Monday, February 28, 2011

Flying Solo

For years I'd developed a test of sorts for the people that I knew even though I myself didn't realize I was quizzing them. I'd push and push and push people away waiting to see if they would return. The few ones that did were my friends. For those that didn't I'd lament the faded relationships trying to figure out how things went poorly without even realizing that it was me that was at fault. And deep down in my heart I always wished that everyone would like me enough to come back. And no matter how many did choose me, it was never enough because I'd stand among them and still feel all alone.

Testing the loyalties of the male species was particularly fierce. I'd always either had anxieties about men or bad luck with them.  As I aged I developed a fear that I saw as more and more likely - I would end up alone and that was the thing in life I wanted least to happen.

Less than two months before I broke down my great-uncle died. While people in my life recognized that it was a difficult event they really didn't understand the significance of how that played in my mind. This event more than any other brought up all those fears and anxieties about being alone.

When my grandma learned she was sick she issued a gentle reminder that we would need to take care of him when she gone. He was a bachelor and had lived with my grandparents most of his adult life. Just another in the parade of family members that my grandparents took in, including my mom and I, in the home that I would joke was "the halfway house - all stray family members welcome." But my grandparents lived by the philosophy that family takes care of family and they expected that we would carry that tradition onward.
Shortly after my grandma's funeral I noticed that my uncle had a cough and other symptoms still persisting long after they should have. I asked him if he wanted me to take him to the doctor and he suggested that we go to the emergency room. So, I grabbed a book for the wait and drove him there.

 I was in the waiting room for hours. I was beginning to think that one book might not have been enough when a doctor and a nurse appeared in the lobby and called my name. The nurse didn't scare me, but the doctor accompaniment did. Instead of taking me back into the halls that lead to the ER, they directed me into one of those small consultation rooms. This couldn't be a good thing. They asked me a few questions about who was around to take care of him and a few similar things. I was relaxing sure now that they just wanted to determine there was someone around for him since he was alone.

But no, then they delivered the whammy. He had cancer. I'm sure they weren't anticipating my reaction. After the word cancer I pretty much told them to stop. I couldn't go through this again I said. My grandma had just died of pancreatic cancer eleven days ago. I was just a great-niece that thought she was being nice by driving him. I couldn't do this. There was no way in the world that I could carry him the way I had my grandma. I couldn't take him to the bathroom. I couldn't do any of those kind of things I did just weeks before and I certainly couldn't listen to this. And silently I thought about how I didn't want to have to do those things for him either. I'm sure they hear all sorts of things in that consultation room, but in this case they heard the rant of a very selfish girl that was not at all sympathetic to a man that was alone in the world. We were his closest family. I hadn't been raised this way. But, I still hadn't figured out how to deal with what I was going through, I couldn't add on more. They calmed me down and talked to me some more. I called my mom and then her sisters. We'd have to yet again figure this out. Family didn't let family be alone - I had to keep remembering that.

After a hormone drug treatment was started he improved and things were pretty normal for a while. And then two years later the cancer metastasized and things were tougher. At some point we had to make new arrangements and we divvied up days to make sure that he had visitors. And as I listened to the slight complaints of how it was interfering with every one's daily lives, I realized that this could be me one day. It would be me one day. As an only child without any husband or children random family members could be complaining about how they felt they had to come and visit me so that I wouldn't be alone all the time. Family might not let family be alone, but they certainly didn't have to be happy about the burden either. I felt instantly sick as bile rose from the pit of my stomach into my throat. I was looking at my future. This is what it would be like when I was alone.

As the cancer progressed we moved onto hospice care. The nurses that work in palliative care will tell you there are random small cues, markers, that hint that the end of life is no longer days, but hours away instead. That day the hospice nurses called in two families to their facility because of markers, but ours was not one of them. When my aunt arrived for a visit something wasn't right. She called the nurse who stepped to the side of the bed and then looked back in shock. Less than a half hour earlier she had helped my uncle with his lunch. Now, he was gone. And for those last few moments of his life, he was alone. No one, not even a nurse, was in his room. And he had not one marker that would make them think that he didn't have days, if not weeks or months, remaining.

There were a lot of things that people said to try to make this all seem better. My aunt thought that he had made a sound as she walked in and determined that he was waiting for family to be there and that had to be his last breath. The nurse told us that the only food he was interested in eating that afternoon was his desserts, which we all thought was an appropriate last act for a man who loved his sweets. No matter how many of these things were said I knew that here I was staring at my truth - this is what would happen to me. People in my extended family were going to sit around and try to justify how it was not as bad as it was that I was alone at the end.

When we gathered a few days later for a small funeral service the deacon delivered a homily saying that for someone that had no children of his own you could see his life had value by the number of people present at the service. I looked around and knew that the funerals in my family had never been this small. He talked a little about his love of sports and then paused and asked one of my aunts his favorite team and she answered Notre Dame. I sat there amazed because I knew that the answer was Ohio State. For some reason the fact that something so simple wasn't even known by some of the "closest" family made me even sadder. What lies would they say about me that they thought were true?

Through this whole experience I knew I was being rather self-absorbed. Here I should be grieving and celebrating the life of my uncle, but all I could think about was how alone I was and how alone I'd always be. Outwardly I said and did all the right things, but inside all I thought about was how sad I was and would continue to be. I didn't like this person that sat here thinking more of herself. I wanted to care more, I wanted to be a good person, I just couldn't. Most of my tears were shed for myself. And staring at a future that looked so bleak made it even more difficult to get up and face each day.

And that simple word, alone, rolled around and around in my head - alone - alone -alone - that's what I would be. I couldn't make the feeling or the word go away.

Just another layer of feelings, fears and anxieties that I would add to a miserable year. Just one more layer that made it more and more difficult to see if there was even a way out. The well I'd dug was very, very deep and there I was at the bottom of it now facing my future - all alone.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Promise

In today's version of the "modern family" the living environment of my youth wouldn't be all that unusual, but in the perfect little world of private schools I was the only one that I ever knew that lived like I did. In her effort to give me the best that she could my mom and my grandparents had come to some resolution before I was born that we would live with them. So, while they were still my grandparents they really were much closer than that.

 While I loved my mom and my grandpa my relationship with my grandma was my closest one. She and I rarely fought and our personalities didn't seem to clash in the same way as mine did with my other "parents." I stayed home all day with my grandma and then once I started school, she was the one that greeted me when I came home. I remember climbing into my grandma's bed when I didn't feel well and she would sing me this litany of songs and nursery rhymes. Cuddled up with her I would relax and feel better as she recited the words in her perfect, off-key pitch. She's the one with which I remember discussing some of the momentous news stories of my young lifetime. Watching the special reports of the hostages being freed, the attempted assassination of Reagan and the Pope and the space shuttle explosion she would sit behind her ironing board pressing clothes, discussing with me what I saw on the TV. And I remember joining her on Friday nights, sprawling across her bed and watching Dallas when I didn't always fully understand what was happening. Nothing changed as I aged - if I had a fight with my mom or my grandpa, it was my grandma that would talk to me and smooth things over as I cried to her. She was always the person that I would turn to when I needed kindness and compassion the most.

In my late 20s and early 30s I'd taken a ten-year hiatus from really living life. I would go to work, read books, watch TV, do things with my family and very, very occasionally I'd do things with friends. I'd effectively pushed most of the people in my life away, lost touch others or would figure out an excuse to not go to this or that event with those that invited me. I was coasting through adulthood. And during this time I spent a lot of time with my grandma - eating dinners, watching television or movies, shopping and talking.

So, on that August day when she called and wanted us all at her house I started crying before I even hung up the phone. I didn't know what it was, but I knew that there was no good news that was going to be delivered. Since about January she'd had a sore back. Therapy hadn't worked and that morning she'd been at the doctor's office after he had ordered some x-rays. This ache turned out to be the only symptom of pancreatic cancer. It was stage four, there was no treatment and she had three to six months to live. Even though I was trying to be strong for her, I couldn't stop crying for weeks. She told me that she'd had a good life - 83 years where she felt blessed by her family and friends. It sounds logical, but it didn't matter, there is really never enough years with the people most important to you. Knowing that someone lived a full, good life is no consolation when you know that you have to keep living without them.

For the first few months you wouldn't have known how sick she was. The pain medications kept her going, even if it was at a slower pace. I spent even more time at her house. The last week in October was the beginning of the end. A small surgical procedure that was a comfort measure lead to an infection and that lead to more weakness. She wanted to stay at home, so arrangements were made with schedules and hospice care to make this possible. Everyday after work I'd visit her and help and on the rare occasions when I couldn't make it to her house I'd talk to her on the phone checking in on her throughout the day.

 Eventually I went to my apartment gathered a bunch of clothes and essentials and moved in with her to help. And as difficult as those days were, I cherish a lot of the moments from them. In the early evenings when she would head up the stairs to her bedroom for the night, I'd follow her providing physical support as she navigated the steep stairs. I'd help her with anything she needed and then I'd sit with her and most of the time we would just talk and talk. I'd hold her hand before she drifted off to sleep and say prayers with her that I didn't believe in anymore. And when she'd fall asleep, I'd cry silent tears before I'd get up and waste a few hours and then go to sleep myself.

There are many, many things that were said during these conversations, but one of them stands out more than others. One night, seemingly out of the blue she looked at me and told me I was such a beautiful girl, she wished that I could be happy. I never talked about not being so, but she knew. For me, that was her dying wish  - be happy, begin to live the life that I wanted and should be living and find out how to get those few things that she knew that I was longing for even though I didn't really admit them to myself. She wanted me to promise that I would discover how to do this and I made that promise, not only because she was sick and it felt like the wrong place to argue, but also because deep down I knew that I wanted to figure out myself how to do those things.When I was facing the end of my days I wanted to be able to look back and see something, anything, that really mattered that I'd accomplished.

The days got tougher and tougher. During those months I learned much about how the heart and mind prepares when it knows the end of life is near. I found myself doing things that no one imagines they can ever do in the care for a loved one. Anyone that's lived through something like this knows how emotional and physically draining it is. It was by far the most arduous experience that I've ever lived through, but I would never not make that same choice to take care of her if faced with it again. During the second week of January my grandma died after a long, beautiful life that really wasn't long enough.

For the next six months I made it to work and then drove home as I cried and grieved. I would sit on my sofa every night and read just to keep from thinking too much. I was on a book-a-day pace for months. At first if I let my mind drift I could only remember the painful moments that no one talks about; those things that you see at the end as the horror of the cancer wrecks havoc on a body. Those times at the end when as much as I didn't want to let her go, I knew that I couldn't keep seeing her go through that pain.

After a few months I could see beyond the suffering and would remember those conversations. And I kept thinking of that promise that I made to her. I wanted to keep it, but I couldn't figure out how to get there. And now I had to figure it all out without her guidance. How do you get to the life where you have all the simple things that your heart desires? My mind was a blank. Any time in my past when I'd tried to make a start toward what I thought I wanted. I stumbled, fell and found myself deeper and deeper in a hole of darkness. Eventually it was easier to stop dreaming, stop hoping and just carry on existing - it hurt less.

In June, engrossed in one of my books, something happened. In this novel the girl protagonist, two years following her father's sudden death was facing the task of figuring out how to move on through her grief. She was so afraid of not being perfect that she stopped trying to be anything at all. In the course of her journey, she meets a new group of friends that she finally connects with and learns how to begin facing her future.

With tears in my eyes, I finished this book not knowing that in a few short minutes, I too would have a breakthrough moment. Almost without thinking I looked around the room, and my eyes stopped on a notebook on my nightstand. I picked it up and fished around for a pen and then I began to write and the words about my dad and feeling unloved and abandoned were out on the page. Thoughts that I didn't even know I had were now staring back at me. If anyone had told me these revelations before this moment I wouldn't have believed them. For years I'd been blase when anyone would suggest that my upbringing may have effected me. This was a deep secret pain that I had to unearth myself.

And slowly, staring at that secret that I'd scratched on the page that was now doted with my tears, the heavy burden of my grief and of my past lifted. Staring at the key to so many reasons that I'd ceased living was a gift. Now, how to take that gift and apply it to my life. Staring at my barrier and my demons I now would be able to try to figure out how to keep that promise that I'd made that one night - now, I could see how one day I might be happy.

So after my grandma had given me so much in my life she delivered me one final gift that day - she guided me down a path that helped me see clearly for the first time the woman that I wanted, needed and desired to become.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Kissing Frogs

During the year as I slowly spiraled out of control the loneliness was palpable. 

The one place where I would go to escape my mind and be myself was the fairy tale world that resided in cyberspace. In this virtual playground you could always find some stranger willing to chat from some corner of the world.

I'd talk to some for a few hours, some lasted days or weeks, but I'd grow tired of some and others would grow tired of me and that was that. With a few there would be phone calls putting a voice to the words, but those were saved for the most sane and interesting of the lot.

Contained within my computer was a microcosm of society and during the year I met almost any type that you can imagine. Some were kind and generous, some were perverts, some were insane, some were nice, some were lonely, some were mourning, some were trapped in bad marriages, some were nursing emotional wounds, but they were all frogs - not a prince in the virtual pond.

 I was never really looking to meet someone but in the back of my mind I always left open the possibility that maybe that could happen - maybe in the vast world of the Internet I'd be one of those crazy stories you hear where two people meet and it just works. Call it the Disney-effect but I kept looking for that prince on horseback that would spot me, sing a few catchy tunes, fight my evil nemesis, marry me in his castle with all the royal subjects looking on and then we'd live happily ever after, the end. That fairy tale was just as likely as me meeting anyone in real life so I figured I might as well dream big.

After a crazy week where I'd started a sabbatical from work, went to therapy, let a few people in on my diagnosis, started my list that would shape my future life and ingested happy pills there was nothing that I wanted more than to escape my reality with a little jump in the pond.

I logged in and began my short journey via a few clicks into the fray.

Now I only needed to pick my poison for where I'd travel this night. Tonight I chose a dating site. I entered some search parameters that included "online now" and waited for the results to return. I scanned down the list and about the fourth one down jumped out at me. I read the short digest version of the profile that appeared and it was promising. I clicked to the larger profile and found someone that appeared to have the gift of being verbose just like I did. And not only that, but he was cute and interesting.

I sent a very simple instant message asking if he'd care to chat. While most times I'd try to find something interesting in the profile for a starting line there was something about the honesty in this one I'd just read that said I didn't need to play the pick-up line game.

 My ""I'd love to chat with you if you are open to it" sent around 8:30 p.m. August 7 was met with an almost instant response of "right now? :)" Perfect! Already I was beginning to feel the value of the escape capturing me. While I chatted I didn't have to live within my mind.

I couldn't believe it when I glanced down at the time in the corner of my laptop. How in the world had this guy captured my attention for three hours without it feeling like it at all? Soon after I pointed this out we switched to the phone. When he asked for my number I didn't hesitate or tell him I'd prefer to call as I had every time before so that I could block my number. Something in my gut told me that this guy was everything he appeared and everything he appeared was wonderful. He was perfect.

At some point my phone beeped alerting me that I needed to plug into the charger which elicited a glance at the clock - it was now nearly 3 a.m. Not only was I wide awake and not exhausted for the first time in a year, but I was enthralled and time seemed to have ceased. I mentioned the time, it was noted and neither of us made a move to end the call. I made my next mention of the time somewhere around 5 a.m. and then again around 7 a.m.

We talked and talked and talked.

We covered a broad range of topics and there just never seemed to be an awkward moment or lull in the conversation. It was after 9 a.m. when we finally decided that we did need to hang up the phone. I didn't want to, but I even knew that more than 12 hours of talking was enough of me for anyone.

As I laid in bed waiting for sleep to overtake me I replayed parts of the conversation, but unlike my usual self I didn't over-analyze it, I didn't even analyze it. I just wanted to commit it to memory, relive it and cherish it.

 It was like the best high I'd ever had. For twelve blissful hours happiness had overcome me. And more curious than anything was that this guy - this very interesting, good looking, charming, real guy - seemed to genuinely like the person on the other end of the phone and that person for once was all me with no acting. Nothing that I told him appeared to scare him away. We laughed, we had serious moments, I expressed every thought when I thought it without over-thinking or holding back. And now after all that realness he still seemed to mean it when he asked if we could talk again. I didn't know when he would grow bored with me but I knew that there was no chance that I would grow tired of him. I was sure that at some point being me would topple whatever this was, the clock would strike midnight and my coach would turn into a pumpkin, but until then I was going to enjoy every minute of the attention he gave me and ride the fairy tale high.

I slept and after I woke and showered without thinking or calculating I sent a text. It was promptly answered. So I hadn't imagined that he hadn't hated me. Back and forth we went via text only a few hours after we'd stopped talking.  Later that night more texts. The next day a phone call that lasted nearly five hours. I wanted to think that this guy was crazy for seeming to find me - the real me - interesting but I knew with every once of my being that he was normal and wonderful.

Somehow in that pond of frogs I'd found a prince.

The first few weeks we didn't talk every day but as the weeks went on it became every night. I looked forward to every evening as I hadn't anything for a long, long time. Talking to him was better than any pill. I was alive, I was happy, I looked forward to things, I was no longer exhausted, I was living and it was all because this knight in shining armor has rescued me when he didn't even know I was drowning.

Only two secrets I kept from him - that I was in treatment for depression and that I was off of work because of it. I even hated those small white lies of omission, but while he liked everything else I didn't want to risk having it all taken away from me.

So essential to my recovery had he become; so essential to my life. I didn't need the castle or the ball gown or the noble steed or the fairy godmother - all I needed was the conversation with my hero and life was brighter and  making the effort to recover made sense to me in the context of knowing him.

So many times I've tried to express what he has meant to me. Even now it's not adequate. He made my life make sense. I was drowning and he helped me surface. And for once in my life someone had accepted me for me - all of me - with my warts and all.

Poor prince didn't meet a princess that night but I'm thankful that this one is a fan of frogs.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Filling in the Blanks

Throughout life I've watched girls and women utter "I'm not pretty" or "I feel fat" or any other assortment of phrases looking to their friends to tell them "No way, you're pretty" or "You're so not fat" or some other validating statement. I've always thought that most of them don't really believe what they are saying, they just want to hear someone else tell them what they already know. But I'd say "I'm ugly" time and time again and deep down in my soul I understood this was true. No matter how many times my friends would deny it, I never felt anything different. I'd dismiss their support rationalizing that they were my friends so of course they would say that even though inside their head they were agreeing with me.

The summer before I began college we were asked to send in a picture, our intended major and two interests. I mailed in the form and one of my senior pictures and didn't think much about it. So when the freshman register, or as it was more affectionately called the dogbook, was delivered to my dorm room I had a dull ache in the pit of my stomach - here in book form was one of my biggest nightmares.

The dogbook, although I'm sure every administrator would deny it, was a place to troll for dates - a locale were one picture and two interests would define your worthiness to the opposite sex during the early phases of college. The tradition was that you or your friends would look through the book before one of the school's dances and call and ask for dates. It had evolved to a bunch of girls sitting in a dorm room with dogbook in one hand and a campus phone book in the other. Skimming the pages targets would be identified, phone calls to guys no one had met were made and invites to be the date of you or a friend to whatever dance was looming were extended. You could sometimes hear the guy on the other end of the phone rummaging for and then flipping through the pages to find the name and evaluate the picture and decide in an instant if you were worthy of his time. This, was my biggest nightmare that I didn't know I'd ever had come to life. I never dated in high school - attending an all girls high school made it easy to avoid it since you'd have to actively seek out guys at other schools. When I dreamed of going away to college I added meeting the perfect guy - one that would probably have to be blind - into the mythical world where somehow all my fears of men would just magically disappear.

So when they announced our first hall dance - "The Sweetest Thing" (theme chosen by it's relation to Sweetest Day) I desperately wanted to join my friends, but I had no joy in the idea that somehow I'd have to find a date. I left it up to my friends - they could pick someone and make the calls. I scurried off saying I needed to go to a study group and let them have their fun. There was no way in the world I wanted to sit by and watch them giggle and make calls as guys rejected me based on my looks. I knew that my best bet for ever dating was my personality and the dogbook was not going to aid in that pursuit.

When I arrived home my friends announced that they found someone and proudly displayed the page with his picture. I was pretty astounded - staring back at me from the page was a cute guy and his interests didn't include reading in braille. How in the world did he agree to this? Did my friends offer to pay him? They gave me his number and told me he wanted me to call. He'd been confused that I wasn't with them at the time they called. Most people didn't let their friends go through this process without sitting by and witnessing it. I dialed the phone - this I could do because talking was easy for me. Everything went well. We talked for more than an hour, he showed up that weekend and didn't run away. After drinking at a pre-party in someones room we headed to the dance and had a fantastic time. We hung out afterward and when he left he kissed me in the lobby of my dorm. All was good. But it did nothing to make me feel any better the next time a dance arrived.

The dogbook was my secret hell. No matter what amount of guys said yes when my friends asked them out for me made me feel any different about it. And when the process took more than a few phone calls it just affirmed my opinion of myself - no guy wanted to even spend one evening as my date even when I was buying the beers. For an ugly girl this tradition was torture.

When I started looking back on the years I discovered something very interesting about this - it coincided with a weight gain. Just as finding out that my dad abandoned me had. So I searched the database in my brain and scanned my life. First time I remember a boy in elementary school looking at me in a way that I knew meant something - I went home and binged. Anytime I felt a guy getting closer as anything more than a friend - a weight gain. And when I'd go out and no guy would come within 10 feet of me, even though I was wearing what one of my friends affectionately labeled my "fuck off" face, I'd go home and eat. When I let myself date anyone - I'd push them away waiting to see if they came back and then when they didn't I filled the space they left with food. Wow, there was a pattern here. My fear of abandonment, being judged on appearance and food were all wrapped up in one pretty little picture called an eating disorder, my own special version that involved binging but never purging. I imagine that somewhere in that lovely subconscious I'd combined seeking comfort from food with binging enough to gain weight to make myself  unattractive to any guy that was blind to my ugliness. For a very smart girl and then woman I'd done a pretty good job of not unraveling this one for a while.

So as this realization dawned I started to look back at other memories - maybe they held more answers. And then I thought of a constant refrain in my life: "You'd be pretty if _________" the blank being filled in with "lost weight," "didn't talk so much," "weren't so opinionated," blah, blah, blah, and I'm sure it hadn't helped my self-esteem. No wonder I had the urge to argue with anyone when they paid me a compliment that had to do with anything other than my intellect. It became very clear to me from an early age that I was a "smart girl" and there was no room in my life for any other label to stick. No matter how much I would stare in the mirror the reflection that looked back at me was never "something" enough to appear pretty.

I'd look at childhood pictures and someone would say "You were so cute, what happened?" and what was really gentle teasing became the truth to me. So later in life when I'd sit around with my friends and we played the game of "I'm not _____" or "I'm too ____," I wasn't looking for validation of myself, I really believed what I was saying. My negative self-image was off the charts.

So once the origin of how these blanks had been filled in was revealed I decided that the first thing I needed to work on was accepting a compliment. I didn't have to agree with the person, I only needed to thank them for their kindness. I wasn't pulling off this facade though. I was once told "That 'thank you' would be more convincing if you didn't make that 'this guy is crazy face' as you said it." So, this act needed practice. I'd bite my tongue time and time again when I wanted to say the person was wrong. I still haven't perfected it. And, there are still a few times when I can't resist the argument. Not so long ago I was talking to someone and he told me "you're gorgeous." My response "let's not get carried away, we both know that isn't true." Discussion ensued and when I told him the "You'd be pretty if, fill in the blank," story he told me that he didn't care who said that or if they were teasing or not, "It's a pretty shitty thing to say." I know that the people in my life never intended to create this issue for me, but it's amazing what words can do - sometimes they do speak louder.

 But, toppling a belief system so ingrained in the psyche can't be done just by identifying it. And so now, after all these years I need to learn to fill in my own blanks even when I still believe the answers that were inserted earlier. I'd taken the test and the teacher had marked which answers were wrong, but I couldn't seem to find what answer was supposed to fit in there. Maybe one day I'll discover that magical right answer to complete the sentence "You'd be pretty if _________."

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Checklist

Life rarely spirals out of control at a break-neck pace. Instead it's a slow, gradual evolution of despair. And if you look closely you can sometimes see the cracks in corners of the life of someone that is appearing to hold it together.

During my depression outward appearance was very important to me. I carefully chose nice clothing, added accessories, applied make-up and tried to look nice for the world. Back home I had another big secret that I would be embarrassed for anyone to discover.

After I found myself facing time off work with only therapy appointments in sight, I knew that I needed to have a plan. Somehow getting up, showering and putting on clothes didn't seem like enough even though it really was all that I had the energy to handle. The sad thing was that I knew one of the big things that needed to be done, I just couldn't figure out how to start. That journey of a thousand miles might start with a single step but I didn't know what direction to even face.

So, that morning after I'd been granted one of the greatest gifts ever given me - time to repair myself - the three weeks loomed large. I'd been so focused on just getting through the hours and days that three weeks might as well have been an eternity. And yet, it really wasn't much time at all to unravel the damage that was at least a year in the making.

I prepared my checklist for the day: wake up, shower, get dressed, go to therapy. That seemed like a pretty full day to my weary mind.

I waited in the lobby and then followed my therapist back to her office. Taking a seat on her sofa, I kicked off my flip flops, folded my legs under me and put one of her pillows on my lap. I had worn a nice pair of jeans, a tank with beading near the neckline, a summer-style sweater, earrings, a necklace and carefully applied make-up. Next to outward appearance of caring and sanity I put a big check.

I stared down at my nails, took a deep breath and waited.  Somehow I knew that I was going to have to admit another secret today and I wasn't looking forward to unveiling another crazy part of myself  to the world.

She looked at me and asked how I was. "OK," I lied.

So I'm sure to break the ice, she told me was that I was the first of her patients in the three years she'd been at the practice that the doctor had written out of work. Great - so I was clearly a mess and now it was affirmed. Maybe I needed to put the task of appearance back on my list.

Now, she said "What are you going to do with this gift? What would you like your life to start looking like again in three weeks? What will make going back to work and life easier?" I knew the answer but I was, if possible, more embarrassed to say what I wanted to do then I was admitting that I needed help in the first place.

So my therapist and I had a battle of silence as I averted my eyes, picked at the pillow and took some deep breaths.

Finally I caved. "I need to clean my apartment." My life and mind were a mess and so was my place.

Somehow during the year of indifference and despair I'd stopped caring about not only how I was living, but  the environment that I lived in too. To anyone else I'm sure this would be disturbing and I'm sure that cleaning seemed like a sad use of time. I mean I knew that I wasn't the kind of person that would be accepted for an episode of Hoarders - there were no stacks of used butter containers or folded paper towels saved in bags or any other weird assortment of things. I could walk from room to room without having to turn this way or that way, but there was clutter.

The origin was simple. One day I'd come home from work and I just didn't want to do anything so I'd throw the mail on the table and veg-out in front of the television. Soon enough the pile of mail that needed to be sorted and shredded was toppling over onto a chair. So when I couldn't look at it anymore I'd shove it under the sofa or throw it in a drawer. It's not like I didn't know it was there, but I no longer had to stare at my failings. Tired from another day of work I threw my clothes on the chair in my bedroom and soon enough the chair housed more clothing than my closet. I'd look at a stack of folded laundry and then never put it away, picking clean clothes from the pile until I had to wash it and start the process again.

All parts of my life were becoming overwhelming and the more I didn't do, the more overwhelming it became. And knowing how many things I'd hidden away or thrown in a closet and shut the door on, I knew that the mess wasn't easily unraveled. And much like everything in my life I didn't know where to start so I just didn't.

There had been many failed attempts during the past year to take care of this. I'd deal with one small part of my mess and then be overwhelmed by how little difference it made or simply the act itself would exhaust me. So, I eventually I only cleaned what I had to. But after having clean dishes, a clean bathroom, clean clothes and taking out the trash, I didn't see the point in much else.

To give her credit she seemed to have expected that I might have been ignoring things. She told me that it was a common part of depression to stop caring, to not have the energy for everyday tasks and to have let things that others wouldn't easily see (the inside of my house where I was inviting no one) to go to hell.

I needed to look at this rationally and appropriately. The goal was to have made a major dent in this when I returned to work. Set small, attainable goals. Maybe the first day only meant dealing with a stack of mail. We developed a list. So now, thanks to a handy app on my phone I had a place to type in my list, my start on the road back to sanity.

First up I'd clean my living room since it was the first room I entered when I came home. That way when I entered my apartment I could look forward to a clean, orderly space that inspired serenity instead of panic.I had a week to do it. Such a small space but I was still overwhelmed by the idea.

 I was going to unclutter my mind by literally sweeping and shredding and putting things in their place. For every bag of garbage I threw out I'd be cleaning a small corner of my brain. What I had to admit to myself is that I could do it, that I needed to not beat myself up if I didn't accomplish as much as I wanted in a day and I needed to celebrate small victories. My life, mind and apartment didn't get this way in a day and they weren't going to be fixed in one.

 For the next three weeks this was how I would spend my work day and then after the work was done I could rest, relax, connect with friends and let myself learn to be me again. Small baby steps with a checklist to guide them. And as I put digital check-marks next to seemingly simple tasks I slowly felt some of the weight of the clutter and my life lift.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Sponge Bread Barbie Doll Puzzle

I don't really like food all that much.

I'm sure that statement would surprise many that have looked at me, but I really don't enjoy much of it at all. I'm one of the pickiest eaters I know and most of the time I could care less if I even ate at all.
So how does someone that doesn't even really like food struggle with her weight most of her life? How does that girl get diagnosed with an eating disorder that is unclassified in the DSM-IV? It's pretty simple - in my world food equals comfort, not sustenance.

Until a few years ago my life was a puzzle. I had all the pieces and the pretty picture on the box top for how it was supposed to turn out, but I didn't know how to put them together. In one moment of clarity I started writing (which I never did) and the words on the page surprised me. Everything fell into place.

So I can now clearly trace my food issues back to one crucial moment in my life at the age of 7.

It was also the same age that I first became acquainted with the wonder of Wonder Bread. While other kids liked chocolate, candy, chips and other various kid foods my favorite food for snacking was contained in that happily decorated polka dot sleeve. I would come home from school, open the bag and take out the sponge bread. In between my palms I'd crush the bread and then peel off the crusts and eat them. I'd do the same to the other piece. And then I'd take the squished pieces of bread, roll them into a ball and eat them that way. I'm not sure how the ritual developed but everyday I'd do the same thing. Sometimes I'd even have a third. If I wanted an after dinner snack it was the same thing. I had always been the tallest girl my age but this was also coincidentally the age when my growth seemed to take on hyper-acceleration and my mom used to joke that the Wonder Bread commercial said "builds bodies 12 ways" and mine were all up.

The other event - the life-altering one - wouldn't have looked like one to anyone else but me. I was in a friend's bedroom playing Barbies. The three of us present had played Barbies for years. The girls were two years older than me and nearing the end of the doll-playing days, but until then we gathered as often as we could.
That day I'd innocently carried my plastic yellow Barbie case that had room for dolls on one side and a hanging rod for clothes on the other across the street ready for another adventure.

After elaborately setting up our "houses" and dressing our dolls we began to play. Our dolls visited each other, dressed for work and then one of the Barbies had a date with Ken. It must have been the "infamous" third date because at the end of this one clothes were removed and Barbie and Ken were doing something that I didn't quite understand. I'm pretty sure it was with horror that I gasped and asked what she was doing. My friend  proceeded to explain to me that was how babies were made and then described how that happened in the most graphic of 9-year-old detail. No way! That was not at all what happened I retorted. This debate went back and forth but I wasn't willing to give up my fight.
Years later I figured out what I had internalized from that day where Barbie and I both lost a little innocence - if this is really how babies are made that means that somewhere out in the world I had a dad that I'd never met and he, the first man that should have loved me, didn't.

In the world of 20-20 hindsight I wish I would have marched back home with my plastic case of plastic dolls and asked some questions. Instead, since it had always been a hush-hush topic, I took my cue and didn't say a word.

Up until that point I'd flitted around my neighborhood and blended into any group. Now, something was different.

I stopped playing with the boys down the street that would give me quick kisses in the garage as we got a game out of my toy cabinet or unearthed my bike to take on a new adventure. That could be explained away by how most boys and girls get the dreaded "cooties" at some point and stop interacting for a while. I grew apart from my Barbie playing friends but that was just explained by how they were a few years older and moving on from the days of dolls. I had friends, I functioned, but I wasn't the same and looking back I can see all that now.

At school I felt different. It was like I was finally let in on the joke that everyone had been saying behind my back. I felt like an outsider. No one was living the kind of existence I was. No one I knew didn't have a dad. No one else I knew wasn't good enough to be loved. No one else had been abandoned before they were even born. Before this I'd never really thought anything about my different living situation, now it was everything. So, even though I played and laughed and managed in the midst of all my friends I would stand surrounded by people and still I would feel I was alone.

And thus, the habit of coming home from the crowded room and eating Wonder Bread evolved. It was a comfortable routine that greeted me with open arms after a long day. And the skinny girl that never had a butt to hold up her pants began to have a shape as the weight came on from eating so many refined carbohydrates, or whatever really is in Wonder Bread. When I look back at pictures I wasn't really big at all, but the few extra pounds I'd put on after having been stick thin for so long was shocking. Now I was not the tall skinny girl, but the tall big girl that was packing a few extra pounds.

My relationship with food since that day has always been difficult. Different routines and different foods eventually evolved into a full-blown eating disorder. And always food was the answer to feeling better after I stood surrounded by friends and people and put on the happy face, laughed until I cried and then died a little inside. No matter how many people you packed into a room, I was still always alone.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Battlefield

I waited 24-hours to fill my prescription.

Handing the slip to the pharmacist was letting someone else in on the secret, it was another admission to the world that I was sick, it was another admission that this was really my life.

I didn't like needing help whether it be from a person or a drug. I was a strong, independent woman and everyone agreed and strong, independent women didn't need help. I was the help giver. The shoulder to cry upon. The one everyone else told secrets to without me ever having to reveal too much of myself to be considered a dear friend. That woman didn't need help.

I certainly didn't want to think of what the person behind the counter might be thinking when they filled the script.

Letting go of that piece of paper in exchange for a bottle of pills was also the height of my hypocrisy. So often I would think that people just needed to get their shit together and be done with it. In some ways it didn't surprise me that the judgement that I'd cast for the "weak" was one of things that terrified me most.

Parts of me wondered if I could just keep walking into my appointments and pretend that I was taking my meds - I mean I'd already proved that I could act what was one more performance?

I drove up to the pharmacy's drive-thru window and put that small white piece of paper in and watched the person on the other side take it and my insurance card out and tell me that I could pick it up in an hour.

I like to think that I imagined the disdain that I saw in his expression. Just another crazy person in the world in his eyes. I knew those eyes. I'd peered through those eyes and judged the person that I saw. Now I'd have to look into my own and see that person that so long I thought was weak. I was weak.

An hour later I picked up the script, signed the forms, dismissed the pharmacist when he asked if I had any questions about the medication and drove home.

I sat the pill bottle on the coffee table and stared at it. I waited and then waited some more. Finally I threw caution to the wind and swallowed a pill. My first half-dose of medicine was in my system. There was no turning back now.

 I laid on the sofa and stared at the TV and wondered "when will I begin to feel them working"? My answer would come within the hour only not in the way that I anticipated.

Mindlessly watching some show and dozing on and off I awoke to a headache like none I'd ever experienced. I've had a few migraines in my life but this was not like one of them. It didn't build slowly it just arrived as the sharpest stabbing pain I'd ever experienced. It was attacking from all sides of my head. It radiated in a strange pattern that I envision was following the blood flow through my brain.

Something was attacking my mind and the game that it was playing with it was not a fun one at all. Stabbing myself repeatedly with a sharp object would have felt better than this.

Posted very clearly on the bottle was a bold neon yellow label warning that taking ibuprofen with this medication could cause a severe reaction. I wondered if the reaction would be worse then this pain? If I thought I could drive through the blinding, intense bolts of stabbing pain I might have returned to the pharmacy to see if there was anything I could take or if this was normal.

And then the headache tried to cure itself by taking every bit of moisture from my mouth. I drank a glass of water. It was no help. I filled the glass again and downed the contents. Still the same. I repeated the process. Four glasses of water later and I still felt like I was walking through a sandstorm for hours with my mouth open. I took another sip and this time I didn't swallow. I swished the water around my mouth and even then with a mouth full of water my mouth still felt dry.

A knife stabbed through my head again. I envisioned that this might be what it feels like if a bullet passed through the back of your head and exited through the forehead. I couldn't anticipate where the next burst of pain would come from, what path it would travel or where it would exit. And when there weren't these arrows and bullets flying they only yielded way to a constant throbbing pain that never left.

I endured hours of this. I'd be surprised by a few bolts here and there but for the most part it was now a more consistent, albeit constant pain. What would it have felt like if they started you off with a full dose of medication and was it always going to be this way?

If it were possible my mouth became drier. No telling how much water I'd consumed. I think I could feel the blood traveling through my body. As the medication coursed through my veins I'd feel dull aches where it passed.

Never in my life had I wanted out of physical misery more than this one. Misery and happiness (via pharmaceuticals) were battling for possession of my mind and I had no choice but to sit back and watch the fight. Not really an innocent victim, but a victim of the battle no less.

The headache lasted almost 24 hours. It left around the time I was due for my next half dose. The dry mouth had not ceased.

Who knows how or why I did it, but I took a second pill. And I went through the same reaction. Arrows of pain flew through my head. And well, I might as well have been drinking glasses of dust.

Somewhere in the midst of this I'd looked at the papers that accompanied the script; dry mouth and migraines were listed as possible and probable side effects. So this was what I had to look forward to every day? Was I just replacing my mental anguish with a physical one?

The next day the headache was duller until I took my first full dose. The battle was not as intense, but it was still there. Less bullets exchanged between the depression side and the sane one, but gun fire was still present.

I could still feel the medicine course through my blood stream. I could feel it traveling. Maybe I was replacing depression with psychosis. Who feels their blood moving that isn't full-blown batshit crazy?

It took three and a half days for me to feel normal - and by that I mean my own version of depressed normal. It took a few more days for the dry mouth to cease.

I kept waiting for the pain to yield happy thoughts along with sunshine and roses. It didn't deliver. It's power to heal was apparently going to be more subtle.

I'd endured the entry of this chemical compound into my system. The medicine had won the battle. In it's aftermath I waited for the healing and better life begin.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

And the Oscar Goes to ...

I'd never fancied myself the theatre type, but it turned out I was one of the best actresses on the planet.

Never had someone taken on the starring role of themselves and played it with more conviction and authority then me.

If I'd thought to film the last year of my life when I'd left my home the gold statute would be mine without a doubt. That smile that I pasted on my face had fooled everyone including the people closest to me. No one had looked at the cracks that were hiding under my stage make-up. The few people that I told about what was going on with me appeared shocked. Either I was as good as I believed I was or they were even better and nods for best supporting actor and actress in my life were theirs.

Never had my act been more convincing then the week that followed that first phone call I'd made for help. Four people in my life knew of my diagnosis. Not one of them would be around that next week when I headed out on vacation with my family to the Smokies. Somehow I was on top of my game. For an entire week I was on from almost the moment I woke to when I went to sleep at night. I was never alone. I couldn't break. It was the performance of a lifetime.

During the nights I'd wake and find some refuge in the hotel's bathroom, my dressing room of sorts. There I'd sit on the side of the tub and let the flood gates open. Quietly sobbing and alone with my thoughts. Funny thing is that as much as I can recall a lot of moments from that trip I can't tell you what I was thinking sitting there alone in the middle of the night, I know that I had thoughts but I can't recall a single one.

When I exhausted myself enough I'd splash my face with water, down some advil (because for that week I think all the inner pain that I couldn't show because of my extended performance times manifested itself in headaches) and then wander back to bed. I'd lay there staring at the wall until sleep overtook me knowing that the next time I'd open my eyes I'd have to wake up in character.

I admit that I did have times that week when I didn't need to act. There were moments when I was surrounded by the serenity of the mountains or by the laughter of my cousins that I didn't have to perform. There were genuine smiles and laughs. The hardest thing was knowing that even then, just below the surface was a very fragile person and the smallest of things could break her.

I had a few moments where I lost control of my performance. There were times when everything frazzled me so that I lashed out angrily at those around me using words as my weapon to protect myself. I almost ruined my performance on the last day when I overreacted to several things that didn't matter to me really in the least. I knew the cracks were showing and I was silently thankful that the curtain call was in sight.

The trip home was tense for a while. My anger seemed to be the only emotion that would keep the tears away. I barely spoke. And I ate pretzel sticks saying that I needed them to help me stay focused and awake as I drove, but really it was just something to focus on to keep me from thinking. It wasn't the first time that I'd used food to cope and I certainly wasn't going to tackle that demon that day.

About an hour into the drive I pulled myself together so that I could be the person that I was supposed to be again. Call it my intermission.

It felt as if I'd driven about a week before we arrived in Toledo. My concentration, which I could barely summon since even before the crash, left me and  I mistakenly exited the highway about six exits early - it was like forgetting my lines until someone cued me. And then in the shadow of the now-missing old Jeep plant rubble I couldn't figure out how to get back to the highway. I, the person that never gets lost and always gives other directions in the city, couldn't find the way a block. I was sure that it would be a tip-off but I'd played the role so long no one noticed that I was acting anymore thanks to my convincing dialogue.

When I'd dropped the last family member home and was finally alone in the safety of my car I navigated  home through a wall of tears.

I'd done it. The award for best performance by a leading actress was mine.

I made it through Friday at home, Saturday at work, Sunday at home, Monday at work camera-ready for all my close-ups.

I'd made it to Tuesday. I worked the morning and then took a long lunch for my appointment.  This time I was seeing the psychiatrist - the producer of the next small portion of my life.

The script she wrote for me was two pages long: page one a note saying that under her care I couldn't work because of a biological disorder and page two detailed the special effects that would be available me though the wonders of chemical enhancement.

I woke the next morning more refreshed then ever thinking that the day would not involve my acting skills. I went to therapy. I talked. I cried.

That afternoon I gave an unanticipated curtain call after a text came across my phone.
Mom: "Lunch?"
Me: "Yes, but pick me up at my house, I'm home."

She questioned this unanticipated plot twist. She hadn't anticipated where the story was going.  She'd bought my act. She'd been part of my target demographic.

For the first time in a very long time I didn't act in front of the most important person in my life.  As much as I wasn't acting anymore I really wasn't ready to give even a digest version of my script. And my mom, wonder woman that she is, didn't pry, she was content to wait for me outside the stage door.

She let me be what I needed that day - no longer an actress - just a woman, just a daughter, just a broken, mute soul.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Many, Many Starts

Seven months ago I set up this blog and then abandoned it like I had so many things.

Nearly a month later came the crash.

Little did I know how apropos the title of the blog would be.

Since then I've stopped and started many posts that I felt I could not share with most of my friends. The cluttered mind musings became more like a  personal online journal. But I decided a few days ago that sharing might just be what I need to do to complete my journey.

So here it goes (drawing from and expanding upon a few journal postings)...

The crash, Monday, July 19, 2010

Much like I had for months and months on end I started my day by being late for work. It's difficult to explain to someone that's never been there but there was a certain level of me that just no longer cared. I had no energy, all I wanted to do was sleep and given the option I wouldn't have left my house if I didn't have to do so. Often times I would sleep through my alarm somehow turning it off and not caring or bothering to hit snooze. It no longer mattered, I didn't care, I didn't want to care and I didn't have the energy to care. It was the same every day save for a few and those few were never on a work day.

Never in my life had I felt so lifeless. I had no control of my thoughts or emotions and I certainly had no control of my life. I was just getting by - existing but not living.

So, on this day I did the same - overslept and then laid in bed just thinking "you need to get up and go to work." I'd think it, repeat it and then move nary a muscle. Different day, same story.

Eventually, like every day I'd lay there some more and think "what has happened to you?" And then like many, many other days I'd silently cry my thoughts being that this was what every day was going to be like for years and years to come. I was miserable, but I couldn't change it. Getting up meant I'd have to pretend to be OK again and pretending was becoming exhausting. So instead I'd lay in bed and cry and then I'd look at the clock and think if you get up and hurry you can make it almost on time. I'd even started setting my alarm an hour early with the hope that it would be enough time to get my shit together, but all I found was that every day I needed more and more time to face the world.

Eventually I'd know that it was too late to be on time, so I'd get out of bed, walk to my sofa, pull open my laptop and check facebook and then my blogroll and then yahoo news and then Huffington Post and then sometimes I'd start the pattern again. Soon enough I'd notice that Good Morning America, on in the background, was signing off for the morning and well that meant that I should have been arriving at work.

So I'd gather all my energy and then go shower. And then I'd be exhausted again. I'd lay on my bed, glance at the clock and close my eyes. I was already late, what would a few more minutes matter. I had a mantra almost where I'd tell myself to get up and get moving. But I couldn't move.

Eventually I'd move again even though every ounce of me didn't want to so. Some days it took longer than others.

I'd dry my hair, put on make-up, dress and then look at the person in the mirror that looked presentable on the outside, but on the inside was a disaster.

This was the same day I'd lived over and over again for months. I was stuck on a very slow version of repeat.

Somehow I made it to work that day like I had many others. Smile pasted on my face I did the best job that I could. To the outside world I was fine. Once I could finally drag myself from the depths of the doldrums I functioned. I smiled. I pretended.

But that day I broke.

When I look back I suppose that I could see that the days were getting worse. One after the other I was falling deeper and deeper into despair. I was on a very, very fragile string and today was the day that I didn't know it would unravel.

At some point during the day I sat at my desk and tears began to roll down my cheeks. I couldn't stop them. I don't know why they began. I couldn't stop them. The last vestige of control was gone. I wasn't holding it together. My only thought was "what am I going to do now?," because I was no longer holding up the good face once I left the house. So I did something that I did not usually do - I went to my car and took a break (because I pretended that skipping all my breaks made up for my constant tardiness).

I pulled out my phone, hit the browser button for google and typed. I took out a pen, paper and hit the number link so that it would dial the number.

I was at of the lowest points in my life - I felt weak and out-of-control in a way I never had before.

When the person on the other end answered at Saint Vincent Hospital's referral line I told her I needed the number for psychiatrists in the area. I wrote down the two numbers and asked her to transfer me to that department at the hospital. I spoke with a very nice person on the phone and told her I'm on the edge of a cliff here and I don't know what to do - I was ready to drive myself to the hospital, but she advised me to try the private route first, telling me that unfortunately most in-patient programs are so full of drug-addicts and those with psychotic disorders that they would be able to offer me little help.

Through my now constant stream of tears I dialed the first number - disconnected. I dialed the second and was asked if I could hold and then promptly placed on hold before I could even answer. My ears were assaulted with what I could only mildly describe as "circus" music. I hung up hoping that these were not going to be my only options. The lock-down ward in the hospital was beginning to look preferable.

I redialed Saint V's. I spoke with the same, very patient woman and told her that the first number was disconnected, the second didn't look like a viable option and pretty much pleaded with her for another number. The third number was the charm, the first glimmer of hope that I'd had in months. The woman that answered the phone had a voice that soothed me from the moment she began to speak. I told her that I needed to see someone. There was no way that she couldn't hear in my voice that I was sobbing. She didn't have an appointment for a month. My heart sank. I'd finally made the move and yet, it wasn't going to help. She told me the hours and offered that I should come in and fill out the paperwork and that she'd put me on the cancellation list.

Somehow I made it through the rest of the day. There is something to it when they tell you that taking a step really does help. I took another break that day with a very dear, understanding friend and I told her that I'd made a call, I needed help, I was falling apart. It was the first time I'd even thought of admitting my weakness to someone else. And again I cried. She was perfect, understanding and I thought surprised, but maybe it was my hopeful interpretation that my disguise had worked.

I left work that day and drove to the doctor's office. The walk from my car to the door terrified me. I didn't know what to expect. I felt like I shouldn't need help. I felt more weak and broken then I had earlier in the day.

With a deep intake of breath I opened the inner office door and walked to the window. Before I even finished telling her that I'd talked to her today the woman behind the window put me at ease. She handed me the stack of papers and alone in the waiting room I filled in the easy ones first - name, age ... Then came the difficult ones - admitting why I was there.

There I was sitting in a nice black skirt, white and red shirt with decorative lace, a summer weight black crocheted sweater,  black necklace, silver hoop earrings, black ballet flats - looking every bit the put-together woman, but as I filled out question after question the veneer of being put-together was washed away by the tears that ran down my face. I couldn't breath. I was doing this. I was admitting that I was sick on paper when I hadn't really even admitted it to myself. The receptionist took one look at me and said "we need to find an appointment for you this week." I told her that I'd make it to whatever she could find. She told me that I'd love Kelly and found a middle of the day appointment on Wednesday.

When I left I actually did feel better. I'd done it. And I lived through it. I took a step, albeit a very tiny one, but it was the first step I'd taken in many, many months.

Two days later I walked into the office again at 2:15 p.m. - a few minutes early for something, which is clearly something that had not happened in a long, long time.

After an hour and a half of questioning I left there with a diagnosis of "major depressive disorder", the most severe degree of depression (one that is categorized by an inability to work and difficulty dealing with family or friends among other things) and "eating disorder, not otherwise specified / bulimia."

It was a start.