Whatever I do, whatever impulse I follow along these lines, also makes for pretty dull writing on the technical end. It’s like riding the shadow of remembered pain, tracing a path I’ve worn from soft dirt and pine needles down to rock and fossil. Sometimes I can take my responses to the daily writing prompts to another place (after Francine’s secret* is revealed, does she become more hopeful about humankind and finally ask for help?), but I afraid this week so far is about a series of mental traps, of self-reflection gone in circles. Being plumped on anxiety about the impending school year makes it worse.
I want to take you to a small cottage that smells of kerosene and mildew, want to place you there with me, 16 and abandoned to myself after a tragedy whose ripples will never smooth, and say – there! This is why I don’t ask for help. Would you do this to your own teenager? Was I that terrible? Did I deserve it?
I’ve been down this dead-end lane before. The brambles catch on my 1980s The Limited Forenza cargo pants, the moonvine threatens to wrap around my ankles and pull me back through that door, but I ask for a hand and, with help, pull myself free.
*Writing prompt from last week.
Title from the Beatles song “Help!”
From the prompt “Asking for help.” Image from the album cover of Help! courtesy of Lady P3pper.
In the movie scene, in the last frames of the episode, in the middle of the book with the troubled character who reminds you of yourself, the man kicks away the chair beneath him. We see his body gently sway. His feet point to the floor. We hope that the beam collapses or the rope breaks. We want someone to find him before it is too late, a rescuer with a hunch, the last person he spoke with, the roommate with the sensitive ears. Failing that, we want it to be quick. We don’t want to see what happens when a body is subjected to such violence.
Suicide as plot device can fool you into believing you know what it is like to feel that sort of despair. Unless you have felt that sort of despair. You don’t really know such deep bleakness until you are in that moment yourself. I’ve been there, but I’ve never been there, if that makes any sense. And I hope to never feel that way again, though I know the odds are against me.
We are born into this world alone. We die alone. Hear it deeply voiced and serious, a cliché-ridden movie trailer voiceover to a film you don’t want to see. But perhaps it is true. We emerge as singletons, the symbiotic relationship with our mothers broken at birth. When the time comes to make our exit from this life, we do so without a guide or companion.
I suspect those who attempt suicide feel this aloneness more keenly than most.
From the prompt “Solitary.”
Image from here.
So I picked him up and she padded my lap with a thick layer of terrycloth before returning to the thing that needed to be done. With the first shot, his body softened. He curled up in a contented sleep. With the next, he was gone.
Nick was the third cat we have had put to sleep, that somewhat disturbing euphemism for euthanisation, since we moved to California in 2007. First it was elderly Sidney who collapsed at the water dish and had to be rushed to the vet’s. It was horrible, him lying painfully on the cold metal table in the operating room with its lights and equipment, the only space the office had available. I had waited too long. A year after that, it was the older Zoe’s turn, a more planned procedure, and slightly less traumatic. We ended up at the cat clinic, our smallest kitty ever on the table, though the rest is now lost to me. And yesterday, after three years of wasting away and struggling with stomatitis and digestive problems, Nick (supposedly nine years old, but more likely in his teens according to yesterday’s vet) died on my lap, my arms wrapped around him to keep him secure. I held life, and then I held death. It was a strange, sad sensation.
He was not an easy cat. Nick was prone to howling at the top of his voice in the stairwell at 4 a.m.. He was afraid of Nora-dog and therefore terrorized her, though more recently he seemed to understand that she was no threat. Whenever he rubbed against my bare skin with his face, I would break out in itchy bumps. But he was lovable, too, a lap kitty who often cursed the laptop, a beautiful boy who just wanted to be close and comforted by his humans.
Now he’s in the backyard with Zoe, in the corner near the apple tree and the wild blackberries. Yesterday morning he was curled up on my lap. Today he’s under the dirt. It doesn’t seem possible. As with the others, it was the right thing to do. Still, it always feels like there were other things we should have done, steps we could have taken, money that we didn’t have to spend spent anyway. With each cat, I have had regrets and learned lessons.
Last night was strangely quiet. This morning there was no trilled greeting, just the mellow Asher-cat rubbing against my legs and Nora-dog tip-tapping down the stairs. Over the next week, we will pick out a cat statue to put out in the garden, a marker for the kitties who have gone before. And I will look for pet insurance for the animals who remain, which will hopefully give us more choices the next time around.
I thought of the table with its harvest gold cloth and surround sound conversation, where the jokes were over my head and the criticism personal and deep. In those days, it did not matter what I said, even when my face was furrowed and sadness seeped out of me. Sometimes the grownups spoke to me in clipped tones, trimmed close to the ground, no room to hide. I always wanted to be alone, to sit in the garage on the rusty chaise lounge, sip chamomile iced tea, and read a book, become a shadow in the shade. Some journeys are not meant to be retaken.
What if I could choose my moment to go back – which would I pick? Would I reoccupy it as I was, with the clean conscience of childhood, no foreknowledge, or choose to come preloaded with the experience of time? Would the baggage and wisdom of adulthood ruin the moment or deepen it?
I had no desire to shove myself into the past, to mourn again the loss of childhood and of the adults that occupied my middle distance. My mother would be in her 20s, her bed made by committee but she its only occupant, and my dad, too, cynical in the way young men can be, hope still shining through the fissures. The dead would rise, my grandparents by turns soft and sour, arriving in a cadenced whir of sewing machines and table saws, the air around them fogged with sawdust and coffee, ozone and sweat. And I would again be comforted by the beliefs that died as I grew, my misplaced faith in adults, the assurance that time was my own and time was infinity.
My husband said he would go back. Any day would do. It would be more time with his mother, and he could return to the present with that memory, the sound of her voice, the soft touch of her hand. He had a point.
What would you do? What day would you pick? Your answer may depend on your childhood and where your peace lies.
1970s pattern image from Dressing Vintage.
He didn’t know how to treat women, did he? No! He didn’t (laughter).
I’m not from the East Coast, I’m from Brooklyn.
I didn’t die.
Was there anyone else in the house? My grandfather. The feeling I am getting is that you were alone. Yes. I was essentially alone.
The theory is that after physical life ends, energy remains. Those on this side without the gift use a medium to seek out the company and advice of the dead. The process is often an elaborate exchange of symbols with multiple potential meanings the conduit and seeker filter through their own thoughts, feelings, experiences, and assumptions. The source of the truth becomes hard to suss – how much comes from you, how much from the medium? What percentage of the information flow is directly from the dead? Or is death, as my maternal grandmother might have it, an illusion? Perhaps it is more accurate to speak of those who have passed on. As the book goes, maybe we don’t die. Instead, we pass through the veil, migrate to the other side, transition from one form to another.
Biologically, life begins the moment cells start to divide (sentience and consciousness are later chapters). It ends when the heart and lungs complete their duet, the brain quickly following. Or perhaps they are a trio, the music of life dependent on each player. If you’ve ever been in the room with a person or animal at the moment of death, the transformation is obvious. Something vital, whatever made that creature who she was, has exited the body. Was that something just the glow off of a billion firing neurons, the electric buzz of the brain? Or was it incorporeal, an addition to the body? That is, do creatures have souls and, if so, do those souls survive death?
If I did not think there was some merit to the idea that we not only have souls, but those souls survive the body, I would not go to a psychic medium. But I also can’t help but question the assumption. My intellectual, rational brain wants proof. It defaults to doubt, even after yesterday’s intense session. Not to the place of comfort, my grandmother with me always, but to an in between spot of not-knowing, working in part on the fear that my desperate hope, the chance to mollify my childish aches, will overtake my rational mind.
But I have a choice in what to believe. And there were aspects to the reading which I could consider “proof” of life after death, though they did not come through in the way I was expecting (making them even more believable, actually). Sometimes the soothing path is just fine. Why not believe that my soul will survive death and loved ones await my arrival on the other side? Why not believe that my grandmother has been with me all along? So I take my belief with a modicum of doubt, knowing surety is only a visit away.
Image of my altar (objects chosen by the psychic medium and rearranged by me) by the medium.
However, I do tell stories from time to time, most of them autobiographical. And a little while back, my friend Anne mentioned this to writer Leah Peterson, who was looking for other writers to profile in her blog. Today, I am the featured storyteller at leahpeah. If you are coming to this writing to survive from Leah’s site, welcome!
One of the questions I answered for the profile was “Tell me a secret?” I struggled with this. Did I go with relatively light secrets or with the big one, the burden I carried until I was in my late thirties? I decided to go for the light stuff, my former SECRET security clearance and the fact that I have a license, but don’t drive (yes, still).
I have an uneasy relationship with the secret I carried around for over twenty years. I am not ashamed of it, but I am afraid of its heft. I am afraid of it weighing down other people. I am afraid of being pitied or becoming a subject of voyeuristic interest because of it. I am afraid of getting lost in it again myself.
Though the secret is here, buried in the blog, it is not the presence it once was. It’s more a fact, a life-shaping experience, but one that doesn’t define me. I wrote and wrote and wrote about it until I no longer felt a need. And then I deleted most of it from the blog, not wanting to be summed up by what happened when I was 16, alone, and helpless.
Still, I will never totally elude my adolescent experiences. But why should I? They are part of who I am. Just not the only part.
It’s still a struggle.
Image of me walking to the BART taken this morning by me.
I am home with a fever and sore throat, my voice raspy, my brain mushy. I lie abed. Before he left, my husband stopped by the store to purchase a few things, picking up cough drops, dark chocolate peanut butter cups, and beer along the way. That man keeps me supplied in beer and chocolate, and though you may have quite an image of my afternoon, cough drop wrappers all around me, my fingers smeared with chocolate, a row of dead soldiers lined up on the bedside table, it’s not like that. The beer is to have on hand. The chocolate, however, is for immediate consumption. My husband anticipated my needs and wants and took care of them. His love, flawed and beautiful, supports me.
When I am sick in bed, it feels like I am getting away with something, that my inactivity is undeserved, a clever way to elude responsibility. Sometimes, sick or well, I feel I do not deserve any of my good fortune, the husband who supports me no matter what, the material comforts, the ability to take a day off to rest. My entire life feels like a cosmic sleight of hand that could be fumbled at any time. That’s when the worries start, the fears about losing it all, about creeping illness and horrible accidents and the end of life as I know it. I have learned to turn off that part of my mind, but when I am vulnerable it tends to turn itself on again.
There are no guarantees. But focusing on the myriad ways the jig will be up -- because it will be, eventually -- only takes me away from the present. I cannot mourn in advance or harden myself against potential loss by imagining it. So, as my husband flies on a jet plane across the country, I will assume it will work out like it always does, that we have time stretching out before us, that love will not be snatched away. At least not yet.
So I finish the chocolate, let the beer be, and raise my mug of honey lemon water to love’s strength and fragility. Ultimately, it’s all we’ve got.
Image from Beer & Brewer Magazine.
I am in fashion limbo, at that awkward age where it feels like some things – second-skin jeggings, shorts so tiny they creep up my ass to reveal the subterranean curves of my ever-sinking buttocks, gladiator sandals that strap ‘round the calves as they train-track it up to my knees – are no longer options. Actually, those things were never options, but still . . . I couldn’t pull those looks off if I wanted to at this point (well ok, maybe those sandals – if they offered the right kind of arch support). I am a middle-aged lady whose days of cling and showing a little skin are behind me.
Perhaps I also feel this way because I am in a kind of general limbo, in the midst of an existential crisis, except that I am so distracted by my various tasks and insecurities that the existential crisis is somewhat smothered. I can hear its muffled voice underneath all this whining. Who am I and what should I be wearing? it whispers. What sort of meaningful work am I capable of doing? But the whines, the booming anxiety, the echoing heartbeats, cover it over until all I am left with is a closet of black skirts and loose-fitting pants, with shirts in variations of gray to match and the same pair of shoes every damn day.
I am tired of whining. It’s trap, a way of hiding from a deeper truth. So I’m frumpy for a few more months -- who cares? So I don’t know who I am anymore – I’ll figure it out. So I am having trouble getting over that pesky hump of being here now – accept your limitations and go home or just keep on trying.
Sometimes I wonder what people from my out in the world life would think if they read my work. I don’t share the blog with classmates. My supervision group members have no idea that it exists, and I certainly am not going to be distributing the link to people at my placement. All these folks are too busy to even care, and I can’t say that my material has been gripping lately anyway. But there’s a lot of it, a lot of my internal life out here in what passes for print, the inner made into a display, as though I would not exist without some written record of my thoughts, joys, and pains. However, what I put in this blog is generally not the stuff I share in the real world except with a chosen few. For most of my acquaintances, I am a quiet mystery, or perhaps simply quiet.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, about my need to be seen and approved of in some way but only in a format that I shape and edit into being. What you read has been carefully moved from draft to final product. It has been rearranged and polished, even more so lately, as I struggle with feeling competent in other areas of life.
But the need to control my public self is what it is. It is what it is. Perhaps I can just leave it at that, observe this tendency without judgment.
I have so much – health, a solid family, a great kid. My husband has a job he loves that supports us financially while he also supports us emotionally. A little temporary stress won’t hurt me. Accepting the fact that I am high-strung might help loosen a string or two, and the need to be seen the way I’d like to be is not a crime. Sometimes acceptance is the path to change -- sometimes acceptance is the change.
It is what it is. I am who I am. And a shopping trip to Crossroads Trading Company might help pull me out of fashion limbo, though I’ll stay away from the jeggings and the slips of skirts that are more than half a foot above the knee.
But I was -- and am -- none of these things. I am a complicated human being with good bits and bad bits. I am a creature molded by events, by parental love and neglect, and by the choices I make. Not all of those choices have been good ones. I have done bad things. But there’s good stuff, too, and a lot of it.
While I could turn the tables on those who defined me by my perceived faults and treated me cruelly, could pigeonhole them as “bad” in some way, I don’t look at people like that anymore. I no longer think of human beings in terms of good or bad. I think in terms of behaviors, of the things we do to each other and to ourselves. Sometimes we make bad decisions. We choose nastiness instead of kindness, betrayal instead of loyalty. Sometimes we make those decisions repeatedly. But there are always reasons we do what we do, no matter how mysterious. And there is always the chance to change. The world comes to me in gradations of gray and shades of hope. Those men were in pain and they passed that pain on to me. Understanding that doesn’t mean I have to like what they said or take it as truth. I don’t have to accept the injustice of their words and actions.
Most importantly, I don’t need to pass the pain on to others. It is my job to make sure the dysfunction stops here. The hurt stops here, and it changes into something beautiful, into understanding and, sometimes, forgiveness. I don’t have to pass this legacy on to my son or carry it anymore myself. My goals are to accept people for who they are without defining them or summing them up by the worst of their actions, to remind myself that we were all helpless children once, to let go of my vigilance, my constant scanning for the blow that may never come.
As I write, tears come to my eyes and I get an odd ache in my chest. If I can accept others, I can accept myself. I can let go of the anger I turn against myself. I can release the shame. And the slings and arrows of the emotionally blind and injured can no longer hurt me.
I am moving forward, sometimes at a crawl, other times in leaps and bounds. I’ll be fine. I am fine. And getting better all the time.
Image Some rights reserved by Fey Ilyas.
I’ve almost given up on a clean house. I’ve almost given up on myself. Dirt and sand collect where the boy takes off his shoes. Other things collect on the dining room table, small flocks of paper that gather between the mesas of books and the occasional hillock of laundry. My clothing serves the function of warmth and coverage. I drape it on a body that requires the occasional immersion in streams of water and the usual thing with the shampoo and conditioner. My teeth get their twice or thrice-daily scrubbings (eventually), but it all feels obligatory, a chore. The desire for self-care has been bleached out of me, and the effort it takes to do the little things that make me feel better – like straightening up – isn’t worth it. There is something about the mix of school, placement, and parenthood that keeps me from even recognizing my needs.
This inattentiveness to self has led to pep-talks and promises of habit change, little rallies in which I refer to myself in the second person. Brush your teeth before you walk the dog. Drink a glass of water every two hours. Do one task at a time without worrying about what else awaits. Don’t beat yourself up by thinking of all the things you should be doing unless you plan on actually doing them. This, too, shall pass. But in the meantime, be kind to yourself.
I remind myself of the things that matter, like the walk home from school with the boy last Friday, him describing the behavior of an alien creature he invented with a friend, or the subsequent discussion of third grade boy social dynamics (the factions, the leaders and free agents, the once-mighty or well-placed that have fallen in status). This set some worries aside -- he will be fine socially, an observer, yes, but an astute, empathetic one. And what about the loveliness that surrounds us, Berkeley’s beauty, the flowers, plants, and bungalows in our neighborhood that are almost enough to wipe out the ugliness of San Pablo and the exhaust-tinted houses chockablock on Dwight? Or those moments of transcendence with my clients when it feels like we’re actively doing something good together?
So I think about the sunshine and flowers, the boy and my clients coming into their own, and the summer promise of paint and fabric, a chance to change while staying in place. I remind myself of my own needs and of the self I hide beneath a layer of apparent indifference. She’s in there somewhere, unsure of how to co-exist with the needs of others.
We’ll figure it out eventually.
Image of Nora with Berkeley beauty by me.
In the dream I had right before waking, I was holding a party in Central Park. My clients were invited, but there were not enough adults to look after them, and the children scattered. As I climbed a steep hill in a frantic search for my charges, a man passed me from behind. He bore a burden of a sculpture, a compact, gleaming metal object made of sharp-edged spirals attached to an anvil-like base. The man thanked me for ducking out of his way, then gave me the secret for climbing uphill when you’re carrying something dense and weighty. Every few steps stop, rub the small of your back, then reach back around and gently pat your other hand. His message was clear: care for yourself.
As I walked home last night 13 hours after leaving it, I thought about this profession I am becoming a part of, the amorphous, ambiguous world of counseling. And it came to me: people are not problems to be solved. We are human beings who do things for reasons. Those reasons need to be honored, even if our actions seem insane from the outside. We are not trouble or troubled – we are trying to protect ourselves from trouble, from pain, using any means necessary. Sometimes we keep on protecting ourselves long after the danger is past.
Changing these patterns takes time. The impetus must come from within, though support from loved ones and outside guides helps. But changing is not problem-solving. You are not a problem, though your behavior may be problematic. Change comes from self-compassion, from an ability to hold the difficult feelings, to allow yourself to make mistakes, to acknowledge that we are all ugly sometimes. The path to change is through accepting yourself, flaws and all.
There is no soul mechanic who will come along to patch you up with his fix-it wrench and his human engine knowhow. Your future is in your own beautiful hands. They may have to pull you up a sheer face of rock or hold on to a frayed rope as you shimmy into the unknown. You could find yourself reaching out in the dark for people that may not be there or grasping an invisible chain as it whips you through the ether. Be kind to yourself. You will get through. You will reach the top, will touch ground, will grab that hand. You will find yourself on the other side of despair. You are capable. We all have it within us.
Change isn’t easy. It’s not predictable. But it is possible. And there is no need to go underground.
Some rights reserved by familymwr.
Yes, I am using the passive voice. But why – did I not sand away at this layer myself, tug on the curtain’s rope, turn the knob of that door? Honestly, I do not experience these moods as active states. They wash over me, I am immersed, the shipwrecked soul who clings to a waterlogged, splintered plank and is sometimes tossed ashore by fickle waves. But it’s only once I’m on land that I realize how precarious my position was, floating out on an expanse of the unconscious, lashed by whitecaps, pulled by tides. And then a rogue wave pulls me from the sand and I forget what it is like to be dry all over again.
The metaphorical curtain between a person and the world, the sudden open door with its blast of wind, depression as immersion in a sea that represents the oblivion of self and joy: overused metaphors, all of them, though they exist for a reason. However, just as my mother always emphasized the active voice as well as the Oxford comma in her critiques of my writing (from elementary school onward!), she would now push me for ownership and fresh metaphor, a move away from cliché.
Have you ever seen heat, those distorted waves emanating from sizzling asphalt on a day of relentless sun? When I am depressed, my vision is no longer solid. The world melts in front of me. I can’t quite get back to the reality of it. The distortion is reality. But the feeling isn’t one of heat. It’s one of being defective, of being absolutely, incontrovertibly wrong as a human being. And depression is more ice than fire. It can feel like I am trapped under the surface of a pond in winter. The water is mud-clogged, thick, and cold. I cannot feel my body. I experience the world through a layer of ice, must interpret the intent and meaning of the indistinct shapes that shamble through my field of vision. Depression affects how I see the world, how I experience it. It is a color wash of grey over a fully tinted existence, an obfuscating lens that interferes with my ability to see myself and others.
But enough of depression metaphors. Although my external world is gray and wet today – with an occasional hint of blue sky revealed through thin cloud cover – my inner world is returning to its jeweled hues, its flawless sapphires, fiery garnets, and unearthly amethysts, its warm golds. I will soak up the color and hope I can remember what beauty lies within me the next time the light dims, the world goes gray, and I am enveloped in darkness.
Final metaphor edited from the original -- tip of the keyboard to the lovely Grace.
Image Some rights reserved by M.Markus.
Honestly, it’s helpful to record and transcribe sessions. It’s the best way to learn, to slow things down and get a second listen. Some sessions are better than others. Besides, we only have to record two this semester. Perhaps by the next one, I will have a treasure trove of amazing stuff – my greatest counseling hits! OK, that’s doubtful. But I might be able to be a part of something beautiful -- it’s happened before! -- if I can allow my true self to be present during these sessions.
I have an emotional roadblock that I let prevent me from moving forward. It’s an ancient and once-useful coping mechanism I’ve had the hardest time kicking, if I’ve even tried to kick it. If this coping mechanism had a slogan, a tag line, it would be Keep quiet and don’t show yourself. Good advice for those of us who got ripped apart on a regular basis, who learned early that quiet was better and stayed that way until we forgot we could speak.
Speaking is dangerous. What we say reveals our faults, our small uglinesses. It can get us in trouble. I’ve rediscovered part of my voice as a writer, where I can edit, revise, and delete, can take my time with the words. However, I need to find that voice in person, to be myself in the room with a client, to be spontaneous and free. I want to be authentic. Sometimes my voice is there, ringing true. But mainly it gets caught up in the protective tangle of my fears.
I’ve been pondering this for the past week or so and there’s no need to belabor it here. I’m at a strange point in self-awareness where I think I understand what is in my way. The next step is to take action, even though it feels like I’ve been taking action for the last two years. I’ve been putting myself out there -- kinda sorta -- and still there is this deep reluctance on my part to fully exist in the presence of others. But I’ll figure it out. I have to.
Image Some rights reserved by Thijs Hooiveld.
The cake was raggedly and delicious, moist and chocolaty, held together by airy whipped cream. I’m not a neat baker, but I am a good one, and despite the fact that the layers fell apart as I removed them from their pans (knew I should have used parchment paper!), I was able to salvage the pieces and cover up my sins with thick frosting.
Sure, we were tired from Friday night, our first night out in many months, when we went out to dinner and to see a band. It was a good evening, with the possible exception of the first 20 minutes of the Pixies show, when I could not stop crying. As the intensity of guitars and Frank Black’s screams enveloped us, fat tears silently slipped down my cheeks. I cried, yet I felt absolutely nothing. The music washed over me, it flowed around me. I was the cold creek stone, the immovable boulder. I could barely tap a toe to the songs I loved, or loved once. Well, if I ever wanted verification that I am depressed, I thought, this is it.
It got better. By the time the band played the wonderful, distorted Vamos, the 29th song of the night, I could kind of appreciate the sound (for a video of Vamos filmed during the show by someone with much better seats than we had, click here. It’s six minutes of guitar, basically, with some words tossed in. Poor Frank Black. He seems tired of the whole thing. Even Joey Santiago is a bit too matter-of-fact, though I could be projecting).
Still, the whole night was a really weird experience, one that I can’t totally explain. Who the fuck sits still as a statue and cries at a Pixies concert? I was not one with my fellow fans. But it had been an emotionally taxing day at the end of an emotionally taxing month. Maybe what I needed was loud music and the anonymity of the Fox Theater to let the stress flow away.
Ghosts can’t hurt you. You are safe, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. You are in control. You can take what you remember and stow it away, letting the tears slip out when they will.
So I’ll eat another slice of cake and think again about how grateful I am for this life, moods, tears, memories and all.
I found these pictures while I was looking for old cat photos this afternoon (you’ve inspired me, Grace). Suddenly I was caught up in memories of cozy mornings waiting for school closing announcements, me snuggled next to my grandmother in her room or lying alone in my twin bed with the pink plaid quilt, bulked up against the cold. I was sitting next to the electric heater in that long-gone kitchen, my breakfast on the tray in front of me, enveloped in warmth.
The blizzard of ’78 kept us out of school for days that January. The following year, after I moved back in with my mother, another blizzard hit the East Coast in February. The Delaware schools were shut down and my mother had to work, so my grandmother picked me up on a Sunday and took me back to the beach (as we called the Eastern Shore river community where my grandparents lived). It was a leisurely trip past snow drifts and through slush, with a stop at the Acme in Elkton for provisions. Once home, we unloaded groceries from the car and brought them into the house. As she opened the pantry to put a can of soup on the shelf, my grandmother clutched at her chest and staggered back, suddenly unable to speak or breathe. I barely got the cat off the chair by the heater before she collapsed into it and lost consciousness.
Although it has been almost 35 years ago to the day, I still remember the fear and confusion, the knowledge that seeped into me as my grandfather and I sat at a neighbor’s house through dinner and nightfall: my grandmother was dead and I had done nothing to stop it.
Grief is a surprising, sneaky thing. It reaches out of the inky darkness to pull you under years after the fact. There is no avoiding it. You just have to ride it out and let it go. It will submerge you, but the plunge is temporary, until the next undertow sucks you in.
Tonight I rode it out and let it go. And though the eight-year old me and the boy at eight may share a resemblance, our stories are very different. I’m glad for it.
During my junior and senior year of high school, I lived in the Little House, an unheated, unplumbed summer cottage my grandfather built on his property for my aunt and uncle’s family. Those formative, lonely years, were packed with drama and loss and co-authored in part by D, my boyfriend at the time, almost six years my senior. When he was in college, D barely made it home for the occasional weekend and could only be reached by post or long distance call from the rotary phone in the main house, calls that went to a pay phone on a dorm floor and could be answered (or not) by anyone. The one time I the dialed the number, late at night, a girl answered. She called to D in a familiar tone. I hung up.
With D, the draught of disappointment was always followed up with a chaser of hope. The Valentine would appear two weeks late. He would come home from college and show up at my doorstep after midnight, swaying slightly in the doorway, skateboard tucked between arm and torso. In those moments, I was lovable, my body filled with warmth and light. I was seen. I was important.
My sixteenth year was the last I allowed myself to care about Valentine’s Day with its syrup and pap and its promises of love. I lived by myself in a cold little cottage and didn’t know the truth of my worth or what I could reasonably expect from another human being. How do people show each other they love them? How do you suss out love in a confusion of conflicting messages -- the parent who doesn’t show or who buys a house where there is no room for you, the boyfriend who waits two years to take you on a date, the familiar who crushes you with his weight while you close your eyes and grit your teeth?
Love is messy. It contradicts itself. And children need it to be unconditional. Reliable. For some adults this is not an easy task.
These days, love is three weeks of sickness, one family member after another falling prey to the virus. It is the back room with its lingering scent of nachos competing with valentine roses, the game of Magic: The Gathering between my husband and son in the background as I sip champagne and try to write. Love is the homemade cards, the little hurts inflicted and forgotten, the bigger hurts still shadowy in the background, but not getting in the way of the fact that I m committed, that this is my life no matter how scared I am that it will one day disappear.
That’s love. Imperfect and contradictory as it is.
The Squeeze song that inspired the post title is here.
Image by bethan.
At that moment, I felt as substantial as a scrap of tattered fabric skittering with the wind, tangled in an updraft.
Yeats wrote – I’ve quoted him before – that the centre cannot hold. I say it will not hold. It refuses to hold. As parts of me fluttered away in the breeze, I walked as though with purpose. I was a scrap of tattered fabric. I was thundercloud and lightning strike, all wind and cumulonimbi with jagged, deadly electric flashes to light my uncertain path.
I was powerless. Or I was all power, no focus. Outside, cool. Inside, a hurricane, a gale, a piece of flag torn off by the wind.
There you were, bantam walking it in that stiff legged strut you will no doubt pass on to your male progeny (if and when they should emerge). Four kids in practically as many years, all of them girls! Busybodies clucked their tongues and made vague mumblings about the difficulties of adolescence that lie ahead, but who’s thinking short skirts and birth control with four kids under eight? Let’s get through elementary school first, you said, one palm held out in front of you, fingers spread: STOP!
This was the moment we converged, you holding back the future, me barely keeping my feet on the ground. Inside, storm winds blew.
There is nothing more empty than the vessel which once held delusion.
Inspired by yesterday’s walk to pick up the boy from school, where I felt all these things, without any obvious cause.
Image by Leonardo DaVinci provided by Wikipedia.
Spot lit underneath a cracked lampshade, she brushed the colorful powders into her skin, then covered the evidence with tights, with long sleeves and turtlenecks, with loose-fitting pants that would not aggravate the marks. She knew they were there, a topography of memory, a map to what once was. The rift reopened every morning and she washed it away every night.
And wasn’t this what trauma was, something you carried around with you, one way or another? Some of us don’t want to forget. None of us do.
Yesterday morning, I ventured out into the rain for the monthly training session provided by my placement site. The presentation was on trauma, a rushed-together hodgepodge on the effects of loss, violence, and abuse. I realized yet again that you can never totally erase the effects of deep pain. You cannot scrub away the events that shaped you, but can only make them into something else – a new habit, a story of strength, a work of art.
Is it “good” to re-make pain’s image obsessively, to repeat the moment when fist first hit flesh, when the bullet destroyed what you loved, when the man crushed joy out of you with his unwieldy heaviness? To write it out on your body, mark your flesh with ink or the blade or rewrite the story over and over so that you relive it, acknowledge what no one else can?
You do what you have to do for as long as you have to do it. But you don’t need to be trapped in that world forever, eternally marking the skin, the story wearing down a rut in your mind. There are ways to honor and acknowledge what went before without getting trapped in the tar of memory. We must have hope.
It’s early. And I am going to make a prediction about my day. The boy will be sick. The household will continue to sink into the mire. We’ll all hang out in the back room bubble, the man and I armed with computers and work, the boy watching movies or snapping together Lego creations. And I will think about trauma, about the repeated nature of it, the way it hides and haunts and hides again.
Some of this was inspired by a writing prompt that called for the words expensive, lampshade, bruise, and convincing, though I left out “expensive.” I just needed a jump start to another world.
Iris image Some rights reserved by Sheba_Also.
How does one write about depression without sounding like a self-pitying whiner or someone full of misdirected anger (you aim the gun at your own soul or at the place where your soul used to reside)? How does one make it interesting? I’m not as deeply sunk as Hyperbole and a Half’s Allie Brosh was when she discussed her struggles. She wrote her moving accounts at the end of a drawn-out episode that scraped emotion down to bare, bleak bone. At their worst, my bouts have been emotionally intense, your garden variety blazing self-hatreds. I was useless and hopeless. I knew this would never change. But at least I could – and did – cry. A lot.
I am nowhere near that state. I am generally holding it together while I stand at the nebulous crossroads of non-rumination and self-examination, trying to not focus on my perceived deficits, the myriad ways I fuck up with clients, while being as self-aware and questioning as possible about the myriad ways I might be fucking up with clients (and talking about these things with colleagues, thereby revealing my tendency to fuck up). This balanced self-awareness is essential for the counselor path I currently travel. Keeping vigilant while not sinking into doubt is like holding two opposites in my hands at once, hot/cold, rough/smooth, sharp/dull. It is like trying to contain dampness and flame simultaneously, impossible and dangerous.
And I find I want to apologize for what I write here. I am sorry to drone on. I am sorry to be so melodramatic, to complain when there is nothing to complain about. I am sorry for other things, too, for needing to structure my life in such a way that I reduce my stress to an absolute minimum. I feel guilty that I am able to do this. I feel ridiculous for complaining, ridiculous for feeling so down. Writing about this stuff feels shameful and embarrassing, weak and needy (will I post it? if so, will I take the post down?). Rant though this (may) be, it does not make me feel better. It makes me feel . . . ugly and ungrateful.
It does sound ridiculous, no? Well, this is what depression can be like. These thoughts are hard to escape. I have to leave them by the side of the road, to dance right past, to give them a wink and walk on by. I could drown in the self-doubt, could get lost in the loathing. So instead I will acknowledge where I am now and remind myself of all the good things, to make a list to use in times of great emotional danger.
Yes, it’s time to start working on that list. It’s time to start reaching out.
It’s time for some help.
Image Some rights reserved by wakingphotolife:.
Classes start January 27 and I am already overwhelmed, without the extra coursework and extended strung-out commute to the far reaches of the city. It is because of my internship, my wonderful, frustrating, take-everything-out-of me internship.
In my 13 hours a week on site, I see 11-12 clients (and sometimes their parents), meet with teachers, and try to keep up with my notes and prep work. Next week, my kindergarten friendship group begins, adding another seven kids to my roster. I have also been asked to adapt an anti-bullying program for the school (I think – the task is not yet clear), which will include presentations to classes and parents. Plus there’s the three hour roundtrip commute, the three hours of supervision I have each week, and the four hours of training my agency schedules one Saturday a month, in addition to the time I spend at home completing tasks I can’t finish at my placement.
To think I was worried about getting enough client hours to fulfill my university’s requirements! At this point, I have more clients than the recommended load for someone in their fourth semester of practicum. I now understand why those suggested limits are in place. This is not easy work. Each client is different, and the time you invest goes way beyond the face to face interaction. By not having enough mental space or experience to see each case clearly, I do not think I am doing my clients harm, but I am also not being particularly proactive or creative about their issues.
Meanwhile, the house collects dust and fur around me, I need to schedule various checkups (dentist, optometrist, doctor), and my free-range hair, in great need of a trim, gets bigger and more unruly by the day. All I want to do is sit, read, and write. And sleep! I want to enjoy the guilt-free slumber of someone who has only her family and herself to worry about.
Part of the solution is to draw boundaries, to create a safe space, a buffer against burnout, a protective shield for my time and myself. Ah. Yes. So simple. Drawing boundaries is but a pittance, a quick flick of the pen . . . well, maybe not. Many of us never learned how to create boundaries. We lived in situations in which the lines between parent and child were smudgy and indistinct. We were taught that our wants and needs were unimportant, or watched the grownups around us live borderless and exposed.
Score another one for the emotional heft of getting a counseling degree! It’s one big all-you-can-eat buffet of being brave in the face of your fears and grappling with deep self-doubt.
Am I up for it?
Do I really get a choice?
Yes, I do get a choice. I made it by deciding to stay in the program. But some weeks it feels like my path -- if there is one -- passes through deserted city neighborhoods and vast, trash-strewn plains where buildings once stood. The empty houses on these blocks with their closed shutters and rotting porches remind me of the loneliness of childhood, of the pain of becoming, constantly becoming, escaping what went before. I walk briskly, eyes on the weeds that emerge from cracks in the sidewalk, mind eluding emotion, controlling it. Somehow I will think my way out of this.
The fog of self-doubt settles over me at these times, smokes away the street and the buildings and leaves me feeling completely alone on my island of broken concrete. How can I keep walking when I don’t know what pitfalls await, what will be taken from me as I continue, what I will reveal about my character as I stumble? I just have to hold on to whatever faith I can grasp. Faith in myself. Faith in other people. Faith in the process.
So that’s where I am right now, blindly taking the next small steps forward, working on my boundaries, trying to keep my sense of self intact.
It’s just one of those weeks.
Image license some rights reserved by dbnunley.
This is what I would like for you: sun, clouds, storms to wipe the slate clean, shallows to splash in and deep water where sleek fish await your hook. On a patch of fine, white sand, just far enough from the tide line, sits your cabin, connected to the grid by a thin thread of electricity. It may leak in blustery weather, and the propane heater sputters in the cold, but the cabin is (mostly) sound. It is small, square, and contained. It is enough.
I cannot wish you perfection or pure happiness. But I can wish you contentment, a steady, light rain on gray days, the warmth of the sun at its height, the fleeting beauty of flowers in bloom, the promise of their fruit. I can wish you stability, companionship, and flashes of joy. And when despair threatens to freeze and wither your capacity to love, I wish you the ability to rejuvenate yourself by a fire of your own making.
I do not have to know you to know what we all need.
Image License Some rights reserved by nathangibbs.
It frightened me how quickly I could conjure you up, how I felt the slow tingle of addiction course through my veins. I wanted the thing I should not have. I had to be crafty to get it, to be a liar, a sneak. It was the feeling of getting away with something, the cool burn of whisky sipped from a flask in a car doing 90 down a one-lane dirt road and his hand was too high on my thigh, and all around us was dust like smoke, and it was only that moment that mattered, the moment before I got what I so badly wanted.
I could never possess you. I did not really want to. You were a symbol, a sign of my arrested development. At 18, I had the romantic maturity of a middle schooler with the body and quasi-freedom of a college freshman. It is only lately that my emotions have caught up with the rest of me. And I am so sad right now, so sad and slow, that for a moment I conjured you back, a boy with whom I barely spoke.
For I am slipping into the trough again, feeling low, incompetent, and bleak. I have accepted that I will never feel that frisson of danger again and am ok with that. Been there, done that, should have gone for therapy and antidepressants first. But as I slip, I wish there was another way to feel the thrill of pursuing the pointless, to get a little pick-me-up from the other side of the abyss.
A Helmut Lange 1967 fashion photograph from an article at the Daily Mail.
Let us have a moment of silence for him, a newborn, a never-born, and for me, sixteen and lost on a cold November morning, shaking, bloodied, and naked on a pink plaid quilt on an old twin bed in a cottage heated by kerosene.
Because that’s where we were, 28 years ago today, before the sun rose on an East Coast Sunday. It is far away enough now to feel like fiction. The girl has become a character and the boy a symbol, but the fact is we were real and our lives were cheap.
I stole and I was stolen from and was left with bruises and scars and the kind of guilt that had me burying bodies in my dreams for years afterward. There is no longer anyone left to blame; our abandonment just was. It was not personal.
I used to think what happened to me didn’t count. I thought that I did not deserve to grieve, that his death was a punishment. The boy was an extension of me and I was not good, so part of me died and who was I to cry, to mourn what was never wanted?
I no longer think that way.
Image Some rights reserved by gari.baldi.
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.
Maybe it was the job you wished you had, so you tossed away hours daydreaming about it while the world swirled around you. Maybe some distant city attracted the sparkle of your mind – if only you lived there, everything would be better. Or it was a woman. Or a man. Somebody else. Anyone else. But let’s leave you out of this. I can only focus on what I know about myself. I spent years on and off with part of my mind dedicated to crushes, to adolescent, projected puppy love. Even now, crushless, I cordon off a vital part of my imagination, a vital part of my vulnerability, by letting the shadow of memory hang over the present.
It is like remembering the decadent meal I never had at a restaurant I could ill afford. It is a jealous, grasping recollection of dust and stale bread disguised as intimate laughter on skin-warm nights. I seek the crumbs. I collect information. I track down leads. I sweep the floor and gather my gritty winnings in a jeweled box. There is a compulsion to my gathering and hoarding. And in the process I miss what gleams around me.
Today I came across a picture of an old crush with his current squeeze, or it came across my Facebook feed. I wasn’t looking for it and it didn’t bother me in any way but this: why did I waste so many years thinking about this person? During my long season of crushing, I was always coupled. Nothing would ever have come of it. And I probably wanted it that way, wanted to remain safe, with the tingling, dangerous thrill of what would never happen.
In a recent reply to a friend’s comment, I mentioned my issues with vulnerability. I have been trying to untangle vulnerability from weakness, but there are knots in the twine and my fingers are stiff with cold, and sometimes it feels like I twist it up all over again. Still, I have made progress. I can now see how often I distract myself.
I see the game. I seek and find, I grasp and gather. I pay attention to what is not important to keep me from focusing on what is. I know it. Now how to get past it?
Image of Cupid’s bow and arrow (in San Francisco!) by Miles Actually.
My palms were calloused. My lips bitten. My toes cranky after being jammed into shoes with points so sharp they may as well have been shivs. This was my prison break and there were fractured bones and shattered light bulbs and barroom bathrooms where a friend watched the door and no one dare sit on the toilet. What did I care? I was made for this and this was pure rebellion, a reaction against stereotype, me the wide-eyed drug mule with a heart of lead, with nails of sharpened steel slipped into ladylike white gloves.
I courted those who wielded love like violence, who bloodied with blunt emotional force. I gave my world to fire. I gave myself to pain, directed blows to secret places, dabbed on makeup when the punches strayed. And what was I supposed to say – that I deserved it, one way or another? That I controlled the trajectory of a stranger’s fist? It was a balancing act between love and hate.
I craved safety and I craved danger and sometimes I set fire to old letters and books I loved as a child. I wanted to be covered over with ash. I wanted my scars to be hidden by bruises, the bruises hidden by cloth. I had a misshapen heart and nobody needed to know it but me.
The covered over, battered sense of self that comes from physical and (or) emotional violence in childhood cowers underneath a hard exterior. It leaks out through the cracks. To live fully, you have to learn to deal with it, to ignore the self-doubt that tells you what you really deserve, who you really are. In the midst of difficulty and insecurity, you must remind yourself of the best in you and work hard to make sure the best isn’t muffled out by the soundtrack of what came before, the marks against your body, heart, and mind.
I create new soundtracks. I embrace the scars and the strength that come from survival. I do not deny the source of my self-doubt, but give it a voice and use that voice to direct compassion towards myself and others, to remind us that we are not alone. The voice gives me depth. It is relevant. And it does not define me.
Image from a relatively recent ad taken from a Business Insider article. I hesitated to use it because I found it disturbing, but it also illustrates a point about how women -- and girls -- are often looked at and treated, which has always been a subtext to my story. I thought about using this or this, both old ads that have been used as supposedly humorous illustrations about how things used to be. But we’ve come a long way, baby. Or maybe not.
Do you remember the time of lies, the months of fever, when the world was distorted through heat and smoke? The wood was too green, the season too warm. I wasted fuel that year, with nothing to show for it in the end but broken hearts and a field of stumps scattered with damp piles of ash. The acrid smoke brought tears. The innocent stumbled, hapless and blind, along smoldering paths and knelt, gasping, on beds of brittle pine needles. I watched behind a radiant, fluid wall of fire.
This was life. I have never been so aware of my own heartbeat or so sure of my sin. Yes. I was a sinner. I let innocence turn to ember, let the wind carry away my guilt. Until the wood ran out. The fire died, and my two halves turned to face each other. My guilt reappeared in a sudden gust, thicker than smoke and just as damaging.
Thus began the era of cold, the years of darkness, which slowly became the time of repentance and rebuilding. The sun, muffled by smoke, began to emerge. That was life. What we live now is life. We occupy the reality of love with its negotiations, monotony, and moments of transcendence. The past is already written, the trees bear scorch marks, but the story goes on.
Could I have stopped myself that year as I blithely felled lodgepole pines and set matches to piles of kindling? I do not know. That era is a part of the narrative. I cannot subtract it or deny the twisted beauty that emerged, the space made for new growth. I cannot deny the power or the dramatic loveliness of flame.
Here. Let me make you a fire, gather armfuls of fallen wood and stack them against each other in a circle of stone. I will touch lighter to branch and we will watch the wood catch. It will be safe and beautiful, a manageable drama. As the flames eat away at dead wood, I will ponder my obsession with this metaphor, my attraction to the inferno, my need to play with what can so easily rage out of control.
Oh, what hope comes with great destruction!
Image Some rights reserved by marfis75.
How will you know when you are safe?
What is safe?
My fears and insecurities blind me. My reluctance to take risks binds me. But I am removing the layers, the mask, the bandages. I am facing the fears, making the steps.
I create my own safety. So I am safe. Tired and holding fear at bay, but safe. There has been too little sleep and life is all changes and challenges, assignments and appointments. This week, I talked to school faculty. I stood in front of classrooms full of kindergartners, second graders, fourth graders, and fifth graders, with more visits to come tomorrow. I have potential clients. I am learning how to be open again. I am learning how to be truly present. I am learning about empathy, something I thought I had in huge quantities and I do, I do, but I need to work on my ability to show it, to not let my fear take over.
Do know what it is like to wade through fear, to shuffle through huge drifts of the stuff? Have you experienced the struggle between going forth or hanging back? For me, everything feels like fear right now. Almost every action I take means facing it, staring it down, or at least glancing at it out of the corner of my eye as I stroll past full of feigned confidence. I want to slink away and enjoy the cushy, relaxing world of escape and evasion. But there is no such thing as escape.
Sometimes all we can do is remind ourselves that we are up to the challenge as we go forth to meet it. We rest when the opportunity presents itself. We allow ourselves a little glory as we face our fear, even when it hangs over us like a bad mood, smoky and shadowy, not quite ready to leave its host behind.
Image Some rights reserved by sara | b.
The only version of eternity the living can pull off is temporary and generally measured in years. And so the leaving begins early for those who have already lost too much, who must protect against the pain before the pain comes. Their exits consist of little shrugs and slow pullings away, the rearrangement of tensed bodies in other directions, the creeps to the opposite side of the bed. It comes in idle daydreams and uncontrollable nightdreams, in clipped conversation and the adding up of things not said. These retreats smooth the way for the true final scene, when one or both of the lead actors must go, voluntarily or not.
What will it be? Accident? Cancer? Fear? The fickle heart, both figurative and literal? Does it lurk in the blood even now? Will there be years of health until the body just peters out, the absolute end of the whole affair peaceful, easy, and expected? We just don’t know. We don’t want to know. And in the early days, death and disease seem almost unthinkable to the young and healthy. The heart will stay true, the mind will stay sharp, love will give and bend like a flower in the wind and be as strong and as light as titanium.
It is not so easy. Love requires work. True commitment requires bravery and the ability to stare down one’s past or come to terms with it in some way. It is only as I have become more integrated that I have been able to hold the these thoughts and emotions simultaneously, the deep love, the knowledge that I don’t want my marriage to end, the heavy reality that, someday, it will. I don’t want to leave before the story concludes naturally, to sidle out during intermission or withdraw during the scenes of stark famine. But I have been guilty of the occasional absence, the slip outside for a cigarette. There are times when I have been stuck inside my own fear, blinded by it.
These days, I try and speak my mind. I do my best to stay present, to stay close. I sit in deep gratitude for what we have, in awe of what can be created, lived, and dissolved in the short space of a lifetime.
Image Some rights reserved by h.koppdelaney.
Seven and eight are good years, when the brain is just starting to warm up and the hormones (hopefully) aren’t kicking in. The life that surrounded me in July 1977 wasn’t necessarily all happy, but I could escape it in books or my grandmother’s house. All I knew was the present moment, with a bit of past behind me. This is what I think creates nostalgia for childhood – a spotty, optimistic memory as well a desire to return to a state of not-knowing, where everything was new and, for many of us, experience hadn’t yet made its deep, dark imprint.
Having a child is a guaranteed ride back to your own childhood, for good and bad. I’ve only lately realized more fully how much of my parenting has been reactive, which isn’t unusual for those grappling with childhood hangovers. I have had to pry my techniques out of a sense of self-protection, because it’s not me we are raising. We are raising a kid whose childhood is very different from mine. He comes with different strengths and with a more solid foundation. He does not need to be protected from the experiences that marked me.
I know that each of his ages will bring back memories. Soon it will be the year I spent with my grandparents, followed by the Shangri-La of the brief time when my mother was a full-time student, followed by my grandmother’s death, followed by years of darkness.
I am as prepared as I can be for these reminders. But there will be other complications. Over the next school year, I will encounter what will feel like my childhood self again and again as I interact with my clients. This is one of the reasons counselors-in-training have individual and group supervision. In addition to supporting budding therapists, supervision gives you an opportunity to work through what is known as “countertransference,” which I think of as seeing your own experiences in the experiences of clients, of confusing your life, past or present, with theirs, or reacting to them in inappropriately personal ways. This is in part the role of individual therapy as well, to help you work with whatever gets triggered by clients’ stories and situations.
The client version of this is called transference, but people do it all the time outside of the therapy context. I see it in my interactions with the boy and the man. I see it in how I interpret others’ responses to me, in what makes me anxious, sad, or angry. Transference enters the scene constantly and it is always worth it to check in with yourself to see if what you are reacting to in someone else is actually within you. This is not an easy task.
So when I found myself crying one evening at Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, a little wined up and maudlin, because of the joy the boy took in his freedom on the campground, I knew it was because of the premature ending of my own childhood. This is part of the nostalgia, too, the memory of what it was like to have a safe home base, my grandmother, in contrast to being a child who once knew safety but no longer had a place to feel comfortable and protected. That was my life, not his, and chances are that he will look back on his childhood with joy that is not tinged with pain, but is instead filled with the knowledge that we took care of him, protected him when necessary, and supported his forays out into the world.
That is the goal, anyway. We will do our best.
Image (two doll images in a row!) Some rights reserved by if this is tuesday.
Back when I was a teenybopper and peppered my conversation and writing with the expletive BARF!! (always in CAPS, always with at least one !, often underlined more than once) I marked both the date and the time of my journal entries. Who knows, my thinking went, maybe I’ll look at this diary years later on the same date at the same exact time! I was tossing out a line to my future self, not understanding that my future self would cringe at her earlier self-representation, as though I could have toned it down at the time, could have taken that youthful enthusiasm down a notch or sanded off the shine to make it something jaded and subdued. At 12 and 13, I was holding it together all on my own. Even with my necessary sense of self-control and self-protection, my writing bounced and rolled with the naïveté and intensity of early adolescence. I was, after all, 13. Sometimes I still have to remind myself that my journal entries were normal. And noting the exact moment I put pen to paper? Time was important. The moment needed to be marked even as it slipped away.
Who are we and who do we become? That girl was me, as were the earlier versions. I remain the same now, but I am totally different. I’ve experienced too much not to feel the loaded space between me and pure joy, a space thick with memory and association. Living permanently in the emotional imbalance of adolescence isn’t healthy, but that sense of magic about life, the dewy newness of it all, that earnestness, is worth finding again. I still exist in contradiction, my mind and emotions in constant push-pull, but the emotions are often flat. They are line drawings of what was once solid and rich. Sometimes living among these two-dimensional ghosts is enough. More often it is not.
Accumulated experiences, little disappointments, swaddle me like thick animal skins. They protect me from cold. They confuse me in the heat. They mute life’s sharper points. They make it hard to feel my own temperature, to gauge who I am and how I really feel. So I must remind myself. I must fill in the emotions, conjure up memories of newness, shrug off the skins one by one.
I bring back the excitement of anticipation and commitment to joy that I once had, where it is always May and the boy I have a crush on is just about to notice me. I recall the thrill of looking up a potential love interest’s last name in the phone book, tracing a finger across the entry, reaching for the phone, losing my nerve and dropping the receiver back in place. I remember when I couldn’t wait for dusk to fall, for the sky to darken and fill with stars, because the night promised something amazing, a story, an encounter, a chance to walk barefoot on cool grass in the dark. I return in my mind to spring in Washington, DC, the cherry trees in bloom, heavy and fragrant. At 22, I had already been through great loss, had already started forming my shell, but still, anything felt possible. The world was open and new at my feet.
Surely we can create joy again and again, believe in the fantasy that almost anything is possible at any moment. It must be so. I will make it so. I will leap over cynicism and forget heartbreak. I will feel anticipation and openness again, will experience happiness pure as my pounding heart.
Image Some rights reserved by J. Star.
Last week, former roommates of mine (a married couple) lost their oldest son. He was 18, fresh out of his freshman year of college, and the circumstances surrounding his death are still somewhat murky. His death haunts me. We are lucky, so lucky to have what we have. I was reminded again to appreciate the moment, to take nothing for granted, though, of course, it is hard to always live this way, with a light grip, the most delicate of touches, never assuming that the hand I reach out for will always be there.
I am prone to considering every negative possibility, to attempt to block tragedy by imagining it. This is exhausting. Impossible. Somehow I have to live in the in between world where nothing is guaranteed, acting all the while as if it will go on as planned. Occupying ambiguity is not a task for the weak-hearted. It is too easy to hide behind the threat of loss, to use it as a form of self-protection, not getting attached because I never know when accident, disease, or another person’s perfidy may take the ones I love away. How do I love fully, with acceptance of the temporary nature of life? I struggle with this question all the time.
But yesterday was as perfect as it gets. We discovered something new. We walked in the shade. We walked in the sun. We lived in the moment and wanted for nothing.
Image of the East Bay, off in the distance, taken by me at China Camp State Park.
It turns out that I am a grownup now. The equine nostril-flaring of yesteryear has changed to deep, calming breaths. There is no pleasure in stamping my petulant foot. I no longer have revenge fantasies and don’t compose whole monologs or written diatribes in my head to those who done me wrong. My life has morphed from angry punk screed to wistful Billie Holiday song. Been there, done that, know that a lot of it is long behind me, that the path ahead will be what it will be.
Perhaps the adolescent me is finally integrating with the adult me. Kudos, I say. Yippee! It’s about time. Still, there are traces of her floating here and there, wisps of thin cotton 80s Esprit shirts that are in need of ironing, a chain of safety pins for earrings, cigarette ashes and butts dampened in the backwash of a 7-oz Budweiser, the bottle tucked into a hole in the box springs and then forgotten. It’s a sardonic, cynical blend that doubts love and fears attachment and feels colossally invisible, the thing you can’t see that takes up valuable time and space.
One of the big themes in the counseling world today is trauma and its affect on mental health. There’s big-T Trauma (experiences of the life-threatening and/or violent variety) and little-t trauma (the things that cause people great difficulty -- basically, what feels traumatic to a person). It’s one of those subjects that I’ve always wondered about for myself. Was I Traumatized as a child or traumatized as a child? Was I (T)traumatized at all? Should I accept the theory behind cognitive behavioral therapy, which posits that how we feel is often related to how we interpret events, that we can change those interpretations to feel more positive and therefore feel better (poof go our problems)? Am I wallowing in it all? Do I just need to think a new way and all will be magically cleared?
I don’t spend a great deal of time with my therapist going over my past. It comes up on occasion, of course. We don’t avoid it and sometimes it’s very necessary to talk about. What we are trying to work through are the effects of that past. They are pernicious, these complicated overlapping lengths of wire that wrap through and around my heart and psyche. It seems clear to me now that my continued driving phobia is related very much to the traumas of my adolescence as well as to how that adolescence affects my interpretation of my needs today. But knowing something and being able to change it are very different things.
Still, look at how much I have already changed. Compare now to 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012. My writing is different. My life is something new, beautiful, and complex. And I’m the one who’s done the changing. No outside forces were responsible, though I am grateful for the support of other people.
I’m allowed to struggle, to be imperfect, to hold my fragility in strong hands. I give myself permission to be human, to see my faults as foibles, to treat my fear as a symptom and not a necessary protection system. But I’ll also rejoice that some of my old coping mechanisms are falling away. I grant the girl her gin-infused orange juice and her loud music, make her toss the pack of cigarettes. I revel in her sheer emotionality, the joy and pain, the things I separate myself from. I tell her we’re ok. We’re ok now. Bit by bit, more of her will come to me, safe in my adult arms.
Learning to live in acceptance is not a simple task.
I’ve simplified cognitive behavioral therapy to a caricature above.
Amazing image from the 80s (“Punk rockers in Downpatrick”) courtesy of the Burns Library, Boston College Some rights reserved.They don’t look quite so punk to me, but they do look like they’re having a good time.
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.
Every so often, it’s nice to be reminded that I can still make friends. It is not always easy to meet people in adulthood. I don’t do casual chitchat or hit the town in loud, large groups. I haven’t traveled with a pack since middle school and the friendships I make tend to be intimate, the type where we plunge from the shallows of small talk into darker, deeper water almost immediately. It’s not for everyone. Since moving to California, I’ve made two local close friends, one of them from my graduate program, and I feel so lucky to have them.
On Friday, I took a quote, an initial paragraph, and my thoughts and went with them. Unfortunately, I went to a very bleak place. And then I posted. And then I thought better of it and took down the post. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, premature posting, careful redacting, lighter rewriting, post obliterating. I’m sure Friday’s post still exists on the rss feed – nothing there every seems to die. I’m not sure if the bleakness was because of extended sleep deprivation or whether, in keeping with the California landscape, I was stuck in the muck of a washed out mental arroyo after a winter downpour, but damn, self. Not every man I’ve known is cruel and the ones that were don’t deserve my rumination. So there.
But I do still like that first paragraph. It reads like a last paragraph, the memory of the end of something, the real end. I dedicate it to those who have overcome childhood pain, who still struggle, but do their best to be kind and open-hearted.
The last time I saw him, the sky was cotton-puffed, a series of striated altocumulus clouds stretched across it. It was the same sky as the other last time, and the last time before that. Look at the clouds, I wanted to tell him, but we were well beyond weather chitchat. His eyes were on the road ahead. I was going to make a joke, compare us to The Who, always on the perpetual Last Tour tour, but then I remembered: Entwistle was dead. There is a last time for everything and I often don’t often know it’s the last time until months, maybe years after the fact. Even then, I question the finality. I avoid the little deaths.
He was cruel and made excuses for his cruelty, could not face his actions directly and so reflected the shame on to me. I clung to warmth. I clung to needs barely fulfilled, but eventually only his caricature remained. The heat, the clouds of billowy smoke, the convex mirrors on the perimeter of self, all concealed a core of pain that he could not abide. His cowardice is all I remember.
My fascination with the sky continues and the clouds of Berkeley do not disappoint. Cumulus, cirrus, nimbus gather against the dark hills, float against a blue sky. I take my phone and shoot, hoping to capture the moment in the same way it captures me. I do not expect anyone else to notice because I am the designated noticer. I am the one that feels and sees. I am weary with the task, but have no choice in the matter because this is who I am, silent, invisible, discreet, the emotions within both tumult and strength.
“Life is a lot more fragile than we think. So you should treat others in a way that leaves no regrets. Fairly, and if possible, sincerely.” — Haruki Murakami - Dance Dance Dance
“All cruel people describe themselves as paragons of frankness.” — Tennessee Williams - The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore
All cloud images by me.
Image of a path at Glen Canyon Park by sfsteve.
Image of a young John Entwistle from last.fm
So. Therapy. What were we doing, I wanted to know. What’s the plan now? I feel so much better than I did a year ago. I’m more grounded, centered, myself. I’m also in the know -- therapists actually form treatment plans! It isn’t just about talking, feeling, remolding, and eventually feeling better. My therapist and I decided there are places left to explore, rocks I turned over years ago that continue to block my path, trails I wound through my heart now dense with briars and the hidden warmth of small mammals, a landscape filled with life I have not acknowledged. We will enter the complex, obscure land at my center. I’ve worn a path around its perimeter, hard packed the soil with my compulsive circuits, but I seldom go in. It’s dark in there and the trees are thick and wild. The beast that occupies this land frightens me and I am afraid there may be more than one. From my occasional forays, always accompanied, my person, my professional, listening and supporting me, I have only seen evidence of the beast’s existence, not the beast itself. I come across crushed branches, smashed undergrowth, the musty grass where it beds, the branches of a bush picked bare. My scars ache. I cannot get comfortable. I want to kill the beast or exile it, but what if the beast is a part of me?
Back in the early days of personal computers, a friend owned an adventure-based game (or so the story goes, since I did not know him at the time). The first thing a player encountered was a troll. Using the simplistic commands of the time, the player decided on his options of attack. Hit troll with sword. Kill troll. You had to kill the troll to move forward, else be killed. My friend’s mother, a pacifist, wondered why there weren’t more options. Did you have to kill troll? Why not “befriend troll”? This question led to much adolescent eye-rolling. But why not? Why not befriend the beast? Maybe it is not so beastly. Maybe it controls my sleep, my self, my ability to be truly free, because I do not acknowledge it. Maybe it is a lonely, howling thing, the part of me I neglected out of necessity long ago and to kill it is to do away with a part of myself.
So we’re going in. We’re going to the heart of it. And I wanted to hug my therapist when she told me that when I had that baby so many years ago, I didn’t live in a cottage or a “little house.” I lived in a shack. I gave birth in a shack. Maybe it was a nice shack, what with the wall-to-wall indoor/outdoor carpeting and the paneling, with the windows and the attic and the oak tree out back. But ultimately, it was an unheated shack without running water or a telephone line, my place of exile. And I wanted to hug her again when she said we needed to go in to soothe the beast, delve into my issues with closeness, my experiences around love and need, caring and communication, before I could even think of doing anything about it outside of myself. First, work on me. Then bring in others. I know I’m being vague. But it was such a relief to acknowledge the influence of psychic pain, mine to feel by rights, mine to slowly clear out. The work that needs to be done first is internal. Hard, yes. But without that work, I don’t think I’ll be able to take in the rest, to make further changes.
I can’t tell you how freeing that thought is, how it both takes away the pressure and gives me the responsibility to be courageous in the face of the knowledge of darkness, to make the changes that bring me back to the world.
Image: “The Hunderfossen Troll” by hammershaug.
When I painted the porch window yesterday, I had to remove the lock. It wasn’t off for long, just enough for me to worry about invaders, about pushers and breakers and shovers, about thieves and takers. The window is currently nude, devoid of curtain, the smears of paint on the glass waiting for me to scrape them away and vacuum up the remains. Maybe the breach, the window’s vulnerability, broke into my dreams. Maybe the neighbor man wanted 20 dollars for a middle of the night cigarette run. Maybe the few grains of Abilify that we’ve added to the bupropion are addling my brain.* It is true: I am not quite myself, am a little jittery, more aware of the drumbeat of my heart and the intensity of my thoughts. And, as evidenced in this post, my thoughts leap from topic to topic, with just the thread of a theme connecting them.
Last week I had a dream about handling a dead body. Don’t worry – it turned out all right in the end. It was D and we were in the Little House and I was worried about the disposal of his remains. I hadn’t killed him, but I was left with the dirty work and the guilt. Could I possibly fit all six+ feet of him into a garbage bag? How would I drag him to the trash can? Would the garbagemen notice? I decided it must be a dream, and if it were, I could command him to get up and walk out. At first he told me he must be dead, because he didn’t feel anything. But eventually, sleepily, he roused himself. Problem solved, I woke up. This theme of death, murder, bodies hidden away or causing disposal problems, is one that has dogged my sleep for years. Why D this time? Because he was on my mind? Because he was the one who gave the first blow, the initial jab? Or was he?
In a moment of speculation with my therapist this morning, she noted that I didn’t seem to think the profound neglect I underwent as a teenager was enough to explain some of my longterm conflicts and struggles. I appeared to discount the lack of protection, my parents’ inability to watch over me and to help me hold the pain that we inflicted on myself, my innocence, and my small stillborn innocent. I appeared to underestimate the deep and pervasive effects of D’s adult use of the child me, his stealthy theft of what I had left of childhood. It was a teary session. Who wants to truly comprehend one’s neglect, neglect that had permanent consequences, or the fact that you can love and hate someone who does you wrong, simultaneously, confusingly? Why not look to an unknowable past for the theoretical answer or turn the confusion on yourself? Let those people off the hook? Stop any attempt at feeling like I deserved something more, that something was stolen from me? It’s a feeling I have to dole out in small amounts at safe times. I was robbed of many things. I will never get them back.
*Apparently, Abilify can cause lucid and bizarre dreams. Great. Maybe I should be taking even less.
Top image is of the window, bottom image is of a corner with newly painted walls (which doesn’t show the subtleties of the colors).
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.
Those who were not protected crave protecting. Those who carry shame carry their humiliation, their betrayal, with them. The shame is vast, it’s ice layered upon rock, and first you make a hole from which to breathe and, if you’re lucky, the warm of your breath crumbles the rock and melts the ice and over time, over decades maybe, the time it took you to get there, you continue breathing, your movements imperceptible but, still: movement! One elbow juts through, then another, and vast sheets of ice fall from your arms, and meanwhile your face appears and you start to see your situation more clearly. You know what you need to do, take deep breaths, attempt to bend one knee, then the other, give your torso a twist. Finally, (again, if you are lucky) you emerge, battered, dusty, with the red marks of cold on your skin and the stiffness of a someone not used to a full range of movement. You take a step, not quickly, not with grace or much enthusiasm, but it is forward step and it is beautiful.
The vastness of shame, the way people can carry this invisible, weighty, obscuring feeling, has been on my mind lately. I’ve been struggling with it in myself, trying to figure out, to feel out, its origins without getting lost in the narrative of my childhood. We’re here together, my shame and I. I’ll deal with her in the most effective way possible, going with the big feelings, recognizing the themes and my right to feel, and most of all, to treat myself with empathy.
I’ve caught shaming behavior in myself lately, have been noticing the little ways I have that can humiliate the people I love, put them in their place. It comes out when I feel unseen, unappreciated, put upon, and so my words reach out and sting the cheeks of the boy or his father, the scapegoats for my predicament. I’m sure I’ve been doing this all my life, but now I can see it. Sometimes the remarks seem innocuous, sometimes they are designed to hurt. I’ve let them fly out of my mouth for years thinking they were relatively harmless, just the grumblings of somebody who was cranky or pushed too far. Meaningless, really. But lately, I've turned my comments over in my mind. I've talked them through with the people I’ve hurt and repaired the rift as best I can.
I can't say those sorts of things anymore and believe my words are meaningless. Shaming is a trick of those who feel powerless. I am not powerless. I don't want to make others feel powerless. Still, with a kid the opportunities to humiliate and shame are many, though it may not feel like what I am doing is shaming or humiliating. I need to pay attention to what I say, to what my motives are, to how I can help the boy feel like he has power, like he is good, and all of us are humans who make mistakes and then do our best to make things right if we are able.
So the old days, when I wanted the protection I couldn't seem to give myself? They're over baby. The real me is emerging again. She tries her best to be strong and kind and available. She keeps her heart open even as she struggles with shame and fear. And sometimes she falters, just like everyone else.
Image by Creativity+ Timothy K. Hamilton
So. Ladies. Lay-deez. I’m not talking to all of you, just the ones who need to hear the message, the ones teetering on the edge of self-acceptance: it is impossible to create a self out of fog and tears. Look for the bedrock within. Find people who will support you in the search and give you a hand as you climb back up. Don’t drown yourself in drama and sticky reunion, no matter how right it feels, like losing your religion and finding it again, like god died and then returned to you, only to you, your personal savior. It’s beautiful stuff, I understand it. But I’m also no theist, and while the god I don’t believe in may love me and forgive me my multitude of sins, he’s not propping me up on a pedestal or keeping me from ruination. He gave me the tools to become whole from the get-go. It’s the humanity within, the truth of our power. Feel it. Accept it. Stand on it. Surround yourself with those who affirm it. It will all be fine. It already is.
But why listen to me? I’m but a crone in training, traveling in my own foggy haze. I’ve tried to cover the hollow feelings over with alcohol and anxiety, with sex and saviors. I see myself in you and tailor my advice accordingly. I spread the word of exculpation by emotional excavation, even as I struggle with it, and while I find the struggle somewhat pleasurable, like worrying a sore gum or gently palpitating a bruise, it is still a struggle.
Still. I see the hollow feelings for what they are now and I fill them with what feels right and authentic for me. That includes trying my best to stay present with those who love me, not pulling myself down with guilt or anger, and trying to understand the fear behind the impulse. It is so, so complicated and I know I'm speaking in riddles. But if you get it, you get it. Keep on reading. Reach out if you wish. Let love in without getting lost in the sheer joy and relief of acceptance. And give yourself credit for coming so far already.
Image of the Charm City Roller Girls by Bukutgirl.
Early morning Monday plus late night Monday plus interrupted sleep Tuesday plus marathon school day Wednesday plus Wednesday diet of nuts, berries, and vegan jerky chased with champagne at the day’s conclusion? At ten p.m. last night, I collapsed. I didn’t even make it upstairs, choosing instead to crawl to the guest room and crawl into bed, though at least I didn’t sleep in my clothes.
Yesterday was my birthday. It was also the day of my life span development class group presentation. Weeks of buildup, angst, and fact-gathering led up to something that was over in an hour. Done. On to the next presentation – cultural issues in counseling Middle Eastern Americans, here I come! But in the meantime, if you need any stats on standardized testing in elementary schools, if you want to discuss No Child Left Behind, or if you want to know, in the immortal words of President Bush, “is our children learning,” drop me a line. Maybe I can depress you as much as I apparently did the class. Or maybe we can come up with a bright side to the whole thing, come up with a plan to eradicate poverty and all its attendant issues, because poverty robs from children. Poverty is immoral and a system that encourages it–and blames poor people for being poor–is immoral as well. I could say more, but don't want to turn this into a rant.
Yesterday was my birthday. Or my un-birthday. I barely saw my family, had to rush out the door as the boy was waking up and rushed back in as he was going to sleep. We’ll celebrate tonight, Birthday Part II and there will be Part III tomorrow. The celebration never stops!
For many years, I’ve had issues (for lack of a better word) around my birthday. It’s hard to put these complex feelings into words, but I think they have to do with self-worth, with the shame of being born me. I have a sense of original sin without a religious background to blame it on. It’s a lousy feeling that has been more at the forefront lately, which is actually a good thing, because I recognize it for what it is, a vestige, an explanation from long ago, a feeling that deserves to see the light of day so it can be returned to that light.
My aunt sent me a photo scrapbook for my birthday–a lovely surprise–filled with pictures of me, many from my very early days, many with my dad. It was a touching gift, but initially difficult for me to page through. There she was . . . No, there I was–it is so easy for me to go into third person when writing about this stuff–there I was, so small and innocent. Looking at that little girl, at me, brought on feelings of shame. Shame for what? For her weakness? For her dependency? Because she was ineffectual and couldn't protect her mother or herself?
Does this make any sense? It doesn’t have to.
This was not a feeling I wanted to tamp down. I needed to experience it, or to re-experience it, to feel a bit outraged, too, at whatever would make a little girl–me–feel that way. The feeling was the opposite of victimhood. It was acknowledgement. It was about strength and not running away from emotion. I’ve been feeling around in the dark, reaching into the painful places, knowing the pain is there for a reason, it needs a voice, and I can tell its story and integrate it back into the whole of me.
Sometimes I have to remind myself: what happened to me was wrong. I didn’t ask for it. No one protected me, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t worth protecting. It doesn’t mean I can’t protect myself now or have to silence my voice in exchange for the illusion of protection. My emotions and ability to see are part of my strength. I will not deny them.
Image of me at (I believe) the Philadelphia Zoo in the petting zoo area, probably around 1975.
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.
Is it any wonder that the dream I had before waking was of a bunch of stuff on the curb, my stuff, being picked through and hauled away by the curb shoppers of Berkeley? I rifled through the bags that lady put on her pickup truck. I pulled out the old photographs. I snatched away my diaries before strangers learned about my adolescent obsessions and cluelessness. I tried to stop it all before I woke up.
Last year I leveled the remnants of both my former professional life (the shoes! the shoes! why did I keep the shoes?) and of the early days of the boy. That was another sort of death, or an acknowledgement of the change that already was. But I was never as attached to being a librarian as much as I was (and still am) attached to being a cook, a creative, knowledgeable home chef. It’s not that I won’t return to that. I certainly hope I do, though I really don’t know. It’s that the days of time stretched out before me to cook, the weekends I spent making stock, the complicated layered dishes, the homemade pasta, no longer exist.
I’ve always thought of cooking as a way to show love and to take care of others. It’s interesting to me that after having had such unpleasant childhood experiences with meals – in my last therapy session, I couldn’t stand the fact that my mother’s abandonment of me at mealtime in my teen years still upset me – I should be drawn to cooking and that cooking should have such meaning. It’s about caretaking, of self and other, and not much has changed for me since last week when I posted about my disinterest in the whole thing.
At the moment, the ever-changing moment, I feel cynical about it all, about the effort I put into meals and the naïveté of my twenties when I cared about the things in the world, the idea that it would last, that the self I was then would remain, stalwart over a stovetop and the cats would always be young with supple muscles and limbs. It was all hope and future and escape from childhood into warm-hearted anticipation. I know good things still lie ahead, but I miss what was before, the life where I cared.
Still, ever heavy on the symbolism, I’ve been drawn to chef memoirs lately. Last night I started Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton. I’m caught up in it already, reading about a love affair with food that started early and never stopped. I want to experience the slippery taste of olive oil on fresh pasta, the tongue tingle of chopped garlic, the simplicity of a piece of bread smeared with tomato and topped with manchego cheese. I want to want it again, I want an appetite for the world, for warmth, for taking care and being taken care of. It will come back, I keep on telling myself it will, but in the meantime I want for the hunger to strike, for the moment when texture returns.
Image: shoes from my cooking school days. Still have them, not yet ready to give them up.
So that’s what I’ve been avoiding, I thought. And why? What’s the big deal? This wasn’t something I needed to rip into shreds and toss into the fire after downing snifters of brandy, hurling the glass in after it. This wasn’t the angry phone call or the ill-advised email. This was me showing myself what I’d known all along.
The woman I saw to tell me what I already knew said it was in my hands, under my control. But I looked at my hands and they seemed so weak. Needy. They needed holding, the gentle tug across the street, the pat, the hand over hand, and I wanted to be needy. There is nothing romantic about pulling your own heavy weight up the rope to safety. But there is no one else who can do it. My choices were to stand on the ground and stare at the rope, letting my anxiety grow, or to just get on with it, knowing I’d get chafed along the way but at least I was going somewhere.
So the puzzle. In my mind, it was a like a TV graphic, simultaneously one- and three-dimensional, kind of cheesy, the thing they show you on a 1980s true crime show before taking you to the reenactment. The sphere turned and as it did, the three pieces clicked out of place.
I felt relief. And then curiosity: why had I been avoiding this?
This was last night's dream:
I lived in the Little House again and smuggled him in for the night. He was reluctant, though he gave me everything he was capable of at the time, almost what I wanted, but always with the prize withheld, hidden in a vault in some secret place within him. We were close and not close, warm and not warm. I knew he needed to go. This wasn’t right. My mother could come at any minute and expose us. He wasn't supposed to be there anyway.
The sun was just beginning to spread its weak light across the yard when he left. He was already somewhere else, didn't allow himself to look back. As he walked away with purpose, my mother almost crossed his path. Neither looked at the other. They each left footprints in the grass, traces in the morning dew, signs of existence the sun would remove soon enough. I gently closed my door, hoping that my mother was lost in thought, that she would yet again ignore the obvious. I wanted to continue getting away with the things I had been getting away with, no matter how disgusted with myself they made me. Or maybe I wanted to be caught. At least the worrying and the guilt kept alive the lie that she might be paying attention.
My mother knocked. I opened.
Who was that? she asked.
Alexander. He, he slept on the floor. I made up the name. I didn’t want her to know what I’d been up to.
Well, why didn’t you introduce him to me?
She wasn’t joking. She knew my bluff without calling it. She wanted to meet him because she thought he was important to me.
Well, he was important to me. He was. And the old rules no longer applied. I was beyond the days of illicit sleepovers and sneaking around. Why wouldn’t she want to know? Why should I hide it?
I hid it because there was no room for the truth. I was wanted/not wanted and both my mother and the guy who left were equally ambiguous about me. They played both sides as I sat in no man’s land searching for clarity. I hated myself for wanting them both in different ways, each way equally important. Sure, we were nothing but dream symbols, figments of my subconscious playing familiar roles at a musty abandoned crime scene. Together we made up the puzzle, each a vital part of the trinity: the parent, the man, the child. The parent wasn’t going to help the child do the right thing. The child had to take care of herself.
I was no longer a child. I could take responsibility for my actions, had control over my life. I looked at the rope, glanced up to see it reaching to the next stage. There was only one way to find out what awaited. I rubbed my hands together, reached, and, with a firm grip, started to climb.
Top image, taken by Piero Fissore, is of Sphere Within Sphere, a sculpture by Arnaldo Pomodoro at Trinity College in Dublin. There is a similar sculpture by the same artist on the University of California Berkeley campus.
Sometimes, when I needed to remind me of myself, I let my feelings out of the container. I uncontained. A gorgeous ribbon of deep-scarlet emotion would come rolling out, all satin gloss and shiny-slick. I stroked it with one finger and then held it against my palm, ran it lightly against the inside of my bare arm until the goose bumps came. The ribbon was endless. I wrapped it around my body. I became a mummy of emotion, of blood lust and want and I was ashamed and unscrolled my emotion from my body, leaving behind a mass of satin until I was calm enough to wrap the ribbon back around the spool and return it carefully to the container.
We had a love/hate relationship, my deeply-felt emotions, desires, and me. They were my strength. They were my downfall. When I was a kid, adults discounted them, rolled their eyes at my weakness, at my melodramatic tendency to overemote. But what a pleasure it was to take out the scarlet ribbon and savor it before returning it to the box, enjoy its shine against my skin before I wrapped it back up and returned it to its rightful place. The only risk was in too much.
Ah. But that is why we are gathered here. Do emotion and desire need to be coiled and contained? Are these the things that entangle when set free? I feared their intensity, assumed that emotion trapped, that desire exploded and destroyed, and that giving these things shape courted danger. But in denying them, I cut myself off from something vital.
I don’t want to separate them from myself, to continue to separate myself from myself. The separation blinds me to others; it hollows out my heart. But I don’t want them to imprison me, either. The trick is to allow emotion, allow myself and what I want, to exist without letting it take over.
This feeling of emotion and desire’s right to be, of the right of the untidy but beautiful to exist within me, stretches out of my chest and floats delicately around me, gossamer, transparent, right. I grasp it with a quick hand, gently pull it closer and wrap it over my shoulders.
My vision is clear, my hands untied, my self undivided.
Image by Kai C. Schwartzer.
Here is a link to "Silver" by Echo and the Bunnymen on YouTube, a song from which I've gotten a post title or two and which I thought of when I wrote the last sentence of this post: the sky is blue / my hands untied / a world that's true / through our clean eyes / just look at you / with burning lips / you're living proof at my fingertips
I’ve often repeated this as a mantra, a reminder, a short soothing salve to keep myself going, while underneath the surface the doubts ripple. As an emotional prop I’ll be fine isn’t particularly strong, though it's gotten me through hard times. It looks to the future without figuring out the proper path. It assumes that the speaker isn’t exactly fine, but hopefully they will be someday. It’s the kind of thing you say when you are stumbling through a rough patch, tripping over uneven ground during a transition, and you don’t want to think that your destination is dark, not worth it, more painful than what came before. I’ll be fine.
I’ve spent a weekend alone while my family was away visiting family. At first I was apprehensive at the thought of a weekend by myself, especially a rainy one, where I would have too much time inside and not enough to keep me going. Because of the boy’s cyclical fevers, I wasn’t even sure if he would be traveling until the day of their trip (as it turns out, he got a fever yesterday, just about on schedule; confusingly [for diagnostic purposes], it's not a bad one, which is good for a travel weekend at least). I made a few plans, had breakfast with a friend yesterday and a phone conversation with another friend today. I had plenty of firewood, a good book, and a well-stocked refrigerator. I welcomed the time to think.
Thinking has been my primary task this weekend, that and keeping the fire stoked. In fact, I’ve learned a lot about starting a fire and maintaining it, how once it gets to a certain point you can leave it alone to burn itself out (it can take hours) or you can keep on feeding it fuel, let the flames of one log engulf another. Yes, it’s a clichéd symbol. I’m keeping the home fires burning. Or I’m figuring out what it takes to maintain a life, a relationship, oneself. Once the fuel is gone, the reason for being, you’re doomed, and you'd better choose the right fuel, too, not something too young and green that will create more smoke than flame. Fires take care and attention and the desire to be warmed, the acceptance that sometimes you will be flushed with heat. Over the course of the weekend, I've become fire savvy. The flames no longer scare me. I know when I'm safe and I know when to move my hand away. As I type the last of the firewood is crackling to its demise. I started this fire before nine a.m. It’s two o’clock now. My weekend companion will soon be a pile of ash and charcoal.
The future isn't totally murky. I will go to grad school for an MFT, though whether it will be at my first choice or somewhere else, I don’t know. I will build an outside life, devote myself to something I believe in apart from my family. As this missing link, a life outside the home, develops, the rest of my path will become clear. I can be devoted to both things at once. I will be fine.
I write it, I say it silently to myself, I tell the fire, the cats, the dog: I will be fine. But this isn’t a stop-gap phrase, a way of seeing myself through a difficult time. I am fine. I see my progress in my writing, even when my writing is sad or heavy. I see it in how I look at the world, in how I see my “value.” I’m learning that my value isn’t necessarily tied to what I provide to others, the tasks, the the devotion, the pleasing. My value, everyone's value, is intrinsic. I don't need to prove my value (by being a “good” person, whatever that means in context) or fit someone else’s idea of what I should be. The only person I need to please is myself. I'm the real deal all on my own. You are, too.
I am at peace. I’m fine. There are changes ahead, good ones, and though the transitions may be hard, I will be doing the right thing. The murk of my mind will clear. In the meantime, I’m not helpless. I can do small things – or big things, like driving – the mortar of my future existence, the small steps in the continuum.
Image of yesterday's fire, which burned from mid-afternoon to early evening.
I've added a new category, The struggle redefined. Why? Because the struggle has changed, though there will be times when I'm back in the thick of no hope (always, always a temporary condition).
As far as the boy's periodic fevers are concerned, we're almost positive he has something called PFAPA. It could be much worse. He will most likely grow out of it and it is treatable, though there is no one treatment that works for everyone.