Why I Hate Water Parks

When I was growing up in the 80s, water parks started becoming all the rage. I liked going to pools in the summer. The water made the searing sun much more bearable. I had already decided that amusement parks were not for me, but somehow I didn’t see water parks as the same thing.

Not at first.

During high school, I remember going to Action Park in Vernon, New Jersey with at least two of my sisters, M and A.  Because I wasn’t a great swimmer, I feared drowning, even there. I tried to go on the rides that were not as scary, but I also had a streak of daring in me. I didn’t want my fears to hold me back, and I wanted to have a good time.

On one ride, you sat in an inner tube with handles and a stream of water moved you along to the pool at the end.  The beginning of the beginner inner tube ride seemed more intimidating to me than the beginning of the advanced inner tube ride, which had less of a slope. Once you got started on the ride, there was no way to get out except to go to the end.

After about 1,000 feet, we were brought to the edge of a six foot drop. The only way that you were going was over that ledge. Too late did I realize that the fear I could immediately see kept from me correctly reasoning that the advanced ride was called advanced for a reason.

And over that ledge I went, with my sister A not too far behind. I closed my eyes and gripped the handles. The drop was over quickly, and the water carried me along quickly to the end of the ride.

Except that I was backwards. I tried to turn myself around, with no luck. My sister A was having much more fun on this ride than I was. I was glad that I had gone on the ride, but I would have liked it more if I had not been scared as much as I was.

Which brings me to my next, terrible decision: I decided to go on a slide called the Kamikaze. Yes. Yes, I did.

The 4-story water slide sent you down a near-vertical slide that exited you at the bottom into a small pool of water. The only instructions you got were to lay flat, cross your arms in front of your chest, and keep your legs closed. I got the lay flat and crossed arms part right, but not the legs closed.

I shot like a bullet down and immediately my legs parted. As I flew down, my sister M tells me that a stream of water flew up between my legs like a fountain the entire way down. She was laughing at the sight. How could she not? Luckily, I was in the small pool at the bottom before long. The fear and the adrenaline rush had me trembling, and I pissed myself in the pool. I walked out of there with trembling legs, embarrassed that I had just given a show to the entire water park for free. I wasn’t sure what had possessed me to go down that slide, but I knew that I wasn’t going to be back to a water park any time soon.

Eventually, another trip to a water park showed up in my life. I think it was when I was on a student exchange trip to Madison, Wisconsin with my high school. This time, I thought I would play it safe. You know, having learned my lesson from my last trip to a water park and all. Instead of going on a bunch of water rides, I decided to go into the wave pool.

I liked the wave pool because it had ladders on both sides and a zero point entry. I wouldn’t be thrown against steps, I would just ride the waves out of the pool. So in I went, just like I was going into the ocean. I grabbed an inner tube and used that for support.

Before long, I started to feel seasick. I do get motion sick, but I was surprised that a wave pool would cause me to feel so nauseous so quickly. I was afraid that I wouldn’t make it out of the wave pool by riding the waves out in time to avoid throwing up. So I decided to head for the one of the ladders on the side.

The wave pool was in full swing. I struggled to grasp onto the ladder. Every time it seemed I had a hold, another wave would come by over my head and almost, but not quite, make me lose my grip. Every time a wave washed over me, water went up my nose or into my mouth. I gasped and choked and struggled to pull myself up in between the wave crests.

After several attempts at the end of which I was certain I was close to drowning, I pulled myself up out of the pool and held on to the ladder as I stood at the top while I hacked and coughed my lungs out. One of the life guards saw me coughing and asked me if I was ok. I responded testily, “I am now!” I wondered to myself what was the point of having lifeguards at a wave pool if they don’t even notice when someone is in distress or having trouble getting out.

After that, I was just done with water parks. No park was worth risking my life. However, if you wish to go to a water park, I can only leave with you with the two best pieces of advice that I know:

Keep your legs closed, and never exit a wave pool by ladder when the waves are on.

Illness, Alienation, and PTSD – Part 5

Read Part I, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4

The best part of the summer before my junior year in college was getting to spend time at my brother-in-law’s summer house out East on Long Island. The cottage was your typical summer cottage. It had no internal plumbing; you took showers and went to the bathroom outside. Situated near a cliff, you had to climb down a ladder to get to the beach. The waves lapped a dozen yards away. I remember sitting on the beach, enjoying the warm weather, and spending time with my family shortly before I had to go back up to college in Massachusetts.

I did not return at the end of August 1991 as was planned because I was taken to the hospital with stomach pains that turned out to be another intestinal blockage. I remember the doctors saying that they did not want to operate on me if at all possible because it had only been 10 months since my last surgery. Instead, they inserted a nasal-gastrointestinal tube (NG) to see if it could relieve the pressure and, by proxy, the blockage. The NG tube did relieve the pressure and the blockage, and I was able to leave after proving that I could eat and pass things along my intestinal tract.

My joy at avoiding surgery was short-lived, however, and I was taken back to the hospital with stomach pains within a couple of days of going home. Again, the doctors did not want to operate, but they did insert the NG tube. Again, the pressure was relieved, the blockage unwound itself, and I was able to go home after proving I could eat and pass things along. Three weeks after my anticipated return date, I was able to go back to school. I had signed a lease with some college friends starting the prior July, and I returned to my apartment.

I wish I could say that this was the last of my intestinal blockage saga, but it was not to be. Six months later in March 1992, I went to the hospital with stomach pains. The pain of your intestines twisting around themselves is a pain unlike no other. I would never wish this on anyone, not even the worst of the worst. The surgeon who operated on me told me that the kind of pain I experienced is even worse than the pain of childbirth. I was also the youngest patient in the hospital with as many surgeries as I’d had by my age.

My sister M who used to cut hair got me the name of the surgeon through one of her clients, a doctor. The surgeon was the Chief of Surgery at Cambridge Hospital and performed surgery at Mt. Auburn Hospital. Although he has long since moved away, I still remember his cutting humor, his straight talk, and his lack of reassurance. He told me that, even if the surgery was successful, there was no way to guarantee that having a blockage would not happen again. It could happen the next day, in 20 years, or never. I was a wreck. How was I supposed to live my life this way? At any given time, what I had worked for could be taken away, and I could back in the hospital with another blockage and another surgery that would only leave adhesions, ensuring future problems. One of these days, someone is going to find a way to eliminate adhesions. When they do, I will tithe half of my income to them. HALF.

This surgery, like the one in 1990, resulted in my staying in the hospital for approximately three weeks. In addition to the NG tube, Dr. F wanted to perform a certain procedure wherein a weighted balloon tied onto the end of a tube was inserted up through the nose into the stomach. The balloon and tube were to pass through my intestines for a designated number of days until it had gone far enough into my body. During the surgery, Dr. F would arrange my intestines in such a way to minimize adhesions. This all supposedly would help with that since it seemed that adhesions from prior intestinal surgeries seems to the main cause of future intestinal blockages. After the surgery, the tube was cut at the very back of my mouth as far as they could go, and the tube was allowed to pass through in the usual way. I can honestly say that it is a very weird experience to go to the bathroom one day and have to pull a balloon and tube out of your ass.

In some ways, I was much better off than when I left the hospital in 1990. I did not have raging infections; my length of stay was due to the added procedure of the balloon tube that needed time to move through my system. In some ways, I was in a bad place. In my first semester at college, I went from 123 lbs. to 113 lbs. because the Aramark dining hall food was both disgusting and often improperly cooked. By the end of my first semester, I would only eat salad for dinner and then have a shake later that night when I was studying. By the time I was in the hospital this time in 1992, I continue losing weight. They inserted a feeding tube into my neck so that I would at least get nutrition. That didn’t stave off the weight loss, however. By the time I left, I was 100 lbs. I have never looked so ill. My thighs were barely much thicker than my thighs. I once again had to withdraw from college because there was no way I was going to be able to make up three missed weeks of school.

Earlier this year when thyroid medication helped me drop about 5 lbs. quickly, I began to panic. I called the prescribing doctor and told him I was worried about the rapid weight loss. He laughed at me and told me I was the first patient to ever call him to complain. I explained that I was not complaining, but that the rapid weight loss triggered memories of when I was in the hospital. I said, “What do I do? Eat more?”. He laughed and said yes, I can eat more.

After getting off the phone with him, I realized that I have had a fear of weighing too little because of these hospital experiences. I psychologically need to have some meat on me. At this weight of around 120 lbs., any added weight can be seen in the belly area – and I am totally fine with that. But having a ultra-lean body doesn’t really work with my psyche because I want to make sure I have some weight to fall back on if I ever get sick and can’t eat, which is what happened earlier this month. But I’ll talk about that in another post.

~~ End of Part 5 ~~

Illness, Alienation, and PTSD – Part 4

Read Part I, Part 2, and Part 3.

One Friday night near the end of October 1990, I treated my sophomore roomate Pam to dinner for her birthday. We went to a Thai restaurant down the street from our dorm. I remember sitting across from her in the restaurant. While we were at dinner, I started getting stomach pains, and we headed back to the dorm.

After a few hours of this, I went to the emergency room at Brigham & Women’s hospital in Boston. While I spoke to the attending, I speculated that it might be food poisoning as Pam and I had just been out to eat at a new place. He said, “You probably just have food poisoning. If it doesn’t get better, come back to the ER.” Several hours later, I wasn’t any better so back to their ER I went.

I remember being put in a hospital gown on a gurney by myself in a room. At some point, I began vomiting. And that’s how I spent the next 36 hours – alone, on a hospital gurney with severe stomach pains and unremittant vomiting. I am not sure how I got word to my family. I may have called or I may have asked my friends to call. Two close friends, Patty and Christy, came to see me briefly. I called Chris, the guy I had been seeing, and begged him to visit me, just so I wouldn’t have to be alone while I waited for either something to be done or my family to come join me.

At some point on Sunday, the ER staff finally decided to insert a nasal-gastrointestinal (NG) tube. Doing so alleviated both the vomiting and the stomach pain. I was admitted to the hospital, and my mother and sister Madeline came to Boston to stay while I was there.

By Monday, the pain came back. When the surgeons told us they wanted to operate on Thursday, the three of us collectively freaked out. My sister insisted that they operate sooner, and I was hysterical because I could not deal with being in excruciating pain for the next few days. The doctors caved, and I went into surgery on Tuesday or Wednesday.

This was a lifesaving move. Because of the delay in treatment, part of my small intestine had begun to turn gangrenous from the blockage. The surgeon told my mother and my sister that if they had waited another day to do the surgery, I would have died. This was not the first time my mother had to hear this from a doctor. After my appendectomy, my mother was told that I would have died my appendix had burst before they had gotten a chance to open me up.

I didn’t know about that when I was a child, but I learned about my appendectomy close shave after I had my surgery for this blockage. When you hear doctors say that kind of thing about you, you feel like you have barely missed being scraped on the edge of Death’s razor. I couldn’t get those words out of my head – It’s a miracle I lived. I could have died. I came so close. If only. If only. If only….

Because of the gangrene, I had an infection. The first antibiotics they gave me did not work, and a fever persisted. After about a week, they changed medications, and I was on the strongest dose of antibiotics they could give me. The medication worked, but it left me without any good intestinal flora, either. I became completely lactose intolerant. A pat of butter could send me into intense spasms of pain for years afterwards. I spent many years building up the good bacteria because I was not going to live without ice cream for the rest of my life, that much I could tell you. Or butter. Definitely. Needed. Butter.

I had one roommate during my three week stay in the hospital. My roommate, Mary, was in the hospital to have a colostomy bag installed. We spent many a days together, watching commercials on TV, and talking about food. You’ll never hear someone talk about food in such mouth-watering details as from the person who cannot have any. My mother marveled at how we could even stand to look at food, given that we couldn’t eat any.  But it gave us something to talk about and to pass the time. Spending weeks in the hospital begins to feel like months. Years.

In both our cases, our tubes needed to come out, and we both needed to be able to eat food and keep it down. In Mary’s case, she also needed to be able to successfully use her bag while they watched to make sure no infections occurred. My mother and Mary exchanged Christmas cards for many years afterwards, even after I’d long put the stay and my roommate out of my mind.

As a teenager, I counted the years, months, weeks, and days until I could go away to college. My hospital stay seriously interfered with my plans to stay away. I was forced to withdraw from school because I knew I could never catch up after missing the practically the entire month of November away from school. The thoughts of having to go home indefinitely caused me to panic, and my dread of being pitied resurfaced along with my long-buried fears about my body, my health, my endurance, and my ability to support myself in life.

My aunt and uncle drove up to Boston to see me. My father brought them into my room. All I remember is that they either expressed through sighs and sounds or with words that I felt were like pity, and I became enraged. I screamed at them to get out, that I didn’t want to be pitied, and I didn’t want to see them if they were only going to make me feel worse. I already felt and looked awful, with my tubes, hospital gown, and fighting a raging infection. I felt guilty and humiliated and angry, and I cried from the sheer frustration of my situation. When I cry, my nose gets stuffed and runs like I have a cold. I wanted to hide under the covers and disappear.

I remember spending time in child’s pose while on my bed in the hopes that I could encourage the gas to move through my system and come out the right end. I learned that nothing compares to when your digestive system is working properly. It is the most amazing experience in the world because I know what it’s like when it doesn’t. Sometimes I forget. But then life finds a way of reminding me, like it did earlier this month. I ended up in the ER with stomach pains like I have not felt since my last intestinal blockage episode in 1992.  But that’s for later.

As Thanksgiving approached, I asked about when I would be released. They were trying to decide when would be the right time, but I was determined to leave the hospital by Thanksgiving. The very idea of still being in the hospital on Thanksgiving, three weeks after I went to the ER, was unacceptable to state of mental health. There was simply nothing worse, to my mind, than being in a hospital on Thanksgiving. I simply was not going to have it.

Would they have let me go if I could not eat and poop? Of course not. I doubt they would have let me walk out of there. And I was lucky enough that I was able to leave the day before the holiday. But I didn’t go home. I fought with my sister about going home. I wanted to go back to my dorm to rest, and that’s what I ended up doing.

First, my mother and I went to the Registrar’s office at Boston University so I could withdraw for the semester. The day before Thanksgiving was technically the last day that I could have withdrawn without a financial penalty. However, after hearing what I’d been through, the staff member backdated my withdrawal form so that I could take incompletes on some classes and retake others the next semester.

So my mother and sister went back to NY, and I returned to live in my dorm. The school was not going to have time to kick me out of the dorm before the end of the semester arrived, and so, after the semester concluded, I went back home to New York to stay with my parents for the winter break.

~~ End of Part 4 ~~

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.

How Not to Ride the Waves

I love going into a pool or into the ocean. I also have been afraid of drowning since I was a child. Puts me in a bit of a bind, it does. Because I love the water more than I am afraid, I go in anyway.

Even though I go into the water, I am reluctant to immerse my head under water. Afterwards, my eyes sting so badly that I need to dry my eyes with a towel before they stop stinging and I can see again. Wiping them with my hands only seems to make them sting more. I have tried to shake my head, as I have seen boys and dogs do after they leap, god-like, up from the water, but it doesn’t help.

Because my eyes are sensitive to the water, I cannot wear contacts. Plus, I have poor eyesight. Without eyeglasses, I feel even less confident wave surfing because I am concerned about misjudging wave height, getting knocked over, and drowning.

To summarize with the help of an equation:

My reluctance to put my head underwater/Wear no eyeglasses > My love of water > My fear of drowning

Yesterday, I went to Jones Beach for the afternoon. Jones Beach is a beach along a peninsula off the southern coast of Long Island. The last time I went to Jones Beach was as a teenager, so it’s been at least 25 years since I spent time there.

I had forgotten that the shore can be steep in places. You do not have to go far out into the water to find yourself riding some pretty deep waves. Two or three banks of waves came in one after the other. Children with parents and teens were wave surfing in groups.The beach felt both crowded and empty. I found parking easily. People settled under umbrellas near the lifeguards, but plenty of room still existed for newcomers.

When I arrived, high tide was rolling in. In the span of a couple of hours, the waves dumped a lot of sand on the shore at the spot where I waded creating a deep bank where none had existed. I wrote under a shady umbrella, and then baked in the sun for a bit so that going into the water would be refreshing.

While I was in the water, I started riding some waves higher than the earlier waves by a foot or two. Unfortunately, a huge wave came and I had to make a decision. Go under or try to go over. Which one do you think I made?

Answer: The wrong one.

If I had not been afraid to go underwater because my eyes would sting, I made the choice to try and go over it. But it was already too late for that choice. I had not been close enough to the waves when it was building. As it started to crest, I tried to go over it. Guess who won that one?

Answer: It wasn’t me.

As the water was about to cover me, I held my breath and tried to grab my nose before water went up it (I didn’t make it). The wave knocked me backwards and into a somersault. The lower back of my head hit the sand. My other hand went out for stability, and I felt the water lift my prescription sunglasses up and off my face. I was able to stand pretty up right away, even though I got hit by another, smaller wave. I took a few steps towards the beach, and I heard someone gasp and giggle. I realized that my top and been yanked way down. I was standing with my boobage visible to all. I yanked up my shirt and made my way out of the water. I was kind of, sort of, but not really embarrassed. As I shook my hair out, I realized that my hair clip was gone, too, as was the flexible fabric bandaid that had been on my leg.

Neptune was a greedy bastard.

I tried looking for a washed up pair of sunglasses on the beach. But I know how quickly items can be moved either out to sea or down shore, so I didn’t look too hard to find them.

Afterwards, I felt lucky that my neck didn’t get broken or that I didn’t drown. I was on the edge of the green flags that the lifeguards use. But you can bet next time that I am planting myself right down in front of them. I will leave the glasses behind, or secure them to my body (although I think it will be safer just to leave them onshore. I will have to read up on how to make them sting less or just try to see if exposure will get my eyes used to the salt.

When it comes to wave riding, I will play by Neptune’s rules because he doesn’t play by mine.

Fear and Loathing in Ferguson

I don’t normally wander into offering my opinion on current events. I hate getting into arguments with people, and I try to avoid posts that invite vitriol and threats, like one such as this might. However, a friend on Facebook mentioned that Robin Williams was getting far more press in her feed than the events in Ferguson, so I felt compelled to tip the balance in the other direction.

The Way We Were?

In my heart, I believe that many people in this country are good, decent people. Yet, as a white woman born of Italian immigrants, I have seen the worst of the worst that we do to each other, the blame we place, and the truths we deny.

And I wonder whether the brutality that African-Americans live under in this country still has roots in centuries-old WASP beliefs that races out of Africa are inferior, comprised of wild animals that were made by God for the white race to subject and use. Because, you know, God is white (that’s sarcasm, dear reader). This “fear of the black man” thing seems to be alive and well.

Slavery and the birth of this country went hand in hand. We cannot escape that this great land was partially built on the torture, abuse, and exploitation of Africans who were brought to this country as work horses. Early Americans saw them as property to be bought and sold.

Things.

They were thought of and treated as things to be used and discarded instead of living, breathing humans with hearts and love and families.

The thought makes me ill.

Fear and Loathing

I am appalled at the way some police officers treat some people in this country. Every ethnic group gets hassled, but the seemingly unbridled brutality against African-Americans by some in law enforcement shocks me. Young men seem to bear the brunt of it. Countless stories of mistreatment, unfairness, beatings, and death! I cannot imagine the kind of heartbreak that families endure in these communities.

I mean, WHO CARES if two young African-American males are walking in the street? Why hassle them? I wonder why the officer wasn’t simply concerned about their safety. If pedestrians walking in the street is a safety issue, then you should ask them to walk on the sidewalk. Is that really a reason to get your gun out, officer? It seems to me that that particular officer was looking for a fight. Oh, he got one. Not the one he expected, I’m sure.

Oh! He went for your gun? Well where the fuck was it if his hands were up in the air? Don’t get me wrong. I get the self-defense thing. But when an officer is this tightly wound, they could disintegrate a spider with a shotgun and claim it was justified. And the juries and courts just go, “Oh, yeah. Ok. No problem.” Being frightened should not be an unrestricted license to kill another person.

The Blame Game

I heard that some Ferguson rioters carried shotguns, so the police state force was justified. I hear you. I do. But, to blame the victim for everything all the damn time, is morally wrong and invites lawlessness from law enforcement. I won’t blame victims in just the same way I won’t blame rape victims for wearing a skirt too short.

Fuck that “blaming victims and absolving aggressors” shit. Aggressors of all stripes need to be reigned the EFF in, whether in law enforcement or not. Blame might be one way to identify who the involved parties are, but, after that, it’s an utterly useless tool for solving problems.

Decent People

Social standing is no indicator that you will be treated like a decent human being, either. You can still be hassled and blamed. African-American Washington Post Wesley Lowery was arrested in Ferguson, as was white colleague Ryan Reilly who reports for the Huffington Post. Both were arrested when they did not vacate the premises fast enough for the police. Did you get that?

For not moving fast enough.

Where was the life-threatening emergency that necessitated such impatience? It’s this kind of thing that makes you want to tear your hair out. At least, their lives were not endangered.

If Ferguson is in racial meltdown, don’t you, as an officer, have anything better to do than arrest two reporters simply because you wanted them to get out in 10 seconds instead of 8? It takes time to clear out a restaurant. If you are a patient cop, then give the customers time. Because the people in McDonald’s were customers before you walked in with a purpose in mind. It’s called appropriate crowd control, not how to arrest a crowd of people in one easy step. Officers: Let’s please stop treating everyone you encounter during a crisis as an enemy.

Stop Making Shit Up

Grabbing someone and yelling, “Stop resisting!” has got to cease being proof of someone resisting arrest. At the very least, please counter this with cooperating statements, such as, “Yes, officer, I am cooperating.” Do not give them the ammunition they need to blame you for your arrest by getting upset.

Besides, you only do yourself the disservice because the likelihood of a reprimand or justice through the courts is extremely low, unless you are white. Then, maybe, you might have a chance. However, being white is no guarantee of justice either. People from many backgrounds have been coerced into confessions or had evidence withheld that resulted in their convictions by conviction-happy DA’s who forgot their job is to preserve justice. And that’s just Texas.

(Sorry, Texas peeps. I’m not picking on you. The story just sticks in my mind.)

What to Do if You are Arrested

The ACLU has great online resources for you to read if you want to be educated and prepared to know what to do when you are arrested.  Remember, being arrested can happen to anyone at anytime. No one is safe, but some of us are less safe than others – sometimes remarkably less so.

Walking Towards The Bear

“Every moment of one’s existence, one is growing into more or retreating into less.
One is always living a little more or dying a little bit.”
Norman Mailer

I received an email newsletter from Tama Kieves, author of This Time I Dance!: Creating the Work You Love and Inspired and Unstoppable: Wildly Succeeding in Your Life’s Work, with this quote at the end of a story about how she had to walk past a bear while hiking in the words.

And I thought: What is my bear? What is the thing in my life that scares me most of all? For me, it has been the same thing as long as I can remember: Wanting to please others, I restrict myself. In my head, I have equated things I do with other people, their reactions, and their anger.

But is that really true?

The Buddha says the way to end suffering is not to be attached to anything. Let feelings and situations come and go. Don’t cling. Experience it and then release it. The Buddha would tell me not to be attached to what other people do. Just live my life, and let other people do what they are going to do.

I’m not into a lot of New Age woo. I try to have an open mind. If there are things that don’t ring true with me, I set them aside. If there’s too much of that, then I toss the book. One book I did not toss was The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz. The one I need to work on the most is this: Don’t take things personally.

That can be difficult when you want to maintain a relationship that is important to you, and you have spent your life interpreting things personally. However, to continue taking things personally moves me in the direction of dying a little bit. I feel hollow inside and unable to move forward based on things I can do nothing about.

Can I make someone see another point of view? No. Can I make someone talk to me? No. Can I help someone change themselves to be more trusting, more open, and to forgive so that I can have a deeper relationship with them? No. I have no control over a lot of things that other people do, but the fact is that, somewhere deep inside, I do believe it.

And that’s a major problem.

The bear won’t overwhelm me. The bear will threaten and roar, and then leave me in the wilderness by myself. I will be alone, vulnerable, and afraid. The bear stalks me like this every day of my life.

I am taking steps to try and free myself from the idea of the bear. The bear isn’t necessarily fear or terror. The bear is what we make it.

And, as Tama Kieves says in her newsletter, the only way out of our conundrum is to walk past the bear towards freedom.

Buddha Wisdom in Bugs Bunny

Would you like to shoot me now or wait til you get home?
Bugs Bunny to Elmer Fudd

In this Bugs Bunny cartoon, Bugs demonstrates the perfected art of deflection by reframing questions, hooking Daffy Duck’s anger, and then watching Daffy enable his own destruction: Elmer Fudd shoots Daffy Duck at Daffy’s insistence while a self-satisfied Bugs Bunny looks on.

Let’s pretend that Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd are not present. Only you, Bugs Bunny, remain, and you are confronted with a question about how to handle your distressing events. What would your answer be? Would you want to address the situation as it occurs? Or would you wait and push it away, hoping to dealing with whatever problem confronts you? This is not a pedestrian question, but one that the Buddha explored.

Feeling stuck occurs when you perpetually elect going home, but then never arrive. You walk around the same rotary of thinking without ever taking an exit. You retrace your steps to the beginning and then walk the same path, hoping it leads you to another destination.  You try running through the solution, but you are ejected backwards by the invisible fence of your subconscious. Injured and bruise, you get up and scratch your head.

The only way we can ever truly be free of our old habits is to face our problems where we are, or go home and face them there. See your efforts of perpetual avoidance for what they are: an effort to protect yourself. From what? Only you know what it is.  What are you afraid of? Write it down. As Charlotte Kasl, Ph.D., writes in her book If the Buddha Got Stuck, “If there’s no story, there’s no fear.” (If you need help charting your fear-filled waters, I highly recommend this book.)

What’s the story of your fears? How do they hold you back? How do you benefit from these bad habits? What is truly at the core of your fear? If you take the time to write down your story and to honestly examine how you got where you are, you might just be able to finally exit out of your unhappy rotary and embark on a new path.

Then, it will no longer be a question of whether to take the shot now or later; it will be about accepting what is, figuring out how to address it, and moving on.

Lessons in Becoming Unstuck

For my artist date this week, I went out on my own today, taking the bus to a place I have never been, to a place where I have never gone alone, and met new people. I am saving that post for tomorrow.

Whenever I am stuck, it boils down to one obstacle: a deep-seated fear. My adult life has been devoted to uprooting my fears so that I can move on. Luckily for me, a 2+ year stint with a therapist trained in ACT therapy, IFS, and EMDR helped me thaw a number of fears so that my real feelings could find natural expression.

In my family system, I was taught to fear a great many things: people, places, and experiences; things I could control and things I couldn’t; things inside myself and, especially, those from without.

My father used to say, “Don’t tell people to go to Hell. Tell them to go to Brooklyn.” Ask anyone in my family about the borough of Queens and the answer would boil down to, “Don’t go there. It’s dangerous.” Not – “Well, if you go here, you should be fine. Keep an eye out for this. Avoid this.”

The message I heard over and over again were, in essence: Trust no one. Go nowhere. Do nothing. I have lived my life in a terrified state. How could I not? A lot of health issues and my birth order contributed even more reasons for my family to be afraid for me.

But I have done a lot of fighting against it. The thing is, fear isn’t something you can fight against. Fighting feelings never works. Not for me, anyway.

This morning, I avoided my morning plans (shower, eat, write, and go) by helping my mother. When that was done, I missed the first bus I could take. And then I did it: I took my first step towards getting me unstuck.

Unstuck Step #1: I acknowledged that my plans scared me. I acknowledged that, by getting on the bus to start my adventure, I would be going outside my comfort zone and that it would be a bit scary for me.

Unstuck Step #2: I took one small step to remove an obstacle that stood in my way – I made a phone call to find out when my mother’s car would be ready. I have to run some health-related errands for her. One of my excuses not to execute my plan was that her car might be ready soon. So I called the shop and found out they would do more testing in the afternoon. Hurdle eliminated!

Unstuck Step #3: I got on the bus. Once my adventure started, I decided to read to pass the time. After a few pages, I put the book away and decided to watch the neighborhoods unwind by me.

Trees were out in full bloom today – white and pink cherry blossoms, flowering pear blossoms, and green shoots opening up on the ends of tree branches. In a tree grove I passed full of these blossoms, five wedding parties were getting their pictures taken. The day was mostly cloudy, but with enough sun coming through that I got my first bad sunburn on a cloudy day. Ever.

I enjoyed my day, with its treasures and warts, and learned (again) some important lessons:

Unstuck Lesson #1: Acknowledge all your fears.

Unstuck Lesson #2: Take a small step to move your plan forward.

Unstuck Lesson #3: NYC is awesomely huge. With this lesson come mini-lessons:

  • Try to learn about neighborhoods before you go so you can explore.
  • Use a backpack, not a purse.
  • Plan to stay the day.
  • Bring snacks & a bit of water.
  • Pack your go bag the night before.

With enough experiences like I had today, I am hoping that my unstuck lessons will become as deeply learned as the way I learned to be afraid. If that happens, I will have to find other interesting writing topics.

Namaste.

Self-Loathing and the Making of Art

Life is short, art long, opportunities fleeting,
experience treacherous, judgement difficult.
~Hippocrates (460-400 B.C)

While reading one of the blogs I follow**, I learned about a book called Art & Fear, Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of ARTMAKING by David Bayles & Ted Orland, which contains the quote by Hippocrates at the beginning of chapter 1. Since fear has long interfered with my ability to follow my artistic dreams, I ordered myself a copy and began to read yesterday. The book’s main topic is why art does not get done.

As I read through, I saw myself in each chapter. Reasons I have told myself why I couldn’t do art:

  • I have no imagination/ideas/creativity.
  • Other people are better than me at art.
  • Art is an all-or-nothing gift and I was left out of the party.
  • Whatever I do, it won’t be good enough.
  • I’ll never make money making art.
  • It’s not practical and, therefore, it is indefensible.
  • I feel stupid saying I am an artist when my stuff isn’t any good.
  • It’s easier for others/impossible for me.
  • It’s too hard.
  • I can’t get good enough fast enough to justify doing it.
  • I must justify my art/my own personal pleasure isn’t a good enough reason.

According to Bayles & Orland, I am not alone. All artists go through periods of self-doubt when moving forward seems impossible. The difference between those who do and those who don’t is the difference between those who stop and those who quitI don’t think I have been a stopper; I have been a quitter. The longest sustained art making that I have done is with my jewelry making, although I have taken a bit of a hiatus since I stopped working at a bead store. (I think I need to find a new place where I can go and make art so I can get out of my house).

In recent days, I have begun to outline a novel I wrote so that I can evaluate the storyline and make organizational changes. The more I have reviewed my writing, the more stupid I felt. I began to hear my voice in my head: This story is unsalvageable. The dialog unimportant. The characters’ actions ridiculous. When I imagined sharing my writing, I felt a sense of inadequacy and shame. How will I be able to face people when I show them this tripe? The sense of hopelessness I felt was increasing.

And then this morning, as I was drying off after a shower, I realized that my problem was not fear. I remember as a child trying to play Barbies with my best friend. What was I supposed to say? What was I supposed to make them do? It was difficult, and I felt stupid. The more I felt stupid, the more I hated myself for it. One can only take self-loathing for so long, even when the activity brings you joy. For years, I have thought fear was my problem. But I was wrong.

I am glad I realized that feelings of self-loathing have interfered with my art making. Now I can address the real feelings, which means I might be able to process them and let go. Because, this time around, I’m going to be damned if I quit this writing thing. I am going to devote my time to improving my writing craft.

I will ask for help. Read books and articles. Take workshops. There is a year-long NaNoWriMo group in NYC dedicated to helping members write their drafts and give each other feedback. I will attend an information session in 10 days. If that does not pan out, I will search for and join another writing group to get writing feedback. Whatever I will go through, I do not want to go through it alone any more.

[**Unfortunately, I cannot find the original post so that I can link back to the blogger who got me thinking. If it’s you, let me know so that I can update this post and link back to you.]

When Setting Goals Backfires

All my life, I have worked in a goal-oriented manner: get A’s in school, get to college, find a job. If the task did not start off good and go in a straight path towards getting better, then I abandoned it. I needed to make money! I needed to support myself! I needed to protect myself (via money)!

I did not have the patience for things that did not result in perfection. Each thing I did had to show results, goals, achievements. I had to do so. I was driven to prove myself to everyone about everything I did. I was jumpy, angry, and constantly worried about what others thought of me and what I did.

What I wanted to be, deep in my heart since I was a child, was an artist. I wanted to draw like my sister Madeline and like my second grade classmate Kevin W. I wanted to make arts and crafts like my mother’s best friend Rose F. I wanted to paint and make a living painting like my fellow BU student Heather Morgan and like my first painting teacher, Peter.

I had wanted to act. I wanted to sing. I wanted to dance. I wanted, wanted, wanted, but did nothing that lasted. Each time I tried, fear sizzled in my veins. After several times, the sizzle would steam and choke my lungs with panic. I would retreat into boredom, wasting time with time wasters. This start-try-stop cycle went on for years, often with month- and yearlong gaps in between attempts. Meanwhile, I needed to work and found jobs that I rationalized I could do.

Two-and-a-half years into my college studies of Business Administration, I took painting and drawing classes for non-art majors. I loved painting. The first few sessions, my still life objects were floating all over the canvas. I noticed other students were sketching first with some brown paint and linseed oil before they started. I decided to try it.

My teacher Peter F. saw me sketching and said: “Who taught you how to do that?”

I stopped and said: “No one. I just looked around and saw other people doing it. It looked like a good idea so I thought I would try it.”

My teacher just nodded and said nothing more. Later in the semester, I asked him for his opinion as to whether I should switch majors from business to painting. Did he think my paintings were good enough to apply? Ultimately, he said, it was up to me. What did I want to do?

What did I want to do? That question has plagued me my entire life. Whatever I did want, I told myself it had make sense, to be practical, and I had to be good at it as quickly as possible. The fear was hard enough to take when I went to work for something that I did not really care about.

What if I gave my heart to something that mattered to me, and there was something wrong with it? What if I was criticized? What if I was not good? What would I do then? The only thing I could think of was that I would be forced to give up what I loved to do. What was the point of life then? Given my low self-esteem, I could not adjust.

Instead, I put myself in positions where my work was not a reflection of the true me and so, even if the criticism hurt, I had the core pain of me protected against future pain. The trouble was that I also kept the internal pain from being released.

So how does this all relate to goal-setting? Because I was hyper-focused on goals, I wanted to rush through what I was doing. I could not stand the messy process of writing for pay, for work, for anything other than perfection. My 2008 NaNoWriMo novel Butterfly Wings is so, so far from perfect. If I wait for perfect, then I will never do anything.

This came up today in this Huffington Post article about success and motivation by James Clear.  The only thing that will help you achieve goals, if that’s what you need, is to do something – anything! But achieving a goal is and must be a by-product of doing what you love. And you must do what you love often. Get it wrong, get messy, learn from your mistakes, and do it again.

For me, it is writing about things that matter to me and sharing my thoughts with others. I also love fantasy novels and would love to write a fantasy story. That will have to wait. After Butterfly Wings (or whatever it is that it will end up being called), I think I have a sequel to that story in me. I am finally excited to say that I am looking forward to that process.