How to Not Mourn

Everyone who’s heard about the fire at our house has had the same reaction: “That’s terrible! You must be so sad! I’m so sorry! That’s awful!”

I tell them “I’m fine, really. It’s okay.” Everyone thinks I’m putting a brave face on things, but I promise you, I’m not.

Here’s a typical day at our house.

My husband wakes up before me and lets the dogs out into the yard. He makes himself a coffee with his obnoxiously expensive coffee maker that can be programmed to make anything he wants, and knows that he wants a double espresso in the morning and a decaf Americano in the afternoon.

I wake up, step into my slippers, put on my bathrobe, and wander out of my room. I kiss my husband and tell him how wonderful he is, and he hugs me and says “We have a really great life.”

I go into my office, but about twenty times a day, I come back to where he is, sometimes to talk, sometimes just to peek at him. When I’m in my office, I look out the windows at the birds mobbing the feeders. Sometimes, I go out on the deck and lay in the hammock and think “This is the best life.”

After dinner, my husband and I might snuggle up on the couch in the living room and watch something. Or we might go into the library and watch something in there, or maybe put on some music and drape ourselves over the furniture in the library and read. And every once in a while, we’ll look at each other and say “Our life is amazing.”

I sit in the library and look around myself and think about how much I love the room itself, and how all the books in it have meaning to me. I look at the art on the walls and think about how much I like it.

And before we fall asleep folded up in each other, my husband and I say “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

From the outside, I’m sure it sounds just disgustingly saccharine and fake, but let me be crystal clear: I appreciated the life I had. Truly. Deeply.

I grew up with a lot of siblings and not a lot of money. The things I had were often hand-me downs, things I didn’t pick for myself. There were so many things I wanted that were out of reach, and so many experiences I wanted to have that seemed like they were for other people, not people like me.

The upshot is that when I had things, I loved them. I saw them. Every day. They were a reminder of all the good things in my life, and expressing that delight never got old. Expressing my happiness and love and joy never gets old.

When we lost our house, I was certainly sad that everything was gone. But I didn’t have the regret that comes from not recognizing or appreciating things until after they’re gone. On the other hand, the person who appreciated all that with me, the person who created that lovely life with me, the person who stands next to me and looks out at all we had built and agrees that this is the best life – that person is still here. He was the most important part of that life, and he’ll still be the most important part of whatever we build going forward.

With that on my side, how could I be sad?

I Want My Cigarettes

There’s a scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest where the men are sitting in their group circle talking, and Cheswick tells Nurse Rached he wants his cigarettes. Murphy tries to get one of the other men to give him a cigarette, and Cheswick gets angry, shouting that he doesn’t want anyone else’s cigarettes, he wants his cigarettes.

I’ve had a hard time going shopping. There are tons of things I need. New bras. New socks. New toothbrush. But every time I go into a store and see all the things I used to have, my mind just stops, and I stand looking at things like I’m hypnotized, which, in a way, I guess I am.

In addition, everyone has been beyond kind in offering things to us, especially our mothers, with whom we’re staying. It’s hard not to seem rude by refusing these very kind offers. I have two perfectly valid excuses: we don’t have the space to store anything, and there are plenty of things we won’t need until we have our own place anyway.

My husband and I went and visited the house, partly out of curiosity to see what might be left, and partly out of the need for pictures to prove to our insurance company the house is not salvageable. What we saw was like every apocalypse movie you’ve ever seen. Random bits of metal sticking out of drifts of ash, with occasional nonsensical, whole, undamaged things amid the carnage.

a pot, a pie server, a mug

Our 6-gallon stockpot, a 3-tiered pie stand, and an antique shaving mug belonging to the Pirate’s great-grandfather.

The stockpot was seldom used for food, and we got the pie stand out perhaps once a year. The shaving mug wasn’t technically whole, but it had been in the Pirate’s family forever and had an interesting history. I had no emotional attachment to these things, and am, at best, indifferent to their survival.

two and a half foot celtic cross made of metal

The Celtic cross from the front gate of our garden – the thing I saw as I came down the driveway, and as I went inside the house from the garage.

This Celtic cross was a newer addition to our house, but one that gave me a lot of joy. We’d gotten it at the Highland Games four or five years ago, and affixed it to our front gate, where the wisteria slowly surrounded and framed it. Every time I looked at it, its beauty struck me. This is the one and only thing whose survival touches me.

I went today to replace my Doc Martens. I wanted the exact pair of sandals I’d had, because I loved them and thought they looked great, but the store didn’t have them in my size. And then I realized that I didn’t want a replacement for the things I had.

I didn’t expect shopping to be this hard. I tried to go by myself once, and ended up having to call the Pirate for emotional support from the middle of Costco. I can be upbeat and optimistic about constructing a new house, but now I know that replacing the things in it will be a very different story.

Because I don’t want your things, or their things, or new things. I want my things.

Material Ghosts

Sometimes, the logical links along a chain of thought aren’t clear, and one needs to be walked from one thought to the next to make sense of it.

Like why being cold made me cry last night.

It was hot when we evacuated* our house. I took tank tops, low-top sneakers, no-show socks. I took one sweater, but it’s more like a cloak that hangs down past my knees and has huge, floppy sleeves. Great for going around town, less great for trying to get work done at my desk.

Now that we’re in San Francisco, my warm-weather gear has been useful for only two of the 19 days we’ve been here. Last night, even though I was wearing sweatpants, a t-shirt, and a sweater, I couldn’t stop shivering. I got online to check on the delivery status of a coat I had ordered, and while I was online, I checked to see if the red shrug I had from Universal Standard  was still available.

The red shrug sweater, and some other clothes I no longer own.

Of course it wasn’t. It was perfect – a high neckline, long sleeves, the perfect weight. Comfortable and striking looking. And no longer for sale. I went to other sites where I’ve bought clothes and looked at their current offerings. None of them were as attractive, practical, or cool as what I’ve lost. I’ll never get back my 25 year old butter yellow silk frock coat. I’ll never get back the long, single-breasted glen plaid wool coat with a rose pattern that had been made to my design. My beautifully warm, yet light, oversize gray sweater. My overalls with the zipper sides instead of buttons. My favorite socks. My warm beanie that said “sláinte” on it.

When one is sad and tired and raw and bereft, being surrounded with the familiar can be comforting and soothing. But the familiar is gone, and I’ll never have it back.


* I keep typing “left,” but I don’t like how it makes it sound like we walked out of our own accord because we felt like it. Leaving at least has the strength of choice behind it. Being evacuated is a circumstance imposed upon us.

Not Handicapped, Not Disabled, Not Mentally Ill

A few days ago, in the midst of talking about the effects of the fire on my life, I slipped in the news that I now have a label – “autistic.” I’ve had the label “high functioning” forever, but there was nothing after that modifier to explain why functioning well was in any way exceptional. And now there is.

Let’s back up a bit. Ever since I was a child, my mother has joked that I am her “crippled” child, because I’m left-handed. “Poor baby, you can’t do it because you’re using the wrong hand,” she’d say when I was struggling with something like using a can opener or pair of scissors. I knew she was joking. I knew she didn’t really think of me as disabled, but it left me with an important piece of information.

Differences are something to be mocked and pitied.

It doesn’t matter how one sees oneself. If others see you as being less than them, they pity you. And any difference that’s not commercially exploitable (extraordinary good looks, athletic ability, brilliance resulting in salable products) makes you less than.

I’ve had to adapt, adjust, and mask all my life, and for most of my life, it didn’t help. When I was a child, my intolerance for enormous family functions, for overstimulating environments, for physical discomfort was seen as my being willful, and I was lectured, yelled at, sent to my room. As an adolescent, I was ostracized, humiliated, and ridiculed. As an adult, I have been passed over for promotion, given poor job performance reviews (not for the quality of my work, but for the quality of my social interaction), and been largely discounted.

When I was a kid, there was no such thing as autism.

There were disruptive kids, angry kids, bored kids. They were behavioral problems that kids, with proper guidance and discipline, would grow out of. The lack of any kind of clinical label meant that nobody felt sorry for us or thought we needed any kind of special consideration apart from detention.

This morning, my sister sent me this article, and when I read the title, I immediately felt insulted. Now there’s a label for me that other people use for themselves. I don’t know what to do with that label, because it feels to me like another way of manipulating people. Just as I reject the “victim” label after the fire, I reject the “autistic” label, not because I don’t fit all the criteria, but because I can’t stand the fact that people who didn’t like me or didn’t understand me before will suddenly cut me slack because of that label. Because they think that they know something about me now that they didn’t before. And that’s not true.

If you’ve spent any time with me, you know as much about me as there is to know. Any label applied to me – “writer,” “depressed,” “autistic,” – is irrelevant because labels are stereotypes that homogenize everyone to whom they’re applied. I’ve spent years trying to tell people “yes, I’m [insert label here],” only to have to explain that it’s true, despite my not fitting their notion of what a person with that label looks or acts like.

If you have known me for a while, you know that I’m not disabled, handicapped, mentally ill. I’m just me, and I’m just fine, regardless of what label you choose to use for me. And if you feel the need to apply those labels to me, I have a few of my own that I’ll apply to you.

The Popularity of Tragedy

We’ve all seen it. A beloved celebrity dies, and people who have never once mentioned that celebrity’s name, let alone their work, is utterly distraught and demands comfort. Someone at school dies and people who had never known the kid’s name, let alone said as much as “hello,” are front and center with their disconsolate weeping. Disaster strikes, and people who were not only not affected, but who didn’t even know anyone who might have been affected need to insert themselves into the event. People are fascinated by tragedy, and there is something about being close enough to touch it that seems irresistible to people.

When we were evacuated, close friends and family called and texted. It was lovely to know that people were thinking of us, but this was in the first couple of days after we’d left our house, and before we knew whether we still had a house (spoiler: we didn’t), I didn’t know what to say. I was overwhelmed by the need to give them clarity I didn’t have. I stopped answering the phone.

Next came people at a bit of a remove from me. People I knew, but with whom I’m not especially close. They expressed support, they said very kind things, they made offers of staggering generosity. Nearly everyone wanted to know if we needed anything, but with our very most basic needs (shelter for us and our four dogs, food, money to purchase necessities) already met, I didn’t have the least idea what else I needed. People came forward with fabulously helpful resources – the name of a public adjustor firm, a recommendation for a builder. These things were solidly helpful, and not resources that everyone would necessarily know about (I’d never heard of a public adjustor prior to needing one, so why would anyone else?), so I was utterly grateful for the information, but still warmed by the other offers.

Next came people I didn’t really know. This was the weird bit. We’ve heard from the daughter of our real estate agent (a woman I’ve only met a couple of times) who now lives in New Mexico. We got a very surprising and incredibly sweet call from a woman whose father had built the house we lost. She grew up in it, so the loss felt very personal to her. She offered to come and help us clean up, and I suspect that her offer was motivated by a desire to walk the property and see what was left of her childhood home, but that didn’t make it any less touching to me.

But now we’re coming to the last group, which makes an interesting coda to those first days after we evacuated. Now I’m starting to see Facebook posts by people who used to know people who used to live in the area, people who vacationed here once and remembered it fondly, people who used to live in another town that caught fire but not when they lived there. These folks are expressing trauma and grief of their own, not even on behalf of people who’ve actually been affected.

As in the first days after our evacuation, I don’t know how to process the feelings of someone who is claiming the same trauma I have. Honestly, I don’t really think I have to do anything, but there is a part of me that’s a little angry that there are people demanding comfort and sympathy that I’m uncomfortable receiving.

I have gone shopping for necessities nearly every day since we got here, and not once have I told a store clerk “I’m buying new sneakers because my house burned down.” “I’m buying dog dishes, toys, and food because my house burned down.” “I’m buying storage boxes and a new hairbrush because my house burned down.” It seems manipulative to me to put that information out there, not because it’s at all relevant to our interaction, not because it’s a way of making small talk, but because I’m expecting to receive something for it – comfort, sympathy, a fat discount.

It makes me wonder what the people who need to feel a part of trauma they haven’t experienced are looking for, and whether maybe I should start looking for that thing, too.

Staying Still Before Moving Forward

I’ve replaced another couple of things – my microphone and my external keyboard.

There are tons of other things we’re nowhere near to replacing, but I keep looking at them and having the same reaction. I have an absolute need for this stuff, but none of it looks like anything I want. Dresses, dining room tables, rugs – none of them are what I want.

Consciously, I’m not even thinking “it’s not like the old one!” Which just tells me that the hurt is still subconscious, and that I’ll need to do a little more mourning for the life I had before I can move forward on rebuilding.

When I think of my house, I feel numb. It’s not all the time. I am still laughing with my friends and taking joy in walking in the park with the dog, etc. I’m excited about planning what the new house will look like, but when I think about the old house and everything in it, there’s just…nothing. No sadness, no sense of loss, no nostalgia. There’s a part of my mind that’s standing at a remove from the whole thing and just observing.

The last time I talked to my psychiatrist, she asked me if I felt guilty about anything, and I told her I wouldn’t know what to feel guilty about. I didn’t start the fire. I don’t think I was particularly reckless, selfish, or stupid when gathering things on short notice to take with us as we evacuated. I don’t even feel guilty about invading my mother’s house and staying here while we get our next steps together.

What I feel guilty about is not feeling sad. Not bemoaning the boxes of family photos in the garage that I never looked at. Not shedding a tear over the new dishes we’d had for about a week. Not even allowing myself to have much curiosity about what might have survived. What does it say about me that the only emotion I have so far is a sense of exhaustion at the enormity of rebuilding? Whatever it says about me, I don’t feel guilty about that either.

Between Fire and Ashes

Today is Tuesday, September 2nd. We were evacuated August 19th. My house burned down August 20th.

I have these dates written on a white board in my mother’s spare room, which is where I’m living now. I keep them, because there is an avalanche of information I’m expected to take in and process, and stuff like that gets pushed out.  People would wonder what’s wrong with me if I can’t remember the date of the most traumatic thing that’s happened to me in years.

I don’t have a template for this.

Everyone keeps telling me I’m doing fantastically. I’m cheerful, I’m working, I’m in meetings, I’m solidly fixed on the future. But I honestly don’t know what else I could be doing. I comfort myself by solving problems, and this is a Costco-sized pile of problems.

At the same time, I’m feeling fragile. Any second, anything can rub me the wrong way and I could cry, storm out of the room, bark at someone. I realize that’s a perfectly normal response to a tragedy of this magnitude, but I still find it scary.

There are two kinds of loss of control – losing control of a situation, and losing control of yourself. This fire means that I lost control of the situation. There is nothing I can do to get my house back sooner. There’s a lot of cleanup, a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of planning and figuring and dealing with people who either want something from us, or have something we want. I can do nothing to change any of it. I’m not scared of that kind of loss. I have been feeling almost light – like I have no weight, I’m a ghost who can’t physically touch anything. All I can do is provide information to people who want it, and that’s easy.

But if I lose control of myself, what happens then? It’s not enough that I wouldn’t be able to control myself, but I wouldn’t be able to participate in fixing things. I would end up shifting that burden onto other people who might not be able to deal with it either. I can’t do that. It’s just not in my nature. I can’t let people who depend on me down.

 

 

Part 1: Forty Five Years of Dieting

On October 22, 2019, I had a sleeve gastrectomy. I went into this process knowing that this would forever change my relationship to food and my body. This is part of a series of posts covering my history with food, weight loss, and my body. All opinions expressed in these posts are my own, and reflect my own lived experience. Nothing said here should be generalized, or taken as a suggestion for others. If you’re considering weight loss surgery, your first step is to reach out to your doctor.

Did I start out fat?

I have a brother and two sisters. All of us, at one time or another, went through a period of weighing more than we should, and when I reach back into my childhood memories, the thing that’s really clear is that weighing more than you should made you a Bad Person.

My mother has always been stocky, and has been on a diet for the entirety of my life. Rather than recount it all, I invite you to read this article I wrote about food and how it has affected my relationship with my mother. My older brother is built more like my mother – on the short side, and stocky. In fact, even though he’s an ultra-marathoner who runs like a million miles a week, he still has kind of a dad bod. My two sisters favored my father more – dad was a string bean as a kid, and as an adult, was the sort of person who, whenever he thought he was putting on weight, he’d skip lunch and it would be gone.

Sadly, both my mother’s constant dieting and my father’s utter disdain for fat had the same effect: to make me hate myself. I’ve seen pictures of myself as a child, and I don’t look particularly fat. I know that in first grade I weighed 40 pounds (the average weight for a first grader is 46 pounds). And I don’t recall being mocked for being fat in school – like, not ever. Whatever I looked like out in the world was just fine with everyone. It was only at home that I was unforgivable.

I was on my first diet at 9 or 10, my second big diet at 13, all through high school I took over the counter diet pills and would exist for weeks at a time on the pickles off my friends’ hamburgers and diet Coke while swimming for hours every day. In college, my father paid for me to go on one of those medically supervised diets where you drink shakes that add up to (and this is no exaggeration) 400 calories a day. After I had my first daughter, I joined OA and for years followed their very restrictive Gray Sheet diet.

When I was dieting, my family would praise me for making “good” choices, even when those choices were horribly unhealthy – the medically supervised diet made my blood pressure so low that I would faint and my vision would black out. But how I felt wasn’t important. When I lost weight, everyone was quick to tell me how attractive I was, but when I was heavier, I wasn’t unattractive. I was invisible.

It’s Not Just the Food

What compounded the issue was the fact that I am an extreme introvert. I love being around people, but I burn out quickly, and once I’m burnt out, being around other people is a nightmare. My father comes from a family of 7 kids, and all of them had a bunch of kids of their own, and all of those kids went on to marry and have more kids. That side of my family numbers in the hundreds at this point. And I would always rather stay home and read a book than go on family outings (which invariably included some kind of athletic activity). For a long time, both of my extrovert parents took my reluctance to leave the house personally. As though I were purposely trying to spoil their good time. And they decided that I wanted to stay home, not because leaving the house felt horrible, but because I was just too lazy to get my shit together to go out.

It meant that the reason I was fat was because I am lazy. To this day, my entire personality is built around proving to the entire world that I am not lazy. It’s the reason why I feel inadequate if I’m not doing as much as all my friends. I don’t mean doing as much as any one of my individual friends – I mean doing as much as all of them put together. Saying it out loud sounds crazy, but in my head, it’s the only logic I hear sometimes.

Both my parents, whether they admit it or not, equate excess weight with personal failure. I would go so far as to speculate that my mother’s weight was a factor in their splitting up when I was a toddler. My mother longingly recounts times in her life when she was thin the way other people might recount being briefly famous or wildly rich. Those were the highlights of her life, and the memories she falls back on when she feels inadequate. My father isn’t shy about making fun of fat people, despite the fact that much of his family is overweight. He thinks it’s hilarious, like we’re performing monkeys. And it doesn’t matter if those performing monkeys have feelings, or lives, or accomplishments of which they are justly proud – nobody cares what the monkey thinks.

What Happens When You’re Only Important If You’re Thin

The fallout of growing up with this kind of self-hatred was the inescapable idea that I’m not worthy. I don’t deserve happiness, or pleasure, or success because I haven’t “earned” it by being attractive. When my siblings were given things I was denied (which happened more than most of my family will admit), I couldn’t complain, because after all, I didn’t really deserve them. When I experienced successes out in the world and looked to my parents for validation, I was more often compared to other people who were more successful, as though my own personal success wasn’t meaningful. Because it really doesn’t matter what you do when you’re fat. It doesn’t count.

Next time, I’ll talk about the impact of being fat on my dating life. 

The Flavor of Anti-Vaxx

I got this email at 4:30pm yesterday from the mother of the boy we drive to school in the mornings:

Hi Monkey,
So yeah, Carpooligan has been tested positive for whooping cough. Just thought you should know. Even the vaccine isn’t protecting kids at Gryffindor, so if the Goddess gets a mild cold and cough, I’d think about getting her tested.
Carpooligan was partially vaccinated, by the way, but did not have the booster. I chose not to get it because I didn’t think it was effective against the strain that goes around…
He’ll be back at functions Saturday and school on Monday, so no carpool buddy the next few days.
Hope you’re all well!

 

The tone of this email infuriates me. “This isn’t a big deal! He was ‘sort of’ vaccinated, so it’s not my fault. Even the vaccine isn’t 100% effective.”

 

I want to break this down just to figure out why it makes me want to sue this woman for everything she’s got, then burn it all, and her along with it.

 

  1. “Carpooligan has been tested positive for whooping cough.” Two weeks ago, she could have sent me an email that said “Carpooligan has been exposed to whooping cough and he’s not vaccinated.” A week ago, she could have said “I think that cough Carpooligan has might be whooping cough.” But she waited until after he tested positive to say anything to anyone. The lack of concern for anyone else is staggering.
  2. “Even the vaccine isn’t protecting kids at Gryffindor…” As I said, there is a small population of parents who opted out of the vaccine, but no vaccine is 100% effective. The pertussis vaccine is more effective in children than in adults, but is still not at 100%.  So, of the ~150 children at my kid’s school, roughly 5% aren’t vaccinated at all (so, about 8 kids), and another 3-6 will get it even if they were vaccinated. That’s 11-14 out of about 150. But that’s just the kids. Every one of those kids has parents, and many of them have siblings. Those people have jobs and friends and come into contact with thousands of people, so it’s not just about my kid having to miss school if she gets sick. It’s about spreading the disease along vectors you never thought about.
  3. “Carpooligan was partially vaccinated, by the way, but did not have the booster.” If he didn’t get the booster, he’s not protected. I don’t know what comfort she’s trying to offer with “partially vaccinated,” but maybe she’s just trying to tell me that she’s not a crazy antivaxxer. But if she’s not opting out on the grounds that vaccines are dangerous or against God’s will, why aren’t her kids vaccinated?
  4. “I chose not to get it because I didn’t think it was effective against the strain that goes around…” Aaaah! With her housewife medical degree, she decided two years ago (when her kid was in seventh grade and legally required to either have his vaccinations updated or provide an opt-out form) that the vaccine against pertussis, which has been shown to protect 98% of children who receive all their boosters, wasn’t the right one for the strain of pertussis that is currently being passed around. So, not only a medical hobbyist, but also a prognosticator. How about this: you chose not to get it because you have four children with four different schedules and signing an opt-out form is WAY easier than making an appointment and taking your kid to the doctor to get his shots updated? Because, having known this woman for 6 years now, I’d bet good money that her logic went “Taking my kid to the doctor is expensive and inconvenient, but signing a form is easy. I’ll do that!” It makes me wonder just how many of these opt-outs are really parents who can’t be bothered to just take their kid to the doctor. It makes me feel that schools should require more than just an easy signature on a form. They should require parents who choose to opt out to either provide a doctor’s note signed within the last week stating that their child has a medical condition that precludes vaccinations, or pay $10 and attend an hour-long lecture about vaccines and why they’re important. Something that would take about as long and cost about as much as just going to the doctor for the shot.
  5. “Hope you’re all well!” Fuck you. We’ve got whooping cough.

Disestablishmentarianism

Three weeks or so ago, my right hip went out. It hurts to walk. It hurts to bend over. It’s not so much that the motion itself hurts, although it does. The worst part is that whatever muscle lifts the leg forward is weak. My right leg has about a quarter the range of motion as my left leg. It means that I limp even when I’m not in pain, and that my balance is shot.

But for three weeks, I’ve been putting off going to the doctor. At first, I told myself that I had pulled something running. It’s true, the problem showed itself the day after I had done my first 3-mile run in a couple of weeks. I took hot baths, put compresses on it, took ibuprofen. The hip would feel a little better, then a little worse.

Then I realized that it wasn’t just my hip. It was also my knee. This is the same knee that I had injured tripping over the mountain of crap in my daughter’s room. But did the knee problem cause the hip problem, or the other way around?

I’m telling myself these things in an effort to diagnose myself so that I don’t have to go to the doctor.

And then I realized why I don’t want to see the doctor. The last time I went to a doctor for my knee, he said that I needed an MRI.

“I can’t have an MRI.”
“Why not?”
“Because I have a magnet in my hand, and once it’s ripped out of my hand in the MRI thing, there’s no telling where it might go.”
“Why do you have a magnet in your hand?”
“Because I had someone put it there.” (I didn’t want to give this guy the entire long story of what led me to getting it, and it wasn’t relevant.)
“Can it be removed?”
“No.”

He ended up telling me that he couldn’t find anything wrong. Which was his shorthand for “since you decided you don’t want an MRI, I decided I don’t want to treat you.”

I’m not excited about going through that exercise again. I’m in pain, and I’m worried that I’m going to need something like a knee replacement or a hip replacement because the damage is getting worse and worse, but obviously I’m not so worried that I’m willing to actually go to the doctor.

A lifetime of not being taken seriously and being told that all the problems I’ve ever had have been due to my weight, is it any wonder that I’m not keen on the medical establishment?