The Voice in My Head

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I would wake up thinking: I shouldn’t be here. Warning alarms in my body and criticizing refrains in my head returned every day to remind me that I didn’t belong and I never would. I tried to shut off the alarms, to refute the refrains, but nothing that came to mind held meaning for me anymore.

Part of me could still imagine that the messages in my head might be wrong, but that thought did not stop the feelings. It didn’t even deter them. No matter what I told myself, regardless of all the medications I tried and despite decades of psychotherapy, the suicidal thoughts kept coming.

I had done all the things that a dutiful patient should. Somehow, though, I was still losing control over my life. As drug after drug failed, the only solace I had was the assumption that if things became truly unbearable, I could find an emergency exit. I reassured myself that suicide was always a possibility —a last resort —so I could feel a little less trapped.

Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, but temporary is a relative term. This episode of major depression had lasted for more than two and a half years. After making all sorts of lifestyle adjustments and spending many months trying different drugs at varying doses, the depression did not seem temporary. So, when I reached a point where there were no more low-risk, likely-to-work drugs left for me to try, the possibility of remission disappeared. All I could see through my darkened and myopic vision was the promise of suicide.

I wasn’t chasing death. I was running from depression on my own, along the only path to relief I could see. I was alone because I didn’t want my loved ones to have to continue to struggle with me and my depression. I was also alone because I didn’t know anyone who would assist me in suicide, and because the help that professionals wanted to be able to offer either didn’t exist or wasn’t helpful. People probably meant well when they tried to convince me that I was not thinking clearly, that I wasn’t myself, or that I was wrong. But none of those messages provided any comfort. If anything, they only made me feel more hopeless, alone, and powerless.

Depression had stolen so many things from me. I needed to believe there was at least one power that it could not take. My ability to destroy those alarms and refrains forever was the only power that I thought was still mine.  At the same time, I couldn’t risk another failed attempt. I could not maim myself in a way that would make living even more difficult for everyone around me.

So, as I lay in bed bundled under the covers with the shades drawn and the doors shut, I began scouring the Internet for a foolproof scheme that didn’t involve gruesome and painful violence. What I found were 20-to-1 odds against success. I read about all the ways that people have survived overdoses or poisonings, hanging attempts, wrist-slitting, gunshot wounds, and even jumps from ridiculously high places. And as I read, I had to acknowledge that unless I could find someone knowledgeable to help me get it right, there simply was no method that guaranteed relief.

I shut my laptop. The room went dark, and the warning alarms started blaring. My shoulders pressed in and up and my muscles tightened as I tried to hold back all the unwanted emotions. I cried loudly, and for a while it seemed like I couldn’t weep fast enough to breathe between the sobs. For a hopeful moment, I thought the pressure that had built up in my chest might finally block off my throat or cause my lungs to cave in.

I didn’t suffocate. Instead, I tried to mute the alarms and the wailing by burying my head under the pillows. I wanted to silence the fury and the panic and the shame, but squeezing all of that padding against my head didn’t help. The noise that was crippling me wasn’t coming through my ears. The alarms, the self-loathing refrains, the seductive lullabies of escape all sounded inside my head. I was the one responsible for all the destructive, negative messages, for all the anger and defeat, and even for all my frightened pleas for death. It was my voice. The sound was me…

Waves of Darkness

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A wave of depression drenched me and left me to melt. Not quickly or entirely like the Wicked Witch of the West. I envy her. With her 30-second transformation, she gave everyone happy relief and permanent freedom.

I can’t tell if I’m melting really slowly, or if I will continue shrinking indefinitely, never quite reaching zero, like Zeno’s paradox. I want to believe the people who say things like “It’s only temporary,” or “Surely, it can’t last,” but I’ve been holding on for years now. When my clothes begin pooling around my teeny, tiny feet, will people still tell me to wait patiently?

I don’t feel soaked through every minute of every day. Sometimes, when I walk along the path near my house, I can feel the sun warming my cheeks, and I can see the light shining on the new growth of spring green fields. But when I try to grab hold of the brightness, to carry it with me beyond that moment, it almost always vanishes. Within seconds of looking at that fluorescent glow of spring, I begin to think of the pasty green face of that wicked witch and of all the similarities between us. I don’t believe I am malicious like she was, but I do feel like an obvious outsider coated in abnormal, sallow skin, unable to blend in and function the way good people can. With my cold heart, I too am unsatisfied with the powers that I possess, unable to truly appreciate any of the wonders over or under the rainbow, and, worst of all, always bringing others down.

I wish I could believe that loss is an opportunity that you should approach with a smile, the way Nikki Giovanni does. Or better yet, I would love to experience the world like Mary Oliver—”nourished by the mystery,” my “imagination alighting everywhere.” Oliver’s uncanny ability to genuinely marvel at almost anything— “the clear pebbles of rain“, the “pale forearms” of a grasshopper, or “the brash turnip-hearted skunk cabbage“—astounds and intimidates me. I realize I will always fall short if I compare myself to a person who can listen to insects, birds, and the ocean and somehow hear “small kingdoms breathing,” the call of wild geese, and the sea’s polite request to get back to work. But when I think about Thoreau’s observation that, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see,” I can’t stop blaming myself for my ineptitude.

I’m not asking to be a famous poet. I would be happy to be like Betsy MacWhinney. MacWhinney tried to save her ill daughter and herself with poetry. Although she felt like her daughter had been kidnapped, she knew she couldn’t save her. So, MacWhinney searched for poems to show her daughter that people have “been in pain before,” and “struggled to find hope.” She wanted to say, “look what they have done with [pain].” She spent hours cutting out words from magazines and pasting them together to form poems disguised as ransom notes. Then every morning, she folded up these collaged poems and slipped them into her daughter’s shoes—begging the world to give back her daughter.

Except, I don’t feel like MacWhinney, Thoreau, Oliver, or Giovanni. Instead, I feel frozen and isolated in a heavy wave of sadness. Most days, stacks of circular regret clog my throat, and the echo of self-loathing in my head silences my dreams. I understand that depression is a lonely sickness of slow waiting, but biding time without promise often seems pointless. If I could become enlightened and empowered by immersing myself in a deep appreciation of my environment or by carrying poetry collages in my pockets or by simply choosing to see the world differently, I have to believe I would. When I try to access those approaches, though, I not only fail; I end up discovering one more way to feel like a green-skinned, cold-hearted witch.

Still, I haven’t given up on poetry, yet. Recently, I went back to look for the first poem of Oliver’s that I ever read. In The Swimming Lesson she writes:

Feeling the icy kick, the endless waves
Reaching around my life, I moved my arms
And coughed, and in the end saw land.

Somebody, I suppose,
Remembering the medieval maxim
Had tossed me in,
Had wanted me to learn to swim

Not knowing that none of us, who ever came back
From that long lonely fall and frenzied rising,
Ever learned anything at all
About swimming, but only
How to put off, one by one,
Dreams and pity, love and grace—
How to survive in any place.

When I showed the poem to my husband, he asked if I felt tossed in like Oliver. He’s right that depression feels like a long lonely fall. But, I think part of the reason I love this poem so much is it helps me see some of the real differences between living with depression and the threat of drowning.

If endless waves of water reach around you, you feel afraid because you can’t breathe and you think you might drown. However, you also know that if you can reach the surface and break through, you will be alright. When a wave of depression engulfs you, though, nobody has a clue where the surface might be, or even if it exists. Pointing yourself in a plausibly helpful direction while kicking your feet and paddling your arms as hard as you can might prove fruitful, but no one can promise that any of that will affect your fate. And, no matter how much anyone wants to save you, they can’t jump in and pull you out. But the biggest difference between the two experiences of falling is that—unlike a new swimmer—a seriously depressed person’s worst fear isn’t that she will drown; it’s that she won’t.

Oliver had a miserable, “insufficient childhood,” but she believes she got saved by poetry. And…the beauty of the world.” And as MacWhinney points out, people have clearly created beauty as a result of struggling to save themselves. So, when Oliver writes, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I admit that all I can think to do is apologize. I want to say, “I’m sorry for my fear and chronic flailing. I wish I could better appreciate all that I have. I’m not proud of my witch-like qualities, and I don’t want to hurt anyone with my desire to melt more quickly.” Perhaps, Oliver would turn away in disdain if I said those things. Then again, her poem Landscape gives me hope. She writes:

Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about

spiritual patience? Isn’t it clear
the black oaks along the path are standing
as though they were the most fragile of flowers?

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky—as though

all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong, thick wings.

When Oliver says that, if the doors of her heart ever close, she is as good as dead, I read that as her acknowledging that sometimes people cannot survive in any place. Sometimes, when our bodies attempt to block out a flood of darkening waves, doors shut without our permission. I want to believe that if Oliver peered down and saw my clothes pooling, she would not assume that I allowed myself to evaporate. And if she looked inside me, and witnessed the waves crashing against my heart, she would see that the doors needed to close. She might even understand why they have begun to melt together. Other people might interpret Landscape as an unconditional directive to always control our emotions. But I see it and, somehow, I feel forgiven.

Crazy

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I have been cross-posting my writing on The Huffington Post Blog for a while, but until1972.181.9_1.tif recently, no one had commented on any of my pieces. That changed last month, when The HP posted my story about rape. All of sudden, dozens of comments piled up at the bottom of this one essay.

Almost all of the responses were supportive and empathetic, and many people shared their own stories. Some commenters, however, used the space to express their belief that girls and women have a duty to protect themselves. They argued that “predators pray [sic] on easy targets,” and that there are certain situations “where even ‘no’ has no meaning.”

Unfortunately, these sorts of responses to rape are common, and they didn’t surprise me. What did catch me off-guard, though, was the possibility that my story might be rejected on the basis of my mental health. Several respondents seemed to find my story implausible or unreliable because they did not believe that a sane 15-year-old could have a psychiatrist. One commenter in particular felt so strongly about this detail that she responded to my post eight different times, repeatedly stressing that I must have a “serious mental illness.” As this woman described it, she read my story and just saw “crazy.” Apparently, she was convinced that either I had to be lying about having a psychiatrist or I had to be so mentally ill that no one less qualified than a psychiatrist could possibly treat me. From her perspective, both of these scenarios meant that my story must be filled with lies.

At first, I wanted to respond specifically to this woman’s false accusations and inaccurate assumptions. I also wanted to address the ridiculous notion that mental illness and insanity are somehow synonymous.

After I read through all of her comments, though, something unexpected and embarrassing happened instead. In thinking about this woman’s categorical assertion that people who are mentally ill are incapable of differentiating between truth and fiction, I found myself dismissing her as crazy.

I wish my mind had not made that mistake, but there it was. In a way, I had committed the same offense that she had. Her ideas did not align with mine, and her drive to discredit me made me feel vulnerable. So, in my attempt to comfort myself, I assumed that her mental health must be affecting her judgment. But of course having illogical or uninformed thoughts does not make someone crazy. We all tend to ignore the biased and fallible qualities in our thinking, especially when we feel strongly about something.

To me, “crazy” can mean many different things, and I have used the word in a variety of ways without thinking much about its longstanding, derogatory connotations. Words traditionally used in the context of mental illness have become so commonplace in our everyday speech that I barely notice them. Hysterical, insane, psycho, delirious, lunatic, mad, manic, depressed, and crazy are just some of the ones we regularly throw around. All of these words have been, and some still are, used to describe real and serious mental health conditions.

The spillover of language from one area to another might be something we shouldhttp---americanart.si.edu-images-1967-1967.72.167_1a avoid. Or maybe this blending of worlds demonstrates the real ambiguity that exists in talking and thinking about mental health. We might like to reassure ourselves that we are very different from the “seriously crazy” people over there who cannot differentiate between reality and fantasy. Admittedly, “mental illness” as a general description is often fraught with associations and stigmatizations that are both unappealing and frightening. Still, while we may want to distance ourselves from “mental illness,” mental health is not some aberrant part of life that only crazy people need to worry about. Mental health, just like physical health, is something that we all must attend to, something that needs care and support everyday no matter who you are.

http---americanart.si.edu-images-1979-1979.98.145_1aThere is no sharp line that separates the mentally ill from the mentally healthy. All of us act in irrational ways; all of us have thoughts and feelings that don’t make sense; and all of us have experienced compromised or altered brain functioning. Many people living with a “serious mental illness” are perfectly sane and honest human beings, and some people without a MI diagnosis are irrational liars who are out of touch with reality. Just because certain neurons misfire or because specific biochemical levels in your body are low or high does not mean that all aspects of your mind are dysfunctional. If someone breaks her toe, she may be in a lot of pain and have a hard time walking, but to assume that this injury would automatically paralyze her makes no sense.

I freely admit that I have a “serious mental illness.” I have had depression my whole life. Among other things, this illness means that I started seeing a psychiatrist when I was a teenager; that I now take medication to try to stabilize my mood; that I often feel inadequate, useless, and like a no-good burden; that I can get overwhelmed at the prospect of facing people; that I rarely sleep well; that I sometimes cower with dread when confronted with everyday activities; and that, in my search for quiet and peace, I have occasionally tried to escape in self-destructive ways. But I can’t see how any of that has any impact on my ability to tell the truth or how that makes me “crazy.”

Before my piece about rape ran on The HP Blog, it never occurred to me that my mental health would cast doubt on the integrity of my story. Clearly, that view of the world was naïve. Perhaps my ignorant expectations of my potential audience was just as irrational as that woman’s view of mental illness. If someone like me, who should know better, is capable of even momentarily discounting a person’s argument based on a passing idea about her mental health, then I should not expect people who are less familiar with mental illness to behave any differently.

Even so, while I acknowledge that we all are susceptible to irrational biases, I still hope that people will begin to realize that the term “mental illness” covers a huge http---americanart.si.edu-images-1992-1992.13.25_1arange of real and complex issues, and that the history of psychiatry and psychology contains many misconceptions and problematic associations that have unfairly stigmatized people for too long. I am not asking people to pretend that they don’t have doubts or questions about someone whose experience differs from theirs. Rather, I would like to suggest that people who feel confused or incredulous about something try to clarify their concerns by asking questions instead of making accusations.

I started this blog specifically to try to normalize and destigmatize mental illness. I hoped that, by openly and honestly sharing my feelings and personal experiences, people might see depression and anxiety a little differently. But, after reading the comments asserting that I am a crazy liar, I can’t help but wonder if I have made a really bad and maybe even crazy mistake.

Stories That Bridge the Distance Between Us

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August

panorama-of-construction-of-dnieper-hydroelectric-station (detail)As I passed a construction site populated by a small herd of bulldozers, dump trucks, and backhoes, I heard all sorts of rumbling, whirring, and churning. Dirt mushroomed above the machines at work, powdering the glare of the sharp afternoon light. Squinty-eyed workers in warm-colored hard hats milled about in t-shirts and jeans. A young mother and her toddler in his stroller were gazing at the big trucks through the chain links of the tall metal fence surrounding the site. Just down the block stood an old man, also peering intently at the scene behind the fence.

The man wore a light-colored, button-down shirt; polyester khaki slacks; a wool cardigan; and beige-leather shoes with thick soles. A navy blue baseball cap with its brim pulled low and a pair of dark-plastic, goggle-like sunglasses—the kind that fit over eyeglasses—covered half his face. He seemed well-protected from the UV rays of the sun but immune to the heat and mugginess of summer.right-hand-keeping-the-staff.jpg!Blog

While the man stared at the powerful machines, he appeared to be steading himself. He had laced the fingers of his left hand through a few of the holes in the fence and was gripping the wire tightly. At the same time, he used his right hand to clutch and push against his cane with its rubber tip pressed securely into the sidewalk.

Despite his age and physical limitations, this man’s appreciation for giant earth-moving machines felt as pronounced as anyone’s. Still, something about him—alone, bundled up, and hunched as he worked to maintain his tenuous stance—seemed incongruous, especially when contrasted against the bubbly, bare-footed toddler sitting eager and upright in his pushchair.

September

I remember when my sons clamored for the chance to watch strangely named vehicles in action. Back then, my boys practically foamed at the mouth if they got to see a grappleskidder hoisting and dragging freshly cut logs, a combine harvester reaping and threshing crops, or a huge auger boring deep into the ground. Ten years ago, when my boys were about two and five years old, I once sped just to catch a truck that my younger son was begging to see up close—the kind he called a “‘ment mixer.”

These days, my sons have no enthusiasm for construction or farm vehicles. That awe once evident on their faces seems to have disappeared altogether. And yet, for a while after my children had outgrown their obsession with trucks, my heart would still quicken whenever I saw a bustling construction site. Now, though, if I pass a tractor, a forklift, or a wrecking ball swinging from a towering crane, the machines barely register.

At that construction site last month, I probably wouldn’t have paid any attention to the mother and son or the thundering sounds and wafting dust if I hadn’t noticed that old man lingering by the fence, transfixed. When I spotted him, something shifted.

October

Our perspectives constantly change. We grow up. We discover new ideas. We are faced with different opportunities and challenges. We become sick. We get better. We hunger for our needs. We feel satisfied. We lack confidence. We gain reassurance. We experience something in a way that we never have before, and suddenly the world looks more available or less closed off.

November

I have this image of escape. When I feel overwhelmed with sadness and wish I could shutter in and shut down, I sometimes picture a folding chair stowed deep in the basement. Occasionally, I visualize the process of collapsing the chair, but mostly I imagine the flattened, vacant object tucked away and deteriorating.

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Sometimes the chair just leans against a wall with nothing around it but darkness and space. Sometimes it looks rusty and dented, thrown in with the clutter of other unwanted items: cracked flower pots, half-empty paint cans with drippy labels, stacks of not-yet-shredded documents in milk crates, and outdated electronics heaped together with mixed-up, tangled power cords nesting on top. And sometimes the chair is stashed in the back corner of the room, shoved between a dank concrete wall and a packed, ceiling-high storage shelf. In that narrow, shadowy nook—flanked by rows of dust-stained, plastic bins filled with superfluous or rejected things—the chair hides.

January

I found out that someone wants to hire me for a part-time job. This job entails a kind of work I have done many times before, but I have not worked for pay in this context in a while. During the process of applying for the position, part of me was convinced that no one would ever want me as an employee. I feel fairly confident about my ability to do good work in this field, but I have a hard time seeing myself as 10861099_10204813480749165_3676691019051663762_oa desirable candidate for pretty much anything, really. I never would have imagined that this employer would want me to work for her if one of her current employees hadn’t pushed me to apply. I guess that kind person must have identified some potential in me that I couldn’t because her perspective differs from mine.

Through someone else’s eyes, I can see a hint of potential. With her perspective anchoring me, the memory of the old man at the construction site and the images of unstable, closed-up, corroding chairs trickle in. All those strands swirl together in a glistening stream. New ways of seeing filter the flow. Doubts sink down closer to the bottom. And the froth of possibility gathers on the surface.

February

Jan_Vermeer_-_Girl_Reading_a_Letter_at_an_Open_Window (detail)If I think back to the little boy and the man gazing at the heavy machinery at that construction site, it isn’t the toddler who reminds me of all the promise and possibility in our lives; it is the old man. Just like anyone else, that man’s life is constrained by many things, but the remaining possibilities are still endless; the future outcomes are still invisible; and the myriad perspectives are still mutable.

When I felt particularly depressed, those collapsed folding chairs seemed like useless, forsaken items just waiting to be discarded. From a less pessimistic perspective, though, I notice that I never threw out or destroyed any of the chairs in my imagination. And it occurs to me that, from yet another vantage point, someone else might believe those chairs could be easily mended, ripe for refurbishing, or just waiting for the right moment to open up.

The potential in those chairs, that old man, and me remains the same, but my point of view has changed, and it will surely change again.

Yesterday

For most of the day, I struggled to locate that swirling stream of positive connections. Everything looked frozen and lifeless from where I stood.

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Then I collected my teenage son from the metro stop. He spent the car ride home yelling at me because he didn’t approve of my plans for dinner. I said very little. I knew that he hadn’t eaten anything in more than 10 hours, and that his irrational responses would not waiver no matter what I offered. After we arrived home and he began eating, he switched to apologizing. His whole demeanor had transformed.

I accepted his apology and tried to think of something to discuss with him that would not create more tension. I asked if he wanted to go to his school dance this weekend.

“I have a dance?” he replied.

“Yes. It’s tomorrow night,” I answered.

“Oh yeah,” he shrugged. “No,” he said. “It’s luau themed and it’s winter.”

I stared at him blankly.

“I can’t handle that kind of conflict,” he added, a smile curling gently across his face.

I laughed, and then I laughed some more.

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How “I’m Fine” Becomes Part of the Landscape of Depression

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By the time we had finished with our last minute dash for Christmas presents, stocking candy, and special menu ingredients, it was late. My sister and I had tried to be quick about it, but there is only so much that you can do to rush these things. With just a couple of hours of light left in the day, I had basically given up on the possibility of getting outside for some exercise in the beautiful, dry, 60-degree Tucson weather. My sister is not as easily deterred, though. She knew that I needed to find a way to alter some of the chemicals in my body as soon possible. “You can still make it,” she offered hopefully, as she urged me to take better care of myself.

So, after a drive-by drop-off of both the perishable groceries and my sister, I dartedRillito Park Path over to my brother’s house to quickly change my clothes and grab my skates, before racing in my car to the closest section of the paved Rillito Park path.

As soon as I parked my car by the path, I whipped off my shoes, kicked my legs out the car door, and jammed my feet into my skates. After that, I swiftly fastened my laces, cinched the velcro straps, ratcheted down the clips on the top of the boots, and shoved my hands into my wrist guards before securing the straps on those as well. And then, I was off.

As it turned out, the parking lot closest to my brother’s house is not the one nearest to the part of the path with the brand-new, smooth-as-glass asphalt. I had to skate relatively slowly over crappy pebbly and cracked pavement for 20 minutes or so, before I got to the good stuff. When I finally reached the prime section of the path, it was about 5:00 pm on Christmas Eve.

Perhaps because of the elongated anticipation and the added luxury of now mostly having the trail to myself, I took the opportunity to fully stretch out my legs, pushing out hard and fast against the steady surface. For about five minutes, I skated with as Know thy Neighbor Kevin Blake JPEGmuch speed and abandon as I possibly could. But then, just as I was beginning to feel lighter and freer, the wheels of my right skate suddenly stopped moving, and I went crashing, face first, onto the ground.

Last summer, when my skate laces had become badly frayed, I realized that I needed to order new ones. Only, I kept forgetting to do it. When one of the laces eventually ripped apart—making it impossible to tie my skates—I resorted to buying boot laces from the drugstore that were too long. I told myself that I would get proper laces soon and that in the interim the drugstore ones would work fine as long as I wrapped them around my ankles a couple of times before tightly double-knotting them.

Because the freshly paved path in Arizona had been unusually immaculate and free of debris, I was certain that no leaves, sticks, or stones could have possibly caught in the wheels of my skate. Of course, it was none of those things. When I looked down to see what had caused my skate to stop dead like that, I spotted those long black laces snaking through and twisted up in the frozen white wheels of my skate. I couldn’t remember if I had pulled the double-knots tightly. But I’m guessing that, in my haste to beat the sun, I failed to carefully tie my skates.

After taking stock of the various wounds on my face and body, I stood up and turned around to head back to my car with my defeat pressing in on my chest. As I skated to the parking lot, I happened to pass a bunch of firefighters attending to a cyclist who seemed to be having some sort of breathing trouble. One of the firefighters—noticing that I was bleeding—stopped me to ask if I was okay. He looked me over from head to toe.

“Nothing appears deep enough to need suturing,” he said. “But,” he added,”you are going to have some pretty miserable road rash.” Then he offered to give me a ride back to my car, if I could just wait a minute until he and the other EMT’s had finished helping the distressed cyclist. “No thanks,” I said. I smiled and tried to reassure him. “I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?” he asked. “You don’t really look fine.”

“Yes. Really. I’m fine,” I insisted. I thanked him for the offer again and smiled once more before skating off down the path.

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When I got back to my car, I paused to get a better look at my injuries. I was driving a rental, so I wanted to avoid staining the upholstery. I wiped off as much of the dripping blood that I could and covered the driver’s seat with a jacket. Once I was able to sit down, I called my husband to ask if he could run to the pharmacy to buy these ridiculously expensive, clear film bandages that are particularly good at staying on and treating large swaths of road rash. Then I drove home, trying hard not to look at my face in the rearview mirror.

When I arrived at my brother’s, I knocked on the front door and called out as I wobbled into the house. No one answered, so I thought I had a moment alone. I made a beeline for the bathroom and flipped on the light switch just long enough to glance in the mirror. Then quickly turning away, I planted myself in the darkest John_Bauer_-_Princess_Tuvstarr_gazing_down_into_the_dark_waters_of_the_forest_tarn._-_Google_Art_Projectcorner of the room and began sobbing. Within seconds, my brother called out, “Francesca, are you alright?” And then, I heard both my sister-in-law and my brother talking to me as they neared the bathroom.

“I’m fine,” I yelled, scrambling to dry my face before shuffling out to meet them. After apologizing for crying so loudly, I explained that, because of my own stupidity, I had fallen while I was out exercising. They were both gracious and sympathetic, and we all pretended that my heaving sobs had been a normal response to a skating accident. After that, they went on ahead to my step-mother’s house for dinner, and I went back to the bathroom—this time to shower.

When my husband returned from the pharmacy, he helped me cover my cuts with the fancy medical film. He reminded me that my superficial wounds would heal just as they had before and that in the not-too-distant future I would skate again. Once I was fully bandaged and dressed, he cautiously hugged me and waited quietly to hear if I wanted to talk about my sadness. But I had nothing to add. We both knew that my tears were not caused by my physical pain and that all of my family was already gathered together, waiting to sit down for Christmas Eve dinner.

As soon as I opened the door of my step-mother’s house, the questions came flying at me in rapid succession. One relative after another wanted to check in to see if I was okay. Because most of them seemed to be asking about my skating injuries and not my mental health, I tried to calmly answer and reassure them without getting into any of the real issues.

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“I’m fine,” I replied, looking away to prevent any direct eye contact. “I’m fine,” I repeated, peering down at the floor my hair dangling in front of my face. “I’m fine,” I promised as I attempted not to notice my family’s anxious expressions. “I’m fine,” I stressed as I watched their faces straining to avoid staring at my bandaged red face. “I’m fine.”  “I’m fine.” “I’m fine.” I kept saying it over and over. When my step-mother’s question—through no fault of her own—just happened to be the last in what seemed like an unending barrage of misplaced worry, I lost it. “I just don’t want to talk about it!” I snapped before running out of the kitchen to go hide behind a closed door.

As I sat in the room away from everyone, embarrassed by my childish outburst and contemplating my family’s genuine concern and kind offers of support, I couldn’t help thinking about the irony. Shortly before I left home to fly out to Arizona for this family Christmas vacation, I had written a post about putting Band-Aids on my unharmed shoes as a child. I’m pretty sure that back then I chose to mark my shoes with these makeshift red crosses of sorts because I was hurt, but no one seemed to notice. And now, here I was as an adult trying to cover up and ignore my very real, bloody bandages, precisely because no one seemed not to notice.

girl_beside_a_streamI couldn’t quite stand the fact that my superficial injuries were so much easier for everyone to discuss than my mental health. It’s not that I think that my family does not worry about my depression, but I think it is hard for many of them to know what to say or do to be helpful. I wasn’t lying as I reassured people that I was “fine” again and again, and my family wasn’t being disingenuous by voicing their concerns about my physical ailments. But while we all focused on bloody cuts, abraded skin, and bruised muscles, I felt the truth slipping away from us.

In My Coat Inside

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11_forgive_5webOn that mild December afternoon, when I finally realized that I had been wearing my winter jacket around my house for most of the day, I felt silly. At first, I didn’t know why I had done it, and I wanted to believe that my oversight was just an insignificant lapse in judgment—something I could blame on sleep deprivation or absentmindedness. But then, I thought of the bandages on my shoes.

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When I was a little girl, I would sometimes insist that my shoe needed a band-aid. I didn’t need the adhesive strips to patch worn-out spots in the leather or to cover unsightly scuff marks. On the surface, my patent-leather Mary Janes were clean and intact. Even so, one of my babysitters was often kind enough to respond to my requests by tenderly applying a bandage to the front of my shoe.

I think I chose my shoe instead of my elbow or my knee as the site of this special kind of first aid because I did not want to pretend that I had cuts or scrapes on my body. In fact, pretending was precisely, what I wanted to avoid. In bandaging a portion of my shoe, I was not trying to conceal damage; I was hoping to expose it. A two-and-a-half inch piece of pink plastic on a tiny black leather shoe should have been hard to ignore.

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I don’t wear band-aids on my shoes anymore. Sometimes, though, I still wish I could slap a boo-boo sticker on my shoe—or my hand or my heart—with the hope of alleviating a bit of the soreness. What’s more, my desire to transform my intangible, unutterable, and inexplicable feelings into physical objects or visible actions hasn’t gone away, either. Which is perhaps why I found myself wrapped up in a puffy parka inside my heated house.

I wasn’t cold; I was desperate. I wanted to escape, but I knew that there was no safe place for me to go.

What would you do if you were convinced that you could not possibly stay, and yet you also knew that you could not leave? If you needed to get away from now and this and here, but you were not allowed to break free, how would you respond? Sometimes, in my coat, “now” seems only temporary—like I’m on my way out of “here,” with no intention of continuing on with “this.”

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Depression traps you in a world that no one else can see or hear or feel or know. In that place, there are no boundary lines to help you differentiate between reality and distortion, no clear sounds to lead you in the right direction, no landmarks with which to orient yourself, and no exit signs to show you the way out.

After a while, in a space like that, you become lost and virtually invisible, with barely a trace of yourself anywhere to be found. So, you try to locate shapes that you can vaguely identify. You work to catch the vibrations of the faint echoes in the distance, and you dream of the remote possibility of traveling beyond the confines of your very own fading nowhere.

My shoe band-aids did not permanently cure my pain, nor did they change the behavior of most of the adults in my life. When I wore my parka around my house, I didn’t escape from my nowhere-land. Still, those bandages and that coat were not entirely ineffective dressings or useless symbols. They made the nebulous concrete, the unspeakable audible, and the undesirable irrefutable.

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I can remember the crisp sound of the band-aid’s thin paper package ripping open, and the antiseptic smell of the fresh plastic and gauze. I can picture those matte, flesh but-not-flesh-colored, elongated oval strips stuck on and protruding off of my small dark sparkly shoes. When I think about my inside-coat, I can recall the weight of the thick quilted fabric pressing against my skin, blanketing my back, and altering my arm movements.

I could see, hear, smell, and feel those things. I know they existed. For me, those shoe-bandaids were like shiny fragments of reality sticking out from the buried denials. That coat was like a shimmering streak of honesty in the rapidly descending darkness.

10 Lessons From My Year of Blogging

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1Your reasons for doing creative work have to be multifaceted.

Because most people do not become artists or writers to make money, you often hear people say that you should only write or make art if you love doing those things. It’s more complicated than that, though.

Both writing and art-making involve a tremendous amount of frustration, disappointment, and failed attempts. I suppose if you enjoy all of that or if you never experience any of it, then you can simply choose to do what you love. But for everyone else, I think that you need to have a number of incentives to push you past all the blockades along the way. Figure out your reasons and try to remember them.

2. Defining your identity in absolute and finite terms limits your options.

When you don’t know exactly who you are, the possibilities are endless. Or, in the words of Oscar Wilde,

If you want to be a grocer, or a general, or a politician, or a judge, you will invariably become it; that is your punishment. If you never know what you want to be,… if each day you are unsure of who you are and what you know, you will never become anything, and that is your reward.

3. If you are honest and sincere, people can relate to all sorts of feelings and experiences.

Others will want to empathize with your shameful secrets or your painful mistakes, because they have shameful secrets and painful mistakes all their own. To understand someone, you don’t have to know precisely what it is like to be that person; you just have to be aware of your own regrets and sorrows and be willing to acknowledge the connections between your experiences and someone else’s. As Andrew Solomon describes it, “Our needs are our greatest assets.

4. Your posts may alter the way other people see an issue. If you are lucky, though, your writing will alter you.

Whenever I wrote about my personal experiences and feelings, I hoped that my words would be clear and convincing enough to encourage people to reconsider some of their preconceived notions. What I did not realize was that the act of writing might change me. In the past, I spent a good deal of time attempting to fix some of the misconceptions in my head by trying to force myself to think about things differently. Now, I am starting to see that Milton Erickson was right: “Change will lead to insight far more than insight will lead to change.”

5. Know that you cannot know what will be.

Your imagination is not a particularly useful tool for predicting how people will respond to your work. In many cases, our intuitions about the future may be no more accurate than the predetermined fortunes on ticker tape unfurling from those crystal-ball-gazer machines at the arcade. Our minds do not process information as linearly and objectively as those contraptions, but the narrowness of scope and the repetition of narratives is similar.

Frequently, when we consider the possibilities, our ideas pass through a limited set of neural pathways. Our thoughts travel along those same old tracks over and over again, deepening the grooves as they go. And because, according to Daniel Gilbert, “Imagination works so quickly, quietly, and effectively, we are insufficiently skeptical of its products.”

6. Success is a relative term. Clicks are not always endorsements; non-clicks are not necessarily rejections.

The quality of your writing will not determine the popularity of a post. Often, increasing your site stats depends more on knowing the right people, having access to particular platforms, timing, luck, and similar factors unrelated to writing, skill, or worth.

For example, one of my posts initially seemed to fall flat, with almost no one “liking” or re-blogging it. And then, through no effort on my part, the right person happened to see the piece. Because she decided to feature it on a heavily trafficked site, that post suddenly became one of my most popular to date.

7.  Your goals will shift and develop as your work evolves, and that’s a good thing.

The alternative is stagnation. If you achieve all of your goals, then there is nowhere left for you to go. “The greatest enemy of creativity,” Jocelyn Glei suggests, “is nothing more than standing still.”

8. I get my best ideas while brushing my teeth.

Seriously, I often make the most interesting connections or have the most creative thoughts when I am not trying to solve a problem, and when I am simultaneously involved in a somewhat automatic, mundane, and unrelated activity.

9. Not only should you accept uncertainty; you should cultivate it.

If you look for it, you will find writers, artists, musicians, philosophers, and probably many others who have talked or written about the need to access a creative place in our psyche that is not reachable through logical analysis or intentional searching. Here are two of my favorite quotes about this sort of openness to ignorance:

[The] quality…to form a [Person] of Achievement, especially in Literature,” is a “Negative Capability, that is, when [someone] is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

—John Keats

The important successes take place independently of skill…knowing must therefore be accompanied by an equal capacity to forget knowing. Non-knowing is not a form of ignorance but a difficult transcendence of knowledge.

—Gaston Bachelard

10. Your dreams help you to cope with fear, disappointment, and frustration, but it is also those same feelings that help you to dream. 

When I imagined the potential reactions to a blog by me, occasionally I would become horrified and humiliated if I caught myself fantasizing about some of the possible but extremely unlikely positive responses. Because those feelings of shame seemed so intense, I worked out this strange system to help me tolerate my foolish aspirations. I had recently read about the physical and emotional benefits of smiling and laughing (even when forced), so I decided to laugh at myself whenever my dreams ran away from me. I would try to undo my thoughts and escape my mortification by literally laughing out loud while silently chastising myself with disparaging remarks about my ridiculous audacity.

Until recently, I thought my compulsory laughter was deterring my extravagant fantasies. But I’ve realized that actually that laughter didn’t prevent me from dreaming; it enabled me to dream again. While I distracted myself with tempering my shame, my dreams crept by me undetected.

Before I started this blog, I knew that I would feel afraid and I would worry about failing as I tried to do something totally new. What I didn’t want to admit at first, or maybe I just didn’t know how to identify it, was that I could never have started this blog or made the choice to share some of my most personal experiences if I had been entirely hopeless about how people would respond. It turns out that I needed both my fear and my hope in order to take the risks that I did. In his Pedagogy of Hope, Paolo Freire asserts that, “Without a minimum of hope, we cannot so much as start the struggle. But without the struggle, hope…dissipates, loses its bearings, and turns into hopelessness.”

Testing What

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I shifted in my seat. I slid my jaw from side to side. I bit down on the inside corner of my mouth. Then, I pursed my lips and inhaled as if I were about to respond. Only, I had nothing to say. All the possible answers that occurred to me felt wrong. The air felt thick. And when my wordless breath escaped, I felt small.

My seven-year-old niece had asked me a simple question. Without filter, pretense, orJournal page 12-5-12 padding, she blurted out, “What are you?”

She was curious about how I spent my days when I was not visiting her family. A different person probably could have answered her with a few quick, uncomplicated descriptions. I couldn’t manage that. Instead, I fumbled and foundered and choked on my thoughts. My messed up feelings about my identity rushed in; my mind flooded; my throat filled; and my voice fled.

Within seconds, though, my sister deflected the question for me. She began pointing out some of my art work hanging in their house. The implication that I was an artist seemed to appease my niece. So, I remained silent and happily let the subject drop. The conversation then proceeded without any other awkward breaks, and I pretended that my inertia and discomfort had been unremarkable. But I noticed them. And while those feelings in my throat have repositioned themselves, they haven’t disappeared.

Truthfully, I am always struggling with how to define my identity. I often don’t even know how to locate the boundaries of who I am. My ideas about myself—the ones that belong to me and the ones that don’t, the positive and the negative, the true and the false, the childhood 14439and the adult—all blend together. I would like to erase or look beyond the labels and constraints that have limited me in the past, but I usually can’t figure out where my sense of my identity begins or ends. As a result, I expend an embarrassing amount of energy trying simultaneously to erase and discover notions about myself, and most of the time I feel that I have failed to accomplish either of those tasks.

Even so, I foolishly continue to delude myself into thinking that a solid sort of identity must be out there somewhere just waiting for me to own it. I imagine being able to hold onto something that feels legitimate and true—something that will not slip through my fingers and leave me feeling empty.

With my niece’s question still stuck in my head, I tried to come up with some positive ways to identify “what” I am. As I started contemplating all of my conflicting beliefs about myself, I began to think of them as the disparate parts of an internal armature. I pictured a series of rusting tangled wires, crooked posts, and jagged fittings, haphazardly linked together and erratically soldered to my insides. The way I saw it, all of my competing perceptions had piled up, intertwined, and fused together over time to form an identity armature custom-fitted to me.

This chaotic structure has defined my shape for as long as I can remember. However,Lynndie England I, 139 x 150 cm because my identity armature is also riddled with antiquated and faulty components, it has not always held me up or kept me together. In looking at some of the most unsound elements in this framework, I noticed that many of them were fabricated with ideas that originated in childhood and—just like some of the materials used in real-life support structures built long ago—a number of those old misconceptions have turned out to be not just ill-suited, but toxic. As I thought about how poisons end up in unwanted places, it occurred to me that people pick toxic substances for their metaphorical constructions for the same reasons that they pick them for their real-life architecture.

I had always assumed that I developed an unhealthy sense of myself because as a child I did not have a good source of sturdy and appropriate materials readily available to me. That was only part of the equation, though. To make good choices about building materials, you not only have to have access to suitable and strong resources, you also have to know which resources are safe and sound and which are not. In the past, many builders, who had a variety of materials at hand, still chose substances like asbestos or lead simply because they did not know any better. They constructed support systems out of those toxic supplies—just as I used childhood misconceptions for my armature—because no one had properly tested out the raw materials before they were put into place.

146_eashonpupil-100x70-cm-carbonat-paper-and-oil-pastel-on-paperUntil this realization, I had never considered the concept of specifically testing out identity notions. I was aware that children test authority as part of their normal development. But as a kid, testing reality reliably and safely was not something that I could do, and I guess I believed that as an adult it was not something that I should do. And yet, I couldn’t help wondering what an adult experimenting with identities would look like. As I pictured it, not only did I see nothing wrong in that behavior, I also recognized that all of the testing was happening out in the real world. In other words, I realized that you cannot properly test identity notions in your head. To test reality, you have to try things out by interacting with people in the world around you.

Most of my efforts to solve my “what”-am-I problems have involved searching for ways2000.78_ph_web to fix, replace, and eliminate the negative misconceptions in my identity armature. I have tried using the force of logic to expel them and the power of denial to silence them. Neither strategy has proven very successful, though, because you can’t find a fitting identity by thinking through what might have been or what might be. It just doesn’t work like that. The only way to test out who you are is to try to live as that person in the real world, in real time, and with real people.

I wanted a right answer to my niece’s question, but I was wrong about what I needed to do to locate it. I had become so accustomed to analyzing and repudiating the deeply embedded, messy, anachronistic armature inside me that I forgot that you don’t always have to rip apart or entirely rebuild unsteady structures in order to right them. There are ways to construct new *external* scaffoldings or buttressing systems. Those structures can be as strong if not stronger than the original frameworks, eventually bearing most of the weight and ultimately becoming the primary source of support.

blogger-image--1465968201Maybe testing identity notions outside of my head could help me build new, external identity supports. If I stop trying to destroy my familiar, life-long, albeit dysfunctional armature, maybe I could redirect that energy in more positive ways. At the very least, I increase my chances of finding new identity materials, just by turning my efforts around to face outward instead of in. The idea of testing reality feels daunting in all sorts of ways. However, the alternative of hopelessly accepting the status quo frankly feels even less tenable.

The other day, I was listening to a radio show. One of the stories, called How Do You Construct a Voice, was about Rupal Patel. Patel is a scientist who designs and develops ways to make and customize synthetic voices for people who do not have the physical ability to speak for themselves. She creates “unique vocal identities” for non-speakers by combining the specific qualities of their non-verbal sounds with recordings of age and gender appropriate surrogate voices. At the end of the story, Patel describes the first time she introduced a custom-built voice to its new owner. When the nine-year-old boy listened to his very own sound, he immediately typed on his communication device: “Never heard me before.”

She never let her feelings flood her

When I heard that, I cried. I cried because Patel had given the boy something that he truly needed and deserved. I cried because the something was ordinary. I cried because the boy had been missing and waiting for that something for most of his life. But I also cried because, when I thought about that little boy finally getting his own voice, I realized that I have spent most of the last year testing out mine. 

I don’t know how to identify myself. I can’t say that I am a writer or an artist or any other neatly defined, entirely cohesive entity. But my writing belongs to me. When I listen to my words, I hear the sound of me. And if I look at all the words that are now outside of my head out there in the real world, sometimes I can even see “what” I am.

As We Are

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Carrie spoke through narrow lips that looked like they were sewn on too tightly. She had the gravelly voice of a lifetime smoker, but her trembly tone and hesitant nature made her barely audible. She seldom talked to people during the support group, and if she did she never peered directly into anyone’s eyes. She usually sat near a corner of the room, always making sure to face the only door leading in or out.

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Carrie was petite and jittery. The pale foundation she slathered on her cheeks and the thick black lines she drew under her eyes did not conceal her frailty. Her dry, bleached-blonde hair tapered sharply just below her shoulders. It hung in solid-looking clumps that, like the rest of her, seemed as brittle as icicles.

Carrie usually dressed in snug, almost colorless acid-washed jeans and plain, baggy, crew neck sweatshirts in creamy tones of pastel pink or yellow. In all those faint colors, she sometimes appeared as though she might fade away. The exception was her polished white-leather sneakers. They never had a single scuff or mark anywhere on them. The laces were pristine, too, and always double-knotted and tightened to an extreme.

Whenever I remember Carrie, I think about the control that we do and do not have over our lives and about how we often end up coping with trauma and illness in arbitrary ways. Carrie had the unbelievably horrible misfortune of being brutally raped by two different strangers on two separate occasions. I don’t pretend to know how Carrie’s tendency to practically bind her feet with those spotless, white laces helped her feel a tiny bit safer. Still, I would guess that this seemingly insignificant and maybe even maladaptive attempt at controlling her body gave her a small sense of security. I pictured Carrie using a vice in the morning to meticulously cinch her shoelaces and needle-nosed pliers at night to diligently untie them.

tumblr_m6srna7kZP1qct9kxo1_1280In our support group, they tried to reassure and empower us. With the best of intentions, they encouraged us to think of and talk about ourselves as “survivors” instead of “victims.” Yet, when I look back at Carrie and consider how the unfathomable randomly happened to her not once, but twice, I have a hard time seeing how this distinction between victim and survivor helps. Both of those labels seem inadequate. They remind me of Zhang Longxi’s observation in The Myth of Other, where he asserts that “artificial language systems arise from the desire to impose order on a chaotic universe.” That Carrie survived and was still sustaining herself was incredible, but calling her a survivor and not a victim seems dismissive of her constant struggle and at the same time unrealistically demanding of her remaining reserves. And venerating her mostly non-existent agency and involuntary stoicism just feels disingenuous.

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My tendency to recoil when people talk about “surviving” tragedy or “battling” sickness is not unique to Carrie’s story. I feel uncomfortable when people use war and sports analogies in the context of illness or trauma. Recently, as I was trying to figure out why the “winning-the-good-fight” lexicon seems to chafe at me as it does, I recalled my father’s bewildering decision to choose the doctor in the Hermès necktie. I had never been able to justify my father’s strange calculus before, but somehow for the first time ever I realized that his baffling choice was a lot like Carrie’s. Under very different but equally devastating circumstances, both my father and Carrie managed to create a tiny bit of solace for themselves by fixating on quotidian objects that had little to do with actually providing safety.

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Unlike Carrie, my father was a tall, pompous, and outspoken man. He had a thick, dark beard that had once matched his eyes but had grayed significantly in his fifties. Sometimes, he spoke with a pretentious-sounding accent. He took pleasure in exaggerating the enunciation of uncommon words, and he often came across as unapologetically elitist and arrogant. He didn’t realize that fast-food restaurants do not employ waiters, until his youngest child was a teenager looking for a summer job. And, he prided himself on never having owned an uncollared shirt. Still, he could be charming. He enjoyed hosting friends and family in his home, always making sure to stock his bar and wine cellar with his guests’ favorite drinks. Although I don’t have a lot of happy father-daughter memories, when my father was feeling magnanimous, something about his broad smile and bright eyes made me feel at ease.

My father learned that he had cancer after a tumor in his gut ruptured and spilled out into his abdominal cavity. The on-call doctor, who performed the emergency surgery that saved my father’s life, happened to be a surgeon in chief at the hospital. Not only did this physician have a distinguished title, he was also a European-born world-traveler with an impressive wine collection. As a result, when my father awoke from the anesthesia, this genteel surgeon in a respectable Hermès necktie was the person who delivered the bad news.

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The rarity, aggressiveness, and chemotherapy-resistance of my father’s particular type of sarcoma meant that the prognosis for anyone was not promising. With all those cancerous cells swimming around in his body after the rupture, the prognosis for my father was even worse. Given all of these factors, my sisters and I could not understand why anyone would select a general surgeon to manage and direct his care instead of an oncologist with at least some experience treating this sort of cancer. My father didn’t seem to concern himself with what was medically sound or logical, though. When he looked at the man in the Hermès tie, he felt he was in good hands, and that was that.

Not long after my father was released from the hospital for the first time and within days of realizing that this rare form of cancer was in all likelihood terminal, he gathered his adult children around him to let us know that if he had to die young, he was “going to go down fighting.” He seemed hopeful that through his outward responses and fierce attitude he would refuse to be a “victim” and in so doing accomplish something profound. I think my father truly believed that, in the process of grappling with this disease, he could show his children how to “die with dignity.”

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My father and I rarely came at things from the same perspective. To my mind, being sick usually sucks; trauma can change you forever; and enduring pain and anguish at times feels unbearable. When I think about those experiences, I have a hard time identifying the champions or the heroes. And if there is virtue or glory to be had, I don’t see that, either. While I believe that courage, dignity, and fortitude are admirable traits, I have yet to find any evidence of how those characteristics reliably help people avoid heartache, illness, pain, or death. So when my father made his declaration to all of us, I had no idea what he meant.

I never asked my father how he imagined himself fighting for a dignified death. In my estimation, though, fighting and dignity rarely factored into my father’s experiences of living with cancer. What I know for certain is that, with the aid of a general surgeon in understated designer neckties, my father endured multiple surgeries (some needed others probably not) along with several elongated hospital stays, and a period of coma-like unconsciousness followed by months in a decrepit rehabilitation center. After two years of that and with scores of palliative drugs, round-the-clock nursing, tireless Robyno'neilThePassingattention from his wife, and lots of pain and grief, my father died just short of his 60th birthday. I can’t say if he died with dignity or not. But no one won any battles; no medals or trophies were handed out; and in the end my father was not a survivor, but a victim of cancer.

According to several thesauruses, the word “victim” is synonymous with words like wretch, fool, pushover, and sucker. I don’t know why victim status has become so shameful or how terms like “patient,” “sufferer,” or “griever” became so unpalatable, but I am not convinced that we improve things by replacing those words with images of warriors defeating evil enemies or by exchanging supposedly marginalizing language for ideas about “staying strong.” The more I think about our society’s aversion to labeling someone a victim and our propensity to lionize survivorhood and the valor that ostensibly accompanies it, the more I wonder if we are really seeing people as they are.

l_e52917a0-c73b-11e1-854d-c1ea38100007My father’s choice to seek treatment from an inappropriately qualified doctor seemed irresponsible and irrational in so many ways, and part of me felt angry at the general surgeon who had allowed my father to make such a poor decision. Just before my father died, though, he made a point of admitting that he had been wrong. He knew that we all disapproved of his doctor, but he wasn’t regretting his medical care or agreeing with our assessment of the man in the Hermès tie. Rather, he wanted to tell us that there was no good reason for the cancer, no honor in living through pain, and most important of all no “right” way to die.

I can’t recall any other time when my father seemed as unguarded with me, and I am grateful for that unadulterated moment of openness from him. I only wish that I had been able to offer him the same compassion and empathy that I easily felt for Carrie when I thought about her unusual coping strategies. My father knew that he was dying and that there was very little he could do to change or control what was inevitable. So, just like Carrie, he simulated control in a way that was true to who he was, regardless of how incomprehensible his decision seemed.

All of us cope in arbitrary and irrational ways, and frankly everyone is a survivor until they die. The methods that we use to get by probably do not make us noble, courageous, or dignified; they just make us human. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but my father did show me something about how to die, not with dignity or strength or bravery, but with honesty.

After the Still Point

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In the Closet 1 B&WWhen my husband Jay came home that day, I was cowering in the darkness, backed into the corner of our closet wishing for complete erasure. I had spent the better part of the day perched on top of our shoes and crouching under the hems of our hanging clothes with my body attempting to fold in on itself. I wanted to escape without leaving a trace.

During the year that led up to that day, I had seen all sorts of doctors and tried multiple psychotropic drugs without any success. I had watched myself disappear. The sadness and despair had so thoroughly abraded my sense of self that my compulsion to hide and turn inward—to search for something that was mine or for something that felt right—was constant. But there was nothing left to discover. The disconnectedness had become unremitting and vicious, the resulting isolation all-encompassing.

Kara_Walker_Porgy-and-Bess-embracing1Still, despite my inexorable hopelessness, Jay somehow managed to coax me out of that closet. I can’t recall anything about how he tried to distract and soothe me in the hours that followed. The look on his face, though, has stayed with me. His jaw was tensed in frustration, his brow furrowed with worry, and his eyes seemed as though they had clouded over with fear and disappointment. He was trying and he had been trying for a long time, but he was exhausted. We both were so tired—tired of living with the person that I had become.

After a few hours, I couldn’t bear to see how drained and spent Jay seemed. So, I told him to go to bed. We had opposite sleep patterns; I often stayed up way past Jay’s bedtime, he always woke before dawn, and I struggled to get out of bed before nine. When Jay got up, he would tiptoe out of the bedroom, dress, and leave well before I was even awake.

sense títol maya blochThat night, Jay was hesitant about going to sleep. Eventually, though, he could barely keep his eyes open. When he finally relented, he told me that he loved me and asked if I would be safe before kissing me goodnight. I nodded reflexively and told him that I loved him too. I really loved him, but I didn’t know how to be safe anymore.

I had reached a still point where I could only imagine one way to give us both permanent freedom from our misery. I saw the claustrophobic choicelessness pressing down and closing in on the unraveled and nearly empty me. I knew it was going to crush me, and I believed that if I continued to try to hold onto the people who had been forced to standby helplessly watching me deteriorate, I would surely cause their destruction too.

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Once Jay had gone to bed and the house was quiet, I considered my options. I knew that Jay was a sound sleeper and that in the dark when he woke up in the morning he would not be able to really see me as he quickly padded out of our room. He would then go off to work without suspecting anything was amiss, and when he got home later that afternoon everything would be over. With this in mind, I filled a glass with water from the kitchen sink and walked over to the bathroom cabinet where I stored all those failed antidepressants and sleeping medications. I hadn’t planned to squirrel away so many drugs, but there they were.

I left the bathroom with the glass of water in one hand and a couple of bottles of sleeping pills in the other and found a corner spot in the narrow, drafty hall by our bedroom. I slumped down onto the cold, tile floor, pulled my knees to my chest, and cried quietly.

At the time, we lived in the Santa Cruz mountains in a house that we couldn’t afford to heat properly. On that rainy night in January, the hall was particularly chilly, and I was shivering. Even so, the tears rolling down my cheeks felt uncomfortably hot. Our dog sat beside me licking the salty wetness off my face. I thought about how he wouldn’t know where I had gone, and I wondered if he would keep looking for me until the day he died.

I worried about the people I loved. They probably would never truly understand why I alysneeded to escape. But I couldn’t change that, or I didn’t know how. I told myself that any issues that arose from my death would only be temporary problems. I was certain of this. The people I loved were all stronger and more competent than I could ever be. I felt weak and scared and cold. The ability to put an end to the devastating force that seemed to be coursing through me was my only remaining power. I shoveled the pills into my mouth, drank the water, and swallowed three times.

My heart fluttered as I stood up to walk back to Jay for what I thought would be the last time. I wanted to be with him and to feel the warmth and comfort of his body up against mine. When I reached our bed, I paused and noticed my mittens and hat on the nightstand. I realized that I didn’t need them anymore. I would not have to feel the coldness for much longer, and soon I would never have to feel cold again. I slipped under the covers, pressed myself up against Jay, and melted into the warmth of his body. Sinking easily and quickly into the softness of the mattress, I imagined Jay no longer struggling with the toxic person that neither of us wanted. I felt relieved; we would both be free now. Then I closed my eyes and let go.

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* * *

When I started this blog, Jay felt that I was leaving out a big part of my story. He thought that readers needed to know that I had tried to kill myself multiple times for them to truly understand the severity of this illness. For the first nine months of this blog, though, I couldn’t bring myself to write about my suicide attempts. I felt ashamed of those experiences, and I didn’t want to revisit them.

Jay saw it differently and decided to write about his experience of that night. That way, if and when I felt the time was right, I could let people know the truth. While I didn’t have the courage to post it then, something totally unexpected happened when I read his words. A piece of the story that I had shuttered away from for 18 years became clearer. Jay’s story began,

Francesca tried to kill herself once since we’ve been together, not long after we got married. She took a bunch of pills that were supposed to help her sleep and then crawled back into bed, maybe because it was so cold in the house. I remember waking up to her moving restlessly in bed next to me and moaning loudly from way down in her throat. I remember asking if she was okay, then getting scared when I shook her and yelled at her and still couldn’t wake her up properly. I remember that a policeman who arrived with the EMTs asked me questions that were meant to discover whether or not I had done harm to her. I think I remember that they would not let me come to the hospital with her, that I was told to stay home, and that it was light outside when they finally left. I don’t remember much else, and I’m not confident that what I’ve described here is accurate. Make of that what you will.

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In all our discussions about what happened that night, I never asked Jay why he didn’t go to the hospital with me, and he never mentioned the police interrogation. I assumed that he got back into bed that night because he was furious with me for abandoning him. And I was so grateful when he forgave me that I didn’t want to question his decision to stay home that night. I thought Jay—just like other relatives of mine—had been protecting himself by creating distance between us. I was sure that he left me alone in the hospital to punish me, and I was convinced that I deserved any and all retribution. But I was wrong. Jay wasn’t furious with me and he didn’t want to punish me, either.

2835_1000I was wrong about so many things: about the way my body would respond to an overdose of sleeping pills, about why Jay did not come to the hospital that night, about whether my mind would ever be mine again, about how people would, should, and did respond to my suicide attempt, about what I deserved, and about whether I should be ashamed. The list of my mistakes from that night is long, but my greatest regret is the pain that both my depression and my suicide attempt have caused Jay. And yet, I have finally started to see that blaming people for depression and suicide is as illogical as blaming them for any other potentially fatal illness. I suppose the policeman from that night was just doing his job, but the truth is no one was at fault.

In writing and sharing my stories on this blog, I have been consistently surprised by what turns up. I’ve learned things that I never would have imagined and things that I’ve struggled to understand and accept for most of my life. I have begun to actively refute ideas about how I am bad and deserve to be punished. I am no longer denying my past. More important, I am starting to believe that I shouldn’t have to.

 

The Production of Monsters

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george-rodger-empire-state-building-observatory-800x800In 1977, my grandparents took me and my sisters to the top of the Empire State Building. I can remember being annoyed by all the waiting in line just to ride the elevator to the observation floor. We probably spent more time waiting to board that elevator than we spent viewing the view. Still, when our turn came around and after the elevator finally reached the 102nd floor, I burst out of the doors to see what all the fuss was about.

At first, I was too distracted with taking in the view to notice that my grandpa was not with me. When I turned back to search for him, I saw that he had parked himself close to the elevators away from the windows and the view. I called to him, “Grandpa, you gotta come see this.” “No thanks,” he replied “I’m good here.” “Pretty please,” I pleaded. This time he just smiled at me as he shook his head, still refusing to budge.

Grandpa and F on Fire IslandMy grandfather could be ridiculously stubborn and occasionally quite fierce. He was a brusque and burly man with large, pudgy-fingered hands that were both soft and strong. Even though he was often stern, at times he would go out of his way to be loving. He taught me to fish and how to use the heels of my feet to dig for clams in the bay at low tide. He liked to tell his granddaughters that he would do anything for us. He used to say, ” You know, I’d give you the shirt off my back.” And he meant it. While I didn’t exactly covet his dirty, greasy-food stained shirts, I knew that he was saying he loved me.   

When my grandfather refused to come see the view, I was confused. So, I went back to where he was standing and asked him why. “I’m afraid of heights” he admitted. “And while you were peering down a hundred floors to the ground, my toes were curling under trying to grip onto something sturdy and safe.”

Lowland_Gorilla_standing_by_dkbartoI am guessing that until that day I had never thought about my grandfather’s feet before. After he explained the “why,” though, I did not picture human feet. Instead, the first image that came to mind was of a huge chest-pounding gorilla, who—in failing to wrap his long, fat, hairy toes around something substantial—was inadvertently digging his sharp nails into the flat wooden floorboards beneath his feet.

I had not thought much about that image since then, until it reappeared recently. Somehow, my subconscious had linked the image of those gripping gorilla toes to the famous work of art by Francisco Goya titled The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.

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This self-portrait of Goya’s  is probably the most well-known of the 80 etchings in his Los Caprichos (The Caprices) series, and I have seen it many times before. Even so, the “production” of monsters was not really something that I had considered in any depth. When my mind paired Goya’s portrait with the “portrait” from my imagination, though, I started to contemplate the ways that monsters develop and form and I began to wonder about the people who create them.

The monster for my grandfather was born of his fear of falling. Without knowing it at the time, I must have understood that my grandfather had created this monster and that in essence he 1317136652_Ethan_Murrow_Foot_is_still_cramping_up__results_otherwise_positive_2009_graphite_on_paperwas the monster. He became a huge gorilla, getting in his own way. In the etching, Goya animates his fears for us, and with the title he acknowledges that we lose our ability to protect ourselves from fear when our logical thought processes are somehow turned off or malfunctioning. Without access to reason or when reason cannot communicate effectively with the other parts of the brain, things that are normally benign or nonthreatening can transform into things that are frightening and alarming.

My grandfather did not feel a little wobbly just thinking about his distance from the ground; he was terrified and literally gripping with fear. The risks entailed in this trip to the top of a skyscraper were minimal, but his toes did not see it that way. From their perspective, my grandfather needed to be afraid, stay back, and hold on for dear life.

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Toe curling, chest tightening, stomach rumbling, crying, and so on are all automatic physical responses that come from a part of your brain that works unconsciously and quickly. Those physical sensations in your body act as messages telling the slower, deliberative part of your brain that you are, for example, tired, hungry, sad, or in danger.

This is not to say that your conscious brain cannot affect and change those sensations. Ideally, the cognitive part of your brain uses reasoned logic to assuage any irrational worries that the faster part has identified as areas of concern (for example, the 102nd floor of the Empire State building is virtually as safe as the second floor). However, if the communication between these two areas of the brain isn’t working so well, or if there are particular kinds of experiences that seem to gum up the system, then your somatic responses might continue to send your conscious mind warning messages despite the lack of threat. If panic signals such as shallow breathing, a racing heart, or curling toes keep flashing despite logic, then the threat becomes irreducible and seems real.

I am sure my grandfather tried to convince himself that there was nothing to fear. In that moment, though, logical analysis did not pacify his nerves or calm his toes. It was not laziness, or weakness, or lack of resolve that petrified my grandfather. There was just some sort of breakdown in the communication between the various parts of his brain, like a feedback loop not connecting in the ways that it should.

As someone who has struggled with a malfunctioning brain, I find Goya’s idea of “sleeping reason” reassuring, especially when I couple it with an image of a reflexive somatic response to fear. Even though I am very familiar with the process of sinking into a deep depression, I still always hope that this time will be different; this time I will make it stop before it grabs hold. Sometimes, though, “my toes” are going to “curl under” whether I want them to or not. Sometimes, my brain will create “monsters” that aren’t really there. Telling myself repeatedly that it isn’t happening or blaming myself for not being able to fix the problem on my own is unproductive.

Perhaps in the future, when a severe episode of depression seeps back in and I find myself overwhelmed and sickened by the prospect of getting out of bed, showering, or even just brushing my teeth, I will be able to picture my two images of fear. I will probably still look for ways to escape and still feel that I cannot find myself. And in all likelihood, I will still worry about all the “shoulds.”

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When depression flares up again and I sense a coldness that I cannot warm and I feel myself shivering and shaking inside with my teeth chattering and my skin pebbling, almost certainly I will still think that it should not be this way. I will think of how it is summer, how the sun is shining, and how good it feels to have warming light all around me, and I will tell myself that I should be able to experience all of that. But when I cannot make myself believe in a warmth that I cannot feel, maybe I will think of my grandfather’s feet or Goya’s monsters, and I will forgive myself.

Just Remember

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95“Just remember that I love you.” That was what my 11-year-old son said to me as he got out of the car at the bus stop this morning. Right before, he had responded to the news about Robin Williams committing suicide by grabbing my hand and saying, “Please, don’t ever do that.”

My son recognizes that I have depression, and he’s seen me at times when I have been very low. However, neither of my children knows that—before they were alive—I tried to kill myself on three separate occasions. Actually, most people don’t know that about me. For my children’s sake, I’m glad they don’t have to carry that burden around. As for everyone else, I guess I was protecting them and me from embarrassment. I am ashamed, although I wish I weren’t.

Still, after my son’s hand squeeze in the car, I tried to emphasize that I was not a suicide risk (today). I reminded him that I have doctors and medicine and therapies to help me. He reminded me—and, I think, himself—that his dad is also good at helping me when I am “sad.” “Yes,” I replied. “I have lots of people who can and do monitor my mood to make sure that I stay safe.”

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When we arrived at the bus stop, it looked and sounded the same as it did yesterday. Rowdy campers clad in backpacks, bathing suits, and water shoes were shouting and laughing, eagerly awaiting their counselor’s word to climb aboard. As we pulled up to the curb, a couple of chipper kids greeted my son, shouting something about storming the bus and inciting a ruckus. My son smiled when he saw his friends, as he always does. Today, though, as he opened the door to join them, he stopped for a moment and turned back to look at me before urging me to “just remember…”

My son does not fully understand that depression and suicide are not choices that people make. He wants to understand, but the weight of that reality is just too much for him to bear. Still, before I dropped him off, I tried to think of a good analogy to gently illustrate how little choice is involved when you are ill. So, during our eight-minute car ride, I tried to tell him about two different experiences of mine with swarms of insects.

The first happened only a month ago, while I was on vacation. I was walking by myself on a long, twisting, uphill road when a mob of insects suddenly attacked me. Just as I was trying to figure out why they had chosen to descend at that moment, I reached the top of the hill and was pleasantly surprised to discover a serene but eerily desolate bog.

1080After identifying the bugs’ source and seeing this broad expanse of shiny, unmoving, black water shot through with dark, branchless tree trunks, I wanted to relax and enjoy the strange but lovely scenery. Except, with a cloud of insects buzzing around my head, I couldn’t. I didn’t even stay long enough to take a photograph. Instead, I quickly turned around and headed back down the hill, and the bugs soon left me alone.

Farber_TheSkyWasFullofThem_72dpiThe other experience happened in 1993, when my husband Jay and I went mountain biking in a national forest in northern California. While I was riding alone, trying to catch up with Jay, I inadvertently rode over an underground hive. Instantly and seemingly out of nowhere, a huge, whirring mass of wasps flew up and began stinging me all over. I tried to turn my bike around so I could escape downhill, but the wasps did not let up, and I panicked. Not knowing what else to do, I dropped the bike and tried to run away.

I only managed to stumble 40 or 50 feet from the hive before I went into shock. I didn’t pass out or collapse. I just became unable to register any sort of emotional or physical sensation. My body and mind could not take anymore. So, until Jay was able to find me, I stood frozen in place, my head in my hands as the wasps continued to attack.

Depression can feel like a swarm of wasps endlessly stinging you, or likerego_flood a barrage of emotional and physical strikes coming at you from every direction, or like a torrent of negative emotions and ideas raining down on you and flooding your mind. Depression limits your ability to access rational thought, and pessimistic and critical thoughts get stuck. After a while, when your mind cannot absorb any more self-loathing, those feelings start to condense and gel. They form a sort of depression-sludge that coats all of your experiences and clogs most of your thinking. If you try to use logic or reason to dilute or escape from the viscous gunk, those ideas often just buckle and drown under the opacity and density of the sludge.

Finding a viable exit strategy is not impossible, but what works for some people some of the time won’t work for everything or everyone. At the bog, I ended my discomfort and distress by simply turning around. In the forest, that didn’t help.

21 largeI really tried my best to escape those wasps. But the stings kept coming, and despite my efforts to protect myself, my mind overloaded. Frankly, when I went into shock and didn’t have to feel any more of the pain or fear, I was grateful for the reprieve. Still, I had not planned that defense. Believe me, if my shock-response had been under my control, I would have called it up and welcomed it a lot sooner. But, of course, people don’t choose to go into shock; it simply happens. Just as people don’t choose to be depressed.

Most of us can understand that there are chemicals in our brains that spike or ebb in response to stress, pain, and fear. When we talk about an obviously traumatic event like a bombardment of wasp stings or a car accident, we get why people go into shock. Maybe we even appreciate these mechanisms that send our systems into overdrive.

Somehow, though, some of those same people believe that abrupt attitude adjustments and carefully reasoned thoughts can reliably cure depression. These people assume that depressed people would be “happy” if only they would choose to think positively, approach things with a smile, or refuse to wallow in sadness.

I wish I could have promised my son that “just remembering” his love will always be enough to protect me. I won’t lie to him, though, and unfortunately it just does not work that way.

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I don’t mean to imply that there are no ways to address mental health, that there are no treatments for depression. That idea is certainly not true. In fact, with the right kind of help from professionals, friends, and family, people with depression can and do get better.

Still, most people with Major Depressive Disorder cannot cure themselves, and suggesting that we can is unreasonable and cruel. Most of us need some help. People who are severely depressed feel awful. Do we really want to add to that by telling them that it is their fault, too?

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My son is only a child, so his wishful thinking about his mother makes sense. For the adults out there, though, callowness, blind desperation, or lack of imagination are not legitimate excuses. If you can admit that doling out platitudes is an ineffective and illogical approach for treating blunt-force trauma or for evading an assault by wasps, then you should be able to see that slapping contrived, positivity Bandaids on depressed patients is just as unproductive.

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Perhaps, for the few days following the suicide of a famous, successful, and talented man, people will be able to open their minds and hearts to the gravity of the situation. They may even want to advocate for better interventions and treatments for people with depression. And that would be great.

When all of this attention dies down, though, I hope people will remember that those of us with depression aren’t “choosing” to be sad. Those of us who have tried to commit suicide—successfully or not—were not “choosing” death. At those times, we were just unable to “choose” life. If everyone could accept that idea, then maybe more people would be willing to acknowledge their struggle, fewer people would have to suffer in silence, and no one would be embarrassed about seeking or asking for help. If, however, we continue to blame patients for their illness, we will tacitly deny them access to nonjudgmental treatment, and in so doing, we will risk their lives.

The Shadows of Bias

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When a subject is highly controversial…one can only give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.

–Virginia Woolf

The Seasons (Fall) 1987 by Jasper Johns born 1930Like shadows that darken and distort our vision, implicit prejudices infect our perception without leaving a trace. One way to think of prejudice is to imagine a series of societally manufactured and perpetuated illusions. We often think of illusions as inconsequential magic tricks, but the truth is, they sometimes have the uncanny power to fool us in detrimental ways—even when we are aware that we are being deceived. Not all illusions are as persuasive, furtive, and invidious as the shadows of prejudice, but even small, insignificant illusions—ones not mired in the emotional baggage of societal acceptance and rejection—can prove amazingly difficult to impugn.

Take Figure 2 below. At first glance, the people appear to be three different sizes. When I tell you that the rendered perspective in the drawing affects your perception, you may be able to see that the three men are actually all the same size. Yet, if you walk away and then look at this image later on, in all likelihood your initial perception of those figures will still be inaccurate. The illusion will fool you again, despite your newer and better understanding of the reality behind it. I am also guessing that if I yelled at you, enumerating the ways in which you failed to see the drawing accurately while criticizing you for your provincial stupidity, that yelling probably wouldn’t help you to see the figures differently, either.

We want to believe that uncovering an unfair bias and identifying its origins is enough to eradicate it and protect us against its future influence. As the illusion above demonstrates, though, it is precisely our flawed cognition that leaves us prey to these misperceptions. We are deluded into a spurious sense of reality because our prior knowledge and experiences not only affect the way we interpret information once we perceive it; they also determine how we perceive it in the first place.

picSillmanMe-Ugly-Mountain_2003w-540x454 So, despite our attempts to dispel pernicious biases, they still regularly impair our judgment and corrupt our actions. Moreover, as the example above also shows, even when we can explain the mechanisms behind an exposed illusion, that doesn’t necessarily help us to immediately change our impressions or circumvent our own partiality. I do not mean to suggest that discrimination is excusable or entirely unavoidable. What I am wondering, though, is why we are so averse to acknowledging our shared susceptibility to unfounded prejudices.

Over the last several months, I have been repeatedly frustrated by the way many people on social media respond to behavior, commentary, or even thoughts that might be the result of bigotry. Although I care deeply about several of the issues involved, I have become more and more reluctant to access and participate in these online debates, which ultimately seem to be about drawing impenetrable circles to define who’s “in” or who’s “out.” Without question, prejudice permeates our lives in all sorts of harmful ways, and the need to unmask and disarm instances of bigotry, whether flagrant or subtle, is undeniable. Yet, when I see people viciously rebuking others for their missteps, I end up feeling both hopeless about the sometimes intractable nature of prejudice and disappointed with our overall approach to affecting change.

Attacking specific people or groups may help us “win” the argument, prove our rightness, or provide us with an opportunity to assert our own special status within an in-group. Even so, I am not sure that those things do a whole lot to alter the misperceptions that desperately need addressing. If our goal is to break down unfair biases and deconstruct oppressive standards of identity, then don’t we have to find a way to acknowledge and counter the implicit prejudices that we all harbor, without dehumanizing people in the process?

Otherwise, as Marina Warner cautions, “When history falls away from a subject we are left with otherness, and all its power to compact enmity, recharge it and recirculate it.”

The fact is that people act on and are influenced by implicit prejudices all the time, even when they are genuinely trying to avoid discriminatory behavior. For example, the editor or writer working for Alain de Botton’s online journal The Philosopher’s Mail probably didn’t intend to relegate women to object-only status when s/he chose the imagery for an article on the universality of crushes. And yet, in that article, pointing out “how willing we are to allow details to suggest a whole,” all five of the included photographs—every “detail” chosen “to suggest a whole”—depicted male voyeurs gazing at female subjects.

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Or, take a mostly thoughtful article in Flavorwire about sexism and the construction of gender, written after the UCSB shootings. In this piece, Tom Hawking mistakenly blames Seth Rogen, a male actor, for tweeting a chauvinistic comment. Hawking acknowledges that Rogen was responding to an article by Ann Hornaday, a female movie critic. Yet, despite the fact that it was Hornaday who first used the “striking phrasing,” she doesn’t get the credit (good or bad) for the words that she chose.

sch09-14Even scientific research has shown that implicit prejudices are ubiquitous. In a recent study “to test scientist’s reactions to men and women with precisely equal qualifications,” researchers not only found that “female applicants were rated lower than men on the measured scales of competence, hireability, and mentoring;” they also discovered that “both male and female scientists rated the female applicants lower.” Arguably then, at least some of those scientists are unfairly discriminating against women in spite of their conscious belief that the competency and capacity of scientists do not depend on their gender.

I suppose screaming at the people in the examples above might have some sort of positive impact on their future behavior, but I doubt it. On the other hand, if those mistakes were pointed out and the people making them had a chance to reconsider, admit to, and improve upon their unintended prejudice, without fear of public humiliation or retribution, then perhaps the discussions around inequitable and unjust power structures would not always need to devolve into us-versus-them battles. As no one is immune to implicit prejudice, I don’t see how any of us can improve if we do not allow people to learn from their mistakes. I am in no way advocating that we ignore unintended discrimination, but how we attend to it matters. image00

A Piece of Now

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I want to go home. I do. I’m homesick. I am tired of the heartless giants and wicked witches, fee-fi-fumming around and cackling about in my head. I want to silence all of their pounding and stomping and spewing invective about my lousiness. I wish I could banish them forever, but I know I can’t. If only I felt strong enough to ignore them, despite my unslakable thirst for assurance, then maybe I could find my place. I could get home parched but still intact.

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Don’t worry, I haven’t been fantasizing about working on a farm on a dusty, gray prairie in Kansas, and I have no illusions about finding a bright and shiny place somewhere over the rainbow, either. I am also not hoping to stumble upon a quaint, fairytale land next to a castle. And I definitely have not been searching for a way to travel back in time to some non-existent, nostalgic place from my youth.

I’m just looking for a home that occasionally rests on steady ground. Somewhere that won’t be easily blown down by huffing and puffing, secretly inhabited by wolves, or carried away in one fell swoop by a twister. I want to feel safe and sound, and I dream about belonging.

I realize this is no small request, but I’m not asking for a golden goose or enchanted ruby slippers. I am also willing to climb down the beanstalk or click my heels together for as long as it takes to find my way home. All I want is for someone to promise me that it’s still out there somewhere. I need someone to assure me that if I hold on more tightly or stay upright for longer, I might get a glimpse of this place again, even vaguely on the distant horizon.

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As naive and foolish as I may sound, my notion of home is not some place in never-never land. I am well aware of the fact that, in a traditional sense, there is no difference between “Once upon a time…,” “happily ever after,” or “There’s no place like home.” Still, I’m pretty sure that this home of mine is real.

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Over the last five weeks, I haven’t posted my writing because I haven’t been able to block out the sound of those giants and witches long enough to accomplish anything worthwhile. When I get more depressed, those voices get louder and start to sound more and more rational. So, I feel less and less worthy of belonging anywhere, and soon the pull to isolate myself becomes irresistible. With all of that comes a deep desire to go “home” as soon as possible, but the more I long for it, the more homeless and insecure I feel.

Of course, the only constancy in anyone’s life is change. Everything that we are and that we may become is contingent. And with inevitable change comes unavoidable vulnerability and uncertainty. As Helen Keller describes it, “Security is mostly a superstition.” So why should I ever expect to find solace?

Yet, in all my speculating about ways to get home, given my current state of mind, I keep remembering these two separate radio stories that I heard last winter on two different shows. Both of these stories were titled “No Place Like Home,” and both were about distinctive women. Something about how these women improvised and invented opposite ways to survive and build their own “homes” seemed both remarkable and potentially even hopeful to me.

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The first story focused on a woman who chose to remain “at home” in the very institution where she had been forcibly quarantined, jailed, and dehumanized. Ella (a pseudonym) had the great misfortune of contracting Hansens’ disease (formerly known as leprosy) before there was a cure. The US government kidnapped and “institutionalized” her when she was just a child, and she never saw her family again. As a result, the only “home” Ella ever really knew was the leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, and the only family who had never abandoned her were the other patients who had suffered along with her. Decades later, once Ella’s freedom was finally restored, she along with many of the other patients decided to stay at the Carville facility. “The Secret People,” as they called themselves, preferred to live together in their home away from the world that ostracized, imprisoned, and then disregarded them.

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The other radio story was about Giulietta Carrelli, a woman with schizoaffective disorder who opened her own deliberately unusual, but now quite popular, coffee shop called Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club—Trouble for short. Although Carrelli is credited with starting the artisanal toast craze, her shop was not the result of her desire to serve others or to discover the latest foodie trend. After years of frequent disorienting and debilitating psychotic episodes, Carrelli needed to figure out how to create some order, security, and reliability in her life. And so, Carrelli established her own business. This, in turn, allowed her to develop the combination of routine, flexibility, and community that she desperately needed. Trouble has only four main items on its menu: coffee, whole Thai coconuts, freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, and cinnamon toast. Each of these foods relates to or represents particular ideas and important experiences from Carrelli’s life. According to her, these foods not only comfort and nourish people; they encourage friendly social interactions.

Unlike Ella, who wanted or felt she needed to limit her social circle to the people with whom she shared the same extremely painful and relatively unique experiences, Carrelli tries to surround herself with as many different people as possible. By creating a web of loose ties to people who can recognize her without having to know her intimately or depend on her entirely, Carrelli has built her own system for keeping herself safe and grounded. For Carrelli, Trouble is “home.”

While I have been considering Ella and Carrelli, I have also been contemplating a quote of Maya Angelou’s that resurfaced for me shortly after her death. Angelou proposes that “you only are free when you realize you belong no place—you belong every place—no place at all.” In a way, Angelou is affirming the limitlessness of possibilities. If you look at her words through a depressed person’s eyes, though, she is also suggesting that the search for a sense of belonging is pointless.

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Hence, having resigned myself to the veracity, melancholy, and disquieting nature of Angelou’s words, I started reading The Wisdom of Insecurity. I figured if I needed to get used to not-belonging and uncertainty, Alan Watts’s book was as good a place to start as any. Watts asserts that, “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” When I read that, I thought, “Yes, yes, I know,” and I genuinely wanted to accept Watts’s interpretation of reality. I still couldn’t help cringing, though, as I imagined myself awkwardly dancing alone. But then, for some reason, I randomly decided to turn back to something I had underlined in a previous chapter: “The legitimate use of images is to express the truth, not to possess it.”

It didn’t happen magically or instantly, but somehow this line of thinking shifted something for me. I started to reconsider the possibility that a trail home might still be out there. Maybe, just maybe, some of those breadcrumbs hadn’t been gobbled up, washed away, or disintegrated—yet. Ella and Carrelli had clearly demonstrated that your home can not only be anywhere you want, it can also be with whomever and whatever you like. Even though I know I can’t “dance with change” (or anything else for that matter), I can kind of remember what it felt like “to plunge in,” get lost, and feel at ease in the process of drawing or writing something.

When I get lost in my work, something settles. This idea of getting lost or settling reminded me of something that Philip Guston says in a documentary that I saw more than 15 years ago. Guston talks about the “studio ghosts” that linger in your mind as you begin working on your art. He says, “there are a lot of people in there with you—your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics… And one by one if you’re really painting, they walk out. And if you’re really painting YOU walk out.”

AC-OpalsDeparture-LRI picture the voices in my head as giants and witches, not ghosts, but I too have had moments when I have been working on photographs, collages, drawings, journal entries, and now blog posts when my expectations and my regrets become quieter. They don’t quite leave in the way that Guston describes it. They sort of retreat to the sidelines instead. If I am lucky, though, when those demanding voices are in their proper places, such that the past is faintly in the background and the future, in the foreground, is blurry and out of focus, I sometimes steal a piece of now. In those moments, I get to express my truth without trying to control it, pin it down, or possess it. And just like that, I feel unthreatened, lucid, open, included, and at home.

Dear Kate

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When I heard someone refer to the “gifts of grieving,” my visceral response, not surprisingly, was dark and cynical. I imagined a satirical flip-book with cartoon-like drawings animating the “benefits” of various traumatic events. Then I started making a snarky list in my head of salient sad moments and haunting emotional memories that could be recategorized and distilled into “generous” souvenirs of suffering. I pictured people curling back the spine of this farcical book, thumbing through images of monochrome, stick figures “moving” rhythmically in their vignetted worlds of sorrow.

My gut reaction to the mention of “gifts of grieving” (GOGs) was no doubt related to my discomfort with anything that sounds like a platitude. I tend to be skeptical of hollow, unproven beliefs in the power of positive thinking. When people smile and talk about “turning lemons into lemonade” in response to hearing about someone’s pain, I bristle. Sorry, I guess my motto is “When life gives you lemonadey, cloying cliches, make warped, biting parodies.”

Still, as incongruous as the idea of GOGs felt, it also intrigued me. The woman who had used the phrase didn’t seem like a particularly lemonadey sort of person, which meant I had to be missing something. And yet, if my grief was a gift, then not only did I need to learn to feel thankful, I also needed to direct that gratitude toward the “giver.” Frankly, imagining being indebted to some of the people and things that have “given” me grief made me feel, well…awful.

Because I wasn’t able to muster the sincerity that true gratitude requires, and I also knew that my sardonic list of GOGs was probably in bad taste and not funny, I decided to give up on solving the mystery, at least for a little while. But then, months later, while I was lying in bed unable to sleep, all of a sudden the GOG concept reappeared. I hadn’t been contemplating grief, though. I had been thinking about Kate Bowles.

Kate lives on the other side of the world, and we have never met. I only know her because, lucky for me, she happened to see a tweet of my husband’s with a link to my blog. When Kate decided to click on that link, she had just discovered she has cancer. As a result, she read about my depression and desire not to abandon my children at a time when she was also worrying about how her illness would affect her children.

Kate could have focused on all the differences between cancer and depression. Instead, she recognized we were both in the position of wanting to shield our children from the devastating loss of their mothers. Clearly, we would need to do very different things to prevent that loss, but our goals were the same. As Kate described it, we are both “really trying to find the language and the means for being well, while accepting that we are not well.”

Since reading my first post, Kate has sent me encouraging, thoughtful messages about my writing; she has recommended my blog to others; she has shared my posts on Twitter; she has written poignant comments in response to some of those posts; and she has even gone out of her way to stand up for me and others like me on her blog (see here and here). Kate has done all of this for me, even though I am a relative stranger/virtual friend who has very little to offer her. At times, her caring and consideration have truly cheered me, warding off some of my mind’s darkest thoughts. Yet, as I search for ways to thank Kate for all of these gestures, I know I will never be able to help her cure her body’s diseased cells.

Over these last six months, I had been trying to write about Kate, but everything I wrote felt insufficient. I kept getting caught up in thinking about how I couldn’t get it right with my powerless words that wouldn’t change a thing. Then the other night as I was berating myself for failing Kate, that phrase about “the gifts of grieving” floated up seemingly out of nowhere, and finally it dawned on me. I had been looking at the GOG mindset from the wrong perspective. The grievers weren’t the ones receiving the gifts; they were giving them.

Before I could manage to figure out how to thank or help Kate, once again she had helped me. I realized that Kate was offering me all of these gifts, in part, because she is grieving. Her generosity and empathy are “gifts of grieving.” Soon, I began thinking more about empathy and grief and was reminded of Andrew Solomon. I remembered that after listening to Solomon’s TED talk about his experience with depression, I had written down just two short sentences. When I went back to look at my scribbles, there it was. Solomon said, “Our needs are our greatest assets… It turns out I’ve learned to give all the things I need.” As I reread those words while contemplating Kate’s seemingly unwaivering empathy, I felt foolish. The ideas had been there all along right beside me; I just hadn’t seen them.

With my cynical, pessimistic tendencies, I almost entirely obscured or really inverted my narrow view of grief and giving. In my rush to dismiss the unfamiliar, I reduced my vision to a myopic spotlight that not only blacked out the world around it, but also turned what was right in front of me upside down.

Grief has the capacity to fuel empathy. And Kate’s tank is full. Kate could direct all of that grief inward, and then perhaps her sorrow would fester and turn to despondency or bitterness. Except Kate has hope. Not the sort of lemondadey, oblivious hope that scares me, though. Kate’s hope is the kind that Rebecca Solnit pictures as a

frilly pink dress that embarrassingly exposes your knees…uncertain, tentative, girlish. It faces uncertainty and unpredictability directly. It acknowledges that it knows it doesn’t know. It takes risks and sometimes it fails.

Kate’s grief engenders empathy and not acrimony because Kate cultivates hope instead of despair. She does this by searching for kindness while also calling out insensitivity, by believing in people and inclusivity while also refusing to follow along blindly, and by constantly acquiring knowledge while also tolerating not always knowing the answer.

I can’t fully explain why my initial response to GOGs was an ironic flip-book. However, I can say that it was probably the clothing metaphors, upside down points of view, and wrong perspectives that led my mind to Nick Park‘s wonderful Wallace and Grommit movie. As I sit here writing, Wallace’s voice is in my head repeating “It’s the wrong trousers. The wrong trousers!”, and I see those techno trousers carrying me away, turning me upside down, all in pursuit of that no-good desire for certainty.

Without those green robotic pants, I am not sure which way to go. So, I will try the most obvious direct route.

“Dear Kate,  With all the grief, empathy, and hope in my heart, which *you* have taught me to acknowledge and appreciate, I want to thank you, and say that I wish I had more to give you.”

Runaway (part IV)

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(Part I here, Part II here, Part III here)

Other than the cot, the mattress, the covers, and my body, there were no unattached objects in the jail cell. I remember that the smallness of the space wasn’t so bad. Even 30 years later, though, I haven’t forgotten the blankness that both drained and filled that room. The space seemed almost two-dimensional, but, unlike a paper cut-out or a line drawing, the emptiness felt heavy, as if it could squash me.

I can recall wanting to close my eyes to block out my view of what was missing, but I also wanted to make sure that I stayed awake. Even though I was exhausted and thoroughly defeated, I also knew that my father would be arriving soon to take me back, and I didn’t want to waste any of the time alone that I had left.

At some point I realized that, although the police were detaining me in this cell, they were not arresting me. No one had taken my picture or fingerprints. I had no idea if my mother could or would press charges against me, but at least in that moment it appeared that she wasn’t going to try to punish me before I returned home.

What would she say this time? The previous winter at the hospital, she had been so angry. Raging, red-faced, monster angry. After I hadn’t succeeded in permanently escaping, after I had vomited up all the pills, I had ended up at the hospital where my mother had gone to medical school—the one where she had done her residency in child psychiatry, and the same one where she sometimes still practiced as a physician. No one had seemed worried that I would die, and yet they had insisted on taking me to the hospital. Not to the closest one, though. Instead, they had brought me to Johns Hopkins, where my mother could not remain anonymous.

And so, she had stormed into the hospital room and had shouted: “How could you do this to me!?” Not, “I am so happy you’re still here.” Not, “I love you and would miss you if you were gone.” Not, “I’m here for you and I want to help you.” My mother didn’t really know how to be that way with me.

I did occasionally ask my mother why she seemed particularly aggressive and cold toward me. Sometimes, she would explain her behavior by pointing out that my “father always said ‘I love you,’ and he was lying.” Honestly, I never understood why her relationship with my father affected her relationship with me. Maybe she just wanted to remind me how my father had betrayed her. Perhaps she needed me to understand the intensity of her pain and her limitations as a result. My father had cheated on her, or so it seemed. He had sworn that his affair with the nanny hadn’t begun until after the separation, but that made no sense, given how quickly the two of them had moved in together.

Still, I preferred my mother’s bit about my father’s empty displays of affection to the other way she often tried to explain her anger toward me. She would declare that I was “the lightning rod in the family,” and she seemed to want me to wear that title like a badge of courage. She was wrong about lightning rods, though. They attract electrical currents, but they do not absorb the strikes. Instead, they function as a pathway to the ground and are only one component in a whole system of protection. I felt more like a saturated paper towel dissolving in the pouring rain.

Little Bird

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Tempted by escape and relief, I will try to fly away. If I hope that the world ahead of me will be better than where I’ve been, I might allow myself a moment of maybe.

I might get it right. I might find my way. I might learn to belong. I might live as me.

Except when I am blinded by my desperate desire for change—for betterness—I won’t notice the familiarity of what is reflected in the glass. So, I will slam head first into the flat facsimile of anything-but-this.

Then, like a complete fool, I will lie on the disappointing ground, stunned by the reality that was right in front of me. Splayed out, beaten down, and unable to tolerate even one more embarrassing, speculative attempt, I will dream of surrender.

Loved ones will want to avoid seeing how awkwardly I’ve landed. Instead, they will cheer, plead, and chirp, “You will recover. It will get better. You’re going to be all right.”

I am only a little bird, though. I can’t keep crashing into windows.

Eventually, someone will have to find a shoebox, make a soft bed, cover me up, dig a shallow grave, bury me in the backyard, and let me go.

Breaking Plates

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Reach (LG)

Two weeks ago, I was sitting alone on a stool in the corner of my kitchen with my back against the wall. I had been trying to cry, to discharge some of my sadness and anger, but I was stuck in nothingness. I felt hopeless, and a barking voice in my head was scolding me, insisting that I pull myself together.

People say things like “Pull yourself together!” all the time, but for some reason on this night that expression really irritated me. I mean, if someone tells you to pull yourself together, it suggests that they can see you’ve fallen apart, right? If you didn’t know me, though, you might have thought I looked sad or distraught, but you would not have been able to see the extent of my not-togetherness.

That’s the thing about depression—there is often nothing to see. I felt that I had fallen apart. I felt entirely at a loss. I felt that there was no one who could help me, and that there was no way to make any of this better. Except, I had no way to prove that these things were happening. All of those symptoms were just feelings in my head.

Thinking about the invisibility of those feelings drove me to do something that I had never done before.

I calmly removed two large dinner plates from the kitchen cabinet and clutched them to my chest. After a little bit, I gently placed one of the plates in my lap. Then, tightly gripping the other plate in one hand, I raised it above my head and hurled the dish across the kitchen floor. The jarring sound of the plate shattering as it crashed against the wooden floorboards and the spectacular sight of ceramic shards spraying everywhere felt cathartic. In fact, smashing that dish was so satisfying that I picked up the other plate and launched it, too.

After the second plate exploded, I snapped out of my nothingness trance and began to cry. Effortless, palliative tears started traveling down my cheeks. I had seen it in movies, people in fits of rage breaking things to release or express their anger and disappointment. I wasn’t surprised that the act of throwing those plates felt liberating and even empowered me to cry, but there was something else that I hadn’t expected.

Seeing the fragments of china strewn all over the floor was actually aesthetically pleasing to me, and even more than that, it was emotionally reassuring. I saw brokenness. Brokenness that was visible. Brokenness that was tangible and real. Brokenness that was indisputable.

I often feel broken, but no one can ever see it. There are no visual markers. There is nothing to measure, and there is no way to test for the pervasiveness or severity of the damage. So far, no blood tests or brain scans or x-rays can definitively demonstrate that I am struggling. The diagnosis of my illness often depends on my own ability to explain my feelings. Unfortunately, part of the difficulty in living with depression is that you don’t believe in your capacity to do anything, including accurately describing your experience. It’s crazy-making, really. Nothing feels right, or certain, or true. You just feel caught in an eddying pool of insecurity, self-loathing, and loneliness.

Looking at the mix of plate remnants, sharp-edged debris, and porcelain dust scattered around my kitchen, though, I felt a beautiful sense of clarity. The events and the reasons surrounding this brokenness were completely unambiguous. I knew what had happened and why, and I understood how to attend to the problem. I stood up, found a broom, a pan, and a brown bag, and began sweeping up and throwing away the mess. It was easy.

That kind of straightforward certainty does not exist when I try to address my depression. I wish there were a way to open me up and see the problem and immediately know how to fix it. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to look through a window or open a small door to allow doctors to peer directly into my own personal brokenness? Unlike the ruined plates on the floor, though, depression remains invisible, hard to treat, and difficult to explain.

I thought about taking a picture of the demolished plates as a way to document my newfound depression metaphor, but I decided I would write about it instead. And that’s precisely what I would have done the next day, if hadn’t been for some unforeseeable irony.

The day after my plate-breaking epiphany was April Fool’s Day. I was in-line skating in a nearby park, trying desperately to improve my mood, when someone’s off-leash black dog decided to run under my legs as it passed me. With just two small errors—the dog owner’s choice to ignore the leash law, and the dog’s inability to accurately judge his size or mine—I was sent crashing to the ground. I knew immediately that something was terribly wrong with my arm. It was excruciatingly painful, and I couldn’t move it. I was taken away in an ambulance, given various IV drugs, x-rayed, and admitted to the hospital. I had severely dislocated and crushed my shoulder and would need to have surgery the next day to “pull” my shoulder “back together.”

In other words, in case you missed it, after specifically wishing that there were a way to display or prove my brokenness, I literally shattered something inside my body. There were now *real* broken pieces in me that needed fixing, and the perpetrator in this accident happened to be a real live black dog. There’s my irony.

Today, I am still terribly depressed, but now I am writing this post with only one hand. There is also now a metal, sci-fi-looking plate with spikes in my shoulder holding the bone together. In addition to a good deal of bruising and swelling, there is an eight-inch incision across my shoulder and down the top of my arm. If you saw me, you would probably have no difficulty discerning that I am in a lot pain.

I feel like there should be some moral to this story, but I can’t see one just yet. I will say this, though: at no time did anyone tell me to pull my shoulder together. The only reason I am not in more pain or more discombobulated right now is that three strangers at the park, four EMT’s, five medical techs, 20 nurses, four doctors, and many family members and friends were all able to see that I was injured. They all wanted to help. They knew what to do and did it.

The Fairest of All

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If I were to ask you to think of a person who is overly sensitive or someone who cries too easily, who comes to mind? Maybe you picturedChild temper tantrumpeyton02 2Old Spice Mom

 

a child having a temper tantrum,

 

 

 

 

 

a lovesick teenager,

 

 

 

or a mother realizing her son is no longer a child (you need to see this). There are an infinite number of images that could have occurred to you, but probably very few of you envisioned a male politician.

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Barack Obama

 

Why is that? I ask because on a list of 10 Politicians Who Turned on the Tears in Public, nine of them are men. Of course, I realize this discrepancy is a reflection of the number of men in office, rather than evidence of which gender is more likely to cry. That said, the fact remains that many so-called unemotional and steadfast male leaders are actually crying just as much if not more than their supposedly weak and mentally unstable female counterparts. Yet, it was not that long ago (2008 US presidential election) that a huge stink was made when

080109_hillarytears_popHilary Clinton became teary eyed on the campaign trail. At the time, many people attributed Clinton’s “lapse” either to her being an overly emotional woman or, worse, a cold-hearted dragon lady who was feigning tenderness for the sake of her political ambition.

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Snow White

Evil Dragon Lady

Evil Dragon Lady

 

 

 

 

 

Believe it or not, these intractable archetypes come from fairy tales. Those childhood stories that seem like harmless fluff are in reality extremely influential and effective at transmitting and proliferating messages about cultural norms of identity. We grow up hearing the stories and seeing the movies, and soon we become accustomed to identifying the stereotypes. We are primed to label women as impotent or evil and unable to control their emotions and to expect men to be valiant, strong, and always dry-eyed.

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Man of Steel

 

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Princess Anna & Queen Elsa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The daily onslaught of stories and imagery based on these socially constructed roles makes us inured and oblivious to their impact. So, for example, when Disney changes a few things in their latest princess movie Frozen, we fawn all over the improvements while blindly accepting some of the more insidious and arguably more important messages about identity.

The underlying premise of Frozen is that Queen Elsa must learn to restrain her unbridled and dangerous emotions. When Elsa loses control of her intense feelings or really openly expresses any negative ones, people get hurt. Elsa has magical superpowers to transform and create things out of ice and snow, but when she becomes angry, frustrated, or scared, her powers become a liability.

"FROZEN" (Pictured) ELSA. ©2013 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Elsa’s unstable, threatening anger

As a result, the queen spends most of the movie sequestered or in self-imposed exile. Eventually, Elsa escapes and sees the light, realizing that if she just allows sisterly love into her heart, it will melt both the ice and all of her bad, unwanted feelings.

Surely, Disney knows enough about fairy tales to recognize the long and detrimental history of categorizing women as “hysterical,” incapable of benignly governing, and often not fit for society. My guess is that Disney honestly hoped that Frozen would refute some of those unfair representations of women. Nevertheless, I worry that many of their misdirected efforts have been glossed over and ignored because we assume all of their intentions were good.

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Elsa and Anna’s love makes the bad stuff go away

Frozen does contain some intentional and positive variations to several of the sexist tropes that we’ve come to expect from Disney, but looks can be deceiving in more ways than one. After seeing Frozen, I couldn’t help thinking about the relief the Trojans must have felt as they pulled that giant, beautiful horse into the safety of their city, assuming that the Greeks were turning away in defeat.

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The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Domenico Tiepolo (1773)

War analogies might seem melodramatic, but it is a constant fight. I am not saying that Disney consciously wants to attack people, but they certainly wield a great deal of power to affect perception. And it is not just narrow definitions of femininity that need alteration.

Just last week on Twitter, a man who suffers from bipolar disorder was complaining about the lack of resources for men with BD, in particular for fathers who need support. This shortfall stems from our prejudices about both masculinity and mental illness. Statistically, men are just as likely as women to suffer from BD and obviously fathers and mothers are equally responsible for their children. Yet just four years ago, the US 2010 Census counted the 32% of children at home with their fathers as “children in childcare.” Unfortunately, though, facts and figures can’t compete with centuries of rich story telling. Thus, myths about mental health, male stoicism, and fatherhood prevail.

Wilhelm Grimm, Walt Disney, and others manipulated and bowdlerized fairy tales to suit their sexist agendas, and many movie corporations and authors continue to follow in their footsteps. However, the truth is we are all products of our culturally determined and limiting ideologies. When I watched Frozen, I wasn’t seething (or celebrating) at every turn. For every five sexist bits that infuriated me, there were probably five others that made me smile, and ten more that I have learned to accept. It would be nice if there were some kind of unified, clear-cut bad guy in all of this. There are certainly an awful lot of older, white, wealthy, heterosexual, mentally “not-ill,” Christian men in power. Still, I fear we are all complicit victims and perpetrators.

I first wrote this post enumerating the ways that Disney screwed up their opportunity to break the mold with Frozen, and I would still be happy to count the ways with anyone who’s interested. I realized, though, that telling you what to see or how to feel will not solve the problem. Disney and the like will continue to persuade and guide us as long as we let them. You have every right to enjoy movies like Frozen or The Avengers, but know that how you interpret and digest those movies will likely have an impact on whether you think Obama’s crying is genuine and praiseworthy and Clinton’s tears are calculated and nefarious.

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The Avengers

I believe the Trojans were not foolish in valuing the beauty and artistry of a monumental statue. If you think about it, that gorgeous horse with all the Greek warriors in its belly could have been an asset in more ways than one. The mistake was not in appreciating the appearance of the gift; it was in failing to examine the circumstances. The Trojans looked at the situation out of context and lost perspective as a result. If they had been more aware of their biased judgement or willing to consider their own fallibility, things might have ended very differently.

 

Runaway (Part III)

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Part III (Part I here, Part II here)

At six years-old, I crammed some peanuts, granola bars, and easy-open cans of peaches into my Bionic Woman lunchbox with the baby blue plastic handle and ran to a park a block away from my house. I hid in a dell under the lower limbs of a huge fir tree. Beneath the expanse of dark, overlapping branches, I sat cross-legged in my shorts and hugged my cold, metal lunchbox as if it could protect me against the spiky pine needles poking into my thighs. I hadn’t brought any blankets, and the only clothes I had were the ones I was wearing. I can’t recall if anyone found me or if I went back on my own, but I do remember that after a little while the mild prickly sensation on my legs began to burn and itch like a rash.

When I was ten, I filled up a whole backpack with food and clothes to prepare for life on my own. That time, I was old enough to ride my bike a few miles away from home, but I had nowhere to go.

California was supposed to be different. This time, I had packed well. Long Beach was a far away place that my parents knew nothing about. Still, I had ruined it. And now that I was caught, I would lose this story, too. 

My parents would twist it, turn it, and change it while claiming that the story was still mine—for my benefit, to explain my dysfunction. Their stories wouldn’t be about me, though. I could try to tell my own version, but who would believe me over the adults? I would only sound difficult, out-of-control, and once again bad.

* * *

The policemen at the station were still trying to get my attention, but they had dropped the young love angle and had moved on to other things. “Where’s the scar that’s supposed to be on your nose?” one of them asked. “I can’t see it,” replied another, “but it’s her.” I winced when I heard them mention my nose. Presumably, for them, the scar was just a confusing detail that had piqued their curiosity. They had no way of knowing how much that question would sting me.

There is a very thin, white, diagonal line that crosses the bridge of my nose. If these officers knew about it, my father must have told them. When I was three years old, a bookshelf fell on me and broke my nose. For as long as I can remember, my father had relished the opportunity to recount in detail the horror of waking up to find his daughter standing next to his bed, her face at his eye level and covered in gushing blood.

In the eleven years between that morning and my trip to Long Beach, my nose and its imperfections continued to be strangely significant in my father’s mind. He had repeatedly offered to pay for plastic surgery to repair my supposedly damaged face, but I had repeatedly refused him. I thought my father enjoyed describing his experience with my accident because the goriness was titillating in a lurid sort of way. Only now did it occur to me that maybe he retold that story so often because he felt he needed to explain the way I looked. The reason that these police officers were scrutinizing my nose, in search of a scar that most people would never notice, was because my father had identified that flaw as a distinguishing feature of my appearance. That’s how he saw me.

Honestly, I was ashamed of the bump that was still visible after the break had healed. I knew that the crookedness in my profile was particularly noticeable when you looked at me from the right side. Somehow, though, I also knew that fixing my deformed cartilage and the accompanying scar, wouldn’t really change anything that mattered.

The door on my right buzzed, clicked, and swung open. A woman I hadn’t previously seen or heard walked in and told me to put my arms out to the side. She patted me down, took my watch, and picked up my shoes. When she finished, she led me to a cell where I lay down on a cot. The mattress was covered with a musty, tan, polyester blanket, and I noticed how scratchy it felt.

(Part IV here)

The Skull Banging Descent

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Tomorrow, I will not wake up and find that my mind has let me go. When I open my eyes the morning after that, I still will not see the sense in it all. And as the weeks go by, whether I spend my days wallowing or sleeping or drawing or writing, I will not find my way out of these thoughts.

Unwarranted sorrow and despair will continue to greedily fill the space in my head. Thick, concrete, windowless walls of feelings pressing against me will close in. An all-consuming kind of grief will soon prevail in blocking me in and shutting everyone else out. Before you know it, the baseless sadness will have flattened me.

Walled off in my own special prison, I will lie there mutely staring at the blankness. I still might momentarily fantasize about pushing back or breaking away. Perhaps, I will imagine banging my skull against the cold hardness surrounding me. But it will be too late. My bones might have had the strength to withstand blows on concrete, but the distance between my head and those walls will no longer be great enough for me to have any impact.

Outside my head, people will tell me to try to remember “before” or they’ll say to search for a glimmer of hope. I will obediently listen and look for any sign of alteration in the tiny sliver of my mind that remains accessible. When I hear the dead silence and see the opaque blackness, though, I won’t feel discouraged. I will welcome that promising quietness with all its power to soothe and absorb me in the end.

Depression: Not an Opportunity to Play Doctor

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(Disclaimer: I would like to preemptively apologize for some of the vitriol that follows. I couldn’t help it.)

Depression is a medical illness like any other. The difference between depressed people and not-depressed people has to do with a deleterious shift in brain chemistry or physiology. The neurons might be firing at different rates or in different ways, or there might be an overproduction of hormones that cause fear and sadness and a decrease in hormones that make you feel good and at ease. Sadly, though, many people who don’t understand mental illness believe that—unlike, say, a bacterial infection—depression is something that can easily be controlled, prevented, or denied if you just have the “right” attitude.

For some reason, these misguided notions about mental illness often lead to people strangely assuming they have some unique understanding of what the “real” problems are and how best to treat them. I have come across quite a number of misinformed, well-wishers—with absolutely no medical background whatsoever—who feel compelled to bestow their unsolicited wisdom upon me. I guess because I am lucky enough to have depression, on several different occasions, various people I barely know have told me to take up an interesting hobby, smoke pot, go and watch the sun rise, get a grip, try using psychedelic drugs, or just put a smile on my face. I realize that people offer me these instructions ostensibly because they want to help. These trite suggestions, though, do not feel at all helpful; they feel invasive and disrespectful.

Despite my experience with these sorts of directives, I am still always stunned by the arrogance and presumptuousness of anyone who thinks they have better insight into an illness that has confounded some of the brightest people in the world. My only explanation for the audacity of the I-know-best-people is either they don’t really believe depression is an illness or they don’t realize that the complexity of the problem cannot be solved by laypeople with superficial bandaids or snake oil remedies.

I don’t have a problem with people having different points of view or varying opinions on mental health issues. But if you discover that someone you know is mentally ill, you should not see that as an invitation to force your opinions on them. In case it wasn’t clear before, let me just say that people with depression do not need you to pass judgement or dole out advice. Furthermore, before you decide to play doctor, you might want to ask your intended specimen, if she actually wants to be your guinea pig. Otherwise, if someone wants medical advice, she can go to see a medical professional.

To equal things out a little, I would like to offer my own personal, albeit uninvited, “medical” warning to people who may be contemplating their doctor-playing opportunities. When mere acquaintances try to pass off their unwanted, naive ideas as legitimate approaches to treating my depression, I often contemplate returning the favor of “generously reaching out.” To date, I have been able to suppress my impulse to strangle these people, but I make no promises about future incidents. Of course, other people may feel differently. Even so, seeing as how I am fairly averse to violence in most circumstances, I would hate to think what a more aggressive person might do.

We don’t expect hemophiliacs to just talk themselves into producing the necessary protein so that their blood will coagulate at the right times. We wouldn’t dream of questioning the validity of their illness, either. And hopefully, no one would suggest that a hemophiliac, who was hemorrhaging, should just smile and quickly look for a joint to light up while shouting “Clot blood! Clot!”. Presumably, you wouldn’t want to risk a hemophiliac’s life with this sort of unfounded—even if well-meaning—pseudo-medical advice.

In the future, if you are considering pushing your inexperienced notions onto someone who has not asked for your help, perhaps you could picture the hemophiliac bleeding to death while you preach about groovy drugs and “positive attitude” interventions. Admittedly, depression is not entirely analogous to hemophilia, but it can be just as fatal and dangerous. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for Americans. (Hemophilia isn’t even in the same ballpark.)

So, to the people out there evaluating the validity of my depression and to the people considering the “right” approach to treating this illness, please do not assume that you somehow know better or understand more than the vast community of scientists, psychiatrists, therapists, neurologists, and healthcare professionals who have actually studied and worked with mental health patients for years. That kind of thinking could seem a little delusional. And if you’re not careful, people might start to think that you are the crazy one.

Swarms of Doubt

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When doubt crawls all over me, the temptation to quit feels magnetic. Like a gravitational pull, doubt tries to draw me back to the security of what I know.

As I contemplate posting something new today, I can feel my fugitive impulses attempting to yank me back. I know if I click the publish button, I will trigger all kinds of worries about my writing and my mistakes, and the responses, and my humiliation, and my lack of purpose and the point of having a blog, and the constant insecurity, and the unavoidable disappointment, and my incompetence and my worthlessness. The whirring swarm will take over, and then I will feel that profound (magnetic) urge to flee.

I don’t want to give up blogging, but when I try to fight the apprehension and distrust circling in my head, the feelings often begin to accelerate and amplify until their centripetal force becomes so strong that resisting defeat seems nearly impossible. I wish I could brush off or preemptively steel myself against doubt and regret. I wish I could stay in the present moment—tolerating the distress of not-knowing and the embarrassment of being me—instead of focusing on what I did wrong in the past or what I will screw up in the future. Unfortunately, though, depression breeds and fosters pessimism. Hence, I mostly hear the familiar admonishing voices in my mind yelling “You’re not good enough! You always ruin it in the end! Surrender this instant!”.

Hope and self-confidence sound attractive in theory, but honestly, those concepts feel dangerous to me. Doubt feels more reliable, and hopelessness seems like the most appealing and prudent choice of all. You can’t be disappointed if you do not have hope. Furthermore, if you are sure failure is unavoidable, you are already prepared for the worst. True safety is never wanting or expecting anything at all. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out dangers are real, but risk is subjective.

Of course, I can’t always suppress my desires and occasionally dreams creep in without my permission. When those expectations leave me feeling poorer, less capable, or at greater risk of getting crushed, though, I wonder why I ever let hope sneak past my defenses.

Posting my writing on this blog is probably as senseless, arbitrary, and likely to fail as trying to share one of my drawings by tearing it into a thousand pieces and throwing it out the window. (Those shreds of paper wouldn’t get very far, and even if the wind could carry them somewhere beyond my small world, most people would never notice them—ragged scraps look an awful lot like random litter.) Still, I try to convince myself that I might be wrong. I think, “Maybe tomorrow I’ll wake up in a better mood and see things differently.” A week has gone by, though. If my attitude has improved, it is happening at a glacial pace.

I could stop posting, stop repeatedly exposing myself to subjective criticism. This might diminish the number of my acute attacks of self-loathing and prevent some of the outbreaks of blossoming hope, but I will no longer have the same opportunities to connect with people. On the other hand, if I continue “throwing” my work “out the window” into the internet ether, people might want to “catch” or exchange “ragged scraps” with me, but I will have to accept both the doubt swarms and the perilous glimpses of optimism.

I cannot deny that there have been many moments when I have enjoyed both writing and sharing the work. I understand that those things would not have happened without this blog. Yet, I still don’t know what I am doing, and I feel even less sure about where I belong.

Although in the process of writing this post, I realized that if I were eagerly hopeful and no longer teeming with doubt, I wouldn’t be me. No matter what I decide to do, I will almost certainly have to contend with large clouds of formidable doubt following me wherever I go. I also clearly have not worked out the whole banish-hope-forever-thing; it continues to pop up every once in a while despite my concerted efforts to stomp on the conspicuous blooms. Most importantly, though, I recognized that doubt and hope are actually quite similar. They both ask the question “What if?” and neither sentiment can predict inevitability.

When I used to stand at my easel staring at a big blank piece of paper, I always felt the “what ifs” bouncing back and forth in my head. I would begin drawing because an image or an idea had inspired me. I would try out some things that would work and some that wouldn’t, and the drawing would develop and change and then change some more. Eventually, I would get somewhere that seemed interesting or felt right, and then I would change that, as well. I never knew ahead of time where I would end up, but the discoveries along the way surprised and fascinated me. That’s why I did it. That’s what I loved. In my experience, the process of writing follows that same sort of trajectory, and maybe blogging can, too.

I can’t know what will happen, or how people will respond to the work, or where I will end up, and that unpredictability is nerve racking. However, I don’t have the capacity to alter the risks involved or to change the final outcome with either my overabundance of doubt or my lack of hope. Neither feeling can promise me anything.

Pablo Picasso asserted that, “You have to begin drawing to know what you want to draw.” I suppose this tenet could also apply to starting and developing a blog. I have just begun the trying and the changing, and, so far, my curiosity has outweighed my fear. I guess I am still, as I said in one of my first posts, “a reckless and frenzied explorer,” asking “What if?”.

This past week, I have been hiding, looking for the most convenient way out. I haven’t found it, yet. So for now, I am going to put aside my search for the nearest escape ladder or emergency hatch while I try to concentrate on experimenting with and testing out the process of blogging. I have no illusions about solving this mystery any time soon. But it is a mystery nonetheless, and I am curious about it. I recognize that it might end badly, but I’ll never know for sure if I am not willing to wait and see.

Crumpled and Caged (journal entries 1/23/13-2/12/13)

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1/23/13

I am finding that I want to break things all the time. I want to scream and punch and stomp. And I have no tolerance for any added frustration. I want to destroy everything—most especially me. I am angry. I’m angry at me, at all my inabilities, shortcomings, and failures. I’m angry that I let other people define me or that I gave them reason to define me as they did.

1/25/13

The assumption that life is a universally desirable endeavor—a sacred absolute—makes no sense. People can list all sorts of reasons for insisting that life is important or valuable. But really the only legitimate reason to stop someone’s suicide is for the sake of those who will be left behind.

2/10/13

I changed my clothes so that I could try to exercise, but I was only able to take a few steps out of the closet before my whole body started internally contracting. I crumpled up on the floor and started to cry.

2/11/13

I saw a doctor today. As I sat slumped down on the couch across from her trying to stave off the tears that were welling up behind the words coming out of my mouth, I had to resist the incredible and embarrassing urge to cover up by throwing my winter parka over my head.

2/12/13

Sometimes the dog refuses to go into her crate at night. I guess her eagerness to please or her sense of duty aren’t as strong as her desire to resist feeling and being caged and alone. Caged and alone every night—seems kind of cruel and senseless.