I met my students today at Baker’s Square. They ate burgers and wide slices of sticky pie, skinny fries that were salty and crisp. I drank too much crap coffee – thick and burnt like the kind severed at a midnight truck stop. The waiter had a flair for charming late-teen girls and this middle-aged gal, too.
I’ve been in a Neil Diamond phase: spinning record upon scratched-up record, ignoring the skips and jumps as he croons. It’s my 39th year, and I finally feel it’s time to let the sap slide in. Perhaps I’m feeling the sunset of nostalgia slipping, fading. Maybe I’m embracing the past and letting the future take hold, but as I watched the young ladies munch their greasy burgers and suck down glasses of ice-cold Coke I couldn’t help but reflect. Young people have a way of filling me with equal part hope and equal part dread; they have an
innocent, naive way of reminding me to memorize the wrinkles around my eyes before they get worse.
Perhaps it’s the crazy meds – those colorful, chalky shapes I swallow out of necessity – that thins my hair and dries out my skin. Maybe it’s the cigarettes and the shady, sinful life I used to lead that’s added on some premature age. Or maybe it’s normal – my round face is finally betraying my age instead of getting me carded at 33 for nicotine.
Either way, the bouts of insecurity came in snaps and sparks while I watched the young ladies stab at their wilted, diner salads like they had all the time in the world. So I grabbed a fork and started stabbing time, holding onto the minutes before they slipped away.
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The day after I may or may not have broken up with boyfriend, my old professor emailed me. She asked if I’d be interested in a job teaching a lit course to nurses and social workers. It would be at 8am in the middle of winter, where ice is slick and thick, where darkness stretches on for hours.
I had graduated a year ago with my MFA – an overrated degree with an over-inflated price tag. Student loans were rolling in, boasting ridiculous payment coupons and accruing interest faster than my anxiety and fear could keep up. I was barely employed, working a few hours a week at a paper pushing job in a crummy legal warehouse for cigarette and gas money. My boss was a bitch with a pinched face and designer jeans. Most of my co-workers were twenty something boys who refused to leave their high school days behind, coming in with bloodshot, blurry eyes and crumpled clothes that reeked of stale beer and cheap vodka. They would sneak in the back of the warehouse, playing poker on the cement floors with cigarettes, doing the crossword puzzle from the local paper. It sucked.
Earlier in the week, I was trying to quit smoking again. My boyfriend was unshaven and unkempt. Mania had come to visit, pushing paranoid thoughts into his brain, keeping him up for days until the world started to blend into one giant, waking dream. Puffing away on some lame cherry flavored e-cig, I grabbed his hand and led him to the hospital. I told him everything would be alright. That all he needed to do was check in, get some serious meds, some serious sleep. But really, I needed a serious break or else I’d break. I was teetering on the edge of craziness, peering into a dark pool of depression that I feared I couldn’t escape. My post-graduation blues ceased to be fleeting, but stretched on for weeks. My capacity to care, support anyone else dwindled. I needed to save myself.
A few days later, I visited him in the hospital, the same hospital I had been ten years prior after suicide attempt. They had refurbished the place, decked it out in smooth, shiny wood and new chairs. It looked open and bright, like one of those fake, living room installments at Ikea. The patients wore rust color scrubs that reminded me of prison jumpsuits. We sat in his room under a blaring light that illuminated his pale, scratchy blankets, his stack of paperwork from a social worker, a blue folder full of forms and charts and affirmations. I kicked my feet up on his bed while he paced. “When I was here,” I said, “it looked different. Everyone was wearing blue scrubs. Maybe some stupid psychologist told ‘em rust was a happier shade.”
I told him everything would be alright and left, waving as I was pushed out the heavy, locked door by a wide shouldered nurse in a striped shirt. On the way home I bought an overpriced back of smokes. I bought a few bottles of Pinot Grigio. I called the only person I liked from work, a cute lesbian with a military hair-cut who was unlucky in love. She was sad because her new girlfriend was in jail. I was sad because my boyfriend was in the psych ward. We drank wine, listened to sappy Neil Diamond, Elton John, and Queen. We sang, loud, proud, and poorly the way only drunks and desperate people do.
Fueled by the honesty, the confidence that only a bottle of wine can give you, I called my boyfriend in the hospital. It was quarter to ten, and the nurses were about to shut off the phones for the night.
“I don’t think I can do this anymore,” I blurted out.
“You’re dumping me in the psych ward?” I could tell he was tired. But I was tired, too. I back pedaled, using phrases like “needing space” and “taking a break.” I heard a nurse in the background, telling him to wrap it up. We left it at a bunch of sighs and “see you arounds.”
In the morning, I got the email from my professor. I was waiting for this break, for an opportunity to tell my pinched-faced boss and childish co-workers to shove it, to stomp out of the warehouse with my heavy, black boots pounding against the cement floor. I thought of various ways to call and quit, to stick it to them like it hurt.
Instead, I dialed the hospital number, the extension in the North building, was punched through to his unit. Because I realized I had no one else I’d rather tell.
We talked. I wondered if this would be the last time, because afterwards I felt dirty, ashamed. Kind of like the way you hook up with an old flame when you’re feeling dejected and lonely, when you’re scared and searching for something familiar to anchor you. But afterwards, you feel more depressed than before, remembering why you broke up in the first place, that the anchor was cracked, flawed, broken.
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Tags: addiction, Creative Nonfiction, Depression, Essays, Relationships
An old junkie friend of mine called the other day. I haven’t heard from her since I left that world. Some would call it a “lifestyle” – though there wasn’t much “living” going on at that time. Even calling her a friend is a stretch. Maybe she was a partner in crime. A war buddy. Two people who sadly witnessed one another at the lowest point in their lives.
Kris used to live in an old house over in South Minneapolis on a busy street that connected the suburbs with the city. She rented a room, a tiny place with wooden floors and a window that faced the street. It was painted shut. The place was stuffy and packed with DVDs and VHS tapes of old sitcoms from the early 90s. She had a giant shoe collection – bright tennis shoes with complicated laces and thick soles some misguided kid might shoot you for. She didn’t have to worry, though. She rarely left the house.
She rarely left her bed. Everything she needed was within reach. A mini fridge stocked with Ensure and sports drinks. A cup, a bowl, a spoon. Several overflowing ashtrays the size of dinner plates. A remote. A cordless phone. A cigar box filled with drug paraphernalia she kept under her bed.
It’s been a few years since I’ve seen her. The last time, her phone wasn’t working. I had to knock on the front window to get her attention. It was covered with a yellow blanket, all thick and worn like it had been washed too much, like it had been around before flame retardant existed. She was emaciated and nonsensical, babbling about her silver cat that had just died. She acted surprised, like his demise came out of nowhere. But that poor thing had been wasting away for a year. He dragged himself around on weak legs, his fine ribs poking through his skin. For the first time, I understood that old saying that people resemble their pets.
Last winter, I ran into a housemate of hers, a fat, grabby man with a bad spine. We met up in the soup aisle at the grocery store. I tried to ignore him, concentrated on whether I wanted chunky chicken or garden vegetable soup. But he grabbed my arm all hard and said “Hello stranger.”
I smiled in that tight way that nervous people do. Squeaked out a “hey there” and tried to seem busy and push my cart away.
“You trying to get away from me?” He laughed. “You need to hear about Kris.”
He told me she got married in Iowa to an older woman and moved to the burbs. That she accused him of creeping into her room and feeling her up in her sleep. Somehow, he had her new number. He handed me his card. “Call me, I’ll get her number for you.” I still don’t know why an unemployed man on assistance would have a business card.
But I’d left Kris behind. Didn’t want to know where or how she was, if Grabby Guy really felt her up, if she was clean or not. I wanted to erase those three, lost years. Chalk it up to a bad dream.
Several months passed before a strange number popped up on my phone. Strange numbers make me nervous, but I’m possessed to answer – despite the fact that they are probably a bill collector, a family member calling to say so-and-so’s heart stopped, an old friend I wish wasn’t. This time, it was Kris.
We talked. I asked her about her new life, her wife, her nice apartment in the burbs. She said she had a new cat. That she put all her VHS on DVD because she had a burner. She got a new flat screen. Got back all the music equipment she pawned because she was finally clean. She told me who got popped, who was still struggling, who died since I last saw her.
I talked longer than I wanted, my stomach tight. I was pacing around my apartment, but I couldn’t get off the phone the way you can’t tear your eyes off a terrible crash, an old building burning, a mom smacking her kid in the grocery line.
I told her about my life. My kids, how Princess left for college and my son was now in high school. I told her I hadn’t talked to ex-husband #2 for a long time. How I ran into him at the coffee shop and acted like I didn’t know him, even though my heart thumped so hard I could barely think. She told me all the shit he had said about me when I went to treatment, the stolen crap he tried to fence, how bad he looked back then with greasy hair and arms all skinny like toothpicks.
I told her about graduating from college. How I cried for a month after Princess left for Milwaukee. How I fucked up and feel bad and hope she doesn’t carry that sad picture of who I was in her head for the rest of her life. I told her about my nice boyfriend, how I discovered he had a binge drinking problem, that I would probably leave him because of it. My dog. My apartment. My new hair color. The imperfect meds that leave me wonky and confused. I jammed in everything I could think of, everything that was twisting around in my head for the past few years. I told her everything. Not like an old friend, but like a shitty therapist I knew I’d never see again.
“If you come to the city, let’s catch up. Have coffee,” I said before I finally got off the phone.
Then I blocked her number. The way you do with a drunken one-night-stand, a needy friend, a former drug dealer. I blocked her number liked I blocked ex-husband # 2. The same way I’m trying to blot out the memory from the past, a bad dream I hope to soon forget.
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Tags: addiction, Depression, Essay, Memoir
There’s a hornet’s nest outside my window. The landlord refuses to take care of it. They are busy fuckers, zipping in and out of a hole in the stucco, dive-bombing anything that comes too close. For the past few weeks, I’ve had to keep my window closed. There’s a tiny gap in the screen, a thin sliver big enough for their bodies to push through.
I’m prone to horrible dreams. Even if they’re nonsensical or sweet, they’re too vivid and loud. I never wake up rested. But often they’re crazy and wild, disturbing interactions with old or dead friends, or those anxiety dreams where you realize your kid has gone missing or you woke up and found your favorite dog all stiff and cloudy-eyed.
But this night, I was having the most ridiculous, soft dream I’ve had in years. I was holding an orange kitten, all small and fluffy. It was a ridiculous dream because I typically could give a shit less about cats, small or otherwise. I’m often sour-faced when I go to someone’s house and their over grown cat with long, shedding fur tries to sit on my lap and cover my black dress in hair. I typically don’t like other people’s dogs, all slobbery and jumping on my legs, tearing holes in my new tights. Tiny puppies rolling around fail to entertain me. But this dream-kitten made me smile in the warmest way possible. A way that I have yet to capture in my waking life.
I’ve awoken abruptly before. Sitting up in shock because a fire alarm was screeching, a child wailing, the sound of a slamming door in the middle of the night. But never to a searing, scorching pain in my leg. I screamed, swearing and found a hornet attached to my leg, his tiny stinger clinging to my skin. I tore him off in a fury and found him crawling away under the blankets. I crushed him with the heel of my boot, grinding him into the tread until he was no longer recognizable.
I called my father. He’s a New Age man, fond of the collective unconscious and the child within. Energy and energy suckers. And totem animals. I asked him what it could possibly mean. The kitten. The hornet. Am I growing soft? I’m a too venomous and bitter? While I only half-ass buy that shit, I was desperate for answers. I was trying to scoop up the events of and make sense of them. I imagined him the other end of the line, drinking his morning coffee on the porch next to a handful of quartz crystals and bright Azaleas he grew from seed. He was silent, and I felt the wheels of his mind turning, contemplating the answer. But he said, “Can’t possibly know, kid. Maybe it means nothing.”
When I was writing more, I reveled in collecting seemingly unconnected events and making sense of them. Like a puzzle spilled all over a living room floor, I’d try to piece together a solid, strong image. I found meaning in sighs and empty spaces. I tried to tie together a phone call, a flower, police sirens crying in the background on a Sunday. And somehow, I was able to connect these dots in a wild way that made my troubles and struggles and mundane moments make sense. I would have taken the kitten, the hornet, and my father’s reticence and spun a story that made everything, in that handful of moments, worthwhile.
Maybe the stupid kitten dream means nothing: just a collection of firing, sparking neurons forming a random picture of something I unconsciously saw earlier in the day on TV, overhead in the office hallway. The rogue hornets a testament to my neglectful landlord, the age of the building, the way the window frames sag and don’t match up with the cheap screens. My father’s inability to soothe, to make sense out of a series of events I was trying to read into is just him getting older, slower, less sure of his cosmic zeal. Or maybe he’s damn sure, and doesn’t want to let me in on it. Either way, this is my humble attempt to collect, examine, hold up brief fragments of my life into the light and see them better.
This is my attempt to write again.
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Tags: Essay, Writing
My new shrink is nervous. He’s young and shy, with a weird last name. I’m not sure if I trust him. He looks like he just got out of medical school. He looks young enough that I could have babysat him when I was in Junior High, back when I had frizzy, permed hair and braces.
“No, no, that won’t do,” he says when I describe that I went only slightly manic this summer: I only sorta made a mad fool of myself, only sorta drank too much. I was only slightly delusional, not like the previous year when I listened to Pet Sounds nonstop and thought I was in love with a 22-year-old from Northern Minnesota.
Dr. Nervous gives me a new cocktail. “I’m not promising it will work, but we can hope. Maybe it will. But you know, it doesn’t always. So let’s feel like it will. Let’s feel lucky.”
I’m not feeling lucky. I take the new pill as prescribed, try not to look up the list of side effects on the internet or go on weird Bipolar message boards where everyone says how shitty their lives are, how fat they’ve gotten, how they can’t get off no matter how hard they try.
My head starts to ache. My skin starts to itch. But after a few days, I feel like brushing my teeth. I take a bath. I don’t need a gallon of coffee or a crane to pull me out from under the blankets and pillows I’ve piled around my head.
I’d feel lucky if it wasn’t for this fucking headache. It’s nonstop now. I wonder if I have meningitis or a brain bleed that has gone undiagnosed for years. Maybe I should go on one of those message boards. At least I don’t think I’m getting fat. Yet.
I put on music for the first time in weeks. I go on the internet and pretend to look for jobs. I wonder where all the people are I used to talk to, send silly, frilly emails back and forth. I remember how it used to be when I liked to write. But my head is killing me, and it’s getting hard to see. Everything is a blur.
I wake up and hate. All I can think about is my head and how I hate everything: babies and birthdays and flowers and sunshine. I hear about some mad shooter on the radio with hot bullets that tear through skulls and limbs and stomachs. I think how much he must hate, that with every shot – one, two, there – maybe he hates just a bit less. I hate that I even had that thought.
I call Dr. Nervous. I tell him I’m not lucky, that I can’t take these chalky pills that make my skull split. “Don’t worry,” he says, “We’ll get you fixed up somehow. Fixed up like new.” I want to tell him I’m not a car or a four-leaf clover. But I say, “Yeah. Sure we will.”
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It’s 8 in the morning, and I’m listening to a favorite break-up album. I drank too much wine last night, painted my toenails cherry red, decided to have a fling.
Yesterday, I went one of those Asian nail places with the comfy chairs and stacks of magazines. There was some sad Lifetime movie on about love and loss and little boy who ends up dying. Somehow, it was meant to tell the world about taking risks and being brave. But it succeeded in making cry – sitting there in the comfy, brown chair with the massing back while a sweet lady scrubbed my feet.
This Nick Cave album is the same one I listened to, years ago, when I broke up with my old boyfriend, Derek. It was a favorite of ours. Cave’s voice is sad and slow with simple piano parts and strings. Before the break-up, we listened to it, said how pretty it was. We held hands and sipped coffee, not understanding it would be the album I’d play over and over again after I kicked him out. It would be the same album I’d play over and over again after he died several months later.
Today, no one is dead. But there is a break-up in the works. A good friend of mine once said that grief, sadness holds hands like paper dolls. A new hurt reaches back through time and dredges up the old one until they are one blurry mess.
I’m one blurry mess.
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Anniversaries are like bookends on your life, ways to measure the passing of time, the progress or failure. Last year at this time, my best friend/ fake mom died from cancer. I was feverishly writing my memoir, suffering from moments of brilliance and valleys of self-doubt. My boyfriend was boozing it up behind my back. I traveled across the country with money I didn’t have to look at high-priced colleges for my daughter. I guzzled bottles of wine and flirted with a younger man, listening to Pet Sounds and holding hands late into the night like I was twenty-three all over again.
Months later, a shrink told me I had a manic episode. Even though I was on medications, my bipolar wasn’t well “controlled.” And while there was some truth to that, I was also bristling against an out-of-control world where everything I’d rebuilt since I stopped using drugs was crumbling faster than I could patch it up again.
It’s the end of July. Our heat wave finally broke, much-needed rain and cool winds erase previous days where smiles from strangers set me on edge. My daughter got into her fancy college in Milwaukee where we pulled loans from the sky and found credible co-signers. She has a checklist of dorm items to buy: shower caddies and XL sheets, table lamps, and towels. We go to bed and bath stores, look at soft comforters and memory foam pillows. I watch her plan her new life that is wide-open and full of questions and possibilities.
I’ve stopped plugging my memoir for a bit. Started drinking too much white wine. Still wonder if the boyfriend is boozing it up behind my back. I think of the 23-year-old from time to time, my dead ex-boyfriend that I adored, husband #2 that I can’t stop hating. I flirt with other people and imagine how my life could be different and play the same CD over and over again, the one I used to listen to ten years ago that I’m too embarrassed to admit to even a group of strangers.
No, can’t say too much has changed. Still caught in the struggle between what is, what could be and everything in-between. I see momentum in the lives of others – new jobs and relationships and opportunities to explore other landscapes. And I wonder why I’m so stuck, wanting to blame it on meds or moods or the significant, sad events that everyone faces. When it reality, I think it is just me.
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