I have a stack of articles to read, legal documents to decipher, and, eventually, a tightly-packed, single-spaced, two-page paper to write in which I will take on an untenable ethical position. I have a group of fellow grad students to corral (it is like herding cats; very busy, over-committed cats). I have a kid who needs coaching about how to handle himself in less-than-ideal schoolyard situations.
But the kid is still asleep, as are most of the grad students, and the documents are just passively lying here beside me. So let me eat my leftover biscuit and put off work just a little longer by writing about it.
The case my Law & Ethics class group is presenting on is Shin v. MIT. Elizabeth Shin, a sophomore at the Institute, caught on fire in her dorm room in April 2000, suffered severe burns, and subsequently died when she was taken off life support. Her death was ruled a suicide, because Shin had threatened multiple times to kill herself in the year leading up to her death. Actually, she had gone past threatening, having made at least one attempt through a “non-fatal” overdose. On the day of her death, she was one of the agenda items on the university’s “deans and psychs” meetings, where they discussed her imminent appointment with an off-campus psychiatric facility.
Shin saw at least five psychiatrists at the university. From the timeline I’ve created, which is three pages long, it is hard to believe that no one had her hospitalized prior to her death (with the exception of the actual suicide attempt). Her parents sued the university because they believed they should have been informed of the fragile nature of their daughter’s mental state. In addition, they asserted that the university, acting as de facto parents (in loco parentis) should have provided better care to Shin and so were negligent in their treatment of her.
They didn’t just sue the university. They also sued a few administrators and the psychiatrists involved in her care. Eventually, the case against MIT itself was dropped. Then the case against the administrators was settled for an undisclosed sum. As far as I know, the psychiatrists are still on the hook for their part in the whole thing. However, in the time between Shin’s death and the dropping of her case, toxicology reports came out that indicated that she had been taking sedatives at the time of her death. It was more likely that the death was an accident, another “non-lethal” overdose with a horrible outcome. She took too many pills and forgot to blow out the candles in her room. When she caught fire, Elizabeth Shin couldn’t react quickly enough to the flames.
My group has been assigned the position that MIT was ethical in its handling of the case. Shin was entitled to confidentiality. She was an adult. It was up to her to let her parents know what was going on, not the university’s. Legally, this may be the case. But after reading through Shin’s history of interactions with the mental health center, it is really hard to defend that position ethically, especially considering how many times she was taken there after threatening suicide and then sent right back to her dorm. There are times when breaking confidentiality is required. Even if the university and its staff did not tell the parents, they should have taken her threats more seriously. It does not matter if her death was intentional.
It is a sad, complicated case taken on by a group of students who have not met in person or even virtually to talk about how we will approach our presentation of it. But, no worries, right? It will all work out.
Image of Elizabeth Shin’s parents holding her portrait (USA Today).
Stress. It drives me to write. It robs me of creativity and the time in which to craft something meaningful and transcendent. I only write about what is in front of me or disappear into escapist fantasy gone amok. And haven’t we had enough of escapism, of aimless desire?
So. This morning. The whine of the shower. The rush of forced air heat. My cold feet on the color block Ikea rug I bought after my divorce 15 years ago. The caffeinated rush. That continued underwater feeling, which at this point is more low-grade illness than mere tiredness. The panic in having a group presentation on a complicated topic looming next Tuesday evening when no one in the group can meet in person and everyone is too busy to even think about how to divide up the work. My eleven regular clients that range in age from five to twelve. The task of developing a social skills group for a select group of kindergarten boys. Final case and process notes for the last mock session. The necessity of waking the boy from his well-deserved slumber. The icy mysteries of the unheated upstairs bathroom and the chilled bedroom of the boy.
And when I listen to Ella Fitzgerald sing “How High the Moon,” I start to cry and cannot stop.
Title comes from a Sarah Vaughan version of “How High the Moon” on the “Live from Mr. Kelly’s” album, though technically the line is “Ella Fitzgerald sings this song real real real crazy.”
Between mock counseling sessions and fitful sleep, between attending class and tossing and turning, between frantically researching for next week’s Law and Ethics presentation and glancing at the clock every hour after 2:00 a.m., I write to you. I ignore the dog and my need for sleep. I pretend that the work I have to complete in less than six days is really due in three weeks. I write to you. Maybe for you. But really, it is for me.
Where are you right now? What are you wearing? What music is playing in the background, what girl warbles behind the sound of splashing bath water, what fights can you hear from the too-close neighbors? What can they hear from you?
I am underwater tired right now, the kind of tired where it feels like I have spent too long in a chlorinated pool. It is a sooty dampness in my chest and head. Both feel hollowed out and weary. Mold has gathered in the crevices and corners of my mind, which has also been colonized by obligation and stress and fantasies where I do things I do not want to do. I cannot help doing those things. The ghosts compel me.
I wonder: when will it all break apart? When will the growl turn to a rumble, the fissures suddenly appear, the foundation become marbled with cracks? Because the center cannot hold. Or I cannot hold on to it. Not for long.
All I have to do is tough out the next few weeks, ride out the tremors, pay no attention to the ghosts. And keep on writing.
In one of Helms’s more light-hearted moments, she exhorts White folks to embrace the good things about being White. I honored this thought-provoking book by eating that soothing bowl of “potatoes,” one of the whitest meals around in terms of both color and culture. (While some people might question whether instant mashed potatoes are “good,” they are a comfort.) This does not mean that all White people love sitting down to a nice fresh bowl of reconstituted potato flakes or that Black, Asian, Latino, or Native American folks never even think of eating such a side dish. However, in terms of mass culture, I think I can make the leap that instant mashed potatoes are generally a White person thing. But I could be wrong.
Race is a sticky, sticky subject. It is often one I avoid. Last year, in my multicultural foundations in counseling class, we had to write a paper about our cultural heritage. Like many of the other White people in my class, I originally came up short. Were we talking about the culture of strip malls and Velveeta cheese? Did those meals of chicken and dumplings with my grandmother count? Was I German-Irish-Who-Knows-What-Else-American? What about my values, whatever they were? Did they count as “White”? I thought of the culture I grew up in as being one made up almost exclusively of me and my mother. We bucked the system and formed our own society, that of the Alienated Adoptee and her progeny. But we still existed in a larger, generally White world. I had to face it. White culture existed and I was a part of it.
Writing that paper was the first time in my life that I accepted the fact that I was a WASP both by birth and world view, despite the lapsed Irish Catholic side of the family and my mother’s anti-WASP screeds. But see how deftly I just switched the topic from race to religion? It is easier. It keeps me from looking at how dominant White culture is in this country, so ubiquitous that it is invisible to some of us. Most White people just assume it is the backdrop to life, the way for everyone to Be.
My stomach is fluttering. This is difficult to talk about. I do not want to offend any person of any shade. Putting myself out there on this topic is difficult and I barely even have a toe exposed. But I am trying to talk more directly about race and its effects, about the privilege that comes with being White. I think (I hope) Helms would put me mostly in the Immersion/Emersion phase of White identity development, which “requires one to assume personal responsibility for racism and to understand one’s role in perpetuating it . . . Perhaps more importantly, however, it requires the person to face the feelings of guilt, anger, and anxiety that were pushed out of awareness during the internalization-of-racism phase of White identity development” (pp. 71-72).
The guilt is heavy and the anxiety is high. Looking at how I have benefited from and contributed to racism is a painful task. But it also feels hopeful. It feels right. And I have a long way to go.
(Note: The capitalization of White, Black, etc. is both Helms’s choice and follows the style guidelines of the American Psychological Association; White people in this context are European-Americans who “have been assimilated and acculturated into the White Anglo-Saxon culture as it exists in the United States” pp. v-vi.)
The first word of this post was the 3852nd word I typed yesterday. Over 3000 of those words were part of a transcript (plus analysis) of a ten-minute excerpt of my most recent mock counseling session. The mock sessions are part of my practicum class, in which we are paired with a classmate for five pretend sessions. All of these sessions are filmed. Each one requires case and process notes (add another 2000 words). And two of them also require these dagnabbity transcripts. All of the work must be done within five days of the actual session.
As a counselor compiling my transcript, I write down verbatim what both I and my “client” said, in addition to classifying what I said (aka my “responses”) into three different categories: type, focus, and intent. For example, if my response is Why do you think you date men that remind you of your father?, my response (R ) is a question, focusing (F) on the client’s experience and thought, with the intent (I) to challenge and perhaps explore.
Sounds tedious, no? Even reading about it is tedious, right? But, wait, there’s more! From there, I discuss what I think was going on with the client, the rationale behind my response, and whether that response was effective. I often add what I think I should have said. Each client and counselor exchange is numbered, classified, and analyzed across four columns. It is a thing of analytic beauty, if you are into that kind of thing. It can quite useful. And three weeks ago, it was almost my downfall.
Because my third session as a counselor was terrible and I (deliberately) chose the most problematic section of it to transcribe. I spent two days on the project, between the transcript, its analysis, and the six pages that make up the case and process notes. Two days spent marinating in my obvious incompetence convinced me I would be an utter failure as a counselor. I would never improve and would never, ever be able to think about my counselor/client exchanges in so structured a format. So the mini-breakdown went down.
But something has happened in the last week or two. Yes, I am tired and stressed (and have another day of working on the rest of my assignment waiting for me). I know that from here until the end of the semester will be an endurance race. Those last few weeks are going to be unpleasant. I am going to feel like an incompetent nincompoop. Repeatedly. I will never totally “get” the structured format that our counseling responses are supposed to fit into. I will not have the time to cook or clean, so the Spoonrocket takeout containers will pile up and dust and fur will pad the floors and surfaces of my house. Hopefully the boy will not forget what I look like or no longer recognize my voice. Being cut off from my family is the worst of this.
But I am pretty sure I can do this counseling thing, or I will be able to do it eventually. And I will do it well. Someday. However, the process isn’t pretty or painless. Who said change was easy?
Image (cropped and color-enhanced) some rights reserved by Kevin Marks.
Tuesday night, I spent 11 minutes at the bus stop in the fog chill, my backpack and gravity colluding in an attempt to pull me down to earth. The students around me dressed in black and army green. They flirted or cut in line or stared across the street, and their laughter condensed in the air and formed haloes above them. My thoughts about them were not always kind.
Tuesday morning, I spent 18 minutes waiting for BART. They were single-tracking it because of a “major medical emergency” at the El Cerrito del Norte stop. A person was trapped underneath a train. The El Cerrito stop was closed, the system thrown off. I found out later that the person underneath the train was a 16-year-old boy. It was a suicide.
Some days I get home and I want to cry. Sometimes I do cry. It is because of everything – lack of sleep, the continued challenge of classes plus traineeship, sad events, the never-ending wait for the 28 or the 38L, the ugly backpack mob scene once the bus arrives, the overheard depressingly misogynistic and unimaginative bus conversations of high school kids spiked with ugly bitch and the bitches at school.
Today, there was a bit of relief in the feeling, too, because I met with my advisor this afternoon and declared my plan: practicum only next semester, plus an itty-bitty one-credit class that meets for five weeks. There will be no abandoned clients, no broken contract, no half-year left in the dust.
But I still have so much to do.
Image All rights reserved by SOTC creations.
As part of my search for clarity about grad school, I went to an intuitive today. I left feeling grounded and more sure of myself. I have a better idea of what I want to do, though I am not writing about it until I talk to my family, who are out of town for the weekend. One of the surprising things that came up, totally unprompted, were my preteen and early teen years and how they connect to my current doubts about my abilities. We did not delve into particular events, just pushed deep enough for me to recognize that the formative tween years get short shrift in my narrative, get pushed aside by the overlap of life, death, and loss that came before and after. That in between time has its stings and insecurities, its layered silences, its insults that I learned to accept as matters of fact.
The intuitive told me I need to separate who I am from how people treated me. I was not – I am not – what happened to me. It is a simple, profound thought that bears repeating. I am not what happened to me. You are not what happened to you. We are separate from our experiences. Yes, we can use those experiences to inform our lives and, yes, the experiences shape us, but what happened to us, particularly in childhood, does not define the essence of who we are or were. What happened was not about us. It was not our fault. It was about the people around us, the ones obsessed with destruction, or the ones who pretended nothing was going on, or the ones who knew, but felt powerless to help.
I feel sorry for those people from my past, trapped in the stickiness of their unhappiness, unable to do anything but try to trap others. Still, those years inform me, are a part of who I am, and who I am is good, damn it. But I am not yet at the point where I can totally forgive. I have a lot of righteous anger to feel first.
In the dark night of the soul, anger, sadness, and mourning come before the dawn. Perhaps all will be clear when day breaks, but the light on the horizon is still a few hours out. In the meantime, I invite in the child I once was. I make her a cup of tea and a comfortable bed and tell her she is fine just as she is. In the morning, we will let go of what came before as best we can.
Image from Citizens Voice.
The boy and I were breaking into houses in New York City. Or was it Washington, DC? And it wasn’t technically breaking in: the houses were unlocked, the occupants elsewhere. We snuck through grand garages that had large Rorschachian bloodstains on oil-pocked concrete, slipped through doors that went to back stairs, grabbed leather jackets and forgotten journals, retraced our steps through the scene of the crimes (the owner suddenly coughing in the living room, the dog whining in the kitchen) to go to our house on R Street or S Street, somewhere late in the alphabet, someplace big and brick and right up against the sidewalk, the ginkgoes outside forming a canopy from curbside to rooftop, their fallen leaves cluttering the bricks with gold.
I woke up before we made it home. Though it was 4 a.m., I got out of bed, a bit distracted with my week. I feel much better than I did Wednesday, though still not sure what my next move will be
On my first Tuesday crying jag, the one in the dark from BART to home, I felt . . . homesick for a different time. Or I was in mourning for what went before and will never be again. I missed the apparent simplicity of youth and fresh pain, the optimism that comes from having little life experience. I even missed the youthful lack of perspective that told me I was marked, that gave me my self-definition of bruised, battered intelligence. I was slightly misshapen, but not yet formed. Possibilities abounded.
Today, I am not sure who I am, what talents I can claim. My possibilities are shrinking. Or my focus is narrowing. In the last ten years, I have become smaller, more compact, with hidden, specialized strengths. I have learned my limits, become realistic about what I am capable of doing successfully. But that realism is clouded by a lack of self confidence, one that has me questioning everything I do. Where does the truth lie?
There is no truth, only interpretation. But I am muddled by the “facts,” confused by internal pulls in various directions. I do not want to make decisions based on fear. I want to make them based on a sense of connection and of my needs. I do not want to simply escape painful situations. If possible, I want to learn from them and endure the pain, as long as I know there is a useful end. There are no absolutely right answers. All I know is that I am tired, teary, scared, overwhelmed, feel clueless and useless, and miss my family. Maybe I need to take grad school more slowly, to build up my foundation and allow time for the rest of my life. Maybe I need to just power through and ignore the angst.
I do not know the answer yet. The one thing I do know is that the way I am feeling is reminiscent of when I dropped out of college second semester sophomore year. I had gotten in over my head. I was barreling towards depression. And then I quit and it was too much booze and a star-crossed romance and a transfer to a school that was much better for me, even if I was still struggling emotionally. That chapter in my life led me to DC and brought me new experiences and friends, though the adjustment was not pretty.
It is not so simple this time around. But many things seem simple in retrospect. It is a lot easier when you know the ending.
Image by Bill Baker from Fossils in the Architecture of DC.
I cried on the way home from BART. I cried when I got home. I cried and kept on crying and this morning I cried some more. More tears are on their way, I know it. My husband convinced me to stay home today, helped me realize that I needed some time to just be. So here I am, sitting in front of a fire that refuses to die, the third fire I have lit in almost as many days. And I reached out for help on the email and the Facebook. At some point, I realized the question was not can I do this. It was what do I need to do this.
Almost every day for the last two weeks, I have thought about dropping out of my graduate program. Nothing feels like it is working right. I neglect my family. I cannot devote enough time to school. My commute, with its walks and trains and buses, makes me surly. I am almost silent in my group supervision and, while I love my clients, am having a difficult time feeling comfortable in my placement. I feel incompetent in every aspect of my life, and the thing that everyone thinks is the perfect career for me – being a counselor – well, I feel like I absolutely suck at it. And right now, judging from my mock counseling sessions, I probably do suck at it, though at least I provide a listening ear and a safe space for my clients.
I have wondered whether it was me or the program or a series of mismatches that led me to this low place. It probably is a combination of several factors. Feeling cut off from my family, my main support system, does not help. Taking 9 credits and spending an average of 16 hours a week, not including travel time, on my traineeship does not help. Leaving the house at 6:00 or 6:30 in the morning three days a week does not help. Neither does having two 13 to 14+ hour days.
What do I need to do this? I need time and space. I need onsite support – i.e., colleagues and a supervisor – built in to my placement. I need to learn to ask for help before I start to sink. I need more confidence, the kind of confidence that comes from slowly learning and mastering skills. I need to be kind to myself. I do not need to spend the next year in a sinkhole of misery and self-loathing. So I am considering taking a leave of absence, using next semester to think about what works best for me and my family. I need time to figure out my needs and how to meet those needs.
It is all part of my journey, one on which I would rather see the view instead of perceiving it through an anxiety-ridden haze. But I will wait a few days, maybe even a week, to decide. I will gather myself and take all the support I can. Everything is going to be all right.
Or all right enough.
Image of today’s fire taken by me.
Title from a Bob Marley and The Wailers song, “Three Little Birds” (“Don’t worry bout a thing, cause every little thing gonna be all right.”) which I now associate with Elizabeth Mitchell. It’s a bit on the cheerily optimistic side, but I need all the optimism I can muster.
I woke up on the late side this morning, 5 a.m., and was out the door by 6:20. The commute – what a slog. I have written about it here too much. Let’s just say that at this point, I am sick to fuck of public transportation and unpredictable waits at bus stops, the transfers between here and there. I am tired of peoples’ overstuffed backpacks getting jammed into my side, my chest, my own back, taking up space that could be occupied by other humans (I cradle my backpack between my feet on those standup rides). The walks from home to the station and back weary me. My feet protest their leather shoe prisons. My toes ache.
I left the house less than 10 hours after I had gotten home last night so that I could get to an 8:00 a.m. mock counseling session for my practicum class. The session is an hour divided in two – in one half, I am the client, in the other, the counselor. Sometimes I leave these sessions feeling good(ish), but most of the time it feels like damn, I can’t do this. Or: why did I say that?
Damn, I can’t do this is one of those thoughts that I continually have to replace with – You are not alone: nobody thinks they can do this at first. Nobody. The best part of today, after all the necessary filler (being a client and attempting to help a client, sitting through three hours of lecture and discussion on our duties to warn and protect) was talking to a good friend of mine. We got out our insecurities. We are both insecure. Our classmates are insecure. Because grad school, learning how to be a counselor, becoming a counselor, is really, really hard. And it’s slow going and we are tossed in and somehow along the way we learn something about how to be available and present for clients, to be agents of change.
At least that’s what I hope will happen.
Image Some rights reserved by Thomas Hawk.
My life is small. I have good friends, but I am not a group person. I am a classic introvert, in need of quiet alone time to recharge. By the end of my overstimulating week, I feel tiny and hunched. The ceiling of my mind, this beautiful soaring fresco, starts to crumble. The columns that hold it up are hard as stone, but my thoughts, immaterial and mercurial, slip through. My emotions, chastened by the week, disappear through the walls and dive deep under the floor. I play a hide and seek game with the ghosts of myself and spend the weekend coaxing my essence out of hiding. I patch and repaint, return the blue to the ceiling and my eyes. The last thing I need to focus on are the bad parts, the way I struggle with feeling like a capable person. It is the same struggle I experienced as a librarian, a parent, and a writer: I am never good enough.
That is the kernel of the story. Why do I never feel good enough? But perhaps the question(s) should be what do I need to thrive and in what environments do I work best? At the moment, three days a week I exist in a nebulous world where the rules are not clear and the structure is either hidden or nonexistent. I am learning the basics of counseling from someone who, while a good teacher, is not on the same wavelength as I am. My official support network exists, but is fragmented and I am not sure how I fit into it. Through it all, I am trying very hard and I am learning. Good will come out of it.
The problem is knowing my needs, acknowledging their legitimacy, and putting myself in an environment in which I can thrive. So now my task is to keep learning and get all the good that I can out of my experience while being kind to myself, a stranger in a strange land who is making plans to return to her home country within the year, new experiences integrated with the old. The good news is that I have a much better idea of what I need in terms of support and structure. I can use that knowledge to get what I need next year.
Today I go to another four-hour training, a mini-extension of my week. My husband and the boy will come into the city with me and have fun while I learn (thanks, BART strike!). When the training is done, I can relax and recharge with the support and love of my family. Fighting off my feelings of idiocy is an ongoing process. It requires rest and reminders of who I am and all the good that I have. But with support, I can do it.
All in all, I am very, very lucky.
Image of me in my office, taken by my husband on Saturday. I keep editing this post, building it up and tearing it down, and the picture fits.
This was my Thursday: A girl with a deep cough wielding a marker. Trains of children in plaid skirts, clutching hula hoops. My exhausted quiet in a oval of talk. The mysterious police action at Embarcadero. The man who sat his bag on my feet without a thought. The miniature schnauzer, ears and expression alert, next to his person outside the BART station, the two of them waiting on a woman. Twenty-five minutes added to my day and at home the boy with his homework and the dog happy to see me despite my neglect, the walks she’s lost over the last month.
And my Wednesday: A smaller circle of people, each of us clutching a transcript of a long-ago mock counseling session, everyone thinking how they would respond and what they would ask of the phantom client. My partner and I in two mock sessions of our own. Filmed mock sessions now downloaded to flash drives. This weekend, each of us will go over the session in which we were the counselor. It will be painful and useful and everything will be marked down, written into a narrative, and next Wednesday the professor will tell us what we did right and what we did wrong, in a half-hour meeting one on one. The good news is that my second time as an ersatz counselor went much better than my first. I think. But I haven’t seen the video yet.
And then there’s Tuesday, too long ago now to completely bring to mind, too long a day to hold on to. Four thirty a.m. wakeup, long commute, 4.5 clients in a row, bang bang bang, no time in between, a trip to campus, a class, another commute, a collapse.
Today? I have just two things on the list before I go pick up the boy from school at 2:25. We miss each other. He reaches for my hand on our walks more often these days. I know this time is fleeting, that everything changes. But I am so grateful for what I have now, challenges and all, and how it makes me more aware of my own foibles and faults. I don’t want to wish it away. I don’t want to yell in frustration. I just am, being in this time and place, thankful for the opportunity to question everything and for the time away from home that allows me to be present while I am here.
Image Some rights reserved by w4nd3rl0st (InspiredinDesMoines).
A note about the image: I assumed from the photo’s context that the people on the steps were youngsters sleeping off a night of drinking, not down and out and sleeping there because of terrible life circumstances. I could be wrong. But I hope not.
I will not judge Tata Massage or its patrons – what do I know about the therapeutic benefits of being slapped in the face repeatedly? Surely in San Francisco especially, land of Kink.com, there must be a market for such a service, even at $350 a cheek. I am mainly relieved that she doesn’t actually hit people in the tatas, which is what the store’s signs led me to believe initially. That just seems abusive.
By the time we pass Tata’s place, it’s about 7:20 and I have been up for three hours or so. I leave the house at 6:00 a.m. to get to my placement school by 7:30. As the sun comes out (or the fog stays put), my sense of self prepares itself to whittled to something small and sharp, to be worn down and thinned out by living almost permanently out of my comfort zone. This is no redemption story, just one of me continually feeling like an idiot and trying not to let my apparent idiocy trap me in the role.
So my trip on the 38L is the beginning of the onslaught of something or nothing, the continual challenge, and later the 28 takes me across town for class and group supervision. It was only within the last week or so that I realized that the 28, which I also ride back and forth from my university to the Daly City BART station, is the same bus I took from my Inner Richmond apartment to Greens restaurant almost nine years ago. To get from my placement to classes or supervision, I pick up the 28 about a block from my old bus stop. I have come full circle. It seems like there should be some message in this, some sense of synchronicity, but I am grasping for connections here, something to tell me that my story makes sense, that the plot hangs together.
You see, I have been here before, in another time and place. I tried to start a new life then, too. I was scared and alone. All was new, and by the time I left San Francisco, I knew nothing of my talents, though I was well-acquainted with my fears. Life eventually took turns I never would have predicted. New strengths emerged.
Where will the adventure lead next? It is an adventure, isn’t it? It helps to see it that way. Because by Friday I am fried. This week, with sleep deprivation, training scheduled for tomorrow morning, and injured toes (it was the shoes, the shoes, specifically these shoes, so cute and deadly), well, I’m just meh. Or meh minus 50. I want sleep. I want a bouquet of flowers. I want a decadent day of nothing. I want a weekend with my family in the woods, at our house, on the road. I want my firm sense of self back and I want to leave self-doubt behind before it transforms into self-doubt of the crippling variety.
Ultimately, though, a little more sleep will help. And moments of silence and stillness with nothing but emptiness and the hum of the world to soothe my static-addled mind. Welcome to the adventure, the world purrs. You are up to the challenge.
It’s a whole lot better than a slap in the face.
Image of the 38 Geary line Some rights reserved by juicyrai.
I don’t mind it so much, most of the time, the feeling that I can live off of water, almonds, and air, that I am ethereal. However, I need to eat. I need to take care of myself in other ways as well, so that I am not totally wrung out by Thursday morning. But I don’t totally know what taking care of myself means.
Or maybe I do, but I am unclear on how to implement a self-care plan. Sleep – yes. Tough to get when I need to get up before 5 a.m. and also want to interact with my family at night, but maybe for three nights of the week, I just have to accept it: go to bed. My early rising is a form of self-care, a way of having a little time to wake up and caffeinate before I head off to BART. Food and water – well, obviously, they’re important. I am slowly getting better at planning for those long days. I have a lunch bag now and easy to grab snacks and a snazzy water bottle with a straw. It’s a start.
Then there’s writing. Good writing. Lyrical writing. I just don’t have it in me. I am living and creating the life of a literalist, poetry free, with worries about confidentiality policies, school counselor passes, and tomorrow’s presentation on Section G of the American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics. Still, I am carving out a bit of time to write this, because writing makes me feel better. The laundry and dishwasher can wait a few minutes. The potatoes can bake themselves.
Here I am in front of you, creating, trying to live. Someday the words will come back, dusty and tired from their months on the road. They will exit the steam train, leap off the stage coach, meet me at the gate, ring my doorbell. They will embrace me, old friends who went on walkabout while I filled my head with new things. There will still be room for them.
Just as there will always be room for you.
Image Some rights reserved by alles-schlumpf.
When I am not sitting in a classroom or on a bus or BART, when I am not gathered with small groups of classmates or my fellow school-based family counselors in training, or hanging out in my school office reading up on policies, typing out my classroom and faculty meeting remarks, I obsess about shoes. Wedges, pumps, Mary Janes of all sorts, ballet flats. Shoes the color of cognac, heels crafted to look like layers of wood or maybe left to be the rubber that they are, suede shoes, shoes with velvet ribbons, jazzy spectators that I might have worn fifteen years ago.
There is a joke in my family based on a long ago overheard conversation. Picture a woman in a gym talking to a group of guys. What is the first thing a man notices about a woman? she asks them. It is an awkward question to pose to a gaggle of menfolk. Seems like a trick question in fact. Eventually, she answers it for them. The first thing a man notices about a woman? The shoes, the shoes! So what is most important for me right now? The shoes, of course!
I am a bit of a shoe hound, though not as much since I left the working world. Now I have a semi-dress up “job,” with dress up clothes that I have purchased over the years but mainly never worn (very few of us want to be that mom in the skirt and heels while the rest of the crowd is sporting jeans and t-shirts). The world of online shoe buying allows for hundreds of possibilities, all to be mulled over as I sit in my robe or my yoga pants, the only thing on my overfilled mind being what I will match to those khakis or to that skirt with blue accents. The process allows me to be purposefully mindless, to occupy a place where I don’t think about my many inadequacies or feel that sinking feeling of I can’t do this. My shoe browsing – I have done very little actual buying – keeps me from sinking into the mire of self-doubt, that sticky place I can’t afford to occupy.
So that’s where I am right now, hoofing it in my imaginary flats, dancing in my snazzy phantom Mary Janes, not thinking about my fears. I move forward without looking back, one foot in front of the other, my only worries being about heel height and whether a particular shade of brown will match that fantastic patchwork blazer I have never worn. It is a type of fake it ‘till you make it, a way of living as if, the shine of shoes distracting me from the potential pitfalls all around.
All shoe photos from the John Fluevog web site. I love Fluevogs, though most of them are out of my price range.
Lunch and snack for the boy, made the night before? Check.
Cookie offering “baked” that evening, though somewhat frustratingly with an oven that would not light or heat up properly? Check.
Lunch, snack, water? In my backpack? Check.
Keys to my office at home? Wallet in pocketbook, pocketbook by the dining room table? Hard-earned small batch of cookies, wan but tasty, on the counter? Check. Check. Check. All left behind, along with, perhaps, my mind? Check!
Right bus, going in wrong direction? Check. Exact same bus at different stop, even though driver told me to take the Limited (and kindly reminded me again when she saw me again)? Check.
Arrive 20 minutes later than planned (but still before school starts!)? Check.
Things could only get better from there. And they did. For the most part. The good news is that I think I know the bus route now and I doubt I will forget to grab my keys again. The even better news is that I took all this in stride, without losing it. So there’s that. Progress. Baby steps. Bright side!
Image by EUDETENIS.
My semester is, thankfully, taking a slow start. I begin working at the traineeship site next week, which means we can ease into the new schedule and get used to both the boy and me being in school before the really hard stuff starts. I am not paralyzed with nervousness, just trying to compartmentalize my tasks and what is required of me, knowing there will be a lot of fake it till you make it. A lot. My traineeship work days, as yet unpopulated with clients? I will fake being outgoing until I do not need to fake it anymore. My mock counseling sessions, which will be observed, filmed, and critiqued by the professor? I just have to fake it enough to keep the anxiety at bay while remaining open to the fact that I have a lot to learn and cannot be perfect – or even good – yet.
The key to using anxiety as a motivator is to let it propel you forward and help you prepare for the challenges ahead without allowing yourself to become paralyzed by it. Easy peasy, right? Or easier said than done, but still doable. In my case, reminding myself that I have a year of education behind me as well as a lifetime of experience as a human being also helps soothe my nerves. A bit.
(Pause while I let anxiety propel me backward briefly. Should have gone to my traineeship site last week. Can’t rewrite history, but can make it clear that I am ready to hit the ground sprinting, Cheetah-like in my speed and focus, when I arrive. Plus, I wouldn’t have known how to present myself properly at that time. Move forward from here . . . move forward from here . . . move forward from here.)
My anxiety is now telling me to start writing a reflection paper or prepare my classroom spiels. So off I go.
Image from the Mel Brooks movie High Anxiety.
It’s simultaneously raining and bright here in Berkeley, California at a quarter to 8 p.m. on Monday, June 24th. I’m writing this from bed after having a strangely exhausting day, where I BARTed and bused my way to my traineeship site to meet the principal and learn more about what was ahead of me. As I type, the rain has picked up. Downstairs, the boy is being boisterous and the man is holding down the fort. The rain (promised all day, but arriving in dribs and drabs) comes down harder.
The fall semester, still two months away, looms large. The traineeship is like a part-time job; between it and its supporting classes and supervision, I will be devoting over twenty hours a week to the cause. This is necessary, a good thing, though adding in two other classes plus family time may put me over the edge. Then there’s my commute. No matter where I am headed, the commute is about 1.5 hours one way. If I am able to pull it off, one of my longest days will begin with me leaving the house at 6:20 a.m., going to the traineeship, going to class, and getting home by 8:30 p.m. (only to head out by 7:30 the next morning). Occasionally, my husband will be on business travel, with two trips already on the books, not counting the one he is taking this week. I’ll just have to give up on leaving at 6:20 a.m. on those days. In the midst of all of this, I will be learning, absorbing, taking on emotional topics, trying to help people.
At the moment, I feel like I can barely help myself. I’m keeping the anxiety to semi-normal levels. The guilt – which is so easy to give in to – not so much. The self-acceptance? I’m having a really hard time there, too, though I can certainly talk myself into a sort of acceptance. I can attempt to ignore the little voices, though maybe they are trying to get me to pay attention to myself. What roles do the guilt, do the self-doubt play? Where do they come from? What messages do they bring?
These questions are beyond me right now. I have to keep walking forward. But I also have to think small, task by task, so that I don’t get overwhelmed by the larger picture. Part of my mind wants to be elsewhere this summer: in the garden, painting the living room, reading something besides books about putting peoples’ psyches back together or the pervasive effects of poverty on children’s minds and potential. Another part of me knows I need to prepare for what is to come. The trick is how to do so and not have my summer taken over by worry and over-planning. The trick is not getting caught up in thinking about the tricks, about the things I should be doing. The trick is to keep my thoughts tidy, to keep them from forming into knots.
The rain has stopped. The sky is dark. I’ll sleep on it and hope all will be calm come morning, that sleep will wash this away. If sleep doesn’t do it, Tuesday’s rain, the constant patter of drops, might.
Image Some rights reserved by linh.ngan.
fidget, squirm, talk non-stop, constantly in motion
fidget, squirm, talk non-stop, constantly in motion
I would like to fidget, squirm, talk non-stop, be constantly in motion. Instead I’m typing, still, silent as night, and I’m firmly planted. It’s yet another café post, me at PIQ again, this time downstairs, in between the kitchen and the street, and the doors are open to the songs of Shattuck (cars, a tootling saxophone, whiny brakes, the omnipresent rumble of road construction). “Fidget, squirm, talk non-stop, constantly in motion” are some of the behaviors listed under the hyperactive symptoms of ADHD. I like the rhythm of the words, the way they fit my slightly crazed (but still firmly planted in reality) mood.
This is a half-assed life, my full ass on a hard chair, my mind swimming with disorders and various psychological assessments and their rules and structure, their hocus pocus interpretation (yeah, yeah, with science behind it). I feel like I am cramming. I am cramming. But my 43-year-old mind has been filled with years and years of experience and facts – another thing I didn’t take into account when going back to school. My mind has about 50% more stuff jammed in it than it did in my last grad school go-round. And the brain, she is rebelling. But back to the half-assed life. I write as my husband and son are out and about (because Berkeley celebrates Malcolm X’s birthday and the boy is out of school), I was studying, but am necessarily done for the next few hours at least. I’ve had all I can stands ‘cuz I can’t stands no more, but here I am, head buried in my computer so that I can post something, so that I can toss my tension from Berkeley to wherever you might be. And I know that the tension fills the space between my letters, the gaps between my words. But, damn, the words are coming fast.
I got to school early this morning, for no particular reason. I was done with facts, so I ended up wasting a lot of time staring at my computer in the library. On the BART ride out, I saw a young women who reminded me of someone. Maybe she was that someone. Asian, petite, long hair with a henna tinge, a hint of bangs, dark-framed glasses, a rounded belly–the beginning of something?–wearing a pink knitted item that was kinda cute, kinda funky. She never turned to face me directly, so I didn’t get a good head-on view. Caught up in her texts, the woman leaped out of the train once she confirmed we were at Montgomery Street station. Did I know her? From where? Was she a character from a dream? A shadow? My projections made solid and real? It’s a big city and the odds are not good that one of my dream figures would roam my commute, hopping from train to train until she found me. I’ll probably never see her again. But if she sounds familiar, if she’s out there reading – well, I hope she understands how those moments of confluence are heavy with meaning, the meaning obscured by emotion. It’s about flow. There are no coincidences.
I started this at PIQ and I am finishing it at home, beer by my side, cat at my feet, mind somewhere between here and the outer reaches of the atmosphere. I walked home and I saw no one I knew. And I can’t bring my mind back, but I know it will return to me, sometime on Thursday afternoon when everything is over.
Image of me, by me.
Never post on a full mind. Never post on an empty mind. Never post when in doubt. As I type, I don’t know where I stand on any of those conditions. Too full? Too empty? And what about the doubt? Does just asking prove my point?
I left early this morning and let distraction throw me off course. I handed in a paper that may or may not be what the professor expected. I sat with that unsettled feeling. I ate a waffle that tasted of caramelized sugar. I sat in a classroom with closed windows. I sat in a windowless classroom. I summed up my developing theory of counseling in 30 seconds. I stood on the 29 to Balboa Park and listened to the hollow bravado of young white dudes who took up too much space and didn’t move to the back of the bus. I got on the wrong train. I got off the wrong train. I rode the train to Richmond as far as North Berkeley.
I stared at my phone. I stared into space. I stared out the window. Between then and now, between the time I walked out of my house and walked back in, the skies had a little cry, the fog clung to the city and then abandoned it, the saturated air formed a protective layer over campus and the sun took it away. Blue reclaimed the sky. The wind picked up. And through it all, I wore my sweater and kept on my shoes.
I came home and I wanted to cry. Cry for self-acceptance. Cry for the sins I no longer let define me. Cry for the knowledge that I have caused damage that I cannot change. Cry because my only option is to make amends. Cry because it’s a tricky business. Cry in relief. Cry in forgiveness. Cry because what else does one do at the end of a long week with so much ahead?
Image by me, taken at the Daly City BART station. In what sort of emergency does one break the glass? And what does pressing the button do? I have no idea.
Explore the feeling: misleading emptiness, mental floors swept clean, worries boxed and stored, and so much work to do. I sit and I stare at the computer screen, looking for a way in, convinced that whatever path I hack to the resulting post will take me to a dull place, and all because I couldn’t be patient, couldn’t wait for the topic to come to me.
I have four papers to write in the next four weeks and three finals that lurk in the shadows of week five. In the middle of the academic to-ing and fro-ing, I’ll be writing daily prompts again -- another round of the Robin starts at the end of this month and I’m signed up. I can’t wait, even though it will add to my tasks. In the midst of the papers, the tests, and the prompts, my husband will have two business trips totaling six days away from home. Gulp.
Some assignments are out of the way: yesterday was my final group presentation (on narrative therapy). According to one of my friends in the class, I am a good lecturer. I don’t think she’s just being kind, though I also can’t see myself from the outside. I am a good lecturer. Huh. Amazing how a compliment can propel me forward and give confidence. Anxiety helps me prepare for presentations. Practice makes things better, unless I over-practice. Anyway, with all this work ahead of me and the nerve-wracking public speaking behind, I am frozen into place.
Maybe my lack of movement is because of the roller coaster week. Monday was a low point, where, between my fears, triggers, and lack of skill, I questioned my future counseling abilities. Tuesday was a day of recovery, Wednesday was back to school and more lowness – I don’t need to see photographs of now-dead models, one of them weighing 69 pounds at her lightest, to know that anorexia kills. Thursday was confusion (assessment class) and nervousness (presentation) followed by triumphant relief. And today just is, though I have one item on my agenda: at our check-in, ask the psychiatrist about my diagnosis in order to pass it on to one of my other helpers. It’s psychotherapy justification time!
There’s something strange about going in search of proof for one’s fucked-upness in a week in which one has been feeling intermittently fucked up. Here’s what I think my diagnosis is: major depressive disorder (in remission). Maybe dysthymia. Some anxiety tossed into the mix, of the generalized variety? Then there’s my driving phobia . . . Yeesh. Thank goodness I know diagnosis is not destiny. Or at least I think I know it. (UPDATE: It’s a simple as MDD.)
So now I walk back through the path I made to get here, step carefully in old footprints, press against crushed vines and bent thistles. My mind is not swept clean. The untidy parts of myself, the worries, the faults, the wants, lounge in its corners with their cigarettes and cheese curls. I don’t want these ladies to go anywhere. Let’s talk, I’ll tell them. I want to know more about you. Have a glass of ice water, nibble on a tangerine. Together, we can take on almost anything.
Images: my shadowy self, all taken by my solid self.
And after it all, the glass of wine poured, my mind emptied, comforted with stillness and the gentle company of resting cats. I need to go to sleep soon (it’s after 10:00 on Tuesday night). I need quiet. I need a blanketed mind, a cozy, murmuring mind that will whisper me to sleep. While lying next to the boy tonight, feeling frazzled, knowing I had an agenda after his bedtime, my various appointments with chores, I closed my eyes and slowed my breath. I felt my heart beat. Clearly, I have not been paying attention. I know the fact of “heart.” I know the cause of fast beats, the effect of panicked thumps. I’ve watched from the outside as someone else’s heart slowed until it stopped. But I have never experienced my own heart as the powerful muscle it is, all business, no flutter, until tonight, when I made myself pay attention.
I can’t quite do it now. I am tired, there’s the wine, the slurp of Nick the cat’s evening ablutions, the singe of the laptop on my denimed thighs. I’ll have to wait until I am just about asleep to re-experience the engine, the vital center, doing its work.
I’ve been thinking a lot about mindfulness and boundaries, wondering how I structure my life now so that I can remain sane during graduate school and beyond. My “self-care” is the first thing to go, which means my sense of self is the first thing to go, too, along with my equilibrium. Some self-care tasks seem simple. Drink enough water. Take my vitamins. Get enough to eat (though that’s not as easy as it sounds for me right now). But being able to center myself is also vital. The triggers aren’t going to go away and I won’t always have a space for the emotions they bring up. What if I take a few moments each day to concentrate on my heartbeat? To remind myself of my boundaries? To maintain those boundaries and my sense of who I am?
I am Jennifer and I am sleepy. You, however, may read this in the morning, fresh out of bed and ready for the day. You may read it in a low mood days after I’ve posted. You could be looking at it during a bout of anxious insomnia, or right before you drop off to sleep, up too late for a weeknight and still not tired at all. As I drift away and occupy the moment, as I am here and gone simultaneously, I know you are good as you are, right now.
Just like me.
Image of a heart tattoo by Mez Love, slightly doctored by me.
I write this and am unsettled by the interconnectedness of life, the way we can’t escape pain, how our past reaches out to bite us. In addictions class this morning, we talked family dynamics (I had to get out the tissues: I hate when these classes make me cry, these challenging triggers that make me question whether I’m really over my past). Then we had a group of people talk to us about their experiences with both addiction and recovery. It was useful. It was stirring. It was intimidating. It made me question my ability to do this work. What is the line between empathy and overreaction? If I haven’t experienced addiction, can I counsel people struggling with it? If I over-think it the process, am I dead in the water, useless, frozen by insecurity? How much of counseling is based on education, on learning the techniques, and how much is intrinsic?
So the class (whew), and then the rush home, the not-good-enough lunch, and back out to pick up the boy in an hour, and in between news of Boston and bombs. As I type, my husband is in a plane hurtling over Missouri on his way to DC, I’ve got work to do, a presentation to think about, some picking up around the house. I am paralyzed by post-class processing. And there’s more, an extended feeling of doom.
In the dream that woke me up Sunday morning, the boy and I were in a vast apartment lobby, searching for a friend of his. I’ve dreamed about this building before, although now it felt like the first floor of the downtown Wilmington Public Library, but more down on its heels, a public space gone to SRO. As I riffled through a box of crumbling leases, I heard a man arguing with someone and turned around to see him holding a rifle. Who knew what was next? People around the room dropped to the floor. I crouched behind the front desk, hidden, maybe safe for the moment. But the boy – he was lying facedown on the floor five feet away from me, totally exposed, his hands cradling the back of his neck. Should I go over to him and risk drawing attention to both of us? How could I protect him? Was I taking all the safety for myself? How could I shield him from the emotions I was feeling, the terror, the knowledge that the world was not a safe place? I woke feeling dread, powerless in the face of the actions of the aggressive and forgotten. What could I do to not only protect him, but make a world in which the man with the gun on a slaughter hunt is unthinkable, not a regular occurrence? A world where no one plants bombs in public places?
The truth is, I can only do so much to protect the boy. Life eventually kills. Accidents happen. Diseases creep. Wars break out. People crack. They also triumph over pain, feel connection after years of isolation, pull themselves out of addiction, and heal from great trauma. I can only do so much, try to raise him compassionately, give him what I can, hopefully encourage a sense of goodness in who he is, and hope that the world doesn’t eat away at him or that, if it does, he has the luck and strength to rebuild.
I can only do so much to make this world a place where people do not become so disconnected from humanity that they massacre others. But I hope to the god I don’t really believe in that I can help as a counselor, can be a small beacon of change, maybe interrupt the process, the shutting down, the neglect and rage that can lead to the death of empathy. I want to be a supportive witness, to be good at what I do as a parent and as a future counselor. I want this reservoir of emotion to be useful, worth something, without projecting my experiences and pain on others.
I have a lot to learn.
Image of a flower on the sidewalk by me.
The floor to ceiling windows are covered with small grey dots. Is this to refract the sunlight when it does come? Do the dots tip off the birds, show them the solidity of the air they were about to penetrate? It gives the outside world a comic book look, like a dulled Roy Lichtenstein painting, the trees made abstract by patterned glass.
What to do with myself. I’ve read and summarized the chapter. I’ve studied all I can for today. I’ve finished my paper. I want you to come out of the woodwork, to track me down, and I’m just superstitious enough to believe that writing it will make it so, that my thoughts are strong enough, and so I allow myself a little old-fashioned longing, a fit of silly fantasy. It scares me how easy it is to tap into, this river I sometimes deny. All this for a figment of my imagination. Truly.
There are vehicles on campus, little trucks and carts that travel on the same paths the students do. One just passed in front of the library, brake lights flashing like two red eyes. Slow down. Slow down.
And I’m off. By the time you read this – if you read this – the ordeal will be over.
Spring break starts officially next week, but for me after my classes today. Perhaps I will see you here tomorrow . . .
Image by seliniamorgillo.
In Abnormal Psychology last week, we watched the movie Black Swan for a paper assignment. Or most of the class watched it. I had a vague idea of the plot line, settled into my front row desk seat next to a friend. I was a little hungry, maybe a little dehydrated, but what of it?
Have you seen Black Swan? It’s tense from the first frame and there are hallucinatory scenes with blood and by the time our ballerina is (apparently) ripping a strip of skin from her finger, I was woozy. Sweaty. Overwhelmed. Although I was about ten feet away from the classroom door, I knew I wouldn’t make it without collapsing. Eventually, I put my head between my legs, my friend noticed what was going on, and she, another woman, and the prof leapt into action. They got me in the hall, fed me sugary items, got me cool wet paper towels for my neck and forehead. They gave me water to drink. They were so kind. I sat on the cool tiles and then sequestered myself in an empty study space, finally sneaking out before class was over.
It’s ok, you were triggered, one of them said. It happens. Triggered? No. Not really. It was the blood mixed with the tension mixed with not enough to eat and drink. Triggered . . . I thought about my underlying reaction to Nina’s aloneness, to the horrible, manipulative ballet director, to the dancer’s isolation in her craziness. Triggered. Fair enough. I was squeamish and I was triggered and ever since then, a week ago, it takes nothing for me to become lightheaded. So I have to make sure I eat. And if I don’t drink enough water, the world starts to slip away. So there’s that.
(Pause while I chug a glass of fizzy water.)
I’ve decided to write here when I have the mental and emotional space to do so, to not worry about an audience, to not push myself to write when I have nothing to say. There will be very little crafting as well -- I’ll post it as it comes, editing with a light touch.
This feels like a sensible, healthy solution. I’ve got enough going on in my life at the moment to keep my brain humming from one thing to the next. No need to toss writing anxiety and phantom flirtations into the mix. My search for a counseling placement for next year has pushed my stress level over the edge (well, that plus the two presentations I have next week), but I think that search is about over. I’ll know more by the 15th. I hope.
Be seeing you very soon
Image from Black Swan.
I want to be poetic, to illustrate the fleeting, transcendent thoughts I have, the ones I sometimes tap into the notes app on my iPhone as I speed walk to the BART station or rush to pick up the boy. But this is the somewhat nonsensical stuff I’m left with: feed visuals photo writing capture natural world in metaphor veil between and houses on hill like vein on rock, quartz in granite (?). The first is about the urge we have – I have, at least – to try and reveal the greater truth about reality by writing about it, capturing it in metaphor, or about the way I want to take what is in front of me, with its physicality and energy, its itness, and transmit it to others in a photograph. I am constantly taking pictures of the surreal and surprising, of heady nature with its outstretched limbs and tangles of branches, of disembodied concrete hands resting in the leaf-laden grass of someone else’s front yard. This ability to transmit what I experience to you, to make the real more real, emotionally laden, to tug on the gossamer lines to memories you thought were forgotten, is heady stuff. And the houses-on-hill run-on thought? It is an example of my attempt to implement that metaphorical metamorphosis, to convey how the chains of houses in the highly populated Berkeley hills, visible from my bedroom window, the constant backdrop to every walk, form white lines in the dark trees, pale serpentine paths through the brown earth, like veins running through rock.
Sometimes, the thoughts emerge more fully formed, though often mysterious and occasionally over the top. They come in waves, five in a month and then a half year of silence:
You will wake up and see the shimmer in the distance that is me. Regret always comes two steps too late. (4/11)
Every window you pass is a way to enter a new life. (5/11)
I hate my body for its weakness. (5/11)
the places of secret memory (6/11)
Several latex gloves by handicapped seats, at least one turned inside out. (10/12, an observation that became a part of a post)
Tuesday is the day when I am gin-soaked in bitterness. (10/12)
My affection is a pathological thing, clingy. (1/13)
Sadly, at the moment I have very little poetry in me. I’ve just finished reading an overview of addiction and I’m distracted by thoughts about which beloved activity/substance I will forgo for two weeks for a paper assignment. I’m not going to go all Lenten sorority girl and give up chocolate. I could give up caffeine. I could let go of blogging and its associated compulsions for one painful fortnight. I’ve semi-given up alcohol, though now that my habit has been broken I’m enjoying a glass of wine with dinner on occasion. There’s no fucking way I’m giving up Facebook. Should I do what is hardest (give up blogging) or what will have the most physical effect (forgoing that morning cup and a half of coffee or the occasional latte)? We’ll see.
Look at the time! It’s late. I have to go. I have to run. I have psychopathologies to read about and the afternoon is slipping away. Wish me luck!
*The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual IV-R is the go-to place for mental illness classifications. The DSM 5 comes out in May.
Image: Yard art just off of University Avenue.
I spent most of yesterday writing about myself. For a class. This is the kind of thing I probably have to expect from a counseling program – lots of self-examination, maybe some application of theory to a narrative that just seemed like a story, my story, sure, but mainly a list of causes and effects and the weakness of me for being affected by the causes.
Let me tell you, writing about this stuff for far-flung friends and virtual strangers? It’s a piece of cake. Writing it for a professor? It feels very, very weird. Part of this is because I am not used to exposing myself in an academic setting and I’m also not sure how far to go, how much is appropriate. I’m also afraid of revealing my weakness, whether it be past (what happened to me) or present (the nagging effects of what happened to me). And I feel like I “pass,” like I don’t seem like someone who got knocked up at fifteen or grew up in a fair amount of intermittent tumult. I pass and I both want to pass and want to show that I’ve been places, sister. I know from instability. Not that I’m clinging to it. It’s not that. It’s just that I know.
In this case, I have to apply three of Erikson’s psychosocial stages to my life and write about how I got through each one, whether I came out shining with the primary adaptive ego quality (yay!) or limped on to the next stage carrying the core pathology like a heavy stone upon my back (booooooo!). This isn’t an either/or process, however. It’s possible to come out with a little of both, and it’s possible to struggle with and conquer parts of the stages later in life.
I didn’t pick the boring stuff for my paper, of course, though anyone who writes about her or his life is going to have obstacles at each stage, some struggle combined with triumph. There is no such thing as a boring life story. I’ve tried to keep it to just the facts, with as little melodrama or breast-beating as possible. But still – damn. Some shit has gone down in my life. And here I am, intact for the most part. Though I can see parts of each stage where I barely limped through or didn’t quite make it, I also see how I did.
One of the surprises for me was how much I’ve relied on my ability to think, on the flexibility and strength of my brain, to get through. It’s been good to me, my brain. I’d go so far as to say it’s a good brain and it’s the one part of me that has been affirmed in every stage of my life, from the beginning. Sometimes it tangles my emotions up in knots, or tries to box them up nice and neatly, not noticing the overflow, the way they seep through a corner and slowly obscure the floor. But it also protected me when I needed protecting, it got me attention and praise, and it still keeps me going, though it’s trying to balance thought with emotion now, letting things out into the open.
This has provided me another way to look at my experiences, through my strengths, what kept me intact. I recommend it as a way to turn a difficult life story around, in addition to looking at the environment you grew up in, the people and outside forces that helped to shape you, and how you dealt with it. What kept you safe? Connected? Intact? For me it was my grandmother, the best parts of my mother, my close friends, my sense of humor, my sensitivity, and my ability to think. I'm grateful for them all.
The No. 29 bus, standing room only at 10:00 p.m. on a Monday night. A nice young man gives me his seat. He and his buddies travel in a cloud of sweet spice, the scent of pot rich and thick, their conversation appropriately mellow and slightly confused. Beside them, a harsh contrast of cool pale Russian speakers. Across from me sits a heavily bearded man, neat and tidy, with solid admirable legs. He has earbuds plugging his ears, a cord plugged into his phone; he is as plugged in as the rest of us, except maybe for me. I have enough of a soundtrack, an internal monologue. I don’t need music pumped straight into my head. When my thoughts quiet, I listen to the rest of you.
Balboa Park station, 10:20 p.m. Two pairs of pigeons in love, the males strutting and cooing. Two girls, three guys, one infant, one toddler, and again that sweet spicy smell that I’m beginning to think permeates the air in San Francisco and Berkeley, available any time of day if you have the nose for it. We file into the empty car. The teenagers pair up. The odd man out sits with the children. He does not engage.
19th Street station, 10:50 p.m. The platform is crowded. We're tired. We're cranky. We want to go home. I read about a child who died from cancer, one of those Facebook links, big sadness made tiny on my iPhone screen. It’s stupid, it’s stupid to read things like this in public because the tears start and I have to hold them back and all I have is a crumpled tissue with a wad of gum in it to wipe them away. I use it, blot, blot. It smells of mint. The woman next to me has pink, sensible flats studded with half inch metal spikes. Those are the perfect BART shoes I think. No one's going to step on her feet. The train flies in on a huge gust of air.
A BART train car, 11:00 p.m.. Crowded before we even got on the train. Eighty percent of the passengers wear green and yellow jerseys and baseball caps. They smile. Stranger shouts to stranger. The air has the post-athletic event scent of beer and the wholesome afterglow of baseball. At each stop, Oakland A’s fans exit the train, clapping and chanting as they flow onto the platform. I remain standing. Across the aisle, on the floor between seats, are four used latex gloves, the peelings left over from some ritual, some emergency, the shed husks of someone else’s day.
11:15 p.m. My stop. I take the steps two by two and am the first one out in the cool night air. The tiles are slick, not a sign of rain, but of the nightly spraydown. I make a diagonal across the parking lot. I plunge into two blocks of darkness, watching my step on the tree-buckled sidewalks. Then home on low-lit night cat streets to home and family.
11:30 p.m. Home.
Yes, the commute can be grueling. It’s long. By the end of it, I’m worn. But I love it. I love the variety of people, the overheard conversations, the way we’re all mixed together. I love the feeling of self-sufficiency.
Sometimes after these long days, I want to cry. I need to cry. For the continued novelty of it. For the pressure of performing. For growth. I need to cry out of compassion for myself, cut off from the world and still struggling for self-acceptance. I keep moving forward even in the dark, even when fear and loneliness threaten to take over.
Image of a bizarrely empty Muni bus by Telstar Logistics.
Sometimes old habits emerge, and they are strange enough now that I recognize them as habits, well-trodden trails, wide and comfortable ruts, my old go-tos to keep me from entering the world. For me, it’s anxious thoughts that focus on what went wrong, what I’m doing wrong, worries about how I am perceived that keep me from really perceiving others and being present with them. When I recognize that my mind is leaning toward the dark, familiar path, I turn it back toward the light. Part of this is because of I am truly healing and in the process reentering life as an active participant. Part of my new perspective comes from seeing what my fellow classmates have battled and struggled with and recognizing that I am pretty damn privileged and have been from the beginning.
We never went without food or shelter. My grandmother was there for me, my grandfather, too, in his own way. I always knew it was expected of me to get a college education. We had books. My mother told me I was smart. The deficiencies were there, but there was so much good, too. And here I am, in school again, coping, participating even when . . . I was going to write something negative. There they are, the well-trodden paths of negativism, with their well-worn metaphorical clichés. I can't afford to go there anymore. It's a false picture of reality, an image of a shadow on the surface of a deep, rich pool. My go-to place is gone, replaced by an old growth forest, every layer humming with glorious, complicated life.
Sometimes I wonder how much to take credit for in this. Do I stand on a dais and spread my thank yous around? Well, they're important of course. I didn't emerge fully formed and complete. I didn’t do this all by my lonesome. I thank my mother for believing in me and nurturing my mind, my father for being there in the best way he could, my grandmother for giving me the most solid foundation of stability and love I could have, enough so that when it died with her, I still had something inside, the internalization of it, to stand on; my grandfather for letting me live with him, even when it wasn't good for him financially; one aunt for providing a place to go in childhood, another for her clear and solid love; my first husband for being so kind and generous; my second for loving me, supporting me, forgiving me, and believing in me; the boy for being the boy, prodding me to get beyond my childhood pain without even knowing he was doing it; my friends for their presence and support. I thank my therapists, the ones who have gently nudged me along the way and helped me find the seeds of change in all my rambling. Let's not forget me, too, the one who went through the difficult transition, who squelched through the muck of my own pain and finally started stepping out of it (not without the help of many of the aforementioned, of course).
I knew someone once who considered himself a catalyst for other peoples' personal change, the first domino to fall, forgotten by the end of the line, but important nonetheless. I am not sure I believe that one person can be a catalyst for another’s internal shift. You can’t encourage change in someone who does not already feel capable of it. But you can support them in their human frailty, help create an environment in which change can happen. It’s a group effort. The idea that other people are essential, play a positive, supportive role in my life, is one I would have rejected even a month ago. Sure, other people are nice, they might even like me, I'd think, but this is something I have to do by myself -- I created this distrustful, bruised, ugly self and it's up to me to change it back, make it all nice, neat, and tidy (ignoring the fact that I developed this self in part because of other people). A lot of these thoughts were based on fear, fear of exposing my ugliness, revealing my inner Gollum, and being rejected because of it. Ah, but there I go again, one foot about to sink into the soft, warm, familiar mud. No more.
As I start to integrate my childhood self into my adult self, as I (slowly) drop the constant vigilance, as I build the structure in which I heal and rejoin the world, my perspective becomes clearer. We all have a bit of darkness inside. We are all lovable, despite the darkness. We can define ourselves by the light while acknowledging the shadows within. And I feel so grateful. I feel a warm, radiating heat that my heart sends out to yours. Thank you for being here.
Images of trees along a trail at Joaquin Miller Park, a path mottled with light and shadow, taken by me a few weeks ago.
More on the "nattering nabobs of negativism," for those who are unfamiliar with the quote or who want to learn more.
I didn’t have much of a life then, though I was busy with work and school and preparing for comps that last year at Catholic. Once I got to Illinois, where the library science classes felt basic, the coursework easy, and my time ample, I had even less of a life, and so I started to crumble before I regrouped and tiptoed out into the world.
Last night, after the elementary school open house, when my husband came home from a different, work-related meeting, we each deconstructed our night to the other. My role at home is changing, life is expanding, and his new job offers him so much more, and in the middle is this beautiful, growing boy opening up to the world as I return to it.
Wednesday night, my head spinning with thoughts on racism, prejudice, and privilege, on Bay Area women of color in the fetish lifestyle (the openness, the potential for emotional healing, the tricky power differentials, the sheer variety of identity and preference) on bilingual elementary school education and the perils of standardized testing, I got home and could not stop talking about my day. Wednesdays are long for me. I leave the house at 7:30 and get home about 13 hours later after a commute that includes being packed into the humid heat of a San Francisco city bus with the young men saying hella this, hella that, their dragon boat paddles tucked into backpacks, and elderly Buddhist nuns electing to stand when offered a seat, and little girls who are separated from their mothers but keep calm even when the crowd between mother and daughter is five deep. Last Wednesday night, the sunset over Oakland was incredible, this expanse of pink-tinged clouds spread above the cargo cranes of the harbor like a beautiful explosion, the pastel remains of an airborne toxic event. Like the sunset, my day was intense. I had to unpack it when I got home.
Life is rich and complicated. I crack myself open on a daily basis, feeling things that I’ve kept hidden for a long time. Even after the dreadful awkwardness of parental chitchat under the fluorescent lights of the boy's elementary school classroom at night, a time and place when I am often at my worst (classrooms seem to do it for me – it’s still hard for me to feel comfortable in my own classes), I was able to see the whole situation, the social set-up, as a way to stretch myself, to allow myself to be uncomfortable knowing that some day I would be comfortable again, or close enough.
Within this life, this complicated life, I have so much now, so much more than I did 20 years ago. Part of it is luck in being partnered with someone who totally supports me, part of it is the result of hard, emotional work. I am so very grateful for this life, for my husband and son, who are a huge part of the reason that I have a chance to try things over, to bring the dormant and suppressed back to the surface, joy, sadness, fear and all.
Image by chrissam42 taken in 2006 from BART in West Oakland, just about the spot from which I was watching the sky on Wednesday night. The sunset I saw was similar but more spectacular.
I'm going to try updating the blog about once a week during the semester. My apologies for not answering emails or visiting blogs. Even writing this feels like an unauthorized use of time, but so necessary.
I knew it was bad when, after reading several questionable, rather opinionated things in my textbook, I felt vindicated at the author's revelation – in the text – that she was a Republican. Now, I am not Republican. I know many Republicans, most of whom are kind and intelligent and thorough, even if we aren’t on the same political page. I don’t want to turn this into something partisan or simplistic. But I read that, though back to some of the author’s presentations of certain topics, thought Aha! and called my mother to complain some more. We had a good laugh at my discontent with its intensity and uselessness.
I knew it was bad when I realized that I had just watched the entire Mad Men season five in one week, tucking it in between chapter readings and note-taking and quiz-taking and multiple-paragraph, multi-sentence discussion question answer-writing (with any reference to another work to be written in APA style, lest my answer be dinged for being plagiarized). No wonder I am in such a crummy mood. All work, no play, and hitting herself with a cable-show drama hammer makes Jennifer a cranky girl. Even as I write, I steal away time from studying – I have three quizzes, a final, and a midterm next week, most of which I have to complete by Thursday night. Such are the perils of taking two classes that compress an entire semester into 4 – 6 weeks.
Still – there is something about having opinions, strong ones, and enough life experience to know that they are rooted in reality, that I find comforting. This is one of the benefits of aging, of spending a long-enough time on the planet. I know things and I didn't even know that I knew them! At the same time, I am learning so much and see how hungry I’ve been for knowledge and challenge. I also see how I will need better ways to deal with stress in the coming graduate school years.
Because, of course, the rest of life doesn't stop for schoolwork. The last couple of weeks haven't been all about tests, Don Draper, and kvetching. Eleven days ago, the boy cut into his thumb at camp while making a magic wand, which necessitated a drive with my husband to pick him up and take him to the emergency room (they glued the cut; more than ten days later, it’s looking pretty good). He had a short PFAPA bout last weekend that oozed into this week, meaning my husband, who just started a new job, had to stay home for much of Monday, his first official day, while I was at my (wonderful!) abnormal psych class, taking a test and learning more stuff. My husband’s new job is perfect for him, but the kind of thing that requires more work after hours and more brain time, enjoyable and challenging, yes, but a new endeavor that adds a layer of intensity to our family life along with my studies. Last week I had one of the worst nights of abdominal pain I’ve had in a long time. Since high school I’ve had occasional issues with this intense pain that has no obvious cause. It is often, but not always, stress-related and can usually be dealt with by taking a big dose of ibuprofen when I feel the first twinges. That didn’t work last week and I was up for most of that Thursday night, wondering if I should track down the Vicodin my husband had for his last surgery, if we even still had it. (I didn’t, by the way.)
If you’ve made it this far through my litany of petty complaints, thank you. I’m writing, I’m writing, and I miss writing, the thing that I must do in between the rest or else I dry up, I crack, I feel the fissures in my emotional wellbeing. But now I’ve got other things to do. Off to read that terrible textbook, to try and absorb the useful, factual information while not letting the bad stuff get to me, jamming in as much information I can until the family wakes up and the day officially begins.
Image: "Multiple Choice" by gilhooly studio.