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Archive for March, 2012

Gratitude

The weather is perfect today in NC. I’m visiting Duke with my friend. She’s busy as a part of the group of applicants recently accepted into her specific program. Meanwhile, I get to roam the campus, using their wireless and enjoying the beautiful scenery and weather. I never set foot in an ivy league school. I walked Harvard Square in Boston, but never the actual campus. Earlier, a guy asked me for directions, and I couldn’t believe he mistook me as someone who fits in here. My first creative writing teacher, in high school, used to tell me I had an “in-superiority complex.” I have much more confidence than I used to, and I’m better at faking it for the times when I don’t–yet, I still walk around an ivy league school, certain I must stick out as an impostor.

My friend and I went to the same university for our undergrad. It’s a good school with exceptional faculty, but it is not one of the most selective schools in the state. My friend mentioned she felt intimidated because everyone she met this morning comes from ivy league schools and hasn’t heard of our university. It reminded me of a conversation I had four or five years ago with a wonderful literature professor. I walked in his office as a starry-eyed sophomore, asking for permission to do my paper on an Anne Sexton poem that was not included in our textbook. I was newly recovered from my first major depression, so Sexton’s poem, “Sylvia’s Death,” about Plath’s suicide intrigued me. My prof seemed interested in my selection, asking for details about my fascination. This, somehow, lead to me disclosing my desire be a published writer someday.

He told me my possibilities were endless, and I had the resources available to be one of the best–in whatever field I desired–but that I shouldn’t listen to anyone telling me to slow down. He explained the trap of mediocrity, and how he believes too many students from our university are naive about how their abilities compare with others–either buying into the idea that they couldn’t even compete with applicants from ivy league schools, or they think they are more exceptional than they really are, because they don’t realize how many other talented and driven people exist.

He said, “If you want to be a writer. Write. Now. All the time. Talk to as many people as you can. People will tell you that you have plenty of time to publish. You don’t. Start researching places to publish. What genre do you work in? Fiction or poetry?”

I nervously explained my love for creative non-fiction, asking if it was possible to study that. He wrote down the name of our creative nonfiction specialist, saying “I don’t even know if she still works here. Look her up. If she’s here, show up at her office, take a class with her. Ask her to be your advisor.”

This terrified me, but I did as he said, contacting this talented woman who became an exceptional mentor, despite my brief interaction with her. She introduced me to the idea that I could even dream of getting an MFA, got me connected at the writing center I would spend three years working at, and helped me achieve my first publication in a lit. journal. Best of all, she introduced me to Wasted, as proof I should keep with nonfiction–despite being told I was too young to write in a genre that requires so much reflection and insight. I had no idea that book would lead to me reading many other great books by the author, and eventually landing the opportunity to study under her.

My networking has multiplied since that conversation in my prof’s office, years ago. I’ve always been grateful for his advice and networking. This return of old gratitude, the kind that takes on a new level of depth with passed time, caused me to reflect on the power of teachers in my life. My identity has been deeply shaped by a good number of teachers–whether professional teachers or just life teachers.

Another example of a teacher telling me something that would prove to be helpful many years later involves my fourth & fifth grade teacher. He told us about his daughter’s suicide attempt. This horrified me, because I knew his daughter was very successful. I didn’t understand mental-illness yet, but I thought about that story a lot. When I landed in a hospital for depression and suicidal thoughts, over 10 years later, I had a whole new level of appreciation for my teacher’s courage in sharing something so emotional from his personal life. Someday I should write that teacher a thank you. There’s always so many letters I want to write and never enough time.

I’m so tired that I’m no longer thinking coherently to finish this blog. However, I’d like to mention that I returned for one night to where I went to college (in order to hear a speaker), and was overwhelmed with joy about the people who came out to see me. I’d originally intended to stay through the weekend, so I’d reconnected with former profs, friends, coworkers, agreeing to coffee dates with many. The way my traveling schedule worked out, I only had a couple free hours in town, so I invited everyone to one location. I knew it was late on a Wednesday night, last minute, and inflexible, so I did not expect people to make it out. Several folks came, and I really enjoyed catching up with such supportive people. My anxiety was through the roof after having been in a very crowded arena for the speech, so it was helpful to have such kind people around to catch up with. Thanks to those of you who made it.

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Healing

This out-of-season summer weather heals me. I’ve done some writing outside the past couple of days. It’s much easier to be creative when I’m at peace, and being outside here can force peace on anyone. Yesterday, I sat in the shade with my back against a tree, typing away on my computer. The light breeze carried the scent of pine while I listened to distant hymns escaping the chapel. I sighed and felt part of my intense anxiety leave me. It may have been the first time I felt fully at peace since my anxiety got triggered with the mugging in Chicago. I’d been doing everything to fight the anxiety–yoga, walks, decaffeinated tea, melatonin tablets at night, writing, drawing, reading, etc… Nothing provided full relief. I think it just required persistence and patience.

My tattoo is healing. It’s in the annoying itchy, peeling phase. It fascinates me the way the body physically heals. I’m trying to apply every detail of the physical healing to my experience with mental and spiritual healing. I’m even considering using healing as a central topic for my book project. Who knows…I’m just experimenting. Healing is a powerful concept though. I’m enjoying doing some thinking on paper about it all.

The other night, I got to speak to some “troubled teens” about my experience with recovery and mental-illness. It went well. I love working with teens, because they always act so tough. I find it fairly easy to connect with them, and it’s really rewarding when they warm up. I find most all of them are just as desperate for attention and love as the younger kids I work with. They are just too proud to show it. I connected with this group over the fact I took up skateboarding as a way to heal from the hospital, in addition to my tattoo. By the end of my hour with them, they were asking questions and sharing stories. If I even got through to one of them, I figure it was worth it. Plus, it was good practice for me to talk publicly about what was once personal/private issues.

I had the chance to talk to a good friend tonight that I hadn’t talked to in a long while. I enjoyed catching up on our activities, but it was especially helpful for me to be able to sum up my thoughts from the past few months. I realized I’ve been dealing with some heavy issues. It’s not like anything traumatic has happened, but it’s a lot of little things that stir up bigger fears.

I’ve heard from two of my three graduate schools. One yes. One no. Still waiting on the third. I’m so relieved to, at least, have one option. The one I was accepted into has under a 10% acceptance rate, so it feels good. It’s still scary not to know where I’ll be in 6 months. I get anxious and sad when I think about having to move out from the convent. I’m rather attached to the sisters, staff, and land I live on. Life is exciting when I do such strange things–like move to a convent for a year–but it makes for many hard goodbyes and changes. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

St. Patrick’s Day

Spent the first half of yesterday at a funeral. It was a beautiful service for one of the sisters who lived here. She celebrated her 95th birthday on New Year’s Eve, and I only just learned she joined the convent at age 15. I can’t imagine making any sort of commitment for 80 years.

Her biological sister lives here, and I am much closer with her than the one who just died. The deceased sister had been in a lot of pain and suffering for quite some time. It was the sort of death that brought everyone , including her loving sister, great relief. It’d been hard to watch her trip on morphine for her final days, knowing her pain was so intense that she cried every time they bathed her. The living sister is 91, and I learned so much from watching her care for her dying sister.

I went back to my hometown for a St. Patrick’s Day party last night. It was a party of all ages, and I had my family (excepting my brother) and a majority of my friends from high school & college there. In addition to all of that, I ran into two nuns I knew through a couple friends from years ago. I had not seen them in a few years, and I enjoyed being able to tell them about my current living situation. It was especially nice, because they understood, much more than the average person does, when I explained my lifestyle.

I told the one about my new realization–that the sisters here are teaching me how to love and be loved. I explained that I’ve always been uncomfortable with letting people do nice things for me or give me gifts, unless I was able to repay them in some way. The sisters had to eventually assure me that it is a gift for me to let them give me gifts and do nice things for me, since it brings them joy to show their love. I’d never thought about love in that way. Real love isn’t a game where everyone is keepings points about who owes who what and when. There are very few models for altruistic love in my life. My opportunity to learn about love from the sisters is one of the best things I could ever ask for. As I explained this to the sister, she beamed and looked at my mother, who was standing near by, and said, “Mom, are you listening to this?”

My mom smiled, but it was a nice reminder that I am learning lessons worth sharing. It was also a nice reminder that what I’m doing is worthwhile. With the recent kick of anxiety and depression, I’ve been letting the negative voices from concerned loved ones, in addition to my own negative voices, get the best of me. As I’m hearing from graduate schools, concerns about money, my ability as a writer, and even my worth as a human have resurfaced. I spent a few days in bed last week, and I’m still not feeling myself.

At the party last night, I felt guilty for not being able to party like I could in previous years. My friends, who I love dearly, still drink like they are in college. I don’t drink much anymore, so my tolerance is very low. I get headaches if I even look at a beer, and being hungover makes me depressed. My anxiety has been rather intense lately, so being with a large group of friends–a large group of mostly drunk friends–got overwhelming. I isolated myself a lot, sitting near my parents and talking to friends only if they came to me and allowed me to chat in a one-on-one setting. I know this frustrates my friends, because they love having fun, and we don’t get to see each other often. They feel bad when I isolate myself, and they were concerned today that they caused my anxiety. I tried to explain it was not any one of them, but it was just the group dynamic and loudness that comes along with everyone drinking.

Healthy thinking kicked in, and I realized that my friends love me, so I can just be honest with them. I told them my anxiety has been bad, and I just couldn’t party all night with them. Plus, my little sister substituted for me at the after-parties just fine. It made me realize that I’m doing great at taking care of myself, even if I’m not feeling great. Just because my mental illness is acting up doesn’t mean I’m sick.

I got my tattoo touched up Thursday–and by “touched up,” I mean completely redone. It looks beautiful. All of my friends noticed right away, saying how great it looks. I had a little bit of guilt about having gotten it touched up and not telling them since they cover for me, financially, a lot. They know I don’t work. So anytime we go out, someone buys me a drink or dinner or covers for me in whatever we are doing. It was a bit impulsive and irresponsible of me to spend the rest of my money on fixing my tattoo, but I don’t regret it for a few reasons. The practical reason: tax refunds are on the way 🙂 However, it was not a practical decision I made. After days of lying in bed, feeling mentally sick, I needed a reminder that I’m in control of my life and depression is not.

I first got this tattoo after my many hospitalizations due to depression several years ago. It was my first and only tattoo, so I planned it carefully. What started as a plan to get the words “Wisdom. Courage. Growth” tattooed around my wrist as a bracelet, transformed into me getting the words “Wisdom” and “Courage” tattooed  around my wrist–with a green vine that surrounds the words and forms a full bracelet to represent growth. WISDOM is blue to represent calm. COURAGE is purple for the whole “Purple Heart” thing. It also is perfect, because my favorite colors are blue, purple, and green.

The first tattoo didn’t heal right. I think I put too much ointment on it, because I’d heard horror stories about what happens when they get too dry while healing. Also, a couple months after getting the tattoo, I broke my wrist, had surgery, and was forced to be in a cast for two months. The woman who touched up my tattoo said that also caused some of the fading. The original tattoo also had a gap in the bracelet from a self-destructive scar that they could not yet tattoo over. I hated having a gap in my bracelet due to my own failure to cope healthily, but they warned that if they tattoo over fresh scar tissue, the ink spreads like a marker on wet paper. Now that I got it fixed, I have it all outlined in black, the green vine has two shades of green in it, the writing is legible and bright, and they connected my bracelet!

Circles are a big part of my spirituality, due to my time spent with the Lakota folks in S. Dakota. Lakota spirituality views everything as circular, and it has been a powerful symbol throughout my life for many reasons. I have seen circles in my healing in the most unexpected of places, and my time here with the sisters has been incredibly healing. It seemed necessary to connect the circle during this time–to remind me of my strength and ability to heal–to remind me about how damn beautiful this crazy life can be.

A Few of My Favorite Things

It’s been a rough week already. At least the weather has been phenomenal. Going outside does wonders for my mood. Instead of writing about how poorly I’ve felt, I’m making a list of my favorite things in life–the simple things that make me so joyful at times, I feel like I might burst at the seams with excitement for life.

Brown paper packages tied up with strings. These are a few of my favorite things:

  1. Climbing trees
  2. Walking barefoot in soft, muddy grass
  3. Cruising down slight inclines on my skateboard or longboard
  4. Tea
  5. Good conversation
  6. Good conversation over tea!
  7. Yoga
  8. Coloring in coloring books
  9. Coloring printouts with markers
  10. Painting
  11. Drawing with ink
  12. Poetry
  13. Sunrises
  14. Sunsets
  15. Starry skies
  16. Hugs
  17. When the family cat lays on  my chest & purrs
  18. When the family dog jumps all the way up into my arms, without me having to bend over, after I’ve been gone for extended periods of times, because she is so happy to see me.
  19. Reading
  20. The brief moments when writing is going well, and I completely lose myself in the words and ideas
  21. Seeing deer when no one else is around
  22. Seeing dolphins in the wild
  23. The smell of spring and fall
  24. Bonfires
  25. Rollerblading
  26. Solitary Walks
  27. One-on-one conversations
  28. Sparkles/Glitter
  29. Traveling
  30. Waterfalls
  31. The sound of water
  32. Robins
  33. Stickers with sayings I believe in
  34. T-shirts with fun or meaningful sayings on them
  35. Fountains
  36. Butterflies
  37. Flowers
  38. Camping
  39. Hiking
  40. Snowflakes in streetlights
  41. Cards or letters from loved ones
  42. Getting packages in the mail
  43. Libraries
  44. The first day each year when it is warm enough to be coatless
  45. Notebooks
  46. The smell of burning leaves
  47. Chocolate chip cookies
  48. Pizza
  49. Sipping microbrews
  50. Using positive coping mechanisms like this list 🙂

Back to Normal

My cheeks are pink; I’m overheated. After spending nearly two weeks away from the convent, my body adjusted to normal room temperatures instead of retirement home temperatures. I’ll take the warmth over the bone chilling temperatures we tolerated in my college years, though. Walking around in shorts and a t-shirt is way more fun than trying to see how many layers I can wear while still being able to move.

It was such a relief to see my grandma today. She is finally talking. Her stories of extreme pain resulting from muscle spasms sound like a nightmare. I knew the surgery was a big deal, but there’s still something unsettling about seeing someone we love so close to death. The doctor talked about holding her heart in his hand. He said it nonchalantly in order to explain that it started up again without much outside effort. He said, “The heart started up nicely after I gave it a light squeeze,” and then continued on. Most of us were stuck on those words, thinking Wait, you held her heart in your hand? How strange it is to think that one human can hold such power in one hand!

Today, her entire body was swollen–her hands didn’t look like her own, and her face looked as if she’d had the same jaw surgery my sister and I had as teenagers. That was when we had our jaws surgically broken! My grandma had her heart operated on and her face swelled up like that? Dried spots of blood stained the side of her gown from where they removed some tubes that had somehow been lodged in her. She had blood on her teeth, which she complained she hadn’t been able to brush since the surgery. I was amazed at how independent she was when the nurse brought her the toothbrush and toothpaste. My grandma pretty much sat up on her own. This woman just had her sternum cut open on Tuesday! She has to wear this thing wrapped around her chest with handles. When she coughs, she has to hold the handles together in order to prevent the sternum being ripped apart. What a horrific thing to imagine. The only thing I can connect it to is when they cut the palette of my mouth in half during my jaw surgery. I woke up with a gap on the top of my mouth; it made an awful suctioning sound/feeling when ever I took a breath. It felt so awful that I cringe thinking about it, despite the fact I can’t actually remember the pain or feeling anymore. I try to picture that on the level of a split sternum, and my brain just naturally switches subjects, because I can’t handle dwelling on it.

I have so much I want to blog about. Today, I realized that my last few days overshadowed a lot of the good things that happened during my time away. If I could, I’d write about all of them tonight. But I’m too exhausted–physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, sexually (haha okay just joking about that last one. Let’s be real. I DO live with nuns. Just enjoying being silly with adverbs and making sure you’re paying attention 🙂 ).

Hope to do a more reflective blog soon. Peace.

Whirlwind of Chaos

The last couple of weeks have been filled with some intense ups and downs. I’ll start where I left off by mentioning my Ash Wednesday without electronics. I’d made a list of all the things I wanted to accomplish while having no outside distraction. I ended up doing very little of my planned activities. Instead, I just did whatever felt right. The next day, I felt a tinge of disappointment at my lack of productivity until I noticed my mind’s tranquility. I’d been having my typical loud, racing thoughts that come and go as they please in phases throughout the year (maybe month?). Yet without even putting much effort into it–as in no meditating or yoga–just by eliminating distraction, I calmed my mind. I realized that, alone, is a huge accomplishment.

I spent a few days at my parents’ before heading to Chicago for a writing conference. My time at home allowed me to spend time with friends and family I don’t get to see often. It was a nice reminder of what a great support system I have. Being reminded how loved I am does wonders for my mental health.

The actual conference went fantastic. I heard a great variety of talented speakers, ran into old friends from all over, and spent my birthday on top of The Hancock building with a glass of wine, staring at Lake Michigan’s blackness contrasted with the miles and miles of city lights. It was spectacular.

While at the conference, my grandma had a heart attack. My grandma is young; she was often mistaken for my mother all my life. My Maternal grandmother died from a heart attack 5-6 years ago. You’d think that would have taught me how quickly these things can happen. I just didn’t see this coming though. She’s young and gets around great. She even went to visit her brother in Australia just this past November. She’s having open-heart surgery on Tuesday. I’m staying with my family, until at least Wednesday, to be with her during this time.

Also, my friend who shared a room with me received word her best friend’s mom died while we were at the conference. In addition to all of this, I was having some severe, complicated anxiety and racing thoughts. A man walking fast toward my friends and I shouted something at us. I ignored it out of fear we’d get harassed. However, it turned out he was just telling us why the road was blocked off and the street was chaotic. A woman had stepped out in front of the train. This rested heavy on my mind for many reasons. The main reason being that suicide took on a whole deeper level of sadness for me after my own experiences of being suicidal and then being able to experience recovery. Also, I felt guilt about ignoring the man shouting at me. I felt ashamed that I’d judged the man, trying to ask myself the difficult question if the fact the man was Black had been part of my fear. Would I have reacted the same if a white man ran, shouting at me? I’d like to think yes. But, it left me feeling a bit of “white guilt.” However, the next night, something rather traumatic happened where I realized I should have been more paranoid.

***

I’d considered walking alone to meet with my ind. study instructor. She’d offered to pay for me to get a cab since she’d moved the location further away from our original meeting place, making my walk much longer. I’m rather uneasy with people giving me things, especially someone I don’t know well, and especially ESPECIALLY someone I believe is already doing me a favor by even meeting up with me in the first place.

Luckily, I was running late, and had to take her up on her offer in order to make it on time. She gave me twice the amount of the cab ride so I could get home. If she’d not have been thoughtful enough to do that, I would have walked home alone. I wasn’t THAT afraid of walking alone in Chicago. When I was in the city for the same conference a few years ago, my brother lived in town. He’d meet up with me in the evenings after work, and then make me ride the train and walk home alone so he could get home to bed in time to wake up for work.

My brother is 3 years older than me, but only one inch taller and about 20 LBS lighter. He walked alone every day and night, and told me which trains to get on and what way to walk. He said if I just walked confident and didn’t stop for anyone, I’d be fine. I gained a lot of confidence from walking the city alone. I’d usually only be anxious until I reached Michigan Ave, because it’s well-lit and there’s lot’s of people.

Last night, walking on Michigan Ave, only a couple blocks from where the conference was, we were stopped on a corner talking to someone when a group of three Black men stopped behind us. They seemed to be talking to the kid behind us like they knew him, and after my possible “racist fear” the day before, I didn’t want to overreact. The guy we were talking to (long story as to who he was) started to get paranoid and ran away before we were done talking. Laura saw the kid behind me emptying his pockets and told me to run, so we did. Right when I started to run, I heard the kid get hit in the face. We passed the boy we’d been talking to, and he was calling the police and looked like he’d seen a ghost.

I’ve seen fights at school. I even saw a kid getting jumped by a gang on a Native reservation. With the kid getting jumped on the reservation, it was too dark to really see anything but silhouettes, and I was in a car so I didn’t hear it. Hearing this kid get knocked out right behind me was still probably the closest experience with violence I’ve had. My friend and I ran to the nearest food place that was open, which was surprisingly far even though it was only about 8 pm. While we ran, a taxi almost ran me over, despite that they had a red light. We finally went into a Starbucks to catch our breath before finding food.

I was in a state of constant panic the rest of the night. I’m still rather tense and paranoid this evening. The event just triggered all of my own panic, reminding me that no one is ever really safe and to never let my guard down. The event also caused me to attack my morality, calling myself a hypocrite for believing I could ever be courageous in such a situation. Like, I wondered what I’d have done if they’d jumped my friend. Would I just run and call the cops, or try to be with her? Then, of course, I went through all of the “What ifs?”. What if I hadn’t taken a cab to and from my meeting? What if my friend and I hadn’t been talking to that third guy who called the police? Would I have thought to call the police that quickly in all of my fear? What if they pulled a gun? These thoughts then spiraled into much more irrational “what ifs,” like what if I can’t survive on my own ever? And what if I always am as terrible with directions, short-term memory, and driving anxiety as I am now? How will I survive as a functioning adult?

I’m still very thankful I went to the conference and for all of the wonderful people I got to see during my time there. I’m not yet feeling back to normal. I’m sure the rock-hard, small bed I had to share with my friend, not eating routinely or healthily, not taking my vitamins, and drinking beer when I never drink with the nuns was hard on my body. I need to do yoga or something of the sort tomorrow. Hoping for a good night sleep tonight. It’s a miracle what a solid night of sleep can do.