Mental Hell

If you’ve ever seen the internet, you know that there are a lot of people who like to talk about mental illness. I do not like to talk about mental illness. I don’t feel qualified, I don’t feel comfortable, I don’t feel it appropriate. My own experiences of mental health are just that – my own. I can’t imagine why anyone aside from my shrink would want to hear about them, and he’s being paid to listen.

One thing that comes with working with a mental health professional that I can speak to, however, is medication. There is a clinical word for how I react to many psychoactive medications: paradoxical. It means that if I’m given a medication that energizes most people and makes them happy, it will put me to sleep and make me bitchy. Medications that soothe and calm make me jittery and paranoid. It makes prescribing for my particular problems fraught with peril. There’s no predicting how a given medication will work.

All this would just be an interesting thought experiment, if it weren’t for the fact that I have a life, and sometimes, I have to interact with other people who don’t like me.

No!” I hear you gasp. “How could anyone not like you?” And indeed, I share your incredulity. But most of these people are in some way involved with my children. They are teachers or child care providers who have, in my estimation, let my child down. And if there’s one thing that I cannot forgive and for which I will snap your neck like a damp pretzel, it’s letting my child down. That doesn’t mean I need people to be nice to my kid all the time. That doesn’t mean I need you to coddle and baby my girls. Some of my very favorite teachers have been the kind who pile on the homework and give horrendous tests and have improbable expectations. Those teachers have given my girls the chance to show themselves what they’re made of, and my girls know that they are extraordinary.

The ones who don’t like me are the ones who have screwed up. Who have let my children, and therefore me, down. How do you handle someone who has put your child in an emotionally traumatic situation and who refuses to take responsibility for it? Dealing with school problems is emotionally and logistically complicated because this is not just the place where you child gets an education, it’s also most parents’ primary means of daycare for most of the year. Dealing with a school issue means dealing with a whole supply chain of other issues.

Add Is this me, or is this the meds talking? to “my child is under threat, my routine has been disrupted, I’ve now got a host of problems to solve” and it makes me second-guess nearly every decision I make.  Because once I pick up the phone and chew someone out, I can’t very well call them next week and say “Remember when I said I was going to tear off your arm and beat you over the head with the wet end? I’m so sorry, I was over-medicated. Well, not really over-medicated, actually I was…are you still there?….”

My kid was assaulted in school on Monday. Her teacher told me on the phone “she brings all kinds of negative attention on herself.” I told him that violence was unacceptable, and he said he would handle it. He “handled it” by telling her “not to insert [herself] in other kids’ games.” The two boys who knocked her down have received no consequences. During all of this, I’m undergoing a med change. I swear, if I get through this without being arrested, it will be a miracle. A fucking miracle.

P.S. A lot of people are really protective of their mental illness. They get all crunchy if other people talk insensitively about mental illness or use the word “crazy” or whatever. I would like to remind others that words have whatever power you give them. If you let other people’s use of words bother you, you’re giving them amazing power over you. Don’t give away your power. (Letting them beat you up…that’s a different thing altogether…)

ReWrite, ReVise, ReThink

It’s the end of the month, and I’m in the same dilemma that I find myself in pretty often. I’m working on re-writes to a piece that I’m pretty excited about. I can see its possibilities, I can see it taking shape as I peel away the stuff that’s been bogging it down, fix the stuff that was a little bit broken, polish up the chrome and supercharge the…um…fraculator….you get it.

At the same time, I’ve got another piece that I’m equally excited about. This is a piece that I’m still creating. I’m only just starting to make mistakes on it. I’m still exploring, seeing what it has to offer, getting to know the lay of the land, meeting the locals. It’s a nonstop party in this new place, and I hate to leave a party! Okay. That’s an utter lie. Everyone that knows me knows that after two drinks, I’m standing by the door tapping my watch and saying that my dogs are getting lonely without me, but this is a fictional party where I’m always having a lovely time dancing and telling hilarious jokes and my hair never goes weird and my mascara never starts to run.

And at the same time that I’m supercharging my fraculator and charming everyone at the fictional party, there’s this other piece. Like most writers, I have a whole file of stuff that I’ve started writing and then sort of abandoned, half finished, or quasi-finished, or one-sentenced, in drawers and files and all over the place, and every once in a while, I dig those things up and think to myself “Holy mambo – that is GENIUS!” And I push everything else off my desk to make room for this amazing perfect idea that I can’t believe I discarded in a moment of folly.

But then something happens. Someone reminds me that I owe them revisions, or the next chunk of something, and I realize that I have to buckle down and finish something. I have to make a choice. Hobson’s choice. Sophie’s choice. Which is like Hobson’s choice, only way better-looking. Speaking of which, there’s a place called Hobson’s Choice Cleaners in my new neighborhood in San Francisco. My mother and I figure that it means that they give you the choice between putting stains in your shirts or ripping the buttons off. But I digress.

What I really wish is that I had more time, or that I had more of me, or that I were less creative. But I don’t have any of those things. I have my own Hobson’s choice to make. My own metaphorical buttons to rip off, my own metaphorical shirts to stain. And sitting here, writing this blog ain’t gonna get it done, is it?

Set the Bar High

In 2001 when my third marriage was ending, I had a conversation with my soon-to-be-ex where he told me “You know, you would be much happier if you would just lower your standards.” At the time he said it, I couldn’t even formulate a reaction to it. I didn’t laugh or get angry or give him a lecture, and it took me hours to puzzle out how I felt about it.

I left my third husband for the man who was to become my fourth husband. We’d been married less than a year before it became evident that we had both been looking for very different things in a relationship. All three of my husbands to this point had been looking for the same thing: they all seemed to be looking to find their place in life, and then to just coast. Once they’d found a job and a wife, they’d never have to pick up a book or form an opinion.

Today is the epitome of why I left my first, second and third husbands. I went racing out of the house because I was out of yeast. Yesterday, I had used up the last of it making bread to eat with the big salad I’d made for dinner, and today, I’d intended to make pizza dough for dinner. But I’d forgotten yeast when I went to the store this morning. I ended up rushing to the store because I had to get the dough started before I picked up my daughter from her private school to take her to orchestra practice. Her concert is next week, and this is her last practice before the concert.

In the middle of my freaking out because I was going to be late picking up my kid, or not going to get dinner done on time, or in some other way fail, I had to stop myself and realize that no matter what, I was doing fine. My kid goes to a great school. She plays viola in a youth orchestra, and every time she practices, she wants me to hear her play because she’s so proud of herself. I race around looking for ingredients because every day, I make my family real food out of plants and grains and seeds, rather than opening some cardboard boxes and microwaving them.

I’m not going to pretend my life is perfect, but a large part of that is what I was born with. I’m what my therapist calls “constitutionally sensitive.” But I can tell you that the life that I have is far, far better than the life I would have had if I had lowered my standards. Now that I think about it, I laugh at the very thought. No one should ever lower their standards. Ever.

A Tree Falls In Brooklyn

There’s been a bit of a flap at my daughter’s school lately. Some of the kids are having trouble in one particular subject, and some of the parents are having trouble communicating with the teacher of that one particular subject. This is a small school – just 18 kids in the class – and at the monthly parent meetings, we bring stuff like this up, and invariably, one parent turns to the other parents and says

“But my kid isn’t having that problem.”

Your kid doesn’t have any allergies. Your kid is able to effectively organize their time without reminders. Your kid is willing to call all his/her relatives and guilt them into buying stuff for a fundraiser. Your kid was not injured during the last hike. Your kid is perfect and your kid is never the bottleneck or the problem. Good for your kid.

But somebody else’s kid is. And not just somebody else’s kid, but likely more than one somebody else’s kid. And when your entire contribution to the discussion is “my kid isn’t having that problem,” you’re effectively saying “since it’s not happening to me, there is no problem.” They are not there to hear the tree fall, so it couldn’t have made any noise.

To be blunt, that attitude is at the heart of what’s going wrong in this country. “I’m not having a problem, therefore no problem exists.” It allows people to believe that anyone who is having a problem has brought it on themselves. Meanwhile, institutional racism, misogyny, income inequality run rampant. But people think to themselves “it’s not happening to me, so it’s not a problem.”

But I have a friend. Another mom in my kid’s class. Her kid isn’t allergic to anything. She does have some problem in some of her classes, and she could be a little more organized, but her mother keeps her on top of things. And her mother also sees that she’s not the only kid in the world. That her kid is part of a class, of a school, of a town, of an area and that other people’s problems matter. She’s always got “a friend” who needs something – who’s out of work, who’s sick, who’s alone in a crisis, and she’s always working to fix it. This woman has a husband who makes a great living, she’s got a big, gorgeous house and a lovely daughter and goes to Italy or for ski weekends, etc. This woman is in a perfect position to say “I’m not having a problem, therefore there is no problem.” Except that she’s not that kind of person.

Thank God that someone, somewhere is not that kind of person. We need many more of not that kind of person.

Radio Free Silence

There are three of you out there who remember my podcast “Satellite of Grace.” In it, I talked to people from all over about their religious beliefs. I talked to people from just about every major religion, I talked to people whose religion was a central factor in their lives and people who were largely indifferent to faith. What I really loved about doing the podcast was the freedom it gave me to listen. Really listen.

When interviewing someone, I normally had a loose agenda of things I wanted to know about the person’s religion or their own personal experience of it, but I never knew in advance what people were going to say. Sometimes, people expressed surprising views about their beliefs or their doubts. More than once, people tried to convert me. Listening carefully, with my entire heart and mind, meant that I was able to experience the unexpected with excitement rather than consternation. Someone coming up with something new was an opportunity to take the discussion in an exciting direction, not a failure to follow format. Listening to people with my whole heart and mind meant that, as I heard them speak, I felt humbled and privileged that they chose to share something so personal with me.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been seeing a therapist, and last week, we had what struck me as sort of a summing up. He said that I’d been seeing him for about five months, and when I first started seeing him my complaints were basically stress and anxiety and an inability to sleep and elevated blood pressure (are you sensing a theme, here?). He wanted to know if I still felt that way. While the specific incident that made me seek help in the first place has long since played out, the fact that I’m constantly stressed hasn’t changed. When he asked me “What exactly do you want help with?” I realized that all I want is to be able to relax and enjoy life a little more.

I realized that when I was interviewing people for the podcast, I was so completely outside myself and into their stories, that I felt utterly happy. I’m not the kind of person who enjoys things like skydiving or white water rafting (although I do miss my motorcycle), but there was something very in the moment about talking to folks about themselves. I’m considering taking an extended break from talking (read: Facebook, Twitter, email) and concentrating more on listening. It might be a way to get out of my own head and into some other people’s.

I Love Him, I Love Him Not

I’ve been thinking about writer/performer Mike Daisey’s public demise over the story about Apple that aired on This American Life, and I am really torn over it.

On the one hand, I’m as angry as anybody else about the fact that Mike Daisey lied. I feel manipulated and betrayed. He swears that most of what he said actually did happen, just not the way he laid it out, but I don’t believe him about any of it. It makes me wonder what kind of agenda Daisey has that he felt he needed to go all the way to China to make people hate Apple as much as he apparently does. According to his interpreter, there were two things in Mike Daisey’s monologue that she could confirm: that he showed up, a fat white American guy, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, and that he told her that he planned to lie to a lot of people.

I’m angry that when Ira Glass confronted him with facts and the testimony of his own interpreter, Mike Daisey wouldn’t come out and say the words “I lied.” He prevaricated, saying that he stood by his representation of things as true in a theatrical way. Which is like saying that Tom Cruise is tall in a theatrical way. No matter how many times Ira Glass or anyone else said to him “But that just didn’t happen,” he would not say the words “I lied.”

But there’s what he did say. While Ira Glass grilled him, at several points Mike Daisey had a hard time talking. His voice came out in a hoarse whisper, choked with emotion, and at one point he said that he wished that the producers of This American Life had killed the show. While I can’t say positively that he cried, it was obvious that he was overcome with emotion.

This is where my anger at Mike Daisey evaporates, to be replaced by pity and a kind of tenderness. Yes, he lied. Absolutely, no question. But who among us hasn’t been caught in a lie?

To me, there are two kinds of lies – the little social lies that we tell in order to not hurt someone’s feelings, like saying “No, that dress doesn’t make you look fat at all” because you don’t want your friend to feel awkward and self-conscious all day, or pretending not to notice that the old lady in front of you is suffering from catastrophic intestinal distress. Those kinds of lies allow everyone a little dignity, although everyone involved in the transaction knows that lying is involved.

The other kind of lie is where the teller counts on the hearer’s belief that the tale is true to manipulate. “I didn’t eat those cookies.” “This isn’t what it looks like.” “I meant to pay it back.” Where social lies have the cooperation of teller and hearer, there is no contract in a manipulative lie, and if the hearer discovers the lie, they can call the teller out.

But being called out is painful. Having your lie, and the reasons behind your lie, exposed shows your weakness. Mike Daisey is an attention-seeking guy who can’t let the truth stand on its own because he can’t depend on his own skill as a writer to manipulate people’s emotions, so he had to lie. He was paraded on talk shows, profiled in magazines, and the longer he let the lie stand, the more adoration he received. As long as everyone believed his story, they all adored him.

But now the public has turned. Mike Daisey has been vilified as a liar and everything he’s done is being called into question. Nobody loves him anymore, just like nobody loved James Frey when they found out his Oprah-selected memoir was fiction, nobody loved Jayson Blair when they found out that all his New York Times stories had been made up.

I found it painful to hear Daisey squirm and gasp – it was like watching a pinned insect wriggle and die. It was gruesome and shameful and made me feel like a bad person for witnessing his humiliation. I feel that his humiliation, his fear, his weakness and need mark him as human, and make me feel pity for him. As surely as I condemn what he did, I do pity him.

P.S. There is one thing I want to make clear: What Mike Daisey did was lie. He knew that the things he said were untrue, but he represented them as true. What Ira Glass and NPR did was make a mistake. They didn’t do a complete enough job of fact checking, and because many parts of his story checked out, they allowed themselves to believe all of it.

A mistake is unintentional. A lie is not. If you can’t tell the difference, you’re an idiot, which is something else altogether.

What Gets In When the Skin Is Thin

My mother tells a story (the same one over and over for the last million years) about how, when I was little, I would play happily by myself for hours on end. Other people would remark on how happy I appeared to be and wanted to join me. Of course, someone else coming into my own private game – someone who didn’t know the rules (of which the primary rule is “I always win”), someone who wanted to do things like share (which means that everything isn’t mine all the time) and take turns (meaning that there’s some time when I don’t get to play) – inevitably spoiled it.

Decades after that, I had a little kid of my own. My second little kid. Entirely unlike the first one, the second one wasn’t a good sleeper. She startled at every noise. She hated all but the blandest foods. She screamed when I dressed her and was only content when naked and warm.

I didn’t think about how much alike she and I were until I heard about highly sensitive people. It got me to thinking about how sensitivity has shaped my life. Like my daughter, I’ve never been a good sleeper. For me, it’s because every little noise wakes me.

Sounds are my kryptonite. Some are worse than others. Sounds made by mouths are horrifying. Other people chewing, smacking their lips, the sounds animals make when they lick themselves – they are enough to cause an unpleasant physical sensation in me. Whistling is unbearable. Similarly, the sounds of certain kinds of keyboards are painful to me. It’s one of the reasons I hated working in an office all those years (sadly, a reason I never felt I could share with my boss). To this day, my husband and I share an office in our home, and when he’s working, I can’t work unless I’m wearing headphones. But at home, I can wear headphones without fear of being fired.

Noise-cancelling headphones and high-tech earplugs have been my salvation. The ability to keep those sounds that most hurt me at bay has been critical to keeping the little sanity I’ve managed to salvage. For my poor daughter, the one who can’t handle physical touch, the challenges are a little tougher. But the second they come up with touch-cancelling clothes, she’ll get the same benefits I have.