Thursday, January 14, 2016

Grow Yourself



Killer Mike to Stephen Colbert:
"...find a child...who's a minority, who doesn't look like you, not of the same religion, not of the same background, help that child matriculate into college. Help them by being a Big Brother or Big Sister, help them by mentoring them...teach them the path you were taught to help them become a successful human being. What you're gonna get out of that experience is another human being that's taking full advantage of an educational system that can help them and their community, but more than that, it grows you as a human being..."
I shared my first post of this blog on July 29, 2011. I'd decided to name my new blog This Ambiguous Life after one of my favorite shows on public radio, This American Life. Mom, who'd been encouraging me to publish my writing since I was a tween, worried that people wouldn't get it. "I had to look up what the word 'ambiguous' means," she said.

I thought it was fitting. Mom doesn't abide murky, complex emotions in life or in her favorite stories. She likes things to be cut and dried. Black or white. Good guy vs. Bad guy. Heroes and Villains. She likes funny and inspirational. Not depressing. Not worrisome. Tidy endings.

Which is totally understandable. It's just not me. I like a little anxiety in my writing. Writing that mimics real life. I like things messy and confusing. I get bored by the same ole thing. I like novels and essays rich in novelty, odd thoughts, plays on words. I love how complicated people are. How full of conflicting emotions we humans are, going through life without a clue. I like my characters to be full of contradictions, with room to grow. To me the unknown is beautiful and worth exploring. I'm not frightened of not knowing, to paraphrase the great physicist Richard Feynman. Of course my blog should have the word "ambiguous" in it.

I was young when Mom started encouraging me to write. Twelve. Just beginning to gain weight again after having starved myself the year before. The doctor had diagnosed me with anorexia nervosa and told Mom to take me to a therapist.

She didn't want to, at first.

Mom is allergic to psychiatry. I don't blame her. She was put into a hospital, against her will, on two separate occasions in the late 1960s where she was administered electroshock therapy. When I was a kid I asked Mom why she was sent to the hospital. It had happened before I was born, but I loved hearing old stories from my family. As the youngest of my mom's five kids--four from her first marriage--and one kid from Dad's first marriage, I grew up listening to my siblings and parents tell "remember that one time" stories that took place within a family that I belonged to, and yet were during a time frame in which I did not yet exist. Stories were how I got to know these people in my life.

"Mom, why did they send you to the hospital?"

"Because I had a nervous breakdown."

"What's a nervous breakdown?"

"It's when you catch your husband cheating with his secretary and you take a Valium and drink one beer and start running down the street, crying, in just your nightgown."

Mom never censored stories. I was the only kid on my block who didn't have parents who regulated what movies and TV shows and books they read. Mom let me consume what I was interested in. If I had any questions, I didn't feel embarrassed or ashamed for asking.

Usually. Although Mom made it clear that I could say anything to her, something happened to me when I was very young that made me mistakenly believe that I had power over my mom's emotions. It messed with my thinking for years. Decades. I'm only now, as a forty-five year old married mother, realizing that my mom is the boss of herself, and that how I live my life and the stories I share with her don't have the power to make her happy or sad. Only she has that power.

Letting go of the idea that you have power over other people is an intensely freeing feeling. I no longer feel responsible for anyone's emotions but my own. I will try to be kind and empathetic, but I will no longer stifle myself or keep secrets from Mom because I'm afraid that my pain will hurt her. My pain is my pain. Mom's pain is her pain.

It's been a long road to this realization. Lots of therapy. Lots of reading self-help books. Lots of journal writing and self-reflection. I suspect no matter where I am in life I'll always be searching for a way to grow.

Mom finally listened to my sister Jenny, begging her to take me to see a therapist. I was eleven. It was 1982. Doctors frowned upon shocking patients into sanity, preferring to talk patients into sanity instead. Cognitive behavior therapy is what the people with the certificates on the walls call it. I call it, wow, someone's interested in hearing my side of the story? You want me to share my secrets?  I won't shrivel up and die, unloved and unlovable, right there in this swivel chair? Mommy won't be sent back to the hospital because my pain is too unbearable for her?

I remember my therapist telling me toward the end of one of our sessions that often she sees clients who are not the ones in the family who need therapy the most. I understood this statement to be a dig at my mom and my dad, that she wished that my parents were open to family therapy. But it also helped me understand, when Mom would tell the story of her nervous breakdowns, that she was far from the maddest person in our crazy clan.

My first therapist helped me a bit. I stopped starving myself, at least. But I never fully got over my body issues and disordered eating until I hit forty, discovered the book Health At Every Size by Linda Bacon, and began rant-writing stories on this blog. Writing has been my best therapist. Sharing painful secrets and talking openly about my pain--recalling how I was subjected to sexual abuse as a young child and forced to go to Weight Watchers in 3rd grade, both risk factors to lifelong depression and instability in general and to anorexia and other eating disorders specifically--has helped me heal. I discovered the best self-help out there is to share my stories freely on this blog.

That was not my goal when I started this blog four and a half years ago. My goal was to get recognition for my writing, to attract a literary agent who would offer me a book deal. My stories would reach people around the world. I'd help people heal. I'd achieve fame and fortune and everything that goes with it, to paraphrase the great Freddie Mercury. That was my goal when I began this blog.

I was mostly handling life OK just before I started this blog. I'd recently turned forty. I had a great job as a full-time Information Specialist at the public library. I was happily married to a great guy who loves me for me. We have a great kid who was getting ready to start kindergarten. Kindergarten! How is it that my kid is growing up so quickly when I don't feel like a grown up myself?

Then something horrible happened. My brother, Pat, died on January 14, 2011. Five years ago, today. Wow, I just realized that. Anniversary dates and emotions are so intricately tied.

My brother's death hit me hard. Dead people make living people turn into such selfish jerks. When our grandpa died when I was just twelve. I remember crying and my mom saying, "It's OK. He's in a better place now. He's no longer in pain." And me, the little selfish jerk, saying, "Yeah, but he'll never get to know me as a grownup."

I was just starting to grow, I thought. Just starting to become myself.

I remember overhearing my first therapist, back when I was eleven, telling my parents that sometimes girls become anorexic when they begin puberty because they're afraid of growing up, and when you starve yourself you lose your breasts and stop menstruating. I was an early developer. Mom made me start wearing a bra in third grade, and shave my armpits by fourth grade, around the same time I first began menstruating. I remember, when I heard my therapist tell my parents this theory, that I was afraid to grow up, thinking, "Huh. It has been nice losing the boobs and no longer having to deal with my period."

But I did want to grow up. Grownups are the bosses of themselves. I wanted to grow up. I just wanted men to stop staring at my tits and women to stop making comments about my big butt and belly. I wanted my brain to grow, just not my body.

But my body continued to grow despite everything. I tried a plethora of diet and exercise regimes in my teens, my twenties, my thirties. Nothing worked. After I "recovered" from anorexia and began eating again, it's as if my body was afraid of ever going back into starvation mode. No matter what kinds of "healthy" foods I'd eat or how little food I ate in general, my body packed on the pounds. Especially after I gave birth to our daughter, Katie, when I was thirty-five, my weight ballooned. At forty, I was the heaviest I'd ever been.

And yet, despite what most doctors and the news media said, I was healthier than I'd ever been. My cholesterol, blood glucose, and blood pressure were all fine. Great, even. I felt energetic, except during spells of depression. I randomly found Dr. Bacon's book, Health at Every Size one day while working at the library. It changed my mind. It helped me understand that our bodies, no matter how big or how small, are complex. We are more than just a division problem. Our health cannot be measured by our BMI.

So, at my fattest, at age forty, I gave up dieting and gained an appreciation of my body. My amazing body which carried our child for nine months, giving birth to the most wonderful human being I've ever known. My amazing body that nourishes my brain, feeding these thoughts and feelings that carry me through each day.  I'm no longer afraid if my body grows. I like to spend my time on my mind.

Just before I began this blog, I was fat and forty--and happy. Then my brother Pat, one of the two people who had sexually abused me as a young child, died of liver failure at the age of forty-nine. As I've said, death brings out our most selfish selves. When Pat died, five years ago to this day, people would say, "It's OK. He's in a better place now. He's no longer in pain." Me, the big selfish jerk, felt like saying, "Yeah, but what about me?"

I stumbled into a deep depression. All I wanted to do was lie in bed. I couldn't eat. I couldn't work. I couldn't take care of our kid, the most wonderful human being I've ever known. No matter how hard my amazing husband, Will, tried to cheer me up, I felt miserable.

I visited my therapist, who encouraged me to write about my feelings. I visited my doctor, who encouraged me to cut back my hours at the library so I could focus more time on myself, my family, and my writing.

In July of 2011 I cut my hours at the library from 40 a week to 24. Our daughter, Katie, started kindergarten the following month, so I had free time during the day while Will was at work to focus on my writing.

"Give me six months," I remember saying to Will when I was trying to sell him on the idea of my cutting back hours at the library to focus on my writing. "I'll get an agent by then and be on my way to publishing my first novel."

"Do what you need to do, Babe," is what Will always said.

Six months came and went. By then I'd written two book length manuscripts, a novel and a memoir. I'd sent query letters to literary agents, to no avail.

"People don't like to read depressing stuff. Try to make it a little lighter," Mom would suggest.

"And shorter," Will would suggest. "People like to read a chapter on the john. Anything more than the time it takes a person to take a dump is too much. My advice? Short chapters."

I ignored them both. Instead, I decided to approach my growth as a writer the same way I approached the growth of my waistline. I decided to not worry about it and move on to more important things. I stopped wondering why no one wanted to publish my books. I stopped trying to find a publisher. I stopped caring if I'd die someday without having published a book.

I found something bigger and better. This blog. I began writing my stories and publishing them myself on this blog. I wrote what I needed to when I wanted to and didn't worry about who would want to read it. My audience grew. I began to receive fan mail. A surprisingly large amount from youngish, single men, and not at all suggestive comments or dick pics, but genuine conversation from an unlikely ally.

"I don't know why I'm so drawn to your writing. I feel kind of weird following a middle-age married mom who talks about sexual abuse and her fat ass, but, damn, I'm a fan!"

I like blogging. I'm my own boss. I get to write about anything I want. And it's much less time consuming that working on a book length manuscript. Definitely less time consuming to get it published. I just click the big orange "Publish" button, and, voila! It's out there. For anyone to read. Anyone with an internet connection. Anywhere in the world. That's fucking unbelievable. We are so lucky to live at this time in history.

Feeding my jones for expressing myself through my blog allows me time to pursue other interests. I get to keep up to date on current events and follow politics. I get to be a room parent for our daughter's school parties. I get to chit chat with friends on Facebook. I love it.

But honestly, I'm a little bored. I need more in my life than Facebook, my blog, and the dirty dishes in the sink. Katie's in fourth grade now. She needs me less and less. I'm quite comfortable embracing my slacker housewife qualities. I could have all the free time in the world and yet I'll always have dirty dishes in the sink calling my name. I've got better things to do with my time.

Like working with kids.

During all of this extravagant me-time when Katie's at school and Will's at work, instead of worrying about why no literary agents are knocking down my door, I've discovered that I have more than one talent. When I was a tween and a teen, and I first started thinking that I'd like to be a published author when I grow up, I thought that writing was my one and only talent. Failing to reach my publishing goal has helped me see that there's more to me than just writing. I'm also great with kids.

It started when I began volunteering in Katie's kindergarten class as the reading helper. I loved it. Then we joined a church and I got suckered into teaching preschool-K Sunday School, and, I loved it. I began reading about child development and making lists of my favorite picture books that I'd shared with Katie when she was little. I began reading teen fiction. I became a huge fan and started internet stalking authors such as John Green, A. S. King, Adam Rapp, and Jacqueline Woodson. I got a part-time job in the Youth Services department and somehow convinced my boss to let me lead Preschool Storytime. I had to sing during my interview. In front of my grown-up colleagues.

Me. The person who used to have a panic attack at the thought of public speaking, let alone public SINGING.

I've grown so much, I'm grownup enough to help others grow, too.

You are an expert at a subject when you can explain it to a child, to paraphrase the great Albert Einstein. I feel like I've achieved expert-level at life.

Not that everything is perfect. I mean, I have my bad days. I feel sad sometimes. Like when I think about my brother Pat, who died five years ago today. I wish he'd lived long enough to see me, all grown up.

My brother abused me when we were both young and I've learned how to live with it. I'm proud of myself and I feel like I've been called to help others grow. I've been offered a job at the library working full-time in Youth Services. I'm so excited to go back to full-time work. I'll get to continue to lead my storytimes, and I'll have more time to work on projects I'd like to develop. If you notice I'm posting to this blog less and less, don't worry. I'm out in the world helping the youth in our community grow.

back row, left to right: Jenny, Pat, and me
front row, left to right: Ernie, Bert, and Roosevelt Franklin

My brother's death and children's growth are two things swirling around inside my head this week. This is my ambiguous life.