zeroes and ones

I moved into a new house on the north fork. There’s a pumpkin patch I can see from my bedroom window, and we’ve got a clothesline in the yard and a beach at the end of our narrow, one-way street that begins with two stone pillars topped with flower beds. My room is on the second floor. I have my own bathroom. Through my closet there’s a little door that leads into a huge crawlspace. I want to fix it up into a proper secret room but even if the rats are long gone, there are droppings on the floor, and there’s a chance of getting Hantavirus from disrupting them. I’d have to vacuum them up, clean the heck out of the room, and ventilate it for days. My bedroom feels enough like a hideaway that I’m not sure I need to do all that. The curved, slanted ceilings are sometimes nurturing and sometimes oppressive.

For my first week here I had so many panic attacks in my room that I started to associate the house with fear. I called so many friends I ran out of cellphone minutes. I had phone appointments with my therapist. At the book store I sat on the stool and stared ahead, unable to pretend that I was all right. My anxiety was cycling through and cleaning me out all day, every day, and left me with only one thought: Run, run, run.

Todd, a book store customer who comes in to talk and never to buy books, gave me some advice. “Sit on your hands,” he said. “Situations work themselves out. You don’t always have to act.”

This summer I was asked to keep a secret, and by the time I moved in and started to settle I realized I couldn’t keep it anymore. By sharing it I’d be disrespecting a friend’s wishes; by not sharing I was disrespecting my own needs. To be caught up like that thinking there was no way to win - I think that’s why I reached out to so many, giving each one piece of the story but not all, that way I told it but didn’t exactly tell it. I’d grown so ashamed that staying quiet just wasn’t an option anymore.

I could get away with talking a lot less. In my ideal world there would be a lot more silence, hand-holding, hugging, massaging, eye contact - and this is with friends. But we don’t do that stuff as much here, in this place and time where I live, and so words are the main form of communication. But they almost never do the trick, and often get me more tangled up than if I’d just kept my mouth closed. That’s why I write, sometimes, because I can be more careful with my words, and make sure they’re congruous with who I want to be.

But there’s a lot of fun in just saying whatever the hell I want. I get goofy and free. Sometimes I screw up, say something wrong, like last night when I told my friend there was this girl I really don’t like. I thought I’d feel a sense of relief after the confession I don’t often let myself make, because I usually do this thing when I get a bad feeling around someone where I take half or more of the blame. I know that if you hate a person, that hate belongs to you, and if that hate’s being generated in your own body then you can find the source, which is usually something you hate about yourself or fear becoming, and then sit with that. That’s what I try to do; I can’t always do it. Last night after admitting I didn’t like this girl, I got this incongruous feeling of telling a lie. I corrected myself. “When I’m around her, I feel like I’m not being seen or accepted. She interrupts me when I talk, and I feel small, and like I need to impress her. So I don’t want to be around her.” And there it was, all mine. I screwed up, as I’ve liked to think of it my whole life: Put an x on your socializing score card. Hate what you produce. Edit more than you produce. Get quiet. Stay safe. But last night I screwed up because I didn’t like what I said, and then I corrected it. And today I’m writing about it so that I don’t have time to feel ashamed that I was one of those bitches for a minute (or ten), complaining about someone I hardly know.

I think there are two things I’m trying to say. One is that I’m paying attention lately to what needs to be said and what doesn’t, and then honoring whatever answer I come to. If something causes shame, I won’t keep it inside where the shame will only grow and make me quieter and quieter, while the self-hate talk gets louder and louder.

Another is that my black-white mind is being bombarded with color. My new house is a beautiful red cottage across from a farm but inside of it I can sit in the bath while thinking “run, run, run.” I want to help someone who goes through the same things I do, while I’m not trying to help myself. I’m sitting on my hands, which is the opposite of my instinct. I’m in a class called “Completing the Manuscript” and I’m reading things that make me so anxious - No, don’t tell me more rules about writing; I’m just going to get even more in my own way - and I’m sticking with it even though I’ve been in the program two years longer than anyone in my class, aside from Joe, who is there for the same reason I am. We were gently coerced. They love us, but it’s time to get the hell out of here and graduate.

Oh, and a third thing. In that week when I first moved and I reached out to my friends and talked so much I ran out of minutes, I got support from the usual suspects, but I also got a few surprises. My sister called to check in on my new place and after I told her how I was doing, she opened up about her own stuff and we sat on the phone for an hour, crying. My friend Genevieve went with me to Ikea and pulled me through the showrooms so that I could pick out a desk, answering me every ten minutes when I asked, “Are you sure I should go against my instinct to run away?” with, “I’ve never been surer of anything.” And that night, after stripping a screw driver on my desk legs and watching my friend Jenna put together my filing cabinet, I felt all right. The next morning I braced myself for a panic attack and it never came. Being an empty, scared, see-through lunatic brought my friends and family closer to me.

Not that I want to be those things forever, but it’s true that nothing about my life feels quite right, and I have a long history of running away from discomfort. And that’s who I’ll be until I’m not.

In my writing this past year, a few themes have emerged: mental illness, addiction, and recovery. Revisiting the past has been a challenge. Sometimes I dream about what I’ve been writing. The ground falls out from beneath me, or old relationships come alive, then end all over again. It’s all been in the service of seeing what I haven’t looked at clearly, really seeing it, and integrating it into myself. In the end, I hope it feels like I’m becoming whole. It’s too soon to tell. This Ted Talk does an extraordinary job of summarizing the climb up and out into the light.

doing what I ask students to do and never do myself: a free write

Don’t wanna write. Don’t wanna write. Don’t wanna write.

But I have to. Before falling back to sleep this morning I thought, “This is a story of good and evil. It takes place in my brain.”

Ideas come and they grow like a time-lapse video of the jungle floor. Then, like a machete, comes the slashing voice: No, that’s stupid. You’ll never pull that off. That’s a dumb idea. You’re not talented enough to make that. You sound young. And stupid. You don’t even like writing.

Well, I don’t, but it’s only because the voice hacks away my curling vines before they’ve even come close to crawling their way up toward the sun.

If I don’t learn to live with and take the power away from the voice, I won’t produce. It’s simple as that. If the destructive force overshadows the creative force, I will not allow myself to create. It amazes me that everyone faces this battle all the time, everywhere.

Good/evil, creativity/destruction, love/fear, higher self/lower self - all the same. Frustration at being stuck on the less constructive side of the backslash doesn’t bring you over to the other side. If only that were all it took.

But I am - frustrated. So, so much so. Frustrated that I’m so frustrated over something that everyone faces and somehow overcomes. Frustrated that I teach kids to free write, not fear sounding stupid, keep their pens moving to clear out the garbage until the good stuff comes out because, I promise, it will come - when I don’t allow myself the same courtesy of failure. We celebrate failure in the classroom. I don’t want to be a hypocrite.

I don’t want to lie anymore. I filled out new-hire paperwork recently and noticed how many times I wanted to lie (and did lie) on the past jobs section. How much did I make per year? How long did I work there? I created thousands of dollars and months that didn’t exist. Sometimes I say I lived in Virginia for six months, or I took a year off from school. I’m only rounding up, but I’m doing it because I’m ashamed - that I’ve never stayed away from home for longer than five and a half months, that I’ve been a graduate student for four years. Those are the real numbers. I am a half year from thirty. I haven’t slept with anyone in [Internet boundaries]. I pull out my grey hairs. There used to be a few along my part but over the years they’ve spread all over and I’ll probably have to stop pulling soon and start dying. I dyed my hair for all the years it wasn’t grey and now I want to enjoy the way it turns copper in the sunlight before it fades to white. It has been five years since Matt and I broke up. Since then, my longest relationship has been two months. I sometimes check the stove a dozen times before bed, hopping up for one last check eleven times, sprinting to the kitchen to see that the oven light is off and sprinting back, to save time. I lived alone for four months and enjoyed the privacy for the first two. That bedroom had two beds because it was a summer rental I was occupying in the off-season. I had an OKCupid account while I lived there. I went on three or four dates with a guy named John, whose last name I can’t remember. He deleted his facebook, didn’t own a credit card, and moved to China a few months later. On our first date we met at a bar near my parents’ house and ran into the ocean in January. On our third date he came over and we made crepes, melting chocolate in a metal bowl sitting atop a pot of boiling water. He rubbed my shoulders while I baked and took out the trash the next morning before he left. He pushed me up against my new wall. I dated three men while I lived in the condo, with overlap. A year later, John took his vacation from China and visited me at the house where I was petsitting. We walked to a cornfield and each shouted as loud as we could, but that night there was nothing between us. After living alone I moved to Chris’s house and discovered I preferred having roommates. I wanted to be the kind of person who preferred living alone, but my first night in the new house I slept better, had good dreams. At Yogaville I shared a bedroom with two others, then a next bedroom with one other, and slept even better. This summer I’ve been sharing a room with Faith in the graduate dorms and the first night after she moved out I had a friend stay over. I prefer people, and I prefer them close by. The exception is bathrooms: I don’t like doing bathroom things in front of others. All the things I do in the bathroom, save for using the toilet, are in the interest of making myself look better than I naturally would.

Some of that sounds sad, a girl realizing her hair is turning white and who isn’t as independent as she hoped she was, a girl who others wouldn’t call a girl anymore, who is surprised each time she remembers that turning thirty means something, one choice biological something in particular. I thought wanting roommates was a weakness, and that going a long time without sex during my twenties was a waste of an external youth and beauty I hardly acknowledge. I’ve lied about all of it, to myself or to others, because I thought it was sad, or wrong, or weak.

When my skin is really dry I can bunch up a patch on my leg and it looks like my grandmother’s skin. My wrinkle pattern is just like my older sister’s. I probably won’t have a baby. I don’t like sharing a bed. I like Long Island. I like living within an hour of my parents. I don’t want to lie anymore.

Unpleasant feelings come from illusions: fear of What Might Be (which hasn’t happened yet), sadness from What Might Have Been (which is not necessarily what would have been), and so on. Piglets, living in fear of What’s Coming Next, What Can Go Wrong, What If I Do Something Foolish, and such, cannot enjoy and make the most of the present moment … However, because of their sensitivities, their strong experience-filing-and-recalling memories, and their cautious, one-step-at-a-time natures, Piglets - far more than Eeyores and Tiggers, Rabbits and Owls - have the ability to rise to a challenge and accomplish the most difficult tasks, once interfering illusions have been cleared away.

The Te of Piglet, by Benjamin Hoff.

Follow-up to The Tao of Pooh, my favorite relax-and-let-things-be book.

When I have lunch with friends, I can notice myself trying to be liked or entering a subtle contest to be the funniest or most interesting. It’s exhausting … When I interact from my mind, I’m insecure and competitive and ultimately alone. When I interact from my heart, I’m connected.

Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi, by Brian Leaf.

I didn’t yet realize that there is no cure for anxiety, just perpetual treatment. I didn’t yet realize that a quarter century of anxiety had gouged deep, packed-earth ruts in my brain, and that the only way to stop my thoughts from falling back into those ruts was to dig new tracks and keep digging them, forever. I didn’t yet realize that the only nonnegotiable approach to the anxious life is discipline.

Monkey Mind, by Daniel Smith.

grow down

Sometimes I miss elementary school, when there were 36 of us and we were all good at something. Some were weirder than others - Chris pulled down his pants in second grade and Danny stabbed us with pencils - but most of us were fairly normal and we all got invited to birthday parties. I was smart, even at math then, and in sixth grade I was the lead in the play, Becky to Danny’s Tom Sawyer. A different Danny: a year before, this Danny told me someone was going to rape me at the stock market exchange on our upcoming class trip, and that he was destined to save me. Some of us were weirder than others.

But I wasn’t the weird one.

I liked boys but I didn’t cut out their faces from magazines and plaster them inside of my closet, like my sister did. I liked real boys: J.J., Jared, Andrew - who tried to sell pot at his fifth grade birthday party. And I liked them hard. So hard, I think sometimes that at 29, I’ve run out.

When Danny and Jonathan had a pretend boxing match over me, which I chronicled in my diary that night (this was pre-Stock Market Exchange Prophecy), I felt like the most important girl in the world.

When I bonded with a potential new friend over Light Bright or lanyard, I asked, “Want to come over and play?” and the answer was always yes. Once, Laura and I flashed each other to see if we had the same parts. We did. When her mom called down to ask how we were doing, we shamelessly walked upstairs and made cake out of whatever was in the pantry. Our first Iced Tea Cake Cookie was the best; subsequent attempts yielded inferior copies.

Jared once asked why my eyes were so big and my lips so small and I told him that’s what models looked like. When he liked Rachel and when Andrew liked Laura, I had Eric, Steven, Danny, Jonathan. Dina and I kissed under a fort we built, taping construction paper to the legs of a table, to show Rachel and Jared it wasn’t such a big deal.

Nothing was a big deal.

Now:

The other day I sat on a bench with a friend watching the water and she asked if I had enough room and I thought, “AM I SITTING TOO CLOSE?” When did I become afraid of sitting too close?

I haven’t had feelings for a male in months. All the regular humans around me are going on dates, blushing, entering into documented partnerships.

The question “Do you want to come over and play?” is lodged in my throat.

I’d like to tag in my child self to sit under the construction paper fort and demonstrate how it’s done. This is how you ask someone to hold you. This is how you love yourself. This is how you undress from these bullshit clothes and act like the child you loved.

As artists and professionals, it is our obligation to enact our own internal revolution […] In this uprising we free ourselves from the tyranny of consumer culture. We overthrow the programming of advertising, movies, video games, magazines, TV and MTV by which we have been hypnotized from the cradle. We unplug ourselves from the grid by recognizing that we will never cure our restlessness by contributing our disposable income to the bottom line of Bullshit, Inc., but only by doing our work.

The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield.

my very own Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club

Sometimes I come to my blog page because my brain is over-firing and having to put letters in order, and seeing the result of black on white, brings me back to myself.

There is a great segment of This American Life, The Hostess with the Toastess, which profiles the owner of The Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club in San Fransisco. Giulietta Carrelli has schizoaffective disorder, and has crafted her life around things that “bring her back.” She often has episodes of feeling outside of herself, finding herself lost without any idea how to get home. Things that bring her back include the freezing water of China Beach, and the fact that the whole neighborhood knows who she is - she wears the same outfit daily and is covered in tattoos. If she’s lost people can direct her back home, or to her cafe.

Here is a woman who has designed her life to keep herself afloat.

Two nights ago, I drove over a median and ran up a huge bill. After the practical questions were answered all the other questions, from the depth of my fear well, were tapped and for the next two days, I was flooded. I didn’t move from the couch on the first day.

But at the same time, I close off, so while my brain is flooding, I’ve dammed my body. That’s what anxiety is, for me.

What’s gotten in the way of designing my life to keep myself afloat: not admitting that I needed help to stay afloat; not admitting that at times, my body could be awfully weighty.

The first step is admitting you have a problem.

When I admit I have a problem I’m met with all sorts of responses. There’s sympathy, the “Oh, you poor thing.” There’s empathy, the “I’m going to hold your hand through this.” There’s rejection. Connection. Judgement. Acceptance.

I’ve done the “not me.” A friend at Yogaville slipped into a manic phase, and after she was taken to the hospital, the group of women on the floor - including me - decided to burn some sage. Another girl suggested a ceremony to clear the air of her old bedroom. The episode was surprising and traumatic for some of us. Watching our friend’s face and eyes change, hearing her tell of how she was “sent here to clean us up” - it was difficult. But weeks later it would still come up: Remember when she (fill in the blank)? And how she…? The way she looked when she told everyone she…?

How I had rejected her. Not on the outside. On the outside I was understanding, curious, kind - got to keep up appearances. But I wanted that room clean. I helped fold her clothes and put them into boxes. I told friends back home about my friend who changed overnight and how it scared me.

Soon I realized that distancing myself from her was an effort to distance myself from the parts of myself I couldn’t stand to look at.

When I admit I have a problem, sometimes people say, “I worry about you.” I want to put this out there: that’s one of the least effective things you can possibly say - or do. I suggest we remove it from our vocabulary. Instead, how about, “How can I help?” Most of the time, when someone asks me that, I say, “You already are.”

If someone insists on giving you sympathy (“not me,” or “I worry about you”) instead of empathy (“me too,” or “how can I help?”), it’s because (s)he can’t meet you where you are. Even if you wish above all wishes that (s)he could, right now, it’s not possible. Because to be empathetic, we need to accept the other person fully. And to accept another person fully, we need to acknowledge and accept all the parts of ourselves fully. 

Sometimes my mom reads my posts and tells me she worries about me. But, you know something? This blog has brought me back to myself on more occasions than I can count. The very act of sharing myself makes me better. I know that’s the same for other people who blog. If you read this, you’re joining a support group I accidentally started five years ago. Welcome.

This blog is my Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club.

story as burden, story as salvation

When the depression hits, we know it. For me, it looks like watching my third Netflix movie in a row, frozen in bed, my feet spazzing out under the covers. They want so desperately to get me vertical, but the rest of my body and mind prefer to lay like a fetus, a kidney - a non-adult piece of a human. And I’m wondering if 8:00 is an okay time to go to sleep, because even when I’m hoping to be swallowed up by the great sea of nothingness, I’m still very much aware of the social norm of appropriate bed time.

But what is not obvious to me, when depression hits, is what the heck got me here. I’ve had a handful of severe episodes in my life. Maybe two handfuls. I can list them on my fingers and tell you why they happened. After the fact, I gather up clues and put together a story. I’m a mood detective. I can unearth my monocle and tell a very neat, logical story about how I got into, and out of, all my episodes of anxiety/depression. Depranxion. Pranx for short - cause when you’re in the midst of depranxion, your mind’s playing some tricky-ass pranx.

On the other hand, Yoga teaches us to let go of stories. They’re not real. Stories are dreams that maintain the illusion that we’re separate individuals, and not part of a shared, grand picture (of love, of consciousness, of energy, whatever you want to call it, depending on where you fall on the conservative/woo-woo spectrum). “Let go of the story,” meditation instructors will say. “Stay with the sensation.”

Ram Dass talks about the heavy strain of the stories we tell ourselves, our identities. Of the end of an LSD trip, he writes, “I recall starting to ‘come down’ and this huge red wave rolled in across the room. … It was all my identities, all rolling in over me. I remember holding up my hand and saying, ‘NO, NO, I don’t want to go back.’ It was like this heavy burden I was going to take on myself.”

I believe that stories can be a burden and a salvation. A burden because they limit us, and a salvation because sometimes, telling our stories is the best way to let them go.

So I’ve been doing this investigation from my bed. (And from my yoga mat, my therapist’s office, my friends’ couches.) Because when I don’t know where my depression comes from, my brain becomes a presidential candidate at a debate answering a left-field question she never saw coming: I don’t know the answer but I’ll say something loudly! And confidently. And extreme! This is the best, worst, most conclusive evidence you’ve ever heard in all your life. It’s 100% true, too, because there shall be no grey area in our country. (But brain, you are a grey area!) What does my brain say when it doesn’t know why it’s depressed? “We’re broken. We’re f*cked. The damage is done; we’re irreparable. We’re weak, incapable of living in the world.”

This is my huge red wave. It threatens to pull me under. Just reading this, I feel the morbid tug. But at the same time, in excavating my depression and piecing together my story, I’ve named my demon. I’ve given it a body and a face. And I’ve ushered it out into the world - permanently, thanks to the Internet, where it can’t hide.

Back to my investigation. At this point, feel free to stop reading if depression/anxiety doesn’t affect you or someone you love. Of course, keep reading if you want to learn more about it.

I recently discovered the Black Dog Institute, which offers a new (to me) lens from which to view depression and bipolar disorder. They break depression down into four different sub-types. Mine falls under the “non-melancholic” type, which is another way of saying it’s a combo of situation + personality type. “Melancholic” type refers to a depression that’s biologically based, and responds well to medication, and not so well to talk therapy. Only 10% of depressed people fall under that category.

Certain personality traits can make us more susceptible to depression. I think we intuitively know this. If you tend to be a worrier, for instance, you know there’s a link between anxiety and depression. But if you take their temperament and personality questionnaire, you’ll learn about some personality traits you may not have discerned before. For instance, “rejection sensitivity.”

Reading through my results, it was easy to see that the perfect storm of the circumstances I’ve created in this past year + my personality traits = depression.

Ah, stories. I’m crafting a story just for you, dear depression. When it’s done I’ll sit back and tell it calmly. Then I’ll let go the string and watch it drift off with the next great wind.

brain full of butterflies, belly of bees*

This week, two of my students wrote about mental illness. Ashley wrote about OCD and anxiety, and Matt wrote about the depression that hit after starting high school. Another student, Leana, wrote about being ultra-sensitive to the point where she cries when strangers cry. Three other students, all recent immigrants, wrote about how they feel invisible, excluded, and powerless in Southampton.

So we discussed the power of writing about hardship. Risking cheesiness, I told them that I believe writing is magical. By sharing his story about loneliness, Matt will save his lonely readers.

"How?" he asked, looking downward.

"Have you ever felt like you’re the only one who feels this bad?"

"Yes."

"If your reader felt that way too, now he knows he’s not alone."

My feedback for each essay was nearly identical: “You’re brave to share this, and the world needs to hear your story.”

And from this class, I realized I have not been practicing what I preach. I haven’t been writing about my hardships. I’ve been scared of them, ashamed. I leave the party early. Say, “I’m in transition mode,” with a wink and a smile. Give quick, snappy hugs when I want oh so much to curl on a friend’s lap like a pet and have my forehead stroked.

A few months ago I cleared this blog’s archive. I’m five years older than I was when I started Old Dan Yeller, and I wanted the blog to grow with me. So from now on, I had decided, I would post uplifting things. I’d promote happiness and living in the moment. I’d write from the part of me that recognizes we are all the same - from the soul.

I’d been transformed. Yoga ashrams will do that to you.

Coming back to New York from Yogaville was more of a culture shock than when I had returned from half a year out of the country. I was used to waking at 4:45 and working for a “boss” who, on our first day of housekeeping service, said, “It’s cool if you’re late. You were probably having a conversation you needed to have. It’s your journey, guys. I’m just here to witness it.” JP helped me with some big fears that came up when I meditated. He eventually left his position as manager because it really cramped his practice of living in the moment.

Back in New York I had chants stuck in my head. I walked around the bar barefoot. I missed the shit out of Dale, and Leigh-Mae and Sarah, who all decided to stay longer.

After a month at Yogaville, my heart was wide open, and the fear that had run my life since I was twenty had mostly vanished. Love won out.

And I loved two men whole-heartedly after that. Even my relationship fears were tempered.

Then, this Fall, the anxiety came back. Slowly, sneakily, unnoticed until the panic attacks started - resulting in my status quo being lowered to “Nose above water? Successful day.” And that’s where I’m writing from today.

And if I’m not writing from here, I’m not being completely honest. I’m protecting myself from being vulnerable. And when you leave aspects of yourself in the dark, they fester and grow. See Brene Brown’s research on shame. (The #1 ingredient necessary for shame to thrive: secrecy.)

I still believe that writing - and all art, really - should ultimately lift us up. Lord knows we could always use a lift. But we have to lift ourselves first, and the only way out is through.

*  Title borrows from Fiona Apple and Joanna Newsom lyrics. 

Stories can also function as Trojan Horses. The audience accepts the story because, for a human, a good story always seems like a gift. But the story is actually just a delivery system for the teller’s agenda. A story is a trick for sneaking a message into the fortified citadel of the human mind.

"Why Storytelling Is the Ultimate Weapon."

I like to use this metaphor with students, because it’s basically perfect.

"What Meditation Really Is," by Mingyur Rinpoche.

I’ve heard many talks on meditation, and this is one of my favorites. Mingyur Rinpoche, with adorable miming and a sweet sense of humor, explains that meditation is neither pushing away your thoughts, nor saying to them, “Yes, sir!”

He dispels the common misconception that meditation is “sit still, think of nothing, block all thoughts and emotions” or that it’s “blissing out: peeeeaace, openness, mmmm.”

Mingyur Rinpoche explains that we either hate or love our thoughts - we push them away or we follow them to the moon, or down to the ditches. When we push away, they push back. When we follow, we become their slave.

And meditation, he teaches, is about a third option: making friends with the mind. Find common ground, give it some work to do (if the mind doesn’t have a job to do, it’ll make on up for itself), and be forgiving.