Monthly Archives: October 2015

Social Centipede

Ever heard of the dilemma of the centipede? The story goes that someone asks a centipede how in the world it manages to coordinate moving all of those legs smoothly. The centipede thinks about it, trying to form a description, but as soon as it begins to think about what its legs are doing it becomes hopelessly fouled up.

A couple of months ago, someone challenged me to write a poem about “the joy of belonging.” I wrestled with it several times, never coming up with a hook that pleased me. The challenge, in fact, probably had a very opposite effect to that intended: because I was unable to come up with a poem about it, my feelings of loneliness and not belonging became sharper. I had to admit that belonging wasn’t an experience I knew well enough to write about.

I know others feel this way; I even know I belong more than I think I do. But it bugged me that I couldn’t evoke one scene, one instance of joyful belonging with enough reality to spark a poem.

The closest I got–close enough for preliminary scribbles, which I might try to expand at some point–is remembering how singing with a group feels. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the other singers, producing a sound that’s blending with others to form a whole greater than the sum of the parts, brought me some of my most wonderful emotional and spiritual experiences.

Part of the magic, of course, is the liberation from self-consciousness. For me, singing like that is a rare instance of not analyzing myself. When I’m focused on oxygen, or lack thereof, and hearing the other singers, and reading the music, and watching the conductor, there is finally enough going on to make my brain shut the fuck up.

I belong, then, but the reason I belong is that I’m no longer thinking about whether or not I belong. As soon as I start thinking again, it’s back to the dilemma of the centipede.

If lack of self-absorption is a key to belonging, I know there are other times I belong. I belong when I’m doing service, focused on something that needs to be done to help others. I belong when I’m fully present with someone I love, having a moment free of my fears and other demons. And, if this is true, I know I can belong more often if I work at it.

But how do I describe the joy of belonging, when it vanishes as soon as I even ask if it is there?

In the years since coming close to death and entering recovery, I’ve become more creative and passionate than in any previous era of my life. I’m more capable of loving both myself and others, even as I become more aware of the uncomfortable truths about myself that try to interfere. I’m more alive, more human–and I’ve never felt so lonely.

Every time I think I can’t feel any lonelier, I do. With or without good reason, loneliness walks with me, sleeps with me, sits beside me at this desk. I don’t know if it’s part of maturing, or part of grieving. I don’t know if everyone is feeling this lonely on the inside (surely, they can’t be…can they?)

What would it be to feel the opposite of loneliness, and be aware of feeling it? To exist in my own consciousness enough to name the feeling, yet out of myself enough not to be sucked back into separateness?

I almost wrote that I’ve never experienced such a state, but it isn’t true. I have, during very brief moments, under circumstances I fear I won’t ever encounter again. But whether I ever do or not, I can work toward the somewhat more attainable kind of belonging that comes from creating things with other people.

French Dictation

A character in an old book once lamented that his life seemed to be graded like a French dictation exam, while others’ lives seemed to be graded more like a history essay. The comparison stuck with me, because I remember taking those exams in French class–and because I think we all tend to do this to ourselves.

In a dictation exam, you start with full marks and points are taken off for every mistake you make. In a history essay, you start with zero and get points for everything good you write down. When applied to life, this represents two possible attitudes…and we tend to grade our own lives like the dictation and others’ like the essay.

It’s not a new idea. We tend to be hardest on ourselves; compare our bloopers to someone else’s highlight reel. We applaud and/or envy the accomplishments of people we know, while wallowing in Gazpacho syndrome around our own.

My attempts to change this are short-lived but recurring. They are easily drowned about by the critical and self-destructive voices wanting to inform me that I’ve blown it and my future is dark. But I don’t let go of the concept.

After weeks of better behavior with food, I succumbed about a week ago and have been punishing myself with overeating and lack of self-care. In true French dictation style, I give myself no credit for the weeks and for fighting so long…only the mistake matters.

I wish I could value the effort more. The truth, the truth I see if I lay aside my attitude, is that I put up one hell of a fight. I fought this episode harder than I’ve fought in a while. I bit my nails and fingers bloody over a series of nights; I asked for help and talked honestly with my husband about my insanity and the binges I was planning. I went out of my comfort zone to talk this way, and I held out for a good week longer than I usually do.

There were some things I didn’t do that I should have done to reach out for help, and I focus on those rather than all of the things I did do. To punish myself, I extend the period of overeating for days longer than it might persist if I wasn’t determined to make myself sick.

I think I’m just about done punishing myself for this particular round. I’m trying to look honestly at the pattern of this last year and think about my doctor’s advice to consider hormone therapy for my perimenopausal symptoms and PMDD…apparently, the combination of this and the bipolar undoes me for a week a month, sending hunger and cravings through the roof and derailing any progress I’ve made.

So here I am, sitting in the coffee shop looking out the window with the sharpened vision that comes with the emergence from a depressive dip. Sunlight glinting off of cars, the blue sky, a passing bird…there’s a bit of hyperreality to them, as if I just arrived on this planet and am studying my surroundings intently. It’s not the first time I have been here this way, and it won’t be the last.

Now is the time for a healing phase. Take the band-aids from my healing fingertips, drink some water to begin washing the toxins out of me, breathe again. Can I let myself be happier? Can I let it happen?

Can I, instead of punishing myself for a fall, give myself some credit for time spent standing? Can I acknowledge how hard I fought? How, even during the worst of the depression and the abuse of myself, I managed to get basic things done and help my daughter study for her tests? Can I see that, years ago, I would have spent a depressive phase like this barricaded in my room?

Can I give myself any credit for continuing to abstain from drugs? Can I acknowledge how dangerous it is not to value that accomplishment?

The Stiff-Bristled Brush

So many memories that come into my head are vague. It takes concentration to bring them into sharper definition, and sometimes I don’t want to. A memory is most vivid when it includes several of the senses, and the senses beyond sight and sound are usually the ones that come when I concentrate.

Recently, I did a poetry exercise with the prompt “Skin.” What came out catapulted me into recalling a time when my skin was trying very hard to save my life.

When you think about the stereotypical picture of a drug addict, bad skin might be part of it. Some common drugs like meth produce a tendency to pick at skin, and injectable drugs can lead to abscesses. I didn’t have these particular skin issues: what I had was intense itching, which can be a side effect of opiates.

The stiff-bristled hairbrush was a part of my life more than four years ago, during the peak months of my using before my last trip to rehab. I had no idea, then, just how sick I was. The amount of pills I was taking must have had my metabolism struggling to maintain itself. My periods had gotten irregular, and my hair was beginning to come out. I had injuries from falling down while trying to get from my bed to the bathroom. I routinely threw up from drug-induced nausea, only to take more of the same drug.

Opiates and opioids depress the body’s reflexes, including the one that says the default action is to keep breathing. A respiratory arrest from overdose is the most common way for an addict to die.

It is said that the itching that often occurs with these drugs is an attempt by the body to arouse itself from the “everything is fine, no need to spend energy on this pesky breathing thing” state. I’m not a doctor, so I don’t know for sure whether this is true, but it makes sense to me.

What I know is sometimes that hairbrush was the only thing that got me moving. It was what I used to scrub my skin everywhere I could reach, leaving red and white lines and patches all over myself. Its bristles were black, and so hard they seemed more suitable for a horse than a human.

Yes, I thought about that brush the other day. I closed my eyes and let myself sink into the memory–the dusty nightstand it rested on; the bed beside it in the dim bedroom. Drawn drapes, always drawn. A huge heap of old paperback books (read while waiting for the latest dose to kick in) scattered on the floor beside the bed. Against the nearby wall, a larger pile of unwashed laundry. The dirty bathroom with its seldom-used shower and the bottles of pills hidden in the drawers.

There are obvious reasons it’s useful to remember this time in my life. When I’m overwhelmed with the desire to retreat or escape, I need to remember the price and the parts of the scenario that involve giving up huge chunks of my humanity, not to mention the parts about being on the edge of resigning from the breather’s club. It’s good to make a point, as I sit here writing this, of looking my sometimes-neglected but no longer actively abused skin.

But it’s not only that. I also want to keep the recall clear simply because it was an experience I had. I was there, and it happened; I don’t want it to be a diffuse blur or treat it as just a gap in my life’s resume.

More Than You Can Handle

People I care about are going through the terminal illness of a family member. As we all tend to do, I grope for the right words of comfort and support, and don’t want to accept that there are no “right” words.

There may not be any words that are the right ones, but there are some I try to avoid. There are phrases that, when uttered by another person, make me wince. So, because of my personal bias, I don’t like to say them to anyone else.

High on my list of these is: “God never gives you more than you can handle.”

I understand the spirit and intention behind these words. I understand they’re meant to imply that a loving God can and will support us even through times we don’t think we can take. I don’t even have a problem with the word God, although I might use a different word for the “thing bigger than myself” I believe in.

My problem with this phrase has to do with my opinion that it’s just not true.

God/life/the universe does sometimes throw things our way that we cannot handle. Some things, or combinations of things, do break us. Don’t believe me? Walk through your jail or local psych ward. Hell, walk down some city streets. We do get broken.

Maybe I’m just quibbling over semantics. Maybe it’s the word “handle” that I just don’t like. I don’t know. I just imagine someone sitting in the psych ward, or rehab, or in a cubicle in the ER getting cuts stitched up, and thinking they’ve failed. Someone told them God would never give them anything they couldn’t handle, and they failed to handle it, so they have done something wrong. They must be worse than other people. They’ve let God down.

Some things are not handle-able. They cross a line. The location of that line is different for everyone. Outer and inner circumstances cross the line and become forces of nature, and we do not cope with them. They handle us, and when it’s over we are not the same person.

Does this mean some source of strength and love from the universe is not there for us? I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that this mysterious source won’t necessarily keep us from breaking–even if it’s right there to love us through it when we do.

So I don’t like to tell people their God won’t let them break. I don’t know if what they are currently experiencing will break them or not. I don’t know how many pieces they will shatter into if they do, or what shape those shards will have, or what type of form the bits might create when they get put together again.

When I gave birth to my daughter, I processed the pain of the first hours using breathing and moving and vocalizing. I rocked, growled and moaned, but always with some feeling of control and power. I felt proud of myself; I was being like the empowered birthing women I had read about.

Then something happened; the pain got a lot worse and I started to lose it. I began to panic. I tried every technique I had been doing, and some others. The people around me encouraged me and told me I could do it. It did not help.

Then the midwife said something that made the difference. She said “You need to stop trying to manage the pain. Let go.” I clutched her hand, afraid, but her words resonated with me. She was acknowledging that this was bigger than me. It was unmanageable, and she didn’t expect me to manage it.

For the next half an hour, I stopped coping. Technique went out the window; I writhed and flopped like a fish, as my body tried to escape the pain. I moaned and cried, no longer trying to keep my voice low and fierce. The pain managed me, and as I became its bitch I told myself that if it got any worse I would demand an epidural. Or a C-section.

My daughter was born quickly, amid much screaming, after this change in my demeanor. Later, I learned about some factors that had made my labor unusually intense. Though the experience was empowering in the end, I did not come from it unscathed. I had flashbacks, and the physical changes of pregnancy and birth altered my brain forever. I’ll always be grateful to that midwife for encouraging me to let go. By acknowledging the sheer power of what was happening to me, she helped me be at peace with having been changed by it.

I’ll continue to grope for words to comfort those who suffer–words that give some kind of support without ever implying that I, or some divine, have any expectations about the exact course and consequences of their pain.