At a small gathering of friends on one cold winter night, after several rounds of cocktails, the host offered to give everyone a Tarot card reading. Our evening of easy camaraderie swiftly turned a dark corner. One guest after another received readings featuring The Devil, The Tower, inverted major arcana and forecasts of suffering and ruin. While we all sat around a fireplace, there was a chill in the air. Friends squirmed in their seats and exchanged reassurances that it was just a party game. When it came my turn, the cards prophesied a future of depravity, perversion and forced gaiety. I believe it was the least harrowing of the night’s fortunes. I am ok with it.
February 28, 2013
I spent an afternoon with a 15 month old in my charge. An acquaintance required a babysitter, and I required some income. I know what you’re thinking, child-endangerment, call DCFS. Ye of little faith… Sit back and be awed by my childcare prowess. Or horrified. Just read.
A bit of background: I neither have nor desire children of my own. There is no aspect of life I look at and think, “what this needs is more children.” Fascinating how we’re all unique, no? Anyway, from whence I know not, I had an odd confidence that I could responsibly care for a child for a day, regardless of no recent data to confirm it. Yahoo Answers (Don’t laugh, a lot of parents are leaving 15 month old babies with 15 year old neighbor girls, and those girls are like “Help! It’s a baby!” and those parents are neurotic and detailed. Plus grandmothers who have raised a hundred children are on there like, it’s just a baby, you’ll do fine. All very very helpful…) whatever human instinct I have and modern cellphone technology surely covered all my bases. Nap, change, feed, play, read, rinse, repeat. How hard could it be.
Not very. 98% of the time, the child was happy, curious or asleep. No one was harmed. I quickly figured out a trip to the window to watch the birds play in the snow stopped a crying fit. Cats and babies, more alike than you think.
However, some improvisation was required, for my own sanity. I took a two-pronged approach. The first: my mother’s. She was positively brilliant with keeping small people engaged and entertained. Her approach employed a technique in which any object seen, touched, even noticed in passing provokes an in depth description and exploration of said object’s color, texture, other sensory stuff, purpose, musings upon whether it is something silly or serious… Rather like being a museum guide but for the blind, and with ridiculous hats and songs. The child laughed a lot. With me or at me, you decide.
The second approach was mine. I invented it. I think I should turn it into a book for childfree misanthropes whose sisters-in-law say, “Can you keep an eye on Cody while I go pick up the…” and leave before they can say “Oh hell no.” So, after a few attempts to communicate with the 15 month old child, verbally, as I do, normally, I felt a frustration. But to my surprise, it was not an unfamiliar one. “Ok, Lulu. I don’t know if you understand me, and I don’t know what you’re saying. What’s that like? It’s like we’re people from different countries! Like foreigners! Like you are from Childlandia! But that’s ok because I’ve successfully ordered drinks from a bar in Estonia! We can do this. No problem.” The phrase No Problem is universally understood.
The other … thing … was that she was mostly incapable of doing anything practical on her own, yet possessed free will. I soon realized this caused even more stress and frustration for her than for me. The result was that I was eager to step in to help before either of us had enough time to dwell upon our less than ideal situation. It was a learning process, and what I learned was that small children are easier to care for when I think of them as “differently-abled foreigners.” I expect every mother on the internet will now send me hate mail, and LuLu’s parents may sue me for libel. Pshaw. She was a perfectly behaved young girl. I’m capable of amazing feats of mental flexibility and keeping other humans alive. We both deserve nothing but praise.
I left LuLu’s home profoundly proud of myself. I would make a brilliant mother, probably. I also left profoundly crushed by an existential boredom heretofore unknown to me. To do this everyday? Mad enough already, thanks. And finally the profound serenity of knowing I’d made a very wise life decision.
Before I almost perished from consumption (ok, perhaps not really, well, I mean, I did have the symptoms, I may have had it, we don’t know…) I enrolled in ballet class. Despite being in my 30′s both chronologically and according to the scale, and having never had a lick of dance instruction, I thought it would provide the poise, discipline and gluteal muscle tone I lacked. Also, I am an avid connoisseur of Russian masochism. What was the worst that could happen? I could die? Dancing to Tchaikovsky? This is discouraging? … Several male family members and Vladimir Putin (appearing in one of my pre-class jitters nightmares) found it acceptable to give me a vaudeville act once-over up and down and an imaginary audience a look like, Is this woman *insane*? Hahaha! A whale, in a tutu, did you ever!
I had a small, well, somewhat not small nervous breakdown after my first class. It was days before several people informed me that a crisis of personal faith following one’s first ballet class is rather de rigeur. Prior to that, all I could do was sit in a hot bath wailing, praying for someone to come saw off my legs, trying to remember how long people can go without food.
Following a enough self-affirmations to arm me against the male gaze and his sadistic friend, the dance studio mirror gaze, I returned to the next class. That’s a lie. I went out of spite and pride. And I became obsessed. I craved the vicious high of pushing myself physically and seeing improvement week by week. Muscle memory stopped being an obscene PTSD burden but a choreography skill. A dark neurosis lurked, I’d taken up a sport requiring me to reject and distort my natural body, but it was motivational and disciplining in ways pills and therapy could never be. And I was happy.
I went the first week I was sick. I haven’t been back since. I’m not happy.
Miraculously – miracles lurking in mundane prophylactics like flu shots, vitamin D3 pills and green tea – I’d avoided the nationwide flu of death this year. I fall ill annually with some variation of bronchial pneumonia. I spent the first winters of my life hospitalized for it. I have two memories of these visits (though I am told there were 5). The first, my parents bringing me a small hobby horse at Christmas, my mother smile-crying in the lurid hospital room glow. The second, hospital beds with bars like cages. My lungs and winter don’t get on. So when this January I saw news footage of normally healthy young adults forming lines outside over-capacity ERs, while I remained unscathed, I got a bit smug. These, one assumes, otherwise sane and healthy adults were behaving irrationally, desperate, afraid, demanding supportive care, relief. They say they feel like they are dying. … Perhaps I’m not crazy. Perhaps this is a normal human reaction to being very sick. Whew. I felt vindicated in my demandy-ness when I’d been madly ill. But more smug-inducing was the sense of having developed some secret magical power which rendered me invincible to mundane human afflictions. As if a curse had been broken, liberating me to do anything, anything I wanted. Ok, I had a low-grade sinus infection. But that’s like having a slovenly roommate: frustrating, but more tolerable than one care sto admit.
I got sick.
February largely a blur, missed all the holidays, didn’t leave my apartment for 9 days sick. After day 10 of not smoking, I decided I had tuberculosis. This is because the last time I was sick enough to go 10 days without even wanting a cigarette, I saw my doctor, who said it was probably TUBERCULOSIS. For real. Like in 19th Century novels. Did you know in our day and age American cities are fighting tuberculosis epidemics? Enjoy your flat screen TVs, civilized assholes. Anyway, the TB test was negative. I didn’t have consumption. And whatever chest infection I have now has been largely ameliorated by antibiotics and bronchodialator therapy. I continue to feel spent, weak, demandy.
No miracles. No super powers. No literary tragedies. Just the continued dominance of unintelligent microorganisms over a species responsible for the Sistine Chapel, Kierkegaard and the Hubble Telescope. I blame fever-insanity for my desire to remain alive in such a world.
January 16, 2013
Upon waking there are tears. Immediate tears even before thoughts even before consciousness. It’s the unpleasant sensation of warm wet linen next to my face that forces me up.
And the sensation of no oxygen reaching the lungs, the windpipe tight and aching and catching. The menstrual contractions of the Hanged Man. But I fear carbon monoxide and throw open the windows on a January morning.
Failed attempts to get much inside me. Coffee tastes of sour milk, water of bleach, banana of glue. All of my senses are too sharp and acute like the world is attacking me.
My heart beats faintly and erratically like a scratched record playing in a locked room and you don’t have the keys and it slowly turns you into a homicidal maniac.
I compulsively check the phone for texts, voicemail and email, even though the volume is on. How can anyone leave me alone in this state? Why does no one care? How is everyone not psychic? I want someone to call so I can tell them I am fine.
All night the nightmare tyrant and his lackey insomnia tortured my sleep. Garish, vivid dreams. One where I lived in a room with chartreuse heavy-pile carpet and black matte walls and a dozen antique chairs of different eras, all covered in tapestries and velvets and fringes. The only light came through closed Venetian blinds and lace curtains. Feral kittens kept getting in through holes, like mice.
Steely winter sun breaks through the clouds like a blade through my iris. Cringe inducing, stomach clenching, stress hormone flooding goddamn sun.
I change into a uniform of black leggings and black longsleeved t-shirt. I’m not in mourning for my life, just prepared for it. I can do yoga, go to the library or take a nap without having to change clothes, which would require time, time during which I could change my mind and just wind up sitting on the closet floor for an hour weeping. About anything. I can join a band of roving mimes, ninjas or cat burglars on a moment’s notice. I’m a Prepper but for the absurd.
Today is the first day of the white pills. Of being The Prisoner of Hormoneland.
I’ve a simultaneous desire to devour an entire chocolate cake and never eat again. Unable to decide between the two, I wind up on accidental hunger strike.
I feel like I need a bath even though I just had one.
If I lie down and concentrate on the clouds sailing across the sky or the contented expression on my sleeping cat’s face, I can breathe normally and relax. This wistful practice swiftly devolves into melancholia. I don’t even know why I am crying. The cat. Asleep. It’s too beautiful. It hurts.
I make myself read, convinced depressive moods are killing my braincells. Everything I read is depressing.
I decide what I need is a glass of wine and a Klonopin. I decide the slippery slope of substance abuse would be more socially acceptable than hormonal depression and would give me more freedom to be batshit insane. I decide I want to be a career drug addict and prostitute. Surely misery of one’s own choosing is preferable to all this. I remember having washed down Klonopin with wine. It didn’t turn me into a career addict and prostitute. It just ruined the rest of my day.
I want desperately to cave and take the pink pill and forfeit this period. I’m a career oral contraceptives addict.
Nausea. Photophobia. Irritability. I decide I am getting a migraine. Prodrome. Sounds like a cult horror movie or bad conceptual art installation. “Prodrome.” I eye the line of white pills, then the unopened pack of next month’s pills. I should just skip the white ones and start the new pack. But surely they put the white pills in there for a reason… The 28 day cycle. The moon. Surely if I, a female, disobey the Laws of the Moon it will unleash some kind of Shakespearean fury into the universe. Fires and floods and madmen wandering the streets. Baby lizards with human smiles coming to live in my womb. I don’t know. My God, Why the Four White Pills?
I can hear my therapist’s voice in my head, “I’m glad you’ve not lost your sense of humour.” And mine, “Fuck you. I’m not here to entertain you. I’ve spent all day on a hunger strike unable to decide between becoming a drug addict, checking my voicemail, or having my period. It’s not fucking funny asshole!!!”
I check my voicemail out of sheer masochism.
I think I should go to the country for a bit. I’ve been in the city so long, I’ve forgotten where the country is.
I think I should go to the library for a bit. Fairly certain about where that is. I know I will start chain smoking if I leave the apartment. It’s Saturday, and the library will be overrun with people, mostly small and hysterical, and I’ll get claustrophobic and go outside and chainsmoke and wander the streets like a madman and cry for no reason and have to wear sunglasses in the store where I will purchase an entire chocolate cake that I will bring home and make the object of all my hatred.
No I can’t go to the library. Besides, I’ve not eaten and may faint and bust my head on the sidewalk and get permanent brain damage that can’t be reversed by reading online lit mags.
It’s nervy hormones, not anorexia. But that’s not to say I feel great about my body. I don’t. It’s been a while since a man has expressed physical interest in me. I mean, a man who is not oozing the vibe that he uses the word “boobies” or who concerns himself with matters like a woman’s personal safety. … People say men do not prefer women who need a man to feel attractive. People say needing that shit is pathological even.
Like, what? Woman is meant to be a goddess who exists on some unearthly plane where she giddily luxuriates in her own beauty until caught by the eye of a mere mortal man at which time she is to indulge his needs as reward for … his being so great or something while not expecting or needing or desiring anything from him because goddesses don’t have expectations or needs or hormones and they sure as hell don’t spend a day prone in pelvic pain because of the fucking moon. I suppose these are the same mythological creatures who are naturally a size 4 without being all unbecomingly neurotic about food. Not one of those lame ass human girls who have ovaries and a mind-gut connection and wonder what the hell they are doing here and would like it if someone bothered to appreciate all the time and effort they put into not being a completely disgusting physical animal.
I’ve seen women who live on other planes and luxuriate in their loveliness and eschew worldly needs. In psych wards.
One of the garish vivid dreams I had involved a well known Hungarian poet. I woke up like an unspayed kitten possessed by one thing only, completely unhinged. Ready to prowl an alley or send my therapist a confessional text or message the husband of a friend who had once begged me to destroy his marriage. But I didn’t. I’m better than that. I’m responsible. Cerebral. Moral. Good.
And it feels like it’s murdering me slowly, all this goodness and sadness and discomfort and intensity and madness. I want to take the pill that makes her have some human dignity. But there are three more of those that make her small. And the Moon and the Goddess and the Feral Kitten and the Hanged Man have invited me to their mad tea party of archetypes.
And I cry. Because I can’t possibly go to a tea party looking like this.
January 6, 2013
“Writer’s block.” I’m not entirely sure what it means, but it would seem to imply having nothing to say. I’ve had a lot to say and have said it in therapy sessions, friend sessions and cold bathroom floor sessions.
There were times I wanted to write but was afraid my friends and family who have subscribed to this blog would incur hurt feelings or be worried or angered by my words. Afraid that future employers would use my disclosures to discriminate against me. Afraid that no one would read anyway because I am not a serious author.
There were times I wanted to write but was afraid my decision to do so would compromise my decision to live. I did not want to be the one who documents but the one who experiences. I wanted to be Alice, not Lewis Carroll. It’s ridiculous, to imagine writers cannot live authentically… Nevertheless, we are all familiar with the xkcd comic, “Yet all I can think is, this will make for a good LiveJournal entry!” In the same way the production value of work imbues a life with worth that transcends the personal, the process of shaping experience into narrative imbues a life with meaning that transcends the individual. But what worth and meaning would I find if I peeled away the layers of identity wrapped up in the production of commodity and narrative? I needn’t climb atop an elephant or mountain to eschew worldly perspective. I could just stop writing.
There were times I wanted to write but was afraid that I wasn’t doing it correctly, or that it had become an instrument of pain. I’d enlisted myself in this fantastically enjoyable project called “exposure therapy,” which is basically a root canal for your amygdala but without anesthesia. It usually involves watching images of or talking about whatever harrowing trauma you’ve not recovered from, and repeatedly, until the intensity of emotion evoked by the memory lessens over time. All terribly A Clockwork Orange. Why agree to such a thing? Morbid curiosity. Encouraging data. The adrenaline rush that accompanies doing something that scares the fuck out of you. Desperation to not be “sick.”
Given my penchant for being brilliant with words, or something, we decided I should write my traumatic experiences out. It was all very well-intentioned. And in fact I found it curiously helpful. But my tracts continued to elicit the same complaints: too much narrative, symbolism, background context, analysis, perspective, superfluous detail, “flourishes.”
“The point is to describe the event as realistically and viscerally as possible, as if it were happening right now.”
Oof. Perhaps symbolism and perspective and superfluity and artistry and reflection are “real” and “visceral” for me. Perhaps I am being asked to use the skills I’ve developed to navigate the fissures of existence as means to precisely the opposite end? Take an axe to the frozen sea inside us? I write to create a puppy dog-drawn sleigh, complete with warm blankets, to transport me across the frozen sea to the shores of safety.
I continue the exposure therapy, verbally, committed to never again whoring out my skills to such a brutish client, however generous the compensation.
I still want to use my powers judiciously. I still want to suck the marrow from the bones of life and have it count without a blogpost on the merits of marrow and accompanying cellphone pic of a plate of bones to document the event. I am still afraid of nogoodniks using my blog to discredit me. Of not being a “real” writer.
But then someone just had to go and write a book about smart, modern, frustrated, literary girls being pathologized, institutionalized, silenced. Oh, don’t misunderstand. I am a feminist and will not deign to give you the time of day should you believe otherwise, but The Sisterhood? It occupies the same mental space as Santa Claus: a beautiful sentiment that makes me feel warm and giddy inside, but we all know who puts the presents under the trees and which gender would have brought extinction upon itself if looks could kill. I am no more inspired by a dead flapper ballerina than I am by a dead Russian gambler. Though to be clear, Zelda Fitzgerald and Fyodor Dostoyevsky are possibly my two greatest inspirations.
Devil beware, if there is one singular thing guaranteed to get me clambering over rooftops for a good old fashioned Yawp, it’s imposed (self- or otherwise) silence. Spend the first decade of your life being beaten, raped and terrorized by your own father, and 30 years later – should you live that long – imposed silence will sound more terrifying than a doped up Rush Limbaugh leading a parade of neo-nazis through the corridors of Hell. Like, Medieval Hell.
Being afraid to write because of discrimination feels like being afraid to wear a short skirt because of rape. Being afraid to write because I may unintentionally upset loved ones denies them the same capacity for resilience that they expect from me. Being afraid to write because writing compromises living turns a match made in heaven into some forbidden thing that ends like a Shakespearian tragedy. Being afraid to write because I haven’t cured cancer is insane: no one held Dostoyevsky to that standard. And being afraid to write because no one will take me seriously is a sure fire way to ensure no one ever takes me seriously as a writer.
In the blazing summer sun of a mid-nineties afternoon, I stood on the beach with Kristian Davies, the coolest boy I’d ever met. He was whistling Some of these days you’re gonna miss me baby…. I wore an oversized Carpe Diem t-shirt and baggy linen drawstring pants rolled up to my knees. As if planning a revolution, I proclaimed, “I don’t want to read books. I want to be the main character in my own book.” He hurled a rock into the lake and brushed his long hair from his perfect face. I’d never felt so witty or strong or beautiful. Like I had the world in my hands.
I’m inclined to file the whole episode under youthful naivete. I feel like I should. But for the love of me, I still want that and think it is a great and valid thing to want. The beautiful boy and unironic t-shirts have disappeared, but not the rest. And the world in my hands. It just weighs much, much more. When I was in my 20′s, the emphasis of that statement of intent fell on the words “main character.” Today it falls on the words, “my own.” I’ve really quite mastered the role of me. But if I don’t write down my own story, well, it’s no less valid of course, but it’s all behavior. With no context, symbolism, artistry, perspective. It’s all frozen sea. With neither axe to destroy it nor sleigh to traverse it.
In the twilight of 2012, moments before the clock was to strike midnight and proclaim the time of death of another year, I sank into a very deep very hot bath. Django Reinhardt’s Nuages oozed from an old boom box and mingled with the lavender-ylang ylang scented steam filling the room. Sandalwood candles flickered luridly, shadow puppets performing St. Vitus Dance across the room. The water temperature made my head light and heart race. I imagined this is what it must be like to patronize an opium den. Arms splayed across the back of the tub, calves draped over the front, watching shadows cavort across the walls, I inhaled deeply. The flames stilled. I exhaled. The razor sat untouched on the window sill, on the other side of which a precipitous symphony of fireworks, foil whistles and drunken regards rang out. I took a generous gulp of cheap champagne and toasted the gorgeous perfection of being in the moment.
Who just stops working and writing for a year? Who just gets up and walks away like that? Without even going to India or all the National Parks? Is this actually something people do all the time but never speak of because except for fetuses our worth as humans is dictated by our capacity for production? Or am I a trailblazer madly proclaiming with a sweep of my hand, “All of this, I won’t participate in it!” Is there a Nobel Prize for passive resistance?
Darling, I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way…
Well, there being no prizes for romanticism, I may as well admit that I did participate in a few things. One need not go to India or all the National Parks, after all, to find meaning, to have revelations, to feel connected, to expand horizons, to push limits. One could accomplish such feats by embarking upon a genealogical quest with estranged relatives, or submit to three hours of PTSD therapy every week, or feed the homeless, or read so voraciously the only person who ever calls anymore is from the public library, or speak to a customer service representative from an insurance company. I mean, I hear India is quite lovely, but I can’t believe a country with a caste of untouchables has more enlightenment in the water than Chicago. Even if it does, they don’t have enough potable water for the people already there. That trippy feeling of being one with the universe may not be enlightenment. It may be the neurological effects of dehydration. As for National Parks, my sweet intoxicating blood, hysterical allergies and global warming have conspired to ensure there is always a hazmat suit between me and All God’s Creation. Hard to get excited about anything, let alone rocks and trees, when you’ve fainted from hypoglycemia because the last meal you had was a Power Bar, or when you are in a Benadryl induced coma. Alas, I fail to thrive in my own ecosystem. Perhaps my prize-deserving act of resistance is not my refusal to participate but my refusal to perish.
Yet I do worry that any description of my doings and whereabouts while on hiatus will be met with disappointment, like a postcard from a friend who’s gone on a long romantic trip … to Disneyworld. I’ve not been hunkered down curing cancer, writing a novel or even fixing my credit. I don’t even know how to describe what I’ve been doing. Conversations go like this: “So, what are you up to these days?” “Well, I’ve taken a bit of time off…” “Ok, but what are you doing?” “Oh, things. You know, just… (distractedly cranes neck and shouts to no one in particular, “Did you need help in the kitchen?”)
Things. You know, just… :
~ Found my mother’s recipes.
~ Made my mother’s recipes.
~ Hiked up hills in Southern Missouri looking for 200 year old gravestones.
~ Sat in 100 degree heat wearing a plastic party supply store hat and sunglasses, sipping prepackaged margaritas from Quick-Trip, watching neighbor kids play in the Slip N Slide.
~ Got a serious concussion, golf ball sized mosquito bites and Borderline Personality diagnosis (oh don’t worry there will be blogposts…)
~ Read Adam Levin and Sheila Heti and felt old, sentimental, alien.
~ Read Kate Zambreno and Caitlin Moran and felt fierce, sane, human.
~ Ate Korean BBQ. Puked Korean BBQ.
~ Ate fillet mignon. Puked fillet mignon.
~ Rode a motorcycle. Twice.
~ Went to see ballet. Twice.
~ Drank my first Sidecar.
~ Rode my first MegaBus.
~ Grieved the death of a 37 year old cousin.
~ Made fast friends with an 80 year old cousin.
~ Fired my shrink.
~ Fired another shrink.
~ Sat up all night listening to my Great Aunts tell stories of growing up during the Great Depression.
~ Sat on a cold bathroom floor, sobbing and yelling at invisible gods, parents, doctors, boys, self.
~ Canvassed Wisconsin. A lot. I love Wisconsin.
~ Went to the suburbs. Twice. I hate the suburbs.
~ Got very angry.
~ Got more confident.
~ Served meals to homeless people.
~ Found lodging for a Hurricane Sandy refugee.
~ Discovered I may be related to Rob Roy.
~ Decided I won’t be defined by family (except maybe Rob Roy…)
~ Went to a casino. For the first and last time.
~ Went bowling. For the first and last time.
~ Tried to paint a blue office yellow.
~ Tried to die my black hair red.
~ Sought peace in museums, libraries, parks, kitchens.
~ Found peace in cemeteries, bars, country roads, kitchens.
~ Kept other people’s plants and pets alive.
~ Kept myself alive.
It wasn’t all easy, but it wasn’t all shit, and most of all it certainly fucking wasn’t any of it Disneyworld. Or India. Although I did manage to get dehydrated. And enlightened. And savor the gorgeous perfection of being in the moment.
April 1, 2012
She awoke at 6:30am on Sunday morning. It no longer mattered if it were the weekend or a weekday, if she were working or not. She always awoke at 6:30am. She was not a morning person. She was not even a day person. She was hostage to a Pavlovian fear of being late for work, which she still sometimes was as public transportation was prone to breaking down, catching fire and being the scene of crimes, suicides and other unfortunate events. Maybe she wasn’t even a night person. Maybe she was no kind of person. She had a panic attack and went back to sleep.
She awoke three hours later to the instrumental howls of a marching band passing under her window. She arose and checked her email. Her family had written to inform her that they would not be visiting for Easter. Today was April 1. She replied, “is this an april fools joke?” No. It was not. They could not come to visit. She wept. She was angry and confused. Why had there been an April Fool’s Day parade? She gave the cat treats because she felt guilty for crying in front of him like that.
Despite her warnings that she would be poor company in her current condition, her family had insisted on visiting for Easter. The would bring a ham and do her laundry for her. What did she want to eat with the ham? Despite her current condition, she had spent the previous day cleaning her apartment, doing 5 loads of laundry and grocery shopping. Being broke and mental was difficult, yes, but being a proper host (or guest) remained imperative. Life was a negotiable. Providing guests with clean linens and breakfast was not.
She had lost her appetite and 15 lbs., but now faced a home full of food and thoughts of starving children. She prepared herself an elaborate breakfast: curried eggs, chicken apple sausage, toast with honey, mango smoothie and iced coffee. It tasted like rubbish. Everything tasted like rubbish lately except vanilla ice cream. It was the only thing she enjoyed eating. After breakfast, she missed the pleasant sense of weightlessness and delirium acquired on an empty stomach.
She checked her email. Perhaps they had changed their minds and would be able to come after all. Instead, she found an email from a man who was in love with her, but with whom she was not in love. She did not scorn or hate or pity or judge him. She understood his pain, and it made her sad that she had caused it. She did not know what to say to him. She wanted to make everyone’s pain go away. She cared about him, but was not in love with him. She was in love with someone else, who cared about her, but was not in love with her. She didn’t imagine. Perhaps he was, a little, yes. She decided he must be a little in love with her, but that it did not matter, as it was the kind of love that had to be created to be destroyed. She wept. She was angry and confused.
She began to write. This is what she did when she could no longer make sense of the world. As she wrote, her eyes fell upon a bandage over her wrist and the blood which had soaked through and dried. It had not been an attempt to kill herself. Perhaps it was an attempt to confirm she was still alive. Perhaps it was a temporary escape from her thoughts. Perhaps she wore her scars like tarnished family jewelry passed down from one generation to the next, worth little at auction but of sentimental value and reliable conversation pieces. She’d seen a show about a British doctor afraid of blood. She was also afraid of blood, except when appearing from an intentional slice. She imagined being a surgeon. She imagined living in a seaside village in Cornwall. She imagined that would be lovely.
She checked her email again, like her aunt had kept checking the morgue to see if her son was still dead. Another email from another fellow. She thought she should write a self-help book for lonely women, a manual detailing how to attract men by being insane and broke. She’d developed a collection of suitors over the years. At first, their persistence terrified her, and she suspected them of being predators, or worse, vultures. But their broken hearts, their desperate gifts, their confessional emails sent from airport bars made them all more real to her, and therefore more impossible to dismiss. She wished everyone were so real and vulnerable and impossible to dismiss. Why did the world encourage us to be robots? We have robots for robots now. Why had their invention not given humanity the freedom to be more human? Why have we agreed to compete with robots on their terms?
It was turning into one angering and confusing day.
As she wrote, the cat rested his little cat face upon her foot, fell asleep and began to dream. The twitching of his whiskers tickled her foot, and she concentrated on remaining motionless in order not to wake the cat. She remembered how a few nights ago she had accidentally had one of his dreams. They were asleep back to back. She dreamt a lot of birds of different types had gathered on a tree branch outside her apartment and were tormenting her. A squirrel joined them, and she became very agitated. Then in her dream she thought, “wait, why am I having this dream? This is a cat’s dream.” She opened her eyes turned her head opposite and found the cat thrashing and huffing in the throes of a dream. She wasn’t sure how she’d gotten in or out of another creature’s subconscious, but was relieved that the upsetting experience was over. Folie a deux. Shared delusion. Somehow she could achieve this with a feline and a psychologist, but having a shared reality with anyone eluded her.
She began to pay partial attention to an opera on tv as she wrote. She decided that not much differentiated the 18th Century Italian librettist and the 21st Century reality show writer. A vastly unequal amount of talent was dedicated to the staging of each genre, but people acting foolishly-wise, they were rather on par with one another. She thought about how art and fantasy are both outlets and prisons for emotion. One may act on one’s emotions in an opera and be noble or prototypical or at worst a romantic, but in reality doing so is thought childish. She imagined the knickered, philandering rake in the opera realizing the error of his ways and entering therapy. That would suck as an opera. She thought she should end her tedious therapy and seduce her psychologist. She watched as Don Giovanni is engulfed in hell-fire. Or not.
She sits in a clean apartment, with a full stomach and a cat curled up at her feet, listening to Mozart, reading love letters. She tries not to weep although she is angry, confused and feels herself a fool.
March 22, 2012
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I had a homework assignment to write this all down. Since I went to the effort, I thought I’d repost here.
Warning: contains triggers.
Here is the story/timeline of my life-trauma. Find a comfortable chair and grab a drink. I will try to be as concise as possible, though it is not one of my stronger points. It isn’t all trauma, because to write about my life like that would just be too depressing. For me and for you.
~ First, a brief family background including people and events I believe are relevant, which either precede my story or do not fit chronologically into it:
I was close to neither of my paternal grandparents, who divorced when my father was young. I could count on one hand the number of times I saw my paternal grandfather. After I began talking openly about my father last year, a distant relative from that side of my family wrote to inform me that my grandfather had sexually abused at least one cousin of mine. I did know and frequently saw my paternal grandmother, but we were not close, and I have nothing of note to mention about her. My father was drafted into Viet Nam, but he never spoke of it.
My maternal grandfather, Kenneth, was born in 1898 and died when my mother was 14 (1963 or 4.) While I never met him, he was frequently spoken of, like a household saint. My maternal grandmother, Ruby, was like a second mother to me and her house like our second (and safe) home. She never recovered from my grandfather’s death, changing nothing in her home like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. She was rather dark and eccentric and “went away for exhaustion” several times when my mother was young. She developed Alzheimer’s when I was a teenager. My mother, Rosemary, had a self-described nervous breakdown after my grandfather died, and was sent to live with family friends in New York for a while. She later ran off to Italy, fell in love, something tragic happened (I don’t know the details) and she came back and married my father. She was astonishingly charming and outgoing, but would also frequently lock herself in her room and cry a lot when I was a kid. She survived largely on Valium and vodka. She missed her father and this fellow in Italy and was being beaten and emotionally abused daily by my father, so not shocking.
~ I was born in 1974. I suppose that was traumatic.
~ I was hospitalized each winter for the first several years of my life, with bronchial pneumonia or similar illness. I remember a Christmas in the hospital, when I was given a wooden rocking horse. I remember the cage-like beds, so I must have been very little.
~ When I was 2 and ½ my brother was born. I remember that.
~ I can’t say I ever remember a time when my father was not a tyrant. He was frequently yelling at us over ridiculously minor things like missing a leaf while raking or for wanting to talk about our day at the dinner table, often physically violent, whipping us with belts, throwing things, hitting us and making threats. He was obsessed with us recognizing his authority is what it came down to. Every interaction was about reinforcing his authority. He was not like that in public, or course. To others it probably seemed we had the perfect small town nuclear family. Though I can’t imagine neighbors did not hear all that constant yelling. I don’t remember ever not being afraid of my father. I can neatly divide my childhood into 6am-6pm (happy, fun times with my mother and brother, as if we were living in some fantasy world) and 6pm-6am (when we walked on eggshells and lived in fear.) I think it is worth mentioning that my mother was not like an authority figure but a peer to my brother and me. I have heard that referred to as a form of neglect, but we loved it. She was our cool, older friend, and we were all in the same boat.
~ My first memory of – Jesus, this is difficult – my father sexually… I was 4 or 5. I had just begun going to school. My mother had left for the evening (she was very active in school and community organizations,) and my father asked me to do something I knew even then was very wrong. Afterwards he told me I was not allowed to tell my mother what “we” had done that evening. Ever.
[I space out a bit after writing that. I take a break. I pour a glass of wine. I smoke a cigarette. Out of the blue, Patrick begins messaging me, and we chat off and on all night. I’m thankful for his timing. I return to this.]
It was also when I was about 5 that I began having nightmares, terrors even, waking up screaming every night. I was eventually given sedatives. As a child.
So these events with my father went on for years. I cannot describe them. It is not that I don’t remember them; I remember them vividly. You know how hung up I get about language. I just can’t use the same language to describe the abuse that I would also use to describe the quite beautiful and enjoyable things I consensually do as an adult. I can’t use the same words to describe what my father did to me. I can’t do it. Often pornography was involved. He also did these things to someone else. Which is horrible, but I guess unlike a lot of people, I have someone who can confirm my story.
I was never willing, just terrified out of my wits. I did not seek out or even enjoy it, despite what the founding fathers of psychoanalysis might have you believe. I lived in fear of it. Of him.
~ I was taken out of regular classes and placed in a program for gifted children when I was 6. They never explained what the gift was, but it was nice to not be bored to death.
~ When I was about 8 or 9, my great grandfather (my maternal grandmother’s father) died. It was disturbing because we had gone to visit him in the nursing home one day, and he was asleep. So we left. We came home to a message from the nursing home informing us that he had died. I think we saw him dead.
~ When I was 9, I told my father that if he ever touched me again I would tell my mother and teacher and police. He never did. The physical abuse, the beatings and yelling and general home dictatorship continued. But I never told anyone about the sexual abuse, and he never touched me again.
It was also when I was 9 that I stopped believing in God, or stopped pretending or wanting to. I stopped telling my father I loved him, which resulted in a lot of punishment but I wasn’t going to say it. I began wanting to die. I would go to bed and try to will myself to not wake up again. I remember learning I could not hold my breath until I died or suffocate myself with a pillow.
~ When I was 10, my paternal aunt, Victoria, died from ovarian cancer. She had been very sick for years. She was quite young, 31 I think. My family often compared me to her (perfectionist, neurotic, shy, Virgo, would cry at the drop of the hat…) My mother was at her side when she died.
My mother then converted (back, I say) to Catholicism. I eventually quit public school and entered parochial school. I was much happier there. (I know, who says that?) I was given the choice and refused to be confirmed however. I’ve never even been baptized. wow
~ When I was 16 or 17, I became very depressed. Suicidal. I didn’t do anything, but I told my mother. I was taken out of school for a bit, sent to live with my grandmother and allowed to take my exams and finish the year. I should mention that whenever things got very bad at home, as in when we decided our lives were in danger, we went to stay with my grandmother. She’s gotten a bad rap in our family for her being difficult and a bit brooding, but she was really the best. No one in the family gives her any credit, and it pisses me off.
~ When I was 18 I left home and went to college, Northwestern. My sophomore year, I got very depressed – I could not tell you why. It was the first time I saw a mental health professional. I was given some Prozac and sent on my way. Everyone agreed the medicine turned me into a soulless zombie, and my parents happily let me stop taking it.
~ When I was 20, I accompanied my best friend, Angela, to Washington D.C. for a women’s rights march. On the mall was an installation of the Clothesline Project. I returned to Evanston very shaken up. I had never told a soul about my father and even believed that if I didn’t admit it, it could not affect me. But I had to tell someone. When I told Angela, she was not surprised at all and explained that she’d suspected as much.
That summer was insane. There was a heatwave in which hundreds died, including my roommate’s fish, which I had been … fishsitting. I met a lovely flamenco dancer and happily lost my virginity. Officially. Yes, that is how I really see it. I was drinking, doing a lot of mild hallucinogenic drugs (pot, ecstasy, mushrooms…) and taking Zoloft, which, with the heat, killed my appetite. Not a brilliant combination. One afternoon Angela came home to find me in a pile on the floor. She fed me soup, put me in bed and phoned my mother. My mother was demanding to know why I was acting out such. Everyone was totally freaking out. Angela kept shoving the phone at me, saying if I didn’t tell my mother she would. So I took the phone and told my mother about my father. She accused me of lying for attention.
Between that summer break and leaving for study abroad, I came home for a short bit. Maybe a week or two. I’d never left the country before, was moving to Russia, and this is when my mother decided to make me confront my father. She sat us down in the living room. “Tell him what you told me,” she demanded. I was mortified. But I did. He didn’t deny anything. He began crying and said he’d hoped I’d forgotten it all and asked me to forgive him, and my mother threw him and all his belongings out of the house. I left for Russia and stayed there while my family fell apart.
~ When I was 21 I lived in Russia and saw people die, almost die, knew people who were murdered, was detained by men with Kalashnikovs and generally had the time of my life.
~ When I came home, my mother was in the middle of an ugly divorce, I was in culture shock, my father had stopped paying my tuition and had begun to threaten and stalk us to the extent that we had to file a restraining order. We had no money so we all scraped by on odd jobs. I made a half-assed attempt to return to school, the Dean telling me to worry about the financial aid later. I got there and made a half-assed attempt to kill myself, really more of an attempt to kill the pain of the guilt of what I’d just brought upon my mother and brother. This resulted in my first hospitalization. It was just a few days; I checked myself in and out. My mother came to stay with me and then took me home.
These times were rough, but I have a lot of very happy memories, of just my mother, brother and I. Every day was like a dream somehow. The house had become a kind of commune, with everyone’s friends coming and going. 22 years of rules had given way to pretty much no rules. Rooms were painted in psychedelic colors (and my mother was selling the house!), we’d get up, make breakfast, and eat outside and dance around to the Grateful Dead. My mother had been a hippie before meeting my father. My brother and I were both college age. It was a scene.
~ When I was 24 I returned to Northwestern and graduated. I worked at a bookstore, where I met a boy, we moved in together and stayed that way for 8 years. We adopted a cat. My mother remarried. My brother moved to San Francisco to go to art school. Everything was on the up and up.
~ When I was 25, my mother died.
That spring she’d had planned to visit us but cancelled because she was sick. This was the second time, and I was angry. In June she went into the hospital for a “routine hysterectomy” (I feel like a Soviet refugee: what didn’t she lie to me about?) But her random calls to say “just know I will always love you” made it clear something was not right. The day of her surgery, the phone rang. And I knew. Because the phone rang exactly the way it had rung the evening my aunt Victoria had died. The Ring of Death. She had cancer and it had spread everywhere. Even with rigorous treatment, they gave her 2 months. She took 3.
I made many visits home that summer, but my mother forbid me to stay. She said she did not want me to see her, to remember her like that, sick, like she remembered her father. At 4am on September 7, 2000, I received a phone call from my stepfather. “We are at the hospital. She isn’t going to make it. You need to say goodbye now.” He put the phone to her ear, and I screamed, “Listen! This is your daughter and I am on the next plane to St. Louis and you WILL be alive when I arrive. I will be there by 8, and you will be alive, do you understand? Do you promise?” I wouldn’t hang up until she promised. She kept it. She died shortly after noon, me by her side. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed – all that pain completely evaporating from her face, her body. It was also the worst thing that has ever happened to me. By far.
~ A few years after my mother died, my grandmother Ruby (her mother) died. She was in her nineties, so it was expected. She had really been gone for some years, with Alzheimers. So in some ways it was more of a relief than anything.
A few years after my mother died, I had surgery to remove ovarian tumors. They were benign, but it did give me quite a scare.
At some point a few years after my mother died, I decided I would never be happy and decided to kill myself. But I didn’t. Our little feral cat got on my lap and refused to move. I was in a sorry state, and had large supply of sleeping pills and large bottle of vodka. Unfortunately, my significant other came home, saw all of this and called 911. I ended up in the hospital. This was my second and last hospitalization.
~ When I was 32 we split up. We’d lived a “normal” life. I got a job at the University of Chicago and got involved in politics. He became a teacher. We took vacations on Cape Cod and only cooked organic. Neither of us wanted to spend the rest of our lives together, I don’t think. I was too stressful with my drama, and he was too… We gradually stopped doing things together and grew apart. I was devastated when it ended (specifically when I discovered that he was seeing another woman) but not depressed. After we broke up, for years I was happier than I had ever been.
~ When I was 36, I (my god, it’s getting old even for me, no wonder my family hates me…) became terribly depressed. Everyone assumes because I was alone, lonely. But that is not true. Health issues, money issues, family issues… I took a great deal of time off to deal with my crap at an outpatient program and left in a much better place.
~ When I was 37, my cousin Shawn, my mother’s brother’s son, who was my age, shot himself. That was one month ago.
So there you are. The Cliff’s Notes in 6 pages but it feels like only the tip of the iceberg. This rather makes it sound like my life has been nothing but a list of tragedies and episodes of fierce depression. I would not say that. Perhaps it does seem this way to others.
From writing this, it is not clear to me how much, if at all, my wanting to kill myself is related to my father. Maybe it would be a relief if it weren’t, and then I would not have to speak of him. On the other hand, reading about child abuse, I think they may be related, or tangled all up, all part of the ecosystem…
I hope I didn’t ramble too much. I feel the urge to ask you if you have a plan to go do something nice for yourself now, after having read this. Go do something lovely for yourself now.
And thanks for reading.