Memphis at dawn, December 2012

This time of year is full of anniversaries, which can be good (theoretically? I guess.) but actually fills me with anticipatory dread, a sentiment I know is not unusual. “Looking back” is not good for me, historically. Stay in the present, count your blessings, and then count them again, because the first time didn’t “take”. Keep it moving, don’t let it catch you, avoid introspection, get enough sleep, and keep a gratitude journal, even if the only thing you can think of to write down is “I am grateful for Wheat Thins and fleece socks.” Who cares. It’s something. At times it’s a damn liferaft. Count that shit. So we’ve got Thanksgiving and Christmas. My birthday is this time of year. This entire season is filled with remembrance of the hunker-down family death vigil of 2008, its quiet winding-down, its awful grief and silence. Approaching the anniversary of that death. It’s always there, the consciousness of the anniversary, the internal clock counting down. Big shit goes down in the fall. My birthday exacerbates the issue. I treat anniversaries with wary respect, understanding their propensity for ambush.

Last year at this time I was kicking a guy to the curb, a guy who had started out sweet (and hell, he was sweet, but weak and tricky to boot) and then revealed the game he had been playing, a game I had somehow avoided perceiving. It was a pretty big radar snafu on my part and I am still untangling it. Call it one of the byproducts of loneliness. But whatever, I felt tricked and played and used, and my birthday was coming up, and I told said gentleman-in-name-only to take a hike and also told him what I thought of him, all of which added up to Super Good Times. Even then, I tried to look on the bright side, something which actually helped. I’m not a bright side kind of girl and, in looking back, I feel a shiver, knowing the dark spiral I was about to descend into. So the looking-on-the-bright-side thing was more of a desperate flailing for a handhold of some kind, something to halt my descent. The thought process went like this, when I was clear enough to even think at all: Hey, at least my radar is not so broken that I cannot perceive that I am being used by a guy whose loneliness makes my own pale in comparison. At least I do not USE people to keep them close to me. After all, I could have ignored it completely, so fearful of being alone was I, and it would have been yet another example of accepting scraps from the table as opposed to a full meal. And insisting that said Scraps were a five-course Thanksgiving dinner. At least you got yourself free from an unworthy man. This mantra was a losing battle, and I knew it, could feel the drag down, but I gave it a shot. Kicking him to the curb was an act of survival, and I’m still proud (and amazed) that I had the gumption to do it, because the comfort he provided was quite real, and quite insistent. But not good enough, pal. Comfort is over-rated, anyway. KA-POW.

That experience was the spark that lit the blaze that consumed me in existential dread for months, wearing me down, and breaking me down, until I was so out of my mind that my family did an intervention. Which, let’s be blunt, probably saved my life. Not in that moment, I was not suicidal, not that time, not then, but I’m talking in the long run. Things got distinctly hair-raising in December and January, a situation which I now understand was extremely dangerous (especially the precipitous lightening of my mood while I was in Memphis), but one that is as familiar to me as my own menstrual cycle. I could set my watch by this shit. Regardless. When you’re in it, you’re in it. And nobody can tell you anything when you’re in it.

I am not yet ready to write here about what this last year has meant, but I have been working on some stuff off-line, first on doctor’s orders (he knows I’m a writer, and this is how I work through stuff, and no, his name is not “Dr. Martin”), and then just for myself. But this entire time of year, the shortening of the days, the approach of my birthday, mixed with the melancholy of the other anniversaries attached to this time, is filled with landmines. Avoiding landmines has become one of my primary activities although perhaps there’s a better terminology, a wording which provides me more freedom and doesn’t make life sound like a perilous affair (which, it very well may be so, but it doesn’t make it more livable to keep admitting it). Language is important. How we describe things is how we perceive them; it’s not the other way around. (Well, not always. If you stand in a refugee camp in the Sudan, look around, and say, “This SUCKS”, you are actually perceiving reality correctly, and describing it correctly. Anyone who would look at such a scene and say, “I suppose it all depends on how you look at it … ” should be tarred and feathered.) And so if you describe your life as “one failure after another”, that is your perception of it, and if you switch it up and describe it as, “I have kept working to get towards my goals, and sometimes I fail, but sometimes I succeed”, then reality itself starts to look different. Of course none of this works when you’re hurtling through the wormhole into madness, because then you are unable to think anything at all. Since I understand the importance of language, and since I have come to fear how I construct my own narrative (and that fear is justified), I have been working to get it into the proper terminology. In the past, I have used words to carve away all that I believed to be un-essential, un-realistic, the result being that said words became a sharp dagger used against myself. I carved away all that was soft, giving. It felt essential that I do so, life or death. That’s how I “used my words”, and so I tread cautiously now.

Let’s talk in layman’s terms, and also talk in terms of the season of anniversaries. Here we are, with dates to check off on a list. Times that are supposed to be happy, and yet which are connected to truly gloomy memories for me. Birthdays that have been indistinguishable from this image (psychologically speaking). Christmases that have been howling wildernesses of misery so acute that it actually frightened me. Same with Thanksgiving. Same with New Year’s. My fear of approach comes from long experience and there is a Pavlovian element to all of it, which is truly annoying. So I need to “not dwell on things”. Easier said than done. I have a lifetime of practice in dwelling. I can see now the chemical properties of all of this, which is actually a relief. Chemistry? I can work with THAT. But impending Doom coming from Within leaves me helpless against its assaults, and has done so since I was a kid. It’s the real Monster under my Bed. Numbers have always had a voodoo talismanic power for me, and I mark the passing of the anniversaries with an obsessive devotion. Two years, three years, six months, one year … What am I moving toward, though? Nothing. Not really. Because the real secret is that the only thing that matters is the present. There is no other secret, no other truth to be told that’s worth a damn and don’t let the charlatans selling you snake-oil quick-fixes tell you different. You are either alive to the moment, in all its joy and pain (that second part being the thing that many people don’t grasp – they want to rise above pain altogether), or you are not. Some spend their time looking back, some spend their time looking forward. It’s the human condition. I come again to the wisdom in Emily’s monologue in Our Town, which I have written about before (most recently here).

It seems to me that the only thing worth doing while we are here on this planet is to try as hard as we can to be able to perceive one another, see one another, be with one another. (This is what art can do. It doesn’t have to do that, and art that feels an obligation to do that is smarmy and manipulative, but it is one of art’s potentials). Be present to the Good while it is happening. This takes practice. (Studies have been done showing that we humans are biologically wired to remember the Bad Stuff, and not the Good, which makes sense if you think about it from an evolutionary standpoint. It’s far more useful for a Caveman to remember that such-and-such toothy Beast should be avoided than to remember that the sunshine feels good on his hairy back. You know? What is more useful to your survival? The negative stuff. And yet scientists have found that the opposite can be true: we can also “install” positive memories, which have the same resonance and “use” that the Bad Memories do. The brain can repair itself from the damage done by emotional trauma. You can actually see the difference in brain scans and the like. This is not akin to the Positive Thinking “I am wonderful and perfect” mantra-thing which is a line of horse shit peddled by con artists. This is something quite different.)

None of this matters in the slightest if you don’t have your health. And so health is paramount. I have doctors helping me, as I mentioned, so I am not flying solo, and I have regular check-ins. It can make me feel infantile and there have definitely been moments when I show my maturity by saying stuff like, “You’re not the boss of me,” or “Get off my back, I’m fine” but there comes a time when things get so frightening you have to accept help. So I lash out, I rebel, and the doctors nod sagely and reiterate their last point. They’ve seen it all before. They won’t abandon me just because I am a pain in the ass. I have lived in a state of siege for so long I can’t remember anything else. PTSD of an emotional brand, which colors perception and experience. My fight-or-flight instinct is on high alert. This makes life a rigorous rigid affair. I’m sure you’ve heard the analogy: Oak trees snap in hurricane winds because they are stiff and tall and rigid, whereas weeping willows could survive a nuclear blast due to their GIVE. Giving up my rigidity feels so dangerous that I am still amazed that I have been able to do it, but I should knock wood (just did). Privileging Health is one of the ways that all of this can be managed, and so I have been a lab rat under observation for most of this year. It’s boring and annoying but I’m getting used to it now. If things get bad enough again, I’ll go to the hospital and call it a day, that will be my net, and there’s no shame in that. But it is the day to day nurturing of my health (sleep, diet, exercise, it’s not rocket science) that helps create that net, and then helps me to perceive that the net exists. To let go of Dread, or at least … at the very least … deprive Dread of oxygen, let it shrivel up and die due to lack of attention … now that is something worth practicing.

It may be too soon to talk about all of this (in fact I think it is) but the season is rampant with markers, dates, numbers, anniversaries. They march towards me out of the fog, bearing their weighty associations like punk-ass monoliths sneering at me in a challenge. Emily from Our Town knows that the only truth worth knowing during our time being alive is that we are in one another’s presence, and there are those that we love, and we need to be present to that Love as much as we can. That’s it. Everything else is just philosophy, intellectual mind-games.

I have a couple of movies I have to watch today, and some research for something I’m working on. I have to take a run, despite the suddenly cold weather, and I also would like to get in a couple of episodes of Supernatural, a show that has been so entertaining I already can’t remember a time I wasn’t watching that damn thing. I don’t believe in the concept of “guilty pleasures”. Pleasure is pleasure. Don’t knock any of it (unless, that is, you get pleasure from boiling puppies. In that case, you should feel guilty as hell). If pleasure comes to you, then thank God you are able to perceive it at all; you’ve got a leg up on many many others. I am looking forward to this coming week, to the holiday, to seeing family, to hanging out with my niece and nephew (and there’s another one coming down the pike in T-minus a couple of weeks). My body is getting stronger. It feels good. I’ve been really enjoying my music collection lately. I listened to Eminem’s latest and love it, especially “Legacy”. Wonderful. There is more to absorb there, and I will. I had dinner with a college friend this week whom I have not seen since I was 22 years old. He said, “So what have you been up to these past decades?” How do I even begin to tell the story? How do I begin to put it into words? And what words do I choose? It’s of the utmost importance. I muddled through, conscious at every second of how I could be choosing descriptive words in a way that would come howling back to me at three o’clock in the morning, the dagger under my pillow ready for action. But I did okay. If I stayed a bit on the surface of things in my description, that’s okay too. I think of Oscar Wilde’s words, “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”

I am inclined to agree. But how to live with that knowledge? When Emily asks the Stage Manager the question: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it – every, every minute?”, he replies, “No. The saints and poets, maybe they do some.” I’m not a saint and I am not a poet. And “realizing life while you live” is, at times, an unforgivably blinding experience, best taken in small doses. The best I can do is make sure I get enough sleep, make sure I keep doing work that interests me, and do my best to be Present to everything that is before me, the good and the bad, the painful and the joyous. My family. My friends. The books I’m reading. The movies I’m seeing. The crushes I have (because I still have them). My new shoes. My new tires. The sound of the whistling wind. The spectacular now.

And if positive memories can be installed with as much longevity as negative ones, if they have just as much lasting power, and if the words you use can change your perception of reality and your internal experience of said reality, then maybe there’s some hope after all. I’m not saying so for sure, and I won’t. I’ve been too chastened by life experience to go that route. I’m not a weeping willow yet, and perhaps it’s just not how I’m built. I’m just saying Maybe, which is the biggest transformation from this time last year, and is really the reason I wrote all of these words just now. Nothing to celebrate, that’s for sure, but it’s also nothing to be ignored.

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28 Responses to Anniversaries

  1. mutecypher says:

    Just keep at it, in the here and now. There are a lot of us wishing you well.

  2. Maureen says:

    I know I have said this before, but you have such a beautiful way of expressing yourself-your words resonate with me. This is a powerhouse of a post, and I wish you the very best health and happiness. I don’t know if it helps to think of strangers out in the world thinking the best thoughts of you and your talents, but I certainly do.

  3. Elliott says:

    Oh heavens. The late-in-the-year birthday coming, the expectant smiles of the people in the know, the cold sun shining straight through the bare woods, and every damn day driving in one after another. Sometimes I think the procreative act should not be undertaken until mid-March at the earliest. Think of the child, born under gin stars, compelled to celebrate in an environment of collapse.

  4. Tommy says:

    It’s rare that you find something here on the interweb that grabs your attention so completely. You do it often. Well done, and well said. And to echo the comments above: you have a lot of people rooting for you. “None of this matters in the slightest if you don’t have your health,” you say. I only agree, and agree some more, ma’am.

  5. Thanks for this. So glad you shared. I have no pearls of wisdom, but I will mention that I really enjoy your writing and your thoughts on a whole bunch of topics.

    Okay, one pearl, from Woody Guthrie: “Take it easy, but take it.”

  6. Regina Bartkoff says:

    Well, I’m just floored by this. And I can’t express how I can connect with this without probably sharing the same exact experiences as you, obviously, but I feel like I know what you are talking about. (on a side note my birthday just passed too, we’re both Sag! I don’t know what that means but my husband says, “Just look up stubborn in the dictionary” or flatly, “weird.” haha!) But I feel like this every time around this time of year and it doesn’t let up till after Jan. And I know the reasons.
    Hold on tight Sheila, you give so many others real pleasure and joy from your writing, what a gift you have, this shock of recognition, this universal feeling you capture, where others think, “Oh I know that feeling” is rare, that you make seem so easy. I thank you for it, and echo the above comments written here.
    P.S. Ikiru and Our Town are fabulous and favorites of mine too!

    • sheila says:

      Thank you sooo much, Regina. Understanding that others can relate is one of the ways we can hold on and keep going. It’s that feeling of isolation that mental illness brings that is so devastating. So I am very glad I hit “Post” on this one.

      Thanks again!

  7. brendan says:

    I am trying to WORK over here, God. I cannOT ANSWER the phone when I am crying. I love you so much.

  8. Desirae says:

    This is just beautiful, Sheila. I don’t have much more to say than that. You capture the melancholy of passing time and anniversaries so well. I’m one of those people that finds my own birthday a bit depressing, but that may be because it’s on Remembrance/Veteran’s day (an odd day for celebrating).

    I’m glad to hear that your health program has been benefitting you, and that your family stepped in to help you when you needed it. I don’t know any of those people but I could love them for that alone. They sound like such a good crowd.

    • sheila says:

      My family suddenly turned into a SWAT team. They were quite intimidating. Of course I did NOT like it but I was too afraid of them to tell them to back off. :) They cared about me. It was a risk for them, I could very well have told them to mind their own business.

      Still in process, obviously, but having a ton of help from professional people is really what I have needed for a long time. Hard to admit that. But oh well.

      Thank you for your comment, Desirae! And happy belated birthday.

  9. Kate Poulter says:

    Thank you, Sheila. In my life, I can tell when I am starting to descend that darkening spiral when I start asking myself, “What is the purpose of life?” It’s not for suicidal reasons or anything, simply that sometimes in the middle of the trivial or hectic or rainy parts of these months, things can look bleak both inside and out. I have found it helps me to have an answer to tell myself when that question arises. Usually my response is something I learned during a particularly difficult patch about 19 years ago, that for me, one purpose of life is to reach out to others with love. So I am really aware of those statements of purpose, and I loved what you said: “It seems to me that the only thing worth doing while we are here on this planet is to try as hard as we can to be able to perceive one another, see one another, be with one another.” I agree. And thank you.


    • sheila says:

      Kate – thank you so much for your comment. The “purpose” of life that you describe really is the whole shebang. I am very fortunate to have a family (first of all) – who cares and are there for me – But it’s almost like I have to make a conscious practice of saying “Thank you” for them. It’s another reason why Thanksgiving is a potent time, it makes that subtext into Text. My dad always had us go around the table at Thanksgiving and say what we were thankful for, and I have such emotional memories of that. Because, of course, we were all saying we were thankful for each other, for being together, for our family.

      Thanks again for your comment.

  10. Beth says:

    As always, your words resonate with me in more ways than you can know. And stepping up to the plate to write about these experiences is also something I’m struggling with right now. Wishing us both strength for the journey, then.

    • sheila says:

      Beth – I know you struggle too and I wish you health and strength and peace. Thanks so much for commenting. This was my first stab at putting it into words. I am gratified to see people commenting saying it struck a chord with them … As a writer yourself, I know you know what that feels like.

      Best to you … and happy Thanksgiving. Hang in there.

  11. Jane says:

    I can not truly know what you have been through, but (like others have already said) I can relate to the thoughts and feelings you’ve so eloquently expressed here. And I am awed by your honesty, bravery, and tenacity. I hope you don’t mind a stranger expressing her opinion: “Maybe” is no small feat. It’s a long hard journey on the road of human existence to reach “maybe,” and I am happy that you are there.
    Reading your posts is a bright spot in my week, and this seems as good a time as any to thank you for them — I am grateful for them! (Oh, yeah, and Supernatural, too!)
    I wish you all the best and Happy Thanksgiving.


    • sheila says:

      Jane – you know what, you’re really right about “Maybe” being a huge feat. I am still cautious to be too triumphant about anything – not realistic – but it’s when you get into “Always” and “Never”-land that life becomes unlivable. “Maybe” gives you at least a little bit of space.

      Thank you so much!

  12. DeAnna says:

    You always leave me speechless.

    Love you.

  13. Tony says:

    My Dearest Sheila,

    As our dear friend, Oscar, one of my all-time favorite authors and dazzling wits wrote, “We are all of us in the gutter, at least some of us are looking at the stars” — loosely paraphrased, me thinks. He has always managed to make me laugh, cry, sit up straight, ponder deeply, question, think long and hard, and inspire, just the same as you. Oh, if he could only see TODAY the way he has changed the world for the better! We know how frought with turmoil his life on earth was, but his innate genius to observe, reflect, put pen to paper and reflect as through a glass a complex, concave, cacophonous mess in which he himself was bereft. You embody the same spirit and must know how much you touch all of those who read you in an ever so broad range of emotions.

    This is why I and so many of those who revel in your writing follow. You evoke so much and challenge me to organize my thoughts and emotions into characters which can speak comfort to one I’ve adored from the moment you touched my heart as Ann of Green Gables. As I see the world through your eyes, I’m reminded of my own peaks and valleys in the wilderness, the melancholy and loss, and know how hard it is to don the gay apparel of comfort and joy. You are not alone. No one is alone, as Sondheim wrote, and sometimes he lulls me into that place of quiet complacency. Other times JayZ or Lady Gaga do the trick. My head is spinning. You move me so, which is why I love you so much and yearn for your moments of brilliance, insight, honesty, and truth.

    We are put upon this earth for such a brief, fleeting moment, and what we are meant to do is unclear, but you must take heart that you do ever so much more than muddle through. You bring a sense of community and family to a host of people who yearn for something more. The sum of all the parts is greater than the whole, and I am grateful for you and all my friends and family, who challenge me to think on it in a most meaningful way this Thanksgiving and every Thanksgiving for now and evermore. Amen.

    May you be ever blest. Thank you, and all those loving friends and family, who have shared their support for one another here upon the threshold of the holiday season.

    Happy Thanksgiving.

    With love,
    Tony ;)

    • sheila says:

      Tony – thank you so much for this comment. It brought me to tears. Thank you for your additional thoughts on Oscar – who, yes, continues to inspire, challenge – a light in the darkness.

      Many thanks to you – and I hope you have a lovely holiday!


  14. Kate D. says:

    wow! I feel like I have been offline for a long time. I want to write/share words that are not words/can’t quite capture things. very meaningful. support for you.

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