Abandoned Books and Rediscovered Authors

As part of my research for my memoir, I have been reading a variety of memoirs that come across my path. My memoir is themed around my struggles with illness since I was born and how they affected my life. Some of the titles, such as Dying to Be Me by Anita Moorjani, are directly relevant; this book is about how a near-death experience changed her life.

Others are tangentially about illness but not memoirs, like Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, by Susan Sontag. I was hoping to plumb the book for insight as to how metaphoric comparisons of illness might have affected how I experienced and interpreted illness, even though Sontag talks mainly about tuberculosis (TB) and cancer, and then later, AIDS.

Sontag’s writing style seemed dense and intellectual, drawing on a truly staggering number of literary references that demonstrated illness (TB and cancer) and its metaphors through fiction, such as in the operas La Traviata and La Bohème. In this manner, the book reminded me of a history tome, filled with date after date after date. Sontag also seems to repeat herself as if there was only so much that she could say about it, but her publisher made her try and stretch the thoughts way past their prime. I mentally pushed myself through about 70 pages of the book before setting it aside. I really hate doing that, but I hate torturing myself through repetitive, difficult to read books.

And in my procrastinations yesterday to avoid writing, I decided the next best thing was to read articles related to writing. This quickly lead me to the essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace (DFW). I tried getting into his novels Infinite Jest and The Pale King, but I abandoned both because I could not get into the stream of consciousness that his writing seemed to be. I tried. I had read about how beloved DFW was both to his readers and critics, and I wanted to be one of his fan boys. But I had to come to the conclusion that his writing wasn’t for me.

Until now.

I was sitting at Argo Tea on a corner of 7th Avenue and West 26th Street in New York City with a writer friend. I quickly began laughing out loud and hastening my hand to cover my mouth. You know when you find something so funny that you immediately want to start making eye contact with everyone around you and telling them about it? That was me yesterday at the Argo Tea.

Here’s a little tidbit of his writing after which I had one of many outbursts:

I have heard upscale adult U.S. citizens ask the Guest Relations Desk whether snorkeling necessitates getting wet, whether the skeet shooting will be held outside, whether the crew sleeps on board, and what time the Midnight Buffet is. I now know the precise mixological difference between a Slippery Nipple and a Fuzzy Navel. I know what a Coco Loco is. I have in one week been the object of over 1500 professional smiles. I have burned and peeled twice. I shot skeet at sea. Is this enough? At the time it didn’t seem like enough.

It’s not just his descriptions of things that makes reading the Supposedly Fun essay such a joy. Right away, you come to understand that this essay truly reflects his actual first person thoughts and feelings, uncensored and as they are. How easy it would be for DFW to pretend to feel something that he did not and make it seem real? Very. He shares his impressions of the staff, the other people at dinner Table 64, and his struggles with semi-agoraphobia that teeter him on the edge of whether he is going out of the cabin or whether he shall avail himself of room service.

What hit me deeply in reading this essay by DFW, however, was his repeated mentions of death, despair, and loneliness. In 2008 at the age of 46, David Foster Wallace committed suicide. Pictures of him often show him with a wrap around his head, hair disheveled, and a pained expression on his face. Even in an essay that he wrote when he was sent on a cruise for pay and asked to write an article, the pain came with him. When you have major depression and anxiety, there is no holiday or cruise that you can take that will separate you from the pain. If only there were, maybe DFW would have found a way to be with us still.

Illness, Alienation, and PTSD – Part 3

Read Part I and Part 2.

Even though I liked my pediatricians, I feared the doctor’s office. I dreaded getting shots. Often, I was in the doctor’s office because of fever. I seem to remember getting a lot of them. I was also prone to terribly painful bladder infections. The getting undressed and into a robe. Feeling chilled and a bit scared while waiting for the nurse and doctor to examine me. I know readers know what I am talking about, but it’s the sheer frequency from recurrent illnesses and surgeries that had a profound affect on my sense of safety and strength in the world.

The two abdominal surgeries I had when I was eight years old occurred against the backdrop of my frequent visits to the pediatricians’ office. The fears of doctors and illness I already had became exacerbated by the extreme nature of the pain that led to my surgeries where I was necessarily and unwillingly separated from my family.  The separation felt like abandonment, even though I knew they would have been with me if they could.

The chronic exposure to the vulnerability of nakedness, illness, excruciating stomach pains, and surgeries hits you hard in to the core of your being. I learned that I could never trust my body. I didn’t realize until much later that it also meant that I could not trust my self. I learned that could not trust that terrible things would never happen to me. I  feared the future, and felt that safety is an illusion, even if I couldn’t explain it at that time.

I heard the words of comfort my mother uttered as pity, which I loathed. Somehow, I felt worse about my situation instead of better. I decided early to hide how I really felt until there really was no way I could hide it any more, just so I wouldn’t have to hear it – the sound of pity in her voice. I was terribly sensitive to the slightest change in tone in her voice, whether it be anger or anxiety. A pointed expression of fear could send me into an intense state of anxiety. I could hear her fear for my life, and I feared for my own life in response.

For decades afterwards, I had this intense desire to be physically near my friends and family at all times. I think this influenced the jealousies I felt towards friends when I saw them having what I saw as a closer relationship with each other than with me. I have no idea what they thought then. It probably isn’t true, and I didn’t ask. I wasn’t aware at the time of what drove me to have those jealous feelings.

Elizabeth Shue once appeared on the cover of Boston Magazine with the quote, “Vulnerability is my greatest strength.” But what about those of us for whom our vulnerability becomes tied in with our greatest weakness? In my case, it was my body and the feelings that I tried to bury as deeply as possible. How can I mine that vulnerability for art when it brings back the painful experiences that illness has put me through? My unwillingness to dig deep would have forced me to work through the bundle of repressed anxieties, fear, anger, and helplessness. I have worked on it with therapists over the years. But there are some things that cannot be forced.

Going back to school let me nestle myself into a routine where I could occupy my mind. But the intense anxieties I had lived barely under the surface. In one way, anxieties were ever present. In another, I tried to stuff them down deep inside and close them into a box with a lock. Ten thousand locks. My box had many leaks, and they could burst out in in fear and/or anger at any moment. An anger that was driven by a sense of helplessness and rage at the fate I had been dealt.

After my surgeries that I had when I was eight, I prayed to God and swore with all my heart that I would be a good girl if only He would keep me from ever having to go through that again. The promise became deeply embedded into my psyche. After a while, I no longer consciously remembered that promise. But there it was, subtly influencing my behavior for years to come.

~~ End Part 3 ~~

Illness, Alienation, and PTSD – Part 2

Read Part I.

One morning when my mother was fixing my braids for school, she left me with one done to run downstairs and swap the laundry. I don’t remember the pain, but I recall being bent over with my hands on the floor. She says she heard me calling her, and she came back up to find me like that. I was taken to the ER and admitted to have my appendix removed, which burst on the operating table. But for the fact that I was in surgery, I would have died.

When you have an appendectomy or an intestinal blockage, the treatment includes having a nasal-gastrointestinal (NG) tube through your nose and into your stomach. The NG tube is a life-saving piece of medical equipment. It alleviates vomiting, reduces the pressure from digestion, and allows your insides to heal. To make it go down easier, you drink water until the tube is fully inserted.  The tube is connected to a machine that siphons off anything in your stomatch and intestines.

During one of these stays, the nurse took out the tube only to have to put it back in a day or two days later because they realized (somehow) that they had taken it out too soon. I mildly protested, but then I stopped. I knew it had to go back in if they said it did, and I knew that struggling would only make it worse so I didn’t. Instead, I drank the water.

When a child gets sick in modern times, the childrens’ ward is bright and cheery. Family and strangers alike come by wards to cheer children up. There is art work around. Professionals understand that it’s important to make a child feel as comfortable as possible in this strange and frightening environment. You can even sleep overnight with them, I hear. When I was in the hospital in 1979, there was none of that.

The room I was in was like a regular adult’s hospital room with three beds, TVs, and one large window. The walls were white as were the sheets. My parents were only allowed to be there during regular visiting hours. Between the two stays over a three week period, I was without family from 8pm to 8am, for the most part. As an adult, I understand you can’t have family there all the time, but that was what I wanted when I was eight.

I would call my mother at 5:30am every morning to find out what time she would come to visit me. The NG tube is uncomfortable and, like many things about a hospital stay, makes a good night’s sleep impossible. I slept little. I napped. I waited until I knew my parents were up anyway to call, just to hear my mom’s voice. Knowing she would be there at 8am or 10a or even 1pm broke up my seemingly neverending day and gave me some hope. I had a visit to look forward to.

I remember my mother often saying to me, “I wish there was something I could do”, with a kind of panic in her voice. All that did was instill and increase my own sense of panic at my situation. I felt that, if my parents were helpless, I was even moreso. I hated hearing it. I heard the helplessness and the pity in her voice at a time when I yearned for encouragement and hope instead. Somehow, my parents’ helplessness impacted my psyche more than the skill of the doctors’ abilities and skills to fix me, to save me.

After about a week, I went home. I was soon back because I had developed peritonitis from the infection that leaked into my body when the appendix burst. Back to the hospital for another surgery I went. Back with another NG tube. Back alone or mostly alone in a hospital room for an additional week at least.

In addition to the thin horiztonal appendectomy scar, I acquired a long, vertical scar extending from at least two inches above my belly button to my pelvic bone area. They braced my scar with four clamps held by a thicker kind of cord. Their removal didn’t hurt, but it felt very odd. I remember the scars between red and irritated after the stitches and clamps came out. Whereas I had loved two piece bathing suits, I refused to wear one for meany, many years.

After I got back to school, all I wanted was for my life to return to normal. If you act fine, people will think you are fine unless you tell them otherwise. I already liked school, and it was an easy and convenient way for me to distract myself from whatever I had been through and the feelings about illness that lingered. Studying and school helped me ignore whatever feelings I needed to acknowledge. Back then, it never occurred to anyone to have me talk to a therapist. It’s just not a thing that was done or talked about publicly. If I could go back and whisper an idea in my mother’s ear, it would be that one. I really could have used it at that time to help me deal with what I experienced. Just because I didn’t talk about it did not mean I wasn’t affected by it, even as the years went by.

By the time my appendicitis happened, I was already well-versed in being thought of and thinking of myself as “the sick child.”  Even when I was in good health, my mother would tell me not to push myself. This continues to this day. On a regular basis, I was told to stop, don’t pursh forward, stay home. For years, her admonitions would enrage me because what I heard was discouragement, over and over again, when all I have ever wanted is to be reassured by her, that everything was going to be OK, that I would be pull through. Instead, I learned to fear things that were both on the inside and on the outside.

I needed a lot of time and a lot of therapy to understand that her losses traumatized her. But, also, I think she houses some kind of internal belief that we have control over the bad things that happen to us. From my experience, that’s not always the case. I used to fight with her to get me to do even ordinary things, like going to the school dances. Now I wonder how much of it was her fear of what would happen to me when I wasn’t around her to call the ambulance.

As I grew up, I internalized this sense of struggling to prove that I can do it, make it, live it. One time, a professor asked me in mid-class, “What are you trying to prove?” I was confused by her answer then. It was only years later that I begun to make sense of it.

~~ End of Part 2~~

Continue to Illness, Alienation, and PTSD – Part 3.

Illness, Alienation, and PTSD – Part 1

This is a difficult topic for me. I don’t even know if I can do it justice. However, given recent events, I feel a need to discuss this. Friends and even family might not understand how significantly illness has impacted my life.

The impact of illness on my life began before I was born. A couple of years prio, 4-month old brother died unexpectedly from an undiagnosed enlarged heart. As you can imagine, my family was heartbroken and traumatized. When I had a febrile seizure at 11 months old, it felt like hell. They had to put me on ice – literally – to bring down the fever until I could get to the hospital. The febrile seizures recurred regularly, and I was put on phenobarbitol to control them until I was 12. The barbituates caused chronic constipation, and the number one result of chronic constipation is appendicitis.  I’ll talk more about this shortly.

Falling sick with colds and fevers and going to the doctors’ office were a significant part of my childhood, frequently disrupting plans. I remember my mother often seeming frantic. Any hint of anything other than perfect health, even a sneeze, was accompanied by her asking me in a worried tone, “I hope you’re not getting sick.” I dreaded and hated it when she asked me that question.

I began to touch my own forehead to check for fevers when I wasn’t feeling well. Her anxieties became my anxieties. I began to keep how I was really feeling to myself as long as possible because I could not stand to hear that panic in her voice. I learned how to pretend I was fine so I wouldn’t have to hear the fear and the pity in her voice.

In second grade, my appendix burst on an operating table. While they saved me, I developed peritonitis that required a second surgery. I was out of school for three weeks. I missed out on playing the part of Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, a part I much relished. Three years prior, I missed out on being Betsy Ross in our town’s bicentennial parade because of fever. By that time, I decided that it wasn’t worth it to put too much effort into going after my heart’s desires because I could fall ill at any time. I couldn’t stand the pain of the disappointment, so I decided regret was preferable to disappointment.

When I came back to class, I was given hand-made cards from my classmates, some of which I still have and are not in the best condition. I remember sitting at my desk again, surrounded by my classmates, who left tons of crayons on my desk so that I could participate. I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and love my classmates showed me.

At the same time, I felt like an alien from another galaxy with experiences that no one I knew, not family nor friends nor classmates, what I had been through and how scared and helpless I felt. These experiences cast a shadow of separation between me from other people. It influenced what I thought I could and wanted to do, how close I felt to others, and what I was willing to share. Even good experiences could not ease the hole that I felt inside; the one that said I was different, that I had suffered pain and loneliness, and that there was nothing no one in the world could do to change that.

~~ End of Part I~~

Continue with Illness, Alienation, and PTSD – Part 2.

Morning Pages as Therapy

As I enter my fourth week in following The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, writing for 30 minutes every day (morning pages) has helped me grow tremendously. I have been inspired to try new things, revived dormant interests, and explored what I am thinking, doing, feeling, and why. The wonderful thing about morning pages is that lessons you learn elsewhere get further explored and/or stimulated in the morning pages.

Recently, I borrowed Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers, PhD., from my local library. I read the first chapter, and wanted to immediately reread it again. Last night, I put the book by my bedside and reread chapter 1. Its essential message is that all our fears boil down to the fear that we can’t handle it. The solution is to use the tools in the book to help us retrain our thoughts into realizing that, yes, we can handle it, whatever it may be.

I noted several times yesterday that I seemed to be having a concentrated feeling of anxiety in my chest. The feelings were not as strong as a panic attack, but there they were. Whereas I used to have chronic anxiety, I have been feeling relatively confident and peaceful since I began following the The Artist’s Way and building a new routine around building my writing career.

During my morning meditation, my thoughts kept going towards thoughts and movie scenes that produced anxiety and anger in me. In the movie The Blindside, the adoptive mother goes to look for Michael in his old, gang-ridden neighborhood. In a confrontation with gang members, she tells the gang that she carries a Saturday Night Special and that it works every other day of the week, too.

That scene evokes an I’m-ready-to-fight and Go get ’em! feelings in my chest and stomach. I kept releasing the thoughts, but realized that the thoughts invading my meditation needed to be explored. Since Susan Jeffers book was on my mind, I decided to explore how the basis of my fears might be related to the I can’t handle it lesson that Jeffers says we all learned.

By asking Where have I felt this anxiety before?, I realized that the anxiety is one I have had all my life: that I won’t be good enough (at something) fast enough. Even when I worked harder, the anxiety kept me pushing me forward saying, That’s still not good enough. I remembered how the child Me used to look up to adults, especially my mother and father, to handle things. When they couldn’t or didn’t, I felt helpless. When I faced my own challenges, I was terrified and felt like I couldn’t handle it. Subconsciously, I think that I kept expecting adults to show me how. This is just the nature of being a child who is dependent upon others.

I woke up to the fact that I have been keeping to this pattern ever since. Whatever I observed that my family didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t do, I didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t, and shouldn’t do, either. I asked myself, “What other areas in my life have I modeled on my family instead of doing what I honestly should have been doing all along?” Relationships? Sex? Money? I will have to examine each area of my life to recover my own sense of what it is that I want and need to get done.

Every time I ask myself what I should be doing, I get the same answer: Look and listen for the answers inside myself. As Jeffers points out, the truth is that I can handle it. I can only accept what happens to me and what I choose to do because it is the way I want to live. Life is lovely because it is all I will ever really have as I experience my life in this body until my end. So many wonderful things are here, and I am ready to experience them all.

Schedule Fits and Starts

Yesterday, I made lists of tasks I need to work on during the day and fun things I can do in the evenings. Today I got up, meditated, ate a light breakfast, wrote my morning pages, and did three timed writing exercises, all by 10am. Hurrah!

I learned about timed writing in my lyric and creative writing courses at Berklee Music Online. I am working through the book Songwriting Without Boundaries by Pat Pattison that I bought for a lyric writing course. Even if you do not write songs, you can still use most of this book to explore timed writing exercises. I highly recommend it.

I was so proud of myself. I got dressed to go to the gym, packed my bag, said good-bye to my mom, came back to my apartment to get something and saw a huge pile of kitty poop on the floor. Greaaaaat. After I cleaned up the mess, I drove to the gym, did my exercises, washed up quickly, and then came home. Lunch and a shower followed. More poop cleanup. Locked kitty in small room with litter box, water, and food that does not upset her digestive system. 2pm.

Enter panic attack. It’s 2 o’clock! I’m wasting time! I need to sit down and write! I need to job hunt! Luckily, my honey was working at home today so I talked to him about my feelings. I went from panic to sadness to wanting to cry. Panicking around deadlines has been a life-long challenge. At least, I am making the effort to break down the mental tape and take some deep breaths. Mark reminded me to think of my 6pm cut-off of work vs. play as guidelines, not strict deadlines. That cheered me up.

We ran errands and went to Starbucks. I searched online for part-time technical writing/editing jobs. The greater NYC market for technical writing is much different than the greater Boston area market for technical writing. New England has much better opportunities. Even Tarrytown, NY has a greater variety of technical writing jobs than NYC, which I find very strange. I had no idea Tarrytown, NY was such a technical writing haven.

Next week, I think I am going to schedule my gym time at the end of my work day on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Instead of stopping writing to go to the gym at 10am like I did today, I will write and job hunt straight through from 9am until 3:30pm. Then I will go to the gym, swim, come home, shower, and be ready for dinner by the time Mark gets home.

By going to the gym in the early evening, I will have at least 6 straight hours to write and/or job hunt. I find one larger working block to be much more satisfying than two smaller working blocks. I have enough activities to keep me busy and developing my writing for that whole time. I look forward to figuring out a solid schedule that works for me and my writing.

The Only Way Through It is To Do It

My motto in the last couple of years has become, “The only way through it is to do it.” buddha2

I often get sidetracked by anxiety and guilt. And once I have procrastinated for either of these reasons, I create a domino effect of failing to get things done and feeling increasingly anxious and guilty about it. Whether it is addressing a problem with a family member or facing my financial future, the results are the same. 

Last May, I met a financial advisor. He was calm and plainly told me I could manage my meager funds (and meager they are). I spoke to him in July when he called to follow up. As I was in my final semester of graduate school while packing to move, I had not done any of the tasks I said I would do. The reality is the I refused to do it. He followed up with me in November, in December, and at the beginning of January. Here it is past the first week of February, and I was still putting it off.

As I wrote yesterday, today was my deadline. I thought I would have had enough time to pick a stock or two before calling him. First, I logged into Vanguard and spent an hour reading articles on investing. I felt mostly clear headed about what I needed to do and things to consider. As I read, I made myself a list of important things to remind myself when thinking about investing. Then I called Vanguard and spoke to a rep, who made me realize that it was going to take a while. I took out materials the advisor sent me but I never read, and I reviewed notes I took with him in May. At the end of three hours, I still had not read my IRA Brokerage Account Agreement, which I wanted to read. The small printing made me want to have a fresh mind, so I put it in my bag for tomorrow. I left the advisor a voice mail apologizing for the lack of response and asked him to call me back.

I still have a lot of educating to do, and I am reconsidering whether I want to do a brokerage account. I have to compare the cost ratio of mutual funds to cost ratios of funds I want to pick and see what the difference is. I am not going to decide tomorrow, either. Taking the time I need is fine as long as I take the time, no matter what it is. More importantly, I have freed up mental space otherwise taken up by an increasingly anxious and guilt-ridden mind.

2014 is all about the breathing through and moving on.