Isolation

We use the word as a verb often these days. I’m isolating a lot. She started isolating. He tends to isolate when he gets depressed.

Isolating is different from just being an introvert or enjoying solitude. Isolating is ducking phone calls, declining invitations when we do get them, shunning gatherings or meetings we used to attend.

We do it because of depression, or shame, or pain and fatigue. We do it because we are too tired to face the dreaded question “How are you?”

Then we keep doing it because we feel guilty about having done it for a while. Guilty about the phone calls we ducked and the meetings we skipped. Overwhelmed at the thought of trying to explain why we flaked out on interactions when we don’t really understand how it works ourselves–or, if we do understand it well, we may have also learned that understanding it doesn’t make it any easier to explain.

It’s dangerous for us. It can make depression worse. If we are in recovery from an addiction, it increases our chance of relapse. It’s bad for our physical health and narrows our world in a way that can let our negative thoughts and traits begin to dominate.

So how do we stop doing it? How do stop doing it?

One thing that’s really hard for me to accept, even after years of work, is that my mental health issues may always manifest in cycles of mood and ability to interact. For me, the struggle is about harm reduction and trying to reduce the shame and fear that extend a cycle of isolation past its natural life span.

And when I find a foolproof way of doing that, I’ll be sure to let you know.

I’d Rather Kill An Antelope

(Originally posted on my old site Not This Song, 2013)

For a long time, I tried to pass for normal. By normal I mean my idea of what my normal should be, which many would call overachieving. I was gifted with some abilities and I had certain expectations about how they should be used. When I failed, or had a breakdown, or acted out with food or drugs to drown my symptoms or stifle the disconnect I felt from myself, I told myself that I would straighten out my problems and then I’d be able to succeed.

Eventually, over a period of years, I came to know and even to accept that there were some things about me that meant I needed to change my expectations. Part of it was accepting my mental health issues; part of it was just understanding my personality better. I tried to set new goals more tailored to my real self.

I’ll do or think just about anything to have a shot at feeling good about myself. On a very deep level, I believe I have to do or be something in particular to have earned a spot in this universe, and I try to convince myself that this is indeed happening. So, when I began to accept my differences, I tried to convince myself that those differences made me special. When I felt envy toward other mothers with clean houses and more organized lives, I dealt with my feelings of shame by embracing a sort of eccentric genius identity; someone above or beyond such mundane concerns. When I felt envy toward my former classmates who had great careers, I told myself that their lives must not be as psychically or spiritually rich as mine.

There’s nothing wrong with believing that I have something to offer because of and not just despite my differences. But it’s not right for me to use that idea to gloss over my responsibility to try to learn to cope with “normal” life as well as I can. It’s also not right for me to use this “weird equals special” idea to cover up the very real pain I have about the things I will always struggle with.

The truth is that there’s a part of me that will always long to be a relatively normal, functional person. The psychologist Marie-Louise Von Franz, one of Jung’s early students, wrote that in ancient tribes the boys who ended up being shamans were usually unsuited to be hunters. Many of them would have rather been a hunter; would rather have been the hero who brought down the biggest antelope at the hunt. The young man who stood proudly at the initiation rite, being welcomed into the ranks of adults and feeling the satisfaction of having provided a meal for the hungry. The guy who married the prettiest girl in the tribe, had eight children and became a respected elder. They’d rather have been that guy than the guy living in the isolated cave, playing with bones and having his entrails metaphysically scattered by jackals.

Even if I join the writers and poets and the other shamans of our time, there will always be a part of me that is sad not to be a hunter. That envies my husband’s ability to function at a corporate job without having to take anxiety attack restroom breaks every hour; that cringes in shame when I read about friends who are working for social justice. I am learning to function better, and I have hopes about being able to help and serve others better, especially the dual diagnosis community. But I feel like a shaman on a hunt: I might learn to hit a squirrel with my slingshot, but the antelopes are for the real hunters.

I know that being the shaman had many compensations, and I’ve tasted some of the wonders and beauties that may enter my life more and more. I might become a good shaman. I might serve the minds and souls of others. I even hope to become a voice that will help bridge the gaps in understanding between groups of people. But it’s important to admit that I wish I could also be a hunter; that I cry when I think about the problems in the world and all the work that needs to be done. My people are hungry; the shaman cries: they don’t care where my soul is traveling tonight. They just want to eat, and neither my passion nor my tears can feed them.

Oak Tree Debate

Have you ever written a story specifically to help you with a poem? I have a poem that’s been incubating for a couple of months now. Like many, it started from an image and a thought, but it will not coalesce into a phrase that serves as a “hook” for the poem I want. So, as I talked about recently, I’ll write about this as prose and see if that begins to help the process.

The time: May, 2011. The place: a residential drug rehab center in Northern California.

The center was set in a lovely area, surrounded with picturesque roads (and, ironically enough, wineries.) The buildings of the center housed about forty addicts in various stages of detox and early recovery.

Once you were deemed past the worst early detox symptoms, you were allowed to leave the house and walk about the grounds. There was an open area, away from the main compound, with a single bench. The bench faced the largest oak tree I had ever seen in person. It was the only tree in the field, and seemed sentient when you looked at it long enough.

People were encouraged to spend time there, thinking deep thoughts. I didn’t need encouragement; it was a pleasure to get away from people for a little while.

So that’s the image: a huge oak tree, spreading its old and complex branch systems against the sky. The pattern of branches seen against morning sky, and midday sky, and evening sky.

Some people might have used the place for meditation, and some for prayer. I sucked at meditation, and while I had nothing against prayer I couldn’t concentrate on that either. My mind was occupied, more often than not, with what I later came to call the Oak Tree Debate.

The subject of the debate was simple: Did I want to live? And, even if I did, did I deserve to live?

The oak tree, it seemed to me, was my judge. It was the embodiment of all that was natural and true, while my drug-tainted, mentally ill and self-destructive presence felt like the embodiment of all that was not.

Even the bench I sat on felt soaked with pain and toxicity. I thought about all the addicts who had sat there for decades before me. Ashamed, grieving, belligerent or hopeless. I thought about how many came back to the bench more than once, having relapsed after weeks or months or years. I thought about what the oak tree might think of them, and of me.

The trouble with presenting a case to my arboreal judge was twofold: I was not competent to be the best advocate for myself at the time, and I did not speak the oak’s language. My case was inconsistent at best, and even if the oak did render a verdict I could not be certain of what it was.

In the end, I had to go from that place without a clear conclusion to the debate. It has continued, off and on, through years of recovery and treatment for my mental health issues. Perhaps it will never end–but when I can, I choose to imagine a verdict that tells me to keep going.

Are We Disposable?

(Originally posted on my old page Not This Song, 2014)

It’s a selfish question that hovers around the edges of my mind when I think about the state of our world. I’m not involved in politics, and I tend to be ignorant of many topics that speak of important developments–I don’t like that about myself, but it is my truth. As my readers know, there are times when my main contribution to society involves working on ways not to be an active drain on it.

Those who share some of my issues are often seen as an impediment to the prosperity of others, and certain voices try to shame us when we use the services our governments may provide to care for those who have trouble caring for themselves. I’d like that to be different, but I don’t imagine it will ever be uncomplicated.

In the end, we are all still animals competing for resources, and only the trappings of civilization introduce the idea of giving any resources to the helpless. Some have said that the measure of a civilization’s advancement is related to how much, and how well, they care for their children, their sick and their elderly.

Whatever one thinks about the world situation, it’s pretty clear that overpopulation will continue to be a problem. Resources will be at more of a premium, and there will begin to be more sorting of which kinds of sick or disabled are worthy of help. Mental health may not be highest on the list. Addiction-related issues are likely to be even lower, since addicts are usually seen as deserving their suffering.

This, from a Darwinistic point of view, may be a regrettable but unavoidable thing. But how much should we resist its progress? How much should we fight to be seen as something besides a liability? Is there a place for us in the future?

Sometimes, when my mind is spinning its catastrophic phantasies, I go postapocalyptic and imagine how long I, and many I care about, would last. I always imagine myself as a liability to whatever group I’m with, unable to function very well without my meds, or unable to see because my glasses got broken. I see myself as useless, without a lot of physical strength or swiftness to build or get things the group needs. I see myself as the first to fall behind and become lunch for zombies–unless a friend gives me a helping hand.

And why should they?

Why should they, unless we have some kind of value that isn’t strictly practical?

Why should they, unless those crowded barracks or underground warrens need us? Unless humanity is incomplete without us? Unless there’s a spark that’s worth maintaining, a spark worth a bit of food or a place near the fire?

Why should any society help its disabled, even when a cold equation might say the help isn’t bringing a sufficient return?

I got on this subject with my therapist during one of my dark and hopeless spirals recently, and we talked about the idea that humanity, by nature, will always need its shamans, its poets and its weird people in general, as well as the wisdom of its elders. “That may be true,” I said, “but you can’t deny that in a crisis state the strong and able will be valued most. The women who can bear healthy children, the physically strong, the mentally stable: these are the ones who can outrun the zombies or will get rescued first. You can’t deny that I’ll be one of the first to go.”

Then he told me that, although it might be true in some situations, it doesn’t mean I deserve it. Then he said something that cheered me up: he told me that if it does happen, maybe I’ll discover that the zombies are in need of poets too. Feeling better, I began to imagine my new dream job as Poet Laureate of a zombie city.

I don’t know if we are disposable. I don’t know, not for sure, whether our existence has intrinsic value. But I do exist, and I am grateful for it, and I have a daughter for whom I want to model values of love and not shame. I want her to see me doing my best, and believing I have something to give the world, so that she might learn to believe the same thing.

So I send love to all my peers, and invite us to go down swinging if the time comes, and hold our heads up until then. As a token of my affection, I enclose the opening poem from my potential future body of work:

Brains

Arrrgh brains brains
Brains gurgle thud howl
Brains brains crunch splat
Brains brains brains.

Estimable

(Originally published on Not This Song, 2013)

The good news is that I’m dressed and I’m wearing shoes. I took my vitamins, ate what I’m supposed to and I’m ready to tackle the rest of the day. The bad news is that it’s 1:47 p.m. where I am.

What is success, and who decides the difference between success and failure? I’ve had to change my ideas about it several times, because the alternative is self-loathing and despair. I’m honestly able to give myself credit for the good things I manage to do, and the harmful things I manage to refrain from doing. Sometimes. I compare myself to other people less often and less harshly than I used to. Sometimes.

I’m honestly pleased with myself for getting through my latest severely anxious phase. I’m pleased because I didn’t lose sight of the big picture and I didn’t do a lot of things to make it worse.

An accomplishment–but not the kind I can put down on a resume. Not the kind that makes good party conversation. Not the kind that comforts me a lot when I hear about friends and former classmates who are doing things…who are having accomplishments that can be listed and quantified.  During college, and later, I got to know some people who forged on and now do some pretty neat things. One works for NASA. A few others are scientists doing research with major institutes. Several are kick-ass teachers helping the next generation have a chance to learn. One’s an amazing minister and social justice advocate.

One of my biggest regrets about the last ten or twelve years is that I drifted further apart from many of these people. Inertia and laziness played a role, but most of it was my own insecurity, because I thought of them often. I never knew what to say when people asked me how I was doing, and I hated the idea of being seen as the “one who had so much potential.” I convinced myself that I had little to offer, and that they were too busy with their important and successful lives.

I was wrong. I lost touch with our shared essential humanity…I objectified them by forgetting that they have their struggles too, and I didn’t have the courage and humility to keep offering myself and let them decide what they wanted. As I grow, I hope to work on this…I don’t expect to be able to repair all of these relationships, but I want to become the kind of person who does things to show I’m thinking of them and I care.

This means I have to continue to work on my own insecurity, and learn to view myself as having something to offer even though it’s something different. It’s back to evolving a standard of success for myself, one that fits with who I am, what I have to work with and what I believe. One that will inspire and drive me, but not be used as a tool for self-shaming.

The psychologist Karen Horney once said “If you want self-esteem, engage in estimable behavior.” I love that quote because it makes it clear that building a good view of self isn’t about rubber-stamping all of my flaws…I don’t want to feel great about myself when I sit on the couch and do nothing. Compassionate, maybe, but not admiring or self-satisfied. The way to feel better about myself is to get up from that couch and do something, anything, that fits with my values.

Karen Horney didn’t define what “estimable behavior” is, that’s for me to do. If I’m in a crippling depression, I have to accept that dragging myself outside or to a meeting qualifies. If I’m having an anxiety attack, I need to give myself some credit for writing about it, and cutting out collage pictures to occupy my hands, and being honest while it was going on. All of the things I am doing that are out of my comfort zone are estimable in their own way, if I can avoid comparing them with someone else’s version.

This is my fifty-third post on Not This Song. That means that in the last three months I’ve written more than fifty essays. Created fifty things that didn’t exist before. Opened up fifty times about some idea that has meaning for me. Would anyone care to guess how many pieces I wrote in the previous five years? That’s right. Zero.

I will be proud of this.
I will learn to admire the accomplishments of others without turning them into a condemnation of my own.
I will allow my essential self to purge the poisons of envy and shame from me.
I will.
Even if it takes more than one lifetime, there’s no better time to begin.

Talking to Seagulls

Originally posted on Not This Song, 2013

Today I had the privilege of going on a trip to the beach with my daughter. Yes, I engaged in a mundane, family-oriented, pleasant activity that many people see as a very normal thing. I do not, because for me it is anything but mundane. I don’t take things like this for granted. For example, being near the ocean today reminded me of a very different day near the ocean, and this is the story I will tell.

It was one of those days. THOSE days. There was a thick gray veil between me and the world, and my thoughts moved sluggishly but malevolently beneath a matching oil slick on the surface of my mind. I was on a medication merry-go-round, with well-meaning professionals trying to find the right chemical to help stabilize my brain chemistry. Every new attempt brought a set of nasty side effects, and I was urged to be patient for at least eight weeks to see if the medicine would have a therapeutic effect. When the side effects altered my mood enough to be dangerous, the doctor would add something else to the mix to try to combat this.

At this point I felt the way my poor dolls must have felt when I cut their hair as a child: it turned out a little uneven, so I would cut more to fix that, then more when it was still uneven. I can still see their traumatized little doll faces under a few uneven hanks or hair clinging to their holey little doll scalps.

When my family suggested a drive to the beach, I didn’t want to go. After all, I had planned to spend some quality time in the fetal position. But I knew from experience that being outdoors was good for my mental state, and I was lured by the tactile pleasures to be found at the beach. I knew I could sit and run my hands through cool, wet sand, again and again, reducing the gray whirl in my head.

So that’s what I did, after my husband and daughter parked me in a congenial spot and wandered closer to the surf. I’m sure it was a relief for them to know I was peacefully occupied, because being on an outing with me in this state is like carrying a balloon: the balloon isn’t really contributing to the conversation or the activities, but you have to hold on to the string all the time or it will drift away.

As I raked through the cool sand, the breeze seemed to wake me up and I began to feel more anxious. A seagull alighted on a nearby mound of sand and I talked earnestly to it, talked about how I was feeling and how frustrating it was to be in my head. The seagull was a good therapist, I suppose, but a little old school for my tastes. I like a little more feedback, or at least some attention to the relationship.

I needed more. So when the family came back I told them I wanted to go for a walk alone. I was too tired and weak to go far, but I found a rock to sit on and watch the waves. It hurt so much to see so much beauty around me and yet not see it, to feel so many sensations and yet not feel them. I decided I should try to pray. I believed in Something, but I always felt stupid trying to talk to it. I don’t remember what I said, but I felt as awkward as usual. I thought maybe my God would send me some kind of sign, that an eagle would swoop across my vision or a rainbow would flash from the spray of a wave at a dramatic moment. I was ready to take something like that as a sign that I should hold on; a sign that there was a plan and things would get better. Nothing happened.

I felt my energy draining away again, and I was about to get up and make my way back toward the car when an impulse made me take one more deep, deep breath of salt air. Looking one more time at the rocks and waves, I said one last sentence to my God–the God who doesn’t fit any one religion, the God I was not at all convinced could help me with anything. I said “Well, I won’t give up if you won’t.”

Feel free to roll your eyes at this point in my story, because I did see something then. Not a bird or a rainbow from above the water, but a wet, brown head popping into view from below it. A sea lion, so close I could count his whiskers. I’d never been so close to one before. He or she swam toward me, rolled in the water a couple of times and was gone below the surface again.

This is the part where I tell you that this was the turning point for me; that I was never that low again, that the little sea lion was a messenger of hope and meaning that has never left me. But none of that would be true, and if you share some common ground with me your life probably doesn’t work that way either. Things did get better for me, but not right away. And later they got worse again. And worse still. And then better. You get the idea.

It was a moment, that’s what it was. A lovely, funny moment like a cherry in a bowl of gruel. It’s stuck with me because it was the first time I prayed in a way that portrayed me and my God as a team. It’s stuck with me because I love the ocean and I feel so much gratitude for a day like today when I can really see it. I drove us to the beach today, and I walked several miles along the shore. Nobody had to hold my string. I can’t expect that it will always be this way, but I can appreciate the moments. We all can.