Lady Day’s voice dips and drones and flattens the back of my throat as we open the summer together. I’ve waited a whole year for this. My car coasts so easily on the black road that climbs up and swoops down green hills, as if I’m not even driving but simply along for the ride. The heat comes in from all directions; it radiates through the glass and wilts the lilacs on the dashboard; it blows in the front windows and weaves out the back. I’m sweating but I welcome it as much as I welcome this annual tradition. Somewhere deep within the miles of trees, our cabins await us (along with about two dozen other family members) on clean, clear lakes just beyond Delta in BayfieldCounty.
White clouds and treetops scroll across the silver hood and up the window. Shadows dance across my arm as I steer the wheel.Through muffled static, the notes from the piano lightly dance up and down scales, and the trumpet sounds miles away –backdrop rhythm. The bass clarinet’s riff sways and blunts my spine, taps my sandal on the pedal.
…like a summer with a thousand Julys…you intoxicate my soul with your eyes…
Her voice is the long, velvety cord that laces all the different sounds together in a lovely, melancholy song. I reach to turn her up.
CountyE slopes intoCountyH and disappears behind a wall of oaks around a bend. This is where the road begins to wind and zigzag throughout the countryside, taking its sweet time to reach Delta. A series of sharp angles skims us past Benson’s Horse Ranch, where horses graze fearlessly close to the fence, barely looking up at the flash of chrome and blaring trumpets. Another turn and we ease parallel with a grove of maples and pines behind the familiar old fence that is becoming less and less visible in the overgrowth of bramble and daisies. I wonder if it all looked the same sixty years ago. I wonder if someone drove through here in a shiny black 1940s Coupe –my dream car –listening to Billie Holiday crooning out of the radio. I imagine the reflection of leaves rolling over its rounded surfaces, the quiet whir of the white-walled tires, my fingers curled around the slender wheel.
…all of me…
Everything is alive and bursting green. I drive well below the speed limit; I am in no rush to get there. I have carried the same thought every year since childhood –the faster we get there, the faster the long-awaited week of camping will be over. But now that I’m older, the drive has become one of my favorite parts.
Pavement gives way to fine rocks and ruts, and we are swallowed up by the national forest, hidden from the sun beneath the canopy. I look in the rearview mirror and see my toddler sound asleep. Her plump cheeks are pink from the sun, and the gentle breeze that floats through the open windows cools her skin. Strands of golden hair wisp this way and that around her face, which has lolled to the side of her car seat. Life is good. If I could choose my heaven, it would be this drive, unending through this country on a bright summer day, just Emma and me.
…I see your face in every flower…
We reach the sun-bleached “Fresh Farm Eggs 4 Sale” sign, and I know we are almost there. The car rambles across the rickety bridge over a shallow creek and into cylindrical beams of sunlight pouring through the leafy ceiling. Burning campfires waft in through the windows, and there is a blinding flicker through the leaves –sun on the open water. The road again bridges a small river and then skirts the very edge ofDeltaLake. I gently brake and look around: everything is just as I remember it. The few cabins here have been dusted out and families are unpacking coolers or resting in their lawn chairs. Pink flamingos and windmills line their private lanes and encircle their summer homes. We nod and smile at each other as I roll by. On the other side of us, the lake gradually opens wide to the sky. Just a few yards out, a boat sits still on the glaring ripples with two men, black against the sun, puffy in their fishing vests. It’s time to turn off my music.
We drive on, and the music comes from outside now. There are birds singing high above us somewhere, and gravel spits from beneath the dusty tires. I hear the echoes of branches breaking and laughter from hidden campsites. I suddenly remember the frogs and become more cautious of the little bodies that love to hurl themselves across the road. The water ends and we are bordered by Birch trees that hide yet another campsite–Scenic Drive Resort. I take us further in, left up the hill, where the pines grow thickly. The welcoming sign to Flying Eagle Resort comes into view. I’m almost reluctant to turn, but I take us down the bumpy drive that will wind its way around the wooded resort and bring us to our cabin.
“‘…It’s just the thought of you…the very thought of you, my love…’” –I look back to see her cheeks jiggling with the bumps. She stirs.
At some point everything becomes clear. That doesn’t necessarily mean a good clear, but fact is preferred over fiction when you’re locked up in a mental ward. Again. And it’s snowing out–and worse–it’s New Year’s Eve and you’re thirtieth birthday is coming and you’re little girl must be looking for you. It’s all you can do to decipher the shell-shocked woman-child looking back at you in the tin mirror bolted to the wall above your sink. Here you get your own sink because this time, this trip into the bin, they knew it was much more serious than they had originally thought, and your “security” was upgraded. You have a thought you would usually have–that the upgrade only makes you feel more nuts–but at this point, you don’t feel nuts. You are nuts. I say to myself ‘I’m clinically insane’ and for a moment I believe it’s something to smile about. When the leading psychiatrist told me on New Year’s Day morning that I was clinically psychotic and suffering from complex PTSD, I thought about my mind–clearly–for a second, and I imagined a blue and orange brain-scan image showing clouds of sick. Then I slipped back into the room , in and out of dissociating, and the yellow walls were much too close and I could taste rubber in my mouth and then the Read More
My essay “Skinny Soul: A Glimpse into the Bin” and poem “About Grace” is published, out now, in the Fall 2011 issue of Des Moines Literary Journal The Abaton. check them out you can read it online! Sweet
I used to think that my story was a tragedy. That’s bullshit. My story is about love and our centers and what it takes to find that love. What it takes. I certainly didn’t feel that way a year ago—or even ten years ago. I lived through child physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and I was left to my own devices from the age of five on. I was also born with Bipolar Disorder and ADHD. Before the Complex PTSD set in—around my early twenties—I was a numb, fractured, unattached, empty girl, destroying myself as often as I could. Let me start from there.
I was in another city, wasted, when my biological father fell on the barroom floor and died. He drank himself to death. I remember the phone call from my mother at two in the morning. I felt nothing, as was often the case in those days. I pretended to hurt. Even though he left us when we were young so he could have his drinking life, my earliest memories of him are the safest ones from my childhood. He wasn’t like my abusive stepdad. My real dad loved me as best as he could. He was shy and slow, driving us around the old farmhouse in a wagon behind his tractor. There were two wild apple trees in the yard and in the spring the slightest breeze created a snowfall of the soft, pink petals. That was my purest time. That was a time I vowed I’d return to as a woman (though I never thought I could).
My mother drove the three hours to pick my sister and I up that night. It was on that ride back home that I began to feel it—something cracking, something opening–deep, deep in my body. The next morning when we viewed his body in the basement of the funeral home, I remember one minute I was staring at his waxen, long eyelashes that used to sweep across those big, terrified eyes. I just remember those lashes, and the next thing I knew I was launched into a full-blown panic attack. That was the beginning of PTSD’s temperature starting to rise. I moved home and lived with my mother until I was well enough. I went to college to pursue writing. I made the Dean’s List. I had a baby girl named Emma Jane. I was on top of my game for several years, dedicated to psychotherapy and a guinea pig to different anti-depressants, trying to find the right one. My moods were out of whack (still not diagnosed with anything but depression and anxiety) and I was having flashbacks, but nothing that I felt was dangerous enough to mention. I wanted to be well. I had to be well. I was strong, wasn’t I? I was a fighter, wasn’t I? I fought against my abuser and my mother because of her abandonment. I was invincible. Then why this creeping sensation? Why these shadows? I think you know, or your body knows, when something is coming. Busy your life all you want, but when issues go unattended, they’ll come back.
It was in my late twenties, after being properly diagnosed as Bipolar and finally, finally medicated that my life collapsed. I lost my job, I was losing friends, my fiancé and I lost our house (and soon I’d lose him, too). Inside it started as this static that disrupted my thinking. I had fevers. I wasn’t sleeping. I was having body memories and disturbing thoughts and they grew and spread. I’d catch myself, laying in bed at night, crying, and suddenly there were voices—voices in my head. They didn’t talk to me or demand me to do anything, but rather it was like I was listening in on a conversation of a young boy and an old woman, and they gave me peace. Of course it freaked me out in the morning. It added to the fever I ran around in. I was physically sick as well and the doctors had no answers. I was hypervigilent. I saw death around every corner. My daughter was the age I had been when I was molested, and I couldn’t deal with her. She scared me, honestly. My control was slipping, and with that loss I feared suicide. I wasn’t strong enough to stop myself if I did it. I hid all this from everyone, until I found myself running around the empty house holding my head and crying and breathing hard, whispering to my dead grandmother to save me. My mind was out of my control. I was terrified. When I shut my eyes I was seeing things—black figures and red eyes. I threw my things together and ran for the car, and drove myself to the mental hospital. I was like a five year-old in a woman’s heels, banging on the heavy security door. “Help me help me help me.”
It took months and several more trips into “the bin” before I was diagnosed with Complex, Chronic PTSD, Dissociative Disorder, and Psychosis. I wasn’t put on new meds at first—only pumped with shots of Abilify (my Bipolar medication). In the hospital I died. The girl I was was dead. I couldn’t save her—I thought I had to, and I was too weak. I had flashbacks of blindfolds on my eyes, blood on my face, and sexual body memories. I lost all control and identity. My sisters came to see me on Visitor’s Day and they bawled right along with me as I told them I was gone; a caged animal, half-beating. I knew in my very bones that I wasn’t going to make it, and that I had lost. I had lost what was mine because my stepfather chose to take it from me. I knew I’d never get her back, and I was right—only I didn’t know that what I would gain would be so much more.
As time went on, I got worse. I began to have sporadic, psychotic break-throughs. All the world dissolves around you and no one can save you—it’s a delusional trip. Voices I heard appeared in strings coming from the phone receivers. The only thing that calmed me was having someone holding me while it happened, me shrieking in their arms, telling them I wasn’t going to make it. It always passed, but they came on more and more often. I was so terrified of the psychosis that it froze me. I wouldn’t go anywhere, fearing it would happen, and I wouldn’t be left alone, because I was sure that it was going to kill me—or I was going to do it myself. My sisters and I developed a support system that saved me, along with a five-point-scale to let them know how I was feeling or where I was with my psychosis and moods that day. This fabulous way of living continued on for over half a year. I was finally put on a new medication during my fourth or fifth stay at the psych ward, and it eased the flashbacks. I couldn’t stop the psychosis though, but it had slowed to about once a month. As the symptoms let up a little (aside from the dissociative states and hypervigilence) I was finding I had room to breathe. I began to write again. When I can’t find my way, I use my pen. My questions and obsessions about my illnesses were turning in a new direction. Each moment that I wasn’t freaking out in was a decided and much appreciated blessing. I began to meditate. I began to read Hinduism’s Upanishads, Alan Watts and his Eastern thinking, Buddhist scriptures, books on Christianity. I was this swirling eddy. I was awakening as if from a long, long dream. Each day brought me closer to myself, and I began exploring who that self was. Where were my fractured identities? Why wasn’t I feeling like all split lines and divides, half-thoughts and doubts? Who was this woman in the mirror? My eyes were back somehow, as if a veil had been lifted, or was lifting. I cried every day for a long time, relieved that the worst had passed. I was gaining control. But how?
The body has to enter into its own darkness in order to find the light. The light is in the darkness. I had to accept that I had lost, and I had to let myself fall. I died. But somehow, be it faith or God or some divine intervention, I was becoming whole. And I’d never been whole in my life. I realized I had curled up in my own wounds and shadows and I faced utter fear and terror, and because of that sacrifice to my soul, I was able to become from it. As I grew stronger in spirit, my symptoms began to vanish. Your mind is not your friend, it is your enemy. Go with your instincts, your soul, your spirit—that is where the truth is. I let go of the stigmas attached to my illnesses, as I decided that they were not who I was. Letting them go meant breath, I gave them to something else as vague as air and I was new. The mental illnesses were becoming to broken, too translucent, to damage me anymore. I was becoming, at last, enough.
Writing it all down in poetry, essays, memoir pieces, and stories played a major factor in my healing. Once you’ve put down on paper, you’ve given it away. It becomes a thing, instead of part of who you are. I also spent much of my time alone in silence, just being. I was learning to love myself—no matter how messed up that self could be. I accepted myself, I loved myself, I gave myself what I wanted. The ache of what happened will never leave me, but it’s a small scar to own. It’s not ever an emptiness but a numbed, sacred ache that will never know grace or relief but grief for all that was lost when I was young. Sometimes I think of the woman I could have been had it not all happened. Sometimes I ache for that lost little girl. Sometimes I think he stole my life from me. And maybe that’s so in a way, but the parts he took away from me died because I took it to the edge, fell, and came back different. I know that had it not all happened—the abuse, the PTSD, even the bipolar (which I’m still learning to live with)—I never would’ve found myself. I never would’ve had a reason to search and discover. I’m more of who I was meant to be because of it all. In a strange way, PTSD saved my life. What did it take? What does it take to make it? I think that maybe, aside from courage, it’s the will to go on—and that will is so deeply in us that we don’t know it until we’re stripped bare of everything else, and we choose. We choose to survive.
Flat affect. What a depersonalized symptom to give the hider. Yes, let’s play, you seek. You seek out your DSM and professional books among the cranberry-colored spines with gold writing, or solid, knowing, black fonts. And inside pours out six. Six disorders I have because I fit the criteria like a glove. I was better off not knowing. Yet it was something, a list, I could point to, aim the finger away from me. I wanted to say “of course I have flat affect, I’m fucking stunned that somebody with six disorders can hardly be funny anymore.” No I’m not dissociating at these times. I’m very real when I am angry or crossed or hurt or doubted. It’s when I’m scared or set by a sound or smell or the mind spins manically in and out over itself, that I calm down to dissociate, where I sit so terrified that they say “flat affect” and I’m so scared I don’t know what’s on my face. I dissociate when I panic that I am calm. That’s how messed up this body is. I’ve stowed away inside again, that’s what we do, us big kids. We’re an army– an army given cheap guns, yet known to be armed to the teeth with devices that a soul shall never ever pass, and they never will. Security lock down—it’s a brilliant defense, this dissociation, but it comes back for ya. You have to pay for it. It comes back when you’re almost thirty and thinking about a diet and reading the classics and going to school to become to become to become. And then, wham, shot down. It’s the early-on,unknowing that is most terrifying. I was sure I fucked myself up beyond repair, that back in the day, I’d done some irreparable damage and I was going to die. I saw death. I breathed my grandmother’s name and practically ran to mental health holding my head, to stop the black images popping up with red eyes. To catch my short breath, and the taste in my mouth…it was coming…the flashback. Blindfolds, blood, and sex. I’m a five year-old in heels, smashing my makeup on the ground, crying in the corner, banging on the locked yellow door.
So that’s the beginning, or shall I say, my first day, of PTSD. Drove my ass right to the bin. It was my first time but I always figured that I’d show up there some day. I don’t know why. I’m not one to prod my weird thoughts. That’s asking for mayhem. They shot me in the ass with meds and I cried all night and day after day. I remember thinking that this was it, that it wasn’t so bad, they’d fix me of course, and I’d never be back again. That was the baby version of PTSD, when the “psychotic episodes” or flashbacks were so minute they barely counted and I always came out of it squeaky clean, like it was a bad, dirty dream. Soon, after my stay there, these “episodes” began to creep into my mornings, I started dissociating more when the panic rose when triggers were set off, my legs went numb, I tasted rubber in my mouth. The flashbacks or episodes were lasting forever, on and off, at a moment’s notice. Strange, scared thoughts and ideas whipped me around on a fucking roller coaster and flung me out of its seats at the peak of the ride. Nothing was real. I called to my fiancé who seemed like an oil painting and we were all dissolving and he’d never reach me. “Talk me down. Help me. Talk to me.” I’d demand with my voice in total control. I couldn’t let anyone see that helpless chaos on my face. It was like seeing your own death. Yet you believe death would be easier. You don’t trust yourself in the tub with the pretty pink razor. What?! You’re screaming what to yourself because now the suicidal thoughts listed in the “DSM” are scrolling off the page and into your ears. Oh shit. The book. The stigma. You think as you sink “I’m one of them”. Depersonalization disorder, dissociative amnesia, panic disorder, PTSD…there’s one more (besides the bipolar) but I can’t remember. At this brief interjection of a strange paragraph I’d like to say “Gee, thanks. Thank you step-father. I have seen the light; the dark; and now I can’t see anything but exist as this open wound because of your own tormented soul. Thank you for the lesson, thanks for not beating this one into me. My flesh could’ve handled it better than my head, but could you have known?”
Anyways, death. Death. But what’s left? It got worse. They couldn’t help me. I was seeing things, feeling things, things were lost, demanding their recapture, and I couldn’t see them. I’m five years old, sitting in the crook of my fiancé’s arm, with flat affect.
What the printed, sacred documents of the doc’s don’t tell you is that there is something very key to survival…as they end their chapters in comorbidity and the morbid–suicide rates. They fail to mention the elements of two things that will save you: hope and love. Now why would a book about the mind involve such artificial, baseless tones to their story? You gotta figure it out for yourself, because each persons’ fate is different. These two elements cannot be captured, their purpose lays in secrecy as they fill us all with blessing. Hope is that last shred of light you see; it’s that part of your brain that drives you to the hospital for help, instead of into the tub. Hope makes you wake up and face another day, giving you clues and signs everywhere that there is more, so much more…to life. And in those signs beams love. The love of the fiancé who holds you to his chest and waits for you to get better, knowing more than you do that you’re going to make it. The love of the mother who doesn’t even have to speak, but sits at your side until your episode is over and you can look her in the eye with gravity. The love of the sisters, who allow you to wail out your fear and struggle through your belief that there is no future, just nothingness and death. They cry too, and you feel love because you’re not breaking alone. And the love of a friend, a long-ago best friend—agent of dreams—who tells you as you sit back in the bin again that you’re not alone, she said “tell her I am with her.” And she was. This intricate web of hope and love has shown me something not many people get to see—just how undeniably soulful it is to have each other, and to love each other—unconditionally. There is a greater purpose that must be so simple we can’t see it, but sometimes get a taste of it. It’s so simple that your heart becomes light and made of pink love that streams through your blessed body that heals; it’s so simple that the mind can find a moment where it is at rest and calm and knows peace. It can’t really be written—the love I’ve seen.