The Messy Mind

Anxiety - Stress ... Time management vital for...

While my family was in a discussion about depression (that I was trying to listen to, of course), my sons were whipping around my parents’ driveway on a Plasma Car and a scooter, then my iPhone beeped with a new email, and while I was trying to understand why my son desperately needed me to move my mother’s car to the bottom of the driveway right this minute, my phone rang and it was my husband updating me on the paperwork about the sale of our house.   I’m not the only one with this experience.  We likely all do this all day long.

By the time I’d moved my mother’s car, snapped at my husband over the phone, ignored two new text messages that were urgent (read: not urgent at all), and totally missed a conversation that I so wanted to be a part of, I was cranky.

I am chronically anxious.

What I wanted to say during the conversation about depression that I missed out on was this:  Yes, we are all varying degrees of sad at different stages of our lives.  We all get tired and overwhelmed and lost.  But for some of us, it doesn’t end there.  For some of us, it goes to a whole different place, and how we deal with that place is unique to each of us.  And I say “us” not as someone on the outside, but as someone who has dealt with alternating depression and anxiety for most of my adult life, though also as someone who’s learned enough to live fully with it, and still needs help to learn better.

I had a friend who wrote me a suicide letter when she was twelve.   She was angry when I told her mother.  And then I lost her forever after that though she’s alive today.  How could I have known that telling her mother was such an offense that I would be kicked out of her life?

I had a student whose plea for help I missed.  I read her poems awkwardly–not knowing how to behave.  Some were not poems at all, but paragraphs of emotional outpouring.  Some of what she wrote seemed eerily similar to my friend’s letter.  She committed suicide the next semester.  What was the difference between the me I was when I was twelve and the me I was last fall?

I remember my friend’s suicide note vividly.  I remember how she made the letter ‘s’ with a curved bottom and a slanted line on the top.  I remember how once she stashed an orange in the cedar chest in her bedroom and we found it, hard as a baseball, crumpled in a mass of 70s dresses we used to dress up in.  We used to dance around her house to “The Nutcracker Suite.”  We spent hours telling ghost stories and holding seances.  We picked our scabs and put the wounds together so we could be blood sisters.

Have I become jaded?  Am I skeptical?  Did I judge my student as seeking attention or as not serious or as melodramatic?  Did I just get distracted?  Did everyone in her life get distracted by something else?   Was I looking for something to distract me?

I’ve been on many meds.  I’ve been on high doses and low doses and have seen counselors and therapists and sometimes wonder, why?  I’m familiar with wanting to believe I’m cured and then stopping meds.  I’m familiar with the despair that comes after.  I’m familiar with going off meds during college and self-medicating with vodka.  I know not all meds are helpful and that some, in fact, make you worse.

I also understand that I can control my situation to an extent.  For me, I’ve learned that if I stay busy–super busy–I will not be depressed, so I choose anxiety that keeps me up at night over a depression that makes me wonder if the people who commit suicide are braver than I am.  I still need meds, but this constant work keeps me stable.

I’ve learned this: that I cannot play roulette, guessing if someone else who’s depressed wants attention or is serious.  I cannot judge another person’s despair or state of mind.  Their mind is as much theirs as their fingerprint–it’s exactly why copycatting doesn’t work, and sometimes why I think my therapists are bogus.  How can you really ever “get” anyone?  All any of us need is to be “figured out.”

Once, when I was anxious to the point of sobbing and shaking, a friend shared this Natalie Goldberg quote with me:  “Stress is an ignorant state.  It believes that everything is an emergency.  Nothing is that important.  Just lie down.”

I keep this on my bulletin board because ‘ignorant’ is a dirty word for me and I’d rather be anything before I’d be ignorant.  Sometimes, I still live my life as though everything is an emergency.  My son needs a drink.  The dog needs to go out.  Responding to a work email.  Listening to what’s going on around me.  Paying the bills.  Multi-tasking is fine for the hands but tough on the brain.  Sometimes I can’t prioritize, so I do it all at once.

I don’t know when this started.  I find myself going to the worst places when any threat presents itself.

I am thirty-one.  When I was 27, I taught a night class for a friend.  Flakes were flying hard, and by the time class was over, my mother had driven to campus and cleaned off my car.  She didn’t want me alone, at 9 pm, cleaning my car off on campus.

The thought that prompted my mother’s action was probably a worst-case scenario: Me, alone, cleaning off my car, a gloved arm grabbing me from behind, putting me in a strange vehicle that I would not emerge from alive.  Or maybe this: I, not cleaning off my car properly because I was cold and in a hurry, pull out of the lot and into an oncoming truck.  Or it was both.

I believe this is where my mind is at all times, too.  But if it were at this place last fall, would I have missed my student’s plea?

In an article I found on a friend’s Facebook wall last week, The Unleashed Mind: Why Creative People Are Eccentric, it explains some of why some minds are more emotional, overstimulated, and goes on to explain why the creative mind leads to “strangeness.”

Part of the reason people with depression and anxiety are viewed as “strange” is because those who are rational or logical-minded don’t understand why the emotions can’t be reasoned with, can’t be “handled” or “controlled.”  These are the people, likely, who have vague memories, who don’t remember mundane moments of their childhood with the vividness of milestones.

My son will recall any little afternoon outing with such specificity that it stuns me.  He is sensitive.  He is perceptive.  I’ve joked that he will be my writer.

Sometimes, my husband says to me, “God.  How do you remember that?”  when I recall one weeknight three years ago when such and such happened, and the article helped me understand that it’s the same part of him that wonders why I can’t just turn my mind off at the end of the night to go to sleep even though I’m tired, or why I insist there are ghosts all around us.

When I tucked my son in tonight, I said to him, “I’m sorry I was upset earlier, I just have all this stuff on my mind, all this chattering from this person and that person and things I know I need to be doing that I’m not, and when you said the same sentence for the third time, I just couldn’t listen any more.”

And sometimes, all it is, is that I don’t know how to stop listening.

 

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Writing Illness

English: Detail of plate 4, figure 4 of Pathol...

Pathological Anatomy: Illustrations of the Elementary Forms of Disease. Last fasciculi published in 1838. Depicts Multiple Sclerosis lesions before the disease had been described by Charcot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was the only one sobbing at Bellevue Literary Review‘s AWP panel.

Poet Hal Sirowitz, who writes honestly and humorously about his experience with Parkinson’s disease, had me crying.

He stood up at the podium with his wife and read in a deadpan voice, sometimes struggling to get out the end of the line.  His wife stood next to him and I didn’t know if it was to help him along with the reading, or to help him stand– or even if he needed or wanted any of these things.  But I guess in this case, needing and wanting really are two different things.  Sirowitz read poems, and it seemed planned that his wife would finish his lines or sometimes she started the lines and he would finish them.  His wife, composed, smiled at his humor.

I chose to sit near the front so I could quickly thank the poetry editor after for publishing my poem in their prior issue, but I ended up staring at the presenters, wiping snot from my upper lip, imagining that they looked at me strangely.  Mortified, I left immediately.

I’ve written two poems about Multiple Sclerosis.  I’ve written essays that I don’t really care for about the disease–essays that feel too self-deprecating or too self-pitying or too removed.  So, I try to work the disease in other ways.  When a peripheral character in a story needs a disease, I give them MS, and then I make them really tired all the time, or I make them walk with a cane, or I make them die.

What else should I do with these characters?  How should I write a protagonist, a mother, who has MS?  What else should be in her life besides her disease and her family?

Bellevue held another panel at AWP: “In Sickness and In Health: Literature at the Intersection of Medicine, Science, and the Arts,” where I teared up, but didn’t sob.

I took notes.

Sure, the title of the panel sounds clinical.  But that was the rub–how something so intensely personal like disease, something that makes itself so much a part of the body that we sometimes don’t even recognize we have it, can steal away the most human aspects of ourselves.  So much time in the panel was discussing how “medical-ese” takes the primal, human, messy parts of disease and sterilizes those parts into vocabulary terms that the patient can’t understand without a medical dictionary.

So I went to the human side when researching the history of MS for this novella.  I am determined to explore it in a way that lets me control its every appearance, though not my character’s.  I suppose that I should be an entirely different being from my character.

I read mostly archival news articles from the 40s through the 70s.  I wanted to know what the public knew about the disease then, to understand how little was understood.

From the Toledo Blade, June 12, 1947:  “Patients suffering from the ‘brutal’ and always fatal disease, multiple sclerosis, are getting an answer to their plea, ‘Why doesn’t someone do something about this disease?'”

I thought about this.  When I was diagnosed, my friend told me it was a “trendy” disease.  As much as I didn’t understand the diagnosis, I didn’t understand what my friend meant.  Benign?  Fashionable?  Cool?  Preferable?

I re-read the line: “brutal and always fatal.”  My great-uncle Tony had MS, and in his time, I wonder, was he devastated in ways I couldn’t know?  The disease isn’t thought of as “fatal” anymore.  Hardly even “brutal”–at least less-so–for people diagnosed today.  Though there are days I might describe it as “brutal” (certainly episodes of vertigo), I’d feel too guilty to use that term.  There are days I don’t feel diseased at all.

From reading his poetry, it’s clear Hal Sirowitz is living his disease–I imagine he feels the steady decline with every one of his senses.  I’m sure he can tell when disease is taking his life from him because he might find something he used to do that he can no longer do.  His poetry tracks disease, treats it as fact, but still prods at the unknowing, bravely looks it in the face.  Even if the face with that disease is his.

The most common word associated with MS in the old news articles is “mysterious.”  And I get that.  Doctors and scientists didn’t know what caused it, how to fix it, how people could be either unable to walk or walking just fine, or how–the scary part, still–to predict its course.  It is mysterious.

Dare I call it like I see it, how it presents itself in my life?  A nuisance?  A ghost?  A threat?

Even though some articles refer to it as “a crippler?”  Because sometimes, it is.

I’ll write into the mystery of it.   And it’s still a mystery to me how to do that…even as I finish this blog post that I wrote to make sense of writing and illness.  Of story and disease.

–a poignant essay by Rafael Campo, “Illness as Muse,” from Bellevue.


What to Say When There is Nothing

Kiddie Pool 01

Kiddie Pool 01 (Photo credit: katherine lynn)

Yesterday, the WHAM13 news alert popped up on my cell phone while my sons splashed in the kiddie pool in my mother’s backyard.

That night, my two little boys would spend the night with my mother so I could clean our house for a real estate showing.  I had just yelled at my four-year-old, Johnny, for splashing the water too hard, speckling my phone with droplets.  He and his little brother, Sammy, had been playing a game they play often, whether in a pool or not–one lies down, hurt, and the other saves him.

The news alert: Toddler Dies After Drowning in Daycare Swimming Pool.  I clicked the link.

Now, I cannot sleep.

The first thing I did after reading the text, was tell my father that the home-daycare was in Sweden Village–the small tract that my sister jokingly referred to as “Snob Hill” when I was a teenager, a name I hated–some of my best friends lived there.  We knew the owners of the daycare in our community, their family a part of our lives in small ways.  I thought my father might cry.

The second thing I did after reading the text, was call one of my best friends whose son attends daycare where this tragedy occurred, a brave move since I had no idea what to say or ask when she answered the phone.  He had not been at the daycare yesterday.

The third thing I did was sob with her on the phone for the pain.  We all want to understand the unthinkable so we might draw a circle around ourselves, some thin line to signify that we couldn’t be the family tragedy had struck, but there was no line.  I almost enrolled my two-year-old in that daycare.  And we’ve all been in charge of another’s child at some time.

The fourth thing I did was help my mother bail the water out of the plastic pool while Johnny and Sammy stood, wrapped in towels, giggling, eating Flavor Ice in the sun.

My mother had said, “Let me do it.  You don’t want to do this.”

I said, “No, I want to.  I have all this anxious energy.  Let me use it for something.”  I took the small pink tub that Park Ridge Hospital had sent home with me after the birth of my first son almost five years ago, a tub they now use to rinse the grass of their feet before they get in the pool, and scooped the water up, then heaved it out.  I tried with ferocity to grab more water than the tub could hold, to empty the alligator-printed pool in one movement, but every time the water splashed out of the tub, it still only looked like the small amount of water I could manage.  When the water was low enough for my mother and I to dump out, we tipped the pool over and soaked the lawn.  Nothing had changed.

The fifth thing I did was watch the news.  The boys put on their dry clothes and rode their bikes in my mother’s driveway.  We park my mother’s  little red Honda at the end to keep the boys from entering street traffic: two cars per hour.  Sometimes, John scoots his Lightning McQueen bike out past the red car, and I scream frantically at him:  “Get on this side of the car!”  He looks at me, bewildered, from beneath his helmet, as if he had the phrase, he might say, “Get a grip.”

I did many things then, but I only remember uttering parts of phrases, still crying a little.  Still wondering what things a mother does after entering this tragedy.  How could I be sure it hadn’t been me?  How didn’t I lose myself in her grief?  I stopped my imagination, so many times, from going to that moment, the horrible moment that will replay in the poor family’s life for years.

After I left John and Sam with my parents, I drove past the house that held the daycare, though I knew the only thing anyone in this tragedy needed right then was privacy.  I wanted to hug them all, to ask where God was, but I said little prayers in my head, and though I know few, I made something up in my mind that sounded good enough, and what could ever be good enough for these families anymore?

At home, I cleaned with bleach and Lysol.  I went on Facebook to look up photos of the child after they released his name, and sobbed to see the two-year-old’s smooth chubby face, his blond hair, the private moments eating popcorn from a Spiderman tub in front of the flat screen with his four-year-old brother, who would wake every morning to remember that someone was missing.  I cleaned more.

I called my parents to tell them what news I had learned.  I considered going to my childhood home so I could pick up my sons and hug them, bring them home with me and tuck them tight in their beds.

My parents told me not to let my mind “go there.”  But when I told my father that the toddler had a four-year-old brother, he said, “Oh God.”

My mother said, “Jesum.”

When my husband got home from work, I told him everything I knew about everything in the world that day, which was mostly the tragedy.  No one could give any answers to the questions I didn’t know to ask.

At 3:30 a.m., I went in my sons’ empty bedrooms on the way to the bathroom and, terrified, thanked God for them both.


To Brockport, From Goddard, With Love

Goddard College Clockhouse

Goddard College Clockhouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I haven’t traveled much in my lifetime.  I can count the times I’ve been out of the country on one hand, and most of those trips were hour-long drives to Niagara Falls, when I’d squeeze my eyes shut and hold my breath over the Rainbow Bridge.

I love Vermont.  During this residency at Goddard College, my MacBook is on its last leg, and I had too much Sauvignon Blanc last night.  I’ve never been to France, and I can’t do that accent, so I practiced “Sauvignon Blanc” over and over, meaning to order it without sounding idiotic or pretentious.  Practice doesn’t make everything perfect.  I can hardly get the keys on my Mac to type words I’ve spelled since first grade.

Yesterday, I tried to get to the RocRoots page from my aging Mac to see a story I’d written for the Democrat & Chronicle about Edgar Coapman and his dog.  It took me an hour.  I managed, and the piece looked like it had when I sent it out, familiar in many ways–not just in the way that it was my work, but in the way that it was my place, as though I can peer into the depths of this village I call home, all the way from Goddard, the place I call home for this week.

I’ve been out of town for a few days, and since, life has gone on in startling ways–my brother gave birth to kidney stones, my sons have become still more articulate (and are getting along), my uncle has come to visit from Florida, bringing with him a larger sense of home than can fit between the boundaries of our village, our house has glimpsed, perhaps, its new owners, and I am here, on the outside, gathering reports like I do during research– only reporting from decades later–preparing to write some story, some thing that can hold tight to pulp of human life.


Gifts From My Father

Clutch Cargo

Clutch Cargo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, I placed a bid on a toy from my childhood: a Fisher Price Discovery Globe that lights up and has a viewfinder to “zoom-in” on a location. (Please don’t out-bid me.) Imagine a tangible Google Earth. Life really was cooler in the eighties.

This was the toy I loved most as a child. I spent hours peering into places I’d never see in real life–the countries and cities with their animals and culture and scene. And when I win the auction, I can’t wait to revisit that world. Can’t wait to share it with my boys. When Ebay asked me to enter a maximum bid, I turned melodramatic: How do you enter a high bid on your childhood? So I “x’d” the window.

I could always tell the Christmas gifts my father chose for me–besides this globe: a wood-branding kit, a full chemistry set with pipettes and chemicals, an amateur microscope complete with slides of fly wings and ant feces (or something as gross), a build-your-own-kaleidoscope kit, and a photosynthetic developing kit that I made maple leaf prints with while he blared Simply Red on the living room stereo.

My father used to bring me with him to houses en route to becoming homes, structures without drywall, with see-through staircases that I refused to climb, that I watched him climb with ease. In the process of home-building, it was his turn to add insulation. I loved the saw dust smell and the look of a structure vast and transparent as the woods around it.

Last night, on Ancestry.com, I found a census that showed my grandfather as living in LA when he was six, and my father said, “Huh. I didn’t know.” I frowned. Our realities are what we deem important, what stands out to us as remarkable or noteworthy. My grandfather had never told my father this in all his life. How can I tell my boys everything? How can I let them hold it in their hands?

What happens when life goes undiscovered? We can live a full day without a single moment of it embedded in our memory. There are whole weeks in our lives that we don’t ever speak another word of.

One day, when I was little, I fed bologna, my dad’s favorite lunch meat, to Cricket, a life-sized, blond-haired, blue-eyed doll that talked, because she’d said she was hungry. Another day, uncooked pasta. Her mouth moved when she “talked,” so why couldn’t she chew? Neither worked. I left her side for Teddy Ruxpin, who still refused to eat. (These dolls are now labeled as “vintage” on Ebay.) They could only be so real. Perhaps these failures led me to my microscope or globe? Perhaps these moments lead me to Ebay for my long-lost globe?

I give my parents a lot of grief for not hanging on to my toys. My husband has everything from his childhood! His old toy box sits in my son’s bedroom. They play with his super hero action figures–multiple versions of Spider Man and Batman. They can wear his old denim jacket.

Probably, I coaxed my parents to throw out my old dolls and science laboratories, to let me be a grown-up with lip gloss and purses and cassette tapes.

Last night, my parents showed up with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle truck for my sons. We watched Disney, and then I put on Looney Tunes, a throwback both my father and I remembered. He quizzed me on the character names.

Then he asked, “Have you ever seen Clutch Cargo?” This was a question he’d asked me before, and I still hadn’t looked it up on my own. I still had no vision when he said “human lips on a cartoon face.” Before I knew it, he had his Iphone in his hand, and had pulled up an episode on YouTube. He was eager to show us all–especially my boys.

After we took a peek, he sat there, mesmerized, in his YouTube childhood, watching the episode.


Boys at Home

Superman (comic book)

Superman (comic book) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I tell my four-year-old on the way home, “Johnny, you have to calm down at Grandma’s: you can’t jump on her sleep-number bed or track mud on the floor, or look at the pork roast and then comment that the gravy smells like poop, or sit on the windshield of her car, and when we have to leave, you can’t cry behind the standing antique mirror you always almost break in your fervor, because she will stop inviting us over.”

I know she won’t.  She smiles baring all teeth, shaking her head, she says, “They’re boys.”  I smile, bearing anything at all.  How does my mother not mind?

Who doesn’t like gravy?

Sammy is two and threw my mother’s butter potatoes to the floor, swept them clear off her table before he began jamming out with his spoon on her new slate-tiled kitchen set.

Last week, a little girl ahead of us in line at Wegmans said, “My name’s Angelina.”

Johnny said, “My little brother’s name is Sam, and he’s not an angel.”  We all laughed, but he didn’t understand what was so funny.

My sons are not devils.  They are ragamuffins.  They are toughies, my mom says.  My mother-in-law says God only gives you what you need.  He forgot to give me muscles.  And many days, patience.

I did imagine that Angelina went home and combed her Monster High doll’s hair calmly and smoothly with attention to snarls and then smelled her doll’s hair and then cuddled her like a good Monster High doll’s mother would.  I imagine Angelina potty trained in two days.  She ate everything her parents put on her plate, with gravy.  She took ballet classes and tiptoed down the stairs after waking, never before 8 a.m.  I imagined.

I have to exert all my power to hold two boys down with force enough to put their shoes on while they spin like tornadoes, but not enough force to hurt them.  It is a hard practice, like yoga, this strict control of muscles.

And yet I see the same restraint in Johnny when he wants to wallop Sammy in return for the bite on his forearm.

They love as hard as they live.

We get home, and Johnny says, “I don’t like to come home.”

So I tell him that makes me sad, that I want him to love our home, to want to be here.  He starts crying and tells me he doesn’t want to leave this house, to move, that he wants to take the “for sale” sign down.

When I am almost in tears, Sammy says, “It’s okay, Mommy.”

At night, we are finally settled, the three of us on the couch, watching Chicken Little, and I’ve finally stopped holding my breath long enough to remind them how much I love them.  We share popsicles.  And if they fight by pushing hard and leaning against each other, growling, it’s over the space on my lap–which is my space, and I don’t mind if they each take it all.

 


Moms Are Like Candy

bubble_gum

bubble_gum (Photo credit: JMacPherson)

One morning, while my mother did her makeup,  I wrote the words ‘Mom’ and ‘Sarah’ under the doorbell on the white molding of my parents’ front porch with a raw umber Crayola as though we were the only two who lived there.   As though the people who visited would be looking only for us, as though they would need to know our names before they rang the doorbell, as though everyone would know my mother as nothing other than ‘mom.’

It stayed there for years.  When my parents repainted the porch, I felt a sense of loss.  I still touch the space where I’d written our names, wishing I could erase the paint and take a photo for my own personal historic preservation.

When I got older, my mother and I would fight over her clothes.  I wore her sweaters, though my bony shoulders left marks like a hanger would in the cloth.  They never seemed right on her again after I wore them, she would say.  Before school, I would sneak in her closet and pull her tops on over my head while she was doing her makeup in the bathroom, and then sit at the table eating Pop Tarts and reading the obituaries of the Democrat & Chronicle when she came in the kitchen.  She’d pretend not to notice that I was wearing her floral knit cardigan from Barbara Moss.

My mother has always worn Maybelline Great Lash mascara in Blackest Black– the flamingo pink tube and the lime green cap feels both young and classic at the same time.  She has olive skin, dark eyes, and wears thick black Revlon eyeliner with the red coating and burns it with a lighter before using.  She used to have Coty powder–the gold, round, cardboard container sitting on her nightstand, next to her ashtray, where she would stow her chewed Extra bubblegum for morning.

Lately, she’s begun an extensive alarm clock collection.  Just in case.  When my boys turn on the alarm clock radio and have a dance party in her bedroom, she will say gently just before they push the ‘on’ button, “Don’t touch that.  It always messes up the alarm,” but then she will forget, entranced in their dancing, smiling with the gum pressed between her back molars.

Though at the age of four, I had all of my top front teeth pulled after days of Tang-drinking and Tart ‘n’ Tiny addiction, my sons are two and four-year-old gum-chewers.  Their brand: Pink Extra Sugarless Bubble Gum.

My mother tries endlessly to teach them how to blow bubbles.  I scold her for giving them gum.  She has a special stash hidden in one of her kitchen appliances for Johnny, so now it’s sacred and I can’t tell her no.  My favorite childhood gum was Fruit Striped with the zebra on the package.  I did my sixth grade science fair project on which brand of bubble gum kept its flavor the longest.  I blow large bubbles that, when they pop, cover my nose so I can’t breathe.  When I do this, my son thinks I’m amazing in the same way I think my mother is amazing as I watch her, kneading her gum between her thumb and her teeth, stretching it long like taffy and then pressing it close again.

When Johnny learns how to spell, I’m going to give him a raw umber Crayola and send him out to her porch, where for now, my two little boys ring the doorbell incessantly before swinging the front screen door wide open, calling, “Gramma!”