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I used to say every sentence twice. I didn’t realize I was doing it until I was about 8. I had gotten into a fight with my little sister when she noticed and taunted me, as little sisters do. I’m fairly certain that I was winning the fight, and she wanted to distract me. My face went warm and red and this revelation shut me up quick. That moment opened my ears to it, and I realized I was doing it all of the time, asking for toast twice, asking permission to use the restroom twice. I got busy working to suppress it, and, for the most part, have done so successfully. Yet even now, when I am really upset, particularly during an argument, I’ll catch myself whispering a sentence a second time.
I did not realize what I have is called obsessive compulsive disorder until I was in college and had access to free therapy sessions. I knew I was a little unusual—I started projects at 2 a.m. that I absolutely had to do at that moment and couldn’t stop doing until I was finished. A Cheerio on the floor or a wayward scrap of fabric would make me unreasonably upset. The worst was the way it interfaced with my temper. If a person cut me off on the freeway, my brain could not release the memory of it, or the unreasonable anger attached to it. Days after a minor incident, the memory would cut through me.
You wouldn’t know it from visiting my home, but I have a constant desire to clean, to organize, to order. Organizing helps me feel in control and there is so much around us that we can’t control. I do not wash my hands excessively. I do not hoard. I do not count. I do not, like Howard Hughes, urinate in glass bottles that I store throughout the house. I simply have an inordinate need to control things and, when I can’t, I cannot shut my brain off. I am fortunate. In the past, I was able to manage the O.C.D. when external events were not extreme. I could be intense and I’d compulsively exercise, but I could still leave the house and function in society. When there were day-to-day disruptions, I’d clean underneath the refrigerator or do a couple of sets of push-ups. Sure, I’d do it in the middle of the night, but I wasn’t bothering anybody.
Then I had children. My boys are amazing and have opened up my heart and have made me grow more than I ever could have predicted. But children equal disorder. My floor became a graveyard of screaming toys. I’d find partially dried carrot puree on the bottom of my work bag. Both of the kids had developmental delays and there were things I could do, yes, there were therapists and doctors, but there was no guarantee that everything would be okay, and everything was decidedly not okay. I was having panic attacks several times a week, one so intense that I saw spiders crawling over my legs. I would try my old coping mechanisms. I bought a label maker and diligently organized the toys by size, category, and corresponding bin. But two kids under four will swiftly dismantle any organizational design. Elliott got diagnosed with autism. We lost our house. A former student began threatening me, and even emailed me a decapitation video. There was too much that I couldn’t control, and my old methods were failing me. I finally got some help.
The first medication made me feel electric zaps in my limbs. I switched. The next one seemingly had no effect. Then one day, a couple of weeks into taking it, a truck advertising dog grooming services spilled over into my lane on the freeway, nearly hitting my car. I swerved out of the way, had my moment of anger and outrage, and then felt the emotion just…dissipate. Like I imagine it does for a “normal” person. I was stubborn and didn’t like the idea of being medicated, but I was beginning to accept it. The psychiatrist experimented with my dosage. It was too low—panic attacks ensued. It was too high—I couldn’t cry when I felt like it. In addition to the medication, I went to cognitive behavioral therapy with a room full of people and coffee in sad little cups. Learning what I have and how to deal with it, and coupling that with medication, helped me pull through a really difficult time.
I have been off of my medication for seven weeks. And I have a confession: I did not consult with my psychiatrist before weaning myself from it. As I said, I am stubborn. But I meticulously planned. Running, the single greatest non-pharmaceutical therapy for me, has become an integral part of my life. I am eating well. I have taken additional steps to manage my stress and help control my reactions to it, and everything is working. Seven weeks into ending my medication, I feel relatively similar to how I felt on the medication. That is, I am still fairly annoying to myself and others, but it is manageable.
I don’t have any major conclusions. I might need to go back on medication one day, and I don’t judge anyone who uses or chooses not to use medication, unless they are harming other people. I think diet and exercise help to a degree, but I also believe in the power of pharmaceuticals coupled with therapy. My biological mother lived a short, miserable life with untreated, severe mental illness. I often wonder what would have happened if she’d gotten help. I have many family members, friends, and acquaintances who suffer from mental illness to varying degrees, and we all have to find our own way.
I am satisfied that, at least for now, I am finding my way.
Just before I smashed my face into the raised concrete edge of someone’s driveway last night, I was thinking about how I shouldn’t have been afraid to run at night. My legs felt warm and light. I looked up at the sky, which seemed light for this time of night, and saw Orion behind some bits of cloud. It was cool outside, but not too cold, so I unzipped my jacket and tied it haphazardly around my waist. The air felt good against my skin. I was listening to this song for the second time:
And then suddenly, my mouth smashed into an edge I couldn’t see, snapping my head back. I instantly knew I was missing a tooth, and my tongue glided through my mouth, surveying the damage. Warm, salty blood filled my mouth. I was on my ass, and I was shaking. It was really dark and I knew I needed to call someone. I usally don’t take my phone with me when I run, but this was my first night run and I decided that it would be a good idea. My fingers fumbled through my jacket, searching for my phone.
There are a lot of reasons not to run alone, at night, to not go to any dark places or any places at all alone, especially if you are a woman. But I don’t think it is fair that I have to be concerned with going places alone, and, worse, I think it’s a loss if I let fear control me. I like to go places by myself—it helps me clear my head—and I especially like to ride my bike and run by myself. I also have an upcoming half-marathon and marathon, and not a lot of time in the daylight hours to train.
Ryan had a bad feeling. He asked me not to go. I pointed to my reflective vest and blinking light and phone and told him I’d be safe. My friend Tricia had told me about a man who had jumped out of some shrubbery one time when she was running at night and, leering, told her, “Run for me.” Of course, I hadn’t told Ryan this story. I wondered what I would do if something similar happened. You would think that something like this happening would be rare, and I’m not going to cite any statistics, but in my experience, it’s not. I’ve had exactly two serious stalkers in my life, one of whom threatened my life. Nearly all of my female friends have been sexually assaulted to varying degrees at some point in their lives. I take some solace in the fact that I have had some martial arts training and am also a large woman. But what if someone had a weapon? What if they really, really wanted to hurt me? There are legitimate reasons to be fearful. I’ve entertained the idea of wearing a knife strapped to my leg, and, as I began my run, I renewed my promise to go to the military surplus store and buy one of those. Just in case.
About 3 miles into my run, those fears had become distant. I had run past several people, mostly men, but one other woman, and they had either ignored me or said hello. My blinking light had popped off and broken, but I still had my vest on, and it was beautiful outside. I felt like I was gliding, anonymous. It had been a very long day and I could feel the stress draining from my body.
Moments later, I was trembling and unable to get the touchscreen on my phone to work because my fingers were wet with blood. I staggered into someone’s driveway, thinking I would ask to use their phone, but finally got mine to work. I called Ryan and he didn’t answer his cell (lesson: we are getting a land line), so I called his dad and he came to get me. I sat under a streetlight and waited, crying fairly hysterically, as a few carloads of people paused at the stop sign, noticed me, stared, and continued on. A man from one car yelled something at me, but I can’t remember what they said. I don’t think it was kind.
I have promised my father-in-law, my mother-in-law, my husband, my dentist, and my doctor that I will not run at night again. There was indeed a reason to be afraid last night and it had nothing to do with men in bushes. It had to do with an uneven sidewalk and, probably, my inherent clumsiness. I am not sure, despite my promises, whether or not I will run at night again, and that makes me a little sad to be honest because it really was beautiful. I am very grateful that I didn’t hurt myself worse, that I can still run, that I have dental insurance:
Last night, Ryan and I rolled our mats out onto the carpeted 2nd floor of a freshly stuccoed behavioral health clinic near our house. The lights overhead are fluorescent and there is a constant rumble of air conditioning—it is always too cold, as it tends to be in these types of buildings. On one wall, there are several poster-sized photos of the clinic’s employees, under the phrase “Teamwork.” The employees wear toothy, gleaming, teamwork-y smiles and bright, solid polo shirts. These overly happy, middle-aged white people are posed in an assortment of humorous positions—back to back with arms crossed, and even in a pyramid. When I look at the photos, I imagine the details of the pyramid formation, knees digging into quivering, doughy backs, a photographer nervously clicking. The idea seemed hilarious and harmless, but there’s been a violation; the intimacy is forced. It is uncomfortable to think about.
Hugh, our leader, a tiny Irishman with a heavy brogue, a receding hairline, and exaggerated, almost cartoonish, facial features, tells us to lie down. He leads us through a series of movements, simple yoga poses and stretches, and tells us to breathe and feel our abdomens rise and fall and not to release so far that we are no longer being mindful. Mindful. That is the word of these last few weeks in this class. “Breathe,” he reminds us, constantly, and then he inhales so deeply and exhales so dramatically that I am a tiny bit jealous. I want to breathe like Hugh.
Ryan and I are fascinated with him. In our weekly meetings, he drops hints about what his life used to be like before he discovered mindfulness. “I used to live on Weetabix and adrenaline,” he says, and god I want to know what that means. He used to drink excessively. He was a journalist. He’s seen war. But he never elaborates. “What do you think?” he always asks. After we practice our yoga, we sit in a circle and Hugh talks to us about the past week. I feel an irrational urge to please him. He asks me if I did my yoga and quizzes us about the body’s reaction to stress and I want to tell him the right answer. When he looks at you, he twists his mouth and furrows his forehead and stares intently. He is listening in a way that people rarely do and it is unnerving, and almost exhilarating. The meetings take place every Wednesday between 6pm and 8pm, so we are always hungry, but we can tell that Hugh frowns upon eating during his class, even though snacks are made available. He allows us a five-minute break, during which I quickly gulp down an oatmeal cookie and some green tea, returning to the circle empty-handed. I do not want to disappoint him.
We are in week 4 of an 8-week autism study about stress and parents of children with special needs. Parenting is a stressful job for anyone, we were told by the doctor conducting the study, but parents of children with special needs have much higher levels of stress and therefore suffer increased health problems, including higher mortality rates. I know that I have a problem with stress, and I can’t blame my children for that. It’s always been this way. Of course, as I have gotten older and my responsibilities have grown, my levels of stress have increased. I have so many obligations to so many people and much of the time I feel as though I’m disappointing everyone, doing a sub-par job in every area of my life. I do not need to be told that this manifests physically—I get sick and can’t sleep. I feel knots of pressure in my shoulders and neck. Worse, I get irritable with the people who love me the most. I run regularly, which helps, but not enough. So when I heard about this study in January, I signed us up.
The first night of the study, we went around the room, introducing ourselves and explaining why we were there. Many of the parents are dealing with the same sorts of problems Ryan and I deal with—balancing our obligations, managing the particular uncertainty that comes with raising a child with special needs, feeling as though we are failing. One of the women started crying, which made several of us cry. We recognized something in each other. Hugh stared back at us and listened. Then he told us to lie on the ground, our calves propped up on our chairs. The room was hot and crowded. My arms rubbed up against the stranger next to me. Hugh instructed us to close our eyes and spent several minutes asking us to think about our bodies while we “noticed” our breath. I wanted to get the hell out of there. Panic started to rise up into my chest. I began formulating a to-do list. The trunk of my car needs to be cleaned. I need to put my clothes away. I need to pack Ben’s lunch. I do not have time for this. I do not have time.
We were given a notebook and a cd with Hugh’s voice on it and told to do this “body scan” every night. In the past weeks, he has given us many other exercises to help us be mindful, or aware, of what we are doing, what we are thinking, the sensations in our bodies. I have struggled with my own resistance against this. I do not like to dwell. I do not like to sit in a circle with other people and talk about it. I like to push it away and move forward and knock down whatever is in front of me. Even though it can be exhausting, a part of me likes to be in “fight” mode, even when I don’t need to be. There’s that Avett Brothers song that says “Ever since I learned to speak/ I used all my words to fight/ with him and her and you and me/ but it was just a waste of time.” Ryan says that reminds him of me. I am starting to realize that while this has served me well in many ways, while this has helped me to survive, it is not good for me and it is time to stop, or at least to try.
It is easier to be cynical and to make fun of the photos on the wall or to be annoyed with that one parent who wears boots with her sweatpants and talks about how her diabetes makes her have to pee all of the time. But that doesn’t get me anywhere. It helps that Hugh can be funny and that I can tell he’s been through some dark places. So I am lying down as many nights as I can, and I am listening to Hugh’s voice telling me to notice my toes and the spaces in between, to feel the sensation of my breath as it enters my body, to notice my thoughts and allow them to pass. I am giving it a chance, and I think it is beginning to help.
I got married at 20, and graduated with my MFA at 24, and had two kids by the time I was 28. I was fortunate to go for two very extended trips to Yucatan in Mexico, where my stepmother is from, when I was 6 and 11 years old. These were not fancy tourist trips. I grew up poor, but my stepmother’s family was in 2nd world poverty. They cooked over a fire on a dirt ground. The walls were made of tar paper, the roofs of tin. There was no toilet. Still, it was beautiful, and I saw Mayan ruins and swam in an underground cove and learned to speak Spanish fluently (which I can no longer do).
The only trip the whole family took was to Las Vegas. My parents gambled and left us kids to wander through Circus Circus. And then we went to the Hoover Dam and fought a lot and drove home cramped together in a hostility-filled Mercury Topaz.
I worked like a maniac to get through college and so did my husband. We were barely affording food, let alone college travel. And then we had kids and that was that, though we did have a glorious five-day vacation in the Bahamas for our 10th anniversary. We did a few tourist things, but mostly we explored the island and met people and ate local food. And drank rum. Lots and lots of rum.
But now the kids are getting older and Elliott’s autism has so improved that I can see real travel on the horizon. I want to travel everywhere. Australia, Italy, Japan. But for now I am aiming small and cheaper, keeping it in the U.S.
Here are some places I have never been:
5. Pacific Northwest Trail
6. Appalachian Trail
7. North Carolina–Why? No idea.
9. Grand Canyon
10. Florida Keys
Now, to cross them off the list.
My friends and Ryan and I shared two pitchers of sangria tonight, so I am in no mood to write a thoughtful post. But I’m committed to posting weekly. I was going to post about how we had a house cleaner and I felt very guilty about it and about so-called “white guilt” and how I think it should be reclassified as “socioeconomically advantaged guilt” and all of the complications. But I’m tipsy and pizza is on the way. So I will save that idea. Enjoy your weekend. I love you, but it’s just the alcohol talking.
To my seven readers:
This is mostly a letter to myself. Please be patient.
I realize that my original blog is on the cusp of being defunct. And that is not what I want. My original blog http://bicycleirish.blogspot.com started, in earnest, with Benjamin’s birth. When I had Benjamin, it was like someone smashed me in the back of the neck with some bricks. Ben, I am sorry, but that is what it was like. I love you so much I can feel it in my skin; the feeling is something physical that I carry with me. But you were an exhausting, relentlessly screaming infant. And I struggled to find a way to be a mother in my own way, never having really had one myself, and not identifying with those mothers I saw around me, and that was hard. And I wasn’t writing anymore—I was barely combing my hair—so I started this blog as an outlet. Yes, it serves the purpose of updating people and posting photos, but mostly, it is an outlet. When my little Elliott was born, Benjamin was in the midst of many developmental delays, and we were worried. And then as Ben started getting better, Elliott started getting worse, until, finally, he was diagnosed with autism. I have been through many experiences in my life, but that time navigating Ben’s remaining delays and learning to accept Elliott’s emerging ones…that time was a thick fog. It was hard. I gained weight, I got depressed, I viewed things very narrowly. I felt lonely and venomous and uncertain of myself during that time. Some of that was reflected in my blog. The worst moments were not articulated.
Things are still hard sometimes, and I still worry, but I have come to terms with a lot of things, especially in regard to Elliott. He is starting a general education kindergarten in the fall, which I am nervous about, but, for once, I also see the possibility of him doing okay—which I can’t exactly define—of him having friends (he already has his first one) and being happy. Benjamin is his own little man, the top reader in his class, learning to play piano, a Cub Scout. He has his quirks, and his anxieties. He is unusual, like his mommy and his daddy, but that is to be expected. I feel so fortunate to have these boys who surprise me daily. I know that things can be worse, always, and I am finally beginning to exhale. My friend Michelle says that giving birth splits our bodies open, literally and figuratively, changing us fundamentally. I am beginning to look back at myself and see what I am left with. One thing I am realizing is that I care deeply about writing, and I miss it. This has been thrumming in the background for a while now, and I have been ignoring it.
I have decided to begin writing regularly again, and to start small. I will write at least one entry per week here. It might be about parenting, or it might be about something entirely different. Music, politics, books. Maybe I will post something more creative, something I am working out. In addition to this, a friend has given me some weekly time to write at the Permadirty Project Space in Claremont. It’s only two hours a week, and this is the third week I’ve been working here. Each week, I walk in exhausted, distracted, resistant. There’s a very small Swedish guy who is always there at the same time I am, mixing music on his laptop. He seems more “artisty” than I will ever be, but I sit down anyway and I type. Two hours later, I exit elated, even last week when most of my writing felt forced and clunky. No internet, no phone. Just writing. I’m working on old projects and new ones, picking my way through the words, slowly.
I was cutting Benjamin’s fingernails yesterday, which I have been doing at least weekly since the day he was born, so it has been seven years. (!) So much of life seems to be upkeep—laundry folding, gas pumping, tooth brushing—and that can be incredibly depressing. But it can also be incredibly reassuring, reaffirming even. Everything is happening outside, but here I am, sitting on the kitchen linoleum, cutting this kid’s fingernails while he chats about Mario and Yoshi and picks the cracker out of his braces with his free hand, the same thing that has happened again and again and again and again. His straw blonde hair is sticking straight up on his head and when I am done, he kisses me with his constantly wet lips and he tells me he loves me. He sits on my legs and relaxes into my body. His head smells like sweat. We begin again next week.