The coat in the woods

One of my superhero powers is a vivid, accurate memory of things that happened when I was very young.  My earliest memories that I know for sure are real come from when I was three and four, and they are many and detailed.  Yet for some reason, it never struck me until tonight how much some of those memories may explain about why I felt so “different” so early on.

I’ve been reading and writing a lot about intrusive thoughts lately.  I know that I had episodes where they bothered me severely from the time I was about 9.  For a long time, I was petrified that I was going to see a ghost: not that it would harm me, just that I’d see one.  If I heard a sound or saw a shadow move at night, it was a ghost.  I was sure I was going to see it in my bedroom, so I couldn’t stand to be alone in there.  I would leave the light on if I could, or go into my parents’ room and sleep on the floor next to their bed.  (Even now, though I don’t believe in or care about ghosts, I still struggle with fear of the dark.)

In another case, I watched an episode of Unsolved Mysteries about spontaneous human combustion, and over the next couple of days became obsessed with the idea that I was going to spontaneously combust.  I lay awake at night thinking about it, the reenactments from the TV show running on a loop through my mind as vividly as when I watched it.  During the day, I felt distracted and jittery, and couldn’t enjoy things.  I think this lasted about a month.  At the worst times, even when it was totally inappropriate and humiliating, I was convinced that I would combust if I didn’t repeat my mantra, please don’t let me spontaneously combust, continuously.  Out loud.  (Luckily, I never become convinced that muttering wasn’t good enough.)  I repeated this sometimes for hours at a time, out at restaurants, during conversations, when alone.  When my parents asked me what I was muttering, I lied.  I told them I was trying to memorize the lyrics to a song.

So why did I lie?  Why, at 9 or 10 years old, did I already feel so much shame about something so painful that I couldn’t tell my parents what was happening?  I just remember it feeling like a horrible secret that no one must ever know, that I was bad, defective, different.  And after thinking about it tonight, I know that the problems began much earlier than that.

All my life, at least as far back as I can remember, I’ve had a narrator in my mind who relentlessly describes every single thing I see, think and do.  I remember the first time it occurred to me that this was actually really annoying.  I was four and I was kicking a ball across the yard and realizing that that simple action became in my mind something like: “The black and white ball is on the greenish-brownish grass, the sun is bright, she’s squinting, she’s thinking about kicking the ball, she’s kicking the ball, she kicked the ball, now it’s over there under the tree, the grass is crunchy, she wonders if she’s good or bad at kicking the ball.”  I didn’t want to be part of a story about kicking a ball, I just wanted to kicking the ball.  So I tried and tried to turn the narrator off, but never had any success, and still never have.  (I have since tried to explain this experience and why it’s bothersome to a couple of people, and it has made no sense to them, so perhaps it makes no sense here either.)

Before that, when I was three, I got a coat at a thrift store that I really adored.  It was dark blue and had fake fur around the hood and it had the most glorious soft, silky texture I had ever felt.  I’d only had it maybe a few days when, coming in from playing in the snow, my older brother suggested I hang it on the wood stove to dry out, so I did.  Needless to say, it got scorched beyond repair. 

I’m sure I cried and whined to my parents at the time, but I remember long after that having an irrationally inconsolable feeling of loss about that coat.  I was experiencing what I now recognize as anxiety symptoms– feeling a hard lump in my throat, feeling sick to my stomach, my heart pounding.  If anything provoked a single thought about that coat, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I hated how it made me feel.  I tried desperately to avoid ever thinking about it, which of course only made it happen more. 

Eventually, it faded from my mind, but some time later– it was early spring– I was walking in the woods with my parents and we passed the pit where we dumped our trash and I looked down and saw the coat lying there half-buried, so forlornly.  And all the thoughts and the feelings came crashing back down on me and stayed for a second round.  I wished that coat had never been made, and that made me feel guilty because I felt sorry for the coat.  If it occurred to me that I should tell someone how I felt, I had no idea how.

I’ve always had these memories– and there are others like them.  They’ve entered my mind from time to time, and made me unhappy, but for whatever reason for a long time it didn’t occur to me that by any standard, the things I was experiencing from age three onward were disruptive and bothersome, and therefore not “normal.”  It is clear to me now that something very real was problematic in my brain from almost the beginning of my life– something I don’t think is entirely attributable to autism.  There was never a moment where something happened that “screwed me up.”  If I’m screwed up, it’s just me.

But I am still left with the nagging question: why the shame?  Why did I feel so acutely that my experience would be incomprehensible to anyone else, so convinced and resigned to suffer through it alone without letting anyone know?  And nothing I remember gives me any answer at all.

Love and monsters

Anyone who’s spent a lot of time being treated for mental illness likely shares my urge to puke when the word “support” comes up.

“So who do you have for support in your life right now?”

“Please rate the quality of your support system on a scale of 1-5.”

“Remember to call a support person and have them stay with you if you’re scared.”

… And a lot people who suffer from severe mental illness, which is, after all, destructive in part because of its isolation, are probably joining me in being all like, yeah, right.  It’s like when you’re talking to a rich person and you complain about the weather and they suggest you cope by buying a vacation home in an exotic locale.  I mean, it’s good advice, right?

What hardly anyone talks about, while they seem so keen on reminding you that you don’t have one, is how to actually build a “support system.”  Or how to use one when you’ve got it.

It’s not as simple, after all, as making and keeping friends might be when you’re well.  (I wouldn’t really know about the later part, but I have my educated guess.)  Even if you were once more functional and were close to people then (and for many people, that’s not the case) things change when you are mentally ill.  Friendship becomes a balancing act that seems almost impossible at times.

If you’re sufficiently insightful, you may feel that you always have to watch yourself to ensure you’re not a “bucket dipper,” someone who takes far more than they give, and whom people only consent to be around out of pity.  If you have mood problems, you have to figure out how you will keep your friends when you get manic and out of control, or depressed and withdrawn and glum.  If you have anxiety, you have to be worried about putting yourself in situations that will trigger you.  It’s easy for those sorts of issues to take the fun out of things.

People have their own lives.  If you’re in crisis or just want to talk to someone, what are the chances they’ll be available at that time, and do you have any right to expect or even ask that of them?  Should you call them up a week in advance and ask them to schedule a couple of hours for you on, say, Tuesday morning because you think you might be feeling crappy then?  What exactly are the logistics supposed to be here?

And perhaps people who speak so flippantly about “support” don’t comprehend what it’s like to openly talk about thoughts or exhibit behaviors that will inevitably seem strange and irrational.  As an example, I’ll hand over a pair of my shoes from today to step into for a moment.  (It’s not a gift I give easily, so y’all better send me some presents.  No puppies and/or ponies please.) 

Say you’re having a rough time, you haven’t slept more than a few hours total in six days.  You decide you want a smoke but don’t want to get dressed, so you stand, in your tee shirt and underpants, in your balcony doorway and blow the smoke out the door.  Just as you’re finishing your cigarette, two young women walk down the block, look up at you and start pointing at you and laughing uproariously.  Not understanding why you’re funny but still mortified, you look down at them and accidentally meet the eyes of one.  She screams with laughter, slaps her friend on the shoulder, and shrieks, “Stare as scary as motherfuckin’ steel!” and then they continue down the street.

You put out your cigarette and step back inside and draw the curtains.  Your vision is blurry, your heart is racing unsteadily right behind your uvula, and you feel faint and sick to your stomach.  You’re sure that they’re still talking and laughing about you as they walk on, and that later they will tell all their friends about how stupid and ridiculous you are.  You keep hearing their words echo over and over in your head, and you can’t forgive yourself for what an idiot you’ve made of yourself, because it just goes to show what a worthless person you are.  You resolve not to go outside for the rest of the day because they might still be out there and will be horrible again.

But now you can’t stop thinking about it.  You feel completely shaken up.  Your ears are ringing and your hands are trembling.  If those two normal-looking strangers couldn’t help cracking up and taunting you, then what must people be saying who know you better, who know all the other foolish, subhuman things you do and say?  You’re probably the laughing stock of the town.  All those times you’ve thought you heard people laughing at you, you weren’t just being silly about it, they actually were.  This is proof.  Now you know.

Eventually the thoughts tearing apart your brain and the sensations in your body become too much, and you end up in a fetal position on the couch pressing your palms into your eyes, rocking and whimpering.  You really wish you could have a drink or two, but you can’t.  You try desperately to remember the techniques that are supposed to help, telling yourself it’s not you, it’s your brain chemistry, it’s not helpful, etc.  But you are unable to refocus to another activity, because you are at a loss to think of anything you would actually enjoy doing and you don’t know what the point is, all you want is to stop feeling so bad.  You turn on the TV and turn it up loud, but your mind just keeps tuning it out and letting the thoughts rampage through again, no matter how many times you shoo them away or try to ignore them.  You stay curled up and panicking until your mind gets so exhausted that you just shut down and can’t think or do anything for quite a while.

Now.  If that happened to you, how many people would you feel comfortable calling for “support,” and what would you say to them?  Would you recount what happened and how you acted?  Would you tell them about the thoughts?  Or would you be too afraid that you’d sound childish, petty, pathetic and, well, crazy?  What would you expect them to say?  Would you ask them to tell you whether people make fun of you?  Would you believe them if they did?

And still moreso– if you were in the midst of that kind of thoughts and feelings and you felt scared and wanted someone to be with you, how many people in your life would you want to see you that way?  Incoherent, blubbering, wretched, like a two-year-old having a temper tantrum.  And again, what would they do?  Do you even know what you’d want them to do? 

How would you feel afterward– needy, guilty, ashamed?  What will they think of you?  Will they ever be able to respect you and enjoy your company after knowing how you really are?  Perhaps you might think of the song Lean on Me, and then realize that actually, your well friends are very unlikely to ever need to lean on you in the same way.

Those are all very real fears, concerns and confusions that have to be addressed if you seek support.  And if dealing with it once sounds difficult– what if your life was full of similar incidents, all the time?

Of course, I don’t want to belittle the fact that some mentally ill people do have a group of close friends and family members to whom they feel comfortable turning in distress.  That’s wonderful, and they are very fortunate.  But if you talk to as many mentally ill people as I have, I think you will come away with an accurate impression that we tend to be chronically, painfully lonely.

And it’s really nobody’s fault.  It’s not the fault of ill people for being ill, but while many mentally healthy people are indeed intolerant and unsympathetic, there are also many who are kind and understanding, and it’s not their fault either.  It’s not their “fault” for having functional minds and lives, it’s simply their good fortune, and it can make their presence and insights invaluable to those of us struggling with our own brains.  It makes no sense to be resentful or critical.*  It’s possible to have friends you really care about, and who care about you, without this necessarily making a functional support system.

There will always be people with and without mental illnesses, and the divide between them will always be difficult to cross.  However, mental health care could be drastically improved by placing more clinical emphasis on creating, maintaining and utilizing social supports, rather than simply asking about them.  And that also doesn’t mean teaching people to give a firm handshake and [pretend to] look people in the eye and then tell them to run along and play with the other kiddies, perhaps by joining a club they’re interested in.  Connecting with others is a learned skill that’s really, really hard work when you’re mentally ill; asking for and accepting support even moreso; it needs to be addressed as a serious, in-depth and crucial part of any psychiatric care.

Come on, mental health professionals, if professionals you are.  What are all those letters after your names for if you can’t give us better help than a kindergarten teacher could offer?  You can do better, and we need you to.

* From experience, I am wary of friendships or relationships between two people with severe mental illness.  Perhaps sometimes it works, but all I’ve seen of it, with myself and others, is a parade of triggers and escalations.  For example, a bipolar person (no, not headcheese) driving home from work at 85mph so that she can talk her psychotic friend out of killing himself.  If we were negative numbers, when we got together we’d add, not multiply.  So while it may seem logical that people with mental illness should stick together, in my opinion it’s not the basis of a healthy “support system.”

All the small things

I’ve come to realize lately that I’m not as “over” some of the abuse that’s happened to me as I thought, for I while, I was.  It’s disconcerting to admit how much another person’s cruelty can continue to affect your life and self many years after the fact.

Example in point:  In the last couple of years of my marriage to my son’s father, he (the husband) worked shifts that started at 4:30 AM.  Invariably, he would set our alarm clock for 3:00, and then when it went off he would set it forward ten minutes and go back to sleep, and do this several times in a row.  He didn’t hit the snooze button, insisting it might not work, but pushed the “minute” button ten times instead. 

WAAAH! WAAAAH! WAHH! WAAAH! click click click click click click click click click click

Under normal circumstances, this might have been merely an annoyance, but at the time, I was trying to care for a fussy infant with stomach issues who slept in our bed and woke to breastfeed every couple of hours per night and never woke up later than 7 in the morning.  (Spare me your parent-judgment if you have it in store.  I did what was right by my hypersensitive child and gave him what he not wanted but needed.)  I was sleep deprived and suffering from exhaustion so severe that I couldn’t eat, despite losing 1500 calories per day in breastmilk, and would suddenly fall asleep sitting upright during the day.  It was also a time during which our marriage was in its final stages of falling apart, which it had been doing before we ever said our ‘vows’; my soon-to-be-ex-husband had no interest in sharing in our son’s care; we had just moved to a new city and I knew nothing and no one; I was struggling to complete my bachelor’s degree amidst all the chaos; and to top it all off my anxiety and mood issues were rapidly coming to a head, and my husband was about as non-supportive as could be about my going back on therapy and meds.

So, that’s the long of it; the short of it is that when I asked him to please stop resetting the alarm every ten minutes every morning click click click click click click click click click click, and instead use the fucking snooze button or just fucking get out of bed when the fucking alarm fucking went off the first fucking time (not, I emphasize, the words I used at the time) so that I could avoid being kept awake for 40 minutes for the seventy-third time each night– when I brought up these matters– we got into a giant row, as we usually did, screaming at each other, calling each other names, threatening each other with divorce and custody and finances, and I, as I usually did, ended up crying and begging him to forgive me and then sitting in the bathroom while he slept, slicing into my thighs with a hunting knife and wracked with uncontrollable sobs.

Keep in mind, at this point I hadn’t really learned about panic attacks, hadn’t been diagnosed with bipolar or anxiety or autism, didn’t know why I felt so fucking horrible all the time, felt I was trapped for the rest of my life in a loveless, violent, manipulative relationship, and was basically alone in caring for a challenging child at the age of twenty, while also trying to remember who I was and get a degree that would allow me to provide for our family, and while most of my peers were out drinking from kegs at keg parties or something along those lines, I don’t really know. 

So that wasn’t really the short of it: the short of it is that for all these reasons and so many more, that fight sticks in my brain and won’t get out.  I am bless-cursed with a sporadically perfect eidetic memory for auditory stimuli.  When something I hear makes an impression on me, because it’s such a horrible dry grating noise or because it was screamed in my face, for instance, or because it accompanied really vivid emotions, I will later not just remember that noise but hear it in my head over and over every time I think about it, with the same reaction that I had when it first happened.  So I can close my eyes and hear it all now:  the things we screamed, the click click click click click click click click click click.  And it hurts, because I realize that I still feel pity and contempt and grief for the very young woman I was, and that even though I cope much better now with the kind of feelings those sounds elicit, they can still fill my brain and ruin my week.

Why am I thinking about all this at 3:40 in the morning?  Because I can’t sleep, and I just set the alarm to make sure I’m up to get my son ready for school at 6:30.  Click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click.  And it all comes back to me now, as Celine Dion predicted.  And if it were just the alarm clock, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.  I could buy a wind up alarm clock, or set an alarm on my phone or computer. 

But why bother, because it’s not just that, it’s so many small things around the house, around this town, around my head that would need to be locked away in a safe marked “TRIGGER WARNING.”  I have a new bed, I’ve rearranged the living room, but even in my own apartment there are times and places when it hits me like a tidal wave of bricks, the memories, the feelings. 

We’re taught these days to believe that we control who and what we are.  But the truth is, we can’t help some of the things done to us.  They are real, and they affect our brains as much as falling out of an airplane affects a body.  You can’t wish it away.  Like it or not, better or worse, whether you think it will or not, when you bring someone close to you, it changes you.  You can become happy again.  I know people do.  But no matter how long it’s been, you can’t go back.

The unconscious brain of my kid, in his own words

I wanted to share this transcript of a conversation my six-year-old son and I just had about a dream from which he’d woken up.  I think it’s equal parts adorable, fascinating, precocious and sad; decide for yourself:

“I just had a movie dream.  You know, that’s a dream that lasts as long as a movie in the nighttime, or it could also be a daydream.”

“What was it about?”

“Oh, well, it was kind of a ‘me Doctor Who’ dream.  I was Doctor Who?  And I brought dinosaurs to life from time to time?  And then my daddy was trapped in a car.” (Makes a brief sorrowful face.)  “His doors were locked and his windows were locked and I tried to get him out but he died.  I think the cyloprotodons got him.  They’re predators.  I don’t know why I thought the were herbivores.  I meant to do herbivores, but I accidentally did predators instead.”

“I’m sorry!  That’s terrible!”

(Shrugs and goes back to smiling.)  “Yeah.  Well, at least I survived.”

“That’s good.”

“And I saved my mommy.  Yeah, you were in it too.”

“Oh, okay.”

“And I saved all the other people.  Everyone’s doors were locked and their window things were broken.  And my robot, the one that helps me make them, the dinosaurs?  It kept getting clogged up with fuel.  Cause, see, it made all this gunk in the insides of it?  So I had to keep cleaning it out.  I had a lake where nothing lives where I dumped it.  It ran on the ocean currents.  Like, when the ocean’s currents are less, and it doesn’t move as much, then I dump the oil in there.  Nothing lives there, but I did build a little bridge across it for people to walk on.”

“So it sounds like you were a really good person in the dream, a hero.”

“Heh!  Yeah, I guess I was.  But my daddy died.  I couldn’t save him.  But I saved Mommy, and everybody else.”

“Okay, well, good night, Doctor.”

“Heh!  Maybe I’ll have a different movie dream this time.  I love you THIS MUCH!”


A funny thing about this is that a few hours before this convo, as these kids nowadays like to say, I was watching, alone with headphones, the newest episode of Doctor Who starring an excellent Peter Capaldi (although the slapstick camerawork, stunts, and sound effects were quite a bit too much at times, even though the writing was largely better than most of the last two seasons)– but anyway, the point is that the episode featured a rather prominent predatory dinosaur.  But my kid also rewatched his favorite episode, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” a few days ago * , so as he would probably say, “Heh.”  An all-purpose response.

* NB:  It wasn’t a bad episode overall, but really, Nefertiti and the creepy, narcissistic, misogynist “big game hunter” hook up at the end, after his crude, aggressive attempts at “flirting” throughout the episode?  What a cop out.  They should have had her dropkick his testicles, which are obviously where his brain lay, instead.  Thanks again for the sexism, Moffat, you soggy piece of bog paper.  And I’ll never forgive you for what you did to Irene Adler, anyway.

Why a ‘flaw’ in The Lord of the Rings makes it my favorite book right now

“I don’t know how to say it, but after last night I feel different… I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back… I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end…”  Samwise Gamgee

Anyone who’s gone through a painful breakup is well aware of how culture is dominated by stories about love, lust and dysfunctional relationships.  Luckily, there is a thousand-page masterpiece that almost shelves the romance altogether.

Because I am a nerdy nerdface (shock!) I have read a lot of criticism of The Lord of the Rings, and among essays written through wildly different critical lenses, one of the pervasive topics is the fact that the fellowship is kind of an Old Boys’ Club, much like one can imagine the Inklings, the group of medieval literature nerds that included Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton and others.  One writer quips (ew, I just said “quips”) that women feature so little in the story because none of the male protagonists knows anything about women.

I won’t argue that the paucity of relatable female-identifying characters in the trilogy (and The Hobbit, though not quite so much in The Silmarillion) is not problematic for a reader like myself who thinks a lot about gender theory and equality.  It’s clear from his personal remarks that Tolkien was quite the sexist, although not, I think, more than the norm for a British white male born in the late 19th century.  (He believed that past a certain point, women were incapable of a serious contribution to academic conversation.)  While reading LotR, I am often frustrated by the fact that Tolkien paints the character of Eowyn with such simple yet poignant grace, yet her story is a brief aside to the main plot (despite her ultimately crucial role) and there are no more prominent womanly characters given the same treatment. 

However, there is an enjoyable side effect to this problem.  We are given a cast of male characters who are not strictly heteronormative, because for the most part they have no perceptible sexuality.  We hear a few sentences about Sam’s interest in Rosie back in Hobbiton, but the only important romantic subplot, the love quadrangle between Aragorn, Arwen, Eowyn and Faramir, is so epic in tone, so non-mimetic, that it bears little resemblance to the fixation on romance and sexual attraction that we find in most other works.  With those exceptions, the protagonists, the antagonists and even the supporting characters seem to have no interest sex with either, or even to identify with a particularly masculine gender.  Instead, goals for the greater good and strong, trusting friendship take center stage.

Of course, I would feel much more comfortable with the work if the primary actors included women and queer people.  I know with enough authorial courage this could be achieved without altering the platonic, purpose-driven group dynamic that sets the books apart.  Unfortunately, Tolkien himself didn’t agree:

There is in our Western culture the romantic chivalric tradition still strong… It idealizes ‘love’ — and as far as it goes can be very good, since it takes in far more than physical pleasure… In this fallen world the ‘friendship’ that should be possible between all human beings, is virtually impossible between man and woman… The other partner will let him (or her) down, almost certainly, by ‘falling in love’. But a young man does not really (as a rule) want ‘friendship’, even if he says he does. 

Okay, so Tolkien gets props for an early and critical recognition of the the “friendzone” bullshit that “men’s rights” and PUA people are always bandying about, but it’s such a shame that he couldn’t see past the social constructs of his era to imagine a world where people of different genders and sexualities could work together and care for each other without requisite romantic attachment.

At times, though, there is really nothing more comforting than being swept into a world so exquisitely imagined without confronting the real-world anxiety of sexual and romantic dynamics.  Call it escapism if you wish, but I will argue every time that literary escapes are effective because they show us what we want our world to be, leaving us, sometimes, stronger and smarter than when we escaped.

Things that change

Dear 16 year old headcheese:

You know things will change as you get older, and you know they will be better.  That’s good.  You should keep that.

But you don’t know what will change.  You think that you will achieve your goals, have your career, and travel.  You think you’ve found someone with whom you’ll spend your life; you don’t love that idea, because you don’t love him, but at least you’ve found someone who wants you.  You think he will hold the center while the changes swirl and coagulate.  You are wrong.

It’s not the changes that will swirl around him, or you, or anything you hold dear.  You will be what changes.  Someone will achieve some of your goals.  Someone will fail miserably at others.  And someone will have different goals that they may or may not achieve.  But that person will not be you.  There is no center.  The person you know as yourself today will be gone.

I know that right now, when you board a flight, you wonder who will sit next to you.  You hope it will be someone really special, some marvelously brilliant, entrancing man or woman who will be the One for You, and you are just scooting down the taxiway of your life as it takes off before your eyes.  (Yes, you do think in those terms, and you do mix your metaphors.  I know.)  In ten years, you will hope that no one sits beside you, and that if someone does, they won’t smell bad and won’t try to talk to you.

You’ll stop staring out the window trying to make out landmarks.  You’ll do a sudoku instead.  Really.

I know you think that if you aren’t with Him, you’ll be Alone, which is the very worst thing to be.  You’ll find out that it’s not that bad.  One day you’ll look at his face and be glad you don’t have to see it in bed beside you, whether there is another face there or not.  You’ll be truly glad that he presses himself against someone else at night, and not you. 

I know that you think being the best is the golden ticket that will grant you a lifetime of free… everything, including unlimited self-respect.  It’s not, and even if it were, you will never be the best.  The chances are statistically ridiculous.  You’re building your life around the equivalent of winning the lottery.

Someday, the person you become will tell the magical little child you help create that being smart isn’t everything, that hard work and patience and social skills pay off.  It will take you much longer to convince yourself, and when you do, it will take everything you have to sort through the shards and piece yourself back together.  You will never be the same.

You will eventually confess to yourself that you would rather watch Star Trek again than go to a modern art museum.

The colors of the world will change.  They will fade and blur.  Where you once saw vivid tones that inspired and excited and frightened you, you will be left with shades muted by their transient coexistence.  Where you once saw silhouettes you will see shadows, and it will be not the world that transformed, but your eyes.