how to write your christmas letter

With Thanksgiving rushing down upon us, it’s time to fire up the computer, drag out the camera and get everyone dressed up for the photo to go with the holiday letter for friends and family. The imagery around the idea sounds stale, and I think the last time I sat for one of those photos was back in the mid-1990s when my then-husband and I were living with another couple, trying to see whether four adults could handle one incredibly energetic little kid.  Our son did not, as yet, have a diagnosis, but he wasn’t making a habit of sleeping much, and when he got wound up around the holidays, it would make everyone a little crazy.

I get a sick feeling whenever I run across those photos, and I really don’t know why I haven’t thrown them out, except that tossing them won’t make that period of our lives go away. All of us smiling, but there was so much unhappiness in that household.

Every year I receive a few of those holiday letters, and I feel somehow guilty for not sending one in return. But there are some family situations that you simply don’t write letters about. Unless you just want to lie, and I’m not a fan of lying. My sons and I have spent a couple of Christmases sitting around, thinking what we could have written if we had sent out a letter:

Dear Family and Friends,

We hope that you have had a wonderful and fulfilling year. We are enjoying reading the letters that we have received, and we have been feeling badly about not sending a letter for the last few years, so we wanted to let you know what we’ve been up to.

Martin has graduated from high school a year ago, after seven years at his terrifically supportive school. He had planned to start taking classes at community college, but his anxiety has made it very challenging for him to do so. We have been experimenting with new medications to reduce his anxiety, but some days he thinks that he just doesn’t want to go to school anymore.  He’s been spending a lot of time walking, up to 10 miles a day, and he was also walking at night, but a couple of months ago he was mugged by a couple of guys with a gun. He refused to give them his wallet, so the man with the gun hit him a few times. He had to have several stitches for that, but on the way to the hospital, he was able to identify the guys who mugged him, since the police had caught them by then.  He’s since had trouble with more anxiety, but his face is healing well (see photo).

Pete is still unschooling and would be in 10th grade if he were in school. He knows lots of things that I don’t know, so I’m confident he won’t wind up working at Burger King, which is his father’s great fear. He’s a very modern kid and spends time talking to people from all over using headphones and a microphone.  He even has a girlfriend who lives up north and is also homeschooling because she’s too anxious to go to school. The good thing about them being so far apart is that I don’t have to worry too much.  Occasionally I take him to see her, but it takes five hours to get there. Everyone says I should make him ride the bus, but he’s too anxious for that.

I am still working for the university. I am able to use my degree to help them write things better. When the boys get older, maybe I will have more time to write the things I’d like to write.

The cats are as unmanageable as ever and send you all their best. I enclose a photo.

Happy Holidays!

So what do you do? Do you write fiction or fact, or do you send nothing at all? I feel better about the fact that I get fewer of these letters every year.  Either they are becoming passe or people are crossing me off their list.  Either way, they are saving themselves from the possibility that I will compose something like the above or even worse…I could become really bad and make the ridiculousness of the exercise more painfully clear.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

pure gold

I’ve been reading a recent novel by Margaret Drabble, The Pure Gold Baby, which I didn’t find by searching for novels about mental illness, though I have been reading rather a lot of those, since I want to see what else has been written besides the books I have been writing. I was reading Drabble, because she is one of my favorite authors and someone I have written about at some length. I had just read her most recent novel and realized that there were a couple that she’d written since I last read one, so I wanted to catch up.

I’ve let this lapse happen, because I think, in general, her later books are not as good as her earlier ones were, and I definitely think that Pure Gold Baby follows this pattern. There are long sections where nothing of any substance occurs and there’s a great deal of near repetition. Drabble is making a point here, which is that the life of a family with a special needs child is likely to be highly scheduled and lacking in a lot of dramatic action for the parent.  The parent needs to be available to parent.

The ideas here are interesting, but they don’t seem to gel into fiction. As with Drabble’s other novels, readers are given quite a lot of background information, here about the history and current state of treatment options for the mentally ill and developmentally delayed. These are delivered as research that Jess, the titular “baby’s” mother, is doing largely out of interest created by daughter’s condition.

It’s never quite made clear what the condition of the main character’s daughter is. Drabble says that Anna doesn’t have Down Syndrome, but she seems permanently at a very young mental age in terms of her intellectual capabilities and her understanding of what is going on around her. She spends time at an institution and time being cared for by her mother at home. Drabble’s point seems to be that she is fortunate in that her disability leaves her, on the whole, happy. She becomes anxious sometimes, but she is not a depressed person like some of those her mother meets in the various institutions she visits. She is pleased by small things. But in the end, there remains the question of who will care for her after her mother dies.

I found the descriptions of the way that England has worked with their mentally ill interesting, though they didn’t quite blend in. Anna doesn’t have a condition that requires medication, and another person that her mother becomes involved with, Steve, is treated by a doctor who is using an approach that does not involve medication, so there is not much discussion of medication in the novel. Drabble does talk about the use of institutions, relationships between doctors and patients and issues of aging. She has discussed institutions in a number of her recent novels, a topic that really interests me. Her most recent novel discusses aging and how the state responds to the aging in England.

Drabble has always been a novelist interested in taking on political issues, and perhaps because this is a novel centered on Anna, a girl and then a woman, who not only can’t understand such issues but becomes anxious if she’s exposed to them, they remain repressed throughout much of the novel, as though we’re tiptoeing around what we don’t want the children to hear. Direct communication is also difficult, because large parts of the novel are told through the first person point of view of Anna’s mother’s friend who is not present for a lot of the action but hears about it later from Anna’s mother or some other friend.

Overall, I’m glad I read this novel, even though I wouldn’t rate it nearly as highly as a book like Drabble’s Gates of Ivory. The topic is especially interesting for me at this time, though. Others may find the flaws simply annoying and put the book down.

shooting mad

It really frustrated me to read that the mass shooting in Texas has been written off quickly by some in our government as a mental health issue. I’ve thought about this a lot in the last day, and I suppose that someone who is abusive to their own family may well have issues that stem from trauma and could be treated with some of the same techniques we use with other neurological issues. One of my psychiatrists said to me once that he wished that all of the different branches of psychiatry could be rolled into the department of Neurology: they’re all things that are happening in the physical brain, and then people would start to understand that mental illness is not some other thing, completely unlike other illnesses.

But I’ve fought hard to undermine this idea that people who are mentally ill are violent. I work on a university campus, and I see the knee-jerk reactions of fear of people whose behavior is a certain distance away from the norm. If someone does something repetitively or loudly or “weirdly” then we tend to get scared that they will escalate to violence. Many studies have shown that the mentally ill are no more likely than others to commit violent acts, unless we include suicide, but they are more likely to be the subjects of violence. I’ve spent some time reading, and it seems that the abuse and mental illness connection tends to be that abusers tend to favor the mentally ill as partners.  But this idea that mass shootings and mental illness go together makes it more likely that we’ll see more of these cases where there’s quick violence against mentally ill people who seem like they might possibly pose a threat.

I’ve lived with my older son for more than twenty years, for example, and though I recognize from other people’s reactions that he’s kind of odd (my younger son and I have noted that we’re so used to him that we don’t usually notice the odd bits), and he’s had many rages and made violent threats, he’s only hit me one time, and he didn’t hurt me. He hit his brother more times, but then again, Pete hit him too. They came to a mutual détente a few years ago when they realized that they’d gotten big enough to seriously injure each other.

He is very afraid that something will happen and he’ll wind up in jail, because he understands that if he’s in jail, he may or may not have access to his medications. We had this talk with his psychiatrist when I was considering risking arrest in some of the protests last year, and Martin wanted to come with me. His psychiatrist said that it probably wasn’t a good idea for him, based on his experience with other patients who’d been in jail for minor offenses. Not being able to stand up for his beliefs to the point of arrest really depressed Martin for some time, though we assured him that he has other gifts.

He’s also afraid, though, of people’s perceptions of his illness. Perhaps you’ve read about Claude Steele’s theory of stereotype threat, a person’s sense on entering a situation that a stereotype about them is already in play and working against them. My sense, based on a sample of me and my son, is that this process is at work on people with mental illness as well as other groups. Martin comes into a room and feels that people can see that he has bipolar.  He’s been bullied in the past, and even his friends have called out his tics so that he’s hyper-conscious of what some of his behaviors look like to other people.

It’s hard not to feel like you have control over the way that people perceive you.  I think that most of us have less control than we’d like to imagine that we do. My hand tremors certainly make it much more difficult to cultivate that suave air I’d like to have (think Woody Allen in “Play It Again, Sam”), when he attempts to gesture gracefully and flings his vinyl record out of its jacket and across the room). Someone whose entire body regularly takes them on a ride involving several nights without sleep certainly loses that façade even worse than I do.

in sickness and in health

I’m going today to have lunch with a group of friends who have connections to the department where I work; most of them used to work there with me. This is the first time that we’re getting together since one of them, let’s call her Ann, finished nursing her ex-husband through pancreatic cancer. We had all known at least one person in common who got a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and was dead two months later. It’s a vicious disease with not a lot of warning signs. So when Ann told us that her ex had it, we thought that they were facing a similar painful and brief experience.

However the dinner after the one when she told us that he’d been diagnosed, she told us that she was going to have him move in with her. And then the one after that, he was still apparently going strong. The diagnosis had caught the disease when it was still early enough that he had some time.

Ann’s decision struck all of us differently. I am divorced myself, and, like Ann, not on the very best of terms with my ex, though we try to get along for the sake of co-parenting our sons. I hear from the boys that he tells people that I am a neurotic mess. And I think he’s a great one to talk. Every time he goes along to a psychiatrist’s appointment with our older son and Martin talks about some symptom he has, Gabe is right in there talking about how he thinks he has it too, maybe worse. Bipolar, Aspergers, anxiety. He’s got something alright. Pain in the ass syndrome would be my considered diagnosis. So if he got diagnosed with some awful cancer, would I want to care for him? My first reaction would probably be hell no. But then I would probably wind up doing it. For my sons. So they could see that they didn’t have to worry about dying miserable and alone, that someone would care enough to be with them too.

Ann’s ex died about a month ago. I know that he’d been hard to care for. He’d stay holed up in the room that he was using and just appear for food and to go to appointments. It was enough caring, though, to make her grieve his loss.

I have a couple of close friends who have had their spouses die over the last year or so. I suppose this is because I’m getting older and will become more and more common. Watching them grieve so intensely, I have to wonder what my later life will be like. I’m a person who hasn’t let too many people in so close. That’s not just introversion. I’ve thought about it a lot and concluded that having your parents emotionally abandon you when you’re young can cause a long-lasting imprint on your personality. My mother faded away from us into alcohol. My father turned away from the sight of her by downing nightly cocktails of tranquilizers and wine that rendered him incoherent as well. In the morning, neither of them would remember the night before, so complaining was pointless. My youngest sister and I became unable to form solid attachments, and my middle sister coped by trying to control everything.

My mother died almost twenty years ago of cancer, but she had started to develop cirrhosis. My father claimed that he couldn’t remember her struggles with drinking.  He said he must have been traveling for work when she got drunk. My sisters begged me not to confront him. They were sure that he didn’t remember anything he’d done and that my telling him the truth would devastate him. Sure. But what about us?

He said to me more than once that he didn’t understand why he and my mother were able to stay married for almost forty years, and my sisters and I, between us, had five divorces.

“I can explain it to him,” I said to my sisters. “Librium and Gallo Rhine Wine are the answers. And if he asks me one more time, I’m going to tell him.”

In the end, he died before I told him the truth. But I’m telling the truth now. Maybe it will stop some other child from being manipulated into thinking that they should make up to one parent for what they say they’re not getting from the other.

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

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.

art with mental illness

I’ve been thinking all day about Vincent Van Gogh and his brother, Theo. Vincent painted such beautiful pictures, and I love his repetitions, the sequences of paintings where he painted the same subject or something like the same subject again and again.  Was he experimenting with different techniques? Trying to make the painting better?  Making multiple copies? Now it’s so easy to make multiple copies that we would never consider making another version of a piece to make another copy.

There’s something so visceral about paint on a canvas. I love seeing the original paintings. Even though I know that some of that creative energy came from instability, I can’t help but find that mix of tenderness and passion exquisite.  Still, without the balancing force of his brother, who steadied him both with his calming influence and with his money to buy paints and canvas, this art would not perhaps exist. I was reading today about the period when Vincent had the idea of setting up an artists’ salon in Arles and invited Gauguin to come and live with him.  The two managed to get along for only a short period before there was an explosive argument, Van Gogh severed his ear, and Gauguin fled.  The two would write after that but never see each other again.

This reminds me of my own son, not that he’s Van Gogh…though who knows? Van Gogh blossomed a bit late.  But Martin needs to be around people who are calm.  He can’t tolerate people who have the same temperament he has. Being around others who are in a manic state seems to invoke mania in him, even though he was previously calm.  I wonder whether that’s true for others.

I have a friend who has asked me more than once what I would be if there were absolutely no consequences to my choice. I thought I remembered what her choice was, but I got it somewhat wrong. I had remembered that she wanted to be a tug boat captain, when what she really thinks about is being a harbor pilot: getting on ships as they come into the harbor and steering them home.

The first time she asked me this question, I had no idea what to answer.  First I said a writer, and then she said I couldn’t say that, because I was already writing, even if I hadn’t yet published. So I said perhaps I’d like to publish.  She clearly wasn’t happy with that answer, but I didn’t know what else to say.  Saturday she asked me again, and I said a ballerina, which is one true answer.  I danced for a number of years, and it did grieve me that I wasn’t any good.  But another true answer is a painter. Though I keep making art with words, I love the look of the brush and the paint. I’ve never painted anything that satisfied me at all, but if I had, even once, I think I would have been a painter. Neither of my sons seem to find any solace at all in art, but I do.

Vincent Van Gogh, Irises, 1889, Smithsonian Museum.

van gogh irises