Friday, December 20, 2019

Schrodinger's Brain

42,058. That's how many words I've written, revised, and obsessed over since Thanksgiving.

On several of those days I didn't write, and on others I wrote quite a lot. This past weekend, I wrote slightly more than 11,000 words between 4:00 Friday afternoon and 10:30 Monday morning.

It's been a wild ride.

I think we all have heard the stereotypes about creativity and mental illness - and that, in particular, bipolar people have an inherent disposition towards the arts. And that may be true; I cannot say for sure that my urge to make things is separate from the way I see the world, mentally ill and shouting into the dark. I feel confident in stating that I have a unique perspective - I see people, places, feelings, events, with incredible intensity.

Having a mood disorder enables me to feel extreme highs, extreme lows, and the thrilling (but the most physically and mentally dangerous) mix of both. I think that those moods inform my creativity - pain and pleasure and just a smidge of divinity are in me, all the time, and they are the basis for whatever endeavor I undertake. Writing romance - which I seem to enjoy most - lends itself to this conglomeration of wildness, of emotional risk. What is more mercurial than love? Than passion, and loss, and reunification? Those things are, in their own way, bipolar, too.

It's been an interesting process, making art while coping with illness, keeping on creating while adequately medicated. Anecdotally, I've heard a lot of artists worry about losing their creativity due to medication - I've always felt that my medication is what allows me to make art without diving off the deep end. The first thing I did when I went on my meds was buy art supplies and start drawing again; I was freed from the chaos of my own brain, more able to express my inner truths. Treatment, for me, has not negated my urge to make things.

But, now in treatment for over thirteen years, I find myself with a new perspective. And it's kind of... frightening. Uncomfortable.

The internal force which urged me on and kept me writing in the past few weeks has felt very much like mania. It's better than the mania I experienced as a teen - it is productive, not self-destructive - but man, it's been a lot to cope with. Because I've been scared of myself.

I always carry a big, "What if?" What if these passionate feelings are the harbinger of instability? What if the meds aren't keeping up with my pressured creativity? What if my work is a sign that all, even now, is not well? I have no frame of reference - I don't know what it's like to be "normal." I will never know what it means to be an artist without my mental illness.

Do other people feel this way? Like the whole world could fracture and splinter and refract light, rainbows of feeling dazzling and blinding?

Upon finishing the first draft of my recent work, I felt that high - the brief period of an unbelievable outpouring of text - turn into a low. It's a rotten thing to feel like you're finished - it's like you're saying goodbye to your closest friend. It feels a lot like heartbreak, as if your beloved has left you, cruelly. It is a period of mourning.

And maybe that's because I am so able to immerse myself in the sensory details, and the overwhelming ardor of love affairs, and the internal struggles of my characters - I've felt all those things intensely, at maximum volume. My perspective is like living inside a symphony. It's hard to let that go; it feels really, really good, while it's happening.

I had a bit of a rough day yesterday - and there were multiple factors, many of them physiological; I'd gotten very little sleep the night before (and sleep is medically necessary for mood disorders), and I had forgotten to eat enough on many of those days of writing (and hunger is a trigger for addiction). I'd struggled with body image issues, as I usually do before the holidays; I'd been, subconsciously, pushing aside my C-PTSD symptoms to get all that work done. So yeah, around 2:00 yesterday afternoon, I was tired, hungry, dysmorphic, triggered by memories.

Maybe I should give myself a break, hmm? And maybe, you know, eat a steak. 

Balancing all these things - managing a mental illness - is a big job. It's not a one and done - taking meds is just the first step. I have to maintain sleep levels, and calories, and therapy, and self care. I have to be busy and productive, and I also have to take time to rest. Being healthy, for me, is an occupation, and not something I can do from 9-5 and then forget about.

So I have to be careful. I'll always have the, "What if?" I'll always want to make things, and I'll always need to track my mood. It's a pain in the butt, but that's just the way it is. I really do think that my bipolar perspective is helpful, when it comes to creativity, and I also think that I will, for the entirety of my life, be watching for the signs that my creativity has crossed into mania.

And I'll have to deal with the moments when projects end.

And then I will go on to the next.     

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

We Create Cathedrals

I've got a lot of odd ideas, I know.

On my nine hour drives - down to South Carolina and then back - my mind spins. Sometimes I am able to bliss out on music; sometimes I'm worrying about familial relationships and concerns; sometimes I run through arguments or debates I'll never have. Every once in a while I'll plan an outfit for an upcoming event, or try to come up with the perfect holiday menu - what silver to use, what dishes, crinolines versus pencil skirts, or could I just wear pajamas, or will I have to iron a tablecloth? I'll tell you, my brain keeps me busy over the course of those nine hours. And whatever has occurred on my visits is usually on my mind on the way back.

During this visit with my grandmother, I was invited to help sort through family photographs, scrapbooks, files. It made a significant impression on me. Here, comics in oil pastel of my grandfather riding a bicycle - there, a stunning portrait of the director of my grandmother's college - and in this box, photos of my great-grandparents as children. A miraculous catalog of intimacy, of the things which came before me but which live on in my family's stories, in our genetic code, in a cultural identity. And, as I am full of those odd ideas, I wondered - shouldn't there be some sort of archive which benefits us all? An interactive museum of the things which make us human?

Like my grandmother, I am a keeper of things. On my piano rests a metal box - inside this box are keys to my apartment on Lafayette Avenue, and fortunes from fortune cookies, and tickets to plays I saw in high school, and slips of paper with quotations written in green ink. That box has moved with me through six different homes. I've still got the tickets to the Grace and Saint Peter's parish ball when I wore the green iridescent dress (that, unfortunately, has been lost), and I still have the wrapper from a box of bread rolls in Belfast, "four wee baps." My University College Cork ID card; a tiny photograph of my sister; a bookmark from Turkey.

What happens to those things? I could probably clear them out. I hardly ever look in that box. And who else is going to want the notebook paper, "Verdant forest and a sky suggesting rain, or the end of the universe, or the perfect spring day..."? 

What do we do with the artifacts of our lives, the evidence of our humanity on an individual and collective scale? How do we pass on to others the meaning in small slips of paper, cracked photographs, the keys to our first apartments? 

In this nine-hour fever dream, I thought about the work which we need, on some level, which is curating the bigness of small things. Something I love so much about life is the stunning significance which exists in all of us and which is unknowable to others, because they, of course, have their own significance - their own small things. Only a handful of people know what it was like to go to the parish ball. Only a handful remember my grandfather biking at Rehoboth with a basket full of pastries. And that - that has to be shared, somehow. 

We have in us so much wealth of experience. And I suppose that's what art is for - the ways to tell our stories, paint or words or motion or song. Putting the inside on the outside. But I think there should also be some sort of - a public space, a museum, a cathedral, where we can put the bits of paper, where we can say, here, here is Alice, she had rotten handwriting, and here's her Grandmere, and her mother, and Aunt Mart, and all of it, and you and your family, too. 

Days suspended like crystals of ice, like limestone, like geodes. Vibrations of the universe you can almost still hear. 


I wish there were a way to contain it all and to make it all accessible. We are more than we seem; we are our own archivists. And I have a feeling that if we could see each other's small things and feel that bigness, we'd be better human beings, with a tremendous capacity for love. I think we'd be kinder if we knew that the stranger on the street still kept a pebble from their childhood vacation to the seaside. I think we'd be happier if we knew that our friend's family was as complicated and weird and mythologically complex as our own. Wouldn't you fall in love, just a little bit, when faced with the concrete evidence of another person's existence? 

Man, those nine hour drives do a number on me.

Anyway, some day, somebody's going to look in the box on the back of my piano and wonder why there's a ticket to a science-fiction film made in 2005. Why there are keys to a lock that was changed long ago. I'm hoping it'll be me, with maybe a grand niece or nephew, and I can say, yes, these, the bits of how I am real - this is who I was and who I am, always. 

I exist. I existed.

And I was a keeper of things.      

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Dirty Thirties

Over the past year or two, one theme has emerged in both my own life and the lives of women I've spoken to, and that theme can be summed up in a phrase so oft repeated as to be cliche -

Is this all there is?

Recently, I was having one of those deep, mother-daughter conversations which I treasure so much and which define my relationship with my mom. Sometimes those chats are political; sometimes they are about educational theory, redistricting, early childhood; sometimes I talk about parts of my own childhood she did not witness; and sometimes I just get the opportunity to vent. On that day, I was sharing how confused I've been feeling about the direction of my life.

It's no secret that I've been through a lot, professionally and personally. I've given teaching a try, more than once, and realized it wasn't for me. And I've lived through mania, depression, eating disorders, trauma, alcohol use and sobriety. I've fallen in love young, married at twenty-five - I've been a daughter to a variety of parents and a big sister to the best young woman I've ever known. I've experienced the illnesses and deaths of family members. In other words, I lived through my twenties.

And there I was, then, talking with my mother, thirty-two years old, and that question - is this all there is - was right there, smacking me in the face with its existential banality. Oh, how common.

By your early thirties, you might have had a lot of the experiences which solidify your identity as an adult. You might have picked up and dropped a career or two. You might have found a life partner or partners. You may have children. People you love have probably passed. All milestones, many choices or events which can seem irreversible.

You might be making peace with the things which broke you. Maybe you have to forgive people, or learn how not to forgive. Maybe you have to learn to forgive yourself.

With the often unfair division of labor in a straight-presenting relationship, women may feel the burden of invisible responsibilities, too. You might be the person who knows just how to sort the laundry, or what each child needs in their lunchbox, while at the same time feeling pressured to kick butt at work. You may be more adept with emotions and helping your partner articulate them, because one of the ways that our society fails men is by denying them the essential human need to express and understand their feelings.

These milestones and demands pile up. You find a way to navigate them in your twenties, a way to make it all work. But what happens, then, when the pile is balanced, and you have an identity which is informed by your responsibilities and history? What happens when you reach (what I have sickeningly described as, poor poet that I am) the full bloom of your womanhood?

You find yourself asking, what the hell, what's next?

There's a line in one of my favorite shows in which the protagonist describes herself as cookie dough - not cookies yet. Not finished. And that's where I find myself, and I think a lot of my peers feel the same way. There's such immense pressure to get all that stuff done, the job, the relationship, the kids, and then there's a void because you've fulfilled what society has demanded of you. Where do you go from there? Especially if the consequences of those demands continue, professionally and inter-personally. Kids need to get fed. Partner needs your support. Job sucks up your time and energy.

Where do we, our true and secret selves, fit in?

I am fortunate that I have some awesome female role models in my life. My mom, who just started a new job and is an empty-nester for the first time in over thirty years. My mother in law, who has pursued dreams and desires with vigor while raising two children and helping to care for three grandchildren. My grandmere, who is just now learning how to paint (and is stunningly good at it) - and my grandma, who has been teaching and performing and living full tilt for as long as I've known her. I know, intellectually, that as I get older I will have opportunities to continue exploring my identity.

But I just don't know how to get from here, to there.

Is it being directionless? Is it coping with the choices I've already made? Is it the fears which held me back before I was old enough to make informed choices at all? For me, I gave up theatre - actually performing myself - due to stage fright and intense fear of the starving artist routine (which I had already experienced quite enough, thank you very much). I chose to stay near family - which was the right thing to do - but never got to take a year in Ireland on my trusty motor bike, picking up odd jobs (a favorite teenage fantasy; what a dreamer was I!). I gave up on the idea of hosting salons with music and poetry readings because I'm too scared to make new friends. I mean, my God, what would eighteen year old Alice think?

Thirty-two year old Alice is aware that we are all basically cookie dough until we are dead. It's that simple, and that complex. I'd better be learning a new art form in my nineties, I'll tell you that! But right now, I think there's this... there's a liminal space. So many things achieved and so many things still missing. A gap. A hole. A sense of waiting for something we can't define.

And what happens when we stop waiting - what happens to the job and the kids and the partner, the laundry, the papers to grade, the meals to plan, the things we decided on when we were, after all, still so very young? When we are still so young? Do we blow it off and blow it up? Do we set fire to our world and dance on the ashes?

My talk with my mom was good, as they always are, and it was another confirmation that these years in our early thirties are almost universally confusing. She'd been there, her own friends and family had been there. At least if we are directionless, we are not alone.

But man, it's hard. I like having the answers to problems and right now, I've got nothing. Nothing other than to keep on living, which sometimes doesn't feel like much. And it's hard to say, to know, my life is beautiful, and still feel like I'm not really living it. I'm here, but who am I?

Right now I'm a cliche, because I just keep asking -

Is this all there is?

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Virtue as Vice

Over the past few months - as I have pursued and received a diagnosis of complex post traumatic stress - and over the past few years - as I have initiated and maintained sobriety - I have thought quite a lot about the nature of forgiveness.

Culturally, notably in Christian culture, forgiveness is perceived as a defining virtue. We ask God for His forgiveness for our mortal failings, and we are charged to forgive others who may have harmed us. And in sobriety, we are encouraged to make amends to others - not exactly to ask for forgiveness, but to offer our most sincere apologies and our intentions to change, and to remain changed. 

I can see the value in that. It makes a lot of sense to me to apologize and to actively strive for personal growth and permanent change. And I can see the virtue in believing in a greater force that accepts us for who we are and who encourages us to do better. I suppose I am a big supporter of saying, "I'm sorry."

But I find that I am not so thrilled about the idea of saying, "I forgive."

Perhaps because the latter is so rarely preceded by the former. 

The constant crush of our cultural cruelty has further encoded this seeming necessity for forgiveness. Victims of violent crime, of oppression, of bigotry, are all carrying the burden of our collective values - when we read about the aftermath of crimes we often read words of forgiveness, as if moving forward from tragedy requires a selfless act from the people who have been harmed the most. 

And I can see, if a survivor's well-being rests on their religion, that forgiveness might be a way forward. If one's comfort is one's god, that god sets the terms. I understand that, though I cannot, for myself, believe it.

But I think we do need to talk about things that are unforgivable, and about people who do not deserve the efforts of those who have been irrevocably damaged. A few examples, though there are many more --

Human beings who are crammed into concentration camps at our border should not ever, ever be asked to understand and excuse the depravity of their captors - to make sense out of intolerable behavior, to have compassion, to grant absolution. 

Victims of hate crimes will receive no apologies, no promises to change. People who are marginalized by the majority are granted no dignity, no humanity, no love - why, then, should they give those considerations to the people who hate them?

Survivors of mass shootings have not only lost friends, colleagues, children, parents, but have lost any sense of security that a just society should guarantee. How can they then turn to the (white, cis, het) men - who are so bitter and broken and desperate and pathetic - and offer a way out? 

When we look at what is really happening, right now, in our country, we have to let go of normative notions of social exchange. And then we need to turn that inward and consider if we, too, have forced ourselves to yield to that force, that drive, to make pain look pretty. Virtuous. Holy. 

Looking in at my traumatic memories, I've realized how much I have felt the need to forgive things that will never be corrected, and to have a self-immolating compassion for the damaged people who have caused me harm. I have, against my own will, submitted. And I'm right on the edge of realizing how incredibly unnecessary that struggle has been. There's been no reason to forgive - to move forward, yes, always, but not to say it was okay.

For survivors, it is so easy to look to others and say, that person had it worse, or, it's not like it was that bad. But that denial of the self is a type of forgiveness, I think, of the people who caused the trauma. Because they could have been worse. Because they didn't do every other bad thing. 

Because we know how other people are broken - we know why certain people behaved the way they did, we know their own hurts, their own traumas. We know about their mother, or father, or family friend, their hunger, their poverty, their helplessness - we know, maybe, that once upon a time, they had it worse. That they were doing "the best they could."

But I look at our culture and I would never, ever, ask anyone else to offer forgiveness. Not for money, not for public perception, not for family, and not for God. Why, then, should I demand it of myself? 

The world isn't making amends. Our national abusers aren't apologizing, aren't making changes. Cruelty and selfishness are, for them, their own rewards. And how many of us have people in our past who will never even attempt to make things right? Why cling to those people, to those scenarios, and hope against hope for true change that will never come?  
I am happy to offer forgiveness to the people who say they are sorry. That's the way it should be. And if someone in public life - a community leader, a representative, a politician - changes their views and then enacts change, I support them in full. But neither I nor you should ever bend down to embrace the unchangeable - the irredeemable. That goes for everybody - family, friends, community members, leaders, politicians, police.

Because sometimes our social values are toxic. And we've got to move forward, to stop clinging to our hurts. 

Sometimes we shouldn't say, "I forgive," because we need to say, "Goodbye."

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Drawing the Line

This is going to be one of those painfully honest posts. It's not exactly what I intended to write today, but that's how it goes, sometimes.

Part of my journey at this point in my life is learning how to set boundaries. And so far, I am really, really not good at it.

Many of the traumatic elements of my past revolve around non-existent boundaries. Unfortunately, much of my childhood wasn't a childhood at all - I was exposed to a lot of adult content and behavior, never understanding that I was a kid. That I deserved to be treated like one. Recently, I was digging through some old photographs, and I had a moment of dissociation, because those pictures were of a little girl - me - and I couldn't remember being that girl at all. My perception of myself was always as an adult - powerless in the way only children can be, but with an excruciating mental and emotional maturity. I was aware of too much, of everything except the fact that I was a child.

That lack of boundaries between my childhood and the adult world continued when I entered high school, when I started drinking at home, when more and more layers of inappropriate behavior emerged. I wasn't a child anymore but a best friend and a drinking buddy. I was biddable, bribed by affection which hadn't existed when I was physically a child. I couldn't tell where I ended and others' needs began.

As an adult, I have had to live with the choices of those around me, and part of me is still starved for affection and approval. If someone shows me love, I find myself falling, twisting myself into whatever that person needs. It's caretaking on a pathological level. It is sacrifice - not selfless, but starving.

Three and a half years ago, I received multiple - entirely justified - panicked phone calls informing me of my father's hospitalization and cancer diagnosis. And I've been glued to my phone ever since, convinced that the next call would herald some new disaster, some new demand. And goodness knows there have been some disasters. In the years since then, I have been waiting with anxiety for a life to begin, my own life. But I haven't allowed that to happen. I've been twisting myself up yet again. And it may be invisible, but there are so many days when I fear my phone, when my heart pounds, when I betray my values, that I wish I had not been born.

That's the icky honest bit that I recently shared with a new therapist - someone who specializes in trauma and with whom I am about to begin my next adventure. I shared that thought with my husband last night when I got a phone call that elevated my heart rate. Once spoken, I need to speak it often and out loud, just as I feel it necessary to talk about my bipolar disorder, my endometriosis, my problematic relationship with alcohol. Honesty is the only way forward. My trauma makes me wish that I did not exist. A lot of the time, when these disaster situations occur, I think - God, it would be easier if I were dead.

Don't worry too much, folks. I'm not going to do anything about it. But I hope, I guess, that by sharing that thought I can make it a little more normal. Complex trauma has a long shadow. Maybe, if more people knew that, they'd work harder to prevent trauma from happening.

Figuring all of this stuff out has made me realize how much of myself I push to the side in order to be available to others. And there is a helpfulness and even duty which is nourishing, which is healthy. But when I stop my life - no, when I am too scared to even start it - I go beyond helpfulness.

I am so, so lucky that I get to stay home and work on my art instead of going into an office or a classroom. And frankly, I need that, because between pain and fatigue and anxiety there are days when I can't do what normal people do. But I've let the circumstance of my unemployment lead to a sort of general availability, as if my time were not valuable just because I have more of it than others. And then I can't write, I can't paint, I can't pursue anything, because that burying of myself indicates to me that I am not important just as I am. My time is worthless in that context. I am nothing until the phone rings. When I hang up, mouth dry, breath short, I'm nothing again.

And who the hell am I, at the end of the day? I'm probably not alone in wondering - I bet most people have moments of feeling that way. But hell, I am thirty-two years old, and I'm tired of waiting. I'm tired of feeling like I'm a mistake.

I'm tired of being ashamed that I can't be what each and every person on the planet wants me to be. It rips me up that I don't want to be the Alice that I was trained to be. I like to sing, but I like jazz and musical theatre and pop music, and my voice just isn't suited for choral music or opera, and that's okay. I like noodling around on the piano but I just don't care enough to be a real pianist, and I'm not good at it anyway! Hell, my best piano playing occurs around ten thirty at night when I've had people over for a party and I'm signaling them to get the heck out. And that's good enough for me.

I hate watching television all night the way we did when I was small and nobody would talk to me. I hate eating dinner at the table but I love eating off fancy plates and drinking mocktails out of crystal. My best writing is literary and it's usually about food and sex - about mental illness, and recovery, and intimacy, and love.

More than anything I love to cook for other people, but I absolutely hate measuring or following recipes and my plating skills are nil. I will never be a gourmet chef, but people usually leave my home well-satisfied.

I have become somewhat agoraphobic. So please come on over and enjoy my cooking and company, because right now I cannot come to you.

I am incredibly vain. I have no problem with that.

I'm a loving person with a tremendous capacity for loyalty and affection but it is not endless - and I'm learning how to enjoy being selfish and loving me, first.

I think the highest form of wisdom is happiness. I know I have complex trauma. I'm ready to work through it.

This long, long post started because I was trying to justify turning on the do not disturb function on my phone, if you can believe it. I felt I needed to write a treatise explaining that criminally selfish act. You know - come up with some "working hours" so I can also prove to people that I'm working towards publication (which I am, but slowly) and not lazing about (which, I threw my back out yesterday, so I also currently am). Maybe, I thought, if I can make some comparison between my art and a "real job," it will be okay. Sheesh. I'm beginning to doubt that I can go five minutes without trying to be accommodating.

But do not disturb is on, and I've given you a very thorough tour of the inside of my belly button, and I'm about to settle in on top of a heating pad and write some abysmal poetry. Because I have to learn to set boundaries. Just because my life doesn't look like other people's lives doesn't mean I can't say, no, I will not, I do not want to, I need to be myself. I need to put my work first. I need to believe that my life is not a mistake, and I'd rather not wish I were dead half the time. And if anyone is unwilling to love me, the real me, because of that, then that's okay.

I'll just play Chopin's Raindrop Prelude until they see themselves out.