Monday, June 12, 2017

On Getting Pummeled

Growing up in a small town in the rural Midwest, not surprisingly, I didn't get into many fist fights. In fact, I was only ever punched once, by a kid named Dallas who should've been in 8th grade, not with me in 6th. Dallas stood beside me in lunch line. I was the last name in the alphabet, and he was the first kid to transfer in that year. When Dallas wasn't in detention or in-school suspension, he stood next to me in line and sat next to me at lunch.

Dallas and I didn't have much in common, so we rarely spoke to one another. He sought to be (and on some level was) an intimidating kid. You'd think, then, that I would give Dallas his space. And, normally, I did, but you guys, 6th grade was rough; I was in a class with all sorts of kids who got into all sorts of trouble, and on this particular day, I guess I'd had enough. Because, when Dallas started cursing because our line wasn't getting picked to go in for lunch, I turned to him and pointed out that if he'd shut up, our chances of going would increase considerably. He responded by shoving me, so I shoved him back. That's when he clocked me.

I don't know if you've ever been punched in the face, but it's a weird sensation: CONK! That's what it sounds like, followed by an odd ringing sound (I mean, I guess I understand the phrase "getting your bell rung" better thanks to Dallas). I was less hurt than really, really shocked that he actually hit me. Sure, I ended up with a brushed cheek and a stiff jaw, but more than that I walked away with a visceral understanding of just how unnatural violence is. Bodies aren't meant to be punched, and there is no way to reason around the violation that occurs when that line is crossed.


Our bodies have limits; this is the lesson I've been reminded of over and over again over the past few years. We are not Wile E Coyote who can peel himself up off the road, re-inflate, and jump back into the chase. In fact, these bodies we inhabit are very, very fragile. Ren's brother, full of life one minute, expired on the sidewalk the next. Ren, able to run a marathon one night and unable to walk the next day. The body, it betrays us.

Part of why I am thinking about this is because I have watched the man who used to run to the peak of the mountain to check out the view before running down to get me and take me along to enjoy it be completely waylaid by his own body. Ren has literally shrunk before my eyes, bending further and further forward as his spine slowly but surely gives up on him. We have been together for 20 years, and this tragic saga has dominated the last six. It used to be that the most stressful part of the saga of the spine was that we didn't know what would happen next--it was like watching a super slow-motion chain-reaction train wreck with no end in sight. Now, though, the nature of our tragedy is clear. Ren's back is done; he will have a fusion of the thoracic spine, T1-T12--twelve full levels compared to the two and three levels of his previous two fusions. The surgery itself will take 6-7 hours with another 2-3 hours in the recovery room. After that, it could take 1-2 years before he is "back to normal," though we all know that normal is long gone.

I don't know how to describe this disruption to our lives as anything other than violent. The children no longer remember life before Dad's back went south. They don't remember the hiking, the running, the playing. They don't remember Dad not being in pain. It's hard not to feel mad and sad and jealous of all the people around us who are going about their lives raising children and building amazing (not tragic) memories. Surgery #6 will stop us in our tracks. I will become a single mom. Ren will miss months of our children's lives.

The other reason I've been thinking a lot about violence and the limits of the human body is the very real struggle we are having with aggressive meltdowns. I've written about autism and meltdowns many times before (here, here, and here, for example), but this is different. Those meltdowns tested my mental stamina. These test me physically. And, what I have learned is that I am not strong enough. Because I am mom, I am the recipient of most of the aggressive meltdowns that happen at our house. And, because I am not a cartoon mom, I end up with scratches and bruises and wake up with aches and pains. 

Since I am not strong enough to defend myself, Ren has been intervening. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that despite his crappy spine, Ren is still stronger than me. When a meltdown starts, using some story about Power Rangers or superheroes or Godzilla as a distraction, he swoops in and employs a simple judo move to neutralize the situation. Then he sits calmly and waits for the episode to pass. It makes me mad that I am not strong enough to hold my own; I hate that I crumble after a few good right hooks. With a spine like his, Ren shouldn't be wrestling on my behalf.

We are working hard to get to the other side of this aggressive meltdown phase before surgery #6 at the end of July. These days, I have a pretty good idea of my outer limits. It scares me to know that the challenges on the near horizon far exceed them. People often say that God doesn't give you more than you can handle. I think I used to believe this meant that the struggles helped us build character. I don't really believe that any more. Because, whether I have the strength to face the impending challenges or not, they are coming, and I know that I have no choice but to put my head down and walk into the massive raging hurricane, one foot steadily in front of the other.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Lost, In Tokyo

I'm in Tokyo, it's dawn
and it's raining hallelujahs
down the bright-lit neon canyons
along the sidewalks of Shibuya
I'm trying to take a stance
and rise above my contradictions
but I'm just a bunch of words in pants
and most of those are fiction

                                   "Long Strange Golden Road" -- Waterboys

**Warning -- This post is about mental health issues so if that makes you uncomfortable, well, now you know.**

When I was 18 and less than 2 weeks away from my first trip to Japan, I tore my ACL playing in the high school semi-state finals. In a very short time span, I abruptly ended my tennis career, scheduled an ACL reconstruction surgery, graduated from high school, and flew off to a country about which I knew next to nothing. In Japan, I fell apart so terrifically that I wound up crying most days and paid an extraordinary amount of money to come home a few days early.

Looking back, that was the beginning of it.

Not long after, I started college, and I spent the next four years trying to outwit my brain chemistry. I tried religion, music, theater, writing, therapy, academic overachievement, sports. I learned how to compartmentalize and only allowed myself to think about my studies. And, in the end, I graduated Summa Cum Laude with a list of awards and achievements long enough to make anyone blush. But none of that mattered as much as the words the head of the campus counseling center--my therapist and my mentor for the various social issues education projects I spearheaded--said to me right before I graduated. "Moe," she said, "sometimes you can do everything, and it is still not enough. Sometimes, it's really just chemical." So, I relented and went on medication and was amazed by how quickly the dark fog lifted from the recesses of my brain and light filtered back into the world before my eyes.

I stayed on the medication for a long time. But, then we wanted to have kids and so I went off of it. Now that I knew what depression looked like, I could manage the ebbs and flows of life. And, when the darkness started to creep into my peripheral view, I knew to exercise more, read good books, eat well, sleep better, and cut out the diet coke. I knew to write and to reach out to friends because I knew that all of these things would help me cast my anchor deep enough to steady me.

And, it worked for a long, long time. It worked through three pregnancies and babies, through three shoulder and five spine surgeries, through grad school and job hunting and multiple moves. It worked through health scares and unwanted diagnoses.

But then one day, it didn't anymore. A month or so ago, the bottom dropped out, and like Wile E. Coyote, I was running so fast, it took me a minute to realize what was going on before I plummeted to the ground. I've got experience with this and resources, so I'll be fine, but the suddenness of it makes me mad. At first, I just really couldn't believe that my brain chemistry would betray me like this. Now that I know it can and will, I know what to do and will do it. But since it's fresh in my mind, allow me to describe to you what depression feels like. I think it's important that you know.

  • Depression feels like you are on a planet that unexpectedly gets knocked from its perfect orbit sending you careening out into space at breakneck speed as you hold on for dear life with the very tips of your fingers. Every day, you think about just letting go.
  • It's being in the largest city in the world with people swarming all around and feeling like you don't know a single soul. It's being completely invisible in a crowd with a ringing in your ears that makes you feel like you're in a deep, deep cavern, more alien than human, and so far inside your head that you're not sure of the way out.
  • It's knowing that things will get better but not really believing it.
  • It's panic rising up into your throat, clutching at your chest and catching your breath, threatening to choke you as tears well in your eyes for no good reason at all.
  • It's speeding along the road and thinking seriously about veering to the left into the trees or the valley below. Or, waiting for the train and imagining yourself scaling the platform door and jumping headlong onto the track as it rushes into the station. It's wanting to step off the curb into an oncoming bus. It's being able to imagine the feel of the cold, hard tip of a pistol on your temple and longing to pull the trigger. It's knowing that all of these thoughts are lies but feeling drawn in by them just the same.
  • It's working hard and moving fast and being afraid to slow down because you know the depression that threatens to overwhelm you nips hungrily at your heels. It's choosing to live at an insane pace with too much caffeine and too little sleep even though you know you can't sustain it. 

Depression lies. It takes away your ability to be amazed, to find humor, to have hope. It exhausts you. If you are going through this, know you are not alone. You are not weak or a failure. In fact, I'd argue that you probably have more damn grit than anyone in the room. Cast your anchor and find others willing to help steady you. All you need is the tiniest sliver of light in the darkness.

There have been moments over the past few weeks for which I am truly grateful--beautiful sunrises, good meals, a couple of conversations in bars with friends who have reminded me of the beauty and joy and amazement all around me. These things have helped me remember what makes me happy--fresh mountain air, beauty in the chaos, a clever turn of phrase, unexpected friendships, irony, untethered conversations. Twenty five years ago, I would have never cast my anchor so willingly. Today, I know I have no choice.

I don't want this blog to be just a bunch of words in pants. I'm too tired to keep spinning my fictions. We need to be able to talk about these things. If we can't, then what are we doing here?