Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Livelihood, Part I

They told us we would never have to starve, and we would never have to hate what we do in the long run.

Unlike most aspiring artists, my parents actually encouraged me. They had come of age during both a population and economic boom, when one could graduate college and work somewhere as a professional. When I was being instilled with this career-optimism as a kid, everyone seemed to have the idea that we were past depressions, past wars besides the distant, mostly secret ones that never had civilian drafts. Like a wide swath of middle class kids, I had my basic needs met, I was supported, and it was given that I would go to college then go on to some sort of career. And my parents hoped it would be in writing, probably because they had never gotten the chance to follow their own artistic dreams.

I know now that I won’t be a writer. For nearly thirty years I’ve been struggling to be anyone. Now I just long to be an adult who works and eats and is minimally crazy.

Along with that swath of middle class kids, I was fed the notion that if I worked hard enough I could achieve anything, that the best thing I could do is follow my dream. And even after seeing countless artistic depictions of people stuck in miserable, dead-end jobs, I didn’t consider that there might be something to that. That it was a trope because nearly everyone had to come to that, to see their dream then scale down their expectations, scale down, scale down, until they’re just surviving.

You only have to work hard. My grandparents had been through the depression and the second world war. My parents came up from scrappy working-class to lower-middle-class backgrounds. My mom was the first woman in her family to go to college. Both of my parents had artistic inclinations--my dad as a painter and my mom as a writer. My mom was more of a dabbler, but my dad was different. I’ve written about his art before. He was great, like he was at most non-athletic things he tried. But the draft put his dream on hold; it took a deferral to attend medical school to keep him from going to Vietnam.

Becoming a doctor is something to be proud of, among the highest aspirations of kids coming from the lower socioeconomic rungs of the ladder, not that my dad was particularly low on that ladder. If you talk to ambitious teenagers who aspire to be first-generation college attendees, becoming a doctor or lawyer is the most commonly cited ambition. They answer this regardless of their unique talents and passions. Ultimately, they want to be successful. Then hopefully the next generation can do what they really want.

My dad told me that he dreams of nothing but medical procedures--bodies floating by on a grocery store checkout conveyer belt, and he has to operate on them quickly before they fall off the edge.

He’s not even an emergency room doctor or a surgeon. Most of the time he’s dislodging clots from the arteries of old people. Still, he came back from work every day shrouded in gloom, exasperation. My mom tried to train us to tiptoe around him, to be good, the source of zero stress for him because his work is terrible and he only does it for us. If I ever asked him about his work he would put on his calm-but-quick doctor voice and describe complex procedures with a sense of adeptness, an air of enthusiasm barely breaking through his expression. But asking him whether he liked his work was usually met with a deep sigh, and a weary, “I just can’t stand being around sick people anymore.” He can do everything right and something can still go wrong. Sometimes people sue him. Sometimes they die.

Cancer was my dad’s first hiatus from work.

He went through six courses of chemo, then six weeks in a hospital bed in which they plugged him into poisons to kill all the lymphoma cells they could for days at a time. They took out his stem cells through a tube in his jugular vein, pumped him full of more poison, then put new stem cells back in.

When I saw him months after his stem cell transplant, his complexion was ashen and he couldn’t walk much without becoming dizzy and winded. Sometimes he vomited. Sometimes he fell. He still hadn’t grown his hair back, and he loudly snorted mucus through a nose that just wanted to slick it out since it didn’t have any hairs for resistance. We thought he might be dying, that his stem cells would kill him.

In spite of this all, while he was still snorting and vomiting and wheezing, he told me that his six months of cancer treatment had been less stressful than going to work every day.

He didn’t die, and after a year of treatment and recovery he went back to work. When I asked him again, he told me he still preferred cancer.

To be continued in Part II.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A stupid eighteen-year-old writes a poem about being a stupid-sixteen year-old thinking about death

I am sixteen years old, and in less than forty minutes, I’ll be dead.

Omen number one:

Flew alone from Paris to Rochester,
tired, sweaty, jetlagged.
It should be 4 am, but the sun glares outside
in all its defiance
over the field of all-American
winged metal birds of prey.
All boarded the flight to Kansas City
sat and waited, when it came time for takeoff
Engines roared, sparks flew
coast, sputter, stop.
Voice over the intercom:
Crack in the engine.
Everyone get off and wait
for a new plane.

I am sixteen years old and in less than forty minutes I’ll be dead.

Omen number two:

Finally made it to Kansas City
more tired than before
The sky insists that it’s night
in what should be early afternoon

There’s a storm coming.

That’s what they keep saying
but outside I see nothing but dark
a little too calm, maybe.
One by one
all
flights
canceled
but mine, from Kansas City to Cedar Rapids.
Maybe they thought it was short enough
that it would all be okay.

I am sixteen years old and in less than forty minutes I’ll be dead.

Omen number 3:

We walk out into that strange dark
to board the tiny plane.
Not many people flying to Cedar Rapids
so late at night.
All sit down, duct tape on my armrest
my window
This plane is old.
Start engines, begin to move
All of a sudden
Blaring alarms
Red lights flashing in the cabin
Everyone jumps, pilot switches alarms off
apologizes.
I begin to shake. An overwhelming sickness,
a bad feeling is consuming me.

I can’t stop shaking.

I want off, I don’t want to be on this plane anymore.
I don’t feel safe. My mouth tastes like a penny.
I can’t get off.
My dad is expecting me at the airport
in a little over forty minutes.

Epiphany:

In the air, I can see the storm.
We’re right in the middle of it.
Lightning flashes every two seconds,
right outside my window
I can see its tiny metallic teeth
dangerously close to the wing
that flails in the tumult of the rain
like a piece of cardboard.
The plane is shaking, being tossed through the air
sometimes feels perpendicular to the ground.
We’re shaking. I look toward the pilot.
There’s a curtain, I can’t see his expression.
Jesus Christ, just tell us if we’re going down!

I’m going to die.

And my mind clears.
I’ve never thought so logically about my own death before.
Now I know what people think about.
Now I know I’m not so above
the clich├ęs of humanity
of those mindless sputtering pleas
that people always offer
at the moments before death,
as if they were so important.
Will my parents identify my charred remains?

No, they’ll just use my dental records.
What would be said at my funeral?
What could be said?
Nothing, except she died too young.
Had potential but didn’t do anything with it.
God, and I was such a bitch most of the time.

What would life be like for my parents after this?

For my sisters?
Would I be canonized
in the minds of those who loved me
like so many youthful dead girls?
Would I create a special hole
in the hearts of all the friends
I would have lost touch with anyway?
It’s weird how normal this is
how routine, how average death is
how utterly easy to come by
It doesn’t happen to saints
but girls like me
who are just going home
who step in the wrong plane
at the wrong time
for no particular reason.

Bargaining:

Dear God
I know I don’t believe in you
but maybe I should
You’re the only one who can do anything
In a situation when logical action doesn’t matter
like in war and Kafka.
I know I’ve taken my life too lightly
Entertained too many suicide fantasies
Wallowed in depression and self loathing
Said too many times it didn’t matter if I died
but it just doesn’t make sense that I should die here
I always thought I would die alone
in a hotel, in my mid-forties
face down in vomit,
like all the most accomplished writers.
I haven’t written a single book yet!
I haven’t made my mark on society
like I always thought I was meant to do.
I know now that it’s not that easy
that you hold all the cards
that life is something you can rip away
at any given second.
I’ll use my life now
I’ll build churches—
no, but I’ll write, I’ll fight injustice, I have ideas!
Let me live this once!
If I don’t accomplish anything, kill me!
Please!
 I want to live!

Landing:

I don’t know how
but we hit the ground safely
I love the ground.
I love home.
I love being alive.
I meet my dad, and don’t tell him I almost died.

For weeks after I was inspired
my veins pulsing with the celebration of life.

Then later I was disturbed
that I almost believed in God
that I felt like I was spared by divine intervention
and I settled back into my regular misery
and the mundane.
Now the event has lost its impact
attributed to emotions run wild, delusions.
But every now and then
I feel the cold finger of death
shivering up my spine
and I can’t help glancing over my shoulder
as if waiting for divine retribution
for the other shoe to fall.

Friday, July 12, 2013

An unsent email to Ashley who was crying at the bar

Dear Ashley,

Here's the conclusion to my crying in public story. So it was on the senior booze cruise, when my college paid a riverboat to ferry our drunk asses around the Mississippi for an evening. My friend V had just had a tryst in the bathroom with a girl she had a crush on who turned out to be straight and pretty drunk. Quite a few people ended up being aware of this tryst as well, because some girls had walked into the bathroom at the time and shared their findings with everyone. Anyway, shortly after at the end of the cruise there were buses waiting for the students to make sure masses of drunk seniors didn't drive places. We had all loaded into the bus we were supposed to be in, but had to wait because straight girl was missing and her friends had to find her on the boat. They found her and brought her back, the entire bus loaded with patiently waiting drunk college students, and she proceeded to sob loudly the entire way back to campus (about twenty minutes). I was sitting next to V, who had just performed oral sex on this girl (her first time with a woman), and the girl was sobbing uncontrollably on an otherwise completely silent bus. Even if you've had some bad experiences, I suspect you haven't had someone, right after having sex with you, cry hysterically for twenty minutes in front of forty other people who knew you two had just had sex.

So that was my story. But I wanted to let you know that you're the shit, and you shouldn't be sad about things. The end.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Making Plans: A Family History (Part II)

Trigger warning: Discussion of suicide and self-harm ahead

My older sisters and I were each born with ten fingers and ten toes and above average intelligence. We were raised to be articulate and well-mannered with adults and instilled with an internal moral compass independent of church. We each spent different periods of our lives being utter nightmares. I was a mess as a kid, but a pretty easy teenager, Beth was an easy kid but an awful teenager, and Robyn was sort of a different story. She was the first of us to be detected as having psychiatric issues. Even as a little kid, there was something different about the far-off look in her eyes and the way in which she seemed to withdraw inward in social situations. Early on she would hum to herself and pace around with the occasional skip thrown into her step--my dad would later refer to this as her fairy dance--and once she could read, her face was constantly buried in books at inappropriate times. If given the chance, she would happily tell an adult all the facts she knew about lizards, but she couldn’t fit in with other kids. Her first diagnosis was ADD, then ADD and depression, then bipolar disorder, then schizoaffective disorder, then Asperger’s. ADD alone never quite explained how different she was. She didn’t have any friends until college, unless you count friends of Beth or me that included her in our activities.

Robyn was incredibly sheltered. First, she was taken out of the mainstream school system to a private school where the kids were allowed to learn what they wanted and sit under the tables. Then for high school she was shuttled through a half-day special program at a smaller public school than the one Beth and I attended. She passed her GED in ninth grade, but continued high school until the regular graduation date, even though she didn’t have the credits. She was never made to work for money or keep her room clean, and generally got what she wanted. She went to college nearby where my mom called professors on her behalf and helped her keep her assignments in order. Even through high school, Robyn was generally a sweet kid who didn’t cause much trouble. My mom dragged her everywhere with her since she didn’t like being alone and Robyn was a compliant companion. Starting in college, things started to change, though. She was finally meeting some people and growing up a bit, developing a belated rebellious streak. First she was just unusually mouthy and disagreeable with my parents. After she had a manic episode that sent her to the psych ward, she became more committed to her crazy. She became recalcitrant, self-centered, and at times downright rude.

It happened over the course of five years. After graduating college with an art degree, my mom allowed her to move into a small rental house that my parents owned. My mom had outlined vague conditions that she had to work or volunteer somewhere to live there, but Robyn didn’t comply and my mom didn’t press the issue. They filled her bank account with money for food and medication and that was it. Robyn slept all day and spent all night on the internet--message boards, blogs, her livejournal, whatever else she was up to. Her life went to sleep for five years.

I saw one of Robyn’s livejournal entries she’d forgotten to lock me out of: Sitting here, I look at that string of black beads hanging from my bedpost and all I can think is how I’d like to wrap those beads around my neck and squeeze until everything goes away.

I showed the entry to my mom, who she didn’t forget to lock out. My mom read it with a look of knowing concern. “She’s threatened to lie down in the middle of Mt. Vernon Road before,” she said. Then she printed the entry.

Somewhere along the way Robyn became angry. The damage surrounding the divorce had left her full of rage toward both of my parents, which she didn’t even try to hide. When I visited home she would glower at my mom or dad during meals. She was easily set off and would spit hatred at them from across the table. The divorce was how the anger started, but it wasn’t the only reason. She also became angry with my parents for failing to prepare her for work or life. For letting her sleep her life away for five years, for giving her everything she needed except the tools to do things for herself. It became more pronounced the more my family struggled financially. Robyn first moved in with my mom. Together they were toxic. Eventually she got in from the waiting list for public supported housing, where she continued to sleep and internet her days away and meet with a social worker once a week. She was powerless and angry, didn’t know how to change her situation. Days were for sleeping and nights were taken up by pills and the internet. I remember Beth once saying to me in a lowered voice, “If I were her--with the way she lives-- I wouldn’t want to be alive, either.”

...

Beth was a perfectionist and lived on praise. She kept her room orderly and symmetrical because she couldn’t stand asymmetry. Even in elementary school she took care of her appearance, learned how to style her hair herself as well as match her clothes and do her own laundry. She was the good child, and she demanded recognition for it. She didn’t get enough from my parents, who were busy dealing with her decidedly more challenging sisters. What she didn’t get from my parents she got from teachers and other peripheral adults, impressed with her perfect grades and charming behavior.
By middle school she already had growing insecurities. I was just two years younger and had been getting more recognition for my writing, which had been her area. Then her academics started to slip and her approval reserves were running dry. She turned most of her energies to being a sycophantic non-central member of the popular crowd, which caused her grades to drop even further. By high school she was fully in the grips of depression, lost the popular crowd and began failing classes. She was always sick and missing school. I don’t know how long she was active in her eating disorder, since it’s hard to tell when that begins and ends. I only know when we found out and she was getting treatment, around her senior year of high school.

It must have been before anyone knew about the eating disorder that she was prescribed wellbutrin. It’s generally never prescribed to those with histories of eating disorders because of the increased risk of seizure. One night she took too much “by accident”. She woke up in the middle of the night to a mouse staring at her from the corner of her room then running away. Then two more mice appeared on the carpet. Then, looking at the ceiling she saw it was covered in spiders that began to drop on her upturned face. She leapt out of bed and woke my mom, frantic, telling her about the mice and spiders in her room. My mom went downstairs with her but didn’t see anything. She asked Beth what she had taken.

It was much later that we found out that this overdose was no accident. The truth came out at some point during her treatment. Not only that truth, but that she had also been spending her time in her room drinking pilfered liquor alone and choking herself until she passed out.

But that night, Beth’s world had become a phantasmagoria of spiders and mice that clawed and bit, could be brushed away only to regenerate. At one point as she was lying down with her eyes open, and translucent, electrified mouse ghosts began floating up and over her, giving her tiny static shocks as they touched her skin and disappeared into the ceiling. My mom sat up with her for the rest of the night, assuring her that she was safe and the mice weren’t real. It wasn’t all bad. She had also seen the videos on the shelf doing a choreographed Latin dance.

Beth had wanted to go to school the next day because she’d already missed so many classes--“If I see a mouse, I just won’t say anything”--but my mom made her stay home. She eventually recovered and told Robyn and me the story, talked about the mouse ghosts and how ever since they touched her she was electrified. She held up her hand and asked me to hold mine to it without touching her. As she moved her hand toward mine, there was an energy between our skin that never touched, like two positively charged magnets pushing against each other.

...

Walking back to the dorm, I read the word “OK” at the top of my paper and I wanted to fuck myself up. It was the second semester of my freshman year of college. I was one of two first years in this small upper level class, and I was struggling to run with the pack. It wasn’t just this class. All year I’d been slipping. I’d worked hard to get into a selective school and was faced with a cohort where nearly everyone was incredibly gifted. I was disappearing into the scenery, I was becoming average. That “OK” was just the catalyst for what came next. I wasn’t trying to die, but wanted to be not me. Maybe have a break from reality for a bit, a foray into Beth’s world of tiny ghost mice.

I knew what an overdose was technically, but wondered about an overdose overdose. I searched on the internet, found various sites and message boards that asked, “Technically, what is an overdose?” and the response was always the same: “Are you okay?”

I saw Beth’s name on instant messenger and typed her the question: How many wellbutrin did you take when you overdosed?

Her answer was similar: Why? Are you okay?

Me: Yes, just wondering.

Her: Well, if you’re really okay, just for your information, I took fifteen.

I don’t know how much of my effexor I took. I took a few, waited, didn’t feel anything and took a few more. I just know that at some point, I started to search for the effects of effexor overdose. I found brain damage, coma, and death. I got scared.

My friend was with me when we were in health services with the EMTs. I had wanted to go to the emergency room, but the taxi wouldn’t take me for insurance reasons. The ambulance came to health services rather than my room for my privacy. They took my vitals, asked me questions. I calmly explained, like a sane person, how, silly me! I’d thought I’d forgotten my pills but when I counted them I realized I’d taken them twice, and it was just a day after I’d decided to increase my dosage because they weren’t working, and my mom had told me that it was acceptable to increase the dosage of your medication on your own. They discussed my vitals to each other for a while, determined I wasn’t a significant risk of seizure or coma and let me go.

Walking back to the dorms, my friend said, “I thought you’d actually tried to OD. I’d’ve been so pissed!”

She had heard my calm, rational lying to the authorities. “Yeah,” I laughed a little. Later, I was curled up on the bathroom floor, skin tingling, head swimming, my body beating against waves of something very wrong.

This wasn’t a plan. This was just me being self-destructive. I could still proudly raise my hand at family gatherings and announce that I’d never had a suicide plan. Then a long bout of unemployment in my mid-twenties happened and I’m not sure what I can say.

Every day I was staring at my own failure. Every day of an empty inbox felt like rejection. I continued the process of gradually knocking down my expectations and my belief in my abilities, lowering the threshold of what I would accept as a way to live with each job I was rejected from. I couldn’t be an administrative assistant at a nonprofit or social services agency, fine. Could I case manage women receiving government assistance? Could I “volunteer” for a $900 a month living allowance with a nonprofit or social services agency? Could I be a receptionist at a law firm? Could I be a receptionist at a dental office? Could I be a receptionist at a tire company? Could I work the front desk at a mid-range hotel? Could I work at a book store? Could I be a server anywhere? The answer to all of these, according to the applications and resumes I sent out, is no. I was less than all of these. Every person working the front desk anywhere was an infinitely more valuable and competent person than me. I spent my days stuck in my brain, stewing, regretting, and every now and then making dinner for Colin. I didn’t even think about how at one point an “OK” scrawled on the top of my paper had pushed me over the edge.

Then one night, lying in bed awake with Colin breathing softly beside me, the wave of hopelessness welled up inside me. It had been rolling quietly underneath my surface every day, and this time I rode it. I saw my life stretching in front of me, not just one, but any possible life that could occur from that point forward. One was filled with days and days of never finding a job, of giving up on becoming an effectual human, accepting being supported by others. Another saw me eventually getting a job, something mundane like being paid nine dollars an hour to do a repetitive task at a desk, and doing it for forty years. In another I got my teaching license and, after years of struggling to find a teaching position, became an unstable, disillusioned elementary school teacher leaking bitterness onto my students. I decided I wanted no part of this life, of any of these lives. I started to make plans.

I couldn’t inflict my death on Colin--he needed to move on, forget about me. I would become so terrible that he would leave me, I decided. Then I would live alone, in isolation until Colin and most others forgot about me, and I could die with less guilt. But what about the cat? He was curled up on my pillow at the time. I couldn’t live those weeks or months without my cat, but someone had to take him once I was gone. Who would find him in time? How could I arrange for someone to discover me quickly (discover the lone cat quickly) who wasn’t a friend or family member who would be forever scarred? I tried to work this out, but couldn’t. I drifted into sleep, wondering, “The cat, the cat, the cat...”

Besides the cat, I’m not entirely sure what stopped me at the time. It might have been getting accepted into graduate school, which gave me both affirmation, some sense of belonging and something to do. I was only okay with myself for one semester of grad school. The second semester, first year. I had gotten my grades back, was delighted with my A in statistics and some good feedback I’d gotten from my regression analyses, and thought maybe, maybe, this was me, maybe I was a policy person who could crunch a few numbers and be competent in economics. But I applied to so many internships to do over the summer, internships that I’m embarrassed I even considered now because I know I don’t have the quantitative chops. All my rejections brought me back down. And then the second year, my final year, I became frustrated and anxious, even angry. I began to think that policy school wasn’t me at all, and these people had just taken my money.

It was a fluke that after graduation that I got that internship in DC. I still can’t quite wrap my head around it, even though I ended up finding out it was less a skill-building internship than an illuminating experience on social capital. Then everything began to fall apart. I knew my internship wouldn’t turn into a job. I checked postings every day, and there were so many beyond my reach that didn’t even pay enough for me to rent a studio and eat. Plus Colin decided to dump me after nine years.

I’ve already talked about crossing streets and hopefully imagining being hit by cars. I took the metro a lot too.

There were a couple times when I was sitting in the metro station, waiting for the train home late at night. I noticed there were few people around, and thought about how it was an opportune time to leap in front of the train. The situation had come--I had become so terrible that Colin had left me. The cat was safe in Minneapolis. I could leave my bag on the platform and step off. They could identify me from my ID and inform my family. It would traumatize the driver and the few people waiting, but would save the people I love from having to discover me.

Therapists later would ask, “What stopped you?” I’d generally reply something like, “What am I, impulsive? Like I’d kill myself spontaneously without making a plan.”

***
We already had the metaphor of mental illness as cancer in our minds. The therapist had brought it up when I was voicing my anxieties about going back to work: “What if I can’t handle it, what if my thoughts take over again and I can’t function?” It was only a couple months after the train, and I was back in Minneapolis. I had been offered a job, of sorts. They didn’t know that I was crazy enough to go to day treatment.

The therapist replied, “What if you were trying to go back to work after cancer treatment and after a while discovered you needed another round of chemo?”

It all sounded reasonable. Our conditions were real and serious. We shouldn’t feel weak if we needed to step back for another “dose.”

Then a new woman came in. She was middle-aged, divorced a couple years ago, in an unhealthy relationship, mother of two reportedly successful twenty-something daughters. She had three suicide plans. That’s why her therapist recommended her to come. She was bipolar, and said at this point she was only staying alive for her mom. Her daughters? Better off without her, she said. She explained, if you see someone with terminal cancer, do you recommend they go through a series of painful treatments to string them along for another couple months, or do you medicate them up and let them go? “That’s how I feel. This is terminal, just let me go.”

All of us patients, with mental illness as cancer already implanted in our heads, nodded eagerly along with her. This is terminal, let us go. And that’s why a room of mentally ill people is not necessarily a helpful therapeutic environment.

***
I was talking to my mom about writers and stories. I referenced David Foster Wallace and she didn’t know who I was talking about. I tried to describe him: “He wrote Infinite Jest, he killed himself a few years ago...”

She interrupted me, almost disgusted. “That’s really... not nice.”

“What, killing yourself?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “It’s really rude to kill yourself.”

And that’s the way we have to see it in our family. Killing yourself is the height of rudeness. I think we had all independently decided at some point that we wouldn’t kill ourselves. For some logistical reason or another, we couldn’t. For me, I think it was when I thought of my sisters. I remember sitting side by side with Beth as we were at the table in my tiny apartment, chopping herbs and meats for dinner. We were sharing the most recent developments in the mental health saga of my family. I said, “Man, if anyone in our family kills themselves, I’m going to murder them. I’m going to haunt them from my grave.”

Beth nodded silently. I was talking about her as much as I was talking to her.

My dad periodically says, whenever my sisters or I talk about any mental health or medical difficulties, how he and my mom should have never had children. I’m not even bothered by the fact that I was an accident, but for some reason, this bothers me. He says it a lot, like he’d never said it before; your mom and I should have never had children.

There have been several points in which I felt like my life was hopeless, an utter disappointment, and I should just quit. Then I would think of Beth and Robyn. At those times, they had it so much worse than me. But would I want them to kill themselves? No. Of course not. If they told me, I would talk them out of it. I would tell them what beautiful, promising people they were, how the world needed them and I would mean it.

Sometimes I felt resentful of Beth and Robyn for being my reasons for not offing myself. I’d think, I have to suffer through forty more years of this shit, just because you’d be sad? But I always have to remind myself of what I would tell them. And think that maybe, if I could show myself a fraction of the compassion I would show for my sisters, friends, even a stranger, maybe I could forgive myself, maybe I could come up with a good reason to live.

The funny thing is, my family is the result of generations and generations of natural selection. We’re very smart, maybe even moral, we maybe even want to help the world, but we’re not so sure if we want to be alive. We fail the ultimate human test: the will to live.

***
It was late December, before Christmas in the year 2012. I was on the phone with my dad talking about travel arrangements for the holidays. It was the same year that idiots had been convinced of the Mayan Apocalypse, that the world would end on December 21st. As a sort of joking sign-off, he said, “Good thing the world didn’t end Friday.”


“Meh, whatever,” I responded.

He said, “Yeah, I guess I wouldn’t have minded the end so much myself.”

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Making Plans: A Family History (Part I)

Trigger Warning: Discussion of suicide and self-harm ahead

“I’ve never had a suicide plan,” I chime in amidst the casual chatter between my mom and sisters. I’m met with congratulatory murmurs and “Good for you!”s. They had been talking about the various points in which they had seriously contemplated offing themselves, and how they were going to do it. You know, the type of things you talk about when you get together with your family after a long absence. I must have been in my early to mid twenties at the time I was being praised for my lack of suicide plan. I’m honestly not sure if I could say the same today.

...

My mom is woken up at 5 every morning by her brain vibrating with thoughts of suicide. Every morning, she spends hours fighting this vibrating brain until it’s late enough that she can start calling people to chat and not kill herself. She says that it seems biological, like clockwork, tingling skin, buzzing brain, kill yourself, kill yourself. She’s over sixty now, and this has been going on for a few years.

In 1954 my mom’s maternal grandmother hung herself. This had untold effects on her mother, Mary Lou, who grew up just Mary but was given a new name by her husband who thought having the same name as the mother of God was blasphemous. Mary Lou/Just Mary wanted to defend her mother when my mom asked about her when she was old enough to understand. Her death had made the front page of the newspaper of her small Missouri town. She had been active in the community, charitable and upright, and the obituary was very respectful.

Mary/Mary Lou, mother of three young children and with a recently dead mother of her own, had a personal talk with her young pastor. Was her mother in hell? There was plenty of evidence in scripture to say so. No, said the pastor. Whether he rationalized this through his own feelings that good albeit troubled Christians shouldn’t face hellfire, or some biblical law that would exempt her due to her mental state, I don’t know. Despite her appearance of charity and righteousness, she had been in and out of mental institutions most of her adult life where she received electroconvulsive therapy. At the time before her death, it had become evident that she was headed for another stay in the institution. She had three children out of the nest, didn’t want to go back to the nuthouse, and opted to take care of things herself.

Many years later, Mary/Mary Lou’s father killed himself too, but for different reasons. He had bad arthritis, needed to go back in for surgery, and was sick of it all. When the rest of the family was at church, he closed himself in the garage and left the car running. He started to write a letter but never finished it.

Mary/Mary Lou’s brother Karl cursed his parents for their inconsideration; they could have done it without anyone knowing, he said. In 2005, Karl died conveniently in his sleep next to the wife afflicted with dementia whom he was tired of caring for, on the night before his daughter came for her weekly visit.

...

The year my dad turned fifty-eight he was obsessed with death. I was living in Japan at the time, and he spoke wistfully over the phone about his regrets in life, his regrets about us. He would ruminate, his voice heavy with meaning as if he were trying to communicate something for the last time. He listed off the people his age who were dying. This one, fifty-eight just like me, good health then sudden heart attack and no more. This one, in his fifties, even younger than me, dead by brain aneurism. This one killed crossing the street.

His father had killed himself at age fifty-eight. My dad hadn’t known him. Walter was an alcoholic, and had left his family for an exotic dancer shortly after my dad was born. He started a new family with the dancer, refusing all contact with his first family, only conceding $25 a month in child support, which he never ended up paying. My dad was in medical school and his sister in veterinary school by the time Walter offed himself. My grandmother had been struggling to support her children’s education, her story goes, and as a last-ditch effort, reached out to Walter by letter: here’s how you can contribute to the lives that you brought into the world. Years later, we learned from his family that his business was failing by this point. He went out to the concrete poolside of his back yard (he had a pool!), and put a gun to his head.

At fifty-eight, my dad was on the verge of becoming older than the father he never knew. His divorce from my mom had been finalized for over a year, and some of the dust had settled over the family explosion of anger and spite, much directed toward him. Four women, each in unique and maddening ways, had barraged him with how could you do this to us and why did you always do this to us even when you were there and we hate you, we hate that we love you, don’t leave us. Now everything had been said, and it became clear at least to me that he would never understand, that our anger would always be there and would only befuddle him. There was a sort of detente, and our family landscape was an eerily calm wreckage.

Now he was waxing poetic on life and death, and those of us who still spoke to him were worried. I remember calling my sisters and leaving messages on their voicemail: “Hi from Japan! I just wanted to let you know that I talked to Dad and he wouldn’t stop talking about death the whole time. So maybe you should give him a call. Love you!”

Ultimately, I think my dad decided to live, that he had to live. Some of us, even though adults, even though the marital bonds had been broken, might have wound up destitute if he were gone. We’d get another taste of his mortality when he was diagnosed with leukemia within a year or two. It wracked us, even my mom, especially my mom, because even though he was clueless, even though he left us, he was the center of our familial world.

His mother was practically a saint. I won’t write about her now, because there’s too much to say, most of it out the scope of the subject matter. What I will say is that she had a Danish mother named Grace who was smart and ambitious, graduated from high school early with the highest GPA of her class. Her principal personally wrote her a letter to inform her that he would be awarding the title of valedictorian to the student with the second highest GPA, a boy, because she was far too ambitious for a girl. She went to college where she met her future husband, graduated early, married. These are the only stories I have about her besides the one in which, to conform to the fashionable bob of the 1920s, she cut off all her hair that had fallen down her back and made my grandmother cry. Her hair had been so heavy that when she cut it off, her forehead had a permanent wrinkle from no longer being pulled back in a weighty bun.

After this, I heard nothing about her from my grandmother full of stories. Grace existed as the wife of a school administrator and raised three smart girls, one of whom died at twenty. My mom said of her grandmother-in-law that she got educated, got married, and kept a garden. My grandmother told me that her mother had suffered from, as Grace had worded it, a case of the “Danish blues”.

The Danish Blues. It had always evoked images in me of rosy wind-bitten cheeks framed in a fur hat, frosty blue eyes gazing listlessly over the snowy tundra, scanning the landscape for a hint of food, an elk not there.

The Danish Blues is depression. My great-grandmother had it. My dad has it. It comes down both sides of my family.
...
To be continued

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Foot and Door

I entered the labor market again from graduate school with zero professional confidence, no belief in my ability to do an actual policy-related job. The internship I’d used to fulfill my graduation requirement had been a total joke. Looking at the job postings was like self-flagellation. Everywhere required experience, and I had no practical, professional experience to speak of. As a result, I looked for jobs well below my qualifications, even internships. Something that could lead to something meaningful, something to get in the door.

Ultimately, I did an unpaid summer internship. But it was at basically the best place for a policy student to do an unpaid internship, at possibly the most reputable think tank in DC. When I told classmates about it, they listened with awe tinged with a bit of envy. “What’s it like?” one of my friends gushed. She already had a job in DC, had finished grad school a year before and was working. When I first started at this think tank, I was filled with anxiety. How was I even here? I was an imposter, couldn’t possibly be good enough. What kind of work would they expect me to do, and could I even do it? Getting this internship was a confidence boost and the potential of doing it was an insecurity mindfuck. I didn’t deserve to be there.

The real reason middle-of-the-road, non-specialized me got into this competitive think tank was luck. I found out about it through my undergrad alumni network; I don’t think it had been posted in the open market. The description requested experience and knowledge in an area in which not many have expertise, and just happened to be the subject of my capstone project. Plus, they had a quick turn-around, needed to find someone and get them to DC within a couple weeks. At first this serendipity embarrassed me, but then I discovered that luck isn’t too uncommon in the DC experience of people with decent jobs.

Still, I was a bit starstruck. Somehow I’d made it through the casting call, and I was chosen to be at this prestigious place for policy nerds. Maybe I am special?

As it turns out, no. For the most part, my confidence about having acquired this internship dissipated after working there for a while. The work I was expected to do was all reading and writing, could have been performed by most hardworking undergrads. And most of the other interns there were undergrads. They all went to ivy leagues or very selective liberal arts colleges, and of course were majoring in things more practical than English literature. I remember as my supervisor walked me around the intern cubes to introduce me the first day, and I felt so old as I made small talk. I remember being introduced to a pretty, disinterested looking brunette, and I asked her if she was a student.

“No, I just actually just graduated from Brown,” she said, sounding a little chagrined. 

“Was that undergrad?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

I smiled nervously. “I just graduated too, but with my master’s.”

Now it was my turn to be chagrined.

I quickly discovered that I was also older and more educated than the majority of the paid research assistants on staff. They had gone to ivy leagues and prestigious liberal arts colleges, majored in economics or political science or sociology or geography, perhaps interned there during the summer as well, and began working immediately after graduating college. I went to a somewhat prestigious liberal arts college, actually the same one as two of the RAs, but I had majored in English. I fucked around in Japan for two years (by that, I mean “taught English”), then returned to America and tried my hardest to find sustainable work in nonprofits for two years before entering grad school. Like the creepy creeper I am, I used Linkedin to study the resumes of pretty much everyone on staff, as well as most of the summer interns. I wanted to understand how they got to this prestigious organization, and particularly for the interns and RAs, what was the difference between them and the thousands of other individuals who could do their job.

From a nonscientific survey of interns and RAs, it generally came down to connections and some luck. The interns and RAs seemed to have done everything according to a recipe for the ultra-privileged future elite of America. They’d gone to rigorous private high schools then ivy league colleges, majored in something wonky, and done multitudes of competitive internships. They had the airs of the extraordinarily wealthy, seemed to know important people. One intern spoke of her little sister being friends with Sasha Obama, playing at her house. Still, I knew that there was little in the way of hard skills a twenty year-old poli-sci major could offer. I had gone through a graduate program and become convinced that my technical skills were insufficient, while this think tank was packing their intern ranks with tens who have zero technical skills. It was a big disconnect: everyone was so impressed that I was able to get my foot in the door at this place, but the work I did wasn’t really anything special. I too often felt like that older person who still shows up to the high school parties, only the high school parties are filled only with class presidents, the debate team, and mathletes.

The fellows and analysts seemed to be a bit different. They came from more varied backgrounds, some even from state schools before their master’s or PhD educations, took more circuitous routes to their positions, but all with impressive publications and field experience. I was particularly enamored with the fellow I was working with, who had majored in English literature at a small liberal arts college (like me!) and was interested in working for social justice but uncomfortable with her quantitative skills (like me!) so she got a master’s degree in social work (like what I should have done). One benefit of this internship is my program hosted a lunch (free food!) with the fellows and senior analysts in which we could pick their brains on how the hell they got where they did. Many of their stories were similar: they generally had advanced degrees, but were generalists with good writing skills that someone noticed. They didn’t have much practical experience in their particular area, but they were able to learn. This was their advice: be a good writer and flexible enough to learn new things. These skills are not only somewhat difficult to prove to employers, they’re fairly common. We didn’t get much guidance in the way of being the exact point on the board where the dart lands. In one of the more honest moments of these lunches, one of the fellows stated that making it in DC is forty percent hard work and sixty percent luck.

During my few formal networking opportunities and many happy hours, the impression I got about working in DC was that there was no shortage of people who were extraordinarily young, ambitious, and willing to claw their way to the top for eighty hours a week for little to no pay. And they didn’t need an advanced degree. The job postings in DC required so much less than the ones in Minneapolis. In DC they only asked that you have a Bachelor’s, good verbal and written communication skills, some familiarity with quantitative and qualitative methods and a willingness to learn. In Minneapolis they prefer a Master’s or PhD, specify the exact statistical programs and processes you need to be an expert in, require that you have at least three years of experience doing exactly what they are hiring for. I suspect the reason they require less in DC is they’re casting a wide net, looking for the best of the best that are still young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. The ivy league grads who’ve already accomplished plenty at twenty-two, are willing to claw their way further. Or, the people that they know. Cronyism. That was my sense of how most people got jobs in DC. They got the elite grads when they were young enough to mold and willing to work like crazy for nothing (because of trust funds), or they got their friends.

As someone who’s been applying for jobs for years, I’m almost embarrassed at the cocky cover letters I sent out as a recent college grad. From my years of rejection, I learned this lesson: your awards, your scholarships, your senior thesis and your Latin honors do not make a single bit of difference. It doesn’t matter what internships you’ve had or jobs you’ve worked while in school, at twenty-two you have done nothing worthwhile.

I know I’m not that impressive, which is the main reason why I didn’t make much of an impression. But I should grant myself that one month into the internship, my partner of nine years broke up with me over the phone. This changed everything. It changed my self-confidence, support, and sense of security. Before I left, he had told me I just needed to find a job, and he would follow me, because it was my turn to do something amazing. For the first time in nearly a decade, I had to face being on my own. I thought about trying to find a job in the city, thought about having to live with strangers again instead of him. There was nothing wrong with my craigslist roommate at the time, but I had quickly discovered that I fucking hated living with other people. Unless, of course, it was my partner in life whom I loved and whose idiosyncrasies I could tolerate. I wasn’t sure I even cared for this city, and if I chose to live there, at 28 when people are supposed to be getting established in their careers, I would experience an immediate deterioration in my quality of life.

And that was the better option. One choice was to return to Minneapolis and .... do something? I would have to find a new place to live, maybe a place with my sister, but I would have no job, few prospects, and maybe only a friend or two left in the area. There were more job listings in DC for sure. The other option was to return to Iowa and literally, live in my mother’s basement. That would be the cheapest option, and the ultimate defeat. Not only defeat, but destruction. Iowa isn’t just Iowa, my sister would remind me weeks later over beers. Iowa is returning to the dynamic of our family, that dark mud that sucks you down just as you’re trying to save the others from drowning.

Anyway, back in DC, I was trying to figure out a future without him, but unable to concentrate on my work, unable to be impressive enough to make a future for myself. My mind was wandering to what the hell I would do, how dependent I was on him, how entwined my dealings were in his dealings. I had an apartment filled with my things back in Minneapolis, and here I was in DC. There were no good options, nowhere to turn. Walking from work to my metro station, I hopefully imagined being struck by a car and killed. End of story. No need for choices.

Sitting in my cubicle every day buried in paper, I thought, if I were getting paid, maybe I could take this. As it was, I was paying for this experience, using up all of my savings and going into more credit card debt. I spent over eight hours a day in a cubicle, mostly reading hundreds of pages of bureaucratese reports from state governments, trying to translate them, summarize the relevant policy levers in writing. My cube was one in two rows in the center of a ring of offices for the fellows, analysts, shared ones for the research assistants. I was not staff, not even close, still couldn’t quite imagine being staff, here or anywhere. I was not doing the work of staff; I was doing work that only interns did for free. The regular factory line of super-privileged kids cycling through, some of them talented enough to become RAs after graduation. They go on to a prestigious graduate school, then return to their connections and become analysts or fellows or politicians. As I was trying to concentrate, to do what I was told and do it well, my brain was screaming, what next, what next. When I sat at my desk all I could think was that there were three hours until lunch. It’s customary to take only 30 minute lunches in DC, mostly spent at your desk, but I started taking my lunch to the cafeteria downstairs and wouldn’t come back for an hour. I’d eat and read my book, avoiding eye contact with the occupants of the table packed with undergrad interns. Then I’d take a walk around the block even though it was the hottest August on record, then I’d go to a bench, or if it was too hot, back to the cafeteria by a window, and I’d sit and read for the rest of the hour. That whole hour was the only way I could take it. I burned through books, through stories I could somehow take better than the story of my life. The time after lunch was the worst, the longest solid block of time in the day before I could go home. I broke it up: coffee at 2:30, another walk around the block at 3:30, The possibility of leaving starting at 5:30.

Except for the long lunch, I did what I was told, I always did what I was told, I have always done what I was told, but this would never be enough to be impressive. To get a job from an internship, you have to do more than you’re told, and I don’t think I have the drive or the energy to do that. I’ve barely been in the workforce and I’m already exhausted from all the time I spent not being able to find work.

By the way, that pretty brunette intern from Brown-- she seemed like she was nothing special, couldn’t have gotten hard skills from her major-- she was offered an RA position at the end of the summer. Maybe it had to do with who she was working with and their project. Maybe it was her elite boarding school, then ivy league education that trained her to do amazing work I knew nothing about. Sure, her education had given her the connections to get an internship in the first place. But maybe it was that same education and inherent talent required to get there that made her so amazing she was offered a contract, while I was offered a month extension without pay, of course.

In the end, my heart wasn’t in making it in DC. If I’d tried harder, done more informational interviews, taken my supervisor up on her offer to send out my resume and her recommendation to her friends and colleagues, I might have gotten something. But I’m not sure it’s something I would have been able to stand. Still, I must have looked defeated as my supervisor took me out for a last lunch and I discussed my plans for when I go back to Minneapolis.

She told me, “I want you to remember something about you. You’re the same person who picked up and moved to another country with no job or concrete plans. That is brave, and you made it.”

I wanted to argue with her. That person wasn’t so brave. Japan was even a relatively safe bet when I had nothing in America, and I wasn’t exactly striking out on my own, since I was there with my boyfriend. But I swallowed that argument, because even when that voice is right, I know that it’s incredibly irritating to others who are just trying to help.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Since I have nothing finished and it's driving me crazy, here are some quotes from my mother

"I looked really good for court today."

"I feel like setting things on fire. Is that okay?"

"It's really rude to kill yourself."

Friday, January 4, 2013

Status Quo

I wear business casual and hardly think. I attend meetings when the little reminder comes up on Outlook. I smile and chat with my office mate. I get up too much, refill coffee or water, walk to the bathroom, pass people in the too-narrow hallway with friendly acknowledgement. I write e-mails with exclamation points. I leave early every Tuesday for my appointment, but no one knows what it’s for. Unspecified health issues. At the appointment they’re trying to train me how to think differently, better, with mindfulness and coping strategies, but it’s not that relevant to me because I haven’t been thinking much, at least not inwardly. I am okay. I am working somewhere vaguely related to my degree. I can pretend that I’m working there as a real staff member rather than a service member on a poverty-level stipend. Sometimes I think I’m fooling them into thinking I’m normal, confident, capable, then suddenly panic that I may not be fooling them at all. My sister, not the one in crazy class, the other one, thinks she’s great at fooling people, but she’s not. People are better at detecting instability than you think. But then sometimes people completely miss the painfully obvious, because in general they don’t care about you. I have not fucked up yet. I’m doing a good job. I’m overqualified and they are so happy to have someone with my skills. I look like another normal person in the office, and I am not thinking too much. I am okay.