Thursday, September 20, 2018

Fundamentals

There are good days and there are bad days, and for all of my life I've tried to make the bad days look good.

When you're little and things are off at home - when there are secrets to be kept, unstable adults to be managed, abuse to be endured - you learn how to make everything appear pleasant; you learn how to hide. It's a difficult lesson to unlearn, because your whole life is based on a fundamental dishonesty, and you've never had the crucial childhood experience of valuing truth. When other kids are owning up to their childish misdeeds, when your teachers encourage integrity, when you should be building an indelible identity, you're working on the daily task of making everything okay. You struggle and strive to maintain a facade because you know that somehow, if people see what's going on, your world will fall apart, and it will be your fault.

And when you grow up - when the legacy of all those lies eats away at you from the inside - you don't really know how to be a person. How to tell the truth. How to stick up for yourself. The lies poison you even as you smile and assure others that everything is fine.

I'm turning 32 this year, and in a few days I'm also reaching two years of sobriety. A lot of my growing up has happened in these past two years, because active drinking was just another way to hide. I'd mix my craft cocktails and smile and count down the seconds until I wasn't thinking about the lies anymore. Near the end of my alcohol use I'd pour my five o'clock Sazerac - because I stuck firm to my rules of when and what I was allowed to drink - and I would think, I don't even want to remember my name. And that habit was just an extension of the habits I learned when I was small. No one knew that alcohol was becoming a problem for me, just like no one knew that there wasn't enough food in the house, or that I didn't always have clean clothes, or that my first small glass of beer was poured by a parent when I was under ten years old. 

In these two years, I've had to face a lot about myself and a lot about the things that happened when I was young. It's been a constant dialogue between the person I want to be and the helpless person I was. I've unlearned so many bad habits, and I've made so much progress, but the urge to make everything look good has remained. That was my first lesson. That was my lodestone, the structure of my existence. 

I've spent a lot of time asking myself what my calling is in life. I don't have a normal job, so how do I justify myself? How do I describe what I do? And what I've come back to, again and again, is that I feel called to be honest about my struggles with mental illness. I've hoped that by telling my story I could help someone else, or a handful of someones. I've tried to speak plainly about depression, mania, disordered eating - I've tried to communicate my normal so that others might feel less alone. 

But I find myself bumping up against that fundamental dishonesty, because I still live my life as if everything is just fine. Nothing to see but a polished veneer, nothing to be worried about as I dazzle and deflect. Most of the time I get away with it, but I know down to my toes that I can't continue. My life is so beautiful in many respects, but if I don't deal with the hard stuff, the ugly stuff - if I don't admit to myself and to others that I have bad days - I am sober in name only. I am constitutionally incapable of being honest. 

When I was small I never learned that there was both value and joy in speaking honestly. I never understood that I might get help if I asked for it. I learned, instead, that I could make adults smile if I were clever and well dressed - I learned that a cutting joke or a vintage gown could distract from the bitterness at home. And I went home, and I drank, and I spun out the evenings in music and conversation, and I came to understand that things weren't too bitter if the vodka was cold enough.  

While my father passed from life into death - while I could have, should have felt the pain and sorrow of his illness and of those long irrevocable martini afternoons - I grit my teeth and layered on makeup and didn't let anyone see me cry. I didn't let anyone see I was angry. And I'm still recovering from that denial - I'm tired all the time, world-weary and sore. 

As I approach my two year soberversary, I know I have to let go of that tightfisted control over what other people might see. I know I must ask for help when I need it, and that I must set limits to preserve my mental health, and that I cannot simply fake it until I fall apart. And if my calling in life is really to be honest - if I want to speak my truth and help people who are too scared to speak their own - I must actually live up to that ideal.   

Dishonesty is its own sickness and its own addiction. If you can fool others, it whispers, you can fool yourself.   

So here I am, almost two years sober, and I've been ground down like a river rock and worn smooth like sea glass. I've been blessed in so many ways, and I'm also quietly angry a lot of the time; my anxiety is a significant issue and I get traumatic flashbacks in the bathtub. On days when I can't get past the bad things I struggle to write, paint, play an instrument; on good days I am aware of just how lucky I am. And I worry, rather too much, about making other people uncomfortable - I worry about awkward conversations, or denial from people I love, or rage and resentment as I set limits and stand up for myself - but I'm going to funnel all of my ambition into this new pursuit, honesty. I think it may help others; I know it will help me.

I need to learn this new lesson, the first lesson and the most important - 

Always tell the truth. Even when it's hard. Even if it hurts.

It might not look good. But eventually, life will get so much better.         

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

First Day

I didn't go back to school today.

When I was in the sixth grade I developed my first lesson plan. I came from a family of teachers, and I was passionate about Shakespeare, and I imagined explaining iambic pentameter as a heartbeat, the iamb and the I am. I held that lesson plan close to me for a long time - as I got older I wanted to be an actress, a singer, even a housewife - but in my mind I felt the inevitable pull of education.

It seemed like destiny. It seemed the simplest answer to the question, "What do you do?"

I have been blessed with wonderful teachers, both those within my family and those at school. My fourth grade teacher - the inspiration for my Shakespearean lesson - gave me a passion for language, for storytelling, for literature. My middle school drama and music teachers recognized the value of me, the odd and angry girl in the corner, and my eighth grade English teacher encouraged my creative writing and made me feel like my imagination was worth something more than escapism and dreams.

My high school French teacher was probably the most gifted educator I have ever met. He taught in the guise of various characters, all identical brothers with vastly different personalities (one even on the run from the police) - and in between laughter and puzzlement and warm affection for this strange, strange man, I discovered I had learned French, almost effortlessly. 

I've had acting teachers who told their own fantastical stories, who required my vulnerability and who called me on my nonsense. I've had philosophy professors who taught me just how limited I am - challenging, demanding, thrilling. My writing professors stripped away my pretensions; my anthropology professors made me question what it means to be human. And as the child of teachers I've been keenly aware of this incredible gift - passing on knowledge. There is no higher calling.

And it is not for me.

That's probably the hardest lesson I've ever had to learn. In some ways it has broken my heart.

I didn't go back to school today. I know what that first day feels like - for about five minutes everything is fresh and new and exciting and terrifying, and then you settle in for the long haul, nine months of perseverance. Old behaviors crop up and new behaviors blossom, habits to be unlearned, home life hurts tucked away for a few hours, if at all. Each child is a knot of complexity; every kid has baggage. The teachers certainly do. And in all of that the goal - passing on not only knowledge but love and support and a capacity for survival - must be achieved.

I never was able to see it as a job. I think maybe there are some teachers who can go in and be unmoved - who have an impermeable membrane, a concrete-hard wall, a barricade against all of that childhood complexity. I didn't have that barrier - teaching seemed more like a spiritual calling than a way to make a paycheck. I was entrenched.

What the kids felt, I felt, too. Simply being around that many people every day was like being in a panicked crowd, each person wearing a different offensive perfume, jumping, shouting, crying; I overloaded. My sensitivity was what made me good at my job - I think teachers do need to understand their students, to respect their needs - and yet I had a surplus, my heart too tender.

It's hard to know where that tenderness intersects with my own fragility as someone with chronic illnesses. That's the tricky bit I'm still working on - in every aspect of my life. And having any illness throws into question what life might be like if one were entirely healthy. In other words - am I not meant to teach, or am I incapable of teaching?

Part of my daily work is coming to terms. I am in many ways entirely capable, and yet I know there are things which are a lot harder for me than for others. Being around people can be quite challenging - just as in a classroom setting, I pick up on the emotions of others wherever I go. It's like carrying a load of other people's suitcases, stuffed with the things they won't admit to themselves. And there have been in the past year many high pain days, pain being another invisible burden, something you can't and do not want to share with others.

I still think that teaching is probably the best thing a person can do, and I think there are probably more lesson plans in me, saved up and stored away. But in coming to terms with my life - not as I thought it would be, but as it truly is - I have realized that, perhaps, this higher calling is not meant for me.   

And there are lots of things I can do - from making killer crab cakes to playing the piano to hostessing and singing and telling the occasional joke. I love my family, take care of my husband, and if my life is altered by illness it isn't ruined. 

If there is anything I could teach, on this first day of school, it would be a lesson that we have all, at some point, needed to learn - which is that we are valid, valuable people, with paths we cannot predict. Lives shift and change, some dreams are dashed and some hopes fulfilled, and each step we take is a testament to our success, to our survival. We make mistakes and we get our hearts broken and nothing about our lives has to adhere to rules others have set for us or that we have imagined for ourselves. Your first job isn't your last. Your college major won't necessarily be your profession. Your twelve-year-old self doesn't get to dictate the rest of your life. And if there are bumps in the road - illness, tragedy, obligations - you must be gentle with yourself. You must know that every morning you wake up you have already won.

I hope that everybody out there on the front lines - the teachers, administrators, students, parents - had a great first day, and that it felt fresh and new and sparkling. I hope that it was a day full of promise. And I raise a mug of coffee to the tender-hearted teachers, the madcap geniuses, the literary nerds, the questioners, the dreamers, the people who make a difference. Thank you for all that you do.

My heart is with you. Rock on.    

       

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Miscarriage of Justice

I've been holding on to this one for a long time - I haven't been sure that it was something I felt safe discussing. But we are all going to need to take more risks, now and in the future, so I'm going to lay myself bare.

A long time ago, I had a miscarriage.

I was young and I was stupid and I skipped a couple pills, and I didn't know what had happened until it was over. The experience was traumatic - it was immediately very clear what was going on - and in my own, typical, make-it-look-good fashion, I disposed of the evidence, washed the sheets, and moved on with my life.

I think a lot about that moment, and I think about what I would have done if I had been more aware. I can tell you, right now and without a doubt, I would have gotten an abortion, and I would have done it with a great sigh of relief. I would have made an appointment - an investment in my future - and kept it, and I would have had the exact same life I have now.

Nothing would have changed - though maybe I would feel a sense of pride in making a necessary decision.

I used to be so ashamed of that moment - though now I don't really know why. I wrote stories about it in my intermediate fiction classes, and I cried about it at two in the morning after too many martinis, and in none of that did I think that I had ever, actually wanted a baby. My childless life has always been a blessing. I had to dispense with the gendered baggage first - had to go against what all women are taught, that being a mother is the best work we could ever do - but saying out loud that I don't want kids feels incredible.

And I think about me, a long time ago, and all the things which were going to happen in my future. I think about academic achievements, and making friends, and having the time to make mango-curry truffles at midnight; I think about my sobriety, about not continuing cycles, about changing careers. I think about all the hours I spend with my husband, how we are both big kids who like to watch Star Trek and debate the meaning of the universe and get on an airplane whenever we want.

I think about me, a long time ago, and I think about how utterly necessary an abortion would have been, and I think, dear God, every woman should have that choice.

Our futures are sacred, and they are a right, and these are our choices and no one else's.

I've read the news - Kennedy resigning, Roe at risk, the world breaking into jagged pieces - and I'm sitting here in my writing chair, and I'm thinking about what could happen. I'm thinking of myself, of novels unwritten, of a high-risk pregnancy, of death - and I'm thinking about other women, their futures, their hopes. Women who don't want children, or who do but not yet; women who wanted this baby, for whom things have gone horribly wrong; women who make a choice to share joy and pleasure and other women who survive violence.

I'm thinking about our grandmothers, our great grandmothers, all the women dead in childbirth or bound by biology and love and marital obligation and no other choices.

Women marginalized. Women desperate.

Women butchered.

What came out of me was not a life, and even if it had for a few moments held the seeds of life, that life was not more important than my own. I matter - all women matter. We are not incubators, and our pleasure is no sin. We know that if forced-birthers truly cared about stopping abortion, they'd hand out birth control on every street corner. They'd end rape culture. They'd vote for universal healthcare. They would be liberal.

But they'd rather see us punished - and in that they reveal themselves, because, of course, they see a child as punishment. They call a potential life sacred, and then use children as manacles to imprison, to bind. They have no real love in their hearts - not for those children, and certainly not for any woman.

I don't know our way forward - I really don't know what to do. Maybe this will make the rest of us wake up and say, no more, even though atrocities are already being committed and our eyes should be wide open and God, I hope it's not too late. Maybe we'll have to protest; maybe we'll have to riot.

It comes back to me, sometimes, that moment when I was young. A few skipped pills - because I was careless the way young people are, immortal in my own mind, thrilling at freedom - and there was a whole future there, a future unspooled, words unwritten, friends unmade, a body burdened, a spirit subdued. Events played out and I didn't have to make the choice.

But I would have. And I would have been damned proud.

No woman should be denied her future. The road is uncertain and the days are dark, but I will not yield in this. I will not give up.

Will you?

Friday, June 22, 2018

Depression: on the Inside and on the Outside

I spoke in a recent post about the highs of bipolar disorder. Today I'd like to talk about the lows.

When I was a teenager, I reported to my therapist at the time that I was viewing the world through a glass wall. I could see through it, and speak loudly enough to be heard, and yet there was a sense of isolation - my actions, my life, were meaningless, because I could not truly interact with my peers.

This is a pretty common description of depression, and along with it came fatigue, insomnia, lack of interest in daily activities, moving in a fog of strangeness. I discovered later that most of my depression was mixed in with mania - I used to say that I was really excited about being depressed. An odd statement, and yet the fringes of psychosis present in my sadness meant I operated in a heightened awareness, a skewed perception, like a jolt of lightning splitting a charcoal sky. 

Depression can creep up on you, and if you've lived with it for a long time you may not know what it is like to feel normal. When the darkness begins to crawl in, it can be hard to notice - the lows are a part of your identity, and they aren't particularly alarming, at first. 

Right now, the outside world threatens my internal world. Every morning I make coffee and drink too much of it - and before I begin my daily work I read the news. I can't let myself become immune to what is going on, and I can't ignore it in favor of my privileged comfort, so I follow the backwards progress of politics. Half a pot of coffee, or four shots of espresso, or a full French press, and the news. 

And the news is terrible.

It seems selfish to couch that in terms of my own mental health. I suffer no real-life repercussions of policy, and my life is pretty darn nice - as usual, I ask myself why I should have the right to complain. I lose interest in my housekeeping, in my writing, in my art, despite the time and ability to do all of it, and I guilt myself; how dare I feel this way? 

But I think most of us, even those without mental illnesses, feel this way. 

As this administration dissembles and blunders and commits human rights violations, we must continue our lives. And as we continue, the nastiness grows, unabated, like a grim soundtrack in a horror film. Everything feels bitter and filthy - we live not only with the crimes being perpetrated by our government today but with knowledge of those same crimes throughout the history of this country. Brick by brick, a glass wall is erected before us all; we are joined in anger and yet isolated in our own experiences of shock, betrayal, hopelessness. 

I experienced the highs, described here, and now, inevitably, I feel the lows. My mind swings like a pendulum - no longer erratic, wild, but still inexorable. And that motion, the back and forth, is made so much worse by current events. I begin my day reading the news - little wonder that my mind swings slowly, turgid with sorrow, toward deepening lows. 

Unlike every other post, I find it difficult to summon a positive message. That is the insidiousness of depression - half a pot of coffee and not a darn thing to say. 

The metaphor continues. I am passionate about writing, and art, and music, just as so many of us are passionate about equality, justice, love - but those things seem out of reach. Hope begins to wane, for our country, for our futures, for our loved ones and for ourselves. Anxiety is our companion, too; I know that I view each day with trepidation, wondering what horror may be unveiled next. Our coping mechanisms are stretched, threadbare. Some people drink alcohol with grim smiles of momentary relief. I, sober after fifteen years of drinking, clutch my beloved mugs from the renaissance festival, spilling caffeine down my chest in those uncoordinated moments when I somehow miss my mouth. 

If there is hope to be had - at least for me - it is that in taking some action I begin to chip away at the glass wall. Sitting here, still in my nightgown and writing this post, my dulled mind begins to wake, senses sharpened. The old advice about putting one foot in front of the other applies - the only way we can move forward is by taking small steps. I often equate the idea of self-care with bubble baths and manicures (which are admittedly both on my list for the day) but I think it goes deeper than that. I think that to care for ourselves we must do things that are hard. Therapy isn't easy, nor is working toward social justice. And if you've been dealing with chronic illnesses for your whole life, sometimes the most basic things are the hardest of all.

I know how lucky I am. I have a solid grasp on life when before I clung to it desperately from my fingernails. But I think that my awareness of my disorders makes me more aware of the sickness in this country. My internal highs and lows are external - bipolar may be the key word for America, mood swings, psychosis, an illness difficult to manage. I can't help looking at what's happening and recognizing it as something I have experienced in my own mind; we live in a dark world, somewhere bizarre and twisted, a place which shouldn't be reality. I am fortunate enough to see my bipolar disorder as a blessing - the challenge I was meant to face in this life - but if our country is bipolar, it is not being treated. It runs rampant. 

And that affects me. I can't deny it. Even as I live a medicated life, and even as I work towards continued good health, a sickness grows which I cannot manage.

Step by step - next up is doing the dishes and washing the sheets. I'll take my bath and do my makeup, and then I'll work on my art. I know that all of that is possible because of the incremental step of working on my writing. One foot, two feet, and keep walking.

But if you too are feeling that you are brought low - if you cannot, right at this moment, take those first steps - please know that you are not alone. We are all in this difficult time together. We can knock down the glass wall, even if it cuts us.     

We cannot survive in isolation. And if we want to come up from the depth of the lows, we must do it holding hands. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

When You Were Small

Imagine you are small.

Everyone, even the most cold-hearted among us, was a child, once. Each of us holds memories of what it felt like to be young - to be new in this world. We remember the first moments of love and the first moments of pain, the comfort of a soft blanket, the agony of a skinned knee, the shyness of new friendships, the longing for an embrace.

I remember lying in bed with my dad - I was about two years old - while my mother showered in the bathroom, my face pressed against the wall and feeling the vibrations of water cascading over her hair, my father's face with its red beard as he smiled at me. I was safe; I was content.

I remember the day when my parents decided to get divorced, not because I understood the conversation which had taken place, but because I saw my mother crying, and I was helpless in the face of her grief.

All of those memories live inside of me; childhood memories live in all of us and inform the people we become. I will always love the sound of running water, and I will always feel hot sunshine and remember the golden afternoon light on my mother's hair as she cried. I will always love them both, in pain and in joy, and that love will remain in me for all of my life.

If we are defined by anything it is by our memories and how we cope with them. Abuse, affection; loneliness, love; despair and deep contentment. Studying post-traumatic stress reveals how fundamental recollection is to our identities - to have traumatic memories is to relive them. To be unable to escape in panic, to be dizzy with trauma we cannot erase. Those memories become a core part of who we are, and without proper care - therapy, medication, self-analysis - we may not emerge from their shadow.

Imagine you are small.

Imagine your mother, father, grandparents - imagine the people you love most in the world and the only people you truly know - suddenly ripped from you. Imagine being four, or two, or eight months old, with all the helplessness of your small body and your developing brain, and imagine what it would feel like to be alone. To be jostled and nameless and unloved, to be imprisoned with other unloved children. To be hot, hungry, dirty. To be confused, to not know how to speak, to be denied what all children need - touch.

To be locked in a cage.

We were all children, once.

How do we permit this kind of suffering?

We learn everything we know about human emotion by the time we are five years old. Much of that growth happens before we are three. And so much of that education happens through the touch of loved ones; so much of our development comes from human attachment. We learn from the people who are charged with our care - we know how to love and how to self-soothe because of the roles our guardians play in our lives.

I've watched my brother- and sister-in-law raise their children, and I've been continually impressed by how happy those children are. They know they are safe, and loved, and cared for; they know their creativity and individuality are protected and encouraged; their every day routine is built on a foundation of security and respect. Having worked with small children, knowing how delicate early development can be, I watch my niece and nephews with incredible joy and gratitude.

And it galls me, it is agonizing, that right now there are children - human beings - who are not given the opportunity for the same happiness. It is stolen from them, and that kind of denial is without doubt a form of torture.

These small people are going to grow up some day, and they will hold within them the trauma of their detainment, their separation from their parents, their hunger, their pain. For the rest of their lives they will live and relive these cruelties. They have no security, no rights, no love. They cannot yet speak and advocate for themselves. They are untouched by the gentle hands of their families. As they mature, they will experience post-traumatic stress, mental illness, even physical maladies - because we are allowing them to be tortured. By our government. By our representatives. By our votes, our inaction, our American and nationalistic cruelty.

I've often thought that in order to support the current President, one would have to be stupid, selfish, or cruel. Stupid, to believe the administration's lies; selfish, to not care about the suffering of others; cruel, to revel in that suffering. I've seen in the past weeks the joy of conservatives as they lock up children, as those children are irrevocably harmed. I've seen the apathy when it is brown children who suffer. I've seen massive stupidity as the administration scrambles to justify or deny its atrocities and as those lies are believed.

Imagine you are small.

You don't care about politics, you don't understand why people hate you, you don't know why this is happening, and you don't know where your mother is.

Imagine that these are your first memories of the world. Who will you become? How will you ever feel safe? How will you heal and re-learn what it means to be loved? How will you cope with being an abused child? The abuse may end, but the legacy of being abused will be in you forever.

We have allowed this. On our watch - in our names. Children are being tortured, their sense of self stripped bare, their futures stolen.

We were all children, once. And while our childhoods have ended, we must remember what it felt like - because the cure to stupidity, selfishness, and cruelty is and always has been enlightenment, empathy, and compassion.

Imagine, now, that you are an adult - the kind of adult you needed when you were young.

Protect these children the way you needed to be protected. Speak for small people who cannot speak for themselves. Be loving, be kind, be safe.

And fight. Because childhood is worth fighting for. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Bipolar One - Split in Two

For the past twelve years, I have thought of myself as a before and an after.

When I was nineteen, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I made a list of symptoms, describing my behaviors as if to prove that yes, something was wrong with me. I read them aloud to a psychiatrist, and her diagnosis was quick and clear: bipolar one. 

I am one of the lucky few who found the right medication right away. I've been taking the same stuff for twelve years, and I've had ups and downs, minor adjustments, but the maintenance of my illness has remained essentially the same. When I was drinking the medication was less effective - psych meds and alcohol should not mix! - but now that I'm sober I feel the full force of stabilization, of serenity. 

As I've progressed in those twelve years, I've pushed away the Alice who was before. I remembered my erratic moods, my impulsive behavior, the crawling shadows in my brain, and I felt both relief that I had changed and a fear of who I had been. The meds made me gain weight, and the weight became a symbol of this "after" Alice. I was cocooned in a physical manifestation of a rejection of my former self. 

Now, having lost all of the weight, I find myself closer to the before. I pull on clothes from 2005, 2001, and they fit - and I can't help but remember the way I felt when I was younger. I celebrate this body, feeling proud, elated, grateful; even so, I fear it. 

We live in our bodies. They have memories - they live through us.

In terms of my mental illness, I tend to go through three year cycles. Every three years I feel the ghost of mania - it feels like the lingering smell of smoke and stale beer, a whisper of music you heard when you were young - and it has less power over me, now, but I'm able to trace those cycles back to the year I was born. It has always been in me. And I'm due - I've been aware of it for months - and it comes in concert with my weight loss, my struggle with body dysmorphia, a burst of creativity, my father's death. All of the ingredients are there, bubbling away like the beef stew my dad made the last night I lived at home.

My illness is chronic, and despite the mercurial nature of bipolar disorder, it is predictable. I know its inner workings. I understand it, more and more as I get older.

It scares me, sometimes - not because I do anything frightening, but because I've so thoroughly judged the "before" Alice. Because I felt I had to reject her. Because maybe I convinced myself that there really was something wrong with me - diagnosis as condemnation.

I'm so open about my mental illness, and I speak and write about it with supposed compassion and acceptance. I want to be supportive of others, to share my stories in hopes that other people who struggle might feel comforted by the fact that they aren't alone. At the same time, I think I've been swayed by the judgments of mental illness which are both common and extraordinarily harmful. I've taken on a mantle of wrongness - my brain works differently, and that must make me a bad person. I can only hope to assimilate by denying my neurodivergence. 

I want to be like other people, I guess. I cower from the Alice before, casting her as the villain, the angry goddess, the wicked witch. And now that I have her body again, now that my three years are up, now that my dad is gone and I'm sorting through the memories of our relationship, I face her in the mirror and feel genuine fear.

I keep playing through the same memory of my father. It was a perfect Baltimore spring day, 2005, sharp and ripe with the smell of concrete and pear blossoms, and I invited my gaming group over for cookies and cocktails. We sat in the back garden, eating raw dough out of the bowl, drinking triple sec out of antique glassware, and my dad was playing jazz on the kitchen speakers. He was laying slate, stolen from a church renovation, in our little flower bed, and he asked my friends to shatter it into smaller pieces. He turned up the volume, and four teenage boys danced over the stone, totally ridiculous - and my dad was beaming, and I was a little drunk, and the spring air blew through me like a kiss, and I was thin and sweet and madness and joy. 

That's the before Alice. The scary one. The bad one. And nothing ever feels like that any more.

And maybe I want it to. Maybe I'm tired of hiding from myself. 

If there's a lesson to be learned, here, it must be that I have to accept my mental illness in a new way. I can't just think of myself as a before and an after - I have to merge the two selves and reject my fear. I wasn't a bad person - though I made some decidedly bad decisions - just because I was unmedicated. I wasn't bad because I was thin, because I had an eating disorder. There wasn't anything wrong with me - I'm ill, surely and forever, but I'm not a person to revile. 

I can't hate such an essential part of myself. I can't push my heart away.

Managing chronic illness can feel like a fight against your own body, your own brain. Some days are really good, and you can almost feel normal, and some days are really hard, and you know you are not. I'm never going to be normal - I hope I can turn that into a good thing. Because I want to remember.

I want to remember the afternoons in the back garden. I want to mourn my father while recalling the fragile beauty of Baltimore in spring. I want the tissue paper tenderness, the honey-ripe, the skirling dizziness, the smell of smoke and bruised pear blossoms. I want to lick the bowl and have it all. 

I want to be finished with the before and the after. 

I want to be Alice, now.

 
     

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Reflections on the Antipodes

My husband and I recently vacationed in Australia and New Zealand, and along with the stunning beauty of the landscape, the diversity of wildlife, and the omnipresent and thoroughly delicious passion fruit gelato, I enjoyed three blissful weeks without a lingering sense of dread.

Vacation is synonymous with relaxation - the whole goal is to take a break from normal life, to sit back, enjoy time without work, deadlines, demands. So it should be no surprise that being on a once in a lifetime adventure would engender calmness and delight; that was, after all, the point.

And yet what I noticed most, about three days into our tip, was that a burden had begun to lift - a burden I hadn't known I was carrying.

I had awoken from a nightmare - but no, that's not quite right.

I was in a three week dream. Because the life we live here, so close to Washington, D.C. - the life I had to come back to - is our waking reality, and anything else is a brief moment of bliss.

I had many conversations with other travelers and with Australian and New Zealand citizens, and inevitably I found a sense from them of pride in their home countries and utter shock at my own. On our bus tour to Hobbiton and the Waitomo glow worm caves, our driver spoke at length about the national values of New Zealand - equality, transparency, fairness. I couldn't help but notice the contrast to my country's current values - oppression, occlusion, and I've-got-mine. 

One woman - freshly washed in the warm waters of the Great Barrier Reef - told me that she was afraid to come to the U.S., that on her last visit she had witnessed violence and racial epithets shouted in the streets. She told me that, even so, when she vacationed in Japan right before the 2016 election she assured her hosts that Americans couldn't, wouldn't be so stupid as to elect our current monster in chief. She faced them on that Wednesday, shame-faced and betrayed.

A young woman on the train to Kuranda, a mountain village home to an artists' commune, discussed with me the inequity and insanity in America as well as the encroaching xenophobia in her homeland, the United Kingdom. I found in her the same worries that I had felt as Donald Trump stumped in speeches glorifying himself, whiteness, maleness, hatred, violence - and yet when she spoke of Scotland she was so proud of its beauty and kindness and liberalism. She had hope.    

Having that burden lifted from my shoulders - feeling the muscles relax, feeling safe, feeling clean air in my lungs - was such an incredible gift. And it alerted me to the pain we are all in, every day, here in this broken homeland. I've seen and heard such ugliness and such bitterness, and it repulses me, and yet it has almost become a white noise, a soundtrack, the heartbeat of our every day lives.

My husband and I went to see a movie in Canberra, and for the first time in years, I didn't consider what I would do if someone pulled out a gun and started shooting. If you roll your eyes, here, at what sounds like hyperbole, only remember that my fear is based in events which have already occurred. Which are on their way to being forgotten, as there have been so many others.

I'm not saying, in any way, that Australia and New Zealand are perfect. Indeed, they have their own histories of atrocities - in Canberra, I saw an exhibit of portraits of Aboriginal Australians with disabilities, many of those caused or exacerbated or flat out ignored by their government. Their stories were reminders of injustice and documentation of their dignity. And in New Zealand, I learned that the native Maori were almost wiped out by white colonizers. None of this is surprising to any American with sense - it is always the people of color who suffer. This is what we do, we who occupy. We are cruel.

And cruelty is the theme, here - it is our bread, it is our wine, it is the American sacrament. 

Our president is cruel, as are his advisers. Our congress is cruel, as are so many of our citizens. We live in a world of state sanctioned executions, persecution, and enslavement through our justice and prison systems. And we live with this, every day, and we wonder why everything hurts all the time. 

And we continue. 

The refrain I hear from friends and family is this - why, why is no one doing anything? Why can't this be stopped? What nonsense are we expected to accept, and why do we accept it? No answer is adequate. And lets be honest - I live in a pretty cushy bubble of whiteness - most of what is wrong with this country is not going to happen to me or to my family. Yes, if things continue, I may well be royally screwed - mentally and chronically ill, queer, female - but for now I pass as the "great" Donald Trump is talking about. I look in the mirror and I know damned well that I have the face of the oppressor. 

And I have a responsibility, too. Because silence is another form of cruelty.

Having just come back from a part of the world where my dread need not exist, and having observed injustice there, and having found a few selfish breaths of calm, I have an obligation to return to my home and speak up. It is uncomfortable, I think, for many people, because we have accepted this white noise of hatred for so long - after all, the current political situation began not a few years ago but a few hundred years ago. I have encountered push-back from people I love when I stubbornly stick to my values, when I insist again and again that we must examine the shaky foundation upon which this country is built. It is an ugly mirror to gaze into, especially for women like me - white, educated, liberal. It requires so much work; it requires deprogramming. 

I wish everyone had the resources and will to take a vacation like I did, because the mirror there is clearer. Broadening our horizons, I think, is the key to a deeper understanding of what our world should be. Most people aren't lucky enough to get that opportunity. I hope that we learn, if we cannot leave, to listen to the voices which are so often silenced. There is incredible value in putting aside our pride, being quiet, and actively listening. When we see statues torn down we must ask ourselves why and seek from those taking action their reason. When we see protesters in the streets we must, if we cannot yet join, silence our own voices and attend to those who demand to be heard. And when we feel in ourselves a move, a shift, a deepening of compassion, perhaps then we can have a voice to speak to others like us who have not yet gazed in their mirrors.

I had a wonderful trip. I drank far too much ginger beer, ate far too much gelato, and got a bit of a sunburn. I visited five cities, stayed in seven different hotel rooms, and I took about a million pictures, and I kissed my husband on the other side of the planet. And along with all of that joy I came back with a pain in that hollow place below my heart. It aches, still. It feels like the first time I fell in love, ten years old, too young and wondering if there was any hope.

I've got to keep putting in the work - listening as hard as I can, developing my compassion, speaking my truth even if others aren't ready to hear it. I hope I can share some of that process with you, even when I falter, even when I fail. I can't bring Australia here, nor New Zealand, nor the calm dream state of a better world. But I can be honest. 

And God knows our country needs a little honesty right now.