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M&M Days

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Sept. 14, 2012

Don’t even ask me why I thought of M&Ms. I was having a hard day today–after having had a hard day yesterday–when the image of an orange M&M presented itself to me. Not having the energy to fight off this tiny UFO, I capitulated. So today I am an M&M. Yes, the candy. I know it’s dumb, so save your breath.

I’m orange and shiny on the outside. I am smooth and pleasingly shaped. A perfect little pod of Happy. I create a cool and pleasant “click” as I collide companionably with all of you other M&Ms in the larger M&M community.

Except that there is brown stuff inside me. Brown stuff which is threatening to liquefy at any moment. In fact, maybe it already has. Well, and you would assume it’s chocolate and shrug it off. But what if it’s not? What if I happen to be the one poop-filled M&M in all of M. County, XX, and you just haven’t figured it out yet?

I dropped by our administrative offices today to pick up some materials. The ladies who work there are great, great people; and I look forward to stopping in. I am not exaggerating. I ADORE them! But today was difficult. My neediness scared me, and I had to get out fast, before I had an accident. I longed to join their little fun-size bag of office camaraderie even if it meant volunteering for grunt work. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t. The caring and warmth of these women would have resulted in melting, and who knows where that might have lead? One little sneeze, one unintentional elbow or funny look, one chance remark….In fact, one false move of any sort would have started the hairline crack in my Happy, and poop would have happened.

Just being in the office this morning took great effort. It was hard to focus on the small talk and the task at hand because of the energy drain inherent in having to operate on Manual Override. On the one hand, I noted how much healing, growth, and self awareness I have under my belt at this ripe old age of 48. I realized, with surprise and gratitude, that I rarely have to operate on manual at all these days. On the other hand, this insight meant that today was a trip back into the familiar land we counselors like to call emotional dysregulation. Ain’t it grand? Come to think of it, that thought is probably why the M&M was visited upon me in the first place. M&Ms: pretty on the outside, crazy on the inside. M&Ms: melt in your mind, not in your hand.

I am just so darned experienced that I can (mostly) hide the craziness and (mostly) function normally until I wrangle the gerbils back into the cage. You can do this too, and here is a quick lesson. You just have to ask yourself about every 30 seconds: Am I being appropriate? What would a Normal Person do now? Then you do it. And you hope nobody sees the brown stain slowly blossoming on seat of your shorts. Afterwards, you go have a good cry and take a nap because Manual Override takes everything you’ve got.

It’s challenging to be professional at best, non-life-sucking at worst, when you crave a haven of unconditional love. Instead of unloading on the Executive Director, who is one of those Moms around whom you can’t help but feel safe, I had to try to be that normal person. Surely the chocolate-filled M&M wouldn’t throw herself on her superior, an overworked mother of three young boys (who is, by the way, at least a decade younger) and demand care. I am a counselor, for God’s sake, and this woman is my boss. Certainly Normal Me would not cry and feel left out because the director now has, as her office administrator, the woman who has been her best friend since childhood. They get to hang out together all the time! What–do I want her to be my best friend? YES! I mean, wait, NO! No offense intended. That’s the poop talking. I hope the office owns a canister of Febreze.

What is wrong with me!? Do you know that in the last two days, I’ve been doing my errands in a daze, once briefly forgetting where I was and feeling lost? This afternoon, I found myself unable to remember if I had eaten breakfast. Yes, counselors, we call this dissociation. I was in a haze like this once in the days after learning of the death of a dear friend. Same kind of weirdness.

I have friends. Very, very, very good ones! Well, yes, but they are very busy, and I don’t want them to think I’m dumping on them.

What I need most is to call my best friend, Hanna; or Skype with her; or write her a long letter. She knows my whole life. She always, always understands me, and she never gets tired of me–even when I have to process a-million-and-one iterations of the same matter, in my completely obsessive and annoying way, in order to bring my mind to rest. Sadly, reaching her is tough. She lives in Europe, and she works full time, and her husband tends to take over every conversation, but still….

Oh no! I just remembered: She fired me 9 months ago.

My direct supervisor, Tim, is very wise. Yesterday morning, I met with him to consult about a new case, a new couple I had met for the first time the day before. I was trying to figure out why worry had kept me from sleep. I was uncharacteristically distressed and felt completely stuck. The husband had assured me he didn’t have anything he needed to discuss in counseling. The wife had maintained she had come only in support of her husband. Hmmm, where did that leave me since they had asked for couples counseling and intended to return.

Part of what disturbed me about this couple was the wife’s denial. She had been alarmed enough about her husband’s behavior and the potential for violence to set up counseling. However, once she got him into my office, she had pooh-poohed (more excrement) and minimized everything. Obvious manifestations of mental illness were, in turn, labeled charming, fun-loving, rational, insightful, and demonstrative of superior intellect. Tim wondered if she had acted this way because she was scared of him. I’m not so sure. The couple owned a kennel, by the way, and spent a lot of time scooping…poop.

I lamented to Tim, “How can you know something and not know something at the same time, especially when it is so obvious?”

A long pause followed.

“Interesting you should ask that,” he replied with care….”I don’t think I can ever recall your saying a case kept you up at night. You don’t have to take this case, you know.”

It took a few moments for his meaning to penetrate. I had both known and kept myself from knowing so many things. At so many junctures. About Hanna and her husband Niko, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. My eventual refusal to collude with their reality had cost me their trust and a lifelong friendship.

“I can’t help them,” whispered. And then I just felt like crying.

I referred them out.

Later I climbed onto Jesus’ lap, curled up, and buried my face in his chest. He held me and told me I was good, and He stroked my hair.

His hand felt like my Dad’s.

This post is the latest in the thread The Story of Hanna. For the prior post in the thread, click here. For the next post, click here.

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90837

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

I have known Avril for precisely 203 hours. I have known Avril for 8 days and 11 hours.

I have known Avril one hour at a time for 6 years and 8 days. She was barely out of childhood when we started our secret meetings. She had to sneak around so that her grandma wouldn’t learn about me and kick her out of the house. Now she is a career woman, a single parent, and a home owner. I am her therapist.

Today when Avril left my office, I dashed for the ladies room in the darkened part of the building. My swollen heart was near bursting. I drew a few quaking breaths, grabbed it in both hands, and wrung. When just enough of it had squeezed out my eyes to ensure that it would fit back into my chest until lunch, I allowed myself one luxurious minute more. Maybe two. Another client was on her way. I dabbed my kohl and returned to my post.

I was not sad. The culprit was gratitude. It had been welling and swelling all morning, and Avril’s face had set me off.

Four weeks ago, Avril had returned after a six-month break. She was aware she was starting to falter. I had held up the mirror and shown her how far she had come. She had curled into herself:

“Stop!” she had cried, “Stop it now!”

Two weeks ago, she knew was flirting with disaster. She was scared because she had stopped feeling scared. Would she grasp for the help she needed before she was all used up? Avril had been taught that depression is not real, that medication is an affront to Jesus. She had gutted it out before–but the stakes had seemed smaller back then.

Avril was but a nub that day. Her face was stony, her voice a near monotone. I thought I spied a spark of “Fuck You” simmering behind her eyes but I couldn’t be sure. It both reassured and alarmed me. The starving, the cutting, all those games.…These had been her tools, both comforting and despised, to secure her care. They had been friends once upon a time. Now they fit her like a too-small skin. Weary from trying so hard to embrace her new size, she sought solace in the familiar. She panicked when she realized she couldn’t go back, and this made her strain even harder. In trying to force matters, she had nearly done herself harm.

She had not yet become small enough for me to intervene. I was worried but I would not mother her. Avril had become a woman, and she had to choose for herself.

Today, Avril arrived with a gaunt face, a giant mug of tea, and no hello. She started talking and left me to fill in the blanks:

“The medication is making me really tired. But I stopped trying to avoid food. I know my appetite will come back if I wait.”

Her face was soft and almost shy.

90837 is the billing code for a therapy session lasting 53-60 minutes.

The Balloon

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

What do I do now?

April 6, 2012

A few weeks ago I got the idea to write an essay about myself as a balloon. I put it off, and I find I am no longer able to do so.

I had been tied firmly to my moorings and, despite dancing in breezes and being bullied by gales, I was confident that I’d hold fast. Popping was out of the question. My sense of security had made me a regular punch ball.

Thus grounded, I had even forgotten I was a balloon. I had continued in this state for decades without a second thought. I was so accustomed to my attachment that I no longer contemplated it. My connection to Hanna had become like breathing, I suppose. It was necessary for life, and yet it went on largely outside my conscious awareness–until a disruption of my normal rhythm reminded me I was doing it at all.

After an unsettling fall in which Hanna did not return my communications, I became keenly aware of my tie to her, my umbilical cord. Undernourished, my robust skin began to dull and thin. I began to feel deflated, and I wondered how much longer the silence would continue.

Hanna’s January letter cut me loose.

I bounced and skidded across the ground as the moaning wind compelled me across the gray winter landscape to an uncertain fate. Fragile, I was in danger of puncture. Sharp pebbles and brittle grasses clawed at my sides. For nearly two months, it was all I could do to keep myself intact.

Sometime in March, the winds started to abate. Spring seemed possible. The sun reemerged and began to warm me with its golden rays. I felt myself growing stronger. The beams whispered love to me. I ate and drank them. I began to grow fat and round once more, my skin taut and strong and shiny. Yes, Spring was on the move.

Warmth curled itself around me and within me, and I began to rise in fits and starts. Unattached, I couldn’t stop myself. And as I got over my fear, I began to enjoy my new perspective. I was no longer safely tethered, it was true. But my uncertainty was eclipsed by a burgeoning joy at this unexpected freedom.

I wanted to say all that–but I can’t. (Here you have to imagine the sudden ripping of a phonograph needle across a vinyl record.) I can’t write all that because just as the balloon was beginning its steady rise, a second letter came.

Hanna stated it had not been her intention to end the friendship but merely to put it on hold.

At that exact moment, the balloon snagged in the branches of a tree. It is stuck there still. The balloon is unable to continue its ascent until a further shift of the wind releases it. Meanwhile, the string dangles within reach, leaving open the possibility of its recapture.

What comes next is up in the air. So you see, I am unable to write about myself as a balloon.

This excerpt is part of The Story of Hanna. For the prior installment, click here. For the next installment, click here.

Infidelity

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Summer, 2013

“Are you getting enough?”

“Well…”

“I know we haven’t made much time for each other lately.”

“I’ve been getting by.”

“Because if you aren’t getting your needs met here, I want to know where you are getting them met.”

No, no no, this is not a conversation about sex! This conversation occurred in my women’s group. We were discussing our friendship needs.

My Ladies and I have been fast friends since chance (read: God) threw us together in the Spring of 1999 when we attended the same church retreat.

When we first started getting together, we met weekly. Each time we told new stories, learned more about one another, and laughed so hard it’s a wonder nobody ever threw up. Once each summer we went to great lengths to escape our children so that we could go off somewhere and behave like children. Please don’t ask me about specifics. If I told you, I’d have to kill you.

We had established the perfect blend of personalities, interests, and abilities. We did serious; we did spiritual; we did raucous; we did clueless. This was the life! We would go on like this forever! Nothing could ever come between us. We all but took vows and exchanged rings.

Slowly the passion cooled. We were on our way to becoming an old married couple. Getting together was enjoyable, but it wasn’t always the peak experience we had come to expect. As our children’s lives became more complicated and our work demands changed, making time for one another dropped further and further down our list of priorities. To be fair, perhaps I should also add that it dropped further and further down our list of possibilities. We were exhausted! Sometimes making the effort to coordinate four schedules became just one more thing—one more box to check on an already long list. And let’s face it. Who needs that?

As we began to coast, each of us began to explore other friendships. This felt good! We were getting our friendship needs met! But the enjoyment was also tinged with the guilty pleasure of “the affair.” Shouldn’t we be trying harder to make our schedules work? Shouldn’t we be pushing harder to create excitement in the perfectly good relationships we had? Could we be authentically happy that our intimate friends had found ways to get what we could not provide? Occasionally things between us became awkward as we wondered where we stood. Were we headed for divorce, however amicable? We had gone through infatuation and a lengthy honeymoon before the glow wore off and we found ourselves in the power struggle trying to assert our own agendas. Are you familiar with Imago Therapy? The theory behind it holds that if you make it successfully through this rough patch, you enter into a more mature and stable love.

Well….

We all agreed that the group needed an injection of something to keep things fresh. Without acknowledging it to one another, we more or less ended up in two camps.

Camp Edify wanted our times together to focus more on the study of Scripture in order to produce spiritual growth and maturity. This was a worthy aim. Camp Bite Me shrewdly figured that Bible Study = homework = one more thing. Seeing how frazzled we had all become, the Bite Mes didn’t want our times to have any agenda other than relaxation and fun. This aim was worthy as well.

When Edify touched on spiritual themes, Bite Me listened with patient smiles while it silently screamed, “Squish the damned camel through the needle already so we can get to the fun part! Can’t we just keep it light?!” Edify listened to Bite Me with Christian tolerance, plotting all the while how to manipulate the talk back to loftier fare. As the power struggle intensified, so did the tactics. Since neither camp had actually declared itself or its agenda, each volley had to take the form of a finely crafted segue lest the other camp come to suspect its motives. Fortunately, we are all very subtle and refined individuals.

I recall one van ride last summer in which the volleys sailed flew back and forth for the better part of two hours. As the Edifys became more earnest, the Bite Mes became more, uh, entertaining. In the end, it was Pollyanna versus Jersey Shore in an epic smackdown. I bet you can’t guess who ended up crying “Uncle.”

I’m willing to share the conversation with you in its condensed form but only if you promise not to tell anyone. I think it appropriate, in this day of Twitter and speed dating, to collapse it to its bare essentials. This may also help to insure that I will still have friends and a job in the event that someone I know actually reads this.

“Ten Commandments.”

“Ten inches.”

“Seek ye first.”

“Knockwurst.”

End times.”

“Ten times.”

“Grace.”

“Mercy!”

“Forgive us our debts.”

“Cigarette.”

For several months after this wrestling match, I wasn’t sure where we’d end up. For a while we went our own ways and almost seemed to forget about one another. A sort of continental drift or benign neglect had become the norm. Certainly nobody was going out of their way to organize anything.

I prepared myself for disappointment by trying to imagine I was ok with these developments: These women were nice but a lot of people are nice. And I was very busy. And both camps were starting to get on my last nerve. To gird myself against possible hurt, I practiced my Steel Magnolia Hug (lean in, brittle embrace, pat, pat, pat, I-don’t-need-you, release) and my International Air kisses (Mwa! I-am-above-zees. Mwa!) in the mirror, and said, “Screw it. I am just fine.”

Except that I wasn’t. I wasn’t fine at all. Hanna had dumped me, and I was high and dry. I didn’t realize how depressed I had become until I ran into one Lady unexpectedly and felt the tears spring into my eyes. I lurched into in a hug and didn’t want to let go. I needed my Ladies! I sent out an SOS, oblivious to the snot which threatened to short out my phone. Hell froze over, pigs flew, and before too long, we were seated cozily together enjoying a meal. We had a wonderful time.

We are older. We are wiser. We are still intact. Some things have shifted and some have stayed the same but we are still faithful to one another. Furthermore, I believe we are entering a good place in our odd little union.

This is the fourth installment in The Story of Hanna. Click here to read installment three. Click here for installment five.

How?

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

How do I continue this story?

When Hanna and her husband Niko headed back to Germany after their ill-fated visit, there was silence. Ok, Hanna did let us know they had arrived safely and that they would be in touch. The message was curt. I wasn’t terribly surprised.

It was clear from the outset that we had considerable work ahead of us. I had actually shown my best friend the door. That is a euphemism. After a month of hell, I had more or less pushed her through it.

Those weeks in the summer of 2011 were the most stressful I had ever experienced. Within a few days of their arrival, the shower drains began clogging with hair. We were all—literally—losing it. But our friendship was so deep and so wide. We had a commitment and history most married couples would envy. As horrible as the month had been, I rested in the belief that after we licked our wounds and got some rest, sanity would return. We would talk things through to resolution.

I was wrong.

I waited to hear from Hanna, figuring she needed some down time. I knew I did.

After a while, I sent some chatty emails. I got no response. Then I sent letters. And more letters. Too many letters.

First my tone was optimistic: “Whew, that was rough, wasn’t it? I look forward to talking when you are rested.” Then the protective numbness began to crumble.

I made rational appeals. I begged. I pointed the finger, too. I followed up with conciliatory tomes. Nothing. All the while, I believed—then convinced myself to keep believing–that after all our years “for better,” our little marriage would undoubtedly survive “for worse.” It took 5 months for the Dear John letter to arrive. It was not gentle.

I had no recourse. Hanna had cut me off at the knees. She let me know she had not read anything I had sent. She pronounced us dead without trying to see matters through my eyes.

I had no recourse, so I began to write. I needed some outlet, if only my creaky old laptop, through which to vent my regret, anger, despair. I really needed Hanna but she wouldn’t have me.

Hanna and I used to process everything together with our one big brain. She was the right hemisphere, and I was the left. Or visa versa. I was inconsolable. My husband was incredible but he had a lot of thinking to do himself. My other friends were great. Still, there is a limit to how much one can unload, even to the most loving of friends, day after day; week after week; month after month. I was clinically depressed.

Tapping the bones of this story into Petunia, my decrepit but faithful pink Dell, was therapy. She gave me the voice I needed. If you’ve been reading my blog, you may understand the desperation I can feel when I am unheard*.

It’s been a few years since things blew up, and I think I’ve worked through the experience thoroughly enough to share it.

Here is my concern: What if I discover, in stirring up and fleshing out the story, that the embers are not as cold as I believe? I could end up with a flash fire. I have worked through all the predictable stages of grief, but feelings have their own logic and are rarely processed to completion. I know better than to believe they will remain quiet after a firm jab with the old poker. Yes, that concerns me.

I don’t hold out much hope that I will hear from Hanna again but I can’t know that. I still think of her often and consider her and Niko friends dear to my heart. I still love her so much. She never did tell her family anything, and I have occasional contact with her parents. I’ve known her brother Torsten since he was about 5, and he is a good friend, a brother. Maybe, just maybe….

I want to write as though she will read these words. I must do it this way or not at all.

This is a tall order, and I hope I am up to the task.

This is the second installment in The Story of Hanna. Click here for the third installment.

*This post and this post deal with not feeling heard.

Swamp Lullabye

Photo courtesy of Paul Mannix

Photo courtesy of Paul Mannix

I slumber in my swamp sublime
The warm and fetid backwash clime
Undulates in fog and slime
Smothering my senses

Black flies adore my lower lip
Their eggs in glistening clusters slip
From hairy wombs about to rip
Like overripe papayas

A swollen leech calls, “Hush, my dear”
In foreplay nibbling on my ear
Seductively to still my fear
While gorging on my blood

Steadily the quicksand grows
With smacking lips she sucks my toes
One by one A mother knows
How to swathe a baby

Untitled: February, 1987

Photo courtesy of John Liu

Photo courtesy of John Liu

I seem to think a lot these days

To cry and pain and pain and bleed

Then joy, bright champagne bubble mirth

Blows golden notes of dandelion seed

Solemnity of captives freed

A mind reduced to motion

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