A Misshapen Heart

handheart

My sister was born in the fall of 1970. I was five going on six. Having been an only child for so long made the adjustment of sharing my mother’s attention with another particularly difficult. In retrospect and after having experienced what it’s like to go from having one child to having two, I now empathize with how impatient and frazzled my mother was with me during her first few months with a preschooler and a newborn. As a child, though, I felt adrift and alone. I remember her telling me, “Now that your sister is here, I just don’t have time for this anymore!”

We were living in a three apartment building that my father’s parents owned. My grandparents lived in one of the downstairs units. Our place occupied most of the second floor. A woman and her elderly father lived in the other downstairs unit. The building was in a rundown urban area. There were few children around, but in the ramshackle building next door, there lived two ragamuffin little school-aged girls. Always in dirty clothes, it looked like they rarely bathed or washed their ratty brown hair. They ran wild through the neighborhood day and night. Attracted by the only swing set for blocks, they found me one day in early spring, swinging happily in my backyard, determined to touch my toes to the sky. Desperate for playmates, I eagerly obeyed their every command. They loved treating me like their baby doll by brushing and braiding my clean blonde hair and by painting my tiny fingernails and toenails. I followed them everywhere. One day we visited the downstairs neighbors, the woman and her father. We had fun. More importantly, we had cookies. The wild girls were gone one day, so I went there alone.

The old man was the only one home that day. The girls called him Mr. R. They adored him so much that, with the crayons and paper my mother gave us to help keep me occupied, they often drew and colored pictures of him. I could see through the screen door that Mr. R. was sitting in his easy chair watching television. I knocked. He came to the door with a broad smile and invited me in. “I’ll go get some cookies for us,” he said. He returned with the package of cookies and settled back into the recliner. He patted his knee and motioned for me to come sit on his lap. It started with a tickle. I felt my face flush with pleasure. The tickle turned into a touch. It felt good, but it felt bad, too. When he was done touching me his lap was wet, and I knew whatever had happened was bad, and I was bad for letting it happen. I told my mother about the “tickling” visit. Her face registered the briefest moment of shock before saying, “You don’t need to go back there. Okay? Stay away from that apartment.” Here’s the thing, though. I didn’t stay away. I went back again…on another day when the wild girls weren’t around.

This time the daughter was there, too. She brought out the cookies and smiled at me. She seemed nice. She asked me if I wanted to see the rest of the apartment and took my hand. She led me to the only bedroom at the back of the tiny apartment. I now realize how odd it was that a middle-aged woman and her elderly father would share a one-bedroom apartment. She sat me on the edge of the bed. Mr. R. followed us into the room. She sat beside me and put her arm around my shoulders. Mr. R. stood in front of me, smiling like he had the last time. Then the woman put her hands on either side of my head. Mr. R. unzipped his pants. My memory of what transpired next is this: the feeling of the nubby, chenille bedspread beneath my fingers; the glare of the light fixture above me; the buzz of that same light fixture ringing in my ears so loudly it made me feel dizzy; the smell of perspiration; and a salty strange taste I would only remember again years later during my first consenting sexual experience.

For some reason, they didn’t feel the need to tell me not to tell. Maybe they knew my mother had told me to stay away. To my child’s mind, though, that made it my fault. I didn’t listen. I never listened. A few days later, after my bath, my mother was brushing out my hair in front of her bedroom mirror. I looked at my reflection and felt disgusted. “Look at that ugly girl. What an ugly little girl.” For many years, I mistakenly believed those words had been spoken by my mother, and I hated her for it. It turns out that those words were my own thoughts. Those thoughts signaled the beginning. It was then that a handful of tiny black seeds were planted within me – the seeds of self-loathing and shame.

Though it went largely unnoticed by my parents, my behavior changed after that “visit.” I became anxious and secretive. I had an unusual curiosity about things adult and sexual in nature. At a time when most children abandon thumb sucking, mine intensified. I spent hours alone in my room spinning and twirling and pacing to the music of records on a little record player that would automatically kick back to the start and replay a record over and over again. It was like hypnosis. It sent me, deeply, into an internal world of my own making – one in which I could control everything that happened. Much later in life, I learned that this behavior is called dissociation. Dissociation is a common psychological coping mechanism for children suffering abuse. My parents just chalked it up to my “weirdness.”

We moved into a tiny two-bedroom house in a suburb a few miles away the August after my sister’s birth. We were a growing family. We left the place that would chart the path of my entire life, but the events that happened there never left me. For some strange reason, that place is still the setting of my dreams sometimes.

A few years later I suffered another instance of sexual abuse at the hands of a friend’s mentally ill relative. This time I was old enough to understand how wrong it was. My friend was dealing with it too, though, on a regular basis. I thought telling would get her in trouble. So I didn’t. I don’t know if my friend eventually told someone or if the abuse was discovered another way. I do know that it eventually stopped. Still, the strange behaviors that began when I was younger never went away completely, and they only intensified after this. I was dissociating more than ever – hours and hours at a time. I’m certain the music playing loudly from behind my closed bedroom door over and over again didn’t seem out of the ordinary for a girl my age. I’m not sure if my parents ever had a clue about the pacing, though. I also started lying and stealing. I overate constantly and was obsessed with food. I engaged in crazy, OCD-like behaviors. I have a distinct recollection of feeling an urgent need to have every hanger in my closet equidistance apart and to keep the crayons in my crayon box at school arranged in Roy G. Biv order – the order of the spectrum. I was still sucking my thumb at the age of nine. I didn’t stop until I was twelve. I suffered insomnia, and I engaged in a variety of alarmingly adult-like behaviors. All these things should’ve looked and sounded like a four-alarm fire to my folks. Unfortunately, their own dysfunctional family background made them blind to it, so they did nothing. I guess, once again, they considered all to be a part of my peculiarity.

We moved again when I was twelve going on thirteen. Enduring such a transition for any child that age is difficult, but it was particularly hard for a kid as battle worn as I was. As I got older, things only worsened. My lack of confidence was excruciating. I had trouble making friends. I had three or four female friends, but, by and large, I wasn’t very social and had little interest in doing the normal things that teenage girls do together. Conducting even the most normal interactions with boys and men, even my male teachers, was impossible for me. The typical contentiousness of an adolescent’s relationship with her parents only exacerbated the angst already inside me. It was then that my battle with depression and suicidal thoughts began. I withdrew further into myself. I was still dissociating, but after a summer with my grandparents and being forced to display a semblance of normalcy, I’d trained my mind to do it without the pacing. I only needed the music now. The music…and the tiniest glimmer of hope that things would get better…is what kept me alive during this time.

I emerged from adolescence rudderless, socially and emotionally stunted, and lacking even a thread of self-identity. I had grown up spending too much time in a world of my own making to be able to conduct an adult life in reality. Needless to say, it didn’t go well. I couldn’t find a career path. I was desperate to get away from my emotionally and psychologically abusive family. I was even more desperate to find a relationship, though. And, as it often does, desperation resulted in poor decisions. I dropped out of college. I did a lot of stupid, dangerous things and put myself in situations that were incredibly risky for a woman. I got involved with men who neglected, used, and mistreated me. I even married one…all because I was once a little girl who went looking for love and attention only to find malice.

I wonder who I’d be now if it wasn’t for that fateful day in the tiny apartment. Would I have had the self-confidence to pursue my dreams? Would I have actually known what my dreams were? Would I be so guarded and mistrustful of people? Would I have allowed boyfriends and husbands and bosses and friends to treat me with such cruelty? Would I have treated myself better? Would I have expected more?

The little black seeds that were planted all those years ago took root without me really even knowing. All the abuse, neglect, and mistreatment drove the roots deep. They grew so well and so strong that they’ve been next to impossible to excise, even after all these years. I’ve tried to pull them up. I’ve tried to dig them out. I’ve tried to burn them down. I’ve tried to eradicate them with religion and therapy and medication. I’ve medicated myself with food and drink and drugs and other reckless, self-destructive behavior. Nothing has gotten rid of those roots completely. The person I am today had to grow around them. My mind is more cynical because of it. My personality is a little darker. My soul is a little older, and my heart…my heart is forever misshapen.

I’ll never stop working at those roots, y’all. I’m still fighting to rescue that little girl who was trying to touch her toes to the sky that day, and I still love, even if it is with a misshapen heart.

“Come on Ramona. Make it your mantra. Fuck what they taught you. Take back the life that they stole.” (from Ramona by Night Beds).

 

 

 

 

Santa, Clark Griswold, and Me

clarkgriswold

Like so many things in my life, I have a love-hate relationship with Christmas. When I was a child I got so excited about it that I found myself unable to sleep not just on Christmas Eve but for a full week prior. I’m not sure why I experienced such anticipation. I waited, with baited breath, for the JC Penney Christmas catalog to show up in the mailbox every November. I spent days pouring over each page and laboring, tirelessly, to craft the most comprehensive Christmas list – complete with prices and page numbers. In hindsight and now having lived through being a parent at Christmas myself, I imagine this unswerving focus probably intimidated the fuck out of my parents. That was probably why they were particularly cranky in the days leading up to Christmas. The financial burdens of a traditional American Christmas (gifts, tree, food, etc.) combined with the expanded, winter-break presence of their children sent them into full-blown-stressed-out-holiday-hell. Yeah. So they were even less warm & fuzzy than normal. When my siblings and I became teenagers, Christmastime was even more volatile. Raging hormones and self-centeredness are hard enough for parents to deal with without the added pressures of the crown jewel of commercialism. Screaming, yelling, slamming doors, tear-stained faces, and stuffy noses red enough to compete with Rudolph appeared each year, every year, along with the evergreen tree and cheerful décor. I hated Christmas as a teen. I longed for the happy family gatherings I saw on each “special Christmas episode” of my favorite T.V. shows.

Once I got married and had a family of my own, I was committed to making Christmas a magical time for my children. The excitement and anticipation for Christmas that I’d felt as a child returned. I eagerly fueled the Yuletide fantasies of my daughters by insisting that we create the kind of Christmas memories I’d grown up watching on television and in movies. I helped them write and mail a letter to Santa each year. We made the annual pilgrimage to the mall to “visit Santa.” We baked Christmas cookies. We drove around town “ooooing” and “aaahing” over neighborhood Christmas light displays. We bundled up and braved the harsh West Michigan winter elements to see the mother-of-all holiday light displays that the area zoo puts up each year. We sipped hot chocolate and strolled down Candy Cane Lane in our downtown park through gently falling snow. We went to a Christmas tree farm and took a hayride out to cut down a fresh tree each year. One year I even used fireplace ashes to make Santa’s boot-shaped footprints on the carpet. I saved money all year long in a “Christmas Club” account to give my girls the Christmas of their dreams each year. As you can see, I took “Santa Clausing” very seriously. The year I got divorced and moved in with my parents, I still tried to make Christmas special. And since my parents enjoyed being grandparents way more than they ever liked being parents, happily, they were willing to help me. Truth be told, I’m pretty sure they loved seeing the joy in the eyes of their grandkids on Christmas morning even more than I did.

I remarried when the girls were still school-aged. My current husband has always worked in retail and had become a bit desensitized to the holidays when we met. He had also been married to a woman that didn’t celebrate holidays and he shared a daughter with her. Those factors, combined with a contentious relationship with his family, made celebrating Christmas less than enjoyable for him. I was undeterred by his lack of enthusiasm and pressed him to forge Christmas traditions for our newly blended family. After a few years, we found our identity as a family, and our Christmas celebrations gradually took shape. Many happy memories were made. Over the years our family has weathered losses that have altered some of our traditions. The death of my oldest daughter had a monumental effect on every aspect of our lives and had a lasting impact on many of those traditions – the greatest being a deepened appreciation for them. The year after my daughter’s death, my stepdaughter decided that, because of her faith, she didn’t want to celebrate holidays anymore. My husband cut ties with his family the year after that. A couple years later, my younger daughter went off to college nine hours away. She was always home for Christmas, but the schedule demands of the job she was working meant her time with us was limited. Our holiday celebrations got smaller and smaller. Still, I soldiered on in my role as Santa just like the real St. Nick would.

Two years ago, my stepdaughter had a change of heart and came back to the holiday-celebrating fold. And though they couldn’t make it for Christmas Eve, my daughter and her partner planned to be home for Christmas Day. My dad made transportation arrangements so my mother could come from the nursing home and have Christmas dinner at my house. I was as giddy for Christmas as my girlhood self. No, it wasn’t everything I wanted. That would’ve been Christmas Eve dinner with everyone – both daughters, my daughter’s partner, my sister, my nephew, my mother, my father, and my husband; Midnight Mass with my husband, my daughter, and her partner; Christmas morning with the girls and stockings and presents and overnight French toast; and Christmas Day dinner with everyone all over again! Still, this Santa would take what she could get. And it was wonderful.

Since then, there seems to have been a slow downward-winding spiral. Last year, my stepdaughter was in a treatment facility at Christmastime. Well, actually, she hadn’t planned to celebrate the holiday again anyway. My daughter, who’d moved to Florida, planned to come home on a flight that arrived Christmas eve. Her partner had just lost her father, needed to drive to Arizona, and, obviously, could not come to Michigan for Christmas. My brother in-law had had an aneurism in the weeks leading up to Christmas and could not travel. Yes, it was a shit-show only the most resilient of Santas could salvage. Still, we had a nice Christmas Eve dinner with Mom and Dad at the nursing home. On Christmas morning my daughter, my husband, and I all opened gifts before enjoying some nice overnight French toast. My dad was delighted with the ipad my sister and I got him, and we had a nice dinner with him and my daughter. All in all, it was a pleasant time.

Santa’s patience this year was truly tested. My daughter could not get time-off to come home. My sister, who’s going through a messy divorce, was (understandably) unable to commit to any kind of event. Though she did plan on celebrating, my stepdaughter had to work on Christmas day, so we needed to move our “main event” to Christmas Eve. Oh, and by the way, this is probably the last Christmas she’ll be celebrating because she’s going back to her religion in the new-year. My dad wanted to reserve Christmas Eve for my sister “just in case.” Again, I remained committed to making happy family Christmas memories. It was particularly important to me because my stepdaughter’s fiancé would be spending the holiday away from his family in Peru. I wanted him, in particular, to have a nice Christmas. And it was nice. I guess this Santa shouldn’t complain since I have had much worse. Still, I missed my child terribly. It was the first time since she was born that we have been apart on Christmas.

Yes, I know that there are many parents who regularly spend the holidays…and birthdays…and anniversaries apart from their child/children for a variety of reasons, but, up to point in my life, I have not. I have particular sympathy for parents with a child in harm’s way, serving in our armed forces. Still, this Santa has never had to be without her only living child at Christmas before, and it was rough. In spite of my stepdaughter’s declaration that this was her last Christmas, a small part of me still hopes that next Christmas will be THE ONE – the Christmas I have always dreamed of – with everyone, altogether, under my roof celebrating. I am reminded of the movie “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” My husband has always likened my lofty holiday ambitions to those of main character Clark Griswold.

Clark Griswold: All my life I’ve just wanted to have a big family Christmas.

Ellen Griswold: (hesitantly looks at Clark and grasps his hand) It’s just how you         build things up in your mind, Sparky. You set standards that no family event can ever live up to.

Clark: Now when have I ever done that?

Ellen: (gestures ‘thusly’) Parties, weddings, anniversaries, funerals, holidays,graduations…(trails off)

As I was cleaning the house on Christmas Eve, the two little neighbor girls came up the walk. They’d just come from Sunday Mass and were still clad in tights, church dresses, and patent leather Mary-Janes. I watched them walk gingerly up the snow-glazed drive, in those slippery soled shoes and bundled in Sunday dress coats, surrounded by swirling snowflakes. “You’ll go take those next door,” I heard the older one direct the younger as she motioned toward the home of my elderly neighbors. “My mom made you some cookies,” she said to me as she approached my door with a foil covered paper plate. “Thank you, honey. Merry Christmas!” I replied. “Merry Christmas,” she said with a pensive smile. My husband and I haven’t exactly been “good neighbors.” The polite term for people like us is “anti-social.” In actuality, the fact is…we’re assholes. We never went over to introduce ourselves when this sweet little family moved in. In fact, the only welcoming overtures we ever made were polite nods and waves while getting the mail or walking the dog. I first met the neighbor woman months after they moved in. She came with her daughters to sell Girl Scout cookies last spring. She introduced herself, but I’m such a dick that I don’t even remember her name. It’s Rachel – maybe. I asked the older girl if she went to the elementary school near our neighborhood. The mother replied that both girls went to one of the area Catholic schools. The girl told me she was in first grade. “Oh, I teach first grade,” I replied. “My husband is a teacher, too. He teaches at their school,” the woman said. I bought two boxes of Girl Scout cookies that day, to assuage my guilt for being such a shitty neighbor. I’m probably gonna send a thank-you card for the Christmas cookies and apologize for my failings as a neighbor.

The sight of those little girls coming up the driveway in the snow set off a cascade of emotions for me that day. They reminded me of my own daughters. It made me ache for a magical time that has long since passed. I sat at the dining room table, between bouts of cleaning, and cried. I couldn’t stop it from coming. “Clark Griswold wouldn’t be crying,” I laughed to myself as I tried to get it together. I somehow managed to finish all the things I needed to do – clean, cook, wrap. By the time my stepdaughter and her fiancé arrived, the melancholy had subsided, been folded up, and neatly tucked beneath my heaped pile of emotional baggage. We had a lovely evening. A long, long way from home and far from his own family, my stepdaughter’s fiancé seemed to appreciate our wish to make him feel at home and loved. An avid Star Wars fan, he was particularly delighted by the “talking” Chewbacca mask my husband chose as one of his gifts. My mother straight-up “threw down” on the beef tenderloin I prepared for Christmas Day dinner. I just wanted her to have some good, home cooked food for Christmas – the kind she can’t get at the nursing home. The fact that any Christmas might be her last is always at the front of my mind. So I want each one we get to spend with her to be special. That’s what it’s all about to me. See? Me. Santa. Clark Griswold. We all just want to see smiles, hear laughter, and make magic! We just want to be able to say, when all is said and done, in the words of Clark Griswold, “I did it!”

 

I Heart Television

hearttv

In the Foo Fighter’s song The Best of You, Dave Grohl sings, “I’ve got another confession to make; I’m no fool….” Well, I’ve got a confession to make, too. It’s one that, to some of you, might make me seem like a fool. Here’s the thing, though, the beauty of getting older is that you rarely give much of a shit about anything anyone thinks of you. It’s pretty cool. So what is this deep, dark secret that could alter your opinion of me? I love television! No, I REALLY love television…and I watch A LOT of it. And I won’t apologize. So, why in the world would I consider this a “secret” that’s “confession worthy?” Well, it’s not something I am quick to mention because I simply cannot abide trying to defend a choice that is so clearly mine and mine alone to those “holier than thou” folks who “don’t even own a television” when they start running their sanctimonious mouths. “Blah, blah, blah. Television is mental junk-food.” “Television is a pastime that only the vapidest would engage in for more than a few moments on any given day.” “It’s such a waste of time.” Well, frankly, I don’t care if you think my television consumption makes me a “fool” or shallow or stupid. I don’t care if you think that my television viewing habits are part of the reason I’m fat. I don’t care if you think it makes me a “basic bitch.” I love it, and if loving television is wrong, I just don’t wanna be right.

I’ve watched tons of television all my life. Many of my earliest memories revolve around T.V. shows. Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on network television always signaled the beginning of the holiday season to me. I have nothing but fond recollections of a four-year-old me dancing around the Christmas tree and singing along to Jingle Bell Rock with Wayne Newton on his Christmas special. I have warm memories of watching post-holiday episodes of Family Affair in my fuzzy new Christmas jammies. I recall enjoying the “new” cereal Peanut Butter Captain Crunch as a bedtime snack on a T.V. tray in front of Hawaii Five-O. Watching Happy Days, Welcome Back Kotter, The Carol Burnett Show, and The Brady Bunch was a weekly family ritual. I watched Sesame Street, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and The Price Is Right on days I stayed home sick from school. Saturday morning cartoons were a given for most people of my generation. When I got a little older, summer vacation meant sunbathing slathered in baby oil for three hours in the morning and then watching my favorite soap operas Young and the Restless and The Guiding Light in the afternoon. Incidentally, I still watch Y&R…every single day. I just DVR it now. And I named my youngest daughter after a character on The Guiding Light. My teen years saw a convergence of my two most beloved media – television and music. When MTV launched in 1981, my life was complete. MTV and PBS stoked my passionate love of “all things British,” and I discovered Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and Dr. Who on PBS. I was a lonely child and adolescent, for the most part. So, the characters in my favorite television shows and music videos were my steadfast friends.

You might think that getting married and having children would’ve put a damper on my relationship with the tube. It did not. If anything, it intensified. It provided a much-needed escape from the pressures of raising two kids on a working-class poor income. I was an avid fan of Friends, The X-Files, Seinfeld, and Star Trek The New Generation. I’d hurriedly plunk the kiddos into bed with a quick peck and a fast-forward speed lullaby in order to catch every moment of my shows. With that being said, here’s yet another confession. Looking back, that was the period of time for which I am regretful of my devotion to television. In hindsight, I wish I’d have lingered just a little longer at bedtime, all those many years ago, with my babies. Fuck television. They were what I should’ve cherished most. Now they are gone and one of them is grown. So, T.V. is where it’s at for me, once again.

Along with our love of music, a love of television was something my current husband and I immediately bonded over. “Oh man, you love Saturday Night Live, too? No way! Who’s your favorite cast member? Mike Myers? Me, too!!!” Though I did not share his love of any and all televised sports, by and large, our viewing habits were the same. In the few areas where we diverged, we embraced those new genres and found that we grew even closer. In exchange for him being able to watch unlimited sports, he agreed to watch Young and the Restless with me. Now he rarely misses an episode. I turned him on to Dr. Who. He loved it. He discovered The Gilmore Girls, and it became a beloved show to our entire family. I nagged him into watching Downton Abbey, and we binged watched an entire season on DVD one summer. I reluctantly came to enjoy the “adolescent boy” humor of South Park and Tosh.O. Together we inadvertently discovered the “Alaska shows” on The Discovery Channel and The National Geographic channel. I never would’ve believed I’d become obsessed with television shows about gold mining in the Yukon and subsistence living in the most remote corners of Alaska, but I am. As we’ve gotten into our 40’s/50’s, “date night” has now become cocktails from a well-stocked home bar, take-out pizza, and those Alaska shows. We also have our weekly schedule of sitcoms. The Middle, Modern Family, and American Housewife all seem like they are written based on our lives.

Yes, I love television, and, no, I am not ashamed of it. I look forward, with great anticipation, to my Saturday mornings, cuddled up on the sofa with my dog, watching The Kitchen and Valerie’s Kitchen. And yes, I can sit for hours on end watching episode after episode of House Hunters on HGTV. “Wait. What? Didn’t I see this one a few hours ago?” Yes, I am the middle-aged woman that was as giddy as a schoolgirl when she met Property Brothers Jonathan and Drew Scott a few years ago at the annual home show. And, yes, I would thoroughly LOSE MY SHIT if, somehow, I had the opportunity to meet Chip and Joanna Gaines of Fixer Upper or ran into Josh Temple at Lowe’s and got picked for a home makeover on House Crashers.

 Okay. So, maybe you think I’m just a loser – living the endeavors of others, real and imagined, vicariously through television. I, on the other hand, prefer to think of myself as someone who finds, in those endeavors, an inspiration for reflection on the human experience. I’m an introvert, so I’m cool with living small. I’m a writer. I don’t feel the compelled to go out and have big adventures or heavy drama or intense conflict because I can create those kinds of things inside my head and make them stories. I love television, and I’m not ashamed of it. Maybe I’ll just have to put that on a tee-shirt or something.

Living “Danishly” Through The Dark Winter

hygge

I am not a fan of this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. The days leading up to and immediately following the winter solstice often send me into a downward spiral and drive me to seek any and all possible ways to maintain equilibrium. The gloom of fewer daylight hours is accentuated by the even greater than normal lack of sunlight that my region endures due to its proximity to Lake Michigan. Natives of this area have coined the term “perma-cloud” to describe the continuously overcast conditions that persist from November to mid-April. The darkness makes me want to hibernate. I feel sleepy and sluggish and crave comfort. Holiday preparations are a brief distraction. I love the festivity of the season, though I don’t care much for the pressure of holiday shopping. I love the colorful lights, the sparkling decor, the cheerful music, the delicious food, and the warm celebrations with family and friends. After New Years, though, it feels like the weight of a long, dark winter comes crashing down upon me. There have been years when my husband has found me taking down the Christmas tree and packing up holiday decorations on New Years Day with tears streaming down my face in anticipation of the dark days ahead.

This year I am determined to deny the cold dark winter its power to rob me of my wellbeing. This year my strategy can be described with a single word – hygee. I have been reading about the Danish concept of hygge (pronounced hoo-guh). Though there is no direct English translation for the word, Helen Russell, the British journalist who wrote “The Year of Living Danishly,” defines the term as “taking pleasure in the presence of gentle, soothing things.” I’ve also heard it described as a certain “mindfulness” that allows you to recognize and appreciate things in the present moment. Boiled down further, the term encompasses “all things cozy.” In my mind, though, hygge mostly means creating an abundance of daily moments of self-nurturing – moments that will get me through the cold somber tones of winter in Michigan and to the warmer, greener, sunnier ones of springtime. From what I understand, the Danes take their hygge very seriously. It’s practically a part of their national identity. That’s probably why they consistently rank as one of the happiest populations on the planet. Coziness and comfort is a lifestyle for them. From how they decorate their homes to how they dress to the things they eat and drink, it’s all about the hygee. They even have cozy café areas in everything from laundromats to bicycle shops. And riding around on a bicycle is the epitome of hygge.

Okay. So, I probably won’t be doing much bike-riding in the harsh elements of a Michigan winter; though I suspect those fat-tire bicycles I’ve seen folks using to ride in the snow would be considered the height of hygee to a Dane. I will, however, be making time to go out and walk my dog when the snow is falling gently. I’ll have my essential oils diffuser misting lavender and chamomile. I’ll sleep under a cozy comforter and in the soft pink glow of a salt lamp. I’ll make sure there’s a fire in the fireplace while I cuddle up with my dog, sip warm mulled wine, read, and write. When the dreary gray days of winter combines with the weight of the pressures I feel on the daily, I will seek out even the tiniest slice of hygee. And, even if it’s only for a moment, I will live “Danishly.”

 

If Eve Had Been A Drinker

adam&eve

It’s Friday night. I’m sitting here with a big glass of Pinot. My dog is cuddled up next to me, and I’m waiting for the hubs to bring home dinner – pizza pie! THIS is my favorite time of day – wine o’clock. Last year, at my physical, I decided to be honest. On the line of the health history form that asks you to describe your alcohol consumption, I wrote, “one glass of wine daily.” In the past, I’d always just marked “Social Drinker.” The doctor read it and said, “So a glass of wine daily, right?’ with no tone of judgment. My reaction was a bit of a knee-jerk. “That’s right,” I replied defensively, “I’m a public school teacher and THAT is how I keep from losing my shit!” “Ooookay,” she said. In truth, I was only partially honest. Sometimes I have two big glasses. Sometimes I have one and some tequila drinks. It all depends on how many times I had a kindergartener throw himself on the floor in a tantrum or had two 5 year-olds have an octagon style throw-down over crayons or how many time I had my boob/butt patted to get my attention. In other words, it’s kinda like a teacher drinking game that I play when I get home.

I come from a looong line of people who like…and I mean really like…their drink. My paternal great-grandmother kept a cask of moonshine on her porch. She defiantly sold it by the cup…during prohibition. Of course, it helped that her son was the chief of police and most of the town was related to her. Some of my earliest memories of my mother’s family gatherings feature the most popular adult beverages of the time. I knew them all. What’s Uncle Howard got there? Oh, that’s a Harvey Wallbanger. What’s grandma drinking? Well, she made a big Tupperware container of Screwdriver and froze into a slushie! Grandma could never babysit on New Year’s Eve. She and her boyfriend always went bar hopping that night. My Aunt Char had her wedding reception in the fire hall next to my grandma’s house. “Oh, we can’t have alcohol in here? No problem! We’ll just set up the bar over in Mom’s garage.” One Christmas, Aunt Elaine gave everyone homemade Kahlua. Family reunions were always B.Y.O.B. (bring your own booze). That usually led to various family members getting into arguments, fist fights, engaging in expectedly inaccurate target shooting, and of course, the occasional random rifle shot into the night sky. I remember being surprised when my childhood friends didn’t know what a Whiskey Sour was or when their parents didn’t have a bar or liquor cabinet in their house. I thought everybody’s family was like mine.

Surprisingly, my first experience with drinking didn’t happen until the eve of my sixteenth birthday. What can I say? I was just an anxiety-riddled “good girl” who was too much of an emotional wreck to risk what little regard her parents had for her by engaging in underage drinking. The night before my sixteenth birthday, my “worldly” friend Kristen, who attended a fancy prep school on the East Coast, came to pick me. Maintaining an illusion of innocence, I bid my folks adieu and slipped into her junky brown Toyota Corolla hatchback. Away we drove. “Where are we going?” I asked her. “Not far,” she replied, smiling. We drove just a few streets over, to an area of my neighborhood that was under development. It was filled with partially constructed houses and was, largely, unoccupied. She parked the car in a remote corner of the area, reached into the back seat, and produced a bottle of Asti Spumanti and a bottle of Boones Farm. I know, right? You’d think a girl of her breeding would’ve made some classier selections, huh? The inexperienced drinker that I was didn’t know any better though, and it didn’t really matter anyway. These would serve the purpose and would’ve been enough for even the most seasoned drinker to have a pretty good time. Having been away at prep school, of course, Kristen had more experience drinking than I did. Actually, she had more experience with just about everything – booze, drugs, sex – everything. My world was tiny compared to hers. The only alcohol I had ever consumed prior to that night was a teensy bit of Kahlua during a slumber party I’d hosted one night when my parents went out and my siblings went to stay with my grandparents. This ridiculous adolescent “girls night” also included a viewing of “American Gigolo.” We’d heard that there was a scene showing male “full frontal,” and we were determined to find out what all the fuss was about. Since my family had HBO, fate made me hostess. None of us had much more than a nip of my aunt’s homemade coffee concoction that night, and the much-anticipated “full frontal” was disappointing. On my sweet sixteenth birthday, I was ready to take it up a few notches and do some big girl drinking.

Kris handed me the Asti. “This is for you since you’re the birthday girl,” she laughed. I might’ve been an inexperienced drinker, but, even at the tender age of sixteen, I was a bit of a baby badass. I’m Ancestry DNA certified Irish, see, so, I have a legit genetic claim to my ability to hold my liquor well – and hence the aforementioned familial propensity for it. And though I had never even laid a finger on a bottle of it before, that champagne cork wasn’t even a challenge. Kris looked impressed by my prowess. “Damn!” she exclaimed. Over the next few hours, we talked and drank and talked. She said she’d learned not to drink on a completely empty stomach, so she’d brought a couple snacks – a single bag of peanut M&M’s and some Corn Nuts. Trusting her wisdom, I picked the Corn Nuts for my entrée. We continued to drink and laugh and sing along to the radio. Somehow, the racket we were making didn’t disturb the occupants of the nearest house. If it had, we surely would’ve wound up with a police escort home. Once I’d polished off my bottle, she started the car. “Let’s get you home, “ she said. Okay. In hindsight, all of this was a series of truly terrible decisions on so many, many levels. While I’m fairly certain that Kris wasn’t nearly as drunk as I was, she wasn’t sober either, and yet she drove. Yes, she only had to drive a couple of streets over, but it was just dumb luck that nothing happened on that short drive back to my house. I dunno. Perhaps there was a guardian angel looking out for me that night, but it would not be the last time I did something so dangerously stupid and remain unharmed by it.

My dad was still up when we got home. Somehow we managed to get to my room without Dad detecting our intoxication…or so I thought. Before we both passed out on the bed, I distinctly remember thinking, “Man, this is the best feeling EVER!” Kris woke up at some point in the middle of the night, shook my shoulder, and said, “I gotta get back home before my mom gets up.” I nodded, groggily. I awoke a couple hours later, decidedly not feeling “the best feeling ever” anymore. And, just so you know, puking Corn Nuts made me unable to eat them again for, like, thirty years. In retrospect, my folks probably knew what I’d done. For one, I’m pretty sure they heard me in the bathroom being sick at 5 a.m. Second, it was super weird that my mom insisted on taking me to the mall to get my birthday present the next day. My mom worked at the mall and, normally, it was the last place she wanted to be on her day off. I think she thought the idea of going to the mall, feeling as sick as I did, might lead me to confess, beg to not go, and plead for forgiveness…you know, to “teach me a lesson.” I didn’t do too much drinking for a while after that.

Once I became an adult and a legal drinker, I only ever drank socially – out after work with the girls, at parties, on New Year’s Eve. I was pretty poor back then, so I really couldn’t afford to buy my own booze, and I mainly mooched off other people in those circumstances. Once I had kids, I almost never drank. I know right? It seems like that would’ve been the time I had the most reason to drink! Oh, I sometimes had a wine cooler or Zima on the rare occasions when we went to a restaurant or on New Year’s Eve. But most of the time I was just too busy being a mom. When I got divorced and my children and I moved in with my parents, I discovered that, once my younger brother and sister had finally moved out, my mom had begun a very particular Friday night routine after work. It was heralded by Todd Rundgren’s “Bang on My Drum” played precisely at 5:01 p.m. on her favorite radio station and consisted of feasting on an array of snacks, watching her favorite Friday night sitcoms, and drinking a big blender full of strawberry daiquiris. It was absolutely adorable. Here was this tiny little old lady rocking out to Todd Rundgren and blowin’ off steam after a hard week in the customer service department at JC Penney by getting her “drank” on! It looked liked fun. So, as a stressed out divorced, unemployed 33-year-old teacher intern raising two school-age children on her own, I was happy to join her in this weekly ritual when she invited me. Also around this time, my mother took an interest in wine and had found a local winery that she adored. She had a case of her favorite varietal shipped to the house monthly. It would’ve been rude to turn down her offer to share a bottle. And thus began my own relationship with the blessed fruit-of-the-vine, my beloved vino.

When we first met, my husband was not a drinker…at all. In fact, as unbelievable as it sounds, he made it well past 40 without ever having consumed alcohol. The reason stems from the traumatic interactions he’d had with his substance-abusing father while growing up. The smell of both alcohol and marijuana once induced extreme feelings of stress and anxiety for him. In the early days of our relationship, I had no idea about the depth of his reaction, and on one of our first dates, I asked if he minded if I had a glass of wine with my dinner. He told me that he didn’t, yet, after my first sip, his entire demeanor changed. It was then that I decided I loved this man more than I loved my wine. I went for years without drinking. Weeeell, I would occasionally hide a bottle of my favorite varietal in a cooler in the garage and enjoy it…on the down low…while watching my Britcoms when he had to work late. My husband’s feelings about alcohol intensified when a drunk driver killed my oldest daughter. So, it was amazing to me, a few years later, when he showed an interest in drinking wine “for the health benefits.” As you can imagine, I was only too happy to help him satisfy his curiosity. Yes, dear readers, I unfolded my arm, apple in hand, and extended an invitation as the serpent whispered in my ear, “Yeeesss! Go on! Do it!” And thus began my husband’s relationship with “demon” alcohol. I admit it. I corrupted him and officially earned my “Eve” card in doing so. Sadly, it was my only option since I never had the opportunity to take a man’s virginity. Well. Okay. I did have an opportunity. I just couldn’t close the deal. Sigh!

I could see it in my mind – St. Peter shaking his head and making a “tsk, tsk, tsk” sound as he crossed my name off the list. I’m not gonna lie. There are days when I feel guilty as fuck for corrupting my husband. Buuuut, man, do we have a goooood time now on Friday nights when we eat pizza and watch our Alaska shows on Discovery channel and DRANK! My little old mama had it right, y’all, and so did all those people in my drinkin’-fightin’-law breakin’ lineage. Life is short. Grasp those moments. Watch shitty TV for the sheer mindless pleasure of it. Eat the things you love, even if they aren’t “healthy”…sometimes. And don’t be ashamed to pop those bottles and DRANK! Just don’t drive when you do. Okay, playah?

Twelve

twelve

With a strong sense of accomplishment, I strode across the parking lot at 12:05 p.m. on my way to my car, fighting back tears. “Just a few more steps,” I thought, “and I’ll have done it. I finally did it.” Once inside the safety of my car, the dam broke. I drove the entirety of my blessedly short fifteen-minute commute with tears flowing, listening to “her song” – Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing – and all the other songs that remind me of my “Rockstar.” What an incredible feat! I was finally able to get through a day of work…well, half a day…on the anniversary of my daughter’s death. Every year since that awful, awful day I have taken a “personal day” off work on the anniversary. My job as a public school teacher requires an amount of energy directed toward the needs of others that I just haven’t been able to muster on this day for many years. So, out of fairness to the little ones that rely on me, I have chosen to stay away and let another caring adult look after them…just for the day.

Completely fatigued after coming off of two thirteen-hour parent/teacher conference days, I approached this day with trepidation. The night before, I stood in the shower with my forehead pressed against the cool, smooth fiberglass wall with the water as hot as I could stand it blasting down upon me. My thoughts were racing. I just wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it through even the few short hours I’d have to function in my role. I was scared. I had visions of falling into a million pieces in front of a classroom full of five-year-olds. I saw myself sitting catatonic at my desk or sobbing uncontrollably crumpled in a heap on the colorful “big carpet” in the middle of the room while one of the “responsible” students wandered the hallways looking for an adult to help. “There’s something wrong with our teacher,” I heard them having to say. I was scared that someone might have to call my husband, tell him, “Something has happened to Christine,” and ask him to come collect me. Or, worse, that I’d have such a breakdown that it would create a “spectacle” and my boss would have to call an ambulance to come take me to the psychiatric ward of the nearest hospital…which is, luckily, just around the corner. As someone with an already precarious grasp on emotional stability, none of these fears seemed out of the realm of possibility to me.

I tried my best to go “off-routine” this morning and not arrive at work my normal whole forty-five minutes before the students. I stopped and picked up a little breakfast. I took a short detour specifically to get a Starbucks coffee, but I still arrived at school close to my normal time. I was the first teacher there. After the previous night’s late hours, most of my colleagues smartly chose an arrival time that would compensate. I sat at my desk, in the quietness, sipping my Starbucks, trying to center myself and prepare. As an introvert who just happens to be a teacher, the sound of the school bell is what I assume the sound of an audience applauding and the sight of the curtain going up are like for an actor. It means that it’s “show time.” It’s always felt that way for me, no matter what day it is. And, like a stage performance, today had a true “the show must go on” feel to it. The students arrived – but only about three-fourths of my class. Some parents kept kids home because half-days can be a pain to make childcare arrangements for. But fewer students meant a quieter morning and the atmosphere I needed to make it through. It wasn’t until I came back to the classroom, after dismissal, that I felt the pressure of emotions so neatly tucked away into color-coded, teacher-organized compartments rising to the surface and tears building. As I closed my classroom door and headed toward the main exit, I made eye contact with a particularly empathetic co-worker – a fellow newbie to the school. I froze, certain that his acute sensitivity would allow him to detect my distress. “Have a good weekend,” I mouthed, as I resumed my beeline for the door. Luckily, I escaped without further interaction. When I got home, I felt completely spent and utterly exhausted from the super-human effort it took to keep it down for four straight hours. My dog, elated by my unexpectedly early return, greeted me with uncontrollable full-body wiggles, sloppy dog kisses, and snorts. But even this, something that normally never fails to comfort me, was just too much after a morning of locked down self-restraint. I had just enough energy left to go to the cemetery and shed the last of this day’s tears. I had to take a nap after that.

Knowing my history, people who have recently experienced the loss of a very close loved one often ask me questions. They wonder if what they feel is normal. I tell them, “Grief is not a ‘normal’ condition, but whatever you feel is just what you feel and that’s okay.” They want to know how long they will feel as awful as they do right now. They want to know, “When will it stop hurting so much?” The short answer is, “It never will…completely.” The long answer is, “It’s different for every person.” I cried every single day during my thirty-minute commute to and from work the first two months after my daughter died. After that, it was just the thirty minutes on the way home. After that, it was just a few times a week. Eight months later, by summertime when I was off work for a while, I was only losing it once a week – usually on my weekly trip to the cemetery. Then, over the years, it was just special events that shook me – the day she should’ve graduated high school, her birthdays, holidays, and the anniversary of her death. The only way I can describe it is that it felt like my grief was slowly…very slowly…turning “inside out.” The happy life events of others started to lose their ability to cut me to the core, as they once did. Graduations, marriages, and the birth of children of people Sarah’s age no longer hurt me quite as much. Now I just wonder…with some sorrow…what Sarah’s life would be like. She would’ve been twenty-eight. My God! How is that possible? In my mind, she is forever sixteen…with long flowing, dark hair and a smile that lit the room. I can’t hear her voice in my head anymore and that hurts. Yet, for some strange reason, I can still hear her laugh. She was always laughing. She didn’t take many things seriously, my little wing.

Sarah’s burial plot has slowly lost the intense feeling of connection to her it once held for me, too, but it took a really long time for that to happen. I remember how incredulous I once felt, when I visited the cemetery, about how people could neglect the burial site of a loved one by only occasionally placing flowers there. Now I understand. After a while, that patch of ground loses the full emotional charge it once had and becomes just “a plot of earth” where the remains of your loved one are buried. The place my Sarah resides now is within me. It took twelve years for me to feel that way. It took twelve years for me to be able to work just four short hours of my “normal” day on the anniversary of her death. I think that says a lot about loss and the power it can have over our lives.

The first law of thermodynamics, also known as Law of Conservation of Energy, states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; energy can only be transferred or changed from one form to another. I find comfort in this principle for a variety of reasons. I like to think of Sarah’s energy…floating around in the world…perhaps embodied in a sunrise or a snowfall or a moonlit night. I like to think about my love for her and hers for me, in the form of energy, radiating out into the universe and flowing into eternity. I like to think about how, one day, the energy that is me will join the energy that is her, and we’ll be joined again in a way similar to when I carried her inside me. Twelve years. It took me twelve years to feel beyond the pain…twelve years to feel the eternity of love.

 

 

 

 

The Exit Sign

exit

I confess. Part of me is afraid to put this out there. Yet another part is strongly compelled to. This post is real. This post is raw. Why? Because it’s time to throw back the curtain and expose an ugly hidden “shame” to the light of day. I’ve struggled on and off, all my life, with depression and suicidal thoughts. There have been many times when the voice of darkness has whispered into both ears, drowning out any and all other sounds. “They’re better off without you,” it says, “You’re better off dead.” And so ensues a spiral that sends me down into the pit of despair. I always know something is wrong when I can’t find the words in me and when that part of me from which writing comes feels numb. In my mind, I know what’s going on, yet I am shackled by my emotions. They imprison me. They bind me and prevent me from acting to help myself. When I feel this way, I am numb from the pain, and this pain is a tricky thing to explain. If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I sometimes use it as a type of therapy…a catharsis, if you will. So, be advised, this is not a feel-good, fun, and humorous post. I will hedge a bet, though, that it’ll hit home for some of you in a scary-ass way. I will speak my truth here and hope it allows someone somewhere to understand a loved one…or, perhaps, themselves.

I’ve been trying to kill myself, in one way or another, ever since I was a child. Haha. I can feel you wincing already. Why can’t I just say, “end my life” or “commit suicide?” My dad liked to call it “committing sideways” or “going chop suey (crazy).” Nice, huh? Saying, “kill myself” embodies the reality of the feeling – you hate yourself so much that you feel compelled to murder yourself. Or maybe it’s that the pain is so deeply embedded within you that the only way to end it is to end you. I know, I know. It sounds brutal…and that’s exactly how it feels.

My attempts at self-destruction have taken a myriad of forms and have persisted throughout my life. I realize that reading something like this stated so frankly will make many of you uncomfortable, and, to you, I apologize. What can I say? On behalf of my fellow sufferers, I feel compelled to paint a crystal clear picture of what it is like to feel this way – to wish for…pray for…hope for…a day when you can just escape the pain. Yes, as hard as it is to understand, some people wake up many days feeling like they simply shouldn’t be here. I don’t know what brain chemical is responsible for that bullshit, but trust me when I say that it exists.

I was sexually molested when I was five. I was molested, again, from the ages of nine to eleven. I tell you this because I believe these events shaped my brain – physically and chemically. Yes. Really. Neuroscience has proven that trauma does, in fact, influence the development of the brain. With that being said, both the perpetrators of these crimes are now deceased, so there’s really no point in making an issue of the “who, what, and where” of it all. And, again, I’m simply mentioning these events because they – combined with the emotional, psychological, and (to a degree) physical abuse of my upbringing – were major contributing factors to my lifelong mental health issues. Depression is not always the result of trauma, of course. There are plenty of people that suffer from depression who had an uneventful childhood and grew up in a loving, supportive environment. That’s an important point. Depression is an illness, and like other illnesses, it’s indiscriminate.

Gentle readers, I’m writing this post in an effort to help you understand…those of you that love of us. I want you to know. I passionately want you to see that it’s us, not you. It’s not your fault that we feel this way. Hell, technically it’s not even our fault. It’s just the messed up chemistry of our brain and the raging battle deep within us. I know you feel like, “I should’ve seen it. I should’ve known.” Nope. No. Believe me. Some of us are really, really good at hiding it…and I mean REALLY good. In fact, some of us could get an Academy Award for how convincing a performance we give…and some of us actually have.

With all that being said, please don’t be mad at yourself. You love/loved us, and that should be/should’ve been enough. Know that there were times when you and the fear of hurting you were the only things that kept us here. Please don’t be mad at us though, either. Please don’t be angry that we got so lost in the maze of our confusion that we couldn’t find our way out…even though we heard your voice calling. It’s what we fear the most – you being mad at us and hating us as much as we hate ourselves for not being able to get it together. Please, just keep loving us – whether we are still here or not. That’s the other thing we fear – losing your love. Please know that we love you, too, even if you doubt that love in light of what we’ve done/contemplated doing to you.

If you had asked me thirty years ago if I thought I would still be here today, I could not, with any certainty, have answered in the affirmative. And yet here I am. As I’ve gotten older my battles have been fewer, with more time elapsing between them. I know it’s still inside me, though. Maybe it’s sleeping. Maybe it’s waiting. Maybe it’s looking for me to trip over some bump in the road and go tumbling so it can swallow me up for good. I don’t know. What I do know is that the words are here right now. I can find them. I can feel them. They’re flowing, freely, into my fingertips and spilling out onto this page. So, for me, it’s how I know I’m okay.

One of my favorite “self-help” authors, if you want to call her that, is Glennon Doyle. Many of her books and articles discuss what it’s like to live with depression, addiction, and suicidal thoughts. She describes the feelings and experiences with an eloquence I can only dream of having. One of her articles likens attempting or contemplating suicide to trying to use an emergency exit. Afterward, the sight of the “exit” sign remains at the edge of your consciousness. You know it’s there, glowing just within the peripheral vision of your mind, even if you’re not thinking about using it right now. “If I need it, there it is. There it is, if I need it,” you think to yourself. I know loving someone with one eye on the “exit” sign sucks. What can you do? Just hold our hand when the lights go down in the theater. Squeeze it when you feel us tense up. The tension is us wanting to leave, but, if our hand is still in your hand, we probably aren’t planning on using that exit sign today.