Naked Eyes and Angst

Trichotillomania [trik-uh-til-uhmey-nee-uh]

tricho – hair
till(ein) – to pluck or pull out
mania – madness

When I have trouble writing, the cause is usually a story right behind my eyes that’s clogging up the works.

Not always; sometimes I just don’t have anything to say, but often, I’m gutless and full of fear and…stuck. A writerly constipation, if you will.

I have to tell the story that’s right behind my eyes, but I can’t find my way into that story. The cursor? I wish it would quit blinking at me in that nagging, accusatory way it has. Tell your truth. Expose it to the light. Don’t let it fester. Tell your truth, dammit!

Or maybe I’m projecting.

The story that is right behind my eyes is also ON my eyes, right there on the front of my face. My teenage-angst poetry was full of references to “naked eyes,” which is not an uncommon metaphor for the teenage-angst-poetry writing set.

For me? Not a metaphor.

I was eight years old in October, 1979, when my Aunt Nadine (my dad’s younger sister and only sibling) took her own life. Her sudden death and the week we spent at my grandparents’ house (where I was steeped in my family’s horrified grief) were traumatic.

What followed was worse. My parents, unable to find the support that they desperately needed, began to disassemble a few months after Nadine’s died.

This story? It might have nothing at all to do with that story. I don’t know.

But sometime in the year after Nadine’s death, I started pulling on my eyelashes and eyebrows. Pulling them out.

I don’t know exactly when I started because there was no way for me to know then that this little habit would become an important layer of suck amongst many layers of suck. A Dagwood sandwich of suck.

Why I did this thing was a mystery, and in the beginning no idea that it was anything other than a pleasurable habit. I did learn in a big hurry to keep it a secret; in fourth grade, a friend saw the discarded hairs in a tiny heap on my desk and cried out, “Ewww, gross! Quit doing that!”

Already, I couldn’t quit doing that.

And pleasurable? Yes. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t hurt. It never hurt. The after hurts; the swelling and the rawness and the styes. Windstorms? I’m here to tell you that eyelashes are more than ornaments; they serve a function and without them, even a breezy day can hurt. But the pulling itself? Never painful.

If I pull hair from my head or any other part of my body, there is pain. I imagine it feels the same for me as it does for other people, but for the lashes and brows, no pain.

It’s not because I’m used to it, either, because it never hurt. Not when I was nine or 16 or 25 or 32 or now.

If it had, I don’t guess I would have kept going.

I wish it had hurt.

No one really knows what causes trichotillomania (usually called trich or TTM). Right now, it’s technically classified as an impulse control disorder but among the twelve gazillion and nine proposed changes to the DSM5 is one that would move TTM to a new class: anxiety and obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders. The most recent research indicates that TTM’s closest relative is Tourette syndrome since both disorders have been linked to a mutation of the gene SLITRK1.

Way back in the beginning, though, I had no idea that I wasn’t the only person in the world who did this strange thing.

Ashamed?

Oh, yes.

Why couldn’t I stop pulling the same way I had stopped biting my fingernails?

I pretended to have trouble with my eyesight so that I could get glasses. I thought glasses would camouflage the missing parts of my face. I told ridiculous stories about my missing lashes (the lashes are always a bigger problem; you can’t draw those on like you can brows). Usually I claimed that I suffered from bizarre allergies, but sometimes I claimed to have a form of alopecia areata that only affects the brows and lashes. (No such form of alopecia exists.)

The bald-faced and weird looking part was bad enough; that I was causing it myself? Exponentially worse. I was desperate for any explanation for my bald face that didn’t involve me, alone, reading books and yanking hair.

I was twenty years old when I finally put a name to the cause of my naked face. My mom came across an article about TTM in a women’s magazine – I don’t remember which one; LHJ or Women’s Day or Redbook – but the day she handed me that article was an important one.

For a dozen years, I thought I was the only one. Age and experience have taught me that the perception of aloneness is almost never true, but I didn’t know that then. I just knew that I was making myself ugly by doing something I didn’t think anyone else had ever done, and I couldn’t stop.

After I read that article, I cried for days. When I was done crying, I went to a psychiatrist for the medicine mentioned in the article, the medicine the author said showed promise in treating TTM.

That was a bust, as were several other medications, supplements, lots of non-medication therapies, and a long list of self-help attempts that range from somewhat reasonable to downright ridiculous.

A therapy that I created in the early 1990s, known as spicy fingers, is not recommended.

Not recommended.

The typical course of TTM begins in adolescence, though it can start earlier (as my TTM did) and, if not treated (or, as in my case, not treated successfully) waxes and wanes over the course of a person’s lifetime.

My TTM mostly waxes and rarely wanes. On the other hand, I have not developed other pulling sites.

I was on the hunt for a treatment that worked until Carter was born. At that point I decided that, as much as I hate this thing, as much as I would like to look and feel normal, it is, ultimately, a cosmetic problem.

With all of Carter’s needs, I don’t have time or energy to devote to cosmetic problems.

That right there? It’s a fancy, sneak-up-on-it way of saying I gave up.

I have to draw eyebrows and line my upper lids everyday. If I don’t, I look weird.

Weird enough that people stare.

I’m still ashamed. So terribly, acutely ashamed.

When I first read the research implicating SLITRK1 in TTM, I thought I would feel better. I thought the pain would dissapate and float away like magic.

Nothing ever works that way. When will I learn?

Trouble is, whatever the cause, whether I could control it if I really tried hard or not, whether I’m a person suffering with an illness or a person with a weird habit, making excuses to maintain it, it’s still me, still my hand reaching up from my book toward my face.

In that way, it is very much like Tourette syndrome. I can control the impulse for a little while; a few minutes, an hour, a day, but eventually, the cork will pop.

This thing? I almost never tell anyone about it. Brian knows, of course, and my parents. My kids know because they have watched me draw on my eyebrows hundreds of times. My ex-husband knows because I told him way back when we still liked each other.

I can’t think of anyone else I’ve told.

I doubt that there are many people close to me who haven’t noticed, but they’ve been gracious enough not to mention it.

Honestly? I don’t really understand my reticence to talk about this. I’ve been forthcoming about things that, objectively, are more shameful. Based on the dedication I have for keeping this secret, you’d think I was some kind of criminal and not a person who has a neurological disorder that causes me to pull out my hair.

Secrets are a burden. Ultimately, I believe that secrets will do nothing in the dark but fester and grow.

This is me, putting my money where my mouth is.

Maybe.

If I hit publish on this, it’ll be a miracle. Sitting here at my desk right now, I’m pretty sure this thing will never see the light of day.

I don’t know yet. If there is a picture of my naked eyes anywhere on this page, I found a heaping pile of courage somewhere around here and decided to use it.

If you want to know more about TTM, go to the Trichotillomania Learning Center.

Seen and Heard

This is a guest post I wrote not too long ago for Erin. I wanted to reprint it here and make sure you all read it.

Why? Two reasons. First, because I’m preparing another guest post for someone else and I need to buy myself a little time. Second, and more important, is this: you may not know it, but I am creating an army here. Yes, an army. Obviously. You may or may not have been aware that you have been drafted.

Someday? You will meet a family in pain, a parent who is struggling, a person who hurts. You may have that blank moment where you think, “Oh, no! What am I supposed to say? I know nothing about this!” and then, you might be tempted to fall back on a platitude.

This is me, doing an end-run around platitudes and urging you to see and hear the people who come to you with their hurting and their sadness and their confusion.

*          *          *          *          *

When I look back across the writing I’ve done in the past eight years, there are several themes, and a prominent one (maybe the most prominent) is this: I have not felt heard.

I am declaring (Now! Today! Aren’t you glad you’re here to witness this event?) that heard is a feeling.

When Carter was a baby and I told people (any people: the pediatrician, family members, people at church) that he cried so much I was sure there was something wrong, those people said, “All babies cry,” or, “He seems fine right now!”

When Carter was a toddler and began to have violent tantrums during when he smashed his face into the floor until he raised huge bruises on his forehead and bloodied his nose, people chucked and said, “It’s the red hair; it came with a temper!”

When Carter started having panic attacks every morning before school, his teacher said, “Stop that right this minute and go sit down! There’s nothing to be afraid of!”

When Carter began to hurt himself and threaten suicide and I told people I was in agony from watching my child suffer, they said, “Life never gives you more than you can handle!”

When Carter tried to jump out of our car when we were driving 65 mph in rush hour traffic and I decided to quit my job and focus all of my energy on helping him get stable (or, as I like to think of it, saving his life), people said, “Don’t you think you’re overreacting?”

When I poured my heart out, overwhelmed by pain and grief, people said, “You need to have a positive attitude!”

I didn’t really understand until about a year ago what it was I needed. I tried to stop talking about it; I wanted to obey the social conventions that tell us to smile politely and say that everything is fine. Yes, fine, thank you. Just fine. I wanted to cultivate a positive attitude, to be the person who could handle the long crisis my life had become with grace, style, and finesse.

I was at war inside myself, caught in a swirl of terror and rage, almost panicked by my inability to help Carter feel, if not happy, then at least safe. I was feeling all of those things like they were a storm inside my chest but my mind repeated over and over the things I had heard: It’s not a big deal. You’re overreacting. He’s fine. Smile. Show people what they want to see: a positive attitude, strength, grace.

The end result of all my striving for a positive attitude? A new layer of guilt.

And then, like magic (but slowly, so it only seems like magic in my memory), some people came into our lives. New doctors and a psychologist; an online community; a support group for parents of children with mood disorders.

For the first time, people looked at me and said, “That must be hard.” They told me, “It sounds very painful.” They acknowledged my feelings. They heard me. They didn’t minimize me or my feelings by giving advice or pitying me. They simply bore witness.

And then, with no effort on my part, without punishment or self-flogging or guilt, I found that I began to develop a positive attitude.

I learned to laugh again.

I learned to enjoy Carter. I was able to be fully present in the joyful moments as well as in the crises.

We began to resemble a family again. A family with significant challenges; a family that is more chaotic and difficult than most, in some ways limited, but a family. Now, we live with the difficulties and manage the crises, but they don’t define us most of the time.

I watch Carter, see how urgently he, too, needs all of his feelings acknowledged. His panic before school resurfaces often and if someone says to him, “There’s nothing to be afraid of!” he only screams louder. When I say, “You’re really scared about going to school,” he is often able to pull it together just enough to try using his calming skills.

Fundamental to human nature is this: we want to be seen and heard. We want to be acknowledged. Feelings are feelings; they aren’t rational, but they are real.

I’m so grateful to the people who first heard my pain. They helped me to become a much better mother to Carter. They helped me feel less alone, more hopeful, and stronger.

My life is difficult. I’m afraid for the future and when Carter is hurting, I hurt, too. But we’re not invisible anymore. That makes all the difference

Raw Divinity

On July 4, 1997, my first husband, Robert, moved out of the house we shared. I went from stay-at-home, married mom of two babies to single, working, student mom of two babies.

I was 26 years, 3 months, and 10 days old.

I was adrift, completely unmoored from all that I believed about myself, all that I had hoped for my children.

I have never been so lost.

Or so angry. Oh, I was angry. I hated myself. I had children (two beautiful, perfect, extraordinary children) with a man who I never had any business dating, much less marrying. We were acutely wrong for each other and I could plead the poor decisions of youth until my eyes bled, but still, my children, my extraordinary children, would suffer for my terrible choice.

I was almost physically dizzy with disorientation for over a year after the divorce (which, though it wasn’t legal for quite some time, I count from the day he moved out; it was very, very over). My children’s presence had been constant and then, suddenly, they were gone two nights a week and during the day, while I went to school and work, they were in daycare.

It took my breath away; I felt like someone had cut off some vital part of my body.

So I got busy. I filled all the hours when Jacob and Abbie were with their dad with activity, and one of those activities was volunteer work. I spent eight or 10 hours a week helping out at Healthcare for the Homeless, in the mental health department. (It seems funny to call it a department because at that time it was located in a very old house, but that was its name.) Except for the hours I spent with Jacob and Abbie, those were the best hours in my week. There was no room, when I was with people who were homeless, mentally ill, and often drug addicted, for my thoughts and feelings.

I took clients out for coffee or lunch; visited them in their motel rooms; drove them from place to place to pick up meds, get new Social Security cards, apply for jobs. Sometimes, I listened to them rage at hallucinations; sometimes we sat and chatted about the news. I doled out cigarettes (commonly used to tempt clients to come in for their meds) and declined to dole out cigarettes. I helped clean out the motel room of a young man who had died of an overdose in that room and I held the hand of that young man’s mother and her how he had died.

In our parenting plan, Robert and I had agreed to a holiday schedule that had us alternating Christmas. Facing my first Christmas without my kids, I was filled with anguish so acute I could taste it like pennies in my mouth. I prayed for my rage to melt, for the pain to let go of me just a little bit, but still there was a chant in my brain: bad mother has broken her children, bad mother has broken her children, bad mother has broken her children, bad mother, bad mother, bad mother, bad mother, bad mother.

At that time, there were no regular meals served on Christmas in Albuquerque; none of the churches or shelters that would normally feed people that have nowhere else to turn was open. Juan, one of the counselors at Healthcare for the Homeless, had an idea: we would make hundreds of sandwiches and enormous vats of coffee and go out into the city. We would feed all the people we found, the ones under the bridges and in the alleys, the people camped near the library and out in the open spaces. We would start early and feed people until we ran out of food.

On a bitter cold, windy, snow-spitting Christmas morning, I met 18 or so other people at that old, run-down house. We loaded up minivans and SUVs with coffee, sandwiches, milk, fruit, and mountains of donated scarves, socks, lip balm, condoms, and Christmas candy. Juan assigned each vehicle a different part of the city and off we went to feed whomever we could find.

Ruby and Jeff, the two people who rode in my minivan, told me later that they thought at first I was a very rude person. I had little to say. I didn’t want to serve coffee to people on the streets; I wanted to watch my children greet Christmas. I wanted to warm their cold toes between my hands and hear them giggle with delight. I wanted to watch them dump out their stockings and dance to A Muppet Christmas. I wanted to feed my children, not a bunch of strangers.

Having no home is basically illegal and we spent a good deal of that morning standing in the street hollering about our coffee and sandwiches. People stay hidden so it’s impossible for the average person to understand how enormous is the homeless population in most cities. I would park my minivan and we would holler and walk for a little while, waiting for the first person to come out and eat. Soon, when it was obvious we were who we claimed to be, we were pouring coffee and giving away scarves just as fast as we could.

People wept when they thanked us, said they would not have eaten that day if we had not come.

Dozens of people asked me to pray with them.

I met a couple who was living rough with their two young children, homeless by then for just 48 hours, all four of them in shock.

I held hands and prayed with one person after another after another. It was cold, but my children were warm. People were hungry, and my children had food. There is deep sadness in the world, but also radiant joy. Even in the streets, there is joy. Hope.

Sometimes people take religion to the streets. Those people are deeply confused.

I hugged and hugged and hugged. I prayed with my soul, my body pressed against raw divinity.

We were almost finished, frozen and exhausted, and we decided we had enough food left for one last stop. I pulled over on Central Avenue and we did the whole routine, the feeding and the giving and the praying. I was just preparing to close everything up and drive away when I heard a shout. “Wait! Is there anything left for me?”

I turned around to see a giant striding across Central toward me. He was at least 6 1/2 feet tall, a man like a brick wall. “Is there anything left?” he asked, and I loaded him up with as much food as I could find. I gave him the last scarf; it was much too short for such a gigantic man, but I tugged on it to make it stay in place. He drank his cup of coffee in two swallows. Then, he grabbed me.

My heart stopped. Jeff and Ruby were already in the minivan, chatting and drinking coffee, waiting for me to finish. I was thinking about calling out for them from where I was, pressed against this huge man, his arms wrapped around me, when he spoke, “Thank you. I prayed this morning for an angel to take care of me today and you came.”

And in three strides he was across the street, and then he disappeared behind a building.

I have smelled the breath of angels many times, seen the face of God more often than I can count, but one time, divinity came and visited me, put its arms around me, and squeezed.

The chant, that relentless, merciless chant in my mind? It began to change, was replaced with a prayer: sad mother wants to be healed, sad mother wants to be healed, sad mother wants to be healed, send joy, send joy, send joy, send joy, send joy.

In the Olden Days

When I was a little girl, I loved to ask my mom, “What was it like when you were a little girl in the olden days?”

And I was sort of kidding because I did, in fact, know that the 1950s were not the olden days, but I did love to hear how life was different for her than for me.

But the differences? Minuscule. My mom was born in 1948. I was born in 1971. Life for the average family didn’t change much in the years between her childhood and mine.

There was television, of course. My mom’s family didn’t get a TV set until my mom was in junior high school. We had a black and white set in my earliest memories and got our first color set in 1977. My mom always wore a dress or a skirt and blouse to school; we were allowed to wear pants (but not shorts).

Aaand that’s about it. I mean, really, why was I so interested? I’m sure my fascination with Little House on the Prairie played a part, though I was well aware that my mom was much younger than Ma Ingalls. Who knows? I was curious; I hoped there would be vast differences.

I was in middle school when life started to change, though it didn’t seem especially dramatic at the time. But much as they didn’t seem dramatic, they were, and the world my kids are growing up in is drastically different than the one that I would have recognized as an 8 or 12 year old child.

My dad bought a calculator; we got a microwave oven; there was a new gadget that could answer the phone when we weren’t home; there was a phone that didn’t need a cord.

How bizarre is it that some of those things are now, themselves, obsolete?

And so it went. One new something, then another new something, and then? In 1983, my dad brought home a computer.

Not that it was especially exciting. It was a Kaypro 10, a gigantic beast of a machine that boasted a 10 megabyte hard drive. Yes, 10 MEGAbytes.

I know, right? I have half-a-dozen devices around here with hundreds or thousands of times more capacity than that huge machine had, all of them the size of a deck of cards or smaller.

Also? That machine had one disc drive for 5 1/4 inch floppy discs. Those old floppy discs usually had a 360 kilobyte capacity.

Which leaves me to wonder: why bother? The machine was huge but was little more than a juiced-up calculator/typewriter hybrid.

So get this: pathetic as that tiny 10 megabyte hard drive sounds? It was one of the first computers to ship with a hard drive at all. The next computer we had was an Apple IIe, which had no hard drive. The operating system was on every program disc.

No shit.

The Apple was a major upgrade, though, having (as it did, wonderfully) two floppy disc drives and…

Whoa. I was about to geek out and tell you about the IIe compared to the Macintosh we got in 1984. Let’s just skip that because I’m not a real geek.

Oh, and the printer. Don’t forget about the printer, loud as a typewriter but super-fast (Heh; it’s all relative, isn’t it? I doubt a dot matrix printer would seem fast now.), and with all those lovely strips of paper to peel off the sides when the printing was finished.

My kids love stories about that Kaypro 10. How archaic! How olden-timey! How ridiculous! Because really, they are mocking me. Their faces say, “How foolish of you! Why were you duped into believing that something so silly was innovative and exciting? Why didn’t you just hold out for the good stuff? The iPods and the cell phones?”

They also cannot comprehend not knowing a thing, but wanting to know that thing, and waiting to find out about that thing until they could learn about it from a book in a library. “But what if you really wanted to know and wondering was making your brain all itchy? What did you do? There must have been some way to make the computer find out for you, right?” they ask. Then it is my turn to make a mocking, how foolish of you face.

Imagine it: computers that could not talk to other computers; computers that only knew what they knew and nothing else, unless you used magical indecipherable coding language and told them something else. They can’t imagine it because they don’t see the point.

I considered telling them about web 2.0, and how it didn’t used to be this way, how the internet used to be more like TV or books and less like…what it is now.

I fear I will strain their eye-rolling muscles with that, so I’ve skipped it for now. They can’t conceive of the internet when it was all pages to advertise Tide and paid-subscription sites for newspapers. I assume they’ll take a class in college where they will study the bad-old days of web 1.0.

I assume, too, that they will laugh until they pee.

One time, I tried to tell them about card catalogs. It was like I was describing the time we lived in that cave next to a family of wooly mammoth. “Wouldn’t the cards get lost all the time?” they want to know. “The librarian couldn’t have typed all those cards, right? Because that would be ridiculous,” and we went round-and-round for 20 minutes and they refused to believe me.

Until I showed them a picture of a real card catalog by using Google image search, because of course Google knows these things and ordinary old (emphasis on old) moms do not.

They are unconvinced when I tell them that we didn’t know that electric typewriters (so wonderful, compared to the manual on which I learned), Walkmen, and cordless phones weren’t the greatest things that technological innovations could ever give us.

My Walkman really did seem like the greatest thing ever. The annual family vacation got infinitely more tolerable after my Walkman came on the scene.

I’m suddenly compelled to sing songs from the soundtrack to the movie Footloose.

My children? Suddenly compelled to come to my office door and roll their eyes loudly.

Yes, loudly. If you do not yet have children of an eye-rolling age, just trust me: it can be done loudly.

Carter is the funniest, though (and also kind of my favorite because he does not yet roll his eyes). The older kids at least remember VHS. Spencer gave Carter an old VCR and a stack of VHS tapes, but Carter can’t get the hang of calling them “tapes.” He calls them “the big square movie discs.” He also can’t get the hang of rewinding them; he’s never had to do such a thing before and the whole concept just escapes him. “Where’s the menu, Mom?” he hollers, jabbing buttons on the remote control. “I can’t start the movie without the menu! Here, you push the menu button. It won’t work for me!”

As bad as the card catalog conversation was, the “we didn’t always have remote controls” was worse.

When I told them that, during my entire childhood, we only had 4 (5 after we got Fox on UHF) TV channels from which to choose? They looked at me like I had an extra face on the front of my head.

Last time Carter and I went to a thrift store, he discovered a display of vinyl record albums. He asked me what they were and I said, “Those are record albums. It’s how we listened to music when I was a little girl.”

“Oh!” says my boy, “so they’re olden-days CDs!”

And yes, of course they are. He understands the albums better than cassettes. I showed him the little recorder I used in college, how you could rewind, fast-forward, play, and record. He pulled the cassette out, tugged on the tape, and destroyed the thing like some kind of alien that insists on eating rocks and smelling everyone’s ears.

Hello? Am I alone, or were we listening to tapes and watching movies on VHS not all that long ago?

Things have changed and continue to change. That doesn’t surprise me. What shocks me is the rate at which things are changing. When I was a kid and I wanted to talk on the phone? I went to the desk in the family room, sat in the chair next to the desk, and dialed. Not “dialed” in the sense that I pushed some buttons and called it dialing, but actually spun a dial around in a circle, YANK went the little metal piece, chucka chucka chucka it went back to start.  Then, I was tethered to the desk for the duration of the conversation.

I remember exactly what dialing the phone felt and sounded like. I loved dialing the phone and was a little sad when everyone started switching to phones with buttons.

Now? My kids use very different phones, in very different ways, in a decidedly un-tethered fashion. They don’t even have to talk!

Also, I’m here to tell you that the jokes on the internet and TV about adolescent girls and their lightning-fast texting fingers? No exaggeration whatsoever. I wish there was a way to test Abbie’s WPM rate on her phone. It’s unreal.

I don’t mind that things are changing. Most of the changes, I like it all very much. It would be nice, though, if my kids didn’t act like I’m a complete idiot when I tell them how things used to be.

That, of course, is not new at all. Kids of a certain age think their parents are fools.

Some things will never change.

ETA: My dad* tells me we never owned an Apple IIe; we went straight from the Kaypro to a Macintosh 575 all-in-one. So now I am corrected, as are you. Everyone wave hi to Wendell!

*My dad? A real geek, not the fake kind like me. We’re very proud.**

**OK, facetiousness aside, we are very proud, except that he only uses Apple machines. This makes him, as a computer expert, pretty much useless to me because there is no way I can afford to buy Apple computers. (That was two links from this, my very influential blog. I’ll probably find a Macbook Air and an iPad in my mailbox tomorrow, right? Because I would totally break my no-product-review rule for that shit. Look, two more links! Apple people? I prefer black devices to white. But I’ll leave it up to you.)

Housekeeping Sucks

Carter and I are having a Prairie night, by which I mean that we’re snuggled up together in my bed watching Little House on the Prairie.

When LHOTP was released on DVD? Among the happiest events of my life.

Oh, shut up.

I admire Ma. Most kids who grew up in the 70s wished they had been born into the Brady or Partridge families, but not me. I wanted to be one of the Ingalls girls.

Sadly, Ma would be ashamed to have me for a daughter. There she is on the TV right now, sewing or darning something in her tiny, pristine house. Pa is playing his fiddle; Mary, Laura, and Carrie are dancing; the dinner dishes have been washed and put away; and everything is just so.

My house is a sty.

I come from a long line of house-proud women. One family story tells of my great-grandmother who, upon discovering that an Oregon windstorm had left a coating of dust on her windowsills, actually vomited.

If I didn’t have pictures of her that look just like me, I would never believe that I was her direct descendant. I mean honestly, dust doesn’t even smell bad. Who cares?

Everyone in my family except me, that’s who.

Of course, I care, too. Who goes around writing about things they honestly don’t care about? I mean, assuming there is no money involved, which there is not.

I don’t like being a slob. Living in a messy house makes me anxious and a little depressed. It makes my family anxious and a little depressed, too.

But I don’t want to fuss over my house; I don’t want to have standards as high as the other women in my family. Somewhere, in my attempts to set standards of my own, I derailed entirely and ended up with almost no standards at all.*

Which is exhausting.

Even more exhausting than keeping a house clean would be.

I seem to be lacking something, the pride other people feel when they look over a room that they’ve just cleaned. Instead of pride, I feel pre-emptively angry at my family, who will almost certainly trash the room immediately.

So that’s not great.

I’m like Nellie Oleson (You remember her, right? She was the spoiled daughter of the mercantile owners on LHOTP.), throwing a big fit over cleaning my own damn house. But I don’t want to! I don’t like it! It’s boring! Why is it my responsibility?

As to why it’s my responsibility, I think that’s a matter for another blog post. Or not. I’m pretty sure I won’t be the person who solves the problem of labor division along gender lines.

So here I am having my big tantrum in the middle of a house that makes me anxious and angry and I really do want a solution.

Or I think I do. I’ve tried every system: Fly Lady, Julie Morgenstern, Sidetracked Home Executives, The Messies, and God only knows how many others. I have the same problem with every one of them: ultimately, there is cleaning to be done.

No matter how many books I read or how carefully I make the charts (or index cards, or electronic checklists, or whatever the system asks me to do), those things themselves do not clean the house. Eventually, there is getting out of the chair. There is dealing with the stuff: cleaning it, deciding what to do with it, putting it away.

I stall out somewhere between making the chart and the rest of it.

On the occasion that I get past my tantruming ways, I run headlong into a bigger, stronger, harder wall: overwhelm.

Oh, the overwhelm, my nemesis, the great purgatory of my emotional existence. I survey the crap, the clutter, the dirty floors, the mountains of laundry, and I freeze. Where to begin? I run through my bag of mental tricks. What’s bothering me most? Which job, if done, would have the largest emotional impact? The largest visual impact? The largest impact on Brian?

Which leads, inevitably, to the real questions: will I ever dig my way out? Am I such a lousy person that I can’t master something so basic? Why am I so weak, so pathetic, such a loser?

Sigh. Sometimes? I make myself very tired. Weary, even.

I’ve been complaining on and off for a few days about writer’s block. I thought of half-a-dozen reasons for this block, including PMS, a minor spat with Brian, the heat, and the fact that our abysmal financial situation is weighing heavily on my mind.

Yeah, right. None of those things has ever slowed me down before (And PMS? How the hell would I even know?). Fact is, it’s hard to organize my thoughts in chaotic surroundings. If I sit down at my desk to write and I’m surrounded by diet Coke cans, empty coffee cups, stacks of photo albums, and dozens of miscellaneous scraps of paper, I find it virtually impossible to make my brain operate in straight lines.

The words have to go in straight lines. You would have trouble reading if they went in swoops and swirls and jagged angles.

I don’t know how to make my peace with this. I do know how to make my inner Nellie Oleson be quiet and just clean the damn place up, but it’s just like losing weight: easily done, virtually impossible to maintain. I’m tired of this fight, but the only way I know to call a truce is to give up.

Which makes all of us unhappy.

So tomorrow, I’m going to spend some time trying to get this house a little more manageable. I don’t have a lot of faith in my ability to make meaningful change, but I don’t guess it’s OK to give up.

I do believe it’s a fight that’s worth my time and energy. A happier family is worth fighting for; a clearer mind is worth it, too. Feeling something other than blind panic when there’s a knock on the door?

Icing on the cake, baby.

*I’m compelled, because of the popularity of the show Hoarders, to put a little caveat here. First, we are not hoarders or even pack rats; we know exactly how many people and animals live here and they are all accounted for. And as much as we are terrible slobs, we’re not talking about any genuine health and safety hazards over here.

A Little of This, A Little of That, and My Inauspicious Writerly Beginnings

Holy ultra-serious blogeration, Batman!

Let’s take it down a notch or nine, shall we?

Because in spite of all the intensity I have expressed here recently, life is damn good right now.

“Damn good” is, of course, subjective. My damn good is not the same as yours (well, for a few of you it’s the same; you know who you are), but comparison is a road I avoid so let’s take a left turn and move on.

Carter is more stable than he has been in 18 months. He’s sleeping well most nights; we haven’t seen a genuine rage in quite awhile; even his anxiety has eased somewhat (and how happy am I that he can go to the bathroom alone again?). No way do I expect this to last. He’ll most likely fall apart tomorrow.

(That last bit was for the universe. Hello, Universe? Do not fuck with me. I am taking nothing for granted; I revel in every moment of health and happiness. There is no lesson I need to learn right now! I’m all learned up and humble so take a break! I will buy the scones and coffee and you can get some rest.)

Aaaand…(drum roll here) Carter went back to school last week! Life is better when Carter goes to school because he’s always calmer and happier when he’s busy. Also, I’m a much better mom when I’m not with him 24 hours a day. Really, I love that child from my hair to my toes, but he is intense.

Now that he’s in a year-round school, I love that Carter doesn’t lose as much ground over the long summer and there are more breaks during the year, all of a reasonable length. But what’s really awesome is driving him to school when the other moms in the neighborhood are looking down the barrel of four more weeks. I feel like I’m getting away with some kind of brilliant mom-crime.

In the midst of all this wonderfulness, this stability and sleeping at night and hours during the day during which I write in peace? There is room for me to think. I can feel my brain stretching out, relaxing, the cramps letting go. I have time for words, to use them to make sense of the world and myself.

Why yes, it is every bit as delightful as it sounds.

Spencer has been cleaning out our sun room (which, since we don’t use it much, has become a dumping ground for everything that doesn’t have a home of its own) and he found a Rubbermaid bin full of spiral notebooks. My old notebooks.

Let’s pause here for a moment. I’d like to suggest that, should one of your children discover a giant box full of your teenage angst poetry? You go hide before you commence with the reading and laughing. Otherwise, it’s quite likely that the child, and maybe some other children, and perhaps even your spouse, might take some of the notebooks and start reading. Then? The taunting and the mocking will commence. With gusto.

Under all that teenage angst poetry and faded scraps of paper (Most of which proclaimed my vast difference, and the immense difficulty of living in a world so devoted to conformity; ye gods, how was I to survive?) I found my fifth grade squiggle book.

I loved that squiggle book. I mean, loved it. I was hurt and upset that Mrs. Mills wouldn’t allow us to take the books home.

Pretty sure I was the only one.

Shakespeare, I was not, but I enjoyed writing words and knowing that someone would read them.

They worked like this: Mrs. Mills opened each student’s spiral notebook to a blank page and made a little squiggle. We drew a picture from that squiggle (I hated the picture part and rushed through it.) and then wrote a story or poem based on the picture.

I was an avid reader from the time I became truly literate early in second grade, but that squiggle book made me fall in love with writing down my own words.

It also gave me my first taste of real success. I wasn’t athletic or popular and although I was intelligent, I wasn’t much of a student. But the writing? My teacher and the other students loved it. Every time Mrs. Mills gave me a super-writer award or read one of my poems out loud in front of the class, I got half an inch taller. Once, Mrs. Mills read one of my poems aloud to the class and one of my classmates asked, “Did that get a super writer award?” When Mrs. Mills said no, a noisy murmur went up. She should get one. We want her to get the award! That’s a good poem!

I’m pretty sure I would have busted my buttons if I’d been wearing any. To this day, that’s one of the proudest moments of my life.

When the end-of-the-school year awards assembly came around, I shuffled off the cafeteria with everyone else, dreading an hour of boredom while people collected awards for perfect attendance, good citizenship (I was a well-behaved kid, but nowhere near friendly enough for awards that hinged on being nice to others.), and accomplishments made in PE.

But then! What’s this? The two fifth grade teachers, standing in front of 50 almost-pubescent kids who couldn’t have smelled very nice, announced a Writer of the Year Award. I sat up straight. Could it be? Would it be me? Would I finally be the one to take home a trophy? A ribbon? A certificate? I imagined my dad’s face when I told him, saw my mom smiling at my accomplishment. Oh! I wanted that! I held my breath and waited, waited, waited for them to announce that…

Stephen Sanchez had won the Writer of the Year award.

Yes, that’s his real name, though it might be Steven. That was 30 years ago and I remember everything, even the expression on Stephen’s face as he walked down the center aisle to get his trophy and certificate.

If I had won that trophy and certificate? The certificate would be in a frame on the wall and the trophy would sit right next to my computer.

Seriously.

Reading through my old book (the wire is rusted and the pages are yellowing) is a treat. I remember feeling then, as I learned to write stories, that my brain was stretching out, relaxing.  I found that when I wrote words down, put them in lines, I could make sense of the world and myself.

Happy happy sighs to be at home in myself now.

Universe? I am not testing you. Have another scone.

(Psssst…there’s this fun thing I want to do with my friend, and it’s silly and it will make me laugh. And you know how very important laughter is to me, right? So pop on over here and click the thumbs up next to my comment.)

Watch your mouth!

I’ve been all over the internet in the past hour, reading what other people have written about psychiatric terms used as slurs, insults, or jokes, and then I read comments. Many hundreds of comments.

People have strong feelings on this matter. And by strong I mean violent. I’m stunned by the vitriol out there about whether or not people have the right to use words like psychotic, schizophrenic, and bipolar however they want.

To which I say, of course we do. Every one of us has the right to say anything we damn well please. We are free to call our moody cats or our cranky neighbors bipolar. We may certainly call every angry, unpleasant, confusing, or mean person we meet psychotic. If we meet a person whose behavior seems unusual or confusing, we are allowed to say he’s schizophrenic. When a friend seems unusually thorough when she washes her hands, we can choose to joke that she has OCD.

We have that right, every one of us. You, me, and the guy walking his dog down the street. We can say what we want.

But let’s talk about the rights of people who have mental illness. Do they have the right to move through their lives without hearing their struggles made into jokes? Or made into put-downs?

The two rights are at odds with each other, so whose do we honor?

That’s where the “we” part ends because we, individually, get to choose our own words. I choose Carter’s right to not be made a joke over my own desire to pop off with certain wise ass remarks.

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I’m not entirely sure how I’m perceived by the people who read this blog, so just in case you don’t know I’ll tell you this: I think sacred cows make the very best hamburgers, politeness for the sake of politeness is silly, and political correctness sometimes gets downright ridiculous.

I also believe that I am actively creating the world in which I live. Words are powerful.

I’m struggling to remove the slang language of mental illness from my vocabulary. It’s very entrenched in our culture, so common that it’s invisible.

That invisibility doesn’t make it OK. The fact that “everybody does it” doesn’t make it right.

“Oh, you big whiner. Quit being so damn sensitive. You just have to get used to it.”

The fact that some (or even most) people believe it is a non-issue doesn’t make it so. Lots of people thought the N word was a non-issue.

I’m not naive; I know that, in many ways, we who care about how language affects people with mental illness do have to live with it. “Learning to live with it,” though, only means I’m not going to lose any sleep. I’m still going to help people be aware of their words. I’ll be nice about it, and I won’t nag, but this matters.

This probably won’t change in my lifetime. However, language can and does evolve. I haven’t heard anyone use the words cripple, mongoloid, or midget in many years, and those were all in common use just a few decades ago.

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If you use crazy, psychotic, bipolar, or any other mental illness-related word in my presence? I won’t be offended. Like I said, I totally get it. It doesn’t offend me unless someone puts real hate behind it. What I want from you is this: be aware. Notice how the language of mental illness has invaded our culture. Think about how that minimizes the struggle of millions of people, one or more of whom you may be talking to when you don’t know it.

In spite of what the media tells us, mental illness is not always visible. Even very ill people may have long periods of stability. If you lean over to your co-worker and say of your boss, “She’s totally psychotic today. What’s wrong with her?” and your co-worker happens to be a person living with a psychotic disorder, he’s likely to feel stung.

Is he a whining wimp? You just made a remark that makes a joke of an illness that has probably robbed him of much that you enjoy in your life. Many seriously mentally ill people lose years of their lives to their illnesses during which they are unable to build relationships, careers, and families. Many people who have mental illness can have joyful, productive lives, but the road to that place is on a steeper incline.

Whose rights do we honor?

*          *          *          *          *

Finally, there’s the argument that says, “I can’t censor myself just because I might offend you! How was I supposed to know you have a mental illness/love someone who has mental illness/care about this issue?”

This I don’t understand. I don’t use the N word. Not ever, in any circumstances, no matter what, no matter who is or isn’t listening. Ditto any other racial slur of which I am aware. I’m not censoring myself; I just don’t use words like that, no thought required.

The English language is pretty damn big. There’s always an alternative.

*          *          *          *          *

Someday all of this will change. People will acknowledge and respect mental illnesses and will no more joke about them than about muscular dystrophy, leukemia, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Because mental illness isn’t funny, either.

I’m Full of Surprises

Surprise! It’s not as good as a pony or one of those giant rainbow lollipops, but still, a surprise is a surprise, right?

I’ve been waiting on pins and needles to get moved into my new blog home to unveil two new features here at No Points for Style. The first is a blog award; the second is a guest blogger series. Those things sound very ordinary, don’t they? Yeah, well, maybe you haven’t met me. I don’t do ordinary.

So, go read about The Bad Ass Blogger Award and The AnonyBloggers. They’re both in the nav-bar in the header. Do you see them? Good. After you read, remember, especially about the award. I can’t read everything; I’ll be needing some nominations or the award will go to the same two dozen blogs over and over again. That’s no fun, is it?

New Digs

Heya, folks! Welcome to my new home! There’s lots more work to be done, but the basics are in place. It’s sort of like after you move and the furniture is in place, the beds have been made, and the kitchen is put together, but the garage is still full of boxes and there are no pictures on the walls. It’s not perfect (not like it every will be, but you get my meaning), but it’s functional. Hooray, and thank you Japster, Inc. for a job well done!

This will be a short post since I have several projects due in other places coming up, but I wanted to share a Carter update with you.

I’m afraid to even say it because it can all change so fast, but for today it’s 100% true: Carter is the most stable he’s been in many, many months. He’s in the habit lately of stomping off to his room when he’s angry, and when he gets there he doesn’t destroy anything. He hasn’t called me a nasty name, tried to hurt one of the dogs, or broken anything on purpose in weeks. He’s sleeping and eating well and is sometimes able to play a little. Amazing!

As far as we can tell, he’s had no hallucinations in about ten days and no more than a few mild delusions. His anxiety is the only significant issue right now, and even that is nowhere near as acute as it’s been in the past.  Obviously we still have work to do, but for the first time in a long, long time we feel like we’re moving in the right direction.

Finally, a damn near perfect Carterism: my folks were here last week to help Erin and I find a new place for Grammy to live and they took Carter swimming at their hotel. In the elevator on the way to the pool, he said, “I’m shooting out flames of happiness!”

Happy happy joy joy again! I could get used to this.