Monthly Archives: June 2015

What Do You Do?

There are few questions that I dread like this one.
There are few places more guaranteed to produce this question than a reunion.

I graduated with my counseling degree in 2005. Last weekend I attended the ten-year reunion of my small cohort of classmates, knowing that my answer to “What do you do?” or “What have you been doing?” would be, to say the least, uncomfortable.

Here’s my timeline of the last ten years:

2005-2008: A few internships and a job from hell. A slow slide into worsening mental and physical health, combined with gradually increasing use of painkillers.
2009: First hospitalization for major bipolar episode. Later, first visit to detox and treatment for painkiller addiction.
2010: Worsening depression, exacerbated by heavy bipolar meds. Relapsed on painkillers by autumn.
2011: Extreme addictive behavior, near-death in May followed by rehab.
2011-2015: Recovery, working on living with a dual diagnosis, homeschooling, beginning to write.

It’s not the kind of resume I hoped for when I graduated. I was prouder of that degree than I’d been about any other educational achievement, because it was purchased not only with work but with extensive pain and personal growth. I dreamed about being a therapist, and I thrilled to compliments from my teachers and moments of rapport with my clients.

Many of my classmates are licensed therapists now, and those who aren’t have reasons way cooler than mine. I did not want to look them in the face and explain why I am not a part of the professional community now.

So why did I go?
Why did I answer the dreaded questions truthfully?
Why did I answer not only truthfully, but completely?
It would have been simple to soften the impact by telling partial truths.

I could have said I was homeschooling my daughter, and talked about why, and let them assume that’s what I had been doing for most of the last years.
I could have said I experienced the onset of bipolar disorder, and not mentioned the drugs.

But I didn’t. I talked freely about all of it–the drugs, the psych treatment, the daughter, the recovery, the poetry, this site. I tried to present myself authentically, without being apologetic.

There are two reasons I showed up and said what I said. The first reason is simple: These are some great people, and I regret losing touch with a few of them. My values of humility require that I make myself more available to others and worry less about what they will think about me.

The second reason is, of course, you.

You, the person reading this, whoever you are. You, with your own insecurities that might make you believe you’re not good enough to go out and talk with people you think are more successful, educated, together, virtuous…you, who might not be sure you have something to offer.

Because I know very little in my life, especially when my symptoms get bad, but I know this: No matter who you are or what your story is, I would have encouraged you to go to that reunion.

I would have told you to go, and meet their eyes, and be who you are without apology. I would have reminded you that you are no more or less worthy than any other soul; that you have you to offer. I would have reminded you that something you might say, or just be, could help or inspire someone in ways you’ll never know.

So I acted on that belief. I might not have gone there for myself, but I went there for you. If it was a brave thing to do, it was you that made me brave.

Thank you.

This is the Cow

In One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, there’s an isolated village that, at one point, suffers something called the insomnia plague. It’s a minor and brief part of a long and amazing book, but it stuck with me.

The insomnia plague made people stop sleeping. They were in no particular distress, but as it continued, they began to lose their memories. At first, it wasn’t too bad. They began to put little notes on objects to remind themselves what the object is called. Then it became necessary to have more detailed instructions: This is the cow. She must be milked every day so that she will produce milk, which can then be mixed with coffee to make coffee and milk.

I loved the matter-of-fact quality of these notes (and the mental image of a cow with a letter stuck to its forehead.) In my life, the spiritual equivalent of this plague happens frequently. I can be in remission from it, but I am never cured–and I need those notes to myself.

I will tell you a secret: I re-read my writing often. Not for the purpose of narcissistic pleasure, although that can creep in for a piece I’m fond of. My pieces are messages between the different versions of myself, and I use them as such. How often I re-read them is diagnostic, and they way I feel when reading them is diagnostic too.

Do I feel ashamed, seeing that I was doing better then than now? Do I feel compassionate, inspired, amused? Do I feel sheepish because an old piece seems trite or silly to me? No matter what I feel about it, it’s important for me to be open to the messages I’ve written.

If I were to take my pieces and dissect them, or boil them down to basic themes as if I were a literature student, I could deconstruct them into “This is the cow” kind of messages.

This is hope. You believe in it. There is a part of you that never loses it.
This is despair. You are familiar with it. You can endure it.

This is addiction. It is your enemy. These are your weapons against it.
This is beauty. You know how to find it in the unlikeliest places. It will feed you.
These are words. They sustain you.

Sometimes, this is enough for me; reading my own pieces and the pieces of others. It’s enough to create a background hum of awareness and of hope. Lately, I’ve been feeling as if I need more; I need another version of myself to walk me though the day. When coming out of a severe dip, I feel as if I am encountering everything as a beginner. I need that longer Post-It note on the cow.

That sound is your morning alarm. When you hear that sound, get out of bed and go to the bathroom, then get dressed.
This is the refrigerator. Most of the things in it are not suitable for you to eat, so do not eat them. The things you need to eat are over there.
These are your vitamins. Swallowing them improves your health.
Improving your health is a good idea because you will live longer.
Living longer is a good idea for reasons that exist. I will explain later.
This is the dog. Petting her makes you feel good, so do it.
These are your poetry books. Open one up and read something out of it.
That sound is music. Push the button with the + on it until the music is louder.

This is a pen. You write with it.
That stuff is paper. You write on it.
Hold the pen in your hand and stroke the tip against the paper.