Happier and Healthier: The Beginning

I have that feeling tonight, the one where it seems that gravity has doubled. The urge to curl up in my nest on the couch and stare at the TV until I fall asleep is almost irresistible.

So I’m here, resisting it. I’m tired of watching the days slide past me, empty of accomplishment or enjoyment, but wow, staying upright is difficult.

Why does depression make me feel like I’m moving through molasses?

It’s discouraging, to look at how far I have to go to return to a fully-functional life, so I’m trying something new: blogging for healing.

It’s already helping. All the gut-spilling I’ve done here this week has lightened the load on my spirit, but it’s only the tiniest of beginnings.

What I know about myself is this: I’m not good at staying focused on the here and now; I have a hard time celebrating the small victories; and most of all, I take on too much, exhaust myself (emotionally, if not physically), and collapse, rapidly undoing all the progress I’ve made.

What I also know is this: if I take better care of my body and my environment, my spirit will begin to heal. If I take better care of my spirit, I will be more able to take care of my body and my environment. And the more I write and stay connected to the life-giving support of the people who care about me, the happier and healthier I will be in every way.

But oh, the sadness. It is so big. Thank you for being here to help me counteract the darkness.

From way deep down, I thank you.

Duster

On a summer day in 1935, a few weeks before she turned 13, my grandma Margery was in the yard of her family’s southwestern Kansas home, pulling laundry off the line. She dropped the clothes and underwear, sheets and towels, gray with dust and baked dry in the villainous sun, into the basket at her feet, then ran back into the house. Her sister Norma and their mother were yanking the beds out of the bedrooms and into the main room.

Margery pulled the oldest sheets out of the laundry basket, put them in a big metal bucket in the sink, and filled the bucket with water from the pump. All over Meade County, in towns and on farms, every household was preparing for the black blizzard that was pushing toward them. If she paused to look out the open door, she would see the enormous black cloud moving, the ground rising up to meet the sky, choking the world in between. She didn’t pause, though. The scene was too familiar to bear scrutiny. Her mother’s mouth was tight beneath eyes that darted between her work and the door, watching the road for her husband and her youngest child, Billy.

As Margery, Norma, and their mother worked, they coughed. The coughing – deep, painful, noisy – was with them constantly. They coughed while they slept, while they worked, during their meager meals, and during their walk to church. As the family worked to keep the ever-advancing dust out of their house, their food, and their eyes, their lungs worked to expel the muddy mess that tried to choke them

Dust blizzards in cool weather were easier to tolerate; they could close the windows and doors, seal the cracks with wet towels. In summer, though, with the temperature often stretching to well above 100 degrees, the heat in a closed house was as deadly as  the dust-saturated air and they had to control the dust the best they could in spite of open windows and doors. They lifted the dripping sheets out of the bucket and hung them over the windows and the back door, pinning them tight against the wind. They closed the bedroom doors; during a storm, the family slept together in the main room because there weren’t enough sheets to cover the bedroom windows. Margery’s mother left the front door uncovered for her husband and Billy, who had been away from the house, helping neighbors.

When the sheets were hung and the beds made, Margery reached into one of the kitchen cabinets, the cabinets her father had made when life was better, before the dust, when there was wheat to harvest and cows in the pasture and grass on the prairie all around the farm, and pulled out a stack of cloths that she and her mother had made from worn sheets. She put them in the bucket and added more water to cover them. While she did that, Norma put the chamber pots under the beds. No one would make a trip to the outhouse during the storm.

The wind began to pick up, the advance wind that heralded the storm to come. Margery looked over her mother’s shoulder into the yard. She could see the wall of black dust moving toward them, carrying dirt from hundreds of miles away. The haze of dust was thickening now, dimming the light. Mother stood in the doorway watching the road. She crossed her arms, uncrossed them, stepped out into the yard, then back into the house. Norma sat on the bed nearest her mother, twisting a fold of the fabric of her dress until Margery was afraid she would wear a hold right through.

Margery’s mother suddenly jumped back from the door into the house. “Cover the door! Margery! Get a sheet!”

Margery snatched up the last sodden sheet and passed it to her mother who hung it. They were still tacking and weighting it when the storm slapped the side of the little house. The dim light that the sheets had allowed into the house was instantly gone. At four o’clock on a sunny summer afternoon, everything was suddenly dark as midnight, the windows and doors no more than faint gray shadows in the overwhelming blackness. The dust haze that never settled, even in the calmest weather, became thicker, grittier, more sinister. Margery’s hair crackled with electricity; she saw sparks move in the air and on the walls. After a storm, when they walked to town, they would see cars abandoned on the road where they had shorted out in the storm’s electricity. They would start again when the storm was over, but not before.

Norma coughed long and hard and Margery went to the sink and got three of the wet rags. She tied one around her nose and mouth, then felt her way to her sister and tied a rag over her face, too. Her mother was there, sitting with Norma, holding her hand, and she took the third rag for her own face. Margery sat down on the bed with them. The wind shrieked and screamed, whistling under the eaves and in the cracks, snapping the sheets at the doors and windows, snicker-thump, snicker-thump. The wind was so hot, so laden with dust, that even in the house her skin felt raw and blistered everywhere it was exposed. She kept her eyes closed against the dust, but she couldn’t close her ears.

The wind in the house suddenly increased, a great gust of choking dust swirling into the dark. Under the screaming wind, Margery heard her father and brother fall in through the door, coughing hard against the vile black dirt. Norma and Margery fought the sheet, pinned and weighted it back into place, then turned to the choking boy and man. Margery’s mother was helping Billy to untie a dirt-clotted shirt that he had tied around his face. Norma filled two jars with water and gave one to her father and one to her brother. Billy rinsed his mouth and spit mud onto the floor again and again, until another coughing fit got hold of him. The boy and his father struggled like this for a long time, rinsing and spitting, then coughing up huge black wads of Kansas.

They ate some dusty cornbread and sat together through the long evening until it was time to sleep. Margery lay down on the narrow bed she shared with Norma, covered her face with a wet cloth, and tried to sleep. She lay awake for hours, trying not to hear the wind or her family’s wretched coughing. She tried, too, not to think of tomorrow when they would begin the day by shoveling the dirt out of their house, wash sheets and towels, boil gritty cornmeal porridge for lunch, and prepare for another duster.

My grandma Margery (left), her sister Norma, and her brother Lee (called Billy when he was a child) in Fowler, Kansas around 1931. This is one of the last family photos until about 8 years later.

If you want to get a sense of the horror of the black blizzards, there is a wonderful collection of Dust Bowl photographs at Kansas State University.

Body Memory

I’ve been sick for five days (I think? It could have been four. Or six.). Fever, coughing, stuffy head, gastrointestinal ickiness, the whole unlovely, unpleasant drill.

My mind doesn’t understand the difference between staying in bed all day because of a virus, and staying in bed all day because of depression. If I stay in bed all day, I get depressed.

Sort of like, if you hold me under water long enough, I drown.

My brain says that life sucks, has always sucked, will always suck, and it says all of that loudly. My brain says that I’m useless; that I’ll never accomplish anything that matters. Adrift on my couch, I believe everything it says.

This morning, Carter woke up and told me a dream story; something about hairy pigs wearing dresses, and then he wanted to get all our dogs on the bed with us. He laughed at Blossom’s bald anus (Brian shaves it every month because otherwise, she runs around with a poop-encrusted ass which is, to understate quite dramatically, unpleasant.) and Lolly crawled under the covers like a giant worm while Doodle made how did I get mixed up with this nutty crowd? faces at us.

I can breathe again.

And just like that, the world is right-side-up again. Turns out, my body can make new memories.

Dead On Purpose

On Saturday, October 27, 1979, I knew a few things: my little sister’s blonde pony tails were prettier than my brown ones; my favorite TV show, Little House on the Prairie, came on every Monday evening at 7:00; my third grade teacher’s breath smelled like tuna fish; and bad things didn’t happen in my family. Bad things couldn’t happen in my family. We were Presbyterians, and not just any Presbyterians. Dad was an elder, Mom was our church’s wedding coordinator, and my sister Erin and I were award-winning Bible verse memorizers. I was inclined to believe that this made us Good People, a notion of which my parents were in no hurry to disabuse me.

On Sunday, October 28, 1979, I learned how wrong I was. My Aunt Nadine, my dad’s younger sister, was dead. My parents woke my sister and me before dawn on that Sunday and took us from Albuquerque to our grandparents’ home in Seattle. My mom forgot to pack our Halloween costumes. I saw my dad cry for the first time.

On Monday, October 29, 1979, my sister Erin and I were playing in our grandparents’ basement when Dad asked us to come with him for a walk.

Dad, Erin, our grandpa and I walked uphill away from the house, toward the little grocery store where my dad worked when he was in high school. We were walking into a break in the incessant Seattle drizzle, everywhere the sounds and smells of wetness, so different from the sounds and smells of my desert home. The trees and eaves dripped constantly. The Chevrolets and Fords were shiny wet under a dark, low sky. The humid air was soaked with the smells of rotten vegetables and felt heavy as I moved it in and out of my lungs.

We walked past houses lit up as if it was night even though it was only just the beginning of happy hour. The constant dusk confused me, made me lose track of time. We walked past my grandparents’ neighbors, out walking their dogs or working in their yards, people who knew our names. Usually Grandpa greeted them and they shook his hand, offered to top off his drink, said hello to Erin and me. That day they looked a little lost, didn’t know where to rest their eyes. “Hello, Howard,” a few said. Some of the women turned away, sniffing. I stopped to pet a neighbor’s huge black poodle, but my dad hurried me along, pushing me forward in the wet neighborhood.

Grandpa had a gin and tonic in his left hand; Dad carried a beer in his right. The time when I would hate the sight and smell of those ubiquitous drinks was many years away and I took a sip of each, enjoying the bitter flavor of the beer, the burn of Grandpa’s ice-cold gin. Grandpa, usually a joker and a teaser, watched his shoes as he walked, silent. Erin held his free hand and put her other thumb in her mouth, making the scritch-scritch sucking sound, but Grandpa didn’t pop it out of her mouth. He cleared his throat, took a swallow of his drink, cleared his throat again.

We kept walking, on through the damp and the smell of moss. I liked the oily rainbows in the puddles, hated the wormy smell of black, wet earth. My legs were getting tired, and so were Erin’s. “Grandpa,” she said around her thumb, “let’s go home to your house.” He cleared his throat again, looked at my dad, chewed some ice from his glass.

Dad stopped us then, in front of a wide yard whose owners hadn’t raked the leaves. My grandpa, always the wise ass, would usually make a smart remark: “The way they leave their yard, I wonder if they can be bothered to wipe their asses.” At home in the desert, unraked leaves dried up and blew around the neighborhood. Here, they moldered and stank. I started to move away from the smell, but Dad stopped me. “I have to tell you how Nadine died,” he said, not looking into my face but out over the top of my head. He held his right arm close to his body; the shoulder that he dislocated during a fishing trip last month was hurting him. “Dad, don’t you want to go home?” I asked, because I didn’t think I wanted to know how she died. She wasn’t sick, and she wasn’t old, so I thought someone must have murdered her. I didn’t want to know anything about that.

My dad knelt down and looked, finally, into my face. Erin stood next to me, sucking her thumb furiously. “Nadine killed herself. She died on purpose.”

“How?” I asked. I didn’t want to know, didn’t want Erin to hear, but the word slipped out of my mouth nevertheless.

And why did he tell me? Perhaps he was in shock himself, not thinking clearly about what little girls did and did not need to know. Maybe because he was afraid someone else would tell us. Whatever the reason, he said it aloud: “She went into the garage and shot herself in the head.”

Grandpa started to cry then, though he didn’t seem to remember how and made a chuffing, choking sound while frantically wiping his eyes with his handkerchief. “Let’s go back,” I said, and so we turned and made our way back.

The sky was getting darker, turning from gray to black. It started to drizzle and Dad took off his jacket and put it over Erin to keep her dry. The streets were empty now; we could see people sitting down to supper in the houses we walked past. They passed the peas and salt, drank their milk or their wine. I watched them, imagined that some of them would turn on the TV at 7:00 to watch Little House on the Prairie. I cried a little, I think.

On October 30, 1979, I knew some new things. I knew that bad things could happen in any family, no matter how many Bible verses the children memorized. I knew that people could get broken. So deeply broken that they die on purpose.

Driftwood

Depression is rage spread thin. ~George Santayana

I hate everyone and everything. Even the coffee I brought with me to my desk is all wrong. I hate flavored coffee, and I hate the person who used up all the regular coffee and didn’t go buy more.

I hate that the person who did that was me. Today me hates yesterday me.

I can’t be the only person who has days like this, right?

I hope not, but honestly? Maintaining my emotional equilibrium isn’t easy for me in the best of times, and this is far from the best of times.

When Carter was busy screaming through his second year of life and I had just begun the process of accepting that he was somehow different, and potentially very different, in ways that weren’t going to magically disappear, I had something of an existential crisis. I asked everyone I knew, “Why me? Why is this child, with his huge and relentless need, mine?”

I didn’t ask that question because I felt like I drew a short straw. It wasn’t the question of a woman who thinks the universe is unfair, but the statement of one who knows the universe has made a mistake.

Everyone has a baseline level of functioning. Some people are always on top of things. They have energy, optimism, and resiliency to spare. They live to their emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical potential most of the time. When life brings these people a crisis or tragedy, they feel their painful feelings and, in time, return to their baseline. I call these people one hundred percenters. Most of us function somewhere less than 100%, all the way to people who are completely non-functional.

Any factor you can think of, internal and external, impacts a person’s level of functioning. For a thousand reasons large and small, I’m not a high functioner.

Someday, I will tell you about some of my limits, but for now? You need to take my word for it.

So when I looked at Carter during that second year, screaming day after day and gathering new symptoms like a snowball rolling downhill, I asked, “Why me?” because I thought God had fucked up, and fucked up big. To send me, a barely adequate parent to the children I already had, this bundle of bottomless need and mystery, seemed like a cosmic mistake of the first order.

People often make comments to me about how much stronger I must be since I became Carter’s mother, that I must be more compassionate and patient than ever before. All of that is true, but equally true is this: Carter has showed me my own considerable capacity for anger, pessimism, and fear-fueled bitterness.

Hence the hate.

Brian and I, in the moments in which we are capable of counting our blessings, are grateful that we rarely descend into the dark and angry places simultaneously. Most of the time, one of us is present enough to keep our lives moving forward while the other claws his or her way back to the light. Most of the time.

This afternoon, when Brian called me from work and heard me struggling against the surface of things, flailing away, over-reacting, and failing miserably in my every attempt to restore order to my internal reality, he came home to take over. First order of business: take Carter to his afternoon appointments.

Let the weeping commence. The shock of this change in routine was more than Carter could bear quietly and he wailed, “No, Mommy! You always take me to my appointments! Daddy won’t know what to do! Please, Mommy! Pleeeaaase!”

Carter’s great well of need, always present but not always visible, opened wide in front of me. That need it limitless, bottomless, and forever hungry.

Me and my stupid limits.

When I was asking my question of everyone I knew, “Why me? Why didn’t this child go to a different kind of mother? A one hundred percenter?” people offered one of two answers: a shake of the head, or an unhelpful platitude.

Propelled by desperation, I continued to ask my question, not really expecting to hear an answer but compelled nevertheless. Finally, a friend said, “Maybe he’s yours because you know that feelings matter. Maybe he needed someone who would try to understand his feelings more than he needed someone who could stay calm and optimistic all the time.”

A drowning person will grab hold of any floating thing, no matter how small and feeble. That little chunk of driftwood, the knowledge that, more than anything else in the world, Carter needs me to really see him, has been just enough to keep me afloat on lots of days.

I don’t know if there’s a reason for everything. I don’t know if Brian and I needed Carter, of if he needed us, or if Carter’s issues are just a fluke, what we call “The Double Jones Effect.”* Thankfully, my spiritual beliefs don’t require me to find an answer, nor does my religion (at least my tiny corner of it) force an answer on me. There is no platitude that can wrap around and neutralize the experience of raising a child like Carter.

No matter how often people paint me as an exceptional or heroic mother, it won’t be true. I’m only me, unexceptional. Ordinary. Clinging to my driftwood because there’s nothing else to do.

*I didn’t take Brian’s name when we married; we already had the same name. Virtually everyone to whom I am related, except Jacob and Abbie, is named Jones.