When You’re Sober and Your Partner’s Not

When I got sober, I didn’t ask my then-husband to quit drinking. In the foggy, shame-filled logic of early sobriety, I felt guilty. After all, he had moved the booze from a locked cabinet (which I easily picked open with a kabob skewer) to some other super secret place in support of my recovery. Underground bunker? Mars? A few months in, though, he wondered if it would be okay to bring it all back home.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m fine. I’m the one who can’t drink, not you.”

The cabinet was reassembled with the delicious clutter of scotch, gin, vodka, ouzo, tsipouro, brandy, kahlua, rum, tequila, and wine.

It was mostly fine, except when it wasn’t. At night, over dinner, he would pour himself a glass or two or a third splash of wine, and sitting beside him on the couch, I could smell that dark promise, just like the little vial marked “Drink Me” in <em>Alice in Wonderland</em>, filled with “not-poison” liquid that smelled of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast. I scrambled to remember that what he was drinking would indeed kill me. Maybe not right there on the couch in front of the blazing fire and the big screen TV broadcasting <em>The Walking Dead</em> and its rotting, zombie bodies, but in a few drinks, a few days, a few bottles. Alcohol flips the suicide switch in my brain. I might be sitting on the couch eating an arugula and egg pizza, but after a bottle of cabernet, I want to cut my wrists with the crusts.

I believed that my recovery was my fault, my business, my responsibility. It was and is. But in a marriage or relationship, recovery is pursued together. I believed this even as we sat on the couch pretending that our marriage was also healing. Even as I fetched him a scotch glass at the end of the evening so he could pour himself a snoot or two. After all, he had the difficult job of living through and with me. It was the least I could do. Even as I gathered up the wine glass and scotch glass and hand washed them. I hated scotch, but in the last days of my drinking, took swigs straight from the bottle, swallowing fast and hard, trying to obliterate myself. Still, I reasoned, this was my just dysfunctional penance.

Some nights, fewer in the end of our marriage, we had sex, a sign that we were still bound to each other (though, he was already, by this time, bound to another woman). Since sex necessitates bodies against each other, mouth against mouth, breath against cheek, I had to hold my breath when he moved close. Not out of distaste for him, but for the booze. I couldn’t taste his scotch and wine in my mouth, couldn’t breathe in the potential for damage. Sex shifted from (fraught) pleasure to my fending off a longing for drink and drunkenness, and my turning away (staring at the wall, the dresser, the knobs on the dresser) to stay intact.

Alcohol always made sex easier for me; I was less barbed with the thorns of insecurity and disconnection. By extension, alcohol made it easier to forget what I’d done while drinking alcohol which would then, once again, make me do shameful things which I would need to again forget. The ouroborus. The snake eating its tail. At one of our very drunken Christmas parties (think guests throwing up in the bathroom or passed out on the couch), I batted my eyelashes at my husband (who thought maybe I’d had enough to drink), and wooed him into sex on the back steps. Thrilling because we could be discovered, but it was my way to deflect his attention. He would be agog at my daring and I could continue with vodka cranberries. The next morning, hungover, I could only feel shame. That wasn’t me, not really.

What was becoming clear, too, was that the “me” who had married my husband, who had spent years and years drinking at ports of call all over the world, and waking up hungover and ashamed in these places, was no longer able to sit on the couch and pretend that his drinking with me was okay. Alcohol muddies intentions. Did he want to have sex with me, or, like my plastered performance on the stairs, was his desire fueled by booze? Beer-wine-scotch goggles? Was he interested in authenticity and integrity with me, something I was trying to practice in recovery? (Apparently not, evidenced by his secret, several-years affair).

I don’t know if a future partner will have to be a sober partner. Perhaps my now-ex-husband’s drinking was troublesome because we had spent so many years ritually drinking together. We clinked glasses on balconies and in vineyards and on beaches in Italy, France, Greece, and Turkey. Many of our loveliest and most poisonous memories are strung together by booze and its accompanying love and anger and betrayal and regret. How do you come out from under that weight? How does one partner summon the hopeful promise (writ small: soft unwinding of a day) of Laphroig in a crystal Tiffany snifter while the other is trying not to guzzle the bottle (that same hope, writ large: this will finally make me okay).

Now that I live on my own, in a house without booze, I am less vigilant. Maybe I’ll binge on mandarin oranges or handfuls of Lucky Charms, but there’s nothing (barring a slip on a dog squeaky toy or impalement by Legos) that can kill me. When I need to blot myself out, I call friends and talk until empty. When I’m feeling insecure, or unhappy or unfunny or unlovable, I write my truth, hug my kids and dog, and expend all that prickly energy at CrossFit or on the track. And sober sex? With its clear intent and active choice, it is dangerous and thrilling because it is full of feeling.

Divorce and the Ex-Husband Tattoo

 

In the year since my divorce, I’ve been visiting a plastic surgeon every month.  Not for Botox, though maybe that would help the mid-forties creases across my forehead, nor for Latisse, which might assist me in batting longer eyelashes at potential romantic partners, but for tattoo removal.  I sit in the cushioned lounger, wearing enormous orange-tinted goggles, the kind you might use for downhill skiing, and the doctor sits across from me on a stool, also goggled, wielding the light-beam laser.

“I’m sorry,” he says, “but this is going to hurt.”  He turns on the machine, and the light sparks against my skin in sharp pricks of pain.  The laser moves slowly across the tattoo, raising an immediate, red, blistering welt.  This hurts, more than getting the tattoo in the first place, but I am well-practiced in swallowing pain.  Really, it’s just a matter of breathing through it, telling myself that it will pass.  When you’re Bipolar, when you’ve been decimated by an eating disorder and alcoholism, when your arms are crisscrossed with scars from when you used to cut yourself, a little transitory pain is nothing at all.

Which is not to say that removing the tattoo is any less painful than all of that.  On my first visit, the doctor inspected my arm; my wrist to be precise.  The old shame rose up because I was certain he was narrowing in on the scars.

“Not the whole tattoo,” I said.  “Just my ex-husband’s name.  I want to keep my kids’ names and the swallows.”

“You know,” he said, and ran his thumb across my wrist, across my ex’s name in Greek letters, a band of stylized black ink, “I have two rules for tattoos.  One: no tattoos on the neck.  Stupid idea.  And two: only tattoo blood relatives, or children, on your body.  The rest you’ll regret.”

That first time, on the drive home, I cried.  My ex-husband’s name was indecipherable, a red throbbing flame across my wrist.  It looked as if I had cut myself again, something I hadn’t done in years.  The wound whispered to me in that old way: Hurt yourself.  You deserve it.  Even he stopped loving you.

But what I really cried over was what I had already lost.  I got the tattoo five years earlier, after my last residential treatment for my eating disorder and bipolar disorder.  I’d been staring at my forearms, counting scars, ruminating on the years of impulsive damage, on the shiny straight-edge razors and the rusty ones filched from tool boxes, on broken glass pocketed from gutters, on kitchen scissors, sewing scissors, nail scissors, serrated knives, chef’s knives, and at my most stupidly desperate?  When I was in the ICU after a manic suicidal overdose, a nurse gave me a can of Diet Coke—metal flip-top intact.  With every shower, every application of body cream, every decision to wear short sleeves or a bathing suit, I had to face what I’d done.

What could I do that would change the way I saw those scars?  What could I do that might give me pause in the next impulsive flash?  What could I do that would remind me of what ties me to this world of love and joy and redemption, namely my husband and children?

A tattoo.  On my wrist, superimposed on the tangle of scars.  Greek themed, since so much of our lives were tied to that county—engagement, pregnancy, infancies, depressions, recoveries, our four-square made one.  Two swallows swooping at each other, an ancient archaeological painting from a site in Santorini. Swallows: the birds of spring, of new life, of hope.  Surrounding the birds, the names of my family in Greek:  The intended result?  I could look at my arm and see meaning and purpose.

Mad Mike, the tattoo artist, buzzed at my wrist with his needle. At one point, he stopped, and said, “You’re awfully quiet.  My clients tend to make a little more noise.  They find it painful.”

I shrugged.  “I do a lot of yoga.”

He laughed.  “But you seem serene.  But I guess I can see you are maybe used to pain in this area?”

“That’s what the tattoo is for.  Hope.  A reason to live.”

“I’m glad I can create that for you.  Not my usual barbed wire or Celtic Knot.”

I surprised for my family.  My (ex-)husband loved it, and my daughter wanted to get a tattoo of her stuffed dragon.

“You know what else that’s cool about it?” she said.  “It’s beautiful and it covers up all those scars!”

Divorce revises our understanding of the shared dream, the shared future, that four-square made one.  What keeps me here has necessarily shifted.  My children are still part of how I see myself unfolding.  But what I have discovered, is that while I was inscribing my family on my body, it was simultaneously breaking apart.  My ex-husband told me he loved what I had done to myself (finally something that I’d done to myself that didn’t inch me closer to death but towards life), but he what he didn’t tell me was that he was having an affair, and not invested at all in our shared future.  I often wonder what he must have been feeling when he saw his name on my wrist, and knew that he was lying, or leading me to believe in a lie.  And how maybe he couldn’t tell me because my recovery indelibly depended on us.

His name, after a year of treatments, is almost gone.  The light beam breaks down the ink and scatters the black particles throughout my body.  They will always be there–floating microscopic memories of love and pain, of what can and can’t, in the end, be erased.

10 Things No One Tells You About Divorce

 

1. Sometimes you eat like a scavenging member of the Donner Party, dragging a carrot through a tub of expired hummus, eating bran cereal (or the kids’ Lucky Charms) by the fistful straight from the box, spooning peanut butter, the main protein source, onto your tongue, and shaking chocolate chips from the bag for dessert. You do all of this standing by the sink in the dark because you don’t believe it’s worth the effort to cook sustaining, delicious food just for yourself. People begin tell you that since the divorce, you’ve gone feral.

2. You start walking around the house in shabby underwear (when you don’t have the kids), and notice your white panties are gray. So you shuck them off, and your tired bra, too, and look down at the body that you agonized over for all those married years. You doubted that you were enough and his affair seemed to confirm this. But standing naked now, with just yourself to please, you suddenly realize: “I am effing beautiful.”

3. If you change your married name back to your unmarried name, your younger name, your name before all of the collective joy and pain, you cry the first time that you sign a check or bill, having to invent a new signature on the spot. That signature might even resemble your childhood signature: a loopy, hesitant inscription of your name on the world. Resist dotting your “i” with a heart.

4. If you have children, they worry about you. They say, “You should try to find someone! Go online! We just want you to be happy like Dad is with X.” You might want to say something disparaging about their father and the girlfriend. Don’t. Your children love you and their father with their wide and forgiving hearts. Instead, pull them close, kiss each cheek, and say, “I have you. I don’t need a man to make me happy.” Which is true, but also a tiny lie.

5. If you venture into online dating, know that perfect strangers will ask you to describe your calves and teeth, as if you are up at the cattle auction; couples will ask you to couple with them; voyeurs will want to watch you with younger partners; and younger partners will woo you with their staying power, intuiting, too, your mid-life desperation (the ex is already engaged to the other woman). Delete these messages. Or not. Trudge around the house in your gray underwear or have an exhilarating fling.

6. You spend a lot of time inspecting the gray roots when you blow-dry your hair, wondering how you got to be this old and alone. When you towel off after showering, you’ll notice the gray hair below that simultaneously sprouted with the divorce decree. Dye the top? Dye the top and bottom? Surely someone else will come along so grooming is essential. Your secret fear? No one is coming along again. Except for the crazy stalker guy from Match.com.

7. Because your ex was usually in the driver’s seat, he generally set the radio station, the temperature, and the level of road rage. You are now Danica Patrick. Turn up Taylor Swift, blast the heat, and instead of shouting invectives at other drivers, encourage the kids to join you in a sing-a-long to “Bad Blood.” They won’t actually sing-a-long, and slump in their seats when you pump the brake, pretending to have bad-ass hydraulics. But they will see that you can be happy alone and with them.

8. You realize all the pee on the toilet was not, in fact, your ex’s, but is due to your son’s bad aim. You feel guilty over all the times you stepped on wet tiles and sat on the wet toilet seat, damning your ex to outhouse hell. You feel guilty for all the arguments, for going to bed angry, for holding your ground long after it mattered. However, guilt aside, in the next co-parenting email exchange, you need to tell your ex to work on your son’s toilet etiquette.

9. You are not be prepared for the vast ocean of your king-sized bed. At night, even though you have an extra ten feet of space, space you coveted when you were married (you were pushed to the edge of the bed by your husband, the dog, and often, your son), you still sleep on a narrow sliver. In fact, you don’t disturb his side but pile your dirty yoga pants in an approximation of his body, like filling in the empty space of a body’s outline at a crime scene. When you wake up in the middle of the night, you pat the lumpy, reassuring pile as if he is there.

10. Sometimes, it feels like the end of your life. Your therapist nods ambiguously. “I hear you,” he says. You’re not sure he does. Later, when you are at your friends’ house for dinner, the husband-friend tells you that he thinks you are amazing, and that you have come so far and with such grace, and that you are loved by so many. His eyes get wet as he says this. Divorce might feel like the wages of love’s failure, but love still waits to catch you off guard.

After Divorce Dear Valentine

Dear Valentine,

Yes, this is self-addressed, so no need for the stamp. Maybe you will allow for a momentary grace period so that your kinder, sweeter (though not Confectioner’s sugar sweet) voice can speak on this day given over to L-O-V-E. You are disdainful of anything trite: the hastily remembered, supermarket rose bouquet swathed in Baby’s Breath; the mass-manufactured diamond entwined heart necklace sold in the chain outlets (Because Nothing Says You Love Her Like…); the pressured expectations of performative sex in brand new, itchy, ill-fitting lingerie. You can go on and on about all that loving sweetness sold in Aisle 6.

Of course, you’re not expecting any of that crap since you have no Valentine. Divorce lowers expectations for the little velvet box on the pillow. Your parents might send chocolate (“We still love you!), and certainly you hint to your kids how much you love their homemade cards (hint, guilt, then leave the art supplies on their beds). But you hope to disappear on this sentimental, prove-your-love day and reappear on just-another-Monday.

But what about that lovely thoroughbred at the barn that you fed sugar cubes to after your riding lesson? He lapped up the sugar from your palm with his warm tongue, then crunched up the crystals. A small gift for his patience with your human mistakes during your lesson, and for his forbearance of your human weight on his back. Don’t you seduce your own children with double-layer chocolate cake? You could make them wheat grass smoothies with mushroom protein powder for dessert, but you want the oohs and aahs, the deep sighs of pleasure and the chocolate smeary kisses. There is love in all that.

No need for embarrassment or shame. Remember when you were a little girl and spent hours making Valentines for your friends and parents and secret crushes? Red construction paper, red foil, and white doilies. Intricate, layered designs. Each card had a specific intention and message. Not just a slapdash I Love You on the bottom of a factory made Hallmark card, but these sentiments: You Are Worth the Time, You are Worth the Effort, You Are One of a Kind, You Are Not Perfectly Aligned, But You Are Perfect To Me.

What are the words you need to hear today? You choose to listen to your more cynical self. Just today, you Googled the origins of Valentine’s Day because you remembered a thread of that story and wanted to prove the holiday was for sentimental suckers. You discovered the holiday originated in ancient Rome when women waited in line for men to beat them with goat skins in the belief that it would increase their fertility, and then willingly (or not?) prostrated themselves before these randy men for two days. Does Walgreen’s sell heart-shaped boxes of chocolates depicting this forced orgy?

If you search for negative interference, that’s what you find. Let your defenses down: no Roman centurion will whack you around with a goat skin. Remember the secret messages you wrote to your future self when you were that little girl with a box of Crayola crayons, a stack of construction paper, and Elmer’s Glue: I Love You. You Make My Heart Beat Like Crazy. I Will Never Love Anyone Like I Love You. You Are So Beautiful To Me. Will You Be Mine?

That doily heart. Paper thin, so fragile like a real heart, like that little girl’s heart, like your own But the heart is a muscle, not paper at all, and beats 100,000 times a day, breaking over and over, and reassembling itself again and again, in love, out of love, for love.

Love,
Me

Crazy Like Me

“Everybody needs his memories.  They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.”

–Saul Bellow

About three weeks ago, I was a minor celebrity about town.  I was the “feature” in the Sunday profile column of The Meadville Tribune that typically celebrates our small city’s successful entrepreneurs, cupcake mavens, beekeepers, quilters, and kindergarten teachers.  Initially, the reporter contacted me and said he’d heard some amazing things about me in the vein of successful-woman-about-town: 1. That I was (still) a Professor at Allegheny College while raising two children and writing my books; and, more compelling, 2. Did I really climb Mt. Olympus while nine months pregnant?

“I’m sorry to have to say,” I wrote back in my email, “but I think someone has overestimated my accomplishments.  I was a Professor at Allegheny, but I’ve left the College due to medical difficulties. And while I have climbed Mt. Olympus and did travel to Greece when I was nine months pregnant, I didn’t do both simultaneously.  I think my Ob/Gyn would have had me committed, much less my psychiatrist.  However, I would be willing to share my other story, which your readers might find interesting.  Maybe more so, though it is a different kind of adventure.  The reason I left teaching is because I was unable to find a way to recover from anorexia and find stability with my struggles from Bipolar Disorder.  So I did what was necessary for my health and well-being—not easy given that teaching was what I always wanted to do with my life, given that was basically my dream job—but rather than die while working, I needed to prioritize living.  I’ve found as I’ve been in recovery that part of what keeps me moving forward is to be a resource for others who are also struggling with mental illness and trying to get well and find balance so I am working against the shame of suffering from mental illness. Part of my mission is the blog that I write.  Let me know if you are interested.”

Well, he was interested, and I went public in my city in a BIG way, in a way I’ve never done before.  Not only was a detailed summary of my “story” published, but so was my picture—the prettiest mug shot I could come up with.  More than vanity, though.  There is a belief that someone who is seriously mentally ill can only “look” one way—unkempt, frazzled, tangled hair, stinking of piss and shit, shuffling down the street, muttering to herself.  That she, or he, is “other,” so far removed from anyone you could really know.  That she, or he, is either the person hanging around a dumpster, rocking back and forth in a corner, or institutionalized.  Surely, that’s what serious mental illness looks like.  And you wouldn’t have anything to do with someone like that, would you?  You wouldn’t let someone like that around your kids, would you?  You would never fall in love with someone like that, who had a label, a diagnosis like that, would you?

Here’s the truth.  Two months ago, I had to find a new psychiatrist because my current one was moving on to a new position.  He referred me to another psychiatrist in the area, someone with the right credentials, with the right depth and breadth of experience.  We spoke and he wanted to review my records before seeing me for my evaluative appointment.  So I had them sent.  And waited and waited and waited.  Finally, he called.

“Ms. Bakken,” he said.

“Yes?”

“I’ve had a chance to look through your records.  They’re quite extensive.”

I laughed nervously.  I’ve never looked through my records, could only imagine what the 20 or so hospitalizations, the 30+ Electroconvulsive Treatments, and the potential 3 different psychiatrists’ diagnoses might all add up to in the end.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Bakken, but I won’t be able to take you on as a patient.  Your mental illness is too severe for me to treat.  The range of severity is too extensive.  I hope you can understand.”

If one can nod dumbly into the phone, than that’s what I did.  In fact, idiotically, I reassured him.  “Of course.  I know how difficult I must be.  Don’t worry.  I’ll find someone else.”

It took ages to find someone else, but now I have and my “severe mental illness” doesn’t scare him off. Which is also to say, if, before now, I haven’t scared you off, don’t let this admission scare you away. Don’t let these words, uttered by someone in your life, or someone who could be in your life, scare you off.

Of course, there are moments—ten minutes, a few hours, a few days—when I do scare my husband and family and friends.  Usually, that’s when I’m not following my agreed upon plan that helps me stay stable and keeps anorexia, mania and the suicidal fangs of depression at bay.

Here’s the gift, and it’s not just my gift to you who might be struggling to get well and come across this blog and see that it’s possible not just to hang in there but to climb out—and to climb out each and every time, as pointless and exhausting as it might seem.  To climb out and breathe each time a bigger breath and say to everyone who loves you and who also fights for you, but especially to the doctor who believes you are too ill to help, “Fuck ill.  I am well.”

But the gift given back to me?  The more I am free with my story, the more I am helped in my adventure into love and wellness.  Two days after the article was published, I received a letter from a man who told me about his wife who had died six months earlier after a long bout with melanoma.  But his wife always talked about the time I came to visit her book club—how much that meant to her, how my book inspired her, how my talking to her and her friends was so generous and warm.  That even in the months preceding her death, she talked about me—that I made that much of an impact.  I would not have remembered this but for the article and the follow-up letter.

To be honest, because of the massive memory loss, the complete almost 10-year retrograde memory wipe-out from the Electroconvulsive treatments, I don’t remember that visit, and part of me feels desperately guilty about this.  But his letter is the gift of memory.  Because I parted with shame and fear, because I allowed myself to be seen in a small Sunday article as severely mentally ill, with the pretty, charming photograph of me juxtaposed beside it, I was given back a piece of my past that reminded me that I mattered, that in the years I normally consign to the dumpster because I was on my crazy rampage, years I just assume should truly be forgotten, there are these miraculous, salvageable moments.  A woman held on to my memories for me in her dying days.

Visit Momma May Be Mad for complete blog entries.

Ready To Run

On Saturday, Derby Day, I won first place in my age group (40-44) for a 5k running race.  And while nobody covered me in a glorious blanket of 564 roses, I was given a medal, an actual hang-around-your-neck medal, my first—my first for running, anyway–but perhaps my most meaningful as it was the first time back competing in a race since I had to bow out, most unceremoniously, five years ago because I was emaciated, suffered from irregular heart rhythms, and hypotension, all by products of anorexia.  But on Saturday, under clear blue skies, in crisp morning air, my legs prickled with goose bumps, breathing in and out, in and out, glad to be alive and there, I stood at the starting line with all the other runners ready to run.

Let me say that again.  Ready to run.  Not ready to win.  This is important and something that I am still learning in my recovering from all of IT’s manifestations—Anorexia, Bipolar Disorder, Alcoholism, Self-Injury.  Ignore the voice that says: Be Perfect.  Be the best.  Anything else is shit, is failure, is grounds for starvation/ruminative self-loathing/drinking to excess/cutting.  That’s how Anorexia works best.  Lose 10 pounds.  Now another 10.  Now another 10.  You are still too fat.  Still not good enough.  Still not the thinnest in the room, in the hospital.  Worthless if you are just mediocre, finishing fourth, or worse, always second.

I can turn anything into a competition—usually against myself since I no longer play team sports.  I time myself at little tasks—I have to unload the dishwasher before a round of commercials is over on TV. Ridiculous, I know, but when I hear the third commercial begin, my chest tightens, and I pick up my already frenetic pace.  I justify this by telling myself I’m making mundane chores interesting, but really, it’s compulsive.  Like shaving my legs in the shower—again, part of a time game—so, no shaving cream = precious seconds saved to come in under my five minute goal.  There’s the grocery store game where I’ll given myself x number of minutes to get in and out depending on how many items are on the list and whether the kids are hanging from the cart.  All of this is to say it is very hard for me to turn off the voice in my head that is always competing for The Woman Who Could Chug the Most Beers (Won that one in Jamaica on Spring Break one year), The Woman Who Had Fast-Track Admission to the Psych Ward (Well, almost, but everybody did know my name…), The Woman with The Most Scars on Her Arms (100+ but fading now so what does that mean when they’re gone?).

But I wasn’t thinking about winning at that starting line.  Instead, I was filled with gratitude.  How lucky I was, and am, to be connected again to my body which is healthy.  Unbelievably healthy because truly, I should be dead many, many times over.  I have tried to kill this body with deliberate means.  I have woken up in emergency rooms and in an intensive care unit rescued by strangers from my suicide attempts.  All of the alcohol my body has processed and recovered from (not to mention my brain).  All of the wounds my body has healed because that’s what it does when it is trying to recover from my best, competitive attempts to die.  All of the pounds lost and regained and lost and regained and lost and regained and lost and finally, hopefully for good, regained.  This body standing in shorts and a tank top and sneakers, ready to run because it was healthy.  A healthy body in the middle of a pack of what looked like other healthy bodies, other people ready to bolt into the wind and sunshine, ready to run the course.

I’ve won medals before, and trophies.  I’ve played sports my whole life, but with the attitude of DO OR DIE.  Competitive tennis from the age of five to eighteen, bruises purpled my shins because every time I flubbed a shot, really screwed one up, I’d whack myself in the shin with the tennis racquet.  No joy in the playing, because there was no playing—there was just me executing a perfect performance and when I failed, as I always did, I enacted penalties.

Ready to run.  I ran.  Without expectations.  Just do what you can do, I told myself over and over.  Of course, it was a race, so I wasn’t going to lollygag and keep vigil at the dead possum or chit chat with other runners.  I was there to run my best, which meant with all I could give, but which also meant without IT’s voice.  So when I crossed the finish line and saw that my time was faster that I imagined, because I’d been feeling a bit fatigued by the long hill, I was already elated.  And then when they posted the results and I saw my finish, and later still, when I received the medal, I knew what the medal was about: ready to run into my life and into hope.

Visit Momma May Be Mad for complete blog entries.

Bipolar Code Word

The other night, the kids and I were cuddled up on the couch watching “60 Minutes” and a segment came on about untreated schizophrenia and its links to most of the mass shootings in the past fifteen years.  In hindsight, I probably should have switched over to “America’s Funniest Home Videos” so we could watch babies get launched across the room from sling shots or poodles ride skateboards, but all three of us seemed transfixed by the expert psychiatrists’ testimonies on symptoms of schizophrenia and the history of the treatment of schizophrenia and how schizophrenia could be better treated.

To be honest, I wasn’t really thinking about why my kids were so compelled by this segment until Sophia turned to me and asked, worriedly, “This isn’t the kind of mental illness that you have, is it, Mom?”

“Yeah,” Alexander said, “do you have this kind?” he kept glancing back and forth at the screen which shuffled pictures of the faces of recent shooters suspected of being mentally ill—D.C., Colorado, Arizona, Virginia.  Was he waiting to see if my face would pre-emptively appear?  His hand crept across my lap and found my hand.

“No, no, no,” I said.  “I have Bipolar Disorder, not Schizophrenia.  They’re very different from each other.”  Though not so different chromosomally.  Close cousins, really.  In fact, I’ve taken the same medications that Schizophrenics take.  But I don’t tell the kids this because I can see that they’re weighing the mental illness that they know their Mom!  Their Mom!!! has against the mental illness these mass shooters have and they want me to be as far and away different from them as possible.

“That’s right,” Sophia said.  “You have that one.  You have the mood swings one.”  She inched closer to me on the couch as if that would close the gap between what might be threatening about what was still unknown in my mental illness and what was known in her mom.  “Because,” she continued, “your mood swings can be really bad.  Sometimes you just get really angry at us for no reason.”

Alexander threw both his hands in the air.  “Yeah!  You do!  Like sometimes we’ll be sitting on the bed and you’ll just start yelling at us for sitting on the bed and we won’t be doing anything but sitting on the bed!”

I closed my eyes.  I might not have the voices of Schizophrenia, but I have the voices of punishment, of self-loathing, the voices that say: See?  This disease will ruin your relationship with your children.  It’s the wrecking ball, swinging through love, punching holes in walls, knocking out cross beams and support beams.

I opened my eyes and the kids were looking at me like I was crazy.

“I know!” Alexander said.  “Maybe when you start yelling, or before you start, you should just go to your room.”

“Yeah,” Sophia said.  “When you feel a mood coming on, so you don’t take it out on us, you can just go to your room.  And then it’ll be okay.”

I smiled at them.  They weren’t really afraid of me winding up on that television screen.  They weren’t even afraid of my having a mental illness, of my being Bipolar.  All they wanted was a tool to help me contain it.  So they could help me help myself.  So they could feel powerful instead of powerless.

“I have an idea,” I said.  “Sometimes it’s hard for me to always know when a mood is happening.  I’m not always able to spot it right away.  But you guys are experts.  So how about we have a code word for when you think I need to go to another room for a time out and I’ll go?”

Alexander smiled.  “But we won’t use it if you’re angry at us for being crazy and we need to stop being crazy and calm down.”

Sophia said, “Or like we need to stop fighting with each other and we’re not stopping.”

“Right,” I said.  “It’s for when I’m getting angry or a mood swing is happening that has no good reason and maybe it’s scaring you so you think I need a time out.  So all you have to say is ‘Go to Your Room.’ Okay?”

They both nodded and we shook on it.  Then Alexander gave a great sigh of relief and threw himself on me in a hug.  I hadn’t realized my mood swings had seemed so scary? overwhelming? engulfing?  My own mother has a big personality, and I was able, as a child, to build a pretty good moat.  I forget, sometimes, that my son, while not fragile, is more delicate—he’s like a butterfly or moth and his wings beating on the outside of his body for all to see and to be damaged.

And I forget that for my children, the wings they see beating outside my body are not the ragged wings of some storm battered butterfly, but the colossal wings of a Bipolar dragon, furiously flying into the heavens, then folding back for the dive down into the black well.  And just the day-to-day effort of keeping aloft?  Enough to make a mom tired and stupidly, unthinkingly angry.  Enough to know when it’s time to go to “Go to my room.”

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Strong, Sober, and Sane

Strong, Sober, and Sane.  These are the three words that I want to define my path in 2014.  Words I’ve been working my way towards—separately—for the past few years, but have been too small of vision, too timid to put them all together into one big AND for myself.  I can be all three, all at once.  I don’t have to do strong or sober or sane one at a time, piecemeal.  That’s for wobbly-kneed wimps.

Take today.  I signed up for my first Half-Marathon ever.  13.1 miles.  Sure, I’ve run 10 miles before, so another 3 miles more doesn’t seem like it should kill me.  But I’ve always been pretty tired at the end of 10 miles—on the point of giving up—and the self-talk has been desperate (“Please, please just another fifteen, ten, five feet and I won’t ever make you do this again?  Well, maybe in another week, but it’ll be easier next time.  I promise!”)  But here’s the thing: the fact that I can ever sign up for this race means I’m a radically different person than I was two years ago.  I’m strong—and by this I mean my body is come-back-from-the-dead-strong.  Once upon a time, I was only living to become weak and weaker still, starving and purging in an attempt to disappear.  I wouldn’t feed my body, so my body ate itself.  People looked at me and were afraid that I was going to collapse.  I was strong then, but strong-willed, stubborn, and irrational.  Now, when people look at me, they’re no longer afraid that I’m going to blow over or pass out at the track—except maybe when my face turns bright red from exertion, which I can’t help.  I love the feeling when I’m working out with free weights and lifting them over my head, doing barbell curls, and crazy kettlebell, twisty sit-ups, how something hard and tough and unbreakable is growing inside of me.  And every now and then that Eating Disordered Self pipes in and says, “You know that weightlifting will increase body weight, don’t you?”  And to that I say, “Fuck you!”  Because I’d rather be strong than weak, here than dead.

Sober.  I’m trying to extend this one beyond just alcohol to a more expansive understanding of the word sobriety.  To be sober means to be thoughtful.  And this is what I would like to be: a more forward-thinking, more reflective, more thoughtful person.  I don’t know if it’s the nature of being Bipolar, but my anger can be volcanic, my emotions run riot—at least when I’m alone or at home.  Out in public, I try to keep myself together.  I want to be like the women in those commercials that you always see standing in some doorway wearing a long white, flowy gown, hair blowing off their backs, holding onto a mug of tea.  They always look calm and content–one foot in the house, the other out on the beach.  And it’s early morning, too!  That’s what I’d like to aim for—an unruffled demeanor, a quietude, an ability to be present in myself without the need to rush around yapping at everyone else.

Sane.  What’s the expression?  The proof is in the pudding?  For the first time, well, in ever, I’m going on a solo vacation!  I am finally stable enough in my Bipolar Disorder to be able to venture out on my own for a solo adventure.  No overseers.  Ahem.  Caretakers.  Ahem.  Companions.  Just me on a mini-immersion in February for few days at a Yoga Ashram in the Caribbean.  Granted, nobody in the family would have been willing for mandatory 5:30am chanting and yoga classes and vegetarian food (not to mention ixnay on the caffeine and tent sleeping), but to me, this will be heaven!  And the only reason I get to do this is because I’ve maintained stability, kept my bearings together, fought IT off, been proactive in seeking out help when I’ve needed it, and kept my recovery front and center.  There are weeks when I forget that I was once the women located in an isolation room in the psych unit sleeping on a mattress on the floor, where I once wandered the psych unit so overmedicated I could barely tell you my name, where I was told by a psychiatrist that I was a hopeless case.  That was just three years ago.  You can read about that woman if you go back to the beginning of this blog—she’s there, and desperate and angry and scared.  But I’m not there anymore.

Strong and Sober and Sane.  That’s how far I’ve come and it keeps getting better.

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Commit Love

 

The other night, I was over my friends’ house for dinner.  A last minute invite: they had been out to the farm to pick tomatoes, boxes and bags of tomatoes, and needed to eat them, or some, that night.  The farm.  My insides tumbled.  Not their farm (they don’t have one), but the Yoder farm, the Amish family who grows all the vegetables for the CSA started up, in part, by my ex-husband (with my intermittent help).  In married life, I used to drive out to farm with C. and the kids, pick a trunkful of tomatoes, and spend days processing sauce, salsa, and bags of whole peeled Romas.  And chat with David, the farmer, and his wife, and their giggly half-dozen kids.  We even had them over for an Amish-English dinner party in our formal dining room.  One daughter, six or seven at the time, thought it was so fancy because I’d lit candles and put them in gleaming crystal holders shaped like stars.  Wedding gifts.  But in divorce, some friends get divvied up, just like the wedding gifts, which meant for two, go to one or the other.

This is not about the loss of wedding gifts, but the loss of friends.  The real loss.  Last week, one of my friends committed suicide.  Impossible to imagine (and I try not to) because she was always suffused with joy, at least when I saw her.  She owned the yoga studio where I practice.  Her smile was a stabilizing force and she inhabited her body with a grace I can only hope to achieve.  And yet, she is gone now.  A strange, legalistic phrase: “committed suicide.”  One commits crimes or commits to a relationship.  But suicide?  Perhaps initially as a cause of intended action.  But wholeheartedly?  That seems impossible, and I know since I once committed myself to such a course.  But gratefully I woke up in the hospital bed, my life, while not intact, given more time for repair.  Even in the pain and inside the intention and in the bottle of pills I swallowed, even in my irrational thinking, unable to see any other possibility, I don’t think I believed for an instant that I wouldn’t wake up at some point, even if that meant years on out, and see my daughter and son and husband again.  A faulty, fleeting solution to the pain of now, a decision, in its execution, that seemed temporary.  Except so often, it isn’t.

Sorrow for my friend in her pain and the consequent devastation.  It is not easy to resist shutting down for good.  Sometimes, I wander into thinking that might be the only way—not as often as I used to—but still, what I imagine as a blank, dark quiet can seem preferable over the angry, hopeless noise in my head. And then, my daughter emails me a sketch of the two of us, disguised as her invented cartoon characters. The mother has her arm wrapped around the daughter’s shoulders, and they gaze at the other as if besotted.

Roo and Mom

Love keeps me here.  Friends, too, and their tomato bounty.  So I commit love, then.  R. sliced up platters of enormous tomatoes marbled through like steak, and decorated them with mozzarella, feta, basil, salt and pepper.  We joked they were as big as the brains of small children or swollen hearts or alcoholic livers.  A way to counter sad mortality.  The three of us sat at the table, spearing tomatoes with our forks, juice and olive oil dripping from our chins.  We mopped up our plates with warm pita, spoke of our friend who was gone, and moved into the restoration and warmth of laughter.  That was our meal: the joy of summer’s bounty and the pain of its end, and friendship that could make a feast from what seemed like so little.

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