poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

November 11, 2013


“You should write that down.”
“What? What did I say?”

I was at a Mexican restaurant in Pilsen, post-Dia de los Muertos celebrations with a friend. The cuisine wasn’t ideal for the sour stomach I’d been nursing for days – nerves, self-diagnosed – but what came up violently from the hellfire depths of my core was a frustrated, righteous, angry, thoroughly exasperated and unnecessarily apologetic rant about the quote-unquote mental health system.

“The mental health industrial complex,” my friend corrected me. Mind you, they ran a trauma support group at a local service provider.

People who have survived or been victims of, or however you want to frame it, people who have experienced this kind of severe abuse, they are entitled to the dignity of their own experiences of reality.

Or something like that. That is what they said I should write down. But we both in truth immediately forgot it the moment the suggestion was made, as if this profound insight had been uttered in a trance state from which we’d abruptly awoken. So I think that is what I said. It’s what I am writing down. It seems so innocuous, that string of words in italics. That cannot possibly be what I was instructed to commit to perpetuity. But I’m rather certain it was. Perhaps it was a sentiment expressed more eloquently in skeleton face-paint. Perhaps, taken out of context, it lacks the crescendo of the revelatory moment following rum- and festivities-induced lucidity. Written alone on a computer screen, indoors on a luminous autumn afternoon, the classical music station pledge drive providing the whitest of white noise soundtracks, it lands on the page with a soft thud. What the fuck do these words even mean?

They mean that in my experience, and in the experiences of many others, the treatment provided in the established mental health system quite unsettlingly mimics the dynamic that defines/allows traumatic abuse. And that dynamic is: people in positions of power and authority defining reality for their subjects. The gaslighting of the abused and the unspoken threat, “It’s my word against yours and you are obviously unstable while I am an upstanding member of the community,” is frankly not much different than the diagnosing someone with complaints of severe traumatic abuse as having a personality disorder.

I have no inkling as to the motivation for the latter phenomenon, but it seems like a built-in feature rather than the work of a few bad apples. Say you are raped, beaten, locked up as a kid. For example. You might grow up to be a successful professional or you might grow up to be a homeless addict. Regardless, you are quite likely to grow up and still have some issues, be it an inability to trust people who say they love you, a searing emotional pain you do secret things to alleviate, bouts of inexplicable depression or neurosis, paralyzing panic attacks or nightmares or both, getting ill frequently, having idiopathic neurological weirdness like chronic migraines, fainting spells, weakness. You probably don’t sleep too well. Maybe you tell yourself these are character flaws. That you just can’t do anything right. Normal people can make their parents love them, and you couldn’t even do that. So you beat yourself up. Or maybe you’ve moved past that phase, if only because it obviously doesn’t solve anything or help you sleep. Maybe you know fully well that these are not moral failings but well documented psychological and physical ailments commonly associated with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Well, you have some trauma in your past, and if it originated in your family, it’s probably not even comfortably in the “post” category. If you were systematically harmed by someone who was supposed to protect you, you’re probably very experienced at being inconsolably sad. Alas, you may feel enlightened to have made the connection, but it may not be enough to stop these pesky symptoms that are probably a lot peskier than you want to let on. Because that shit is personal. And you have trust issues.

There are a million ways it may have begun, this “seeking services behavior.” Perhaps you were empowered by an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show that assured its audience that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. Perhaps your roommate came home and found you unconscious after one of your “just trying to ease the pain” sessions that wasn’t intended to go this far (but if it did…) Perhaps your bff suggested you take some time off and maybe just give therapy a try? Perhaps you inadvertently scared the fuck out of everyone you know. Perhaps you are simply being a fine upstanding responsible citizen who sees the doctor because you obviously have some type of chemical imbalance and there are drugs that cure that and you would be negligent not to take them. You owe it to your loved ones, your co-workers and yourself. You are proactive. After all, you didn’t go from being locked in the basement like a sex slave at the age of 5 to a well-educated, world-traveling, fully employed human being without being proactive!

So you get to the doctor’s office. You are given drugs. Maybe they work, maybe they don’t. Maybe they work for a while and stop working. Maybe they ease your symptoms but the side-effects are worse than the cure. Maybe more drugs are added on to counter the side-effects. Maybe the original drug is switched. Once. Twice. Three times. Maybe your doctor suggests that despite apparent inefficacy you do not stop taking drugs, whatever you do. It’s too dangerous. Maybe you are given new experimental off-label use drugs. Maybe you are given a stimulant for depression, a sedative for insomnia, a benzo for panic attacks (made worse by the stimulant) and an atypical anti-psychotic because even though you are not psychotic, the doctor reassures you, they have a great success rate when added to an anti-depressant. Maybe you are still having nightmares and panic attacks and your memory is shit and you feel stoned all the time and wonder if people can tell. Maybe you tell this to the doctor. Maybe the doctor changes your diagnosis from “Depression” to “Bi-Polar” because you are not cured by SSRIs. Maybe you tell the doctor you don’t actually have manic episodes. Maybe that doctor tells you that’s what Bi-Polar II is, bipolar without the mania. “With hypomania.” “What’s that?” “Do you ever have times you are feeling very confident and productive and happy?” “Yes.” “That’s the Bi-Polar hyomania.” “Oh. I never thought that was a problem, to be honest. I’d like to keep that part.” “Do you want to get better or not?” Maybe your doctor thinks your are being difficult. Maybe you go home and blame yourself for not getting better. For not trying harder. For not being able. Maybe you spiral down a hole of self-doubt. Your doctor hates you now. Way to fuck everything up. Everyone hates you. And you’ll never get better. You are beyond help. You have to live with this stupid suffering bullshit for the rest of your life. Because you are drug resistant and doctors hate you.

Maybe you decide no way are you going on like this for the rest of your life. Besides, you’ve really only become a burden to your friends with all your mental health mumbo-jumbo lately. And your family is basically never going to forgive you for opening up this wound, talking openly about ugly family secrets. And you’ve managed to go from someone who knew how to function outwardly and keep her ailments a secret, on the inside, where they belonged, like that other stuff, to someone people look at and just see INCEST and SUICIDE and MENTAL CASE. Maybe you cannot even look yourself in the mirror. Maybe you swerve violently between desires. The devil on one shoulder wanting to ending it once and for all, out of breath and energy, too emotionally drained to fight and you know it will always be a fight, with a society that doesn’t understand how to help, with a system that won’t accommodate a spectrum of abilities but only sees black and white, with yourself who is hell-bent on killing yourself, replaying a dark childhood self-defense fantasy triggered by every single injustice, hurt, fear… And the angel on the other shoulder who makes a very compelling case about loving your family and friends too much to do that, about the fact that you don’t actually want to die, you want to live in less distress, and about whoa there, you did not survive all that to throw in the towel now, girlfriend. You aren’t the one who needs more punishment here. You didn’t get yourself abused as a kid. You didn’t get yourself mental by shooting up in an alley. You didn’t invent your messed-up family situation. You didn’t give your mom cancer. You went to school, did well, got a fancy degree and job in academia, avoided jail, addictions, unplanned pregnancies and eating disorders. You are a fucking inspiration. That’s what they said. You took the meds, you went to the therapy sessions, you did the CBT worksheets, you called people when you felt you were a risk to your own life. You took vitamins and did yoga and served food to the homeless. You don’t get to hate yourself. You are not the one who failed dramatically here.

Maybe with new-found perspective and girded with the courage of your convictions you go to your doctor and suggest a possible link between your, you know, that, and your current struggles. Maybe you have some kind of PTSD. Maybe you would like to not take so many drugs and do a little more hard-hitting stuff in therapy. Maybe your doctor looks at you like you are nuts. Maybe your doctor is visibly angry at you and scribbling more notes than usual. Maybe your doctor starts asking more questions about your personal life, more questions about why you are not married and have no kids. Maybe you think this has nothing to do with why you are in his office… Maybe he tells you you want to be miserable based on your confession that you don’t want kids or a husband. Maybe he tells you not to think about your past. Maybe he suggests that you are making that up.

Ok. Maybe you change doctors. What century is this, amirite? Maybe you have this experience repeated with the next doctor. And the next. Maybe you are accused of doctor shopping. Maybe you are now spending all of your time at the doctor’s talking about your dating habits, your living by yourself, your curiously assumed inability to form stable relationships. “But I can give you my friends’ phone numbers, no really. And M and I were together for like 8 years, it ended because we’d become more like roommates, and he was seeing someone else. And the other guys I’ve dated, well, I haven’t been looking to settle down, and my personal life is overall something I am perfectly fine with. I have fun. Yes, I was devastated after the cabbie, but I mean, getting your heart broken, I don’t think that is mental illness… Why are we talking about this and not my dad?” Maybe you notice the doctors also spend an uncomfortable amount of time commenting on your good looks. Maybe you keep going back because the Klonopin and Wellbutrin do help. Not cure, no, but help, yes. Still maybe you make less and less an effort to pretend this hasn’t become a fucking farce. Maybe your insurance is about to drop your LTD (Your employer offered it up: you have benefits, take them. Your friends agreed: yes, do this for yourself.) because you’ve seen a lot of doctors and gotten a lot of different diagnoses and it just seems fishy…

Maybe I am talking about myself.

Maybe the therapist I had been seeing was actually really good. And I have seen a lot of therapists. And I knew I had something I needed here. Maybe the therapist gave me Judith Herman to read. Maybe the therapist scoffed, lectured and exasperatedly reassured me I do not have Bi-Polar Disorder and I do not have a personality disorder. Maybe he called it “Complex-PTSD” and “melancholia” because I hate the word “depression.” And I want to believe him because I spend 2 hours a week for a year talking to him, whereas I meet with a psychologist for 5 minutes a month and he talks mostly about my looks and boys and it’s just awful. Maybe I spend most of my time in therapy talking about stuff that feels a bit subversive. Society. Feminism. The way women are treated differently than men. Not wanting to change who I am fundamentally. Wanting empathy. Empathy helps. Liking who I am cures my anxiety. Anger. How I’ve always been terrified of anger, associating it with my father, never feeling it, only feeling hurt or fear. How I was becoming pro-anger. Anti-violence, but pro-anger. How I found it amazingly motivational and grounding. Maybe we had a plan where I would call him and stay with a friend or family member if I was “in crisis” rather than going to the hospital, which he thought would be too degrading and isolating. Maybe it was a life-changing experience the way you secretly think no way can therapy be. Maybe it didn’t cure me or make me a more suitable member of society. Maybe it gave me a far deeper appreciation of my messy parts that I don’t want to disappear or to have to hide from people. They are for better or worse my battle scars, my monument to an innocent victim who is not dead yet. Maybe that’s just where I am at. Maybe in ten years I will wake up and think, ok, suffery girl, your time is up. Get out. But suffery girl has a lot to say and isn’t finished and unlike others, I’m not going to make an effort to shut her up. She’s real. She’s a hell of a lot more real than well-adjusted girl. Anyone can learn to fake it and pass for what is expected of them. Well, I can. But learning the ability to walk up to a disgusting mess oozing with INCEST and SUICIDE and MENTAL CASE cooties and being in the same room with it and listening to it takes time and trust and love. And if that’s what I am asking of my friends and family, I better be able to do it myself.

Maybe I was in a good place.

Maybe my insurance ordered an independent medical exam. Maybe I was told I would lose my insurance if I did not appear at the appointment they’d made for me. Maybe I went. Maybe I was summarily dropped shortly thereafter. Maybe it took 6 months and a lawyer to get an explanation and instructions for appeal from my insurance. Maybe I was sitting in a law office 2 weeks ago staring in shock at the psychiatrist’s conclusion: “Borderline Personality Disorder.”

Maybe I had a therapist who had prepared me for the fact that this is a “thing” that happens to women who want to die and who say they were abused. Maybe I intellectually knew that. Maybe I was still in shock that it had happened to me. I don’t boil bunnies. I love bunnies. I am a trusted pet-sitter. I received “superior” performance reviews at work. I send thank you cards. I hold the door for the elderly and march for inner city school kids and volunteer with the homeless and floss (ok, weekly) and offer to help clean up at dinner parties. I am a good person. Who is extremely sensitive, uptight and has a weird autistic thing where I don’t trust people once they are out of my sight, but I’m actually very ok with my personality and don’t give a fuck if someone else isn’t. What the hell does my personality have to do with this? I am in treatment, not a popularity contest. What the hell? I go out of my way to be nice to people I’d much rather kick in the eye. How do I not get points for that? Who makes these rules?

Oh God. I knew it. The person who raped and beat and locked me up and all that during my childhood was my biological father. BIOLOGICAL. He was a monster, and I am his offspring. I inherited the evil. I have feared this my entire life. I have looked in the mirror and cried. I have been literally trapped in this body, in this being, created by a psychopath. Is it any coincidence my mother is named Rosemary? No. Ok, maybe that’s just silly. But being a psychopath is a real thing, and mental illness is inheritable. Jesus, that psychiatrist was good. He could see right into my soul. Past the pleases and thank yous, past the helping the under-privileged and aged. Past my kindness toward animals and fondness for literary and artistic pursuits and peacenikery. Right into the evil in my soul which I myself could not even see.

Oh God.

I spent a week in bed sobbing in grief for the good person I wanted to believe I was. I made every intellectual argument against the psychiatrist’s findings I could. He’d barely even met me. He left everything about my being generally plagued with sadness and anxiety out of the report. This had happened to others. It was well-documented. Female. Suicidal. History of childhood abuse. Does not respond to medication. Borderline. Still, I could see it in my lawyer’s eyes. He said he would not take my case pro-bono. Obviously it was clear to everyone but me that I was a lunatic and a scam artist. And a failed scam artist at that. Obviously that was part of the whole mental illness scene: you are too fucking crazy to know your own self. Or reality. Though the dropping the disability was a bit illogical, IMO; people that delusional being fit for work? Where? Is the funny farm hiring then?

Some of the psychiatrist’s other findings were that I was:
“Angry.” Ok, yes, now I am. Very. However, I’ve spent a year working on being ok with feeling anger, so that seems very bait and switch.
“Entitled.” To what? Yes. Probably that is true. I feel entitled to all kinds of things: dignity, support in the “recovery process,” a job situation that matches both my needs and abilities, security, a roof over my head, basic medical care, not having white male strangers in positions of power fucking me over. Super entitled. We enjoy freedom of religion in the United States, and I do have the right to opt out of a Calvinist worldview. It’s one I have exercised.
“Lacking insight.” I’ve spent my entire life being praised on my pretty eyes and keen insight. At this point I question if files have been mixed up.
“Playing the victim.” It’s not an act, sweetheart. Not a performance. I’m not here to entertain anyone. No one is entertained. If I do however “act” like a victim, it’s probably less to do with pantomime more do with how my father “acted” like a rapist with a leather belt, like a pornographer, like a criminal, and how my mother “acted” like she had cancer and died when I was younger, and how my cousin “acted” like he blew his brains out and my family “acts” like they drink a lot and … should I go on?
“Manipulative.” Because while I say I want to kill myself, I have not done so. Ok, that’s just not fair! I should prove I have depression and not a personality disorder by actually dying? Didn’t they do that shit with witches and drowning? The fact that I have NOT offed myself and have “services seeking behavior,” that’s responsible stuff I did right. You don’t turn that shit on me.
“Thin.” Thank you.
The report also called into question the veracity of my claims regarding my abuse.
The report also highlighted my political activism as well as my lack of husband and children.
The report also stated that based on the patient’s description of her emotional distress, she can only be lying, as it is more extreme than anything the psychiatrist had ever seen.

Well I doubt that. I’ve done the psych ward circuit and have seen worse myself. And I happen to know I was not lying, because I was me and there while answering his questions, and there is no note of demonic possession, and I actually remember it all very clearly (yay for my non-existent PTSD which can make me relive scary things in vivid detail) and I remember quite clearly telling the truth. But, well, should I donate my body to science or something? Seriously. That is fucking frightening.

Despite intellectually knowing this report was full of holes, unfounded claims and was written for an insurance company for whom I had become a liability, I internalized every last ounce of it. It was one thing to play a social radical on the internet. Another thing entirely to be on the receiving end of discrimination. First, what were the odds? I had already been a (legitimate, not making that up) victim of my father. Wasn’t one egregious injustice enough for a lifetime? If there were a pattern, wasn’t I the common variable? Wasn’t this on me? Oh, I could look at systematic racism or poverty and see how repeated injustice seems a feature, not a bug, in our society. But I’m white middle class. Literate, eloquent, drug-free, law-abiding citizen. Where is the privilege I’m always hearing about? Sure, I am female, but this is 2013. I can’t be discredited and dismissed out of hand like … other people. Right? My desire to be heard or treated with respect poses no threat to the status quo. I cannot flatter myself with the convenient explanation that The Man just Fears me. Right? Moreover, a healthcare professional would not blatantly say something so distress-inducing to someone already experiencing more distress than they know how to handle unless it were true, would they? Do no harm. It’s an oath. So there must be a rational, necessary justification for the harmful nature of this report, something scientific and impersonal and for my own good. I just am too nuts to see it.

I internalized the FUCK out of it. There was no fighting it. Who are you going to believe? A scrounger or a doctor? There was no telling my friends in hopes of getting reassurance I was not horrible person. Regardless of their current opinion of my decency, I’d have to plant the seed in their mind: a professional conducted a forensic psychiatric exam and found me to be a lying, evil, awful person. If my friends had come to me in the same situation, I would think, why of course that is nonsense. But later, when they did something to piss me off, or made a poor life choice or were PMSing I may think, wow, maybe she is a psycho. … No, I wouldn’t. But I can only speak for myself. Who knows what they would do. My track record for trusting people is not hot. Part of me actually trusted this psychiatrist to give an honest and empathetic report of my well-being. And that part internalized his findings. Why expect anyone else not to?

I had dinner with friends the day after I received the report. One brought belated birthday flowers and wine and chocolate. The other cooked. I did not tell them what had happened, but I put on no airs. I hadn’t slept or eaten. I was in a bad mood. The CTA was late and I bitched about that. I didn’t pretend to like anything I didn’t. I didn’t say nice things just because. And I waited. And they were lovely. They treated me like they always had. They shared their recent travails, funny stories, we drank wine and talked all night. It was disorienting. How did they not see I was a terrible person? A hysterical, manipulative, deceiving, entitled bitch? Why were they treating me like a nice person, a dear friend? Why was it all warm fuzzy vibes and comaraderie and stress-free? It felt like the twilight zone. Or a Poe short story. As if I had just murdered someone, and they didn’t know and were treating me wonderfully and it was driving me insane. I came home, happy, basking in the glow of the sweet person they believed I was. I was simultaneously crestfallen. I suck at being a manipulative, selfish, angry, entitled bitch, apparently.

It was about a week later when someone retweeted a blog post written by a Norwegian woman, completely coincidentally but like a rope thrown to me by the God I’d been cursing up one side and down the other, about being “borderlined” and not believed by her doctor when reporting abuse, about how in her experience, the mental health system she had entered seeking help had caused her more harm than good. It wasn’t a “Ha!” moment of vindication. I simply felt every muscle in my body relax for the first time in a week. My stomach settled and I just stopped freaking out. I felt the a calm sense of sanity. A sanity that I only experience when I do not discount myself. It wasn’t an “I’m right and he was wrong” pep talk. It didn’t matter who was right and wrong so much as it mattered that I give my own experience of reality some fucking credit. Because who else would?

There are a lot of times I do not feel sane. But that insanity seems to stem from a phenomenological disconnect between my experience of the world and the official narrative. So much of the work focused on in treatment is about changing one’s own way of seeing the world so that it fits more seamlessly into the official narrative, thereby reducing one’s suffering, and isn’t that what you want? Not to suffer inconsolable sadness or paralyzing fear? It is. But I soon came to realize the only thing that worked for me to feel sane was successfully making sense of my experiences, precisely the opposite of what I was encouraged to do in traditional treatment. I failed in traditional treatment because, despite the psychologist’s report, I have a visceral aversion to performing a charade for personal benefit. The question I repeated in therapy was, “But what if we just create the expectation that people should be empathetic and accommodating toward those who suffer, try to understand them, rather than demand they pretend not to be suffering for the convenience of others?” I adopted a multi-pronged approach: Give me the bravery to do what I can, the expectation of support for the things I cannot, and the wisdom not to give a shit about the rest.

I could appeal this report. I need to for money and healthcare. And on principle. I cannot just sit back and allow such slanderous things to be said about me. I have my pride. But I am also not returning to the mental health system anytime soon. Sure maybe this time it would be better. Now that I know what to say and not to say. And I do need the financial security.

That’s why my mother stayed with my father.

One thing abusers and mental health professionals both do, with possibly very different intentions, is they both tell you that you have no insight into your own situation. They make you question your own interpretation of events, your own response to mistreatment, your own culpability in your suffering. But they provide a safety net. And there are good times. So long as you do what you are told, don’t go off thinking for yourself, it can feel downright lucky. And lastly, chances are you came running to them in an already vulnerable position. Groomed, even…

People who have survived or been victims of, or however you want to frame it, people who have experienced this kind of severe abuse, they are entitled to the dignity of their own experiences of reality.

It’s what makes a person human. It is what was carefully and cruelly stripped from people who have lived in situations of traumatic abuse and injustice. It’s why we have African American History month and gay pride parades and a First Nations tv station. Because the official narrative, like the one you will find online if you google “Borderline” and probably many other DSM diagnoses, has a phenomenally poor record of accurately portraying the experiences of reality of those who do not fit comfortably within the status quo. If you want to turn crazy cutter girls into functioning members of society, or simply want to support them, this should be the very first thing you do. Respect their fucking history and the reality of their experiences. You don’t have to like it, endorse it, enjoy it or even care about it. But you don’t get to deny them it. We don’t negotiate with countries who deny the Holocaust. Because why the fuck would you do that unless you didn’t think it was that bigga deal? And people who don’t think it was that bigga deal scare the shit out of us. People who deny the stories of women (and men) who have experienced severe childhood abuse – not daddy didn’t love me enough, but daddy whipped me with a leather belt until I could not move and then had sex with me and this happened a lot during my whole childhood abuse – I don’t negotiate with such people. They scare the shit out of me. Because what kind of sick fuck doesn’t think such an experience is that bigga deal? What kind of system not only doesn’t think it’s that bigga deal but actively tries to discredit the victims of such experiences? These are institutions we are putting in charge of people’s psychological well-being. There has to be a better way.

My therapist told me not to kill myself because he thought I could change the world. I cannot even change my own insurance provider’s decision. But on the off chance anyone who needs to read this is: People who have survived or been victims of, or however you want to frame it, people who have experienced this kind of severe abuse, they are entitled to the dignity of their own experiences of reality. Period.

If you are having a positive, accepting experience with the mental health system, that is great news, and I do not encourage people who use the system to stop just because I had a shitty experience. I only encourage people seeking support to do what they have to do, often in the face of less than ideal options. I don’t judge. But be aware that this could happen, and don’t internalize it if it does. If it has already happened to you, do you want to start a revolution or something? I’m quite serious. What’s the saying?

Well behaved women rarely make history.

Oh, the report also said I was

Thank you for reading – It means a lot. Comments are off, but readers are welcome to contact me through my contact page, etc.

July 17, 2013

A Manifesto.

Filed under: Too Much Information — poemless @ 7:13 PM
Tags: , , , , , ,

Because I’m Not Going Back to Pretending Shit Isn’t Real.

I was in treatment for a year. My insurance company decided I no longer needed to be. My employer decided I wouldn’t? couldn’t? return. Bit miffed, all this decision-making on my behalf with no input from me, about my … LIFE. Seriously unempowering. “Oh, woe is me! Whatever shall I do…?” I wept to friends and loved ones. “Get a lawyer. And write.” Lawyer’s been gotten.

And I am writing a manifesto.

I’d rather be writing about this vase of sunflowers and rustic blue and white hand painted sugar bowl and cup of velvety Cuban espresso on the table before me as the late morning sun gently reflects off the trees which line the street outside and from an old CD player Joni Mitchell coyly pleads for me to help her because she’s falling in love. Or maybe some bullshit about Actually Existing Democracy. I mean to be honest, I’d rather be independently wealthy and lying on a terrace in Nice with Vladislav Surkov refilling my glass. But that’s not the hand I got dealt this game.

Alas, circumstances have forced me into this corner from which I have to manifesto-write may way out. One such circumstance being that manifesto writing is fun. And we’re taught to turn our anger into something fun, aren’t we kids? Another circumstance is that I have been positively inundated with the most inane, uninformed, condescending and generally unhelpfully-framed inquiries and commentaries regarding my mental welfare that it seems to me there exists a gaping hole where basic fucking common sense should be, and I aim to rectify that! By doing so I can hopefully encourage the countless numbers of individuals who have met the same challenges as I in their journey through life and inform those whose lives they touch, replacing confusion and hurt with peace and acceptance. Or I can at least print this out and carry copies around with me for whenever someone says something moronic to me. I can just hand them out. Not on street corners. Unless that’s where I end up working, and I am at my job one day and someone is all like,


Reality check – people don’t understand you either, and you’re in denial if you think they do. And you may also be in denial if you go through life certain you understand everyone, because everyone else’s life mostly takes place outside of your experience of them. It may be that on the spectrum of inexplicable human behaviour, I’m further, much further toward the end than you. But not understanding people is the magic goo that holds us all together, makes economies fail and men go to war and people look at their own children as if they were alien spawn. I am by no means upset that someone, anyone, would want to understand me. It’s flattering and a universal facet of love. But love, acceptance, empathy or even just treating another with the same dignity that you would expect from them should never be contingent upon true understanding. Most people don’t even understand themselves half the time. I’m not arguing against understanding (it is the motivation for this manifesto, obviously) but against the assumption that it is incumbent upon people to be understood before they may be accepted, and any failure to understand another human being must mean they’re doing it wrong. Of course, no one is obliged to accept, love, like, empathize with, support, be nice to me. Likewise I am in no way obliged to have to prove my suffering to those who wish to not believe in it. No. I am not.

But let’s accept your insistence that I am obligated (money, insurance, human acceptance demand it!)

What would that look like?

Does post traumatic stress look like a army veteran? Does melancholia look like a palid unkempt middle aged woman in a Big Pharma commercial? Are we talking about Halloween costumes or human suffering that does not discriminate along gender, professional, ethnic, age or where you shop at lines? No, you didn’t mean look, as in how I was dressed, but how I seemed. Based on my behavior. I’m not acting depressed at this dinner party, right?

The very – and I cannot ever possibly ever in my whole fucking life if I lived ten of them stress this enough – very unfortunate fact is that people who behave suicidally are accused of doing so for attention right up until the very day they are successful.

Then they are a tragedy, a tortured soul and all the bullshit you want to heap on them to make it easier for YOU to sleep at night. The suicidal human being is not said to be ill until an autopsy can be performed. After all, if you haven’t actually pulled the trigger – how do we know you aren’t just feigning distress for attention? Again with the understanding. For my part, several stints in psych wards, arms covered in faded razor wounds, chain smoking, not eating, all that might look sexy to you. I pull it off well. But I honestly and truly do not know how to show you this pain. Show me your headache. Don’t just tell me your head is throbbing and you want to lie down and a pill will help and can I please be quiet. PROVE to me you have a headache. If your response to such an insensitive demand is, “Fuck you,” I’d understand. Because I probably just made it worse by saying that.

I could invite you over late at night when I am sprawled on the bathroom floor, face swollen from hysterical sobbing, hair like Medusa, mascara and snot everywhere, as I yell at God and plead with my dead mother and frantically search for old bottles of potentially lethal pills. But I’d prefer to maintain ownership of what dignity I have managed to salvage for myself over the years. I am not a freakshow attraction. I don’t have to turn my life into a reality TV show to prove anything, to earn the right to stay on this island. I think it would be incredibly helpful if we could collectively discard the notion that once someone comes forward with a mental illness, emotional distress or existential torment and asks for help, all their behavior belongs to us. We are not case studies or specimens or even exhibit A of whatever Zeitgeist you are promoting. We are people, who really didn’t ask for this, but have it and need some dignity to thrive. On the other hand, suffering in silence is not for everyone either. Ultimately, the more control we have over who is entitled to bear witness to how much of our suffering should be a personal decision. The point is, not seeing something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If someone has trusted you to witness their suffering, or has been forced by systems to illustrate it for you, which are both frankly humiliating experiences, that person’s behavior is only going to “improve” if you recognize the act of courage for what it is rather than flippantly thanking them for the day at the theater. No one is suffering for your entertainment.

Not believing a survivor of incest and childhood abuse that their adult suffering is real also just makes it worse. Because you are certainly not the first person who did not believe them about something serious. You can say and know in your heart that these are separate issues, that you’ve had nothing to do with someone else’s prior experiences. It’s unfair all around, because that’s true. Yet, while it is true that the third concussion a person experiences may have absolutely no connection to the previous ones, it still has the effect of creating a cumulative injury, of damaging what has already been damaged. Trauma is cumulative.

I am youthful looking for my age, I am told, by people who don’t look at my teeth, neck or ass. I can dye my grey hair and use moisturizers and reflective powders to conceal dark circles and fine lines. I’m intelligent according to standardized tests and the opinions of people I admire. Because of my life I have had to be resourceful and a little fierce to survive. I’ve had to develop a sense of humour as well. About a month ago a friend came to pick me up, and as I got into her car, she looked at me and marvelled. “What?” “Nothing…” “What, you just gave me a weird look.” “It never fails to impress me that your makeup is perfect even when you are in crisis.” “Well you know I am in crisis and I know I am in crisis, but I don’t see how it is the business of any stranger on the street.”

Perhaps there is an element of resistance to my downright perverse need to always look ok. Don’t let the bastards get you down, as they say. Or perhaps it is simply one thing I feel like I do have control over. Perhaps it is a kind of warrior paint, armor. Or a rebellion against stigma. Or a need to not let on – if I look like everything is ok, everything will be ok. But mostly it is automatic, something I give no thought to. It’s so deeply ingrained in my being that even when I try to not make an effort I still come off as put together. I spent the first 21 years of my life cultivating the ability to not show anything was wrong, to present myself as … perfect. Straight A’s, perfect hair, well-dressed, well-mannered, well-spoken. Sure I would simply disappear a lot. But when in the company of others, I tried to be perfection. A day that passed without a compliment I considered a failure. Not because I wanted the attention – I was a painfully shy child. My therapist says it was to mask the reality of my homelife, and that is true. I would have died, I just knew it, if any of the kids at school knew. But also, at least consciously, I wanted to transcend … all of it. Trying to exist on some plane of untouchables, out of reach from cruelty or judgement. As if, if I did everything perfectly enough, a magical fortress would appear and protect me. I was young. Of course now, when I meet such perfect people my first and really only reaction to them is, “Oh dear. What are they hiding? They’re absolutely miserable.” I want to tell them they’ll just get hurt anyway, so may as well relax a bit and stop caring what others thought. There is no magical fortress.

And even if I could change my routine so many decades later, why? Because some asshole doctor says I don’t look depressed? Pride. Look, just because I can identify maladaptive behavior or magical thinking doesn’t mean I’m suddenly going to become a hippie. A hippie wasn’t something I was going to be except my father did these things, except I have a family history of being predisposed to some dark shit. Plus, the only thing I do know is that I am going to die. And no one knows when. But it seems like an occasion worth dressing up for.

Some … all people hear this and conclude that I am somehow “fake.” I’m really not. I really am a pretty straightforward person who wont mince words. I publicly, in appearances, especially around people I do not intimately know and trust, try to present my best self. Not someone else’s best self. Mine. I take credit for nothing that I don’t deserve credit for. Granted no one is one hundred percent perfect, but no one is one hundred percent a trainwreck. Again, why do people not know this? I should have thought it were fact. Yet, people who make up those idiot disability questionnaires seem to not have received the memo:


However, I do wish it were easier for me to show my more vulnerable side. This is why I write. I can do that in writing. Words are my magical fortress.


You don’t. You can read this. You can judge for yourself whether or not events and genetics are capable of impacting a person’s ability to function optimally, if it makes sense or is squarely within the realm of possibility that prolonged, terrifying childhood experiences combined with a family history of misery and dysfunction might result in a hyperactive fear response, crippling anxiety and an impaired capacity for trust and optimism. You can decide for yourself if that’s something you would be so nonchalant about your own daughter being on the receiving end of. But you are neither judge nor jury for the validity and reality of my moments of suffering, and even if you were, until you were able to crawl into my head and experience existence from that perspective, you still could not know. I may even get philosophical and argue that a person cannot ever know their true self, or ask if truth actually exists. I may even ask,



Thanks, that’s probably far more inane and condescending sounding than you intended it to be. I know you are just trying to help. Why the assumption that I am living in the past? Those close to me, those who actually know me will, I think, eagerly attest to the fact that I am very much capable of living in the present and in fact, am quite good at it too. Just recently a friend and I were on a Ferris wheel, and he asked to take my picture. I made him put away the camera and gave him a lecture about living in the moment. “How will I remember this?” he asked. I made sure he remembered. I will challenge anyone right here and now to a living in the present duel. I can out live every day like it is your last every one of you. Because I am usually convinced it is. No, my weakness is not that I am stuck living in the past. It’s that I can’t live in the future. I have no future box in my brain. It’s a blank, black wall with no door or window. It’s always been this way. It feels like a kind of autism. Maybe I never had a chance to develop those muscles. Maybe I wasn’t born with them, like a person born without knee caps. I have no idea, and no professional I have spoken to has a cure. I recently confessed this to my sibling, who in turn confessed to me he understood all to well. You see, I am in fact tense-challenged. It’s just the tense you’ve presumed before asking. Fascinating, no? Also, a funny thing about it is that, as with any handicap or injury, willpower is necessary to cope with it, but it is not in fact curative. No it isn’t. Angels can’t cure you either. I’m sorry. Weren’t you the one who was demanding observable, quantifiable and reproducible evidence just a moment ago?

I understand that there are people who would like me to move on. “My God, she is still talking about her child molester father and dead mother…,” you must mutter under your breath. It is slightly stupid really to say so as if I had not in fact thought of that, or actively attempted to do it, given the profoundly unfun nature of my past. Look, I am not the pervy sicko here. That’s my father, and if you are sick of hearing about pervy sicko things, take it up with him. But I have some very, very bad news for you – I plan on talking about it for a very, very long time. This wish for me to move on often sounds not so much like empathy and encouragement but like a request to have the station changed – for you, not for me. Of course I would like to move on and get over the chronic insomnia, vivid nightmares, the waking up in a panic attack, the inability to trust, the wish to check out permanently because nothing here stops the pain, the acute grief that feels like an infected tattoo on my soul.


There are truly a limited number of things I will not try to get over these demons. It was the effects of trauma, not my actual life story you wanted me to get over, correct? Never mind. Oh yes, well, I would not inflict suffering on another with the purpose of minimizing my own. I wouldn’t buy K-pins under the Wilson el stop. I wouldn’t … My point is that I will try a lot of things to rid myself of the bullshit pain and inconveniences of psychic injury. And – you may find this incredibly interesting – the very first thing I tried was pretending it wasn’t real and things had not happened to me. Move on. Never give it another thought. Get over it. Start a new life, away from home, full of promise, focus all my energies on academics and arts and undergraduate intrigues. Crazy, you were just suggesting I do that, and it turns out I did it 20 years ago! I have always been a bit avant garde… So right, I moved on. Weirdly, I still ended up in this situation where my friends were calling my parents worried and my parents were calling the university shrink worried and I wasn’t calling anyone because all I wanted was to disappear. So, FAIL, amirite? Still not sure what I did wrong. I kept trying to do it too. But like clockwork, every time I would pretend all was well, my life was not real, every time I would make an effort not to think about things, to go through the motions of what was expected of me, I got even more depressed! What is up with that? And then of course I would feel like a failure because of my inability to move on and get over things, and that would make me even more suicidal! Oh, it was a mess. Gosh. Yeah, so I am like, maybe that doesn’t work. Maybe you should not even be encouraging me to do that again. Also, shit, I don’t tell you how to live your life.

No. You have stuck with this manifesto thus far, and you deserve a straightforward explanation, not sarcasm and snark. That is not helpful.

Oh come on. I have anxiety issues, not obsessive personality disorder. It is not as if I don’t talk about other things. Note that most of this blog is devoted to entirely other things. I don’t go to dinner parties and talk about my father or wanting to die. (Maybe this is why I get a lot of “But you seem fine…” at dinner parties.) I am a woman of many interests and pastimes. I do genealogy, read voraciously, go to museums and theater, do yoga and ballet, get acupuncture, work on political campaigns, ride motorcycles, write about Russian politics. I am a reliable friend to people I adore, a feisty and unapologetic feminist, and a devoted cat mother. I can out drink, cook, converse, hike and write most of you. I am obsessed with all things Russian, Jazz Age and Chicago. I can get anywhere on public transportation. Animals love me. I have been painted by a famous artist, interrogated by uzi-weilding men in Sheremetevo airport and sent love letters from Paris. I am hardly one long lament about childhood sexual abuse or a monotonous melancholic or crisis manufacturing plant. So stop insinuating that I am boring, a broken record, a one trick pony. Stop it.

And I am not going to shut up about my past and its consequences. “Shut up” is not the message we need to respond with when people muster the courage to openly talk about the sexual, physical or emotional harm inflicted upon them. If that is your reaction to these matters, you are an asshole. Even if you say “move on” when you mean “shut up.” You move on past your discomfort with people bearing witness to their own experiences. I’m sorry if that offends you. Get over it.


Well, in fairness, you can no more know they have recovered than you can know I have real debilitating suffering. You are largely dependent on their self-reporting and ability to conform to societal expectations. Which is not to say some people have not been through worse than me and are pretty happy and normal regardless. Just that one must be careful and in possession of all the facts before assuming an air of smug certainty. But why do some people recover and some people do not? Why do some soldiers come home messed and some do not? Why do some people respond to chemotherapy and some do not? Why is it that you can make the exact same recipe twice and have the results come out quite differently? These are questions we simply do not know the answers to. Or I do not, at any rate. The going theory is that a combination of social support, genetic predisposition and comorbid illness and/or stressful life events play a part in determining one’s prognosis. I do not know. I do know that the comparison to highly successful people is a wee bit cruel, like a parent who points to the high school quarterback and valedictorian and demands of their son, “Why can’t you be more like him?” Perhaps he has to be who he is meant to be, and that is not who he is meant to be. Perhaps math is impossible for him and makes him cry, and he is very proud for the B’s on his report card he busted his ass for. Perhaps projecting expectations upon another person is less helpful than giving them the skills and resources they need to meet heir own expectations. I am grateful for high expectations. No one wants to feel given up on. But I wonder why people choose to see what I have yet to accomplish rather than what I have accomplished. I am alive, when many people who have experienced similar things are not. I have no addictions, unwanted pregnancies, abusive relationships, or criminal record. I have a degree from a top ranked university, amazing friends, most importantly, solid self-esteem and a strong moral compass. I am doing something right in spite of the hand I was dealt. Please do not underestimate the difficulty of that. Maybe it is easier for others. But like the kid who is bad at math, I have busted my ass. So any insinuation that I lack willpower and determination is misinformed at best and insulting at worst.

As for dwelling on things and letting them get to me, I am afraid I’ve already been gotten to. Basic childhood development stuff. So I am focused on coping with what I’ve got, and perhaps even doing something constructive with it. Like educating others about how not to talk to your messed up loved ones and acquaintances. Like bucking the taboo on incest and childhood abuse (I’m not speaking of abuse as it used in its more liberal contexts, but the kind of locking up and raping of a five year old which we can all agree consitutes abuse) and talking about, writing about it, even if it makes people uncomfortable. Because it is precisely not talking about it that allows it to go on for years. And it has real consequences beyond unpleasant memories. And I think people should know that. It seems like an important thing to make sure people know. Because people look at my life and at me and say, “But you are so intelligent and strong, I guess I just don’t understand.” Because I’m trying to help them understand.


Acceptance. For who I am right now, not what you wish I were. Of the fact that I did not create my suffering, and that it is real.

Acknowledgement. Of my hurdles and accomplishments, not piteous sympathy and comments on my potential. Of my own agency to decide for myself what I need and to know for myself what I want.

People to listen. To not only me but anyone who speaks of their own psychological trauma, cognitive challenges or emotional distress openly and honestly. To those who are far far too used to people not listening.

Of course no one is obligated to me. But I am relatively confident that for every single person who reads this, there is at least one person in their life to whom they are and for whom it would make a productive, meaningful and possibly radical difference. Do not rely on mental health professionals to do this for you. If someone you know is in distress, they need more time and attention and patience than any doctor in our system is able to provide them. Do not rely on a person to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. People like me can get pretty MacGyver at rigging up some straps for our non-existent boots. But duct tape is no substitute for knowing you are loved despite your lack of proper boots.

Thanks for reading. I don’t usually say so, but please share.

July 16, 2013

The Longest Day

Filed under: Chicago,Too Much Information — poemless @ 7:15 PM

“Let me know if you wanna grab a drink or seven this weekend.”

Who knows where the morning went. Suffocated in its sleep by oppressive temperatures and humidity or washed down the gutter by intermittent deluges that kept breaking the heat and putting it back together again. Like me with my life. Since I’d been off work, I’d taken my waking slow, filling the am hours with an easy journey into consciousness. I awoke at dawn, when a giant black cat sat on my pillow whispering all the ways he could kill me in my sleep until I arose to feed him. I made coffee in a French press. I read trendy lit magazines. I did yoga and ballet. I wrote. I re-wrote. I stood with the fridge open until overcome by lightheadedness. I forced something down my gullet. I showered around 2pm. A life of leisure? Perhaps… But I required from this world, in return for not hanging myself, a daily quota of leisure and sanity. I’d recently transitioned from being off work to being out of work, out of health insurance, out of money and out of luck. I was in no position to part with what quality of life I had left. Institutions seemed no more enamored with my existence than I with theirs, so why devote every hour of my precious day to garnering their approval? If they wanted a trial separation, I was happy to oblige. It was the same with institutions and men. I had expectations of being treated with a modicum of dignity and believed myself worth fighting for, but if they found me expendable, I wasn’t going to grovel. Only a dog can thrive in an environment where it has to beg.

My ability to maintain an attitude of graceful disaffection meant I still had pride left to insult when my bank card was hacked and my transit pass stolen, after having lost my income. The latter was replaced without ado. Such accommodation from a bureaucracy renown for its incompetence and casual hostility reinforced my belief that something was celestially out of alignment. It was the Summer Solstice. I’ve never been a pagan, but I can recognize a formidable opponent. I couldn’t get another human to return my calls; whatever was going on out there had the power to determine the rhythm of oceans and length of days. I decided to ride out the cosmic chaos until the universe figured out how to keep itself sane too. Until then, just leaving my apartment felt like choosing to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But if simply staying alive meant looking for trouble, I thought I may as well make it interesting trouble. Anyway, I had no caution left for throwing to the wind. And that’s why I’d accepted the offer of a drink, or seven.

The plan had been to meet up in Jefferson Park after I’d had my energy properly rearranged at an acupuncture clinic in Logan Square. But late afternoon thunderstorms and customer service reps at the bank kept me in till nearly 5pm. There was also a cat I was being paid to care for who had the good sense to live en route to the bar. Unlike the radical health collective. My friend was already on his to Fischman’s Liquors after a long day of his own. Now that I thought of it, I’d never met this person for drinks before. Friend? Acquaintance. He’d invited me out and offered to treat, presumably because my life was in pieces and I had no money, or no money I could actually access without a damn ATM card. Presumably. Why wouldn’t I presume that? This question became serious as I contemplated the contents of my closet. This is what people do when someone hits a rough patch – invite them for a bit of conversation and distraction, raise glasses and spirits. Perfectly normal. Except the last time a fellow arranged to meet me at a dive bar for moral support, a nude sketch of me ended up in a local literary magazine.

I looked out the window at the ominous sky, at my phone for a missed call from the bank, at the clock for confirmation of the late hour despite the high sun emerging from the clouds. I threw on a blouse and corduroys and sandals and a scarf. Underneath that, something more trouble appropriate. After all, you never know when you’ll be in a car accident. Or man accident. With my recent string of luck, I left my apartment prepared for both.

After a cat-sitting detour, I headed for the westbound Lawrence bus. Next to the bus stop, a drunk hobo had taken keen interest in a street sign that had fallen over, blocking the sidewalk. “Imagine if that had fallen over on you. Look at it, it would have killed you, and no one would even care, because this is the ghetto, they don’t give a fuck about us here. That could have fallen on you and killed you and no one would even fucking care,” he kept repeating. He probably thought I was being polite when I nodded my head in agreement and contemplated the street sign-as-guillotine phenomenon, or perhaps my eyes gave away the sincerity of my concern. I smoked nervously as I waited for the bus. Anything can kill you. At the same time, knowledge that I had evaded the murderous rage of this street-sign filled me with a sense of invincibility.

There’s nothing much more exhilarating than Lawrence Avenue on a steamy summer Friday night. The rain was gone, and the heat had been put back together. The east-west street flooded with the glow of sunset each evening, blinding those foolish enough resist the lure of the beautiful lakefront. The post-rain haze added another layer of texture to the already gritty atmosphere. On Lawrence on a summer Friday night, out west of Western, everyone is outside, everyone is from somewhere else, everyone is living their own interstitial lives, refusing to be sapped of vitality, invincible, electric. The street is lined with food stands, ice cream carts, people selling mangoes by the box out of the backs of trucks. The stores have names like “Sexy Girls of The Hollywood.” Young men cruise by in low-riders while teenage girls gather outside convenience stores, striking tough poses in bejeweled nails and severe hairstyles and Hello Kitty backpacks with their boyfriends’ names markered all over them. The same magic marker is used on the day-glow poster-board signs plastering shop windows. Small children run to keep up with serious grandmothers not much taller than they are. Men stop to tell passing women how beautiful they are. Buses and bikes and cars and pedestrians vie for each spare foot of space as they make their way down the avenue. I once saw a car stop at a red light, windows down, stereo cranked up and everyone on the sidewalk spontaneously broke out dancing to “All Night Long.” Just like in the music video.

At least that’s the Lawrence Avenue I knew. I could be foolish, but not foolish enough to stray too far from the lake for fear of being sucked back into the vast emptiness of the great plains, whose existence I’d escaped at the age of 18 and still feared as I looked west down the city avenues that grew flatter, emptier and more harshly lit by the summer sun as they reached the hazy horizon. I’m the kind of girl who can get claustrophobic in wide open spaces and places I can’t catch a cab or bus home from. Like a penguin who carries its egg nestled between its legs, protecting and transporting it, ensuring it is never left alone, the city gives me a sense of security. I am hesitant to jump into the frozen sea of suburbia.

But like those who braved the cruel conditions of the West in search of opportunity, I was buoyed by the possibility of adventure as the bus left the inner-city and entered the land that time forgot lining the city limits. The streets all turned to K’s, buildings from brown brick to blonde, signs from Spanish and Serbo-Croatian to Korean and Polish. Traffic gave way to small, fissured parking lots. The aesthetic out here was like a mausoleum to the American 1950’s. Safe. Boring. Overwhelmingly white and working class. People liked to call this the “real” Chicago. People with art school or journalism degrees who could only afford to slum it anyway, and why not with another species on the brink of extinction? Who was I to judge… Wasn’t I doing the same thing? Still, for the “real” Chicago, this place was growingi ncreasingly quieter as the weekend began. There were few people outside. Few places to even gather outside. What kind of city keeps its authenticity hidden behind the front doors of single family homes?

Upon reaching Milwaukee Avenue, the bus did not stop, but veered into a depot, as if even the hardened employees of the Chicago Transportation Authority were unwilling to go any further. As I exited, I half expected the driver to shake my hand, thank me for the company and wish me luck on the next leg of my trip. I picked up my rucksack and headed on foot to Fischman’s. It hadn’t rained for a few hours, but the air was as wet as ever. The sun blazed as it neared 9pm.

A dive bar on a sultry evening feels like a womb. The buffer of darkness, the lazy churn of ceiling fans, the muted tones in which patrons sprinkled along the counter make half-attempts to socialize, the way the world outside stays outside when you step in. I quite like such easy establishments. Even more, I like the kind of fellow who asks me to meet him at such a clandestine locale. Tonight it was a political staffer, a longtime acquaintance. I scanned the room as my eyes adjusted to the light. He sat opposite the door in shirtsleeves, forehead in hand and nose in a book on constitutional clauses, nursing a snifter of something the same color as the wood paneling. A real Josh Lyman type who probably would have been just as at home in DC as in the Chicago hinterlands. But he’d taken a job with one of the “rebel” Aldermen who was part of an emerging bloc of reformers openly challenging the Mayor. The old Machine was effectively dead, but the current leadership’s bank account held just as much power as the old Party organization. Only instead of ripping up private airport landing strips, they were ripping up public schools. In a ward populated with city workers, it was now politically viable to oppose a mayor who was openly hostile to anything public or anyone who had to actually work for a living. Chicago politics had always been interesting, but there was a growing sense that it could also be participatory, dynamic. It was an exciting time, at least out here in the “real” Chicago. He’d also studied theater and named his cat after Gertrude Stein. A girl like me could do worse than spending a Friday night with a fellow like that in a place like this.

He stood up and gave me a bracing hug, and I slunk into a wobbly bar stool. Dive bars stock up on beer and whiskey, neither of which I know how to drink seven of, but Ricochet’s kept some not too shabby box wine on the back bar, and the Rainbo a bottle of red table wine under the counter for when boys like that drag girls like me in. Fischman’s had no wine. Apparently it’s uncommon for girls like me to get dragged here. The constitutional scholar tried to impress me with a sample of a local gin. We both agreed that we’d never been big gin drinkers, but that our tastes had matured with age and we could appreciate the botanicals now. “The botanicals,” we smugly agreed, as we took a sniff and then a sip. We agreed it still tasted like medicine. Botanical medicine.

“Do you have vodka here?” I inquired hesitantly of the barman.
“It’s a bar. Do you know a bar that doesn’t?” he got socratic with me. Well, no I didn’t, but I was confident the universe of possibilities transcended my personal knowledge. Did he know anyone almosted killed by a street sign?
“What kind?”
“All the kinds. What you you want?” I listed off three different kinds before the bartender confessed to having only one.
“Do you know how to make a martini?” I asked. The bartender looked at my friend as if to ask if he wanted him to kill me. “I’d like a vodka martini straight up dry with olives,” I rattled off. “Can you make that?” My friend laughed. “What?” I shot him a defensive look.
“No, I like it. You know what you want.”
The bartender gingerly, with real fear on his face now, sat a champagne coupe on the counter. I shook my head. Those were for people unemployed by choice or living under Prohibition. “Or, I can go down to the basement and get a martini glass. Would you like that?”
“Do you think you could?”

This is why I am afraid of being sucked into the bizarre world that lies outside densely populated urban areas: routine human expectations suddenly become exhibit A and poof, you’re convicted of High Maintenance Personality crimes. But once the martini actually appeared before me, I had no more complaints. I even felt bad for insinuating the bartender could not make one when the truth was he was just short of supplies. Pioneer life…

“I should warn you, there are only three subjects I enjoy talking about,” my acquaintance leaned in and confided as we headed out for our first cigarette.

We spent the evening steeped in effortless, friendly discussions of sex, religion and politics, as well as condo law, theater school, benzos, motorcycles, urban husbandry, psychoanalysis and feline epilepsy. I was having a swimmingly fabulous time and not simply because I had my head in a martini glass. He was buying. “Unless that makes you uncomfortable.” It had been the caveat, not the offer, that made me uncomfortable. We stayed long enough to watch the clientele change from blue-collar men stalling before heading home after work to young hipsters taking advantage of low rent libations, and back to the “real Chicago” guys who either never made it home or waited until their wives were asleep to make their escape. From day drinkers to connoisseurs to last hurrahs. I’d happily agreed to a second martini and was unready to go home when it came time for a third. Around 1:30am I emerged from the girl’s room to find my companion in a James Dean pose in front of the jukebox. The Violent Femmes were playing, and a fresh martini sat on the counter in front of my seat. I had left home expecting trouble and here it was.

The lights came on, I asked the bartender not to let the rest of my drink go to waste and we tumbled outside where we smoked our last cigarettes. My friend pointed to a bench by the Milwaukee bus stop that had been installed to face inward, toward the building behind it. “It’s brilliant,” I proclaimed. I imagined a whole city of people literally turning their backs on social expectations. It doesn’t matter if you can’t see the bus arrive, it doesn’t matter if you miss it, the world will continue to turn in exactly the same way. I thought maybe it was supposed to be art. Or a terrible mistake the ward lacked funds to rectify. He explained that it had been his boss’s idea, to encourage people to socialize. “See?” He sat, no, leaned, on the sloped ledge of the building facing the bus bench. We silently faced each other on opposite sides of the deserted sidewalk in a deserted part of town at a deserted hour of night, as if preparing for a duel or something equally as dangerous. They’d only get away with this out here, I thought, just like they’d only get away with lethal street signs in the ghetto. No one fucking cares about this bench. It’s the tragedy of freedom.

We crossed the street, and I waited outside the all night convenience store while my friend replenished our cigarette supply. He re-emerged, cigarettes in shirt pocket, leaned against the neon-lit storefront. “What’s a girl like you doing in place like this?”
“Standing on a street corner in the middle of the night? A girl’s gotta make a living.”
“This isn’t the street corner. That’s the street corner,” he pointed to the sign a few feet away.
“I’d make a terrible prostitute…” I was only half-joking. I literally did not know where mynext meal was coming from.
“There, there. I think you’d make a fine prostitute.” He led us up Milwaukee Avenue.
“Wait. Where are we going? The bus stop is back there.” I pointed toward Lawrence. “And where are you going?”
“Home. That bus won’t come for another half hour at least.” That bus drove past. I looked at him, incredulous. “Where do you even live?” He used to live in my neighborhood, out east, in civilization, before a marriage and a divorce had created multiple dislocations.
“Now there won’t be another bus for a half hour.” He gave his address as Northwest Highway and a street I recognized as the last one before the city’s hardscrabble west side gave over to a posh suburb. In fact I only knew of it because when staying with friends in said posh suburb it was the street we were instructed, repeatedly, to avoid. Posh and nervous, that is.
“I don’t believe you. I take the Lawrence bus home all the time later than this. There is a ‘Northwest Highway?’” I’d never heard of a Northwest Highway, and I’d lived here a long time. Sounded made up to me. Like a cartoon name.
“It goes all the way out to Yellowstone National Park!” he elaborated with bourbon-infused exuberance.
“How am I getting home?” National parks are great for bears. I probably could have devoured a man alive in the mood I was in, but I was not an actual bear.
“You have three options. You can wait another half hour for the bus. … Or you can come home with me,” he explained as we casually walked toward a cab. The second option was the only moment of the evening I have no memory of.
“What would you prefer?” I threw the ball back in his court and he ran off with it. We got in the cab and headed toward the Northwest Highway.

A gentleman, he gave me a tour of his new apartment, introduced me to the epileptic cat, lent me his most comfortable t-shirt and an assembly-required toothbrush from a hotel in Romania. And he went to sleep on the couch. I stood brushing my teeth in a state of shock. I knew he was a fan of Beckett, but this was really a bit much.

I attempted to wake him, unsuccessfully, and proceeded to consider myself kidnapped. Of course. I became determined to go home, but I had no idea where I was and no money for a cab even if I could hunt down a piece of mail in the dark from which to secure an address. I smoked cigarettes on the back porch. I texted insomniacs and residents of the West Coast without response. Was he really the kind of fellow who would just go and kidnap a girl? Not at all. And yet up until that evening I’d been going through life blindly believing street signs were not homicidal maniacs. Obviously recent events shed doubt on my being a successful judge of character. I sat on the couch and explained to him why kidnapping a girl, even a girl in a rough patch, was no way to behave. It must have been one hell of a boring speech – he slept right through it. I stared out the window as the humid fog which hung under streetlights evolved into a soft drizzle, bored out of my wits. And claustrophobic. I didn’t sleep, not understanding why I couldn’t do that alone in my own bed. I waited until a sensible hour to begin hostilely, physically demanding coffee. I had to specify that I was demanding he make the coffee. I only know a French press. He arose, made some and returned to sleep.

As I sipped the coffee, I felt a sudden wave of dizziness and nausea. I sat the mug on the bedside table and hung my head over the side of the bed. The epileptic cat was on the floor below. She desperately attempted to play with a stuffed toy I lamely dragged along the floor. She kept falling over. It was all the benzos she was on. She frantically buzzed my hand , pawed at the toy, then looked at me as if struck by a horrible memory, and fell over. She repeated this behavior until I was forced to look away, heartbroken. The room was spinning. I thought that if I could just focus on an object, preferably not one about to have a seizure, I would be ok. I rested my heavy eyes on the coffee mug, which I’d assumed to be from Starbucks: white with a green image inside a green circle, with print in green lettering above and below. I rested my head on the pillow and the words on the coffee mug came into focus:


I’m not just kidnapped, I’m dead already. My god, the Puritans who warn others about my libertine lifestyle choices were right. I scoffed that their conservative ways, and lo, I went to a bar, got drunk, went home with a man and now I am dead. Just like in a 1950’s detective drama. And no one cared. Just like the hobo had warned.

I lept up in a panic, suppressing the urge to vomit. I knew if I could get home I would be alive again. I threw on last night’s clothes, pausing to appreciate with regret my choice of lingerie, used the rough bristled Romanian toothbrush and woke up my friend? acquaintance? kidnapper? demanding to go home. He sat up, looked at his phone, looked at me and said there would be a bus at the end of the street in twenty minutes. The fact that he wore those boxer shorts well may have saved his life.
“A bus. And where does this bus go, precisely?” To Yellowstone National Park probably, I thought. I shook my head and gave him the same look the bartender got when he pulled out his champagne coupe. Buses were for people going home on a Friday night not a Saturday morning.
“Or, we could go get my car and drive you home. Would you like that?”
“Do you think we could?”

The journey to the car left back at his office required getting on the Northwest Highway bus, which I was convinced was going to transport me to Yellowstone National Park. In all honesty, I prefer a proper kidnapping over camping any day. The only thing worse than not sleeping in one’s own bed is being eaten by bears while not sleeping in one’s own bed. Annoyed by my declining the offer of bus fare, he asked if he’d said or done anything upsetting last night.
“You said all the signs were in Mexican. … Uhm, did I?” I asked, hoping to glean some insight into my abduction.
“No, no, you were perfectly charming.”
“Oh.” I scowled out the window. If I’d had telekinetic powers, the whole bus would have burst into flames.

We got off, somewhere, and walked down Milwaukee Avenue back toward Fischman’s, where the door was open and people were already inside. My stomach churned like the ceiling fans. A few doors down, we hopped in his car and headed east up Lawrence. The sun had dispersed the morning’s rain clouds, and the air was as heavy as ever. Strip malls and flat beige warehouses gave way to vibrant shops and restaurants, which gave way to chain stores, new construction and European cafes. Blinding sun to smog then to tree-lined streets. By the time I made it home it was already noon. I thanked him for the hangover and my release and darted into my apartment, free, tragic. The Begemot cat screamed at me for breakfast, then whispered a derogatory name for women who don’t come home at night as I walked past him into the bathroom. I showered around 2pm.

I knew perfectly well where the morning went. It was the night’s whereabouts that remained unaccounted for.

February 28, 2013

February Notes: Predictable.

Filed under: Too Much Information — poemless @ 3:50 PM
Tags: ,

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 Notes: At Home With LuLu.

Filed under: Too Much Information — poemless @ 3:48 PM
Tags: ,

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.

February Notes: Turnout.

Filed under: Culture: Russia,Too Much Information — poemless @ 3:41 PM
Tags: ,

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.

February Notes: The Mercury Rises, or, Consumption.

Filed under: Too Much Information — poemless @ 3:36 PM

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

White Pills and Black Bile.

Filed under: Too Much Information — poemless @ 3:15 PM

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

Poemless the blog rises Phoenix-like from the ashes. Pt. II. Or, Writer’s Blockade.

Filed under: Too Much Information — poemless @ 3:20 PM

“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.

Poemless the blog rises Phoenix-like from the ashes. Pt. I. Or, My Own Private India.

Filed under: Too Much Information — poemless @ 2:45 PM

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.

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