Category Archives: Mental Illness

Inspiration for the Fearful

As a difficult year, personally for me, comes to a close, I think about what 2014 will bring. How at times it surely will be miserable, challenging, and uncertain. It can be hard to move forward with optimism when you become more fully aware of life’s painful possibilities. As always, I am trying to reach beyond my fear to see this as part of life’s richness. That suffering is simply the partner to contentment. The more you hope, the more you love, the more you care, the more there is to be hurt by. It is both the guardian of your happiness and the guarantor of your pain.

With that in mind, I’ve curated a couple videos and anecdotes that I hope will fill my tank with the courage to face whatever the new year brings.

From Brain Pickings, a write-up on software pioneer Stephanie “Steve” Shirley, who escaped the Nazis as a child, triumphed over sexism as a young woman, and still views the world with curiosity and interest:

From writer Kelly Barnhillthis story of how her dog Harper came to be, well, her dog. Normally I’m too tender-hearted to hear anything about neglected, abused, ailing dogs, but if this isn’t a story of resilience, I don’t know what is. I also love this update about Harper, and the line: “Having an aging animal teaches us to hang on to each day.” Yes, yes, yes.

From the Today Show, the exceptionally brave Valerie Harper.

ValerieHarperThis woman could drop dead at any moment from brain cancer. Literally. That is probably what will happen, one day she’ll just keel over. Does that stop her from having fun and pursuing new adventures? No. Something to think about as I uselessly worry day-to-day about going into preterm labor.

From CNN, an article about Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old who was shot in the face by the Taliban for daring to be both a girl and a student. She almost died and is still standing up for the right of girls and women to be educated everywhere. When I was her age I couldn’t stand up to the Mean Girls in my grade, and they weren’t packing heat..

From Moonstruck, one of my favorite movies:

I think if Cher slapped me and told me to snap out of it…I probably would. You can’t not listen to Cher. She’d kick your ass.

From blog The Militant Baker, guest blogger Melissa Blake who has Freeman-Sheldon Syndrome which affects bone and muscle structure. She writes a post titled “A Memo to Men: On Dating and Disability Misconceptions.” My favorite line:

Some of my favorite things include, but are not limited to: Columnist, journalist/writer, blogger, Looking for Mr. Right (or his cute twin), collecting Chiquita banana stickers, breaking loose on the dance floor (and oh yes, it can be done from my wheelchair), glossy magazines, keen observer, sassy, sarcasm, oogling the CW’s Supernatural boys, obsessively reciting Frasier quotes, alphabetizing my CD collection, sipping a sweet soda pop, swimming, laughing, dreaming of life in the big city, leaving a hint of mystery behind me, being an absolute dork, perfecting my British accent, dreaming of my own reality show, daydreaming, smiling, being fierce.

Talk about fearless.

To end, two words: Nelson Mandela. There are few who don’t know about his life, persecution, imprisonment and abuse, and ultimate redemption as a leader of South Africa and an inspiration to millions around the globe. So I’ll just say that recent recognition of his remarkable existence has been one more important reminder that life offers us many opportunities to find peace and to heal.

Trying to Find the Sun

SunHound

Bennie, my old, wrinkled, beloved basset hound, lays on the floor of my dining room, facing the corner like he’s being given a time out. I watch him and realize he has found the only shards of light let in by the semi-closed vertical blinds of the big picture window on the opposite wall. They are shining in their fragmented pieces on part of his head and back.

“Bennie, are you trying to find the sun? Mama will help you,” I talk to him and my other hound, Huey, in this way always. Third person, with “Mama” being me. A more reasonable person might find this embarrassing but I am typically unreasonable when it comes to my affection for my dogs.

I walk over to the window and push the blinds to the side, and the corner of the room floods. Bennie lifts his head up, letting the rays absorb into the back of it, sniffing the air as if sunlight had a scent. Maybe it does.

Bennie lost one eye to a congenital eye condition a couple years ago. The other one is quickly on its way out. It is a milky blue and black. Sometimes he runs into our closet door when leaving our bedroom in the middle of the night. He can no longer catch in his mouth the stuffed toys I throw at him. When I drop food while cooking, it is usually found by Huey first, who still has both eyes in working order. But Bennie always finds the sun. No matter the season or temperature outside, he finds his way to the patch of sunlight on the linoleum or carpet, and that’s where he rests his head.

Bennie

The sun moves eventually. Bennie moves with it, into the kitchen, up onto the couch, draped over the arm, halfway under the glass coffee table, onto the area rug. He moves his way around the first floor like a hound sun dial. I watch him and think about how his bones creak when he first gets up from sleeping, arthritis that set in too early. I think about how he didn’t entirely trust us when he first came to us as a rescue, and now he rolls over on his back for a tummy rub and lets us touch his paws…usually. When I rub my face against his, angling to kiss his great wet nose, he is quiet and still, and this is love.

What would it mean to live this way, to seek out the sun every day, to move with it, to be flexible to its whims and thankful for such a small thing as warmth? What would it mean to make the best of where I am and linger in the small graces I find each day? I am not the first person to note that dogs can show us our humanity if only we watch them carefully enough.

When I sit back down at the dining room table from adjusting the blinds, I find that my seat is now warmed, too, a streak of sunlight bearing down where it once was dark.

Crazy Still Happens

JeanJackets

I spend my childhood in a suburb of Milwaukee. We live one block away from the elementary school, two blocks away from the high school, and eight blocks away from the middle school. The public library, swimming pool, ice cream shop, and a vast tree-dense parkway with a series of hiking trails, baseball diamonds, and picnic tables, are all within walking distance. Our house is a red brick colonial, with a huge, dying pine tree in the front. My little sister Katharine and I crawl through a small opening in the tent of its branches, and place several rusting lawn chairs next to the trunk. We spend hours enclosed in this hideaway, pretending to be destitute orphan children who must seek whatever shelter they can.

Dad plants apple and pear trees on the sloping front lawn beneath the dying pine, snapdragons and geraniums and lily of the valley along the walkway up to the front door. The apple trees yield mealy fruit that I am reluctant to admit tastes terrible, charmed as I am by the thought of fruit coming directly from our yard. The snapdragons smell like lemonade when cut. Sometimes I come home to find a tiny water-filled vase with a single, brightly blossoming flower, sitting on the desk in my room.

Some weekends I hole up in my room and don’t feel like leaving. I listen to music on my tape deck and re-read the same books—Ramona and Beatrice, The Babysitter’s Club, Nancy Drew—over and over again. I stop every couple chapters and curl up to fall asleep. When I wake up an hour later, I restart the tape, pick up the book and keep reading. I know my favorite parts, strings of words that seem especially interesting to me, or plot points I love. It feels safe to experience the emotions of characters in this known way, so unlike what I encounter outside of the sanctuary of my room and the pages of these tattered and loved books. My energy leaks out of me as these days pass, seeping into the bedspread that claims my body for too much sleep, into the books that no longer challenge me. I know I should get up and do something, but the longer I lay there, the heavier the feeling—what it is exactly I can’t say—that prevents me from taking interest in anything outside my room.

ChristmasCard

At the end of one summer (I’m eight or nine), my parents take me to Toys R’ Us. I’ve completed my summer challenge of learning how to touch type, and I get to pick out a small toy as a reward. I choose a baby doll, with wispy blond hair, huge blue eyes that blink, and a soft, chubby body. When we get home, I dress the baby and undress it, make it walk around my room, hold it and talk to it and cuddle it. After several hours, I stop what I’m doing and stare at the doll, take in its plastic head and unchanging features. I think about how someday I won’t want this doll anymore, how someday it won’t be important to me anymore. I look around the room and see other toys, books, my bed with the fraying comforter. It all seems very…temporary. Meaningless. Empty.

“Mom?” I say, walking into her room. She’s reading under the covers.

“Mmm?” she says. Her eyes are still on the page.

“I like the doll you got me…but did you ever think about how things are just…things?”

Mom turns to look at me. “What do you mean?”

“A doll is just a doll…” I frown. Search my mind for the right words, for something that will make sense to her, to me even. “This is just a thing…and it’s just a toy. It’s not forever…like if I died, I couldn’t take it with me.” It’s not exactly what’s bothering me, but it’s sort of close.

“You’re right. You can’t take things with you when you die. But you’re not going to die for a very, very, very long time. And in the meantime, why don’t you enjoy your doll?” Mom rubs my arm. She looks at me closely, that way she does when I know she’s thinking about something besides what she’s saying. “You earned it.”

I take the doll back to my room and put it on a shelf, where it stays for a long time.

My mother leaves planting and dirt and insects to my sister, father, and me. Her purview is the queen-sized bed she shares with my father, where she stretches out her long legs under a fuzzy blue electric blanket nine months out of the year reading books or watching Murphy Brown. Sometimes Katharine and I join her, grabbing a pile of bobby pins and hair clips to style Mom’s hair. Our favorite is the whale, so-named because her brown, medium-length hair, divided into many tiny ponytails that stand straight up all over her head, ends up looking like the spouts of water from the blowhole of a whale. We tell her she can’t look in the mirror until we’re done. No matter how many times we coax her hair into ridiculous styles, she bursts into giggles at seeing the end result.

“Hmmm…this is kind of strange, girlies,” she says, laughing again.

Card

Many evenings my mother sits on the nubby, dull-brown couch in the living room with a glass of white wine. My father brings in a cup of decaf in his favorite black mug and selects a book from the white built-in shelves. I fill a small plastic cup with orange juice and attach a sippy lid, even though I’m far too old (at seven, eight, nine) for it. We settle ourselves—Dad, Katharine and Mom on the couches, me on the floor—and Dad reads to the whole family, a chapter or two at a time: the entire Little House on the Prairie series; all of the Oz books. I imagine pouring maple syrup on snow, instead of having ice cream on my birthday. I picture the princess who had a collection of heads, each with a different personality, and every morning she decided which head to be, and then affixed it to her body. Mom sips her wine and Katharine curls up on the couch and Dad does all the voices of the characters and I lay on the fading carpet, its fibers forever mussed by the dog’s dusty paws and the cats’ fine hair and Katharine’s soccer cleats and dinner party guests who forgot to wipe their feet and the dingy bottoms of suitcases laid out after vacations. By water that dripped from Katharine and my heads when we warmed ourselves by the fireplace in the winter after an evening bath, our mother combing back the wet strands. By green plastic grass from hidden Easter baskets and bare feet damp from dew and bug spray. I let the juice drain in a slow, steady drip down my throat, and know I am safe, right here, right in this moment.

There are a million reasons, maybe more, for me to have turned out differently. For me to have bypassed the depression that would take off in middle school, the anxiety that I seem to have been born with, and the OCD that would knock me off my feet in my twenties. For me to have viewed the world as a place full of possibilities, a place to be explored and coveted and loved, instead of a place to be feared. What the X factor was, I’ll never know, but I believe I could have been different.

My father once said to me “You know, I’ve always thought people who were depressed didn’t have more problems than other people.”

“Yes, Dad, I know,” I said. It is this precise point. There is nothing to be sad about, anxious about, afraid of. No cause for crazy. Crazy still happens.

Saying It

DiwaliPhoto credit.

We’re at a Diwali celebration and the house is packed. Caterers in the kitchen pull lamb and garlic flatbread out of the oven, assemble crab and corn samosas, dish out chutneys and arrange pistachio and cashew cookies on a platter. Tiny girls run around barefoot, their chubby tummies poking out from their midriff-baring saris.

Our friend Josh is sitting across from me, his 6’5″ frame perched on a wooden ledge in the living room. I’m trying to get comfortable on the low, squishy couch, but at 4.5 months pregnant, my sense of balance and mobility is already shot, and I am a seal negotiating the sand. Josh looks concerned because my husband, who is sitting next to him, has just told him I’m having  complications with my pregnancy.

“Some things are…um…weird in my uterus!” I shout over the din, gesturing in the air. I don’t know exactly why I phrase it this way. Maybe I’m tired of explaining it to people, maybe it seems like an odd place to have such a discussion, maybe it’s having to yell over all the merrymakers that makes me not want to bellow the words  “subchorionic hemorrhage” and “placenta previa.” As soon as I speak, though, I know how lame it sounds.

“I don’t know what that means,” Josh yells back. No kidding.

My husband Joe tries to fill in the blanks while I reflect for the umpteenth time that trying to be vague about what you struggle with, what you fear–never works.

I grew up with a mother who asked me about my feelings, who wanted to know what I was afraid of, and how she could make It better. For years I told her, and she did make It better. But she never told me what she was afraid of, and despite knowing she struggled with depression, with anxiety, I never ever saw It. She wanted to protect her children from It.

I moved away from home. I made friends. I asked them to tell me about their feelings and I wanted to make It better. Sometimes I told them what I was afraid of, but usually not, and over the years, I kept my struggles to myself, and sometimes away from the family that had told me it was okay to talk about It.

You know people like this. We don’t say It because it means being vulnerable. Or risking judgment. We don’t say It because it means we might make you uncomfortable. Or worried. We don’t say It for so long that we lose the ability to say It, and It hangs around our necks like an anvil.

By the time I was two years into fertility treatments, I had had nearly two decades of practice being silent. Silent about OCD, silent about depression, and in recent years, silent about infertility. I finally became pregnant…and quickly miscarried. It was the end of being silent. Like a rubber band pulled farther and farther apart, there were only two ways to ease the tension: break the band…or let go. I let go. I let go far and wide and free. I stopped guarding the secret of infertility like an unwanted treasure. I stopped saying, maybe someday we’ll have kids; maybe when Joe doesn’t have to work such long hours; maybe when we get our student loans paid off. I said It to the people I loved, the people who wanted to be compassionate, who wanted to support me, who knew I was carrying around something big and dark and unspoken. I’m saying It now to anyone who is reading, who has been there and couldn’t say It.

It has not been a perfect coming out. People say dumb things; people clam up when you’re finally ready to talk about It. But now that we’re here, I wouldn’t go back. The pain of keeping infertility, and then miscarriage, a secret, was much worse than the experience of being open about It.

So we go forward with this second pregnancy and this time–no secrets. Joe tells Josh that I have bleeds in my uterus. The placenta is in the wrong place. We don’t know if the baby will make it; we don’t know if my health will be compromised. We hope for resolution; we hope for a full-term pregnancy. We are thankful for each day I carry the baby we’ve waited five years for. We are scared. We are optimistic.

We are saying It.

What is Knowable

“Honey, you’re blinking again,” Dad says. “Grandma asked me about it.”

“Oh,” I look at my feet, face flushed with shame. I am 10 years old.

“Why don’t you try tapping your foot instead? Every time you feel like blinking, tap your foot instead,” Dad has already suggested this before. I hear his desire to be gentle, to be sensitive, coupled with an urgency to get me to stop being so noticeably weird. I get it. I have been plagued in recent months with an overwhelming need to blink my eyes in rapid succession. I don’t really understand why I do this, only that it begins one morning when one eye feels sort of dry while the other feels sort of watery, so I blink the dry one to get it to water a bit to match the other one. That doesn’t work, so I blink many times. Now the eye that was dry is still dry, but it hurts, while the watery eye is still watery but doesn’t hurt so I have to blink the watery eye until it hurts to get it to match the dry eye. It’s never enough and it never evens out so I spend most of the day going about my business with squinting, blinking, irritated eyes. Dad initially asked the month prior if my allergies were bothering me. I said yes, because I don’t know how to explain why I’m doing this. Now we’re both acknowledging that it’s not organic, it’s in me, it’s in my mind, and I can control it. And yet…I can’t.

***

As a child, I was easily stressed and always worried. I fretted about small things–being made to try out for the third grade talent show, losing my house keys for the tenth time–and bigger, scarier, more out-of-my-league things–being kidnapped by a stranger, being molested by a neighbor, dying young of an incurable disease. I absorbed the ills of the world around me and made them my reality, regardless of how unlikely they were of occurring in my actual life.

I spent many of those years surfing an undercurrent of doom that I never really understood. Besides the blinking tick, I performed counting rituals to make the space I inhabited safer; I created an elaborate system of synesthesia, where I assigned colors and temperatures to letters and numbers. I went through periods of restricting the type of food I ate. In the midst of these manifestations, I was not aware of why I was behaving this way, only that it seemed to temporarily keep the fear at bay.

Later on, these behaviors were given names: OCD, anxiety, depression. With the help of therapy, I identified what had previously been unknowable: what my fears were, why I had them, and what I could do to deal with them in a productive manner. Therapy isn’t for everyone, but it was for me. It was the compass pointing me towards wellness.

Since trying to get pregnant, nearly five years ago, I’ve often felt that turn back toward the therapist’s office, the impulse to sit in a chair and tell someone what this feels like, and have them tell me why. But infertility feels different to me. It’s not like counting my steps when I cross the street or blinking my eyes to “fix” the moisture. The inability to have a child with the person you love is exactly what it sounds like. Frustrating. Painful. It doesn’t hide in a mask of facial ticks. It is the most basic of impulses, to have children, to create family, to feel a new level of bond and commitment with your partner. Infertility is the barrier to all that. It is visible. It is honest. It is infinitely knowable.

I think about the 10 year old who couldn’t stop blinking, who wanted to know why and didn’t have an answer, and her suffering was all the more vivid in its cloudiness. Although I am not grateful, necessarily, for the years of infertility, it has been a sort of gift for this pain to be transparent. To be open. To be knowable.

Infertility, madness, and memory

WelcomeMatPhoto credit.

When I sit in the midwife’s office, waiting to see if the bleeding is another miscarriage, the time that passes is both immeasurable and long, the silence both a racket and a void. My husband, of course, has a stake in the outcome, but I am more aware than ever of my aloneness in this moment. That women carry children, bear children, nurse children—it is a special kind of burden, and I am feeling its sting as I try to take deep breaths. I think about my friend Addie’s truth: faith is an empty room.

It’s hard to know exactly what other writers mean when they speak their truths, but for me, this sentiment describes how any kind of faith, not just religious faith, but belief and trust in anything you can’t know for sure, anything out of your grasp, is essentially a journey of solitude. No one can tell you it will be okay. No one can shoulder what you fear. You may eventually find comfort in the experiences of others, but there is a significant portion of your time spent in isolation. It must be that way.

This blog will attempt to talk about my experiences in those empty rooms. Nonfiction writers and memoirists often have 1 or 2 topics they come back to again and again. The topics they just can’t quit, the ones that formed who they are. In my grad school MFA program, we quickly learned each other’s topics: cancer, family dysfunction, exploration of modern masculinity, sexual identity, evangelical Christianity, landscape and identity. We wrote about them over and over again, seeing our cancer diagnosis as it related to our spouse, seeing our sexual orientation as it influenced our childhood. We wanted to understand our obsessions and so we wrote our way through them.

This blog will tackle the two topics I return to again and again: my attempts to become and remain pregnant, and my lifelong history of mental illness. Though not related through cause and effect, they are in many ways inseparable to me because they inform so much of how I see the world. They have been at turns destructive and nurturing, terrifying and fascinating. If these topics are familiar to you in your own life, this blog may be for you. If they’re unfamiliar but you like entering unknown worlds, this blog may be for you. If you enjoy memoir and nonfiction as a genre, no matter the topic, this blog may be for you.

Welcome.