HOW TO LIVE IN IT

(amateur poet's amateur personal essays)

Category: Mental Health

Invasive Is A Spectrum

Last week, my mother had her final weekly chemotherapy treatment. She was diagnosed with DCIS — a “stage-zero,” non-invasive breast cancer — last winter. In typical cancer fashion, things got gut-sinkingly complicated.

I remember in November she first told me about the DCIS, and I barely held back tears, and she reassured me she was going to be okay, that even the doctor called it “the thing to have, if you have to have something.” Then I painted her toenails with this new bubblegum pink nail polish she’d bought.

I remember when I found out that her first surgery, the lumpectomy, didn’t go exactly as planned. I was at the grocery store, looking at fresh pineapple chunks, wondering whether they were really worth $5. My phone vibrated. My head felt swollen and heavy. I started this weird nervous habit where I clench and unclench my fists over and over. I developed psychosomatic chest pains, and went to student health over and over and over to make sure I wasn’t dying.

I remember in March, Ryan and I visited her in the hospital after her double mastectomy. She was drowsy, she ate pot roast and chocolate cake, and she had these noisy pneumatic boots that made sure her blood was still circulating in and out of her feet. The plastic surgeon in charge of her reconstruction came by, chillingly handsome and in full Army gear. He was happy with the surgery, and so was she.

I graduated in April. My mother wasn’t recovered enough to fly, so we planned to delay her visit by a few weeks. Then she told me that the doctors had found cancerous cells in her lymph node, that she would start chemotherapy almost immediately, and our plan, among many others, fell to the wayside. I masochistically read blog post after blog post, all devoid of scientific evidence but ripe with emotional rhetoric, about how chemotherapy is a conspiracy and how it destroys our bodies instead of healing them. I walked around constantly scared to eat or use hygiene products, because if I absorbed the wrong stuff I was convinced my body would break down.

I finally saw my mom again in June, when I went home for my brother’s high school graduation. She picked me up at the airport. She’d shaved her head, but her wig looked almost exactly the same as her old hair. I could barely tell the difference, even after a lifetime of watching her color, cut, and style her hair. When we got back to the car, she took off her wig and let me touch what she called her “hedgehog ‘do.” She said she took a fraction of the time to get ready now that she didn’t have to style her hair anymore.

This whole time, I kept expecting my relationship with my mom to change. I never knew what to say, because I didn’t want to burden her with stuff objectively less important than her fight. I kept expecting her to get hopeless or angry or resentful. She has done none of these things. She has remained staunchly positive, still recommending me books, still listening to my rants about my friend-squabbles, my frantic job search, my worries about my relationships.

When my mom drove me to the airport after my brother’s graduation, we stopped at Target first. She bought me a pair of shoes for job interviews. On our way out, I grabbed coffee and she grabbed some Pizza Hut breadsticks. In the car we talked about our relationships, our lives, and our futures. We ate Bit O’ Honeys and waxed poetic about how awesome and fresh they were.

Cancer rips lives apart, changes people from the inside out, oozes out saccharine sentiment or soporific bleakness. But soon my mom’s hair will start to grow back. She will start in with a weaker chemotherapy, one that she will get every three weeks. For all the things that have changed, and all the things that could have destroyed us, I remain most grateful for our growing sameness.

 

 

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See You Tomorrow

“I’ll write a blog post every week for a whole year,” she says! “It will be great for me and I’ll never miss a week,” she says! Oops. Hi guys. I’ve apologized a few times so far for my absence, but about a week ago my schedule opened up considerably. So here’s the real update, for real, really this time, I really mean it.

I graduated from Pitt a week and a half ago, and it’s been a real struggle. I imagine I’m supposed to be proud of myself for graduating. I imagine I’m supposed to be excited to start this next, big part of my life. I imagine I wasn’t supposed to break down and get into fights with Ryan every thirty seconds on my graduation day. I imagine I’m not supposed to stop eating for days at a time because I’m scared of my body breaking down if I eat the wrong chemicals.

I had to stop seeing my therapist of a year because I graduated. I was already taking advantage of the counseling center a little, as they’re meant to see you for a maximum of 6 appointments and then refer you to outside help as necessary. Because Jack knew I didn’t have money, I think he kept seeing me a bit longer than he was supposed to, and I completely shouldn’t be blindsided that I had to stop going sometime. And I’m not. But it still sucks to lose that one person who was supposed to be unambiguously on my team. It’s not like graduation is a notoriously difficult, confusing time for liberal arts graduates, it’s not like I need more help now than ever before. There are some other personal things I don’t feel comfortable talking about here, partly because they’re not exactly mine to talk about, that are weighing me down.

It just sucks. And I’m doing what I can, I’m applying for jobs and I’m looking at volunteer experiences and I’m continuing to work at Giant Eagle. I’m parceling out my poems for submission and I’m even thinking about submitting my 48-page manuscript to some contests. I’m trying to eat better, to exercise a couple times a week. I’m seeing Ryan this weekend, and as of this moment I have no plans to fight with him. I’m also going to try to write here more regularly and more honestly.

In my last appointment with Jack, I didn’t say any of the right things. He said we’d made a good team, and he was proud of the work we’d done. But I barely talked. I kept thinking about all the stuff I couldn’t even bring up because I can’t keep working with him anymore. And most of all I kept picturing the episode of The Office when Jim and Michael finally say goodbye to each other, and instead of actually saying goodbye, they say “see you at lunch tomorrow,” because that hurts less.

 

April Purgatory

So, I graduated college yesterday.

Photo Apr 26, 11 22 16 AM (1)

The last few months have hurt like hell. I haven’t had time to assess how I’m feeling in months. I’ve been eating so poorly (and some days so little) that my body feels horrible. I haven’t been sleeping right. I almost passed out at work – feeling my vision blur and time slow down and feeling the instinct to run and hide was a wake-up call.

I haven’t felt like myself, and if I’m honest, that started even before this semester.

When I first moved off-campus last summer, I never quite settled in my new home. I didn’t have a dresser, so my clothes mostly lived on my floor and on this stupid wire shelf that is totally unsuited to holding clothes. What might seem like a little stupid detail was actually really hard – I felt unsettled, but I knew I couldn’t afford the nice clothes and furniture that would make me feel settled. It felt like a whole year of living between parents’ houses, out of a duffel bag, all over again. I was too busy with school to work enough to make comfortable money, so just as I have been expected to become a “real adult” on my own, I have felt more helpless than ever before.

And I’m in April purgatory now. Doing all the stuff I haven’t had time to do. Applying for “real person” jobs, moving to a smaller apartment, learning to work customer service at Giant Eagle. Stuff is weird and sometimes I don’t know if I can keep doing it. I feel so un-ready.

We took a bunch of pictures yesterday, of me in my un-ironed, not-fitting, put-on-all-wrong graduation gear. With my friends, by myself. And the only thing I could think all day was “I’m not enjoying this like I’m supposed to.” I was on the verge of tears the whole time, but not like some beautiful “I did it” moment, more like, “everyone thinks I’m an idiot because I don’t know how to put on my graduation hood like a normal human,” and “everyone thinks I’m a cunt because I’m not happy today.”

This is not uncommon for me – to have a “bad thought” and just treat it like it’s true, regardless of evidence to the contrary. Because obviously I ruined everything, and everything is awful, and everybody knows it’s my fault, and they all hate me. Obviously. And obviously getting mad to Ryan is the smart thing to do.

But at least I have something to work on in therapy now.

Oh, and I inherited a dresser from Steph and Alex.

A Body (guest post)

by Abbigail Baldys

i don’t know how to write a blog or have a body

since i’m borrowing (perverting?) kaeli’s blogspace, i suppose it’s mildly appropriate that i begin with kaeli herself. i met kaeli—following fashion of all my favorite beings—in a poetry class in undergrad at UPitt. i admired her talent, intelligence, brilliant t-shirts, & self-haircuts (please tell me again how you manage that, darling). & as i’ve read her blog, i’ve noticed something more to admire. kaeli is brave in all the vulnerable spaces. & it makes sense to me—what good is a cowardly sensitivity? & maybe it’s some cultural fallacy i’m following when i write that emotional transparency is brave, but i imagine that fallacy has made legitimate too many poets, authors, & artists for it to matter.

despite my rampant (& somewhat insane) support of transparency, i’ve been a public- emotion coward. most notably, my cowardice nestled in the poetry i wrote (& write—old habits fuck hard—wait—no–): i created cryptic syntax. i redacted lines. & while i’m not a proponent of radical transparency, (some things still should remain sacred—the secrets held in bodies don’t always need to write themselves out), i am on the side of good-intentioned personal honesty. &, in this space, kaeli has inspired me to be honest.

i’ve had body dysmorphia since i can remember. i didn’t obsess over it, & i never even identified it until high school was tucked neatly into retrospect. i attribute my late-onset to the gift of distraction: from 5-22 years old, i purposed my body through athletics. my collegiate soccer experience forced me to accept a forfeit of my body independence—i was to understand that my body needed to perform certain functions at certain times; i must gain mass; i must have a low percentage body fat; i must eat only what maximizes performance. & in calling all this attention to my fat & muscle & skin & bone, i suppose collegiate athletics tipped me further into body consciousness.

& as much as i’d love to completely blame my disorder on collegiate soccer (which is some odd form of prostitution, to be honest), i’ll admit that my genetics don’t boast the prettiest tendencies for mental stability, so i’m always kind of walking the craggy edge of fuckery/sanity—although, really, there’s not much of a dividing line.

after i retired from soccer, my body owned—bit by bit—more of my consciousness. by the time i graduated college & touched down in Berkeley for a summer writing program, food & body became obsessions. & as much as i wish i could pin-point what went wrong & how & when & exactly what mildly fucked up things i couldn’t entirely process from my childhood & from what in particular my body-obsession was distracting myself & whatever whatever (obviously i made it to therapy), i feel like my body un-doing was more of a slow unravel. i won’t catalogue what happened in Berkeley because my body is more than what i’ve suffered. if what they say is true—that we’re made of the same stuff as stars—then i’m much more concerned with our radiance & triumph than void.

i arrived back on the east coast weighing roughly twenty pounds underweight. i was constantly lightheaded, i couldn’t walk two miles without feeling like i was going to pass out, & i spent most of my time in bed. i started going to therapy. i got a puppy. i began eating again. i gained weight. i still had a secret scale & weighed myself a lot & mostly cried. but things got better. i could run again. i could think about things that weren’t food & my body-disgust, & i could write much more coherently. i gained more weight. i got a shitty job in retail. i wrote letters & marveled thunderstorms & moved to Richmond.

i’ve been here almost 4 months & haven’t weighed myself in almost that much time—thanks to a note on the scale from my particularly fantastic boyfriend (something along the lines of “you weigh gorgeous pounds and beautiful ounces; don’t let a number dictate how you feel”). i don’t own a full-length mirror. i cook & bake cookies & work in a florist (i know too much about flowers & how they mold) & most days i’m still genuinely fucked with my body perception. & part of what i’ve learned about sensitive minds is that they’re often their own undoing— & although i’m sure we’ve heard this all before too too too many times, it never hurts to say it again—our most scathing critics are often ourselves, & as keepers of our realities, that makes life pretty fucking hard.

& while i’ve been able to meditate a lot on bodies & their functions & interpretations (no boring, odd theoretical lecture ahead), i think what i’d like to share most about my disorder is this:

1. being disordered isn’t pretty. you feel like shit, you look like shit. [& people told me this & provoked more body shame (thanks, fuckheads), but the scariest thing is that some people told me i looked good. & i’d like to raise a giant middle finger to all the people who said ‘wow, you look amazing’]. & i owe too many apologies for tarnished relationships, & i struggle now to be stable with my current boyfriend—but when you find someone who really loves you, they stay.

2. & staying brings me to this—you’re never alone. when you allow those you love to help you (especially those with four paws & wet noses), the world begins to feel gentle again.

3. you’re not your enemy. to paraphrase my therapist—“there’s nothing wrong with you. there’s nothing you need to change about yourself. there are just parts of you calling for your attention, & they’re asking you to listen to what they’re saying. it’s hard. but when you listen, you can learn how to answer back.”

i’d like this little written profession to be an invitation for & celebration of honesty. our struggles are tailored to ourselves, but maybe part of my recovery will be a stitch in someone else’s—and wouldn’t that be nice—if perhaps we’re all sewn in one big ball of beautifully fucked up minds—i don’t know.  maybe the fault lines in our palms are really logograms for the poetry of our skin—perhaps everything we touch becomes poetry—perhaps bodies are the most immediate way of experiencing art & that’s why we have them—& maybe you & i should revere ourselves in the most incredibly gentle ways. we’re stars, after all. we feel so much. we explode so fine.

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abbigail baldys lives in RVA with her german shepherd, blaze. she’s an unknown poet, tea-cup collector, simple songwriter, & half-artist. you can write her a letter or send your teeth addressed to: 3122 W Clay Street Apt#10 / Richmond, VA 23230

The Rough Ones

Holy shit, did this week suck. I haven’t felt like myself all week. I’ve been so exhausted.

I wanted to try and write something deeper than what I’ve written the past few weeks. This is gonna be personal. I’m not sure how good or valuable it’s going to be.

I was talking to my therapist on Wednesday, about the situations and people I sometimes struggle with, and how the frustrating stuff for me tends to be black-and-white thinking situations. He pointed out that a lot of people who come in for therapy need help to think less simply and to see the shades of grey in between. He also pointed out, half-chuckling, that I most certainly do not struggle with shades of grey. We agreed that, if anything, I get too caught up in them. Sometimes I feel a lot of internal pressure to understand things in the most nuanced way possible, and in doing so, I get overwhelmed. I doubt a situation which leads me to doubt my feelings which leads me to doubt my motivation which leads me to doubt my identity (ugh).

He also pointed out that the one thing I do seem to see in black-and-white terms is myself. At the core of it, I don’t believe I’m a valuable person. People can tell me otherwise (and have) time and time again, but I sit closest to my faults, so any evidence otherwise feels disingenuous at worst and uninformed at best. It makes sense when you arrive at this conclusion through my doubt cycle. Anxiety and doubt are handy this way; if I’m told it’s 99.9% likely that something isn’t my fault, I cling to the 0.01% like a liferaft. The only person whose nuances I can possibly understand entirely are my own, so I pace their halls like I’m locked in.

In the session before this one, he pulled out the DSM and read to me the clinical symptoms for diagnosing a major depressive episode. I was told in high school I had dysthymia, which is in some ways minor depression, but I also always felt like there was some vague dark thing lurking inside me, making me worth less than other people, making me “broken.” When my therapist read me the symptoms used to diagnose major depression, and I identified with the requisite amount (and a few more were questionably true of me), I felt a little peaceful. We talked about how this is just a list of symptoms, which explain what’s “going on” right now; it’s not what’s wrong with me, it’s one of the things I am struggling with right now.

As I was about to finish my session this week, my therapist and I agreed that we were leaving off at a pretty bad point. He asked me to please take a half hour to an hour to care for myself, to read a book, make myself some coffee, listen to some music. We have agreed that therapy homework is not an appropriate way for me to make progress, so this is the first time he has ever asked anything specific of me. But I didn’t do it. I had two or three relatively time-sensitive things I felt I needed to do, and I thought I could do them and then collapse at the end. I felt like I didn’t deserve a break when there were other things, things that weren’t flawed like me, and thus deserved to be done. I decided I didn’t deserve a break for just feeling bad, that in black-and-white terms I would be selfish if I needed a break. There is a more complex thought process somewhere in there, but I’m struggling to express it.

It made me feel worse, much worse, to not give myself a break. The past few days have felt scary and awful. I couldn’t get out of bed, and when I did, I felt like I was on autopilot. I don’t feel like myself, whatever that means, and I’m going to have to work pretty hard to figure out how to reason myself into giving myself a break sometimes.

Ugh.

What Pisses You Off?

In talking with my therapist, my next project is to better learn to sit with and work through anger. I tend to seize up and refuse to get angry, because I feel like I shouldn’t get angry or like things aren’t worth getting angry about, but that’s not how a feeling works.

Here is a list of things that piss me off.

  • When I go to empty the dishwasher and the stuff inside isn’t dry yet.
  • When someone close to me makes a shitty, sexist comment and I can’t say anything about it because I’d be “overreacting.”
  • When a grocery store bagger is obviously not trying to group like things together. Milk and bread but then another bag with (cold) juice and cereal? Really?
  • The multitouch scroll function on my new computer is really shaky and imprecise.
  • When I go to a coffeeshop to get some work done and the internet doesn’t work there.
  • When I have a discussion on the internet and the other person will not even consider what I’m saying.
  • Argumentum ad hominem. There’s absolutely no use in insulting the person you’re trying to argue with. What’s an argument for if not to settle something?
  • When people use honesty as an excuse to be needlessly disparaging or condescending.
  • How the character on Girls I most resonate with is Hannah, ugh.
  • When I’m cooking and I know I screwed something up but I’m not done cooking and I have to finish what I’m cooking knowing it’s not going to be as good as it could.
  • When people at work throw their money down on the register in front of me without looking at my outstretched hand.
  • When I think about the fact that, more likely than not, I am going to miss a week of blogging this year and I won’t have properly met my goal.
  • When someone tells me a poem of mine is “overwritten.”
  • When people at work feel the need to explain why they want their groceries double-bagged (I’m taking a bus, I have to go up a flight of stairs, last week I got cans too and the bag broke, I use them for my cat, I use them for recycling) instead of just asking for it. It’s not a reserved, preferential treatment.
  • When people at work do anything, really.

What (inexplicably or explicably) pisses you off?

A Wonderful Life

When I was a very small child, my father sat me down to watch It’s A Wonderful Life. One among several Jimmy Stewart movies he shared with me, this in particular stood to teach me about life’s intrinsic value. Essentially, the film is about touching the lives of others and the butterfly effect of these small touches. I’ve watched It’s A Wonderful Life around Christmastime since before I can remember. At some point, it became my own tradition and not my father’s.

This year, as Ryan and I sat down to watch the film over a New Year’s Eve spaghetti dinner, George Bailey grew into an especially deep, elbow-skinning place in my chest. He is a hopeful man stuck in a small town. He says, “I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…” However, by the film’s climax, George is on a bridge in a blizzard, contemplating suicide after discovering that he is “worth more dead than alive.” George Bailey’s salvation comes in the form of the people he has cared for his whole life, the people his father’s “beautiful old Building and Loan” has helped over the years. George realizes that he has impacted the world positively at almost every turn.

December 14th, noon. I’m sitting on my bed, eyes swelling with tears, Ryan’s hand on my back. Last night was my birthday party, my house filled to the brim with people who love and support and care about me. Today, a nitty-gritty snowstorm that’s making me nervous about work. It’s the end of the neverending list that was finals week. In retrospect it makes sense that I’m this overwhelmed, but in the moment… forest, trees, etc. I call work, explain that the storm is worrying me, that I don’t want to get stuck there if I make it in, since my commute is one of the longest. My manager says not to worry, that they’ll make sure I get home. I’m taken by surprise, I say okay and hang up. This is the beginning of the defining low point of my year. For several hours, I am a sobbing and inconsolable mass of dark goo.

The reason I’m writing this post is that I feel very George Bailey this year. It feels like every turn is a dead end, I feel like I’m going about most things wrong. I’m scared in my relationships that I’m not necessary or even beneficial, that people might be better off without the ordeal of a person I can be. I felt for a split second the terrifying feeling that I imagine George felt staring out at the river below him, stranded in the snow, lip bleeding. I have felt bad before, but never this bad. I tend to downplay the darkness because I know not every bad feeling is a disorder, and I know there’s no use for hopelessness. But now it feels as though what I thought was darkness was torchlight and that torch was just extinguished. For all the gesturing at brokenness I’ve done in my life, for all the talking about how worthless I am, this dark felt truest. I am okay and safe, and I am not going anywhere, I’m not going to do anything dangerous. I promise. It’s just – this was the first time I’ve ever wished I would do something definitively hospitalizable.

It’s a Wonderful Life has been uplifting each time I watch it, has convinced me that life truly is wonderful. This year, though, as the tradition moved from a family event to a journey of personal necessity on which I dragged Ryan – this year, it doesn’t feel right. This year, I had a room full of friends with me just 12 hours before the darkest I’ve ever felt. I have a wonderful boyfriend who cares immensely for me and treats me like I’m worth the entire world and then some. In the next few months, I await a new and better job, a writing internship, and a position as a TA. I have the trappings that made George’s life Wonderful. But it doesn’t feel like things are getting better inside.

And so as I go into another January, I am  ready to shed my dark December skin. But to do that fully, I need to own how difficult the year ahead of me will be. It might be more difficult than 2013 was. I might find myself wishing for that hopeless December moment in the same way that I wish for my naïve high school self-loathing. But I’m going to put in the work and speak candidly about my experience, in therapy and outside of it, with anxiety and depression.

Maybe this was too much blood drawn for a first real blog post. I will write about other, lighter things. I will have happy moments. But talking about this dark goo feels important to me, and I’m learning to just let things be important.