mental illness & isolation

I wonder what the world would be like if we could talk about mental illness the same way we talk about physical illness.  Not that I’m convinced that these are neatly separated categories, but it is a useful basic distinction.

Imagine if you could walk into a party and say, “don’t hug me, I’ve been suffering from traumatic flashbacks all day & I can’t take being that close to another person right now.”  Like you would if you had a cold — you’d say “don’t hug me, I have a cold & don’t want to pass it along.”

If you say you have a cold, the other person might mostly ignore it & move on, saying that they hope you feel better.  Or they might be moved to offer some sort of sympathy or help — “oh no, that sucks — let me give you some tissues & soup and a get well soon card.”

But what would they say if you tell them you are sorry for missing their party, but you couldn’t leave the house because the panic attack was too intense?  What would they say the tenth time you tell them that?

The lack of ability to talk about mental illness is an extremely isolating phenomenon.  Mental illness is just as prevalent as physical illness, but we have to hide it.  We have to make excuses for missing events & reacting to things in less-typical ways because to tell the truth is considered shameful.  We are not supposed to reveal that our parents tortured us, or that we’re not over the horrors we saw in war, or that our genes are messed up & we can’t be happy.  We are not supposed to be vulnerable to abuse, or admit that it happened, or that it had an effect on us.

I don’t believe people are bad.  I have an almost endless supply of faith in the potential redemption of every person.  I am almost always willing to believe that someone does not mean to do harm.  And yet I don’t see the kind of compassion in the world that I think we need to have for other people.  Mental illness does not always manifest as a diagnosis in the DSM.  Sometimes it’s temporary or situational — something terrible happens that overwhelms our sense of self & our capacity to relate to others.  That seems like something we should be able to see & recognize in other people, not something we should punish & sweep under the rug.  Even when these situations arise out of events that are societally acceptable, such as losing a spouse or other close person, we still struggle with extending compassion & understanding.  We don’t even have a system for letting people know that we’re grieving a loved one, and once we’ve named our grief, others feel awkward & don’t know how to respond.

I wish we could talk about mental illness as easily as we talk about physical illness.  I wish that there were better ways to incorporate the reality of mental illness into our public lives, instead of hiding it away because we are supposed to feel ashamed.

thoughts on september 11 and trauma

** trigger warning:  this post is mostly talking about sept. 11, some dark dream content & trauma.  I don’t know if it rises to the level of triggering, but just in case**

Lo the long months of summer are over.  I haven’t written here for a long, long time.  And now, instead of updating you on my life, I am going to write a somewhat long meditation on the events of September 11, 2001, which will a) reveal a lot of personal history and b) bring a lot of google searchers to my blog.  Whatever.  I am not too concerned with anonymity here any more.  I’ve been looking at the NYT special report on Sept. 11 and it’s bringing up a lot of memories of that time in my life.

So.  July 2001.  M and I moved to CA, fresh out of undergrad, thinking we were going to break free of the ties that bound us (to our uncomfortable families, mostly, but we didn’t put it quite that way at the time) and start on our shiny new adult lives.  We had been joking about how people ‘settled…like sediment in a bottle’ and scoffed at their bourgeois aspirations of kids and houses and stable jobs.  Neither of us wanted that, at least I knew I didn’t want it at all.  I was watching high school friends & acquaintances make choices that seemed to emulate our parents’ lives, but I was certain that youth was for other things, like seeing the world & raising hell.

We just up and left Boston, to the dismay of family & what few friends & coworkers we had.  We traveled out west & found an apartment, got some jobs.  But once in CA, we didn’t do so well.  We got there & immediately faced some classic struggles:  our new bank put a two-week hold on a five figure cashier’s check that was our combined life savings (as a result, we bounced our first rent check), our rental agent tried to renege on the pet allowance (non negotiable, we had just driven our two beloved kitties from Boston to Berkeley by rental car), M’s new job was mind-numbingly boring, and my new coworkers decided I was a ‘stuck up east-coaster’ and shunned me.

By the time September rolled around, we were deep into a profound funk.  We didn’t have a car, so we started to look into buying one.  Neither of us realized how minimal the public transportation was in the Bay Area — in order to visit someone we knew in Napa, we either had to go into San Francisco & take a 2-hour bus, or ride the BART to the end of the line & get picked up & driven for another hour.  We were isolated.  Eventually all we ever did was cook massive dinners & drink copious amounts of beer or wine while eating them.

In the midst of this, I was planning a stressful visit from my mother.  The night of Sept. 10, I stood at the stove cooking eggplant parmesan, one of my specialties, in preparation for her arrival the next day.  I finished frying the eggplant & assembling the dish with a massive headache — I felt so unwell I sat on the bathroom floor for an hour, crying because my head hurt so bad & convinced I was going to throw up from headache-induced nausea.  I couldn’t figure out why I felt so terrible — was it the smoke from the frying?  Anticipatory stress from my mother’s visit?  The beets I had for dinner the night before?

So perhaps it’s not surprising that to me, the events of September 11 felt like a terrible blow to an already wounded body.  We woke up that morning to a phone call from M’s mother, telling us that something bad had happened & we should check the news.  She said she knew my mother was flying that day & was she okay.  I turned on the television (back when we had one) to see the first tower crumple.  I called my mother, who picked up the phone.  She was fine, they cancelled her flight, she was going to stay in town with my father at his place of work.  I watched the second tower crumple with M at my side.  I said, ‘oh…they’re showing it fall again.’  and she said ‘no.  that’s the other one.’  I think my mouth opened with shock.

Then we pulled ourselves together & went to work, only to find the city of San Francisco in total chaos.  After arriving at work to realize that nothing was going to get done that day, we walked toward each other from our offices & met up in what felt like an apocalyptic war zone.  We took the BART home amidst armed police & bomb-sniffing dogs.

***

My mother was lucky.  She had booked her flight through a travel agent (old school!) and had been given the option of two different flights to CA from Boston.  One was routed through Newark, flight 93 that crashed in PA.  The other was routed through Chicago.  She chose Chicago, and lived.

Needless to say I freaked out.  I didn’t know what to do.  I was 23, and my mother had just almost died.   My world was upside down.  No one around me seemed to care about me (remember the shunning?) and my family was worlds away, reachable only by rental car or amtrak.  I can see very clearly now that this was the beginning of the end of us living in CA.  After that our eyes were only focused on the east coast.

We had decided we would move back to the east coast within a year sometime either right before or right after the attacks.  Neither of us could stomach the vaunted easy living of the Bay Area.  We couldn’t figure out how to connect to the queer scene.  We had terrible awful jobs.  We were planning an agonizing trip back home over the holidays, a trip that involved two weeks and $2000 worth of Amtrak tickets.  I finally broke down & suggested we just move back permanently as soon as my winter break began, in the first week of December.  We hired more movers, they came & took our stuff, & we drove across the country for the second time in six months in a rented pickup truck.  Everywhere we looked we saw american flags.

***

The effects of Sept. 11 on my life were not only geographic.  Since my third year of college, I had been having terrible nightmares; ones that involved lots of scary bugs & rats infesting things.  But after Sept. 11 these dreams intensified.  One in particular was incredibly vivid & terrifying.  I entered a public bathroom, very dark & filled with creepy crawlies.  At the end of the hall, the first stall in a long bank of them had its door partly open.   It swung further open as I approached & seated on the toilet was a fully clothed man, staring at me.  He looked like a corpse, though he was still a little bit alive, and in that moment it came to me that he was filled with ground glass, that he was bleeding to death inside because he had swallowed it.  The image is still burned into my brain.  Versions of that dream haunted me for months afterward.

I wish I had known about trauma back then.  How it works, where it comes from, the effects it can have on lives.  I wish I had known that there were words to talk about it, that it was a whole field of study.  That dream was triggered by September 11, no question.  But it was really about my father, and the incredibly problematic relationship I had with him (details of which I will not go into here).

***

We moved back to Boston briefly, just long enough to get married & discover that the job market was less than hopping in Massachusetts.  Then we moved to Manhattan.

This might seem surprising, given everything that’s gone before in this narrative.  Sept. 11 scared me out of CA and back home to Boston.  Why on earth did we then move to the epicenter of doom?  Not even Brooklyn, but Manhattan?  But it didn’t seem like a big deal to me.  We joked about NY being safer than ever — what are the chances of two such catastrophes striking in a row?  But what I didn’t say, couldn’t yet say, was that the trauma of Sept. 11 was not the first horrible, life-changing, completely random & awful thing that happened in my life.  I already knew about trauma, already knew that horrible things happen to good people for no reason, & all we can do is survive & move forward.  I doubted that Manhattan was more dangerous than Berkeley or Boston because I knew that random senseless tragedy happens everywhere.  In a sense I was already in the place that many people got to after those events.  This is not meant to minimize the trauma & horror that people felt because of those events — I have often grappled with a sense of alienation about them, precisely because it all seemed so logical and inevitable to me.

This is not to say that moving to Manhattan was good for me.  Living in NY took its toll.  I was prepared for the huge attacks, the inevitable crises, but I wasn’t prepared for the day-to-day interpersonal disdain of NY.  The countless rude comments, the doors swung shut in my face, dozens of baby strollers rolled across my toes, the lack of ability to make friends and form intimate relationships with my peers — all of these things were an incredible drain on my sense of self.  I found myself becoming meaner, less caring, less tolerant of other people.  But when the blackout of 2003 rolled around, I was cool as a cucumber.  Our apartment was in an old tenement building on the first floor, so we had running water & our gas stove worked.  I cooked lighting the stove with a match & heated water for a bath, congratulating myself on my survival skills.

***

I don’t think that the events of Sept. 11, 2001 really changed my life that much.  We would have left CA regardless, I’m almost sure.  We would probably have moved to NYC.  At that time I worked in theatre and I doubt that I would have been satisfied before trying out the bright lights of Broadway.  Needless to say I found them sorely lacking, & changed careers so I could feel a sense of doing good in the world.  Just like all the other people my age that the Economist writes about.

Of all the things I regret about Sept. 11, 2001, the thing I have the most horror about is the US response to the attacks.  We have lost so much — I believe what we’ve lost as a country far outstrips whatever those people who flew those planes into those buildings imagined we would.  We lost our collective way.  Who remember the gorgeous summer of 2001?  The weather was beautiful.  We were worried about shark attacks.  Jobs were everywhere, for everyone.  I miss that time.  It wasn’t an innocent time — but it was a productive time.  Sept. 11 was supposed to bring us together, but it didn’t.  The gap between rich and poor has widened considerably since then.  Young people go into tremendous debt & graduate to no prospect of gainful employment.  Our credit rating slipped as a nation so badly that other superpowers no longer want to invest in our currency.

I know we will survive this, just like we survive everything.  But I wish that we could go back & do it over.  Tonight, I made eggplant parmesan for dinner as a sort of commemoration.  But also because eggplants and tomatoes are in season right now.  I will probably always make eggplant parmesan at this time of year, because it makes sense.  Over the past 10 years, I have made a lot of progress thinking through & recovering from the trauma in my life.  It’s an ongoing process, as different parts of my life come into better focus.  Time passes and I achieve distance from the hard stuff.  I hope that we as a society & culture start recovering from the trauma of Sept. 11 soon.

merry maytime

my secret favorite holiday of the year is beltaine.  there are a few reasons for this, which i will enumerate:

1.  it is about sex.  outrageous outdoor sex by blazing bonfires.  or off in a leafy dell in the woods.  the only day of the year where you’re supposed to stay out all night & partake in pure unadulterated joyous sex.

2.  in a similar vein, it is about flowers.  [similar because flowers=plant sex.  yes, it's a theme.]  flowers are another one of my favorite things ever.

3.  it is the first day of my birth month, which i think should be celebrated instead of my birthday.  to hell with birthdays.  may is full of beautiful weather and flowers all month long — what better way to celebrate my birth than dedicate a whole month to it?

so on beltaine, unfortunately once again, i did not have an opportunity to drive a herd of cattle between two bonfires and then sneak off to the woods with my beloved.  sigh.  really all may festivals are about sex.  young girls dancing around a flower-bedecked phallic pole?  clearly about sex.

in spite of my lack of bonfire exposure, i have been making use of this lovely month by spending lots of time in the lovely park by our house, eating ice cream (i’m looking forward to my free birthday sundae courtesy of here), and training for long walks in the hills when we take off and visit our friends in the UK.

yup, you heard me.  all three of you who still read this blog might remember that its roots are in the UK.  after we bought our tickets i said to M, ‘it’s the first time we’ve been back since we left!’

and then we both cracked up.  thank you captain obvious!  what i meant was, it’s the first time we’ve been back since we lived there back in 2008.  and it means a lot to us.  it also means a lot to us that we’ll be staying with our amazing friends, my first ever dyke friends.

in other news, this completes one full year post-grad-school, and i couldn’t be happier.  seriously.  i never, ever, EVER want to do that again.  phew.

i think that’s it.  no angst today!

xo FG

whether tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

than to blog.  that is the question.

or maybe it is really just that i swing wildly back and forth between wanting to pour my heart out here, in positive and negative realms, and wanting not to expose myself.  the fear of my distant associates finding me here holds me back, and the pain-in-the-arse-ness of the passworded post keeps me from that route right now…sigh.

in lieu of a) suspending my blog and b) writing reams about the latest wounds with salt in them, here are some random bullets greg-style:

  • i brought home a gorgeous loud musical instrument, which forced me to completely rearrange my room to fit it in.  i will have to obtain mute pads before i can play it but i am SO HAPPY.  i got a good deal on craigslist.
  • i had an awful run-in with straight culture this past weekend — an evil straight dude basically came on to me with his wife IN THE SAME ROOM.  GROSS.
  • i had a terrible femme fashion moment — due to the pouring rain i had succumbed to the dreaded temptation to wear my sneakers to my new employee training, which culminated in lunch at the faculty club.  i’m happily munching my grilled cheese sandwich when all of a sudden the dean of my [former] graduate school walks in and sits at the table next to us.  this is a person who has a high opinion of me, and even higher expectations.  AND I WAS WEARING SNEAKERS WITH MY WORK CLOTHES.  epic fail.  i tried to hide my face but she was on the side of me that has less hair (i’m parting my hair on the side these days) and so all i could do was try to hide my feet under the table & hope she didn’t notice me.  i’m calling this a lesson learned for good.
  • i’ve been re-connecting with the music scene here in boston and going out more, and it feels so so good.  i feel like i lost sight of how much i love going to rock shows and watching people make music.  a main motivation for having just made my extravagant and awesome purchase is to bring it home even more personally and have an opportunity to do it as well as watch.  yay.

i think that’s all, folks.  stay tuned for bi-monthly angst and updates <3

the month of march

March is a big deal month in my household.  M and I celebrate two anniversaries in March — the relationship anniversary and the wedding anniversary.  17 years and 9 years respectively.  I was at work yesterday and one of my coworkers came in all excited because she got engaged the night before, and it was one of those strange moments where I felt really old and really queer and really out of the mainstream.  They went around the group and told their engagement stories, and I thought I wouldn’t join in until the last minute when the coworker I’m closest to jumped into the lull at the end of the story and said ‘FG…it’s your turn!’

So I told my story, and felt even older.  ‘back in the day before debit cards, M went to the bank & took out a lot of cash, then she went to the jewelry store & said she wanted to buy a diamond ring for a friend…because this was back in the day when people just weren’t that out…then we got on a plane & went to Paris and she proposed on her knee in the mud in the Jardin du Luxembourg…’  Yeah.  January 5, 2000.  Back when this group was still in grade school.  Sometimes life feels a little surreal.

So M and I will figure out some way to celebrate appropriately this month.  It makes it all the more meaningful that last year at this time we were basically not speaking to each other.   Honestly though if it’s not one thing it’s another.  The relationship realm feels much more stable to me right now, but I’m struggling with some really intense personal stuff that feels like it’s sometimes winning.  There are times when I feel like there’s no amount of support that could even begin to keep me on my feet.  Part of me wants to say that it’s the weather, the winter, the transition to working full time — but deep down I know it’s more to do with the ghosts that are haunting me than anything environmental.

In happier and more exciting news, we signed up for a farm share.  It feels like a really significant investment in the future.  It’s a statement of intent in a way — we plan to be here this summer and maybe always.  We plan to be together sharing food.  We are investing in our local community — the farm is literally right down the street, an outpost of urban farming.  We are deepening our roots in this place.  We are also signing up for WAY MORE VEGETABLES than we will easily be able to eat.  Stay tuned for hilarious late summer posts about how to deal with the deluge.

I think that’s it for now.

xo FG

25 most played

someone posted this meme on that terrible blue and white social networking media, and i am embarrassingly still part of it. so…i am bored and posting it.

here goes:

  1. Lovers:  Tonight
  2. Lovers:  Dead Deer
  3. Yeah Yeah Yeahs:  Hysteric
  4. The National:  Bloodbuzz Ohio
  5. Arcade Fire:  Wake Up
  6. The Cliks:  Not Your Boy
  7. Hunter Valentine:  She Only Loves Me When She’s Wasted
  8. The Damned:  Life Goes On
  9. Lady GaGa:  Paparazzi
  10. The Go-Betweens:  Quiet Heart
  11. Lovers:  Igloo for Ojos
  12. Arcade Fire:  Crown of Love
  13. New Order:  Ceremony
  14. Joy Division:  Atmosphere
  15. Lovers:  Peppermint (from Darklight, a remix of a song originally on Star Lit Sunken Ship)
  16. Hunter Valentine:  Youthful Existence
  17. MGMT:  Time To Pretend
  18. Scissor Sisters:  Don’t Feel like Dancin
  19. Echo & The Bunnymen:  Bring on the Dancing Horses
  20. M.I.A.:  Paper Planes
  21. Lovers:  Perpetual Motion, Perpetual Sound
  22. Lovers:  From A Highway
  23. Yeah Yeah Yeahs:  Turn Into
  24. Depeche Mode:  The Sinner In Me
  25. Lady GaGa:  Bad Romance

since there’s heavy representation on this list from Lovers, which (surprise!) is my favorite band, here’s their website:  www.holdmyclothes.com

what’s funny about this meme is that the 25 most played songs are indeed mostly my favorites.  but it also reflects a series of really difficult times in my life, when i put various of these songs on repeat for hours as i tried to calm myself down.  i won’t walk you through them all, but it’s a funny thing to keep track of in a way.  sometimes i listen to this list at not-sad times to desensitize myself to them.

some new faves:  still Lovers (of course) but also Sharon Van Etten, i’m on a huge New Order kick right now, and i’m actually listening to the radio a fair amount.

what are you listening to?

hark, what do i hear calling?

a new year! so much for my plan to blog three times in december!

i feel as though i should write the second december post (more musing, this time on the phrase ‘letting oneself go’) but instead i’ll update you on my life. fun times!

today is a holiday, and instead of working from home, i’m doing laundry & other household errands. because my remote desktop access isn’t really working. and i’m not cool enough to know how to fix it. also i’m rather less inspired to work today than i thought i would be, money be damned!

so: house is clean, laundry is washing, my grocery list is made, & when i get home i’m going to make a frangipane tart for the first time ever with some of the many pears in my fridge. a relative gave us a very large amount of pears for the holidays, and we bravely ate most of them, but there’s several left and it’s getting to be that time…

let’s see…i don’t do year in review posts, but those of you who know me & followed my leaving & returning to this space know that it was QUITE a year. part of me thinks that 2011 had better be a good one. because i’m going to need some time to recover. but the rest of me knows that the more you state intentions and wishes for time and life the more the universe gets to come around and kick you in the ass. so i’ll leave it at this: i hope that the healing and growing that i’m doing every day becomes both easier and more successful. and that the relationships that sustain me grow deeper and stronger.

i saw in a local cafe a box with a sign that said, ‘what do you want NOT to change about yourself in the coming year?’ and there was a stack of notecards that you could write on and add them. i don’t know what they were planning to do with these intentions, but what a cool idea. i’m still pondering this — but i know a couple of things i don’t want to change about myself, either now or ever:

1. my smile
2. my sense of fairness and justice
3. my love of adventure

anyone want to add what they are NOT going to change about themselves? i’m not really into missions of self-improvement, unless there’s something about yourself that makes you think less of yourself. i’m more interested in what makes you great.

Happy new year, two and a half weeks late!
xoxo FG

ps maybe i’ll write that other post this month…you never know!