Tag Archives: childhood

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.

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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.

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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.