Month: June 2015

that I cannot move my arms is my complaint

As mentioned before, last summer I lived in student housing at UMaine for 15 days. I was 33 years old and a college instructor and I was living amid college students. I had a roommate.

Yep. CREEPY. I know.

To alleviate some horror thoughts, know that there were separate rooms, on separate sides of the apartment. I had, thank the Gods, my own bathroom.

So, I didn’t really get to know the gal with whom I sort-of shared a living space. We had a few conversations, but they were of the most basic social-mixer kind: Where are you from? What are you studying? What do you do? What brought you to Maine?

What I do know of her, I know from a kind of removed observation. Here is what I observed—

A deeply depressed young girl doing her best to get herself together.

Or at least this is my take. I am not a clinician, but it seemed like the signs of depression were there. The borderline personal hygiene. The filth of the living space. The sleeping for the majority of the day, then going to work, then coming home and going back to sleep. The utter lack of friends. The diet that seemed to consist entirely of black olives bathed in Italian dressing. The drinking.

There was also the list stuck to the refrigerator titled “Goals.” On such a list made by one so young, one might expect to see items like a desired GPA or internship applications or world travel. There were no such things on this list. I won’t include the actual list here, as I do not want to expose her private life, but there were items like—

  • Get trash out of bedroom
  • Wash bedding
  • Shower
  • Don’t sleep more than 9 hours a night

This is the kind of list depression makes of a life. Simple, small tasks seem to take a great deal of effort. Sleep seems like the only release.

I know I spent the first two years of college full of expectation and thoughts of the future and a genuine zeal for all the classes and theatre productions and people who were a part of my life.

And then? Well, I grew depressed, deeply so. I don’t think anyone noticed. If they did, no one said anything. I can’t blame them. I myself didn’t notice, or at least I had no idea what to call the anxiety and isolation and overwhelming sadness. I did what I knew how to do to get through it, which was work harder at my studies. Take more classes. Volunteer more.

And then I plummeted.

I still remember the look on the face of a friend from high school who stopped-by to visit one day after I had fallen. He saw the days-old dishes caked in egg yolk. The shades drawn against the sun. My inability to focus. I remember he looked as if he couldn’t get out of there fast enough, as if he thought I might be contagious.

My GPA dropped. I gained a great deal of weight. I withdrew from social activities. I drank far too much. I stopped sleeping or I slept for 12+ hours.

And yet I never, ever would have called myself depressed or admitted that I needed mental healthcare.

There is another time I clearly should have realized I needed help. During my last winter in Alaska, I would wake-up, plug-in my truck, return to bed, and lie there chanting to myself—

Brush your teeth and your hair. Brush your teeth and your hair. Brush your teeth and your hair. These are important.

These two, quite small human acts, seemed to require a great deal of energy. And I had to convince myself to do them by chanting this mantra to myself every day.

Every. Single. Day.

I can’t tell you how long it lasted. I can’t tell you why I didn’t recognize that I was depressed until far too long inside of it.

This girl, though, this temporary roommate, she at least had some recognition that the life she was living was no life at all. Her list also included—

  • Make therapy appointment.

She was aware of the mire in which she’d become stuck. She was doing what she knew to get out of it.

Which is far more than I can say for myself at any age or time. To this day, I have never sought therapy. My aversion is maybe a hangover from my mid-south, blue collar upbringing. It is maybe fear of admitting there is something wrong with me.

Typing those words, just now, made my stomach clench. I’ll do it again.

There is something wrong with me. I am not okay. I need help.

It’s a difficult thing to admit.

But an eighteen year old girl admitted it. I saw that girl. Shuttered in her filthy apartment. Anxious. Alone. I saw that girl and I saw myself. Not as I am now, but as I was, and as I could be if I do not start making a conscious effort to tend my mental health.

It’s a cycle, after all. Feeling anxious and alone makes me depressed, which makes people not want to be around me, which makes me anxious and alone….

This last year and a half has been a tough one. Just about the saddest things possible have occurred. In my own misguided way of dealing with it all, my anxious and alone sirens have been on full blast.

Luckily, a good friend let me know I was not myself. She looked at me and was genuinely scared for what she saw. Not a woman dirty and alone, but one spinning in anxiety and neediness. Rather than running away, this friend let me know I needed help.

This past weekend, I made a list. (Actually, I made a color-coded spread sheet, but, ya know, same deal.) This item is right up top–

  • Make therapy appointment

It’s taken me to the age of 34 to do this. It’s taken a friend strong enough to challenge me to get better.

And it’s taken me not being able to write.

If you’re curious about the long blog-post hiatus, well, this is why. I began slipping away sometime this Spring. By last week, when I sat down to write anything, even a journal entry, even an email, I couldn’t. It was like my own voice was missing from my head.

I have always disdained the term writer’s block as a crutch of the lazy. And there are those people, of course. People who run around claiming writer’s block because the real work of writing, the long hard slog of it, is more effort than they are willing to undertake.

But there is also being blocked from one’s own voice. I know this now. And I know that writer’s block, in this sense, is not the stuff of amusing coffee mugs or casual reference or excuse. It is a powerful symptom of something wrong. It is terrifying. There is no “work harder and you’ll get through it.” I don’t have the tools to do this kind of work. Not yet.

I know addicts use the phrase rock bottom to mean that point when they realized they needed help to change. The stories they tell are of waking-up covered in vomit, or someone close to them overdosing, or exchanging sexual favors for one more hit.

My rock bottom? The point I had to reach before I realized I needed help?

My rock bottom was silence.

Image taken from here.

Down in a Deep Dark Hole

In what was once Lootie, Oklahoma, a small coal mining town that dried up when the coal seams did, sits the ruin of a clapboard house my family calls The Old Place. It was inhabited by my great-grandparents, and my mother lived there for a time, when my grandmother was between jobs and husbands.

Growing-up, my mother would take us on a pilgrimage to The Old Place each Thanksgiving. Sometimes someone picked-up an old bottle or a tool, but we were really there to hear stories. My mother’s favorite stories, the ones she told most often, were of hard times hardening the people who lived through them.

There is the story of the time a dog got into the smokehouse and ate the meat and how her grandmother, who in most stories is the kindness woman to ever draw breath, beat that dog until it was nearly dead.

I know. I don’t like this story either.

But my mother does. Her eyes light-up when she tells it. She revels in this otherwise kind woman turning violent in desperation. In the past, I have judged my great-grandmother for her actions and my mother for her revelry in them. Part of me, I guess, always will.

But my life is one of privilege when compared to the lives of the people who lived in The Old Place. The life of a dog is worth more to me than it is to people who have hungered. I know this. We are shaped by our circumstances, and, in comparison, mine have left me a doughy mush.

There is another story my mother tells with delight that I have never enjoyed.

My great-grandfather (the husband of the woman in the story above) helped organize a union of coal miners who struck in demand of the black lung benefit. The strike lasted for seven years. Seven years of no food but what they could grow or scavenge. Seven years of hunger, of watching children and grandchildren hunger.

The union finally won, and the union men went back to work, and when the union men began dying, their widows and orphans received compensation.

But scab coal miners die the same dry-land-drowning union men do. And when their coughs turned, they came to my grandparents and asked if they might join the union, so their children and widows would be looked after.  According to the story, the sweetest-woman-to-draw-breath told them something along the lines of, “when my children went hungry, yours were fed, and this is the price for it.”

I don’t like this story. But I never watched my own grow weak. Never heard them cry with hunger. I have no idea how living through that would make me behave.

I know that a little over a year ago, I thought myself the kind of person who lived with a forgiving heart. Then a bad man entered my life. This man caused the suffering of those I love dearest. He caused a small child to suffer. He did this for a long time.

And suddenly, there it was, this hardness inside of me. This wish to see another human come to harm. There were times, I admit, I wished him dead.

And now I know something more of why my great-grandmother allowed those around her to go hungry when she might have eased their suffering. I still do not celebrate her decision, but if I saw those scabs as responsible for the suffering of my family? As responsible, no doubt, for the deaths of others?

I don’t know. I try my best to hold compassion towards my fellow humans. This bad man showed me there are times I am not able to do so. I resent knowing myself capable of such darkness, but knowing this has taught me compassion for the people in my mother’s stories, people whose hearts hardened under suffering.

The dark seam he exposed in me has provided some light.