Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Tongue Tied

***trigger warning: life***

It's really sunny outside. So bright the sun flickers through the dark brown shades. I keep them drawn so no one can look at me. In order to have a proper meltdown, one must find their happy place. For me, it's a dark small space. When I was a child, I'd hide in the closet. Today, I hide in my home with the dark brown shades drawn.

I thought about writing a memoir called Letter to Myself, which I'd write now as a forty-four year old suburban, white, middle-aged, midwestern, wife, mother, pet companion to my inner angsty adolescent. Me at thirteen. Hating everyone. Especially myself. Just. Wishing. The. Misery. Would. End.

The story of my depression is not an entirely depressing story. That thirteen year old girl had an amazing thing happen, which made life more bearable: I met a group of misfits. The friendless make the best friends. This group of punks and gay kids let me join their parties, their car rides, their Boone's Farm fueled conversations. It was one of the best worst times in my life.

Those misfits carried me through my miserable teen years until I was ready to put on my big girl underpants and carry my own weight. I got fat again. Which is good. I'd been anorexic when I was eleven. By thirteen, when I hated the world and everyone in it, I was eating again, but only to keep from being locked up in a mental hospital like my mom. She had two nervous breakdowns before I was even born.

"No matter what you do, don't upset Mom. You don't want to make her go back to the hospital, do you?" It was the threat my brother Pat said to me when I balked at licking his friend's penis. I was four. I was scared. I did not want to touch anything on Pat's friend. The game Pat and I played--the tickling, the Eskimo Kisses, the bouncing on his bed--they were grand. Like how you feel when old black and white movies come on TV when you're under the afghan on the couch and Mom brings in a tray of chicken noodle soup. That touch was comforting. It made me feel special.

But then, when Pat brought his friend into his room one afternoon after they got home from school, the game changed. Pat's friend lived in the house behind us, and although they looked about as different as two fourteen year olds could look--Pat hadn't reached his growth spurt yet, so he was still short and skinny, a dandelion just one blow away from being extinguished, his friend big and heavy--his first name was supplemented with the world "Fat" like "Fat Albert" that cartoon we used to watch on the living room TV. The one Bill Cosby made. You know, the dad-next-door. The celebrity with a string of women who have accused him of drugging and raping them.

You don't have to keep going if you can't. My feelings won't be hurt if you have to quit now. It's hard to witness secrets breaking.

But it's the only way I've found to survive. Telling a story and asking for help.

There I was, minding my own business reading gossip on my Facebook timeline when all of a sudden, I saw this...this. Horrible. Post:

I read it. What? I'm human. I come fully equipped with all human accessories, including a rubber neck. I could feel the steam rising inside me. I was in danger of becoming a cracked tea pot. Then, all of the sudden--black screen. It got quiet in the house. No more whirr of the laptop fan. God shut it down.

There, I said it. I've become one of those crazy people who believe in God. Soon you can catch my act on the nearest street corner.

But: such perfect timing. Like God was saying, "Nope! Woman, you do not have time for that bullshit today. You've got other shit to share..."

I like that God has a potty mouth. My God doesn't wear white robes. Life is too messy. My God looks more like The Dude. And God knows The Dude says fuck a lot.

OK, fine, God, if this is what you want me to do. Has my husband been talking to you lately? Sending requests that you fry my computer so I'll get off my ass and put the laundry away? Did my daughter complain to you that she's getting tired of PBJs every night for dinner because I'm too affixed to the screen? The screen that shows me such horrors as the comments section of any local newspaper and, also, allows me to blog hard, like I mean it. Where else would I find an audience to share my rabidly morbid, starkly honest, sad, sick tales but The Internet. Thank you God. Thank you Al Gore.

So I turned on the TV, not to watch it, but to stream the Joni Mitchell station on Pandora from our Roku. Even though I love the Internet, really anything that helps me communicate with my fellow human beings while I'm balled up on the couch in the safety of my own neurotic muck, I'm actually quite the Luddite. My eight-year-old daughter's classmates all got a smartphone from Santa it seems this past Christmas, while if you want to get a hold of my daughter you have to call me. And good luck with that. Both of my parents, all of my siblings, and every friend I've ever had will tell you it's impossible to get a hold of me. The best bet is face-to-face: you just happen to run into me at the store or at work or wherever it is I am. Second choice is via email, because after a couple days I'll read your message, think about my answer for a couple days, and with any luck respond to you within a week. Last choice is talking to me on the phone. To me, the phone is only used to call 911. And maybe occasionally The Thai Place for some chicken panang.

I hate talking on the phone. Talking doesn't come naturally to me. My mom says I was a late talker, two before I said much. My oldest brother Jay was in the middle of a funny story as he slipped out Mom's exit. My other siblings learned their twelve words by twelve months, some assessment level she'd read about in some baby book she'd checked out from the library. Mom was great at giving birth--pregnant six times, producing five live births. But when my brother Jay came along when she was nineteen, she had never touched a baby. She was the youngest, never around babies. Didn't babysit. Her mother was crazy, no role model she wanted to emulate. So Mom turned to books to learn how to take care of her babies. I'm forever grateful that my mom relied on her own instincts and recommendations from child care experts in books rather than taking parenting advice from her own mother. At the same time, even experts are wrong sometimes. The ones who recommended letting babies "cry it out" in their cribs alone at night. Tough love. Don't let 'em see you cry. If I'd had my druthers I'd have grown up today when doctors and scientists and religious healers prescribe attachment parenting, close physical contact, and unconditional love as the best way to raise a healthy child.

My own daughter, Katie, is eight years old and just so freaking wise. Exceptionally brave. I'm constantly shocked at how well-adjusted she seems to be, so far, having me for a parent.  I haven't screwed her up too much. Will's influence must be mighty to deflect my maternal neuroses.

Just this morning, Katie asked me if my brothers and sisters felt sorry for me.

"Why would they feel sorry for me?" I asked. We were in the car, on the way to school, after just having spent an hour awake together while Katie got ready and I drank a cup of coffee. Why does she always wait until the last minute to ask me such complex questions? Why does she ask me questions I don't know the answers to?

"Because you were sent to Weight Watchers when you were in third grade," she said, reminding me of the conversation she and I had, also inside the car, on the way back from visiting my dad in the hospital. She'd asked me if I'd ever been in a famine. Out of the blue. Apropos of nothing it seemed.

"You mean like in The Hunger Games?" I asked. My husband Will and I recently finished reading the trilogy and watching all three films that have been released so far. Katie is too young to read the books, both because of their length and lack of illustrations, and also because she's not ready to comprehend the violence inside them. But we let her watch the movies with us, even though they're rated PG-13. She's seen the later installments of Harry Potter too, and they have the same parental guidance rating. But Will and I know our daughter, and we know what she can and cannot handle. Now she can't stop talking about the story, asking us questions since we read the book and can fill her in on some of the back story the movies leave out.

"Yes, like the starving people who live in the districts," Katie said.

"No, I've never been in a famine. But I'd probably survive since I've got all this extra fat my body could use for energy when the food runs out." I laughed out loud at my own joke.

Katie laughed too, then she asked, "What does that mean?"

"Well, people who have slow metabolisms digest their food more slowly and we burn our energy more efficiently than people who have fast metabolisms, which means they digest their food quickly and burn lots of energy from their food instead of storing it as fat for later--"

"Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom!" Katie interrupted.

"What?" I stopped.

"If you lived in The Hunger Games you could probably survive," Katie said.

"Well, I dunno about that. I'm not very hearty. One of my favorite stories by David Sedaris is the one where he complains that his family is so fragile that if they were lost in the wilderness they'd shrivel away and die once they ran out of shampoo," I laughed.

Katie laughed too. Then she asked, "What does that mean?"

"I just mean that, like, my survivor skills are great for, you know, like talking about my feelings and stuff. But my survivor skills are lacking when it comes to living out in the wilderness. I don't know how to pitch a tent."

"But if you were starving your body would keep you alive if you lived in the district," Katie argued.

"Oh, yeah, I know what you're saying. Like how I survived anorexia."

Oh no! It came out of my mouth before I had time to think about what I was saying. Like the time I accidentally told Katie, who was then five, the plot to Pearl Buck's The Good Earth. When I mentioned the part about how the people were starving so much that they ate dirt just to fill their empty stomachs, she burst into tears and I had to console her with lies about how it's just a fiction book, not a true story at all, when really, someday soon she's going to figure out there's more truth in most fiction books than in real life. Life is too hard to face the truth. Sometimes you have to get your mind wrapped up in another story. Another song.

"What's anorexia?" Katie asked.

Oh, God! No. I'm not ready to have this conversation with Katie yet. I must be strong for her. I must not tell her my troubles. But if I really mean it when I said she can talk to me about anything, I guess that includes myself.

"Well, when I was young, when I was eleven, I was diagnosed with a mental illness called anorexia nervosa," I started. I didn't want to upset her with too many details.

I went on to tell her about how after my parents had sent me to Weight Watchers in third grade I had developed an obsession with dieting. I did not tell her that most girls who develop anorexia have been sexually abused. She is not ready. I am not ready to tell her about Uncle Pat and his friend. When I finished telling her as much as she and I both could handle, she was quiet for a minute. Then she said, "Mom. I'm sorry that happened to you. You did not deserve it."

I had to bite my lip to have something else to focus on besides the tears pooling inside my eyes.

"Thank you, Sweetie. But you don't need to worry about me. I got through it. I'm healthy now. And happier than I've ever been."

"Because you have me and Daddy?" Katie offered.

"Yes, but also because I have myself. I've worked really hard to figure out who I really am and to not feel bad about not being someone who others think I should be."

"Yeah!" The pity from Katie's voice had lifted.

"Yeah. So now I get to help other girls who are going through the things I went through. To teach people to love themselves just the way they are and to take care of themselves and to not hurt themselves."

"You're the Mockingjay, Mom!" Katie announced.

I couldn't help but laugh. "No, I'm flattered that you think so, but no. I'm not a fighter."

"Yes you are. You're a writer!" Katie said.

My cheeks hurt from so much smiling as we drove on the interstate home.

This morning, when Katie brought up the subject again, not only did we not have much time to discuss it, but I just don't want to go into too many details of my misery. I don't want Katie worrying over me like I spent too many years worrying over my own mother.

"Many people have a bad childhood, but most people get through it," I said, trying to deflect the subject onto people in general instead of me specifically.

"I'm sorry you had a bad childhood," Katie said.

"Well, thank you, Sweetie. You're very kind to be concerned. And when you're older and you can understand more I'll tell you more stories but for now just try to focus on the fact that I got through it. I might have had some bad things happen to me as a child, but that doesn't mean my whole life is bad. This is the best part of my life, right here, and I want to be here to help you have as good of a childhood as you can."

"My childhood is the best part of my life!" Katie exclaimed.

"Well, good," I said, not mentioning that childhood is the only part of her life she's lived.

I dropped Katie off at school and came home to write about our conversation. First, I logged on to Facebook to get caught up on my newsfeed. That's when I saw the horribly racist, Islamophobic post. Right when the computer shut down. I got up and went into the bedroom to tackle the five full baskets of clean laundry while the computer cooled off enough to write again.

Thanks a lot, God! Is this your way of telling me I need to do more housework? I thought you, of all deities, would be a feminist. You would understand my need to write during my time in the home alone. How could you reduce me to housemaid when all I want to do is read depressing news articles and write on my blog?

I hung up a couple of shirts before I remembered that this shit is more fun when I'm listening to good music. I went into the living room and brought up the Joni Mitchell station on Pandora.

That's when I heard it. This beautiful song:

Sometimes it's easier to figure out how you feel about something by listening to someone else's song. Just when I was starting to lose faith in humanity, God reminded me that we're not all bad.

It's rather disgusting that I feel compelled to remind the world of examples of our peaceful Muslim brothers such as Yusuf Islam, aka Cat Stevens, who said this amazing thing:

"While on holiday in Marrakesh, Morocco, Stevens was intrigued by the sound of the Aḏhān, the Islamic ritual call to prayer, which was explained to him as 'music for God'. Stevens said, 'I thought, music for God? I'd never heard that before – I'd heard of music for money, music for fame, music for personal power, but music for God!'" --from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cat_Stevens

But I do feel compelled to talk about it. I feel like it's my duty as a Christian woman to defend my non-Christian brothers and sisters in the world. As a Presbyterian woman, I have more in common with this Muslim man than I do with some of my fellow Christians (see: Westboro Baptist Church members, et al), just as Yusuf Islam has more in common with me than he does with his Islamist fellow Muslims (see: Osama bin Laden, et al). We wish for peace. We long for love. We know that the best response to an internet troll is to kill them with kindness. The best comeback to an insult from your enemy is, "I love you," because what kind of asshole would say "no thanks" to that?

So I put some laundry away and listened to the Joni Mitchell station and I felt so much better. Thank you, God. You know how to remind me I'm not going it alone.

I took some clean hand towels into the kitchen to shut them away in their drawer when I picked up a scrap of paper--the same one I'd written my dad's hospital room number on last night when I returned his call. Rarely do I answer calls, but in cases of life or death, even a phone-slacker like me can pull her head from her navel long enough to return the call.

The problem is, my dad is mostly deaf. He began losing his hearing the year after I was born. I have no memories of my dad ever hearing me the first time I've said something to him. I blame him for my yelling streak, both because he's a good jerk to shout at, he doesn't just walk away or start crying like most people do, he fights the fire spewing from another's mouth with his own vocal volcanic eruption. But also because he simply can't hear me, and I can't talk loudly unless it sounds like I'm pissed off, so all of my conversations with my father sound like we're screaming at each other. I long ago quit worrying what people think of me as I'm yelling at this elderly man across the table from the Hometown Buffet. Judge me after you've lived with him.

So I somehow got through to him that yes, I'm Becky, yes, his daughter Becky not his dancing partner Becky, and yes, I'll stop by for a visit.

I brought Katie with me. We visited. It was unremarkable. It was good.

I still feel weird that my relationship with my dad has improved so much. As Katie pointed out the last time we saw him, "I don't know why you say Grandpa was so bad when you were growing up. I think he's pretty nice."

"Yeah, he is, now. That's what sucks about it. Now people won't believe me that he was such a sucky father!"

Katie and Will laughed at me, and I laughed at myself, because what else do you do when you're life's pretty good and pretty fucked up at the same time? Laughter is uncomfortable gladness that life moves on even when we don't feel ready.

I picked up a scrap of paper--the same one I'd written my dad's hospital room number on last night when I returned his call--and I prayed. Not out loud. Not stuck inside my head. From inside myself and through my fingertips, turning these squiggly symbols into words and thoughts and feelings and experiences so that I could do the simple thing that is also the hardest: ask for help.

This is what I wrote on the crumpled piece of paper with my dad's hospital room number jotted sloppily on it. Dad will be released from the hospital today so he can make his dance tomorrow. The old man will be eighty-eight in April, on April Fool's Day if you believe that. And still, he makes it to every dance he can make it to. How did Dad go from being a jerk, a pain in my neck, someone I blamed my problems for to this harmless old man, in a backless nightgown sitting in the hospital waiting for his doctor's OK to go to his next dance. Like a kid waiting for fifteen minutes after lunch before his mom lets him dive into the pool.

I get so distracted by thoughts as I try to navigate through life. I thank God for these distractions.

OK, here's my prayer. Finally.

(while listening to Mama Cass Elliot's "Dream a Little Dream of Me")

Sometimes God interferes by shutting down my computer so I am forced to fold the laundry and listen to Mama Cass. Reminding me to look outside myself from time to time. If I were a drag queen my name would be Missin Dependent.

Dear God, I'm lousy at praying. I can never think of what to say. It's all too BIG and too IMPORTANT. It makes me feel tongue tied. Some people speak in tongues while in the presence of God. I get tongue tied.

Two of my favorite books--Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, and The Color Purple--have protagonists who write to God. It sounds cheesy even to me, and I have a high tolerance to ridiculous displays of religious expression. I'm the one who waves and smiles at the crazy street corner preachers.

Writing to God? Gimme a break. Why not just write to yourself? A diary to you, the one who pulled you through life's messes, right?

I don't know anymore. And that's when most people I know find God. When we just don't know anymore.

God, I think the reason I want to write you a letter is because I'm afraid I might crack if I reveal too many secrets to myself. I need a dispassionate third-party to weigh in on this ambiguous life. Maybe that's the trinity? God, Me, and My Inner Spirit. All along I'd been taught that the trinity is God, The Holy Spirit (implying, not me), and Jesus. That is just too much for my tiny human brain to comprehend, which is a nice way of saying bullshit, that doesn't make sense. So I simplified it. To me, I see no difference in God and Jesus. To me, they are the idea and the human symbol of love. Jesus came into our hearts and has hung out in our thoughts for over two thousand years because he wasn't afraid to speak the truth. He had found Nirvana. And so has Kurt Cobain. God doesn't shove away depressives and drug addicts. God's grace is most noticeable among the needy. Like me. I think I'm ready to allow myself a crack up. Oh look, Becky's gone looney toones. Looks like it's time to up her meds.

I'll get so much writing done when everyone gives me a pass, because that's what we do for our harmless mentally ill brothers and sisters, and in this case fathers and mothers too. We give them a pass. We give ourselves a pass. We say fuck it, this is going to be just fine. Lock me up if you want to. As long as you don't take away my writing implements it's going to be just fine.