Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Excused Absence

***trigger warning: sexual abuse, mental illness

When I was a teenager I missed so much school, Mom told me to just write my own absent notes.

"Becky, I've got to get to work. I can't be late. Write your own excuse," Mom would say.

I could fake Mom's handwriting good enough. I never got caught. Never got questioned by a teacher or called into the office for forgery. Never asked why it was I missed so much school.

Please excuse Becky for her absence yesterday. She had a cold.

Please excuse Becky for her absence yesterday. She had a headache.

Please excuse Becky for her absence yesterday. She was up late vomiting and needed to rest.

Please excuse Becky for her absence yesterday. She had menstrual cramps.

I only pulled out the big guns of using menstrual cramps as an excuse in emergencies, when a teacher was starting to act suspicious about why I'd had twenty colds this semester. Generally, I don't like to pathologize my femininity, but my depression trumps my feminism.

School officials should have suspected something was up when my excuses became more and more involved. Before I started forging my own absent notes, Mom would always simply write:

Please excuse Becky for her absence yesterday for she was ill.

No explanation other than the vague excuse of being "ill".

When I was a kid I thought Mom was just being impatient. Now I think she was being more honest about my absence than I was, only she just left off the "mentally". I thought she simply wrote "ill" on my absent notes because she didn't want to bother with the details. Mom's a "hurry up" kind of person. She doesn't like to spend a lot of time on one thought, one hobby, one conversation, or one note. She gets bored and wants to move on. Change things up. Try something different.

Mom's the kind of person who, when I ask if I can get her to take an IQ test out of a book of psychology tests I'd picked up at the library, she says sure and doesn't bother setting down the afghan she's crocheting or turning off the TV. She takes the test while simultaneously watching her show and keeping her hands busy while I read off the questions to her. I, on, the other hand, am the kind of person who goes into a quiet room and takes my time with the test. Surrounded by her favorite distractions, Mom still scored two points higher than me.

The woman moved into her current apartment last December after my step-father had passed away. Since then, I've visited once or twice a month. Every time, she asks me to rearrange her living room furniture. She's changed her cable plan at least three times. She sets out a plate of hot chicken nuggets she's just pulled from the microwave for our dinner and then she says, "Or would you rather have pizza?"

I'm more of a "slow down" kind of person. I like to take my time thinking things through. I get anxious if I try to do too many things at once. I analyze all my options first before I make a decision, and sometimes even then I have trouble making up my mind.

Should I say I was out sick with the flu or diarrhea? Or maybe pink eye? What did I write on last week's absent note?

Flash forward a couple of decades. I've learned to be more honest in my excuses. When I miss work, I openly confess if it's due to an anxiety attack or if I really, truly have a cold or a migraine or some other more socially-sanctioned ailment. When I start to miss too many days due to anxiety, I know it's time to call the doctor to up my meds, or to re-enter therapy for the who-knows-how-manieth-time.

But I still have trouble cancelling personal plans. I just can't bear to upset my friends and loved ones.

The last couple of weeks have been full of events that leave me feeling overwhelmed. I live day-to-day with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder. Most days I feel pretty good. I'm on my meds. I move my body in pleasurable ways. I eat nourishing foods. I play with my kid and help her with her homework. I enjoy sharing both romantically and intellectually stimulating moments with my husband. I have a good paying job with an organization that I am proud of and excited by. Sure, I have trouble with low-energy, moodiness, indecisiveness, but most days I live well with mental illness.

Then crap starts to happen around me. I read about race riots and police brutality in the Midwestern state next door, religious and ethnic conflict in the Middle-east, the suicide of a comedian loved by the mainstream. My mom is sick. My dad's sick. They're both getting "up there," a vague age that seems to keep moving upwards as I also get older. Our old dog Sawyer is recovering from a nasty illness and the new puppy pees on the floor.

That's OK, Life. That's enough. I'm really quite capable of conjuring up worry all on my own. I don't need the world to crumble around me, too.

I write, hoping it helps. It does, but I'm not going to lie to you. It's not a cure. I still need a beer or a glass of wine or a half-of-a clonazepam to relax at night. I still need to walk it off when I start to feel like everyone around me is injured and I have no way to help them. I still need to eat salads and nuts and Lays Sour Cream and Onion chips when I'm hungry and quit listening to the propaganda spewed by the diet industry. I still need to go bed on time and stay up late when I've got something important to do and remember to nap. I need to take warm showers and wear comfy clothes. I need to feel my husbands arms around me and the warm breath of my child as she leans in for a kiss. I need to feel like the work I do each day makes this world a better place, even if it seems small.

It's hard, living with Depression and PTSD. Well-meaning friends and loved ones tell me to relax, take it easy, do something fun.

I don't know how. I get bored sitting in front of a TV screen. I worry about the laundry I need to put away when I lay on my hammock. Reading popular books and celebrity magazines makes me feel weird and misunderstood. I love to read, but generally only depressing stories about family and social dysfunction. Not stuff to lighten the mood.

"You should write romance novels!"

"You should write movie reviews!"

"You should write reviews of romance novels!"

I've heard it all from Mom. She encourages me to write because she knows it makes me feel better to express myself. What she doesn't get is that expressing negativity helps too. Mom doesn't understand why I don't like to write about "happier" things.

When I was a kid, before they divorced, Mom and I would sit on the front porch to get away from my dad. We'd talk and play games. One of Mom's favorites is The Movie Star game. Basically, you think of a celebrity and say the initials of their first and last name. The other person guesses until they guess right.

I know more movie stars of the Forties and Fifties, the time my mom was growing up, than I do about current popular entertainers. I know more about Grace Kelly than all the Kardashians combined.

Mom grew up in a lonely household with a mother who rarely got out of bed because she had "bad nerves". Mom spent her childhood listening to the radio, reading popular magazines, comic books, singing along to the advertisement jingles. I understand why mom loves celebrity culture. It's her surrogate family.

It was when I was a teenager, as I began to show signs of having a talent for writing, that Mom started suggesting I write romance novels. Or screenplays. Or murder mysteries. Or a Dear Abby type of advice column.

Mom, I can't even get a date. How am I supposed to write a romance novel?

Mom, nobody likes the same movies I like.

Mom, murder makes me cringe.

Mom, I'm 16. I don't even know what advice to give myself, let alone a stranger.

Mom ignored my protests. Mom has her flaws, as all parents do, but she honestly thinks I can be anything I want to be if I set my mind to it, and that kind of faith is uplifting.

So I'd sorta listen to her. I wanted to become famous so Mom would be proud of me, so Mom would be happy. I secretly fantasized that if I became famous and loved around the world I could somehow escape my chronic depression and crippling anxiety. How can you feel sad when the whole world loves you?

I didn't fantasize about becoming famous for the things Mom wanted me to become famous for. I fantasized about becoming famous for things that would make me feel proud: winning the Pulitzer Prize, being a Health at Every Size advocate, encouraging people to love themselves, ending world hunger AND eating disorders, striving for ways to engage in peace, both in the world and inside ourselves. You know, no big deal. All I ask is that I be the next, you know, Gandhi. John Lennon. Martin Luther King, Jr. Malala. Hedy Epstein.  A peace hero. The Princess of Peace.

You know, just your typical, ordinary Messiah complex.

Too bad I don't have the energy to get out of bed on low days. For the most part I give myself a break. Tell myself that if I didn't have Depression and PTSD, I really could do anything I set my mind to. Instead of looking at it as, "think of all you could accomplish if only you could overcome your mental illness," look at it as, "think of all you accomplish each day despite your mental illness."

So I'm not out amongst the protesters and demonstrators, community organizers and activists. Instead, I'm in bed clicking "like" on a Facebook meme and hoping it changes some minds. That's about all the activism I can muster some days. But it's better than not trying at all.

Yesterday, while scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, I saw a link to a Ted video by Andrew Solomon called Depression: The Secret We Share. Only when my neck began to cramp halfway through the video did I realize I'd been nodding my head the whole time.

Watch it here:

Here's a link to the transcript, if you care to read along. These quotes really resonate with me:

I found myself losing interest in almost everything. I didn't want to do any of the things I had previously wanted to do, and I didn't know why. The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and it was vitality that seemed to seep away from me in that moment. Everything there was to do seemed like too much work. I would come home and I would see the red light flashing on my answering machine, and instead of being thrilled to hear from my friends, I would think, "What a lot of people that is to have to call back." Or I would decide I should have lunch, and then I would think, but I'd have to get the food out and put it on a plate and cut it up and chew it and swallow it, and it felt to me like the Stations of the Cross.

Depression is so exhausting. It takes up so much of your time and energy, and silence about it, it really does make the depression worse.

So now people say, "You take these happy pills, and do you feel happy?" And I don't. But I don't feel sad about having to eat lunch, and I don't feel sad about my answering machine, and I don't feel sad about taking a shower. I feel more, in fact, I think, because I can feel sadness without nullity. I feel sad about professional disappointments, about damaged relationships, about global warming. Those are the things that I feel sad about now.

Valuing one's depression does not prevent a relapse, but it may make the prospect of relapse and even relapse itself easier to tolerate. The question is not so much of finding great meaning and deciding your depression has been very meaningful. It's of seeking that meaning and thinking, when it comes again, "This will be hellish, but I will learn something from it."

My favorite of the letters that I got was the one that came from a woman who wrote and said that she had tried therapy, she had tried medication, she had tried pretty much everything, and she had found a solution and hoped I would tell the world, and that was making little things from yarn.

Making little things from yarn? That's my mom. In the Sixties, when she was involuntarily hospitalized with "a nervous breakdown" and given electroshock therapy--on two separate occasions--both times what Mom remembers most is making potholders. I wrote about it here.

Saying my mom likes crafting is like saying I like to write. Mom is a crafter as I am a writer. It's within us. We can't make it stop, the desire to create. Corner Mom for five minutes and she'll find the nearest scrap of paper and a pencil and start drawing a tadpole or a cowgirl or some sort of geometric doodle. Mom spent her early childhood sitting quietly in the doctor's office waiting room so her mother, my grandmother, could get her "nerve medicine". Mom would take a coloring book or some paper and pencils and keep herself distracted and content, surrounded by solemn misery.

Similarly, when I began writing down my troubles, I noticed they began to fade. I still feel sad when I have flashbacks of traumatic moments in my childhood, but I don't feel numb, like I want to hide away from the world under the bed covers.

"But you're so bubbly!" my friends tell me.

"You're so funny. And smart. And kind!" they say.

"You have such a wonderful husband and adorable child. You should feel so grateful for your life," they remind me.

And I do. That's why I know I have the illness called major depressive disorder because I do feel grateful for all the blessings in my life, and I feel like crap despite it all.

Not every day. My moods wax and wane. I've been especially down for this last week after hearing about the suicide of Robin Williams. It feels silly to feel so sad over the death of a celebrity. Someone I never met in person. Someone who concealed the suffering and pain he felt from his friends and loved ones, let alone me, just a fan of his work. "The Fisher King" is one of my all-time favorite movies.

But it's not silly to feel sad over a famous artist's death. I've been asking myself this past week, why does his death bother you so much? And I realize. And then I'm ashamed because it's so selfish. I realize it's all about me. I'm upset over his death because now I know there's no hope for my own personal cure. If Robin Williams, someone adored by so many people throughout the world, if someone so gifted and admired can succumb to the agony of depression, what hope is there for the likes of me? An unpublished novelist, undisciplined blogger, and part-time slinger of books, hiding in my safe little suburban neighborhood, with a lovely home and family, but also someone who many more days than I'd like to admit hides away from the rest of the world because I just can't put on my happy face.

Where did I learn to not tell the truth about how I feel?

Don't tell. You don't want to hurt Mom, do you?

That's what my brother said when he and his friend sexually abused me when I was a preschooler. Don't tell anyone or it would hurt Mom so much she'd have to go back to the hospital. I tried so hard not to make Mommy upset. I wanted her to be happy. Making Mommy happy made me happy. Such simplicity.

I grew up thinking I had to hide my pain and suffering. Smile. Be funny. Make everyone else feel comfortable. Keep my hurt to myself.

It's exhausting.

My first reaction to Robin William's suicide was to think, how could someone so funny be so depressed? Then I thought of all the times I've been called bubbly, and funny, and comforting. "You make people feel so good about themselves," my friends say to me. Of course I understand how he must have felt.

For far too many years as a child, a teen, a young woman, I focused on pleasing others. One of the greatest things about living a long life is you eventually learn to feel comfortable in your own skin. To live life by your rules. I've learned to tell my secrets, share my sad stories, focus on myself and my needs.

A big part of that comes from being honest with people about why I have to cancel plans, why I can't make it out of the house for the day. I got to practice last week. I was supposed to bring a cake to the Gay Christian Fellowship at my church. I couldn't even make it to the grocery store, I felt so stuck in my misery.

My knee-jerk reaction was to email Marvin and give him some sort of fake excuse.

I have a migraine.

My allergies are dragging me down.

I didn't sleep last night because of this cold and I'm just too tired.

But I'm tired of lying. I'm tired of pretending. Coming out of the closet as a person with mental illness who has her good days and her bad days is the best thing I've ever done for my mental health.

I sent Marvin an honest excuse:

I have post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder, which zaps my energy from time to time. Unfortunately tonight is one of those times. I regret it so. I wanted to bake you a birthday cake, but I don't even have the energy to go to the store. I hope you understand.

And guess how he responded?

I love you.


I understand.

How freeing it feels to be honest about my shortcomings and to know I'm still loved and understood.

So now, when I think of Robin William's suicide, I still feel sad about it. I wish he could have found a way to hang on. But I'm also oddly grateful for the way his amazing sacrifice has taught me that fame will never lift me from the abyss. No matter how much the world loves me, it's how I feel about myself that matters most.