To cut

December 21, 2014

Cutting. Self-injury. Self-harm. Cool, precise, surgical terms. Back in the day I called it what it was to me: Self-mutilation.

I was 15 the first time I took nails to flesh. I had fought my last boy earlier that year and without the ability to express my violence outwardly my head was shriekingshriekingSHRIEKING and there was no-thought no-thought no-thought just dig.

Hm.

Dig again.

Deeper.

Flesh gummy beneath my nail.

Unlike the movies, blood doesn’t come pouring out. It seeps up. To quote myself, I was “digging irrigation ditches.” And there’s not much blood. Not this way. There’s just the digging, the gouging, and the blissful, blissful  s i l e n c e .

To quote myself again, “It would be years before I would see the parallels with drug addiction.”

Someone I love, someone in my heart, cuts on a regular basis. She started when she was twelve. She’s now eighteen. Her therapist tries to get her to exercise instead. Please. If you’re ready to cut, you’re lucky if you have anything in you besides an overwhelming need to do it do it do it. It’s all-consuming. This therapist focuses on the cutting and ignores the fact that my dear one doesn’t know how to feel her feelings. She feels deeply, keenly, and her only way of expressing herself is to carve love notes in her wrists and ankles.

I tell her that if she cuts safely, shallowly, in areas with lots of fat instead of nerves and tendons, she can focus instead on just trying to change one variable in the equation. She doesn’t have to pick up a pencil and draw a picture. She can just try to blink. One. Two. Then go back to cutting. Then blink. One. Two. Just try to interrupt the pattern. She hasn’t been able to change anything yet.

MytherapistLynn says all wounds can be healed but I don’t know. When there has been so much violence, so much pain, so much violation, how do you get to the other side? I can’t see it. We constantly make breakthroughs in therapy but I am moving in slow motion while time slides quicksilver by.

I started beating up boys after my best friend’s father, Ron Hampsten, started sexually abusing me when I was about eight. Or nine. Or ten. We don’t know because I didn’t tell anyone. And no one noticed. There just came a point after a few years where I was banned from the school football games because I was having too many fights under the bleachers.

I never fought girls. Boys were my enemy. Boys and men. Boys and men with the power to do all the things I couldn’t. Boys and men who would put their hands on girls and women unless I stood in their way. I beat them bloody.

There was a group of girls in grade school who decided they were going to get me, I don’t recall why. They were older girls and for two years they would pursue me on the playground. They never caught me. I remember clearly the day the group of them almost surrounded me but I ran to the juncture of two walls so if they wanted to get at me they’d only be able to come head-on. And no one could get me that way. They were tough girls, hard and wiry, who would let the boys stick their hands up their shirts when they played “nigger pile.” I was afraid of them. I was contemptuous of them. I wanted to be them. Powerful. Except I wanted to avenge all my sisters by beating back the hands of all the men and boys who had ever crossed the line. Who even thought about crossing the line. After all, it was our line.

I recall an odd instance in eighth grade art class where I challenged the boys to try to beat me at keeping our hands under hot water. One after another they tried putting a hand under the tap across from me while I let the hot water burn my hand red continuously, huge grin on my face. My skin could’ve come off in rags and I’d still be grinning. Because I could take it. I could take the pain. They couldn’t. I wonder sometimes if my lack of manual sensitivity dates to that time, if I did some sort of permanent damage, or if I was able to sustain the activity because my nerves aren’t as sensitive in my hands. I’m useless at all manual skill. My sewing is a joke. I have a slight perpetual tremor in both my hands. When I’m jittery, the rest of my body stays perfectly calm but my hands and arms spasm outward like some manual Tourette’s.

I started with digging. Gouging. It worked, so I did some more. I dug into the sides of my wrists, along the line of the bone, on both hands. A small, tentative start. A longer line next to it. And then one long canal on my left side, sure now. The voices gone. The self expanding into the void. The power of silence.

I remember my freshman year in college I was in a freakout in my dorm room and I smashed a light bulb against the door, sending glass everywhere. I dove onto it, snatched a shard, and dug it into my skin. And nothing happened. I keep pressing harder but it didn’t break the skin. Now it makes me laugh—all those movies where a broken bottle means blood everywhere, but here I couldn’t get shards of glass to even cut the skin. I smashed a plastic jewelry box that was the gift of my mentor and settled down with that instead. By that time I had long graduated from the sides of my wrists to the delicate interior at the base of the palm, plus arms, legs, face, ankles. I just wanted to cut and cut and cut. Mutilate. Let. It. OUT.

At Drake’s workshop this summer, he talked about the epidemic of self-harm among teens and how it’s perhaps indicative of a shamanic awakening. Ritual scarification.

I held my arm in candle flames. Just let the stink of the hair and the flesh fill my nostrils as I blissed out.

But the best part was the days after. In the moment there was just numbness. There was hardly any pain at all. But in the days after, oh, the pain. The fire. It was glorious. It was baptism. In the midst of all the grey madness, it was the one indication that I was truly alive. It was a clarion call of reality amidst the shadows that crowded my mind. I could doubt all else, but I could not doubt the burning. That gorgeous burning.

I remember being in a clothing store with my mom and sister when I was in high school. I reached out for something on a rack and as I did so, my sleeve rode up, exposing long jagged scabs on my wrist. My mother grabbed my arm and stared up at me with this overwhelming lost little girl look. And I stared down her eyes victorious. It was such a high. I had superpowers. Powers she didn’t have. I bore the stigmata.

My tool of choice at teenage parties was a bottle opener. Made for very dramatic gashes, and even more dramatic scenes as half-drunk girls screamed out loud and gathered around me, rushing me to the bathroom. The boys were silent and held back, unsure in the face of this women’s mystery of blood and toil.

Knives had their own kind of pain. It was very intense. A very fine line. There was more blood. Using my nails was more diffuse. Sloppier cuts but less deadly. It wasn’t until I was nineteen or twenty that someone pointed out I could’ve cut into muscle or tendons. From then on I was more careful.

I don’t remember why I stopped mutilating. I know I stopped before my Saturn Returns. In a gorgeous ritual I faced that side of my self, that side that sought to give me life by giving me death, and I thanked her and forgave her and let her go.

But I still have the urge. Frequently. It’s not surprising. I am still prohibited from beating the crap out of boys and men, which leads me to my fallback of beating the crap out of myself. I’ve held off for about twenty years. I don’t know why. Like now, as I think about it, I don’t really care if I cut myself or not. It’s not a big deal to me. But there is some part of me, some facet of this many-faceted jewel, that believes it’s important not to. High Priestess comes to me, takes both my hands, and says seriously, “We don’t do that anymore.”

Can all wounds be healed? I remember going in for an evaluation at a mental health clinic and after I’d filled out their ridiculous questionnaire, The Man asked to see my scars. I showed him. “Where are they?” he asked. “Right there!” I cried, waving my wrists in his face. Yet another time when I suddenly was thrown out of consensual reality and left terrified that maybe all these years I hadn’t actually been self-mutilating—maybe all this time it was hallucinations, just like all the other hallucinations I had. I twisted into multiple parts, fractured along my many personalities in that magic moment, not knowing where I’d come down. “And what is truth?” Pilate asked.

There has just been so much violence. So much directed at me. So much caused by me. I feel it in my flesh, in my muscles, in my marrow. I feel the impact on my skin. I hear it—Gods above, how I hear it!—in the thousand voices screaming in my head. I am staring into the eyes of a man who is deciding whether or not to kill me. He has his hands around my throat. And the moment just goes on and on….

How do I learn to live with what I’ve been? With what has happened to me? With what continues to happen? I am trapped in the past—PTSD makes sure you stay firmly rooted in the trauma, so it’s happening now and now and now and now and now and now.

I was crucified by time once. Long, incredibly thin, red-hot needles just poured down on me with every second, piercing my skin and bones. I could literally feel time. I was gasping for breath, screaming, pinned to the couch, utterly terrified. Would it ever stop? Because it was happening every second, every tickticktickticktickticktickticktickticktickticktickticktickticktickticktickticktickticktick.

How do you learn to live in a world where such things happen?

How can you be happy in a world where such things happen?

Today I finished reading a book about a woman whose entire life is ruled by her facial scars. At the end she walks out into the rain and her scars are erased. I felt this tremendous release. I wept. I want to be washed clean, too. I want bad things to have never happened. I don’t want to be able to still feel those hands around my throat. I don’t want that fucker Hampsten with his hands inside me. I don’t want to feel the thud of flesh under my fist. I don’t want to know what I’m capable of doing to myself. “I am Hitler, I am Stalin, I am Pol Pot.” I want to start over in the rain and find peace amidst the pouring water. I want to be able to smile and not have to fear that my mouth will keep getting wider until my face splits in half and my skull is revealed. I want to feel safe. I want to be safe. I don’t want to experience violence or cause violence ever again, except in defense of those who need it. But what I really want I can’t have. I want to forget it all. I want my body to be free of it. I want to be clean. But that can never be.

Can all wounds be healed? In a multiverse like ours, I suppose it’s possible, but just how many scars will I have? Would there be any part of me left innocent?

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The character of water

December 10, 2014

At the end of Season I, episode 3 of Xena (“Dreamwalker”), Xena and Gabrielle are at the side of a small lake. They have a conversation which has always struck me deeply:

Xena: See how calm the surface of the water is? That was me once. And then…(she throws a stone into the lake) the water ripples and churns. That’s what I became.

Gabrielle: But if we sit here long enough, it will go back to being still again; go back to being calm.

Xena: But the stone is still under there. It’s now part of the lake. It might look as it did before, but it’s forever changed.

I take it as it was given in the show—Xena realizes her dark past is a part of who she is. It began when she picked up the sword and embarked on a life of violence and murder. And now she lives with it. Her challenge is not to be controlled by her past, but to assimilate the stone and accept the changed self.

Messages of this kind always strike me because of my own past, where I have not always acted as I wished, and where I have been subject to the nightmare of mental illness. Many stones have been thrown into me. My journey now is to become calm, and make the internal adjustments that bring peace.


Down the Rabbit Hole

September 28, 2014

This is the story I performed at the Storyzilla showcase on 10 September. My therapist quibbles over whether I have psychotic or dissociative episodes, but it doesn’t matter for our purposes. I massaged a couple details in the story to bring it in on time.

+++

It’s 2002 and I am molasses. I am congealing into my mattress, becoming one with the bed, as I’m sobbing uncontrollably. He’s just left me. And you know how it goes: “I’m fat! I’m ugly! No one will ever love me!”

But I get my ass up and I determine I just need to try harder. I come up with a plan (I’m a Capricorn, I am all about plans). It’s a two-parter: I’ll take three months to get my shit together, and then the next three months will be dedicated to dating. Now, I don’t date. I find that whole, “Hey, how are you, let’s do coffee, wanna see a movie” thing completely bizarre. I have a relaaaaationship. Then I have another relaaaaationship. Serial monogamist. But I figure it’s time to turn over a new leaf, try harder, and make myself better.

So I get myself a new therapist and start working on my crippling depression. I wake in the morning crying, I drag myself to my desk to check email, I sob back to the bed, I watch Lord of the Rings on my laptop, twelve inches away from Rivendell. Rinse and repeat.

My three months are up and I’m worried because I don’t seem to be getting better. But, by the gods, my three months are up and it’s time for: Match.com! But I’m still weirded out by the whole “””dating””” thing, so instead I seek out friends. I write an innnnteresting profile and write innnnteresting emails and soon I have about seven people who want to meet for coffee and hey how are you and let’s go see a movie. But once we meet in person, we don’t quite jibe. I don’t know if they can tell how fucked up I am, but the whole thing turns into a disaster. One by one they all drop off the face of the earth. I am devastated. I am being sucked into the black tar of quicksand and I’m grasping a rock with all my might to keep from being dragged in.

I am setting in my therapist’s office and I am telling her, “I’m really worried. I’m beginning to feel like I can’t feel my ‘I’ anymore. I’m not really sure what’s real anymore.” And my therapist, who is holding my kite string to keep me from bobbing around erratically, says, “You’re having a Buddhist enlightenment experience! Don’t you feel free?” She has just cut my kite string. Snip snip. I spaz around in the sky before divebombing into the ground.

I get worse.

 

There is a morning where I get up out of bed, I take a few steps, and then

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A tiny pinprick of white light appears in the back of my brain. As it comes into being, I slowly become aware that I am lying in the fetal position on my floor, and I have been talking for a very, very long time. I can’t even tell if I’m speaking English. The little white light says, “This Is Not Rational.” It goes away.

The thing about having a psychotic experience like this is it’s impossible to describe. You can’t say, “I’m standing on the edge of a cliff” or “I’m looking up from the bottom of a black chasm” because in this kind of episode there is no “I.” You can’t even say, “There is nothingness,” because that assumes there’s an “I” that can observe nothingness.

The pinprick of light comes back. “This Is Not Rational.” It goes away. Over an unknown period of time it comes back with more frequency and stays longer each time. I slowly become aware of how stiff I am from lying clutched on the concrete floor. The light stays. I become more aware. And it says, “Check Your Insurance Policy.” This is the most rational thought I’ve had in nine months. I get up.

I go to my black metal filing cabinet, the repository of all the detritus of my life, and I pull out my insurance policy. And right there, it says, “Mental Health Hotline” with a number underneath.

I ring the number and try to explain the unexplainable experience I’ve just had, stumbling over myself, getting more agitated as I chronicle the downward spiral I’ve been on for almost a year. They say, “You need to go to a hospital immediately for evaluation.”

I am in the Meadows Hospital parking lot. I am terrified. I have just had the most terrifying experience of a life filled with terrifying experiences but the day is not over. What you need to understand is that mental illness runs like a long, black, oily river down the bloodlines of my family, infecting generation after generation. I have two ancestors who were committed to Longcliff Asylum for the Insane in the 1920s and their names were never mentioned again until the day they died. They were disappeared from the family. And now I am setting in the parking lot of an asylum, in the throes of total panic, terrified that I will go in and never ever come out. Padded rooms, straightjackets, electroshock treatments. Nightmares come true. But I’ve got to keep going, I’ve got to try harder, it’s this or die.

I am setting in the intake room with a woman who is asking me questions. It’s a small, dimly lit room and we are talking over a small round table. And as I talk I get increasingly agitated, voices screaming in my head, lights flashing. And then suddenly there’s my great-grandfather looking through my eyes and then, wait a minute, now he’s talking through my mouth and I’m over to the side observing myself and I’m like, “What the hell? This is my body!”

We get to the end of the evaluation and she gently tells me, “You’re going to need to stay here.” And I say, “You don’t understand, I’ve got a client meeting in twenty minutes. ” She says, “No, I don’t think you understand, you’re having an emergency, you need to stay here.” “No, you don’t understand, I’ve got a client meeting in twenty minutes.

I leave. She’s not happy. I gather the shreds of my game face. Try harder.

I’m in the meeting with my client and there are voices shrieking in my head and lights flashing all through my brain and my nerves have been absolutely bathed in acid, I’m on fire, and through my eyes I’m screaming, “I’m insane!! I’m insane! I’ve just been thrown into an insane asylum!” and out of my mouth come the words, “I think if we use some pull-quotes here it would really draw the eye through the layout of the brochure. And if you could get some photos of the students, focus in on the eyes. Focusing on the eyes really draws people in.” And then I’m screaming at myself, “Don’t mention the eyes! She’ll look at your eyes and she’ll see! She’ll see!” And out of my mouth comes, “And if we could get this on iridescent paper, that would really make it pop!”

The meeting is over. I am walking down the hall with her. She hasn’t seen me for two years. As we walk down the stairs, she turns to me and says, “You look great! What’s your secret?”

I have one of those out-of-body experiences where I’m all “What’s real here, is it what I’m feeling or what’s being reflected back to me, what if I’m totally normal and just imagining things are wrong WHAT IS REAL??!?” And out of my mouth comes, “Just good clean livin’!” She laughs. I leave.

I go into Meadows. There’s a whole long story here which we’ll skip because we don’t have all night. Suffice it to say I am beyond hope because I can’t remember the beginning of sentences by the time people reach the end of them. So they say something, I ask, “What?” and they repeat themselves and I ask, “What?” and they repeat themselves and I ask, “What?” and they go away.

I am in the office with the all-important psychiatrist, the one who will diagnose me. And I am determined to try harder, to keep it together and rationally relate the last few days, the last nine months, the last twenty years of my life. He sets with his hands calmly folded over his clipboard. He’s not taking any notes. And then he says, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you,” at which point I start screeching at the top of my lungs, “YOU HAVE TO HELP ME! YOU HAVE TO HELP ME! I AM GOING TO DIE!!!” He starts taking notes.

I am taken to art therapy. I cut out pictures of babies which I will never have and when I find photos of smiling women I cut out their eyes so I can make a lovely collage of their mutilated faces for the folks back home. I am in total chaos with the screaming and the lights and the acid and the inability to wrap my brain around the simplest concepts snip snip babies eyes holes glue scissors nurse, nurse in the doorway, little paper cup in one hand, a clear plastic cup of water in the other and I know this is the moment, this is the time when I will have to take the meds will I be me anymore? will I be addicted? will I have to be on meds for the rest of my life? TRY HARDER take the pill, it’s an eighth of a milligram of Klonopin, I swallow down its pink antisepticness and twenty minutes later there is

 

 

 

 

s i l e n c e

 

 

blissful    s i l e n c e

All the voices are silenced.
The lights are gone.
My blood is my own again.
And my first thought is:
“It’s not my fault.”

It wasn’t a matter of trying harder, of outsmarting it. I have a chemical imbalance in my brain. I inherited it. It’s part of who I am. And as long as I take my 17 pills a day, I can manage. There is…a floor to this downward spiral. The ability to cope.

Having some types of mental illness is like having diabetes. It’s a genetically influenced, chronic, potentially life-threatening disease that is treatable through medication and consultation. It’s not about trying harder.

It’s Not Your Fault.


World’s best description of depression

March 2, 2014

Read it here. Then come back.

I am not yet to the corn stage. Still hanging out with the fishes.

I think this blogger nails it when they talk about how difficult it is to be around cheery people who try to talk you out of depression. I know, I know, you feel helpless and you really, really want to help, and that’s very kind of you, but in some cases the best thing you can do is say, “I’m sorry things are so hard for you right now.”

Severe depression is an illness like diabetes: chronic, potentially life-threatening, and treatable. It can’t be overcome by simply talking to a friend. It takes treatment by a trained professional.

That doesn’t mean friends and family can’t help. It’s just important to keep in mind that severe depression is a long-term thing, not a three-day “I’m feeling a little blue and just need someone to talk to” sort of thing. So unless you want to exhaust yourself with continual rescue attempts, just offer support and turn to your friends for support for you. The depressed person isn’t going to make you feel better by—hey presto—changing behaviors permanently overnight.

I had a vision when I was 17 that “something very, very bad” was going to happen but that I would be all right when I was 23. Sure enough, my life began to spin out of control and when I was 18 I began having psychotic episodes. That went on until the day when I came within a hair’s breadth of going over the edge permanently and I just suddenly shut it all down. That’s a good story (good=interesting, not good=fluffy bunnies and rainbows) and I’ll have to tell it someday.

But anyway, my point is that I shut down everything. I became the walking dead. No feelings. No feelings whatsoever. It was my first experience with the all-pervasive grey that comes with severe depression. I remember my sister screaming at me, “You’re so cold, you’re like ice—” and my replying, “Paula, I’m afraid that if I start crying, I’ll never stop.”

Things went on. Again, a story for another time. Hallucinations, self-mutiliation, constant thoughts of suicide. You know. The usual. And the only thing that kept me hanging on was that vision that I’d had. So I hung in there. Hanging by a thread, but vaguely curious to see if the vision would come true.

One day when I was twenty-three I was setting on the edge of my bed. I leaned down to tie my shoes. As I got back up, whoosh, all my feelings came rushing back. “I can feel! I can feel.” I just sat there crying in wonder and gratitude. (Gratitude! A feeling!)

Who knows why it happened? After all, it’s not like I hadn’t worn shoes before. It was completely out of the blue—no warning. I wasn’t thinking anything in particular. Just putting on my shoes.

So I get what the blogger says about the corn. Sometimes all the medication and the therapy help, and sometimes it’s a mysterious juxtaposition of random forces that elicit change. I’ve been 14 years now in the wasteland and sometimes I still catch myself holding my breath when I tie my shoes. Maybe someday that will do the trick.


The glass pumpkin

February 28, 2014

Last night at Nell’s Story Play class I told a story about madness. My madness. I’ll try to put it in narrative form.

Lots of stuff happened. It rode up my back and swirled through my brain to wreak havoc on my frontal lobe so that in 2003 I was faced with being institutionalized. It’s a family trait. I’d spent years with screaming voices in my head and my fingers clinging onto the edge of a cliff of sanity and it all got out of control. After counseling with some of the members of my tribe, I decided to check myself into the Asylum for Crazy People. But I promised myself:

“I am only in this for as long as I want to be in this.”

In the hospital I was given a diagnosis that sort of made sense and achieved the nirvana of a silent brain with the help of Klonopin. I came up with a treatment plan and was eventually released.

Years passed. The stories I could tell. Those will wait for another class. Let’s pull it forward almost a decade, an almost-decade of anxiety and crippling depression and grey dissociation and strugglestrugglestruggle.

Mornings are the worst. In the in the in the mornings my in the mornings my in the mornings my thoughts repeat in the morning my thoughts in the morning my thoughts repeat in bits in the mornings in the mornings my thoughts repeat repeat repeat in bits in the bits in the mornings repeat bits so it echoes echoes echoes. Total chaos. Sometimes I just lie in bed and scream. Other times I force myself up to take my meds and drink some milk. That starts to slow the train. Sometimes.

This was a morning like any other morning. I finally got my ass out of bed and drooped to the bathroom. But when I looked in the mirror everything was suddenly…clear. Quiet. Silent. And in that silence was a statement: “I think I’m done.” I gazed into my eyes. “You sure?” I asked internally. “I think I’m done,” I said out loud. And the clarity continued. Silence. Surety. Safety.

I have a plan for suicide and it will take several days to execute (bad pun but I won’t apologize). When I saw my psychiatrist during our regularly scheduled appointment that day, I told her about my decision. She kept her cool and asked if I would wait a day—if I would just come back tomorrow and talk. Still clear, I agreed. I didn’t need to buy the gun that day.

The afternoon passed and it was time for me to see my therapist. I was no longer clear. I was starting to slip. She was alarmed. She tried to reach me but I was going non-verbal. She moved to her files to get the number of the hospital and I came hissing and spitting out of myself. No way was I going back.

“Who are you?” she asked. “What year is it?” Trying to determine if I were grounded in consensual reality.

There was a glass pumpkin suspended in the air in front of my eyes, and each section of it contained a year. I could see “2011” on one slice but it was going to take so much effort to get to that piece. I floundered and spun and reached so hard when suddenly I felt a “snap” like a rubberband whacking you around your wrist and I just let go.

“It’s 1939. I’m 29 years old and I’m on a bus. I’m a secretary. I’m on my way home from work.” I could see the cloth coat I was wearing, feel the bus jostle me as I stood in the aisle, holding onto the back of a seat. A shaft of sunlight shone in the window to my right and warmed my hand. I wore a hat and a dress and I had a handbag. The air had a bit of a chill. It was late September.

My therapist asked me to look at my hands but hands were not the be-ringed gnarled crone hands of Cairril Adaire, they were the hands of this other me, this 1939 secretary me on her way home from work.

When I have these “episodes” (which are either psychotic phenomena or DID projections), they last for a few hours. Sometimes I have convulsions. I usually end up silent on the floor, totally incapable of communication, lost in a silent fog. I stare until my contacts pop out when I blink. After time, some time, who knows how much time, I get up. I put my contacts away. I brush my teeth. I go to bed. Next morning, it’s like it never happened. I hit the reset button by going to sleep. And all I have to do is keep it together through the screaming until the next one strikes.

Needless to say, I didn’t buy a gun that day. With my reset, I was back in the fight.


The second thirty years

December 8, 2013

I decided to kill myself on May 12th, 1997. Denise came back from the big bonfire to our little camp. She took one look at my face and said, “You’ve decided, haven’t you?” I nodded. There was nothing more to say.

Two months earlier my fiancé had left me. At first I grieved naturally and started to experience some healing. But then, as had happened since I was 15, my natural process was hijacked by my mental illness and I spiraled down into a deep depression.

As I had countless times before, I fantasized about killing myself to end the pain. I had lost not only the man I loved with every cell, I had lost a loving family and a promising future with children of my own. I couldn’t cope.

Aaron came to stay with me. For several years I hadn’t been able to watch any movies with violence in it but not long after Barry left I watched a long documentary on the Nazis. Aaron tried to distract me with lighter fare but I wanted to dig deep into suffering.

I threw myself on the mercy of my friends. Again. Whenever a crisis arose, there would be tearful late-night phone calls, crashes on couches, and always, always, endless talk of cutting myself and suicide. On April 15th, 1997, I was trudging into work, wallowing, when I suddenly snapped to clarity. “I will give myself a month,” I decided. “If, in that month, I want to die more than I want to live, I will kill myself. I’m sick of this suffering. More than that, I’m sick of putting my friends through this. I’m either in or out.”

During the ensuing month I studied up on suicide—its causes, its methods, and how to prevent it. I had a long email exchange with the Samaritans in Britain because I couldn’t find a suicide prevention organization in the States (this was before the Internet came into its own). I spent long hours talking with my therapist and my closest friends about how healthy people lived their lives and how they coped. That was the thing I could not do—I could not cope.

But after all that, I ended up at that little fire in the woods at Lothlorien, clear and utterly sure of my course. But I had given myself until May 15th to decide. So I chose to wait the extra three days before getting my things in order and procuring a gun.

On the morning of May 14th I had an auspicious dream. I felt like I had waited my whole life for it. I won’t go into the details, but it essentially pointed to a third road between mindless happiness and self-destructive despair. It allowed me to accept myself for who and what I was. It showed me that I didn’t have to fight myself anymore, that I didn’t want to, that there was another way. I woke up weeping. “Thank you, Goddess,” over and over again.

I had set aside three days starting May 15th for ritual. During that time I went through a profound process of change that left no part of me untouched. It was terrifying, it was mortifying, it was filled with mercy, it was lit by Spirit, and it birthed me into a new life.

I, who had always needed A Plan to get through an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year, was now living moment to moment. I saw myself in darkness. I was totally calm and at peace. I took a step, and as my foot approached what should have been ground, a piece of sod appeared. As my foot left the sod, the ground disappeared, but another piece of turf came into being underneath my other foot. On and on, always supported, while not knowing (or needing to know) where I was headed. For the first time in my life, I felt fully confident in a relaxed, free, deeply spiritual way. I could rely on myself for self-care rather than self-destruction.

As part of this healing process, which I call Rebirthday, I received many spiritual insights. One in particular stood out for me: In the beginning there was no-thing-ness. Not nothingness, not abyss, not void. That implies an absence of Something. There was no Something, and there was no Nothing. We don’t have a word for pre-Something. There just wasn’t. Anything.

Then, suddenly, there was lifeanddeath, like a Celtic knot, winking into and out of the light. Time began. Lifeanddeath are one thing, inextricably woven together. They were not born of no-thing-ness. That implies no-thing-ness was a thing to be born of. They simply existed, where nothing had existed before. And like no-thing-ness, we don’t have a word for the meta-concept which is lifeanddeath.

It’s not about yin and yang, where (at least in the Western conception) life is a part of death and death is a part of life, though that is certainly true. It is more that they are both emanations of a greater Mystery, a greater power, a greater truth. And they are so bound up in each other you can’t separate the two.

Death isn’t something to be feared or kept at bay. It is part of Gaia, that juicy biosphere we are an element of. Decaying and returning to the Mother is just as holy as taking our first step or having our first child. All is sacred; all is whole.

I first became self-destructive when I turned 15. From then on, whenever I experienced any setback in life, I ripped apart my wrists or burned my arms and screamed, “I hate you I hate you I hate you!” into the mirror and yearned, how I yearned to be dead. But in this revelation I had, I Saw that in all those years of invoking death, I was not invoking the death of lifeanddeath—I was invoking no-thing-ness. That’s what I was calling into my life.

I sat in silence for a long time after that.

Another insight I was given was that my life was split into roughly thirty-year intervals. I was completing the first thirty-year cycle and was embarking on my second. I won’t say all the things I was told at that time, but one thing that was different was how change would come into my life. My first thirty years had been marked by revolutionary change. My second thirty years would be marked by evolutionary change. Whereas change previously had been a jagged and wildly looping line, now it would be a gently sloping spiral headed upward.

My life up until Rebirthday was filled with high drama. There were always dragons to be slain. I came from a highly dysfunctional family, had experienced my fair share of trauma, and was highly sensitive with no constructive outlet. Everything was opera. Sound and fury.

After Rebirthday, I got a year off. For the first time in my life, I got to just be. It was glorious. I was so relaxed, so calm, so clear. So confident. Not the hard-headed arrogance of youth but the supple confidence of inner knowing. I was so competent. I had “blue” days, but they passed easily and quickly. I believed I had passed through mental illness and had come out the other side. I coped.

I remember one day in particular, even though it was typical of the days at that time. I was setting on a bench in People’s Park, eating an ice cream cone. The sky overhead was brilliant blue, the leaves on the trees were deepest green, the Sun was a glorious beacon of spiritual light, and my chocolate chip ice cream from White Mountain was a taste explosion. Everything was hyper-real. I was completely in the moment, fully at peace, totally immersed in the simple pleasure of the experience. Without even trying. It was just the way I lived my life.

After that first year, challenges started to appear. I eased into them, then plunged in, feeling sure of myself and wondering at the new directions my life had taken. Rebirthday had transformed every relationship in my life. Some I’d ended. Others I’d restructured. And now I was beginning new ones.

One in particular was epic.

Then, on January 3rd, 2000, the dawn of a new century, a catastrophe happened. One person knows half the story, but only half. I once read a story about a woman who’d been held in a prison in South Africa during apartheid. She’d been gang-raped by her white guards every night. She said her soul had left her body and gone up into a corner of the room and watched. And when she finally left that cell, her soul stayed behind her. She was never whole again.

When the unthinkable happened, my soul left my body, just turned and wafted away from my right shoulder, up into the air and disappeared. I stopped crying. Even today, when I almost feel pain enough to weep, I never cry for longer than 10 minutes. This from a woman who got her first wrinkle from crying all night long after an altercation with a best friend. I no longer flow. I am no longer confident. I am no longer competent.

Psychologists call it dissociation. I call it grey. It’s not depression, though I certainly spend my share of mornings unable to get out of bed, my days unable to answer the telephone, my nights unable to get off the couch. There’s always anxiety, that dread that keeps me wringing my hands until they ache. But more than that is this bobbing along on a current in a fog where the features of the shore are indistinct.

There are certain things that stand out for me: the Pagan Summit which I organized, which is still the only gathering of leaders of national Pagan organizations in America. The day I learned I couldn’t have children. The day I lost my mind, well and truly. And lesser events, like performing at Lotus. But there were several years there when I had to use a calculator when people asked how old I was because I simply couldn’t remember.

Each day runs into the next, pretty much the same. Anxiety over money. Feeling like a failure at work. Not feeling anything at all. Wondering if it will ever be over. Wishing therapy would be faster, more productive, faster, faster.

Last night I realized I’m more than half the way through my second thirty years. And I barely remember any of it. It has been distinguished by agony. A different kind from what I grew up with, but suffering nonetheless. Time slips by without meaning. There are a handful of relationships that tie me to the year, rituals that mark out The Wheel, but I can’t recall the difference between this year’s Imbolc and the last. I don’t remember because I’m not fully here. My soul left me and I am lost without it. Adrift.

And horrified. Horrified that this is the life that I have built for myself out of the glory and promise of Rebirthday. There was a relationship there at the beginning of the cycle that seemed to promise a whole new life, but the only thing new is this grey disconnection from consensual reality. I pay my bills, I meet my commitments, I watch a lot of movies, I read, I mostly stay away from people. I do not feel my feelings. I do sing. That makes a difference. And there are a handful of people whose lives seem to want me. But mostly there is—dare I call it?—no-thing-ness.

What has happened to me??

Oh, I can point to the events in question, down to the dates and times, but in a larger sense, how have I got caught in this endless loop of checking out? In my journals over the last 35 years, there is a recurring theme: “Who can explain my life to me? Who can look at what I was born with, my apparent destiny, and explain how I came to this day?”

There is the overwhelming feeling of waiting. Standing at the big picture window in the living room. Just standing, looking out. Waiting. Praying for forgiveness. Hoping that, with enough hard work and luck and mercy, I will find my way back onto the spiral of lifeanddeath.

Though I did ask, one time, in ritual, if I were still alive. I feel like the walking dead.   Totally unnatural. And the answer I received was that yes, I was still part of Gaia, and that my experience was still sacred. If only my experience didn’t suck. That would be a bonus.

I have been working hard these last couple years, and in the last 13 months or so I’ve seen some movement. But it’s glacial. And last night’s revelation has me terrified that I will be 60 before I find peace again. Before my soul returns. And then what? The unthinkable happens again and I am lost on the river for the rest of my life?

It’s hard to know why I’m still alive. There have been several times since Rebirthday that I’ve decided that I’m done. One in particular where I was making serious plans. But when I look into my heart, I know I want to be alive. But I want to be alive, pulsing with the beauty and sanctity of lifeanddeath, stinking in my nostrils with the sweat of a life well-lived.

I don’t know how much longer I will wait. Every morning I make a decision whether to keep on or whether to stop. It’s such a part of my thinking that it happens automatically, like locking the back door or putting my contacts in. I remember a point in therapy a couple years ago where I realized I did not know if there would ever be a time where my present suffering would be worth it. Where I could say, “Yes, that was a terrible time, but now I’ve made it through to happiness and health and I’m glad I stayed the course.” I’m not saying that will never happen. I’m saying I don’t know. And whenever the fog suddenly clears like it did last night and I see my life in the cold light of day, I can’t justify my continuing existence. There just really doesn’t seem to be a point to all of this.

I will get up today and shovel out my car and go to rehearsal and enjoy performing at Lara’s benefit gig tonight. I will not apply for a gun permit tomorrow. I am merely trying to work through this latest realization in a sea of insights which leaves me gasping.

Who can explain my life to me?


Letter to Cam

November 17, 2013

I found you on Facebook. Your face rougher and scrunched up, almost unrecognizable, your eyes little slits, your long brown hair mashed to your head by a blue knit winter cap. You have hidden your information, as you’ve wiped away most of your Web tracks over the years, holding your privacy to you as a cloak.

I found Andy, his face surprising but vaguely recognizable. You’ve moved to Chicago from New Haven. For his job? You are a freelance writer, working for the Latin University and Fortune 500 brands. So far from a small schoolhouse poetry teacher.

And through Andy I found Cleo. Infant when I last saw her, now a teenager, her hair a kaleidoscope of colors as she searches for her identity. She lacks my nieces’ exuberance in these photos. I wonder if she wonders about her birth parents, if you have found them, if she feels comfortable in this world. There is a photo on Andy’s wall of her at camp and she is on the fringes, holding back? Holding in? A friend of hers posted endlessly on her wall, but she reveals next to nothing about herself. Did she learn that from you?

Didn’t you have another daughter? Biological or adopted, I wasn’t sure. But at some point over the years I thought Google had yielded more.

I found you on LinkedIn. We are three degrees apart. Only two if you consider Charlotte Zietlow. We are so close, separated by an invisible wall. I stared and stared at the “Connect” button for so long, tears streaming down my face, cursor hovering seductively, knowing I cannot reach out to you when I promised that you would be left alone. You and Andy and Cleo and your possible other daughter. Alone. I. Alone.

I found you on YouTube. Your body (taller than mine) draped in shapeless garments. Your voice exactly as I remember it. I wear triangle shapes when I perform. Edges. You are poised, curvy, soft. I explode off the screen. You inhabit it. I cut my hair short. You grew your hair long. Outward signs that we are no longer the women we once were. I have started writing; are you learning WordPress?

You are reading a newer poem, more jagged in construction than the ones I read all those years ago; I didn’t quite get it. I remember fried eggs like eyes painted on the windows, light flashing from my rings, fishing a piece of glass from your arm on Easter. It’s been nearly fifteen years since I’ve read your poetry but still I remember. I have forgotten almost everything in the intervening years, but I remember you.

I found the poem you wrote about me. The poem of our time in England. Study (With Ocean). And I cried. I haven’t cried since you left. My spirit walked out on me as surely as you did and I haven’t cried since. Sometimes I get a few tears when I think of you, sometimes I cry for two minutes at a sad movie, but even at my worst I never cry for longer than ten minutes. You left, my spirit left, my humanity left. I am too dried up to cry.

I remember. I remember Whitby (didn’t I just tell that story of the dock in my very first Story Theatre class this semester?). I remember the Napoleanic prisoners of war carving bones into ships. I remember the ruined cathedral and the cemetery. I remember London and the Tube. And oh, how I remember Avebury. The room with the loud pink flowers all over the walls. The dramatic readings of the Book of Revelation to peals of giggles. The hysteria of “dlied aplicots.” The sacred silence I held in the Long Barrow as you spoke to Roonie, the silence I broke when I couldn’t bear your coldness to her. “Where will she go?” I crooned. You stopped. You changed. You warmed. And you welcomed her back with loving arms.

Candlelight. Have to pee. Hungry. Holy. Our ears ringing with the sound of my booming Earth chant. Staring into your “I will take this risk” love-filled eyes. My second handfasting. Wrapping the post office string around our hands, fingers clasped into one being. “No one knows what to do with the string,” I laugh. That string puts tens of thousands of miles on it as we send it back and forth on our missives between Bloomington and China. All in the future; for now, I am spellbound by your brown, brave eyes. My sister. Bound in holy vow, in the holiest place I know.

All is grey since that moment when my soul left, when I lost you. I live in a fog. There are bright moments here and there when I seem to come alive: The Summit—so many memories—where I became the Goddess and blessed each sister and brother individually in sacred Circle. September 11th. The audible “crack” that broke me, when I discovered I was three weeks past the deadline for ever selling my eggs. So much revolves around that. The slow, steady spiral downward until I lost my mind completely, total insanity, babbling utter gibberish on my bedroom floor for who knows how long. The absolute terror of going into the asylum. Finding asylum there, and the miracle of Klonopin, which finally silenced the voices without my having to gouge open my wrists.

And then—small sparks here and there during ritual. Hints of love for the strong girls in my life, for my sister. But not feeling. Not feeling. The years go by and without my feelings I am unstuck in time. It passes because I have a birthday each year (although sometimes I have to use a calculator to determine my age because I can no longer remember), but I don’t actually live it. I have gained my house and my land and my music but I have lost my family and my community and my self and you, you, you.

How I loved you. How you loved me. I read your poem and I am sobbing, my heart crying out, “Yes! Yes! This is how it was! This was true—this was real! I was loved once. And I loved in return. How I reveled in her luminous being.”

Who could look at me and believe I was ever loved? That I ever had anything to give in return? That was long ago, another me, when I still had a soul and was capable of anything. And then “anything” truly became “anything.”

I think I broke first. I said I would not move East with you. I felt it would put too much pressure on, that if I couldn’t find a job I would resent you for taking me from a good life and giving me only risk in return. I knew, no matter how many times you called me sister, that I was outside your family and could be discarded at any time. Which ended up being true.

Abegunde, a Yoruban priest, tells me that we have come together across many lifetimes to try to resolve something. And in this lifetime, like so many others, we failed. I don’t believe in past lives but I have never heard anything that so perfectly describes the profound sense of recognition we had for each other and the superglued sense of our bond. The reckless abandon with which we loved each other. The deep-seated need to be bound as one. And then how the two of us, enlightened, educated, psychologically savvy, and highly articulate, couldn’t stop hurting each other. Star-crossed lovers. Fated to come together, fated to break apart. And how I broke.

Did you submit this poem after you left me? Do you look at it as just a piece of good work or have you come to peace with my presence in your life? Have you blocked it out or chalked it up to Saturn returns? Do you diminish it in your mind? Do you miss it? Do you miss me? Can you ever—please, Goddess, please please—can you ever, ever forgive me?

I tried to forgive myself at Oidche Samhna. I tried to say, “Okay, I’ll never know if she has mercy for me, perhaps I can have mercy for myself,” but I couldn’t do it. I have little experience with forgiveness. And there are some things that cannot be forgiven. There are some things we have to remain accountable for. “Doesn’t she want to be forgiven?” She turned and walked away from the chalice of forgiveness. Will I always do the same? Can I, can I ever be released from this in-between state of Not Knowing?

I roam the Earth in darkness, occasionally lighting matches, wishing for torches, but underneath it all yearning for the dawn. Something broke in me, Cam. Something broke when you said, “Never again.” And everything that came after came from a broken human being, not from the strong, capable woman you knew. I observed myself from a distance and couldn’t recognize this strange, hurtful creature. I knew I was Edward Scissorhanding you but I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t. And I would give everything I have, every piece of me, to throw myself at your feet and beg for your mercy. To somehow make things whole with you. I would risk everything. I would move mountains. I would take madness again if it meant you would forgive me. Because then there would be hope. Even if I never heard your voice again, never saw your beloved face, never read another of your words, there would be hope for me. Hope that someday my soul will come back and I will be made whole. Because honestly, there’s not a whole helluva lot to be living for without it.

I never imagined you would excise me so completely. I thought we would take a break, get some perspective, leave it lie with the Goddess for a year or two, and then see who and where we were. Just check in periodically over the long course of our lives. Now? How about now? Maybe now? And maybe, at some point, the hurt would be overshadowed by the love, mellowed by time into something powerful enough to transform us into greater beings.

I have never stopped loving you, Cam. I never will. We were not good for each other there at the end, and it was right to have some separation, but I want there to be peace between us. I want us to come to some rest. I want to release old hurts and find a way to let each other live in love. Maybe you’ve already done that. Will I ever know? I am Demeter, searching for Persephone. Will she ever be restored to my sight? Will I ever know mercy? Will I ever be able to lay down this burden? Will I ever live again?

I am waiting.