Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Post-traumatic psychiatric disorder

When my marriage broke up after 120 years I thought I was going to lose my mind. Really. Once, in the depths of despair, I drove to the local emergency room at 3 a.m. I thought it was going to kill me and I wanted them to give me CPR. Or maybe I just didn’t want to die at home alone. I don’t know—it was truly temporary insanity.

So I sought out a psychiatrist, someone I knew vaguely because he was an advisor on a project I was working on, a project related to children of alcoholics. He had a private psychiatric practice but he also was an expert on youth resilience. I liked him a lot and his support was invaluable to me at a very vulnerable time in my life. But there are three specific things I recall him saying to me that have stuck with me, for better or for worse.

I can picture him, very dapper and urbane, in his beautiful chair, in his perfect artsy office. He pushed his glasses down on his nose and looked at me over the top of his wire frames. He said, “You don’t detach easily, do you?” Of course I don’t detach easily. That’s why I stayed married, for a little bit of better and a whole lot of worse, for 120 years. Once attached, I’m stuck. No amount of reason, no blast of reality, no betrayal, no urge for self-preservation will detach me once I’m stuck. He was disarmingly correct. I hated him for pointing it out and I hated knowing it was true. This is a flaw that I don’t know how to correct. I’m missing a detachment gene. Perhaps I can get a handicapped parking permit for that.

He also told me that I was one of the most resilient people he had ever known. From him, that was an enormous compliment. I try to remind myself of that from time to time, though many times I simply don’t believe it’s true, even though he was the expert on resilience.

And the other thing I recall him saying to me, something I thought was totally charming and endearing at the time, was, “Someday, some wonderful man is really going to love you.” I recall his exact words, burned into my heart. I took that as a promise, a solemn vow. Coming from his mouth, he who knew me so well, it felt like he was predicting my future. I was ebullient, hopeful, excited that my sorrow was going to be turned into joy. The ugly dissolution of the marriage was going to worth all the pain because I would spend the rest of my life with that wonderful unknown man.

Fast forward 15 years. I still don’t detach easily. I try to remember that I’m resilient but I’m stuck doubting the power of my resilience. And the wonderful man who is really going to love me is not here. I’m still waiting for that someday.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Carpe felis

I’ve just learned a new rule for living: If an avocado is at its peak perfection of ripeness, eat it. Eat it even if it’s 10:30 at night and you’re heading for bed. Who knows if you’ll even wake up in the morning? Who knows that someone won’t break into your house while you’re sleeping and steal the perfect avocado? What if there’s nuclear annihilation overnight and you passed up the chance to eat the avocado, believing there would be another day? (Such a cheery optimist, aren’t I?) If you paid a whopping $2 for the doggone thing at Whole Foods, savor it at its moment of perfection.

Today the weather was spectacularly gorgeous. I let my feline child go out in the backyard (under my vigilant supervision) because I simply couldn’t refuse her. She has had a tough week—trip to vet to have blood work and they got a urine sample by withdrawing it from her bladder with a hypodermic needle. I am grateful that I can pee in a cup when so instructed. My poor old kitty is about 120 in cat years and she has health issues, so letting her sit outside in the sunshine seemed like a good idea. She sat under the cherry blossom tree, stretched out on the mulch and let the cherry blossoms fall on her. Honestly, I could tell that she was full of the simple joy of sitting in sun, feeling the breeze and the cool earth beneath her tired old bones. I just sat on the back steps, seemingly for hours, watching her watching the squirrel that chattered in the tree above her, seeing her one blast of youth when she made a futile attempt to go after a robin. I kept thinking, who knows when or if she (and I) will have this chance again.

My old girl had a good day and she is now curled up, sleeping on the sofa in my office. I had a good day. I ate that avocado. I savored the moments.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Coming soon to your neighborhood . . . senile dementia

I just read online a report about signs of senile dementia. Don’t ask me why I’m even reading reports on senile dementia. I think I’m going to become an indigenous Alaskan and walk into the ice house now and seal the door. Put me on the ice floe with a hunk of whale meat and a Bible and let me float away into oblivion. Here’s what the report says:

"More bad news for night owls: Your sleep cycle now may lead to dementia later. In a December 2011 study published in Annals of Neurology, 1,300 healthy women over the age of 75 were followed over the course of five years. By the end of that time, 39 percent had developed some form of mild cognitive impairment or dementia. Researchers found that women with weaker circadian rhythms (those who performed less physical activity early in the day) were 80 percent more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment or dementia than women who were active early in the day.”

Lord, help me! I have horrible insomnia. Horrible. I’ve tried everything. Don’t even mention “good sleep hygiene” to me—I’ve heard it all and I’ve done everything. I’ve done lots of drugs—ranging from over-the-counter sleep aids (it is to laugh, she says, any of the pain-PM meds don’t even make me yawn) to Lunesta to Ambien (I unconsciously shopped online on Ambien and had to quit it for the sake of my credit card) to Seroquel, a medication for psychotic disorders. Nothing works.

Take, for example, last night. I went to bed at around 11 and didn’t get to sleep (with medication) until close to 1 a.m. I was wide awake, legs moving, no hope of further sleep at 4 a.m. Finally I gave in and I got up close to 5 o’clock, cooked a bowl of oatmeal, checked my e-mail, did some online research, read for a while, then went back to sleep. It was nearly 10 a.m. when I got up again. This is not good. This is not restful sleep and I’m sure my circadian rhythms are going to be the death of me. Exercise in the morning? Last night was a good night. Many nights I don’t get to sleep until almost 4 a.m. How in the name of all that is holy am I supposed to get up and exercise in the morning light?

So if this kind of sleep cycle causes dementia I might as well get on the waiting list for the dementia unit at the home. I’ll skip past the independent living part and go straight to the unit with the locked doors. "Sorry, Miss Xander, this is your home now. No, you don't live in the pretty townhouse with the garden any longer. They had to sell it to put you in this ring of hell. Now just be good and eat your apple sauce." I did not need this “more bad news for night owls” from the neurology scientists. Note that they studied women and the bad news is specifically for women. For 80 percent of the women! I’m a woman. I’m one of the 80 percent. Am I walking down the road to senile dementia? Damnation, I don’t want this to be my life. Believe me, I’m much rather be sleeping.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Home

Today I drove to church—as old ladies are wont to do on Sundays—then drove to visit my mother at THE HOME. I waxed a table for my mother, rearranged her potted plants, and moved her Easter décor into her storage locker. I passed up the chance to eat dinner with my mother in THE HOME’s dining room—roast chicken because it’s Sunday, over-cooked yellow squash, and apple brown Betty on the menu. I passed up the dining room with the bright lights, walker parking area, and peppermints in a bowl at the reception desk in order to come home and share a can of tuna with my cat. This is all true, except I made up the apple brown Betty part. I don’t remember what the dessert choices were.

By virtue of my age, I am now eligible to move into THE HOME. Two of my dearest, oldest friends were at my house for a visit last week and we were discussing what we plan to do when we get older and need to move into some sort of supported living environment. They think it’s a good idea for all of us to live in THE HOME together. All I could think about was the place where my mother lives. And I’m thinking about euthanasia—not for my mother but for myself. Just shoot me.

My mother lives in a very, very nice place. I hate the carpet in the hallways, I hate the way it smells, I hate the draperies and the cheery people who work there. I especially hate the storage cubes in the dungeon where people store all of their African masks and ugly artwork and luggage and family photos in chicken-wire cages for all the world to see. I’ve spent many an hour with my sister in that dungeon, sitting on the concrete floor rearranging my mother’s stored possessions. Her crockpot is in there because she never uses it. She has plastic bins full of Halloween, Easter, Valentine’s Day, and Christmas decorations. She has plastic bins full of décor pillows. (My mother has a pillow fetish.) All the framed photos of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are in that cage. It’s life reduced to what fits in a storage cage.

I keep thinking about Little Edie, living with Big Edie in the crumbling old house in East Hampton—Little Edie with her scarves and her swimsuits, dancing and feeding Wonder Bread to the raccoons that lived in her attic. Little Edie may have been totally wacko but at least she was doing what she wanted and she lived on her own eccentric terms, not in a dormitory full of old people.

Lord, I have just one humble prayer. Please let me die with my boots on. Please don’t let me drool and don’t let people feed me over-cooked vegetables from a plastic tray. Please don’t force me to have wall-to-wall carpeting. The carpeting alone will kill me. Please don’t let them put me in THE HOME with the old people.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


And I thought about the feeling of helplessness, the feeling of almost drowning, my little incident with the Atlantic Ocean.

It was the summer I turned 12. My family went to Bethany Beach on the Delaware shore for a day trip. It was hot and the beach was packed blanket-to-blanket with people searching for some respite from the heat. My father stayed on the shore, watching my younger brothers while my mother and I waded into the ocean. We floated in relatively placid surf on a rented rubber raft. I began to become aware that there was a little too much distance between me and my mother, who was alone on the raft. As I tried to swim back to her, I lost ground, swimming forward but moving backward deeper into the ocean. My feet no longer reached the ocean floor. I was quickly becoming tired as I moved farther from my mother and she began to realize that I was in trouble. After the fact, I knew that she began screaming, but all I knew at the time was sheer terror. I had never heard of a riptide and had no strategy to save myself. I was gasping, swallowing water when two lifeguards reached me and put me on a raft. I don’t know how much time elapsed, but as we neared the shore, they asked me if I wanted to ride in on a wave. Bad idea, but I must have agreed. The wave threw me and I washed up on shore like a half-dead mackerel.
I now know that the strategy for surviving a riptide is not to fight it but to swim parallel to the shore to get out of the current. But I have no intention of testing the theory. That’s why I’m not interested in swimming now, some 50 years later. The feeling doesn’t go away. I smell salt water or even chlorine in a swimming pool (I had another incident in a pool at Girl Scout camp) and my heart starts to pound.

And that’s how I feel about life in general sometimes—like I’m trying so doggone hard to swim forward but the current keeps pulling me back. My arms are tired. My feet don't touch bottom and the lifeguards sent to save me nearly drowned me again.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Imaginary man in the imaginary chair

My former husband John is not only my ex-husband but he died so there is no more communication with him. When we were married he had affairs—more than once. The repetition of that horrible betrayal is what led to the demise of our marriage.

Recently I learned that it seems nearly everyone who knew him at the time knew that he was cheating on me. Perhaps I was the only one who didn’t know. I was the fool. The first incident was well over 30 years ago, but sometimes it still hurts, causes a wrenching pain deep in my gut that can still bring bitter tears.

The word “closure” really means nothing to me but I’ve been struggling with some hurt that recently resurrected and I wanted to deal with it constructively. So I dug back to my counseling training and worked through a Gestalt type of conversation with him, talked with the invisible John, the man in the empty chair. I told him how disappointed I was in him, how much he hurt me, that I had loved him, been faithful to him for over 30 years of marriage, and never deserved his unkind treatment of me. I had attempted such conversations with him in real life and recalled the exact words he had said, so I knew what his response would be.

"It's not about you, Donna. I hate my f***ing life. I hate all this f***ing responsibility. I just needed a break. I’ve got needs. No one ever thinks about my needs. I don’t know why you have to think everything is about you.”

And now I’m able to talk to him calmly, with strength and conviction. I’m able to get through his anger so that for once he hears me. I say, “No, John, you’re wrong. A lot of it is about me. You were not operating in a vacuum. What you have done hurt me deeply. It humiliated me. The bond of marriage—our marriage—that was so important to me became meaningless to you. I loved you and never, ever would have considered doing to you what you have done to me. I feel betrayed by the person I loved most, the person I trusted most. I no longer know you, no longer recognize the person without morals who have become. And you obviously don’t know me. Because if you really knew me, you would know how devastating this has been for me. My life changed forever because you dismissed me as unimportant, because you deceived me, because you thought so much more of yourself than you did of me. So, no matter what you think or what you say, what seemingly logical explanation you conjure up, it is about me.”

I have much more to say, but that’s the crux of it. I’m sure he would have much more to say too, and in real life I wouldn’t have had much of a chance to say anything coherent because he would have just shot me down with his characteristic intense anger. But in a funny way I got to tie him down in the imaginary chair, slap duct tape on his mouth, and make him listen to me. For once maybe he heard me. And I can tie him down in the imaginary chair and do it again whenever I want to. I've got all the power now.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The boys at the dead tree

Writing exercise. You may not know how it works, but you'll figure it out. One take, no edits, just to make me do it.

Samuel L. Clemens, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, page 161. “On Saturday, shortly after noon, the boys were at the dead tree again.”

“No,” she said, “Not that boy. He’s the boy from high school, the one I told you about, the one you never remember.” I smirked, that wise-ass smirk of mine that I smirk when I think I’ve outsmarted her. “Well then, it stands to reason that if I can’t ever remember him, then I simply don’t remember him now or ever.” Truth be told, I knew who he was but I didn’t want to acknowledge that to her, especially when she told me she was marrying the boy next Saturday. It was going to be a quiet marriage ceremony in the Methodist Church on the island. “Oh, Lord have mercy, Shelley, did Mr. No-Name get you knocked up?” I said, without an ounce of compassion. She looked away and said, “No, that’s not it at all. We’re in love and we just don’t want to wait.” Oh, sure. I couldn’t accept the love thing but even less than the love thing, I couldn’t accept the sex thing. I knew where babies came from and the whole idea totally grossed me out. The fact that my cousin Shelley had done it—probably in the back seat of Raymond’s Chev-Ro-Lay—was repulsive. What was she thinking? I wouldn’t even kiss that pimply-faced geek on the lips, much less do it with him. Her standards were so low. I knew all about Raymond, even though I refused to acknowledge that I knew him. He was one of those boys with greasy hair who wore plaid shirts and pants pulled up too high, one of the group who would hang out by the dead tree behind the service station, smoking cigarettes and trading comic books. They were goofy little boys who didn’t even have enough guts to be real juvenile delinquents. And the thought that my beautiful, talented cousin Shelley did it with one of those losers and was actually going to marry one of those losers made me want to barf. Shelley could have been prom queen, she could have gone to beauty school or been a flight attendant, but instead she was going to marry that greaseball Raymond? She added, “I’m sorry to tell you that you can’t be my bridesmaid because there aren’t going to be any bridesmaids. And you can’t even come to the wedding because only our parents are coming.” “Okay, Shelley, that’s it!” I replied. “Ever since we looked at those bridesmaids dresses in the Sears catalog you’ve been promising me I could be your bridesmaid. Now you’re not only telling me you’re marrying that creep Raymond but you’re also dropping me as a bridesmaid. This is my only chance, Shelley. How can you do this to me? And how can you do it to Kookie? You swore you would marry him and I believed you.” Shelley was the president of the Edd (Kookie) Byrnes fan club. She even had a photo of him that he personally signed. And she was going to marry Raymond when she could have had Kookie? So on Saturday, just before noon, Shelley, wearing her baby blue dress with the white daisies and a blue bow in her hair, sat in the back seat of Uncle Frank’s car and rode to the church to marry Raymond. Raymond wasn’t behind the service station that day, smoking cigarettes and trading comic books. He was at the church marrying Shelley. But the boys carried on without him. On Saturday, shortly after noon, the boys were at the dead tree again.