Better than Baskin Robbins

A lot of things have happened this year that I want to talk about but can’t.  Not because they’re embarrassing - I don’t care about that - but because people will get hurt.  I’m not a secretive person and I like to write about real life.  I don't typically hide details about my life from anyone.  In the short life I’ve had so far, I’ve learned that secrets don’t do us  much good – they’re just our way of trying to preserve some phony ideal about who we’d like to be.  At the same time, I've also learned that it’s not my place to out people who want to keep their private lives private.  Not everybody wants to live the way I do, not everybody has to, either.  Not everybody wants their dirty laundry out there in the open for everyone to see – some people still feel shame and judgment and guilt, three emotions I had to shed fairly early in life.  Not everybody can laugh about their own misfortunes the way I’ve learned how.

So, what’s new that I can talk about?  I made it through the holidays with a red dress and a smile on my face but the anxiety attacks caught up with me again just after Christmas.  The season was a lot harder than I anticipated.  I had to quit my job because the thought of any responsibility in that moment was more than I could bear.  I had a lot of out-of-nowhere nervous breakdowns, mostly in the car or at the cabin, mostly private.  There is thing that kept happening.  I could feel the tension bubbling up in my belly, it would move to the right side of my neck rather quickly.  Tears came and went the way hunger pangs sometimes come and go.  If you weren’t paying attention, you might miss them all together – if you let them take hold, you might eat yourself alive.

There was one afternoon where I felt as though life was pushing me over the edge while laughing at me.  I lost it on a few people I shouldn't have.  It happens.  Do I feel bad?  Not so bad in hindsight.  I think I’ve held it together pretty well until now, considering.  Do I wish I would have acted differently?  No.  I’m done wishing that.  We act how we act and as long as we are doing our best, that’s all we can ask of anyone.  We do what we do.  Life is not the projected fantasy in our heads of what we ‘might have’ done and the players aren’t the people we ‘dream of’ being with.  Life is what it is and the people in your life are there for a reason.  Period.  If they aren’t there, they aren’t part of your life.  What’s important is how we treat them, how we act and how we love one another.  I’m more sure of this now than ever.

But try telling that to a romantic.  It’s tough and somehow, I suppose because my parents were so different, I ended up with both traits.  I have dreams of people on occasion, of how easy everything could be, would be, should be. The sad part is that the ‘what-you-want-out-of-life’ bits and the ‘who-you-want-to-spend-your-life-with’ bits aren’t always complimentary.  Friends can do unforgivable things.  Romance can get lost in expectations.  And even though sometimes it can all seem so easy, so clear, life’ll always find a way of making a big mess out of your happiness if you forget for even a moment to appreciate all you’ve got, all that you’ve had, all that’s to come. 

A friend once told me that love is the most selfless thing in the world, I argued with him at the time but it turns out he was right about that and after this trip, I now truly understand what he meant. It wasn’t so long ago I was writing a love letter to my friends.  Toronto had taught me so much about so many people.  It taught me that I was surrounded by heroes and superstars and even a little magic.  It taught me that everything would be alright.  I wouldn't write that letter today.  Not because my friends aren't still wonderful people (they are) but because I don't feel a lot of love anymore.  I just don't.

So many bad things have happened – death, heartbreak, car accidents, lies, family feuds, logistics gone awry and I've found myself giving up on everything I've ever believed in, feeling hopeless and alone and like there was no point to anything.  I’ve since looked up the definition of depression in the dictionary and I have exhibited not one but all the signs this year, voluntarily self-destructing.  I smoke more.  When I drink (which albeit is rare) I drink in excess.  I lead a generally unhealthy lifestyle and why?  Because I've stopped caring.  I can vividly remember the last time I felt this way – ready to trade it all in for Nozick’s Time Machine.  I was fifteen and I wanted to die.

I was in and out of the hospital a lot.  My medication wasn’t working and I couldn’t make it up a flight of stairs at school without having debilitating attacks.  My doctors were telling me and my family that there was no chance for me and that I wouldn’t likely survive until my eighteenth birthday.  You can’t imagine how fucked up this is for a fifteen year old.  Most kids at this age are looking forward to the boys they’re going to kiss, the parties they're going to crash and the friends they’re going to make.  Not me.  I was busy planning my own funeral and wishing there was some way of separating the mind and body so that I didn’t have to go but didn’t have to stay chained to this malfunction of a vessel either.  What was the point?  I’d have chosen the dream over reality if given the choice, hands down.

A few months later, there was a mistake made at our pharmacy.  I opened my usual bag of medication at the kitchen table and noticed that the colour of my inhaler was a slightly different shade than I’d remembered.  Upon careful checking, we learned it was.  Turns out for the past 2+ years, I’d only been on an infant’s dosage of the stuff.  No wonder it wasn’t working and everyone thought I stood no chance.  In the meantime, because of the downward spiral in my health, doctors also had me on a lot of steroids for my asthma.  My face puffed out like a blowfish from the moonface.  I put on weight everywhere, not because of food consumption but because of swelling.  I felt more emotional and irrational and than your typical teenager and I was constantly shaky: had trouble sleeping or relaxing or sitting still.  At least a dozen times a day, every day, I wanted to die.  But it was an illusion – it was human error that put me here, not fate.  I wasn’t going to die.  I was going to live and this would make me stronger.

Lately I’ve had that same feeling again.  I understand a bit more what it is that gets to me - it's not friends letting me down.  It's not loneliness.  It's not relationship trouble.  It’s this lack of control.  It's being forced to bear the grunt of the responsibility for the things we do (both positive and negative) while somehow pretending to ourselves and others that we could have done differently but the truth is, most of the things that I’m upset about this year I haven’t been able to control one bit.  I know that I shouldn’t let them get to me so much because I haven’t done anything regrettable: I’ve quite literally done my very best.  This is not to say I haven’t made any stupid mistakes – I have made those too, mostly in those random moments of inebriation – and like a normal year, there are moments where I simply should have known better and acted differently.  But I’ve never been one for regrets and in my experience, we are who we are because we make errors in judgement.  If we never made them, we’d have no opinions about anything and we’d learn nothing at all.  Seriously, though, the major ones – the ones that give me that shoulder crunching, heart palpitation, crawling out of my skin feeling – those are the moments I’ve got no control over and they’re the same moments that are pushing me to self-destruction.  But why?  How could I be so weak to lose myself in things I couldn’t control?  Leaving this week, I've finally come to understand why.  Judgmental people.  And I don't need any more of them in my life, period.  I don't need to be 'shamed' and I don't need to be criticized for my decisions - for the same reason I don't need praise for my accomplishments.  Because I am an adult now and I am doing my best.  And no, I'm not perfect but Holy Christ - you're one to talk.  From now on, I'm going to laugh like a hyeena when someone judges.  I'm going to walk away.

A while ago, I was talking to a good friend with whom I have somewhat of a complicated history.  He’d been through a fair amount of the same type of stuff – doubt in oneself, betrayal, frustration, reality looking a little more like a Jerry Springer episode than the dream he’d once imagined.  He was drinking more these days and generally just unhappy with his life.  But he was surviving and successful in what he'd set out to do and I was proud of him for that.  I asked him what exactly he had done to get to that point of being beyond it all.   He told me that I was the person who made him feel better about everything.  That I made him smile and that even if he couldn’t piece it together to see me, he thought about me often.  He told me not to forget who I was in all of it and to have faith.  It was the best letter I’d ever had from anyone and it made me feel like a million bucks when I didn’t have a centime to spare.  Some might argue that things only got worse from this point forward.  That’s because they did.  And thinking of that person believing in me, that I had somehow made his life better, it helped a bit.  It made me feel less alone on the planet.  The way I've felt when the kids I've looked after have learned the word 'love' (all words for that matter) and have found their own ways of expressing theirs for me. 

In one of my father’s lucid moments, he asked me to ‘take care of everybody’ for him as though there was some way I’d end up being stronger than the rest of them, more wealthy, more able.  I held it together for as long as I could but the more out-of-control things got, the less I believed in myself.  It made me think of that mother on the airplane needing to put on her own mask first before she could help her kids as her plane was going down.  For a while there, I think I’d lost myself all-together in all the bad news and I really couldn't help myself, let alone my family or friends or co-workers or anybody. 

I’m leaving for France in a few days.  I’m somewhat excited to go back.  There are things and people that I miss.  There are places that I want to touch again.  There is something powerful about standing in the same place your ancestors stood.  There is something even more powerful about standing in the Musee d'Orsay Thursday nights in the wintertime when there are hardly any other people around.  There are things that I know now that I didn’t know the last time I was in Paris that will change the place for me, yet again.  Some details that will make it easier to go on, others make it incredibly tough to imagine tomorrow.  Mostly, I’m just scared and I feel like I’m letting my father down so far.  I want to give him what he asked for.  But I'm not doing that here.  Not yet, anyway.  Not like this.

Saying goodbye to a few friends last week with absolutely zero control over my emotions, I quite literally burst into tears a couple times.  It came out of nowhere.  It was partly heartbreak, I think.  It came also out of a fear of never seeing these people again – that this goodbye was the goodbye that would last because sometimes you know that you can’t go back.  I wasn’t entirely sure that I had reached that point yet but something in me had definitely changed.  Toronto had changed.  The place that had once been a ‘new beginning’ had its own bad habits and reasons to flee now.  I felt terror that I’d hurt any one of those people that I loved unintentionally because of my circumstance and/or anxiety attacks.  And most of all, I knew that these tears came out of a sincere gratitude and appreciation for having the kind of people in my life that could make me want to hold on to anything at all.  I was scared to say goodbye to that because I’ve never felt this kind of love before for anyone but my own parents.  And then it occurred to me – I’m so darn upset because these people are my family.  Because like brothers and sisters we might bicker and gossip about each other, we might yell and scream and act like total imbeciles but there is love there and a lot of it.  We might even take out all of our anger out on one another but that’s only because we know we can.  Sometimes we do it for the attention, other times we do it because we're so angry at the way things are that we need to blame it on someone.  A true friend understands that and lets you.  He/she forgives the next day with a hug or a beer or even just a laugh.

So, to my Father, I’d like to say, I’ve done my best and I’m going to keep doing my best but I can’t promise anything until I learn to look after myself again and I miss you so much that sometimes it’s awfully hard to focus on me.  I once felt untouchable, indestructible, tough as nails.  I’m going to get that feeling back because it reminds me of you and the way you lived your life – unapologetically, confidently, fearlessly.  It reminds me of feeling protected and cared for; like a daughter should feel.  And if I can’t keep you in my life, I’d at least like to keep that feeling so that one day, I can give it to someone myself.

Friends and Family, I’m working on finding a way to be strong without having to lean on you.  You sure do make excellent support systems but that’s not what I want to share with any of you and although I know ‘that’s what friends are for’; really they’re not for that at all.  They’re people to share and enjoy living with.  I had this weird thought earlier this winter in the woods.  I was standing in a forest and looking up at the trees.  The snow had fallen and everything was so calm and beautiful, I was overwhelmed with a lust for life for just a moment.  And then I recalled a discussion from a first year philosophy course; that cliché we all know: "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"  I was a big fan of Berkeley at the time and this question hit home.  Well, standing there alone in the forest, I realized that no one I cared about was seeing this tree.  If I didn’t tell someone about it, no one would even know that I had this epiphany out there in the woods on my own and while maybe that shouldn’t matter, it did matter.  I felt like I didn’t even exist.  Without you – I was nothing.  And that’s when I realized that no matter how far I pushed everybody away in hopes that minimizing the social would bring about some calm inside of me, it just wasn’t living if I couldn’t share it with you.

Knowing you exist should be (and will once again be) enough to hold me up straight and I need to be able to stand up on my own to be able to share with you anything of substance in this lifetime and you all deserve it all.  Thank you for never letting me fall.  I trust you all.  I love you all.  I’m thankful for every one of you – strengths and faults and all.

Future, I’m not expecting much here.  I’m not asking to win the lottery or have a million kids.  I’m not asking for a white knight or true love or anything perfect.  I’m not asking for a big house and a lifetime of travel.  I’m just asking for what I need.  And like Mick Jagger said way back when: ‘You can’t always get what you want but if you try sometimes, you might get what you need’.  Well, that’s all I’m after and I'm going to keep trying my best.  I’d like to get what I need and to suffer less so that I might appreciate more often all that I do have.  My Grandmother taught me how important it was to appreciate the little things and it's kept me happy this long.  Time to get it back again.

Past, I’ve tried to ditch you, suffocate you, ignore you, replace you, forget you, erase you.  It hasn’t worked.  You follow me around like a lost puppy and you re-appear at the most peculiar of times.  Often it makes me wonder if chronology isn’t simply an illusion, if it’s not at all like you just ‘feel’ real in my present; maybe you are still there.  Maybe time doesn’t move only forward.  Maybe it really can move backwards and sideways too.  I carry you with me everywhere I go.  I’ve tried to learn something from you and I’ve also tried to put you behind me.  I’m going to try to be more conscious of you, more thankful, more understanding of your place in my life.  Put it in a book.  Or two.  Or three.

Present: Alice Morse Earle probably said it best.  "The clock is running. Make the most of today. Time waits for no man. Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That's why it is called the present."  I remember hearing someone pull out this quote from their back pocket at a fundraiser I’d organized back in 97/98 for cancer research and support services and thinking it was a little corny but a little true.  Usually the things that are corny are that way for a reason…because there’s a little more truth to them than we’d like to admit or because they give us that fuzzy feeling that makes us feel like everything’s going to be okay and we all know that’s not really the case. 

But sometimes it is the case.  Sometimes we can just feel in the pits of our stomachs like everything is going to be okay.  Like we’ll survive.  Like we’ve had something worth suffering over – love, for instance.  If we never felt it in the first place, we’d never feel loss or anger or pain.  No human emotion exists without its counterpart. 

There is no fear without courage. 
There is no pain without pleasure.
There is no hatred without love.
There are no friends without enemies.

There would be nothing to lose if I didn’t have you in the first place.

So, to answer my Doctor’s question: no.  I would not like to take anti-depressants because I think I’ve got a pretty solid head on my shoulders and I think I’ve just been dealing with a rough hand here, truly.  I’ve got a little faith left that things will get better again, even soon.  I'm going to try different methods first: solitude, meeting new people, having my eyes open, st. john's wort, melatonin, literature, music and being true to myself.  Sounds like a solid recipe to me.  Better than something that's going to permanently fuck with my brain chemistry.

A good friend of mine came up to see me in the woods and had a word of advice for me from a Vipassna Meditation that changed her life: ‘This too will change,” she said.  “Because everything changes always and that’s one constant that we do have.”  I was both frightened and comforted at the same time by this thought and knew instantly that depending on whether you’re in the good parts or the bad parts – even this meditation could change value.  But what it is, always, is true.  This is the nature of human existence.  Impermanence, fluctuation, struggle, uncertainty.

I'm not a religious person but there is something about religion that makes sense to me.  It's the faith quotient, I think.  So while I can't promise to give myself over to the Bible or to Jesus or the Greater Good - I can and will try to be more conscious, to have more faith in the experience itself, to feel comfort when it's there for the taking and to be less shocked and dissappointed when life is so much harder than I believed it would be.  I'm going to make myself a new Sunday ritual.  And it's going to be better than Ice Cream.

In my book, the hero struggles for ten years because he is obsessed with knowing the answers to life’s greatest questions.  Towards the end of the book, he gets those answers and it doesn’t change a damn thing in his ‘story’.  Life is what it is.  It’s a pile of things that don’t make any sense while we’re living them and although we try to put our faith in the hope that one day, we’ll find those answers, that things will make sense and be easy, we’re missing the point and forgetting what makes it all so precious in the first place.  Why is it so hard to think of this when times are tough?  I don't know.  But that's part of the puzzle too.  Human drama.

Yes.  Today is a gift.  And I’m not going to try to open it and spoil its magic and possibilities because I have a hunch that those two things are the whole point of it all anyhow.  I’m going to hold that wrapped box under my arm and just live for a while, conscious to put a little less hope into what might be inside and be comforted, if only by my discipline and strength in being less hasty, in making it last, savouring it all.  I’m going to be thankful that I’ve got a present at all.  Anyway, I’m certain that there’s something great in there but I think I’m finally smart enough to know that it doesn’t really matter what’s inside. 

After all, it’s the thought that counts.  

1 comment:

  1. Trish Melanson HillFebruary 18, 2012 at 3:44 PM

    Wow. Julie, your words have touched me like they were written just for me. Even though we live a generation apart, I feel like you completely understand, that on some level we share a miniscule part of our souls. Thank you. Thank you.