happy holidays

We’re coming up on the holidays now, and I’ve been reading in a number of blogs that people are already feeling some trepidation and making plans not to have the awful times they’ve experienced in the past.

I’ve had really good holidays and really, really bad ones, both due to my own mental health issues and because my son’s illness was in a bad place (almost certainly mixed with where the rest of the family was, mentally-speaking, at the time).

My mother was the sort of person who used to cook her way through to the perfect holiday when I was a kid. There were years when we made ten kinds of cookies plus the fruitcake and then all of the ritual foods for the different days. When she started to drink more and more, and she started to say that she was too tired to cook, at first my younger sister and I just filled in and did the baking. But you can’t pretend forever that the person parked in the La Z Boy with the glass in her hand is the same person who used to take care of all of the holiday cheer.

I’d been dieting on and off since my early teens, since I spent my life reclining and snacking, reading and reading, and even then my metabolism sucked. So I’d periodically take my calorie intake to near zero and deal the system another death blow. When I got to be 18, I decided it was time to get serious and take this not eating thing long term. That’s when my weird eating became clinically disordered. I didn’t last long as an anorexic, but I learned about bulimia, and those behaviors lasted for many years. For many, many holidays after that I was calculating which stores were open (usually only the 7-11 on Christmas at that point, which shows you how old I am) and how I could get away without having to offer endless explanations, so I could buy Ex-Lax. These days it would be so much easier. I could say I was off to Black Friday. I hate Black Friday, but oh well. I was counting on those guys who were working Christmas back in the old days.

More recently, I’ve needed to sideline my issues, because my sons have needed so much of my attention. I see that as both a good and a bad thing. I’m so sorry that they have to suffer with mood disorders, and I’m glad that I can see well enough to drag myself out of focus on self. Martin has graduated from high school now, but one of the big stresses used to be that shift out of the rhythm of school and into the blank time of vacation. He’d always think that he wanted it, and he counted the days toward it, but once he was in that open space with no markers for what to do next, he’d flounder. Then as the beginning of school approached again, he’d get terribly anxious about going back. The anxiety was so intense that it made it hard for him to focus on the celebratory aspects of the holidays themselves. For Christmas, for example, when I would ask him what he wanted, he’d think of something, and then he would be in such a state of anticipation and anxiety about how long it was taking to get whatever it was, that Christmas became a state of pain for him. If I didn’t ask him, though, then invariably I’d get him something he didn’t really want, and he would be disappointed. Now that his younger brother is old enough, I’ve taken to asking him for ideas.

Pete, my younger son, tends already to be a pragmatist and a cynic. He’s got his own extreme anxieties to cope with and then he’s an expert at working with his older brother. When I’ve run out of patience and am ready to start yelling back at Martin (worst thing to do with a person with bipolar, or certainly with my son…it only escalates the situation), Pete steps in and deescalates the situation. Infuriates me when I’m feeling feisty, but it’s just what Martin needs. Fighting with his mother is not. Pete loves Thanksgiving more than any other day of the year, but it needs to be done just so. He has rituals that need to be adhered to to make it feel right. I like that he’s picked a day where nearly all the rituals have to do with food, because food is relatively easy, but then again, this is me, so food is never really easy. I’ve been a vegetarian for the last six years, so sitting next to an enormous bird is less than great. But I’ll do that for my sons. What’s growing even more problematic is that he wants Thanksgiving with his Mom and Dad. Every year I think, this is it. We separated so many years ago. I am not doing this again, and then there we are, performing Thanksgiving again. I love my sons so much, and this year my partner is going to be overseas, but I’m thinking this ritual seriously needs an overhaul.

Image Credit: Annie Spratt

anxiously conferencing

I’m just back from a few days on the East Coast where I feel like I was posing as someone who knew what they were doing at a large committee meeting. I reassured myself in advance that I didn’t have to do very much besides listen intently, but even that can be really hard in a room full of people you don’t know, who all appear to know what their roles are. Because this was my second year representing my group in California, I was pushing myself to get in there and be more social, and by about the second day I was exhausted.

When I was in graduate school, I had to take a fairly large number of classes before I could get to my oral exam and then start the process of writing my dissertation, which I felt quite confident that I could do. I knew that I’d never been much for talking in my undergraduate courses, but those had generally been fairly large, and I’d always assumed that things would change when I got into smaller discussions. Instead, I wound up starting grad school twice, once in Comparative Literature, thinking that I would be able to learn to read Japanese novels pretty quickly and coming up against my talent for forgetting Japanese characters pretty much as quickly as I learned them, and then in English, already feeling like a failure.

Starting in Comp Lit was hard, because it was right at the height of deconstructionism’s popularity, and my first seminar was with an instructor who adored the dense text: Derrida, Nietzsche, Heidegger…We spent our semesters digging our way through. I couldn’t say a lot about them, but I could write my way through and around. It was the Japanese that felled me. The woman in the department office listed the requirements for the master’s exam, and I knew that I would not be passing it any time in the near future. So I decided to go to Japan and see whether studying there would speed things up.

Japanese is really hard to read. So after a couple of attempts, I was admitted again to study English.  I had felt fairly comfortable in the department before, really liking the faculty and not paying all that much attention to my fellow students.

Grad school was different. The women around me were determined to show that they were the most brilliant, the most likely to go on to stunning faculty careers at big name schools.  They sat draped over their chairs in expensive clothes and made biting comments about the other students before and during class. The one time I did try to say something, the words literally became stuck coming out of my mouth, and the professor seemed to mock me as I tried to stammer to closure. I never made another attempt after that unless the class was very small or my place was set by some assignment. I’d never heard then of selective mutism, a form of anxiety that makes people unable to speak in certain settings. I’d come into class determined that the gaze of those women wouldn’t keep me from saying what I wanted to say, but then I found myself delaying and delaying, paralyzed by the thought of the sorts of things I’d heard them say about other people.

In Comp Lit I’d felt that I was making myself ridiculous by wearing colors while so many of the others were wearing all black. Here though, the judgements felt even more personal so that all I wanted to do was curl into my chair and become invisible. I’m not sure why I didn’t leave, but somehow I was too stubborn for that, even though the experience felt awful.

Most of the people at my conference this week were much kinder than the women in grad school, and I could talk to them easily over lunch, even if it’s hard to stand up and voice an opinion in front of the whole group. If nothing else, perhaps I am better at choosing what sort of environment is better for me to be in.

chuckling darkly

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wouldn’t we all like to be so happy?

I first heard a long time ago that it’s good for us to laugh. Laughter does not always come easily to me; I think that’s why I love my sons so much. They are two people who can make me laugh when nothing seems funny. Perhaps because we’ve been so close for so long, we share a common sensibility.

My sense of humor is a little dark. I love my boyfriend, but sometimes the things that make me laugh the hardest weird him out. We went to a play once where the humor was based on the main character’s brother supposedly having acted out the gross misdeeds that the main character had written about as fiction. I’ll have to read the play again and talk about it some more, but it involved things like cutting off children’s toes and it was hysterically funny. My boyfriend (who was my boyfriend then and is my boyfriend now, though we had a long hiatus in between) kept casting these long sideways looks at me as tears of laughter were rolling down my face and I was doubled up.  The toe cutting thing just wasn’t doing it for him.

So this past weekend, I was listening to one of my favorite NPR shows, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Favorite because it manages to mix comedy and politics and usually makes me laugh out loud at least twice in an hour. I figure that that’s got to be good for mental health. This past Saturday, they got to the part where they introduced Swedish Death Cleaning. Now, apparently I live in a box, because I went to look this up, and articles about it are everywhere, but I had not heard of it, and the way Peter Sagal described it made it sound like the funniest thing ever. You’re supposed to get rid of everything that no one else will want after you die.

I will admit right here to being in strong contention for America’s Lousiest Housewife. My mother told me when I was a teenager that I would be a terrible wife (this when I refused to clean the ancient canning jars full of leftovers out of the fridge), and I’m afraid that she was right. I’m not much of a cook, except for one lentil soup recipe and brownies from a box (guess what you’ll be getting if you come to dinner!), and I have problems figuring out how to get rid of my stuff properly.  I suspect this might be a little OCD.  Is it recycling? Does my city recycle it? If not, could I get someone else to take it? Or is it compost? Or is it just trash? Meanwhile, it’s sitting there moldering. I’m the daughter of a hoarder, so I suppose this is not all that surprising, but it does distress me. The last time we moved, I found a small apartment, thinking we wouldn’t have room for so much stuff.  So now we have a small space with all of our junk in it.

I read the Kon-Mari book with interest. It might work, given world enough and time…but Swedish Death Cleaning.  I like the sound of that. Now if only they had Swedish Death Recycling. I told my boyfriend (I’m going to call him Jim) about it, and his immediate response was “Well, no one’s going to want my underwear after I’m gone.”

I think I could spend the rest of my life laughing to myself at the idea of Jim’s walking around without underwear, because no one would want it after he died.