A Coupla Bummers and A Miracle

Well, it was Thanksgiving in America, again.

A friend of mine calls it Shabbos Hodu.  (“Shabbos” is the Eastern European version of the Hebrew word “Shabbat,” or Sabbath).  “Hodu” is the Hebrew word for both “turkey (the bird)” and the imperative form of one of the many words for “to thank.”  Thus, “Shabbos Hodu!”

In Orthodox Judaism there is no “Thanksgiving Day,” because we formally give thanks to God at least six times a day, and sometimes more often.

The three daily prayers, which take up to an hour each, contain 19 paragraphs of blessing.  Each of these blessings opens and closes with a verse of thanks.  There is a separate blessing expressing thanks in general, and when there is a quorum of ten people, a special very beautiful paragraph is sung that describes the praises of the Angels.  There is a verse in every prayer beseeching the Creator to rebuild Jerusalem, our Holy City.

The other three “Thank you’s” are contained in the Blessing After Meals, said after any meal containing more than a certain amount of bread (the exact amount is part of Jewish Law), and a shorter version that is said after eating any non-bread product containing one of the five varieties of grain that grow in the Land of Israel: wheat, spelt, rye, oats, barley.  The long version takes me 45 minutes to say, because I say each word with concentration on its meaning.  I learned this from my teachers.

In these prayers also, the rebuilding of Jerusalem figures large.  Both sets of prayers were codified while the Hebrews were in exile in Babylon, after the Babylonian conquest had razed Jerusalem.

However, I no longer live in a Jewish community, let alone Israel; and to tell you the truth, I’m not really practicing Orthodox Judaism these days.

It was so wonderful living in our little country, being able to practice my religion in an unfettered way.  We could wear our special religious items–you know, the ones we are prohibited from bringing to the Temple Mount–right in the street, in the buses, anywhere, without people screaming epithets and other unpleasantries.

I once had a conversation with a black woman from New Orleans who had converted to Islam, married a Lebanese man, and moved with him to Saudi Arabia.  I met her in India.  She wanted to know why we Jews had to have our own country, when we could be Jewish anywhere in the world.

I was so taken aback by this question that I had to sit and think for a minute.  At last I got hold of my senses and asked her,

“Were you able to practice Islam in America?”

“Well, of course!”

“Then why did you move to Saudi Arabia?”

“Oh, because it’s an Islamic country!  Saudi Arabia enforces strict Shari’a Law, so it is the purest Islam…”

For a moment, understanding dawned in her eyes, but it faded just as quickly.  I developed something that needed my urgent attention, and left my friend wondering what went wrong.

Oh yes. I was talking about Thanksgiving in America.

Since I’m in America for the foreseeable future, I am doing some things American style, like Thanksgiving Day and gifts for Hannukah (our Festival of Lights, coming up next week).  In Israel, Hannukah is a time for celebrating miracles.  Gifts are not really a central theme.  It’s all about the light. ( More on that next week.)  The American practice of giving gifts on Hannukah seems to have arisen in order to keep Jewish children from being bummed out because of Christmas.

Since my son’s father is Christian, my son goes to him for Christmas.  For the past few years, my son and I have been “doing” Thanksgiving together.

While my father was alive, my son would come to my parents’ house and he and I would make a kosher turkey, and we would all get gorked on the usual T-day dishes.

Last year I was still in shock from my father’s death in early October, so my son and his then-girlfriend made a huge feast at his house.  People dropped by, roommates who had stayed in town for their own reasons cruised by and partook, we all smoked a lot of weed, and generally had a good time.  My mother was not invited, because she has made herself unwelcome by her delight in shaming me in front of my son.

This year my mother decided to fly to my cousins and have Thanksgiving with them.  I was not invited.  My cousins, who suck up to her for their own reasons, did not invite me either.  That being the case, I felt no pangs of guilt when I accepted my son’s invitation, party of one.

Then my mother decided to cancel her Thanksgiving plans, for her own reasons.  Since she knew my son had invited me (party of one), she got herself invited to one of her many friends, who has a big family, so my mom could feel really angry that her own family had not invited her.

For some reason my son did not invite anyone else to dinner.  His own reasons, I guess.  It was a little weird having just he and I, especially since he was in one of his dark moods, brooding and irritable.  I really wish he would start taking lithium again, but he angrily rejects the diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder that, in his opinion, was foisted upon him as a teenager.

So that was Thursday.

I slept in my camper van, in the parking lot of his apartment complex.  One of his neighbors, who had clearly been watching out for me, accosted me as I headed out to go to bed, demanding to know if I was visiting someone in the complex.  Surely he had seen me exiting my son’s door…

My nerves were already frazzled from dinner with my glowering son, so I fired back,

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because I think you’re just camping here.”  Whoa, let’s just get some holiday spirit of giving on here, hey?

I wanted to say to him, “Listen, Mr. Nice Guy, even if I was ‘just camping here,’ there’s a whole fucking empty parking lot because everyone has gone elsewhere for the holiday.  And what are you angry at, anyway?”

But I didn’t say that, because there’s always the possibility that a poor unhappy fucker like that will call the police, and I was already tired and tense enough.  So instead I said,

“Well, I am camping here.  This (pointing to my camper) is my bedroom.  I’m visiting ____ in Apartment _____.  Would you like him to come out and speak with you?”

As it turns out, this unfortunate fellow has seen my son, who is a weight lifter and quite muscular and buff.  So the sorry sucker subsided, and allowed as how that would not be necessary.  I also subsided, went into my spaceship and slept fitfully, as people constantly came and went, car lights and porch lights flashing.  My PTSD surrounding cops blazed like a tiger in the night.

Friday.  I woke up feeling like shit.  Depression.  Again. Still.

Went in and stood under my son’s excellent shower for half an hour while he went to work for a while.

When he came back, I said, “Listen, I’m feeling really disorganized brain-wise.  Do you mind if I hang out till tomorrow?”

The minute the words left my mouth I saw the twitch in his face that said, Oh No, Not That!

“Um…listen, Mom, to be honest, um, I really need my space.”

My heart hit the pavement.  Then I noticed the spiffy outfit.

Date.

Yeah, I was glad he was able to tell me no, but on the other hand I wished he had seen fit to be honest and say something more like, “Oh wow, Mom, I really wish you could, but since I thought you were leaving today, I made plans.”  That would have sent me off with a smile and a lighter heart.

“Oh, that’s OK,” I chirped, suddenly feeling like I’d been handed the bum rush.*

He graciously allowed me to stay long enough to use his internet to find a campground.  I found one pretty close by, said my goodbyes, and lit a shuck out of there.**

____________________________________________________

I called my mother today, just to see how she is doing, and I wish I had put money on the bet that I made with myself.  I would have won.  She barely spoke to me, and clearly had her victim act all planned out, in case I called.  I laughed.  Couldn’t help myself: it was all too predictable.

Now for the Miracle part.

My sweet Belgian Malinois, Atina, is most certainly an angel.

She sleeps in the right-hand third of my bed.  The left-hand third is reserved for all the computer-related shit that won’t fit anywhere else.

The only thing I had the energy to make for dinner was a cup of gluten-free microwave macaroni and cheese.  While I was mechanically going through the motions of making it, Atina was busy doing something in the bed.

She was pushing my duvet into a nest-like shape toward the pillow.  No, wait.  She was pushing it with her nose, straightening the edge up toward the pillow.  I thought, you cutie, you are making yourself a nest out of my duvet, and you know that’s my spot in the bed!  But I did not scold her.  My heart was brimming with love.  She pushed and pulled at my pillow, fluffing it and making it into a nice continuum with my duvet.  Aha, I thought, now I will see you plump yourself down in my spot!

But that’s not what she was about at all.

When she got my part of the bed all fixed up to her satisfaction, she plopped herself down–on her side of the bed!  She had made my bed up–for me!

I dropped what I was doing and hugged and kissed her for a long time.  By the way she reacted, she knew that I knew what she had done for me…she made a place for me to rest.  She did it with love and care.  As I write this, I am lying in the bed my dog prepared for me.  Her breathing is soft and even as she sleeps in her own third of the bed.

“Friends may come and friends may go, but your dog will always be glad to see you.”

_____________________________________________________

*”The bum rush”: A term dating from the Great Depression and possibly earlier, when many out-of-work men went “on the bum,” going from door to door begging for food, money, a place to sleep…if the man of the house took offense, the beggar would be chased off the place–“given the bum rush.”

**”To light a shuck” means “to leave in a hurry.”  It has its origin in the  Civil War, when dried corn shucks were used as fuses for light cannons and field artillery.  Once you “lit a shuck,” you had to run like hell because not only did the big guns recoil (and could run you over), but also sometimes the cannons would backfire, shooting cannon balls behind instead of in front of them.  The idiom is still in use in the Southern and Southwestern United States.  It is one of my favorites.

 

 

When Is Enough Enough?

I lived with my father as he slowly died in increasingly excruciating pain over years and years.  When my mother was home, she forbid him to say, “I hurt,” and she withheld his pain medication “because it made him sleep all the time.”

He slept all the time anyway, because that was the only way he could reduce his pain level.  He groaned in his sleep, though.

Unfortunately, I have inherited the disease that caused his pain: degenerative joint disease, with the added agony of degenerative disc disease.

For the past few weeks the combination of mental and physical pain has me close to the breaking point.  I can’t take opiates because they make me itch, and my skin condition makes it impossible to scratch without tearing off pieces of myself, leaving a wound that takes a month to heal.  In addition, the docs in this part of the country are so afraid of opiates that they refuse to prescribe.  So I’m stuck with using mj, which is somewhat illegal here.  But I have things to do, so I can’t use enough to really relieve the pain, because that would put me in bed.  So I’m screwed.

The psychic pain–there are no words to describe. 

Part of it is endogenous.  Part is environmental–the part of the country I’m stuck in at the moment is grey and damp, two things I can’t stand.  The sun came out for five minutes today and it was balm to my soul.  I’m out of here just as soon as my task is done.

My task is to clean my stuff out of my father’s old studio, where I lived for the last four years of his life.  It took me four days just to clear the spiders out.  Now I’m sorting  through things, making three piles: throw out, because of damage from humidity; give away, because I’m not going to use anymore; keep.

Just to to the situational depression off, Atina is not doing well.  This week her labs were worse.  Her kidneys are getting leakier.  They’re no longer holding her blood proteins in her blood.  They were leaking protein before, but her serum proteins were holding their own; now her kidneys are leaking more than her body can produce to keep up with the loss.

Today we took a short walk in the woods.  It’s been raining for weeks, and since it had stopped this morning (but is back now) I thought it would do us both good to take a walk.  But she wasn’t interested in playing in the creek, and although she carried her ball, she didn’t want to play with it.  And she simply collapsed halfway through where I wanted to go, which is only half a mile on flat ground.  I had to sit down and wait for her to recover.

Now she has fallen off the driver’s seat, which is where she normally sleeps, and is passed out on the floor where she landed.  It looks like she’s nearing the end of her sweet life.

When will my misery end?

I want to stay alive until my son finishes his Ph.D in May.  I want to see him off on the next part of his journey.

He and I have talked about what we lived through with his grandpa, and that I have the same illness, with the added fun of bipolar.  We have had the talk about what will happen when I can’t stand the pain any longer.

It’s one thing to talk about it, and another thing to live it.  I know he’ll survive.  But losing one’s mother is a terrible thing.  And living in agony is a terrible thing.

There will come a tipping point.  I keep on living for others: for my son, for my dog…should I get another dog?  Can I live that long?

In three years my income will be drastically reduced, to the point where I literally can’t live.  I guess that will be the end of the line, if it doesn’t come sooner.

Today Is Another Day: Rapid Cycling

As you may remember, yesterday I was painting my toenails in the middle of the night.

Alas, that was not to last.  I woke up this morning with a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach.

After I finally went to sleep last night, with the aid of more Seroquel, I woke up a bunch of times because my arms were numb and tingling.

Fuck, you know, this has been going on in one form or another for several years.   I’ve been writing it off as probably due to my arthritic collar bone, but this is different.

My medical experience gives me all kinds of terrible fears.  MS is the main one these days.

I remember the day in medical school when they taught us all the bad things that can possibly happen to breasts.

My then-husband came home to find me huddled in the bed hysterically crying.

“What’s wrong?” he asks.

“My breasts!  They’re a ticking time bomb!  I want them off right now!”

“There there,” he said, not knowing what else to say.

The next day I ran to the Student Gynecology Service to get a pre-operative exam.  The kind Nurse Midwife examined me and assured me that at the moment my breasts were not explosive, and offered to re-check them whenever I started feeling breast-anxious.

I felt rather foolish, but relieved that at the age of 29, nothing was wrong with my breasts.

Why do I make these digressions when I’m depressed?

Maybe it’s because I don’t really want to engage with the depression.  I know it will pass, and something else will take its place, but when it’s on me, it’s literally on me, and all over me, and in me, and I can’t shake it off.  All that happens is I start crying and feeling like someone is trying to rip out my guts, and doing a pretty good job at it.

Then it passes, just as quickly as it came.  What follows might be a period of “normality,” meaning, neither hot nor cold, and this is heavenly.  But it never lasts.

Hypomania, or frank mania with psychosis, tends to raise its ugly head at night, about bedtime; which for me is at 9 pm because my meds take 12 hours to wear off.  Actually they take 13 hours, but that is an embarrassing amount of time to sleep, so I actually set an alarm for 9 am.

I can tell the (hypo)mania is on its way because my bedtime knockout cocktail doesn’t do a thing.  I’m awake playing Solitaire on my iPad, which usually bores me to sleep, except now I’m totally awake: uncomfortable in my skin, twitching, restless.  I don’t want to look up because sometimes my wallpaper turns into ugly faces.

I follow the protocol my shrink and I developed for these very occasions: more Seroquel.  Another 50 mg till it knocks me out.  And a double dose of my benzos for good measure.

Sometimes it takes a couple hundred more milligrams of Seroquel to do the job.  I have an incredibly low tolerance for Seroquel, so my maintenance dose is only 100 mg.  I know, I know, some of you take 600-800.  That would put me to sleep for several days.  I usually get to 300 before it’s knock-down time.

The good thing about hypo/mania is that it can be controlled, if recognized early enough.  Depression, though…that’s another beast.

Bipolar depression is different from “regular” depression for reasons I don’t know.  I was treated with regular antidepressants for years, and was pretty much suicidally depressed the whole time.  Vitamins “L” (Lithium and Lamictal) saved my life, quite literally.  Blessings upon the quirky head of my neuropsychiatrist, who was on call when I was hospitalized the first time, and got my bipolar figured out.

The only adjustment we can do for the depression part of the roller-coaster is to up the Lamictal by 50 mg, which puts me at 200.  More than that pops me over into mania.  It’s a delicate balance, as you can see.

So the only thing I can really do with this depression is to wait it out.  Sometimes it does get suicidally bad, and then I have to think about my dog and my son, and what my suicide would mean for them.

I put them in that order, because my dog is helpless without me (although yes, I could put her in Rescue, but that thought makes me cry harder) and my son second, because even though it would tear him to pieces, he is at least able to provide for himself, unlike my dog.  I know that makes no sense but that is how it happens to fall out in my brain.

I’m starting to feel tired now, which means this part of the wave is coming to a close–I don’t know exactly when–and what happens next I cannot guess.

OH NO!!!!

Hello, dear readers.  I think I have flipped.

I caught myself giving me a pedicure at 11:45 PM.  And really enjoying getting artistic about it.  It came out brilliantly, if I may be so obnoxious.

Hm.  Something does not feel quite right.

So I smoked half a joint, meditatively.

That’s when I got it.

I have been a slump since last Wednesday.  Well, not exactly a slump.  I would call it a triggered, dissociated, PTSD’d mess.  But it seems that under that pile of oozing slime, the Black Dog was lying relaxed, head up, tongue hanging out and dripping, waiting.

As I was enjoying my joint it hit me:  Silly silly, you have been depressed all week.  I mean, you have felt terrible, am I wrong?

But now have no fear, because Hypomania has made her entrance.  What fun!  Actually it is, if I don’t ruin anything important in the process.

Who knows how long I could stay up tonight, answering mail since last fall and calling Israel to check on the abysmal state of my bank account, since I haven’t been back in almost a year.  I could, in fact, put away the unspeakable piles of **stuf** that has collected on every flat surface.  I have to push objects away on the table in order to have space to eat.

No, not really that bad, most of the time.  Just during the down spells, where I have no interest whatsoever in that big envelope that promises instant gazillionair-hood.  I throw it all on the table.

Then if I’m lucky I’ll have a nice productive flip.  If I can stand still enough I can get all sorts of things done.  But **sigh** there is little danger of that.  Plenty to do in the big world!  Now, if I can just find a way to stay in this pleasant condition and not get into a mixed episode (shudder) or pop all the way into mania–not fun……..but now for the extra dose of Seroquel so I can get some sleep tonight….

Enter The Black Dog

Normally I’m pretty good at cloaking my moods.  I’m trained in the art of dissembling.  One of the hidden maxims of medical training is, “Control your face.”  Don’t let the patient know that you’ve just found a….you’ve just done a……and barely got yourself out of it….your surgical assistant is the most beautiful thing in the world…you just farted.  Etc.

One thing it’s hard to conceal is The Black Dog’s visits: depression.  I’ve never been good at it.  I cry at the drop of a hat anyway.  So I’ve gotten good at noting which exam rooms are empty, so as to duck into one for a good bawl, and exit red-eyed.

“What’s wrong with your eyes?”

“Allergies.”

Yesterday I woke up feeling like somebody had clubbed me over the head.  I couldn’t tell where I was in time or space.  My brain felt like chocolate pudding, but not at all tasty.  Actually, I didn’t wake up at all.  If a friend hadn’t texted me at 1:45 pm, I would probably still be asleep.  Poor starving Noga lay next to my head, resolute.  If I had kept right on sleeping, I don’t think she would wake me up to feed her.  I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

I felt kind of like I felt when I took my bedtime medicines in the morning, except this was even worse.  I was hoping it would wear off as the day (what was left of it) wore on, but no.  At bedtime last night I resolved only to take those medications which if you do not take them you might get a seizure, which happened to be the same meds I go to sleep by.  How convenient.

I was quite sure that after a good day’s/night’s sleep, certainly whatever I had taken would have worn off, but no.  Well, it did, to some extent, but then I started feeling cross and weepy.  I yelled at my dog.  I’m very relieved that she seems to understand, and cuddled up with me for a lie-down-not-nap after I got from the grocery store.  I’m amazed that I got back, since I really, really should not be driving in this condition.

I still have not put away the groceries, six hours later.  I have not put away the enormous piles of laundry that I took to the laundromat the day before the day before.  And I just read an article about the habits of Brown Recluse spiders, that they sequester themselves in the fingers of your work gloves (!) and in piles of laundry left on the floor (!!).  Well, these are in black plastic bags, if that helps.  (The reason I was reading up on Brown Recluse spiders is that I found one uncomfortably close to where I sleep, the other day.)

Last night, the night between Days One and Two of the Feel-bads, I had one of my thankfully rare episodes of chest pain.  They occur sometime in the middle of the night, and are so intense that I can’t move.  Even if I thought it was a heart attack, I would not be able to move to call the ambulance.  So I have learned to have the attitude that if it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go, and I am a Do Not Resuscitate specimen anyway.  I toy with having that tattooed across my chest, but my religion specifically forbids tattooing.  I mean, come on, like 5,000 years ago there was a law against tattooing?  What, Moses was afraid we would all become, like, Goths?

Where was I.  Oh yes.  This episode of chest pain occurred between Days One an Two of the Feel-bads, and I was not at all sure I was going to wake up at all, but in fact my alarm did rouse me, as it hadn’t on the previous morning.  I rose, feeling hopeful, but a wave of nausea washed over me and I sat down on my bed again, uncertain, until I remembered that my mother had to go and have some tests at the hospital and I was supposed to go and sit with Dad so that the morning caregiver could go to his second job.

I managed to crawl out of the house at noon, after waking at nine.  Given that I don’t even have a shower to loiter in, which I would have done had I had one, I can’t account for the time at all.

My mother was at home already, triumphant that even though they had done the wrong test, it was negative and therefore she knows more than me.  But she needed tomatoes, so if I were going to the store, would I get her two?

I hadn’t really been planning to go anywhere, given my foggy mental condition, but I caved in to her request and got in my car, very slowly and carefully, and in that condition drove to the store, where I discovered that I needed at lot more than just her two tomatoes.

On my return to the P’s house I caught my wrist in the tailgate of the Outback as I was closing it, and my paper-like skin split over the back of my right wrist.  I didn’t notice the blood until I got home, though, which is what prompted yelling at the dog, because I was bleeding all over the place and she was blocking the passage between myself and the sink full of dishes, where I wanted to wash my wound and see how bad it was.  It could be that she knew something was up and was concerned about me.  That is probably the case.

As you see, I have diverted you from thinking about the fact that somehow or other, The Black Dog has made his way to my doorstep.  Ah, that was what Noga was bugging me about!  It was really as if it hit me right as I walked in the door: the wall of depression.  Smack.

I don’t know what triggered what, in the Feel-bads scenario.  Could have been either one, doesn’t matter.  This morning I took my meds as usual, and I think I did on The Lost Day before that.  If I don’t feel better tomorrow I’ll increase my Lamectil by 50 mg.  My shrink, who has been my shrink since 2001, he and I have protocols for everything.  Depressed?  Add more Lamectil.   Psychotic and/or manic?  Seroquel.  Anxiety?  Clonazepam or Lorazepam.  And so on.

But tomorrow is another day, and this one ain’t over yet.  My lie-down with Noga helped, and I know she’ll want to cuddle at bedtime–she always does.  She’s very predictable.  She runs on ritual, on routine.  And by default, she causes me to have a modicum of routine, which I would not otherwise have, being unemployed and an undisciplined writer.  She has just had her evening bit of obedience training–she demands this every evening at 8:30, not because she so much enjoys the training as she does the treats that accompany it.

And now it’s time for evening meds, brush the teeth etc., arrange the nighttime necessary things in the sleeping area: tissues in case of crying and its accompanying snot, bottle of seltzer (I really like my water to sparkle on the palate) bottle of Ouzo (I like a little Ouzo before sleep, if I don’t fall asleep from the meds before I have a chance to drink it), pee bottles (pee bottles?  Right.  I don’t have a toilet).  And one little fuzzy golden Lhasa Apso, who will no doubt jump up in the spot where my feet are supposed to go and give me the “Apso Look,” which is indescribable; if you have seen it you’ll know what I mean.  But what she means is: “Show me that you love me and haul my 13 pounds up to your face and give me kisses and hugs.”

Which, of course, I will be delighted to do, at the peril of soaking portions of her fur with my tears.

The Best Christmas Gift of All

Everybody knows I’m Jewish.  But.  I grew up being the only Jew in a world of Christians.  My teenage years were mostly in New England, in Southeast Massachusetts where people really do trace their family lineages back to the Mayflower, the ship that landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620.  I have been to Plymouth Rock and it is a disappointment.  All this hubbub about Plymouth Rock This and Plymouth Rock That, and all it is is a medium size boulder sticking out of the sand, with no distinguishing features save a bronze plaque:The Pilgrims Landed Here.  No mention of the Indians, turkeys, Indian corn, nothing.

With the exception of my parents, I had no other Jews to celebrate Jewish holidays with; and since my parents themselves did not have much exposure to Judaism, we bumbled through the two Jewish holidays we knew about (Hanukah and Passover) by rote: did the things we knew to do, ate the foods we knew to eat, but otherwise did not have any particular understanding of the significance of the festivals.  Since it was only the three of us, none of it lasted very long.

We moved to New England when I was twelve.  The other children were quick to let me know that “their ancestors got off the Mayflower,” meaning, “and you will never belong here or be one of us.”‘

On the other hand, since I had never belonged anywhere anyway, being from another planet etc., I got used to it and poked around to find families that would tolerate me crashing their Christmas traditions.

With the exception of Old England, I doubt there is any place on earth that takes Christmas so seriously as New England.  By “seriously,” I mean Serious Fun.  In those days you could count on two or three feet of snow on the ground and often more coming down, the night turned blue by the refraction of the snow so that the fields looked like vast undulating blue bosoms.

Over these blue bosoms we would tramp on Christmas Eve, freezing in galoshes, boiled-wool pea coats, and hand-knitted hats, gloves, and mittens, the latter so caked with snow from snowball fights that the wet wool threatened frostbitten fingers.

On arrival to our destination we would stand outside the two or three hundred year old clapboarded or shake-shingled house and sing our hearts out: the standards, O Holy Night, O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy To The World, like that.  The family would come to the door , backlit from the roaring Yule log in the great open fireplace.  After grinning through our performance, they would invite us in to warm up around the fire.  Mittens came off and steamed on the hearth while we were immersed in great mugs of hot chocolate floating with marshmallows.  The cookies went ’round, inquiries made after the health of Aunt Bessie, and after we were warm, dry, and refreshed, we said our “thank-you’s” and “Merry Christmases” and set off across the fields to our next destination.

Most families did not put up their tree until Christmas Eve, unlike the current trend that used to begin with after Thanksgiving and now seems to be encroaching on Halloween.  The suspense leading up to that joyous hour when the big Balsam fir (no one used anything else, for the Balsam’s delicious fragrance permeates the house and no potpourri is needed) was hauled upright in the bay window.  There really is no better place for a Christmas tree than a bay window, because there’s plenty of room to move all around the tree to decorate, and the window seats make great places to sit while opening presents.  And of course, anyone happening by gets a spectacular view of the tree!

I don’t know about today’s decorations, but in those days there were two kinds: home-made, and heirlooms.  The home-made kind ranged from little felt Santas, elves, and angels made by first-graders, to paper chains made by us, to popcorn-and-cranberry swags that we made on the spot with a felting needle and a lot of popcorn and fresh cranberries (being New England, where cranberries come from, and all), to gingerbread cookies made of a special recipe that hardens and you wouldn’t want to really eat them but they look great, and of course the candy canes, which we did eat.

Then the box of heirloom decorations was opened, and a hush fell on the room, succeeded by excited exclamations as each precious piece was unveiled from its tissue wrapping, where it had slept, dormant, since last Christmas.

The Star, of course, came out first.  New England Stars are often made of hand-crafted tin with whirly things and tinkly things.  Some of them are lanterns that you put a candle in, if your ceiling is high enough.  Getting it on the tip of the tree involved ladders and gymnastics and usually brothers.

The icicles were of drawn crystal.  Real crystal, that danced with light.

The balls included clear ones with snow scenes inside, and ones with red-cheeked Santa faces hand-painted on, and each one had its own story: who it had belonged to, to whom it had been passed down to, and how it came to be in this box.  There was a reverence to hanging each and every memory, connecting generations, on the fragrant branches.

Nothing was done without a rich egg nog, or a wassail, to cheer along the festivities; and the cookies that were meant for eating came out.  Every year someone made pfefferneuse, those abominable pepper cookies that look deceptively delicious, but taste so evil that one is forced to seek out a discreet trash can to spit them out.  Likewise the obligatory fruit cake, made at least a year ago and packed away soaking in rum.  Does anybody really like fruitcake?  Please.  I want to know.  And please send me your address.

In my experience, fruitcakes are a great gift to receive, because you can pack them up in a different tin and give them right straight to somebody else–just make sure you don’t give it back to the person who made it–which can be a little tricky in a small town like ours.

Now.  New England Brown Bread.  THAT is a horse of a different color.  Who has had it?  It is a moist, molasses-filled cake spiced with cloves and cinnamon, bristling with raisins, baked inside a number-something (I forget, but I think it might be twelve) tin can, in a water bath.  That makes it officially a pudding, I think, according to English culinary nomenclature, but in New England we just call it Brown Bread, and it is the most delicious thing of all, especially eaten warm, splashed with brandy and dolloped with vanilla ice cream or heavy whipped cream (not the kind in a can), or both.  And it is BROWN.  Whenever I have been the lucky recipient of a can of Brown Bread I have never recycled it like I do the fruit cakes, but hoarded it until I could enjoy it properly.

Roll forward many years, and I am in Seattle.  How I got there is another story, but let’s just say I was alone, without family or friends.  I was exploring my Jewish roots at the time, and bit by bit learning the how’s and why’s, but really between the worlds, and terribly lonely and depressed.

As everybody knows, the holidays can turn a normal everyday depression into a catastrophic one, so I did some advance planning and came up with a solution: rather than stay home and entertain myself by running movies in my head about the brilliant and elegant ways I would off myself, I would go to the mission food kitchen and take my mind off my troubles by running my ass off serving meals to people who didn’t have the luxury of a home in which to sit and contemplate suicide.

I showed up on Christmas morning.  Even though dinner wasn’t to be served till noon, the dining room was packed with people holding down their seats, eagerly awaiting one of the few real meals they would get this year.  It was cold outside, too, and of course raining, being Seattle, so they got to wait in a warm, dry place.  My heart opened to all these souls: there but for the grace of God go I.

Tables were set, the dinner gong “went” at noon, and we waiters began to scurry with heavy plates steaming full of turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, canned yams, canned green beans, cranberry sauce….there was a bit of confusion when some of the guests decided to “help” with the table-waiting in order to procure seconds for themselves….an announcement was made that seconds would be available after everybody had “firsts,” providing we didn’t run out of food.  Everyone sat down again.

A sudden wave of panic broke out in the kitchen: the cook had fallen ill–now what to do?  I mentioned that I had been a chef some years back, and was instantly drafted and in fact, shoved physically into the huge stainless steel institutional kitchen.

To tell you the truth, it wasn’t a difficult job to fall into, since much of the food was already prepared and just needed to be heated up.  But there was a herd of turkeys sizzling in gigantic ovens, and pots of mashed potatoes that I needed  a ladder to even see into, and such pans of dressing, that needed two people to hoist out of their oven compartments!  And oceans of gravy hot enough to scald to death the unfortunate who fell into the gargantuan pots.

I was very fortunate to have a small army of kitchen assistants who knew what they were doing, so all I had to do was ask questions and do what they said.  In two sweat-drenched hours we fed well over 400 souls.

I helped to serve the pumpkin pie, since by that time there was no further chef-ing to be done.  I could barely make it from one diner to another, due to the fervent hand-squeezings and embraces and blessings from people I would not have previously thought of getting that close to, but somehow, and I think you’ll understand, a blessing from someone who lives in the cold, wet, filthy, dangerous, hungry world of the streets is worth more than a blessing from the Pope.  It is a blessing from a fallen angel.

That Christmas, I felt that (even though I am not a Christian in the conventional sense) if someone had asked Baby Jesus what he wanted for Christmas, he would have said: Take care of the poor, the destitute, the hungry, the sick, the outcast, the prostituted.  This is what I want for my birthday….for Christmas!

Turn the Lights On, Will You?

Hey everybody, this is Chattery the Chipmunk here with an Arctic News Blast from Canada.  No, really!  Some of you may know that I’ve been down in the Black Hole for a long, long, long, long…..time.  I keep going to my psychiatrist and he manages to make me laugh somehow, so he knows I’m not hospital material yet.  But since I’m maxed out on the meds, there really hasn’t been anything to do except for hang on tight and think about my son and my dog and some other people who might be seriously bummed if I checked out.

Last week, though, Shrink-O-Matic had a brilliant idea!  Light therapy!  He gave me a “prescription” for a 10,000 Lux blue spectrum light made in Canada, where they really know from Seasonal Affective Disorder.  It mimics the light of a beautiful blue sky!

Now, I am so sensitive to light that my mood changes for the worse if a cloud even covers the sun for a few seconds.  I think one of the reasons I love to be in Israel (one of the many, many reasons) is that if I’m feeling down all I have to do is step outside into the Mediterranean Middle East blue sunny skies and I’m much better.

The instructions that came with the lamp say to use it for 20-30 minutes once a day in the morning.  So I’ve been doing that, and it has been helping some.  Then my therapist on Thursday had the bright idea that I should try using it twice a day.

So today I used it first thing in the morning, and again around 2 pm.  So far I have gone for a long walk with The Dog, swept and vacuumed the entire house (if you can call this a house–it’s actually an unimproved barn-like structure, but it keeps the rain out and has heat), and redid my fan page on ReverbNation, and tried to learn something about investing in stocks, and…I am not at all tired, and it’s 10 pm, and I don’t think I’ll do that again.

It feels something like being on steroids, which is why I hated being on steroids when I had to take them because of inflammation.  I think it could definitely lead to mania if continued.

So, tomorrow will be a one-dose day.  Nevertheless, it is such a relief to NOT be depressed–you know what I mean–that I’ll take a hypomanic episode every now and then if that’s the way it has to work.  I just have to write it on the inside of my eyelids: don’t buy stocks when hypomanic!!! 

Ana Gets Wrecked

I’ve wavered between telling y’all more about my horse-life, or more about my life-long struggle with anorexia….and decided that I’d give Ana one more round for today, and then on to more horsey adventures!

After we moved too far away for me to get to the stables, I fell into a deep depression.  I wrote maudlin poetry, drew frightening pictures, and read dark books like The Death Ship by B. Traven, all of Herman Hesse, and anything I could find to satisfy my morbid fascination with concentration camps, which had burned up most of my ancestors.

I took long walks in the fields with my dog Honey, and would lie on my back in a grove of pine trees for hours, listening to the sigh of the wind in the branches, inhaling the resinous fragrance, losing myself in the sensation of floating out of my body in trance.

On Saturdays, I went to art class at the important art college where my dad was a professor.  Since the age of five I had attended Saturday Class.  It was Mandatory. The only allowable excuse for not going was to have a fever.  Otherwise, I went.  On one hand it was part of the culture of my family, to be immersed in the arts, and on the other, I think it may have had something to do with my being out from under my mother’s feet.

As a fourteen-year-old, I attended the Teenage Class, which encompassed the entire high school age group.  This was both good and bad.  There were many older kids who came with enthusiasm for art and an ambition to get into college-level art school at the prestigious institution where we studied.  Then there were others whose main ambition was looking to pick up chicks.

I was so naive, I couldn’t tell the difference between a lamb and a wolf, or a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  Pardon the cliche, but it was true.  I knew nothing about sex beyond Caroline’s parakeets and what I had seen the cows and bulls doing in the pasture next to our house .  It was horribly bestial, and I ran off whenever I heard the bellows and hootings of the bovine mating ritual.

So when Richard, a lanky seventeen-year-old with shoulder-length honey-colored hair and a shaggy beard approached me, I thought he was just the coolest thing. He talked sweet and said I was beautiful and went on about all kinds of high-falutin’ philosophical bullshit, and asked me out.  My mother said no, but he could come over to the house if he wanted to.

He wanted to.  I don’t know what was going on in my mother’s head, but she allowed Richard and I to visit in my room, with the door closed.  Years later, looking back, I see the scenario and admire Richard greatly for having the self-control not to pounce on me like a cat on an unsuspecting mouse.

But he did have something up his sleeve, and that something was a joint.  Oh boy!  What a thrill!  I had heard all about pot from my dad, who regularly cussed out his students for coming into the studio stoned, and I was dying to see what all the shouting was about.

We lit some incense–a lot of incense, like four sticks–to cover the smell, and then we lit up.  It was good stuff.  I coughed my brains out.  Richard laughed.  After I recovered, he gave me another hit.  And another.  Pretty soon we were both giggling uncontrollably.

I’m wrecked,” I said, nearly choking with hilarity.  Richard exploded into laughter and lost his hit, spluttering.

I’m hungry!” I said, puzzled at the sensation and the thought.  I wasn’t hungry.  I was STARVING.  I had to have something to eat.  NOW.   I got up and ran downstairs to the kitchen, leaving Richard upstairs to finish the joint.  I opened the fridge.  AHA!  There was a container of cold spaghetti and meatballs from last night’s dinner.  I grabbed it, got two forks, and ran back upstairs.

We giggled and gobbled spaghetti until it was gone.  Still hungry, we both tromped downstairs to raid the kitchen.

My mom was lying on the couch reading.

“Glad you guys are having such a good time!  Help yourselves,” she chirped.  I guess she was happy to see me interacting with another human being, and apparently enjoying it.

We went for the ice cream, took it out to the back stoop, and polished off a half gallon of butter pecan.  By then my stomach, unaccustomed to being so stuffed, was complaining loudly.  It was time for Richard to go, and I was glad, because I was really afraid I was going to throw up.

Richard very kindly left me a couple of joints for my solitary smoking pleasure.  And that was the beginning of my dope-smoking days, and the end of Ana.  Sort of.

Feeling Suicidal? Change the Channel.

Things have been going in a dismal spiral that has been threatening to turn into a full-blown tailspin.  For the last three days I have ruminated night and day about death: fervent wishes for a speedy natural death, and in the absence of that, turning to my old faithful suicide plan, painless, tidy, nothing to clean up and nobody’s trauma.

There is no good reason for this, if you discount the deep spell of depression.  Here I am in the Holy City of Jerusalem at the holiest time of year, and especially now that it’s sukkot:  the happiest time of the year for us Jews.  So what’s the deal?

OK, so I have had to move twice in two months because of the bedbug plague that is sweeping the city.  Bedbugs get me down.  They give me more than the creeps, little bastards sucking your blood all night and hiding out in your underwear drawer during the day!  Chutzpeh!

I had the second apartment exterminated three times, each time involving leaving for 10 hours, then scrubbing the floors and all the surfaces multiple times so as not to poison myself and my dog.  Nevertheless I have had a nasty headache for weeks, which has gone away after moving to the third apartment which so far (please G-d) does not have bedbugs like the first two.

Along with all the other bedbug mitigation work, I have to wash and dry everything over and over.  Right now everything I own is on the roof baking in the sun (they can’t stand heat and drying), which was fine until it rained the other night.  I have not had the strength or ambition to climb back up on the roof and undertake damage control.

So circumstances are getting me down, yes.  It’s an overlay on the bipolar depressive phase.  But it could be deadly, because just a few hours ago I was planning when and where.

And then I broke my policy of strict isolation (because when I’m like this I am such a zombie, flat affect, flat voice, no reactions) that it freaks people out and is very unpleasant for me.  And if they’re people I like, I might just burst out crying and that just makes things worse.  So isolation it is, and yeah, I know, it’s not good.

So this evening a very special event was planned in my congregation in honor of this day being the passing of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, in the year 1810, who was a revered spiritual leader, and is the guiding spirit of many members of our congregation.  I had to go.  I wanted to see everybody, hear what the rabbi had to say (even though I only understand about every third word of his Hebrew) and generally be with my peeps.  I did not set myself a time limit: if I got uncomfortable, I gave myself permission to leave at any time.

Not only that: since my Hebrew birthday falls out tomorrow, I booked myself a massage tonight.  Yeah.

When I got to the party I was feeling pretty low and didn’t know if I would be able to handle it.  But there was singing and someone was playing a djembe (African hand drum) badly, and I saw another djembe that didn’t have anyone playing it.  Now, I happen to have studied djembe for four or five years, and played with an African dance troupe.   I have stopped playing because of severe issues with my hands, but since I was planning to die I didn’t care if I fucked up my hands more so I picked up the free djembe and warmed up quietly, getting the feel, and then the old feeling came back and I popped right back into the common West African dance rhythm BADA bada BADA bam, working the bass and the slaps and tones and rim shots just like old times.  And for some reason, I didn’t break blood vessels in my hands or hurt my two bad wrists or any of that.  And feeling the groove of the people singing and getting underneath the inexperienced drummer and giving him a boost so he could ride my wave was intoxicating.

I forgot all about suicide.

Then I went and had a 90 minute massage.

Now I’ve taken my meds and am going to bed, with a lot to think about.

I’ll think about it in the morning.  At Tara.  Or maybe in the Old City.

Breaking the Silence of Stigma: Not What You’d Expect

Marci:

I have my days, more than most.  I am mostly depressed.  Walking to the mailbox is exhausting and considered an accomplishment.  I stay in my room and hide from the world.  I don’t feel like eating, it seems pointless and food has lost its flavor anyways.  All I want to do is sleep but I can’t.

The thoughts won’t slow down long enough to allow me to rest.

“Why me?  This isn’t fair?  I just want it to end. You’re over reacting.  I wish I could escape.  What did I do to deserve this?  You’re stupid.  Just snap out of it.  Why me?…” 

I can’t sit still, my legs shake and my heart pounds as I try to anticipate what is coming next…  How bad will it get this time?  Will I need to be hospitalized again?  Have my medicine changed again?  Should I call someone?

I live 75-90% of my waking hours actively psychotic.  I hear voices that live in multiple places in my head as well as voices from the outside that belong to real people.  The voices say many things: including demeaning comments or suicidal and homicidal conversations.

The voices scream and sometimes I listen to what they say or bargain with them.  I am often paranoid that my family is talking about me behind my back and plotting together to get me institutionalized so they do not need to deal with me.

I self-harmed for over 10 years, usually cutting open my skin with something sharp and occasionally burning myself.  I think about suicide constantly, not only from the voices urging but as a relentless thought.  I plan my death, what will be done with my body and possessions, what my funeral will be like.

I fantasize about the pain finally being over.

I will no longer be a burden to my family and others.  I’ve written a few notes and had a couple attempts the first being at the age of 10 when I tried to suffocate myself.

I often have no feelings, a numbness and emptiness in life.  I’m afraid people will leave me or reject me, so I mostly stay away from people and have only a few close relationships.  I’m terrified of conflict and cannot handle it, this stems from experiences in my childhood.

Much of my childhood was spent raising myself and sometimes my sisters. My parents were often physically unavailable and never emotionally available.  Alcoholism and anger outbursts were standard in our family throughout my developing years.

Before the age of twenty-five, I had more than 80 Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT) treatments also commonly known as shock therapy. I have been in numerous medical studies not commonly used yet to treat my different symptoms, including having a stimulating device implanted inside me by surgery (VNS  therapy).  I’ve been hospitalized, in a psychiatric hospital, over a dozen times in the last 8 years, mostly involuntarily.   I’ve also spent time in crisis residential housing, which is similar to being hospitalized but with more freedom and fewer patients.  I compare it to being in a “group home.”

Along with these overnight stays I have been in many different programs that take place during the day and I am able to go home and sleep at night.  These programs vary in length and duration but all are outpatient services. One program is called a Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) that is Monday-Friday 8am- 3pm for at least 2 weeks and sometimes as long as a month.

These programs take place at psychiatric hospitals, where the group does group therapy, art therapy, skills based learning groups, and one-on-one appointments with psychiatrists and social workers.  Enrollment in a PHP generally is a step down from hospitalization or used to prevent hospitalization.

I’ve been in weekly therapy since I was 19 years old, in addition to any groups or classes I might have been in at the time.  I’ve been on psychiatric medication since I was 10 years old.  I have been on over 30 different types of medication and at my worst was on 11 different prescriptions, taking over 20 pills a day.

With just this information, what do you picture? 

What would you expect?

Believe it or not, I’m a (mostly) functioning adult.  I am 30 years old with blond hair, blue eyes and I am a college student.  I do have schizoaffective disorder bipolar type and borderline personality disorder.  I am on four psychiatric medications and still go to counseling once a week.

I am not “dark,” I have few visual scars, do not dress in all black, or wear black eye liner.  I’m not an EMO teenager or someone just going through a “phase.”  I do not walk around mad at the world talking about how everything is depressing and pointless.

I am not an “attention seeker.”  Few people know the extent of my illnesses.  I am not homeless and do not walk around dirty or talking to myself or the voices.  I am not a zombie devoid of any emotion or intelligent thoughts from my brain being shocked too many times.

I will not approach you to tell you how the government is spying on us and has been for years.  I am not a serial killer or a danger to anyone except maybe myself.

You do not have to worry about setting me off.  I am not stock piling weapons or making a list of innocent people to kill.  I do not use street drugs and have never been arrested.

I am not “psycho.”

Who I am is intelligent and compassionate.

I have above a 3.9 grade point average and over 100 college units.  I am always trying to lend a helping hand to those I know personally and strangers as well.

It is likely I am one of the least judgmental people you will ever meet; my illnesses have given me empathy as well as a unique perspective.  I love children and have worked as an after school teacher.  I also teach Sunday school and have done reduced cost child care for families that needed it.

My favorite place on Earth is Disneyland and I go there at least a few times a year.

I am not my mental illnesses. 

I am not a stereotypical “crazy” person.

I am not what you’d expect.

Marci can be found on her own blog here