s own ghost, invisible, but we all know it is there.

The afternoons are the hardest.  I’m at my worst.  Most days I feel like I am giving my ghost a piggy back ride, dragging her around the house by her ankles, asking her again and again to please leave me, but she doesn’t listen.  Most days, I curl around my daughter for a nap in my king sized bed.  I leave the window open and a warm breeze blows the blinds and taps them against the window.  I feel the softness of my daughter’s blond hair pressed against my lips.  Sometimes I sleep and she doesn’t.  She wakes me up, and my heart pounds, I feel dizzy.  Where am I?  What day is today?

After nap, I feel like I’m just waiting to sleep again.  Am I awake?  I feel raw on all my edges.  My nerves jitter around in my body.  So many sounds: squeaks and screams and crashes. My daughters’ sticky hands and sticky faces grab my hands and my clothes, wrap around my neck.  They run wild, play aggressively, fall and cry, and fall and cry.  They are all scraped knees and off the wall ideas.  I look out the window again and again.  Is my mom’s car in her driveway?  Should we get in the car and drive somewhere? I crave talking to another adult.  Out in our shared yard, my mom and I talk about the news of the day, what will happen next, what did the girls do today, as we pick up weeds from the driveway, water the plants, sit six feet apart in chairs.  My youngest always runs right up to her grandma, “No, June. Space.  The virus.”  They have seen her, hugged her, kissed her goodnight almost every day of their short lives. When we go inside, some nights I break. I scream at the top of my lungs in the middle of the kitchen.  I sob until I can’t breathe.  I kick around the toys on the floor, the trash, the crumbs sticking to the bottoms of my feet.  Some nights I am even, Zen almost. Numb.  We laugh at the dinner table, play Bob Marley and Elton John, have dance parties, read books, snuggle and eat chocolate. When I look in the mirror, my face is the ghost’s.

Every night it seems we go to bed later.  The sun lingers.  It is almost summer.  It is mid summer. It is the heat of the longest of summers. Some of the voices on the news wonder if the heat will kill the virus, render it dormant, but it doesn’t hibernate.  It still lurks in our breath, on our fingertips.

My firstborn came in the summer.  One afternoon in July, I swaddled her up and put her into her rocker.  She fell asleep and I waited for her to jerk awake, like she always did.  Instead, she stayed quiet, and outside it began to rain, one of the early Monsoon storms that season.  I turned on Fleetwood Mac.  I was still.  I felt like I was flying.

One day while I am watering the bush in front of the house, a bird shoots out.  My mom tells me that she has seen the bird too.  “It must have a nest there.”  The next day, the kids and I trim back the bush.  “Don’t touch the clippers. Pick up the leaves.”  Eventually, we can see the nest near the edge of the bush, four tiny eggs inside.  “Don’t touch them,” I tell the girls, but later that afternoon, I find them in the front, hiding their hands behind their backs, a cracked piece of shell on the ground.  “I saw the tiny beak, mom,” my daughter tells me.  My heart cracks and fissures like the shell.  I hope that the mama will come back.  I tell my girl that the bird is dead; that cracking it’s shell killed the bird.  Her sister tells everyone, “The bird is dead, dead, dead.  Gracie killed the baby bird.”  “Stop it,” she shrieks, “they already know.”

The next day I go out and rustle the leaves on the bush.  The mother bird flies out and hops across the yard.  She came back.

Every morning my girls want to check on the eggs.  I feel like I am holding my breath.  I so badly don’t want them to be disappointed.  How much loss can any of us stand?

The ghost has felt the hot summer sun on her shoulders and the back of her neck.  She has felt the sting of the sweat running into her eyes. She watches like the mother bird, shooting out, anxious, to watch as giants hover over her babies, with their careless hands.  Those hands already took one of them. Will they take the others?

But they don’t.  The eggs hatch and the babies – two of them- are there in the nest, naked, tiny, eyes glued shut, organs and veins just visible under their translucent skin. They grow patches of feathers.  My daughters give them names: Tiny and Flower.  One day, one of them is gone, just a rustle in the bush.  I push the girls on the swing, my feet in the warm sand, and when we come back, both baby birds are gone.  Did a crow eat them?  A javelina? Did something invisible take them away?

There are orioles all over the yard.  Some days, we think we see the babies, slightly smaller than the others, eating at one of our feeders.  The girls stand at the window, yelling, “I see them! Tiny and Flower!”  I see them too, I think, and I almost believe it.  “I see them, too.” My ghost nods.

We leave the house just a little for a few warm weeks at the start of summer.  We go to the playground.  We play with friends. The kids are almost like kids again.  I start taking the baby places.  She is stronger, bigger.  They are the healthiest they have ever been.  While we are out, I feel alive.  When I come home to the house, I feel the energy drain out of my body.  The house is a succubus.  The ghost is always inside.

And the virus descends.  Overnight, eleven people die. I don’t know them, but I feel their loss.  Were they alone?  I know they were.

I can’t control it anymore.  The chaos descends.  Every day is a whirlwind, and I want to get back in bed as soon as I get out of it.  The laundry piles up, the floors are dirty, every thing is wet.  The clutter makes me crazy.  I throw things out with abandon.  We take out the trash again and again.  I rage.  I cry.  I laugh at my kids’ antics.  They start to talk like me, to become me.  I wait for night when they go to sleep.  When I can breathe.  The sun stays out and they go to bed later and later.  Will it end?

When I find out the kids will be going back to school, I am terrified and exhilarated at once.  This must be how the mother bird feels when her babies leave the nest?  The act of protecting them, of holding them under my soft belly, is exhausting.  But outside, there lurks the invisible danger of the virus, of the unknown, of the dark chasm of what the future will hold for them, for all of us.

The ghost sits down next to me on the couch, surrounded by the mess of the day.  She takes my hand.  We wait together.

Laura Cline is an English teacher at a community college with an MA in Literature from the University of Arizona. She has published both fiction and non-fiction, including an article about birds and babies at Motherwell, and an essay titled ‘Dear Left Big Toe‘ published in Entropy.

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

Rebecca Solnit’s story of  life in San Francisco in the 1980s is as much memoir as it is social commentary. Becoming an activist and a writer in a society that prefers women be silent is a central theme. If you are unfamiliar with Solnit’s work, this is a good entry point. If you are familiar with her writing, this is a must read as she discusses what liberated her as a writer when she was discovering herself as a person. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, writing

Permission to Speak

February 28, 2021
writing

By Abby Schwartz

I’m scrolling through Instagram while eating my oatmeal. It’s August 2019 and writer Cheryl Strayed has posted this announcement: I’ll be teaching a workshop at the @kripalucenter in April called The Story You Have To Tell. It’s for writers at all levels of experience—really it’s for anyone who wants to crack it open to get at the good stuff inside…All you need to bring is a notebook and pen. I hope to see you there!

I’m frozen mid-spoonful, her words an electric jolt to my heart. I recognize this as a moment to seize without overthinking.

I respond to the post: @cherylstrayed your words always inspire me to be brave and authentic so I am going to push aside my fear of going this alone and sign up. Thank you!

I am thrilled when, moments later, Cheryl likes my comment and responds: @abbys480 You’ll make friends!

I’ve been a professional copywriter for 20 years, though I started in advertising as an art director. Back then, we worked in teams—an art director paired with a writer—or with the entire creative department in one room, scribbling ideas with black Sharpies and tacking them to the wall. Brainstorming was energizing; we fed off one another. When our sessions got long we grew punchy, our ideas verging on the absurd. You could hear our roars of laughter down the hall.

What I miss about those days is the camaraderie. Though our group was competitive—each determined to be first with the winning idea—we supported one another, celebrated our wins and created a safe space where no idea was off limits.

Even as an art director, I approached each concept through words, crafting a headline before giving thought to the visuals. My creative director Tom was one of the original Mad Men, a copywriter who worked at some of the biggest Madison Avenue firms in the sixties before starting his own Philadelphia agency. He pulled me aside one day and told me I was a good writer, that he could see me writing a book one day. His validation lit something in me. I tucked his words inside—a glowing coal that kept me warm.

At my therapist’s I tell Dr. G. about registering for Cheryl Strayed’s writing workshop. She can see how excited I am and thinks this is a wonderful idea. She tells me, “You are someone who is open to trying new things and is enthusiastic about them.”

I like viewing myself through this lens. I’ve only recently begun the work of unpacking the fear and anxiety I’ve stuffed deep down to avoid facing those feelings head-on. I sought therapy because trauma will find its way to the surface; in my case I was spiraling emotionally, grasping at any semblance of control over my daughter’s life now that she was a young adult, her health no longer mine to manage.

Since being blindsided by her diagnosis of cystic fibrosis 20 years earlier, I’ve lived in a state of hypervigilance—on high alert for the next lung infection, medical complication, hospital admission and worse.

In my early days of therapy, we talked about my childhood. The third youngest, I watched my older brother and sister fight with our mother, whose short fuse could detonate at any moment. I navigated those years with my ears finely tuned to detect a tone of voice, a slammed door, a heavier footstep—clues that my mom’s mood had taken a turn. I learned to keep a low profile and stay off her radar. I remember hovering silently outside my parents’ bedroom late one night, having just thrown up in my bed. I needed help but was scared to wake my mom. I stood in their doorway, willing my dad to notice me first. Afraid to use my voice.

In therapy, I discovered that the hypervigilance I had assumed was born of my daughter’s illness had roots that ran deeper. My state of high alert was my mode of self-protection growing up. But here’s the thing about being on high alert: when your guard is constantly up, it’s like living behind a wall. It’s hard to connect to others from behind a wall.

I rely on written words to create order in my life. On paper, my thoughts line up obediently, no longer tumbling inside my head like clothes in a dryer.

In my early thirties, when my daughter was diagnosed, writing was how I grabbed the reins to keep us from hurtling off a cliff. I wrote heartfelt letters to raise money for CF research and crafted emails that explained the disease to her teachers. I began documenting each doctor’s appointment, lab result and breathing test in a notebook. I created lists and charted her therapies. My child needed more than a dozen prescription drugs a day to keep her alive. Writing kept me vigilant and prevented details from slipping through the cracks.

Soon after, I left my corporate advertising job to start a freelance healthcare marketing business, and I added copywriting to my creative services. My crash course in managing a chronic illness had given me an insider’s perspective on the patient experience and I recognized that there was value in what I had to say.

There is power in naming things and using words to define yourself. I had been secretly keeping that warm coal of encouragement from my creative director glowing for years, but it was only after I spoke the words out loud, I am a writer, that I stepped more fully into that identity. Still, I remained one step removed from telling my own story.

Though I write professionally, I’m not writing as myself. I am a surgeon explaining breast reconstructive techniques after mastectomy. I am a patient describing his recovery from stroke. I am a hospital president congratulating her staff for earning national recognition.

Many years ago, I was contacted by Roland M, a bestselling writer who was working on an article for the Philadelphia Inquirer about cystic fibrosis. Mine was one of several families he profiled. Roland’s daughter had also been recently diagnosed, and we became long-distance friends, keeping in touch by email.

A few years later, he wrote a novel about a young woman with cystic fibrosis. As part of his research, he stayed with my family overnight—our first in-person meeting—and came along to a pulmonology checkup. He asked if I’d be willing to share notes about my experience and I remember the thrill of the invitation—permission to tell my story.

I wrote pages and pages, the words flowing like water. When I lived it I couldn’t write about it, but now it was all pouring out. After all, this was only for research—I was simply providing background for the real writer. What I secretly wished was this: that Roland would share my writing with his agent, who would call and offer me a book deal. You have a story to tell, he would say. The world needs to hear it.

In my early forties, I responded to a call for writers and became a regular guest blogger for a website about hooping. The hula kind. Blogging for Hooping.org was a way to scratch my creative writing itch. I had been bitten by the hooping bug and in a fog of euphoria, I enrolled in Hoop Camp, a three-day gathering of hula hoopers held annually in the redwoods of Northern California. A Hoop Camp virgin, I would document my experience for the blog. I brought my sister Sue along for company and a shot of courage.

On our first day, I looked around and regretted my decision. I didn’t fit in with these younger women and men with their toned and tattooed bodies, multiple piercings and outlandish costumes. Yes, I could keep a hoop spinning, but these people were Cirque du Soleil-good—light years more advanced in their hoop-dance skills. I felt myself shrinking self-consciously.

That evening, I introduced myself to a group of women and something shifted. They recognized my name and told me they were fans of my writing—that my posts were relatable and authentic. I beamed. For the rest of Hoop Camp, I felt like I belonged. I participated in workshops by day and uploaded a new column each night. Sharing my experiences through the eyes of a journalist lent legitimacy to my presence. Writing granted me permission to try, fail, and look foolish. Nora Ephron famously stated, “Everything is copy.” Today’s embarrassing gaffe would be recast as tomorrow’s humorous story.

I am hoping to find similar inspiration from Cheryl Strayed’s workshop at Kripalu. Perhaps my experience navigating the trauma of a child’s life-threating illness could be transformed through writing into a story of hope. In her book, Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown writes about the power of art. In this excerpt she is speaking about music, but it applies equally to writing:

“Art has the power to render sorrow beautiful, make loneliness a shared experience, and transform despair into hope…Music, like all art, gives pain and our most wrenching emotions voice, language, and form, so it can be recognized and shared. The magic of the high lonesome sound is the magic of all art: the ability to both capture our pain and deliver us from it at the same time…The transformative power of art is in this sharing…It’s the sharing of art that whispers, ‘You’re not alone.’”

Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild, is what first put her on my radar, but it’s Tiny Beautiful Things, her collection of advice columns, that I turn to repeatedly for solace. Her voice is a whisper in my ear letting me know that even when life is brutal, I am not alone.

I’ve been obsessed with reading my entire life. Books have been my doorway to escape, enlightenment and connection to the human experience. As a little girl I read under my covers, a flashlight clutched in one hand, on high alert for footsteps on the stairs, terrified of being caught by my mother awake past my bedtime.

Reading transported me to distant places, parallel universes containing other lives I might have lived. In sixth grade, when I discovered Judy Blume, the telescope flipped and I was the one who felt seen. I’d never before read an author who spoke to me in such a real and personal way. Judy had a way of validating the awkwardness of adolescence and normalizing the things we’ve all felt and done but didn’t dare speak of out loud.

As a teenager, books allowed me to connect with my mother. An avid reader, she’d take me to our local library where we’d collect our haul for the week. She’d hand me books that she loved, further expanding my world. When I toyed with the idea of being a veterinarian, she introduced me to James Herriot’s series about his life as a country vet in England. She put a copy of The Thorn Birds in my hand during my freshman year of high school and I swooned over the epic, forbidden love story. We passed Sydney Sheldon thrillers back and forth and shared trashy novels by Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz.

Even at my lowest, when my daughter was hospitalized, books provided a lifeline. I’d lie awake in the dark on the stiff vinyl daybed, reading by flip-light as the night nurse drifted in and out of our room to check vitals and reset the beeping IV pump. I seized on memoirs, looking for proof that humans were resilient. If that writer could survive her own trauma to reflect on it today, maybe I could get through the uncertainty of these days and tell my own story in the future.

Cheryl’s workshop, The Story You Have To Tell, will be my way in—the tool I use to drill past the protective barriers I erected in my mind; the walls preventing me from writing about the most defining moments of my life. Through memoir, I want to process my experiences in order to transform them. To reframe the narrative in a way that allows me to see myself not only as the timid child and the anxious mother, but as the strong and resilient woman who found beauty amidst the pain. And just like the writers who made me feel seen, I want to be that person beaming out signals in the night. Reaching the person who lies awake in the dark, seeking solace by flashlight.

My weekend at Kripalu is six weeks away. I wonder how many people will be there? I call the venue and ask. Over 200. This is a disappointing development.

In my fantasy, our group is small, maybe 30 max. I read my work out loud and Cheryl praises it. She pulls me aside after class to tell me I have real talent. We hit it off over dinner, bonding over conversations about her late mom and my late dad. We talk about books and dogs and kids. We stay in touch. She becomes my writing mentor and recommends my new memoir to her followers, catapulting it to the top of The New York Times bestseller list. She introduces me to her writer friends—modern-day Judy Blumes whose words are a balm to my soul: Liz Gilbert, Pam Houston, Glennon Doyle. They welcome me to their circle. Reese Witherspoon chooses my memoir for her book club, as does Oprah (as long as I’m fantasizing).

Cheryl’s workshop will be page one of a new chapter in my life. The spark of permission granted by my former creative director has fanned into a roaring flame. Now that the workshop is 200 people, my writing had better be damn good to stand out.

It’s now late March 2020. Cystic fibrosis is primarily a lung condition and this novel coronavirus poses a direct threat to my daughter’s life. Cheryl Strayed’s workshop has been a beacon calling to me for the better part of a year, but that no longer matters. Kripalu is a yoga center built on communal gatherings. To expose myself to large numbers of people from all over the world is to put my child at risk. According to the cancellation policy, I have a two-week window in which to cancel and get a refund. I make the decision to pull the plug. Two days later, Kripalu cancels the retreat and shuts its doors for the foreseeable future.

To say I’m disappointed is an understatement. I had psyched myself up to push beyond my fears, befriend a group of strangers, and—inspired by Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly—embrace vulnerability by exposing my insides through writing. It’s now up to me to keep that flame alive.

Today is the day I would have driven to Kripalu. These weeks of quarantine have been stressful, pushing my brain into fight-or-flight response. Still, I recognize that we are in the middle of something historic and I decide to start journaling again as a way of processing my emotions and capturing these extraordinary moments in real-time.

I pull a Moleskine notebook off my shelf but before I write, I reach for my phone and scroll to Facebook. I’m not sure what compels me to check my newsfeed at this moment. I see a post about a project called The Isolation Journals. I click to the page and read the description: A global movement cultivating community and creativity during hard times.

TIJ is a 30-day project conceived by Suleika Jaouad, a writer and memoirist who wrote her way through cancer in her twenties. For the month of April Suleika is offering a daily writing prompt, with help from a talented pool of writers, artists and musicians. The prompts can be used for journaling on our own or we may share our writing on the private Facebook page.

I begin reading people’s posts. I write an essay and upload it. Within minutes it receives a handful of likes and positive comments. Fueled, I start writing daily and interacting with others, offering feedback and support.

We begin to know each other. We remark on the safety we feel sharing intimate thoughts in this private space. Day by day, more people join. This space feels sacred. There are no trolls, political rants or snarky memes. There are raw, painful posts about grief and shame and loss. There are beautiful essays about love and life and what it feels like to blindly feel our way through the long days of quarantine. There are hilarious parodies, song lyrics and experimental poems—the talent on these pages shines brightly. We are tender with one another. We encourage and celebrate each revelation and, word by word, we build a community. I imagine Cheryl Strayed whispering encouragement in my ear. @abbys480 You’ll make friends!

By popular demand Suleika expands The Isolation Journals from 30 days to 100. My writing muscles are not only warmed up, they grow stronger each day of this project. I write about growing up with a tough mom. I post tributes to my loving dad and share what it was like to lose him to cancer. I open up about my daughter’s illness and my fear of her dying young.

As a little girl, my mother would say to me, “Will you just be quiet? Stop talking so much.” She taught me that to speak is to invite criticism and conflict.

I am no longer that child who needs permission to speak. I have learned the power of words as a tool for transformation and connection. With every prompt I am strengthening my voice and taking a sledgehammer to those interior walls. I am, in Cheryl’s words, Telling The Story I Have To Tell to a global community more than 7,000 strong.

Abby Alten Schwartz is a self-employed copywriter, designer and healthcare marketing consultant who lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An avid reader, she loves memoirs and nonfiction essays and has always dreamed of writing her own. It only took a global pandemic to get her started. She is currently at work on a memoir and can be found on Instagram at @abbys480

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

Rebecca Solnit’s story of  life in San Francisco in the 1980s is as much memoir as it is social commentary. Becoming an activist and a writer in a society that prefers women be silent is a central theme. If you are unfamiliar with Solnit’s work, this is a good entry point. If you are familiar with her writing, this is a must read as she discusses what liberated her as a writer when she was discovering herself as a person. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Birds

February 22, 2021
paper

By David Simmons

We ran so fast I almost lost my schizophrenia papers. I hadn’t slept in days so my shoes were soggy and the footfalls sounded like wet sacks of chili hitting the sidewalk.

Chauncey yells out behind me, “Hold up bruh, you dropped your schizophrenia papers!”

I keep running, my sneakers splattering across the block. I bend the corner at 15th and Center Street, keep going, Chauncey catching up to me.

Americans are stupid. They’re stupid because sixty-four percent of Americans think schizophrenics have split personalities. I don’t have split personalities. I barely have one personality, but then again, I don’t actually have schizophrenia.

I just have the papers for it. They give them to you when you have nowhere to go.

Sometimes you can’t go straight home from prison, especially if you don’t have a home. If you can’t provide an address, they make you check in with the Department of Behavioral Health in that big, menacing, dystopian-future building on E Street. There’s this guy who works there, Tayvon Lancaster, Lannister, something like that. The guy’s got this big, swollen belly that sits like a bowling ball beneath his bird chest. Guy wears his slacks with the front pleats over his distended stomach, stuffs the bloated thing underneath the waistline of his pants. Then he gets one of those braided belts, like the kind Salvadorian children wear to church, and he wraps it around the whole mess. The whole get up makes him look like a tall humpty dumpty.

So this guy—Tayvon Lancaster, Lannister, something like that—is the one who does your orientation. He says community college criminology degree buzz words like “reintroduction” and “reintegration ” and how “it can be difficult for one to adapt to living with others after being institutionalized.” At this point you feel like if anybody is familiar with the social etiquette that is required for living with others, it would be you, so you tune the bastard out and eye-fuck his tumescent belly.

Tayvon Lancaster, Lannister, something like that; he takes you to the psych doc because you have to see the shrink before they can discharge you. The doctor looks like broccoli. She’s tall and shapeless, like two parallel lines drawn up into a grey poof of short, curly hair. Exactly like broccoli. She makes you do serial sevens, where you gotta count backwards from one hundred by seven.

She asks you what your ideal circumstances post-release are.

She wants to know if you have a poor sense of smell.

It’s difficult to answer the last question because how do you know if you have a poor sense of smell comparatively to anybody else? You can’t smell what they smell. And I can’t think of anything to tell her in response to the other question so I’m all, “I’d really just like a decent meal and a shower by myself.”

The doctor says, “What is your history of psychiatric hospitalizations? Have you ever been certified for treatment?”

“Yes,” I tell her.

“Do you hear things other people don’t hear or see things other people don’t see?”

“How could I know what other people don’t hear or don’t see? If I told you that I could you would say I was crazy for claiming to be a psychic. It’s lose-lose for me.”

The broccoli-looking doctor scribbles something down in her notepad.

“You wanna hear something that’s actually crazy?” I ask her.

She stops scribbling and looks up from the notepad.

“I totaled my first car three months after buying it with money I had saved up from working at Blockbuster and selling drugs,” I tell her. “It was a 1995 Lincoln Mark VIII. Midnight blue with the air suspension compressor. If that air ride shit ever broke, the repair bill would cost you more than the car was worth. After I crawled out of the sunroof of the vehicle, I looked up at the walls of the ditch I had crashed into. One by one, what must have been the lights in the windows of houses went on, surrounding me in yellow rectangles of light. One by one, a firetruck, an ambulance and a cop car pulled into what I soon discovered was a cul de sac in a residential neighborhood, meaning I had crashed my Lincoln into a ditch at the end of a cul de sac.”

“How did that make you feel?” the doctor asks.

“It was all very surreal. One minute I was on the highway and the next I was in a ditch or ravine or something. When the cop gets out of his car, the first he does is ask me if I like ice cream. He says to me, ‘Do you really like ice cream or something?’ He doesn’t even ask me for my license or registration. He just wants to know if I like ice cream. And I’m all like, ‘What does that even mean? Doesn’t everybody like ice cream?’ So then he’s like, ‘I just figured you really liked ice cream, you know, on account of your car and all.’ And I’m eighteen years old and disoriented from the crash and confused because this cop is asking me if I like ice cream. Why would he do that?”

“I don’t know why he would do that,” the doctor says. “Why do you think he would do that?”

“Well that’s just it, “ I say, raising my voice a little, “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I don’t know why he would do that. And what was it about the car I was driving that insinuated I liked ice cream? Was it the color?”

“Let’s move on. Do you feel that—”

I cut the doctor off. “Was it because I crashed the car into a ditch? I was barely an adult. I had just learned how to drive. And how does that relate to ice cream? It’s all I think about.”

“That was a very long time ago.”

“Time doesn’t change anything,” I tell her, sinking my body into the couch and crossing my arms. “Everything is inevitable. One day your parents picked you up, put you down, and never picked you up again.”

The doctor is writing something down on her yellow legal pad. I can see that she’s got a list of words in a vertical column going down the left side of the page. I can’t read the words but it looks like she’s putting some kind of symbols or marks to the right of the words. I decide to stop talking.

“If you see things people don’t see,” the broccoli doctor says, “are they in the periphery of your vision or in the center?”

I move my eyes from side to side and the top of my skull is electrified by a serotonin brain zap.

The doctor continues to vomit stock questions at me. “Do you see these things in daylight? Or only in the shadows?”

I tell her that everything I see is in the shadows and how the first time I smoked PCP with Chauncey I watched him cough up a piece of flesh. It was a slug-shaped thing, something pink and made of meat. She asks me if I’m thinking about hurting myself or others. I tell her how I picked up the slimy thing that Chauncey coughed up onto the street and put it in the fifth pocket of my jeans and saved it, in case it turned out he needed it. She asks me if I need any medication. I tell her how the skin of my hands are just gloves for my true hands. She writes me out prescriptions for Serequel, Risperdal, Lexapro, Zyprexa and some green papers with information about me that translates into a billable diagnosis or two for her.

And that’s how we ended up where we are now; Chauncey and I, running down Shattuck Avenue because we just robbed the Cheeseboard Collective; my schizophrenia papers flying out of the front pocket of my soggy hooded sweatshirt.

Schizophrenia papers. They give them to you with your medications. That way, if you get stopped somewhere by the police they don’t have as many questions for you. The papers explain it all. The papers are green and folded in half, then folded in half once more. The police still ask you plenty of questions, but not quite as many as they would if you were sans schizophrenia papers.

When the papers fly out of the front pocket of my hoody, they unfold, flapping in the wind like the wings of chartreuse birds. I spread my own wings and manifest thusly; spreading my blackened feathers across the sky as I take flight and disappear into the sinking California sun.

David Simmons paper

A portrait of the writer at work.

David Simmons spent his childhood within the juvenile justice system in various institutions and holding facilities. His work has been praised by D. Harlan Wilson, Brian Evenson and Snoop Dogg. He has been featured in the Washington Post, Prometheus Dreaming, 3 Moon Magazine, Across The Margin and the Washington City Paper. David lives in Baltimore with his wife and dog, where he is responsible for creating the colloquialism “Whole Time.”

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Rebecca Solnit’s story of  life in San Francisco in the 1980s is as much memoir as it is social commentary. Becoming an activist and a writer in a society that prefers women be silent is a central theme. If you are unfamiliar with Solnit’s work, this is a good entry point. If you are familiar with her writing, this is a must read as she discusses what liberated her as a writer when she was discovering herself as a person. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Therapist Notes from Coronavirus: It is OK to fall apart.

January 31, 2021
need

By Jillayna Adamson, MA, LPC, LMHC

2020.
Listen to all these people struggling! Are you getting this? People who have never before been able to admit to overwhelming defeat or depression or loneliness are talking about it. They are talking about it on Twitter, on Facebook. They are admitting to it in text messages and on the phone. People are checking in—people are calling and texting each other, they are reaching out. They are expressing understanding of struggle! Forgive my excitement, but are you seeing this widespread empathy? There is openness, understanding! Neighbors are saying to each other, “times are hard and how can I help”? My neighbor made me a latte! (sadly, I couldn’t actually drink it…because, you know- the virus). And with less judgement and reservation. Because they get it. We are getting it.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to every situation, and of course, the world is still full of lots of hatred and cruelty and stupidity—I know. But, I am also seeing this interesting surge of empathy and understanding within people. People are reaching out to each other, talking and opening up more than they previously were. Publically, even! The open communication and expression of such mental strife is a psychotherapist’s dream! We are struggling, don’t get me wrong—but we are also a little bit ecstatic.

The new culture of the coronavirus times are upon us. And there are so many ways in which it has been so painfully difficult. It is truly a new life. There are memes about it. And Tik Tok videos. There are cartoons with people disheveled, in bathrobes, their hair wiring out of their heads. There are calendar memes, a person slowly losing their composure. How their sanity has slipped from March to April to May to June to now… There are parenting how-to’s and mask-making how to’s and cooking how-to’s. There are articles reminding people that everyone is trying their best, making the best decision for their family. Reminding parents not to judge or shame one another for back to school decisions, to spread kindness or teachers and school personnel.

It is hard and it is stressful and some of us are barely hanging on—and wait! We are all talking about it! We aren’t quiet about it, we aren’t asking for anonymity. We are getting on Facebook and posting out our SOS to the world.

It just became okay to rest, to need to re-group. To need time on a deadline. To fall apart, just like humans do—pandemic or not. It just became normalized to outwardly admit to struggle, defeat, loneliness and not knowing. We have found ourselves thrown into an awful situation, but one that is also giving everyone the OK to be human. Never before have I heard so many people of a variety of backgrounds openly admit to and discuss struggle amongst one another— whether loneliness or depression, boredom, financial need, hunger, exhaustion. And I am talking about outside the therapy office. And never before have I heard so many platforms right there to normalize this, to join together. People who may have never struggled with their mental health before are learning the value and impact of some of our basic needs. They are saying “Wow, people really DO need other people! I always heard that, but I never quite believed it until I was living in my own pajamas and hadn’t seen another human in two months!”

A now-homeschooling parent tells me that she has “absolutely nothing left to give in the world” and is sure something is wrong with her emotional daughter. A woman calls to ask my advice, stating she has no idea how to even make the usual decisions anymore. “Is it possible I just need someone to decide things for me now? Can you do that?” she asks (I cannot). I know people regularly taking their children’s temperatures, checking for rashes, unable to sleep. I have read posts from people dealing with deep loneliness and isolation, overwhelm, depression. People from all walks are putting it out there, and others are sending them hearts and hugs and commenting that they get it. That they are struggling too. That it’s hard. That they are HERE!

We are being ravaged, and we are struggling. And 2020 has truly kept it coming. But we are showing up too. (You know, online, or with masks)

What we know about surviving difficult times is that we need to hold onto the aspects of hope, adaptation, and support. In hope, there is often some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. An idea of when this might end, get better, or at least moderately improve. We need to know that things will get better again. In adaptation, we make radical changes to our day-to-day and lifestyle to allot for the vast changes that have come at us. Of course, these have to be successful, positive adaptations. New routines, and activities, ways of socializing and being. New ways of thinking and seeing are all part of this adaptation. And then finally, we need to know we have support. Community, the knowing that we aren’t alone. That we have people we can talk to, help of some kind.

We recreate these things regularly. The cleaning adaptation. The TV isn’t really that bad adaptation. The Maybe I really could homeschool adaptation. The Let’s get a puppy and have something new to love adaptation. The hope of declining numbers, of successes in other countries. The hope of an evening walk or a relaxing bath, or a manageable day. Facetime and Zoom chats, new constant texting regimens, Facebook community groups. Drive-by-birthday parties, for gods sakes. Social distance kickball with masks and a mom doling out sanitizer.

The people are adapting. And continuing. As exhausting and overwhelming as it is, all you can do is keep going, right? With the awareness that some days will be write-offs. Some days you’ll need mental and emotional rest more than anything. The kids will watch tons of TV or play on their tablets. Everything you eat will be microwaved. Other days you might feel vague spurts of capability, and others you might feel good and able to take in positives in the change in pace. Some days, the best thing about your day will actually be ice cream, and you should absolutely have it. Actually, though—this is not that different from pre-Covid life. But Covid life brings it out, makes it right out there in the open—okay, normal. Productivity in our day to day lives, mental-emotional wellness, as well as social and community needs seem to have entered a new realm of understanding.

Before the virus hit, it was actually already okay to fall apart. To need and ask for help. To sometimes be a total disaster. But so many people struggled to believe and accept that. To allow themselves to wear the face of a person really freaking losing it. Mental wellness has really entered in as an every-human component of discussion and not just one for people with mental illness or specific diagnoses. That we are all struggling right here out loud may not seem like the silver lining anyone would be hoping for. But in the world of mental wellness, the opening up is a magic in and of itself, and the very foundation for change and reform.

The new habits of giving grace to ourselves and to others, of checking in, of loving, of being open about our struggles– could be so huge if they continued for our distanced culture. Imagine if we kept it going. Imagine a post-covid world where we are talking, where we are opening up, showing up—but in person, too. Maskless! When we can hug and touch each other on the arm casually! When we can care and fall apart without a pandemic background, and still let that be okay.

Jillayna Adamson (said Jill-anna) is a mother, psychotherapist and writer. She loves all things people, connection and culture, and is particularly interested in identity development and mental wellness within the psychosocial implications of the modern western world. Jillayna primarily writes personal essays and narratives, and writes often about the motherhood role and identity. She is a Canadian transplant currently living in the US with her partner and kids, and is a firm believer in letting your freak flag fly. She can be found at www.Jillayna.com

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We love this book for so many reasons! The writing is incredible, the story is important, and seeing what life looks like when you survive the unthinkable is transformative. If you haven’t already, please pick up a copy of Sanctuary, by Emily Rapp Black. If you have, we’d love to hear what you think. Purchase at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts

Gene(s)

December 28, 2020
gene

By Julianne Ho

“They have the best pork katsudon,” I told Gene, as if I were a true food connoisseur. We were walking through the prepared bentos section of Sunrise Mart, this tiny Japanese market on Stuyvesant Street. Conveniently situated across from my NYU dormitory on 3rd Avenue, it was one of my favorite places to grocery shop.

Our fellow dorm resident Eugenia, who had grown up in Japan, had vouched for their katsudons a month prior.

“Really?” he replied.

Perhaps Eugenia had already mentioned that to him too?

I looked past Gene’s handsome face, past his inquisitive brown eyes, which seemed to match his sandy brown hair, and his mouth, forever curved into a smirk when I was around, and squeezed into the cramped grocery aisles. I grabbed a package of nori and placed it gently into my shopping basket next to the bag of rice. It seemed like something Eugenia would have bought. I thought I caught him watching me, as I feigned interest in the various brands of bonito flakes before I decided to just check out with the nori and rice. I only knew of one dish that I can make decently with bonito flakes anyway, and I barely liked its taste.

***

Gene and I saw each other around NYU’s Alumni Hall, occasionally ran errands together, but we never went on a proper date. Once, he asked me to join him at Veselka, a Ukrainian restaurant in the East Village for pierogis, but I declined. I really should be studying, I told myself, instead of thinking about food or dating.

Every day during the spring of my junior year, I would bring my books to the dormitory TV lounge to study, and Gene would be there. Neither of us had TVs in our rooms. I knew studying in front of the television wasn’t the most effective use of my time, but I couldn’t help myself. I loved spending time with him.

“I can read the subtitles out loud while you study for the MCAT,” Gene offered one night from the couch in the TV lounge. “I love this movie. I want you to watch it with me.”

I was sitting at my regular study table near him. I’d just gotten back from a Kaplan MCAT Review session, but I still felt a compulsive need to study. The MCATs were coming up in a few weeks. As a pre-med student who was trying to enter medical school, I constantly felt guilty about how I spent my time. Any moment not spent studying led to extreme anxiety. Gene’s ability to watch foreign movies at ease seemed like a luxury to me.

My left ear itched so I scratched it absently as I answered, “Thanks, but I won’t retain anything from the movie or the MCAT books if you’re reading the subtitles out loud.”

I eyed him from the table where I sat with my books, and then compulsively gave my right ear a scratch for balance.

He read five minutes of subtitles for “The Vanishing” before giving up and watching the movie quietly as I worked on the practice test questions. I found his presence comforting.

***

“Eugenia is working on oil paintings today,” Gene informed me. “She offered to paint our portraits.”

I had heard that Eugenia and Gene were probably dating. Since they were just rumors, I had allowed myself to believe that they weren’t. Plus, Gene and Eugenia never indicated to me that they were seeing each other.

Eugenia’s father owned a successful appliance company in Asia that did business with major companies in the U.S. She had extra canvases, like the lots of other extra things that she owned. And she was also habitually sweet and generous. She had suggested that I paint something also. I was too self-conscious about my lack of artistic ability so I painted some leaves. I told her I didn’t want to waste her canvases. I had trouble finding storage space for her finished pieces so Gene offered to store them in his dad’s office in the city. I declined and ended up shipping them back to my parents’ house.

***

Gene and I were standing next to each other in an elevator packed with people. I could smell the faint scent of the little clove cigarettes he liked to smoke. It was the end of my junior year, and my backpack was sitting uncomfortably on top of my shoes as we tried to cram in even more passengers.

He had recently told me that he had a TV in his room this whole time, and that he just enjoyed hanging out with me in the TV lounge.

“I’m thinking about transferring to McGill in Montreal,” Gene told me, his voice muffled by the head of the man in front of us. “What do you think?”

Stunned by his sudden news, I held myself still, then shifted my weight, and the forgotten backpack at my feet tumbled a little bit as I mumbled, “McGill’s a good school. And you’ll be closer to your family.”

I couldn’t be honest with him. I couldn’t tell him I didn’t want him to go. I stooped a little in order to fumble with my backpack. Why were there so many people around? Couldn’t they mind their own business?
I suspected that some of the people in the elevator were watching so I stuck out my hand for a handshake instead of hugging him good-bye. Maybe some of the eavesdropping elevator passengers murmured, but I couldn’t be sure as I had kept my head down, trying to seem distracted by my backpack. Gene looked surprised, shook my hand, and when the elevator doors opened onto his floor, he said goodbye. I never saw him again.

***

“I think they are out to destroy my medical career,” I whispered to my mother. We were standing in a terminal at LAX airport where this distinguished, elderly couple had been seated across from us for a while. I had just graduated from college in May 1999 and hadn’t gotten into any medical school. Two had waitlisted me but ultimately rejected me. I was sure the couple were spies who had plotted with those medical schools to end my potentially prestigious and promising career, as I would later be convinced that the solo passenger seated behind us on the plane had done. As I filled my mother in on their plot to destroy my precious career, I switched to a different Chinese dialect to throw off the suspicious-looking couple and glared, since they had been staring at me.

I hadn’t slept nor showered for two weeks. My exhausted mother nodded. By then, she would have said anything to get me on the plane headed to the Pittsburgh, to the home of my dad’s psychiatrist colleague and good friend. My parents didn’t want me to see the psychiatrists in Los Angeles. If I were hospitalized in the Los Angeles community my dad practiced medicine in, people might gossip.

I didn’t know what a psychotic break was or whether the doctor in Pittsburgh was right or wrong about me. All I really wanted was for him to help me figure out whether people were really out to ruin my career or whether I just needed to study harder.

***

I had gained about forty pounds within a month or so of taking a combination of various prescription medications. At twenty-three years old, I had been rejected by twenty-five different medical schools in two sequential admissions cycles.

Despite my parents’ efforts, I was eventually hospitalized in Los Angeles in the year following Pittsburgh. But even before my hospitalization, I had started using food as a salve. My mother would watch me in disapproving silence whenever I sat at my parents’ table for dinner and shoveled noodles into my mouth.

“I’m already fat,” I would say, if she dared suggest I’d had enough. “Just let me eat what I want before I die so that I can have a little bit of happiness in my life.”

My mother looked alarmed and pained, but she still refused to ask me the obvious question: Do you really want to die? Because for me to verbalize my suicidal thoughts could mean that they could actually happen.

So she watched me eat so many excessive dinners in disapproving silence that, seven years later, by the time I was thirty, I was morbidly obese: 5’1” and well over 200 pounds.

***

Several years ago, I found Gene’s profile on Facebook and sent him a friend request. He did not recognize me from my profile picture because of the weight I gained. He sent me a message to ask whether I was the long-lost friend who painted the three beautiful portraits of him that still hung on his wall.

I told him that was Eugenia. I painted the leaves.

I thought about reminding him about me, his friend who studied like a maniac for the MCATs and pretended to know a lot about all sorts of foods, but I couldn’t find the right words. Instead, I told him that I missed him and appreciated his friendship, but he didn’t reply. Maybe because my confession came decades too late, I failed to become part of the memories of his time in New York. Maybe he forgot me because I never did anything that was worth remembering. I wondered if he really forgot, or if my memory was faulty. I wondered whether my perception was really so far off from reality.

***

When I returned to the NYU dormitory for my senior year of college, I had made a beeline for the TV lounge. I wanted to see Gene there, hoping that maybe he had forgotten that awkward handshake incident in the elevator, or perhaps had decided not to go to McGill. That maybe he would stay at NYU and finish out the following year with me. I waited and waited, but he did not appear.

That was also the year of the first round of medical school rejection letters. I thought about Gene and was grateful for his presence, the way he helped keep me calm, happy, and sane the year before all those rejections, the year before I felt like I started to lose everything, including my own sanity.

I thought about what my therapist said about how most people are not out to hurt others; that they were just doing the best they can. I thought about my own mistakes—my moods, flaws, and regrets – protracted silences, refusal to attempt portraiture, ignoring movie subtitles read aloud, and my cold elevator good-byes, and I realized that what my therapist said had been true.

***

Last fall, I went back to New York City for my 20-year college reunion. I had been residing in Los Angeles since college, with only occasional jaunts to the city. I knew I wouldn’t see Gene nor Eugenia at the reunion as they didn’t graduate with my class, but I would often think of them whenever I visited. On the last day of that reunion trip, I stopped by Washington Square to listen to the street musicians play their instruments by the fountain. I ambled by my old NYU dormitory to admire the building’s orange and gray façade, watched as the crisp autumn leaves fell from the surrounding trees, and then stopped into Veselka in the East Village to eat a plateful of potato and cheese pierogis. And by the time I flew back home to Los Angeles, I finally felt like I had said a proper good-bye.

Julianne Ho lives in Los Angeles and is a first-generation Taiwanese-American. She works as a financial manager for UCLA and enjoys arts & crafts and watching Hulu. Being solitary these past months and having those fears realized, it has helped her see how strong she can be and that being alone is not so bad.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

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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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, postpartum depression

A Mother’s First Check-Up

October 27, 2020
wrong

By Christina Baquero Dudley

In a review of the facts surrounding my entry into motherhood, all of the signs for depression are waving furiously at me. I look at that 25 year old woman and want to hold her tightly, ask her to tweak this here, turn this there. Ask for more time off, give up the breastfeeding on day one, lose the expectations. But she lives inside of me, and has brought me here. So the facts remain.

My first child was not an easy baby. He wasn’t a difficult baby either, and could generally be soothed by my husband or another family member. I had him on a Friday and my husband returned to work the very next Tuesday. He was a very poor sleeper and had terrible gas. His first 4+ hour stretch of sleep occurred around 8 months old. By then I had been back to work for 6 months, a blur of existence that I don’t even recall today.

In the early days my son and I did not bond. I would often look at him, just the two of us at 3 in the morning and resent how he cried. I sometimes wondered what it would be like if I never had a child at all. Late night feedings and the looming end of my maternity leave would create panic. I couldn’t sleep when the baby slept like all the books said. I hated holding him. Every time I finally settled him down to nap I immediately wished he would sleep forever. When he awoke, I hated the sound of his cry. A cold chill would race up my spine and raise the hairs on the back of my neck. I’d become stiff and resentful, counting down the minutes until he would sleep again.

Compounding the issue of my growing resentment for his existence, was the increasing disdain I had for my breasts. I felt completely tethered to this child and never once looked into his eyes while feeding. I never experienced a connection with him while breastfeeding. Dealing with overproduction issues, a condition that a modern woman should never complain about, meant that I was constantly wet, engorged, or filling up. Physical comfort was rarely available. And it was all because of this being I so desperately wanted but unexpectedly despised.

If I sound like a terrible mother, I assure you that I believed I was one too. The moment these “dirty” thoughts entered my mind I immediately snatched them back up and turned them inward. Everyone seemed to love my son, especially my husband. He had no problem soothing him and even made it a point to tell me so. It didn’t take long before I realized there wasn’t something wrong with this baby, but there was certainly something wrong with me.

I was a bad mother. A bad person – no, a horrible person. I was undeserving, unworthy, ungrateful, unloving. At my 6 week check up with my OBGYN, I worked up the courage to explain to him that breastfeeding was not going well, I was not okay mentally, and I would like a permanent form of birth control so that I would never have this experience again. He didn’t say much. He just looked at me as tears rolled down my face, scribbled some words on a prescription pad, and called in the nurse. He said that she could talk to me about what I was going through. In the two minutes it took for her to enter the exam room, I sucked every tear back into my body. When she approached, she put a gentle hand on my shoulder, and rather than asking her for help I asked if I could have the piece of paper he left. She handed it to me, I glanced down, making out the word Zoloft. I shoved it into my diaper bag and darted out of the room, never telling her what I told him.

In fact. it would be 2 years before I told another person about what I was feeling.

This pain.

This hurt.

This postpartum experience.

Christina Baquero Dudley is a writer of poems and narrative essays exploring the American feminist perspective as the daughter of an immigrant. She earned her BA in Psychology from UT Austin and has worked in public mental health organizations serving adults with severe and persistent mental illness. These experiences inform her writing and her heart. Christina is a contributor to A Room of Our Own Foundation and has been published in Matilda Butler’s award winning anthology TALES OF OUR LIVES – Fork in the Road. She is currently working on her first book, a poetry collection exploring her heritage, femininity, and personal awakening.

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Guest Posts, motherhood

Treasure

May 28, 2020
breathe

By Shannon Lange

He arrived in December of 1987, 4 days before my 23rd birthday.

Tufts of downy black hair sticking up all over his perfect-shaped head, arms pin-wheeling, and fists tightly curled; prepared to fight right from the moment of his birth.

Those early moments and hours of watching his every movement and mood in wonder and fear-emotions in tandem. Flowing from one to the other with every breath we both took and knowing deep inside myself that nothing this beautiful and perfect can last forever. Keeping my face close to his, imbibing in the sweet scent of his neck and feeling tears run down my face as I whispered sweet nothings and loving promises into his tiny seashell ears, with the baby fuzz still intact on the tops of them.

🙢

He calls me one morning a few months back, on a work day. That in and of itself, startles me and immediately causes my stomach to clench and my hands to shake a bit as I grab my phone. My sons are of the generation that text primarily. They send funny memes to me as a means of checking in every few days, but often send them with no personal messages at all- the millennial version of Sunday dinner, I guess.

“Mom- I can’t breathe- something is wrong with me and I’m really fucking scared.”

“What do you mean you can’t breathe? What is going on, where are you, are you ok?”

“Mom, my chest feels tight and hurts and my fingers feel numb and tingly and I feel like I’m going crazy. I am sitting in the parking lot of a strip mall by work and I can’t work today. I can’t be alone and I have my girlfriend’s car and I need to pick her up at the airport in a few hours and I don’t know what to do!”

I tell him that I don’t have my own car on this particular day, as I have given it his younger brother to use. I ask if he wants me to call an ambulance, and I listen to his shaky uneven breathing as he tries to decision-make in the thick of whatever is occurring inside of his body and his brain.

“ I will drive to your place- I’ll be there in 20 minutes, Mom- I can’t be alone. I need you.”

I tell him that he can’t possibly drive in the state he is in, that I want him to stay on the phone with me and breathe, while I use my mother-voice to hopefully calm him down.

He hangs up on me halfway through, telling me he is on his way.

I promise myself that I will not call him back within the next 20 minutes, as I know he will be on at least 2 freeways driving towards my home in the burbs, and that if I call him, he WILL answer the call.

🙢

We are off to the Pediatrician’s office for the 4th time within a 2 month period between his 2nd and 3rd birthdays. He has turned into a daredevil and a constant whirling dervish of energy and impulsivity. He is prone to wildly jumping off furniture and picnic tables and the trunks of people’s cars and from branches of trees that should be light years away from his reach or climbing skills.

His first concussion is still 3 years in his future; his second 4 years ahead.

The pediatrician assesses him for lumps and bumps, bruises and contusions, and then suggests I keep a better eye on him and to hide anything cape-like in appearance, as these mishaps have a common denominator- the capes he ties around his neck. Capes made of tea towels primarily, which I tie or pin on autopilot for him when he brings them to me. I am distracted by his younger brother’s colicky wails during these months, and feel gratitude that he can amuse himself so well in his imaginary pleasures of being a superhero.

I cry tears of relief and shame all the way home from those visits to the pediatrician’s office with my son safely strapped into his car seat in the back of the car. He babbles non-stop in the car with me, telling me about Aladdin and Jafar, Littlefoot and Sara, Falkor and Bastion; also the old man next door that he talks to through the fence in the backyard.

🙢

The year he is 13, the car I am driving is hit by a train and the memory of the scent of him as an infant swirls around me in the wreckage. I am transported back to the promises I made him, and the whispering of sweet nothings into his perfect seashell ears. I babble to myself incoherently and remind myself to breathe as I slither my broken body out the shattered window.

The memory of his scent and the promises made spur me toward survival.

🙢

Three Christmases ago, he is with me in my home. He works with children and youth who are taken into care due to neglect or abuses too horrific to share. He tells me he is on call and will need to step out of the room to privacy if the cell phone he’s holding rings. It rings over and over that day, a constant background sound to the day’s festivities. He is absent more than he is present that day. Even when he is in the rooms with us all, he is not there. His brow is furrowed and he is deep within himself.

He leaves his plate of food mostly untouched and I watch the gravy on the plate in front of his empty chair turn to a gelatinous sludge, while sipping wine.

I make the mistake of commenting that he maybe should have skipped coming, as he has been so preoccupied and absent most of the day- that he couldn’t have possibly enjoyed the gathering.

“Mom, there is an infant that is one day old that is going to be taken away from its mother this evening. I have been on the phone with police and child services and coworkers and hospital social workers, coordinating the details and logistics. I am sorry I ruined your holiday.”

I sit in the chair after he leaves, and feel tears of shame and regret snake their way down my face in the dark like they did all those years ago.

🙢

The year he is 7, he ends up with strep infection and goes into a delirium state. I pull him into the bed beside me, and feel the burning heat coming from within his thin body. I rock him a bit, feeling his rigid limbs slowly relax against the softness of my stomach.  He eventually drifts off into fever dreams and upon awakening, tells me stories of pirate ships and buried treasures and makes me pinky swear I will always remember the location of the buried treasures. He says he will not remember it when we really need it when the bad times come.

He tells me he can save me with the treasures he will bring me.

🙢

The summer of his 13th year, while I recuperate from the accident, he works full time landscaping. We are living in an apartment, with no air conditioning, in the midst of a heat wave. My mother far away has taken my younger son for the summer; I am unable to care for him properly in my broken state.

He goes to work at 6 in the morning and doesn’t come home until the evening, working long hours in the heat like a man, coming home with brown skin and hair bleached by the hot sun.

He asks for my bank card and runs across the street to buy hot dogs or pizza pops or bacon- anything he can find at the convenience store that will feed us both for dinner.

He never complains, cooks for us both and then falls into his bed to rest for the next day.

He tells me that we need to talk about how often I am taking the pain pills and we make a plan together for me to wean myself off of them safely.

I begin to heal.

🙢

He arrives at my home the day of his breakdown and I sit with him.

I bring him cool water and stroke his hair and encourage him to breathe, while I strap my blood pressure cuff to his arm. I watch the numbers on the machine go higher and higher and higher, but tell him in a calm voice that everything will be ok, and just breathe.

My eyes fill with tears he cannot see as the numbers on the machine blur into the ages that my father and my brother died from heart attacks.

He worries about letting the children and his coworkers down and I remind him to breathe.

He worries about picking his girlfriend up at the airport in 3 more hours and I remind him to breathe.

He apologizes for scaring me and bringing his troubles my way and I notice that we are breathing together in perfect sync – slow life-sustaining breaths together.

I take him to my doctor across the street from my home and he tells him it is anxiety and lack of sleep and that he will be ok.

He sits with us both and reassures us that this too shall pass.

🙢

The year he is 15, we have a stupid argument over him not cleaning up after himself.

He is a man now physically and feeling ten feet tall and bulletproof as only teenaged boys can.

He has started to lip me back when I scold him about things and I sometimes search desperately to see even a trace of my baby in his angular features. I need it to remind myself that this isn’t some random male yelling in my house. I am mostly angry that year, for a variety of reasons, most of them having nothing to do with him or his brother. I am in school trying to better myself and my earning potential for all of us, and worrying constantly about keeping food in the house for my sons.

I decide to employ the silent treatment on him, and I go 24 hours or more without speaking to him.

I walk past him in the hall and the kitchen and do not respond to him when he speaks to me.

I am on the computer in the spare room when he walks in and approaches me.

It feels like a Mexican stand-off- him looking tearfully into my eyes and me looking back at him coldly.

“Mom, I can’t take you not speaking to me- it reminds me of when you had your accident and everyone said you were going to die. This is what it would have felt like living without you.”

I took him in my arms on that day and held on for dear life, thinking about the treasures he told me about all those years ago, how he knew he would save me someday, how it all came to pass.

Shannon Lange is an emerging writer and who has worked in healthcare for the last 25 years. She is also the mother of two adult sons, one a film maker, and the other a musician. Shannon and her family value creativity in its many forms, and her dream is to be able to write full time. 

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Guest Posts, Self Care

Madame Defarge in the age of Corona

March 29, 2020
knitting

By Caroline Leavitt

Years ago, in 2004, while my husband Jeff and I were sitting watching the election returns, I was stress knitting in terror. That evening, I made twelve (I’m not kidding) fingerless mitts that I, always the writer, embroidered with the words Hope on the left hand, Love on the right.

It didn’t help. Bush won. Crying, I wrapped up all those mitts and sent them to the friends I had made them for with a note: Maybe next time will be better.

Next time isn’t better. The next election, a day before I am due to go out on Book Tour, for a new novel, Cruel Beautiful World,  about how the world drastically changed from the late sixties to the early seventies, my world drastically changes as well. Trump wins. I get on a plane and people are crying. I have two events, ticketed, $70 a pop and five people show up for the first, and only three for the second.

I keep writing. I keep hoping. I have a new novel coming out in August and I sold the one after that, too, though on a partial, so I have to write it. And as I hoped, this year is something very different, but not in a good way. Trump terror seeps into everything we hear and see and do. People worry that he might stop the elections, that he might make himself Emperor for life, which given his erratic sociopathic nature, is not implausible or impossible. A second term would be a disaster.

And then in the midst of this, sneaking in on little virus feet, is Corona.

I live in the NYC area, and things are quietly surreal. On the subway, I actually can hear the usually garbled announcement which urges everyone to wash their hands, to cough into their elbows, to not panic. Don’t panic. Don’t Panic. Don’t Panic.

Panic.

Of course we all do. A man coughing in the subway is glared at. More and more people are wearing masks. I try not to touch the poles, to keep my hands away from my face. For the first time in years, I am not biting my nails. Stores are emptying out of goods and people. Things are being cancelled. Concerts and plays we had tickets for. A big event I had for my novel coming out in August. Gone. The Poets & Writers 50th anniversary extravaganza. Gone. Publishing houses are working at home. Even my cognitive therapist tells me we can do sessions by Face Time, since she has just come back from a vacation in Germany.

I’m so anxious I get a refill of Klonopin and my therapist tells me that small motor activity might be a good idea, even if it is just tapping my knees. Is there something I can do, she asks. “I can knit,” I tell her.

I haven’t knit it years, not since my first terrible marriage a million years ago, when I designed a sweater for him with dinosaurs feeding on vegetation, one I scissored up when I found out he was cheating on me. I hadn’t knit since. I was writing all the time, so why would I want to relax by using my fingers again? Didn’t they deserve a rest? But now, everything is bigger and seems more fraught with danger. I tell myself I will just straight knit, just to have something to do, that this is not about actually making anything, but just soothing my nerves.

I make my first sweaters, just two rectangles and two tubes, and when it is done, it has so many mistakes, it makes me wince. But I put it on, like a talisman, like a lucky sweater, and it’s warm, cozy and well, perfect. I did something concrete, I tell myself. That’s something.

I cannot stop knitting. I buy more yarn, more needles. Every night, when my husband Jeff and I sit to watch films, there is the click of knitting. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” I tell Jeff and he takes my hand. “I bet you do,” he says. I think about Madame Defarge from A Tale of Two Cities. She was like one of the Fates in Greek myth. She never stopped knitting, stitching in the names of the people she wanted killed, creating her own kind of revolution with yarn.

My second sweater, soft, glossy gray, is absurdly perfect and I am going to wear it to a reading, but the reading gets cancelled. All that day, I write my novel, thinking about the evening when I wouldn’t have to think, when I can just knit and turn off the churning in my mind. I think about how knitting, like a novel, has a structure, a spine that has to hold things together, how every stitch can tell a kind of story—that one there that is twisted is when I heard Trump say on the news not to worry. That one where I dropped a stitch is when I was stress eating. When my niece Hillary, who is supposed to come stay with us, along with her husband and two kids, cancels because of the virus, I go online and order more yarn, a deep dark blue, to knit a pullover for her the one way I can be with her.

The day I start that sweater, and WHO announces we have a pandemic. Italy is in lockdown. The first big event for my novel, The Texas Library Association in Houston, is cancelled. The Virginia Festival of the Book is cancelled. The Poets & Writers 50th Anniversary is cancelled. Colleges are holding virtual classes.

I sit with Jeff watching Sorry Wrong Number with a particularly hysterical Barbara Stanwyck, who begins to have an inkling she’s about to be murdered. I am knitting and knitting and knitting through the night, my eyes on the screen. It isn’t until I am done for the evening, that I look down at my work. To my shock, the garment has lost its structure. It isn’t totally blue the way it is supposed to be. I must have picked up the wrong yarn, because the second half of the back of the sweater is now deep green.

At first, I’m pissed. I wanted to control this. Rip it out like errant pages that aren’t working. The way this is supposed to go is not thinking, just knitting. Plus, the thought of ripping out all that work makes me ill. I’m terrible at taking out stitches and picking them back up and I know if I even try, there will be a stunning number of holes.

So I leave it. And the next day, I keep knitting, picking up other colors, making something that I don’t even think about having control over, that I can’t possibly know how it might resolve. As I knit,  I look down every once in a while, surprised, and sometimes pleased. The steady rhythm is so soothing, so hypnotic. I think about my novel, the characters so real I know what color sweaters I could knit for them, and that makes me think a bit about plot. I think about my mom, who died, two years ago, who I wish I could call to make sure she’s all right. I think about the sweater I’d make for her, deep purple, her favorite color, a sweater she’ll never get to wear. I think about my sister, who is estranged from our family and how I’d like to make her a purple sweater, too. I think about our son Max, who is in Brooklyn, who I get to see and hug. I move closer on the couch to Jeff, the click of my needles like a kind of Morse code. I love you. It’s going to be all right.

And so I keep knitting for other people. Pullovers that will hug them because I can’t anymore, at least not without a mask. Despite myself, I am getting better and better. Knit. Knit. Knit. I’ve come to realize that this is how I give up my desperation to control the narrative and the fear I’m feeling. Knitting a sweater isn’t writing a novel, not in any sense. We can’t know how the world is going to go with the virus, we cannot know what is going to happen with Trump and his cronies or with our planet that is falling apart. We breathe in and we breathe out. We wash our hands and cover our coughs and I keep knitting.

I buy more yarn. It doesn’t matter what color, just that I have enough for four more sweaters. Just so I can see the pile of yarn, provisions against terrible times and anxious thoughts. Despite the fierce intensity of my knitting, I’m no Madame Defarge, purling my way to revenge. This is not A Tale of Two Cities as much as it is a tale of one world in crisis. Instead, every night, this is how I knit connections, this is how I knit away the terror, one stitch at a time.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times Bestselling author of Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow. Her new book, With or Without You set for release in August and can be ordered here.  Her essays and stories have appeared in Real Simple, The Millions, and The New York Times. Visit her at @leavittnovelist on Twitter, on Facebook, and at Carolineleavitt.com

 

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Guest Posts, Mental Health

Walk This Way

December 17, 2019
walk

By Sarah Boon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Addiction, Grief, Guest Posts

What I Wanted To Say

November 22, 2019
need

By Lennlee Keep

We needed to start doing the things that separate days from one another. I knew my son Dashiell and I should probably start eating again. We only pretended to sleep. We acted like we knew what day of the week it was. It had been 10 days since my ex-husband Josh had been found dead in his apartment in Austin, Texas. It had hit us like a bomb that had not stopped exploding.

Dash and I flew from our new home in Berkeley to Austin to deal with the business of his father’s death. Dash said goodbye by contributing to his dad’s eulogy and letting a balloon go at the memorial. I let Josh go by packing his clothes and photographs and books, throwing away bottles, and solving the 1,000 problems he had left behind. In the process I tore myself to pieces like I was destroying evidence.

When it was all finished Dash and I returned to our new life in California. It was a daily struggle to mask the fact that I was raw and collapsing. But I had to function and carve a routine out of a loose collection of hours and dust.

I had to register my son for the new middle school he was starting the next morning.

***

I walked into the school office. A paper sign with the word REGISTRATION was taped next to an open door. A tall, thin, woman sat typing at her desk. I assumed she was in charge. She looked bored and regal. The entire room was lit only by a lamp on her desk. I felt like I was hiring a gumshoe to do some dirty work instead of getting my 6th

grader into the right math class. She didn’t acknowledge my presence, so I walked in and stood in front of her.

“Hi, I need to register my son for school.” I was trying to come across as friendly and competent but my voice sounded forced and tight. That, combined with my exhausted but smiling face just made me look crazy.

“I need your letter,” she said while staring intently at her screen. Her fingers flew across the keyboard.

“I don’t have a letter. Wait, um, I don’t think I do.” I nervously flipped through the pages in my hands. I had papers. Would papers work? I didn’t remember getting any letter. But I didn’t remember a lot of things.

She looked up me for the first time. “I need the letter we sent you about your school assignment.” She said this like she had said it to a hundred other stupid, irritating, letterless parents before me.

“I am sorry,” I said, “but I have no idea where the letter is. My son’s father died unexpectedly ten days ago and we just got back from his funeral. We moved here two weeks ago. Everything is a mess. Can you help me?”

“The letter was sent two weeks ago,” she said. She really punched that two weeks as if to drive home that this was something that could have been dealt with long before tragedy struck. Dead dad or no, I should have my letter. She rolled her eyes and pushed a copy of someone else’s letter across her desk to me.

I studied the letter and then said in a voice that sounded less feeble, “I will go look for it right now. I think I can find it.”

What I wanted to say was, I haven’t slept more than nine hours in five days.

***

I went home and looked everywhere. In the mess of our move tax returns were buried under towels and yo-yo’s, garbage cans stood empty next to boxes that overflowed with trash, but I found the letter. Small wins like this made me feel like the tide was turning, like this straw could still be spun into gold. It was a trick that I kept falling for.

I went back to the office and handed over the letter. I felt accomplished because I had done this one, right thing for my son. All of his other needs seemed immense and impossible but I could do this. He was twelve, he was starting a new school two days after his fathers memorial. He was anxiety and tears in skinny jeans and a sweatshirt. I could barely save myself and I had no idea how to handle him or help. I couldn’t reach him and I couldn’t honestly say I was trying. A good mother would be holding and reassuring her broken child, spending every waking moment trying to heal this deep wound. I hid in my room and stared at walls. Registering him for school proved I was still his mother. I had found the letter and he would have a school and that was proof that I could do something.

The admin took the letter from my hand and continued punishing her keyboard.

Shaking her head she said, “Nope. He’s been dropped from our rolls. You were supposed to register him last week.” She seemed disgusted by me. I was disgusted by me. “You need to go to the district and get your new assignment.”

This school and its proximity to the house and to the only kid Dash knew in the Bay Area was what I had built our entire move upon. Without this school every single thing would unravel.

My eyes welled with tears that didn’t roll down my cheeks. Sometimes crying feels good. This felt stupid and not grown up. I sucked them back into my eyes where they stayed and burned.

“Look,” I said, “I know your job is hard and it’s the first day of school and you are swamped, but is there anything you can do?”

What I wanted to say was, It’s really hard for me to deal with people right now. I spend a lot of time standing in the shower, talking to the tiles, practicing how to have interactions like this one so I don’t freak people out or start crying. How am I doing?

But instead I pleaded with her and again told her my story. My son’s father had died. I would have been here to register Dash for school, but his dad had died. And he was dead. I tried to pour words all over the problem to make her understand.

“I can’t help you,” she said. “You need to go to downtown to the district office and get a pink piece of paper.”

What I wanted to say was, It took him years to die overnight. He was an alcoholic. Drank himself to death at 47. I mean we don’t know for sure if it was alcohol poisoning, we won’t know that until we get the toxicology back. Toxicology! I know, right? I have a homicide detective assigned to me and everything. Her name is Denise and she came to his memorial. Isn’t that nice? I had to call the Medical Examiner and their hold music is awful. I don’t know how to live the next hour let alone the rest of my life ha ha ha ha.

I wanted to tell her all of it, just bleed it out all over her stupid tappy keyboard.

I wanted to say, Last night, instead of sleeping, I spent two hours screaming into different pillows and recording the sound on my phone. I was trying to find the one that muffled my sobs the best. Bed pillows were just too fluffy. A red felt accent pillow from the couch was the one that absorbed the most sound. I had to do this because my son asked me if I could please stop crying because it made him “uncomfortable.”

But I couldn’t say that. Because normal people don’t say things like that or do things like that. We don’t gut ourselves in front of strangers to show them what we had for lunch. We don’t do it because it’s shocking and gross but also because no one really cares what we had for lunch anyway.

All those words stayed trapped in my head and I only squeaked out a small “please.”

She resumed her typing. “I can’t help you. You need to go to the district and get a pink piece of paper.”

I wanted to say, I don’t think I want to die, but I am not sure I want to live either. How do I figure out if I want to live or die? Is there a Buzzfeed quiz or something because I can say with zero emotion that from here it looks like a toss up.

Instead I said, “Is there nothing else you can do for me?”

She turned her attention back to her screen and said, “Not without the pink piece of paper.”

I got into my filthy car to go downtown. It barely had any gas and my phone was almost dead. But driving to the school district office felt normal and that was rare. I thought if I did normal things that life would fall back into place. I would walk into a store and buy something and think, OK, this is a thing I did before what I am doing now. Look! I went to the grocery store and bought blueberries and detergent. Because I do things like this and this is what everything used to feel like.

And I would get home and discover that I had bought dishwasher pods instead of the laundry pods I needed and I would drop my head against the counter and sob and collapse under the notion that this will never stop. That these failures will be permanent and excruciating. From here on out I will get it all wrong and until the grave, I will have sparkling dishes and filthy socks.

***

As I drove to the district office I kept thinking that if Josh’s death had lost us the school the domino effect on my life was endless. I hadn’t registered Dash because I wasn’t here because Josh died. His drinking had laid waste to countless evenings, holidays, and birthdays, and our marriage. His dead hands reached out and threw cheap white wine into my face and all over my plan and our new life. Death by definition should stop you in your tracks. Josh was SUPPOSED TO NOT BE DEAD. He wasn’t supposed to be lying in a metal drawer waiting for the coroner to release his body. He was supposed to have gotten sober.

His death had ripped the tourniquet off the fury I had held back for years. Every word I could never shout at him bled from me in rivers. In my head, I beat him with words of rage, pummeled him to a pulp with my hate. But every once and a while the light of a sweet memory swept the darkness away. I remembered every flower he ever bought me. I repeated the Dorothy Parker poem that I had recited on the corner of Chattanooga and Church Street in San Francisco on the night that we met. I replayed the scene over and over. He kneels down on the ground and kisses my hand and says, “That’s for knowing who Dorothy Parker is.” I wanted to tell him I am sorry that I got mad and stayed that way. And I wanted to scream and scream because it was us and it was our story and important and how could it just not matter now?

***

In the district building several parents waited in the hallway for a change of school, word of a new teacher or a last minute immunization record. I was told to go in the office and get a number. The woman behind the counter looked up. “What do you need?”

I said, “My son’s father died unexpectedly, so we missed registration at our assigned school last week. I need to get back into that school.” I thought throwing “unexpectedly” in there would make her understand that this wasn’t cancer or a heart attack. There was no final, sweet handholding, morphine-dripping, hospital-jello-eating goodbye. This was a hunting knife splitting a sheet. It was an upending.

She stared at me blankly.

“I guess I need a number?” I said. As she walked across the room to the pile of numbers on her desk, I thought: ‘Take a number, any number!’

How about 0.0? That’s what he blew on the Breathalyzer in my kitchen before he was allowed to take Dash to dinner. It was the last time I saw him alive.

How about 12? Dashiell’s age when I sat him down on a Saturday morning to tell him his dad had died.

Or take 13, the number of years we were married.

Or 20, the number of years we were together.

“Here,” she said as she pushed a card across the counter. “Number 21.”

21! Our shared birthdate. Him April 21st; me November 21st. 21 was our lucky number.

***

A young woman walked through the fifteen seated parents checking numbers, following up with their issues. “You need this form. I need your ID.”

Finally, she called, “Number 21?”

I raised my hand.

“What do you need?”

What did I need? I needed for this to matter to someone other than me and if I had to burn the world to gain some camaraderie in my misery, so be it. My friendly voice was gone, replaced by a serious tone, that was loud enough for everyone to hear.

“Yes. You can help me. My 12-year old son’s father died last week and we missed registration because we were burying him. I was told we were dropped from the school we were assigned to, but that if I want to get in, I need a pink piece of paper. Can you give me the pink paper? I need to get my son back into the school we were assigned to. I need to talk to someone who can give me the pink paper.”

The other parents in the hallway turned to look. I officially had the worst problem in the room, and unless they were willing to produce a corpse themselves, I was the victor.

The woman said, “I am so sorry. I’ll be right back.”

I said, “Thank you” and fidgeted with the useless papers in my hands.

What I wanted to say, to the other parents who were so uncomfortable looking at me, was, If you think that makes you squirm, you have no idea the tidal wave I am holding back. I’m not very good at impressions, but Josh’s father made the strangest animal noise when I called him in London to tell him his son had died. Parents aren’t supposed to ever hear things like that and I am definitely not the person to say them. I want to show you a map of the stars I stare at every night while I scream into the red pillow. I am the woman who cries on BART every day. Can you please give me recipes for food that won’t turn into sand in my mouth? I have forgotten a lot of things, but I will always remember what it felt like scrubbing my ex’s dried brown blood out of the stone white sink in his apartment. I demand an apology and I am deeply sorry. He can never forgive me, but can my son? Can you? If you can’t grant me me absolution, then just give me a fucking break.

Instead I stared at my hands. Almost as if on cue, everyone turned away and resumed their conversations.

I felt bad about telling people what happened to him and to us, almost embarrassed. Like it’s attention seeking. “Look at me and my sadness! Feel for me!”

She returned with the pink paper, and said, “I am so sorry he passed. Please accept my condolences.”

I think “passed” is a weird euphemism for death. As if death swings by and picks you up in some quiet luxury sedan and ferries you away from this world. Driving away, you pass your life and your family. You pass. But death isn’t a smooth ride and a leather interior. Death is a stick shift with a bad transmission. Death has teeth and purpose and every intention of sticking as close to you as it can for as long as it can. Death picks up its passenger, but it also takes everyone who loved that person and ties them tightly to the bumper, like cans on a newlyweds car. Sure they will eventually fall off, but brother, it’s gonna take a lot of miles.

Josh’s death had separated him from us, but not us from him, and now that we were back in California I realized that this feeling was not going anywhere. Registering Dash for 6th grade, opening the mail, talking to people he knew. It was all part of the same. They were all part of this thing. His death would keep stirring up the past and I had every confidence it was set to devour the future. Because death stays. Death rides the clutch.

Lennlee Keep is a nonfiction writer, filmmaker, storyteller and mother of a teenager. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Southeast Review, ESME and The Fix. Her films have been shown on PBS, A&E and the BBC. The ex-wife of a dead guy, she talks about grief and dying more than most people are comfortable with. She is much funnier than all of the above might lead you to believe. This piece was originally published in the Southeast Review.

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