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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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I am still planning my syllabus.  I rake the shelves in my study for samples of poems and stories that my students will hopefully either love or hate–better off not being anywhere in between.

English: A vintage ampere meter. Français : Un...

Photo Credit: Wikipedia.

I searched for a poem that would make them unafraid.  I picked up a copy of Ploughshares from 2005, wondered briefly how and why I have this, then flipped through.  I stopped at Adrienne Rich‘s “Life of the Senses.”  I stopped for a number of reasons.  But mostly that I had heard a faculty member at Goddard’s MFA program read about her recently.  I had found this poem right then for some reason.  Magic, my 4-year-old would say.

Adrienne Rich’s “Life of the Senses” will alert my students to what they are hopefully not missing out on, or perhaps make them aware of the white space of life before constant interruption.  I tell myself that being aware of this helps, but it is a strange compromise between control, and loss of it.  The hope was this poem would make them unafraid of poetry, but the more I read it, I become frightened, myself.

Here’s how she begins:

1.

Over and over, I think

we have come to a place

like this,

dead sound

stopping the soul

in its eager conversations

Or, a classical theme

repeated over and over       interrupted

by a voice disguised as human:

Please

stay on the line

Your call is very

important to us

(from Adrienne Rich’s “Loss of the Senses”)

In 2005, I was in the middle of my grad degree at Brockport.  I had just started dating my husband.  I had free time.   I had just joined Facebook.  I had no children.  I had time to write, and didn’t.  I had time to read when I wasn’t.  I didn’t yet know I was sick .  At the same time, I revised stories about failed marriages and car mechanics and the Chinese Immigrant who answered the phone at the take-out on Main Street.  It’s still there.   And I edited papers under a desk lamp in my strangely trendy Main St. apartment–in Brockport.  I was making mentors, but Googled shortcuts through my education.  I still do, sometimes.  That knowledge is hard to erase.  It’s 2012–no, 2013, suddenly–and I have two boys who don’t know Facebook except for when I post them there like little entertainers.  I type this on my blog when I should be writing for packet work or watching cartoons with my sons, or recovering from a bad injection, but sometimes I crave social media like an entire bag of microwave popcorn that I inhale before bedtime and then curse at the heartburn when 2 a.m. comes and my children are already sleeping.  If it isn’t already, I know that tomorrow all of me could be numb.

3.

No, it’s worse than I’m saying:

Have you ever woken on a hot night

tangled in a sheet you’d been trying

to throw off

wanting to clutch the dream

you’d been wrapped in

as long as possible?

(from Adrienne Rich’s “Loss of the Senses”)

After I finished the last section of the poem, I closed the book.  The cover wore a pale sticky note from a friend, and I read it: “For you.”  I imagined the first time I picked up this book he had given me, how this person had been a mentor, then, but now, how much had changed, how life goes on without us knowing, and how I know only Facebook posts of so many people.  People who were once in the flesh are now thumbnails.

When I spread the pages of the book to make a copy on my printer and the spine cracked neatly in half, I promised myself I would concentrate fully on the hum of the machine.


To Those Things I’ve Loved and Left:

Nostalgia in objects.

1. Homemade popcorn. I waited anxiously for you as a five or seven or ten-year-old, from the side of the stove. My mother would hush me as she poured your golden kernels, clanking and then lessening to tinks, against the silver pot. I’d hear pops as she’d rake the pot back and forth across the coiled burner. The cover was on, and you, future popcorn, would dart against the lid or the sides. After you bloomed into a perfect canvas for flavor, my mother emptied the pot into the brown Wegman’s (read: “Wagmen’s”) paper bag, to be topped with melted butter and salt, and shaken mercilessly. My fingers padded over with grease and salt, and I found remnants of your kernels in my teeth a day later.

2. The corded phone, attached to our living room wall. You are the reason I remember my brother sprawled on his back on the chocolate-colored carpet across the threshold to our living room. He could not leave your side, or the side of whoever was on the other line. You were placed within view of the television, luckily. Without call waiting, there were arguments to hurry conversations with friends or girlfriends. My brothers had no camera phones to view who they were talking to, so they were sure Debbie was “the real thing” when the town pedophile began calling our home.

3. The Preview Channel. You, a constant companion. The soothing scroll of television programs meant security to me. I knew what was coming next, yet I never turned from your channel. Here’s what I remember about you: Gremlins, Family Ties, Full House, You Can’t Do That on Television. There were many programs I couldn’t watch because my house didn’t subscribe to The Disney Channel or The Movie Channel, so you also reminded me of what I couldn’t have. That was captivating. Then you expired, leaving me to watch The Weather Channel, to listen to its elevator music. Now I watch hurricane season, tornadoes, and severe thunderstorms unfold, waiting for the local weather every ten minutes, and it’s always on time.

4. The cordless phone that hung on our kitchen wall. You made many trips to my bedroom and stayed there until you would die, and my mother would yell, “Sarah, do you have the phone?” My father would call, “Sarah! Are you ignoring the beeps again?” Even then, I’d developed ways to ignore the inconvenient. I knew how to conference call, which was a sophisticated trick. Your buttons were worn, the numbers missing, the smooth texture unfazed by blush or foundation. Your paging call, the sound you made when my mother would hit the gray button stole me from my boyfriend or best friend, to return you to your rightful owner. You: a translator with memory lapses, a broken arm, a passing friend, and your numbers calling out to me way past their prime: 6375977, 6592263, 6372096, 6377065, 3283826, like little representatives.

5. Notes. I dumped you, notes, you papers, all college-ruled with nicknames and apologies and mundane records of my high school and middle school lives, drawn on and folded, into a very large plastic garbage bag. There was no room for you to follow.

6. Postcards. I’ve only received two in the mail this past year. Though throughout my lifetime, I’ve kept every one of you. You list inside jokes so old I don’t remember their significance, only that they were once significant. You advertised places I’d never been, though views I could see anywhere: melon-colored sunsets, cerulean oceans with sailboats grazing the shore, a cactus plant I could have probably found at Sara’s Farm Market. Postcard, your contents were less-revealing than notes, your images were crisp. You told me other people’s memories.

7. Mailbox. You hold very little to me, now, (except at Christmas-time) but I still recognize the importance of your station. You are the reason I always ask my husband, “Did you get the mail?” or the reason I insist on checking every day, even when I find an empty tin box. When I was younger, the mailbox offered a promise of trendy magazines, made for devouring in one sitting and kept until I realized they would never be read again. You identified me, placed my name in hard black text on white glossy paper. Back then, you were the reason I had an address. Mail was proof there were papers destined only for me.

8. Cash. When I turned ten, my parents bought me a drawing desk. It was large and white with an attachable black lamp and two side compartments that held art supplies. I was excited to stock it with office supplies. When I reached in my purse (yes, I had one of these then), I found fourteen sticks of Fruit-Striped gum and twelve singles. I chewed that gum so fast, two sticks at a time, until it lost flavor. You, cash, had worn over, now soft as leather. It pleased me to fold you, and straighten you, and crinkle you in a ball. Yesterday, on campus, students were fundraising for the homeless, and those around me responded: “I don’t carry cash.” I thought the same thing myself.

9. The canvas SUNY Brockport bag. I kept you from when I was ten until I graduated from college. I cut holes all around your opening, linked the holes with a blue combination lock, and kept my journals inside. You were durable, and I didn’t have to write “Keep Out”– you made that apparent to anyone.

10. Maps. You came with me to Florida when I was nineteen. I drove with twin friends and a fluorescent-yellow-haired girl I didn’t care for. You were there during my breaking point, Map. After we’d lost ourselves in West Virginia on the way down, I navigated the whole way home. (Didn’t everyone lose their way in West Virginia?) Yellow-haired girl insisted we head South from Florida to New York, while I insisted we head North. It was that simple. I showed her your blue veins traveling up towards Lake Ontario, and she finally agreed, her hair swooshing as she guffawed in self-deprecation.

To be continued…

Next: penny candy, dandelion stems, cassette tapes, etc.