Here come the selfish police . . .

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Robin Williams has apparently killed himself. Or at least the initial reports say that it’s most likely suicide.  And as the nation mourns one of its most famous funny men, the social media circus revs up again. Mostly, it is post after post about what this ‘stranger’ meant to someone, about how sad they are even though they did not know him.  Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, it is hard to escape the cloud of sadness – he was a hometown boy made big – made huge, really – and it seems every other person has had a personal encounter with him.

And not because people are lying – or stretching the truth- but because, by all local accounts, he was that kind of guy.  He was kind to people he didn’t know, people who served him, and he was generous with his time and his humor, in all kinds of situations. When someone so funny and so kind-hearted ends their own life, there is a distinct layer to the sadness – for everyone who hears it – an inability to reconcile that kindness with despair.

At the edge of that sad and somber mourning, though, is the same storm of callousness and rage that shows up whenever a celebrity kills themselves, whether by a decisive single act or by addiction. Cries of selfishness. Accusations of being unworthy of respect. Loud ramblings about how this choice is not an illness, but a flaw of character, a moral failing, a way to fail all those who loved him.

Never mind that selfish is rewarded in all kinds of American realms. I’m out to get mine.  I gotta look out for myself. That company was just trying to get the profit it earned. Don’t let anyone get in the way of what you deserve.

Does suicide feel selfish to those left behind? Absolutely. Does the family member of an addict feel their own feelings are being disregarded? Yes. Those left behind feel abandoned, discounted, not important enough.

But looking at the fish in the bowl doesn’t give us any sense of how it feels from the inside, of what the view is while looking from the inside out.

I don’t know the details of Robin Williams’ death and I’m not discussing his struggle specifically. I’m saying that unless you’ve been to the depths that make you seriously plot, plan and even start to execute your own death, then you just can’t know. And even then, you know what it feels like for you.

I can’t know. I can still empathize, imagine, try to understand how to remove my own selfish feelings about another person’s pain so that I can better understand what it is that gets someone to that irrevocable point in time. I can’t, though, even begin to surmise all of the ways that the decision does or does not feel selfish to the person in the throes of making that decision.

Some defenders of those struggling with depression, when faced with the selfish cry, claim that it’s like being angry or chastising someone who dies of cancer.  And I see the point being made – mental illness is an illness. Not a choice.  But the analogy has some major flaws and so I think, sometimes, it does more harm than good. At best, it fails to break through to someone who is convinced that suicide is selfish at its core.

I think suicide is more like someone with cancer who refuses treatment, or gives up on treatment, or who decides that the prognosis is too dire and they end their own life.  We, most of us, have more compassion for that suicidal choice. After all, they have cancer, not a character flaw that makes them weak and selfish. They are taking charge of their own life, choosing not to suffer.

At heart, all pain is equal if it feels insurmountable to the person suffering. Whether it is caused by cancer cells or a brain wired for despair. In either scenario – cancer patient or severely depressed person – the death is a means to end the pain.

There’s more to it, of course, nuance after nuance, but the act itself is an end to suffering and that seems to be its most attractive feature.

Death, any which way, is devastating for those left behind.  And when it’s a suicide, there’s a sadness that digs a whole different whole – one where the what ifs and the I wish I hads can bury the survivors in guilt and regret. And sometimes the way to unbury is to be angry. It’s a natural step in the grieving process.

Some people stay mired in that step. They carry that anger out to everyone who has felt so alone, so worthless, so full of ache and hurt that they ended their life.

If we could only end the stigma of mental illness, and by extension, depression, then people would have more compassion. That’s the party line. And I buy into it. The stigma keeps millions silent. Or, even if not totally silent, it creates a sort of public closet where only those closest to the individual know what is really going on.

I read an article today citing statistics showing that increased awareness of mental illness hasn’t decreased the stigma. Frightening statistics. Those of us who want to remove (or at least minimize) the stigma, who want to look at and treat mentally ill people like the full-fledged human beings that they are, we say awareness is key, that people breaking their silence will only help.

I don’t think that’s untrue. Since dealing with mental illness, very personally, in my own family, my awareness has led to even more compassion and understanding on my part. But I have also never been more afraid of becoming mentally ill than after my mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 50.

Completely afraid.

If her, at this age, when am I ever safe?

It is this fear, that we all have, to some degree, that keeps us from being able to address this as we would any other disease.

I was afraid, to some degree, as soon as I became aware of the different kinds of crazy one could be – I used to wonder if I would be the one in my family to lose it. But years passed, as they do, and that fear passed.  Only to resurface when my mother leapt clear from the plane of reality – or so it felt at the time.

It was a traumatic time. For the whole family. Hard to comprehend for close friends of the family. People chiming in that she was just fine when we all knew she wasn’t.

I could lose my train of thought here, get mired in the details of what went wrong, what went right, how the whole mess of madness affected me and my family. But that’s not what I’m trying to get at here.

One of the things I had to come to terms with then – and yet again very recently as another very close family member was hospitalized for bipolar illness – is my own deep-down terror at the thought of losing my mind.

I’m afraid of cancer, of Alzheimer’s, of all sorts of terminal and/or chronic illnesses. But not in the way that I am of mental illness. My mind. It’s who I am – how I have always defined myself. And to be mad is to be dismissed, to be marginal, to be background noise in the everyday.

Unless you can hide it. Unless no one knows. Then, perhaps, you have hope of being taken seriously, of still being a real person worthy of someone else’s respect – not just pity, or even worse, scorn.

I don’t know any solutions. I do believe, though, that if we ignore the fear we all have, ignore the place inside of us that makes it hard to talk to each other about mental illness, the core of terror that makes us afraid to ask a depressed friend if she’s alright and really want an answer – if we can’t face and acknowledge that fear, we will always keep mental illness and those we see as mentally ill at an extended arm’s length away.

If we are guided by that fear, we will always be afraid to ask the real questions and listen to the real answers.

And so isolated people will remain alone to decide to end the pain on their own.

And people can call them selfish instead of looking at ways we all may have failed to reach out and help them see beyond the fish-eye lens of despair.

When do we stop counting on awareness to work as a magical salve and start figuring out how to engage with each other in ways that make working with, living with, sharing space with mentally ill people not seem awkward or uncomfortable or weird? Awareness is a big piece. So is visibility. So is acting past the fear.

How do we break through, as a whole, as a culture, and say yes, this shit is really scary without saying you are not whole? Without saying I am afraid of you?

Because, really, the most selfish thing we can do is let someone we care about suffer alone.

 

Addiction ~ on selfishness and disease and earned consequences – OR – no one has a monopoly on tragedy.

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Every time a celebrity dies of a drug overdose, I brace myself.  For the inevitable I-don’t-give-a-shit-if-someone-kills-themselves-with-drugs-those-selfish-nogood-worthless-bastards updates and posts that are about to pepper my news feed.

I feel other things, too, of course. Sadness. Unease. Empathy. Frustration.

But the part that drags on is a simmering anger at the way that some people feel the need to lash out at dead addicts. Live ones, too, but the verbal vitriol hits a crescendo when there’s a celebrity who is no longer alive on whom they can focus their dispassioned rage and righteous indignation.

One post, the day after Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death, from a friend who has a knack for setting me on edge (so much so that I’ve hidden his feed more than once), sat in my gut like a boulder and circled in my brain for days. This is no tragedy, he said. Sad, sure, but tragedy is the father who dies of cancer, the police officer or soldier killed in the line of duty, etc etc etc.

Others, more often friends of friends, railed against the bad choices, the selfishness, the sheer rudeness of someone killing themself that way. Especially with young children. Those assholes don’t deserve sympathy. They killed themselves. They didn’t even care about their kids.

Here’s the thing that always, also, rings in my head over and over and over.  If you never once tried drugs, or alcohol, or ate so much that you may have potentially compromised your health, or inhaled the sweet smell of rubber cement a little too long when you were in elementary school or drove home after a few drinks and realized the next morning that you were not in any shape to have driven – then line yourself up with the handful of other people this might be true for and pat yourselves on the back for being shining examples of The People Who Never Make Bad Choices.  You all deserve a badge or a parade or something.

But.

The rest of you (myself included): shut the fuck up with the hate and venom and dissmissiveness.

Seriously.

Take a moment to imagine that it is only sheer luck, not your higher moral standing, that separates you from the dead ones. The strung out ones. The loneliest of the lonely.

I have family who are addicts.  Some dead, some alive.  Some clean, some not.  Friends, too.  One thing I can say with absolute certainty is that I made most of the same bad choices they did.  You probably did, too. More than once. At least once.

When my sister was in her first stint in rehab, we talked a lot about the difference(s) between her and I. Why she couldn’t stop until she was almost dead.  Why I always could.

Why I could try something and then decide I didn’t want to do it anymore.  There are all kinds of possible reasons and none of them explain it.  We both have addiction riddled on both sides of our families.  We both used various things to excess.  I could always get to a point where I made a rational decision to walk away from whatever it was I was abusing.  She almost never could.

Why her and not me? There’s a lot of that question that can never be answered. Is it a disease?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Does she have a genetic predisposition that I somehow dodged? Doesn’t even matter to me if it is either of those things, insofar as my compassion for those struggling with addiction is what it is and will not change whether we uncover an ‘addiction gene’ or not.

None of us know what makes you an addict and keeps me from being one.

What I do know is:
I did the same things as her when I was younger. And I do not struggle every day with a desire to use. I never have. And it’s not because I am better than her. Or even smarter. Or a better citizen and sister and daughter and human.

I remember reading a quote in an article around the time that Amy Winehouse died.  To the effect that addicts don’t use to try to kill themselves – they use in order to try to live.

To try to live.

No addict, in my opinion, puts a needle in her arm in order to vex the people who love them.  Russian Roulette? Sure.  But so is eating processed foods over and over and over.  So is texting while you drive.  And on and on and on.

I won’t even spend time going into the ways that the self-medicating of undiagnosed mental illness often leads to addiction.  Or the ways that overeating and eating processed or ‘unhealthy’ foods can lead to disease and that one could call that selfish and deem you a bad parent if a diet-induced heart attack takes you away from your children. Bad choices, all of us, all over the place.

I don’t see a difference, really, between those of us who quickly kill ourselves and those of us who do it slowly and legally. Except in the swiftness and severity with which drugs isolate people from the ones they love – temporarily or permanently.

Except in the way we treat an addict’s death as open season for judgment.

Except in the way some of us use an addict’s death to feel better about our own lives, our own choices.

I have had to cut people out of my life, my sister included, at times where her ‘choices’ were something I couldn’t condone.  I know the knee-collapsing pain of kicking her out of my house because I couldn’t allow it even one more time.

My compassion for addicts does not exempt me from intense anger at and pain from what addiction does to a person, to a family, to friends. I have never thought, though, that she (or anyone else struggling with addiction) should just go ahead and die. I have never felt the deep sadness of a family member dying from an overdose lightened by saying that they deserved it. I have never felt the need to diminish the epic sadness of an overdose.

And sure, celebrities are easy targets. They have fame. They have money. They have fans. How could they not be happy?

And sure, we don’t bombard social media with sadness and compassion whenever a homeless person in our neighborhood ODs. Some of us, though, if we knew that (when we know that), would (and do) feel just as sad. Just as scared. For those we love. For those we know. For what might happen to them. For the loss of a life at the hand of something so invasive and tragic.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is just the most recent, recognizable face to have lost a battle with addiction.  And so we mourn.  Some of us. To varying depths.  For the loss of a life. For the loss of some stunningly beautiful acting that we will never see.  For his children.  The tragedy no more or less had he died suddenly of a brain aneurysm that we could smugly say was not his fault.

I will not apologize for my sadness. I will not apologize for not thinking that someone was too weak to quit.  Not, either, for seeing that we are all too weak to make all the right choices all of the time.  And some of us (thankfully, me) made a lot of bad choices and with an ease not afforded all, could walk away and start anew. I could just decide to do that. For that, I am not sorry, either.

Go ahead and refuse the reality of addiction.  Sit high and smug and separate.  I hope you never need prescription pain killers for an extended amount of time and realize, when you find yourself hoarding more and more and more, that the Russian Roulette you played was believing that the gun had no bullets at all just because you were smart enough not to load it yourself. I sincerely do.

Sometimes, you don’t realize you have a gun in your hand and there’s a bullet tucked in there, waiting for you, until you do. And, sometimes, that’s not soon enough.

The stupidity of picking up that gun at all in the first place doesn’t negate the true tragedy of addiction.

If you want to dismiss the death of someone because their struggle was with addiction, then keep your bullshit to yourself. Please.

You have a right to think whatever you want. That’s true. But there’s no crime in allowing others to grieve when they feel grieving is necessary.

Death is sad. However it happens.

Loneliness – and that is what is at the core, in the last moments, for nearly every drug overdose – is tragic.

Tragedy is not the wrong word. Not if, to me, that kind of death is a tragedy.

And it is. Always.

The Exorcism of Courtney Love ~ I am no longer your pawn, daytime TV

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More than three years ago, I flew back to Portland from a busy and tear-filled weekend in California. The second one in a row flying down to the sunny state and spending time researching a project I would let fall by the wayside as my life disintegrated, a dust bowl of my own making, one I didn’t see coming even if I should have.

I kept busy on both trips, but especially during the last one – to SF and Oakland and Santa Cruz – I cried every quiet moment I had alone.  I realized, fully and in that full-body-chilling kind of way, that when I got home, I needed to end my thirteen year relationship.  I drove to Twin Peaks after crying all along Market street, and tried to find solace in that view that I love – the one that always used to calm me and help me breathe when the air would be too shallow for my lungs to take in, when my ribcage was so tight that breathing was a chore and a pain.  But the wind rocked my car and the air was hazy and I sat in my car crying before calling it a night and returning to my hotel room to try to think of anything except what I knew I needed to do, what I knew there was no way out of now.

I flew in on a Tuesday morning and I took a cab home to an empty house, except for the dogs and the cats, and I bathed and changed and tried to keep from crying.  I didn’t want to have swollen eyes when she came home and I had to have the talk.

So I turned on the tv.  I started to make some food.  I tried to keep my eyes and my ears and my hands busy.  I didn’t even care what was on, really, so I left it on whatever channel it was on.  It was a morning talk show.  And Hole was about to play.  A new song from their first new album in years.

As they started to play, I found myself paralyzed, leaning against the door jamb between the dining room and the living room.  And the song - Pacific Coast Highway - hit nerves I had no idea were so exposed.  Each verse seemed to tear a new hole in my skin. The tears came fast and hard.  And then I thought:  I am at one with Courtney Love right now. And I cried more. And thought: Who the fuck am I if I am nearly brought to my knees by a Hole song? What is going on with my life when I see myself in Courtney Love?

Through the next two years, as my world fell apart and reassembled itself several times before stabilizing in the way of real life – mostly static and sometimes chaotic, but not the rocking seas of deep, true transition – through that time, my Courtney-Love-edness became a barometer.  How much that album resonated, how much that song made me cry, or cringe, became my gauge. How fucked up am I? Right now? Still?

I hadn’t thought of that moment in at least a year.  I hadn’t heard a single song from the album in at least that much time.

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A friend had just left after a short visit. She hadn’t been to San Francisco since she was eight, and even then it was just for a day. She was separating from her husband.  The move out still new. She was in the middle of the pains that come as shocks in the beginning, still new and startling and raw. She was on edge - far more prone to emotional swings than she wanted to be.  I ached for her, as a friend, but also as a woman who knew the muscle pain of that kind of shift in your body, in your world.

I took her to Twin Peaks.  We looked over the city together, the expanse of it laid out all around you, Sutro towering above us all, still, even atop that mountain. She took it in, sat down on the concrete barrier, even though scared of the plunge, and looked, her head full of what I can only imagine, some other, personal version of what I have waded through. What she has, too, before. But each time, no matter how many times before, aches differently and tears ours bones apart in unforeseeable ways.

A couple of days after she left, I plugged my old ipod into the car stereo.  Mostly out of laziness – I didn’t want to keep taking my phone out of its case to play it through the AUX hookup. I picked the playlist that had the most songs and hit shuffle.  I wasn’t even thinking that I had made that playlist all those years ago, during that time. Love’s voice came in strong - that song, those words.

And did you know I’m drowning. And did you know I’m drowning.

I listened to that song, fully and intently, for the first time in a very long time.  I was nowhere near tears.  There were no chills, no real body connection to the pain and nausea and disorientation of that time.  My rib-cage seemed to expand. My shoulders dropped slightly.  I was relieved. Grateful.

Happy.

In a quick rush and without much pain, the song and that moment of pure stillness and tears had come back to me.  But I wasn’t sad or teary or aching. Mostly I just felt a slight twinge of embarrassment. A little bit of melancholy, but not even inching up on true sadness. A large heaping amount of relief. I am not, anymore, any little bit of Courtney. Not in that way, not now.

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As I watched the sun fully set and the red lights whizzed on ahead in front of me on the 880, I said a prayer for my friend.  That her route through this chaos is fast and with fewer upheavals.  I know she is already making smarter choices than I did.  I know that she has less stability in store, but she knows how to make the most of that. She is embracing the change and taking advantage of what it has to offer, so she is way ahead of me already.

I prayed, for her, that Courtney Love never becomes an image she sees in the mirror. But also, that if she does, she finds the ways to wipe that smeared lipstick off and comb that rat’s nest and put on a more fitting dress – without having to resort to plastic surgery and rehab and Woody Harrelson movies and all of that other stuff Love did.

If we do this thing right – this life we have – then when you flip the calendar pages, you are glad to be heading into the future and not into the past. You do not mourn the discarded pages so much as see how they have stacked up in your marrow, created an intricate fabric of air and water and salt.

Most of all, if you are lucky and you make the effort, you will now know how to not be knocked down by the musical guest on a late morning network gab-fest.  You will know better. You will be better.

Time is only time. If you let it roll over you, then you look tattered.  But if you pedal your feet and look at where you’re going, then maybe time will be two points on a line, from there to here and not back again. And the songs that sear will become bittersweet reminders of where you no longer are, who you no longer are, the nerves that are no longer exposed.

Oh, Courtney Love, I do still love that album. All who want to can judge me for it.  But it is not me.  I am not that album, that song, that singer. And for that, I say thanks.  And goodbye to another year. And then, in the same breath, hello – to a life I’ve worked at getting. One that so far does not require a life jacket. To a life.

Cheers, 2014, let’s do this.

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Sorrow, once removed

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“Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Only assholes do that.”
― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

Toward the end of the workday on a Monday, I got bad news.  But not bad news directly related to me.  Someone important to the man I love had died.  The day before.  He had just found out. I had never met this woman and yet my heart ached. A big booming thrust of an ache.

She was the sister of a man who was probably his closest friend. A man who had died about seven years ago.  Sister to a man who was like a real brother to him.  Like a sister to him.  Both dead.  Both dead too young. Way too young.

My aching, at first for his own pain, came on with a boom and then spiralled out and out until it was about death in general and getting older and the ways that life is just one big suckfest of good people suffering through horrible things.  Melodramatic? Sure. How I roll? Yes.

Were her parents still alive? How do you survive losing two of your children? So young and to cancer? How much can one family take?

The questions circling larger and larger until it was as though the thought of her was surrounded by at least a hundred dead, hundreds of ghosts looming large around her, the pain of those left behind like a dense fog enveloping them all.

Death. A reality. For all of us. An inevitability. As we get older, a far more common reality. The news out of the blue almost to be expected.

And nothing can be done about the pain of death. Nothing. At least not to stop it. There’s just getting through it. Waiting until it wanes enough to feel less disabling.

Feeling deep sorrow yourself is horrendous.  Awful.  Missing someone dead is a completely helpless feeling. You can’t change it and yet the ache is mostly the desire to do just that, the heart wrenching urge to make them undead, radiating in your very bones and muscles.

In this sadness, this time, I can feel the weight of all of those future aches to come. With time, this kind of loss only seems to get worse. There’s no getting used to it, no sense that you’ve been through it and so it doesn’t hurt as bad. The weight piling up of all of those people you’ve lost and will still lose before all is said and done can start to feel like a weight that will never be off of your shoulders.

When it is your own sadness, there is at least the illusion that you have some control over it. It is an illusion, no doubt, except to the extent that we can prolong our own sorrow, make things worse or heavier or more crippling for ourselves. But our own sadness at least allows us to feel in control.

Watching someone you love feel that deep body ache has to be right up there with one of the worst feelings a heart can hold. To see it and hold them and know that there’s nothing to be done. Nothing at all. You are incapable of making it all go away, of taking it from them, of doing anything to minimize it at all.

When someone you love is reeling and all you can do is be there, it feels like an enormous amount of not enough. You can’t make someone cry less or more or speed up or slow down the waves of sorrow. You can’t close up the hole left by another person. We try, though. We try. Again and again and again.

So you hold them when they cry.  And you make jokes about how extra salty really manly tears are – and in that flash of a moment where there is laughter, the weight feels smaller. For just a second. You touch them when they can’t sleep. You wrap yourself around them in the wee hours of the morning when they toss and toss and toss. You touch them as much as you can, remind them, anchor them to you. It’s all we can do, any of us, in the face of sadness. And somehow, it is enough. Probably because it has to be.

Our hearts, aching and helpless and old, grow arms and spin themselves out, in any way we can, and we hope against hope that it matters. When not enough is all you’ve got, then it’s what you give. And somehow, for those we love, it becomes enough. It becomes the thing that helps most.

Happy is Not a Place ~ on life and the pursuit of happiness, nevermind all that liberty stuff.

IMG_5648The buildup to turning forty sent my emotions to the surface.  A lot of retrospecting.  A lot of thinking of my mother.  A lot of thinking of my youth – from the time I can remember through my early twenties.  It was like every memory was just below the surface, ready to erupt. I was a tinderbox just under my skin.

I am also in a (relatively) new relationship that is, truly, long term, for the first time in almost twenty years. I am facing, weekly, the ways that old shit keeps coming up. The way I react to that shit can be too much, even for me. It’s an old story: the different ways we each get in the way of our own happiness. An old, tired story told in a million different similar ways.

And I don’t mean Hallmark happiness, or Disney happiness, or even that movie ending kind of happiness that you know lasts as long as the credits and then gets really complicated, again, like life always does.  I mean the life we can have, may very well already have, that is fulfilling and funny and rich with love. I mean: living with someone who makes you smile. I mean: loving people, both young and old, who know you and still love you back. I mean: finding the ways you can offer that back to people.

I mean: stepping our of your own way.

But I also mean: pursuing and preserving and protecting all of the things in your life that matter. That really really matter.

I’ve always, since I took the time to find words to name my thoughts on the matter – I have always believed that we are all broken.  To different degrees and in different ways. For different reasons and with varying outcomes.

Life breaks us. In all sorts of ways.

Broken.

It’s an interesting word to lean on. It begs the response: well, fix it.

That is a tricky prospect.  And while I don’t typically invest myself in binary notions, to a certain degree I do think it is a human’s personal responsibility to try to fix their own brokenness. Not as though we can become unbroken. But just to find the ways we can be least broken, that we can be patched together, so that we can connect with other broken folks in order to commiserate and make life better.

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It is really all of the ways in which we are broken that brings me to writing. To fiction, in particular. I can look, closely, at the ways we are broken and find true beauty in it, in the ways we still manage to make connections at all, sometimes. I can, even, at times, romanticize certain aspects of our collective fucked-uppedness.

What I don’t admire, can’t find beauty in, though, ever, is not at least trying to stitch those broken pieces together.  Rambling on in life and dragging that pain and hurt around with you, snaring others in it, breaking, yourself and others, as you hobble along. People who wallow in those crippling fractures and refuse to believe that there is any fixing to be had.

As I get older, I find my already thin patience with this attitude practically disappearing. If you cry about what hurts, what is sad, what you find hard to live with, but you don’t do anything to change that, to own up to your own place in that hobble – well, I get tired of standing next to it. I get impatient with your cries. I get, sometimes, really fucking pissed that you keep on running in circles and complaining that your shins ache.

I’ve started therapy. For the first time in my life as a solo project. Where writing and thinking and processing with good friends has worked in the past, I now need more. My thirties were traumatic. And the outcome, mostly, has been amazing. But I am nearly half a century old. Sort of. Well, almost. And the shit I carry with me just gets heavier and heavier. I owe it to myself – and the person who lives with me and everyone who loves me – to be less broken, to still keep working on being less broken.  To quit crippling myself. I thought I had done that already – and I had, to a great degree – but life keeps handing out shit stew and so we have to constantly mend up the holes and patch the seams.

Early on in this relationship, I began to think of the old shit that would rear itself up as an appendix full of old fights and hurts and betrayals. I wanted to imagine I could get an emotional appendectomy – excise the garbage from my body, get rid of it once and for all. Start clean. Start fresh. Scarred, but clear.

Impossible? Yes. Enticing? Absolutely. A fix. In true American fashion: cut out what is bad, live without it, toss it out. A scalpel, a pill, a chant, something something something. Make it vanish.

Broken, though, can be beautiful. It’s not inherently so. When we think so, we continue to run into walls, bruise ourselves, cradle people who only ache and ache and ache until their ache doesn’t only seem like your ache – it is your ache, big and swollen and stretched to snapping.

Almost nobody says that wounds are beautiful.  Gaping and bloody and oozing. Flirting with infection and death. A wound. Flesh opened up and fat and muscle and bone pushed out.

We say it about scars. Some of us do. Some of us can find great beauty in scars, in the magic of them. But they are not wounds.  They used to be.  They are the places where our body was wounded and then healed – different, but functioning. Marked, but sutured and sealed and cells locked in to keep us safe and healthy.

Life is a scar, in some ways. But it can so easily be a weeping wound that we allow to pull us away from what we really care about. So do what you can to scar it up. Get whatever help you need to pull the edges of the pain together and allow your body and your mind and heart to do what they want to: mend. Stop limping around and telling me you can’t afford a crutch. I’m pretty sure there’s some on craigslist or freecycle or something. There’s always always always someone there to help you find what you need.

Ask. Look. Fix.

It’s what we owe each other.

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Forty After Forty ~ sizing up four decades & mapping out four more.

IMG_2576During my twenties, I lost my family.  Not all of it, but at times, it felt like it.  I was, for all intents and purposes, orphaned into the world, left to carry myself and make of my place in the world what I would. I graduated college, twice, better slow than never, and then left my home state and made a home and a life in Oregon. Adrift, but rooted, I carved out my own space in which to be.

When I turned thirty, I had achieved exactly one of the two goals I had set for myself. And I felt fine with that.  And my parents floated back into my life, only days into the start of my fourth decade. Family became more than the friends I had built around me in my new life. My thirties, from the onset, felt like swimming, like a place to spread out and move, arm by arm by kick by kick. A place to move: half afloat, half pure kinesis.

Throughout the last ten years, some of them harder than any in my life before, I found old friends and gained more than one family. I waded through muck, both figurative and very very literal, until I found myself in another state, physically (but, also . . .), my life a picture of palm trees and small town urban life and big rig trucks. A life thirty year old me couldn’t see coming. Hundreds of images filed into the drawer marked ’30-39′, both obscene and divine.

And, at 40, I’m right where I should be – right. Exactly. I am fortunate enough to be immersed in love, surrounded by people who mean the world to me. To say something nebulous and unclear – I feel the most myself I think I ever have. It’s a good place.

But things are not easy. And as I get older, it seems that in some ways they get harder.  At one point months ago, three women who meant something to me growing up (&still) were in the hospital and then my boyfriend’s mother was as well and I thought, this getting older thing is total bullshit. Total fucking bullshit.  All of these women are still kicking, but some are in and out of the hospital regularly, a constant reminder of how fragile our bodies can be, how tenuous a hold there is between being and not.

One day, I was overwhelmed by imagining, from the perspective of one of these ‘old’ women, what it is like to bury more and more of the people you know (and love).  What it must feel like to be standing, thankfully standing, but watching the life you have dwindle on one end and grow on another. More and more babies coming into your life as you feel the end of your own ramp up and taunt you – hospital tubes in the thin skin of your back hand, tubes in your nose and pulling air in, to speak, through lips lined and lined and lined with all the words you’ve said in the last eight or nine decades.

It’s as though I can feel time revving up around me. As friends of friends – some of them younger than me - have passed and others are facing chemotherapy or radiation or physical therapy to overcome unexpected and devastating injuries or illnesses, I feel acutely – painfully and with a particular core-deep low humming fear I hadn’t known yet – the numerous clichés we have for the way life can change, or leave, in a gut-busting second.

We only have today. Don’t take any moment for granted. You never know.
Blah blah blah. On and on and on.

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And my mother is a long-cast shadow in my life – my own guilt about our (non)relationship heavier than anything else and yet, still, I can’t bear doing anything more about it. I can feel the weight of that shadow in my life in a whole new way, as this somewhat arbitrary ‘big’ age looms larger and larger on the horizon. When madness comes to your mother disguised as a 50th birthday present, the landmark birthdays take on new weight.

And I’m walking into forty more disillusioned with people than I have been in a long time. I have been separating, slowly and intentionally, in small and big ways, from people in my life who don’t give enough, who mean well and who I love and care for, but who make life harder, in the ways that don’t end up evening out. I am pulling away from the people in my life for whom no matter what I do, it’s never the right thing, it’s never quite the right way. Life is hard enough and sometimes it is better to just ease back a little rather than force what is seemingly unbendable.

I trust fewer people (with those things in life that are real and important and sacred) than I have in years and years.  With the exception of a (large enough) core of people in my life, I feel more isolated and protective than I have since my early twenties.  During the seismic shift of the last half of my thirties, I came to trust new people with a naiveté I didn’t even have in my twenties, believing that age had done for them what it has done for me.  Believing that people, at this age, mean what they say and are who they appear to be and tread lightly when it comes to another person’s confidences and trust. I have been wrong a few times in ways I thought I was too old for. I have relearned old lessons.

This locked-down place in my life is not a bad thing, but it is a space to be navigated and understood and to occupy with care and intention. After a swelling of people in the last half of my thirties, it is time to pull tight the doors and care, deeply, for the ones left inside.

It is yet another cliche, but I absolutely feel I am at a crossroads. Not a fork in the road, but a mass of avenues and I have to decide which ones are navigable. Which ones will be worth the inevitable disorientation and (even temporary) strandedness that comes with human relationships. Which ones.

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I thought forty might freak me out. I knew it probably would.  But what I thought would bother me is the start of your face sliding into something that, eventually, you won’t be able to recognize against younger pictures of yourself. Your whole identity shifting focus.  And not because of the wrinkles, more because the face I’ve come to know will start to leave and in its place will be something that becomes blurred, less distinct – myself and others less likely to be able to see, in a baby picture, how I look like me.

Turns out I was wrong.  Maybe I’ll freak out about that at fifty. Probably.

What is freaking me out right now is that staticky feeling of time revving up.  Of the past starting to outnumber the present, or just the possibility that it already does. I’ve lived forty years. Forty fucking years.  And before I know it, it will be fifty. Then sixty.  And when I’m there, will it feel like only days before that I was worried about forty? About thirty?

In the same way that 25 felt serious, like a time to take stock and assess where I was going, so does 40. What do I want? What of that do I have? What do I not want? What of that do I have?

A dear friend recently said that forty definitely feels significant. And it does. It definitely definitely does. Numbers are not, ultimately, arbitrary.  Numbers stand for time, for pounds, for pressure – one is not ten is not fifty.

If nothing else, forty is a mark to measure against – the life you have against the other ones: the one you thought you would have, the life you don’t have, the life you want.

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Ten years is a long time, a seeming lifetime in some ways. But it is also a span to be held in the hand. So small I can rub my fingers over it and count the ridges. See the tremors in the rings. See the lines eeking out from the corners of my eyes and count the gray hairs that are, finally, tentatively daring to grow with real abandon.

I had a forty bucket list that I started at thirty-eight. I did some of it. I didn’t get to some of it. And that’s fine. I fell in love. I spent time with the little humans who keep on growing, no matter how much I want them to stay small enough to hold and carry and cradle to sleep against my chest until my arms ache with sleep. I don’t think I’ve wasted time, even when I was wasting time.

But what do I want of forty? What will I make of it?

I want to scuba. Finally.

I want to travel. More. For real.

I want to not fuck shit up. Too badly.

When I do, I want to fix it. I want to own up.

I want the people I love to know that I love them.  How much I love them.

I want these gray hairs to chill the eff out. (Not really, I’ll probably dye my hair for forty more years, gray or not, so nevermind, scratch that)

I want to stay healthy long enough to see all of these amazing children in my life turn forty (and fifty and on).

I want to disappoint the people I love (and who love me) as little as possible.

I want those people to say, she was always there when I needed her.

I want those people to say, she made me laugh.

To say, we had so much fun, even if, especially when, things were tough.

Mostly, I don’t want the next forty to fly by, with my eyes half closed, while I pay half attention.

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I will turn forty while sipping a mojito in Puerto Rico, a decision made on my 38th birthday that I am making a reality (at the expense of other things I could have or do instead) and when I wake up that day, I know I will be the same woman I was when I went to bed.  But I will also be one day different.  As we are every day.

I will kiss the man I love and lounge on the sand and put my feet and then my body and then my head into the ocean and say, OK, ominous fifth decade, what you got? And I will float on the salty water and probably, almost certainly, swallow some water as the waves roll under me. I will taste the thirst-making bitterness of that lukewarm, beautiful blue Caribbean water.

Forty is coming whether I want it to or not. So I will meet it at the shore. Where earth and air and water meet.  I will meet it.  I will.  And then, right before I wrap my arms around her, I will tell that bitch that she better be nice. Or at least a little bit kind.

Split Personality, or I need to take up more virtual space

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As this beast has become a little unruly – and in an effort to create a more writerly space for myself – I have carved out a new site in the interwebs for my writing of and about fiction.  Please check it out and follow there, if you are so inclined.

Here is where you can begin at the beginning:
http://inkremnant.wordpress.com/2013/05/24/prologue-analise/

Civility and Honor ~ Making Up the Rules Myself

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We were three women standing side by side – taller and older and far more weathered versions of the eleven-year-olds we were when we first met.  Life, that bitch of a word, had happened in the last nearly thirty years. A lot of it, that two of us do not know about each other. The woman in the middle, the bride, had tied a string to both of us, held us close and far and close again, from half a world away, and so we were both here, as she started her life over, again, with a man who makes her smile in ways I remember from those years before high school, before the tight lips and drunken eyes of our black-clad teen years. But there was no wistful nostalgia in that three woman circle. Not for me. And so there was no group hug, no warm embrace to close the circle. Because of me. The one who would not budge.

If you know me at all – in real life or even just here – you know that I am an opinionated person.  I believe certain things without waver.  I am also able to see a thousand shades of gray and can understand the reasons behind mistreating each other. But seeing them does not make me forgive the ways we (myself included) wage war on each other day by day. I also believe, deeply, in being kind to people. In giving someone the benefit of the doubt, in knowing that I have no idea what they are facing, that very day, that may cause them to be short or rude or glib. And from arm’s length I will forgive that for almost everyone.  But I will not be your friend if you think less of me than any other human on this planet.  I will be civil (that loaded word of antiquity) but I will not have real conversations or share my life or act falsely happy to see you.  I will be what I call real. What often just looks bitchy.

I am a compassionate person.  And if you mean enough to me, if we have enough history, and the loss would be immense, I will fight tooth and nail to work out our differences, to find a place to meet, in the middle or just to the side of it – wherever need be – in order to stay connected. In order to be friends. But my face hides nothing.  It is virtually impossible for me to pretend when it comes to real emotions (which, perhaps, makes holding to my convictions, if not easier, more necessary than for some people).

So when this long-ago friend came up to me as I was talking, for the first time that wedding day, to the bride – to the woman who links us both now – and acted happy to see me and put her arm around me and asked how I was, I answered, good, but I kept my arms at my side and my face neutral.  Against accepted social order and politeness.  Against expectation.  It’s such a small thing really – what I did not do.  I did not hug back. I also did not pull away. Or make a scene.  I simply stood still, smiled a small upturn of my lip and let my arm remain at my side.  And she said, oh, we don’t want a hug, do we? while she stood up and stiffened and looked me in the eyes.

What I did do, though, was keep my mouth shut except to say no, not really, but thanks. Out of respect for the bride and the moment and the space we all filled that day, one of love and lightness and laughing, I walked away while answering her last question, which included what to me sounded like a back-handed stab at the bride for having left this woman’s mother out of the festivities.  I smiled at the bride and walked back to my table and my friends and those I love. Instead of saying what I wanted to say. Instead of saying what I would have said had the moment been different. Instead of defending myself, for that moment and all the ones before.

I sat down next to my boyfriend and told him that Sasha was in full effect. Sasha Beesh. What we call me when I am being, seriously or otherwise, a bitch. It is a pet name. But it is serious, too. I draw lines.  When I need to, I will. And I will, if the situation is right and I think there is use in it, tell you why. And then I will think, sometimes say, that I am such a bitch.  Wherein bitch is firm. Wherein bitch is rigid. Wherein bitch is honest.

Naming it that, naming myself a bitch is simultaneously a prayer to the sky that I do not react roughly unnecessarily and a slice through to the comic of life - look at me, bitching it up everywhere – don’t look at me, I’m just acting up over here. It is a way to hold it at arm’s length, this way I am, to stare at it and laugh at it until I know for sure, each time, if it was the right way to be.

It was but a few minutes in the almost seven hour event. But it is the kind of encounter that can leave me conflicted, that can take up brain space for hours, for days, until I decide how I feel about my own actions.

Instead, I let go of that moment and went on to have a fabulous time at the wedding. And this long-ago friend sat at the wedding party table throughout the night and was composed and dignified and reserved. While my friends and I were loud and rowdy and danced ridiculously and laughed so hard that my voice was hoarse by the end of the evening. We could not have had more different evenings, she and I, although I would guess that, my presence aside, she had a great time, too. In her way. Just as I did in mine.

What has stuck in my brain, what is getting turned around and around since that night last month, is the question of how I should have acted – by my standards, by anyone’s standards, by her standards – versus what really happened and how the gaps between those expectations define me. Moments like these, which happen not infrequently in my life, force me to look at myself and my ways of being and to try to walk the fine line of my own personal code, balance between my integrity and ethos and trying to still be polite in the ways that I define that word, while still minding that others define that word very differently than I do. I do not want to hurt people.  I do not want to start fights.  I do not want to make a big deal out of things that need not be enlarged. Mostly, I don’t want to be an asshole unless being an asshole is the only acceptable option.

If I feel that it is worth it, I will make a mountain out of what I feel is a sheet-covered mountain.  I will call a spade a spade, to use another cliché.  I will describe its outline and fill in that shape, mark it clearly as what it is, and then feel good about not having tiptoed around a delicate moment for the sake of propriety or decorum or civility.

If not, I will walk away. Let it go. 

Sometimes, I will do the first and then decide later that I should have walked away.

And, you see, the details of why I won’t hug this woman or pretend to believe her joy at seeing me are as ridiculous and as serious as it gets.  So my response to her greeting is both disproportionately gruff and entirely too kind. We reconnected more than a decade ago at an event I was hosting in grad school.  Her husband was reading and I was shocked – and happy – to see her.  I could tell, without knowing for sure at that time, that she had returned to the religion of her childhood – Mormonism. I introduced her to my girlfriend and assumed that I would never hear from her again. I wasn’t sure about that, but I would have been surprised to have her be positive about this aspect of my life. Still I was honest and knew that those who fall away need to – that secrecy is no way to handle these reunions in life.

Years and years later, she sought out being my friend on facebook.  Ahhh, I thought, she is more open-minded than the majority of her Mormon cohorts.  But she quietly and covertly unfriended me after enough time to realize who I was and what I stood for . . . I noticed when we both commented on the same thing and it gave me the tell-tale how-many-friends-in-common link below her name.  And while it didn’t really matter, in the large scheme – I never figured we’d have a deep and meaningful relationship – it did stab. Why seek me out? Why make me think you knew me and still wanted in? Why do it so secretly? Why not just say, like a grown-up, that you found my views loud and offensive and judgmental and then I could say ok  and we could be cordial in public because I believe what I believe and you believe what you believe and que sera sera. When I noticed online that she had unfriended me, we had a small group reunion coming up in a few weeks and I wondered how much awkwardness would be packed into that day and night if she did, in fact, show up.

She didn’t. And hasn’t. To anything until this wedding. Until she had to in order to be included in such an important day for such a close friend. And instead of standing tall and keeping her distance, she feigned excitement and emoted too much and then recoiled when I did what I felt was most honest in that moment – held back and stood firm.

And what bothers me most is multi-faceted, of course. Initially, I was and am insulted that she dumped me. Not out of some personal pride, really. I was and am most offended by the fact that I find her religion an affront to my very being. I am offended (and hurt) by the money and rhetoric her church spends on attempting to negate the lives of people like me and people I love. Over and over and over.

And yet.

And yet I could have stayed friends in that virtual way of these times.  I could have, would have, been polite and respectful of her beliefs. I can not, though, – and did not – keep my mouth shut in my own little pocket of the internet universe. And that, apparently, is what she would have preferred. It is my virtual ramblings that sent her to the unfriend button, that made her tell a friend that I was judging her and trying to tell her what to think, that made her disappear instead of glossing over my words and standing firm in her own beliefs at the same time. It was her inability to hold that we can occupy space on opposite sides of the spectrum and still be friendly, if not friends.

The difference, though, between us lies exactly in that action and the encounter at the wedding. Where she shunned the confrontation of being honest and then acted against the honesty of just steering clear of me – where those things happen, where fake emotion replaces the truth of the matter is where I can not abide.  I detest phoney – phoney smiles, phoney friendships, phoney greetings.  Be real. Even if that might, to an onlooker, seem rude.  I prefer to know exactly where I stand with you.  And I will give you that same respect in return.  Don’t give me that honesty and I will still react honestly.  It’s how I know how to be. It’s the only way I will feel ok with myself later. Even if I wonder, in the moment, if I am being harsh. If I am being a bitch.

The chord that strikes in these kinds of social tangos is a deep one for me.  I struggled, long and painfully, to fully rid myself of the shame and guilt and embarrassment of living a life that makes people unfriend you, that makes people leer at you in public, that makes people say they have nothing against you but a portion of their paycheck goes to proving otherwise. Landing outside of that ingrained shame means I have no patience for, no play with, no space in my life for people who do not have at least the decency to be real with me. Having fought that battle with myself, I am virtually incapable of playing along with some social song and dance in the name of ‘politeness’ when I know you’d rip the rug out from under me if you could – and, more than likely, you are trying to with every tithing and every political donation.

I can only suppose that, for her, feigning joy at seeing me felt right. It felt like the socially acceptable way to behave in the situation.  That it felt like respect for the moment, for the bride, maybe even for me, as she sees me. I would suppose that there is a canyon between how she sees that moment play and the way I do.

I would guess that the biggest difference is this: my arms at my side was the most respectful thing I could do for her in that moment. Honesty is the kindest thing, for me, in moments like that.  For her, even. Respect for her beliefs and freeing her from the fake smiles and inevitable questions that lead to answers she doesn’t care about and doesn’t want to hear. Where she probably sees my action as rude, I see it as kind, to us both.

To be fake would be an affront to my own beliefs, too.  I would feel I was selling out the ethics and morals I stand for if I play kissy-face-greeting with someone who sees me as less than a full person. I would be saying: Sure, hate me, hate people I love, fight against our very being and I will still hold to decorum and embrace you as though there is anything real in this moment. As if when we part, you will not still wage war against me and those I love.

Bitchy? I guess so.

Polite? Not by most people’s standards.

But today, still, I feel ok with it.  I wish I hadn’t been forced into opting out of that hug, into doing that with the bride between us.  And I don’t hate her.  I truly don’t. I have a lot of feelings about how isolating it is to move outside of the lines of religions like Mormonism, especially if you were raised in it. But understanding it, feeling for people whose whole lives rests within specific codes of conduct, knowing the loneliness of people who leave such religions behind – none of that changes what is right, for me.

I make up my own standard of conduct. In a way, I make it up as I go along. But it is guided by a deep and abiding sense of what is right – outside of religion and commandments and holy creeds – what is right and true, as a human, as someone who believes in the sanctity of each person’s right to be and be respected. Dear Abby and Emily Post have no sway with me. I am incapable, really, of rote social grace. My code is constantly assessed and evaluated, but I will do what I must to be true, to myself. To say what needs to be said and to swallow what does not.

To say, without saying (if the time is wrong to speak), that I won’t play along.

To say, when it needs to be said: I know what you think.  And not only do I not agree.  I am offended – as a human, as a one-time long-ago friend, as an adult you tricked into believing you felt different – and so I will not hug you.  I will not kiss your cheek and make small talk.  I will hold firm.  And then walk away.  Out of a sense of propriety.  Out of my own code of civility.  To be honest.  With you.  But mostly, with myself.

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