They come at night they come for you with knives they come at night.
I’m having serious questions about the role of physicians in mental health. It seems to me that the mental health field should be returned to non-physicians, and physicians should limit themselves to neurology and the study of the brain. Which is in fact what they do anyway, except psychiatrists’ power to dictate the terms of the discourse is so strong that brain chemistry is becoming more and more the theoretical framework we use to talk about mental health and mental illness, and psychiatrists the people we naturally turn to to get an opinion about the way minds work.
We don’t need a dramatic philosophical revolution to re-establish, and collectively agree on, what we have always known: that the mind (the heart, the soul) and the brain are two separate, qualitatively different albeit related entities, and that we have only the faintest idea of how they are connected.
The specific forms of pain that attach to the mind should be the province, exclusively, of mind-specialists, or psychologists. Psychologists should be people who study the way people relate to themselves, the world, and others incessantly, and garner ever new knowledge about what makes all these relations happy and peaceful rather than unhappy and tortured. There is a tremendous amount of wisdom accumulated on this subject and psychologists should not engage with patients unless they 1. have put some serious efforts into delving into this wisdom, 2. keep delving into it, and 3. realize that there is much they won’t ever know.
Point 3. leads directly to recent movements in psychoanalysis according to which the person who knows best about the torture of the mind is the sufferer, and this knowledge, much of it unconscious, is the treasure the therapist and the patient need to unearth together.
Any other approach to mental pain is foolish. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people operating in mental health today use foolish approaches, and people stumble through life carrying untold burdens of suffering they could turn to each other to relieve.
we, who are very badly hurt
I am grappling with things. I am grappling with getting better almost in spite of myself. I have been defined all of my life by pain. I am confused about a me who’s not defined by pain, loss, impossibility.
I am still clinging to pain of course. But my mind, this tough tough little thing, is edging away, thumbing its nose at me. My mind wakes up early in the morning eager to do things. My mind thinks thoughts that are foreign to me. My mind is boiling over with a strange enthusiasm for disclosure. My mind wants to proclaim itself to the world.
I am letting it. My mind and I have an excellent relationship. We leave each other be. My mind lets me continue to be sick in all sorts of ways, I let it open itself up to the world. Neither rushes the other. Occasionally we have a conversation, but those are hardly needed because my mind and I are in constant dialogue. We know how to talk to each other. We consult all the time. We are constantly checking in on each other. As I said, we have an excellent relationship.
My mind is bouncing off the wall, for instance, with desire to proclaim to the world that people like me can be healed. My mind is a fierce apologist and proselytizer on behalf of psychoanalysis. Left to itself, my mind would talk all day long about deep therapy.
We needed to strike a bargain on this one. For one, people have a justifiedly bad opinion of psychoanalysis. People in my circle, educated people who use psychoanalysis all the time as a tool for interpretation of texts and events, find it dated. Its sexism seems to them intolerable. They don’t believe anyone nowadays could possibly take psychoanalysis seriously.
Yet they use it, constantly, as an interpretive tool. They think it’s a fine interpretive tool; it just doesn’t cure anyone.
Other people, people in pain with a history of treatment, simply do not believe psychoanalysts still exist. Lately I had a conversation with someone who had read in a memoir that the author had gone to therapy multiple times a week for three years. He, my interlocutor, was flabbergasted. Multiple times a week?!? For three years?! I learned that when he was in therapy he would see his therapist once every two, sometimes even three weeks, depending on how scheduling worked. He was getting his therapy in an office organized in such a way that he couldn’t be sure which therapist he would see from one session to the next. Therapists didn’t last long in the outfit anyway and would move on quickly. This guy said jokingly, “If I had seen a therapist several times a week for three years when I was in my 30s I would have had a chance not to be permanently fucked up.”
How devastatingly sad. I said he didn’t need to be in his 30s to stop being fucked up. He was alive, right? Capable of forming thoughts, right? Then I said that there are people who see their therapists multiple times a week. They are not millionaires. I am one of them.
Finally, there are those who had a terrible experience with a psychoanalyst and decided that this experience speaks for the whole discipline and every single practitioner of it. Since seriously hurt people, people who are so traumatized their lives are living hells, have a propensity to think in black and white, I go easy on these people. They have had the crap beaten out of them by mental health professionals of all stripes. They have been medicated to their eyeballs, abused in psychiatric wards, and treated by incompetent therapists. They have earned the sacrosanct right to think in black and white. If they are still alive, they have found ways to keep themselves going and whatever I think of those ways, I owe it to my fellow sufferers on the path of trauma and recovery to respect them.
I have encountered a whole lot of really hurt people in my life. We tend to find each other. We recognize each other really fast. We cling to each other. We have been desperate for recognition all of our lives. My assessment of how really hurt people, people like me, are doing has changed parameters a few times in the last three years. Before starting analysis with my therapist, I, too, believed that therapy was perfectly useless and judged people’s success at dealing with the horrible pain that tore at them very liberally. Basically, if you were alive, making it through the day without knocking yourself out on a regular basis, able to keep a roof over your head, and doing at least some things that gave you joy, you were doing okay. This is how low my expectations of healing were. After all, this was the life I myself was leading.
After some time spent working with my therapist, like all neophytes, I became haughty and looked down upon lives lived in resignation.
Now, three years and counting in analysis, I realize that you do the best you can with the hand you’re dealt. Excellent therapists don’t hang out at street corners. Deep therapy when you are so hurt you can barely breathe requires something not everyone has. In the rubble of your life, there must be a solid rod that, for some reason, managed to stand tall. Maybe many among the badly hurt have such a rod (they are after all hanging in there), but for some the rod has taken a few beatings too many. There isn’t enough gentleness in the world to walk them through the agony deep therapy asks of them.
So I’ve come to respect the bandages and the patches, the flimsical tents by the side of the road, the makeshift cooking stoves, all the accoutrements of survival. some people are desperate to tell you that their tent — its make, its color, its structure — is the best possible tent. If you are fragile (I am fragile) this will get under your skin in all sorts of ways. When that happens, when other people’s despair and insistence that there is only one way to live gets under my skin, I think of that proud, brave rod. Most of all though, I think I’m not alone, and that tomorrow I’ll see my therapist, and she’ll tell me that I’m perfect and fabulous and the greatest thing that ever happened, and everything will be okay.
Picture by Puneet Arora
if you blame
If you blame yesterday’s act of terrorism against several US citizens going about the business of democracy on the aberrant delusions of someone with mental illness, you wrong all the victims of terrorism gunned down, blown away, gassed, or hacked to pieces by people who are certifiably sane.
You also wrong men and women in armies everywhere, who commit atrocities in the name of patriotism or just the imperative to follow orders and, as a consequence, become mentally ill.
Mental illness is not simple. Sane people kill every day, for good or bad reasons. Most of the people who will be murdered tomorrow (and there will be many), will be murdered by certifiably sane people. Many certifiably sane people become profoundly disturbed as a consequence of having killed.
The relation between killing and insanity is not simple.
If you blame the violence perpetrated yesterday on an elected official of the United States on the aberrant behavior of a deranged young man you wrong all elected officials everywhere whose right to govern freely has been and is being tampered with by the United States government. This is violence too. It may not always be bullets in the head, but it’s violence against international law, cooperation, and respect for the sovereignty of other country-states. It hurts freedom and democracy and the respect we owe one another.
The relation between killing and other forms of violence is not simple.
If you blame yesterday’s killings on the deranged behavior of “the mentally ill,” you make us all very nervous about the strange, introverted, unhinged, pained, and often fabulous people who populate our communal lives. In particular, you cast a black shadow of panicked danger on the students in our high schools and universities, and make teachers everywhere nervous and suspicious around students who think and act differently.
Blame yesterday’s act of terrorism on a culture of intolerance and violence and you won’t wrong, hurt, or marginalize anyone. Blame it also on the easy availability of guns, and, again, no one will be hurt – many will be spared instead. Blame it, too, on the paucity of true support for those who are tortured by mental pain — not the availability of drugs and mental jails but that of safe and anonymous places to turn to in order to be heard and made to feel less alone — and you will be helping more people than you think.
dealing with disappointment
My therapist appreciates that I notice and acknowledge all the fabulous things she does for me. Truth of the matter is, as a person, I am tuned in to goodness. Acts of generosity, attentiveness, love, care, and sheer dedicated professionalism tend not to escape me. I notice them and acknowledge them. With everyone.
Maybe it’s the pure joy, the unfettered thrill of experiencing direct, simple goodness. It makes me deliriously happy, happier than most people. It gives me a tremendous rush. I want to jump up and down. If it’s appropriate, I do.
And I like people to know. Because it’s so damn happy-making; and because maybe if they learn what makes me deliriously happy they’ll do it again, sometime. And I’ll be deliriously happy again.
What I am terrible at is feeling and expressing disappointment. I have such a hard time with disappointment that I go to great lengths to deny it to myself. If someone lets me down, I’d rather berate myself than berate them. Also — and this is another thing I learned in analysis — it is almost intolerable for me to deal with even the tiniest experiences of pain in people I love. Example. My therapist just got herself a new couch. She took a long time choosing it. She put serious effort and went through a long deliberative process to make sure it was just the couch she wanted. If she had not been my therapist, I would have ooh’ed and ahh’d at the couch endlessly. Since in therapy I try to be professional (I use this word guardedly: I am not a child; I know I am working: I work as seriously as I possibly can), I told her the couch was nice and left it at that.
It is a nice couch. I have nothing against the couch. At the same time, I am not delirious about the couch. I don’t think there can be a couch that would make me delirious. Couches don’t figure prominently in my fantasy world.
A few days ago I asked her whether she was happy with the couch. The couch has lived in the office for a month or more now. She said the couch was okay; she wasn’t super happy with it but it was okay. See, that killed me. I felt such a tremendous stab of pain and hopelessness inside me. She had worked so hard at getting the perfect couch! I wanted to be Mary Poppins and drop a fabulous couch in her room right then. I wanted her to be the happiest, most satisfied mom in the world. Then she told me she was very happy with the new chair. I think I actually like the couch better than the chair, but my feelings are entirely irrelevant here. I was tremendously relieved to hear that my mommy was happy with the chair she painstakingly chose.
I think I’m beginning to tackle the issue of dealing with being disappointed in my therapist. I am sort of blown away by the fact that my psyche is figuring out all these ways to bring me closer to this terrible trial. My psyche is simply amazing. I say this because it’s true. It’s a generous, hard-working, brave, and kind psyche. It protects me when I need protection but also pushes me gently and firmly toward growth. I am very grateful for the workings of my psyche, which happen entirely without the awareness of my conscious mind. I contemplate them solely after the fact.
There are times when I think my therapist is the most fabulous person in the world, from all possible points of view. My psyche lets me, because it knows I need it. Lately, though, my psyche has started introducing little blows of disappointment into this fantasy. Dullness. Unexcitement. This has of course happened before. But one new thing my psyche is doing now is that it’s making me late for therapy (I am never late for therapy); it’s making it hard for me to get out of bed; and it’s making my therapist’s office all but intolerable. When I am in it I feel a sense of body heat that emanates from the inside and no amount of coolness can soothe. It’s dry heat, my father’s favorite form of heat. He smothered us in it when we were little. My little self experienced it as psychic torture. This was when my father was terribly unstable and volatile, and, after my mom and he split, it was during the court-mandated days we spent with him at his swanky, intolerably heated house. I had to pretend, for 12 eternal hours, to have the time of my life. And I did. I kept it up like a good little trooper for the duration. I never let my guard down. I was the happiest daughter ever.
It was dangerous around my dad. Things would blow up at the drop of a hat. That stifling heat stands as the symbol of many little deaths. Weekly deaths. Sunday deaths. I wish I could ask my sisters how they feel about it. I know my mom has the same abhorrence of dry heat as I do.
As a child, I sacrificed daily, hourly at the altar of my parents’ happiness. Unfortunately, they had no idea. They saw nothing of it. What a terrible waste.
I had no choice. My psyche decided that was the best way, and my psyche is my very good friend.
Anyway, my psyche is now making my therapist’s office the most unbearable place in the world.
There is something else. When my therapist moved to her new office she went from small, cozy, and old to large, hip, and new. Just like my mom and dad, when we moved from the home of my early childhood to the home of my 7th and 8th years, the home of the unbearable heat.
My therapist’s office would be okay if we could throw the windows open, let the light and coolness and the bird songs in. But the windows are sealed. I don’t know what’s the advantage of sealing windows. I like windows one can throw wide open.
So yesterday my psyche did something pretty fantastic: it took me out of the office (thus making me comfortable) and gave me a chance to live a couple of hours with disappointment. How fucking cool is that?
This is what happened. In the 59 second walk from my car to my therapist’s office, which includes an elevator ride, my psyche got incredibly excited at the idea that today we’d have therapy outside! Yay, outside! It was a fabulously gorgeous day and that seemed so the right thing to do. Even before I sat down I told my therapist, “Let’s go outside.”
Now, see, my therapist is pretty amazing. From the day we met we started this intense process of analysis of boundaries, and now we have boundaries well within the confines of our daily conversations. We are both in love with boundaries. We reorganize them all the time. We look at them, think about them, understand them incessantly.
Bottom line, we went out. We drove to a place she knows I like and had pastries. And therapy. We had therapy in a cafè on a gorgeous, cool, sunny day, surrounded by beautiful things, and pretty much alone.
Now here’s what my psyche knows. My psyche knows that I am losing — need to lose — a foundational fantasy of my therapist. My psyche knows that it is going to be — is being — a tremendous loss, and that depression, rage and bleak despair will cloak it. So my psyche took me to a lovely place to kick off the official season, The Time in Which I Go through Experiencing Searing Disappointment in My Therapist. I’d like to reiterate that I have experienced disappointment before. So far, though, I have fought tooth and nail to keep the fantasy intact. It’s time, now, slowly, gently, lovingly, to readjust the fantasy — and lose some essential, sustaining, life-giving aspects of it.
You can’t go out in the world with your analyst of three years without feeling disappointed. If you need me to explain you don’t know about the psychodynamic process.
So there was that, disappointment. But also fresh air, the sun, the lovely surrounding, the delicious pastries, and lots and lots of tenderness.
I learned this week that we don’t obsess over real people but over our fantasies of them. I learned this on myself, but I’m willing to generalize, just for the heck of it, and also because it seems right. In fact, this seems right in such a trivial way, it barely stands repeating. Yet it came as a revelation to me.
This thing is, if you had told me some time ago, when I was obsessing over someone, that I was obsessing over my fantasy of that someone, it wouldn’t have helped at all. I would have probably said, “Yeah, I bet you’re right,” then carried on with my obsession and the behaviors it dictates.
But what I learned this week goes a bit further than that. I learned that, when we obsess over someone, we have lost touch with the reality of that person. Okay, this sounds trivial too, but bear with me. Let’s say that someone obsesses over a famous person. There’s plenty of people who do that; it is so common, there are laws against acting on such an obsession. In this case, there is no real relationship between the person of your obsession and you. This is someone who is simply and solely a fantasy.
But let’s say you fall in love with someone because they are groovy and cool and lovely in all the right ways. Let’s imagine that. And then, let’s say, these people don’t pan out in quite the way you want them to. They are a little less groovy or cool or lovely, or maybe they are just as cool and groovy and lovely but they don’t have enough time for you, or you think they don’t. Maybe you want to be around them all the time but the dictates of real life don’t allow that. They have to go to work, you have to go to work. Or, let’s say, you start worrying that they don’t love you any more, or not as much as they did at the beginning, in the golden times of your relationship. You worry so much that this anguish gnaws at the delicate roots that keep your love for them anchored to the earth. They tell you over and over that they adore you, but it’s not enough. You feel bereft with loss.
This is clearly a pathological situation. In fact, chances are you entered this love relationship already in a state of extreme psychological weakness. People with a solid sense of themselves and others don’t fall into these traps.
Now what you have is a tremendous infatuation that nonetheless leaves you miserable. What you do, then, is detach yourself from the reality and attach to the fiction, the fantasy of the other person. There is a mirror person of that person in your mind who can be and is the perfection you seek. You need this person. You need this person more than you need food or sleep. So you stop eating and sleeping and work really, really hard at sustaining this fantasy. It’s tremendous work. It’s soul-killing work. It’s misery work. It is hell, really.
What happens is that, in most cases, you find that person. Magical moments do occur, and confirm to you that everything is okay. You tell yourself that you love person X, not your fantasy of person X. You tell yourself that person X is attainable. She is there for you. You can have her. You just must work really hard at keeping her. You can’t let her slip away from you.
This obsessiveness leads to separations. No one can endure interacting with someone who is in love with a fantasy of them. If they are healthy, they’ll leave. If they are not healthy, they’ll stay and you’ll kill each other. If you, the obsessed one, are prone to violence, you will become violent.
The solution is to connect to the real person. If you have the real person, you won’t need the fantasy. But some of us don’t know how to connect to real persons. Somehow, we didn’t make it to class the day the teacher explained how to go about doing that and we never got a chance to catch up. We missed that boat. We have been stuck in fantasy-land (misery-land) ever since.
When people think of psychoanalysis as obsolete or burdensome, they don’t realize that there is no other way, for people who missed the class where the teacher explained how to attach to real people, to learn it. There is no other form of therapy that can teach you that. The reason is that psychoanalysis alone offers you the chance to build inside yourself the structures that missing that class forfeited you. Only trained psychoanalysts can engage in the lattice-work of transference and counter-transference necessary for this delicate reconstruction.
Now I know many people who had horrible experiences with psychoanalysis. I also know people who had horrible experiences with friends, husbands, wives, students, fellow drivers, and dogs. Most people don’t stop seeking and constructing friendships because one or two friendships went sour. People remarry. People get new dogs.
I hope all people who never learned how to attach to real people give themselves a chance to find an excellent psychoanalyst, because there are some miseries in life which should not be endured. Being unable to attach meaningfully to others is one such misery.
Art by Carolyn Cole
asking questions in session
I love to ask questions. I always have. I remember very distinctly being at an intersection with my mom and insisting that she answer a question. This was before my parents separated so I was really young. I remember my mother shouting, “Not at the intersection!”
I may remember this only because it entered the family lore, though I remember the intersection and the car. But memory works in crazy ways, so I don’t know for sure. Anyway, I soon was the kid who asked questions and demanded that they be answered at the most inopportune moments. I was described this way to myself and to others. My mom still loves to tell me, “When you were little you insisted that I answer questions at intersections.” (I have long since asked myself what’s specifically bad about intersections. I think I could attempt to summarize the main claims of The Critique of Pure Reason for someone in the middle of a six-way, crowded intersection; but hey, that’s me).
Then and now, I’m not sure I know exactly why I love to ask questions. It is certainly the case that there isn’t a single reason and I think I know at least some of the reasons. I know why I ask questions in some contexts. When I am in social situations, for instance, asking questions allows me to shape interactions in a way that suits me and typically pleases my interlocutors too, so, my reasoning goes, everyone wins.
Today I had a little insight into why I so love asking a certain kind of question in therapy. Again, there is most certainly not a single (or simple) reason, and the issue of when and how to answer these questions is one my analyst and I have discussed a lot and keep discussing. I love, though, that she is incredibly flexible about these things. I would hate working with an analyst who takes the not answering of questions as an immutable law of the universe.
In therapy, there is a specific kind of question I really, really love to ask and have answered. Those are questions that concern my analyst’s work and the discipline in general, specifically how she sees it and understands it and practices it. I get tremendous pleasure from these conversations. It is not a kind of excited pleasure. It’s a soothing, fulfilling, filling pleasure that leaves me satiated and calm.
The insight I had today is that this pleasure has to do with being taught. See, I have trouble being taught. When I was little I was insatiably curious and probably very precocious too. I had a million questions in my head. They sprouted like mushrooms and demanded to be answered because so much depended on the answer. Here is an example. I would be reading a book (I read books all the time) and encounter a word I didn’t know. Not wanting to bother anyone, and also wanting to be autonomous, I would pick up the dictionary and look the word up. But the definition always contained words I didn’t know! I would look those up. Their definitions also had words I didn’t know. I would look those up. Ad infinitum.
It was very frustrating to me. I simply couldn’t understand why the people who wrote dictionaries didn’t write them in such a way that you understood your definitions the first time around.
The endless delay of the moment in which I would nail the answer to my problem (in this case, what does the word in my book mean?) was a curse that followed me everywhere. I would ask my mom, “What are people made of?” My mom might say, “People are made of cells.” “What are cells?” “Cells are little bits of biological stuff.” “What do you mean? What are they made of?” “I don’t know exactly.” “Where can we find out?” “In a biology book.” “Do we have a biology book at home?” “No.” “So how are we going to find out?” “We can ask someone who knows.” “Who do we know who knows this?” “Your uncle will know.” “Can we ask him?” “You can ask him next time you see him.” “But I need to know now; can you call him when we get home?” “No.” “Why not?” “Because I can’t.” “But how am I going to find out what cells are?”
This would be about when my mom would start screaming.
This is the kid I was. The answer to my questions always eluded me. Getting answers became more and more urgent to me. I would go crazy hunting down answers. I would go crazy going from one incomprehensible dictionary definition to another. I needed so many answers yet so few were forthcoming.
My mom was not the best mentor or teacher in the world. She was impatient, she had a whole lot on her plate, and, quite honestly, I don’t think she was exactly consumed with the desire to satisfy my need for knowledge. She probably figured it was something I’d get satisfied later in life, like everyone else, by getting a formal education. I am pretty sure that for her my desire to know and understand things was mostly a source of great annoyance, and probably more. She might have found it angst producing. She might have been resentful of me for it. I am suggesting this because I remember becoming really stubborn and insistent, screaming, stamping my feet, getting frantic. I would not have gotten this disorganized if I had perceived calm and self-possession in my mom.
There have been maybe two people who have been really good to me, answer-wise. They have known things and been willing to take me from link to link till I got my answer. But there haven’t been many. Two is not a lot. Formal education has created more questions than it has given answers. I feel I lack so many pieces of the puzzle. Now, I realize we all do, that it is the very nature of knowledge. But I feel the empty spaces in the puzzle very keenly. They torture me. I want to know so, so badly.
In therapy, when I get to ask my therapist about her work and she explains everything to me like we have all the time in the world, the torture of the missing pieces is soothed as if someone lay some fantastic balm on a bad burn injury. My therapist answers thoughtfully and deliberately; she answers with great complexity and sense of nuance; she answers like she owns the material; she answers with incredible competence and assurance. I cannot even express how tremendously gratifying this is for me. It more than makes up for all that screaming between my mom and me when I was little. I am almost happy my mom led me to frustration over and over, because without this terrible frustration I wouldn’t be able to experience such pleasure, solace, and joy now. It’s that good.
being my mother’s savior
My mother is bubbly because she has something to say to me. She is chomping at the bit. I have something to say to her, too, but I have a strange side to me that prevents me from saying anything about me to someone who looks and feels like they are just waiting for me to be done so they can start their story. Words simply dry out and die.
My mom is all excited because she has been helping her grandchildren (respectively 16 and 18) with their school work. She is full of details about it. Mostly, her part in it. What she did, what she told them when they came home with a low or high grade, what she fed them, how long they stayed at her place, how exhausted she was at the end. “Do you have a sense of what 3 to 9 pm means?” “Yes, mom, I think I do.”
My heart sinks and I am filled with speechless sadness. Mind you, I was already pretty speechless, but this gives my speechlessness the final blow. It seems like I can barely take it.
Last summer my mom and I had this long talk. It went on weeks, really. My mom was pretty down about things, and I was down about things too, things I couldn’t or wouldn’t talk to her about because she seemed to her have plate full and, well, I can’t really say anything to anyone who is chomping at the bit etc.
I did have a full plate myself. I was busy and I was full of some sorrow I was trying to process. So I told my mom that all the grief she was pouring into the telephone was too much for me. I told her that she needed help, a listening ear, and under other circumstances I would have been happy to be that listening ear, but right then I couldn’t, I simply couldn’t.
One of the reasons for her bitterness and sorrow was her lousy rapport with my sisters. I told my mom that finding help in sorting out why she was so bitter toward and disappointed in her children (her disappointment in me took the form of being worried about me, a worry she constantly asked me to soothe, much to my rage and overwhelm) might help her improve her rapport with them. I told her that this was a pivotal time: find a way to like your kids or lose them.
Bravely, she listened. She went as far as to a therapist, a lone visit that nonetheless made her feel better. She arranged to see him again after the summer holidays.
But she didn’t go back. When I brought up the issue she got testy and stubborn and told me not to make her do things she didn’t want to do. That was hard for me, this sudden retreat into misery and away from the possibility of changing and healing. But I didn’t complain. I only told her please not to treat me as the therapist she was refusing to see.
Normally, I really believe in listening to others; I believe that we, all of us, are each other’s saviors, and listening is one of the most powerful ways we have to hold each other and soothe each other and help each other. but it’s terribly hard for me at this time to be this person for my mom. And I fail to see how I should be doing this when she can afford someone who is probably going to be much more helpful to her than tortured, wounded me.
Since that time she has been keeping our conversations at a maddening even keel. I shouldn’t be annoyed because that’s what I asked, but it seems as if, without painful things to talk about, we can achieve no intimacy whatsoever. And without intimacy my bi-weekly conversations with my mother are nothing short of torture.
Yesterday, though, she was happy. The grandchildren, who stopped needing her around when they stopped needing to be baby-sat, need her again. She is useful. They seek her out. And I want to scream: GET YOUR OWN LIFE. GET IT NOW. STOP WAITING.
I want to scream this because, the moment the grandchildren pass their tests, my mom will go back to being a sad person and I will be all the life she has, and I don’t want to be that for her. I don’t want to absolve that function any more. How much farther away do I have to get to stop being her salvation? Is a full ocean not enough?
Art by Mark Spain
the writing cure
Yesterday, Thanksgiving day in the United States, I woke up feeling terribly depressed. When I say “I woke up” I mean that I felt terribly depressed the second I went from unconsciousness to consciousness. When I say “terribly depressed” I mean overwhelmed by a despair so deep, it seemed intolerable.
Later on, after breakfast, I sat down and poured out this despair into written words. The whole writing experience, which I vaguely meant as a cris the coeur addressed to no one in particular and therefore, most likely, for no eyes other than mine, turned out to be an amazing exercise in self-analysis and, ultimately, liberation and recovery. I felt light and happy all day.
This is the first time in my life (I think) that I see with my own eyes, concretely, black on white, how depression (may) = self-hatred (may) = rage. It was incredibly powerful for me to find, at the root of my despair and self-loathing, a childhood memory of sexual trauma I didn’t even remember had occurred. This memory, in turn, gave rise to the realization that a profound discomfort with myself that has dogged me all my life is rooted (at least partly) in a discomfort with me others have communicated to me very early on for being a queer kid, and that has caused me to feel immensely and devastatingly threatened in my very existence.
This whole process was ignited by a conversation I had with my best friend, who is now so in the dog house, I hesitate to call her my best friend (I’m furious at her). For reasons having to do with a tremendous amount of pain in her own life, past and present, she is doing wrong by her teenage daughter. She is ignoring what is clearly an eating disorder and following a clueless doctor’s advice that this young girl be examined by a gynecologist for no longer getting her period. The kid, in the meantime, is not eating. Since mother and child live a long way from me, I know this only because my friend told me. When I however suggested that instead of taking her to a gynecologist she take her to a nutritionist or an eating disorder specialist, my friend’s defenses went all the way up and she strenuously denied that the child wasn’t eating.
This is someone with whom I have had a long and lovely friendship. I have known her since I was 15. We have shared our lives for decades. Yet, now, she is a stranger to me. She has been for about two years, since, faced by a horrible personal crisis that rendered her entirely incapacitated, she sort of rejected me and the bond that had sustained both of us for years and shifted her allegiances to men and their cures. Men as in psychiatrists. Guys in coats. Guys who don’t want to know anything about what’s going on with you because they have the latest, most wonderful pills which, taken in wondrous combination, will make everything all right.
I have been thinking about this for two years and I still don’t see the bottom of it. I strongly believe that people have a right to their own choices. Yet her choice, the choice made by this person who was the heart of my heart, wounds me and enrages me beyond any rational explanation.
Yet I have stuck by her. Uneasily. Till the other day. Because, when she told me about taking her daughter to a gynecologist, I saw myself again as the child of a helpless, beholden-to-others mother who would not and could not listen to me and consequently caused me some heavy-duty trauma. I could not stand by the sidelines while this story reproduced itself in my friend’s and her child’s lives. As an aside, I wonder how many parents are equipped to deal with traumatized, pained, desperate children who act out because they have no other ways to get through to them. Our culture does next to nothing to train parents on how to deal with these moments. Our culture, as a matter of fact, gives us all the wrong cues.
On Wednesday, as I was relating this story to my therapist, the connection between my friend, her child, and the time my mom took me to the doctor emerged all by itself through free association. I had said this story to my therapist before, but it had been in terms of my being too skinny. On Wednesday, I couched it in terms of having my sexuality checked. I was so taken by this new interpretation that I couldn’t remember what the previous version had been. In the previous version I could not make sense of the doctor’s touching my genitals. I remember asking my therapist why he did that. She didn’t know either.
Now I know.
I have read (in this truly excellent and striking book) about women’s putting their stories into writing and finding in this act of writing and publication (someone, at least an imaginary someone, has to read what you wrote otherwise it doesn’t count) a powerful survival tool. I wish all women, all people in pain, the love of another who is willing to do with them the journey to understanding and recovery.
I suck with absolute and tragic finality.
I suck on Thanksgiving, in particularly.
I suck because the streets are empty and it’s a beautiful day.
I suck because I can’t see my therapist.
I suck because she can’t see me.
I suck because I’m not hungry yet I desperately want Swiss cheese, which I won’t allow myself to have.
I suck because the world sucks.
I suck because I am tired of my friends.
I suck because I can’t speak to my mother.
I suck because I’m deathly tired.
I suck because I hang on to life even though there’s nothing to hang on to.
I suck because I make plans for the future.
I suck because I act as if there is a future.
I suck because there is a present and I don’t want to be in it.
I suck with heartbreaking finality.
I suck because the American people are doing all sorts of horrible things to themselves and others.
I suck because we are all too tired to do anything that will stop this descent into madness.
I suck because churches, including mine, hate gay people.
I suck because I can’t take one more day.
I suck because I make plans for the future.
I suck because I spend more money than I take home and if I live past retirement age I’ll have to live at the
poor people’s home.
I suck because there is nothing I can do.
I suck because I have accomplished exactly nothing in the grand total of my life.
I suck because I’ll never accomplish anything.
I suck because I feel alone in the world when I clearly am not.
I suck because I hate other people.
I suck because my house sucks.
I suck because the world oppresses the weak.
I suck because there are bone fide epidemics of rape all over the world, including Belgium (Belgium, for God’s sakes, where the raped people of choice are younger-than-17 girls!).
I suck because my country is being taken over by hate-mongering right wingers.
I suck because the world is trying to patch a tremendous economic collapse without doing anything to cut it at its root, i.e. the unconscionable and unregulated enrichment of few on the shoulders of the rest.
I suck because Haiti, which is just a few miles from me, is the third most neglected place on the planet, and its people count for nothing to anyone.
I suck because my mom took me to a doctor when I was young because she was worried I wasn’t girl enough, and the doctor touched my genitals, and no one told me what it was about, and until yesterday I believed it was about me being too skinny for my height because that was what I was told, and I couldn’t make sense of the sexual molestation because it didn’t fit with the too-skinny narrative, but yesterday, for the first time, I realized that the doctor was checking whether I was a real girl, and now I’m so angry I couldn’t be more angry.
I’m angry because it sort of went okay but it could have gone terribly wrong.
I am angry because no man had touched my genitals since the boys in the basement.
I am angry because, probably, I myself didn’t know whether I was normal, and I was terrified there’d be something wrong with me and I’d be made to change.
I’m angry because boys molested me in the basement, and then a doctor molested me too.
I am angry because no one should lie to children.
I am angry because the world had no place for me the way I was.
I am angry because by the time my mom brought me to this doctor, I had already amply internalized that feeling.
I am angry because I was hugely relieved when the doctor said to my mom in front of me that I was perfectly fine, like I has just escaped an execution.
I am angry because I have lived all my life dodging executions, fighting for my life.
I am angry because I have lived thinking “I need to change” every minute of every hour of my life, and fighting this voice inside me.
I am angry because lots of people have told me I need to change.
I am angry because H., who now doesn’t speak to me any more, went on an all-out campaign to feminize me.
I am angry at all the people who tried to feminize me.
I am so angry I have no room inside me for all the anger and I want to kill everyone.