Tag Archives: Humor

About a Brick

I brought a brick home the other day. The women’s recovery event I attended had two bricks as part of the centerpiece at each table, and two women at each table were randomly chosen to keep the bricks. Some didn’t want them, and gave them to another person. Not me. I was thrilled to get it.

So, I have a brick now. It’s painted yellow and has the word Faith on one side, and Unity on the other, in black cursive lettering. The Faith side was facing me at the table, and it had struck me as a lovely coincidence with faith being one of my deficits lately.

Should I feel a bit pathetic that getting a brick made me the happiest I’ve been in weeks? Or should I be pleased that at 48 I’m still the kind of person who can take childlike joy in something as simple as a brick?

I like the feel of it in my hand; the solid weight. I like the rough, uneven texture and the grounding tactile sensations it creates when I run my hand over the surface. I like the synchronicity of getting a tangible symbol when I can use it.

We all need elements of simplicity in our lives, especially in our world of constant and multiple inputs of sensory information. For those of us with mental health issues that warp our perceptions and emotions, it’s even more important. We need to get through those moments of disorientation or those episodes of having to buy time until we recede from the edge.

I use many grounding techniques, with varying degrees of success. Tactile sensations are good; the feel of water or the softness of a dog’s fur. Reducing the world to me and–for instance–my brick. Focusing on the surface as if it’s the surface of a planet I am exploring. Most of all, registering the boundary between the brick and my skin. These are my fingertips, that is the brick. Right here, where the sensation of touch is present, is where I end and the outside world begins. I am contained; I am not dissolving.

This is one reason I enjoy my brick, but let’s not forget the element of childlike pleasure in having it. How important such reactions are to me! I don’t think I could survive very well without them, if I survived at all. The ability to be pleased by small things is so essential, and I need more of it as December starts and the media begin to bombard me with reminders that I’m supposed to think I’m a failure because of not being able to buy stuff.

My brick represents taking pleasure in a thing for no logical reason; taking pleasure in a thing no one else might understand. A thing not connected to money, or ego, or even my hopes for the future. A thing that simply is.

Here’s another memory my brick brings to mind. I used to read the Ramona series by Beverly Cleary, books that began with an imaginative five-year-old Ramona and followed her as she grew older. One of Ramona’s favorite games, played with a friend, was called Brick Factory. It could only be played when the house next to hers, which was undergoing a remodel, had a load of bricks delivered.

Brick Factory had very simple rules. It consisted of Ramona and her friend sitting in her driveway, each holding a brick. They pounded said brick into the concrete surface, over and over, as the brick slowly became smaller and was at last reduced to brick dust. It took a long time, and if they finished their first brick they’d just start another one.

I totally identified. I could imagine their pleasure in watching the red brick dust accumulate and feeling the brick diminish; their enjoyment of the process. Repetitive activities are soothing to me when I am anxious, and even when spending time with friends I’d rather be sharing some simple activity than just talking.

This concludes the story of my brick. I’m extremely worried about many things, fighting some pretty scary depressive thoughts, and physically ill from months of inconsistent self-care…but I have a brick.

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.

It’s a Hard Egg

Okay, that’s not really how the song goes. The song is actually “It’s a Heartache” by Bonnie Tyler. But, as people do, I misinterpreted the lyrics decades ago and my version of them is still what I hear when the song plays.

It’s one of what I call the “Poor Me” genre of songs. In fact, on the same tape from my childhood was another song called “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” by Linda Ronstadt (I heard that one as Poor, Poor Pimple Me, but that’s another story.)

A time-honored genre…after all, how many climactic opera arias discuss the character’s contentment and happy thoughts about the future? How many blues songs rhapsodize about how the singer’s wife is faithful and his dog is doing fine?

In music, a little “he/she/the world done me wrong” is fine. But in my brain, it’s a deadly weapon. Self-pity and resentment are potentially as lethal as a bullet, and that metaphorical gun is pointed at my temple lately.

I feel sorry for myself because I’m choosing (not being forced) to abstain from food and drugs, and it’s very hard right now. I feel sorry for myself because of my family’s money problems and the challenge of keeping up with home/campus schooling for my daughter. I feel sorry for myself because the holidays are coming and they bring me shame and stress instead of fun.

Poor me. Poor, poor pimple me.

At a time like this I try to engage gratitude to combat the self-pity. I think I’m trying too hard, though–I’m using gratitude like a cudgel, attempting to whack my mind into a better path with it. I’m lecturing myself about all I have to be grateful for instead of letting the grace flow and wash away my resentful thoughts.

I don’t need to conquer self-pity to be a better person; that’s just frosting. I’ve said it before, but I can’t say it enough: I have to move away from self-pity and toward grace if I want to keep breathing. It’s that simple. A bad attitude will kill me. Dead.

With that said, let’s go back to the hard egg. Besides being an amusing misheard lyric, it’s actually a kind of cool metaphor. Instead of a heartache, we have a hard egg. Maybe I didn’t want a hard egg. Maybe I wanted my egg over easy. But that’s not what I got. The egg I got is hard.

If I’m in a self-pitying mood, I could sit there in the restaurant and complain to the server that they got it wrong. I could demand a replacement egg, and throw a tantrum when I hear that it’s the last egg they have.

Maybe I’d realize I’m being immature. So I could sit there and stare at the egg, telling myself that I should be grateful to have an egg at all. I’d lecture myself about all the people who don’t have any eggs, and work on convincing myself that the egg will taste just fine, and even if it tastes bad I shouldn’t complain.

I think that’s the stage I am in now.

But what do I do, there in that restaurant booth, if I really have gratitude and acceptance? If I’ve resolved my resistance, if my gratitude flows instead of being cudgeled along?

That’s right. I eat the fucking egg.

I shut up and eat the damn thing. And save myself time, energy and stress. I eat it, eat this egg that will never exist again, and I take in that precious, irreplaceable protein and vitamins.

In the end, participating in this messy life of mine will be a lot less stressful than agonizing about it. Being willing to live, fully, in my present situation will let me see and appreciate what’s good in it.

Well. Glad we got that figured out. Now I just have to deal with the whole easier-said-than-done business…with congealed yolk to guide my spirit.

Canary in a Coal Mine

First to fall over when the atmosphere is less than perfect
Your sensibilities are shaken by the slightest defect
You live your life like a canary in a coal mine
You get so dizzy even walking in a straight line
—The Police

I blame my daughter’s biology teacher. Turns out his main line of communication about homework and such is Twitter…and, while it’s possible to access his timeline without having an account, this process has pushed me over the edge into doing the unthinkable and getting one.

It always seemed as if it would be a fun thing to do, and I imagine it will be if I can keep it firmly in the realm of fun. The trouble is that I have jumped from “isn’t it amusing to tweet strange remarks and phrases that come into my head” to “oh my God, others’ feeds are amazing clearinghouses of useful links to things and mine is not” in record time.

I’m privileged to see a lot of amazing writing about living with mental illness and with addiction out there, and I know that I could spend my days online and never read all of the good stuff there is. One writer I follow (yes, you, K., and you’re awesome) pretty much gives me a daily digest of great articles to read.

It’s not what I do, though, at least not at the current stage of my life, and I tripped myself up by getting caught in expectations for my new account. Then I started thinking that since I had a Twitter account now, maybe I should give in and get a Facebook page for Not This Song, and how does that work, and would it be a separate page from my writer’s page, which I need to get set up too, and…

…and I’ve now sucked every drop of joy out of my writing. I’ve been struggling for days to pick and execute an idea for a Not This Song post. I’ve been comparing myself to social media moguls and thinking that since I don’t imagine ever being able to (or wanting to) do what they do, maybe I should give up on ever accomplishing anything with my writing.

I’ve thought about these things before; the Twitter thing just brings it up in a new way. For example, I tried to figure out how to put a “follow me on twitter” button here on the website, and haven’t yet succeeded–but the process triggered all of my insecurities. This leaked over into my writing in general–every idea for an article turned into haven’t you said this before or hasn’t someone said it better or isn’t this just silly?

This has to stop, because I can’t afford to lose my pleasure in writing. I’ve lost sight of the reasons for what I do; of Not This Song‘s spirit. Of course I’d like the pieces that work to get to more people, but I cannot place the cart before the horse. The writing, the weirdness, the play’s the thing; all of this other stuff is about finding the best ways to put it on a plate for others to sample.

All this being said, I’m going to keep my Twitter account, but only on condition that I keep it fun. For me, this means that, although I’ll sometimes tweet a link I find, the feed will usually be just my remarks and I won’t try to organize and distribute lots of links. I’ll try to think of it like the name; like that canary singing its message of I’m-still-here.

My username’s @NotThisSong. I’ll get that button up eventually, and if someone wants to look at it they can, but I’ll try not to worry one way or another. And I’ll write my next Not This Song article in the old spirit of simple storytelling. Want to help me? Choose one of these three old titles from my “pending” list: Metamorph, Alchemical Sewing Cabinet, or Damn It, Jim! and I promise to do the winner without second-guessing it any more.

DefCon Zero

When I’m seriously depressed, I get advice from the people who care about me. Some of these are professionals, and some are not. All of them have good intentions. The worse my depression is, the more likely they are to be a little uncertain as to the best way to help.

I can be very defensive when it comes to input about my condition–as I and others have written, living with a mental health condition involves dealing with stigma, assumptions and intrusive opinions sometimes. This produces a cumulative effect of defensiveness if I don’t process it well. Add the tendency toward defensiveness many addicts have, and I end up with a porcupine wrapped around my head.

A good friend in recovery bought me lunch last week, and I opened up to her about my worsening condition. She was very supportive, and also gave me some feedback about things she saw in my story. My internal reactions–and some of my external ones–were defensive. I wanted to reply no, you don’t understand to just about everything. When I managed to work through that I got a lot out of some of the feedback, including a couple of very important insights.

It made me think about the spectrum of defensiveness I display; a spectrum I am sure others have experienced too. Defensiveness, like any other trait and behavior, can be diagnostic. For example, in addiction treatment, many relapse prevention education materials name increased defensiveness as a warning sign that one’s recovery may be in danger.

For me, defensive thinking falls into three basic categories. The first one is what I think of as a “healthy” level. In this state, I can evaluate advice or feedback calmly and with an open mind. I’m able to say honestly: “I’ll think about that,” or “Maybe you’re right,” or “That sounds like something I should try.” If it’s something I have tried before or if I truly feel the advice is wrong for me, I’m able to handle that appropriately too. Depending on the person, I might talk about why that is or I might decide the best thing is to change the subject at the first opportunity. If I’m hearing things that reflect a lack of understanding, I don’t take it personally.

The second category is when I am feeling prickly, insecure, and irritable about the fact that the world has opinions. I have trouble telling the difference between advice and criticism. Any suggestions are heard as negative judgments or commentary on how I must not be doing enough. Or suggestions are heard as invalidating the depth and nature of what I am experiencing.

That reaction can have its roots in a very real, very valid frustration. It is maddening, sometimes, to try to explain clinical depression to someone who thinks it means feeling down. The best description I’ve ever heard of it was crafted by the writer Allie Brosh in her article called “Adventures in Depression, Part II.” In this humorous and also heartwrenching account, she captures the feeling of disconnect one can have when dealing with those who seem, while we are in the throes of an episode, to be living on another planet and speaking a different language.

(Aside: Allie Brosh is funny and amazing and one of us. Read her website. You know I never promote things, so, seriously. HyperboleandaHalf.com.)

Anyway, this level of defensiveness has its dangers because when it gets out of control, I get rebellious. Like a disgruntled teenager, I begin to feel that since nobody is ever going to understand how hard I’m trying, I might as well do what I want. So it’s important for me to rein it back if I can. I need to be willing to ask myself: is this suggestion I’ve just been given truly off-target, or is just something I think I can’t do? If I don’t think I can do it, is that true–or is the truth that I don’t want to do it? What am I afraid of, or what don’t I want to give up?

The third category of defensiveness is the most dangerous one. Dangerous, insidious and life-sapping. It’s the one where I shut down. Instead of reacting, I absorb everything like a sponge and funnel it straight to the Department of Self-Loathing Generation: Yes, you’re undoubtedly right, and that’s something I should be doing. That’s something I should be feeling. I am sure that, if I were not so pathetic and lazy, I would go out and follow your advice right now. Oh, you’ve just made another helpful suggestion. Your suggestion makes perfect sense. That fact that I’m not following it is further evidence that I don’t deserve anyone’s compassion.

This state usually goes with a pretty worrisome level of depression–a level in which nearly all outside input gets transformed into fuel for this internal anti-fire. Right now I’m slipping in and out of this place, and it worries me. That’s my truth today.

You, whoever you are, who are thinking this way today–your shame fueled by the concerns of others–I don’t agree with what you are thinking about yourself right now. I don’t agree that you’re pathetic, or lazy, or beyond help. In fact I disagree quite strongly. Strongly enough to see the illogic of having such beliefs about my own self.

Oh, Professor Snape

I write to you of struggles with demons; of image and word and symbol used as weapons in our existential battles. I write of reasons to go on. But I also write the human, mundane component of this story; the part about my personal foibles and the silly things I do to deal with, or escape from, my reality.

Meditation and Frog Breeding is an example of a time I revealed something that makes feel sheepish. Today I’ve decided I am due for another, and more embarrassing, revelation about what I do to pass the time when I just can’t think any more. Here goes: I read fanfiction.

When I first encountered sites such as fanfiction.net, I was astounded at the sheer volume of this kind of thing available. The Harry Potter universe is, by a large margin, the most popular template–on one site alone, there are more than 600,000 stories in this genre. Some incorporate erotic interaction among characters; some do not. Some are short and amateurishly written; some are novel-length and quite interesting. These fans explore a variety of plot-related questions and alternative ideas. Some of the most popular ones include:

–hello, why did no one ever check on Harry after he was dumped on a doorstep? And how could Dumbledore blithely send him back each summer to be abused and starved, blood wards or not. It must be part of a plot to keep Harry ignorant, desperate for affection and easily led. What if Harry grew a pair and got angry enough to seek help from somebody besides the man who, it turns out, was raising him to be a sacrifice?
–the epilogue does not exist. it never existed.
–Ron and Hermione? Seriously? Ron’s a fool, they have nothing in common, and it’s not going to end well.
–thousands of WAY more interesting ways the war with Voldemort could have gone, or what would happen if he’d won.

Don’t even get me started on the romantic/sexual plots. Every conceivable pairing has been done…the most popular ones being Harry and Draco (thin line between love and hate, I guess) Snape and Hermione (he’s the only one near her IQ) Lucius or Draco/Hermione (because it’s hot and dangerous, I suppose). Some authors just push the pair of their choice together with a magic spell or an arranged-marriage law.

But, by far, the character the most often, the most deeply, and the most variably explored is Severus Snape. Embittered outcast, double agent, brilliant potions master, seeker of redemption and ultimate martyr. There are a thousand versions of him out there, each far more explored than the one in the books.

Why do people love him so? Because they do. The fan universe, most of the time, flatly rejects the death of this character. They craft detailed romances between him and another character, lovingly building a story in which he gets the love and happiness they feel he deserves. They delve into just what horrific tortures he suffered during his times as a double agent. They have him misunderstood, persecuted or enslaved after the war, to be rescued by the aforementioned future mate. Or he’s exonerated and admired, building his career and taking on Hermione Granger as his apprentice. He’s usually far hotter than the book version, or even Alan Rickman.

Why am I telling you all this? Firstly, I’m doing it in the spirit of confession; to show that I haven’t just scanned a few of these things but read enough to know a bit about the genre. Secondly, I’m about to do one of my metaphor things.

I think the Harry Potter universe is the most popular one for fanfiction writers because it carries the largest number of opportunities for what-ifs. What some people, rightly or wrongly, consider to be holes or weaknesses in the author’s crafting are each transformed into tiny windows into an alternative reality. It parallels quantum theory; the idea that every choice and every variable give rise to another one of a vast sheath of other universes.

When I studied just a bit of quantum theory, this the aspect I found most exciting–and its implication that no aspect of reality is cast in stone. Our assumptions, our allegiance to the story of our reality, may not be as valid as we think they are. If we’re confronted by a scary gun-wielding person in an alley, there’s a universe in which the attacker is our cousin, or just asks us to name the capital of Wisconsin, or drops the gun and starts crying.

These writers–often young with dreams of doing other writing, or older and seeking diversion from their daily works–are reveling in the opportunity to riffle through an infinite sheath of possibilities and choose the ones that please them. This can feel easier, more fun, and more relaxing than creating one from scratch.

This, then, is my take on why I find it relaxing and diverting…it’s not a defense, only some thoughts. My daughter is mortified by my little habit; she’s a purist at heart. She’d be even more stern with me if she knew what happened during my last bipolar episode–what I did in the throes of my racing, desperate search for soothing occupation. If she knew that, last week, I actually wrote a little story. Oh, the shame.

Bookstore Sans Filter

Today I got to spend a couple hours in my local big-chain bookstore, perusing the newest science fiction books, writers’ magazines and anything else catching my eye. As has happened so many times before, I found myself looking at the self-help, addiction & recovery, and parenting sections with profound ambivalence. It’s really easy for me to get overwhelmed in any public place with much stimuli, but these sections get to me.

The self-help section–well, I have read some lovely books by self-help writers in my time, but when I look at a huge spread of currently popular books they seem to be giving off several basic messages.

1) You are not good enough, but if you do everything just like me you might be someday.
2) Whatever you’ve been doing is wrong, even if I recommended it last year.
3) Whatever difficulty you are experiencing in your life is 100% due to your bad attitude. Often, in the guise of encouraging higher self-esteem, the message is that what is wrong with you is that you haven’t worked hard enough on your self-esteem, inner healing, etc.

Then I move on to the parenting section; or, as I once described it to a friend, the “You’re a Bad Parent” section. There I can see why every parenting decision I have ever made, apart from a few no-brainers (don’t hit, don’t drop on head, don’t molest) is wrong. Any area of any controversy has books representing both or all sides of the argument, so no matter what I did someone was always screaming at me in print about it.

Again, I don’t mean to say there isn’t a wealth of wonderful, important information out there. It’s just that I need a thick skin to wade through it all to what helps me. There seem to be some basic messages calling from the shelf, especially about parenting a child with any kind of special needs:

1) Your child’s diagnosis or treatment is wrong, and if you don’t do what I say (which is the opposite of the book next to me) they will die, fail, end up on the street, etc. and it will be ALL YOUR FAULT.
2) Oh, you say there’s nothing wrong with your child? Oh, you’re just not attentive enough.
3) This world is a scary, dysfunctional place, and it’s up to you to protect your child from it…and if you let your child near any media, nonorganic food or item of clothing that costs less than an imported alpaca you are a horrible person.
4) You are solely responsible for helping your child succeed in this world…at age eighteen, your finished product will pop into this world with a destiny formed and determined by you, never to develop or grow again.

Then, as I tend to do, I drift over to the addiction and recovery section to see if there’s anything new and interesting. I like the fact that the topic gets its own bookstore section now; that there is such a wealth of material being written. What tends to make me tense is the adversarial attitude of many writers or editors. I’m too tired and lazy to go into this deeply, with specific names, titles and critiques, but my fellow addicts who like reading probably know what I am talking about. It’s a back-and-forth between two extremist camps:

1) We follow or promote a certain popular path to recovery, and that path is THE path. Anyone who doesn’t want to do it, or has tried it and is choosing something else, must be in denial or just not be ready.
2) We do not follow or promote this path, and those who do are idiots and sheep. This path doesn’t work, and there’s a giant conspiracy going on to make people think it does. Buy our book and find out the REAL way to recover.

It makes me tired. Isn’t black-and-white thinking one of our common problems?

So, I flee to the poetry section and the writers’ magazines (trying to drown out the voice interpreting their content as warnings about how many writers are out there, how little my work matters, etc.) and when I am done, when my brain cannot hold one more iota of thought or resist one more onslaught of insecurity, I come home to my last resting place: the science fiction aisle.

I don’t need extra reasons to love something I have loved since I was old enough to get books from the library, but today reminds me of one: this section asks nothing of me. It doesn’t tell me how to help my kid, or manage my weight, or improve my marriage. It doesn’t suggest I submit my writing to eight thousand magazines for only $25 each, or bombard me with writing tips that make my head spin.

It only wants to tell me stories.