blessing the boats
(at St. Mary’s)
(at St. Mary’s)
Suicide. It’s been over six months since I’ve had this urge to google it. Six months ago, I put that urge away. . .put it in a strongbox and swallowed the key.
This is the last time you haunt the house of my brain . Here’s your hat . ..don’t let the unlocked door hit you on the way out.
And here, I hesitate to say, it is six months later and he’s back, Jack. That asshole with the hobnail shoes, exhausted, nauseous, spent. Stomping around in the kitchen again. . .rummaging through the produce drawer, looking for palpable courage.
The long hallway with all the family photos: every last one of those faces emaciated, expressionless. You want to save them. . . load them all into boats, bound for anywhere
but here, where the hurt is.
I mean it is one kind of unholy to go there yourself, but you look into that sea of faces. . .so far from shore. Hands and arms aching all the way to umbilicus that keeps you tethered to heavy heavy heavy.
Holden Caulfield in a Coast Guard boat, waving a white flag. Enough already. Uncle.
Uncle uncle uncle.
Today’s inspiration is a childhood memory. So first close your eyes and focus on a landmark from childhood. This may have been a friend’s or relative’s home, a park, a backyard sandbox, snow fort, swimming hole/pool. The possibilities are endless.
Now take out a crayon or some other crude implement of mark-making. If you have anything else around the house that could help jar some memories, get that too. Something with scent is good: a flower, a can of play-doh, a chocolate chip cookie, etc. (Personally I like bubbles for this exercise when I assign it to my college writers.)
Next take the crayon/implement and begin to draw the place/item from memory. (You can use more than one color.)
The second step asks you to take it to the next level.Once you finish, you can branch out with whatever you do that’s creative.
For fiction writers and poets, the memory can be used for narrative inspiration, image and detail. Essay and memoir writers may even want to talk about the process itself and then proceed to the story and descriptions.
If you’re wanting to do something visual, continue the drawing on your medium of choice: canvas, drawing paper, assemblage, sculpture, collage, film-making or whatever else strikes your fancy. Just let the child-like brain keep plowing forward.
Cover Design by Fat Daddy’s Farm
Front: “Adieu Maman” by Jemila Modesti – Oil
Back: “Broken Chain” by Grace Benedict – Mixed media
The plain truth is, you do not have to be the parent of a lost child to appreciate the shared stories in Joy, Interrupted: An Anthology on Motherhood and Loss ISBN 9780985235604, a new collection of works edited by Melissa Miles McCarter of Fat Daddy Press. The seeds of separation are sown at conception; our first loud and audible breath nothing short of a full-throated attempt at explaining the shock of lost connection. The acknowledgement of that tiny knot in our lower abdomen all that is necessary as frame of reference.
Aside from the candid honesty and epiphany found in these poems, prose and illustrative works, the thing that I most admire about Joy, Interrupted is its inclusion of voices from a landscape of backgrounds and personal histories. Missing from this anthology is the mindset that insists on a resume and a list of publications as validation for the act of putting words to human experience. Each work stands on its own merit in terms of articulation and expression. While some of these pieces read like masterworks, others provide the raw insights and vulnerabilities found upon pages from a day in the life of a grief survivor.
The common thread running throughout is the expression of a need to connect and find temporary shelter in shared experience.
In the words of its editor, herself the parent of an infant lost to SIDS: “In reading about other dimensions of loss, I saw new opportunities for coping, for making meaning out of pain and for healing. I watched as the contributors processed (or didn’t process) their grief and it helped me see that my own space between grief and joy was wider than I had imagined, with me moving closer and closer to the other side of joy. The contributors to this anthology helped me, as Shakespeare wrote, “give sorrow words.”
From Joy, Interrupted, various authors and excerpts:
She, lying on the couch, shrouded
by an army surplus blanket, never spoke and stared
directly ahead at the nocturnal painting
of Christ Watching over the City of Jerusalem.
Nauseated by the smell of sweat and cod liver oil,
I relished digging my jagged nails into the jellied flesh
of her freckled upper arm, pinching her and telling her
she was faking because she didn’t want to divide fractions
or help her mother dry the dishes. She never flinched. Did I learn
she had been struck by lightning or did I make it up?
Now all I can think is “Christmas is a time of miracles”
as I listen to the hiss whir of the baby’s ventilator.
Already pneumonia has scarred his lungs
and now they babble about tracheotomies,
laser shavings, and Amoxicillin.
A lightning strike might take him home.
— from Struck by Lightning, Liz Dolan (24)
Marc twitches his nose and his bushy mustache lurches—
the most “him” thing left. That, and the lift of creases in his forehead.
And the small pursing of his chapped lips. His throat clears
and coughs still hold his sound, too.
Thomas has hiccups. “People were looking for Scream
this weekend at the box office,” says TV. Why do we want
to scare ourselves when life already provides the horror?
And more of Lindsay Lohan’s ongoing drama of jail and rehab.
This is news we care about. Not my stepfather dying of cancer,
unknown by most. Even I like celebrity news—flipping back
on my iPhone from Perez Hilton to TMZ. I crave
the nonsense; the non-scream.
–from “Celebrity News,” Sheila Hageman (25)
A little girl smiles at me from the photo – a smile as bright and carefree as a summer day. Her hair is brown and long, just like the woman’s. I can almost hear this radiant little girl with an infectious smile giggling joyful delight, secure in her mother’s love as she relishes each day’s adventure. But the agony of the woman standing before me explodes in my brain, cruelly silencing the little girl’s laughter. The distance from the photo to this street corner – and the painful loss that brought her here – is beyond all measure.
Somehow I know, even before I read the words. I know the message. I know the pain and agony. I know the fear and desperation. The sign reads “Have you seen this child?” Suddenly, a lump in my throat makes it hard to swallow and tears sting the corners of my eyes, running down my cheeks. I can’t stop myself from being pulled into a flood of emotions. For a fleeting moment I see my own children, my daughters. The cardboard mirror exposes my worst fear as a mother. It has been said that to lose a child is to lose a piece of yourself.
I believe that the bond between a mother and her children is primal, instinctive, and even intuitive. My girls are the very heart and soul of my being. There isn’t anything within my power that I wouldn’t do for them or to protect them. I would fight for them to the end. If they were hurting, I would comfort them as long as they needed. And if they were lost, I would never rest until they were found.
–from “The Sign,” Rebecca Manning (30)
Fragments lure her–
water snake head
shiny link chain
tender pink sole
damselfly wing . . .
The child, bands of sunburn
down her peeling back,
the scars of cigarettes
on the reticulated spine,
notes the quiet
in the earth,
and half recalls
the rules, rude and sly.
But Lilia and Marie
have fled the pond,
clambering from the
ooze, shrieking gaily,
eluding phantasmal foes.
Just one arrives
too late in the game
and shrugs: no wonder,
where rift and wrack
of cloud in coming night
glow, lurid as arsonist’s fire.
–from “Dandelion Child,” Carol Alexander (32-33)
A long bus ride to a dental school destination across the river…a stop in the most dangerous community in like the entire world, but also the most wise and loving people living there and gentle…so there is lots of time to talk with fascinating and inspiring strangers (I always imagine them all to be angels…but if not, then it must be someone earthbound who’s made a bargain with the divine saying it’s OK to use their skin for awhile)
And anyway there’s this man talking about what he would do if he won the lottery, how he’d spend his winnings …and another one saying it would be just as hard to be a billionaire as to be poor as dirt. . .and I jumped in, more or less agreeing…but also thinking of that Dylan-inspired Kristofferson line that says, “Freedom’s just a another word for nothing left to lose.”
And then strangely, as he didn’t seem like the kind of person who’d be into such things, he starts talking horoscopes and signs. So I tell him I”m a Libra…
and he says, “Ahh. ..well, you know, Libra is an air sign so that means you spend a lot of time taking it all in from this very high place…like a bird on a skyscraper…or you know…the flying nun.
You aren’t satisfied like all those folks who walk close to the ground and do what they are told…you can’t make a move before you feel like you have got a sense of the bigger picture, an activity which, taken to extremes, can be at times unbearably awful…you think and think so much it makes your brain hurt. And you need a rest sometimes, a lot of rest because going that high can take its toll on a body.
I mean nothing Honey, if it aint free.
So in an effort to keep my brain busy lest it be left to its own obsessive and defeatist tendencies . . . I’m throwing myself into a new book and a couple of sewing projects this week.
The book is bringing me to tears, a little bit, in a good way though. . .
Elyn R. Saks, The Center Cannot Hold: Hyperion 2007
“Saks would later attend Yale Law School where one night, during her first term, she had a breakdown that left her singing on the roof of the law school library at midnight. She was taken to the emergency room, force-fed antipsychotic medication, and tied hand-and-foot to the cold metal of a hospital bed. She spent the next five months in a psychiatric ward.
So began Saks’s long war with her own internal demons and the equally powerful forces of stigma. Today she is a chaired professor of law who researches and writes about the rights of the mentally ill. She is married to a wonderful man.
In The Center Cannot Hold, Elyn Saks discusses frankly and movingly the paranoia, the inability to tell imaginary fears from real ones, and the voices in her head insisting she do terrible things, as well as the many obstacles she overcame to become the woman she is today. It is destined to become a classic in the genre.”
And the sewing is just good quiet time. . .silencing those sounds that just keep hammering over and over like a timpani inside my head. . and the rhythms of “I miss you. . .I miss you. . .”
So back to this fabric for now:
. . .And that repetitive sound the needle makes while I’m sewing. . . the mindfulness and meditation made that much easier. . .you just keep your eye on the straight seam, peripherally on the edge so that everything flows to the left of it. . .the operative mantra of silence. . .and the comfort of knowing that’s all you need to worry about for now.
Words & music by Paul Simon:
Rene and Georgette Magritte
With their dog after the war
Returned to their hotel suite
And they unlocked the door
Easily losing their evening clothes
They danced by the light of the moon
To the penguins, the moonglows
The orioles, and the five satins
The deep forbidden music
They’d been longing for
Rene and georgette magritte
With their dog after the war
The other day I found myself lost in thought as I followed the hand movements of a young therapist intern who was making notes on a whiteboard for myself and others diagnosed with various illnesses caused by biological and trauma-related hypersensitivity and emotional dysregulation. It is in this room we gather once a week for instructional and motivational therapy.
I was especially focused on the way she drew the circles for the o’s and a’s, beginning at the right of the round shape and then continuing the curve in a clockwise path. It was fascinating to study that process, at the same time overwhelming from a flood of sadness and empathy;
though I may have been projecting, I imagined the act of mirror image character-making as a kind of struggle, as if her wrist and brain were working harder somehow. . .maybe some leftover trickled down from the fine motor constaints of the Spencerian Method.
And in doing so, I got lost in my own inner dialogue drawing parallels between that act and the act of trying to thrive and survive as an uber-sensitive intuitive in a world that is forever trying to suppress that in you. . .and force its own agenda of bootstraps, categorization, and adherence to inflexible schedules.
And those mental images were followed by the ones of native American schoolchildren, severely reprimanded for speaking in their native languages; in the meantime. .. all those beautiful and musical syllables and sounds silenced and sentenced to death by the queen’s linguistic lynch mobs.
The truth is, I don’t think I’ve ever had a left-handed instructor before, so I’d never had the chance to ponder it from the perspective of a student.
But recently as I’ve been trying and trying to function in the workforce at various times and venues, and thrive under the supervision of management who, for all intents and purposes, are just doing what’s asked of them, (those things that every manager of personnel does to keep an employee on the straight and narrow),
it’s just become increasingly apparent to me that for all their efforts to keep me in line, for all the admonishment, advice and disciplinary actions, it’s just been making things harder for me to get the job done.
I am not a left-brained, linear, logical thinker. What I am is a right-brained, emotionally-charged intuitive and creative thinker. And it’s been a whole lifetime of trying to fit into that first category. . .a lifetime of going against my better instincts after having been accused of laziness or stupidity or willful disobedience . . .that has kept my world in a constant state of chaos and frustration.
And I guess what hurts most about all of this is having to live with this label of not trying hard enough. . .of all the above mentioned things. .because damn it nothing could be further from the truth. I am a madhouse of activity when I get rolling, but the part where I have to keep drawing all the circles backwards to suit the tyranny of a system that just keeps taking the pencil out of my hand and trying to make me write the other way is nothing short of exhausting. And if I am resting, it’s because my god does anybody hear me when I say that I simply must work twice as hard to fail at being someone alien to the way I was born?
And so rather than follow along with others who say that mental illness is mostly caused by biological factors and family stress, I would like to offer that maybe just maybe it gets even worse when everybody tries to make us contort into some other version of ourselves that is not only inauthentic, but freakish. . .like a sideshow of misfits on display to make the rest of the world feel glad about being healthy and normal.
And in suggesting this, I am not saying that I am impervious to working on strategies to fit in better, because I know there are areas of my brain that can be re-wired in ways that will make it easier to manage the navigation of these rocky waters. And I am more than willing to work at that. (At this point of already having tried everything from isolation and shock treatments to medication and trauma talk, I am ready to try anything that brings relief from this and results, which isn’t so much admirable behavior as anesthesia seeking) And the truth is, the new therapy, which through some miracle of miracles, I’ve been fortunate enough to qualify in getting financial assistance for, is working. And the reason it’s working is because the repetitive coaching and calming techniques are helping to rebuild the broken bridges in my brain, ones that have made it extremely difficult to manage complex emotions of feeling trapped and isolated as a result of this misfit existence I’ve been living forever. Sadly, this therapy is mostly unavailable to most folks because insurance companies refuse to pay for it (due to the enormous costs of constant on-call monitoring and coaching) so you can imagine what it’s like trying to get it for the uninsured. Like I said, I’ve been blessed to have it, but also I had to be recommended for it by a team of therapists, and after I was approved (mostly by virtue of repeated suicide attempts and hospitalizations) I was put on a 2-year waiting list. My heart goes out to others who go without such help to manange illnesses as borderline personality disorder and complex post-traumatic stress disorder as they must simply endure without effective treatment, via medication and cognitive therapy, treatment that oftentimes has proven to do more harm than good.
I am also insanely thankful to my therapists and doctors, friends and family so very much as well. Without their patience, love and caring, no doubt I would have just given up altogether and banished myself to a life on the fringes somewhere. And to Dr. Marsha Linehan, the patient turned physician who, through her own struggles and suicide attempts, became the creator of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, therapy that has been life-saving to the others of us with similar challenges.
But also to those who have come forward to share their stories of hope and survival, I say “thanks for lighting the way for the rest of us who are afraid to speak openly about this.”
It is because of you, all of you, that I am certain we can do this thing, come out of the mental illness closets and find a way to ask for back-up and support somehow someway if only we push for legislation and listening from folks who could help us be safe in talking about it. I mean, anybody who’s been there, done that knows that it’s at best humiliating and awkward to ask for any kind of accomodations in this world, let alone inappropriate and unreasonable, where the policy of “don’t ask; don’t tell” is pretty much a given.
And to those who say it can’t be done, that the only way to fit in is to suffer in silence, I can only quote the words from John Lewis in 1765, words that have re-emerged to become the outcry of the civil rights movement: “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”
–Vincent Van Gogh, “The Sower”
The genius of Wes Anderson. . .nobody tops this kind of sophisticated craziness if you ask me. Layers and layers to watch and learn from. . .
be on the lookout for rhinestone bluefin and one-eyed research turtles! 🙂
But you know, the most perplexing part of this is, it I could barely tolerate him upon our first meeting. And then as fate would have it, the moment I rearranged my thoughts about that, he began to back away.
All of a sudden it was me working to keep him instead of him trying to woo me and win me over. I mean as if I couldn’t do a thing for myself anymore. I spent all my free time looking for ways to make sure he was happy and confident in knowing how much I loved him. And now I”ve done that, he’s moved on to the next conquest.
Why did he try so hard at the beginning just to let me go like this?
Last week I found myself listening as a friend let go those words in the sauna at the girl’s gym, her eyes rimmed in crimson, tears making rivulets that dripped on her terry cloth dress and neck; meanwhile, as I groped to find the right response, I felt my own sense of longing and loss grabbing at the hem of my heart. After all, it wasn’t so long ago I had found myself saying such things as well. And in the throes of that full-throated aftershock of agony and insecurity, it also occurred to me
how ill-equipped we mortals be in the face of heartbreak.
It would seem that biology prepares us in oh so many ways to fall in love, but sadly does nothing whatsoever to help us fall out of it.
And so in light of science and lack of knowledge about the actual anatomy and physiology that supports such insanity, here I humbly offer this virtual handbook for heartbreak, something I’ve been trying to do for myself for quite some time as well.
To begin, I thought I would start with a to-do list for you, (but also for her in my groping, I am pretty sure I only said something to make it worse, not better) something printable and easy to carry around in your purse. Because coping with the loss of love can be exhausting. Especially when it seems all you can do is obsess over and over to the point of neglecting the most basic need for sustenance and sleep.
Let alone tend to the needs of a battered and abandoned psyche.
So here it is, something to focus on after the (much needed) first crying spell passes and you start to get some perspective back:
Number one and most important of all: Let go of the urge to make contact with someone who’s not going to appreciate it and write a love letter to yourself instead.
The fact that you were able to open your heart to him like a rose in winter speaks volumes about the way you view the world in general. And chances are you didn’t break that mold on him either. You are a bundle of love and cuddles no matter where you go or who you meet. There are a bazillion creatures out there who appreciate that trait in a person, from the homeless guy you bought that sandwich for to the baby bird you scooped up off the ground and climbed that tree to put her back.
You are the embodiment of love and kindness. And what’s not to cherish about that?
Time to pull your petals close to keep your heart safe from someone who doesn’t love himself enough to open up to you. .. so that later you’ll be able to open them again for someone who loves you just the way you are, unabashed lover of the ones who are hardest to love in the first place. You touch a lot of lives with that stuff, Honey. And the world will never forget you for it.
2. Now that you have written that love letter to remind yourself how precious and special you truly are, it’s time to do a bit of triage and bandage-rolling. Time to focus on helping your heart to heal again.
Make a list of cons to avoid.
And do it first thing in the morning before the light of day hits the empty dent on the other side of the bed. ..and the tears begin to fall again. (Ordinarily I would suggest a pros column too, but let’s face it. If you have read this far, it’s a good bet you have that one down ad nauseum.) The truth is, we already spend a lot of precious reality hours fantasizing and assigning all kinds of unearned adoration to the objects of our infatuations.
Ask yourself the hard questions now and don’t be afraid to let the fritos fall where they may. Among the beercans and roach clips that your once beloved left lying all over the house as well.
Is it really all that cute when he burps the words to “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” ? Or is it cuter that you were able to overlook it and laugh with him. .. the unconditional depth of the way you let yourself open to a dope who didn’t deserve you. .. like a magnolia or a lily of the mountains?
Get real, Girl. And give credit where credit is due.
A True Story of Triumph Over Severe Mental Illness
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