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.
And I’m tired. So tired. The train car is packed with East Bay denizens making the long journey home. My bag is packed with books and binders. After a stressful week – sick kid, two finals, a paper – that followed another stressful week – two presentations – I have no desire to think about school. I have no desire to think about anything. How can a mind be full and empty at the same time?
My classes constantly challenge me, both socially and emotionally. Listening and absorbing takes energy, as does talking. We often break into small groups, or do intense exercises that turn surprisingly personal or allow us to occupy new viewpoints. It’s great. It’s fantastic. It’s changing how I look at other people and the way I perceive myself. Maybe this is why I am in graduate school for counseling, to be shaken up and challenged on a deeper level. It’s been the best part of my education so far, though I’ve learned a lot on the academic side, too.
(Here’s where I wrote more. A lot more. Paragraphs about self-worth, womanhood, and childhood. Sometimes I build worlds of words, convoluted yet rational worlds. Emotions become syllogisms and I always have to end on a high note. My talent, however, lies more in metaphor. I’d rather be transcendent than right.)
Learning self-worth as an adult is like entering an emotional time machine, returning to the source, the scene of the first blows. Anger dominates, followed by sadness, all eventually wiped away by understanding and triumph. Inside my chest, down in my stomach, the feelings whirl and mix together. Time to say goodbye, to take those years of denial and integrate them. There are bodies, so many bodies, and hands grabbing, a girl crying. Men are shadowy figures on the perimeter. The girl knows that if she dances, they will like her, maybe even love her. They will make her lovable. So she pirouettes and twirls, she shimmies and bends, trying to find a dance that will please.
I motion for her to rest, to sit down beside me and lay her head upon my shoulder while I envelop us in love, in a misty aura the pale pink of peony in bloom.
Image by MugurM.
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 stood in front of her, naked from the waist up, vulnerable as I’d ever been. The woman treated me so gently, warm, gloved hands against my neck, guiding my body into contortions, pressing against a shoulder, positioning my breast for the camera. It was the softest intimacy I’d ever had with a stranger, the most delicate. When I received a card less than a week later telling me I was in the clear, I thought back to the low-lit room, almost as romantic as if we’d had huge candelabras flickering and dripping wax in the corners. I remembered the woman with gentle hands, and the machine that briefly flattened me.
From my view through the store window, 8:45 on Saturday night, I could tell the man was friendly, making small talk with the normally taciturn woman behind the counter, who was hidden behind his gestures and shrugs. I rounded the corner. He exited the store. Our paths crossed. He saw the dog first and it was love, scratches on the head, a kiss on her nose. Nora soaked it in, her ears up, tips flopped, undone expression: more, please. Was this my dog? Yes. What was her name? Nora. Dora? Nora. Oh! Nora. This man was my vintage, my age type, a bit older, from the tail end of the baby boom, a little bit of I Wanna Hold Your Hand to my I Want You (She’s so Heavy). He had the face of D, open, trusting. I used to say D was like a Labrador retriever, guileless and friendly and this man was no different, with his soft brown eyes and his canine affinity. After making contact with my dog, he scampered across San Pablo. I wondered if I’d spooked him.
The rest of the walk home, I thought about safety and choices, how my big decisions might look from the outside, in some ways as irrational as the clothing choices of a toddler, as telling as a series of Freudian slips. So far, this weekend has been devoted to reading about how the things we take in – physically, emotionally – change us, about the way addiction roots itself, can become a part of the body and mind. Addiction is a complicated mix of genetics plus environment plus the substances themselves, their insidious paths through our bodies, past the brain-blood barrier, the neurochemical mimicry that encourages dependence, the desire for more. Emotion and memory are inextricably, physically, linked, even if we are not aware of those links on a conscious level. How did I learn about what it means to be safe, what constitutes danger? What were the concrete emotional experiences behind the life that I now lead, the patterns I’ve created and lived?
I’d never thought of this marrying of emotion and memory as being part of the puzzle, the answer, the idea that our patterns are in some ways physical. The book I am reading, Uppers, Downers, All Arounders, doesn’t explicitly apply the paths of addiction to other realms of human experience. But I think the “old brain” they talk about covers other arenas as well. It’s the place of emotional association, the one that leaps into action at times of crisis, and brings on cravings for things that make us feel good, even if that good feeling is never quite the same as the first or second time. It reminds us what it means to be vulnerable, what it means to take risks. It remembers the short-term, heart-pumping, epinephrine/norepinephrine endorphic rush of sex that comes with a promise of danger and the potential long-term terror of actual closeness.
Is experience destiny? Once shaped, once memory and emotion overlap through repetition and the rush of chemicals, once the memories are physical and associative, burned into us by the paths of neurotransmitters, once the structure of pattern forms, can we escape those patterns? The only answer I have is yes. Yes, we can escape! I wouldn’t be here if we couldn’t. I would not be able to become a therapist if I thought the answer was no. Some addicts are able to pull off the escape eventually, though of course that depends on any number of things that aren’t under their control. I can pull off the escape, once I make the associations, acknowledge the things that mark me and still affect me, conscious. You can do it, though at the moment I have nothing but hope to provide to you, no other suggestions.
Of course, there is no complete rethink of self. We are not lumps of clay being pushed this way and that, finally taking over to press ourselves into a more pleasing shape. And anyway, we’re pretty damn good as we are. But it does mean we can strive for change where change is needed as well as develop a clearer vision of why we do what we do on an internal level, one part physical, one part psychological, the last piece experiential.
Image: The looming phantom hand.
It isn’t just about the learning, about the difficulties of filling my head with too much information. It’s about self-doubt, being put on the spot, about the performing and group work that is apparently a feature of being a counselor, or of counseling education. I am not complaining. I am just saying that, for me, socializing, listening intently, and having to role play is exhausting and often gets right to the heart of my insecurities. Part of it is temperament. I am a major league introvert. Big time, one might say. I need time to recover from social interaction. I need time to digest information. I don’t do well being put on the spot. Apart from temperament, I also fight a fair amount of self-doubt, especially in the midst of already worrying about my ability to do, well, to do lots of things
Things like get a traineeship, a 12-16 hour a week unpaid gig for a local human services agency. Things like pulling off a halfway successful traineeship, being even a smidgen good at what I plan to do (and notice the term “pull off” suggests that it would have to be a trick, a fluke, unrelated to my skills or talents). I can keep these fears in check for the most part. It helps to talk to other people, unless it doesn’t – I must pick my audience wisely (thank you, Grace, Jennifer. S. and L.). From various conversations, I know that almost everyone feels similarly. And it will be ok. It will all be ok. We will all be ok.
As I was working myself up this afternoon, waiting for BART, ruminating and then stepping away from ruminating, I thought I don’t know what I am capable of, cue slightly melodramatic, self-pitying sigh, read the implied not much. But then I realized the profound nature of that phrase. I don’t know what am I capable of. I may be capable of a great many things, but I let my fear of finding out, of taking risks, get in the way. Sometimes, even after I take a risk, like entering graduate school and I do well at it, at least the academic part (see the nagging little voice of self doubt I have, divvying up my accomplishment), even then I can allow fear to paralyze me. Paralyze. Until I talk myself off the ledge again. Until I feel a communion with all those people, my classmates and others, who are in the same ambiguous boat, where it seems like the waves may overtake any second or that the boat might spring a leak, but we must keep sailing, moving through the water. We prepare for contingencies, we think about the future. We exist in the present and don’t over think the past. We can keep the boat sound and watertight and if a leak springs, we know what to do.
Ach. I’m taking the rest of tonight off. Tomorrow morning, I will print out resumes. I will read up on what I should ask of agencies and what they might ask of me. I’ll put on my nice clothes and take another trip across the Bay and the city to attend a traineeship fair and talk to my potential future trainers/employers. It will be fine. I don’t have to have all the answers. I don’t have to claim that I know what I’m doing. I can say that I have an empathetic heart and a rational mind, that I feel for children in dire straits, that I have some experience with being almost broken, but I can separate it all out, be caring and wounded without letting the scars get in the way of openness. I will not confuse myself with others or others with myself. I won’t use mantras or overblown pep talks to plug the holes because I will assume wholeness. There will be no visualization of success. I will just be and, in the process, remain me.
Or so goes the plan.
Image: Our porch light, giving off the glow of a slightly mangled star.
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.
In the other, my family had returned to the city. I brought our garden with us, transplanted the raised bed to a sunny rectangle in the very front of the yard, in the border between private and public. In the course of a few dream minutes, tiny tomatoes emerged hard and round from the vine and the cantaloupe plant sprouted buds. The landlord came by – we were never homeowners in this scenario – and rooted around under the pale green leaves of the melon plant, unearthing a small cantaloupe, fully formed, a little worse for wear, but edible. Yes, the garden thrived in its new home, but it was never a totally barren place. There was just enough light and heat within me, enough rich soil, to produce this beautiful, heavy thing, a portent of what was to come. I cleaned off the fruit of my labor and cut it into thick, juicy wedges.
Between the wind-down after getting home late from school and the various logistical nights of scheming my husband I have gone through to determine how to cover the boy’s time from now until August, I’m not getting enough sleep. We went on a summer camp binge the other night after I realized that I would probably miss the usual Berkeley Family Camp outing in July because I’d be in summer school. Then there was spring break to deal with. The boy’s is the week after mine and I have a midterm and a paper due during his time off. Luckily, camps exist for the purpose of covering such situations. Anyway, the point was I was up past midnight all hopped up on someone else’s leisure time and I sunk into sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. It was the same way last night, after my husband and I deconstructed the day, the class potluck I missed, discussed how to calm our parental worries, followed by a brief dose of The Daily Show and the Colbert Report, concluding with sleep, blissful and brief.
I’m not getting enough sleep, but I’m not feeling down, just ditzy. My brain delivers a mix of dreams. I max out at about six and a half hours of shuteye (less the last few nights), and the only real sign that I haven’t gotten enough rest, which may be a symptom of something else, of missed connection or resistance to movement, is that in my waking life I can’t figure out the links and overlaps of the transportation system. I just miss my train, my bus, my signal to walk, or I get on the wrong train. Over the past week, I’ve hopped that wayward BART train a few times, headed off in the opposite direction from my intended destination. Yesterday, I missed a connection, which made me a minute late to my abnormal psych class (and made my door-to-door commute 1.5 hours), and then, after getting out at 6:45 p.m., a luscious ten minutes early, I ran for the bus at the campus stop only to watch both the 28 and the 29 pull away. When the next 28 came, there was a crowd, and I was slow and sluggish, a barrier in the stream of humanity shoving its way to the back. At the 12th Street BART station, I almost missed my train to Berkeley because I couldn’t tell if it was coming or going.
Here’s what I choose to believe: his dream disgust was my further acceptance of change. My garden is in a better place, with more opportunity to grow, but it was never fruitless. And the mental block that is between me and my destination will work itself out as the semester advances.
There. A post written in half an hour, giving me time to prepare myself for a long school day, with classes on assessment and the theories of counseling. Perhaps I will return to this space tomorrow with more dreams to transcribe.
Edited after a long, exhausting day, in order to rid it of the repetition of missed connections.
Image by rent-a-moose.
Yesterday was an unsettling day in ways I can’t seem to describe. I spent too much time alone on campus and felt alone even when I wasn’t, and the day closed with a class where our guest speaker inspired but also alienated. I felt old(ish). I felt very white. I felt the invisible structure that has gotten me where I am today, still propping me up and leaving other people trapped under my pale shadow. My time on campus started early, with an appointment with my advisor about next semester’s classes. I’ll be taking four of them, which I think will be ok. But then I got an email that alerted me to a text about the boy getting sick in the car, the same old same old, headache followed by vomiting. Was this the return of PFAPA? How could I do anything, let alone take four classes, if we were going to plunge back into that world? I rode the anxiety train, the one I’ve let pass me by for the past few months, though I got off at first opportunity.
The boy was well taken care of, so I went to my evening class,the one with the speaker who was trying to leave his machismo behind. When it was over, mercifully early, I left without talking to anyone. I avoided a chatty classmate. I got on the bus, I hopped on BART, all the while trying to talk myself down from the anxiety, from the feeling of being overwhelmed, when I realized–I’m sensitive. Highly sensitive. And when you are highly sensitive, you have to cut yourself some slack and allow yourself what you need to feel calm and centered. (I feel like I’m talking about a high IQ or something, something that sets me apart and makes me very special, but trust me, the world is not set up for folks like me, especially those of us who are introverts. If you want to see if you, too, are highly sensitive, try this test).
I have to give myself permission to be quiet sometimes, or to tell a classmate that I need some alone time after a long day or acknowledge that, for me, getting overwhelmed at crowded events is natural. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the reason I don’t like talking on the phone with anyone but my parents and husband might be because of sensitivity combined with introversion, but when I read this post and saw myself, I thought, I am not alone! I am not a freak!
Being a sensitive introvert doesn’t mean that I dislike people or am uncomfortable talking to them. If that were the case, I’d have a very difficult time being a counselor and would have left librarianship well before I did. Contrary to the bookish, quiet stereotype, librarians spend a lot of time talking, clarifying, and communicating with patrons and their fellow librarians. Anyway, the point is–I like you people! I miss you, too, you other people out there, from friends to potential friends. I’m still squelching through the muck of loneliness, keeping my mind on the future, knowing that this loneliness is not a permanent condition. If I give in to that hopeless feeling, it’s all over. Even if I have to occupy a delusion, I will continue thinking that connection is right around the corner. I won't stop trying.
In the meantime, the boy isn't so sick, we've had a day of down time, and there's always tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day.
Tomorrow, of course, is the day after election day. I hope all my U.S. readers voted.
Image: Me, when I was a shy girl, though I have my quibbles with the word "shy."
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.
It is true – the scent of the sea does follow me. Perhaps it’s a summer scent memory, but sometimes when I am sitting with my computer on my lap, I smell salt with the tiniest undercurrent of rot, that warning that further down the beach the half exposed skeleton of a fish lies on the sand, mobbed by flies. Then I remember that Nora-dog is sleeping at my feet. Oh.
The last psych class is done, six weeks of intensity that briefly overlapped four and a half weeks of a different sort of intensity. Everything has been in a rush lately, the rush to toss out the accumulated crap, the rush to do a season’s worth of gardening in a few weeks, the rush to prepare for the boy’s upcoming birthday and party and the upcoming visits of various grandparents over the next month. Wherever I’ve been, it’s been good and busy and engaged, even if food continues to disinterest me and has become more fuel than anything else.
I still maintain fantasies of being taken care of, of the mind reader that does not exist but should, of sinking into a relaxed state knowing that I don’t have to keep vigil over everything. I think that is the problem with food right now – I want to be fed, I want to be hungry and then satiated with care and attention, but instead my eating pattern consists of annoying appetite followed by its extinction, the little pangs ignored and then silenced with whatever foodstuff is handy.
There is nothing to be done about it. Still, if I want to get through graduate school in a healthy fashion, I need to start taking better care of myself. For most of my adult life, part of my self-definition has been about healthy eating and cooking, about taking care of others through food, of enjoying good food and its preparation. It’s disconcerting and confusing to feel so unattached to what I eat, to play a game with the edge of hunger, and to feel like I am the only one who notices. And who would I let take care of me anyway? It’s a trap, a fallacy of what it means to be taken care of that I’ve let myself fall into. It’s time to woman up and let go of the being parented fantasy. Or time to figure out the appetite behind the lack of appetite, to fill myself up in other ways.
As for the opening paragraphs to this post? I’ve spent the last several weeks writing, writing, writing. Sometimes I can fit interesting passages into what could be dry text. For example, I am particularly proud of the following passage from my developmental psych final: Berkeley High School (BHS) is a huge place, with about 3300 students. At lunchtime, the students stream out to invade the takeouts of downtown. They are overwhelming in their mass and in their blind, broad, and loud joie de vivre. If you’ve been in downtown Berkeley on a weekday during the school year, you know exactly what I mean. Academic writing with a little art thrown in is good for me. It shows that I can write well, clearly, and quickly on topics other than myself. I find it enjoyable and stimulating to interlock words and concepts. But it doesn't take me down lyrical paths or transport me into a world where I am seven years old with a late-July tan, my legs marked with mosquito bites. In that long-ago place, I'm still figuring out that a wave can pull me under and spit me back onto the sand. I still think that the grownups are always right and that a little bit of salt water will cure what ails me. I am innocent and trusting and small and someone else always cooks me dinner.
It's a strange space to crave, one of dependence and innocence, a compelling fantasy that forgets the complications of childhood and the way you sometimes have to become a fortress to protect yourself against what you need, against the ache of not getting.
Image of me in Ocean City, MD, summer of 1976.
The final chapter of the textbook for our human development psych class isn’t a chapter. It’s an epilogue, a conclusion, a summing up. We all know how life ends. And it’s over. The textbook-reading portion of the class, anyway. Much writing remains and that’s what I should be doing now, that or sorting through the clutter, but instead I want to think about the solidity of self, what is real and why it is real, and what happens to it after our bodies give out.
I’ve spent the last five weeks taking furious notes and multiple choice quizzes (17 of them!). I’ve watched two Frontline videos on topics of interest to the human development crowd. I’ve written up three very long homework assignments and put out several stilted, overly researched contributions to our class discussion board. Sadly, I am a rule follower, at least when it comes to things like schoolwork. And this class has been all about the rules, with various instructions and admonitions, the kind of stuff that makes me doubt my ability to write in an academic style. (Do I need to write in an academic style? Isn’t it time for some real style in academic writing?) I am also congenitally curious and value data that come from sound sources. If I have a question about, for example, the prevalence of post traumatic stress disorder among men and women as compared to in soldiers returning from combat,* I locate a reputable source, fit it into my work and cite it dutifully. The end result is that I feel like a goody-two shoes who unnecessarily creates mini-research papers for very little reason except my compulsive need to do things the right way.
I’ve done a lot of complaining about this class, but the fact is that I am grateful for it. Change comes slowly to a person -- for example, people dependent on nicotine and heroin relapse an average of six times before getting clean for good (something I have in my abnormal psych notes, but haven't been able to verify from another source) -- even when change feels like a watershed. It is so much better for me to have externally motivated goals and lots of food for my mind. My mind has been starving and so I fill it again and again with facts and knowledge and still it demands more. At the moment, I’m also missing more regular human interaction, something that is intermittently important as I work, rest, work, rest. And, just as I knew that the coursework would come along to challenge me eventually (because I planned it that way), more social interaction awaits. At the moment, swimming alone in a sea of facts on adolescents, small children, and emerging adults, I feel a familiar yearning. It reminds me that having too time much time alone in my mind is dangerous and not particularly useful. It is not wise to create and occupy that airless space. It leads to desolation and deprivation.
You have to recognize the initial sink, the way the floor sudden gives, that which seemed solid and real just yesterday revealing itself to be a cloth stretched thin, a cracking length of plastic, a brittle sheet of wallboard. Then you attempt sniff out a reason. Maybe it's a lack of sleep (early morning followed by late night followed by early morning, waking up after Neil Young pushed you on a swing on the roof deck of some dive bar in a city you once knew and the woman you had drinks with, a blonde gone sour, the mother of his baby, and the night air was cool on your bare arms). Maybe it's that you don't have a good reason to get out of the house, so you don't get out of the house. Suddenly taking a shower overwhelms, food is merely fuel, brushing teeth a reward for answering another question on the final. More sleep, you promise yourself, and tomorrow getting out is built into your day, and the shower is a given. A few days of darkness may be only that.
*According to the National Comorbidity Survey, women of all ages and both women and men between the ages of 45-59 are the most likely to receive a diagnosis of PTSD over the course of a lifetime ("National comorbidity survey," 2005). But the lifetime prevalence of PTSD is 39% among male combat veterans (National Comorbidity Survey,as cited by Hamblen, 2009).
Hamblen, J. (Instructor). (2009). PTSD 101: what is PTSD. [Web Video]. Retrieved from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/ptsd101/course-modules/what-is-ptsd.asp
National comorbidity survey. (2005). Retrieved from http://www.hcp.med.harvard.edu/ncs/index.php
Image from Management of Heart Disease and Depression as Comorbidity.
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.